Thursday, July 29, 2010

In these dragon-ridden times

I recently posted a bemused link on my Facebook (tm) page to an article at The New Republic called "Zizek Strikes Again," in which the following exchange, between Slavoj Zizek and a writer for the Times of India, can be found:

You have also been critical of Gandhi. You have called him violent. Why?

S.Z.: It’s crucial to see violence which is done repeatedly to keep the things the way they are. In that sense, Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.

A lot of people will find it ridiculous to even imagine that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler? Are you serious when you say that?

S.Z.: Yes. Though Gandhi didn’t support killing, his actions helped the British imperialists to stay in India longer. This is something Hitler never wanted. Gandhi didn’t do anything to stop the way the British empire functioned here. For me, that is a problem.

I guess you have no respect for Gandhi who is a tall figure in this country.

S.Z.: I respect him. But I don’t respect him for his peaceful ways, vegetarianism, etc. I don’t care about that.


I was struck that the responses to my posting that link to Kirsch's piece just disparaged Kirsch without addressing Zizek's point. So I wanted to think more about this.

As it happens, the fascinating Letters of Note website has just posted a letter from Gandhi written in 1925 to a correspondent in Kansas City who'd asked Ghandi why he hated the British. Gandhi composed it, the website explains,"just over a year after being released from prison - he had served two years of a six year sentence following his promotion of the Non-cooperation movement." I suppose it serves to bolster Zizek's point:

26th July 1925.

My dear young Friend,

I like your frank and sincere letter for which I thank you.

You seem to have taken it for granted that I hate the British. What makes you think so? I have hundreds of friends among the British people. I cannot love the Mussalmans and for that matter the Hindus if I hate the British. My love is not an exclusive affair. If I hate the British today, I would have to hate the Mohammedans tomorrow and the Hindus the day after. But what I do detest is the system of government that the British have set up in my country. It has almost brought the economic and moral ruin of the people of India. But just as I love my wife and children, in spite of their faults which are many, I love also the British in spite of the bad system for which they have unfortunately made themselves responsible. That love which is blind is no love, that love which shuts its eyes to the faults of loved ones is partial and even dangerous. You must write again if this letter does not satisfy you.

Yours sincerely,

(Signed, 'MKGandhi')

By another coincidence, I just got Michael Wood's new book, Yeats & Violence, which focuses on Yeats's troubled and troubling poem, "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen." In this poem, Wood says, "Yeats both dramatizes frightful violence and suggests that violence may alter the world. It could wreck ideals certainly, but just as possibly might open the door to a new order." But Wood is given pause by a comment by his friend Graham Hough, who

... once said that like any sane person he was afraid of violence. I was struck by the phrase because I thought it was bold of him to say it. At that time, around 1968, many of us thought, or thought we thought, that some forms of violence were necessary, and only the fearful bourgeoisie condemned all violence - and even they were pretending, because they didn't condemn violence when it was on their side. [...] Graham Hough certainly knew what he was talking about, having been a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp - a series of camps, no doubt, since he was interned in Malaya and Siam from 1942 to 1945. And he wasn't comfortably condemning violence, just confessing his fear of it. A fear of violence wouldn't save you from violence, it might even throw you into it. It would wouldn't even save you from committing violence, in a rage or for some thought-out moral or political cause. But the fear would remain, whatever else went away. That fear wold be your sanity. If you were not afraid of violence, either you were not sane or you were not really talking about violence at all.

That sounds pretty sane to me. Anyway, Wood refers to, you gussed it, Zizek in his first chapter, "Violent Men" -

We need to recognize the symbolic and systemic violence Slavoj Zizek emphatically points to as well as well the violence he calls subjective, 'violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent.' Walter Benjamin writes of 'legal violence," Rechtsgewalt, meaning the violence of the law itself, and even Hannah Arendt speaks of 'state-owned means of violence.

But, Wood argues, there is a problem - not solved by political theory - in tendentiously equating violence and force, as is effected in the word Gewalt. Equating these, even where the language allows for it,

... tends to inculpate authorities; a strong distinction between the two tends to put the blame on rogue individuals or agencies. But even this description evokes only a very broad rule of thumb, and I don't think we can settle the matter by handy definitions, as Arendt nobly tries to do. Language and usage have their own life, and will close and open gaps in all kinds of different ways. However, the fact that words are slippery doesn't mean they don't have meanings. [...] Let me suggest though that all the easier uses of the word 'violence,' whatever place they come from on the political spectrum, and including Yeats' own pronouncements later in his life, lose a great deal by blurring or softening the edginess the word may contain ...

Wood's "Yeats-inspired resistance" to the concept of legal or systemic violence "doesn't have to do with the validity of the idea but with the level of generality at which it operates."

Zizek says (in his book Violence): "there is something inherently mystifying in a direct confrontation" with violence. "A direct verbal confrontation, he means," Wood adds, "and one that, precisely, seeks to demystify." He says:

What I want to suggest - or rather what my reading of Yeats suggests to me - is that there is a moment within violence that is also non-narrative and seemingly prior to the law and the human subject... Violence as Yeats helps us to understand it - whether personal, political, or apocalyptic - is always sudden and surprising, visible, unmistakable, inflicts or promises injury and is fundamentally uncontrollable.

As Wood says: "once days are [to use Yeats's figure from "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen"] dragon-ridden, however we explain the arrival of the dragon, neither the past nor the future can be the same." The wreckage of ideals was real for Yeats, Wood says, "and the apocalypse was always just around the corner. Or when it came it turned out not to be the apocalypse. However, he continued, at least through the 1920s, to understand that the promise of violence was inseparable from everything that made you afraid of it."

I've come to no conclusions here, alas. Zizek has rightly called Yeats "arch-conservative," and I've always been repulsed by Yeats (as some kind of authority on violence) even as I have been ravished by his poems. It's haunting that Gandhi's letter and "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" were composed at about the same time. We still have to wrestle with the work of each.


Inspirational quote from the book: "The last thing I really want to see in human history is another uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor..."

Pictured: Dragon on the Ishtar Gate, ca. 600 BC

1 comment:

Henry Gould said...

This is all very important & complex... but is it just my recurrent anti-intellectualism that resists what seems like the over-intellectualization or problematizing of this subject?

On some level I feel that anyone with a conscience knows what violence is, and knows what is wrong with insisting on getting one's way by force, and knows that, in some situations, simply insisting on getting one's way is wrong in itself.

Maybe this has to do with the old concept of "natural law". We know, somehow, what is at the root of the ancient prohibitions against various kinds of unlawful force (murder, theft, adultery, etc.) - we sense their inherent unrighteousness and injustice.

In this context Zizek's (& other's) theorizing about the inherent "violence" of the socio-political status quo seems to me paradoxically like a shucking of personal responsibility.