Thursday, 7 January 2010

Žižek on violence

Slavoj Žižek isn't exactly a theologian (or is he?): he's a Slovenian philosopher and critical theorist, a Marxist, a Lacanian (Lacan was a psychoanalyst), and an atheist Christian. He recently wrote a book with John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ, which was basically a big argument about whether atheism or orthodox Christianity is more, well, orthodoxly Christian. Žižek has been referred to as 'the most dangerous political philosopher in the West' and 'an academic rock star'; despite which, most people have never heard of him.

Anyway, he's written a book called Violence, about pacifism. No, not really, it's about violence. Violence is a hot topic in theology and philosophy these days, partly because of the horrendous violence of the 20th century, which rather dented people's hopes that science and enlightenment would make the world a better and more peaceful place.

Žižek argues that there are three different sorts of violence. Subjective violence is the violence we all recognise as violence: the sort of violence where Bob hits Bill. We all know who did it and who it was done to. But Žižek argues that this sort of violence all too often distracts us from two other sorts of violence which are actually more fundamental. These others are 'symbolic' violence and 'systemic' violence.

Symbolic violence is the sort of violence embedded in our language: the way we speak about other people which treats them as less important, less fully human; the sort of language which is a way of exercising power over people, of maintaining unjust relationships, of forcing our way of seeing things onto other people. Words and concepts like 'bitch', 'chav', 'Paki', 'old biddy', 'retard.'

Systemic violence is the sort of violence that's built into our social, political and economic systems, which means that simply as a result of our society functioning smoothly, people suffer. We get cheap clothes; children have to sew them for us. We get electricity, drive our cars to work, fly to Europe for a holiday; people in the Third World die when global warming causes flooding.

It's all too easy, Žižek says, to focus on the subjective violence: it's easier to spot, and is more obviously a disruption of the normal functioning of the world. But if we want to seriously engage with questions of violence, and to understand why 'irrational' acts of violence like terrorism take place, we have to engage with violence in all of its forms. We have to get political.

Photo credit: Lorcan Otway on Flickr


the don said...

Well done.

I came across this review of Girard's latest book on violence and the middle east:

I wonder if you would say he only looks at the first kind and not all three?

Andrew said...

Sounds to me like 'subjective' violence is not quite properly differentiated from the other types, since in learning to recognise and condemn instances of them, they become absorbed into that category.

Moreover, to label them 'violence' suggests that they *are* clear deviations from how things should be. But better alternative configurations are not so clear in this case. Any realistic social or linguistic arrangements will have out-groups, the marginalised, losers. Even if everyone has a reasonable standard of living.

I am sure Zizek and you know this.