Thursday, December 4, 2008

Slavoj Zizek's "Violence": Book Review.

This "Big Ideas/Small Books" offering may repeat much of this Slovene philosopher's earlier critiques. As it's the first work I've read by him, I depend on others to verify this. It certainly tackles big ideas in this brief paperback, but its portability and relative concision may recommend it to those who, like me, had heard of this provocateur but hesitated to enter his dense, diffuse, albeit often entertaining debates.

Zizek's relevant: "The same philanthropists who give millions for AIDS or education in tolerance have ruined the lives of thousands through financial speculation and thus created the conditions for the rise of the very intolerance that is being fought." (37) He compares their guise as "liberal communists" (think Bill Gates or George Soros) to a dirty postcard that shows, if moved slightly, "the obscene figure" who's "at work beneath" the news of debt cancellation or the eradication of an epidemic. Global capitalists need to generate enormous wealth before they can distribute it to others. King Leopold and Andrew Carnegie-- and I might add the Bonos and Brangelinas, perhaps (oddly, Zizek does not name such celebrity counterparts, whom free trade's promoter Thomas Friedman labelled "super-empowered individuals" outside the nation-state or the "electronic herd" of corporate dominance)-- have more in common with today's Davos jetsetters and Hollywood trendsetters than we might have suspected.

On the surface, the "liberal communist" ten-point plan on pg. 18 sounds great; the "RED" campaign for Africa or wearing pink ribbons for breast cancer research or the Google slogan "do no evil" match these goals. So, what's Zizek's gripe with doing good while making a profit? Capitalism must thrive. This creates injustice.

The balance of wealth redistribution by dot.commers and rock stars may be cloaked in humanitarian liberties, but "it allows the capitalism system to postpone its crisis." No Marxist, but schooled as a former Yugoslav subject and ex-Party member/dissident, Zizek notes that while such liberal largess avoids "the destructive logic of resentment and enforced statist distribution of wealth which can only end in generalised misery," it also sidesteps the evils of concentrated affluence and power that keep the rich doling out handouts to the dependent poor.

As a Lacanian, what irritates Zizek? The gap between reality and the Real, the "inexorable 'abstract,' spectral logic of capital that determines what goes on in social reality." (13) An economist may report how an impoverished Third World nation keeps "financially sound" even as the poverty's apparent to any observer.

How do such criticisms of "liberal communism" fit into the book's larger subject of violence? It's a loose tailoring. Thematic stitches may not always be visible. He begins with defining three types of violence. First, there's subjective violence: the kind we can identify "performed by a clearly identifiable agent." (1) Behind this lurks a "symbolic" violence within language. It repeats the role that social domination plays in our habitual speech. For instance, "gold" when named as such means "we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing it with our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity, and so on, which have nothing to do with the immediate reality of gold." (61)

Third comes "systemic" violence, the "often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems." (2) The book in "six sideways glances" sidles around its impacts, allowing us to more dispassionately dissect the forms of violence, under critical control even as we peer towards its fearful emanations. The first section investigates the "trap" of "liberal communism" that I have already opened. The second looks into alienation as a solution rather than a problem to the Western need to assert "the right not to be harassed," to keep one's distance from others who may threaten us by their demands to be recognized and respected. (41) This chapter's more difficult, but the gist of it-- which I verified when I studied this very passage today on a crowded subway with my iPod plugged in-- asserts the advantage of European civilization: "the alienation of social life." (59) Rather than a failure, this opening up of a private zone in public allows us to obey rules mechanically, while insuring a proxemic space around us that preserves our inner world. This encourages peaceful coexistence in a multicultural realm.

Part Three confronts the eruption of violence, with the protests over the Danish caricatures of Muhammed and 2005's French banlieu riots. The urge to tear down not the enemy's camp, but to burn one's own Parisian neighborhood (even a mosque), Zizek explains as a need for those demeaned to be noticed as citizens. This outburst also shows the impotence of such violence. True fundamentalists, such as Tibetan Buddhists or the Amish, he reminds us, foster indifference rather than insecurity towards the mores of non-believers. Those insecure, such as the Muslim mobs in Pakistan, only betray their desperate fragility, their own projected inferiority. Those complaining about Euro-American dominance, Zizek insists, nevertheless define their opposition as aligned against its hegemony. (Porto Alegre fails to oust Davos: the neo-liberals have no genuine alternative vision in a late-capitalist empire, either.) Religious fundamentalists who have gained the spotlight, he adds, situate themselves in the true source of challenge today: religion supplants science as "one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today's society." (82) Science now solves our problems; religion stirs them up?

This chapter could have discussed further the limits of politically-correct "rules" when refusing to treat the uncomfortable truths it will not report for fear of inciting intolerance. Also, the vexed problems of massive immigration into the First World deserve more than an apercu or two. Still, Zizek provokes thought. He prefers to wander into (however astute or quirky) analogies to chocolate laxatives or Wagner.

