Cambodian Tourism and the Zizek-Chomsky Debate

Recently a friend was telling me her plans to visit Cambodia. She said she wanted to visit the genocide museum, which is one of the main tourist attractions in this city. I find it’s intriguing how everyone goes there, and I often question tourists about the motivations behind their visit. Few of these people know any of the historical details about the Khmer Rouge. They heard their was a “genocide”, and that is basically their reason for going. Maybe they want to show their respect for the victims. Perhaps they feel their visit will help to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen again. Probably they are curious to know more about what happened. But there is evidence of some more obscure curiosities, which suggest a darker tourism. This is something like the comfort of watching a horror movie, or watching a violent sea-storm from safety, or visiting a haunted house, where there is no direct danger. This comfort in distant terror is the aesthetics of the sublime.

But what I think is most important for understanding these visits is the peculiarity of tourism today. I would say the primary factor is boredom, and especially the fear of boredom. People are worried they won’t have anything to do in this city, and that they might return home without any significant memories. Vacations are important for many people – they are critical times where people feel the need to get something back. What can happen to make all their work worthwhile? People seek out limit experiences, where they go outside of the ordinary…. such as a torture cell. The simple fact I want to emphasize is that lots of North Americans and Europeans visit torture cells on their vacations. This commodification of the Khmer Rouge is an opportune point for the orientation of critical discourse. If the correct heuristics were applied, then this phenomena could provide an effective point from which to shift the symbolic order of capitalism.

Let me take a little detour through something tangential. This week my Facebook feed was flooded with posts concerning a debate between two prominent western scholars – Slavoj Zizek and Noam Chomsky. This debate had been going on for a few months, and I was not following as it seemed uninteresting, These are two respectable scholars, though there is no common ground for them to engage on. There is just no overlap between the kinds of work they do, so why bother hearing their debate? But, as there appeared more and more posts on this topic, eventually I became curious what it was about. As it turned out, it was only a few (sometimes spiteful) exchanges fired over a few months.

Many of the outside comments I’ve seen on these “debate” were from frustrated leftists – these are people who want “the left” united in doctrinal solidarity. Many people have chastised Zizek for being a lazy sophist who tears the left apart with his pretentious pedantry. While many have praised Chomsky for his reasoned realism and true intellectual camaraderie. So this is reminiscent of the discussions surrounding the Chomsky-Foucault debates in the 1970’s, and to all the “modernist vs postmodernist” debates which followed. Myself, I have never desired doctrinal unity on the left, and so I was slightly intrigued at how things stay the same, and reflected a bit on why this kind of debate was returning. It seems to suggest something significant about the structure of the public sphere. Why do we get this split between an allegedly simple realist, and someone who demands more complexity? Now let’s return to the history of the Khmer Rouge, which is a topic that Zizek brought up in a Q&A in London a few months ago:

“I remember when he (Chomsky) defended the demonisation of Khmer Rouge. And he wrote a couple of texts claiming: “no this is western propaganda. Khmer Rouge are not as horrible as that.” And when later he was compelled to admit that Khmer Rouge were not the nicest guys in the universe and so on, his defence was quite shocking for me. It was that “no, with the data that we had at that point, I was right. At that point we didn’t yet know enough, so… you know” but I totally reject this line of reasoning.””

This issue of Chomsky’s 1970’s analysis of the Khmer Rouge has been vollied between them since, and yesterday Zizek posted a some paragraphs clearing up his position here.  His problem is the inadequacy of Chomsky’s critique of ideology, and fact-checking method. Chomsky assumes that ideology hides the facts, and that investigative journalism is the best way to discover the truth.  Zizek does not dismiss the importance of fact-checking, but says this kind of realism is methodologically inefficient, because the official ideology already tells us the truth if we read it carefully. This is a very crucial point, because it distinguishes two ontologies of scholarship.  Zizek is saying that most of the reality we need is already there in the official voice, and so we don’t need to rely so much on secondary alternative sources for our information. CNN is already telling us most of the story, if we just focus on the little glitches and gaps in what they say.  Fact-checking still can be worthwhile, but it’s more efficient to get the truth from the mainstream media. This point specifically concerns the methodological efficiency of Lacanian psychoanalysis, but it has some broad ramifications.

The idea is that the truth is staring us directly in the face, and in order to recognize it we just need a slight shift in perspective on what we are told constantly. The truth is in the singularity of what is repeated. This is Deleuze’s theory of subjectivity as singular repetition. This theory changes the condition of being a radical intellectual, and makes a tremendous improvement over what Chomsky does. Now it’s mostly about experimenting with forms of perception. There are still encyclopaedias of facts, but things fit together in stranger and more abstract ways.

Let’s return to my friend’s travel plans. Besides visiting the genocide museum, she also wants we fly up to Siem Reap for a few days to visit the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat.  That is by far the most popular tourists attraction in Cambodia. That massive temple complex was built with slave labor around 800AD, and it seems likely that more than a few slaves would have died. And human sacrifices were made to Hindu gods there as well.  That ancient Sanskrit sacrificial culture also happens to be connected with cults of Arian racism in Europe. So, the ideology of tourism in Cambodia has this strange duality of Communism and Hinduism, and these two torture sites  make a triangle with boredom.  Connecting these dots in the right way could reveal the truth, but I have no idea what that truth could be.

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