- Works of Violent Love1
After the 50,000-plus student march in London protesting the British government’s proposed tuition-fee increases and higher-education cuts, Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the storming of Tory headquarters. “What is not part of our democracy is that sort of violence and lawbreaking. It’s not acceptable and I hope that the full force of the law will be used,” he declared at the G20 summit. Slavoj Žižek, speaking at Birkbeck, University of London, not only expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, he also condoned the destructive occupation of Millbank tower: “[Critics say,] ‘You could have delivered the same message without violence.’ Fuck them! Of course you could…but nobody would hear the message.”
This incident gets at Žižek’s agenda in Violence, which begins by rejecting pieties about anti-violence as naïve or cynical, demonstrates how liberaldemocratic attitudes and institutions are complicit in violence, and concludes by endorsing emancipatory violence. After watching media coverage of protests quickly redubbed riots, we might be persuaded that violence is incompatible with democracy. But our desire to see peace restored and property rights protected, Žižek would have us understand, has been overdetermined; we’ve succumbed to a “fake sense of urgency” (6) and overlooked the protest’s larger objective: to reject the harmful effects of austerity measures—made necessary, unelected experts insist, by the global financial crisis. If implemented, widespread budget cuts threaten the average Brit more than a random knife attack. They will further weaken the long-besieged welfare state, exposing the middle and lower classes to even greater risk, though the poor will suffer most. Violence provides a theoretical framework enabling readers to describe, in terms more refined than Žižek’s blunt remarks, how austerity measures follow from and will perpetuate the objective violence that preconditions our ordinary existence.
This observation points to the most useful feature of Žižek’s book, its dialectical typology of violence. Žižek posits a triumvirate of modes of violence: subjective and two varieties of objective violence, symbolic and systemic. Subjective violence monopolizes our attention because crime, terror, [End Page 323] war, and civil unrest are performed by “clearly identifiable agent[s]” whose “directly visible” acts appear as aberrations disrupting the peace. But if we’re serious about ameliorating suffering, Žižek argues, we must resist its “fascinating lure” (1). By reorienting ourselves and looking awry at subjectively violent situations, we can discern traces of largely invisible modes of social violence in the background of our ostensibly peaceful, everyday reality. Such symbolic and systemic violence works to sustain the “zero-level standard against which we perceive something as subjectively violent” (2). Symbolic violence does not refer to hate speech or aggressive representations—these are the targets of a misguided political correctness that aims to regulate content rather than “changing the subjective position from which we speak” (100)—but rather to the way language, “the very medium of non-violence, of mutual recognition” (65), violently imposes a particular “universe of meaning” (2). Elaborating on this Hegelian contradiction, Žižek explains, “when we perceive something as an act of violence, we measure it by a presupposed standard of what the ‘normal’ non-violent situation is—and the highest form of violence is the imposition of this standard with reference to which some events appear as ‘violent’” (64). In short, violence is not an ontological given, something inherent to certain acts; it only appears within a particular context, a socio-symbolic framework that is structured by ideology, which is shaped as much by unconscious fantasies as conscious beliefs.
Today, the predominant universe of meaning is defined by global capitalism, and Žižek excels at diagnosing the creative destruction wrought by this world-system. His critique of the charitable ethics embraced by entrepreneur philanthropists, “liberal communists” who believe their largesse can compensate for ruthless profiteering and counteract the fallout from globalization, is especially damning. Capitalist dynamics are not evil per se, but people who profit from capitalism and then exempt themselves from its devastating effects—typically by trying to “buy their way out of their own activity” (27)—are. Žižek’s moral...