Violence / by Slavoj Žižek

MICHAEL WITHEY

We live in a world whose hegemonic ideology is one of respect for human rights, of the preservation of freedom and deference to the mores of the other; and, yet, this is a world which is routinely disturbed by acts of violence by agents the state (witness Gitmo) and by non-state actors (such as acts of rioting and terrorism). It is Žižek’s wager that this violence cannot be seen as mere contingent disruptions of the otherwise idyllic world of liberal capitalism – rather, we must see the all-too visible violence of terrorism, rioting and repression, as a reflection of the greater violence inherent to the system itself.

The relation between this subjective violence (violence perpetrated by an agent to whom the act can be rendered accountable) and objective violence (violence inherent to the system) is not analysed by Žižek as a merely causal relation – that is, the explosions of violence we witness daily in the media are the result of the inequalities perpetrated by capitalism. Žižek seeks, rather, to analyse the two as related to each other in parallax.

Parallax, for Žižek, refers to the fact that an alteration of the subject’s position results in a shift of the position of the object itself. The object shifts epistemically in relation to the background, since the gaze of the subject ontologically constitutes the object. However, the part of the object constituted by the gaze is precisely the part that returns the subject’s gaze (that is, the point of view of the observer himself). There is, therefore, a theoretical impossibility in grasping ‘reality’ as a whole – to grasp reality means grasping the object from the perspective of the subject, or vice versa; however, the object itself is constituted by the subject’s inclusion, which cannot be grasped from the perspective of the subject; similarly, to grasp the subject from the perspective of the object is to ignore the very dimension of subjectivity constitutive of the object.

How, then, are we to analyse reality, taken as this disjunction? The only way in which this can be done is the insistence of its parallax nature – to take as our starting point the very fact of the irreducibility of subject and object. We must insist, along with Hegel, on the incommensurability of reality itself – that is to say, that reality itself is constituted by its exception, making reality inherently non-All. The ultimate difference is to be located within reality, not between (as Kant believed) the phenomenal reality of objectivity and the noumenal reality of subjectivity.

This impossibility of grasping the whole of reality is characterised as an antagonism constitutive of reality – that is, reality is both the object which resists an objective analysis, but also the object which distorts this analysis; more fundamentally, it is the very distortion effected by the object which is constitutive of the object, meaning that the very gap separating the multiple perspectives which can be conferred upon the object is constitutive of the object itself. The object is characterised by an object that renders impossible truly objective knowledge of the object itself, rendering it knowable only by a multiplicity of appearance. The purpose of the Parallax View is the analysis of this non-substantial object, and the analysis of objectivity as characterised by this non-objectivity, and this method of analysis is the method of On Violence.

According to Žižek’s ‘parallaxic’ method, the analysis of violence then touch upon the two formal aspects of violence, the subjective and objective. These two aspects cannot however be mediated into a higher order; and hence we should, rather, take the very irreconcilable nature of the two perspectives to be the object of our analysis.

One cannot, for example, analyse their relation in the standard manner in which objective violence bears a purely causal relationship to subjective violence. To do so would be to ignore the very subjective dimension of violence, ignoring the very trauma that is at the heart of violence; furthermore, this ‘coldly objective’ analysis of violence would itself be, through its dismissal of the subjective trauma, constitutive of violence, an example of systematic violence. Conversely, however, to treat the subjective element of violence as the cornerstone of our analysis would render analysis of objective violence impossible, as subjective violence can appear as such only against a background of a non-violent objective order. Hence, the only way in which we can analyse the phenomenon of violence would be to take as our starting point the problematic nature of the subject’s relationship with objectivity, and the object’s problematic relation with subjectivity.

OBJECTIVE VIOLENCE

Žižek wishes to analyse two forms of violence that are inherent to our liberal-capitalist ideology. The first is the systematic violence that is engendered by the economic activity sustaining our system. The violence here, is that of the ceaseless economic expansion of capital, with its endless drive to utilise itself in self-replication.

