Žižek’s Violence

I admit it: Violence is my first book by Slavoj Žižek, the cultural critic, philosopher, and Lacan expert who ironically calls himself a Marxist. Through his psychoanalytic lens, and his endless arsenal of jokes, he penetrates deep into 21st century culture with astoundingly counter-intuitive insights. He is never boring, and he hardly ever relies on the pseudo-scientific jargon that many of his fellow academics so love to use. That said, from his many online articles and interviews, he seems to me like a man who is full of contradictions. At times he vituperates the old communist regimes under which he lived, praises the achievements of post WWII western Europe, even finds a good word or two to say about neocon chearleader Fukayama; at other times he slams the disunited left — who can only agree to disagree — and he ironically praises Stalin and modern monolithic leftist movements like Chavez’s regime in Venezuela.

Without knowing much more than what Google and the 217-page-long Violence can provide me, he seems to me a lapsing postmodernist with dreams of forming a united left-wing front. He believes the multi-cultural concept of tolerance is not the answer — in fact his proposal is to stay as far away as possible from the kind of patronizing attitude towards others that tolerance presupposes. Violence: a round of buckshot fired at what he calls the unsustainable status quo of post-political capitalism. He hits bullseye on a few occasions, but mostly he’s in the margins. It’s an awesome read, and it leaves you with more questions than you originally started with. For me, that’s what good philosophy ought to do.

The basic thesis of Violence is that there are two forms of violence: subjective and objective. Subjective violence is immediately palpable. We see a perpetrator, an angry mob, a violent criminal, a terrorist act. Objective violence comes in two forms, symbolic and systemic. Symbolic violence comes in the language we use, in our terms for such broad concepts as terrorism and justice. An American from Ohio will have a very different idea of what those words mean compared to someone from Lahore, Pakistan. Systemic violence is what lies underneath it all, or rather, in the psychoanalytic terms Žižek so likes to employ, over it all, like the superego. This is ideology, our implicit rules which guide us. This systemic violence might be subjectively invisible, but it is very real:

… when one draws attention to the millions who died as the result of capitalist globalisation, from the tragedy of Mexico in the sixteenth century through to the Belgian Congo holocaust a century ago, responsibility is largely denied. All this seems just to have happened as the result of an “objective” process, which nobody planned and executed and for which there was no “Capitalist Manifesto.”

Today we have what he calls “liberal communists”, or “counter-cultural geeks” who have taken over the big corporations. They believe in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the free market, and only look at small localized and concrete problems to deal with. He points out that George Soros, well-known for his philanthropic contributions, made his fortune through ruthless financial speculation; Bill Gates, whose great humanitarian deeds came at the price of the quashing out competition and creating a “virtual monopoly”. How many people were disenfranchised because of their competitive drive? The point is that in order to give, people like them had to take.

It’s this unspoken rule which guides us in this post-political world. Since there is no big meta-narrative, or counter ideology like communism, people play by these implicit rules, which are in themselves a form of objective violence. He takes the concept of divine violence from Walter Benjamin, which doesn’t mean, as one would guess, fanatical violence in the name of God, rather its opposite, a popular uprising, a counter-movement. Mythical violence, on the other hand, is violence that is justified by an authority figure. An example of divine violence is the French revolution and — ironically — Ghandi’s popular uprising in India. They represent the move from a tacit acceptance of the oppressive norm, to a rebellion — a religious stage of passion. They are violent because they break with the old habits. This emancipatory violence , he says, cannot be condemned in the usual way because it is a reaction to systemic violence.

In my brief summary, all this sounds like dry cultural theory, but the brilliant thing about Žižek’s book is his capacity to engage and draw analogies which bring these sometimes difficult concepts to life. Despite my distaste for bloated jargon, he manages to use terms like The Real and be clear at the same time — perhaps because he doesn’t use them as a crutch. He goes out on a limb to make bold statements, and his counter-intuitive twists of logic and humor always keep you immersed in his writing. It also helps that he’s able to drive a point home with a joke or a pop culture analogy.

This all leads to his call to action, which would more appropriately be called, “a call to inaction”. In a time like this, when the only thing that people can agree upon is to disagree, when there are crises of a global scale emerging — such as with ecology, biogenetics, and the market meltdown — the most violent thing to do, is to do nothing at all. Which is one of those polemical turns of phrase which could probably be taken the wrong way. What he means, I think, as we watch laissez faire capitalism undermine itself, is that we should keep our minds open and to be ready to think in global terms, not quick fixes or “micro-management”. In the introduction he mentions an old Communist joke about Lenin’s obsession with “learning”:

Marx, Engels, and Lenin are asked whether they would prefer to have a wife or a mistress. As expected, Marx, rather conservative in private matters, answers, “A wife!” while Engels, more of a bon vivant, opts for a mistress. To everyone’s surprise, Lenin says, “I’d like to have both!” Why? Is there a hidden stripe of decadent jouisser behind the austere revolutionary image? No-he explains: “So that I can tell my wife that I am going to my mistress, and my mistress that I have to be with my wife …” “And then, what do you do?” “I go to a solitary place to learn, learn, and learn!”

What’s happening in “the world as we know it” when torture becomes a debatable subject, when gated communities are popping up around us, when a patronizing attitude to others is held as the high-point of multiculturalism? Is it time for a new alternative? From 9/11 to the recent riots in Greece, there are sudden bursts of passionate violence that we can’t entirely explain. Žižek says we need to, “‘learn, learn, and learn’ what causes this violence”, and be ready to face it together.

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44 Responses to “Žižek’s Violence”


  1. 1 blt

    Why don’t people believe Zizek when he says he’s a Marxist? He isn’t joking, people! He actually is a Marxist. Sheesh.

  2. 2 Unnatural Habitat

    I suspect the truth is probably somewhere in between Groucho Marx and Karl Marx.

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    Zizek is a Marxist for sure…

  5. 5 Mark

    If Zizek is a Marxist then Lacan is understandable.

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  7. 7 HJ de Boer (Netherlands)

    Well written piece, although I do not believe it is relevant whether or not Zizek is a Marxist or not. I think his distinction between symbolic and systemic violence and the consequent call for action are really the basis of it all. Call him a Marxist if you think it is an anti-capitalist ideal, or a psychoanalyst if you think it is about facing repression, it does not matter. What matters is the realisation that underlying ‘civilization’ is violence, violence, violence…

  8. 8 James

    If you don’t consider Zizek a Marxist (or if you don’t think this is relevant, which it is), you must have read very little by him.

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    Zizek leans on Marx heavily, but the pain fact is that his work in scope defies traditional Marxism, his own eccentric positioning animates the general thrust of this debate: the overarching (ontological) thesis one of catastrophe. In Violence, “What matters is the realization that underlying ‘civilization’ is violence, violence, violence…” structurally (ontologically), the catastrophe is represented with a series of antagonisms which correspond to one another, the “Architectural Parallax” (it’s volatility) as he calls it, of which we are part.

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