Zizek’s short book Violence (2008) begins with a series of distinctions and delimitations in order to bring into view his proper object. He distinguishes first between subjective and objective violence. Subjective violence is the immediate physical, physiological, experience of “violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent” (1). In contradistinction to this is objective violence, which is distinguished into symbolic and systemic varieties. Symbolic violence includes hate speech, the various hierarchies inscribed into our daily language (of gender, for instance), but also the “more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such” (2). Systemic violence is the apparently straightforward designation for “the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems” (2). The whole point of the book, we are told, is to get away from the “inherently mystifying…direct confrontation” (3-4) with specific acts of subjective violence. The crude political point is that acts of violence, be they bombings on American soil or genocides committed in a far away African country, are mediatized in such a way as to demand an immediate, and therefore partial, subjective, response. Zizek’s goal, then, is to examine the background against which the ‘subjective’ violence is rendered just that, subjective rather than objective. The point is not (only or centrally) to show, once again, that capitalism is built on the violence of expropriation, or that certain categories of individuals are systemically excluded from equal access to certain resources. As Zizek elaborated at length in his Parallax View, it is the inescapable gap between the objective and subjective that is the space of the subject. So the point here is to examine the mutual positioning of objective and subjective violence in order to understand what kind of a subject is situated there, and how a different one might arise.
Put differently, Zizek is interested in sites of resistance. For instance, in his discussion of tolerance, and the critique of it that sometimes emerges from postcolonial studies, his view of cultural difference is ruled by the consideration of political possibility. He says,
The self-reflexive sensitivity to one’s own limitation can only emerge against the background of the notions of autonomy and rationality promoted by liberalism. One can, of course, argue that, in a way, the Western situation is even worse because in it oppression itself is obliterated and masked as free choice…Our freedom of choice effectively often functions as a mere formal gesture of consent to our own oppression and exploitation. However, Hegel’s lesson that form matters is important here; form has an autonomy and efficacy of its own. So when we compare a Third World woman, forced to undergo clitoridectomy or promised in marriage as a small child, with the First World woman ‘free to choose’ painful cosmetic surgery, the form of freedom matters—it opens up a space for critical reflection (147-8).
The point that Zizek wants to make, it seems to me, goes beyond the notion that a rhetoric can become a reality, that an appearance to be maintained can become a positive force for change. He remains, I think, attached to the level of the subject. He means something more like, without formal freedom, there will be no concrete freedom—but entirely in relation to the individual, not the society.
This allows us to enter into the terrain that is generally upsetting for readers of Zizek. For Zizek, the subject becomes free only in the moment of terror. This moment is the juncture between subjective and objective. The position here is in some sense a Hegelian one, of course, and a Lacanian one. But it is more interesting to point out that it is Zizek’s way of suturing ethics into politics.
The key text examined in Violence is Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence.” The notion Zizek wants to explore is that of divine violence. Although Zizek isn’t quite willing to say it, it seems to me that he identifies divine violence ultimately with the abyss of human freedom, or we might say more in his own terms, with the terror of the radical emptiness of the subject. This is where he follows Lacan against Kant, “What is truly traumatic for the subject is not the fact that a pure ethical act is (perhaps) impossible, that freedom is (perhaps) an appearance, based on our ignorance of the true motivations of our acts; what is truly traumatic is freedom itself, the fact that freedom IS possible, and we desperately search for some ‘pathological’ determinations in order to avoid this fact” (196). Divine violence is Zizek’s way of discussing this same fact of freedom and possibility on the objective level. Zizek cites a long passage from Benjamin’s “Critique,” and then asserts that divine violence is to be understood as the “domain of sovereignty” (198). Divine violence is not law-making, but beyond law. It is, one is tempted to say, immanent and therefore outside the realm of law. Without law, no crime. Hence, Zizek says, “It is mythical violence that demands sacrifice, and holds power over bare life; whereas divine violence is non-sacrificial and expiatory. One should therefore not be afraid to assert the formal parallel between the state annihilation of homini sacer, for example the Nazi killing of the Jews, and the revolutionary terror, where one can also kill without committing a crime and without sacrifice” (199). This passage has alarmed certain people. Not without reason. Zizek then goes on, quoting Benjamin, “Less possible and also less urgent [the implication is, than revolutionary/divine/pure violence itself] for humankind, however, is to decide when unalloyed violence has been realized in particular cases…” He concludes from Benjamin’s warnings that the instance of divine violence (now fully transformed into revolutionary violence) is not really of the order of Being—and then, I think oddly, he goes on to say that it is rather of the order of Event. This is odd because the identification, or rather the assertion, of the Event is absolutely crucial in Badiou’s scheme of things. Zizek compares the event to the miracle that, although it might have empirically verifiable causes, remains for the believer a miracle. Fine, but a sort of identification none the less plays a crucial role here.
