The Book of the Week: Violence by Slavoj Žižek
The Žižek variations: Julian Baggini on the bravura art of repetition.
I first encountered the phenomenon that is Slavoj Žižek when I interviewed him in 2003. After more of a private performance than a discussion, I left convinced I had met some kind of genius, albeit an ill-disciplined one, whose synapses fired too quickly for even his own brain to keep up. The fly in the ointment was Žižek's dubious employment of a Lacanian psychoanalytic framework. But one could set this aside, I thought, as simply the intellectual vehicle he happened to be driving.
Reading his latest book has made me give up this optimistic illusion. As Žižek himself might put it, the paradox of the man is precisely that, without Lacan, his intellectual pyrotechnics to date would not have been possible but, with him, they are doomed to generate too much light and not enough heat.
Violence has a simple premise. We tend to fixate on what Žižek calls subjective violence: acts of assault, murder, terror and war. However, there are two other varieties of objective violence: "the 'symbolic' violence embodied in language and its forms", and systemic violence, the "often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems". Žižek then sets out to analyse these forms of objective violence, though he ends up focusing almost entirely on the systemic variety.
Žižek arranges his book like a piece of music with different movements, with chapter subheadings such as "allegro moderato". This is fitting, because Žižek is something of a virtuoso, but as a player of paradoxes. His great riffs take one of a finite number of forms. 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, Zizek postulates the opposite.
And that really is it: Žižek simply repeats these intellectual manoeuvres again and again, albeit brilliantly, supplementing them with Lacanian embellishments such as the objet petit, the Other and the Real.
If you think I'm exaggerating, try doing what I'm about to do now: open any page at random and you'll almost certainly find the play of paradoxes in some form. The book falls open at page 40 and I read: "One thing that never ceases to surprise the native ethical consciousness is how the very same people who commit terrible acts of violence towards their enemies can display warm humanity and gentle care for the members of their own group." On page 166, we only have to read until line two to find mention of Lacan's interest in the "paradoxical reversal". Try page 87: "In the much celebrated free-circulation opened up by global capitalism, it is 'things' (commodities) which freely circulate, while the circulation of 'persons' is more and more controlled." Four lines into page 122, we find "the paradox of universal singularity".
This game of seeming contradictions is not at all pointless: very often it leads Žižek to turn up real gems. His analysis of the suspect motivations of what he calls "liberal communists" - the educated, liberal middle classes - is a wonderful piece of satire: "Liberal communists also love the student protests which shattered France in May 1968: what an explosion of youthful energy and creativity!" He's also good on tolerance: "My duty to be tolerant towards the Other effectively means that I should not get too close him, intrude on his space. In other words, I should respect his intolerance of my over-proximity."
But as even Freud recognised, sometimes a cigar really is a cigar. Alas, Žižek's method gives him no mechanism for identifying appearances of the real with the mere appearance of reality.
For example, he takes a look at capitalist philanthropists such as Bill Gates and discovers - well, you can probably guess: "Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation." But he merely asserts this. Empiricism may seem dreary compared to the imaginative excesses of psychoanalysis, but is it too much to ask that, if you claim that George Soros has "ruined the lives of thousands", you should provide the evidence?
The futility of the free play of paradoxes without quality control is most obvious when you wonder what would happen if you applied the Žižekian approach to Žižek himself. You might well observe that the cultural theorist who takes such pains to distance himself from liberal intellectuals, the fashionable Left and ruthless capitalism has become the hero of all three, selling books by the truckload, filling the pages of the London Review of Books and pulling in the crowds whenever he lectures. You might then conclude that Žižek secretly loves precisely what he professes to hate. Most acutely, you might observe the irony that the permanently affrettando Žižek ends his book by saying that the most violent act of all (can you see what is coming?) is to do nothing at all, in an epilogue he subtitles "adagio".
But adagio is not slow enough. The man who freely admits he writes too much needs to go piu largo. Not only are there too many misses among his many bullseye hits, but he repeats himself endlessly: jokes, anecdotes and examples that Žižek has used umpteen times before, including in my 2003 interview, litter this book. Will he ever tire of rehearsing the dietetically inaccurate "paradox" of laxative chocolate, which implores you to "eat the very thing that causes constipation in order to be cured of it"? Readers should not have to pan his oeuvre for the nuggets of gold, of which Violence contains a great many. He should do at least some of the filtering himself.
To do this, some brutality is in order. Žižek need not sleep with his mother, but he must kill his father. In order to end the systemic violence that he inflicts on his own work, he should slay the Lacan within.
Despite being a renowned practitioner in philosophy and sociology, Slavoj Žižek has an aversion to writing down his ideas and theories.
"The moment I am at the end of one project, I have the idea that I didn't really succeed in telling what I wanted to tell, that I need a new project ... my whole economy of writing is based on an obsessional ritual to avoid the act of writing."
Žižek was born in Slovenia when it was still part of communist Yugoslavia. He was dismissed from his first teaching post in 1973 after it was discovered that his masters thesis would be considered "non-Marxist". He joined the Yugoslav army and faced long unemployment, returning to academia six years later only with the help of theorist Ivan Urbancic.
In 1989, he published his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology, bringing him acclaim as a major social theorist. Žižek argues that a philosopher's role is to challenge our ideological presuppositions, including what we are prepared to accept from a single writer.
By Slavoj Žižek
Published 10 January 2008
Julian Baggini is co-founder and editor of The Philosophers' Magazine.