This violence does not show itself merely in the all-too-obvious effects of this process – the widening divide between the rich and the poor, the creation of monopolies and the undermining of traditional ways of life. This violence is, also, seen in the retexturing of social reality – it is no longer the case that economic and social reality can be understood by considering relations of power, material resources and human need; rather, this social reality can only be understood by the speculations of capital which underpin it. The relation of production to need no longer provide the normative underpinnings of economics – instead, this is given by the very circulation of capital itself, which provides its own normative framework. The ‘violence’ in this process is, precisely, the removal of relations of production from the needs that give rise to and confer value upon them, and into a process that removes these needs as a means of conferring this value.

SYMBOLIC VIOLENCE

The next stage in the explication of objective violence that must be drawn, is that of symbolic violence – that is, the violence inherent to the hegemonic forms of discourse. Again, Žižek’s object in this analysis is not merely the racism, sexism etc. that is present in contemporary discourse, but rather the violence inherent in language. The analysis of this form of violence makes up far more of the book than the analysis of systematic violence.

For Žižek, following Hegel, there is a certain violence that is inherent to discourse itself. The very process of naming an object is to shift the object into a domain of meaning external to it. This new universe of discourse can itself only be sustained by another violence – that of the Master-Signifier, the founding gesture of the social order itself. The imposition of a new field of meaning by the Master-Signifier is the imposition of an inherent inequality through language, the Master-Signifier functioning as a terminus for the space of reasons – ultimately, any field of discourse (including the discourse of reason) founded by the Master-Signifier is ultimately grounded in an arbitrary, irrational act, which renders those who engage in the discourse inherently unequal. Although this domain of discourse involves the possibility of transgression, the ultimate transgression is effected by this very discourse.

Let us now be more specific, and ask ourselves what is the ground of our current discursive practices. This question may be asked in the following manner – who is the subject that engages in contemporary discourse, and to whom does he speak? A casual reader of On Violence may be mistaken into believing that current discourse is distinguished by the fact that it is not grounded in any Master-Signifier. In the first chapter, SOS Violence, Žižek analyses a rather pathetic ‘event’ that took place in London in 2006 – the ‘masturbate-o-thon’, whereby individuals gathered together to masturbate. We do not see here the mutual engagement of two embodied subjectivities – the precondition of any satisfying sexual encounter – rather, we see two subjects sharing their very isolation, breaking down the very shame of this isolated act. The subject engaging in this act is a subject of stupid, arbitrary whims, unable to engage with another subject proper, but merely interacting with the simulacrum of another subject.

Does this analysis not point to the fact that this interaction is not guided by any Master-Signifier? Our post-modern society is said by Žižek to be ‘atonal’ – that is, it is a world whose complexity cannot be overcome by the decision of a Master-Signifier in imposing a field of discourse, but is a world whose complexity must be asserted at face-value. The masturbate-o-thon is an exemplary figure of this process, being an engagement that brooks no unification of two subjects into sexual congress, but, rather, asserts the irreducible complexity of the desires of each subject whose very irreducible complexity renders them incommensurable.

The contradiction of the assertion that contemporary society is ‘atonal’ and Žižek’s analysis of contemporary politics as being sustained by rational discourse is, on closer analysis, only apparent. If we analyse the subject of contemporary ideology, we see that he is post-political (that is to say, does not believe in any ‘higher’ cause in politics other than the efficient administration of resources) and bio-political (that is to say, sees the goal of politics being the security and welfare of life).

Let us ask – how does the contemporary subject relate to himself and to others? As we have seen in the above chapter, each individual’s highest goal in life is the satisfaction of his own pleasures; his relation to others is one of tolerance, where he leaves his neighbour alone to indulge in his own stupid pleasure – and, as we have seen, this precludes any real engagement with him, since to properly engage with another is to be over-proximate to him, to demand that our pleasures be commensurable, to demand the mutual sacrifice of our isolated pleasures to the higher unity of the relationship.

