Friday, May 31, 2013

13. Walter Benjamin - Critique of Violence

The purpose of this reflection is to discover whether the agonistic relation between ethics and violence can be overcome. To say that there is a relation between the two may appear as either outright erroneous or as a problem easily solved, but these epistemological reflexes merely advocate further for the need of philosophical inquiry. If we were to define ethics by a lack of violence, for example, it could be conceived that ethics and violence are only joined by their polar opposition. But this dialectical formulation is reactionary, ultimately forbidding an autonomous ethics: for if there was no originary violence, there would be no possibility of ethics. This view is furthermore utopian and transcendental, implying that violence can be erased and that ethics can (and should) champion. In fact, this theoretical proposition is strictly the result of a properly ethical judgement that is genealogically tied to the development of Western humanism which must itself be subject to criticism, and therefore should not ground a metaphysical foundation of judgement. In an attempt to find a way out of this spectacular condition that has merely generated an unprecedented proliferation of violence and ethics-in-vain, I will henceforth investigate the liminal space offered by both concepts in an attempt to reveal their absolute congruency and ultimately their mutual contemporary insufficiency for the existential justification of our lives.

In order to proceed, Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay of 1921 Critique of Violence will be utilized as an operative framework to investigate the interrelation between these two concepts. Benjamin starts by declaring that the force of law becomes violent when it infringes on ethical issues, and that it is therefore in relation to law that both ethics and violence exist. Although this strongly echoes the reflex mentioned above with ethics and violence composing the two ends of a spectrum, this juridical framework is fundamentally inadequate as this would sanction violence as ethical as long as history records it as righteous, as is often the case (if not the impetus) of those who write history and depend on its words for the maintenance of their powerful status as embodiments of law. Despite the apparent facility to further the anterior claim and declare that ‘law is unethical’, law, in an expanded sense (not limited to its embodiment as the state), theoretically contains the potential for a nonviolent resolution of conflict that would subvert the original regressive claim ‘violence is unethical’ and as such deserves our closer inspection. Furthermore, the belief that ‘violence is absolutely unethical’ covertly enter the believing subject into a social contract that concedes our fundamental potential for violence as human beings to a legal body and its subsequent apparatuses of enforcement and control, such as the state’s police or religion’s guilt. Therefore, if we were to formulate and comprehend an ontologically grounded ethical conception of violence, we could perhaps prove historical embodiments of legal power, such as the state or the church, to be not only radically contingent, but simply irrelevant.

In considering the potential form of nonviolent conflict resolution, we paradoxically encounter the pivotal notion of the contract to be the violent act par excellence. Insofar as the contract not only fulfills both of Benjamin’s characteristics of violence, both making and preserving law, the contract in its origin “points towards violence”, and therefore prohibits the true potential for nonviolence as it itself is based on violence, though sublimated and virtualized. It could therefore be questioned, besides the state’s survivalist instinct, why would the recourse to violence be necessary? Moreover, why does law have the need to be maintained? Any answers to these problematic questions may lie not in the contract as the medium of law, but in the contract as a metaphysical object itself. As was observed by Benjamin and has recently been further detailed by Giorgio Agamben (1), more than the formalization of an agreement, the contract seeks to guarantee the integrity of speech, to surreptitiously undermine the inherent fallibility of language and interpersonal communications. It is a particularly modern feature of executive institutions, henceforth encompassing both legal and religious bodies, in which perjury or lying is structurally antagonized through the virtual threat of righteous violence or damnation. Despite its characteristically brief mention by Benjamin, the value of Agamben’s archaeology of the oath lies in the crucial revelation that this threat itself is not the origin of institutionality, but is merely the result of a historically contingent interpretation of the contract. It is therefore the metaphysics of guarantee, the relation between the contract and its instantiation of a threat, that presents itself as the terrain for ethical reformulation.

Before we move on any farther, it would behoove us to trace Benjamin’s arguments to the point where he himself, despite not using the specific word, argues for the possibility of an ethics in the oath as opposed to its impossibility in the contract. Benjamin brings legal violence to its limit in mythic violence, which can be concisely summarized as the violent manifestation of unwritten laws’ presence, be it unmarked geopolitical frontiers or the religious sacrality of human life. Mythic violence is essentially inadequate at instantiating the possibility of an ethics as it merely supersedes unethical law with another law in the same, yet debatably greater, unethical form. He therefore infamously juxtaposes executive violence, ultimately embodied by the contract, with divine violence, embodied by the commandment. Despite Benjamin’s conjecture that these two are antithetical to each other, Agamben’s analysis reveals that both the contract and the commandment function equally insofar as they employ the oath to place the subject within a relation of fidelity, of obedience to an absolute conception of right, good and truth. That said, there are significant differences between the two, which, while recognizing that the form of the commandment is insufficient for a contemporary ethics, could beget its formulation.

