wild man The pomo of

Slove­nian so­ci­ol­o­gist Slavoj Zizek pushes cul­tural crit­i­cism to the outer lim­its. A. C. Grayling is not im­pressed

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Vi­o­lence By Slavoj Zizek Profile, 218pp, $ 35

WHO are the most con­tented peo­ple on earth? The rich, no doubt, be­ing served break­fast on their yachts by liv­er­ied staff. And painters, brush and pal­ette in hand, the smell of oil paint in their nos­trils, their easels set up in a sunny cor­ner of France in sight of Mont Sainte- Vic­toire.

And the sad­hus of In­dia and other such re­pu­di­a­tors of the rat- race, re­leased from the strug­gle to make do on be­half of their fam­i­lies and the rem­nants of their self- re­spect.

And fi­nally, I am morally cer­tain, the cul­tural crit­ics, as they are called, the self- se­lected rad­i­cal quasi- philoso­phers ( usu­ally trained as so­ci­ol­o­gists or lit­er­ary the­o­rists) who en­joy the un­ac­count­able, re­spon­si­bil­ity- free lux­ury of be­ing able to crit­i­cise ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one, to sneer and ac­cuse, to blame and com­plain, to an­a­lyse, anatomise, judge and con­demn, with­out fear of be­ing asked to do bet­ter them­selves.

Or even to sug­gest al­ter­na­tives or so­lu­tions. This in ef­fect is the take- home re­sult of Slavoj Zizek’s med­i­ta­tions on vi­o­lence, which he con­cludes by rec­om­mend­ing that in re­sponse to the var­i­ous forms of vi­o­lence that con­front us, chief among them the vi­o­lence of the state and cap­i­tal­ism and the wicked­ness of phi­lan­thropy ( I ex­plain all this and es­pe­cially the lat­ter in a mo­ment), we should do noth­ing. Yes, noth­ing.

The man who thinks this, so­ci­ol­o­gist and cul­tural critic Zizek, is a Slove­nian who stud­ied La­ca­nian psy­cho­anal­y­sis in Paris and has made a stel­lar ca­reer out of ap­ply­ing La­ca­ni­an­ism- Marx­ism to ev­ery imag­in­able sub­ject, in­clud­ing to film, his next great­est pas­sion af­ter th­ese two isms. His rep­u­ta­tion as ‘‘ the Elvis Pres­ley of post­mod­ern thought’’ was en­hanced by his film The Per­vert’s Guide to Cin­ema , which gave a psy­cho­an­a­lytic read­ing of nearly 50 as­sorted movies.

As a propaedeu­tic to giv­ing this ex­pla­na­tion, let me re­call that cliched story about the starfish, which goes like this: mil­lions of starfish are stranded on a shore­line by a freak tide and a young girl starts throw­ing them back into the sea one by one. A man pass­ing by says, ‘‘ There are so many of them, what you’re do­ing can make no dif­fer­ence.’’ To which she re­sponds, as she throws an­other into the wa­ter, ‘‘ It makes a dif­fer­ence to this one.’’

A cer­tain kind of moral imag­i­na­tion gets down to the level of in­di­vid­u­als: one less rape vic­tim in Dar­fur, one more saved per­son in the Ir­rawaddy Delta. Of course one wishes it were pos­si­ble to save ev­ery­one — mainly, of course, from them­selves — but there is con­so­la­tion in the thought that, as the Talmud puts it, ‘‘ to save one life is as if you have saved the world’’.

One dis­con­cert­ing con­se­quence of Zizek’s take on vi­o­lence is that this kind of moral imag­i­na­tion, which sees value in try­ing to res­cue in­di­vid­u­als from the dan­ger and ef­fects of vi­o­lence, has to be seen not merely as be­side the point or only a dis­trac­tion from the real task, which is to ‘‘ learn, learn and learn’’ about the true na­ture of vi­o­lence, but as some­how com­plicit in its causes. That is why we must do noth­ing about it. The world may be in the midst of ag­o­nies, but we must be brave and not yield to the temp­ta­tion to let any prac­ti­cal­ity sully the cru­cial task of the­o­ris­ing.

Zizek’s main ar­gu­ment is that ‘‘ sub­jec­tive vi­o­lence’’ — demon­stra­tors throw­ing stones at po­lice, for ex­am­ple — gets put into per­spec­tive when we switch view­point and see its back­ground is not a neu­tral state of peace­ful or­der but a far greater vi­o­lence: the ‘‘ ob­jec­tive vi­o­lence’’ of the sys­tem, in par­tic­u­lar the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, which is a mon­ster feed­ing its gross ap­petites in blithe un­con­cern for peo­ple or the en­vi­ron­ment.

This is the ‘‘ fun­da­men­tal sys­temic vi­o­lence’’ that the fat cats of the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, meet­ing an­nu­ally at Davos, try to per­suade them­selves and us is in our in­ter­ests. The lead­ing fig­ures among cap­i­tal­ists — Bill Gates, Ge­orge Soros — go fur­ther and com­mit them­selves to vast acts of phi­lan­thropy to prove the point, but the hu­man­i­tar­ian mask con­ceals the face of ex­ploita­tion that brought the sur­plus wealth into th­ese phil­an­thropic hands in the first place.

For Zizek, the phi­lan­thropists, whom he bizarrely calls ‘‘ lib­eral com­mu­nists’’, are ‘‘ the en­emy of ev­ery pro­gres­sive strug­gle to­day’’. Ter­ror­ists, re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists and cor­rupt bu­reau­crats are merely lo­cal fig­ures in con­tin­gent cir­cum­stances, mi­nor in com­par­i­son to th­ese true en­e­mies of pro­gres­sive en­deav­our, who are the em­bod­i­ment of the sys­tem that is it­self the true vi­o­lence in the world.

