Slavoj Žižek: “The Uses and Misuses of Violence”

Renowned philosopher delivers talk at Loyola University.

This piece was originally written in 2009 for a non-fiction course—a “new journalism” assignment—at Loyola University New Orleans. It has since been revised and expanded.

By 6:30pm, a full hour before his arrival on stage, the crowds had already flooded the aisles and entrances anxiously hoping to witness this humbling event in academia at Loyola University of New Orleans. Slavoj Žižek, one of the very few most crucial living contemporary philosophers, was in New Orleans, LA — a city currently embroiled in political and socioeconomic turmoil, a murder capital of the country. The crowd was an eclectic mix of students, scholars, professors, and weirdos, all hoping to be a part of intellectual history in our city. By 6:45pm, the audio/visual crew as well as the Loyola’s own Electro-Acoustic Ensemble had mics, computers, speakers, and recording equipment in place. The lights were dimmed; all systems go.

The prelude concert set the cerebral journey in motion. The Electro-Acoustic Ensemble uses laptop computers, custom-built software and circuitry to make a musical arrangement that would be considered quite foreign to most ears. Thirteen computers combine to produce a mash-up of beeps, sirens, ascending and descending waves, humming, and even some “alien” voice improvisation. Their members looked cultish, dressed in all black, adorned with symbolic (of what?) red bands around their left arms. Their final piece lasting nearly fifteen minutes paid homage to the Futurist Manifesto, a movement that embraced speed, noise, machines, and the modern industrial world.

The crowd continued to trickle in as the show went on, causing commotion and creating a definite fire hazard. Those lucky enough to have a seat congratulated themselves on their early arrival. “They should have known it would be packed. He’s the most important philosopher alive right now,” someone whispered with exasperation in the row behind. Many stair squatters and doorway peekers were escorted to the overflow rooms, a consolation to those arriving late. They would have to watch their beloved philosopher via television screen, which they soon realized was busted anyhow. No sympathy was offered to these unlucky attendees.

By the end of the show, the crowd was buzzing with excited chatter. Meanwhile, Žižek himself slipped in through the side door, stage left, rapping with a few faculty members who had had the privilege of spending some downtime with the philosopher. As the audience caught on to his presence, the room grew quieter and quieter with anticipation. Lydia Voigt, the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, arrived at the podium, offering the first of many introductions for the philosopher.

Profesor Josefa Salmón followed Voigt, and then Dr. John Clark, who gave a provocative lead-in to the man of the hour, putting the talk in context with the city of New Orleans and the pervasive phenomenon of “fetishistic disavowal,” which, coined by Žižek, is a sort of like self-awareness in spite of itself.

With restrained excitement, Dr. Clark invited Žižek to the podium. After three very generous introductions, Žižek jumped in by building off of Clark’s local thesis.

“Who is the victim of violence?” Žižek asks, “And who is the perpetrator?” He continues in the context New Orleans, citing the controversial politics of Huey P. Long and the literary classic All The Kings Men. “A simple liberal democratic criticism is not enough… Only a guy like Huey Long could do it, what had to be done” Žižek said. Many in the audience chuckled lightly with some trepidation.

Throughout the ninety minute lecture, Žižek makes multiple interesting and very thought provoking points. With animated expressions and flailing arm gestures, he has asserts that our pleasure, jouissance, is a learned experience and can only be truly enjoyed in the company of others, as in masturbation vs. sexual intercourse. “Why do we seek partners in sex when we can just do it alone? We need the other to enjoy it more,” he proclaimed. The group of nuns adjacent to the podium were a choir of raised eyebrows.

A self-described “Christian-Atheist,” Žižek offered a contemporary translation of the apostle Paul from Ephesians 6:12, saying, “Our struggle is not against complete corrupted individuals, but against those in power in general, against their authority, against the global order.” The clergymen and women in the room nodded knowingly. Žižek purports that Paul has given us one of the first critiques of ideology.

For Žižek, ideology, and an over-identification of it, is politically problematic. Simply put, ideology is a close synonym to theory, and—as we’ve all suffered the negative effects of, say, free market capitalism and trickle-down economics—we know that theory doesn’t always pan-out when human error and greed is involved (which it inevitably is).

In the final half hour of the 90 minute lecture, Žižek finally touched on the title of his lecture — violence. Unexpectedly, he actually makes a plea for it. Of course, not the visible, physical type, but the disruptive, attention-grabbing kind (think Ghandi, not Guevara).

He had two takeaways. First, to see violence in its full scope, and to follow the chain, as it were. Here, he paraphrased Hannah Arendt: “Violence is ineffective in the sense that it is always a sign of impotence.” In other words, those who resort to violence feel oppressed in some way. Ask, why?

Second, consider where violence might be necessary to change. Again, not in physical harm, but in the interruptive sense. He suggests this might be in the form of doing nothing at all where you might expected to act by your society.

Žižek’s work spans many fields including politics, economics, popular culture, and, of course, psychoanalysis. It was clear that many had difficulty assimilating his sweeping ideas and theories, especially during the first round of Q&A in which one woman indignantly asked three questions in a row. She wanted Žižek to answer the unanswerable question, “When do we know it’s done? When is the end?” Žižek politely attempted to acquiesce, but settled on the most appropriate, yet unsettling, answer: “There is no end.”

Žižek has described to us a world that can only function with sex, violence, and radical thought — a tough pill to swallow for many at a private Catholic institution. Nevertheless, these are fixtures here on Earth. One of his most radical suggestions of the evening was that Israel and Palestine should simply join together as one state. This isn’t some Utopian dream, he argued, but, in fact, the easiest answer of all. Neither side of the dispute will never come to terms with their opponent’s beliefs. Letting go of ideology is the only way to achieve peace.

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