This short review of Slavoj Zizek's new book Violence appears this week in Time Out.
When, in November 2005, young men began torching cars and ransacking
supermarkets in the suburbs of Paris, they made no demands and had no
programme or manifesto, so it was left to intellectuals and
commentators to try to make sense of three weeks of rioting. The
violence had to have some deeper significance, they said; it couldn’t
be just a meaningless paroxysm.
But what if the firebombing
and pillaging were in fact just a self-destructive acting out? What if
things were as they appeared to be? It’s a fallacy, says Slavoj Zizek
in his new book, to suppose that violence must always have a deep-lying
cause susceptible of rational articulation. Intellectuals often succumb
to what he calls a ‘hermeneutic temptation’ when they search for the
‘real reasons’ behind this outbreak of violence or that. Zizek takes as
an example the violent reaction by some Muslims to the Danish newspaper
cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Many Western liberals fell
over themselves to insist that the protesters’ motives weren’t ‘really’
religious but actually had to do with Western imperialism, the
situation in Israel-Palestine and so on, as if theology were always and
everywhere nothing but the misplaced expression of legitimate rage.
main problem with Zizek’s book, which is written with his usual
contrarian élan, is that he can’t give up the mental habits he
criticises. He draws a distinction between ‘subjective violence’ (which
most of us would just call ‘violence’) – that is, the violent things
done by individuals and entities such as states – and ‘systemic’ or
‘symbolic’ violence, which isn’t violence at all but injustice of one
kind or another. To rail against the former, Zizek says, is to lose
sight of the latter. ‘Humanitarian sympathy’ with the victims of
(subjective) violence is just false consciousness, ‘an ideological
operation par excellence’. Lucky for us that the lonely philosopher can
see through the mirage of fellow-feeling to the way things really are.
Benjamin Markovits’ previous novel, Imposture, opened with a
prologue, allegedly signed by the author himself. It informed readers
that the tale of literary deception they were about to begin was in
fact the work of a former teaching colleague of his named Peter
Pattieson. It claimed that Pattieson had left Markovits a bundle of
papers, among which was a series of novels on the life of the poet Lord
Byron. Imposture was the first of this series, written in a
perfect facsimile of a style “nearly two hundred years old”. Pattieson,
Markovits said, spoke and wrote “Romantic like a mother tongue”.