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  • On the Limits of Violence
  • Giorgio Agamben (bio) and Lorenzo Fabbri
    Translated by Elisabeth Fay

Editor's introduction

In February 1970, a twenty-eight-year-old Giorgio Agamben sends a letter to Hannah Arendt. After introducing himself as a friend of Dominique Fourcade, with whom Agamben attended Martin Heidegger's 1966 and 1968 seminars in Provence, Agamben proceeds to express his gratitude to Arendt: her books, he writes, provided him with a "decisive experience." He then indicates his intention to join with others in "the gap between past and future," and to work within the horizon that Arendt herself had opened up. He signs the letter, "Cordially Yours, Giorgio Agamben." But these are not his final words to her. In a postscript Agamben adds: "You will excuse if I take the liberty of enclosing an essay on violence which I should have been unable to wright [sic] without the guide of your books."1 A 1985 interview, "Un'idea di Giorgio Agamben," in the Roman newspaper Reporter sheds some light on the essay that Agamben sent to Arendt in 1970.2 Responding to a question about his involvement with 1968 social movements—posed by Adriano Sofri, one of the cofounders of the extra-parliamentary leftist movement "Lotta Continua"— Agamben answers that he never really felt at ease with 1968. He was reading Arendt at the time, an author whom his friends in the movement considered a reactionary, someone absolutely not to be discussed. In fact, the essay on the limits of violence in which Agamben was coming to terms with Arendt's thought was rejected by a political review and was ultimately published in a literary journal. While an oeuvre sometimes functions as a historical detonator [detonatore storico] accelerating revolutionary moments, that was not the case with Arendt. Agamben concludes that such a missed appointment with history is one of the most humiliating experiences that time itself affords us.

Here then for the first time in English is the essay in which Agamben first attempted to come to terms with Arendt's philosophy of history, the essay that he sent to Arendt and that she referred to in the German edition of On Violence.3 The original essay, "Sui limiti della violenza," appeared in Nuovi argomenti in the winter of 1970.4

Lorenzo Fabbri [End Page 103]

Fifty years after the publication of Walter Benjamin's Critique of Violence, and more than sixty years after Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence, a reconsideration of the limits and the meaning of violence stands little risk of appearing untimely.1 Today, humanity lives under the constant threat of its own instantaneous destruction by a form of violence that neither Benjamin nor Sorel could have imagined, a violence that has ceased to exist on a human scale. However, the exigency of rethinking violence is not a question of scale; it is a question of violence's increasingly ambiguous relation to politics. Thus, this critique diverges from Benjamin's exposition of violence's relation to law and justice, seeking instead to determine its relation to politics, and in so doing, to uncover the question of violence in and for itself. In other words, we aim to determine the limits—if such limits exist—that separate violence from the sphere of human culture in its broadest sense. These limits will allow us to address the question of the only violence that might still exist on a human scale: revolutionary violence.

At first glance, the relation between violence and politics appears a contradiction in terms: European history itself is predicated on the notion that violence and politics are mutually exclusive. The Greeks, who invented most of the concepts we use to articulate our experience of politics today, used the term polis to describe a way of life founded on the word, and not on violence. To be political (to live in the polis) was to accept the principle that everything should be decided by the word and by persuasion, rather than by force or by violence.2 The essential characteristic of political life was thus peitharkhia, the power of persuasion; it was a power so revered that even those citizens condemned to death were persuaded to...