I’m currently reading Savoj Žižek’s latest book, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. The book it vintage Žižek, going off on somewhat related tangents frequently that are always thought-provoking and often entertaining. What is helpful about the book is the way in which it rightly complexifies talk of violence and peace. Žižek delineates three forms that violence takes, one which we are familiar with, and two which tend to happen below the surface of our perceptions about society. The first form of violence that Žižek describes is what we commonly think of as violence: the event of one person perpetrating harm on another. This Žižek calls “subjective violence.” It is clear and visible and it is always perpetrated by a guilty subject. The central thing to note about how we perceive this form of violence is that it is always an interruption into a prior background of tranquility and peace. First things are in a state of peace and then that peace is disrupted by an act of violence.
It is precisely this notion of fundamentally construing violence as an interruption into a peaceful natural state that Žižek seeks to problematize. He does this by delineating two other forms of violence which he refers to as “objective violence.” Objective violence is different from subjective violence in that objective violence is the violence that always-already exists and sustains the social fabric that subjective violence interrupts. The “natural” state of things into which subjective violence irrupts is not a state of peace, but one of violence. This violence is objective. It is happening at all levels of society and it invisible to those on the advantaged side of it. Thus all forms of subjective violence, which arise in response to the objective violence that sustains society are perceived by those in power to be irrational acts of senseless barbarism.
To clarify this a bit, Žižek further distinguishes two types of objective violence, “systemic violence” and “symbolic violence.” Systemic violence is “the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.” It is what other thinkers have referred to as “structural evil.” Žižek’s point is that the systems which govern our economic and political lives, which seemingly guarantee the “normal” state of society, do so precisely by perpetrating vast swathes of systemic violence on large groups of people. It is an unseen violence, one that is part of the air we breath and the food we eat and the stuff we buy.
Symbolic violence is related to, and participates in systemic violence, but it refers more specifically to the violence of language. The patterns of social life that are encoded within our language are violent insofar as they presuppose and reify relations of domination. Any revolutionary knows that the first step towards revolution is the discovery of a new mode of language that names things differently. This practice of naming, when done in such a way as to dominate and control is a central form of violence operating at all levels of discourse in our world. Žižek takes this a bit further and argues that language as such manifests an inherent form of violence on which these sort of explicit manifestations of symbolic violence are based and from which they flow.
Whether or not Žižek is correct about everything he seeks to say about these three modes of violence, it is certainly the case that if we construe violence as simply visible acts of harm perpetrated by agents, we have a woefully naive notion of violence. What is helpful about Žižek’s account is that he complexifies violence in a way that helps us to eye with suspicion any sort of self-righteous liberal pacifism that assumes we can “reject violence” simply by not punching or shooting someone else. For Christian pacifists, this sort of reflection is absolutely essential. Nothing is more dangerous to the Christian witness for peace than the assumption that we are not implicated in the violence of our world, and that is an assumption that is all to easy to make. For Žižek of course, it seems to be an open question whether there can be any real occurrence of true peace in a world so ubiquitously determined by violence. That is certainly something to talk about in another post. However, the main point I’ve enjoyed having Žižek remind me of thus far is the importance of understanding the depths and vicissitudes of violence that shape and enable our own lives. I’m only able to type this post on this iMac because Bill Gates has taken vast amounts of money, resources, and indeed, lives to make it possible (for more on this buy the book and read Žižek’s discussion of Bill Gate’s and his philanthropy). Any notion that I can somehow “withdraw” from the systemic violence that enables my life is absurd and I need to recognize the absurdity of any pacifism that would seem to say that I can so withdraw.
For those of us that would call ourselves Christian pacifists we must allow these sorts of “thick” descriptions of violence to arrest us, to interrupt us, and to reshape our notions of what the peace of Christ must look like if it is to be received and manifested in our lives. I think the practice of any truly Christian pacifism must look far less like a position or perspective on war (after all, a pacifism that just tells us not to kill is pretty damn minimalistic!) and the threat of subjective violence and far more like a way of reshaping our lives that make the deconstruction of relations of domination possible. What this means is endlessly complex and difficult, requiring extensive patience and intensive conversation.
This seems profoundly unsatisfying perhaps. However, I suggest that it is the first step we must all take in our attempts to learn what it might mean to try to live towards truthful nonviolence. The hallmark of what Žižek calls “liberal-humanitarian discourse on violence” is its contrived urgency. There is always some allegedly concrete and specific catasrophe that needs to be addressed and fixed now. The problem is never allowed to be something as radically extensive as “Maybe our whole form of life is wrong and has to be radically transfigured starting with me.” The first step in being nonviolent is to reject the sort of contrived urgency which distracts us with “concrete” problems as if they were aberrations that came out of nowhere. Rather we must learn to see them as the inevitable outcome of the systemic violence that sustains our way of life, and by doing so we can begin to learn what any sort of truly nonviolent life might look like and how we must reshape our lives in living towards that vision.