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The Poetic Torture-House of Language

How poetry relates to ethnic cleansing

Plato’s reputation suffers because of his claim that poets should be thrown out of the city — rather sensible advice, judging from this post-Yugoslav experience, where ethnic cleansing was prepared by poets’ dangerous dreams. True, Slobodan Milošević “manipulated” nationalist passions — but it was the poets who delivered him the stuff that lent itself to manipulation. They — the sincere poets, not the corrupted politicians — were at the origin of it all, when, back in the seventies and early eighties, they started to sow the seeds of aggressive nationalism not only in Serbia, but also in other ex-Yugoslav republics. Instead of the industrial-military complex, we in post-Yugoslavia had the poetic-military complex, personified in the twin 
figures of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić. Karadžić was not only a ruthless political and military leader, but also a poet. His 
poetry should not be dismissed as ridiculous — it deserves a close reading, since it provides a key to how ethnic cleansing functions. Here are the first lines of the untitled poem identified by a dedication “.....For Izlet Sarajlić”:

Convert to my new faith crowd
I offer you what no one has had before
I offer you inclemency and wine
The one who won’t have bread will be fed by the light of my sun
People nothing is forbidden in my faith
There is loving and drinking
And looking at the Sun for as long as you want
And this godhead forbids you nothing
Oh obey my call brethren people crowd

The superego suspension of moral prohibitions is the crucial 
feature of today’s “postmodern” nationalism. Here, the cliche 
according to which passionate ethnic identification restores a firm set of values and beliefs in the confusing insecurity of a modern secular global society is to be turned around: nationalist “fundamentalism” rather serves as the operator of a secret, barely concealed You may! Without the full recognition of this perverse pseudo-liberating effect of today’s nationalism, of how the obscenely permissive superego supplements the explicit texture of the social symbolic law, we condemn ourselves to the failure of grasping its true dynamics.

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel mentions the silent, ceaseless “weaving of the spirit”: the underground work of changing the ideological coordinates, mostly invisible to the public eye, which then suddenly explodes, taking everyone by surprise. This is what was going on in ex-Yugoslavia in the seventies and eighties, so that when things exploded in the late eighties, it was already too late, the old ideological consensus was thoroughly putrid and collapsed in itself. Yugoslavia in the seventies and eighties was like the proverbial cat in the cartoon who continues to walk above the precipice — he only falls down when, finally, he looks down and becomes aware that there is no firm ground beneath his legs. Milošević was the first who forced us all to really look down into the precipice.

It is all too easy to dismiss Karadžić and company as bad poets: other ex-Yugoslav nations (and Serbia itself) had poets and writers recognized as “great” and “authentic” who were also fully engaged in nationalist projects. And what about the Austrian Peter Handke, a classic of contemporary European literature, who demonstratively attended the funeral of Slobodan Milošević? Almost a century ago, referring to the rise of Nazism in Germany, Karl Kraus quipped that Germany, a country of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), had become a country of Richter und Henker (judges and executioners) — 
perhaps such a reversal should not surprise us too much. And to avoid the illusion that the poetic-military complex is a Balkan specialty, one should mention at least Hassan Ngeze, the Karadžić of Rwanda who, in his journal Kangura, was systematically spreading anti-Tutsi hatred and calling for their genocide.

But is this link between poetry and violence an accidental one? How are language and violence connected? In his “Critique of Violence,” Walter Benjamin raises the question: “Is any nonviolent resolution of conflict possible?” His answer is that such a nonviolent resolution of conflict is possible in “relationships among private persons,” in courtesy, sympathy, and trust: “there is a sphere of human agreement that is nonviolent to the extent that it is wholly inaccessible to violence: the proper sphere of ‘understanding,’ language.” This thesis 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 coexistence, as opposed to a violent medium of 
immediate and raw confrontation. 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.

What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak? There are many violent features of language rendered thematic by philosophers and sociologists from Bourdieu to Heidegger. There is, however, a violent aspect of language absent in Heidegger, which is the focus of Lacan’s theory of the symbolic order. Throughout his work, Lacan varies Heidegger’s motif of language as the house of being: language is not man’s creation and instrument, it is man who “dwells” in language: “Psychoanalysis should be the science of language inhabited by the subject.” Lacan’s “paranoiac” twist, his additional Freudian turn of the screw, comes from his characterization of this house as a torture-house: “From the Freudian point of view man is the subject captured and tortured by language.”

