The Umbrella Academy as Slavoj Zizek's Violence

Filed under: capitalism, zizek, analysis, umbrella-academy, lit-theory

Basic Relations to Keep in Mind :
(format: In Umbrella Academy = In Violence by Zizek)

  • The Commission = Objective Violence

  • Number Five (+ Umbrella Academy except Vanya) = Liberal Communists, brutal humanitarians (+ variants)

  • Vanya = Subjective Violence

  • 'The Way Things are Meant To Be' (Correct Historical Course) = Current socio-economic order (Liberalism-Capitalism)

Warning! This post is full of spoilers.

Groundwork - Who is The Commission and what is Objective Violence?

The Commission in The Umbrella Academy is an agency that employs individuals to perform corrections - that is, to eliminate (kill) anyone who may change the course of history. Basically, the idea is to have time travelling agents to perform assassinations that will ensure events occur as they are meant to be. If this seems a little confusing or paradoxical to you, excellent - this is exactly why it helps us to understand the concept of Objective Violence as laid out by Zizek in his book 'Violence'.

We first see a direct reference to The Commission when The Handler (played by Kate Walsh) recruits Number Five - a human with time-travelling abilities that accidentally time-traveled into an apocalyptic future as a child and hasn't been able to go back since. Number Five has spent decades in this future alone, lonely, and slightly delusion (as he's seen to have formalized a relationship with a mannequin). The Handler shows up randomly and offers Number Five a job, impressed by his survival tactics (and time travelling abilities, duh). At this point, The Handler gives us our first glimpse of The Commission as 'charged with the preservation of the time continuum through manipulation and removal'. To paraphrase, she says sometimes individuals make choices - using their 'free will' - to alter 'time' from how it 'should be' played out and The Commission deals with these events by steering them back towards their 'destined' path. Number Five, then, considering the ability to alter time, asks the obvious question - then why not stop all this (i.e. the apocalypse) from occurring? The Handler replies, nonchalantly, that the 'apocalypse' was 'meant to happen' and that it isn't the end of everything.. just the end of something.

The Handler making a job offer to Number Five

This glimpse alone had me scrummaging through Zizek's book Violence, trying to find a quotation that would prove the connection I was making: The Commission is basically a caricature (maybe even without the 'exaggeration') of the Objective Violence that Zizek claims is necessary for the Capitalist socio-economic order to sustain itself in our world today.

Is the entire vision of The Commission not an absurdity? We are used to the typical paradox of how Free Will can exist together with Destiny but this is a twist, can an agency (pun intended) 'engineer' a future itself and still call it 'Destiny'.. ? If things happen a certain way, how could that 'certain way' not be 'the way they were meant to happen'? If things are meant to happen, they happen.. if to make them happen requires (violent) enforcement and manipulation of history, is it not defying the very nature of what it means to say something is 'meant to be'? Cue Zizek!

Zizek, to start, divides violence into subjective and Objective. Subjective violence is the violence we are most accustomed to identifying as 'violence' (terrorism, crime, civil unrest, what we see on the news, etc.) and Objective Violence is a violence that is systematic, anonymous, and 'no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their evil intentions'. Objective Violence is the cruelty that takes place in the world that seems to have no 'originator' - that seems to have occurred without any specific intention 'engineering' it. This violence is not even a side effect but rather endemic to our very socio-economic order (Liberal Capitalism). Zizek refers to this kind of violence as the 'dark matter' of physics - something naked to the eye, something unobservable because it does not emit any subjectivity.

A simple way to understand it is:

"to imagine that one walks past the same red postbox everyday, that postbox does not fade into the colour of its surroundings in a literal sense, but one becomes so used to it being there that it becomes unnoticeable. It only becomes really noticeable when someone paints it black." - Carl Packman

Objective Violence is the red postbox - a violence that exists as the backdrop of Capitalism that is not ideologically associated with Capitalism. Near the beginning of his book, Zizek himself paints it through a direct example: think about how we identify communist crimes - even if we have not studied them in detail - to some ideological sources (like The Communist Manifesto, the thought of Lenin, etc.) yet for the millions that died from the tragedy of capitalist globalization: 'responsibility is denied, it seems objective as if nobody planned and executed it', in other words, 'there was no Capitalist Manifesto' associated with them. Where it becomes exceptionally relatable to The Commission is in what this Objective Violence aims to do: maintain the Status Quo.

