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The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek

A celebration of violence is one of the most prominent strands in Žižek’s work. He finds fault with Marx for thinking that violence can be justified as part of the conflict between objectively defined social classes. Class war must not be understood as “a conflict between particular agents within social reality: it is not a difference between agents (which can be described by means of a detailed social analysis), but an antagonism (‘struggle’) which constitutes these agents.” Applying this view when discussing Stalin’s assault on the peasantry, Žižek describes how the distinction between kulaks (rich peasants) and others became “blurred and unworkable: in a situation of generalized poverty, clear criteria no longer applied, and the other two classes of peasants often joined the kulaks in their resistance to forced collectivization.” In response to this situation the Soviet authorities introduced a new category, the sub-kulak, a peasant too poor to be classified as a kulak but who shared kulak values:

The art of identifying a kulak was thus no longer a matter of objective social analysis; it became a kind of complex “hermeneutics of suspicion,” of identifying an individual’s “true political attitudes” hidden beneath his or her deceptive public proclamations.

Describing mass murder in this way as an exercise in hermeneutics is repugnant and grotesque; it is also characteristic of Žižek’s work. He criticizes Stalin’s policy of collectivization, but not on account of the millions of human lives that were violently truncated or broken in its course. What Žižek criticizes is Stalin’s lingering attachment (however inconsistent or hypocritical) to “‘scientific’ Marxist terms.” Relying on “objective social analysis” for guidance in revolutionary situations is an error: “at some point, the process has to be cut short with a massive and brutal intervention of subjectivity: class belonging is never a purely objective social fact, but is always also the result of struggle and social engagement.” Rather than Stalin’s relentless use of torture and lethal force, it is the fact that he tried to justify the systematic use of violence by reference to Marxian theory that Žižek condemns.

Žižek’s rejection of anything that might be described as social fact comes together with his admiration of violence in his interpretation of Nazism. Commenting on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s much-discussed involvement with the Nazi regime, Žižek writes: “His involvement with the Nazis was not a simple mistake, but rather a ‘right step in the wrong direction.’” Contrary to many interpretations, Heidegger was not a radical reactionary. “Reading Heidegger against the grain, one discovers a thinker who was, at some points, strangely close to communism”—indeed, during the mid-Thirties, Heidegger might be described as “a future communist.”

If Heidegger mistakenly chose to back Hitler, the mistake was not in underestimating the violence that Hitler would unleash:

The problem with Hitler was that he was “not violent enough,” his violence was not “essential” enough. Hitler did not really act, all his actions were fundamentally reactions, for he acted so that nothing would really change, staging a gigantic spectacle of pseudo-Revolution so that the capitalist order would survive…. The true problem of Nazism is not that it “went too far” in its subjectivist-nihilist hubris of exercising total power, but that it did not go far enough, that its violence was an impotent acting-out which, ultimately, remained in the service of the very order it despised.

What was wrong with Nazism, it seems, is that—like the later experiment in total revolution of the Khmer Rouge—it failed to create any new kind of collective life. Žižek says little regarding the nature of the form of life that might have come into being had Germany been governed by a regime less reactive and powerless than he judges Hitler’s to have been. He does make plain that there would be no room in this new life for one particular form of human identity:

The fantasmatic status of anti- Semitism is clearly revealed by a statement attributed to Hitler: “We have to kill the Jew within us.” …Hitler’s statement says more than it wants to say: against his intentions, it confirms that the Gentiles need the anti-Semitic figure of the “Jew” in order to maintain their identity. It is thus not only that “the Jew is within us”—what Hitler fatefully forgot to add is that he, the anti-Semite, is also in the Jew. What does this paradoxical entwinement mean for the destiny of anti-Semitism?

Žižek is explicit in censuring “certain elements of the radical Left” for “their uneasiness when it comes to unambiguously condemning anti-Semitism.” But it is difficult to understand the claim that the identities of anti-Semites and Jewish people are in some way mutually reinforcing—which is repeated, word for word, in Less Than Nothing—except as suggesting that the only world in which anti-Semitism can cease to exist is one in which there are no longer any Jews.

Interpreting Žižek on this or any issue is not without difficulties. There is his inordinate prolixity, the stream of texts that no one could read in their entirety, if only because the torrent never ceases flowing. There is his use of a type of academic jargon featuring allusive references to other thinkers, which has the effect of enabling him to use language in an artful, hermetic way. As he acknowledges, Žižek borrows the term “divine violence” from Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (1921). It is doubtful whether Benjamin—a thinker who had important affinities with the Frankfurt School of humanistic Marxism—would have described the destructive frenzy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution or the Khmer Rouge as divine.

But this is beside the point, for by using Benjamin’s construction Žižek is able to praise violence and at the same time claim that he is speaking of violence in a special, recondite sense—a sense in which Gandhi can be described as being more violent than Hitler.5 And there is Žižek’s regular recourse to a laborious kind of clowning wordplay:

The…virtualization of capitalism is ultimately the same as that of the electron in particle physics. The mass of each elementary particle is composed of its mass at rest plus the surplus provided by the acceleration of its movement; however, an electron’s mass at rest is zero, its mass consists only of the surplus generated by the acceleration, as if we are dealing with a nothing which acquires some deceptive substance only by magically spinning itself into an excess of itself.

It is impossible to read this without recalling the Sokal affair in which Alan Sokal, a professor of physics, submitted a spoof article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” to a journal of postmodern cultural studies. Equally, it is hard to read this and many similar passages in Žižek without suspecting that he is engaged—wittingly or otherwise—in a kind of auto-parody.

There may be some who are tempted to condemn Žižek as a philosopher of irrationalism whose praise of violence is more reminiscent of the far right than the radical left. His writings are often offensive and at times (as when he writes of Hitler being present “in the Jew”) obscene. There is a mocking frivolity in Žižek’s paeans to terror that recalls the Italian Futurist and ultra-nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Fascist (and later Maoist) fellow traveler Curzio Malaparte more than any thinker in the Marxian tradition. But there is another reading of Žižek, which may be more plausible, in which he is no more an epigone of the right than he is a disciple of Marx or Lenin.

Whether or not Marx’s vision of communism is “the inherent capitalist fantasy,” Žižek’s vision—which apart from rejecting earlier conceptions lacks any definite content—is well adapted to an economy based on the continuous production of novel commodities and experiences, each supposed to be different from any that has gone before. With the prevailing capitalist order aware that it is in trouble but unable to conceive of practicable alternatives, Žižek’s formless radicalism is ideally suited to a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility. That there should be this isomorphism between Žižek’s thinking and contemporary capitalism is not surprising. After all, it is only an economy of the kind that exists today that could produce a thinker such as Žižek. The role of global public intellectual Žižek performs has emerged along with a media apparatus and a culture of celebrity that are integral to the current model of capitalist expansion.

In a stupendous feat of intellectual overproduction Žižek has created a fantasmatic critique of the present order, a critique that claims to repudiate practically everything that currently exists and in some sense actually does, but that at the same time reproduces the compulsive, purposeless dynamism that he perceives in the operations of capitalism. Achieving a deceptive substance by endlessly reiterating an essentially empty vision, Žižek’s work—nicely illustrating the principles of paraconsistent logic—amounts in the end to less than nothing.

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    “It’s crucial to see violence which is done repeatedly to keep the things the way they are. In that sense, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.” See Shobhan Saxena’s interview with Žižek, “ First they called me a joker, now I am a dangerous thinker,” The Times of India, January 10, 2010. 

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