For a Lacanian, late-Marxist Slovenian social theorist whose work is as impenetrable as a Mother Superior, Slavoj Zizek has some serious cachet. There’s a documentary about him called Zizek! There are T-shirts that read WWZD? (Guess what that stands for!) He has a really hot wife. And then there’s his oeuvre, 40-plus volumes over the last 20 years. But Zizek is still not content.
“Maybe I’m an old-fashioned public intellectual, I feel the need to address beyond my narrow circle of Hegelian philosophers, Lacanian psychoanalysts and so on and so on when I think I have something to say.” The New York publishing house Picador was only too happy to oblige. The result is the inaugural book in a new series called BIG IDEAS//Small Books. The idea is practical, but not without precedent. Just ask Chairman Mao.
Zizek’s volume, called Violence, is about, um, violence. It’s not the bang bang sis-boom-bah violence of murder and muggings and terrorist attacks (that Zizek terms “subjective” violence) that interests the swarthy Jeff-Daniels-plus-20-years-and-30-pounds look-alike. It’s the violence with no clearly identified agent—the violence underlying capitalism—that holds his interest. Zizek called this objective violence. “The violence,” he says, “which is not visible but is inscribed into the very normal functioning of the system.”
The pocket-sized paperback tackles Russia, Hitler (who Zizek says wasn’t violent enough) and Abu Ghraib to start. But really violence is just a lightning rod about which Zizek displays his dazzling rhetorical and theoretical skill. How does the Marxist feel about writing the highbrow equivalent of an impulse buy, the cornerstone of capitalism and its resultant violence? Not bad, surprisingly. “As Lenin said, ‘the capitalists will sell him the rope with which to hang him.’”
Though Zizek and the English professor Steven Lukes (whose contribution to the Picador series is titled Moral Relativism) kicked off the series in August—its official launch event, featuring Zizek and Lukes, is on Sept. 3 at the Union Square Barnes & Noble—Picador plans to roll out four more in 2009, including Susie Orbach on Bodies, Ian Hacking on New Identites and Eva Hoffman on Time. —Joshua David Stein