The violence of refusal

I’m currently working through some (hopefully final) edits on my book about Dionysius and Žižek, and have found myself back trying to figure out the relationship between Žižek’s account of violence (primarily in his book Violence) and the account of violence in Benjamin’s Critique of Violence. I’ve pointed out before the way that Žižek ignores the fact that Benjamin’s discussion is dealing in part with the question of violence in relation to the general strike. But what I hadn’t quite grasped is that where, for Žižek, it is acts of passive refusal such as Bartleby the Scrivener’s ‘I would prefer not to’ or Saramago’s fictional country where all the citizens spontaneously refuse to fill our election ballots which best exemplify ‘divine violence’, for Benjamin the general strike is specifically not violent. That seems like an important distinction between the two accounts of violence, but I can’t quite get straight what that distinction is, so I’m hoping some of you might be able to help me figure it out. Here’s where I’ve got to:

For Žižek there are four types of violence. There is law-founding or mythical violence, which consists of the unjustifiable decision to create a social or symbolic order in the first place. The violence (that is, the excessive nature of this act – its lack of grounding in any reason or cause) of this moment is often covered up by reference to a God or gods: we do things this way and not that way because God has so ordained it. There is law-maintaining violence, the various forms of coercion directed at anything which threatens the ongoing existence of the social and symbolic order – whether that’s calling the police on strikers or gossiping about the person who made a social faux pas. There is simple criminal violence, which transgresses the law but doesn’t pose a threat to it. And there is divine violence, which for Žižek is anything which poses an existential threat to the existing social order, forcing a radical transformation.

Benjamin is trickier. Again, violence is always entangled with the social and symbolic order – Critique of Violence says that the question of violence arises in relation to law and justice. For law, violence can be justified only if it is deployed in order to achieve ends which are sanctioned by the law. The law wants a monopoly on violence – it wants to be the sole arbiter of whether or not violence is justified. Even when violence is legal, if it is not wielded directly by the state, then it poses a threat to the law: and this is where we get to the question of the strike. Benjamin argues that organised labour is ‘apart from the state probably the only legal subject entitled to exercise violence.’ And here’s where it gets tricky. A strike is not an action so much as a refusal to act. It is a withdrawal from the violent coercion of the employer. But a strike can aim either at an end that is sanctioned by the law – higher wages, say – or at an end that threatens the existence of the law as such – revolution, the end of the law. In the second case, although striking as such is legal, the law cries violence because the aim of the strike is one that threatens its existence.

Later, though, Benjamin makes a distinction between  the political general strike and the proletarian general strike. The political general strike doesn’t want to overthrow the law and the state, it just wants a reorganisation of the state or law: different bosses, different conditions for waged labour. But the proletarian general strike wants to end the state and the law. If the law is defined as a set of agreements about when violence is and is not legitimate (so a legal contract, Benjamin says, confers on each party the right to resort to some kind of violence against the other if they break the terms of the contract), then the general strike is properly anarchic: the strikers refuse to work until there is no more state, no more law, no more society in which the decision to work or to not work is enforced by the threat of violence. In the political general strike, the strikers want more control of the power of violent coercion held by the state; in the proletarian general strike, the strikers refuse any kind of social order built on violent coercion.

And then we get to divine violence. If mythic violence is lawmaking, Benjamin says, divine violence is law-destroying. It is not about enforcing the law, and so it is not about retribution or payback. It kills not to enforce the law of talion, but for the sake of humanity, whose value cannot be reduced to the law. On Žižek’s reading of Benjamin, this would mean that the proletarian general strike is the ideal exemplar of divine violence, and Benjamin has earlier indicated that the law might indeed perceive the general strike as violent. But he has also argued that the proletarian general strike is not violent.

I can’t work out how to square this circle. In part, I am not quite sure what Benjamin means by violence. Sometimes it seems that coercion is at play; but this again would seem to make the proletarian general strike violent, though Benjamin insists  that it is not. We could see it as having to do with the law, and specifically the way in which the law is founded on the state’s monopoly of violence and the law of talion. But then divine violence, which takes place in utter indifference to the state’s authority or the law of talion, would not count as violence. Either way, I’m stumped, and if anyone with a better grasp of Benjamin can help me out I’d be extremely grateful.

Some reservations about non-violent resistence

Like many people, I have a vague if unexamined sense that non-violent resistence is somehow the “best” political strategy — even if it doesn’t work under all circumstances, it would in any case be somehow better or preferable to use non-violent resistence. In light of the white-washing of Nelson Mandela that’s currently underway, though, I started wondering about a couple things. Above all, I started to become suspicious of the very fact that mainstream political leaders are so eager to praise Mandela as a non-violent resistence leader.

It’s easy to see why the powers that be would be willing to embrace non-violence as a strategy for their opponents. I don’t think it’s a simple matter of effectiveness — after all, the state is very good at fighting violence with violence. Rather, the strategy of non-violent resistence seems to implicitly presuppose the basic legitimacy of the existing order. Those who are in charge of it are being asked to change their ways, but they or their peers will still presumably be in charge. Indeed, responding favorably to non-violent demands can be a great way of shoring up the legitimacy of the existing order by showing generosity of spirit and an openness to reform.

I also wonder if part of the appeal of non-violent resistence for Western audiences doesn’t come from Christian ideology that views suffering as redemptive. When watching the Occupy protests unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of the Rolling Stones line: “I went down to the demonstration, to get my fair share of abuse.” Several people I talked to went to the Occupy encampment specifically in order to get arrested, and I could never really make sense of that. It’s as though suffering for the cause has some type of automatic, quasi-magical effect on public opinion, which will recognize the protestors as righteous and grant their request.

