Zizek waits

Violence by Slavoj Zizek (London, Profile Books 2009), reviewed by Clare Woodford
April 2010

'The exemplary figures of evil today are not ordinary consumers who pollute the environment and live in a violent world of disintegrating social links, but those who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation and pollution, buy their way out of their own activity, living in gated communities, eating organic food, taking holidays in wildlife preserves, and so on' [23].

Whilst such controversial statements may be the reason why many people have slated Zizek's little book on a big topic, but Violence was to me hard-hitting and thought provoking. Yes, Zizek may have used these arguments before, and yes, he lacks empirical research and jumps too quickly from high to low culture; creating an effect more akin to a pyrotechnic display than an academic argument. But for its ability to prompt greater reflection on the deep and complex causes of violence in society today, this book is of value.

Zizek, as many of his readers already know, does not shy away from controversy, instead using it to grab attention and involve the reader in the argument. Although he prefers to cast 'sideways glances' at violence in each of his chapters, Zizek does not shrink from the reality of actual instantiations of violence that have faced us throughout history right up to those on the TV news every day: from French Revolutionary terror, the Holocaust, and Stalinist repression, to the horrifying events at Abu Ghraib. However, he is driven by a fierce desire to avoid fetishising violence, emphasising that graphic descriptions and gory horror stories sometimes end up appealing to us out of shock and fascination - leading to a preoccupation with the gruesome details of each instantiation of violence. Hence his sideways glances try to resist the allure of its horror and achieve a more dispassionate engagement that may help us to see the underlying causes more clearly.

Subjective and objective violence

This is not to ask that we stop feeling the horror that this 'subjective' violence naturally produces, but that we try to mitigate this momentarily, to avoid a fake urgency where we rush headlong into trying to stop subjective violence while continuing in our failure to understand, and then tackle, the causes of objective violence. He believes that we should 'step back' and 'disentangle ourselves' from what he calls 'the fascinating lure' of directly visible 'subjective' violence, such as 'acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, and international conflict', which is all 'violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent' [1]. Instead, he argues that we need to be able to 'perceive the contours of the background that 'causes such outbursts in order to identify the objective violence that lurks here' [1].

For example, he says that when the media 'bombard us' with the usual humanitarian crises we see on our televison screens we must remember that the very fact that this crisis has been covered instead of another is the result of complex and often, 'behind the scenes' struggle which concerns less proper humanitarian concerns, and more cultural, ideologico-political and economic considerations [2]. He gives an example of when Time Magazine 'got it wrong', using, for their cover story on 5 June 2006, the ongoing crisis in the Congo, where around 4 million people died in the last decade.

But none of what Zizek calls, 'the usual humanitarian uproar' followed, bar a few readers' letters. He observes that it was as if 'some kind of filtering mechanism blocked this news from achieving its full impact in our symbolic space' [2]. He remarks, bitterly, that the magazine should have stuck to its more common topics, such as the plight of Muslim women, or victims of 9/11; even an Israeli/Palestinian clash, since 'the death of a West Bank Palestinian child, not to mention an Israeli or an American, is mediatically worth thousands of times more than the death of a nameless Congolese' [3]. Hence it is objective violence that sets the scene in which subjective violence is played out. Subjective violence is the effect, whereas objective violence is the cause.

These six glances enable Zizek to develop arguments that attack our contemporary socio-economic order from various perspectives. Firstly, he asserts that it is symptomatic of this political order that we are distracted from the urgency to attend to objective violence. Instead there is a vast predilection in modern liberal societies to oppose all forms of violence, alerting us in a flurry, to the urgent need of the latest natural disaster or humanitarian crisis that has been picked up by the media radar. Yet, he asks, if there is something suspicious about this enforced focus on subjective violence, for 'by obliterating from view other forms of violence' it is as if we are being forced to look at one thing, while the real root of the problem sneaks by, out of sight, behind us.

Liberal Communists

So Zizek develops his category of 'liberal communists' to refer to the liberal intelligentsia who have sold-out and accepted capitalist economics, doing good works while keeping the very system in place that makes this work necessary. He cites the ideology of these liberal communists as one where market and social responsibility can be reunited for mutual benefit, unveiling the shallowness and hypocrisy behind these ideals in descriptions of those who 'give with one hand what they first took with the other' [18] - like George Soros and Bill Gates, who Zizek claims, divide their time equally between personal pursuit of profit and humanitarian activities, without realising the self-eliminating nature of this routine, as they spend half their time contributing to promulgating a violent and destructive system, and the remaining to helping a few of its victims.