In the end, though, divine or revolutionary violence comes to have a fairly banal meaning for Zizek. We might in Rancièrian language say that it is violence erupting from the part of no part, or in Badiou’s terms, from beside the void. Of course these are not the same thing, and I think that Zizek does not want to exactly endorse either of them. Rather, for him, divine violence is that which comes from those who are the constitutive outside of the capitalist system. And here is where the split within the field of objective violence returns. Divine violence is that which takes place when a subject has risen from subjective freedom into the simultaneous necessities of the symbolic and the structural. The agent of divine violence is both existentially free (inside the imperious terror of baseless, necessary action), and objectively free (pinioned to the outside of the inflexible wheel of capital). He says,
Divine violence should thus be conceived as divine in the precise sense of the old Latin motto vox populi, vox dei: not in the perverse sense of ‘we are doing it as mere instruments of the People’s Will,’ but as the heroic assumption of the solitude of sovereign decision. It is a decision (to kill, to risk or loose one’s own life) made in absolute solitude, with no cover in the big Other. If it is extra-moral, it is not ‘immoral,’ it does not give the agent license just to kill with some kind of angelic innocence. When those outside the structured social field strike ‘blindly,’ demanding and enacting immediate justice/vengeance, this is divine violence. Recall, a decade or so ago, the panic in Rio de Janeiro when crowds descended from the favelas into the rich part of the city and started looting and burning supermarkets. This was indeed divine violence…They were like biblical locusts, the divine punishment for men’s sinful ways (202).
This last sentence is a bit over the top, forced on Zizek by the example, and not entirely in keeping with the theoretical frame. Or perhaps it suggests that underneath it all, the content inherited from Marx is in fact just an approach to the moral content of the global economy?
The very last move of Zizek’s book is remarkable, and I think suggests a serious and perhaps significant convergence between him and the authors of Commonwealth. Zizek goes to Robespierre and Che Guevara, and the notion of revolutionary love. Commenting on Robespierre, “divine violence belongs to the order of the Event: as such, its status is radically subjective, it is the subject’s work of love” (203), and then further at the end of the chapter, “the notion of love should be given here all its Paulinian weight; the domain of pure violence, the domain outside law (legal power), the domain of the violence which is neither law-founding nor law-sustaining, is the domain of love” (205). Here is the subjective, I think we must say ethical, side to the more familiar and comprehensive, the more apparently provocative but in fact conventional, claim of Zizek’s that Hitler was not violent enough. The subject is asked to embrace their own radical brokenness, to assume the gap constitutive of others in an act of terribly violent love. If this ethical act is accompanied by a genuinely radical politico-economic reconfiguration—if, to emphasize, the twin terrors of both symbolic and systemic objectivity can be assumed in the freedom of the subject—then we will have made revolution.
