Thursday, September 25, 2008

Language itself, the very medium of non-violence, of mutual recognition, involves unconditional violence

ISSN 1751-8229 IJŽS Volume Two, Number Three
Slavoj Žižek

In his "Critique of Violence," Walter Benjamin raises the question: "Is any non-violent resolution of conflict possible?"(2431) His answer is that such a non-violent resolution of conflict is indeed possible in what he calls "relationships among private persons," in courtesy, sympathy and trust: "there is a sphere of human agreement that is non-violent to the extent that it is wholly inaccessible to violence: the proper sphere of ‘understanding,’ language.’(245)

This thesis of Benjamin belongs to the mainstream tradition in which the prevalent idea of language and the symbolic order is that of the medium of reconciliation and mediation, of peaceful co-existence, as opposed to a violent medium of immediate and raw confrontation.2 In language, instead of exerting direct violence on each other, we are meant to debate, to exchange words, and such an exchange, even when it is aggressive, presupposes a minimum recognition of the other. The entry into language and the renunciation of violence are often understood as two aspects of one and the same gesture: ‘Speaking is the foundation and structure of socialization, and happens to be characterized by the renunciation of violence,’ as a text by Jean-Marie Muller written for UNESCO tells us.3 Since man is a ‘speaking animal,’ this means that the renunciation
of violence defines the very core of being-human: ‘it is actually the principles and methods of non-violence … that constitute the humanity of human beings, the coherence and relevance of moral standards based both on convictions and a sense of responsibility,’ so that violence is ‘indeed a radical perversion of humanity.’4 Insofar as language gets infected by violence, this occurs under the influence of contingent ‘pathological’ circumstances which distort the inherent logic of symbolic communication.

What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?5 When we perceive something as an act of violence, we measure it by a presupposed standard of what the "normal" non-violent situation is – and the highest form of violence is the imposition of this standard with reference to which some events appear as "violent." This is why language itself, the very medium of non-violence, of mutual recognition, involves unconditional violence. So, perhaps, the fact that reason (ratio) and race have the same root tells us something: language, not primitive egotistic interests, is the first and greatest divider, it is because of language that we and our neighbors (can) "live in different worlds" even when we live on the same street. What this means is that verbal violence is not a secondary distortion, but the ultimate resort of every specifically human violence. Take the example of anti-Semitic pogroms, which can stand in for all racist violence. What the perpetrators of pogroms find intolerable and rage-provoking, what they react to, is not the immediate reality of Jews, but to the image/figure of the ‘Jew’ which circulates and has been constructed in their tradition.

The catch, of course, is that one single individual cannot distinguish in any simple way between real Jews and their anti-Semitic image: this image overdetermines the way I experience real Jews themselves and, furthermore, it affects the way Jews experience themselves. What makes a real Jew that an anti-Semite encounters on the street "intolerable," what the anti-Semite tries to destroy when he attacks the Jew, the true target of his fury, is this fantasmatic dimension.

The same principle applies to every political protest: when workers protest their exploitation, they do not protest a simple reality, but an experience of their real predicament made meaningful through language. Reality in itself, in its stupid being-there, is never intolerable: it is language, its symbolization, which makes it such. So precisely when we are dealing with the scene of a furious crowd, attacking and burning buildings and cars, lynching people, etc., we should never forget the placards they are carrying and the words which sustain and justify their acts. It was Heidegger who elaborated this feature at the formal-ontological level, when, in his reading of essence/Wesen/ as a verb ("essencing"), he provided a de-essentialized notion of essence.

Traditionally, "essence" refers to a stable core that guarantees the identity of a thing. For Heidegger, "essence" is something that depends on the historical context, on the epochal disclosure of being that occurs in and through language; his expression "Wesen der Sprache" does not mean "the essence of language," but its "essencing," the making of essences that is the work of language, "language bringing things into their essence, language ‘moving us’ so that things matter to us in a particular kind of way, so that paths are made within which we can move among entities, and so that entities can bear on each other as the entities they are. … We share an originary language when the world is articulated in the same style for us, when we ‘listen to language,’ when we ‘let it say its saying to us.’"6

For a medieval Christian, the essence of gold resides in its incorruptibility and divine sheen which make it a divine metal. For us, it is either a flexible resource to be used for industrial purposes or the stuff appropriate for aesthetic purposes. Or, for Catholics, the castrato voice was once the very voice of angels prior to the Fall. For us today, it is a monstrosity. This change in our sensitivity is sustained by language; it hinges on the shift in our symbolic universe. A fundamental violence exists in this "essencing" ability of language: our world is given a partial twist, it loses its balanced innocence, one partial color gives the tone of the Whole.

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