China, Ideology, and Elevators: Transposing Žižek’s Observation

I’ve been in China for a little over a month and, weirdly, one of the first quirks I noticed was how Chinese elevators are numbered. Now, philosopher Slavoj Žižek made this observation first (I am familiar with the idea from his first chapter in  in The Monstrosity of Christ); so I am basically riffing off of him in pointing out the coincidence of ideology, elevators, set theory, and non-reductive materialism (the latter two I will not discuss in this post, though of course Žižek’s metaphysical/elevator corrective is fascinating). Here is the quote in full–in it, it seems to me, for all intents and purposes, the position of the US can quite easily be substituted for China, with certain qualifications:

There is a detail which, perhaps, tells a lot about the difference between Europe and the USA: in Europe, the ground floor in a building is counted as 0, so that the floor above it is the “first floor,” while in the USA the “first floor” is at street level. In short, Americans start to count with 1, while Europeans know that 1 is already a stand-in for 0. Or, to put it in more historical terms: Europeans are aware that, before we start counting, there has to be a “ground” of tradition, a ground which is always-already given and, as such, cannot be counted; while the USA, a land with no premodern historical tradition proper, lacks such a “ground”—things begin there directly with self-legislated freedom, the past is erased (transposed onto Europe). So which of these two positions is closer to the truth? Neither—it is only in Poland that they seem to have found the proper solution to this alternative: in hotel elevators, they skip 1 altogether, i.e., they start to count floors with 0 and then pass over directly to 2. When, in a Warsaw hotel, I asked the porter how one can jump directly from 0 to 2, I was taken aback by the simple truth of his answer—after a moment of perplexity, he told me: “Well, I guess that the moment one starts to count the floors, the ground floor itself must be counted as one. . . .” He got it right: “one” is originally not the number which follows zero, but zero itself counted as one—only in this way can the series of counted “ones” start (one One, then another One, etc., ad infinitum); the original multiplicity, the correlate of the void, is not to be confused with this series of Ones. This solution is thus based on the correct insight which Badiou developed in his ontology: reality is a multiplicity in which the void and the multiple coincide, i.e., the multiple is not composed of “ones,” but is primordial. (91)

I am intrigued by the essential similarity that there appears to exist between the US and China, here. Setting aside the talk of “premodern historical tradition” and so on, is not the Cultural Revolution an event which parallels the erasure of the Chinese past, a doing away of the country’s historical “ground.” That both countries start the count at 1, forgoing 0, do we not unearth something active within each nation’s unconscious? Both countries essentially miss the deep historical events and thought structures that found their identity. This is more than apparent in China, where generations following Mao seem to have strategically had their imaginations closed off to certain avenues of thought and imaginative speculation. The full-scale diminishment of the past’s significance eventually being turned upon the people in a brutally oppressive manner, as they grow up without significant connection to the zero-level traditions that made them up.

All of this from elevator numbers, you say? Well, while I do not know what elevators were like in China prior to the Revolution, you should really listen to Žižek discuss ideology and toilets–the squat toilets here would be fascinating to unpack, ideologically of course.

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