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Subjective violence

Fawning over Zizek again

Had I been allowed to review Slavoj Zizek’s new book, Violence, at greater length than I did, I would have been able to say more, and in particular, more on the following point:

One might balk especially at Žižek’s labelling of murder and torture as “subjective violence” (what is not objective about them?), though it’s clear that, rather than seeking to trivialise them, Žižek is clearing rhetorical space for his other violences.

To expand: in a way, to call killing “subjective violence” is to invite the kind of idiotic criticism of Zizek that says he loves totalitarianism and doesn’t care about mass murder, etc, etc; which view is plainly untenable as soon as one bothers to read any of his books. But I do think his terminology is likely to be rhetorically self-defeating. What Zizek means when he says “subjective violence” is violence that happens between subjects, ie in a clearly delimited interpersonal situtation where one subject commits physical violence against another: violence with a distinguishable agent.1 This is opposed to his descriptions of “symbolic violence” and “structural violence”, where it is hard to point to a particular bad guy.2

Unfortunately, “subjective” is likely to be mainly understood in its most common usage, where its antonym is “objective”. To call something “subjective” is, very often, to say “That’s just your opinion”; or to express the judgment that the phenomenon in question has no confirmable basis in the real physical world.

It is open to Zizek to say: “Well, of course, that is not how I am using the word ‘subjective’, and I do not mean to deny the reality of killing”, etc. But I suspect also that he chose this language with a view to provocation. If you deliberately use a word whose ordinary sense is likely to cause readers to infer a meaning that you don’t intend, you are in a way cynically setting a trap, so that later you can say: “Don’t be such an idiot, that’s not what I meant at all!” That might bring a kind of satisfaction, but I think a writer would enable people better to engage with his arguments if he didn’t engage in this kind of cheap trick in the first place.

  1. “[V]iolence performed by a clearly identifiable agent”, Violence, p1.
  2. No doubt there could be extra nuances, Lacanian or whatever, to Zizek’s formulation, of which I hope readers whose scholarship exceeds mine on such matters will inform me.
36 comments
  1. 1  richard  January 28, 2008, 3:22 pm 

    It seems like “inter-subjective violence” would clear this right up, then.

    Can it really be that simple? If so, I suspect you may be right about this being a rather childish prank, or a calculated move, to catch the eyes of the same people who always froth at the sight of his name.

    Wait, is that a form of “subjective violence”? Violence only against subjects/egos?

  2. 2  Steven  January 28, 2008, 4:43 pm 

    It seems like “inter-subjective violence” would clear this right up, then.

    I believe that would do very well! Unless there is something I am still missing.

  3. 3  lamentreat  January 28, 2008, 8:20 pm 

    I think you’re being a bit hard on Slavoj Z. here. If he had called this kind of violence “imaginary violence”, say, and then justified it with reference to Lacan’s quite technical idea of the Imaginary, I would agree, since we generally, rightly, take “imaginary” to mean “fictional.”

    But the “common usage” of “subjective” here isn’t even coherent. To say about someone’s opinion “Oh, that’s subjective” is to say something about the speaker’s judgement, not about the phenomenon he’s judging. Even if the two are sort of blurred in popular understanding, they oughtn’t be. Although Zizek’s rhetoric can be annoying as hell (the endless cutesy-paradoxical rhetorical negative questions…), why should he deny himself the useful distinction (think it starts with Althusser, though am not sure) between “system” and “subject” on account of a misconstruing?

  4. 4  Steven  January 28, 2008, 8:53 pm 

    To say about someone’s opinion “Oh, that’s subjective” is to say something about the speaker’s judgement, not about the phenomenon he’s judging.

    It’s not necessarily only used of opinions. OED subjective 4d is:

    d. Existing in the mind only, without anything real to correspond to it; illusory, fanciful.
    1853 J. S. LE FANU in Dublin Univ. Mag. Dec. 723/1 Was this singular apparition..the invention of my poor stomach? Was it, in short, subjective (to borrow the technical slang of the day) and not the palpable aggression and intrusion of an external agent?