The Beginning of the End - How Objective Violence = The Commission

Capitalism, in the Zizekian view, paints the illusion of society running smoothly and things happening just as 'they were meant to happen' without any 'engineering' or 'enforcement'. Capitalism seems to have no 'ideology', it is an empty and indifferent 'invisible hand' in existence by a natural course of events without any wild disturbance - leading some to say things like 'Capitalism is just the natural result of our human nature itself'. When, in fact, the violent elements that actively support the existence of Capitalism (ecological disaster, the rich abusing the poor, poverty, strife of third world countries, certain war, etc.) are vaguely perceived as 'flaws', 'accidents', or at the very best 'unfortunate side effects' where even if someone can be blamed, they are not linked to the ideological Capitalist order itself.

That is to say, Capitalism and Objective Violence are secretly partners in crime that do not lock eyes in public so as to not make obvious their association. In this manner, Capitalism exists as a 'natural' status quo since no (violent) orchestration is seen to be behind it while Objective Violence is seen as a 'mysterious' occurrence that cannot be associated with any 'ideology' per say - eerily similar to how agents of The Commission appear in time, eliminate threats, and then disappear back, leaving no trace or links making the assassination appear 'unmotivated', 'anonymous',..'objective'. Yet, when all are asleep, we can imagine Capitalism and Objective Violence symbolically meeting in their cottage, smoking some cigars, drinking some wine, and laughing at the stupidity of the world for not recognizing that the very ideology behind Objective Violence, its entire purpose of being, is maintaining the status quo. (This is a poor personification of the relation, as the entire point is to see the connection as indifferent, systematic). Therefore, Objective Violence does have an ideological driving factor, it is to sustain Capitalism itself which in turn posits itself as the 'natural' status quo, and thus dissolves the violence of any 'ideology'... it's ingenious.

"Laissez-faire was planned." - Polanyi

Number Five, at one point, demands The Handler to stop the apocalypse from happening to which The Handler replies:

"You realize what you're asking for is next to impossible, even for me. What's meant to be is meant to be. That's our raison d'etre."

Is this not, Objective Violence proper? The poetic absurdity of The Handler's response is striking - in one sweeping statement, she admits her very purpose is to actively work, willingly, towards ensuring the apocalypse while at the same time evoking destiny as the ultimate cause for its occurrence. Do you see it now in its full terrifying form? The Commission is Objective Violence, the way things are 'meant to be' is Capitalism. This brings us back to The Handler's initial claim that the apocalypse is 'meant to happen' - yes, because if you believe Capitalism is a threat to ecology for example, so long as Capitalism is perceived as a 'destined' status quo, ecological disaster is then equally a destined event and it is The Commission's (Objective Violence) duty to ensure destiny takes place. It is all, so perfectly, connected.

Assuming Objective Violence = The Commission, what does The Commission say about Objective Violence?

Okay, so some of you are rolling your eyes not seeing it as 'perfectly connected' as I see it.. maybe you see it as more of a vague, loose connection? Humour me and let's ask: How does this connection help us understand the Violence Zizek refers to? In two ways: the setting of The Commission, and its solutions.

For 2 episodes, Number Five is hired by The Commission after they arrange a deal to save him and his family from the apocalypse. (Though secretly he is a spy planning on how to stop it from the inside). The setting is bureaucratic with little sunlight, grey-ish tones, and a happy-go-lucky Weberian iron cage like work dynamics. The workers are 'case workers' - they work on old type writers, they work for set hours and at one point are even shown to worry about 'trivial' things like making friends at lunch all the while they choose who to murder to make sure destiny occurs. But they aren't smug, cartoonish killers, they're... genuinely nice workers. Other than The Handler, who seems to have an understanding of the grand image of engineering destiny, no one else seems to really grasp the intensity what they do - their worries are 'bracketed' into completing their hours, meeting deadlines, ensuring procedure, etc. Even the assassin themselves who are in the field (Cha-cha and Hazel) are often worried about their pension plan, their benefits, i.e. very run of the mill employee frets. Here is first method of artistically understanding what Zizek explains philosophically - how Objective Violence organizes itself through everyday, 'trivial', ordinary duties. Close to the Hannah Arendt's banality of evil, there is a banality of violence - the orchestration of the violence is done in offices, on paper, and between lunch breaks.

