Fawning over Zizek again
January 27, 2008
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.