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Guide Divine Violence: Walter Benjamin and the Eschatology of Sovereignty

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Benjamin argues that the intimate relationship of violence and law is twofold. Firstly, violence is the means by which law is instituted and preserved. Benjamin distinguishes between lawmaking violence rechtsetzend Gewalt and law-preserving violence rechtserhaltende Gewalt on basis of whether the end towards which violence is used as a means is historically acknowledged, i.

Waiting for Justice: Benjamin and Derrida on Sovereignty and Immanence

If violence as a means is directed towards natural ends—as in the case of interstate war where one or more states use violence to ignore historically acknowledged laws such as borders—the violence will be lawmaking. The establishment of borders after a war is a clear example of the institutionalisation of a relation of domination inherent in all lawmaking violence. In contrast hereto, if violence as a means directed towards legal ends—exemplified by compulsory general conscription where the state forces the citizens to risk their lives to protect the state—the violence will be law-preserving.

In both capital punishment and police violence the distinction between lawmaking and law-preserving violence is suspended. In capital punishment and police violence alike, the state reaffirms itself: law is an immediate manifestation of violence or force and the end of the law is the law itself. This violence of the law—the oscillation between lawmaking and law-preserving violence visible in police violence—is explained by Benjamin with reference to the Greek myth of Niobe.

What Niobe challenges is not the law, but the authority or the legitimate power of Leto. Having now expounded the relation between law and violence, the question of the relationship between law and justice can be raised. What is called for is therefore a proletarian general strike that aims at the destruction of all state power. The problem, as Derrida saw, is that we can never know whether actions have been a manifestation of divine violence. In contrast to mythic violence, divine violence does not aspire to institute as law a relation of domination: divine violence accepts sacrifice.

How can we understand the purification of the guilty of the law by divine violence?

The German rein as the English pure carries the double meaning of something clean, and something absolute and unalloyed. Firstly, divine violence is pure meaning clean because it has not been bastardized with law; it is pure as before the fall of man; it is pure from the guilt of the law the guilt Niobe feels for the death of her children.

Where mythic violence conflates means and ends, divine violence separates means and ends. As Benjamin argues, just ends can only be decided by God, and no law can be given for justified means; what we have is only a guideline Richtschnur. A Richtschnur is an approximation used practically to build a house.

To build a good house the masons, in general, would have to follow this Richschnur but sometimes, because of a broken ground, a good house could only be built if the Richtschnur is ignored. The commandment is not law but a guideline which in general would have to be followed for human beings to live a good life, as the masons in general have to follow it to build a good house.

There might however be situations where it would have to be ignored. For this reason, no law can incapsulate justice. What are these exceptional circumstances? The proletarian general strike and the abolishment of state power which constitutes a break with the oscillation between lawmaking and law-preserving violence will lead to a foundation of a new historical epoch neues geschichtliches Zeitalter p. Verwerflich meaning unrighteous, something that has to be condemned, comes from the verb Verwerfen, to dismiss or to abolish, which again comes from the verb werfen meaning to throw: the law is thus as the Fall of man: an unrighteous and condemnable Verwerflich deed that has dismissed verwerfen the guilty from Paradise.

Divine violence, however, has the power to purify the guilty of the law. Show 3 footnotes. Benjamin, , p. Conversely, a real state of exception or emergency is that which suspends order, that is to say, the law — and that is precisely why, as we shall see, it is related to the messianic idea. The risks in interpreting this concept are noted both by Derrida and by Agamben himself 9.

Namely, that both the concept of a real state of exception and the related concept of divine violence that leads to a new historical epoch imply nothing less than an extreme historical reality: war. The idea of a new epoch, of a new golden age after expiation is of course fundamental in monotheistic eschatology and messianism. This idea has been revived by the mythicizing, archaizing ideologies of anti-modernity where expiation is commonly associated with the idea of war, that is to say, violence, which will resolve the sacrificial crisis. War discontinues the order of the profane and its economy which exceeds into sacrifice.

War is an act of cleansing in sacrificial violence. A final, irreversible cleansing: total war will also be the last war , the war that will be followed by the coming of the kingdom of eternal peace, a post-historical idyll. But war is inevitable for it is the only means to attain the latter.

Such an image of war undoubtedly implies eschatological and messianic ideas and is associated with the ideas of sacrifice-atonement-Resurrection and the Last Judgment. War is a true Dies Irae. It is obvious that Benjamin realized this risk comparatively quickly. It is in its context that we can also understand the opposition between virtual and real state of emergency or exception. And they will demonstrate it when they use this discovery to transform this war into civil war and thereby perform that Marxist trick which alone is a match for this sinister runic humbug.

This metamorphosis can be compared to the messianic small adjustment just as revolutionary violence can be compared to divine violence. This disruption can be thought of as a dialectic-historical parallel of the messianic suspension of the law. It is at this point that the critical imperative obliges us to test our thesis in the context of the contemporary situation.

