Friday, July 22, 2011

Violence by Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is, as the Village Voice described "a one person culture mulcher," I think this is an adequate description! Žižek can dissect a a popular movie or event and then ramble on the event by referencing Hegel, Lacan, or even Kant. I have found his talks interesting and amusing so I thought I would read one of his books. Violence served as a useful introduction to his work.

The thesis of  Žižek book is something like this: behind the contours of salient subjective violence (crime, terrorism etc.) there may  reside systemic violence, that is violence that is inherent in our basic social relations that may help sustain subjective violence (from now on I will name this thesis the violence principle). When discussing violence most people tend to naively address subjective violence while ignoring the fundamental properties of society that cause subjective violence, namely systemic violence. Žižek also ponders on misuse of the liberal notion of tolerance and on what "divine" violence is. I will address some of his examples of subjective vs systemic violence, sketch his critique of tolerance, and then try capture his image of divine violence.

Subjective Violence vs Objective Violence
Žižek offers several examples of his violence principle some of which are plausible, others are completely ridiculous. Despite the lack of convincing evidence for the violence principle as he formulates it, I think it can be still be quite useful.

One example Žižek gives is philanthropy, as a specific example he gives us Bill Gates and George Soros; I will focus on the former. Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world is also one of the worlds largest philanthropist (an atheist as well I might add). His foundation attempts to improve the lives of indigent peoples, it addresses the subjective violence of poverty. This however, Žižek claims is a false problem. Because Bill Gates ignored the systemic violence of capitalism, in fact he thrived on it. Mr. Gates exploited workers and crushed competition through a system that demands the existence of the poor he now tries to help. In Žižek's words he "took with one hand, and gave with the other." So what Mr. Gates is doing by "helping" others is really amplifying and continuing the true injustice or true violence. Should this conclusion be taken seriously? I don't think so, it has the appearance of being picayune nonsense. As Julian Baggani asks in his review, "is it too much to ask that, if you claim that George Soros has "ruined the lives of thousands", you should provide the evidence?" Žižek simply asserts that Gates and Soros have sustained the sufferings of other people through economic exploitation. I am tempted to conclude that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Further even if that isn't the case, one could argue that Mr. Gates crushed his affluent competition but saved the lives of impoverished others. This could be morally justified.

As another example of Žižek's violence principle, of which there are quite a few, is terrorism vs counter-terrorism. In approaching this topic Žižek quotes Brecht "What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?". This quote epitomizes Žižek's fondness and use of psychoanalytic reversals, in Baggini's words:

"There is the simple psychoanalytic trope of claiming that however something seems, its true nature is the precise opposite. Then you have the repeated claim that a certain position entails its opposite, but that both sides of the paradox are equally real. Then again, there is the reversal of common sense, in which whatever the received wisdom is, Žižek postulates the opposite."
Now I think this can be useful, as well as fun, but reversing ideas in this manner can run the risk of generate garbage. Back to robbing banks. Here I think the phrase should include the assumptions and be said thus: "what is the crime/immorality of robbing a bank to the crime/immorality of founding a bank." Now if someone is to argue that robbing a bank and founding a bank are morally equivalent, the burden of proof is on them to show that founding a bank is indeed immoral (or that robbing one is).  Žižek however rephrases it thus: "what is the robbery that violates the law compared to the robbery that takes place within the confines of the law." Oddly enough I think my change is preferable because it doesn't assume that founding a bank is some sort of robbery (something else which is just asserted). At any rate, In the same vein as Brecht,  Žižek asks "what committing an act of terror to a state power waging a war on terror." This example I think is more legitimate then "what is economic exploitation to philanthropy." Yet again it is not supported by much evidence. Only later does Žižek mention the Abu Ghraib scandal which about which he claims "in being submitted to humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture. They were given a taste of its obscene underside."

