…ugliness today is a sign and symptom of great transformations to come.
– C.G. Jung on Joyce
Contempt, it turns out, was assimilable to democracy. In fact, rather than subverting democracy, it assisted it by making generally available to the low as well as to the high a strategy of indifference in the treatment of others.
– William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust
Reading this work of Zizek, ‘Violence‘, awakens in me something old and dangerous, a realization that the power of rhetoric and the dialectic serve each other as either violent partners to an ongoing crime, or as the secret accomplices of a two-thousand year old murder and of the guilt that comes with such monstrous actions. The violence of language is at the forefront of this unique work. Zizek uses every tool at his disposal to bring philosophical speculation down into the street. He is no frigid academic whose prose, grey and analytic, distills truths that are so abstract and cold to be almost useless. No, Zizek opens up the guts of the world, spills out the grotesque humor of our dark heritage in all its disgusting glory, and offers us no absolution but the truth of our own inescapable complicity in a crime we commit daily by both our action and inaction, by our failure to solve the riddle of democracy.
According to a well-known anecdote, a German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw Guernica and, shocked at the modernist “chaos” of the painting, asked Picasso: “Did you do this?” Picasso calmly replied: “No, you did this!” Today, many a liberal, when faced with violent outbursts such as the recent looting in the suburbs of Paris, asks the few remaining leftists who still count on a radical social transformation: “Isn’t it you who did this? Is this what you want?” And we should reply, like Picasso: “No, you did this! This is the true result of your politics! (V 11)”1
Jean Delumeau the great French historian of the Catholic church in his second work Sin and Fear once observed that the “scorn of the world and the contempt for mankind propounded by Christian ascetics stemmed equally from the Bible and from Greco-Roman civilization. … thereby, a link between the transitory nature of life and its sadness became a staple of the contemptus mundi” (SF 7 – 14). He tells us that the ascetic model of this heritage was due to a fervid distrust of sexuality, and that the ethical values that grew out of this brought together a convergence of three traditions: the Judaic concern for ritual purity, the rejection of the body within Neoplatonic traditions, and the mistrust of worldly attachments common to Stoicism. At the center of this convergence was the discourse of contemptus mundi.(S 446)
In European history the “siege mentality” was accompanied by an oppressive feeling of guilt… bringing with it the “scruple sickness,” the birth of moral consciousness.
– Jean Dumeau, Sin and Fear
The exclusions of the lures of beauty and the guiles of womanly ways enforced a regimen of education that brought about a fear of the senses and the sensual as contemptible and to be warred against. In fact this schooling in a contempt for the world would lead to our “private directors of conscience, being privately convinced that earthly life was of no value with regard to eternity and that all afflictions are just punishment for sins, could do no other than encourage patience and obedience in situations of injustice. The logic of the contemptus mundi demanded the refusal of any sedition and, even more strongly, any revolution” (S 460).
In his conclusion he tells us that from the age of the early Church Fathers to the world of the American Puritans the great message of contemtus mundi was one of pessimism and that realm was truly a ‘Vale of Tears’. As Delemeau remarks,
…from one end of the period to the other, the discourse of the church was predominantly pessimistic. Moreover the ideology of the contemptus mundi claimed to have universal value and made a critique of all human destiny in this vile world. It devalued sexuality, was disgusted by procreation and childbirth, laid heavy stress on our miseries and diseases, had a strong taste for the macabre, and pronounced the human mind incapable of for any true knowledge. (S 556)
He also admits that during the Renaissance the elite held up the light of Hermetic and Neoplatonic thought, but that the majority of the common people were held under the dark hand of an Augustinism of contempt, pessimism, and fear of both the body and the world.
While many seem at the moment infatuated with a Hermetic and Neoplatonic revival in thought, we should not forget that under the dark waters of our age runs a deep well of Augustine’s blood. It is the heritage of Augustine to which we should turn to understand Violence, not the subtle yet elite trends of Neoplatonic thought. And, I use Augustine as a type, for in truth all the main monotheistic religions have this type of discourse based on a contempt of the world and of the body.