To give pleasure this central role to the subject’s self-identity opens up the space for these pleasures – and their correlate, pain – to be considered as entities whose value can be considered primary, rather than the subjectivity to which they are attached. This, of course, is the good old doctrine of utilitarianism, and this doctrine implies the possibility of acts of violence against the subject. What is the use of torture – the causing of temporary pain to one subject – when it can help protect us against the greater pain of, for example, terrorism? ‘After all, we, the administrators of bio-politics, can precisely calculate the payoff between one man’s pain and many peoples’ pleasure…and you may have a sympathy with the pathetic victim of torture, but do not be deceived – this is a merely irrational prejudice on your part…’. We see here the relationship between our culture of pleasure and its abhorrent phenomenon of Guantanamo Bay – the latter is not an inexplicable deviation from the former, but is a necessary consequent of it.

Our apparently atonal world is shown to have a very definite Master-Signifier, that of science, which generates a field of social discourse which reduces the subject to an object of scientific analysis, motivated by pleasure and pain, which has the authority to arbitrate between these claims, unhindered by any greater ethical obligation. The social status of science is, as we can see, sustained by and is generative of violence, but we can also see violence very clearly in its quilting of the social field – of reducing any true engagement with the neighbour as being ‘irrational’, of removing old ethical norms and ways of engaging with the world. There is a clear parallel here, between the social function of science and capitalism – both have the ultimate effect of undermining the relationship between man and world, reducing him (by one) to an agent of the transmission of capital and (by the other) reducing him to being motivated by pleasure alone. The ‘de-worlding’ function of both could serve as a succinct summary of the ‘objective violence’ discussed in the book, and it is the images of the ‘smooth running of capital’ and Fukuyama’s notion of a liberal-democratic ‘end of history’ which serve as the apparently ‘neutral’ background against which this violence seems such an aberration.

SUBJECTIVE VIOLENCE

It is against this background that we must understand Žižek’s discussion of subjective violence – one example of which, the apparently weird practice of torture by supposedly liberal governments – is discussed above. Let us now look at Žižek’s analysis of three all-too-visible acts of subjective violence – terrorism, the New Orleans lootings, and the riots of Paris, 2005.

First, terrorism, which is most visible in the form of Islamic terrorism. What is so problematic about the relation of Islam to the West to bring about such evil acts of terrorism as we see today? The first thing which should note about the evil of this terrorism is that it is not the classic evil of egoism, nor is it a claim of two irreconcilable ways of life and their competing claims of sovereignty – rather the resentment displayed by Muslim fanatics is to be seen as their internalisation of Western standards, against which they measure themselves and find themselves wanting. Other fundamentalist religions take no interest in the spiritually deficient life of the West, since the attitudes of others towards them do not share their own normative standards. The explosion of rage we witness from Islam is therefore best explained by Žižek as being an example of envy at its purest – unable to live up to the standards set by the West, the Muslim terrorist is precisely unable to meet its claims, and wishes to destroy the object able to do so.

But, what exactly is the object of this envy and disgust, and how does Islam fail to meet up with it? Žižek provides an example of the Muslim riots against the infamous Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, which is a perfect example of the symbolic violence discussed earlier. We should note, firstly, that the globalisation of communication has a clear counterexample of the liberal claim that more discussion leads to less war – instead, we are seeing something like the figure of the Babel-fish in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a small fish inserted in the ear which is capable of perfectly translating the language of the interlocutor to the listener. Readers of Adams’ book will know that this fish is the greatest cause of war in the universe. However, we must ask – why do mere cartoons provoke rioting? The answer is the violence caused by discourse – the rioters in question were not just reacting to ink on paper, nor were they reacting to a specific publication’s offensive remarks, but they transplanted these remarks from its contingent context into a new one, whereby they symbolised the entirety of Western imperialism.

But, again – why the explosion of rage? Why not confront Western imperialism itself, rather against a few cartoons? For Žižek, these protests must be seen precisely as signs of the impotence of the Islamic world and an expression of their resentment towards the West – it is a symbolic violence that is a response to an all-too present systematic violence. It is, furthermore, a reaction to the de-worlding character of capitalism and liberalism discussed above – the advent of modernity in the West took several centuries to establish, leading to new social narratives being constructed gradually over this time to allow Western society to adjust to this shock. Islamic societies, however, saw this shift take place suddenly, making its members retreat to the absolute certainties provided by fundamentalist religion.

