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  • The Commandment against the Law Writing and Divine Justice in Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”
  • Tracy McNulty (bio)

Pierre Legendre has shown that the Romano-canonical legal traditions that form the foundations of Western jurisprudence “are founded in a discourse which denies the essential quality of the relation of the body to writing” [“Masters of Law” 110]. It emerges historically as a repudiation of Jewish legalism and Talmud law, where the rite of circumcision encodes the subject’s entry into law as an “allegiance to the absolute Writing,” or the “relationship between the human subject and the logical place of the Other” [110–11; see also “les juifs”]. In this shift, one understanding of writing is displaced by another: the material inscription of the letter, as an incommunicable limit or cut, is supplanted by the fantasy of what Legendre calls a “living writing,” a writing “in the heart” that promotes an ideal of perfect communication in which nothing is lost, in which meaning is lodged in an absolute Other who guarantees all knowledge. In his words, “we belong to a culture in which a mystically alienated human body stands in the place of the absolute book. The state has emerged from this structure. . . . Its basic characteristics can be set out by means of a fundamental Romano-pontifical maxim: the Emperor carries all the archives in his breast (omnia scrinia habet in pectore suo)” [“Masters of Law” 109].

The ultimate theological source of this Roman maxim is Paul’s polemic against the Jewish law in the Epistle to the Romans. Paul’s polemic is structured by a distinction between two orders of law: the “law of God” and the “law of sin.” The first is associated with the intelligible “spirit” of the law, which is “written in the heart,” the second with the prescriptive “letter” of the Jewish law, which compromises or corrupts the first by binding it to a particular representation and consigning it to written form. Paul’s solution is to bypass the law, to bypass representation, and perhaps even language itself. The prescriptive “letter” of the Jewish law must be sublated by the law of the spirit, such that “we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” [Romans 7: 6]. Christ, as the living embodiment of the law of God, upholds the spirit of the law by “fulfilling”––and so rendering obsolete–its written form.

The doctrine of Christ as the “living law” sustains what Legendre describes as a “banalisation of writing” [“Masters of Law” 111], a disregard for its material inscription that holds the letter to be nothing more than a placeholder, a flawed or incomplete representation of a meaning or truth that is itself beyond words. At the same time, it makes possible the legal and political fantasy of a living writing, located in a single body understood as the site of interpretive authority. The extraction of a meaning or truth from the intractable letter becomes the ultimate aim of the legal order and the most lofty task of its sovereign interpreter, uniquely charged with animating the dead letter. This notion permeates what Peter Goodrich describes as “the most standard protocols of legal reading,” according to [End Page 34] which “it is not the letter but the spirit that determines the meaning of the law”:

The text is composed of dead letters (litera mortua); the rule is no more than a “mute judge,” a sleeping form, requiring the interposition, anima legis, of jurist or judge. . . . [T]he meaning of the law is internal to its living body, viva vox iuris or lex loquens, its image, interpreter, or legislator. In classical terms it is spelled out by reference to something beyond words: “to know the law is not to know the words of the law, but its force and power.” In a renaissance formulation we are similarly told that “no words, forms, niceties, or propriety of language is of any regard in the Civil Law, in comparison to truth, faithfulness and integrity. For verba menti, non verbis servire debet; words, are made as instruments to serve and express the mind, and not to command it.”