    Meanwhile, 3a is:

    3. a. Relating to the thinking subject, proceeding from or taking place within the subject; having its source in the mind; (in the widest sense) belonging to the conscious life.

    No doubt we can also say that what Zizek means by “subjective violence” is conscious (ie willed, deliberate or whatever) violence as opposed to the unconscious or impersonal other violences; however this same definition encompasses also the commoner usage of subjective as an adjective meaning “all in the mind”.

    why should he deny himself the useful distinction (think it starts with Althusser, though am not sure) between “system” and “subject” on account of a misconstruing?

    Well, just because I think that the misconstruing is far more likely than the proper construing. From system to systemic is straightforward, but I am afraid something undesirable happens in the transition from subject to subjective, which Richard’s “inter-subjective” would help with.

  5. 5  john c. halasz  January 28, 2008, 11:30 pm 

    Presumably, “subjective violence” is subjective because it is intentional, (and thus also deriving from a state of mind), and also because it is directed at an other, who is also a specific subject, aiming to annul that subject. (“Intersubjective violence” just won’t do: “intersubjective” is such a mealymouth word.) On the other hand, the other forms of violence, structural/systemic and symbolic violence,- (though isn’t Z. just lifting from Bourdieu here, which is odd, because the latter would presumably consider Lacanian persiflage as an instance of “symbolic violence”, whereas as the Lacanian “Symbolic order”, which strikes me as a fairly arbitrary stipulation, is supposed to be the level at which resolution occurs),- are impersonal forms of violence, in which one is complicit and implicated one way or another, regardless of one’s individual subjective intentions. Oddly, dare I say paradoxically, it is those impersonal forms of violence which force one to take sides, to decide where one stands, (since, with “subjective violence”, such a commitment has already been made and effected), as to one’s affiliation, as to which modes of “subjectification” are allowable or to be disallowed. Presumably the “trap” that Z. wants to set is for that mode of (liberal) neutralization that regards violence as the limit of tolerance, (and conceives of it solely in terms of one’s free, unconditioned disposal over one’s subjective, individual intentions), thereby denying its implication in the violences, which it at once abstracts from and enacts through its claimed “neutrality”. The subjective is unreal, not implicated in events, only from the standpoint of such abstraction, which takes its stand in detachment, in the evasion of any engagement, other than, perhaps, the juridical.

    This is just a guess at explication. Zizek is not exactly my cup of tea, and talk of “subjectification” is not my preferred vocabulary.

  6. 6  lamentreat  January 28, 2008, 11:41 pm 

    “From system to systemic is straightforward, but I am afraid something undesirable happens in the transition from subject to subjective”

    Good point. “Violence between individuals” would be clearer still, but wouldn’t be his kind of expression, I suspect.

    Did you think he had anyone in mind for provocation or is it just sort of non-specific e’pater les bien-pensants?

  7. 7  Steven  January 29, 2008, 12:44 am 

    Simon Critchley, in his review of Violence, writes:

    Our subjective outrage at the facts of violence – a suicide bombing, a terrorist attack, the assassination of a political figure – blinds us to the objective violence of the world, a violence where we are perpetrators and not just innocent bystanders [...] The main ambition of this book is to bring together subjective violence with the objective violence that is its underside and precondition.

    It looks very much as though Critchley is peforming an alternative version of the foreseeable misconstrual, glossing “subjective violence” erroneously as “our subjective outrage at the facts of violence”. Well, Zizek does talk about outrage etc, but our outrage is said to be precisely outrage at “subjective violence”, ie it really is the violence, and not the outrage, that is “subjective”.

    I actually think it should be pretty difficult to read the book with reasonable attention and come away thinking that by “subjective violence” Zizek means “our subjective outrage at the facts of violence”.

    John:

    Presumably the “trap” that Z. wants to set is for that mode of (liberal) neutralization that regards violence as the limit of tolerance, (and conceives of it solely in terms of one’s free, unconditioned disposal over one’s subjective, individual intentions), thereby denying its implication in the violences, which it at once abstracts from and enacts through its claimed “neutrality”. The subjective is unreal, not implicated in events, only from the standpoint of such abstraction, which takes its stand in detachment, in the evasion of any engagement, other than, perhaps, the juridical.

