by Jim Caryl


SO, in a complete parody of the light-heartedness of yesterday’s musings, today I have also been coming to grips with Slavoj Žižek’s “Violence“, which I finally finished reading (I have six books on the go, it’s a work in progress). I spend a lot of time reading academic literature, mainly in the sciences, thus pure philosophy is always a little antagonising.

Having practise at academic reading is useful, and the usual formula applies: skim read the whole thing first, get an idea of what the premise is and basic structure, so you know what to look for on your next scan. Read the introduction and conclusion too, this will help you identify the lines of evidence/reasoning you require to agree/disagree with the premise. Then you have to read it in some detail, if you’ve not already disregarded it, all the while juggling the lines of reasoning, often over several pages, until they drop into place. So it’s never really bed-time reading, and some writers are better than others.

The main subject of the book can be paraphrased reasonably well from the author’s own introduction, and the blurb on the dust-jacket:

The premise of Žižek’s theory is that the subjective violence we see – violence with a clear identifiable agent – is only the tip of an iceberg made up of systemic violence, which is essentially the catastrophic consequence of the smooth functioning of our economic & political systems.

He uses some rather contentious rhetoric when describing the different forms of violence in society: “subjective”, “symbolic” and “systemic”, but this is largely a means to clear the way so that he can get to the guts of his argument, that of “systemic violence”.

Subjective violence, the type of violence that we most commonly associated with the word violence is that of sudden and apparently unexplainable violence that stirs up from a position of nil violence or “normality”; for “normality” we envisage the apparent flat surface a Tick sees on an Elephant’s back, the Tick failing to see the Elephant as a whole, nor it’s role in the life of the Elephant. Žižek’s notion is that this subjective violence, violence with a clear direction against a subject – car bombings, rape, hooliganism, war atrocities – is not so unexplainable if one only zooms out and sees the overall systemic violence commonplace in society; though I’d add that the study of the systemic violence is not so much a hunt for the reasons for subjective violence, as a hunt for why systemic violence occurs. Whilst we cry indignation at incidences of subjective violence, we are (apparently) indifferent to the systemic violence that leads to it.

It seems strange to consider that what makes an intentional act violent is not whether the perpetrator intends the act as violent, but whether or not others understand it to be so. This could be why we don’t spot the inherent violence in the use of language, economic posturing or the sense of urgency (fashion) as a result of political interests. Perhaps one example of systemic violence is that humanitarian crises only pop into the media spotlight after a complex struggle that is dependent on cultural, ideological, political and economic considerations. The Israel-Palastine conflict, the Iraq conflict, both fulil the right political criteria to be urgent and newsworthy, yet the largely ignored 4 million killed in the conflict of the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not.

Žižek’s believes that we have a ‘will to ignorance’, and I confess I’m not completely against this notion having written at length about facts getting in the way of faith. There is a collective resistance to acknowledge and/or critically examine systemic violence. For Žižek the question is not: why are people uninformed, but why do they not want to be informed?

This is in opposition to Chomsky who argues that putting the facts before the people will lead to an informed citizenry and, presumably, a healthily functioning liberal democracy. Žižek would counter that the citizenry may not want to be informed on these crucial issues. I agree; I think the die-hard, worldly people amongst us would certainly like to have all the facts, and we may well do something with them, but I sometimes wonder whether the hoy polloi, with their mortgages, cars, school fees and daily grind really have the gumption/time/energy/empowerment to follow Chomsky’s noble ideology?

I have to say that I don’t particularly agree with Žižek on many points, the whole book seemed a little too in rant, than in prose. Other, more well read philosophers than I, complain that his ideological position is amost entire based on Jacque Lacan, whose concepts I’ve no great passion for. I like some of Žižek’s wild sentiments and energy, and by all accounts he is a good orator, thus he has stimulated me enought to think on the matter further, but I won’t be swallowing this particular book whole.