A counterintuitive yet defining feature of divine violence is its affinity to nonviolence. Nonviolence, according to Benjamin, “never [applies] directly to the resolution of conflict between man and man, but only to matters concerning objects” (Benjamin, Reflections, p.289), whereas divine violence is violent insofar as it is “annihilating … with regard to goods, right, life, and suchlike, never absolutely, with regard to the soul of the living” (Benjamin, Reflections, p. 297-8). It is therefore fair to propose the following questions: Does divine violence destroy law itself, or does it destroy the things over which law holds power? Furthermore, is law unethical in the fact that it structures objects, or the way in which those objects are structured? A deeper analysis that space does not permit for at this time reveals that Benjaminian divinity itself is a law, or, said in post-modern terminology, no law is in fact a law. Therefore, does the ethical essence of divine violence truly lie in the way it takes executive law as its ultimate subject of violence, or in the way that it provides a critical position for the human to take in relation to the power of law? We should therefore perhaps not be speaking of violence itself, but the way it is mediated through power.

A second distinction between divine and executive power is way they respectively deal with the transgression of their laws. Here we again come across the correlation between executive law and its threat of violence in the contract. The punishment of executive law’s transgression is the responsibility of the institutional body of power. Therefore, one necessarily needs to be caught transgressing executive law, and in such cases, the specific actors in the event that brings the criminal into the eyes of power and carries out their punishment can be localized in specific persons and their choices. This highly identifiable and culpable characteristic is confounded by the arbitrary interpretive and translative position that each of the actors is forced to take in relation to the law which they are supposed to be agents of. Subverting its own existential foundation, it is not only impossible to equate offenses such as environmental damage to executable punishments, but the ultimate decision of punishment cannot be reciprocally associated directly to the agent who decides it as it was done so only because of and on behalf of the law itself.

Conversely, divine power is fundamentally independent of the consequences of its transgression, to the degree where it could be conjectured that divine power and divine violence should be considered as two essentially unrelated things. For this, I quote Benjamin:
“the [divine] injunction becomes inapplicable, incommensurable once the deed is accomplished. No judgment of the deed can be derived from the commandment ... It exists not as a criterion of judgment, but as a guideline for the actions of persons or communities who have to wrestle with it in solitude and, in exceptional cases, to take on themselves the responsibility of ignoring it.” (Benjamin, Reflections, p. 298)
As opposed to the mediation of executive violence through its institutional embodiment, divine violence is therefore mediated by the conscious act of transgression itself. Said differently, executive violence relates to executive power through executive institutions (power is made violent), whereas divine violence is directly related to divine power (power is violence); executivity is mediated through transparency, whereas divinity is mediated through belief. To highlight the difference between executive and divine modality, we can take reference from Agamben’s 2011 lecture titled ‘What is a Commandment?’, which I will quote at length:
“For example, when I say “Walk!”. In order to understand the meaning of this utterance, let’s compare it with the same verb in the indicative mood: “he walks” or “Charles walks”. This second sentence ... states something (“he walks”) about someone and it can then therefore be true, if Charles is truly walking, or false, if Charles is not walking. But in many cases, the proposition refers to something in the world; it refers to being. On the contrary, although morphologically identical with the indicative and although having the same semantic kern[el] (the idea of walking), “Walk!” as a commandment in the imperative mood says nothing of no one, does not describe a state of things and, without being for that false, does not refer to something being, to something existing. 
By the way, you [have] here carefully to avoid the misunderstanding according to which themeaning of the imperative consists in the act of its execution. The order, for instance, given by an officer to his soldiers, is accomplished, is perfect, by the mere act of its utterance. The fact that the soldiers obey or disobey does not put in question the validity of the commandment. The commandment is perfect in its mere utterance. We must therefore admit that the commandment does not refer to something existing. Nothing in the world as it is could respond to the imperative. And this is why people say that the imperative does not imply, does not refer to an ‘is’, but rather to an ‘ought’.” (Agamben, What is a Commandment?)
Agamben continues on to trace the archaeology of the commandment to its conceptual companion, will, and while accepting that an explanation of “what will means” is even more impossible than that of a commandment, he is able to link the etymological origins of the word to the verb to can. Despite revealing a profound distinguishing characteristic between Greek philosophy and Christian theology in the difference between potentiality and volition, what is crucial is that both to can and to will are what linguists call modal auxiliary verbs. This type of speech is particular to Germanic languages, but correlate to certain forms of verb conjugation in Romance languages such as the the subjunctive, conditional, and indicative, and can most easily be defined as empty, needing to be “filled” or “supplemented” by another, non-modal, verb.

