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Megan Eatman on "Violence"

Cover of "Violence": Crumpled paper

Slavoj Žižek

Violence: Six Sideways Reflections

Picador, 2008
272 pages
$15.00

Reviewed by Megan Eatman

In the introduction to Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, Slavoj Žižek revises Theodor Adorno’s statement that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” suggesting instead that we consider the difficulty of describing or analyzing violence without reproducing it. While “the poetic evocation of the unbearable atmosphere of a camp succeeds,” Žižek suggests that prose about violence carries a high risk of symbolic violence: the violence of language itself, but also the violence of inappropriate, incomplete, or otherwise reductive understanding. In this text, Žižek attempts to destabilize common assumptions about violence, offering both a model for a critical approach to the topic and an antidote to the violence of those assumptions. In particular, Žižek argues that subjective violence, the physical event of harm or destruction, cannot be understood discretely. Rather, we have to consider the relationships between this and two other forms of violence: systemic—the invisible social and economic structures that enable subjective violence—and the aforementioned symbolic—the elements of language, thought, and rhetoric that allow, encourage, and reproduce violence.

Žižek’s methodology is a response to the difficulty of confronting violence outright. The book is organized into six chapters, one for each “sideways reflection.” These reflections deal with a variety of topics, including the problems of liberal humanitarianism, rhetorics of tolerance and political correctness, and understandings of “meaningless” or self-destructive violence. While each chapter has an argument at its core, these arguments meander somewhat, moving through various incidents and anecdotes connected by a common theoretical thread. Žižek thus addresses violence in large part through examination of its discursive presence: how we define or discuss different types of violence and the assumptions inherent in our beliefs about the correct response. Because Žižek argues that symbolic violence is connected to the more visible subjective violence, this approach makes sense; looking at how we talk about violence can help us understand how violence as a concept is constructed.

Violence is particularly valuable for its unique perspective on still under-examined forms of violence, some of which have received increasing attention in broader public discourse but have received little intensive theoretical engagement. Especially timely is Žižek’s engagement with so-called “meaningless” violence. Žižek uses the example of the 2005 French suburban riots, suggesting that the lack of vision for which the riots were criticized was not a failure, but rather their purpose. Žižek suggests that this violence is an example of phatic communication, or speech that “checks whether the channel is working”; the occupants of the suburbs demanded recognition of their personhood, rather than of a specific message, and their violence “worked” to the extent that it required the sudden attention of people and institutions who would rather look elsewhere. That violence is a form of communication is implicit in much of the rhetoric around it—for example, in the claim that executing a criminal can ‘send a message’ to would-be criminals—but there is little scholarly discussion about how violence as a rhetorical act is supposed to work, and what work there is tends to focus on state violence. Žižek’s work on riots is a timely addition to the scholarly conversation, and his work on terrorism as phatic communication adds to existing discussions of terror as a rhetoric of display.

Žižek’s attention to symbolic violence is also refreshing, if potentially controversial. While acknowledging how language can be violent and/or enable violence is not new, Žižek pays special attention to the way that responses to violence, especially those that might seem innocuous or even beneficent, can reproduce violence. Žižek’s attention to different types of violence means that this reproduction is both subjective and symbolic: symbolic violence can enable subjective violence, and vice versa. Žižek is critical of rhetorics of political correctness, which, he suggests, instruct individuals to avoid an encounter with the other and leave unexamined the problematic beliefs that underlie prejudice and stereotyping. He also critiques the tendency to project specific frames onto “meaningless” violence—for example, the insistence that the anger over the Danish caricatures of Muhammad published in 2005 was really about imperialism—suggesting that these frames help their users avoid real engagement with unfamiliar beliefs. Some portions of this argument are less convincing than others, particularly given Žižek’s ongoing argument that subjective violence is related to systemic as well as symbolic violence, but it nonetheless raises interesting questions about how language can help individuals and groups avoid encounters with the other.

There are other instances in which Žižek sheds new light on widely acknowledged but under-discussed aspects of our relationships with violence. He discusses, for example, the limits of any ethical stance, suggesting that the “fetishistic disavowal” that allows individuals to oppose the killing of humans but not non-human animals is the same as the break between reality and idealism that allowed individuals to say, “I know very well that things are horrible in the Soviet Union, but I believe none the less in Soviet socialism.” Both, Žižek suggests, require a deliberate forgetting, a failure to recognize material conditions of suffering as connected to a broader ideal. Žižek’s condemnation of what he calls “liberal communists” follows a similar thread. The men and women who rise to prosperity and then ‘give back’ to the world through humanitarian foundations are, according to Žižek, simply reinforcing the capitalist values that sustain inequalities that humanitarian aid ostensibly tries to remedy.

There are a few aspects of Violence that may make the text less appealing for certain purposes. Some of the chapters are more focused than others, and the “sideways reflection” approach means that the text’s argument is much clearer when taken as a whole rather than from individual chapters. This slight difficulty seems to reflect the parallel difficulty of understanding violence in a non-reductive way. Although there is a chapter that deals primarily with the Israel/Palestine conflict, the text spends little time on state violence, so scholars interested specifically in war, torture, or capital punishment may find it less useful. Žižek occasionally slips into unclear terminology; that the word “obscene,” for example, is used without open reflection seems problematic, especially since the author is concerned with the violence of scholars’ unstated assumptions. Žižek here refers to the Lacanian “obscene,” the super-ego’s call to enjoy, but readers might associate the term with pornography, and Žižek’s word choice might imply, in the minds of some readers, an overlap between violence and pornography that some scholars would contest.

Overall, Žižek’s Violence is an important contribution to a conversation that is often either paralyzed by or restricted to the ethical implications of its subject matter or disproportionately focused on the rhetorics of state violence. Žižek’s theoretical perspective also provides a complement to the sociological, research-based approaches that characterize much of the contemporary work on violence. This text will be useful to scholars investigating violence as a broader phenomenon or those addressing specific incidents or forms of violence.