Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Žižek, Divine Violence, and The Book of Job

Posted by NT Wrong on June 6, 2008

In Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (London: Profile Books, 2008), Slavoj Žižek’s engages in a series of discussions on violence. Of particular interest is his engagement with the concept of “divine violence” and the book of Job.

Žižek makes a central distinction throughout his book between the highly visible individual instances of “subjective” violence and the symbolic and systemic forms of “objective violence”:

“At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts” (p. 1).

In addition to visible, subjective violence are the other invisible forms that violence takes:

    (2) symbolic violence, the result of the imposition of a universe of meaning by language; and

    (3) systemic violence, “the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems” (p. 1).

For Žižek, subjective and objective forms of violence cannot be viewed from the same angle or standpoint, but require a sort of parallax view – a view from two quite incommensurable standpoints. While subjective violence appears as a disruption of the ‘normal’, peaceful state of things, objective violence “is precisely the violence inherent to this ‘normal’ state of things”. But if we fail to take this invisible objective violence of the system into account, we cannot make sense of what otherwise would appear as “irrational” explosions of subjective violence.

Žižek demonstrates that any understanding of subjective violence is inherently political by adducing some horrific examples (that fail to sufficiently horrify, due to one’s political standpoint). As one example, Žižek observes the lack of humanitarian uproar at Time Magazine‘s documentation of the death of 4 million people in the Congo. This contrasts with the considerable humanitarian uproar at the plight of Muslim women. And again:

“The death of a West Bank Palestinian child, not to mention an Israeli or an American, is mediatically worth thousands of times more than the death of a nameless Congolese” (p. 3).

Žižek notes that there is something “inherently mystifying about the confrontation with violence”, the horror of the event overpowering our thinking, making cold analysis of violence somehow complicit in the violence itself – aiding and abetting after the fact. Adorno famously wrote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. But Žižek would reverse Adorno’s formulation:

“Realistic prose fails, where the poetic evocation of the unbearable atmosphere of a camp succeeds … poetry is always, by definition, ‘about’ something that cannot be addressed directly, only alluded to” (p. 4).

Žižek’s final chapter addresses the subject of “divine violence”. On the one hand, Žižek believes that divine violence reveals the breaking point of objective violence. The phenomenon of “divine justice” consists of “brutal intrusions of justice beyond law” (p. 151). So in Walter Benjamin’s description of Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, while “we perceive a chain of events”, Benjamin observes that the angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” For Žižek, divine violence is precisely the wild intervention of this angel to stop the systemic violence which the piling wreckage of the past represents – a wreckage which is invisible to us mortals participating in the midst of the game:

“And what if divine violence is the wild intervention of this angel? Seeing the pile of debris which grows skyward, this wreckage of injustices, from time to time he strikes back to restore the balance, to enact a revenge for the destructive impact of ‘progress’. Couldn’t the entire history of humanity be seen as a growing normalisation of injustice, entailing the nameless and faceless suffering of millions? Somewhere, in the sphere of the ‘divine’, perhaps these injustices are not forgotten. They are accumulated, the wrongs are registered, the tension grows more and more unbearable, till divine violence explodes in a retaliatory destructive rage” (p. 152).

Yet, this sudden reversal of the wreckage is entirely meaningless, ungrounded. It serves no ‘underlying justice’; it restores no hidden equilibrium. All that the occurrence of divine justice signals is the inevitable injustice of a world which is “out of joint” (p. 169). It is merely an outburst, and furthermore “there is no big Other guaranteeing its divine nature”.

The other form of divine violence is divine caprice. This caprice is typified by the God of Job:

“Opposite such a violent enforcement of justice stands the figure of divine violence as unjust, as an explosion of divine caprice whose exemplary case is, of course, that of Job. After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities. When God finally appears, he affirms Job’s position against the theological defenders of the faith” (p. 152).

While God does defend Job against his friends who want to apply their systematic theology to Job, there is a complexity to God’s response which Žižek does not adequately exploit. For while God condemns Job’s friends for their false proclamations about the ‘meaning’ of Job’s suffering (the suffering is meaningless, and so the friends blaspheme God by attributing the divine with meaning-making), God also faults Job for enquiring whether there is any fault in God. The book of Job denies that any mortal has the capacity to engage with God, on his level. The protest tradition elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures is undermined in the book of Job. The book of Job denies the ability of a righteous Abraham or a righteous Moses (Genesis 18, Numbers 14) to bargain with God as would an advocate in the divine court. God has become completely transcendent of humanity in the book of Job. The protest of a righteous man has been reduced to “Why?” and the divine reply has been reduced to “Because!” Anything more which is said by either man or God would deny the utter freedom (arbitrariness) of divine justice that the book of Job wishes to defend. Unlike the God of “divine violence” who puts a stop to the invisible piling wreckage of the system of law, the God of “divine caprice” can point to anything in the world as being in accordance with the purposes of God. The example of God’s capricious purpose in the book of Job is of course a wager that Job will curse him when his family, property and body are destroyed. The caprice lies in God’s use of a particular injustice (against Job, his family) in the service of a universal idea of God’s justice. Such a God can only be the exemplar of the unjust totalitarian system itself, not the irruption of justice into the system of violence.

