Rhetorically, an old question in the theory and practice of nonviolence: “How can one wholly repudiate violence when struggle and aggression are part of life?” (63) It is with that question that I come to Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, a short book published last year by the trendy Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (forgive my leaving out the diacritical marks). But I say “rhetorically” above because that is not, principally, his question, and he won’t properly answer it. He doesn’t propose, as we do here, to build a movement devoted to the purgation of violence; he calls, rather, for a subtler analysis of it and, possibly, scandalously, a withdraw—“doing nothing.” Or, in the very preceding sentence, he suggests that the “historical monsters” (Hitler, Stalin, etc.) “were not violent enough” to enact meaningful social change.
Bearing through such apparent self-contradiction is to be expected when wading through Zizek’s books. His “parallax” mode of analysis, combined with a mind and body so frenetic as to seem closer to the pace of a hummingbird than a person, ensures that there will be some coincidence of opposites. Nevertheless there is at least a gist to it all, and, in the thick of it, a great many surprising insights. When reading a Zizek text, one does better not to cling too steadfastly to one’s own starting questions. Follow the odd ways the reasoning goes, or risk missing out on a clever tangent or a good Soviet joke. Unfortunately for me, attempting to summarize it all can’t help rendering one squarer than he.
The basis of Zizek’s analysis in Violence is the identification of a cluster of different forms in which violence appears. The list differs from place to place, but here’s the sense of it: (1) “subjective” violence, the stuff that looks and feels like violence to people and draws attention to itself; (2) “systemic” or “objective” violence, enacted subtly through the structures of society, particularly the capitalist order; and (3) “divine” violence, which fundamentally forms societies, coming as if from the outside and supernatural, radically reorienting power and values. With the first two, Zizek reveals his debts to the dialectics of Marx (ideology/critique) and Lacan (reality/the Real). The third category comes from Walter Benjamin, in part through figures like Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, and I won’t dwell on it here.
Like a proper Marxist, Zizek is concerned most of all for the second register, for the ways in which social structures propagate brutality and injustice unnoticed. Why, for instance, do we care about killings in Darfur but not in the Congo? Why do authorities investigate pedophile Catholic priests but not the structures of the church itself? He wants to pull our attention away some from the particular outbreaks of subjective violence that habitually monopolize our anxiety and activity. These are symptoms of the diseased system, but not the disease itself.
Violence is not a direct property of some acts, but is distributed between acts and their context, between activity and inactivity. The same act can count as violent or non-violent, depending on its context; sometimes a polite smile can be more violent than a brutal outburst.” (213)
It is therefore necessary to interpret an act of subjective violence in light of its context; what underlying violence, which we assume is mere nonviolence, does it reveal:
When we perceive something as an act of violence, we measure it by a presupposed standard of what the “normal” non-violent situation is—and the highest form of violence is the imposition of this standard with reference to which some events appear “violent.” (64)
On the whole, this is something well-known in theories of nonviolence. Since Gandhi, nonviolent protest has been fascinated by the performative, by the power of attention. Its purpose is to pose a critique to the attention-grabbing nature of active violence, to dramatize the crises of justice that go overlooked, that become woven into the status quo and mistaken for nonviolence. Zizek’s analysis reminds us not to dwell on the outbursts of violence that are most obvious and flamboyant. We should instead, again, make space for the kind of deep reflection that enables us to see the violence hidden away, beneath the appearance of normalcy.
One of Zizek’s most incisive moments in Violence is the treatment of well-meaning liberals, whom he terms “liberal communists” (and observantly excoriates a la Stuff White People Like). Do-gooding among the affluent in “developed” societies may be impressive and lavish, but it rests on an assumption of horrific systemic violence beneath. He warns against the hypocrisy of perennial calls to “act now!” (or “take action!”) by donating a few cents to charity or sending an email to a congressperson. Or even going to another useless protest. While surely doing something, and certainly being visible, these quasi-actions also give us the illusion of doing good while we return happily and self-satisfied to our lives of perpetuating systemic wrongs. They are nonviolent expressions of terrible violence.
There are no better examples of this hypocrisy, Zizek contends, than people like Bill Gates and George Soros. Such men do a tremendous amount of highly visible good things, but they can do so only because of their fantastical success manipulating capital for their own benefit. They become better known for their philanthropy than their ruthless business practices, yet the former amounts to only a fraction of the effect of the latter. Beneficence, like brutality, is only visible to the extent that we accept everything else as static.
