Saturday, July 5, 2014

Zizek, 2008, Violence (political theory)

Slavoj Zizik (2008) has written about violence as objective and subjective, reflecting much the same concepts that Galtung describes (more obviously, I think) as structural and physical.  Physical (subjective) violence - I punch you in the nose; structural (objective) violence - I prevent you from going to school or getting a job.  Zizek goes much further in his conceptualization of objective violence, including the meaning of language, in good critical theory style, but as it verges into sophistry, it loses the pragmatic elements that Galtung points towards. Zizek is a philosopher; Galtung's a peace activist, so he's more focused on getting results.  In his interview on CBC “Line in the Sand”  Zizek says capitalism is moving to autocracy and china is the future - capitalism has used the crisis to win and the left has lost because it can't offer any solutions, but I think his book might be worse than empty criticism - it might be misleading and dangerous.

Slavoj Zizek (2008) Violence. Part 2, Fear thy neighbour as thyself, “The politics of fear” and  “The Neighbour Thing”.  

The previous section finished with a quote from Brecht: you may be a good man, but, 

“…we know you are our enemy. This is why we shall now put you in front of a wall. But in consideration of your merits and good qualities, we shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you with a good bullet from a good gun and bury you with a good shovel in the good earth.” (Zizek, Violence, “Sexuality in the Atonal World” 14/14)

I’m beginning to see Zizek as evil and destructive, like Popper’s enemies of the open society. But he writes in ways that skirt direct advocacy, so if misguided teenagers commit atrocities in his name, he can deny that’s what he meant. Miroljub Jeftic seems honest in comparison to this sophistry justifying violence against those who struggle to mitigate it.

Miroljub Jeftic is a professor at University of Belgrade who raised the alarm about resurgent Islamism in Bosnia in the late 1980s, after Alija Izetbegovic was released from prison. He had been imprisoned in 1975 for publishing his Islamic Declaration, which advocated the end of the secular state and imposition of Sharia and Islamic values.  Jeftic did content analysis of Islamic youth magazines published in Sarajevo and found evidence of increasing intolerance and militancy, including veiled advocacy of violence with Koranic references. I interviewed him in Belgrade in 1996, and looked at some of his evidence, including independent translations of some magazine articles and the Islamic Declaration. He wasn’t making it up – these documents advocated fascism and intolerance incompatible with a democratic and secular society, as Yugoslavia was at the time, even if freedom was curtailed.  Jeftic was subsequently vilified because Serb nationalists seized on his work to justify ethnic cleansing.  I met him in Prijedor in 1996 as he was recognized as a hero of the Orthodox Church – to his embarrassment as a good secular socialist. 

My misgivings about Zizek began with his explicit support for expelling the intellectual enemies of the early Soviet Union, and my uneasy feeling that he is consciously unraveling values for the sake of unraveling them continues with these two sections (“The politics of fear” and  “The Neighbour Thing”), as if he is gleefully pulling legs off an insect.  Here he seems to say, “you may think that you love your neighbours, but you are really just defining them in ways that will permit you to dehumanize, kill and mutilate them,” and again, “love is a sham, and it’s more ethical to tell someone that than to pretend that you love them.”  These are paraphrases, but clear impressions. 

He defines today’s politics as post-political bio-politics.  Post-political implies depoliticized, socially objective, expert administration and coordination of interests, and since there is no passion in this post-ideological era, the only way to mobilize people is to stimulate fear of being harassed or oppressed: “Bio-politics is ultimately a politics of fear; it focuses on defence from potential victimization or harassment….Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment…” (1 and 3/10).  But the inversion here is that post-political bio-politics as he defines it entails the rejection of ideology in favour of a broad conception of human security.   

He goes on to discuss the reluctance to impose individual suffering close to us, evidenced in our advocacy of human rights, with the willingness to impose mass suffering on those at a distance: beating students is bad, but bombing Cambodia can be ignored:  

“We are thus all caught in a kind of ethical illusion, parallel to perceptual illusions…our power of abstract reasoning has developed immensely, [but] our emotional-ethical responses remain conditioned by age-old instinctual reactions of sympathy to suffering and pain that is witnessed directly.” (6/10)

Here’s where the sophistry picks up. Yes, I do mean the use of fallacious arguments with the intent to deceive. Zizek uses complicated sentences, inversion of meaning, and dubious authorities taken out of context to turn black into white and white into black: love is hate, acceptance is rejection, and injunctions against violence are exhortations to kill your neighbours. This is Orwellian stuff. It might be OK if the purpose is to reveal evil through clever rhetoric, but maybe it just is evil?

