Slavoj Zizek, the prolific Slovenian cultural theorist, has never flinched in the face of our knottier political dilemmas. In Violence, his inaugural contribution to Picador’s Big Ideas/Small Books series, one of our most urgent, and vexing, social ills gets the Zizek treatment: a heady, dynamic, often exhilarating dive into the vortex of his particular brand of Lacanian theory. Violence‘s title is not to be taken at face value; what we get here is not an anatomy of brutality in any literal sense but rather what Zizek describes as “six sideways glances” at his subject. For Zizek, what he calls “subjective” violence — the crime and terror we traditionally associate with the term — is only the beginning. His real interest is in more systemic forms of violence: the ways in which language, cultural norms, and capitalism “sustain relationships of domination and exploitation.” Drawing upon everything from pop culture ephemera (Nip/Tuck and M. Night Shyamalan) to global affairs (9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict), Zizek takes aim at the Left’s presumption that its ethos of freedom and multiculturalism carries with it no violence of its own (which is not to say the Right isn’t lambasted as well). Zizek is better at diagnosing what ails our society than he is at providing salves for these wounds — that his call to arms is a call to inaction, based on the notion that abstention from the political system is the best rebellion against it, feels discouraging at best. But even if Zizek leaves us with no real prescription for the problem of violence, his injunction, borrowed from Lenin, to “learn, learn, and learn” is a start. He may not have an answer, but he can still give us an education.
About the Author
Amelia Atlas's reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Sun, and N1BR, among others. She blogs about books at www.ameliaatlas.com.