The military dictatorship in Argentina from 1976 to 1983 brought about a grammatical peculiarity, a new passive use of active verbs: when thousands of Leftist political activists and intellectuals disappeared and were never seen again, tortured and killed by the military 
who denied any knowledge about their fate, they were referred to as “disappeared,” where the verb was not used in the simple sense that they disappeared, but in an active transitive sense: they “were disappeared” (by the military secret services). In the Stalinist regime, a similar irregular inflection affected the verb “to step down”: when it was publicly announced that a high nomenklatura member stepped down from his post (for health reasons, as a rule), and everyone knew it was really because he lost in the struggle between different cliques within the nomenklatura, people said he “was stepped down.” Again, an act normally attributed to the affected person (he stepped down, he disappeared) is reinterpreted as the result of the nontransparent activity of another agent (secret police disappeared him, the majority in the nomenklatura stepped him down). And should we not read in exactly the same way Lacan’s thesis that a human being doesn’t speak but is spoken? The point is not that it is “spoken about,” the topic of speech of other humans, but that, when (it appears that) it speaks, it “is spoken,” in the same way that the unfortunate Communist functionary “is stepped down.” What this homology indicates is the 
status of language, of the “big Other,” as the subject’s torture-house.

We usually take a subject’s speech, with all its inconsistencies, as an expression of his/her inner turmoils, ambiguous emotions, etc. This holds even for a literary work of art: the task of psychoanalytic 
reading is supposed to be to unearth the inner psychic turmoils that found their coded expression in the work of art. Something is missing in such a classic account: speech does not only register or express a traumatic psychic life; the entry into speech is in itself a traumatic fact. What this means is that we should include into the list of traumas speech tries to cope with the traumatic impact of speech itself. The relationship between psychic turmoil and its expression in speech should thus also be turned around: speech does not simply express/articulate psychic turmoils; at a certain key point, psychic turmoils themselves are a reaction to the trauma of dwelling in the “torture-house of language.”

This is also why, in order to get the truth to speak, it is not enough to suspend the subject’s active intervention and let language itself speak — as Elfriede Jelinek put it with extraordinary clarity: “Language should be tortured to tell the truth.” It should be twisted, 
denaturalized, extended, condensed, cut, and reunited, made to work against itself. Language as the “big Other” is not an agent of wisdom to whose message we should attune ourselves, but a place of cruel indifference and stupidity. The most elementary form of 
torturing one’s language is called poetry.

Originally Published: March 3rd, 2014

Slavoj Žižek is a Hegelian philosopher, cultural critic, social analyst, and researcher at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. His latest publications are Less than Nothing (Verso Books, 2012) and Event (Penguin, 2014).

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  1. March 5, 2014
     Samuel Tongue

    This is an interesting 'paranoiac' turn of Heidegger's
    sense that language is the poetic 'dwelling place' of
    the human subject (itself taken from Hölderlin’s mystic
    and mysticized struggle) but to give such agency to
    language as constituting the 'torture house' of the self
    is extreme. Of course, these are always extreme times.
    But language in general, and poetic language in
    particular, is both our disease and our joy; it can be
    used for violence, and real violence at that. However,
    it is not, by necessity, a process of torturing language
    into giving up truthfulness - that kind of 'truth' is
    often inadmissable. The poet walks the thin line - and
    trips over the thresholds - of language as both a means
    of representation and a Big Other that creates the
    poet's own subjecthood. But let's leave torture out of

  2. March 9, 2014
     Peleg Held

    How does poetry relates to ethnic cleansing? In the case
    of Karadžić through the desires and wing-pulled myths
    washed into the language through the poet and the hate-
    sick seas the he swam.

    How does philosophy relate to murder? Through rehashed
    myths of redemptive violence smuggled in under cover of
    barely coherent Lacancrytpostammer. Quote the Raving:

    "The only ‘realistic’ prospect is to ground a new
    political universality by opting for the impossible,
    fully assuming the place of the exception, with no
    taboos, no a priori norms (‘human rights,’ ‘democracy’),
    respect for which would prevent us from ‘resignifying’
    terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of
    sacrifice … if this radical choice is decried by some
    bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus, so be it!"