Žižek’s comments are on the mark concerning Job’s own (despairing, ignorant) poetic speeches, but not concerning the (masterful, all-knowing) poetry of God’s own speeches. Both allude to something that cannot be uttered (Job 9.14-15; 40.4-5), but only God’s speech claims that somewhere, in the divine sphere, meaning can be uttered (by God, and only for God). The speech of God is a false sublime, and faux poetry, wherein God’s theophanic appeal to ‘the indescribable’ employs the universal as an instrument to defend the specific injustice of the event which is represented by the divine wager.

So while Žižek’s comments about resistance to meaning-making are certainly correct in respect of Job’s own speeches, the book of Job also provides the highest defence of meaning-making. While Job himself concludes from all appearances that injustice reigns, the God of Job attempts to defend a justice that goes beyond any appearance humankind can behold. But the reality is in the appearances:

“This resistance to meaning is crucial when we are confronting potential or actual catastrophes, from AIDS and ecological disaster to the Holocaust: they refuse ‘deeper meaning’. This legacy of Job prevents us from taking refuge in the standard transcendent figure of God as a secret Master who knows the meaning of what appears to us as meaningless catastrophe, the God who sees the entire picture in which what we perceive as a stain contributes to global harmony … Is there a whole which can teleologically justify and thus redeem or sublate an event such as the Holocaust? Christ’s death on the cross surely means one should unreservedly drop the notion of God as a transcendent caretaker who guarantees the happy outcome of our acts, i.e., who enforces historical teleology. Christ’s death on the cross is in itself the death of this protecting God. It is a repetition of Job’s stance: it refuses any ‘deeper meaning’ that might cover up the brutal reality of historical catastrophes” (p. 153).

The meaninglessness can be contrasted with the reaction of right-wing Christians Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the 9/11 bombings. These right-wing Christians viewed the events of 9/11 as a sign that “God had lifted his protection from the United States because of the sinful lives of Americans. They blamed hedonist materialism, liberalism and rampant sexuality, and claimed that America had got what it deserved” (p. 155).

“The fact that the very same condemnation of liberal America voiced by the Muslim Other also came from the heart of l’Amérique profonde should give us pause for reflection” (p. 155).

The Hollywood productions released for the fifth anniversary of 9/11, United 93 and World Trade Center, also attempt the same quest for meaning where there is none. They “want to read the 9/11 catastrophe as a blessing in disguise, as a divine intervention which has served to waken America from its moral slumber and to bring out the best in its people.”

WTC ends with the offscreen words which spell out its message: terrible events, like the destruction of the Twin Towers, bring out the worst AND the best in people – courage, solidarity, sacrifice for the community. People are shown able to do things they never imagined” (p. 155).

The book of Job denies that there can be any umpire between a human and God, any intermediary able to bridge the unbridgeable gap between the human and divine. It denies that there can be any Christ – both man and God. The book of Job is the quintessentially anti-Christian work of the Old Testament. Against the Christian claim, it asserts the transcendent, apophatic reality of God, a God who does not have reasons to act for humankind, who does not oppose chaos, but instead includes the forces of chaos within himself. While the climax to the book of Job insinuates that this transcendence hides some secret purpose-for-humankind as part of creation, does not such a God exclude the possibility of meaning, of some definable ultimate principle of justice?

“When people imagine all kinds of deeper meanings … what really frightens them is that they will lose their transcendent God. This is the God who guarantees the meaning of the universe, the God who is a hidden master pulling all strings” (pp. 156-157).

Žižek, developing a point made by G. K. Chesterton, offers the Incarnation as the death of the concept of a transcendent God who hides cosmic meaning within himself. But the book of Job had already put an end to cosmic meaning, by heightening God’s very transcendence. The God of Job entertains only one horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma, freedom. And so God becomes pure arbitrariness, pure caprice, and so complete and radical absence of meaning and justice.


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