There is a further paradox here. Insofar as the Muslim protesters are reacting against a blasphemous image, they are acting within a frame of religious discourse; however, insofar as they are demanding respect for their beliefs, they are surely acting within a liberal mode of discourse. The violence engendered by liberalism’s ideology of respect of the other’ is shown at its purest here; as Žižek points out, the deadlock between liberalism and fundamentalism, if not resolved, can only lead to a liberalism which preaches with increasingly panicked urgency about the need for tolerance of a fundamentalism whose hatred is directed against this very tolerance…

Let us now look at the riots of Paris, 2005. What is distinctive about this act of violence is its sheer meaninglessness – a protest where the protesters demanded precisely nothing, and merely asserted their presence. Such a protest, contends Žižek, can only take place in a world where no alternative to the prevailing system can be properly articulated, meaning that opposition to it can only take the form of a blind and, ultimately, impotent rage. But at what, precisely, was their rage directed? It was, contends Žižek, their invisibility to power. This is why the protests should not be perceived as having a deeper meaning or a message – the rage of the protesters was directed against their invisibility, and the protests had the effect of making themselves very visible indeed. Again, the ‘worldless’ character of post-modern society should be taken into account here – in a world that is dominated by the discourse of science, which not only hegemonises meaning, but renders meaningless any alternative to its discourse, the only response against this meaning can be an assertion which is absolutely meaningless.

The third example is the chaos in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, which saw a breakdown of social order – or, at least, that was how the matter was reported in the media, with many of these reports later being shown to be false. These reports painted the picture of a city in breakdown, with the result that the city was deprived of much of the help it so desperately needed. So why were reports such as this allowed to be displayed? For Žižek, they displayed a pathological character of racism – the disavowed racism of the commentators being transmitted onto the figures who engaged in loot and plunder, allowing them to say ‘beneath the black man’s civilised veneer is the heart of darkness…’. A parallel is drawn between this racism and the racism of William Bennett’s contention that aborting every black foetus in the country would result in a reduction in the rate of crime, which, for Žižek, shows a character of pathological racism disguised in a censored form.

Žižek’s analysis of Islamic violence is unconvincing. Firstly, it is simply not the case, as any historian would know, that the scientific and economic aspects of modernity are really a shock to Islamic culture. After all, was this not the culture that produced the cheque, which established trade routes along the Silk Road, which saw the scientific contributions of such figures as Avicenna, and Averroes? And was this not a culture whose history is precisely one of liberalism – after all, the astonishingly fast growth of the Islamic empire is largely explicable by the fact that Islam was not imposed as a state religion in the regions it annexed, its rulers leaving believers largely free to practice their religion as they pleased. Secondly, must such sudden shifts to modernity always result in a traumatic inability to adjust to modernity? It is evident that China and Japan faced sudden adjustments to modernity – particularly traumatically in the case of Mao’s China; however, both are now major players in the world economy, with no fundamentalist upsurge in the name of Confucianism or Shinto.

Žižek’s analysis of the reports on the New Orleans riots fail to develop what is truly interesting about his argument – namely, that the disavowed libidinal investment projected onto the figure of the rioter was not concerned with racism, but rather the multitude of tensions which exist in America – of class, as well as race, as well as the tension which is inherent to the nature of capitalism to which, as he points out, the New Orleans riots provided an obscene mirror. It is this aspect of the analysis, and what it is to achieve – to help the commentators ignore the very systematic and symbolic violence inherent to the American system of capitalism and its social structure – which is underdeveloped in this section, much to its detriment.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

The one thing that we must not do in response to this violence is shown very clearly by Žižek in the first chapter, SOS Violence. This chapter consists of a wonderfully incisive critique of one of today’s standard responses to violence – that of liberal communism, a position exemplified in the philanthropic activities of such figures as George Soros and Bill Gates. These figures are concerned with the elimination of violence as displayed in its public forms, explicitly renouncing any abstract ideological engagement – after all, what matters is surely that poverty is eliminated here and now, by whatever means possible, and if that does not follow some out-dated Marxist dogma, so much worse for the dogma! Of course, the figures who engage in this sort of activity have profited very nicely from capitalism, and continue to engage in its destructive economic activities – but is there a problem here, as long as people are able to utilise its resources to combat its destructive results? And if we can do this, surely the struggle to combat capitalism becomes ineffective – surely the effects of globalization allow us to bring about the justice demanded by the communist?