“I myself have seen and known an infant to be jealous though it could not speak. It became pale, and cast bitter looks on its foster-brother.”
– Saint Augustine, The Confessions
…as quoted by Lacan (V 87)
For Zizek it is ‘fear of the Neighbor’ that is the foundation of Violence. But, what if it were more than that, what if it were a contempt for both the Neighbor and one’s own Self, as well as a contempt deep rooted in our heritage of the world itself? Zizek also holds to a profound insistence that violence inheres to language itself, the very medium we use to discourse on and overcome violence (V 206).
He draws three lessons from his study of Violence. First he is adamant in his portrayal of the ideological stupidity of confronting violence head on, or directly; that to chastise violence outright, to condemn it as “bad,” is an ideological operation par excellence, a mystification which collaborates in rendering invisible the fundamental forms of social violence (V 206). Our involvement with a humanitarian media instead of alleviating violence only exacerbates it and sensitizes the mass public to the harshest aspects of its affective truths.
Second, our Hollywood versions of violence give us a false ideological portrayal, they give us the bloody and violent horrors of war, crime, etc. but never show us the empty, soulless, affectless face of the true world of violence spawned by the Neighbor next door, or the corporate executive who murders women at night then goes home and teaches his daughter the Bible. Violence at this level is reactive rather than active, it is a failure to act rather than an action, this is the difference both locally – at the level of individual choice and decision; and, politically, at the level of emancipatory politics “and such outbursts of impotent violence is that an authentic political gesture is active, it imposes, enforces a vision, while outbursts of impotent violence are fundamentally reactive, a reaction to some disturbing intruder” (V 212-213).
And, finally, the third lesson is that of the intricate relationship between subjective and systemic violence is that violence is not a direct property of some acts, but is distributed between acts and their contexts, between activity and inactivity. (V 213) There are moments between the active and inactive when even a smile can be more deadly than an slap in the face. This is the lesson, to long to relate of Zizek’s portrayal of Jose Sarmango’s great novel of political satire Seeing in which the people after being offered a vote for one of three parties are presented with blank ballots. What happens next is that the people refuse to vote; they simply abstain from voting. This causes the ultimate uproar of the Government, a panic and violence not only Orwellian, but a reversal and failure of all governmental authority. As Zizek remarks:
…the unsettling message of Seeing is not so much the indissolubility of both people and government as the compulsive nature of democratic rituals of freedom. What happens is that by abstaining from voting, people effectively dissolve the government-not only in the limited sense of overthrowing the existing government, but more radically. Why is the government thrown into such a panic by the voters’ abstention? It is compelled to confront the fact that it exists, that it exerts power, only insofar as it is accepted as such by its subjects-accepted even in the mode of rejection. The voters’ abstention goes further than the intra-political negation, the vote of no confidence: it rejects the very frame of decision.(V 216)
To reject the very contract that sustains the government through refusal instead of direct revolt is to accept what Badiou suggested in his thesis to do nothing, nothing at all: “It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.” (V 216) As Zizek tells us:
The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to “be active,” to “participate,” to mask the nothingness of what goes on. People intervene all the time, “do something”; academics participate in meaningless debates, and so on. The truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw. Those in power often prefer even a “critical” participation, a dialogue, to silence-just to engage us in “dialogue,” to make sure our ominous passivity is broken. The voters’ abstention is thus a true political act: it forcefully confronts us with the vacuity of today’s democracies.(V 218)
Sometime one must do nothing at all to accomplish something. This is the paradox of change, and could be the strange path of an emancipatory politics to come.
1. Zizek, Slavoj (2008-07-22). Violence (BIG IDEAS//small books). Picador. Kindle Edition.
2. Jean Delemeau. Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guild Culture 13th to 18th Century (St. Martins Press 1983)