Sunday, May 28, 2017

Violent Thoughts About Slavoj Zizek by Simon Critchley

Slavoj Zizek has been telling lies about me. He attacked a recent book of mine, Infinitely Demanding, in the London Review of Books. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse, but I will spare the reader the grisly details. What I would like to do here is to use this debate as a lever for trying to think about the difficult question of the nature and plausibility of a politics of non-violence and try and explore what I see as the complex dialectic of violence and non-violence. Those with an eye for detail might notice that the following represents both a clarification and a shift in the position on violence and non-violence presented in Infinitely Demanding.

I would like to begin by discussing Zizek’s recently published book Violence and then expand and deepen my focus by way of a reading of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’. This will lead to a thinking through of the idea of divine violence and an interpretation of the Biblical commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, the injunction to non-violence. In conclusion, I will turn to the specifics of the political disagreement between myself and Zizek, which turn on the question of the relation between authoritarianism and anarchism.

Zizek enjoys a good joke. Here’s one of my favourites: two men, having had a drink or two, go to the theatre, where they become thoroughly bored with the play. One of them feels a pressing need to urinate, so he tells his friend to mind his seat while he goes to find a toilet. ‘I think I saw one down the corridor outside’, says his friend. The man wanders down the corridor, but finds no W.C. Wandering ever further into the recesses of the theatre, he walks through a door and sees a plant pot. After copiously urinating into it, he returns to his seat and his friend says to him, ‘What a pity! You missed the best part. Some fellow just came on the stage and pissed in that plant pot’.

This gag perfectly describes the argument of Zizek’s book on violence. Drunkenly watching the rather boring spectacle of the world stage, we might feel an overwhelming subjective need to follow the call of nature somewhere discreet. Yet, in our bladder-straining self-interest we lose sight of the objective reality of the play and our implication in its action. We are oblivious to the fact that we are pissing on stage for the whole world to see.

So it is with violence. Our subjective outrage at the facts of violence – a suicide bombing, a terrorist attack, the assassination of a seemingly innocent political figure – blinds us to the objective violence of the world, a violence where we are perpetrators and not just innocent bystanders. All we see are apparently inexplicable acts of violence that disturb the supposed peace and normal flow of everyday life.  We consistently overlook the objective or what Zizek calls ‘systemic’ violence that is endemic to our socio-economic order.

The main ambition of Zizek’s book is to refer subjective violence to the objective violence that is its underside and enabling precondition. ‘Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious “dark matter” of physics’(p.2), Zizek writes, which is invisible to naked eye. In the ‘Six Sideways Reflections’ into which Violence is divided, Zizek offers a rather cool and at times cruel analysis of the varieties of objective violence. He asks good, tolerant multicultural Western liberals like you, like us, like them (delete where appropriate) to suspend our outraged and impassioned responses to acts of violence (what he later calls, with Nietzsche, a reactive rather than active force) and turn instead to the real substance of the global situation. In order to understand violence, we need some good old-fashioned dispassionate Marxist materialist critique.

At the heart of Zizek’s book is an argument about ideology that has been a powerful constant feature of his work since The Sublime Object of Ideology, his first book in English from 1989. Far from existing in some sort of post-ideological world at the end of history where all problems can be diagnosed with neo-liberal economics and self-serving assertions of human rights, ideology completely structures and falsely sutures our lived reality. This ideology might be subjectively invisible, but it is objectively real. Each of us is onstage pissing in that plant pot. Ideology structures or, better, sutures experience, masking what the early Zizek – at the time much, much closer to Laclau than now – saw as the basic antagonism, the political antagonism that structures social relations.

The great ideological illusion of the present is that there is no time to reflect and we have to act now. On the contrary, Zizek asks us to step back from the false reactive urgency of the present with its multiple injunctions to intervene like good humanitarians. In the face of this fake urgency, we should be more like Marx who, with a potential revolution at the gates in 1870, complained to Engels that the activists should wait a couple more years until he had finished Das Capital.

Zizek’s diagnosis of this ideology is, as ever, quite delightful, producing counter-intuitive inversions that overturn what passes for common sense. Zizek rages against the reduction of love to masturbatory self-interest, the multiple hypocrisies of the Israel/Palestine conflict and the supposed liberal philanthropy of Bill Gates and George Soros. There is a fascinating analysis of the scenes of torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which display, Zizek rightly contends, nothing more than the obscene underside of American culture, the culture of incarceration.

But whither all this dialectical brio? Ay, there’s the rub. Zizek concludes the book with an apology for what he calls, following Walter Benjamin, ‘divine violence’. I shall come back to this in some detail below. Divine violence is understood theoretically as, ‘the heroic assumption of the solitude of the sovereign decision’. Practically, Zizek illustrates this with the questionable examples of the radical Jacobin violence of Robespierre in France in the 1790s and the invasion of the dispossessed, a decade or so ago, descending from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro to disturb the peace of the bourgeois neighbourhoods which border them.

But, in a final twist, Zizek counsels us to do nothing in the face of the objective, systemic violence of the world. We should ‘just sit and wait’ and have the courage to do nothing... read more: