By Zach Myers
Zizek classifies violence into two categories: subjective and objective. Subjective violence is our typical and therefore “subjective” experience of violence against the background of a non-violent zero level (Violence, p. 2). Subjective violence “is seen as a perturbation of the ‘normal’ state of things. However, Objective violence is precisely the violence inherent to this ‘normal’ state of things (Violence, p. 2).” Subjective violence is, from our personal perspective, the “irrational” violence on TV and the news. It is, for instance, the suicide of Danny Taylor in Winter of Our Discontent, along with the rape of John Trueblood’s daughter and the rioting in Harlem in Invisible Man. This violence seems absurd and impossibly misdirected to someone who doesn’t understand the structural violence inherent in the system. “Objective violence is invisible since it sustains the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as subjectively violent (Violence, p.2 emphasis added).”
A dialogue about a riot in the Ellison’s Invisible Man aptly describes the difference in experience between someone who recognizes the connection between subjective and objective violence, and someone who does not:
“’This is some night,’ one of them said. ‘Ain’t this some night?’
‘It’s about like the rest.’
‘Why you say that?’
‘ ’Cause it’s fulla fucking and fighting and drinking and lying – gimme that bottle.’” (p. 561)
To most the riot is an instance experienced as violence – which it is. But only the most attuned to violence recognize it as a single performative manifestation of and underlying system.
Objective violence is the smoothly operating machine on the body of the criminal in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. Through punishment, his crimes are inscribed and encoded in such a way that they literally become a part of him (p. 197). “It can’t be a simple script of course, after all, it’s not supposed to kill right away (p. 204).” The machine does not kill quickly. It is drawn out for the performative aspect of punishment. In other words, the machine must work slowly, in order to bring about the performance from the subject that codifies his socio-symbolic identity:
“It’s planned for an average of twelve hours; the climax is calculated for the sixth hour… And how quiet the man becomes at the sixth hour! Even the stupidest man is now enlightened. It starts around his eyes. From there it spreads out. A look that might lure you into joining him under the harrow… the man begins to decipher the writing… You’ve seen that it is not easy to decipher the script with your eyes; but our man deciphers it with his wounds.” (p. 204)
The punishment is reflexively justified by the criminal’s reaction to it. Like the machinations of the apparatus, systemic violence not only hurts the person physically, but through performance transforms her or him into their role as an Other.
For example John Trueblood was born a share-cropper. His socio-symbolic identity as a black man, reinforced by the structural violence of the contemporary economic system, prevented him from attaining basic necessities such as warmth. Through continual nudging – economic deprivations and symbolic reinforcements – he eventually performed the violent degradation pushed on him by raping his own daughter – an instance of subjective violence against the background of objective violence. This performative act, like the look of sickening transfiguration on the face of the accused, reflexively justified his punishment - or the objective violence of economic degradation.
Ethan Hawley in Winter of Our Discontent is aware of the disparate economic, social and symbolic pressure nodes which “in concentration had been nudging  and altogether amounted to a push (WOTD, p. 88).” Instead of directly hurting people structural violence relies on hundreds and thousands of seemingly innocent actions which resonate together to destroy. The “push” Ethan describes is the final culmination in subjective violence. It is the final straw performative act in which Danny kills himself. On the subject of violence, Ethan asks, “Is murder by slow, steady pressure any less murder than a quick and merciful knife thrust? (p. ?)” In fact structural violence is more sinister because it takes away the subjects dignity, as well as their life, in order to justify and continually perpetuate violence against them. As the protagonist in the Invisible Man puts it, “They want you guilty of your own murder (p. 558).”
Structural violence – evictions, unequal job opportunities, racism, etc. – all resonated together and created the violence embodied by “Ras the destroyer (p. 558)” in Ellison’s Invisible Man. The Brotherhood watched this steady build of injustices and did nothing, constantly advocating waiting for some specific moment – were these “scientists” waiting for the return of Christ? There is no logic behind their inaction except to perpetuate the systemic violence which is the source of “the energy” that they feel they are destined to direct. When Harlem finally rejects the Brotherhood, they had created a situation where all that had to be done to destroy her was for the “benevolent” Brotherhood to desert her, washing their hands of her death. The riot, thus functioned for the Brotherhood as a great ‘I told you so’ – a punishment which reflexively reinforces the Brotherhoods (right)eousness by bringing out the violence of Ras – who was in fact their own creation. And again, this also reflexively justifies further structural violence by justifying police brutality against the community in the future – Harlem has performed and entrenched the stigma of black criminality.
Because this symbolic violence is used to sustain the smooth operation of the systemic violence, Objective violence can often only be recognized by outsiders, such as the foreigner in the Penal Colony, who have a different zero-level from which to compare particular instances of violence. This normalizing renders the violence of the prisoner non-violence – part of the background of everyday experience. Ethan Hawley also recognized the objective violence in Danny Taylor’s death, when others did not. For them Danny was simply performing his role as a drunkard. Zizek writes, “Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious ‘dark matter’ of physics, the counterpart to an all-too-visible subjective violence. It may be invisible, but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be ‘irrational’ explosions of subjective violence (Violence, p.2).” As we have thus far seen, the performative aspect of objective violence often serves to cover-up the deeper source of objective violence; it is ironic therefore, that according to Zizek the only way which we detect objective violence is through the seemingly irrational outbursts of subjective violence. However, in the literature this does seem to hold true.
The rape of John Trueblood’s daughter in Invisible Man made Norton suddenly aware of that there was something awful working away within the college community. Likewise, the riots in Harlem shocked the sensibilities of the protagonist; however, unlike Norton, even though he is not happy with the effects of subjective violence, the protagonist recognizes the underlying problems at the heart of the violence. In fact the riot helps the protagonist to more clearly understand the operation of the structural and symbolic violence committed against Harlem. He states, “I could see it now, see it clearly and in growing magnitude (p. 553).” In the midst of this stunning realization the protagonist is even willing to accept his own death – an act of subjective violence – if it might it might have the effect of awakening people to the “beautiful absurdity of their American identity (p. 559).” An outburst of subjective violence is inherently shocking because it is outside the norm. The protagonist hopes this shock will force people to reflect on the possible causes of violence. Thus, even though Ras is playing into the hands of his oppressor by performing the very stigma which justifies his exclusion, there is also a hope that his action will expose the violence occurring everyday in Harlem; and thereby force people out of their comfort zones to confront the problems facing America.