Violence

Violence

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by Slavoj Zizek
     
 

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Philosopher, cultural critic, and agent provocateur Slavoj Žižek constructs a fascinating new framework to look at the forces of violence in our world.

Using history, philosophy, books, movies, Lacanian psychiatry, and jokes, Slavoj Žižek examines the ways we perceive and misperceive violence. Drawing from his unique cultural

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Overview

Philosopher, cultural critic, and agent provocateur Slavoj Žižek constructs a fascinating new framework to look at the forces of violence in our world.

Using history, philosophy, books, movies, Lacanian psychiatry, and jokes, Slavoj Žižek examines the ways we perceive and misperceive violence. Drawing from his unique cultural vision, Žižek brings new light to the Paris riots of 2005; he questions the permissiveness of violence in philanthropy; in daring terms, he reflects on the powerful image and determination of contemporary terrorists.

Violence, Žižek states, takes three forms--subjective (crime, terror), objective (racism, hate-speech, discrimination), and systemic (the catastrophic effects of economic and political systems)--and often one form of violence blunts our ability to see the others, raising complicated questions.

Does the advent of capitalism and, indeed, civilization cause more violence than it prevents? Is there violence in the simple idea of "the neighbour"? And could the appropriate form of action against violence today simply be to contemplate, to think?

Beginning with these and other equally contemplative questions, Žižek discusses the inherent violence of globalization, capitalism, fundamentalism, and language, in a work that will confirm his standing as one of our most erudite and incendiary modern thinkers.


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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this provocative and brilliantly argued work, philosopher Zizek takes readers on an intellectual and artistic tour-drawing upon Picassoa's Guernica, Alfred Hitchcock and M. Night Shyamalana's films, Michel Houellebecqa's novels, jokes, Lacanian psychology and a Kantian analysis of Hurricane Katrina-to demonstrate how societies understand, obscure and deny the sources of violence. His is not an examination of offenses but an argument that violence can perhaps be best defined by the bystanders and not by its perpetrators or victims. Zizek enumerates the varieties of violence (subjective, objective, systemic) and how it inheres in language, economics and religion, urging readers to discern the "violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance." In meditations on the events of 9/11, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the 2005 Paris riots, the book turns numerous familiar arguments on their ear (he proposes that the guards at Abu Ghraib represent the true underside of American society). His unrelenting scrutiny and host of cultural and literary references dazzle, and this bracing and rewarding read will challenge anyone unwilling to recognize his or her complicity in systems of institutional and interpersonal violence. (Aug.)

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Kirkus Reviews
The Slovene philosopher (In Defense of Lost Causes, 2008, etc.) defines the many facets of violence in the postmodern era. He argues that violence can be categorized in three forms: subjective (crime, terror), objective (racism, discrimination) and systemic (the catastrophic effects of political and economic systems). Too often, the author believes, subjective and objective violence distract discussion from the systemic. He offers as an example a wealthy entrepreneur whose fortune was the result of ruthless capitalist pursuit, perhaps marked by outsourcing production to a developing country. When this entrepreneur enjoys a favorable public reputation for donating annually to charities benefiting these same impoverished nations, avers the author, it proves that capitalism relies on charity to sustain its social feasibility. This kind of "philanthropy" masks economic exploitation, he posits; systemic violence here is cloaked by the gesture of writing a check. "The same structure-the thing itself is the remedy against the threat it poses-is widely visible in today's ideological landscape," the author writes. He gives examples from Abu Ghraib to fundamentalist Islam to the Catholic Church to make his point: When high authority is both the enforcing entity and the criminal, systemic violence is enabled and pervasive. The author also argues that language is violently misused when a vague term like intolerance replaces specific, factual words such as inequality, exploitation or injustice. He ponders whether the concept of free will is paradoxical, or even oppressive, citing examples from social politeness to suicide bombers. It seems no subject escapes his omnivorous dissection, and allsomehow support his central theme: The violence most discussed is not the most damaging to humankind, but simply the most obvious. The author's familiar kaleidoscope of cultural allusions seems almost anachronistic within his dense intellectual prose and Lacanian-Hegelian-Freudian dialectic, yet this may well be the philosophy of the future. Compelling and provocative philosophical work.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429942065
Publisher:
Picador
Publication date:
07/22/2008
Series:
BIG IDEAS//small books
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
700,893
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Violence

Six Sideways Reflections


By Slavoj Zizek

Picador

Copyright © 2008 Slavoj Zizek
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4206-5



CHAPTER 1

Violence: Subjective and Objective

In 1922 the Soviet government organised the forced expulsion of leading anti-communist intellectuals, from philosophers and theologians to economists and historians. They left Russia for Germany on a boat known as the Philosophy Steamer. Prior to his expulsion, Nikolai Lossky, one of those forced into exile, had enjoyed with his family the comfortable life of the haute bourgeoisie, supported by servants and nannies. He

simply couldn't understand who would want to destroy his way of life. What had the Losskys and their kind done? His boys and their friends, as they inherited the best of what Russia had to offer, helped fill the world with talk of literature and music and art, and they led gentle lives. What was wrong with that?

