Heart of darkness


Slavoj Zizek <em>Profile Books, 224pp, £12.99 </em>

Since the deaths of Jacques Derrida in 2004 and Jean Baudrillard in 2007, the Slovenian critic Slavoj Zizek has quickly cemented his position as the world's most prominent philosopher and cultural theorist. Like his predecessors, he has divided opinion within the academy, where his belligerent style and cultish following have alienated those not enraptured by his sheer energy. His recent film appearances - in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema and Zizek! - have allowed him to reach a wider audience and won him many admirers, but his idiosyncratic, far-left political views have tended to provoke the anger of the liberal left (as in Johann Hari's review of Zizek! in this magazine last April).

His new book, Violence, is typical of his work: digressive, inconsistent, politically engaged, occasionally brilliant, sometimes funny, and often wrong. Zizek's principal gimmick - and one of the reasons for his mass appeal - is his tendency to explain abstract theoretical ideas through pop-cultural references. He quotes Elton John to elucidate the conflict between social Darwinism and Christianity, and uses Badiou, Hegel and Freud in a lengthy discussion of a "masturbate-a-thon". This oscillation between high and low registers seems irreverent at first, but it becomes a predictable quirk.

In its subject matter, Violence is representative of the direction that theory has taken since 9/11. This has been characterised partly by a genuine engagement with contemporary politics, as the spectre of international terrorism sends the erstwhile inhabitants of ivory towers rushing for the fire exits. In this respect, this wave of contemporary thinkers is a vast improvement on theorists of the previous generation such as Gilles Deleuze, whose pious ultra-leftism manifested itself in dense works that had nothing whatsoever to do with the real practice of politics. Beside this newfound political commitment, theory has also surprisingly shifted towards the previously unfashionable subject of ethics. Alain Badiou, Terry Eagleton, Jacques Rancière and Giorgio Agamben share with Zizek an interest in the way that morality functions in contemporary politics.

The starting point of Zizek's argument is that that every state is founded on violence, an insight that is not original (the words are Trotsky's), but one that holds true. Max Weber, whom Zizek oddly neglects to mention, accurately defined the modern state as "that human community which within a defined territory successfully claims for itself the monopoly of legitimate physical force". Zizek puts a moral gloss on this, implying that he has exposed the violence that is at the dark heart of democracy, but in fact it is fairly uncontroversial. If Slavoj Zizek stabs me to death with a ballpoint pen, this is an illegitimate use of force, and - by almost universal consent - the state is entitled to lock him up physically. My family is not entitled to take revenge by torturing him with other items from the stationery drawer.

On one level, Zizek simply suggests that the state's monopoly on legitimate violence is a bad thing. Yet the alternative - a Nietzschean return to a primitive, stateless anarchy in which blood is repaid with blood - is only briefly considered in the final chapter, and then through an interpretation of Lars von Trier's Dogville. He also toys with the tiresome relativist argument that the democratic state's monopoly on violence somehow undermines its claim of superiority over dictatorships and tyrannies. What right do we have to criticise totalitarianism when liberal democracies also assert their dominance through physical compulsion? Unfortunately for Zizek, who does not disguise his contempt for liberal values, the best way out of this dilemma is to uphold the importance of an independent judiciary, a free press and a redistributive system of welfare, all three of which can help to regulate the state's use of force against its citizens.

As a theory of political violence, this book fails, but it is partially redeemed by the passages in which Zizek addresses the main issues of our time, proposing solutions to contemporary political crises. There is cause to think that these proposals would prove unworkable, but they are evidence of fresh thinking. The question of who owns Jerusalem, for example, is to be solved by making it a neutral zone that belongs to nobody, "the elevation of Jerusalem into an extra-political, sacred site".

In a similar vein, the "clash of civilisations" between Islam and Christianity is met with a passionate defence of atheism, "a European legacy worth fighting for". Here Zizek shrugs off any suggestion of relativism and confronts the weaknesses of politically correct multiculturalism. "What about submitting Islam - together with all other religions - to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs." If Zizek would pursue this end seriously, he might be worth his place at the top of the philosophical pile.

Matthew Taunton is a Leverhulme Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, and is currently working on a book about the cultural resonances of the Russian Revolution in Britain.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God