The sixth chapter of Zizek's new book, Violence (which, incidentally, is not a major work but could work well in undergraduate courses or as an entry point for non-academics) takes up divine violence. Some of the initial moves in the argument are interesting. Reading it, I had the sense that, yes, I've read this before, but it doesn't feel like I've read this before. It affects me differently, now, in this context.
First, ressentiment. Zizek defends it (drawing from W.G. Sebald's discussion of Jean Amery's 'confrontation with the trauma of the Nazi concentration camps.' Zizek cites a passage from Sebald:
The spur of resentment which Amery conveys to us in his polemic demands recognition of the right to resentment, entailing no less than a programmatic attempt to sensitize the consciousness of a people 'already rehabilitated by time.'
Zizek argues that there is a devastation such that both reconciliation and revenge are ridiculously inadequate:
the only thing that remains is to persist in the 'unremitting denunciation of injustice.' One should give this stance its full anti-Nietzschean weight here: resentment has nothing to do with the slave morality. It stands rather for a refusal to 'normalise' the crime, to make it part of the ordinary/explicable/accountable flow of things, to integrate it into a consistent and meaningful life-narrative; after all possible explanations, it returns with its question: "Yes, I got all this, but nevertheless, how could you have done it? Your story about it doesn't make sense!" In other words, the resentment for which Sebald pleads is a Nietzschean heroic resentment, a refusal to compromise, an insistence 'against all odds.'
What Zizek omits, though, is the creative, productive dimension of resentment. It can create power relations invested in refusal (an acquaintance of mine once used the expression 'anti-war profiteers'). Differently put, even heroic resentment can become ordinary and normalized, ultimately exhausting itself and rendering the heroic feeble and pathetic. The challenge, then, of heroic resentment is this very risk, this unavoidable uncertainty.
Zizek situates resentment as the fourth term in the triad punishment (revenge), forgiveness, and forgetting. There are some crimes that cannot be punished, forgiven, or forgotten. The accusation of resentment, then, is not some kind of totally damnable criticism, precisely because there are times when it is necessary and appropriate. With this point, Zizek can then move to ask what motivates the impulse to dismiss ethical and political projects as mere resentment (the target of his critique here is Sloterdijk):
What if this very urge is sustained by a disavowed envy and resentment of its own, the envy of the universal emancipatory position, which is why one HAS to find some dirt in its foundation which would deprive it of its purity? The object of envy here is the MIRACLE of ethical universality which cannot be reduced to a distorted effect of 'lower' libidinal processes.
This is also the key insight of Lacan as he reverses the Kantian hermeneutic of suspicion (in the worry that even our most ethical acts are stained by pathological motivates):
What is truly traumatic for the subject is not the fact that a pure ethical act is (perhaps) impossible, that freedom is (perhaps) an appearance, based on our ignorance of the true motivations of our acts; what is truly traumatic is freedom itself, the fact that freedom IS possible and we desperately search for some 'pathological' determinations in order to avoid this fact.
So what does this have to do with divine violence? At the simplest level, it is an aspect of Zizek's attempt to wrest violence away from leftist pacifist denunciations of all violence as wrong, bad, and unjustified. Divine violence, then, is a kind of sovereign violence that comes neither from God nor the state; it is non-sacrificial (its victims are guilty but cannot be sacrified); it not the underside of law (not state-founding violence). It is not covered by the big Other: there is no meaning, no justification, no explanation. Zizek associates it, then, with drive, with the Act, and with love. One of the paragraphs on divine violence in fact seems to rely on a search: the Act; replace: divine violence:
mythic violence belongs to the order of Being, while divine violence belongs to the order of Event: there are no 'objective' criteria enabling us to identify an act of violence as divine; the same act that, to an external observer, is merely an outburst of violence can be divine for those engaged in it--there is no big Other guaranteeing its divine nature; the risk of reading and assuming it as divine is fully the subject's own.
For those who risk taking state power, divine violence is not an option. It cannot be subsumed under law. It remains unjustified even as it is an unavoidable element of an unjust world.