While Lossky was without doubt a sincere and benevolent person, really caring for the poor and trying to civilise Russian life, such an attitude betrays a breathtaking insensitivity to the systemic violence that had to go on in order for such a comfortable life to be possible. We're talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence. The Losskys and their kind effectively "did nothing bad." There was no subjective evil in their life, just the invisible background of this systemic violence. "Then suddenly, into this almost Proustian world ... Leninism broke in. The day Andrei Lossky was born, in May 1917, the family could hear the sound of riderless horses galloping down neighboring Ivanovskaya Street." Such ominous intrusions multiplied. Once, in his school, Lossky's son was brutally taunted by a working-class schoolmate who shouted at him that "the days of him and his family are over now ..." In their benevolent-gentle innocence, the Losskys perceived such signs of the forthcoming catastrophe as emerging out of nowhere, as signals of an incomprehensibly malevolent new spirit. What they didn't understand was that in the guise of this irrational subjective violence, they were getting back the message they themselves sent out in its inverted true form. It is this violence which seems to arise "out of nowhere" that, perhaps, fits what Walter Benjamin, in his "Critique of Violence," called pure, divine violence.

Opposing all forms of violence, from direct, physical violence (mass murder, terror) to ideological violence (racism, incitement, sexual discrimination), seems to be the main preoccupation of the tolerant liberal attitude that predominates today. An SOS call sustains such talk, drowning out all other approaches: everything else can and has to wait ... Is there not something suspicious, indeed symptomatic, about this focus on subjective violence-that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds? Doesn't it desperately try to distract our attention from the true locus of trouble, by obliterating from view other forms of violence and thus actively participating in them? According to a well-known anecdote, a German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw Guernica and, shocked at the modernist "chaos" of the painting, asked Picasso: "Did you do this?" Picasso calmly replied: "No, you did this!" Today, many a liberal, when faced with violent outbursts such as the recent looting in the suburbs of Paris, asks the few remaining leftists who still count on a radical social transformation: "Isn't it you who did this? Is this what you want?" And we should reply, like Picasso: "No, you did this! This is the true result of your politics!"

There is an old joke about a husband who returns home earlier than usual from work and finds his wife in bed with another man. The surprised wife exclaims: "Why have you come back early?" The husband furiously snaps back: "What are you doing in bed with another man?" The wife calmly replies: "I asked you a question first-don't try to squeeze out of it by changing the topic!" The same goes for violence: the task is precisely to change the topic, to move from the desperate humanitarian SOS call to stop violence to the analysis of that other SOS, the complex interaction of the three modes of violence: subjective, objective, and symbolic. The lesson is thus that one should resist the fascination of subjective violence, of violence enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds: subjective violence is just the most visible of the three.

* * *

The notion of objective violence needs to be thoroughly historicised: it took on a new shape with capitalism. Marx described the mad, self-enhancing circulation of capital, whose solipsistic path of parthenogenesis reaches its apogee in today's meta-reflexive speculations on futures. It is far too simplistic to claim that the spectre of this self-engendering monster that pursues its path disregarding any human or environmental concern is an ideological abstraction and that behind this abstraction there are real people and natural objects on whose productive capacities and resources capital's circulation is based and on which it feeds like a gigantic parasite. The problem is that this "abstraction" is not only in our financial speculators' misperception of social reality, but that it is "real" in the precise sense of determining the structure of the material social processes: the fate of whole strata of the population and sometimes of whole countries can be decided by the "solipsistic" speculative dance of capital, which pursues its goal of profitability in blessed indifference to how its movement will affect social reality. So Marx's point is not primarily to reduce this second dimension to the first one, that is, to demonstrate how the theological mad dance of commodities arises out of the antagonisms of "real life." Rather his point is that one cannot properly grasp the first (the social reality of material production and social interaction) without the second: it is the self-propelling metaphysical dance of capital that runs the show, that provides the key to real-life developments and catastrophes. Therein resides the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism, much more uncanny than any direct precapitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their "evil" intentions, but is purely "objective," systemic, anonymous. Here we encounter the Lacanian difference between reality and the Real: "reality" is the social reality of the actual people involved in interaction and in the productive processes, while the Real is the inexorable "abstract," spectral logic of capital that determines what goes on in social reality. One can experience this gap in a palpable way when one visits a country where life is obviously in shambles. We see a lot of ecological decay and human misery. However, the economist's report that one reads afterwards informs us that the country's economic situation is "financially sound"-reality doesn't matter, what matters is the situation of capital ...

