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.

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