Violence | Slavoj Žižek

The cover of Žižek's ViolenceAs I write this, Hamas is lobbing rockets into Israel and Israel is returning with air strikes and a ground offensive. As I write this the Ukranian government is trying desperately to reclaim sovereignty over the East which is increasingly controlled by pro-Russian militants. Somehow during this outbreak of violence, a passenger jet was shot down killing 298 passengers and crew. Violence is alive and well in our world.

For Žižek, this explosive “subjective” violence is only the violence we see on the surface. Below the subjective violence is objective violence, the violence inherent in language which influences our thoughts and attitudes. Also below subjective violence is systemic violence—the effect of living in our modern economic and political systems. Any understanding of what’s happening in the world today must take into account all the causes of violence.

Žižek (as you might expect) has many profound things to say about the subject, complete with regular references to Marx, Hegel, and Lacan. He wanders through many diverse cultural and political landscapes. He tackles the problem in the Middle East with an accusing look at the Germans (who, in his mind, offered restitution to the Jews by giving away someone else’s land). He looks at the uproar over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. He delves into Alfred Hitchkcock’s films. He even considers the shaming of prisoners in Abu Ghraib This is one of the joys of Žižek—you never know where he’s going next.

My difficulty with this book was that  Žižek almost always takes a contrarian view. After a while it feels like he plays devil’s advocate just for the sake of being different—as if it was a game. He takes a radically counter-intuitive idea then tries to argue for it. His arguments are inventive and brilliant, but they’re far from infallible. Take for example, the prisoner abuse photos that came from Abu Ghraib. For Žižek, this obscene act of shaming was more like an initiation ritual into American culture. It was a hazing.

Žižek’s Violence is an intellectual, political, and cultural look at the violence that permeates our world. You can agree or disagree with him, but you can’t stay neutral.

—Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008).

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