“Violence”: A Review

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Violence is work commissioned by Picador for their “Big Ideas//small books” series, all with titles like “Choice” or “Time” and so on.

The main reason we are interested in Violence is the author: Slavoj Žižek. Roughly, it’s pronounced “slav-oy shzee-shzek.”

Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher (a more contemporary phrase might be cultural theorist) who emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, he has become, at least by philosophy standards, a pop figure and celebrity.

There are a few reasons for this relative celebrity. Žižek manages to combine the most brilliant and cutting insights with often common examples drawn from personal experience or from movies. He is not afraid to be crude or glib, or to shatter your illusions. He is famous for his jokes during lectures, which often contain layers insight. Thus, he is a gust of fresh air from generations of densely academic philosophy.

Keeping in mind that Žižek is from the former Soviet bloc, and was thus a member of “actually existing socialism”. This necessarily has deep influence on his thought and perspective. He claims to be a Marxist today; indeed, he uses intellectual and academic methods directly descended from the works of Hegel, Marx, and Freud. Again speaking roughly, Žižek worked in the tradition of “continental” (as opposed to the very mathematical ‘analytic’) philosophy. So called “continental” philosophy places great importance on the idea of the “dialectic”.

A dialectic is basically the idea that things are deeply interconnected. A simple dialectic would be ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’. At first, these things are totally and irreconcilably opposed. But if we reflect deeply and seriously, we will find that the two are not so easy to separate or to define. They become merely poles in a much larger definition or series of actions (as we can see from phrases like “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure” or “The way to hell is paved with good intentions”. Good and Evil, then form a complex dialectic instead of just simple definitions. As such, what counts as truly good or truly evil actions on the part of individuals is not so easy to define.

Thus Žižek works at the intersection Dialectical Materialism (a focus on actually existing things instead of the metaphysical) and psychoanalysis by way of Lacan (a thinker who heavily updated and revised Freud). Needless to say, there is not much of tradition of this in the US, excepting some emigre thinkers from Germany (The Frankfurt School).

Violence itself is typical Žižek. And to be honest, I found many recycled examples and sections which it seems like he has copy-and-pasted from some of his other stuff. Not that this makes it any less absolutely brilliant and necessary, it just felt (a little too often) that I had read this paragraph before. Žižek makes a distinction between three types of violence: subjective (crime, terror), objective (racism, hate-speech), and systemic (political, economic and social systems; the crime of Wall Street foreclosing on millions of Americans and forcing them out of their homes compared to a simple strong-arm robbery. Legal crime). He finds the source of violence in the concept of the Neighbour: the Other, the one with which we must put up with but is yet irreconcilably different. He finds violence implicit in our very language; our words themselves betray us and force us into a mental frame where violence is acceptable, and right even.

Without running through Žižek’s whole philosophy, I can say that he has no illusions, and has no problem with shattering yours. He takes complex issues (which mainstream media do a terrible job of explaining) and quickly boils them down to harsh truths which spare no one, whether Islamic Fundamentalists, Western Liberals or Western Conservatives. No one is spared the lash. On the other hand, he has no political program and no easy answers. This only makes what he has to say even more important and relevant. He is no here to help Hillary Clinton win in 2016; he is not here to make Karl Marx win in 2016; nor is he here to help Jeb Bush win in 2016. He is not interested and would tell you that all of these candidates are a disaster in their own right.

As the cover says, Žižek is “erudite and incendiary”.

In Violence, he makes an excellent argument for the morality of atheism, probably the best and most concise that I have read. He makes mince meat of Islamic Fundamentalism (calling it a disgrace to fundamentalism (compared to the Amish, say), insecure, and all ready judging itself by western standards. He attacks globalisation and capitalism as the vortex destroying our cultures and ecosystem. He exposes the hypocrisy and violence behind the War on Terror, and makes no bones about ridiculing   politically correct liberals.

This is some of the best stuff you can read. It’s vibrant, edgy; beyond intelligent and insightful, this book is powerful. It rings true (if you are honest with yourself). Be warned, you must be well read, or at least prepared to heavily use the internet if you wish to follow along. Another Must Read. x1reb

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