I’m reading Zizek’s ‘Violence’ on the commute. I’m going to write up notes on it here, as I go. Page numbers, quotes, my comments. We’ll see how far I get.

1. “A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance.”

The fascist move: tolerance is really intolerance; opposition to violence is really violence; those who claim to criticise ugly deeds are really just denying their own ugliness; therefore to be more honest, more knowledgeable, more authentic we should acknowledge the violence that is intrinsic to our natures: own it. An advocacy of evil presented under the guise of a more thorough critique of evil than that offered by liberals and ordinary wimpy leftists.

1. “embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call ‘our house of being'”

Really people need to stop wielding Heidegger as if a) he’s an authority (in fact, Heidegger’s just making this stuff up – the fact that it seems compelling may be because of affective or intellectual resonance, but there’s no particular reason to accord Heidegger’s ideas any warrant – certainly there’s no evidence for them), b) he’s a leftist authority. If a work of theory is allied with fascism, or centrally using the work of a fascist (which of course is what Heidegger was), that doesn’t in itself mean that the work must be on the right: but we should adjust our priors in that direction.

1. Tripartite categorisation of violence: subjective, & two kinds of objective: political-economic and symbolic (=language)

2. “The Congo today has effectively re-emerged as a Conradean ‘heart of darkness’. No one dares to confront it head on.”

3. “My underlying premise is that there is something inherently mystifying in a direct confrontation with it: the overpowering horror of violent acts and empathy with the victims inexorably functions as a lure which prevents us from thinking.”

This isn’t true at all – we can (obviously!) both exhibit empathy and think about the content of that empathy. In fact, there’s plenty of stuff (violence, in fact, included) that one can’t think about in many of its dimensions without empathy.
That aside, the book here states one of its goals: to persuade its readers not to think about the victims of violence with empathy, not to experience horror at violent acts, but to train themselves out of these attitudes and approaches.

3. “What renders a report of a raped woman (or any other narrative of a trauma) truthful is its very factual unreliability, its confusion, its inconsistency.”

Zizek promotes the idea of the unreliability of reports of rape – indeed, elevates this to a general principle – all reports of rape must always be unreliable.

Apart from illustrating what a scumbag he is, this also illustrates why Zizek’s fans must at some level be reactionaries, even if they don’t ‘get’ the overall thrust of the theoretical approach. To admire this passage one has to read it and think something like: “Yes! That’s right! Zizek’s really nailed it, as to why women’s testimony of rape is so unreliable!” The passage relies on the reader’s acceptance of an intrinsically reactionary, totally false position. And, of course, by relying on that acceptance it promotes that acceptance – treating a position as self-evidently true is a way of advocating for it.

4. Now he has the nerve to cite Primo Levi as an example of the unreliability of trauma victims’ testimony. (Introduction; endnote 2).

4. Zizek quotes Akhmatova’s famous introduction to her poem ‘Requiem’ (one of the most famous passages of twentieth century Russian literature – possibly the most famous(?)). Except Zizek doesn’t know that it’s the introduction to ‘Requiem’ – he thinks it’s an extract from Akhmatova’s memoirs (!).

5. The beginning of a discussion of “the fake sense of urgency that pervades the left-liberal humanitarian discourse on violence”. Zizek writes about “the staging of the scene of violence – against women, blacks, the homeless, gays” – here Zizek participating in the usual reactionary making fun of ‘victim poltics’ – no doubt black disabled feminist lesbians will be showing up soon. “Underlying all this is a hypocritical sense of moral outrage.”

Again, the purpose is to attack moral objections to violence, domination and atrocity – to ridicule these moral objections – to present them as hypocritical or naive.

6. “As Bill Gates recently put it: ‘What do computers matter when millions are still unnecessarily dying of dysentry?'”

For some reason we’re supposed to find the sentiment that Gates expresses here risible.

6. Zizek refers (without citation, as is his customary practice) to an 1870 letter from Marx to Engels in which Marx expresses the wish that the (I presume French) revolutionaries not succeed until he has finished ‘Capital’. I don’t know this letter, and it doesn’t seem to be on marxists.org. Does anyone have a reference for it?

6. “‘Do you mean we should do nothing? Just sit and wait?’ One should gather the courage to answer: ‘YES, precisely that!'”

It should be obvious what the appeal of this is to Zizek’s audience: people who want to regard and present themselves as radical, who also want to spend their time reading works of theory and consuming cultural products, and are uncertain about how to reconcile these impulses. Simple: those (like the despicable Bill Gates – symbol of any kind of political intervention any time and any where) who wish to improve lives with their actions, or even who wish to think about the fact of suffering with some empathy or compassion – these people are hypocrites who deny their own essential violence. Unlike these hypocrites, we must refrain from any kind of ameliorative political action or empathy for those who suffer, and instead do nothing… except consume and analyse cultural products. And this lack of engagement with actual politics makes us, in fact, by the transformative magic of Zizek’s work, into more politically astute and engaged people than those who actually do stuff or feel compassion.

9. Zizek returns to his tripartite division: subjective, objective and symbolic violence. Subjective violence is “that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds”. Zizek says that there is “something suspicious, indeed symptomatic” in the liberal focus on subjective violence.

10. “the task is precisely to change the topic” … “subjective violence is just the most visible of the three”.

10-12. Discussion of ‘objective’ violence. This section is quite interesting, as an example of Zizek ‘on game’: it draws a distinction that is well worth making, turns the distinction into metaphysical nonsense, then redirects the nonsense into reactionary historical revisionism. This is Zizek working well – redirecting potentially useful critique towards fascism. I’ll quote at some length, then discuss.

10-11. “The notion of objective violence needs to be thoroughly historicised: it took on a new shape with capitalism… It is far too simple to claim that the spectre of this self-engendering monster that pursues its path disregarding any human or environmental concern is an ideological abstraction and that behind this abstraction there are real people and natural objects on whose productive capacities and resources capital’s circulation is based and on which it feeds like a gigantic parasite. The problem is that this ‘abstraction’ is not only in our financial speculators’ misperception of social reality, but that it is ‘real’ in the precise sense of determining the structure of the material social processes: the fate of whole strata of the population and sometimes of whole countries can be decided by the ‘solipsistic’ speculative dance of capital…”

11. “Therein resides the fundamental systemic violence of capitalism, much more uncanny than any direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their ‘evil’ intentions, but is purely ‘objective’, systemic, anonymous… One can experience this gap in a palpable way when one visits a country where life is obviously in shambles. We see a lot of ecological decay and human misery. However, the economist’s report that one reads afterwards informs us that the country’s economic situation is ‘financially sound’ – reality doesn’t matter, what matters is the situation of capital.”

11-12. “In short, the highest form of ideology does not reside in getting caught in ideological spectrality, forgetting about its foundation is real people and their relations, but precisely in overlooking this Real of spectrality and in pretending directly to address ‘real people with their real worries.'”

Ok, what’s happening in this section?

Zizek is mushing together a number of analytic distinctions that, taken independently, could be valuable, but that conflated in this way make a (deliberately) ideological mess. What exactly is Zizek saying in this passage – what distinctions is he drawing? I’m going to list various ways in which some of these remarks could be interpreted, then show how Zizek shuffles between these senses to enable his historical revisionism.

First: the distinction between violence that is intended by agents, versus violence that is an unintended, unwitting consequence of multiple agents’ aggregate actions. This distinction is the sense that can be given to Zizek’s remarks about “concrete individuals and their ‘evil’ intentions” versus violence that is “‘objective’, systemic, anonymous.” – if Zizek’s distinction is to be given social-theoretic content, this must be that content. (Note that I’m not saying Zizek’s distinction actually does mean this, in his text – I don’t think it does – just that this is what it would have to mean to render the distinction meaningful, accurate, and analytically useful.)

To elaborate on the content that I am temporarily granting Zizek’s distinction… Take as an example of intended violence, the institution of slavery. Slave owners obviously know and intend the violence they perpetrate on the slaves that are their property. Against this, we can give an example of the violence of unintended consequences: Let’s say a technological innovation greatly improves farming yields for a given crop. Now that yields have improved, the global market is flooded with the crop, and its price falls. Poor farmers, who had relied on exports of that crop as their principle source of income, find their income dramatically reduced. They must consume more of their own crops themselves, to survive, which reduces their income still further. They also cannot afford their principle investment expenditure. Without this investment, the subsequent year’s crop is dramatically worse. Famine; many deaths.

This socially-effected violence is not ‘intended’ by anyone – but it is objective, and it is a product of specific decisions by a very large number of social actors. Of course even this latter ‘objective’ violence requires a ‘subjective’ violence in order to occur: the social structures that generate this outcome are created and maintained, in significant part, by deliberate force. Still, this way of drawing a distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ violence can be understood in a meaningful way, I believe. [It should go without saying that this example of ‘objective’ violence is not more hypothetical than is the institution of slavery – Amartya Sen’s work on famines and Mike Davis’s ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’ are useful reference points here.]

This isn’t how Zizek understands his distinction, though – as we’ll see. What else is happening in this section?

Second: the distinction between “ideological abstraction” and “real people and natural objects”. This could be understood as a critique of a kind of vulgar materialism (again – I’m granting Zizek’s words content here, rather than offering an interpretation of their actual function in his text). One might think that ‘abstractions’, in the sense of concepts in one’s head, don’t have material force – but in fact of course they do. Zizek writes (to quote this passage again)

The problem is that this ‘abstraction’ is not only in our financial speculators’ misperception of social reality, but that it is ‘real’ in the precise sense of determining the structure of the material social processes

We could take this to mean that misperceptions by powerful actors have a material impact, because those power actors act on their misperceptions, granting them real social force. Or we could mean the first thing, about unintended consequences – Zizek could be saying (he isn’t) that the ‘abstractions’ he is referring to are the aggregate effects of many actors’ actions.

What else?

Third: Zizek could be referring here to an actual metaphysical entity independent of social actors. This passage doesn’t particularly suggest this, I don’t think – but I’m putting it out there anyway, as I’m sure this is how Zizek is understood by some of his readers.

Fourth: Zizek could be drawing a distinction between spheres of social action. On the one hand, the social action of financial speculators; on the other hand the social action of other economic actors. This doesn’t, in fact, map well at all onto the ‘abstract’ versus ‘real’ distinction Zizek is discussing, here: financial speculators are in fact also real social actors. But this is probably the most obvious way to interpret what he is saying. Zizek’s final example – of a country filled with human misery, but valuable to capital, could be taken as an example of this: an economy that is valuable to capital is, of course, valuable to the capitalist social actors who are profitably investing in the country. Whatever else Zizek is saying about ‘objective’ and ‘anonymous’ economic structures, we know that differentials in the benefits accrued from these social structures are real and large.

Now watch as Zizek moves through several of these very different possible meanings of his remarks, exploiting his own unclarity and assuming a reader who cannot be bothered to pin him down.

First Zizek talks about an ‘objective’ violence that is “systemic, anonymous” – that no one intends, that is associated with no specific agent, but that is a feature of the system as a whole. Then he shifts to talking about the perspective of the economist, as against the perspective of those in ‘human misery’. Then we reach this extraordinary passage, which returns to the earlier thematised Congo (“re-emerged as a Conradean ‘heart of darkness’”), and reveals what that earlier Conrad reference was foreshadowing:

12. “Our blindness to the results of systemic violence is perhaps most clearly perceptible in debates about communist crimes. Responsibility for communist crimes is easy to allocate: we are dealing with subjective evil, with agents who did wrong… But when one draws attention to the millions who died as the result of capitalist globalisation, from the tragedy of Mexico in the sixteenth century through to the Belgian Congo holocaust a century ago, responsibility is largely denied. All this seems just to have happened as the result of an ‘objective’ process, which nobody planned and executed and for which there was no ‘Capitalist Manifesto’… The fact that the Belgian king Leopold II who presided over the Congo holocaust was a great humanitarian and proclaimed a saint by the Pope cannot be dismissed as a mere case of ideological hypocrisy and cynicism. Subjectively, he may well have been a sincere humanitarian, even modestly counteracting the catastrophic consequences of the vast economic project which was the ruthless exploitation of the natural resources of the Congo over which he presided. The country was his personal fiefdom! The ultimate irony is that even most of the profits from this endeavour were for the benefit of the Belgian people, for public works, museums and so on.”

Let’s remind ourselves and Zizek of the administration of the Belgian Congo under Leopold II. Here’s an excellent short video; Here’s Adam Hochschild’s ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ on Amazon [full disclosure – I haven’t read the Hochschild]; here’s a review of the latter from the New York Times, from which I will quote:

It shows, above all, that during Leopold’s rule in Africa from 1885 to 1908, and in the years on either side of it, the peoples of the Congo River Basin suffered, in Hochschild’s words, ”a death toll of Holocaust dimensions.” This is not said lightly. The strategy adopted to plunder the area was, in effect, a war of enslavement against the indigenous population.

Much of the death toll was the result of killing, pure and simple. Villages were dragooned into tapping rubber, and if they refused to comply, or complied but failed to meet European quotas, they were punished. The hands of dead Congolese were severed and kept by militias to account to their quartermasters for spent ammunition. And, as Morel said, the practice of mutilation was extended to the living. By far the greatest number of deaths, however, were caused by sickness and starvation. The effect of the terror was to drive communities from their sources of food.

A Belgian Government commission estimated that from the late 1870’s, when the explorer Henry Morton Stanley made his first forays into the Congo on King Leopold’s behalf, until 1919, the year the commission published its findings, the population of the Congo Basin had been reduced by half. In 1924 there were thought to be some 10 million inhabitants — which means, Hochschild says, that ”during the Leopold period and its immediate aftermath the population of the territory dropped by approximately 10 million.”