    ~ Slavoj Žižek

    The Karadžić poem referenced hardly demands manacles and
    hot iron to surrender its "truths". It drips from its
    sleeves of thuggery and the surrender of the retinas to
    the shining light. An inclement wine that surely didn't
    engender its own vine. Looking forward to the discussion
    this strange selection must be tapped to begin.

    Peleg Held

  3. March 10, 2014
     Pac Taylor

    Berryman, Spicer, Herbert, Rosewicz, Parra:

    Why leave torture out of it?

  4. March 24, 2014
     Martin Cooper

    The idea of language as a violent tool of war reminded me of the
    women in the Irish epic The Tain, who are deployed as scolds to
    belittle the opposing warriors, to attack their feeling of confidence by
    hurling scalding words at them.

    The role of art as a way of pointing out the abyss beneath society, that
    Zizek likens to the cartoon cat (surely Roadrunner?) failing to notice
    he has run over the edge, reminded me first of the avant garde art of
    the early 20th century; and also of the very popular British advert of
    the late 80s, in which a patient being operated on sits up and sings
    Irving Berlin's Lets Face the Music and Dance - "There may be trouble
    ahead/ But while there's moonlight and music,/ And love and
    romance,/ Let's face the music and dance." It was advertising
    MasterCard, I think, and demonstrates the attitude that allows this
    situation to develop, and why the established, profiting establishment
    finds it more enjoyable to ignore Cassandra-like prophecies.

    A very interesting essay, thank you for printing it. The idea of language
    and poetry as torture certainly accords with the physical struggle
    required by many of the strongest, most direct poets throughout
    history to produce fully rounded works that do not skate neatly on the
    veneer of civilisation. A linguistic version of the idea of duende, rather
    than the original romanticism.

    The idea of being forced to exist in language as torture is, I guess,
    related to psychoanalysis, but also reminds me of Rousseau's
    conception of the noble savage. I guess the subjects of the essay
    could be described as ignoble savages. They certainly managed to
    put the feeling of torture required for creating their poetry into others,
    and not others, unusually, that were married to them. I guess they
    gained a satisfaction from hauling their dissatisfaction into language,
    finding a practical use for, or place to put, the feeling of torture. Words
    have power, especially when recited en mass.

  5. March 28, 2014
     Throbbin Yobbin

    This sort of thing happens only because of corporate greed. No doubt the munitions corporations in pre-war Germany bought the poets to manipulate the people to support the building of death camps to line their pockets just as Lockheed and General Dynamics own Hollywood and the news media in the United States today and manipulate the people to support similar death camps such as Gitmo and Abu Gharib. If we abolish corporate greed and organize society completely around compassion everything will be perfect.

  6. March 28, 2014

    A wise man said:

    "Calling partisans of all nations - cut word lines - shift linguals - free doorways - vibrate 'tourists' - word falling - photo falling - breakthrough in Grey Room."

  7. March 28, 2014
     Gregory Desilet

    As usual Zizek is provocative in an interesting way, but as is also often the case he is wrongheaded by jumping to the extreme. Language is neither the house nor the torture-house of being. Language cannot be relied on to do anything, let alone promote violence. But this is precisely why language is so awesomely useful. Indeed, it is what makes language capable of conveying meaning. Zizek would do well to continue reading and re-reading Derrida. He has not yet understood that language operates by way of interpretive connections not causal connections. This is also why the thesis of a film such as Pontypool is so wrongheaded. This film attempts to apply the notion of a computer virus to the realm of human language-using, with the idea being that a "virus" transmitted through language can turn humans into violent zombies. As much as one may be amused and even edified by this image of language, it is, at the end of the day, short-sighted. Computers (at least to date) operate by way of causally instituted links through yes/no gatekeeping. Wherever there is causality, there is the potential for viral causal effects. But to the degree that a computer may be made to imitate the agency of language, its potential for viral effects is greatly limited. As soon as a point is reached where an "interpretation" strays from the norm, at that point where a difference is introduced, then the viral chain of causality is broken. And these "differences," as Derrida has so convincingly shown, pop up everywhere. Consequently, language can neither destroy us nor save us. It can only follow what is already in the hearts and minds of humans. Language may assist in the spreading of violence but it is no more an originary force of violence than being itself. And, in this regard, its so-called "indifference" is not a cruelty nor a blessing but, rather, an opportunity. We make of this opportunity what we will.