I have already blogged a bit on what Žižek thinks about tolerance. Here is a good quote that I missed in that post:

"The formula for revolutionary solidarity is not "let us tolerate our differences," it is not a pact of civilisations but a pact of struggles which cut across civilisations, a pact between what, in each civilisation[sic], undermines it identity from within, fights against its oppressive kernel. What unites us is the same struggle. A better formula would thus be: in spite of our differences, we can identify the basic antagonism or antagonistic struggle in which we are both caught; so lets share our intolerance, and join forces in the same struggle."

This formula ignores the subjective violence of cultural clashes and differences and instead tackles systemic violence that is inherent in a system. This application of the violence principle is, at least, more initially convincing then those previously discussed. When discussing religious tolerance Žižek is also quotable:

"Respect for others' beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronising way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth. What, however, about submitting Islam--together with all other religions--to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs."

Divine Violence
Before attempting to answer the question what is divine violence, one must ask "what is violence?"   Žižek has labeled two types so far (well actually three but I ignored objective violence because it is essentially synonymous with systemic violence) the subjective and systemic. Subjective violence appears to disturb the basic social relations whereas systemic violence is the basic social relations which sustains the existence of subjective violence. This seems like a contradiction violence cannot be (a) the basic social relations and (b) what disturbs the basic social relations. To solve this problem Žižek dismisses subjective violence as an illusion, it is not "true violence." True violence is the fundamental causes of all things that make us worse off; systemic violence. What then would divine violence be? Divine violence would be the combatant of systemic violence, instead of reacting to the existence of subjective violence, it is active in imposing its own rules in order to combat systemic violence. It is pure radical social upheaval of the fundamental properties of a society that sustains "reactive" subjective violence. This leads Žižek to say "Sometimes, the most violent thing to do is nothing."

Final Thoughts
The things to take away from this book, are I think what follows:

  • Sometimes what makes us worse off is our currently existing systemic structures.
  • We must think critically about ways to end things and actions that make us worse off; there are a horde a possible factors which contribute to the existence worse off things or actions.
  • Perhaps the best way to be tolerant is to share our intolerance.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thoughts on "A Tragic Legacy" by Glenn Greenwald

Last month I read the book A Tragic Legacy by Glenn Greenwald. You can check out his, usually quite insightful, blog over at Salon. The book was a fairly interesting read, at times quite amusing. It extensively analyses Bush's Manichean rhetoric and his unpopularity. At times the reading could be a bit repetitive when dealing with these topics. But despite this I would still recommend this book as a good description and critique of Bush's paradigm and policies.

One of the most relevant issues discussed in the book was US policy toward Iran. Despite Iran's aid in deposing with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran was labelled as part of the "axis of evil" along with Iran and North Korea. Later in the Bush presidency we were told, and frequently reminded, that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose "a grave threat to the security of the world" (which is probably quite true for a host of reasons). Comments like these, by now presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, were and still are quite common: "This is 1935 and [Iranian president] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is as close to Adolf Hitler as we've seen. We now know who they are--the question is who we are. Are we Baldwin or Churchill?" (As an amusing aside Greenwald documents  how overused the comparisons to Churchill and Chamberlain are by certain neoconservatives, so much so that is very hard to take them seriously). Despite the fact that at the beginning of the administration it looked as though our relationship with Iran was improving, it only got worse. Sentiments like Gingrich's, which adequately represents the neoconservative base, were entirely helpful in this regard. In fact now it's quite hostile; Iran went from helping fight the Taliban, to perhaps aiding them and as well as aiding insurgents in Iraq. How has this happened? Greenwald offers this answer:

"The president's rhetoric of threats and demonization severely exacerbates almost every Iran-related problem. By refusing to negotiate to Iran and directing unambiguous threats to it, the president (a) emboldening the very Iranian extremists whom the administration claims pose the real threat, (b) forcing the Iranians into an increasing militaristic posture, and (c) moving the U.S. ever closer to a military confrontation which--whether commenced deliberately or accidentally--could not possibly be in America's interests under any conceivable scenario."