Zizek has much else to say, not least in analy­ses of me­dia cov­er­age of crime and un­rest, and the role of fear in mo­ti­vat­ing at­ti­tudes in so­ci­eties that think of them­selves as lib­eral with­out be­ing so. This is there­fore and em­phat­i­cally a top­i­cal book, whose approach to present pre­oc­cu­pa­tions with ter­ror­ist at­tacks, Dan­ish car­toons, the clash of civil­i­sa­tions and Is­lam is un­con­ven­tional.

But the plau­si­bil­ity of its approach turns on the idea just de­scribed: that the main vi­o­lence to which con­tin­gent acts of vi­o­lence are a re­sponse is the glob­alised cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem it­self and the apolo­get­ics that work on its be­half. The prob­lem is not the rather weari­some in­vo­ca­tion of views owed to Karl Marx, Jac­ques La­can, Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Alain Ba­diou and the other usual sus­pects who shape a cer­tain ( ar­guably im­plau­si­ble and cer­tainly ten­den­tious) way of think­ing but the key log­i­cal fal­lacy in Zizek’s premise, namely, the equiv­o­ca­tion on the word vi­o­lence.

You can, and should, com­plain vo­cif­er­ously about the harms and wrongs per­pe­trated by cap­i­tal­ism, but to de­scribe them all as vi­o­lence makes it im­pos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish be­tween what hap­pens when an multi­na­tional oil com­pany raises its prices and when it pays to have peo­ple bul­lied off land above an oil de­posit. Be­ing paid a low wage and be­ing shot in the head are two dif­fer­ent things. If you use the same word for both you are mud­dling, weak­en­ing and mis­di­rect­ing your ar­gu­ment.

This un­der­lies the dis­cus­sion in Zizek’s book and it is why the dis­cus­sion is not about the dif­fer­ence be­tween the rel­a­tively in­fre­quent sit­u­a­tion in which, say, a small num­ber of

re­li­gious fa­nat­ics carry out mass mur­der and the stan­dard sit­u­a­tion in a West­ern lib­eral democ­racy in which se­cu­rity forces, ex­ist­ing at the im­plicit and oc­ca­sion­ally ex­plicit de­sire of its cit­i­zens, are main­tained to en­force laws ar­rived at, and change­able by, non- vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses.

So there is no dis­cus­sion here of the psy­chol­ogy of vi­o­lence, or of the ten­sions and con­tra­dic­tions in non- to­tal­i­tar­ian poli­ties that oc­ca­sion­ally ex­press them­selves vi­o­lently, or of the forms of non- po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence ( ev­i­dently this phrase has to be a con­tra­dic­tion for Zizek) that take place at foot­ball matches, with much greater fre­quency than po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated vi­o­lence.

Can foot­ball vi­o­lence be blamed on cap­i­tal­ism? Might Zizek think it is not re­ally vi­o­lence, de­spite bro­ken heads and black eyes? On the ev­i­dence of this book, the an­swer to both would seem to be af­fir­ma­tive.

The least plau­si­ble idea is that the re­sponse to the sys­tem­atic ob­jec­tive vi­o­lence of the dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy and its in­sti­tu­tions, namely global cap­i­tal­ism, is to do noth­ing: ‘‘ The first ges­ture to pro­voke a change in the sys­tem is to with­draw ac­tiv­ity, to do noth­ing: the threat to­day is not pas­siv­ity but pseudo- ac­tiv­ity, the urge to ‘ be ac­tive’, to ‘ par­tic­i­pate’.’’

This is not con­sis­tent with the re­mark quoted ear­lier, that to op­pose racism, sex­ism and re­li­gious ob­scu­ran­tism one has to com­pro­mise with the sys­tem, for to do any of th­ese things is to be ac­tive and to par­tic­i­pate; re­veal­ingly, the sys­tem’s ef­forts to op­pose th­ese things have to be com­pro­mised with be­cause they are tainted: pre­sum­ably they are bad op­po­si­tion to racism and so on, whereas non- cap­i­tal­ist anti- racism is os­ten­si­bly good anti- racism.

But such a view is al­to­gether too self- serv­ing, too pre­cious. We have to fight on many fronts at once: against the sys­tem, with the in­di­vid­ual, for the good what­ever its shape and lo­cal name. The idea of the dis­en­gaged in­tel­lec­tual is an un­ap­peal­ing one, and lends weight to the dis­trust and sus­pi­cion that trans­fers to the in­tel­lec­tual’s stock in trade, which is ideas. More­over, ideas them­selves are empty ves­sels un­less ap­plied, tested, con­nected with prac­tice.

It is odd that Marx­ist in­tel­lec­tu­als — a sort of an­te­dilu­vian breed of self- de­scrib­ing hairy mastodons — of all peo­ple should have forgotten Marx’s stric­tures on the topic of praxis and gno­sis, of chang­ing the world and not just de­scrib­ing it. Just like folk of a re­li­gious pro­cliv­ity, it seems that in­tel­lec­tu­als of that stamp are prone to cherry- pick their texts for con­ve­nience and ease. Zizek’s ac­count of vi­o­lence, which is so lit­tle about vi­o­lence and so much about states of af­fairs we must do noth­ing about, tastes of picked cher­ries all the way through. A. C. Grayling is pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at Lon­don Univer­sity and a pro­lific au­thor.

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