Life beyond Violence - Notes on Walter Benjamin’s ‘Zur Kritik die Gewalt’ Versão para impressão E-mail
Autor: Andrew Benjamin   
Life beyond Violence - Notes on Walter Benjamin’s ‘Zur Kritik die Gewalt’


Just as a man lying sick with fever transformed all the words which he hears into the extravagant images of delirium, so it is that the spirit of the present age seizes on the manifestations of past or distant spiritual worlds, in order to take possession of them and unfeelingly incorporate them into its own self-absorbed fantasizing.

Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Page 53

What does it mean to evoke ‘life’? Life is initially present as a generality, one that is often effaced the moment it is announced, an effacing that occurs once there is the positing of ‘mere life’. And then, in contradistinction to that limitation, though perhaps it is a delimitation of a version of the lived, there is the ‘living’. The latter is a further registration of ‘life’, one allowing for an additional qualification that does itself result in the identification of the ‘soul of the living’.

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These different versions of ‘life’ are of course familiar. They all occur in the closing pages of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Zur Kritik die Gewalt’.[1] A text which despite the detail of the commentary it has elicited still exerts a powerful hold over contemporary reflections on the relationship between violence and power on the one hand and a philosophical thinking of the political on the other.[2] The passage in which these different senses of life are presented is the following:

Mythic violence is bloody violence over mere life (das bloße Leben) for its own sake; divine violence is pure violence over all life for the sake of the living (reine Gewalt über alles Leben um des Lebendigen).The first demands sacrifice; the second accepts it.
This divine violence is not only attested by the religious tradition but is also found in present-day life (imgegenwärtigen Leben) in at least one sanctioned manifestations. The educative power (erzieherische Gewalt), which in its perfected formstandsoutside the law (außerhalb des Rechts), is one of its manifestations. These are defined, therefore, not by miraclesperformeddirectly by God but by the expiatingmoment in them that strikes without bloodshed, and, finally, by the absence of all lawmaking (die AbwesenheitjederRechtsetzung). To this extent, it is justifiable to call this violence, too, annihilating; but it is so only relatively in relation to goods, right, life, and suchlike, never absolutely, with regard to the soul of the living (die Seele des Lebendigen).[3]

By this stage in the text Benjamin has already developed the founding distinction that orientates his project – i.e. the one between ‘divine violence’ and ‘mythic violence’. While the distinction will always stand in need of further elaboration its force – a force that positions the term ‘Gewalt’ in its slow withdrawal from a complete identification with ‘violence’ and allows it to be connected increasingly to the presence of an operative sense of power - can be understood, albeit provisionally, in terms of a distinction between, in the case of ‘mythic violence’, a naturalized continuity often appearing as fate and, in the case of ‘divine violence’, a form of radical interruption. In other words, what is essential to the distinction can be reformulated in structural terms in relation to the naturalization of continuity on the one hand, and the productive presence of the caesura on the other (hence the caesura is never just a simple interruption but one that will always function as a type of arché).[4] Another instance of this mode of thought in Benjamin’s work emerges in the way the distinction between ‘fate’ (Schicksal) and ‘character’ is formulated in the text ‘Schicksal und Charakter’; a text written two years before ‘Zur Kritik die Gewalt’ even though both were published in 1921.

Within that earlier text ‘fate’ is inextricably bound up with an imposed and then naturalized form of continuity. Historicism, which is an exemplary instance of that continuity, only ever occurs after the event. However, part of its having happened is that it allows that ‘event’ to have occurred before the process of its incorporation into history as continuity in order then to form part of that continuity.) There is an additional element which, in this context, is decisive. Fate also defines the realm of ‘guilt’, a realm in which ‘guilt’ is imposed on life. The interruption of the work of guilt occurs within a context in which the mistaken confusion of ‘justice’ (Gerechtigkeit) with the ‘order of law’ (die Ordnung des Rechts) has been identified – an identification that allows justice to be separated from law – and which locates the potential for the interruption of fate in forms of action. That interruption did not occur within law. It distances law in its occurring. Indeed its location was external to law (or at least to that conception of law that can be differentiated from justice). In this regard Benjamin writes:

It was not in law rather in tragedy (Nicht das Recht, sondern die Tragödie was es) that the head of genius lifted itself (sich… erhob) for the first time from the mist of guilt, for in tragedy demonic fate was breached (das dämonische Schicksal durchbrochen).[5]

The two significant moments here are the lifting of the head and the presence of a breach. Both need to be understood as figures of interruption. Another names for the staging of this releases is ‘happiness’ (Glück). In this regard Benjamin is explicit: ‘Happiness is what releases (herauslöst) the fortunate man (den Glücklichen) from the chains of the fates and the nets of his own fate’.[6]In all three instances what is staged is an interruption that needs to be understood as an opening. The opening is generative. It occasions and thus allows. Present therefore as an arché without a telos. However, there is more at work than a simple gesture, even if it is one that will come to be named as a form of ‘Gewalt’. This is clear from the identification of law with guilt as well as fate and thus in the positioning of justice both in its radical separation from that nexus and as a consequence in its becoming bound implicitly to happiness and thus to the Glücklichen.

Part of the conjecture to be developed here is that once there is a relationship between these elements– justice and happiness - then that relationship allows the following questions, questions central to any understanding of Benjamin’s text, to be posed: what is meant by life and more significantly what does it mean for there to be an occurrence that takes place for ‘the living’? If as Benjamin suggests ‘fate is the guilt context of the living (das Lebendingen)’,what matters is what is involved in acts of separation from that specific set up.[7] What is fundamentalin this context is the necessity that what defines this overcoming or separation from a determined context – e.g. the ‘guilt context of the living’ - will always involve action. Action has already been underscored. It has already been noted that what is central are the processes of ‘lifting’, ‘breaching’ and ‘releasing’. There are two conditions that mark an arché without a determined telos (i.e. a telos for which there can be no determinant image). The first is provided by the relationship between justice, happiness and life. While the second is that this relationship is no longer structured by law (and the continuity of law’s reiteration). While this is the point at which it is necessary to return to ‘Zur Kritik der Gewalt’, prior to that return the nature of the project –the project that necessitates returning to and working through Walter Benjamin – stands in need of a form of elaboration.

The footnotes are incomplete and at this stage contain no more than abbreviated references to Benjamin, Hölderlin, Sophocles, etc.

[1] All references to Benjamin’s texts will be to the German edition followed by English - volume number followed by page number : i.e. to the Gesammelte Schriften. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann and Herman Schweppengäuser. Suhrkamp Verlag. Frankfurt. 1980 and Selected Writings. Edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael Jennings. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. 1996-2000.

[2] On Gewalt.

[3] GS II.1 page 201. SW 1 page 250.

[4] The reference here is of course to Hölderlin’s discussion of the caesura in his Anmerkungen zur Antigone. While it cannot be taken up here Benjamin’s writings in the period leading up until 1921 can be interpreted as a long reflection on the productive potential of Hölderlin’s ‘Die Trauerspiele des Sophokles. Many of the moves traced in Benjamin’s essay can be interpreted as differing forms of engagement with Hölderlin. While there are a large number of significant writings on the relationship between Benjamin and Hölderlin one of the most important is Beatrice Hansen. "Dichtermut" and "Blödigkeit": Two Poems by Hölderlin Interpreted by Walter Benjamin. Modern Language Notes 112.5 (1997) 786-816.

[5] GS II.1 page174. SW 1 page 203.

[6] GS II.1 page174. SW 1 page 203.

[7] GS II.1 page175. SW 1 page 204.

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