Violence — Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek describes Violence as “six sideways glances” examining how our preoccupation with subjective violence (that is, the personal, material violence that we can see so easily in crime, racism, etc.) masks and occludes our understanding of the systemic and symbolic violence that underwrites our political, economic, and cultural hierarchies. Žižek believes that a dispassionate “step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and promote tolerance,” and that a rampant “pseudo-urgency” to act instead of think currently (detrimentally) infects liberal humanitarian efforts to help others. This is where the fun comes in. Žižek delights here in pointing out all the ways in which we fool ourselves, all the ways in which we believe we’ve gained some kind of moral edge through our beliefs and actions.

I use the words “fun” and “delight” above for a reason: Violence is fun and a delight to read. Žižek employs a rapid, discursive method, pulling examples from contemporary politics, psychoanalysis, films, poetry, history, jokes, famous apocryphal anecdotes, and just about every other source you can think of to illustrate his points. And while it would be disingenuous to suggest that it doesn’t help to have some working knowledge of the philosophical tradition and counter-traditions to best appreciate Violence, Žižek writes for a larger audience than the academy. Yet, even when he’s quoting Elton John on religion or performing a Nietzschean reading of Children of Men, Žižek’s dalliances with pop culture always occur within the gravest of backdrops. Within each of Violence‘s six chapters, there’s a profound concern for not only the Big Questions but also the big events: Žižek frequently returns to the Iraq War, the 9/11 attacks, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as major points of consideration. This concern for contemporary events, and the materiality of contemporary events, is particularly refreshing in a work of contemporary philosophy. Undoubtedly some will pigeonhole Žižek in the deconstructionist-psychoanalytical-post-modernist camp (as if it were an insult, of course)–he clearly has a Marxist streak and a penchant for Lacanian terminology. Yet, unlike many of the writers of this philosophical counter-tradition, Žižek writes in a very clear, lucid manner. There’s also a great sense of humor here, as well as any number of beautiful articulations, like this description of the “dignity and courage” of atheism:

[A]theists strive to formulate the message of joy which comes not from escaping reality, but from accepting it and creatively finding one’s place in it. What makes this materialist tradition unique is the way it combines the humble awareness that we are not masters of the universe, but just a part of a much larger whole exposed to contingent twists of fate, with a readiness to accept the heavy burden of responsibility for what we make out of our lives. With the threat of unpredictable catastrophe looming from all sides, isn’t this an attitude needed more than ever in our own times?

I’m inclined to answer, “Yes.” Highly recommended.

Violence, part of the new BIG IDEAS // small books series from Picador Books, is available August 1st.

6 thoughts on “Violence — Slavoj Žižek”

  1. Ah, Žižek. That charismatic blowhard contrarian with seemingly endless axes to grind and preconceptions to shatter.

    I like his style very much, which makes it all the harder to tolerate much of his rhetoric. The quotes you’ve posted are harmless enough. But he often makes ridiculous statements that make him sound like he’s trying to be controversial for controversy’s sake. Check this recent article from The Nation:

    http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080721/miller

    Žižek’s comments about Tibet are bizarre and seemingly fascist. He blames “Western Buddhism” for liberalisms contemporary ills — a specious claim, even if Buddhism has been repurposed and commodified for Western consumer audiences; the truth is probably closer to the fact that Buddhism’s sensuous, nonliteralist tradition holds a special appeal for the West, a culture marinated in the repressive, hyperliteralist Judeo-Christian worldview.

    A quote from the Nation article: “Over the last twelve months… Žižek has championed the Hollywood action film 300 (a comic-book adaptation of the Battle of Thermopylae) as a suitable model for left politics, advanced the almost LaRouchian view that “liberal communists” (Silicon Valley CEOs, plus George Soros and court philosophers like Thomas Friedman) “are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today” and appeared in the advert breaks of the British television station Channel 4 as a sort of human screen wipe, delivering pearls of gnomic wisdom in fifteen-second bursts.”

    Lots of other nuggets in that article. I’d like to read Violence, but suspect it’s a pop missive, a crust of bread tossed to the nonacademics (such as myself) to keep the critics at bay.

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  2. Good for you. Don’t read it then (as reading it might entail having your suspicions confronted or confounded in some way). Far better then to follow the sanctified advice of The Nation than read Žižek’s own words (if you do want a first hand encounter, he deals with Bill Gates et al in the first few pages).

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  3. Ooooh — the Turner snark! I’m just saying, I like the man’s style, but feel like he makes a lot of ridiculous statements just to get our collective goat.

    Saw him lecture in person once at FSU. He was funny, but kept thrashing “Western Buddhism” like it was some kind of whipping post for the sins of the left.

    And for what it’s worth, I don’t think that Bill Gates/George Soros are the enemies here, or that Tibet was a repressive feudal regime before China took over, as he misinterprets history. He changes facts to fit his agenda, which is to shake things up and get a bit more time in the limelight. Philosophers can be media whores, too.