    That sounds pretty plausible as to the kind of structural species of trap that might be being set (although in this book Zizek is poking sticks at liberals not qua detached or neutral but qua urgently caring and wanting to “do something”). To confuse matters further, Zizek has himself been known to use the word “intersubjective”, eg in this article about inter alia the “objectively subjective”.

  8. 8  Steven  January 29, 2008, 1:03 am 

    Digging out the book again from my dusty stacks, I am reminded that “subjective violence” is pretty clearly defined on, ah, page 1:

    But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent.

    Thenceforth he doesn’t use scarequotes around “subjective”.

    Interestingly, though, Zizek appeared to mean something a bit different in this article from 2006:

    Etienne Balibar, in La Crainte des masses (1997), distinguishes the two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence in today’s capitalism: the objective (structural) violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism (the automatic creation of excluded and dispensable individuals, from the homeless to the unemployed), and the subjective violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious (in short: racist) fundamentalisms. They may fight subjective violence, but liberal communists are the agents of the structural violence that creates the conditions for explosions of subjective violence.

    In any case, I still think the formulation is bad, in the sense that it offers an unnecessary hostage to misreading. (And isn’t even very catchy.)

  9. 9  richard  January 29, 2008, 4:07 am 

    it is those impersonal forms of violence which force one to take sides, to decide where one stands, (since, with “subjective violence”, such a commitment has already been made and effected)

    I beg to differ: it strikes me that the more impersonal the violence, the less one is required to take sides, and the easier it is to find oneself in an unexamined default position. Violence enacted by identifiable subjects would seem to be much more directly provocative of side-taking – to provoke reactions which are inherently inter-subjective in nature.

    I confess, I don’t understand what would be mealy-mouthed about inter-subjective (between subjects) here, unless one is also concerned about subjects enacting violence against non-subjects… and somehow I don’t think that’s what’s exercising Zizek. Rather, it seems to me that the whole concept of ‘objective’ or ‘structural’ violence is a figleaf for numbers of identifiable human agents. Perhaps inter-subjective has an unfortunate history, of which I’m not aware.

  10. 10  lamentreat  January 29, 2008, 7:53 am 

    Maybe “inter-subjective” is too much associated with philosophies of communication and consensus, which would stick in Zizek’s agonophile craw.

  11. 11  Steven  January 29, 2008, 10:24 am 

    Zizek’s agonophile craw.

    Nice!

  12. 12  adolphe  February 5, 2008, 4:02 pm 

    Why set a trap & spring it on the same page?

    Is the use of ‘rhetorical device’, ‘cynical’, & ‘trap’ not a subjective interpretation imputing intent to Zizek but without any apparent objective foundation? Almost from the beginning Zizek explains what he means by subjective – how is this a rhetorical device?

    Agree or disagree with Zizek it’s of little merit to trivialise him – leave that to ‘The Guardian’ who clearly believe he warrants little more than a few sentences.

  13. 13  Steven  February 5, 2008, 6:40 pm 

    “Cynical” and “trap” are, on reflection, probably too strong; or if you will more of a mood experiment or adumbration. I think that the choice of “subjective violence” remains, however, inescapably a rhetorical device (also presumably chosen for its the alliteration with systemic and symbolic).

  14. 14  adolphe  February 6, 2008, 12:18 am 

    I believe your use of ‘trap’ & ‘cynical’ in conjunction with ‘rhetorical device’ is neither an accident nor an adumbration or, for that matter, even an aberration. Clearly to use ‘rhetorical device’ in this way is to suggest a triumph of style over substance even to conjure a suggestion of insincerity on the part of Zizek. This surely must be deliberate.
    The use of rhetorical devices has an honourable tradition in literature & oratory but although often useful in creating an effect or eliciting a response in an audience through a trick of style they are never indispensable to the understanding of the author’s argument. To summarise Zizek’s position:

    The premise of Zizek’s theory is that the subjective violence we see – violence with a clear identifiable agent – is only the tip of an iceberg made up of systemic violence, which is essentially the catastrophic consequence of the smooth functioning of our economic & political systems.