He argues that Harris’s utilitarian argument for preventing mass suffering is a way of dehumanizing the neighbour (9/10), then (the beginning of “the Neighbour Thing”) quotes dialogues from the Middle East, that “An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.” (1/19), and when Frankenstein speaks we see him as human, although he’s a monster.  Rather than stop there on the universality of humanity, he goes on to recount the humanity of Stalin’s villains: 

“Hannah Arendt was right: these figures were not personifications of sublime Byronesque demonic evil: the gap between their intimate experience and the horror of their acts was immense. The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie-the truth lies outside, in what we do. (n8. This is why anyone interested in the topic of evil should look at Claudia Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience Cambridge: Belknap press, 2003, a detailed report on the Nazi ethical discourse which provided the rationale for their crimes.)” (3/19)

So for evil-doers, the truth lies outside, in what we do, but for those who do even small amounts of ‘subjective’ good, the truth lies in the wider ‘objective’ evil impact of their action, and therefore we can ignore the evil of Stalinism but put Brecht’s “good men” against a “good wall”.  

He then goes on to give examples of the hypocrisy and inconsistency of constrained morality: “…those who constrain the scope of their ethical concern are in a profound sense inconsistent, ‘hypocritical’ even…involved in a pragmatic contradiction…” (4/19) So because we can’t be equally caring for our family and an unknown mass of people on the other side of the world, our concern for our family is a sham.

The next leap of sophistry is to deny that any expression of love can be ethical. The passengers of doomed flight UA93 on 9/11 phoned their loved ones and expressed love, 

“…a suspicion remains here: is this desperate confession of love also not something of a sham, the same kind of fakery as the sudden turn to God and prayer of someone who suddenly faces the danger or proximity of death – a hypocritical opportunistic move born of fear, not of true conviction? … the survival instinct makes us betray our desire?” (emphasis original, 8/19)

The sophist inversions continue. Expressions of love are just expressions of desire. But Western intellectuals heroically standing up to anti-communist hysteria in defiance of the evidence of Soviet inhumanity is good:

“Isn’t it the very illusory nature of their belief that makes their subjective stance so tragically sublime? The miserable reality of the Stalinist Soviet Union gives their inner conviction a fragile beauty. This leads us to a radical and unexpected conclusion: it is not enough to say that we are dealing here with a tragically misplaced ethical conviction with a blind trust that avoids confronting the miserable terrifying reality of its ethical point of reference.  What if, on the contrary, such a blindness, such a violent exclusionary gesture of refusing to see, such a disavowal of reality, such a fetishist attitude of ‘I know very well that things are horrible in the Soviet Union, but I believe none the less in Soviet socialism’ is the innermost constituent of every ethical stance?” (9-10/19)

Every ethics, he argues relies on a gesture of fetishist disavowal, drawing lines between us and them, even if only excluding animals awaiting slaughter… “This is why Buddhism can so easily turn into the very opposite of universal compassion: the advocacy of a ruthless military attitude…” (13/19). So there is no such thing as humanism, because we all exclude some living things, and this is the slippery slope that turns even pacific Buddhism to militancy and violence. Really?

The next leap of logical inversion is that this isn’t accidental or occasional, but inherent in claims of universality. “…what if such an exclusion of some form of otherness from the scope of our ethical concerns is consubstantial with the very founding gesteure of ethical universality, so that the more universal our explicit ethics is, the more brutal the underlying exclusion is?” (13/19)  If all men are brothers, then those we kill are not men (14/19). 

“When Freud and Lacan insist on the problematic nature of the basic Judeo-Christian injunction to ‘love they neigbour’ they are thus not just making the standard critico-ideological point about how every notion of universality is coloured by our particular values and thus implies secret exclusions; they are making  a much stronger point on the incompatibility of the Neighbour with the very dimension of universality. What resists universality is the properly inhuman dimension of the Neighbour…” (16/19)

He concludes that to be loved is to be subjected to violence and trauma – love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it…love is horrible, and traps you in the dreams and expectations of the other (17/19).  Perhaps what he is rejecting here is the Yugoslav saying from the civil war of the 1990s: better good neighbours in their own houses than bad brothers forced to share a house. It was a refrain of the ethno-nationalists who felt that each ethnicity had to have its own homeland uncluttered by the other.  It resonates with Ivo Andric’s Letter from 1920, which was not optimistic about the end of hate in the Balkans.

I am left with the impression not that Zizek is explaining dehumanization, but that he is picking away at the props of civilization that impede it, including love, neighbourliness, universality, and identification of the good and incremental progress.  His web of sophistry undermines our ability to resist proximate physical violence (what he calls subjective violence) but does nothing to bolster our capacity to extend non-violence to the more distant other, addressing Galtung’s structural or what he calls objective violence.  This is the sort of discourse that enabled the carnage of the Yugoslavian civil war, while the hypocrisy that he claims to reject was the veneer of civilization that kept society safe under Tito: we may fear our neighbours, but we’ll pretend we are all brothers.  I think it may have been Zizek’s brand of sophistry that made inter-neighbour violence  not only thinkable but intellectually justifiable.  Reading his prose reminds me of interviews with Radio Prijedor and Simo Drljaca in a way that makes my skin crawl. 

David Last, 13 July 2013

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