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  • Benjamin’s Divine ViolenceUnjustifiable Justice
  • Luis Guzmán (bio)

Walter Benjamin, Violence, Law, Political Theory, Power, Divine Violence

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

—Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science,” Collected Fictions [End Page 49]

If one believes that violence is necessary to overcome certain situations of oppression and injustice on Earth, and yet that it is never justifiable (since as a means to an end its justification is dependent on a specific end that cannot avoid, to preserve itself, reproducing the conditions that were to be eliminated), then one finds oneself in a paradox. Walter Benjamin’s concept of divine violence is an attempt at working through this paradox. It is an attempt at avoiding resignation toward the injustice and suffering encountered in the world while simultaneously being wary of any discourse of the legitimation of violence, since such discourse will manipulate the binary sanctioned/unsanctioned violence (violence as means) to preserve itself. The difficulty and, perhaps, perturbing character, of Benjamin’s text lies in the fact that he does not attempt to resolve or dissolve the paradox before him. How can one accept the impossibility of justifying violence, of reaching a normative framework from which guidelines are issued that sanction the use of violence, and yet accept the need for such violence? Would not Benjamin suffer the fate of Borges’s college of cartographers, offering a useless map for action, a map that does not translate into directives for action but just tracks its contours?

In Critique of Violence (2007), Benjamin aims his gaze at the connection between violence, on the one hand, and law and justice, on the other. Throughout the text, he offers various examples of violence that fall within the means/end relation: violence used as a means for a certain end or purpose external to it. In the second half of the text, he groups these forms of violence under the categories of law-making and law-preserving violence. The former founds a state or institution; it imposes law. The latter preserves an already-established law. Both will fall under the concept of mythical violence.1 Their main characteristic is that they are means to an end; violence is exercised to impose law, or to preserve it. The problem with this violence is that it cannot be justified without question-begging, without already presupposing what it needs to justify. It can only be justified by the conditions it sets out to impose or maintain. In this manner, it does not have an ultimate justification. This is what Jacques Derrida, in Force of Law, calls the “mystical foundation of authority”: “Since the origin of authority, the foundation or ground, the position of the law can’t by definition rest on anything but themselves, they are themselves a violence without ground.... They are neither legal nor illegal in their [End Page 50] founding moment” (1990, 943). Thus, the concept of violence, understood as a means, seems to lead to a paradox. Benjamin says: “All violence as a means is either law-making or law-preserving. If it lays claim to neither of these predicates, it forfeits all validity. It follows, however, that all violence as a means, even in the most favorable case, is implicated in the problematic nature of law itself...


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pp. 49-63
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