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c h a p t e r 1 0 Going Along for the Ride: Violence and Gesture—Agamben Reading Benjamin Reading Kafka Reading Cervantes Samuel Weber In State of Exception,1 as in many of his other writings, Giorgio Agamben refers to the work of Walter Benjamin at particularly decisive points in his argument. In this book, whose title indicates an indebtedness to Carl Schmitt that Agamben shares with Benjamin, the author elaborates a theory of the ‘‘state of exception’’ as the notion through which a certain Western tradition of ‘‘bio-politics’’ seeks to assimilate the heterogeneity upon which it depends and thereby to treat it as the integrating element of its own ‘‘death machine’’ (145). The ‘‘state of exception’’ thus serves as the pretext of a violence bent on justifying and reproducing a political-legal system that presents itself as the indispensable condition of that ‘‘minimal order’’ (Schmitt) required in order for life to be livable. One particularly emphatic reference to Benjamin by Agamben in this book occurs in chapter 4, ‘‘Gigantomachy Around a Void,’’ in which he contrasts Benjamin’s ‘‘Critique of Violence’’ with Schmitt’s theory of the ‘‘state of exception’’ as that which both defines and legitimates the sovereign as the power that can suspend the reign of positive law—of the Constitution—in order, allegedly, to restore the minimum order required for legality to function. Benjamin, by contrast, in his essay ‘‘Critique of Violence,’’ develops a notion of violence as radically distinct from all ‘‘law’’ (Recht, droit); this form of violence is defined as ‘‘pure means’’—which is to say, a ‘‘mediality without end’’ that PAGE 218 218 ................. 16645$ CH10 10-10-07 15:01:46 PS 219 Going Along for the Ride: Violence and Gesture serves no purpose and therefore has to be ‘‘considered independently of the ends it pursues’’ (105). Agamben, always an incisive and suggestive reader of Benjamin, cites a passage from a letter written in 1919 to Ernst Schoen, which argues for a notion of ‘‘purity’’—Reinheit—that is conditional rather than absolute: The purity of a being is never unconditional or absolute; it is always subjected to a condition. This condition always differs depending on the being at issue; never however does this condition reside in the being itself. In other words: the purity of each (finite) being never depends upon it itself [ist nicht von ihm selbst abhängig]. The two beings to which we attribute purity above all are nature and children. For nature the external condition is human language.2 To be finite, according to Benjamin, is to depend upon something other than itself, upon extraneous conditions. ‘‘Purity’’ thus is not a characteristic of immanence, not a property, but, as Agamben notes, a ‘‘relational’’ category. In the case of violence, he continues, ‘‘purity’’ should be sought not in ‘‘violence itself’’ (pas dans la violence même), but ‘‘in its relation to something external.’’ Anything that defines its ‘‘purity’’ or identity in terms of its relation to something else is, of course, a ‘‘means.’’ But in ‘‘Critique of Violence,’’ Benjamin explicitly excludes the traditional and familiar way in which this relation of ‘‘means’’ is defined: namely, as relation to an ‘‘end.’’ And Agamben comments: Here appears the theme—which shines only for an instant, and yet long enough to illuminate the text in its entirety—of violence as ‘‘pure means,’’ which is to say, as the figure of a paradoxical ‘‘mediality without end’’: i.e. a means that, while remaining such, is considered independently of the ends it pursues. (105) For the Benjamin of ‘‘Critique of Violence,’’ it is easy to identify the ‘‘end’’ that must be excluded in order to arrive at a critique of violence—of its conditions of possibility (and perhaps also of impossibility): it is Recht: ‘‘right’’ or Law (with a capital L) as that which informs the realm of positive laws (small l) and the reign of legality. But it is far more difficult to describe in positive terms the alternative relationship that would comprise the condition of violence as a means without end, a ‘‘pure’’ means. Agamben takes up Benjamin’s suggestion at the end of the previously quoted passage, where he describes the other of nature as being ‘‘language’’— ‘‘For nature the external condition is language.’’ In his 1916 essay on ‘‘Language in General and the Language of Man in Particular,’’ Benjamin PAGE 219 ................. 16645$ CH10 10-10-07 15:01:46 PS 220 Samuel Weber...


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