- Critique of Originary ViolenceFreud, Heidegger, Derrida
There is fault, violence, crime. An unpayable debt would have been contracted. Why unpayable, at bottom?—Jacques Derrida, “To Speculate—on ‘Freud’”
Violence at the Origin
What happens when violence is placed at the root of the social bond? What are the theoretical and political consequences of such a gesture with which a considerable number of contemporary thinkers have tried to come to terms with a seemingly inevitable amount of social unrest, suffering, and discontent? In Latin America, for example, the critique of violence served a crucial purpose in the transition to democracy after decades of armed struggle and military dictatorships. But, even here, we might ask: What happens when, as a result of such a critique, the notion of violent antagonism becomes generalized as a ubiquitous and original fact of social life? In other words, what are the consequences of casting the argument in terms of an ontological or metaphysical kind of violence that we disavow at our own peril no less than that of others?
Despite my potentially misleading title, I should begin by clarifying that what follows does not pretend to be yet another commentary on Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (1978), nor will I dwell on the many existing readings of this powerful [End Page 27] and enigmatic essay, beginning with Jacques Derrida’s “Force of Law” (2002a), which in any case I have briefly addressed elsewhere (Bosteels 2008). Rather, on this occasion I want to interrogate the premise of an originary or transcendental kind of violence on which so many contemporary interpretations seem to build their critique. And I intend this interrogation not as a plea in favor of plain and simple forms of violence, as opposed to originary or primordial ones, but as an investigation into the ideological consequences of a critique of violence that somehow ends up ontologizing its very own object. In any event, as Derrida points out with regard to Benjamin’s title, the reader does well to consider that in what follows, too, “critique does not simply mean negative evaluation, legitimate rejection or condemnation of violence, but judgment, evaluation, examination that provides itself with the means to judge violence” (2002a, 265).
As a point of departure let us consider how common it has become in contemporary reflections to uncover a kernel of violent antagonism as the truth of what is then often called the political, as opposed to the management of politics as usual. We could call this an inverted or reverse use of Hobbesianism. Whereas Hobbes in his theory of sovereignty legitimizes the delegation of power onto the sovereign as a necessary artifice to escape from the threat of death and violence under the so-called state of nature, numerous contemporary thinkers travel down this same path in the opposite direction so as to lay bare an inevitable kernel of violence and antagonism as the truth behind all sovereignty—even, or especially, when the new forms of sovereignty under capitalism are effectively organized into parliamentary regimes of deliberative and representative democracy.
This reverse Hobbesianism no doubt explains the appeal of thinkers such as Carl Schmitt and his critique of liberal parliamentarism among self-described members of the left. In the view of the late Ernesto Laclau and his partner-in-arms Chantal Mouffe, Schmitt reminds us that antagonism is constitutive of the social bond. In other words, there is an inevitable degree of [End Page 28] antagonism that keeps society from becoming a self-transparent whole. In fact, there is no such thing as society precisely because antagonism prevents the social whole from being one. Antagonism, though clearly resonant with a long genealogy within the militant discourse inaugurated by Marx, no longer even needs to take the form of the class struggle in that classical sense. On the contrary, in a radicalization of the category of antagonistic violence, any attempt to pin antagonism on a specific class is henceforth doomed to appear as an essentialist disavowal of the fact that antagonism goes all the way down and, therefore, no identity is immune to the deconstructive presence of a ghostly alterity in its very midst. As the authors of...