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  • “Out of the Order of Number”: Benjamin and Irigaray Toward a Politics of Pure Means
  • Peter Fenves* (bio)

At the heart of the legal orders that arose in conjunction with the Enlightenment idea of law as rules of conduct universally applicable to all those who belong to a properly instituted political body lies a formula for the justification of the violence on which the law depends in order for it to be an actual, effective, and therefore “living” law—and not merely an idea: violence is justified insofar as it is a means for the control of those violent acts that are not themselves means for the control of immediate threats of violence. As Walter Benjamin indicates in the opening paragraphs of his most explicit exposition of legal and political theory, “Toward the Critique of Violence” (1921), the justification of violence as a means is the point of contention around which arguments over the origin, nature, and purpose of the modern state endlessly circle. Justified violence is supposed to be of a different order than unjustified violence, and so in the context of legal reasoning it is no longer called “violence” but “coercion” or “punishment.” Yet as the formula for the justification of violence indicates, the violence of the legal order is not in general sanctioned for the purpose of subduing immediate threats to one’s own life—this is the justification for the extralegal violence of “private persons”—but for the purpose of preserving the law itself: the law is inviolable. As long as the legal order makes the law effective and thus gives it life, it, too, is inviolable, and all violence other than its own can henceforth be interpreted as an immediate threat not to life itself—however this may be understood—but to the legal order. The end of legally sanctioned violence, its purpose and function, is not to put an end to violence as such but, instead, to thwart all threats to the law in the name of which violence can be sanctioned. Everything that enters into the space over which the legal order imposes its sentence is therefore implicated in the disquieting—or, as Benjamin says, “rotten” [GS 2: 188; SW 242]—ambiguity of legal violence understood as a means whose justification lies in the application of the law: the legal order can justify its own violence only insofar as this violence is a means to an end, but the end it serves can never be separated from itself as means, for the law, by virtue of its universality, is at bottom unconcerned with the life of those upon whom the violence it justifies is exercised or with the life of those whom this violence is supposed to protect. The violence of the legal order is concerned solely with itself, with its own majesty—without, however, ceasing to present itself as a means and reverting to what all legal violence once was: immediate manifestation.

Nothing that enters into the space of the legal order can escape the ambiguity of the violence through which the law comes to life. Or at least nothing can escape this ambiguity as long as the space on which the legal order founds itself runs counter to the sole space that accords with the strict universality of the law: a universally accessible, indivisible, and undivided space that is nevertheless capable of the greatest degree of discreteness, differentiation, and individuation. In place of this space the legal orders that arose in Europe over the course of the last five centuries set out something like its parody: [End Page 43] homogeneous and yet fully divided domains whose divisions from one another are momenta of the extralegal violence to which each legal order owes its origin. At least one species of being has always been seen to move outside the space of the legal order—a species whose specificity, speciesness, and spatiality have thus given rise to interminable analysis: the angels. The space that angels traverse—and, in particular, the ones who enter into Luce Irigaray’s writings—does not suffer division into homogeneous domains but does not therefore amount to an undifferentiated expanse, a yawning abyss, or a formless chaos; it is...