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.
The 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.