    I would suggest that if you dispensed with Zizek’s ‘rhetorical device’ you would render his theory entirely incoherent. Rhetorical devices as stylistic tricks may be used to enhance meaning through creating an effect but they cannot be essential to it.
    One implication of his theory is that we place too little emphasis upon systemic violence which remains largely invisible & rather more upon the often dramatic outbursts of subjective violence where the human agents are readily identifiable. This I believe is a useful or provocative insight at least deserving of our serious attention. Again I would allege that the manner of your treatment merely trivialises it to the disservice of Zizek and of your readership.

  15. 15  KB Player  February 6, 2008, 12:59 am 

    “The premise of Zizek’s theory is that the subjective violence we see – violence with a clear identifiable agent – is only the tip of an iceberg made up of systemic violence, which is essentially the catastrophic consequence of the smooth functioning of our economic & political systems.”

    I gather from what has been said here is that “subjective violence” means “violence” and “systemic violence” means something like “exploitation” or “injustice”. If that is so, I assume Zizek’s book deals with the interaction between exploitation or injustice and violence, or how violence is caused by exploitation or injustice. Does his calling these concepts by unusual names make that causal relationship or that interaction any clearer?

  16. 16  Steven  February 6, 2008, 1:22 am 

    Thanks for copying out the dustjacket blurb in boldface, adolphe, that is a great help.

    KBPlayer:

    Does his calling these concepts by unusual names make that causal relationship or that interaction any clearer?

    Well, the book is not so much an interrogation of the (causal or other) relation between the “subjective” and systemic (& symbolic) sorts: he is mainly shunting “our” obsession with “subjective violence” aside so as to concentrate on the other types. The choice of name arguably aids in this rhetorical shunting-aside. (Though, as I said in my review, he plainly does not think “sv” is trivial.)

  17. 17  adolphe  February 6, 2008, 1:35 pm 

    Steven
    Wow, that really blew my arguments out of the water.

    KBPlayer
    No I am afraid your suggested alternative terminology quite misses the point as far as Zizek is concerned.
    Clearly his choice of terminology is what enables him to broaden his analysis out to a more engrossing preoccupation with systemic violence; usually by its very nature a violence kept invisible to many observers. Ultimately Zizek wants to put the system in the dock so this preoccupation with systemic violence is crucial to his analysis. This also ties in well with other aspects of Zizek’s thinking, for example, what he describes as the ‘will to ignorance’. There is a collective resistance to acknowledge and/or critically examine systemic violence –in the end a range of analyses that seeks to pillory the system itself. For Zizek the question becomes not why are people uninformed but why do they not want to be informed?
    Think here of Neo in the movie, The Matrix, when offered the choice of descending into the rabbit hole. Neo chooses the rabbit hole but for Zizek many would not. For them the system offers comfort, support, dependency, in fact, the very foundation of their way of life. This is the most interesting aspect of Zizek for here he is parting company with other leading intellectuals on the left such as Chomsky. For Chomsky it is a simple matter of putting the facts before the people that will lead to an informed citizenry and, presumably, a healthily functioning liberal democracy. But for Zizek the challenge is far more formidable than that since he is now dealing with the proposition that the citizenry may not want to be informed on these crucial issues. What then, do you do if the citizenry does not want to be informed? Zizek is not quite a counsel of despair but he comes very close. In the end he can only make vague references to new political forms that may become urgently necessary for future societies if they are not already.
    Zizek is definitely worth reading. Also check out his documentary – ‘The Perverts Guide to Cinema’.

  18. 18  Steven  February 6, 2008, 3:05 pm 

    Clearly his choice of terminology is what enables him to broaden his analysis out to a more engrossing preoccupation with systemic violence

    No it isn’t. He could do exactly the same thing he does in this book while calling “subjective violence” something else. Have you actually read Violence or have you just read the blurb?

    Zizek is definitely worth reading.

