Violence: Six Sideways Reflections - Slavoj Zizek


Profile Books, pp218, SB

Bite Size: The hottest cultural theorist on the block finds further ways to juggle Marx with the hit parade.....

Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Zizek has been described as both "An Academic Rock Star" and "The Elvis of Cultural Theory" by excitable admirers. Such plaudits are probably less for his abstract theorising, as for the smart savagery of his prose style and his mining of a vast landscape of cultural fields. With his new book examining the nature of violence in society, Zizek attempts once more to create a storm in both academia and beyond.

Subtitled Six Sideways Reflections, the first chapter "SOS Violence - Violence Subjective and Objective" swiftly makes it clear that this book is no mere pondering on what makes people pack a pistol or plan a punch up. Rather it is a free-flowing analysis of society, using the concept of violence as a staging post to ruminate on the social order as a whole. Zizek introduces the concept of "subjective violence", the violence of the powerful, an implicit violence which need throw no blows to do its damage. Using the verbal and textual dexterity by which he has made his name, Slavoj segues this into an attack on what he cheekily describes as "the liberal communists" - by which he really means the liberal intelligentsia and well meaning philanthropists. Using irony and sarcasm all the more vicious for its relative sparsity, Zizek blasts those "turning rebellion into money", the philanthropic classes, taking with one hand and giving back with another, George Soros and Bill Gates. "The cruel businessman destroys competitors.......employs all the tricks of the trade to achieve his goals. Meanwhile, the greatest philanthropist in the history of mankind quaintly asks 'what does it serve to have computers, if people do not have enough to eat?'" This particular prolonged blast is a delight. Other chapters examine the Paris riots of 2005 and the fabricated tales of rape and terror following the New Orleans flooding, via Israel/Palestine, the depredations of Stalinism and the many faces of Nietzsche.

Zizek is in his element taking driving off the path most travelled, taking his hatchet to lazy, accepted forms of thinking. His strength is in his deft use of paradox in battling these orthodoxies. In his chapter "Antimonies of Tolerant Reason" he declares a plague on the houses of both liberalism and fundementalism in regard to the 2005 Danish Muhammed cartoons furore damning the hypocritical smug certainties on both sides. His strength is also in the sheer swathe and scope of his cultural references, sashaying high and low, from Freud and Bataille to Houellebec and Hitchcock, from Kant and Rousseau to the US TV show Nip/Tuck.

Ultimately, the weaknesses of Violence, and indeed Zizek's work as a whole, stem from precisely the same qualities as his strengths. Eclectic references may be refreshing, but when, with precious little justification, Elton John pops up on page 115 proffering his views on religion in an Observer interview, you have to ask yourself whether Zizek is not being a little too keen on high/low cultural diversity for its own sake. Similarly his contrarianism, deliberately distancing himself from both points in an argument, while generating many a wise aphorism and cooking up veritable banquets for thought, can in the end leave the reader no clearer from when they started as to what course Zizek is actually advocating. In the Antimonies chapter we are clearer than ever on the myriad faults on both sides in the Muhammed cartoons debate, but we are no nearer to seeing which side Zizek would actually come down on if push came to shove, still less what he advocates as a solution, even in the long-term.

Where he is clearer, the problematic nature of his work is of a different nature. In consistently defending a Marxist outlook against bourgeois liberalism, his clear and commendable desire to rile and outrage the latter can take him into dubious territory - savage prose housing real savagery. In the final chapter, Zizek contrasts "Divine Violence" with "Mythic Violence", defending the former while denouncing the latter. The latter includes the horrors of mass bloodshed from Hitler and Stalin which he classifies as essentially "reactive" and therefore reactionary, the former takes in both the Red Terror of 1919 and the French Jacobin Terror of 1791, both of which he claims should be wholeheartedly supported. Zizek is at least clear and honest here. But you don't have to be a member of the Micheal Ignatief tendency to see this supposedly clear-cut distinction between the Divine and Mythic as both glib and worrying.

Ultimately however, just as it is always easier to destroy than to create, so Zizek's strength are in his witty critiques of the power-play in the world today, rather than in his problematic advocacies. Zizek is a great showman, with both the positive and negative attributes that title implies. But it's a good show, and one worth watching till the end.

Any cop? For all his faults, this is genuinely witty and challenging cultural criticism, a rarity which in itself makes Zizek well worth reading.

[First published on bookmunch, 2008]Back