The philosopher Slavoj Zizek enjoys a good joke. Here's one of my favourites: two men, having had a drink or two, go to the theatre, where they become thoroughly bored with the play. One feels a pressing need to urinate, so he tells his friend to mind his seat while he goes to find a toilet. "I think I saw one down the corridor outside," says his friend. The man wanders down the corridor, but finds no WC. Wandering further, he walks through a door and sees a plant pot. After copiously urinating into it, he returns to his seat. His friend says, "What a pity! You missed the best part. Some fellow just came on the stage and pissed in that plant pot."
This gag perfectly describes the argument of Zizek's new book on violence. Drunkenly watching the boring spectacle of the world stage, we might feel an overwhelming need to follow the call of nature somewhere discreet. Yet, in our bladder-straining self-interest, we lose sight of the objective reality of the play and our implication in its action. We are oblivious to the fact that we are pissing on stage for the world to see.
So it is with violence. Our subjective outrage at the facts of violence – a suicide bombing, a terrorist attack, the assassination of a political figure – blinds us to the objective violence of the world, a violence where we are perpetrators and not just innocent bystanders. All we see are apparently inexplicable acts that disturb the supposed peace of everyday life. We consistently overlook the objective or what Zizek calls "systemic" violence, endemic to our socio-economic order.
The main ambition of this book is to bring together subjective violence with the objective violence that is its underside and precondition. "Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious 'dark matter' of physics," Zizek writes: invisible to naked eye. Zizek offers a rather cool and at times cruel analysis of the varieties of objective violence. He asks tolerant multicultural Western liberals to suspend our outraged responses to acts of violence and turn instead to the real substance of the global situation. In order to understand violence, we need some good old-fashioned dispassionate materialist critique.
At the heart of Zizek's book is an argument about ideology that has been a powerful, constant feature of his work since he burst onto the intellectual scene in the late 1980s. Far from existing in some post-ideological world at the end of history where all problems can be diagnosed with neo-liberal economics and self-serving assertions of human rights, ideology completely structures our lived reality. This ideology might be subjectively invisible, but it is objectively real. Each of us is onstage, pissing in that plant pot. The great ideological illusion of the present is that there is no time to reflect and we have to act now. Zizek asks us to step back from the false urgency of the present with its multiple injunctions to intervene like good humanitarians.
His diagnosis of this ideology is quite delightful, producing counter-intuitive analyses that overturn what passes for common sense. Zizek rages against the reduction of love to masturbatory self-interest, the multiple hypocrisies of the Israel/Palestine conflict and the supposed liberal philanthropy of Bill Gates and George Soros. There is a fascinating analysis of the scenes of torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which display, Zizek rightly contends, nothing more than the obscene underside of American culture.
But whither all this dialectical brio? Ay, there's the rub. Zizek concludes with an apology for what he calls, following Walter Benjamin, "divine violence". The latter is understood theoretically as "the heroic assumption of the solitude of the sovereign decision". Practically, Zizek illustrates this with the Jacobin violence of Robespierre in France in the 1790s and the invasion of the dispossessed, a decade or so ago, descending from the slum favelas in Rio de Janeiro to disturb the peace of bourgeois neighbourhoods. But, in a final twist, Zizek counsels us to do nothing in the face of the objective, systemic violence of the world. We should "just sit and wait" and have the courage to do nothing: "Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do".
True enough, but what can this possibly mean? At the core of Zizek's relentless, indeed manic, production of books, articles and lectures is a fantasy, I think: what psychoanalysts would call an obsessional fantasy. On the one hand, the only authentic stance to take in dark times is to do nothing, to refuse all commitment, to be paralysed like Melville's Bartleby, the true hero of this book and others by Zizek. On the other hand, Zizek dreams of a divine violence, a cataclysmic, purifying violence of the sovereign ethical deed, something like that of Sophocles' Antigone.
But Shakespearean tragedy is a more illuminating guide here than its ancient Greek predecessor. For Zizek is a Slovenian Hamlet, utterly paralysed but dreaming of an avenging violent act for which, finally, he lacks the courage. In short, behind its shimmering inversions, Zizek's work leaves us in a fearful and fateful deadlock: the only thing to do is to do nothing. We should just sit and wait. As the great Dane says, "Readiness is all". But the truth is that Zizek is never ready. His work lingers in endless postponement and over-production. He ridicules others' attempts at thinking about commitment, resistance and action (we have crossed swords recently) while doing nothing himself. What sustains his work is a dream of divine violence, cruelty and force. I hope that one day his dreams come true.
Simon Critchley is professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. His 'The Book of Dead Philosophers' will be published by Granta in June
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