    Is someone in this thread saying he’s not? Still, I prefer The Parallax View to Violence.

  19. 19  lamentreat  February 6, 2008, 5:57 pm 

    Best Zizekian passage of all is his acknowledgment/thanks of his editor in the foreword to “The Ticklish Subject” – its an absolute peach, amusing and moving all at once, all about his truly deeply madly paradoxical feelings of hate for her and hers for him. I wish I had it here and could copy it out, but I don’t.

    If someone else does and could cite it verbatim, would be much obliged.

  20. 20  Steven  February 6, 2008, 9:11 pm 

    I found it here:

    In her careful editing of my manuscripts for Verso, Gillian Beaumont regularly catches me with my (intellectual) pants down: her gaze unerringly discerns repetitions in the line of thought, moronic inconsistencies of the argumentation, false attributions and references that display my lack of general education, not to mention the awkwardness of style … how can I not feel ashamed, and thus hate her? On the other hand, she has every reason to hate me[:] I constantly bombard her with late insertions and changes of the manuscript, so that I can easily imagine her possessing a voodoo doll of me and piercing it in the evenings with a gigantic needle. This mutual hatred, as they would have put it in the good old days of classic Hollywood, signals the beginning of a beautiful friendship, so I dedicate this book to her.

    It is marvellous, isn’t it?

  21. 21  lamentreat  February 6, 2008, 10:20 pm 

    Thanks Steven! That made my evening. Nice searching.

  22. 22  Gavin  February 7, 2008, 12:32 am 

    Hasn’t this definition come up before? Galtung talked of ‘structural violence’ as indirect, where there is no agent?

    So the other type is direct or subjective violence, where committed by subjects upon ojects? Or am I being dense?

  23. 23  Robert W  February 7, 2008, 12:51 am 

    Perhaps Steven would think that “direct” is better than “subjective”. I reckon I do.

  24. 24  Steven  February 7, 2008, 11:46 am 

    There would be something to be said for “direct violence” rather than “subjective violence”, but then Zizek might not want to allow the implication that systemic or symbolic violences are somehow indirect.

  25. 25  adolphe  February 7, 2008, 12:26 pm 

    Robert
    Let us be clear. There is nothing wrong with the use of rhetorical devices; their usage has a long and honourable tradition in writing from Beowulf to Shakespeare’s sonnets.

    When deployed in rhetoric for the purposes of emphasis alliteration can be useful in helping to convey the meaning of an author. Whether they are good or bad from a stylistic point of view is sometimes a very subjective judgement. In this instance, however, Poole is seeking to go well beyond merely stylistic issues.
    In the first place it is stretching it a bit to argue that Zizek’s use of subjective, symbolic, and systemic is an example of an alliterative rhetorical device since they form the central pillars of his analysis and stretch across the entirety of the book. They are not used simply for effect within a single line or sentence. Nevertheless were we even to allow Poole his rhetorical device it remains unclear as to why this is such a bad thing. As I said earlier they may be very useful in emphasising the author’s argument; in helping to convey the author’s meaning. Is this really the case with Zizek? And if it were wouldn’t you at least be under some obligation to offer a better alternative?
    Second despite Poole’s belated downplaying of his use of ‘cynical’ and ‘trap’ he is clearly seeking to use ‘rhetorical device’ with its most negative meaning connoted. We are being invited to think rhetorical as in empty and device as in insincere. This is really a covert attack then upon Zizek himself & his motives suggestive of a devious deployment of linguistic trickery – a deliberate ploy aimed at bamboozling the reader, at leading him or her into misconstrual for the purposes, it would seem, of seduction. This strikes me as an insidious & pusillanimous way of proceeding and is the real substance of my objection to Poole’s piece. I think Zizek deserves better with a more open engagement of his arguments. That is all.
    Your suggestion of direct might do but this might also necessitate rewriting systemic as indirect. Sadly this would be antithesis another example of a rhetorical device which I fear would not make it past Poole’s literary detectors. Still, let us plough on; we might even be able to rewrite his entire piece for him with a bit of effort.