I will finish with Zizek there, my starting question unanswered—yet, so to speak, with some lessons learned. Never fear! I will take my question, before long, to the final chapter of Judith Butler’s Frames of War, which I found, browsing in a bookstore, seems to take up the matter more directly [see the promised post!].
In the meantime, y’all, watch out for number (2).
A new book explores how Miss Major has persevered over six inspiring decades on the frontlines of the queer and trans liberation movement.
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Waging Nonviolence is hiring a writer to interview leading movement figures and analysts and produce one Q&A-style article per week. The writer will work with our small editorial team to identify the interview subject each week. For the most part, we’ll be looking to hear from activists, organizers and scholars who can shed light on… More
“Why do authorities investigate pedophile Catholic priests but not the structures of the church itself?”
Why should authorities investigate pedophile Catholic priests? Being a pedophile is not a crime, it would be like investigating someone for being heterosexual or homosexual. Pedophiles are not criminals and this kind of demonization is the same thing that was once said against LGTB people.
The fact that the claims of pedophilia are generally brought by people who perceive themselves as victims of sexual abuse is an indication that there is a violent aspect to this. Perhaps it doesn’t apply to all pedophilia, perhaps it does; I tend to think that the power imbalance between an adult and a child suggests that true consent for sexual acts would be difficult to impossible.
In any case, perhaps a better word to have used there would be “abusive.”
kind and compassionate words are so rare that living for many p. is daily torment. People with this sexuality, even if they have never acted on their romantic feelings and physical attractions, are completely voiceless and get these kinds of messages more often:
“Kill all those dam freaks by setting them on fire and then watch them writhe in utter AGONY”
“Someone who hurts a child does not derserve to continue living. We should limit the life span of the pedophile to a non existance. After snuffing out the million or so of deviates, the market should dry up.”
And this kind of treatment – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZmuXKNFIkM
now even concentration camps – see http://www.counterpunch.org/2006/03/04/scapegoats-and-shunning/
So no wonder some categories of pedophiles are up to 183 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population –
Many such people (exclusive and non-exclusive pedophiles and hebephiles) have contributed to society through art, philosophy, social activism. They were not monsters. People like Socrates, Plato, Sappho, Phidias, Donatello, Sa’di, Omar Khayam, Abu Nuwas, Lope de Vega, Novalis, Goethe, Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, John Ruskin, Ernest Dowson, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, Paul Verlaine, Stephane Mallarme, Paul Gauguin, W.H. Auden, Wilfred Owen, T.E. Lawrence, T.H. White, Paul Eluard, Paul Goodman, William Carlos Williams, Odysseus Elytis, Benjamin Britten, Tschaikovsky, Proust, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Gandhi, Allen Ginsberg…..
If that surprises you, these studies about the prevalence of pedophilic attractions among men (most of whom maybe manage to deny and repress them) are interesting:
Hall, G.C.N., Hirschman, R., & Oliver, L.L., “Sexual Arousal and Arousability to Pedophilic Stimuli in a Community Sample of Normal Men,” Behavior Therapy, vol. 26, 1995, pp. 681-694.
Hall and colleagues describe their finding that according to both self-reports and physiological measurements, over 25% of the men in their sample of volunteers were sexually aroused by pre-pubescent girls at a level equal to or greater than their arousal to adult women.
Smiljanich, K. & Briere, J., “Self-reported sexual interest in children: Sex differences and psychosocial correlates in a university sample,” Violence & Victims, vol. 11, no. 1, 1996, pp. 39-50.
Kathy Smiljanich and John Briere report that 22% of their sample of male college students admitted some attraction to children (although the word child was not defined). Four percent admitted having a sexual fantasy involving a child in the past year, and 3% admitted they might have sex with a child if they were assured it would not be detected or punished.
So, we are talking about many millions of people. And they may be your brothers, sisters, your father, your mother, your son or your daughter. People usually discover their sexuality in early puberty. Compassion and nonviolence are better than hatred.
P.S. – lease read the entire very powerful article The Political Use and Abuse of the “Pedophile” on the bottom of this website – http://uryourstory.org/index.php/articles
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