Is this not truer than ever today? Do phenomena usually designated as those of virtual capitalism (the futures trade and similar abstract financial speculations) not point towards the reign of the "real abstraction" at its purest, far more radical than in Marx's time? In short, the highest form of ideology does not reside in getting caught in ideological spectrality, forgetting about its foundation in real people and their relations, but precisely in overlooking this Real of spectrality and in pretending directly to address "real people with their real worries." Visitors to the London Stock Exchange get a free leaflet which explains that the stock market is not about mysterious fluctuations, but about real people and their products. This really is ideology at its purest.

Hegel's fundamental rule is that "objective" excess-the direct reign of abstract universality which imposes its law mechanically and with utter disregard for the concerned subject caught in its web-is always supplemented by "subjective" excess-the irregular, arbitrary exercise of whims. An exemplary case of this interdependence is provided by Etienne Balibar, who distinguishes two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence: the "ultra-objective" or systemic violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism, which involve the "automatic" creation of excluded and dispensable individuals from the homeless to the unemployed, and the "ultra-subjective" violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious, in short racist, "fundamentalisms."

Our blindness to the results of systemic violence is perhaps most clearly perceptible in debates about communist crimes. Responsibility for communist crimes is easy to allocate: we are dealing with subjective evil, with agents who did wrong. We can even identify the ideological sources of the crimes-totalitarian ideology, The Communist Manifesto, Rousseau, even Plato. But 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." (The one who came closest to writing it was Ayn Rand.) The fact that the Belgian king Leopold II who presided over the Congo holocaust was a great humanitarian and proclaimed a saint by the Pope cannot be dismissed as a mere case of ideological hypocrisy and cynicism. Subjectively, he may well have been a sincere humanitarian, even modestly counteracting the catastrophic consequences of the vast economic project which was the ruthless exploitation of the natural resources of the Congo over which he presided. The country was his personal fiefdom! The ultimate irony is that even most of the profits from this endeavour were for the benefit of the Belgian people, for public works, museums, and so on. King Leopold was surely the precursor of today's "liberal communists," including ...

The Good Men from Porto Davos

In the last decade, Davos and Porto Alegre figured as the twin cities of globalisation. Davos, an exclusive Swiss resort, is where the global elite of managers, statesmen, and media personalities meet under heavy police protection, in conditions of a state of siege, and try to convince us and themselves that globalisation is its own best remedy. Porto Alegre is the sub-tropical Brazilian town where the counter-elite of the anti-globalisation movement meet, and try to convince us and themselves that capitalist globalisation is not our fate, that-as the official slogan puts it-"another world is possible." Over these last years, however, the Porto Alegre reunions seem somehow to have lost their impetus. We hear less and less of them. Where have the bright stars of Porto Alegre gone?

Some of them, at least, went to Davos. What increasingly gives the predominant tone to Davos meetings is the group of entrepreneurs, some of whom ironically refer to themselves as "liberal communists," who no longer accept the opposition between Davos (global capitalism) and Porto Alegre (the new social movements alternative to global capitalism). Their claim is that we can have the global capitalist cake, i.e., thrive as profitable entrepreneurs, and eat it, too, i.e., endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social responsibility and ecological concern. No need for Porto Alegre, since Davos itself can become Porto Davos.

The new liberal communists are, of course, our usual suspects: Bill Gates and George Soros, the CEOs of Google, IBM, Intel, eBay, as well as their court philosophers, most notably the journalist Thomas Friedman. What makes this group interesting is that their ideology has become all but indistinguishable from the new breed of anti-globalist leftist radicals: Toni Negri himself, the guru of the postmodern left, praises digital capitalism as containing in nuce all the elements of communism-one has only to drop the capitalist form, and the revolutionary goal is achieved. Both the old right, with its ridiculous belief in authority and order and parochial patriotism, and the old left with its capitalised Struggle against Capitalism, are today's true conservatives fighting their shadow-theatre struggles and out of touch with the new realities. The signifier of this new reality in the liberal communist Newspeak is "smart": smart indicates the dynamic and nomadic as against centralised bureaucracy; dialogue and cooperation against hierarchical authority; flexibility against routine; culture and knowledge against old industrial production; spontaneous interaction and autopoiesis against fixed hierarchy.