In the fourth section, liberalism and fundamentalism both get castigated. Zizek reminds us that the European tradition always has mocked the divine; he finds such treatment "unimaginable in an Islamic culture." (106) I suppose so from the well-known, recent evidence, but still I wondered if this was too broad a statement for the past fourteen centuries? He points out an often overlooked abuse of rhetoric: discussing the hyperbolic equivalence of Israeli policies towards Palestinians with the Nazis "strangely contradicts Holocaust denial" preached by many in the Arab and Muslim worlds. (110)

He also reminds us of the fate of those who dare to speak out against liberal pieties; Oriana Fallaci's fall from leftist grace comes from her daring "to take the multiculturalist subservient 'respect' for the Muslim Other seriously." She incites contempt for exposing the "assymetry" of allowing Eurabia to colonize the continent, while Europe constantly retreats, apologizes, and urges only more "respect" for a regressive, intolerant barbarism. She failed to perceive how "fake" Western tolerance can be; it's "a sign of hidden and patronising racism." (114-15) Again, Zizek tends to raise many topics deserving more than a paragraph or two, but that's the tendency of his methods: to stir up our reactions.

This section's also digressive, but the whole book's so. It's like hearing a fascinating but erratic professor. Zizek has elsewhere belittled teaching; he's a professor who does not have to enter the classroom except when he wants, if at all. Yet, you get the sense of his restless range. I highlight what intrigued me; you may find an entirely different set of references that may rouse your enthusiasm. The book's full of detours, sideways glances, and momentary asides.

Israel & Palestine kindle more sparks. Zizek's at his best when urging a non-statist, truly sacred space for Jerusalem. He wonders at the U.S., the most religious of advanced nations, allying so strangely with the most atheist land (70% in some Israeli polls) which exists on the nature of its religious foundations! If Israel had been created two centuries ago, it'd have shared the roots of most "founder states;" its sin appears to be for the left that it was created after such imperial campaigns were delegitimized.

Skirting back to tolerance, Zizek as an atheist encourages us to remember how Europe's contribution to progress rests in its freedom not to believe. Blasphemy only works in a religious space. If we give in to all those who protest, we risk strengthening the pact between fundamentalists and the PC-left: "a society immobilised by the concern for not hurting the other, no matter how cruel and superstitious this other is and in which individuals are engaged in regular rituals of 'witnessing' their victimisation." (130) Botox injectors get equated with those forced to endure clitoridectomies by a too-capacious liberal tolerance granting a dimwitted approval to even oppressive cultures.

Instead, Zizek rallies for the courage to condemn religion if it indeed is truly entangled with hatred. We must fight religion if at its core we find violence. Apologists keep assuring us that we can rescue the truth of genuine faith from savage hijackers. Zizek inverts the game. Hack down the roots of violence. He dismisses cloaking its motives as if in a misused "authentic core" of a noble religion. The truest pacifists, he asserts, are those who lack belief. He wishes to advance atheism as a truly disinterested method to attain peace-- free of the Big Other of Marxism, monotheism, or consumerism, for that soul-dispiriting matter.

Section five's for me less engrossing. Yet, it has its moments. It covers "tolerance as an ideological category." Zizek observes how the price of living in the free West means that we may suffer violence, torn from our cultural roots so as to survive in our multicultural West. Within this milieu, the greatest art endures after it has been wrenched-- as with Homer or Shakespeare-- from its original context.

Society pretends to allow us free choice, but we have no option, usually, but to profess love for our parents or our flag. We're caught in a paradox of acting as if what's prescribed is preferred, as if we had some say in the choice. Juxtapositions float by: a TV show "Nip/Tuck" and the ground-floor vs. first-floor labelling of buildings in the U.S. vs. abroad; "The Birds" and the shot of the plane hitting the Twin Tower; Bukharin & Stalin compared to the hapless heroines of Lars von Trier's film trilogy. This portion left me somewhat at sea, but I kept paddling along.

In the last section, "Divine Violence," G.K. Chesterton provides unexpected evidence for what Zizek proposes as a truly mature acceptance that there's no larger supernatural rationale for our fate. Catastrophes occur, but God's gone. He wonders if the Incarnation and Crucifixion represent a God who's abandoned the transcendental to be truly and ultimately human. There's no Ascension, no Easter in Zizek's theology, therefore. God's demolition of the protector, and His assumption of the mortal, stands for our own existential plight. There remains, nonetheless, Judgment Day. But, it's delayed by the leftists. They promise that the "banks of rage" pent-up by so much injustice will bailout the oppressed. But, like the French or Soviet revolutions, the day of reckoning, and of utopian payback, gets postponed endlessly.

The epilogue reviews the main points. Three lessons earn summation: 1) When we shout down violence outright as "bad," we participate in mystifying its less visible social forms. Our capitalist system furthers the violence that erupts, by the inherent unfairness of the economic rules we all must agree to play by. 2) Real violence can evade those who try to act out their outrage. Twice Brecht's motto echoes: "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?" 3) Subjective and systemic violence intertwine. Acts can be violent or not depending on context. I doubt if his immediate comparison to the Higgs field of quantum physics would be one that anyone else would supply for clarification! Still, Zizek stays on track: "the first gesture to provoke a change in the system is to withdraw activity, to do nothing." (214)

What is there to be done? For one distrustful of Marx, of the state, of Kapital, not to mention God? Zizek concludes: "The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to 'be active', to 'participate', to mask the nothingness of what goes on." The true challenge? To step back. Abstaining from the political game, refusing to shop to stimulate the economy that has tottered because of our overspending-- I wonder what effect our concerted effort not to fuel capitalism, vote for oligarchies, or buy into credulity might achieve? Zizek's discussion may not provide any answers, but his typically barbed appeals may cause us to reorient ourselves away from the structures imposed on us that appear like natural facts.

(Cross-posted, as a longer review, here, Blogtrotter, and Amazon US today.)

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