Number Five in The Commission Office

Furthermore, despite the ability of time-travel, The Commission is 'old school' - they are not concerned with the newest gadgets - almost as if excessive futurism would just 'get in the way'. It reminds me of people willing to do familiar data entry in excel manually rather than learn 'fancy' macros that will ultimately take away their time because of maintaining them and debugging. The Commission sticks to protocol, to the ways they know, and quite frankly, to the ways that work. In this sense, it is Objective Violence par excellence - analysis to find conspiracies and secret methods behind the violence are doomed to fail because the methods are 'banal', it is just that they exist under the cover of 'objectivity' that makes them undetectable. That is to say, unlike terrorism and crime which is made apparent through its subjective element (i.e. the motivation of the terrorist), Objective Violence does not hide because it is not emitting any 'subjectivity' that it needs to hide. I think of it like how David Foster Wallace describes fish swimming in water: one says to the other, what the hell is 'water'? Water does not need to 'hide' itself to preserve its identity from the fish because the fish are, quite literally, swimming in it. The same goes for Objective Violence - we are swimming in it, it has no visible discrimination boundaries.

The Commission and Objective Violence are also, in this way, not 'real' in the sense that they do not 'matter' in perception. It is systematic. The same way the systematic movement of bits in our computers do not matter - only the final colour change on our computer is 'real' to us. Zizek says our perception of Objective Violence in capitalism is ideology at its purest: we overlook the systems and abstract forces of it because we are caught up in 'real people and their real worries'. Perhaps an intuitive way to understand what he means by this is our attachment with the narratives coming from accounts like the 'people of New York' - we focus on the personal, individualized stories, as if they happen separate from the forces of the socio-economic order. In delving deep into 'subjectiveness' of perceptions to understand patterns of the 'objective' reality, we are betrayed - the 'objective' reality becomes less and less distinguishable for us like the perception of water for the fish. The setting of The Commission, therefore, reflects its identity or rather its lack of. It is blended, nothing to notice, it doesn't emit anything our eyes catch... it is a backdrop that, practically speaking, doesn't exist.

The Commission is not authoritarian in aesthetics at all, quite the opposite in fact. It even welcomes suggestions for improvements from new employees. At one point, when Number Five claims a worker is inefficient and should be fired, The Handler reasons against it because the worker is 'close to retirement and getting her pension'. This comes back to our fascination with subjective violence - we are looking to identify the authoritarian figure vs the democratic, the iron first vs laissez faire, the command vs the suggestion - while The Commission works by something far more terrifying, by not having any 'personality' at all. It's as if all the murdering and violence it organizes disconnects itself from The Commission and exists without a creator - i.e. Objective Violence.

The solutions of The Commission are more interesting, in one scene we see Number Five (as a spy) applauded for coming up with an exemplary method of causing the Hindenburg crash (which according to The Handler was supposed to be a result of sabotage from Joseph Spah) by killing Karl Weber. Who is Karl Webber The Handler asks? Number Five explains to her: Karl Weber is the butcher at the shop where Captain Ernst A. Lehmann acquires his weekly roast. So, if Karl dies, his butcher shop is passed on to his son Otto, who never washes his hands, which is disgusting." and thus, the scene goes on to explain: if Otto's dirty hands give the captain his roast, the captain gets food poisoning, causing a delay in takeoff, causing the Captain to make up for lost time by going through a weather front of high electrical charge and humidity, causing build up of charge resulting in tiny engine sparks, finally causing it to explode in flames. It's the engineering of a cartoonish butterfly effect, a dominoes like chain of causes that leads to the desired effect where the effect and initial cause are too far apart to be related and linked in perceptions - i.e. Objective Violence. Our perceptions in this case would focus on the Captain or Joseph Spah (a person who was claimed to have been the saboteur) which is a commentary on the radius of proximity within we look for the subject of violence. But none of us would link some no-name butcher's death. It is the same with Objective Violence: We see it as chaotic because we zoom into a specific range to explain it via some 'subjective' element (who was the one around the bombing?). Is it true that flying through the weather front caused the explosion? Yes, and simultaneously it is not true at all. The Commission maintains its actions a certain radius away from the scene of the crime where most analysts, as Zizek laments, are not willing to go - we are not willing to think in the abstract, to come up with an overarching theory to explain phenomena, we settle for the subjective conclusion (ahh, the terrorist bombed the place because of his ideological islamist underpinnings, makes sense, Next!).