For Žižek, such an attitude is more than rank hypocrisy. The deficiency is in the first place ideological, since it analyses subjective violence as something which can be understood and combated without having to consider the objective violence which is inherent to its subjective correlate. More concretely, we need to look at the function performed by this philanthropic attitude as inherent to the system of capital. The philanthropic attitude can be exposed for what it is by performing a parallax shift – instead of looking at capitalism as a means to combat the violence it generates, we should look at this ‘solution’ as a means of curbing the violence inherent to capitalism itself. The function of these solutions is merely to postpone the crisis that is inherent to capitalism, by allowing more and more people to have a stake in the wealth generated by the system. The liberal response to capitalism, which has the imperatives of using capital to generate a space outside of the system, is precisely an effect of the system itself, whose function must be seen as a means by which the system is able to perpetuate itself.

The ‘neutral space’ carved outside of capitalism – the ethic of the philanthropist, the consumer purchasing organic goods – is the highest expression of capitalist ideology. The greatest excesses of contemporary violence are to be seen as identical to the liberal tolerance. This chapter paints very clearly the inadequacies of the approach that would analyse subjective violence apart from objective violence, showing that this very approach is part of the objective violence that needs to be combated.

But the question remains – how are we to combat this objective violence? Žižek’s response here is classically Hegelian, in asserting that the very character of this violence is its solution. The liberal subject of today’s ideology is one who relates to his culture as a matter of a contingent satisfaction of his desires; his opponent is the fundamentalist who is ruled exclusively by his cultural mores. The nature of the liberal individual, however, is one that can properly be said to be universal – a society whose major feature is that of economic exchange is one where its individuals can relate to their life-world in a merely contingent manner, as a manifold of objects which have a merely contingent relation to the satisfaction of their desires. This, of course, sees the individual define himself merely in terms of his ability to think and to work – that is, his self-relation is one of contingency. We see here, again, the identity of subjective and objective violence – the objective violence of capitalism, stripping away any organic life-world and leaving its subjects forever ‘out of joint’ with the world, precisely mirrors the ‘wretched of the earth’ who are deprived of any place, whatsoever, in liberal democracy, be they Palestinians, Parisian rioters, or what have you. The ‘formal’ equality underpinning capitalism takes on a causal efficiency of its own, allowing a true universality and equality to emerge.

The defence of particular cultures against the capitalist dynamic is, as we have seen in our discussion of Islamic fundamentalism, a defence formulated within the horizon of this universality; however, what is being reacted against is precisely the universality inherent in any contingent culture – protests against the constraints of a particular culture are formulated from the perspective of universality, from the perspective which sees any particular identity as inadequate. The very worldless character of capitalism provides the dimension of universality – the universality of negativity – which allows a truly universal struggle to emerge.

DIVINE VIOLENCE

The final question we must ask is therefore the following – what will the struggle look like? What will its meaning be? Žižek addresses this question in his final chapter, Divine Violence, which addresses two apparently contradictory aspects of ‘divine interventions beyond the law’. First, its aspect as the locus of all meaning (as is seen in Benjamin’s conception of the divine intervention being a vengeance for every wrong history has committed); second, its aspect as utterly meaningless (as in the tribulations of Job, whose refusal to accept any greater meaning for his sufferings marks him out as a truly holy individual).

