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  • Interrupting Mythological Politics? On the Possibility of a Literary Intervention
  • Aukje van Rooden (bio)

I would like to start with making a medical diagnosis of democracy’s current condition, a diagnosis that has been repeatedly made by several political theorists but that seems to have become our condition humaine. I am referring to the observation that democracy is unable to face its own violence. Although this diagnosis is not new, it seems more actual than ever, given the political rhetoric we are flooded with nowadays. Within this rhetoric, violent political interventions, like today’s “war on terror”, are generally characterized as non-violent in the light of the end to which they serve. That is to say that the violent character of these interventions is, as it were, “disarmed”, - or one could even say denied – by democracy’s discourse. Notions like “humanitarian intervention”, “preventive war” and “clean weapons” are only the most obvious illustrations of this logic.

For some, this has been reason to criticize modern states and to warn about their potential nondemocratic or even totalizing tendencies. The main source of inspiration for this criticism has probably been Hannah Arendt’s 1951 text The Origins of Totalitarianism that was one of the first major studies of democracy’s susceptibility to totalitarian forms of violence. In this essay, however, my point of departure will be a text of another author, who, in my view, has formed the theoretical framework that enabled theories like those of Arendt to emerge. I am referring to Critique of Violence (1921) of Walter Benjamin. This text has not only laid bare an important aspect of democracy’s attitude regarding its violence, but it has also given the initial impetus to the path I will follow here.

What I will try in this essay is to connect the logic underlying democracy’s attitude towards violence with a theory of language. More precisely, I will argue that the structure underlying this attitude is a mythological structure. In doing this, I will, to a certain extent, follow Benjamin’s analysis in his Critique of Violence, and, more implicitly, those of Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe concerning the concept of myth. In the second part of this analysis, I will focus on a specific moment in Benjamin’s text, a moment where he points out a possible interruption of the mythological structure, an interruption, nevertheless, that is another one than the one explained in terms of divine violence. In the third part, at last, I will further examine this possible interruption and indicate that it corresponds to an alternative use of language. More precisely, I will argue that one of the ways to interrupt mythological politics – or, better still, one of the ways in which mythological politics can interrupt itself – is by means of a literary use of language. The central argument of this essay will be that we can engage in a daily resistance to mythological politics via what I will call a literary intervention. I will explore the nature of this literary intervention by examining the work of Maurice Blanchot who has extensively analyzed the political force of literature.


So, let’s start with democracy’s presumed inability to face its own violence – or, so to speak, to face the violent character of its own violence. Although this inability can – and does – lead to devastating forms of neglect, it is in fact, an inevitable part of democracy’s political logic. A political order, in order to function as a political order cannot but suppress its violent character. This is of course exactly what Benjamin was trying to explain in his Critique of Violence, and, as a consequence, the reason why the concept of violence has such an ambiguous meaning in this text. As is generally known, the German word Gewalt refers to both brutal violence and to legalized state power – so, one could say, to both an illegal and a legalized form of violence. In the following I will use the word “violence”, but will constantly keep in mind this double connotation. The fact is, it is precisely this double connotation of violence that contains the ambiguous logic of democracy as a whole. After...

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