Bill Gates is the icon of what he has called "frictionless capitalism," a post-industrial society in which we witness the "end of labor," in which software is winning over hardware and the young nerd over the older dark-suited manager. In the new company headquarters, there is little external discipline. Former hackers who dominate the scene work long hours and enjoy free drinks in green surroundings. A crucial feature of Gates as icon is that he is perceived as the ex-hacker who made it. One needs to confer on the term "hacker" all its subversive/marginal/antiestablishment connotations. Hackers want to disturb the smooth functioning of large bureaucratic corporations. At the fantasmatic level, the underlying notion here is that Gates is a subversive, marginal hooligan who has taken over and dressed himself up as a respectable chairman.

Liberal communists are big executives recuperating the spirit of contest, or, to put it the other way round, counter-cultural geeks who take over big corporations. Their dogma is a new, postmodernised version of Adam Smith's old invisible hand of the market. Market and social responsibility here are not opposites. They can be reunited for mutual benefit. As Thomas Friedman, one of their gurus, puts it, nobody has to be vile in order to do business; collaboration with and participation of the employees, dialogue with customers, respect for the environment, transparency of deals, are nowadays the keys to success. In a perceptive account, Olivier Malnuit enumerates the ten commandments of the liberal communist:

1. Give everything away for free (free access, no copyright ...); just charge for the additional services, which will make you even richer.

2. Change the world, don't just sell things: global revolution, a change of society will make things better.

3. Be caring, sharing, and aware of social responsibility.

4. Be creative: focus on design, new technologies, and sciences.

5. Tell it all: there should be no secrets. Endorse and practise the cult of transparency, the free flow of information, all humanity should collaborate and interact.

6. Don't work and take on a fixed nine-to-five job. Just engage in improvised smart, dynamic, flexible communications.

7. Go back to school and engage in permanent education.

8. Act as an enzyme: work not only for the market, but trigger new forms of social collaborations.

9.Die poor: return your wealth to those who need it, since you have more than you can ever spend.

10. Stand in for the state: practise the partnership of companies with the state.

Liberal communists are pragmatic. They hate a doctrinaire approach. For them there is no single exploited working class today. There are only concrete problems to be solved: starvation in Africa, the plight of Muslim women, religious fundamentalist violence. When there is a humanitarian crisis in Africa-and liberal communists really love humanitarian crises, which bring out the best in them!-there is no point in engaging in old-style anti-imperialist rhetoric. Instead, all of us should just concentrate on what really does the work of solving the problem: engage people, governments, and business in a common enterprise; start moving things, instead of relying on centralised state help; approach the crisis in a creative and unconventional way, without fretting over labels.

Liberal communists like examples such as the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. They point out that the decision of some large international corporations to ignore apartheid rules in their South African companies, abolishing all segregation, paying blacks and whites the same salary for the same job, and so on, was as important as the direct political struggle. Is this not an ideal case of the overlapping between the struggle for political freedom and business interests? The self-same companies can now thrive in post-apartheid South Africa.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Violence by Slavoj Zizek. Copyright © 2008 Slavoj Zizek. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Slavoj Žižek is a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and has been a visiting professor at Columbia University, Princeton, and The New School. He is the author of more than thirty books and is the subject of the documentary, Žižek. His own critically acclaimed documentary, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, was the subject of a film retrospective in 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art.

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Violence 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
duluoz_beat More than 1 year ago
In a thought provoking intro he relates an old story- ". . . a worker suspected of stealing every eveining as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he wheels in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally the penny drops: what the worker is stealing is the wheelbarrows themselves. . ." Such it is with violence- the most obvious forms are not what interests Zizek- for him the wheelbarrow is the objective and systemic forms that need illumination. I found his discussion of the "other" particularly thought provoking especially when the other is the enemy. He defines enemy as "a person whose story you have not heard." For instance he uses Mary Shelly as she took us inside Frankenstein's monster and revealed feelings and passions and why he feels to be misrepresented by society. Of course this has much greater implications as it is easier for violence to be perpetrated on the "other" we do not know. That is not to say that to know someone is to love them. One need only consider Stalin and Hitler as examples of the "other" no amount of exposure to their reality would take them from enemy to "neighbor". Language and form are other types of objective violence. Words and images often are either violent in structure or in intent or both. Zizek uses Muslim violence in reaction to Danish cartoons that depicted Mohamed and the unrest that ensued as his prototype for this violence. Words and pictures themselves are "violent" as is the context of how the "other" receives and processes them. Interesting discussions on the violence of doing nothing or doing the wrong thing are trumped by an ill-conceived final essay on "divine violence" that is not well defined where he seemed more intent of cleverness than clarity.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago