The philosopher Slavoj Zizek enjoys a good joke. Here’s one of my favourites: two men, having had a drink or two, go to the theatre, where they become thoroughly bored with the play. One feels a pressing need to urinate, so he tells his friend to mind his seat while he goes to find a toilet. “I think I saw one down the corridor outside,” says his friend. The man wanders down the corridor, but finds no WC. Wandering further, he walks through a door and sees a plant pot. After copiously urinating into it, he returns to his seat. His friend says, “What a pity! You missed the best part. Some fellow just came on the stage and pissed in that plant pot.”
This gag perfectly describes the argument of Zizek’s new book on violence. Drunkenly watching the boring spectacle of the world stage, we might feel an overwhelming need to follow the call of nature somewhere discreet. Yet, in our bladder-straining self-interest, we lose sight of the objective reality of the play and our implication in its action. We are oblivious to the fact that we are pissing on stage for the world to see.
So it is with violence. 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. All we see are apparently inexplicable acts that disturb the supposed peace of everyday life. We consistently overlook the objective or what Zizek calls “systemic” violence, endemic to our socio-economic order.
The main ambition of this book is to bring together subjective violence with the objective violence that is its underside and precondition. “Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious ‘dark matter’ of physics,” Zizek writes: invisible to naked eye. Zizek offers a rather cool and at times cruel analysis of the varieties of objective violence. He asks tolerant multicultural Western liberals to suspend our outraged responses to acts of violence and turn instead to the real substance of the global situation. In order to understand violence, we need some good old-fashioned dispassionate materialist critique.