Today the entire energy of the political institutional machinery is directed at suppressing terror as the opposite of the political, as its excess to the point where it is bound to affect, if not to suspend, some constitutive principles of modern politics the example of Guantanamo is unavoidable here In other words, it seems that the excess of the political terror is leading to a constitutive transformation of politics.

Divine Violence: Walter Benjamin And The Eschatology Of Sovereignty

Are we facing an unprecedented political crisis? And not only a political crisis but a crisis of the political, that is to say, a crisis of the very potentiality of politics? In any case, there is no doubt that the thesis of global civil war points towards the key transformation of the contemporary situation. The classical form of terrorism, the form of terrorism analyzed by Benjamin, is essentially connected with the structure of the State as the monopolist of violence.

Violence between states is of a radically different order. Today there is talk of global terrorism, a transformation that obviously has to do with the exhaustion of the modern political model of the nation-state. In this sense, the expulsion of terrorism as an external enemy sustains, in a peculiar way, the modern mythical figure of violence.

That is why the economy of the political inevitably transforms into economics , into economic determinations — that is to say, into exploitation. The figure of the global Other converges with the organics of resources as nature. Does Agamben suggest a way out of the labyrinth of this crisis?

In addition to the figure of the legal scribe Bartleby, for Agamben the privileged figure of this non-actualization is the messianic event — the event-interruption of order, the definitive suspension of the law. The future of the political is obviously messianic — in this respect Agamben , pp. The state where the law is suspended by the coming of the messiah is a state where constituting power is retained and potentiality does not pass over into actuality. It does not have the character of divine violence, that is to say, of sovereign violence.

It does not suspend the law as in Benjamin — through the excess of immediate violence, the violence of civil war — but by retaining the potentiality, by preventing the manifestation of violence: or through the empty presence of violence.


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This event is represented, then, as pure or empty terror: it does not have violent content because it has no content. It is not part of the movement of history — it exceeds it radically: it is its boundary , its limit , its end. It is neither a revolution nor a terrorist attack; yet its ripple effects are like the reverberations of a bomb blast.

This is the main paradox: it turns out that for Benjamin, the way out of the vicious circle of mythical violence, of the archaics of the political , if I may put it this way, entails revolutionary violence or terror.

Notes on the Thought of Walter Benjamin: Critique of Violence

But how can we be sure that this violence will be the last? That it will be a boundary or limit? And should we actually think of a boundary of the political — of the irreversible suspension of the violence of law? Our ultimate question, then, may be formulated as follows: can we identify contemporary terror with divine violence? Today, at this very hour, when the catastrophe that is alone capable of globalizing the world is probably already in the making, do we have a sense of the impending arrival of a messiah?

Do we feel that the world is on the threshold of an exit or way out that will lead to salvation? The radical idea of the end of the mythical mode of the political is premised on the idea of violence as a substratum, that is to say, as nature of the political. In other words, this idea presupposes a positive anthropological basis and therefore a source and a constitutive moment of the political, which necessarily posits nature-violence as a negative background or resource, as violence of the foundation the figure of bare life is symptomatic in this respect: it signifies precisely a minimal condition of the human as a limit of the political — a critical limit at which the political is activated, but a limit nonetheless.

From this point of view, terror is not an exit or a way out, it is the excess of the mythical political. Thus, the messianic event leads to the annulment of the sovereign solution, that is to say, to radical interruption of the very structure of sovereign power. Even though in Language and Death Agamben , pp. The empty presence of the messianic event seems to say, in agreement with Bataille: sovereignty is nothing. What is found after the law is not a more proper and original use value that precedes the law, but a new use that is born after it.

Agamben, , p. Devoted to the debate between Benjamin and Schmitt on the state of exception, this chapter pays special attention to the concept of divine violence, which Agamben symptomatically insists on calling pure violence , ignoring its dominant attribute in Benjamin. Indeed, Agamben , pp. In any case, there is no doubt that Agamben operates within a logic of substance, trying to think a positive original political human condition, marred by its contamination by the law and sovereignty. According to Agamben , p.

At the same time, Agamben , p. Judging from elements in various works by Agamben, we may presume that he is promoting, surprisingly at first sight, a Spinozan idea of an immanentist expression, which is close to the Deleuze-Negri line.

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Agamben , p. Contrary to the transcendental representation in Schmitt, the stake in Benjamin is reduced to an essentially Spinozan concept of expression, a concept that directly refers to the category life. This means that life is defined, paradoxically from an Aristotelian perspective, as pure action. Is this to say that pure action coincides with retained potentiality?

In Homo Sacer , p. This rereading of Aristotle presupposes of course a radical rethinking of the relation between ontological and political terms, that is to say, rethinking the logic of sovereignty. How to think politics without sovereignty, outside of the logic of sovereignty, is the big question facing political philosophy today. This question is a political task in the proper sense of the word.

Departing from the mythical logic of politics and subjecting it to a radical critique is more urgently necessary than ever before.