Now return to Zizek’s description of the Belgian Congo holocaust:

All this seems just to have happened as the result of an ‘objective’ process, which nobody planned and executed

Is this an accurate characterisation of the policies and atrocities of Leopold’s Belgium in the Congo? Of course it is not. It is an obscenity. Leopold’s Belgium’s actions in the Congo are one of the most unambiguously centralised, planned, deliberately administered, exploitative, violent, murderous sets of state actions in capitalist history. It is hard to think of a case that would be more clearly a) capitalist; b) centrally planned and knowingly directed; and c) an atrocity of this scale.

But wait? Does Zizek mean it? Defenders of Zizek will, I believe or predict, at this point leap into the fray and insist that I am overlooking the crucial word “seems”. Zizek is not himself describing the Belgian Congo holocaust in these terms – he is ventriloquising liberal capitalist ideology (or some such perspective).

If this defense is your first impulse, reader, I invite you to review the structure of this section of the chapter again, yourself. In addition, let me talk it through again one more time.

– Zizek draws a distinction between ‘subjective’ violence – planned and intended by agents – and ‘objective’ violence – anonymous, unintended, systemic.
– He says that his goal is to direct attention away from ‘subjective’ violence, towards ‘objective’ violence.
– Zizek states that communism’s violence is obviously ‘subjective’, because clearly planned and intended.
– He states that capitalism’s violence is much more often ‘objective’, because it is not intended, but the results of the anonymous operation of an impersonal system.
– He gives as an example of this ‘objective’ violence the Belgian Congo under Leopold II
– This example amounts to extreme reactionary historical revisionism.

Zizek is not ventriloquising capitalist ideology here – the distinction between subjective and objective violence is his own, and has been offered as his valuable contribution to debates around violence. The example he chooses is his own. And the chapter has clearly been written with this example in mind, because he has foreshadowed it: the murder of Congolese by Congolese is ‘subjective’ violence; the murder of Congolese by Belgian colonialists is ‘objective’ violence.

In addition, note how Zizek is repurposing his own choice of technical vocabulary. In drawing the distinction between violence that is intended by an agent, and violence that is perpetrated by agents without intent… in drawing this distinction, Zizek chose the rather idiosyncratic terms ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ to characterise the types of violence that he had in mind. Now, at this crucial point in his argument, Zizek is – without flagging it – abandoning his previous technical definitions of these terms and returning to their ordinary language usage; he thinks he can count on most readers not to notice. Zizek writes –

Subjectively, he may well have been a sincere humanitarian

– meaning that in his own subjectivity Leopold may have sincerely regarded himself as a humanitarian. But of course this is not what the nexus of terms around “subjective” means in the technical vocabulary Zizek has just introduced. If we read this passage using Zizek’s own definitions of his terms, Zizek is here saying that Leopold may well not have directed the policies implemented in his rule of the Belgian Congo. This is, self-evidently, false.

Finally, no passage of Zizek would be complete without a more straightforward factual error: Leopold II was not “proclaimed a saint by the Pope”, as Zizek claims. It’s possible Zizek has in mind Leopold III (1095 – 1136), patron saint of Austria. Or it’s possible that he’s just flinging around whatever falsehoods suit his argument, as he is wont to do.


My reading has gotten ahead of my note-taking, but I wanted to skip ahead to mention this. Not the worst thing in the book by a long way, but particularly striking to me for some reason:

42-3. “When the United Airlines Flight 93 and three other planes were skyjacked on 9/11, it is significant that the gist of the phone calls to their closest relatives from the passengers who knew they were about to die was ‘I love you’. Martin Amis emphasised the Pauline point that all that ultimately matters is love:”

[NB: I think Amis himself would probably tether this closer to Larkin – “our almost-instinct almost true: what will survive of us is love” is the sentiment Amis has cited every other time he’s made remarks of this kind that I’ve read – though I’ve not read the piece Zizek cites here – but no matter.]

[NB#2: Well, after a bit of googling, here it is:

Like the victims on the other three planes, but unlike them, because they knew, the passengers called their families and said that they loved them. It is an extraordinary validation, or fulfilment, of Larkin’s lines at the end of An Arundel Tomb:

…To prove Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

See? Larkin (who, whatever else you can say about him, was properly secular – really not necessary to bring Paul in.)]

