- Walter Benjamin’s Anti-Idolatrous Politics: Martel’s Divine Violence and Textual Conspiracies
The work of Walter Benjamin has acquired an almost canonical status in a wide range of disciplines, including philosophy, religion, cultural theory, literary and aesthetic theory. However, many political theorists and those interested in questions of politics tend to downplay the importance of his work, in spite of his own self-understanding as a political writer. To them, Benjamin’s reflections on politics seem too closely tied to the specific context in which he wrote and intervened, the Weimar Republic and its polarized political climate. They betray a Marxist belief in revolution that seems out of date, and are phrased in a historical materialist language that seems too schematic to grasp the complexities of our time. Most importantly, by focusing on the affinities between the political and the theological, Benjamin’s work seems too Messianic and too mystical for those interested in questions of practical politics. This explains why they tend to turn their back on him, considering him a voice of the past, rather than a relevant political writer, who may contribute to a better understanding of our own political situation.
These lacunae in Benjamin scholarship have now been addressed in two insightful and imaginative books by James Martel that appeared shortly after each other, Divine Violence and Textual Conspiracies. Both focus on the question of Benjamin’s contribution to political theory and its continuing relevance for our time. What makes these books outstanding is that the author has managed to translate Benjamin’s reflections on politics to our contemporary context in a way that lays bare aspects of current political practices that have remained largely unexplored (in particular, aspects of sovereign power and the resistance to that power), while simultaneously shedding a new and unexpected light on Benjamin’s theoretical armature. Instead of citing Benjamin piously (as most scholars tend to do), Martel utilizes Benjaminian concepts and projects them into new contexts, thereby producing a more critical and practicable version of his political theory and political theology. In doing so, he remains faithful to Benjamin himself, who, too, sought to save the critical voices from the past by giving them a new life and significance in the present.
Although Divine Violence and Textual Conspiracies are part of the same project of establishing a Benjaminian political theory, they can be read independently of each other. Yet their argument becomes more compelling and urgent if they are read in combination. In Divine Violence, Martel explores the ways in which political communities are continuously overwritten by mythologies of power and sovereignty. He considers sovereignty a system of authority that imposes itself on the very people it claims to represent by speaking for, and on behalf of, the people. Whenever a more direct form of popular power emerges, it is inevitably taken hostage by particular individuals or groups who claim to represent the will of the people themselves. Yet, by claiming to speak ‘for’ the people, Martel argues, sovereignty becomes idolatrous: it seizes power from the people in whose name it claims to speak, thus turning the ‘people themselves’ into an imagined community, an idol that merely serves the continuity of power, instead of facilitating the popular power it purports to represent.
Martel finds a solution to the problem of sovereignty as an idolatrous form of representation in Benjamin: instead of pretending to offer a ‘true’ vision of a given community – for instance, the vision of a real and unmediated self-expression of the people – we must engage with non-idolatrous forms of representation by which such truths become legible as idols, as violent and arbitrary impositions on a reality that must itself remain unknown. These non-idolatrous forms of representation cause the idols of sovereignty to appear as empty shells within which communities can exist in their own local diversity and plurality. Yet, as Martel...