I'll give you VIOLENCE Mr. ZZ - Review of Book by Slavoj Žižek

Žižek has a number of things going for him.  Like Steve Jobs who can shower his magic dust on lumps of plastic, micro-processors, glass and sell them to millions, Slavoj Žižek appears to be able to perform similar miracles in the world of  Big ideas. Secondly, he has all those Z's in his name with funny floating pronunciation helpers floating like mobiles above them, and finally he is European that old place where all the ideas men come from. 

I picked up a copy of his paperback 'Violence' last summer at a Sociology conference in San Francisco.  It was printed by Picador as part of the ‘BIG IDEAS // small books’ series.  A number of people had been talking to me about Žižek (ZZ) and he’s been making frequent appearances on my Mac screen either in Examined Life or in his Perverts guide to Cinema. Žižek has crossed over.  Just as the Apple Logo is part of street furniture of modern city life, so is the bearded hairy animated face of ZZ holding forth on whatever thought has most recently entered his head.

Žižek is down as a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology in Ljubljana, Slovenia, but in the United States he is a visiting professor at Colombia University.   He writes in a very entertaining way, because he gathers elements from all areas, to construct his arguments.  Essentially, he believes that there are three forms of Violence:

1. Subjective (Crime, Terror) 

2. Objective (racism, discrimination)  

3. Systemic (catastrophe constructed via economy and politics).  

I don’t disagree with any of this and the book brought to me the gift of thinking about this issue from various perspectives.  What Žižek does is he writes books that make you think!

But I am very wary of the way that he constructs his arguments.  Francis Bacon used an insect analogy to describe how knowledge is generated.  Ants are the data gather’s who go out and bring back the lumps of data to be turned into knowledge. Žižek is himself a senior researcher – so he should be Ant.  Then you have the Spiders who weave strange, beautiful webs for all the world to see, gaze and wonder at.  This is Žižek.   Finally, Bacon said you had the Bee, who took the pollen and produced the great gift to the world of honey, processing the data into knowledge.

Žižek asks the big questions, takes on the big themes and then he reveals his alluring web of arguments.  In these webs – everything goes, from Hollywood blockbuster films, to the writings of Walter Benjamin, from Brecht's poetry, to some good old Eastern European shop floor jokes.  In another way it is like looking a the wings of a beautiful butterfly, and his talks and thoughts cause explosions in the minds of undergraduate students never before exposed to such colours, such designs. Žižek is the consumate performer when delivering a lecture. 

Žižek starts with a righteous attack on the Bill Gates, George Soros and their ilk.  Don’t Tax us, we are here to solve the problems of the world by giving away our wealth and attacking those problems likes Aids in Africa.  The question that needs to be asked is how did they generate that wealth in the first place.  The trick here is that the philanthropists are drawing a veil over their work, the markets, and the speculation. The message is that this is some new form of Capitalism lite, which doesn’t have exploitation at its core.  We do good things with our money or as ZZ writes “Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation.”

What he is saying is that we live in a world where the effects of Capitalism are seen as neutral, the spin is spun that there is no ideology behind it - and yet when violence erupts as a reaction to this brutal system we are encouraged to run off blaming the prepratrators of it.  Capitalism remains clean, running on in the background, responsible for nothing except the free flow of the markets.

When he looks at the violence purported to happen in New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katriana - Žižek states that what we had we saw ‘was not the tension between “human nature” and the force of Civilisation  that keeps it in check.’  Human nature is held up here as some sort of Darwinian dog eat dog for survival purposes by the cultural interpreters.  But the truth of what happened in New Orleansis indeed a clash between the poor people who could not flee and the propertied class who fled and locked their shops, who would rather see stock rot than have people get it for free.  New Orleans showed that property trumps humanity every time in this system. 

More recently we saw the same scene being played out in Haiti - where US troops were deployed firstly, in the wake of the earthquake, as some sort of preventative element to the ‘human nature’ of people taking over.  Ostensibly, the US Military used the airport there to bring in a huge logistical operation for military control of that island, and NO AID arrived in for a fortnight.  Again, the imperial power choose this time to exert its might, humanitarian relief is becoming the Trojan horse of the 21st century.

Time and time again we are told that we live in a non-ideological age - but there is ideology and empire behind many of the actions that happen in the world.  The same is true of how those actions are reported.  New Orleans was portrayed as a scene of chaos, and the implication was that this is what happens in a black city when the forces of civilisation withdraw.  Again, there is a racist spin to how Haiti was reported in the early part, this acted as a justification for sending in troops.  What people need after an earthquake is medicine, food, clothes, and shelter, not soldiers with guns.  So the media plays its role in reversing what would seem obvious and laying the ideological bridge for troops to march over.

Žižek often confounds the reader with his various ideas, his ability to sculpt a theory from a snippet of poetry, the plot of a novel, the interpretation of a Hollywood movie, and add a pinch of psychoanalysis.  In the end it you stare at it, like Watts Tower and ask why? What does it mean. You stare at the paradoxes and wonder what to think and you also wonder what does he actually believe.

It appears to me that what he is saying is that we shouldn’t get distracted by the car-bomb in Baghdad, we should look at the relationship between this subjective violence and the systemic violence that is a constant background.

I don’t disagree.  He ends with an exploration on the idea of ‘divine violence’ of Walter Benjamin.  That appears to be a violence which is born from injustice. That divine violence is born from a belief that you are righting a wrong.  When the state adopts that and ‘kills in the name off’ - it shifts to Mythic violence.  The divine violence is the violence that changes society and mythic violence is the type that keeps theses changes in check. 

Finally, Žižek makes no bones about the fact that he doesn’t like the society that he is living in right now. I like most of the people reading this book, will be sympathetic to this view.  Many of us are not attached to this system - but then we are left with the obvious questions, what do we replace it with, and how do we replace it.

If all it took was more death and violence then we should’ve paid that price in the past, this is the shock conclusion Žižek punctuates his book with.   He is again being glib and paradoxical.  He ends with ‘Sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do’ - as if this is the coup de grace for our long suffering mind; what the hell does he mean? ZZ likes to blow minds and whilst his books will make you think, what does he say?  It is great to stimulate thought - but there has to be something more than this fantastic show. In the end ZZ says 'Do nothing!'.  This is a paradox too far.  So we should do nothing in the face of this brutal oppressive system.

I fully expect him to do nothing, except to continue pedalling his books, perhaps extending his merchandise beyond to t-shirts, sweatbands, more DVD's and for his fanbase of  thinkers, impressionable undergrads, cinephiles.

The future society that we will live in will be directly determined by how we achieve it.  I don’t doubt that it will be  born from violence, because those in control shall not relinquish it; that control or their immense wealth without  a fight.  But ‘nothing shall come from nothing’ as old King Lear said.

I propose that if you wanted an image for this book, they should print it with that photograph of the young man standing in front of the Tank in Tienanmen square.  Violence is throughout this picture.  For all Žižek’s apparent dislike of the current system, I think he would be the Tank driver - the ultimate delivery boy for the  Mythic violence of the State.  Remember his machismo sign off- if killing more people would get us to his Leninist Communism, then he’s no problem with that.  I think the world will be changed by those who stand in front of such odds, not by those who have their foot on the gas pedal.

 


  


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