Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, June 15, 2012

Slavoj Zizek, _Violence_

ONE AFTERNOON IN 1980 or 1981, when I was in a graduate school, another graduate student and I were outside University Hall chatting with an assistant professor--or he  may have just become an associate.  The other student and I, no doubt hoping to impress, were batting around our ideas of Foucault.  The professor said, "You know, I actually haven't read Foucault."

This pulled us up short. We must have looked puzzled.

"Oh, I tried...what is the English version of Les Mots et Les Choses called?"

"The Order of Things."

"Right.  Well, I got about a hundred pages in and just thought, life's too short."

The other student and I exchanged a "dear god, what do we have here?" look and plunged on into our thoughts on Discipline and Punish and the first volume of History of Sexuality, hoping to convince the professor that he was missing out on something.  I remember resolving to never, once I was a professor, let myself get that lazy.

So thirty-odd years later, here I am not having read much in the crit-theory line in about a dozen years. My excuses? Well, the whole scene began to seem ossified, I suppose; once there is a Norton Anthology of something, the élan vital of whatever it is has likely leached away into the ether. Nothing seemed to have the skull-opening buzz of Gender Trouble or Epistemology of the Closet. And then, you know...life's too short.

Well, I am going to try to do better. I have now actually finished Zizek's Violence (which I started about fourteen months ago and put aside because life's too...).

I had read a couple of his books before, and this one made an impression similar to that of those two: memorable less for its argument than for its brilliant asides, illustrations, jokes, obiter dicta.  Zizek, I imagine, has more cool ideas while brushing his teeth than I will have in a lifetime.

He does have an argument here, of course, usefully summarized in the first paragraph of his epilogue.  The book responds to discussions of the "violence" of certain groups in much-covered episodes of 2005: the looting after Katrina, the riots in the Paris suburbs, the demonstrations against that Danish cartoonists's anti-Islamic cartoons. We see and condemn that violence, he argues, but fail to see the exclusions and coercions to which it responds, exclusions and coercions that are themselves a kind of violence even though we do not not know them and name them as such.

Fundamentalism and liberal tolerance tend to bring out the worst in each other, each bringing its own kind of violence to bear on the other, each blaming the other for its particular violence. Violence is probably inevitable, but there's violence and then there's violence. The final chapter on Benjamin and "Divine Violence" is Zizek at his scary best.

Again, though, it's the things he says along the way that stick with you.

"Science and religion have changed places: today, science provides the security religion once guaranteed. In a curious inversion, religion is one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today's society.  It has become one of the sites of resistance."

Huh? But sure enough, as it was free scientific inquiry that undermined the ancien régime's claim to legitimacy in the 18th century, while the church stoutly supported that legitimacy, today technical expertise (military, diplomatic, psychological, as well as the natural sciences) is the authority that may not be questioned, while a few stubborn nuns or Quakers keep dissent alive.

Not that Z. has become a religio-phile.  His solution to the Israel-Palestine question is for everyone to just forget about their religion for a while.

Or this:

"The key moment of any theoretical--and indeed ethical, political, and, as Badiou demonstrated, even aesthetic--struggle is the rise of universality out of the particular lifeworld.  The commonplace according to which we are all thoroughly grounded in a particular, contingent lifeworld, so that all universality is irreducibly coloured by and embedded in that lifeworld, needs to be turned round. The authentic moment of discovery, the breakthrough, occurs when a properly universal dimension explodes from within a particular context and becomes 'for-itself,' and is directly experienced as universal."

Page 152--emphasis Zizek's.  Again, huh?! What?! Back when I was reading a lot of this sort of thing, "universal" was a roundly scorned concept--ditto "timeless."  It was all about difference. Who is this Badiou?  Do I need to read him?  Life's too short! OK, obviously, my investigations need to continue.

What you have to love about Zizek are the examples he pulls out of nowhere that become the perfectly apposite illustration of a point. G. K. Chesterton, Alfonso Cuarón, Ben Hecht, Nip/Tuck, Rob Reiner, and Dorothy Parker rub shoulders in this book with John Rawls, Peter Sloterdijk, Walter Benjamin, and Alain Badiou, whoever he is.  And William Butler Yeats!  Quoted not just once, but twice.

Even the index is brilliant.  I wonder if he compiled it himself. Consider:

"Sloterdijk, Peter  22-3, 55, 59;
  denounces every global emancipatory
  project 194; proposes an alternative
  history of the West 186; Rage and 
  Time (Zorn und Zeit) 185, 188, 231n8,
  231n9; supplements philosophical
  categories with their opposites 186;
  on the true meaning of the events
  of 1990 185-6."

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