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  • Pernicious Bastardizations:Benjamin's Ethics of Pure Violence
  • Martin Blumenthal-Barby (bio)

Nothing is understood about this man until it has been perceived that of necessity and without exception, everything—language and fact—falls for him within the sphere of justice . . . For him, too, justice and language remain founded in each other.

—Walter Benjamin, "Karl Kraus"


Before beginning, a few prefatory remarks appear necessary to maintain at least the hope for that which Benjamin would have condemned: communication. Call it an act of violence, an act of communicative violence, if you will. But is not all language, that is, "impure" language, all language after the Fall, as Benjamin would say, violent? And does he himself not battle and ultimately fail in the face of language: fail either by instrumentalizing it as a tool for communication, or fail in failing to communicate, fail as a communicator, so to speak?

Given this aporetic situation that guarantees failure no matter what, we shall—violently—assure ourselves of some fundamental assumptions recurring in what is to come. In his 1921 essay "Toward a Critique of Violence" Benjamin is concerned with law, law's denial of its inherent violence (Gewalt). He is concerned, more concretely, with the nature of juridical force (Gewalt) and what he calls its law-positing and preserving character. All law is characteristic in that it violently establishes boundaries, divides, discriminates between 'legal' and 'illegal' so as to then coercively—if not violently—maintain these divisive [End Page 728] moments of lawmaking. That is to say, law assumes its authority very much as a result of an ever-present latent threat, the threat of physical violence, directed against the people, the citizens. Why is this so remarkable? Because law is supposed to attain justice. Yet given law's violent nature, justice and law appear to be irreconcilable—exactly contrary to the way in which democracy, democratic jurisprudence, usually understands itself.

At first it seems as if there will probably never be an alternative to the particular nature of legal violence. But then, in the last third of his essay, Benjamin actually offers an alternative, an-other, form of violence: divine violence. While he links positive law with mythic violence, which posits and preserves itself, posits and insists on this initial moment of instituting, institutionalization, divine violence is different in that it also posits itself, but then immediately withdraws; it posits and does not insist, does not adhere to any ends, does not institutionalize itself, it posits and withdraws. This divine or—if enacted in the human sphere—"pure" violence is a non-violent violence, a violence that posits itself without insisting on its moment of foundation.

My interest in Benjamin's essay begins precisely at the point where questions arise that he does not posit explicitly, questions, however, that his essay indeed raises, questions like: if law is characteristic in positing and preserving itself violently, and if one were to translate Benjamin's narrative act into the language of speech-act theory, is not any text, including his critique of violence, similarly characterized by constant moments of constative language, moments positing and preserving narrative violence? And if this is so, if a speech-act is characteristic for its continuous violent moments of narrative positing and preserving, is there perhaps an alternative to this, an alternative like that of divine violence to mythic violence, an alternative violence that does not posit and preserve but one somehow in line with pure means, pure in that its means adhere to no ends but rather posit and immediately withdraw? Is not this, after all, where the peculiar narrative form of Benjamin's essays, the series of flagrant contradictions, comes into play? The essay is remarkable in that Benjamin constantly sets up binaries such as those between positing and preserving violence, natural and positive law, means and ends, mythic and divine violence, Niobe and Korah, etc. Benjamin posits these and other dichotomies, yet soon after their setting up they get drawn into contradictions, paradoxes and tensions and ultimately collapse. He posits, but then does not appear to insist on this once-instituted moment of narrative violence, performs no institutionalization; what is insisted upon is [End Page...


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