  26. 26  Steven  February 7, 2008, 12:41 pm 

    Thanks for dropping that science on us about rhetoric and alliteration, adolphe. You forgot to mention whether you had read Violence or just the blurb. Have you?

    Of course, Zizek openly acknowledges that his style is one of “excess” and provocation. (He says this, for example, in the film Zizek!, cited here: you may find that whole post and thread educational.)

  27. 27  dsquared  February 8, 2008, 12:40 pm 

    I would bet virtual dollars to the intrinsic not-all at the heart of a donut that you are right to suspect there is some Lacanian bits and pieces going on here – “subjective” is definitely one of the top half dozen key Lacanian jargon terms and I think it’s pretty unlikely that Zizek would have used it unintentionally. I am largely guessing here, but IIRC, there is a whole lot of stuff in Zizek about how the subject is constructed with respect to symbols and structures isn’t there?

  28. 28  dave  February 8, 2008, 3:28 pm 

    Thanks for reviewing Violence, steven, which I now rather want to read! I’m not persuaded that intersubjective or direct would do the job better than subjective. ‘Agentive’ might work, but wouldn’t hook up to Lacan as dsquared says. (lovely wager, dsquared, btw – only needing to be sealed by a borromean knot?)

    Interestingly, Z’s definition of subjective violence (as quoted from page 1) doesn’t require the agent to intend it to be violent. This seems right: what makes an intentional act violent is not whether the perpetrator intends the act as violent but whether or not others understand it to be so.

  29. 29  Steven  February 8, 2008, 3:44 pm 

    Dave, that’s a lovely way to recuperate “subjective”, as insisting that if something is perceived as violence, it is violence. (I can’t remember if Zizek has anywhere written about the so-called “doctrine of double effect”, which has always seemed to me flatly wrong.)

    (On the matter of Lacan, I continue to concede the floor to others.)

  30. 30  dsquared  February 8, 2008, 5:11 pm 

    Christ I’m going to have to read the thing now. I wouldn’t complain, but every time I buy anything from that section of the bookshop, the bookseller insists on giving me a copy of “Why Truth Matters”, hand inscribed by Johann Hari, and they are beginning to pile up a bit.

  31. 31  dsquared  February 8, 2008, 5:14 pm 

    On the doctrine of double effects, I seem to remember that JL Mackie said that “the doctrine of double effect has been the corruption of Catholic moral thinking; however, the lack of something like a doctrine of double effect has been the corruption of non-Catholic moral thought”. Which I seem to remember at the time thinking was one for the category “philosophical aphorisms which look like they’re saying something really important but on closer analysis aren’t”.

  32. 32  Steven  February 9, 2008, 2:27 pm 

    You have my sympathies re the superfluous copies of Benson & Stangroom. It’s a nightmarish image.

    Thanks for the pointer to Mackie. But the “doctrine of double effect” has in recent years been eagerly cited by lots of people not apparently Catholic but just anxious to justify various large-scale acts of official violence, has it not?

  33. 33  lamentreat  February 9, 2008, 3:32 pm 

    Could someone link to a decent definition of the “doctrine of double effect”? Its kind of hard to follow without knowing what it is.

  34. 34  Steven  February 9, 2008, 3:37 pm 

    Sorry — there’s a decent introduction to it at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  35. 35  Steven  February 9, 2008, 3:57 pm 

    As an example, the noted obituarist and music critic Oliver Kamm is to be found referring sententiously in 2004 to “one of the most influential principles in moral reflection on warfare in western philosophy, namely the Thomist principle of double effect”.

  36. 36  Steven  February 15, 2008, 12:56 pm 

    Belated thanks to Gavin, who said:

    Hasn’t this definition come up before? Galtung talked of ’structural violence’ as indirect, where there is no agent?

    So the other type is direct or subjective violence, where committed by subjects upon ojects?

    Indeed, as I have just been reminded elsewhere by someone mentioning Galtung. And Galtung does indeed use the phrase direct violence as the name for what Zizek calls “subjective violence”. I don’t see what is wrong with the former.



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