  8. March 29, 2014
     Danny Moore

    As an essentially nonacademic, I am sure I miss many nuances of language. It seems, however, to me that poetry often works to obscure ordinary meaning in attempt to illuminate or unearth another deeper or transcendent meaning.

    However, it seems to me that poetry may indeed obscure a violent and dark underlying sentiment and purpose.

    As the author states, ironic use of language is used to call very ugly and violent intent and action behind passive and inaccurate verbiage.

    With absolutes rejected by moderns and certainly by Hegelians,there is only the meandering among relatives. There is no way to elevate the good above the bad or very evil. There is only an homogenous alphabet soup with differences, without a distinction.

  9. March 29, 2014

    Another demonstration of what passes for analysis in the world of a Slavoj Zizek. But what can one expect from someone who takes the authors of the two principal shipwrecks of occidental thought - Hegel and Freud - seriously?

  10. April 2, 2014
     Henry Gould

    Zizek argues that if some demagogues, like Milosevic, use poetry's
    rhetorical powers for malicious ends, then language in general is a
    torture house, and poetry one of its implements. This is like saying
    that if a certain witch doctor poisons an apple and gives it to you, then
    every apple orchard (& accompanying orchardist) is inherently
    poisonous. But what I find truly malignant in contemporary thought,
    are such clever plate-spinnings of universal abstractions ("language
    is...", "poetry is...") - juggled aloft with glib sophism, unsupported by

  11. April 5, 2014

    What the article lacks in intellectual rigor and depth it more than makes up in entertainment value, yet you can't help but feel bad for all the people that suffered so that this amoral clown could concoct such a cartoony, farcical, surrealist parody of an analysis.

    "the poetic-military complex" is a keeper though

  12. April 23, 2014
     Ralph Jorre

    I cannot agree with the comments by Gus et al that his article is a "cartoony, farcical, surrealist parody of an analysis"

    A close reading of the article shows no factual errors except perhaps in the case of Hassan Ngeze who apparently was a journalist and not addicted to poetry.

    Of course language speaks us - the whole dualistic grammatical contruction is a clear example.

    Surely what Zizek is saying is that to get at the "truth" it is necessary to "torture" language and this is what poetry does - try to get at the truth by stretching, twisting and breaking open language.

    A clear medieval or modern? metaphor

  13. May 3, 2014

    In response to the essay's suggestions (or, rather,
    imperative, demand) that "language should be tortured to
    tell the truth" and that poetry is, thus, the most
    "elementary" form of torturing language: this is not a
    novel position, and is in essence a reiteration of the
    fundamental link between violence and truth in Western
    culture and philosophy. Page DuBois's book Torture and
    Truth (for anyone interested) explains this issue with
    regards to ancient Athens, but it is important to
    remember that such a link between the searching for
    truth and the violence that this implies has never
    ceased to exist, as this essay itself demonstrates via
    its call for linguistic torture.

    During the military dictatorships of the Southern Cone
    (and of any dictatorship, for that matter), political
    prisoners were tortured in order to reach a truth; in
    order that they would confess, speak the truth, the
    language of truth.

    Following Zizek's logic, would the torturer not be,
    thus, the exemplary poet?

    The essay advocates and perpetuates the idea that truth
    is a hidden kernel that must be extracted, brought to
    light, via immense violence and in utter disregard for
    otherness (whether that Other is a human, a non-human
    being, or language). In doing so, it perpetuates the
    idea that a subject holds power over an object at all
    times, and that life as such is reduced to a struggle
    between victims and victimizes, sacrifices and
    sacrificers--a struggle in which a stronger part always
    wins and perpetuate its claims over the other). To
    advocate for a "poetic torture-house of language" merely
    perpetuates a sacrificial view of history, which is
    precisely what the History of the West has always been.
    I feel very uncomfortable with this position.