It's by no means clear why during Bush's term we rejected Iran's offer to negotiate (though it probably has to do with Israel or US hegemonic interest in the region), but perhaps we can understand how we got ensnared by the hostile situation we are in today: by consistently refusing to negotiate and by making stupid threats. Unfortunately this legacy has continued, with Obama failing to pursue "a new way forward" with Iran despite proclamations to the contrary in his 2009 Cairo speech. Similarly in his more recent address regarding the revolutions in the Middle East, he condemned Iran for their hypocrisy:

“I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran.”

Iran certainly deserves to be condemned in this regard, but Obama failed to mention Saudi Arabia's similar actions and human rights abuses. It is rather strange for him to say this when America hypocritically preaches of the virtues of democracy while simultaneously supporting dictators in the middle east. Language like this probably causes activists like Gigi Ibrahim, to correctly point, out that the speech was "insignificant" and not at all different from what any other US president has said in the past. It seems quite obvious that it would be in our interest to improve relations with Iran, and not get ourselves stucked in another Iraq. It would be instrumental to not view Iran with Bush's Manichean lenses; they are not pure evil and neither are we pure good, especially as we "prepare to withdraw" from the region. Perhaps its to trite to assume that when fighting for political power in the Middle East we should exhaust all other diplomatic options before turning to military ones.

Obama has managed to continue (without all the "political" democratic outrage of course) most of the policies of the Bush legacy--of which policy toward Iran is just one example. As I was reading this book I had the nagging thought that A Tragic Legacy could be followed by A Tragic Legacy Part Two: Obama. Although there should be a much more clever title. Although the rhetoric has changed, the policies have not. The US is now undertaking wars in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently Somalia, has failed to prosecute the Bush torture regime, has launched an aggressive war against whistle blowers, and continued the Patriot Act amongst other things. All things Obama appeared to be against during his campaign. Glenn Greenwald has a worthwhile article on the "Great Generational Threat" which justifies a slew of wonderful policies which will arguably define the Bush and Obama presidencies. Towards the end of the article he says this:

"I long believed that the most patently irrational American policy -- the one that would cause future generations to look back in baffled disgust -- was the Drug War: imprisoning huge numbers of citizens for years and years for nothing more than possessing or selling banned substances to consenting adults.  But now I think it's this: that the U.S. Government is able to persuade the populace to continue to support and pay for blood-spilling and liberty-destroying policies in the name of Terrorism when nothing sustains and exacerbates the threat of Terrorism more than those very policies."

And that appears to be a tragic legacy (one that should be argued over at greater length); a legacy that is being continued to this day...

Friday, July 8, 2011

Zizek on Tolerance

Today I was messing around with ARGUNET and made the above map. I just tried to outline how I understood Slavoj Zizek's thoughts on tolerance, from his book Violence. I am quite positive that I mapped it out incorrectly, with all the arrows pointing aimlessly all over the place. Any way as you can see Zizek does not like the notion of tolerance, why? The map should explain most of it. If it doesn't then here is basically what Zizek thinks about it:
"Today's liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an excessive fear of harassment...My duty to be tolerant to the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, intrude on his space. In other words, I should respect his intolerance of my over-proximity. What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed which is a right to remain at a safe distance from others." (41)
(As you can see I shamelessly quote Slavoj in my map.) Is this a reasonable representation of "tolerance." Somewhat! For example it does seem as though an absurd frenzy erupts whenever someone says something that is ever so vaguely racist, and yet keep mum about more pressing issues. This  composes an atmosphere which greatest fear is the fear of harassment. By being tolerant, in this sense, one manages to leave the "other" alone, estranging them to their own sociocultural group. And when conflict erupts between different factions it is essentially because (in this framework) the factions aren't keeping to themselves. Because one faction intruded on the others space. Of course this only applies to the certain groups who don't get along (such as the West and Islam, during the cartoon riots). In order for these groups, with conflicting ideologies to get along, they must keep proper distance from each other. They must build up walls in order to tolerate one another.