Slavoj Zizek on Violence

…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)

7 thoughts on “Slavoj Zizek on Violence

  1. Admittedly, I believe this book by Zizek is simultaneously the one which is the most important and the one his approach is revealed to be most misguided. Whereas Derrida wishes to, in his economic play, minimize violence; Zizek looks to purify it so that it may be seen visibly.

    But, for all their creativity, can either of these thinkers offer a positive program of non-violent resistance without resorting to destruction? The culprit here, to be sure, in both cases, is Hegel. Derrida can only supply graffiti, and Zizek stumbles around like Bartelby in the streets advocating revolutionary violence. Is this really the best we can do?

    A categorization of violences (violence we know we see, violence we don’t know we see, violence we know we don’t see, violence we don’t know we don’t see) is simply not sufficient, comrade Slavoj!

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    • Weird… I keep asking myself if the Zizek and Derrida you are reading are the same ones I’ve read for a long while? Obviously what you take away and what I take away from these two men is quite contrary readings, or, better yet, misreadings; or, as that old reader, Bloom, might term it, misprisioning.

      I can see that you have already taken a stance in regard to Zizek by your dismissive tone… so will not tarry long on this. I can see that in the background is your distaste ultimately of Hegel (“culprit”).

      What I’ve taken away is that Zizek is no Bartleby in the streets advocating revolutionary violence… in fact that is an almost laughable and farcical portrayal of his actual statements. In fact Zizek tells us that it is this very direct approach that he actually attacks. Such as the example of Mao’s failed Cultural Revolution – very violent indeed:

      “There is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that the final result of Mao’s Cultural Revolution is the current unmatched explosion of capitalist dynamics in China. A profound structural homology exists between Maoist permanent self-revolutionising, the permanent struggle against the ossification of state structures, and the inherent dynamics of capitalism.” (V 209)

      In other words such revolutionary violence tends to reinforce the very thing that it seeks to overthrow in the long run. I could pull out many other examples… but you get the point.

      With such a dismissal as yours I almost wonder… has inthesaltmine actually and carefully read the same work that I have? Have you? Is your reading an honest portrayal of your own actual confrontation with Zizek’s thought, or is this but a cursory and dismissive epistle of Zizek’s and Derrida’s atheisms and communisms?

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      • Yes, you are correct: it is perhaps my background distaste with Hegel which is coming forth in both instances. I have always had a deeper affinity with Derrida personally, and admittedly have read him far more closely than I have Zizek. In fact, before I took up blogging I was a card-carrying Derridean who very stubbornly resisted Lacan and Zizek. But I then moved past my holding-to-Derrida, and finally came to terms with Zizek/Lacan’s critiques of deconstruction. Yet, I’ve recovered this stance of resistance to Zizek/Lacan upon encountering Laruelle, whose work I see as very much post-Derridean, or as a repetition of Derrida.

        It perhaps looks like this, to me:

        > Derrida (pre-) —> Lacan –> Laruelle (trans-)

        I believe it is important to balance Hegel (the philosopher of pure identity) with an anti-Hegel (the philosopher of pure difference). If I am so harsh on Hegel, it is only because of how much of the spotlight has been given to him, and how much in the darkness post-dialectical thought remains by contrast. Today, I would likely be non-Hegelian, if you will accept the prefix of suspicion.

        Would not your last paragraph to me be the same as Hegel’s response to the late Schelling’s positive philosophy or to Novalis when read as a philosopher? He may wish to decry it as “unscientific” mysticism or speculation, for how can we encounter “Nature” anyways? Would not your last paragraph to me be the same as Freudian response to Jung? Note also the affinity with Hegel, in the unholy trinity with Marx. Would not your last paragraph to me be the same as Marx’s response to Proudhon? Idealist, clearly!

        With regard to revolutionary violence, it is not so much his “support” of it which has me bothered. Indeed, Maoist fighters in India, Nepal, and the Philippines are making significant progress in the Third World — and many of them would hold dearly to the justice of revolutionary violence (like Fanon, for instance) in such awful conditions. Yet, it is this holding-to-pure-negativity which I think keeps Zizek in, as Freud would say, the “harbour of Schopenhauer”. I have the utmost respect for all of these thinkers at play, and all have left their deep impact on me, I think simply that there is another way, should we dance and move with-and-beyond them. I must apologize for being unable to do these thinkers the justice they deserve in a blog comment.

        I do not wish to dismiss them, I just wish to move past some of their assumptions. Thanks for the thoughtful response. Best, David.

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  2. Hi, David: yes, yes… there is much to disagree with in Zizek! And, yes, I think I was reacting to your tone, the underlying thread that seems prevalent in many philosophers today – and their differing rejections of Lacanism, or at least aspects of it; and, of course, of this aspect of Zizek’s work, along with his investment in Hegel… and, of course, we should see that he too has actually broken from and even reverse engineered those two philosophers and set them on their heads, so to speak; bringing about a sort of violence to their original thought and conceptions. With Zizek, because of his interest to bring both high and low philosophy and culture into collusion and contamination I think many see this as a betrayal of philosophies true intent. In this respect I think Zizek is closer to a Diogenes in the sense that he is a provocateur of thought, a resistance fighter of ideas rather than a creator of new concepts. He brings concepts into oppositional conflict, sets them to play in the gaps of our cultural idiocy, lets them play havoc on the stage of mind. In this sense his is a Continental pragmatics, a dialectical voyage into the night of the mind (Schelling). He skirts the abyss only to find that he is himself the very abyss from which he exhumes the real. If the real is the ground, and being is other than this real, then the self-reflective nothingness as the gap between real and being is the site in which Zizek situates his praxis.

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    • I am certainly not opposed to a reading of Zizek’s own contradictory performativity in this way. I like having Zizek around to stir the pot. You had a really good conversation in the comments section elsewhere that I had enjoyed on this matter, though I can’t quite remember where. And another very good comment here! I look forward to his and your future work & I wish you well.

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