Zizek, Slavoj. Violence. New York: Picador. 2008. Print.
Zizek’s approach to discussing violence is decidedly sideways, as he notes that “the only appropriate approach to this subject thus seems to be one which permits variations on violence kept at a distance out of respect towards its victims” (4). He notes that there is subjective violence, or “violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent” (1), such as one person hitting another, which is what is most often identified as “violence.” He is most interested, however, in the two other kinds of violence: “symbolic violence embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call ‘our house of being’” (1) and “systemic violence, or the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems” (2). Zizek is concerned that these latter two forms of violence are invisible because they are seen as the normal state of society. In the example of the Soviet government forcing out the bourgeois, Zizek notes that the rich might have truly thought that they had done no violence to the proletariat, but claims that this is still violence, one of “the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence” (9).
Zizek is not afraid to offend his audience. He sees capitalism and its offspring, the so-called “liberal communists” who use their earnings from capitalistic societies to supposedly spread their wealth, as violent. In these systems, he feels that “this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their ‘evil’ intentions, but is purely ‘objective,’ systemic, anonymous” (13). In this way, no one individual can be seen as the harbinger of the ills that Zizek sees as inseparable from capitalism: the system itself is flawed.
Perhaps most notably, Zizek discusses the idea of tolerance in today’s society, in that everything is tolerable (all differences, all cultural foreignness), so long as the Other is not too close:
the proximity (of the tortured subject) which causes sympathy and makes torture unacceptable is not the victim’s mere physical proximity but, at its most fundamental, the proximity of the Neighbor, with all the Judeo-Christian-Freudian weight of this term, the proximity of the thing which, no matter how far away it is physical, is always by definition “too close.” (45)
In this way, Zizek can explain that the death of Americans on 9/11 was a tragedy to all Americans, whereas America’s response to invade multiple countries and kill many people was seen as not a tragedy, but a political strategy—Americans identified with the Americans killed in 9/11, but not those across the world.
The work goes on to discuss such varied topics as the Holocaust, 9/11, and human love and desire as violent acts, all within the rhetorical context that he constructs at the beginning of the work.
Zizek was my first foray into the world of rhetoric, and thus I think he has shaped my ways of thinking about violence and language in ways that I am only beginning to discern. On language specifically, he notes: “The ‘wall of language’ which forever separates me from the abyss of another subject is simultaneously that which opens up and sustains the abyss—the very obstacle that separates me from the Beyond is what creates its mirage” (73). And, even more simply, the act of naming something is an act of violence, in that “Language simplifies the designated thing, destroying its organic unity, treating its parts and properties as autonomous” (61). In this way, isn’t calling someone an “Appalachian” as violent as calling someone a “redneck” or “hillbilly?” Or, in calling someone a “man” or “woman,” is the speaker not reducing them to a perceived set of gender markers and an assumption about their predispositions for strength, emotional capacity, or intelligence on any given subject? In this thread, allowing individuals to set their own definitions of self becomes exceedingly important, as they may see a seemingly innocuous title a violent offense.
Zizek is often controversial, sometimes whimsical, and fills this volume full of snarky and obviously judgmental overtones on the state of global affairs. This is fine if noted, but one should not take everything that he says as a fact or even as popular opinion; I doubt that all philosophers would agree with him, and certainly he is gaining no friends in the political sphere. With this in mind, one may use his definitions of violence and how he sees them operating in the world as tools with which we may speak about events such as mountaintop removal or the death of small towns across the United States.
I chose to begin with Zizek because I read this book when I was in my second semester of college, in the first classes where I was encouraged to think. This, of course, sent me into a tailspin—I attempted vegetarianism for nine months, began thinking critically about issues like women’s rights and racism, and wondered where I fit into this great machine of oppressions (because I did, in fact, fit into it, even by merit of being born in a capitalistic society). If I had not begun with Zizek, he would have been the large, often volatile elephant in the room.
— Emily Blair