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Žižek on Violence

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.


  1. poserorprophet wrote:

    I’m really loving Žižek more and more these days. It seems like Žižek is developing what he has written in In Defense of Lost Causes — although rather than leaning towards pacifism, I think Žižek wants to justify terror in the name of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

    To be honest, he is pretty damn convincing.

    But, don’t worry, I haven’t abandoned my Christian commitment to non-violence (not yet, anyway). I really do agree with your emphasis upon a need for patience, for thick description, and for “living towards” an alternative vision. This, of course, doesn’t negate the urgency of the issues which confront us — many of them really are urgent — it just means that we can’t fall for the quick fixes that become more and more appealing as time goes on, and things go unchanged.

    Saturday, September 6, 2008 at 11:00 pm | Permalink
  2. dcrowe wrote:

    I picked up this book about a week ago just to thumb through it while eating an oatmeal cookie at Barnes and Noble and enjoyed what I read. Shortly afterward, my wife and I turned on the television and saw a very effective, horribly sad Sierra Club ad about shrinking ice caps and polar bears. Just 30 seconds of a polar bear parent and cub on a bobbing ice chunk, eventually jumping off to swim out into the ocean. I thought of Žižek’s book immediately. The commercial aimed to get me to give Sierra Club some cash, which might have been a good thing to do, but supporting a nonprofit that deals with global warming is so not even the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Climate change is a good teachable moment for adherents of Christian nonviolence – it emerges from the collective, small acts of so many people and structures that to stave it off will require radical changes in how large masses of people live. Same is true for violence.

    Yes, the polar bear and the Iraq war are emergencies – but if all we do is jump off the coach and try to *act* to fix things without *changing* to fix things, it’s no good even setting down the remote control.

    Saturday, September 6, 2008 at 11:25 pm | Permalink
  3. A problem with “thick descriptions” is that they might become so thick that they apply to almost everything, and thereby loose their power to confront us and point us to alternatives. Since I haven´t read Zizek, I cannot tell if this is the case here, but I hear some distant alarm bells in my head when reading your review. I agree that we need this, especially as pacifists, but we should be aware that this way of reasoning can easily be used by those saying that sin is everywhere and there´s no way of escaping it, so why try at all?Isn´t it better to use violence in a “responsible” way if there´s no way of escaping it anyway? (=Where do I sign up for the war/revolution?)

    I generally prefer to use more words in a narrow way than a broaden our concepts so that they cover all and nothing.

    Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  4. adamsteward wrote:

    Dcrowe -

    I think this is what you’re getting at, but I would say that perhaps even more dangerous than the naive Hummer driver who could give a shit what the consequences of his transportation might be is the person who cares deeply about these issues, but assumes that he has become innocent by means of a donation to the sierra club, or erasing his carbon footprint, or buying organic groceries. The whole apparatus that makes any of these options possible is the objective violence that Zizek speaks of.

    My question in general is that given the tragic inability of our actions to really affect change, is there still no place for symbolic action? Is there no place for any of the traditional liberal causes to still have meaning as a protest against the objective violence of society? Zizek refers to these as “empty gestures,” but I wonder to what extent they might be transformed into “pleromatic gestures” in the fullness of eschatological hope.

    Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  5. adamsteward wrote:

    Also, is anyone else troubled by how suave Zizek looks in that picture?

    Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  6. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Yeah, every once in a while I think they clean him up a bit, make him look pretty and somewhat socially-acceptable, and then snap a few shots like this one.

    Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  7. dcrowe wrote:

    adamsteward: That’s exactly what I’m getting at. The sad truth is that too often people who would be part of more extensive solutions channel their “do something!” impulse into very passive methods.

    Nick Turse’s book, “The Complex,” gives a good example of what Zizek is talking about in his opening chapter. He gives a long litany of mundane everyday consumer activities that prop up civilian companies that have become military contractors. An anti-war activist can go through his or her entire day supporting the military/industrial/congressional complex without knowing it, even on days they take symbolic actions against it.

    “My question in general is that given the tragic inability of our actions to really affect change, is there still no place for symbolic action? Is there no place for any of the traditional liberal causes to still have meaning as a protest against the objective violence of society? Zizek refers to these as “empty gestures,” but I wonder to what extent they might be transformed into “pleromatic gestures” in the fullness of eschatological hope.”

    I absolutely think there is a place for symbolic action. I think symbolic action is important in waking people out of the unconscious support they provide to structural evil, but it’s got to be paired with a changed life, with noncooperation, and with active nonviolent disruption if it’s going to make a difference.

    But I also agree with Yoder that “effectiveness” isn’t the point – faithfulness is. I want to withdraw my support from the militarism of my country not because I think my paltry effort will make a dent, but because it’s what Christ calls us to do.

    Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  8. Nathan Smith wrote:

    What does Bill Gates have to do with your iMac?

    Monday, September 8, 2008 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Oops, I guess I should have referenced my PC there…

    Monday, September 8, 2008 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  10. Tom Ferguson wrote:


    i disagree. Zizek actually calls against a form of urgency. He asks us to refuse to always ask (read: the interpassitivity arguments from “on lenin” “revolution at the gates” “iraq: the borrowed kettle” and even in “Violence”). He says the constant call to action is what allows the status quo to stay the same….

    maybe i am misreading you but zizek isn’t for a call for urgency but for the exact opposite, to refuse to act in all circumstances…

    Sunday, November 9, 2008 at 9:47 am | Permalink

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