There's more: The Depiction of The Umbrella Society = Zizek's Depiction of the Socio-Economic Order

Some of you may think I'm reading too much into it, and I would advise those to stop now because I think I have still only been scratching the surface level similarities. In fact, the true connection with Zizek's Objective Violence is deeply imbued in the very plot of the Umbrella Academy - I argue that this uncanny similarity coupled with the concept of The Commission link the message of The Umbrella Academy and Zizek's Violence as one and the same! But first, a joke:

Two men, having had a drink or two, go to the theatre, where they become thoroughly bored with the play. One feels a pressing need to urinate, so he tells his friend to mind his seat while he goes to find a toilet. "I think I saw one down the corridor outside," says his friend. The man wanders down the corridor, but finds no Washroom. Wandering further, he walks through a door and sees a plant pot. After copiously urinating into it, he returns to his seat. His friend says, "What a pity! You missed the best part. Some fellow just came on the stage and pissed in that plant pot."

The man who urinates on stage? yeah, that's basically the Umbrella Academy themselves, most exemplified in Number Five. While The Commission, as Objective Violence, is the orchestration mechanism, the direct subject implicated in the action of their doom is in fact the Umbrella Academy themselves. The conflict between the free agent (Number Five) as the embodiment of subjective Free Will and The Commission as the engineer of Destiny is, in fact, the true non-engineered 'Destiny' (as in a course of events 'meant to be' by logical causality) that leads to the apocalypse.

Let's break it down, what allows this Objective Violence to continue on without being discovered? This is analogous to the question, 'What allows The Commission to bring about the apocalypse at the end?". The answer is Number Five, and thus, as he is the protagonist, analogous to him is the audience - us, we are the ones who allow the apocalypse. How so? Let's first start with us.

Zizek highlights a strata of the socio-economic order that exemplifies our tendencies to allow for Objective Violence - what he calls 'Capitalism with a conscience'. This is the group - the Bill Gates, the George Soros, etc. - who, despite profiting from the socio-economic order, see themselves as the philanthropic 'saviours' of the world from the evils of our current Capitalist order (cough Number Five cough). It is not their sincerity that is in question, in fact, maybe it is their very sincerity that has them promoting a fake sense of urgency against (subjective) violence. He calls this group of people 'liberal communists' and goes on to describe them:

"Liberal communists are pragmatic; they hate a doctrinaire approach. [To them,] There is no exploited working class today, only concrete problems to be solved: starvation in Africa, the plight of Muslim women, religious fundamentalist violence. When there is a humanitarian crisis in Africa (liberal communists love a humanitarian crisis; it brings out the best in them), instead of engaging in anti-imperialist rhetoric, we should get together and work out the best way of solving the problem, engage people, governments and business in a common enterprise, start moving things instead of relying on centralized state help, approach the crisis in a creative and unconventional way."

Zizek writes further,

"There is a fundamental anti-theoretical edge to these urgent injunctions. 'There is no time to reflect: we have to act now'. Through this fake sense of urgency, the post-industrial rich, living in their secluded virtual world, not only do not deny or ignore the harsh reality outside the area-they actively refer to it all the time. As Bill Gates recently put it: 'What do the computers matter when millions are still unnecessarily dying of dysentery?'"

Like the man who, watching the boring spectacle of the world stage, we might feel an overwhelming need to follow the call of nature somewhere discreet. Yet, in our bladder-straining self-interest, we lose sight of the objective reality of the play and our implication in its action. We are oblivious to the fact that we are pissing on stage for the world to see. We are the good humanitarians, who, answering the brutal depravity in world with our 'natural' moral outrage, allow Objective Violence to be overlooked, to go through the cracks and remain dark matter. It is us, who, unwilling to step back, can never see how the murder of the butcher leads to the crash of the Hindenburg airship. It is us who, so charged with the spirit of revolution in order to 'save the world', grab our friends and family by the shoulder and scream 'We do not have time to think, we must act!'. Oscar Wilde's passage is perhaps the most brutally direct way to make this point,

"its much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. People find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation... Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease, they merely prolong it. Indeed, the remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance... by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution, it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible...."

Is this not, from Sir Hargreaves himself to the ideology of his children, a description of the Umbrella Academy? Do they not see themselves as the ones charged with saving the world because of their powers? Number Five travels back to 7 days before the apocalypse to help his family stop the apocalypse, oblivious that it is this very trip that begins the apocalyptic clock? And when all the Hargreaves' children are moments away from finding out the truth that would stop the apocalypse, isn't it Number Five once again reversing time to 'save the world' that dooms the world? It is Sir Hargreaves', Number Five's, and Luther's sense of urgency to save the world that results in the very events (manipulating Vanya, angering Vanya by locking her up, raging a war against Vanya) that cause the apocalypse? Sir Hargreaves is a caricature of that liberal communist, who trains children as serious saviours of the world - as 'ruthless' humanitarians or as 'people of means' like Bezos would say. Underlying the entire plot, the irony is that the Umbrella Academy is both the cause and saviour of their own doom - this is the logical, un-engineered 'Destiny' that comes to be when you respond to the threat of 'engineered' Destiny with a directive to 'Act!' rather than 'think!'. And then, in the perfect symbolic full circle, when the world is being destroyed, the only ones who escape are... yep, you guessed it, the Umbrella Academy (by virtue of Number Five's privilege to time travel). What Zizek wrote might as well be a Netflix caption of The Umbrella Academy:

