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The Violence of Language and Literature

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Language is not merely a pure and neutral tool but on the contrary, it is a violent thing that introduces division

I want to outline some notes towards the consequences of the idea of language as, at its very basic operation, a violent order. For this I turn to Slavoj Žižek’s reflection on the subject in his book Violence (2009), where he proposes the category symbolic violence: the violence of language.

We can begin this discussion of violence from the normative perspective that views a violence as a deviation from this norm. For example, in the current workings of our society, we have decided that killing each other is ethically wrong, and therefore, should I go murder my neighbour, this act would be deemed violent. However, as Žižek argues, this idea of an untainted or pure backdrop from which deviant acts are experienced as violent, fails to take into account the inherently violent nature of such a  backdrop.

Language is violent because it reduces the complexity of reality whilst simultaneously imbuing it with new symbolic complexities, which force reality into an external field of meaning.

Language is one such backdrop. Language is seen as a neutral or perhaps even a peaceful medium. It is that which is emblematic of the non-violent, and when language is used for violence this use is to be understood as pathological, a deviation. As Žižek, turning to Hegel, writes:

“…Hegel was already well aware, there is something violent in the very symbolisation of a thing, which equals its mortification. This violence operates at multiple levels. Language simplifies the designated thing, reducing it to a single feature. […] It inserts the thing into a field of meaning which is ultimately external to it.” 1

Seen this way, language is violent because it reduces the complexity of reality whilst simultaneously imbuing it with new symbolic complexities, which force reality into an external field of meaning. “When we name gold ‘gold’,” Žižek writes, “we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing into it our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity and so on, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the immediate reality of gold.” 2

What we are dealing with is the distinction between ‘reality’ as it is in itself and the symbolization of reality. As Lacan would have it, when we enter language, we enter a slippery slope of signifiers. Signifiers with no real final destination other than those the tautological Master-signifiers: the law is the law because it is the law. Therefore, even though we might share the same empirical ‘reality’, this reality is mediated through symbolization, and thus we essentially live in multiple ‘realities’ overdetermined by symbolization. Žižek’s point is that we don’t react on the immediate reality of things, but the ‘false’ realities as mediated through the symbolic images. While these images are malleable, they are in the end the limit of our only reality.

It is as if the attempt at empathy, the ability to share the feelings of the other becomes its opposite: not my attempt at understanding the other, but the wish for the other to be like me. Literature delimits just as severely as it expands.

In this way, we can also understand for example, the feminist critique of patriarchal language or phallogocentricism. The patriarchal image/figure of a woman, as construed through symbolization, overdetermines the female subject. This not only reduces her immediate reality to a fixed position in a symbolic field, it also affects how she perceives herself. This is the power of performativity. A concept too complex to precisely define here, so for want of a better example, we can think of it in terms of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’ that do not stem from any ‘truth’ but are generated and executed through a logic that emerges from symbolization. Through patriarchy, we can see the asymmetricality of language at work and how it violently determines experience.

What we need to take away from this is firstly, how the fundamental idea of any symbolization is essentially a violent overdetermination of immediate reality because it is a reflexive act that returns to and has an effect on immediate reality. And secondly, how a division between reality, and how we experience the meaning of reality, occurs as reality is mediated through language. As Žižek writes: “Reality in itself, in its stupid existence, is never intolerable: it is language, its symbolisation which makes it such.” 3 From this we might also posit, that symbolization never escapes ideological framework. Thus we can see language is not merely a neutral tool for the sole purpose is peaceful communication. There is always something more violent at stake when it comes to symbolization: hierarchy, demarcations, and reduction/condensation.

In terms of literature, it is tempting to say that this mode of expression is precisely the attempt at breaking free of these shackles of language; that literature breaks barriers and improves our empathetic abilities. There might still be some truth to these ideas. Through literature, new ‘subjects’ have a chance to emerge, and the language is shaken and vibrates with new ontological demarcations. But, the question remains, can this escape the fundamental violence that we have seen symbolization ultimately incurs? And moreover, what if the reversal were true? What if it is this very attempt to break these barriers of delimitation that language erects in order to come closer to the other, that is in itself inherently violent? It is as if the attempt at empathy, the ability to share the feelings of the other becomes its opposite: not my attempt at understanding the other, but the wish for the other to be like me. Literature delimits with language as intensely as it expands with empathetic sensation. To experience love with Houellebecq’s narrators is to be restricted the concepts reduction to the language of the sex-commodity. To experience K.’s predicament in Kafka’s novels is to render the oppressive modern bureaucratic world as the inevitable outcome of a violent linguistic tendency. 

  1. Slavoj Žižek, Violence, (London: Verso, 2009), 52.
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid., 57.

Alexander is currently completing his Master’s in Comparative Literature at the University of Copenhagen. Here he spends days desperately attempting to avoid literary theory classes in order to take courses in philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. He is ostensibly a volunteer at Ark Books, but no one can remember the last time he took a shift. For the Ark Review he will be writing various analysis of literary things with Lacan as the theoretical spearhead. A deceivingly brilliant field to pick of course, because no one understands Lacan, and thus Alexander comes off as smart. He asks for all complaints or disagreements concerning his articles be addressed to the big Other.


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