You might need to rethink how violent you are

Updated: Nov 28, 2017

Review of “Violence: Six sideways reflections” (2008) by Slavoj Žižek, New York: Picador.

If you go to any library that is big enough to have a philosophy section you might notice something: the only philosopher still alive is at the very bottom due to the alphabetical order. His name: Slavoj Žižek. Of course, history will eventually choose who were the philosophers alive in 2017, but I strongly believe that Žižek will be one of them.

In one of Žižek’s most famous books, his analysis of violence rests on an axiom which consists in two terms drawn from Galtung's work: subjective violence and objective violence. Subjective violence is the violence we think of primarily, the one in wars, conflicts or genocide. It is the violence that is "seen as the perturbation of the normal, peaceful state of things". A terrorist attack is subjective violence because we do not perceive it as being part of the way the world ought to be. Objective violence, on the contrary, results precisely from the "normal state of things". There are two "sub-categories" of objective violence for Žižek. A "symbolic" one, which can be seen in language, the reproduction in discourse of social domination, and a "systemic" one which is the violence caused by our political and economical system running normally. Racism or sexism are pertinent examples of objective violence.

Žižek 's own initial example to illustrate the difference concerns the Congolese war. In 2006 around 4 million had died in the last decade because of the instability in the region, but it did not have the uproar that could have been excepted. As Žižek explains in a cold manner, "The death of a West Bank Palestinian child, not to mention an Israeli or an American, is mediatically worth thousands of times more than the death of a nameless Congolese". Countless examples exist: if I were to ask you to list recent terrorist attacks, the one in Mogadishu which caused 270 death and more than 300 injuries on the 15th of October would probably not be the first one you come up with or were even aware of.

Žižek is interested in what makes these differences and which forms they can take and wants to analyse what truly causes violence. Subjective violence is often the result of objective forms, thus one has to know the difference in order to study it. When there is looting in the suburbs of Paris, this is subjective violence, but isn't it due to the objective violence of the politics done before that had this result? We tend to focus more on the former one, Žižek would say, because it is the most visible one.

Once this problematic and framework has been introduced, Žižek goes on to draw examples for theoretical discussion from popular culture, anecdotes and ideas from all over. Let's take one for you to understand the content of the book and further discuss the idea of subjective and objective violence. If you are not familiar with John Rawls's theory of justice first, here is a quick recap: Rawls bases his theory on the rational choices one would make before entering a society and knowing one’s place in it. One would agree that everyone should be allowed basics liberties as one wouldn’t want to be a part of a group without them, etc. One of the things Rawls deduces from this is that inequalities are justified as long as they benefit the worst off in a society and are based on natural inequalities. A society that does not respect these principles could be, for example, a totalitarian state, in which we would easily see where subjective violence happens. Žižek draws from a critique of Jean-Pierre Dupuy to explain that it would create a strong feeling of "ressentiment" as the people with the lower social status would need to accept that their position is fully justified and could not excuse their failures on the injustices of the society but only on themselves. Thus such a society could be objectively very violent as it could create different categories of people based on abilities and where "hierarchy is directly legitimised in natural properties". Žižek forces you to see beyond a simple understanding of violence in order not only to have a better knowledge of the causes of disfunctions in society but also to create a tool to analyse anything, from Rawls's theory, as we have seen, to the outburst of violence in the suburbs of Paris in 2006.

Another subject of predilection of Žižek’s is Capitalism and a critique of it. If we are to count every death from diseases we know how to cure easily as well as death linked to the poor distribution of water and global hunger (despite our production of twice what is needed to feed the whole world), we arrive at 100 million deaths every 5 years. Capitalism has objective violence at its core, and because it's objective, it's hard to make the direct connection between those tragedies and our current system.

Now, of course I haven’t been convinced by every single one of his arguments and points, even if I understand and respect the framework used to reach them. One of the passages that illustrate this feeling was at the end of the book where Žižek quotes Bretch : “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?” a quote I have sympathy for. But then, he makes the following parallel : “What were the violent and destructive outbursts of a Red Guardist caught in the Cultural Revolution compared to the true Cultural Revolution, the permanent dissolution of all life-forms which capitalist reproduction dictates.” After reading the book, you will understand how such a statement can come about, but I could not defend it. Žižek definitely makes the reader more sceptical of capitalism, but even if objective violence can be of the worst kind, we still need to be careful when justifying subjective violence, explaining or defending it. I would prefer that we all live a basic capitalist lifestyle, seeing U.S movies, eating GMO generated food and slowly destroying the planet with this unjust and unethical system rather than have all of us live a day under Mao’s Cultural revolution.

A famous idea of Žižek’s clearly expresses the difference between these two types of violence. One of the most well-known passages from the book, as well as being the most provocative and controversial (Žižek’s signature move), which could, if it wasn't for it's illustrative propose and intelligence, be compared to a Godwin's point, takes place at the end of the book where he suggests that Hitler and the Nazi party were not violent enough. By this, Žižek means that "true violence", a violence that radically transforms our social and political system, is almost impossible to achieve. The Nazi party's violence was reactive, it was a terrible consequence of a falling system with the aim of restoring it. Žižek has argued elsewhere that Gandhi’s political project was more violent that Hitler's, because even if he only used symbolic violence (peaceful demonstrations, strikes...) he effectively changed the social and political relations of an entire country, once dominated by the imperial empire of Britain.

Žižek 's book "Violence" does not aim to provide you with answers, but to give you a great, and at times funny, exploration of how to perceive violence and learn to look beyond what we are used to. "Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do."


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