Zizek's familiar argument emerges here, explaining that liberal communists go unnoticed in today's society because when any ideology is at its strongest it simply becomes accepted and beyond dispute, part of the backdrop culture, the common sense of society: its 'features, attitudes and norms of life are no longer perceived as ideologically marked' and instead 'appear ... neutral, non-ideological, natural' [31]. So despite liberal arguments to the contrary, we are not beyond politics - beyond right and left. Zizek highlights how our current era is marked by post-political 'claims to leave behind the old ideological struggles and instead, focus on expert management and administration, while "bio-politics" designates the regulation of security and welfare of human live as its primary goal' [34]. Yet he notes how these two goals overlap, for they neutralise challenges to the system and also take away the old objects of passion and feeling that ideologies used to command. He argues, that the only way to mobilise people, to make them passionate enough to act in whichever way suits the 'powers that be', is through fear. So, today's so-called 'end-state' neutral bio-politics, is actually just a new politics of fear.

Zizek wants to shock and irritate until he wakes us up to this realisation, to make us change perspective just a little, so when 'bombarded by the heart-warming news of a debt cancellation or a big humanitarian campaign to eradicate a dangerous epidemic', we can see beneath the veil of decency and reveal the liberal communist and their violence that is at work underneath [32-3].

Another glance, this time to post-hurricane New Orleans and 2005 Paris riots, shows this raw expression of emotion from yet another side. What Zizek saw in these events was an expression of pure resentment: violence and anger with no requests or demands beyond being heard. Yet he says that the absence of a wider social project of which this was a part, is just another symptom of our liberal capitalist world. The protestors' impotence and lack of cognitive mapping (the ability to link one's actions to the wider context) show that the only outlet for our emotions and rage is violence, which can only express impotence: our impotence to act in any productive way to resolve the problem that is the socio-economic divide.

Thus he makes an impassioned plea to try to overcome the cruel injustices and poverty that cause resentment to spread and violence to flare. Focusing on the worrying plans to build a wall around the North African Spanish enclave of Melilla, to prevent its penetration by immigrants, Zizek remarks that, contra what he terms the 'soft-hearted' liberal view that we should tear down this wall, and all others to promote free migration, the true wall that needs to be torn down is the socio-economic divide, that is what provokes people to, desperately, try to escape their own world.

In the final apocalyptic chapter we finish the journey, coming from our beginning, at the unmasking of false anti-violence, to this manic, loosely constructed endorsement of emancipatory violence. But in this unacknowledged invoking of Derridian post-structuralism the violence is objective, that which is beyond the law, because it is establishing a new law. This is the sort of violence that is a breaking out of the old order, revolutionary, but not necessarily establishing a new order: simply a resistance of meaning - a pure act of resistance in the hope of overturning the structures that holds us captive today.

Writing off sources of inspiration

Despite my endorsement of this work, two broad problems emerge. Firstly, Zizek's critique is not really about us, about citizens in Western democratic states, going about our lives, and facing difficult moral and ethical decisions every day. Instead, his critique is a critique of the media, of globalisation, of the anti-capitalist movement, of business, and of the academic classes: of their arguments, their lives and commitments. Indeed, such a critique is necessary, but it is perhaps also important to address and acknowledge its subject more explicitly, so that we can begin to turn the lens on those who promote our violent system, while also preventing disillusionment among those of us who may already think we are doing our level best to reveal the manipulation and control that is going on behind the headlines.

Instead by trying to sweep the whole world into one analysis in this book (although one can always turn to his other work for clarification and greater detail) Zizek risks over-simplifying the problem, and needlessly writing off possible sources of inspiration and strength for the anti-capitalist struggle. For example, rather than condemning all religious groups, charities, existing political mechanisms for welfare and redistribution, and support groups for vulnerable people, would it not be more sensible to cautiously weigh up and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the role that all such groups play in challenging the current hegemonic powers?

Secondly, by entitling his book 'Violence', and (over-)emphasising the violent roots of our current state of the world, I wonder if Zizek is not capitalising on the very fear that he accuses liberal capitalist culture of exploiting? Painting the world as one where the domain of violence has become equal to the domain of love seems defeatist, perverse, and quite frankly, untrue. Surely a better way to counter this may be to construct ways to develop solidarity and resistance rather than entrenching the inevitability of the very depths of violence to which our culture stoops?


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