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’

As a way in what needs to be taken up is how the formulation ‘pure violence overall life for the sake of the living’ is to be understood. However, the point of entry is not given by the ‘living’ but by the conception of the ‘pure’ (reine). In order to understand what is at work in such a formulation it needs to be made clear that the term ‘pure’ (reine) has a specific currency in the writings of Benjamin. For example, in ‘The Task of the Translator’ in a long and complex passage ‘pure language’ (reine Sprache) emerges in the following terms.
In all language and linguistic creations there remains in addition to what can be conveyed something that cannot be communicated (einNicht-Mitteilbares); depending on the context in which it appears, it is something that symbolizes or something symbolized. It is the former only in the finite products of language (in den endlichen Gebildender Sprachen), the latter in the becoming (Werden) of languages themselves. And that which seeks to represent, indeed to produce itself in the becoming of languages, is that very core of pure language; yet though this core remains present in life (gegenwärtugim Leben) as that which is symbolized itself, albeit hidden and fragmentary, it persists in linguistic creations only in its symbolizing capacity. Whereas in various tongues, that ultimate essence, the pure language, is tied only to linguistic elements and their changes, in linguistic creations it is weighted with a heavy alien meaning. To relives it of this, to turn the symbolizing into the symbolized, to regain the pure language fully formed in the flow of language (sprachbewegung), is the tremendous and single capacity of translation (ist das gewaltige und einzige Vermögender Übersetzung). In this pure language – which no longer means or expresses anything but is, as expressionless and creative word, that which is meant in all languages – all information, all sense and all intention finally encounter a stratum in which they are bound to be extinguished.[1]
The key elements in the formulation of ‘pure language’ that are germane here are firstly, the attribution to it of a capacity. ‘Pure language’ therefore needs to be understood as generative or at least productive. In the second, it is its identification as ‘expressionless and creative word’. ‘Pure language’ persists without expression. Present as that which ‘cannot be communicated’. While persisting in this way its field of operation is language. As a result ‘pure language’ does not point beyond language. However, it is neither reducible to any one natural language nor is it simply linguistic. Resisting these reductions – reductions which would be its naturalization on the one hand or equation with a putative formalism on the other - is what allows ‘pure language’ to figure within language. The nature of the separation involves neither mere distance nor an eventual form of connection. The separation is an allowing to be thought in terms of production and, even if it is not stated explicitly as such, also in relation to a reworked conception of potentiality. If there is access to ‘pure language’ then it occurs not as access to an original language, let alone to a final language of reconciliation, but to its having been regained in the act of translation. What is regained is what allows language’s work. It allows for that work. It is part of what happens – it is the condition of language’s happening - even though ‘pure language’ remains ‘expressionless’. If the translator, in Benjamin’s words, liberates ‘the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work’ what this entails is that ‘pure language’ is only ever present as that possibility and thus as an original potentiality. Pure language does not figure. Not having content it provides content’s continual reforming at the point where potentiality and the actual act of translation interconnect. That interconnection is the expression of the next translation; a form of repetition whose possibility is of necessity expressionless.

‘Pure language’, that which stands counter to what Benjamin identifies as the ‘bourgeois’ conception of language, is the mark of the refusal of the reduction of language to the work of signs. This is not to say however that pure language is an ‘uninterpretable manifestation’. Not only should the term ‘manifestation’ be used with care, the question of interpretation has been distanced such that the ‘pure’ can be rethought in terms of a potentiality and therefore should not be thought within the purview defined by a relation between the interpretable and the uninterpretable. If further evidence is necessary it is clear from Benjamin’s own argument in the passage cited above that ‘pure language’ while both ‘hidden’ and ‘fragmentary’ still ‘remains present in life’. Present in a way such that potentiality in both its differentiation from its presence as actualized but with its figuring within actualization is, as a consequence, drawn into the realm of transcendental conditions. A question emerges at this precise point: how, in this context, is the presence of potentiality to be understood? Intimations of an answer are already present. They occur initially in the contrast between that which takes place, on the hand, as the ‘finite products of language’ and, on the other, ‘the becoming of languages’. The latter is not a reference to the simple evolution of language. As though all that is being identified in Benjamin’s formulation is the historical development of languages. There is a different register at work. The contrast is between finitude – the pragmatic determinations of language of which a given translation would be an exemplary instance – and language understood as a process of becoming. The work of language consists of a complex relation between acts of presentation and the process of language’s own self-realization. Translation is defined in relation to that which allows it – translation - to occur. That allowing, a process signaled by a presence that is both ‘expressionless’ and ‘creative’, is what occasions translation, indeed it becomes what could be described as the occasioning of translation. As such it marks the impossibility of an outside.[2] In regards to the work of language, the ‘pure’ signals as much this impossibility as it locates a form of presence that is defined in relation to a conception of potentiality that can itself be explicated in terms of transcendental conditions of possibility.