43-44. “[Zizek quoting Amis:]’Love is an abstract noun, something nebulous. And yet love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes black.’ However, 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? Why should there be more truth in what we do in such desperate moments? Is it not rather that, in such moments, the survival instinct makes us betray our desire? In this sense, deathbed conversions or confessions of love are sacrifices of desire… (This, incidentally, brings us to what would have been a true ethical act: imagine a wife phoning her husband in the last seconds of her life to tell him: ‘Just wanted to let you know that our marriage was a sham, that I cannot stand the sight of you…’)”

Ok – as I say, there’s plenty that’s objectively worse than this passage in ‘Violence’, but for some reason this strikes me as particularly revolting. Zizek doesn’t understand that most of us actually love those we choose to spend our lives with. He really doesn’t understand – he doesn’t believe it. Oh, sure, there are plenty of people who live unhappily with their partners – it’s perfectly plausible that some of those on Flight 93 called people they did not, in fact, love, and told them that they loved them – because this was a lie the relationship was based on, and they wanted to maintain that lie until the end. Even this scenario – even this – strikes me as an act of generosity, rather than of cowardice. But in fact for most people, when we call those who are closest to us in moments that we believe to be our last, and tell them that we love them… we are doing this because their and our lives’ meanings are bound together, because this expression of love is the most meaningful thing we can do for us and them with those last remaining minutes and seconds, because we want those who mean most to us to know that they were in our hearts, that we care for them and wish them to know that we care for them – this is what’s going on in such calls.

But because Zizek doesn’t share these attitudes – because he doesn’t care for those he pretends to – because he himself never means it when he says “I love you” – Zizek doesn’t believe it. This passage is as pristine an example as you’ll find of a common ‘theoretical’ move: 1) project your emotional problems onto all humanity; 2) congratulate yourself on the remarkable fact that you, almost alone, have the self-knowledge required to understand this invariant quality of human nature; 3) berate everyone else for concealing their true wretched state from themselves.

Again, Zizek’s fans, when reading this, presumably participate in this circuit of self-congratulation. These people (mostly male, I think) are overgrown adolescents – emotionally immature, incapable of even really imagining a full, loving relationship of any kind – and they snigger and high-five each other as Zizek says what they take everyone else to be hiding – taking their incapacities as insights, their emotional ignorance as emotional depth. (But I think the huge aggression in passages like these comes from a level of suppression, probably. If Zizek and his fans were secure in their analysis there wouldn’t be quite this level of obvious aggressive glee in its articulation. Zizek can’t quite decide if he’s soberly revealing that everyone is like this, or if he’s resentfully attacking those who aren’t like this; I think the affect wavers a bit between these stances.)


52. “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?”

Zizek contrasts his view with that of Jean-Marie Muller. Quoting Muller:

“Speaking is the foundation and structures of socialisation, and happens to be characterised by the renunciation of violence”

Against this view, Zizek cites Lacan.

52-3 “for Lacan – at least for his theory of four discourses elaborated in the late 1960s – human communication in its most basic, constitutive dimension does not involve a space of egalitarian intersubjectivity…. On the contrary, what Lacan indicates with his notion of the discourse of the Master as the first (inaugural, constitutive) from of discourse is that every concrete, ‘really existing’ space of discourse is ultimately grounded in a violent imposition of a Master-Signifier which is stricto sensu ‘irrational’: it cannot be further grounded in reasons. It is the point at which one can only say that ‘the buck stops here’; a point at which, in order to stop the endless regress, somebody has to say, ‘It is so because I say it is so!‘”

Brandom is a valuable counterweight to this false view of the functioning of language. I’ve discussed the Brandomian apparatus in great detail elsewhere on this blog. To summarise the relevant points briefly: yes, Zizek is right that any given ‘actually existing’ discursive chain of reasons must come to a halt at some point, when it reaches a point that (for whatever reason) the discursive community in question has chosen to treat as a ‘material inference’ – as, if you like, axiomatic. But it does not follow from this (as Zizek suggests) that such ‘stopping points’ themselves cannot be grounded in reasons. Brandom has a ‘default>challenge>response’ model of asking for and giving reasons: any ground can be challenged, and further reasons for it can be adduced. But no specific ground has to be challenged in any given interaction. So for any given interaction there will be heaps of unchallenged ‘axiomatic’ claims; but for the community as a whole, over time, any of these ‘grounds’ can be challenged and, potentially, rejected. There need be no ‘Master Signifier’. Neurath’s boat cannot be entirely dismantled at any one time; but every plank can be changed over the course of time (and, in principle, as part of this ongoing reconstructive work, the structure of the ‘boat’ itself can be transformed.)

So Zizek’s leap to irrationalism here – and his claim that an act of force that exists only as force, without any possibility of rational justification, must form the substrate of reason – all this is unwarranted.