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  4. 1. You were the one who started w/ the snarkiness.
    2. I’m not sure that “we” have a “collective goat,” and I think it’s too easy to dismiss thinkers by claiming that they are being contrarian as a means to its own end (contrariety is Socrates main method in Plato). This charge is repeatedly leveled at any number of thinkers, critics, etc. — Freud, Nietzsche, Derrida, et al.
    3. Where is this objectively true history that you speak of? Nietzsche said that history is simply a series of interpretations. Bravo to thinkers who misinterpret!
    4. I don’t subscribe to any -isms or claim discipleship to any one thinker, and not all of what Žižek says in Violence, or in some of the essays I’ve read by him, is what I necessarily believe. However, I think he has a lot to say that’s meaningful, not just ornery (*Violence* certainly repeatedly challenged, even infuriated some of my beliefs about my own morality and ethicality). But I think it’s lazy, and perhaps sometimes dangerous, to outright dismiss something that you have failed to engage. If you’re not interested in Žižek, if his rock-starish persona seems foul to you, a silly pose, fine. But (pesudo)authoritatively dismissing his ideas without a real, contextualized consideration of them–coupled with the condescending notion that they aren’t worth considering, least of all such a “crust” of a book admittedly written to a nonacademic audience–is the worst kind of pose. Ad hominem attacks can be made all day long against philosophers (Heidegger was a Nazi, f’r’chrissakes) but I think they’re ultimately the easiest “out” to engaging the intellectual challenges posed.
    5. I wish more philosophers were media whores. Maybe then our dominant culture wouldn’t be so fucking dumb.

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  5. You wrote: “But (pesudo)authoritatively dismissing his ideas without a real, contextualized consideration of them–coupled with the condescending notion that they aren’t worth considering, least of all such a “crust” of a book admittedly written to a nonacademic audience–is the worst kind of pose.”

    True. I haven’t read Violence — I was reacting more to the caricature he’s become of late. So here’s a quote from Žižek’s recent recent, historically challenged letter to the London Review of Books: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n08/letters.html

    “One of the main reasons so many people in the West participate in the protests against China is ideological: Tibetan Buddhism, deftly propagated by the Dalai Lama, is one of the chief points of reference for the hedonist New Age spirituality that has become so popular in recent times. Tibet has become a mythic entity onto which we project our dreams. When people mourn the loss of an authentic Tibetan way of life, it isn’t because they care about real Tibetans: what they want from Tibetans is that they be authentically spiritual for us, so that we can continue playing our crazy consumerist game.”

    Žižek’s statements are deeply cynical and misinformed. He takes potshots at Western spirituality and culture and twists the facts to prove his point. As stated in the Nation article, he based his research on Rebecca Redwood French’s The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet (1995). But as French stated, “I am afraid that Professor Slavoj Žižek has misunderstood my book entirely.”

    Google “Žižek tibet china london review of books” and you’ll get a headful of pointed, useful critiques from the masses, both from the West and from Tibet. I criticize Žižek from the perspective of admirer and skeptic. It’s a healthy approach, one that tempers fanaticism with facts.

    Keep blogging, man — love to hear your thoughts.

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  6. Has he become a caricature, or has he become caricaturized? (I write this fully aware of his academic-rockstar persona (a charge easily leveled against Derrida, Chomsky, Guevara, and even, at one time, Ralph Nader–all people I deeply admire yet often disagree with (one of the pull-quotes that came with the press-release for the book was something like “the Elvis of cultural theory”–I think that was from the Village Voice–not something I’d really interpret as a compliment!–but, yes, I get it).

    I read the article you cite, and, I have to say that there’s nothing apparently cynical or misinformed about his stance, particularly the quote you put up–the idea is not even so much Žižek’s as it is an extension of Edward Said’s orientalist critique, and I think it’s a particularly valuable one. I don’t think he’s exclusively playing the gadfly here, but asking us to examine what prejudices of self-interest underwrite our ideology, our expectations about “natural” positions that we believe are “right.” Perhaps his “facts” or “data” about Tibet may be skewed (or alternately, perhaps more accurately, many might disagree with his interpretation of facts, see them as “historically challenged”–I think here of those who might subscribe to such ideals as big T Truth, Objective Truth, a Real History that Actually Happened, people that think that the author of a book gets to say what the text *means* (shall I quote Nietzsche again, who points out that there are “no facts, only interpretations”?)), but his point about Western romanticism for the Eastern Exotic Other is pretty salient, I think (it’s an extension, I believe, of Lacanian psychoanalysis into the age of the global economy). Also, should I point out here that he’s a self-professed Marxist–he’s hardly taking a potshot, is he–I mean he’s working to deconstruct the easily-held assumptions that script people’s lives?

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