While there can be no pretence that Benjamin’s actual terminology makes reference to transcendental conditions, what can still be argued is that the ‘pure’ not only functions as an account of translation’s possibility, it is also the case that the work of language is defined both in relation, and only in relation to the continual and productive interconnection between potentiality and actuality. There is a further point that needs to be added, namely, that central to Benjamin’s argument is the refusal to sanction any identification of the ‘pure’ (understood in relation to the ‘becoming’ of language) and the pragmatic instance. The latter is of course the locus of communication and reference. There needs to be a sustained and clearly delineated distinction between pragmatic instances and that which is identified as ‘pure language’; what has been identified remains operative in terms of the continuity of potentiality. The nature of this distinction is decisive for any attempt to understand both law and the nature of the separation of ‘justice’ and law.

If the relationship between ‘pure language’ and the pragmatic instance can be understood in terms of the interplay between potentiality and transcendental conditions on the one hand, and the actual on the other, the question to be addressed concerns the way this distinction yields an explication of the already noted claim made by Benjamin that ‘divine violence is pure violence over all life for the sake of the living (reine Gewalt über alles Leben um des Lebendigen).’ Here the ‘pure’ has an extension. Part of what will be argued is that its significance can be found in its providing a definition of ‘reine Gewalt’ in which the conception of power that it identifies cannot be understood either as immediate in the sense of gratuitous violence or as linked to a form volunteerism. As a result ‘Gewalt’ will be able to be held apart from any direct, let alone inevitable relation to terror. This reworking of Gewalt opens up the question of life.

In ‘The Task of the Translator’ Benjamin clarifies the concept of life in the following terms:

The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life. In the final analysis, the range of life must be determined by history rather than by nature, least of all by such tenuous factors as sensation and soul. The philosopher’s task consists in comprehending all of natural life through the more encompassing life of history.[3]

And then in the essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities fate and what will become another conception of life are held apart since,

fate, does not affect the life of plants. Nothing is more foreign to it. On the contrary fate unfolds inexorably in the culpable life. Fate is the nexus of guilt among the living.’[4]

Moreover, again in ‘Fate and Character’, there is another important moment in which character emerges in the overcoming of the interplay of fate and guilt:

The vision of character … is liberating in all its forms; it is linked to freedom…by way of affinity to logic. The character trait is not therefore the knot in the net. It is the sun of individuality in the colourless (anonymous) sky of man, which casts the shadow of comic actions.[5]

What passages of this type establish is the setting that ‘mythic violence’ repeats and ‘divine violence’ interrupts’. Within that setting life is equated with natural history. And yet, life will always need to be overcome any attempt to equate it with ‘organic corporeality’. (‘Mythic violence’ turns the complex of life, living, into ‘mere life’, that is into biological life.)Within that overcoming and thus as integral to ending the hold of ‘mythic violence’, life becomes determined by history. Were the ‘soul’ and ‘feeling’ to be taken as end in themselves they would have been allowed to resist their incorporation into history. That incorporation however must eschew any attempt to equate history with the naturalization of time in which the process of naturalization is then recast as either history (historicism) or nature. If history is introduced then it needs to be a conception of history in which both history and life are configured, more likely reconfigured, such that they name loci of value. It will be the same sense of value that allowed Benjamin to argue that ‘there is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’.[6]

History therefore is equally the site of power’s operation in which part of it is the systematic excision and exclusion of the appearance of power. The life of history and history as life would remain unstated within it because of their effective separation. Were the formulation ‘soul of the living’ to be reinserted into these concerns, then it will have three interrelated effects. The first is that would mark the presence of the life as incorporated within history and the life’s having a history. The second is that such possibilities depend on having broken the hold of nature over history. (This will, of course, give rise to the necessity to recast what is meant by ‘nature’ as a result.) And finally, precisely because the ‘soul’ is present as what could be described as the yet-to-be-actualized, it can be viewed as marking the potentiality for overcoming and as such it reiterates the potentiality that is implicit within terms such as ‘lifting’, ‘breaching’ and ‘releasing’. The ‘soul’ can be located within life. Thus it is there as part of the living (thus life twists free of ‘mere life’ and becomes the locus of activity). Acting for the sake of the ‘living’ depends upon the possibility of a form of activity that opens up and thus can actualize a potentiality that is there in life itself. Life does not pertain to plants animal or humans but to their interarticulation within and as the work of history. Life as a complex play of forces occurs, for example, both in the endurance of ‘barbarism’ and the ‘state of emergency’ having become the ‘rule’ rather than the ‘exception’, as well as in the potential for transformation. The question, and it is one that is as much a political as it is a philosophical concern, is how that transformation is to be understood. While part of the answer pertains to ‘divine violence’ a more sustained answer is to be found in returning to the suggested separation of justice and law that was noted earlier. Prior to that return – a return that will take on the guise of a conclusion –some of these threads that have already emerged need to be drawn together.

[1] GS IV.1 page 19. SW 1 page 261.

[2] Footnote on ‘expressionless’. See in particular: Winfried Menninghaus. ‘Das Ausdruckslose: Walter Benjamins Metamorphosen der Biderlosigkeit’. in Fur Walter Benjamin: Dokumente, Essays und ein Entwurf. Ed. I. and K. Scheuermann. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1992, 170-182.

[3] GS IV.1 page 11. SW 1 page 254-5.

[4] GS I.1 page . SW 1 page 307.

[5] GS. SW

[6] GS I.2 page 696. SW 4 page 392.

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