Notes on a Poetic‐Military Complex

Notes on a Poetic‐Military Complex

[Abstract:] The predominance of religiously (or ethnically) justified violence can be accounted for by the very fact that we live in an era that perceives itself as post‐ideological. Since great public causes can no longer be used to incite mass violence, that is, since our hegemonic ideology calls on us to enjoy life and to realise our Selves, it is difficult for the majority to overcome their revulsion at torturing and killing another human being. The majority would need to be ‘anaesthetised’ against their elementary sensitivity to the suffering of others in order to do this. Religious ideologists usually claim that religion makes some otherwise bad people do some good things; from today’s experience, one should give more weight to Steven Weinreich’s claim that, while without religion good people would do good things and bad people bad things, only religion can make good people do bad things.


Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb leader responsible for terrible ethnic cleansing in the post-Yugoslav war, has finally been arrested. Now is the time to step back and take a look at the other side of his personality: this psychiatrist by profession was not only a ruthless political and military leader, but also a poet.

In his Philosophy of History, Friedrich Hegel provided a wonderful characterisation of Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian war:

In the Peloponnesian War, the struggle was essentially between Athens and Sparta. Thucydides has left us the history of the greater part of it, and his immortal work is the absolute gain which humanity has derived from that contest.

One should read this judgement in all its naivety. In a way, from the standpoint of world history, the Peloponnesian war took place so that Thucydides could write a book about it. Here the term ‘absolute’ should be given all its weight: from the relative point of our finite human interests, the numerous real tragedies of the Peloponnesian war (suffering, devastation) are, of course, infinitely more important than a book, but from the standpoint of the Absolute it is the book that matters.

This is the question to be raised when one talks about Karadžić as a poet: which was the poem for which he was committing his slaughters? According to the Serb media, Karadžić (disguised as Dabić) often went to a bar where old Serbian ethnic poetry was regularly performed, accompanied by the ‘gusle’ (a traditional single-string instrument in which Karadžić was well versed), under the pictures of himself (as Karadžić) and Ratko Mladić proudly displayed on the wall. There he once recited a newly composed epic poem about himself – he already saw himself as the hero in an epic poem that would be sung by a distant future generation. So, one is tempted to say, thousands had to die and suffer immense pain so that a future epic poem about the war could be written… And Karadžić’s 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’:

[Extract. Appeared in Third Text, (2009), Vol. 29, No .5, pp. 503-509.]


Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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