Featured Reviews, VOLUME 1

FEATURED: Violence by Slavoj Zizek [Vol. 1, #38]

“Whither Violence?”

A Review of
Violence:
Six Sideways Reflections
,
by Slavoj Zizek.

By Chris Smith.


Violence: Six Sideways Reflections.
Slavoj Zizek.
Paperback.  Picador. 2008.
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Zizek - VIOLENCEFor some time now, I have wanted to dive into a book by the iconoclastic philosopher and cultural theorist, Slavoj Zizek.  I have read a number of pieces online by or about him, but hadn’t gotten around to reading one of his books.  So, when his newest book Violence was released by Picador this summer, I jumped at the chance to read and review it.

            Before I examine the content of the book, allow me a few words about Zizek’s style which I had heard was fast-paced and eccentric.  There was hardly a page of this book on which Zizek’s arguments weren’t punctuated by an illustration from history, philosophy, literature or film.  At one point in the book’s epilogue, he flows from an examination of the Stalinist revolution in Russia to an example from an Agatha Christie story to an analogy from quantum physics.  Zizek also has an uncanny ability to find unexpected points from which to view the subject at hand – which is undoubtedly why this book was sub-titled “Six Sideways Reflections.”  A prime example of Zizek’s peculiar perspective is the anecdote with which he begins the book:


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 There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing. Every evening as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow that he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected.  The guards can find nothing.  It is always empty.  Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing is the wheelbarrows themselves (1)”

 Despite his engaging use of illustrations, Zizek is not always easy to read, but as I hope to highlight below, his work is important for the Church’s understanding of the contemporary world in which we find ourselves.  Violence consists of six essays on various facets of violence.  The book’s first essay is on systemic (or objective) violence, which Zizek defines in contrast to subjective violence (what we typically think of as violence i.e. violence that shatters the status quo).  Systemic violence is the often unconsidered violence that is necessary to maintain the status quo.  Zizek’s treatment here is reminiscent of the non-Constantinian theologies of the Early Church and the Anabaptists, which insist that the order that the State maintains comes through the power of the sword, a point that is lost on most of today’s Constantinian theologies.  Zizek is particularly critical here of the “liberal communists” – who claim that “we can have the global capitalist cake, i.e. thrive as profitable entrepreneurs, and eat it, too, i.e. endorse the anti-capitalist causes of social responsibility and ecological concern” (16).  Such liberal communists, such as Bill Gates, are self-contradictory because they try to use “the system” to solve the problems that the system creates.  He concludes: “The exemplary figures of evil today are not ordinary consumers who pollute the environment and live in a violent world of disintegrating social links, but those (i.e. the liberal communists) who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation and pollution, buy their way out of their own activity, living in gated communities, eating organic food, taking holidays in wildlife preserves, and so on” (27, parentheses added for clarification).

            Zizek’s second essay, “Fear Thy Neighbor as Thyself” is perhaps the boldest exposé of the necessity of fear to politics and culture in our age.  He is particularly critical of the contemporary notion of tolerance, which he says is driven in part by “an obsessive fear of harassment” (41).  Fear, Zizek observes, drives us further away from each other, and its end is isolation – a point on which Christian theology would concur.  However, Zizek proceeds to argue that language – that which we would typically understand as a non-violent tool of diplomacy and mediation – is actually in its reductive and symbolic nature the root of all violence.  I’m not sure that I fully agree with Zizek here, but I am sympathetic to his point about the violence of language – which, in seeking to describe a thing, rips it out of the unity of its context.

            In the following three essays, Zizek more fully develops this concept of the violence of language and broadens his critique of tolerance in the world of the present.  These essays are the most dense of this volume.  In the book’s final essay, Zizek examines Walter Benjamin’s concept of divine violence.  This is a probing piece on the nature of God and the existence of evil.  Is it not, Zizek proposes, violence to suggest that tragedies which occur in our world have some deeper – divine – meaning that will ultimately justify these atrocities?  Christian theology, I believe, would agree that God does not intend to rationalize the great atrocities of human history, but rather that such evils are inexplicable reminders of the inherent violence of human fallenness, and signs of our need for an Other in whom salvation can be found.

            In the book’s epilogue Zizek proposes an answer to the question: how should we live in this violent world?  He argues at length that doing nothing is perhaps the most radical and the most effective course of action.  He pointedly unmasks the temptation to act: “The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active’ to ‘participate; to mask the nothingness of what goes on” (217).  Intentional inaction creates a space in which reflection can occur and illuminates the possibility of a different way.  It is extraordinarily timely that this book has been published in an election year here in the U.S., for as Zizek notes here, thoughtful abstinence from voting unmasks the meaningless and inherent violence of the American political system.  This message is one that is driven home in the book Electing Not To Vote, and one that deserves the careful reflection of Christians across our land.

            Zizek is one of the most brilliant and insightful thinkers alive today.  His eccentric reflections deserve the careful consideration of the Church – i.e. those who are “not conformed to the pattern of this world” (Rom. 12:2).  His work – at least in this book – is not always easy to read, but it is well worth our efforts; if we are truly seeking to be a holy people set apart from the violence of the prevailing culture.  Zizek will go a long way in serving as a guide to understanding the violence inherent in the human cultures.

 

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


One Comment

  1. Good job. You made me want to read it ; )

    I love Zizek. He’s one of those people that I can read and enjoy whether or not I agree with him. I think he likes being controversial, and does so in a humorous way, not just in his anecdotes, but sometimes even in the things he suggests. Inaction is effective? That’s preposterous , yet somehow he gives very good reasons for things seemingly absurd. Good review.