These two dynamics feed into each other, so that the violence of the powers that be is actually necessary to the movement — which again implicitly legitimates the power structure even as it is taking clearly illegitimate actions. We need to go through the whole cycle: you guys beat us up, then we nobly bear it, and then we all really grow as people and change our ways, together. At least until the next time we have a request that you’re not immediately willing to grant, and then we do it all over again. It all starts to sound eerily like the dynamics of an abusive relationship.

None of this is to say that non-violent resistence is a bad thing or shouldn’t be used. But isn’t it strange how the great non-violent resisters wind up being taken up as legitimating symbols for the systems that oppressed them? We recognize the irony that Jesus becomes part of the ideology of the Roman Empire or that Martin Luther King emerges as a symbol of America’s ever-closer approach to perfection — but maybe there’s a deeper, harsher irony at work.

An und für sich: the TV adaptation?

I don’t want to muscle in on jms’s and Craig’s territory by posting something about TV on a Thursday, but ABC’s new show Revolution does touch on a few themes which struck me as of interest to AUFS. The show is about a post-apocalyptic future in which electricity no longer works. This is a pretty neat idea, although it falls apart at the slightest scrutiny (if “electricity” doesn’t work, how come “nervous systems” still do?); unfortunately, the show does seem to be encouraging scrutiny of the premise by making the characters’ attempt to discover how the apocalypse happened an ongoing plot thread. High concept aside, Revolution isn’t really a “good” show; its post-apocalyptic hardships are pretty off-the-shelf, as are the characters (idealistic teenagers, surly dudes with a soft heart, etc), but there are a couple of interesting things about it. One is its presentation of cities as objects of nostalgia; the main character, who was a toddler when electricity stopped working, keeps an illicit collection of post-cards of the major American cities (I’m reminded of David Simon saying he made Treme in response to people who asked him why anyone would live in the city depicted in The Wire); indeed, on one level at least, the show presents an argument against the lo-fi localism which is something of a liberal consensus. Continue reading “An und für sich: the TV adaptation?”

September 11, 2011 Sermon: “The 9-12 Error!” (Updated)

Here’s my first draft of my sermon for this Sunday at Zion “Goshert’s” UCC, which is of course the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  It’s still feeling kind of drafty and could be sharpened a bit, so I would welcome your feeback.  Thanks…  The lections I am using are the Hebrew Bible lectionary text, the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:19-31) and the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).  UPDATED 9/8/11.

It’s been ten years since September 11th, 2001, as you’ve surely been hearing from radio, television, and every other media outlet for the past two weeks.  September 11th also holds significance to me because it was the day I was baptized as an infant in 1977, before I was quite nine months old.  I was obviously too young to remember my own baptism but it was on this date, September 11, 1977, that I began my formal life in the church, baptized in a country church outside of the town of Columbia, Pennsylvania. Continue reading “September 11, 2011 Sermon: “The 9-12 Error!” (Updated)”

Reading Robert Walser’s “The Battle of Sempach”

Robert Walser’s short story “The Battle of Sempach” was written in 1908 about a Swiss rebellion in 1386 and addresses the collision course of history pertinent even today in 2011.

It begins on a day not like today for many of us: an oppressively hot day. Dusty, there; perhaps merely feeling and tasting of dust, here. A day made of or even for death, the question hanging of whose. Theirs, the noblemen of money & class whose imposition on the lives of others is assumed as a given? or those to whom they so indolently impose themselves? There is a war, but they, the nobleman are not wont to regard it as such.

Hasty sips of wine were taken, roast fowl consumed and the inedible bits spat out with a leisurely, light-hearted ease; after all, it wasn’t some serious, chivlarous war they were off to, but rather to inflict punishment, rape, commit bloody, scornful, theatrical deeds, that’s what each of them thought; and each could already see the mass of lopped-off heads that would bloody the meadow. Continue reading “Reading Robert Walser’s “The Battle of Sempach””

Domestic Violence and the NFL

This might seem hardly worth a blog post, but I think the reading audience might like to know about this.  Here is an article highlighting the ten percent rise in reports of domestic violence in cities under the circumstance of their NFL team losing. A study between 1995-2006 of six NFL teams- the Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans-showed an increase in reports of male violence toward their female home partners, within the narrow window of the last hour of the game to two hours after the game ended. I don’t think this can be taken to mean a whole lot about American sports and culture on its own, but when combined with other social phenomenon it has to say something about our culture’s obsession with violent entertainment, and its reproduction in viewers (though it might be interesting to see if other sports correlate with domestic violence, suggesting that it is not the violence of the sport that is influencing violence, but maybe the gambling going on or something else).

Worrying about violence in film

Summer blockbuster season is approaching, and with that comes the inevitable worry about what all this violence in film is doing to us. Last summer, I already spent a significant amount of time dismantling the blog posts of people who want to find some way to square the instincts they were taught in youth group (basically summarized in the classic song “Input Output,” which I cannot find on YouTube currently) with the level of “actually good” culture that they have somehow managed to obtain despite wasting their youth on Christian pop culture.

A more sporting target, however, might be two pillars of the critical community, namely A. O. Scott and Anthony Lane, both of whom are really worried about the violence in Kick-Ass. Continue reading “Worrying about violence in film”