The second, 2009, edition of In Defense of Lost Causes contains an afterword entitled “What is Divine about Divine Violence?” It is essentially a clarification and restatement of the ideas presented in Violence—indeed certain sections are simply word-for-word copies (it is also, incidentally, a venue for the continuation of Zizek’s polemic with Simon Critchley). Although a few examples are operative here, a central one is Haiti. Zizek follows Susan Buck-Morss in her Hegelian reading of the Revolution a certain distance, but stops at what he calls her “liberal limit” (471). Her liberalism—and this is not a wrong definition of liberalism—amounts to a rejection of (most) revolutionary activity on the grounds that it will simply make things worse than they already are. Revolution is thus to be avoided, to be treated as a fearful last resort. Zizek firmly rejects this. He suggests that we must, “distinguish as clearly as possible between two types of violence; radical emancipatory violence against the ex-oppressors and the violence which serves the continuation and/or establishment of hierarchical relations of exploitation and domination” (471). A familiar move. From this perspective, “we should thus condemn the elimination of all whites in Haiti not out of humanitarian compassion for the innocent among them, but based on the insight that the true strategic goal of this process was to establish a new hierarchical order among the remaining blacks, justified by the ethnic ideology of blackness” (472). Zizek has here the great virtue of stating his position in a clear and unambiguous manner.
He is simply drawing necessary conclusions from his premises when he says that it is entirely possible and necessary to distinguish between the acts of violence committed by the Tonton Macoutes (Duvalier) and the chimères (Lavalas). Precisely the same acts, the same mode of inflicting painful death on a human being, has objectively different meanings. When a murder is committed by the chimères, for Zizek, “these desperate acts of violent popular self-defense are again examples of divine violence: they are to be located ‘beyond good and evil,’ in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what, to an ordinary moral consciousness, cannot but appear as ‘immoral’ acts of killing, one has no right to condemn them, since they are the reply to years, centuries even, of systematic state violence and economic exploitation” (478). He thus arrives at a “minimal definition of divine violence,” that is, “the counter-violence to the excess of violence that pertains to state power” (483). Then, framing a distinction that is significantly different from the earlier one between emancipator/repressive violence, he says, “if mythic violence serves the state, divine violence doesn’t serve another, better, purpose (such as life) – it doesn’t serve anything, which is why it is divine” (484-5). It is not too clear how this divine, purposeless violence, lines up with a revolutionary violence that is anti-repressive. Perhaps the relationship is one of inclusion. A struggle for freedom is not positive, but rather anti-repressive. It is therefore not really to any positive purpose. In this sense it is divine, even though Zizek also sees Nazi genocidal violence as basically divine, but not therefore revolutionary. So some objective element must enter into the evaluation of purposeless, pure, violence, to distinguish that which is revolutionary from that which is not. And here again, Zizek is at least very clear. I think we can assume that the objective element that intervenes to assign violence into the mythic or the divine is the same as that which distinguishes divine-revolutionary from simply divine-sovereign violence. This is the ethical commitment. He says, returning to the Haitian example, “chimères and Tonton Macoutes may perform exactly the same act—lynching an enemy—but where the first act is divine, the second is only the ‘mythic’ obscene and illegal support of power. The risk involved in reading or assuming an act as divine is fully the subject’s own” (485).
That, I believe, is a fair presentation of what Zizek says about violence in these two recent texts. My summary has of course had an element of evaluation and criticism, but an adequate contextualization of the arguments in the history of such arguments and in the contemporary political and theoretical contexts would be required to mount a proper critique of the corner into which Zizek has painted himself. The major issue, it seems to me, is how to reconcile the above justification—or story about how to distinguish justifiable and non-justifiable acts of violence from one another—with what I take to be Zizek’s ‘positive’ political project of subtraction. Is the analytic here worked out simply a way to think about that violence which is acceptable in pursuing and defending specific instances of subtraction? Violence ceases to be revolutionary, divine, the moment that it becomes something the revolutionary government wields ‘so that the people do not do it themselves’? This certainly is the case, but as a criterion it doesn’t go very far. A fuller account of what Zizek means by subtractive, Bartleby-inspired, politics is required before one could move forward here. And that’s for another day.