However, the two aspects of divine violence hold a deeper identity. Let us ask – how can the wretched of the earth avenge their wrongs, and bring the world back into joint? Through punishment? The problem with punishment is that the wrong is never properly avenged. The criminal, after punishment, is seen to be purged of his crime, bringing him back into the fold of humanity. However, this attitude does not work in a world that cannot be ordered by any Master-Signifier – the criminal is not brought back into an ordered world of meaning, since the world is shown to be characterised by meaningless disorder. What of the attitude of forgiving and forgetting? This is of course a far harsher attitude to take to the criminal, since his undeserved forgiveness renders him forever indebted to the victim of crime, and this is a debt that cannot ever be fully paid. However, Žižek points out the absolutely blasphemous character of this attitude – only a God or king can have the authority to forgive.

Žižek puts forward a fourth term to these attitudes – resentment. Readers of Nietzsche will know his critique of universal Christian morality as motivated by contingent attitudes of resentment – however, what if we can turn this attitude around, and find a universal ethical position in pathological motivation? What if the explosions of meaningless resentment we see in the Parisian rioters are, in fact, a truly universal act, whose universality is possible precisely because of the meaningless character of their life-world?

The perpetrator of divine violence does not act out of pathology, nor punishment, nor sacrifice – the object of his violence is fully guilty, his guilt being attached to the very fact that his life has meaning. This violence is one that extends beyond the domain of law and meaning, and merely strikes against life itself from the perspective of pure drive. The man who commits divine violence is, very simply, beyond any notions of guilt and morality – these categories apply to life in its aspect of meaning, which the perpetrator of divine violence transcends.

The bourgeois reader of this section may feel uneasy – has Žižek really just justified pure violence? However, we may happily say that he has not. Žižek points out that there is precisely no big Other who can confer the character of ‘divine violence’ to the act, there are no objective characteristics which may distinguish it from other forms of violence – it can only have this appearance to those engaged in the act. So, let us ask – what of the Holocaust? Could we distinguish this as divine violence? Ah, says Žižek, we can recognise a difference between the Holocaust and the ‘divine violence’ we speak of – the first is an act of power by the state, the latter by the people. But this criterion does not wash – after all, how can Žižek give the Revolutionary Terror its character of divine violence in the very same chapter? Can we say that the character of the Holocaust had the meaning of establishing state law, but divine violence lacks this meaning? But this analysis does not work – if the Holocaust is conceived, as Arendt believed, as the reduction of its victims to mere units which could be disposed like an inanimate object, or if it is conceived as an act which was in fact detrimental to the German war effort, an act of pure hatred toward the Jews, we again fail to show that the Holocaust was not an example of divine violence. In any case, how can any objective criterion be brought to bear on whether a particular act – including the Holocaust – is an act of divine violence or not, since divine violence is distinguished by its position outside the realm of meaning? We are left with a dilemma – either divine violence has no objective criteria which can distinguish it from ordinary violence, in which case we may end up justifying the Holocaust, or else we do have these objective criteria to identify divine violence, in which case divine violence is a priori impossible.

CONCLUSION

This review has only been able to do justice to some of the book – there is much which is excluded, partly because, as with so many of his works, the work is characterised by digressions which resist the integration into any greater field of meaning. Many of Žižek’s old tropes are present here – the peasant stealing the wheelbarrow, the chocolate laxative (which has to be one of the most curious images in his work – as far as I am aware, eating chocolate has no adverse affects on one’s bowel function), the man who believes himself to be a piece of grain. What distinguishes this work from many of his others is its sheer rhetorical effectiveness – the chapter SOS Violence, especially, is a brilliantly written piece of invective against the liberal communist.

As I have argued, the conclusion of the book and its advocacy of ‘divine violence’ is a slapdash attitude to the details of the examples of violence analysed render them impotent. The chapters SOS Violence and Antinomies of Tolerant Reason are brilliant critiques of liberal solutions to the problems faced by the world today, and the solution of ‘more discourse’ is very precisely rebutted in his analysis of the violence inherent to language. Žižek’s strength -critiquing contemporary ideology- is much in display here; sadly, his weakness -proposing any alternative solution- is all too present.

  • About

    Michael Withey was born and raised in West Wales. Michael took a BA and MSc in Philosophy and History of Science at the LSE. When not writing for Bedeutung, he works as a political aide and plays the jazz clarinet.


    His 'Violence' book review appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 1/ Nature & Culture, available here for purchase.