wild man The pomo of
Slovenian sociologist Slavoj Zizek pushes cultural criticism to the outer limits. A. C. Grayling is not impressed
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.