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Autor: Andrew Benjamin   
Life beyond Violence - Notes on Walter Benjamin’s ‘Zur Kritik die Gewalt’

While ‘divine violence’ is one name for that which interrupts both the naturalization of time, a process incorporating and normalizing ‘barbarism’ (the term that can be most accurately equated with ‘violence’ in its particularity rather than ‘Gewalt’ in its generality) Benjamin has also given another name to this process. It is essential to recall this earlier formulation. The setting involves the recognition that ‘divine violence’ interrupts the enforcing continuity of fate. A continuity that fuses life and guilt on the one hand or equates life with ‘mere life’ on the other. (The latter being a process that robs humans, animals, and plants of their capacity to have a quality in excess of that equation, a quality that Benjamin identifies as ‘sacred’.) The term that Benjamin deploys is ‘Happiness’ (Glück). To the extent that the temporality of law accords with fate then happiness, character and the comedic stand opposed to their simple reiteration. To stop here however and define what is at work in terms of the relationship between these three element would be to fail to understand what is at stake in thinking the interruption and subsequent abeyance of ‘mythic violence’s repetition and thus thinking beyond the work fate whilst, at the same time, neglecting the resources inherent in the way Benjamin structure’s his approach to the question of law.

If it can be argued that ‘happiness’ is another formulation of ‘divine violence’ then what ‘happiness’ thus construed brings into consideration is not just its position in relation to fate, it does in addition construct a link to ‘wisdom’ and thus to judgment. That relation needs to be connected to the emergence of potentiality as well as potentiality’s link to a conception of the transcendental. While the latter is the more contentious since it involves the attribution of a position to Benjamin that is not directly stated in his writings, what is if interest here is not fidelity to a literalization of Benjamin's project but the genuine reciprocity that exists between what could be described as the complex structure of happiness and potentiality.

Potentiality cannot be generalized. The identification of both ‘Gewalt’ and ‘Sprache’ in terms of the description ‘pure’ opens up the possibility that there is a genuine distinction between what occurs in terms of specific determinations and that which allows for those determinations to take place. To the extent that ‘pure language’ is understood as language in a state of becoming which while radically distinct from the finite expression of language – the translation as a finite instance – can nonetheless also be conceived as the condition of possibility for finitude itself. In addition, it involves a radical distinction between the interplay of potentially and the transcendental on the one hand and the finite on the other. There is a further element. The relationship between ‘pure language’ and the finite is indeterminate. Pure language allows. As such it becomes a transcendental condition that cannot identify in advance the determination that defines the specificity of the finite. While not present with exactly the same structural force that obtains in relation to ‘pure language’ ‘pure violence’ can be positioned within a similar set up.

‘Divine violence’ is not just a form of interruption. Nor it is merely that which allows. (Though both of these qualities obtain.) ‘Pure violence’ is an interruption and an allowing. Moreover, precisely because it can be understood as an arché without a telos what it allows cannot be determined in advance. The future remains without an image. Nonetheless, the opening is not simply speculative. It is positioned in relation to the ‘living’ and thus undertaken in relation to the ‘soul of the living’. Not only is potentiality the central term, it is also the case that the process of allowing is not determined by an already given image. As a result that process will always need defined in relation to, though equally to enjoin, the continuity of productive acts of interruption. (Here is the emergence of a cultural politics.) Acts linked to the work of genius and thus to ‘happiness’ (Glück). Activity and the disjunctive relation between arché and telos continue to position potentiality at the centre of ‘pure violence’.

While the role of potentiality stands in need of greater clarification – a project that remains essential – it is the term that will sanction an account of the separation and thus possible reconnection of justice and law. Law is only ever able to be suspended with the state of exception if it is possible to posit law’s outside. And yet, if the analogy with both language and history is prioritized then there is no outside. There is only ever a distinction between potentiality and finitude. This has a direct impact on how law is to be understood. When Benjamin argues that the ‘educative power’ ‘stands outside the law’ this should not be understood as an argument for law’s impossibility. Rather in such a formulation the ‘educative power’ stands for ‘judgment’ and thus the weave of ‘wisdom’ and the social, while the law in question is law as statute and thus finitude within the domain of law. Hence, the distancing of law and even the law that is ‘suspended’ will not simply be opposed to justice, it is also the case that it will only ever be law as finitude. This gives rise to the clear question of the possibility of a conception of law that stands in the same relation that ‘pure violence’ – equally divine violence’ has to finitude. The response is to argue that by reformulating the relationship between justice and law as disjunctive (i.e. it cannot follow simply from a law being a law, thus law as finite, that it is just) what is thereby established is a criteria by which any one law can itself be judged. The ground of judgment is not abstract. The ground is there within the proposition that has already been examined namely: ‘divine violence is pure violence over all life for the sake of the living’.

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