"...the exemplary figures of today's evil are not the individual consumers who pollute and live in a violent world of disintegrated social links but those who fully engages in creating conditions for universal devastation [and then] buy their own way out of the activity".

Sir Hargreaves and his Umbrella Academy of Super Kids

'We do not have time to *think, we must Do!'* is not a belief in one's sainthood, it is a belief in one's grand duty. 'If you have been blessed and trained with super powers, isn't it your grand duty to save the world?' is the ultimate cause of the apocalypse. In a world where Number Five does 'nothing', there is also no apocalypse. Perhaps the most accurate statement of reality comes from The Handler as she laments to Number Five upon determining that he betrayed her:

"You're a great disappointment to me - you cant change what's to come Number Five, I find it so odd that you can't shed this fantasy.'"

And coming back in a full circle, this great catastrophe, who is held responsible? Vanya (Subjective Violence). Who disappears from the equation? The Commission (Objective Violence). And who remains the protagonist despite being the true evil: the Umbrella Academy minus Vanya (the Liberal Communists maintaining the socio-economic order). And even in the very final moments, the liberal communists cannot shed their fantasy - after spending an entire season neglecting and abusing Vanya to protect the world (but inadvertently leading her to destroy the world), in the moment where abusing her (leaving her to die) would actually protect the world, Number Five says:

"No, we can fix her".

And what lasts, even when the world itself is destroyed? That event that is 'meant to be' (Capitalism) remains. Objective Violence flourishes, Capitalism sustains itself even in the end of times. We come back to The Handler's initial words:

"It is not the end of everything (Capitalism)... just something (us)."

Solution: Hug, and only Hug, Each Other

What was the solution? To Zizek, it would be to do 'nothing'. Nothing directly opposing subjective violent. Nothing to eliminate the threat of Vanya.

Vanya finds comfort in the embrace of her brother until it turns into an attack - he squeezes her until she passes out

Had Luther, in that warm moment when he hugged Vanya, left it only at a hug and ignored the impulse of saving the world - perhaps that would have been the only true radical position in the entire show. It would be a moment where someone used their Freewill to its potential instead of acting as expected out of a saviour duty. But, as expected, metaphorical of a 'brutal humanitarian', his 'hug' is only an excuse to capture her - he tighten until she loses consciousness and then locks Vanya in isolation. Even with all the powers in the world, they were too clueless to realize that had a hug remained a hug, the apocalypse could have been prevented.

"To hug each other and… Yes, that’s serious Leninist work." - Zizek

Summary (of why The Umbrella Academy is a commentary on Zizek's Violence)

(format: In Umbrella Academy = In Violence by Zizek)

The Commission actively works to ensure the correct historical course
Objective Violence systematically sustains Capitalism

Umbrella Academy's obsession with urgently saving the world causes the apocalypse
Our 'We do not have time to think, we must Do!' injunction of humanism will cause capitalist dystopia

Umbrella Academy's obsession with Vanya causes them to overlook The Commission's ulterior plot
Obsession with Subjective Violence causes us to overlook Objective Violence's systematic effect

The correct historical course (i.e. the apocalypse) is ensured by The Commission, paradoxically, through facilitating Number Five's attempt to stop the apocalypse
Status quo of the socio-economic order (liberal-capitalism) is ensured by Objective Violence, paradoxically, through facilitating the mitigation of its negative effects. (i.e. billionaire philanthropists)

Number Five + Umbrella Academy as superheroes, finding purpose in their attempt to save the average people of humanity, actually cause the apocalypse - while being the only one that can escape from it
Rich 'Liberal Communists' (ex. billionaire philanthropists), finding purpose in their attempts to save the average people of humanity, further the current socio-economic system that causes disaster (ecological, poverty, war, etc.) - while being the only ones that can escape from it (via organic foods, shelters, peaceful gated communities)

Previous PostThinking outside the GUI
Next Post