We have thus far traced the metaphysical relation between executive power, as it is reified by the threat of violence, and divine power, as it is consummated by the fear of punishment. Despite the fact that the former regime is more directly prone to unethical acts, particularly in our contemporary geopolitics, it is insufficient to believe a return to a more primitive form of metaphysical causality will engender a more ethical world, notwithstanding if it is even possible to enact such a historical regression. The question thus stands, as it has, what is to be done? It is not difficult to discover a great deal of things that can and should be done; as many do, we can carefully map the consequences of our contemporary global order to work towards suturing the fractured social and urban landscape. Instead of positing the question of what is to be done, I would like to propose the great existential question that has been lingering in between these lines all along, why do what can be done?

Despite the vertigo induced by this question, I do not write those words as a means of nihilistic and depressive therapy, but to probe at the larger problem of (a)temporality. Despite the immense power of urban activist practices to establish a now, I personally do not believe their employed concepts, such as affect and solidarity, are capable of creating a future. If both divine and executive powers are based on empty verbs such as is/ought, can/could, will/would, may/might, shall/should, perhaps we should critically call into question the value of emptiness itself. If something is intriguing enough as it is, what is the need for the linguistic signifiers of historical modalities’ unethical traces? This is not to say that a return to rhetorical practices will necessarily lead to more ethical practices, but what it will do is provide the means to judge, and if we are able to identify the origin of law in the metaphysical operation of the oath, we could conjecture the origin of ethics in the metaphysical operation of the judgement.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps I'd need the aid of Agamben here, but I find your account of Benjamin's "Critique of Violence" (1921) virtually unrecognizable. At first I thought I must just be misremembering its contents, but upon rereading it I'm left even more confused.

    For one thing, the main tension does not in my view consist in an opposition of ethics to violence. Indeed, "ethics" is almost nowhere to be found in the essay. (Perhaps you're taking Benjamin to mean "ethics" whenever he speaks of "justice"? This seems slightly more plausible). Rather, there is the fundamental opposition between means and ends in modes of justification, and then in the sphere of legality between natural and positive law. There is a further gradation between "legitimate" (sanctioned) and "illegitimate" (unsanctioned) uses of violence.

    What strikes me most about this text is not what it says about the complexities of violence and its deployment or non-deployment toward various ends, but rather the way Benjamin was attempting to work through the political exigencies of his day. Violence was a salient issue in 1921 because the world had just witnessed the greatest concentrated bloodbath in history to that point. Not only from the interimperialist war, but from the domestic struggles throughout and the revolutionary struggles between 1917-1923. How could violence be justified in one case and not in the other? Why was it that the unjust slaughter of millions in the trenches of Northern France was perfectly legal according to internationally acknowledged rights of war, while the violent attempt to overthrow unjust social relations was everywhere decried as illegal?

    You can almost see Benjamin working through these concepts as he's writing them down. The range of figures he engages, and the way he engages them, is telling. On the one hand he takes on Neokantianism through the figure of Hermann Cohen. On the other, he examines militarism and labor militancy. Benjamin was not yet a Marxist at this point. While sympathetic toward their general aims, the Bolsheviks and Syndicalists appear to Benjamin almost as alien entities whose significance must simply be collated and ascertained. The only mention of Marx comes indirectly, in trying to parse some of Sorel's reflections on violence.

    The closing paragraphs of this entry get more to the point, though I think the use of "metaphysics" is totally misplaced. Temporality is indeed important to consider in the relation of means to ends. Yet that should also entail a reworking of the peculiar temporality of our historical moment. Malcolm Bull, whose work I generally find wildly uneven, had an interesting bit on this in a review piece he did for LRB on "What is the rational response?" He uses the Burke, Paine, and Lenin as exemplary figures for the tyranny of the past, present, and future over the other temporal modes. Worth a read.