Sunday, March 23, 2014

Unwritten Rules...

...that turn a "house" into a "home".
To know a society is not only to know its explicit rules -- one needs also to know how to apply these rules: when to use or not use them: when to violate them: when to decline a choice which has been offered: when we are effectively obliged to do something, but have to pretend that we are doing it as a free choice. This is the paradox of the offer-meant-to-be-refused: it is customary to refuse such an offer, and anyone who accepts it commits a vulgar blunder. When I am invited to an expensive restaurant by a rich uncle, we both know that he will cover the bill, but nonetheless I have to insist a little bit that we share it -- imagine my surprise if he were simply to say: "OK then, you pay it!" A similar misunderstanding happened when, during the 1980s, South Korea was hit by a series of natural disasters, and North Korea offered a large quantity of grain as humanitarian aid. Although there were no food shortages in South Korea, it accepted the offer in order not to appear to be rejecting the North's outstretched hand. The North, however, did lack food, and had made the offer as a "gesture to be rejected," but now had to act upon it -- a country which was itself suffering from shortages thus shipped grain to a country with abundant food reserves; a nice case of politeness going astray.

The problem during the post-Soviet years of Yeltsin's rule in Russia could also be located at this level: although the legal rules were known (and were largely the same as those in the Soviet Union), what disintegrated was the complex network of implicit unwritten rules which has sustained the entire social edifice. In the former regime, if, say, you wanted to get better hospital treatment, or a new apartment, if you had a complaint against authorities, or were summoned into a court, if you wanted your child to be accepted by a top school, or if a factory manager needed raw materials not delivered on time by state-contractors, and so on and so forth, everyone knew what to do, who to address, who to bribe, what you could do and what you couldn't. With the collapse of Soviet power, one of the most frustrating aspects of daily existence was that these unwritten rules became blurred: people simply did not know what to do, how to react, how they were to relate to explicit legal regulations, what they could ignore, where bribery worked. (One of the functions of the rise in organized crime was to provide a kind of ersatz-legality: if you owned a small business and a customer owed you money, you turned to your mafia-proector who dealt with the problem, since the state legal system was inefficient) The stabilization under Putin's regime mostly amounted to restoring the transparency of such unwritten rules: now, again, people more or less know how to react in the complex web of social interactions.
- Slavoj Zizek, "Living in the End Times"

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