Towards a Politics of ‘Pure Means’: Walter Benjamin and the Question of Violence

 zabriskie point

1. On Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”

Walter Benjamin’s essay Zur Kritik der Gewalt or On the Critique of Violence was first published in 1921, in the journal Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik.[1] It was intended to be part of a greater, either lost or uncompleted work on politics, consisting of two parts, The True Politician and True Politics.[2] It is notable that Benjamin’s early work on politics around 1920 was written shortly after the failed German revolution of 1918/19 and in the light of communist and anarcho-syndicalist uprisings in various regions in Germany. Within his oeuvre, Critique of Violence has a unique place since it is the first explicitly political essay and his last great work on politics before his Marxist turn in 1924. In 1921, Benjamin had read neither Marx nor Lenin; the political thought he was familiar with ranged from anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist authors such as Gustav Landauer and Georges Sorel, the metaphysico-political circle around Erich Unger, to the early Ernst Bloch of Spirit of Utopia, and the early anarcho-zionist Gershom Scholem who later became one of the most important scholars in Jewish mysticism. However one evaluates the importance of this intellectual context, I argue that none of these influences can fully account for the uniqueness of the radical attempt Benjamin undertook in his essay on the Critique of Violence, that is to say, undoing the nexus of life, law, and violence by referring to another kind of violence – divine violence. Giorgio Agamben succinctly describes the task of Benjamin’s essay as to ensure “the possibility of a violence (Gewalt) that lies absolutely ‘outside’ (außerhalb) and ‘beyond’ (jenseits) the law.”[3]

For Benjamin, it was clear that there was something fundamentally “rotten in the law” (SW 1, 242) – be it the law of monarchy, western democracy or autocratic regimes.[4] The violence inherent to the law contradicts itself since law enforcement – e.g. the police – always blurs the line between law-preserving and law-making or law-constituting (rechtsetzende) violence. And vice versa, most attempts to break the law and its supporting powers lead to the establishment of a new law. But how are we to conceive of a realm of revolutionary politics outside and beyond of the law – a sphere of justice and non-legal violence?

2. What is Violence?

The German word Gewalt originates from the Old High German verb waltan which roughly translates into ‘to be strong’, ‘to dominate’, or ‘to master.’ In modern High German Gewalt covers a variety of meanings, among them violence, force, coercion, power and authority. The latter meaning is today most notably used in the German constitutional “Basic Law” (Grundgesetz), the 20th article of which reads: “Alle Staatsgewalt geht vom Volke aus.” [All state authority is derived from the people].[5] As Étienne Balibar notes: “the term Gewalt thus contains an intrinsic ambiguity: it refers, at the same time, to the negation of law or justice and to their realization or the assumption of responsibility for them by an institution (generally the state).”[6] Due to this ambiguity, for Benjamin the problem of Gewalt is inherent to all legal and moral questions, as the opening passage of his essay suggests: “The task of a critique of violence can be summarized as that of expounding its relation to law and justice. For a cause, however effective, becomes violent, in the precise sense of the word, only when it intervenes into moral relations” (SW 1, 236). An action can only assume the status of violence in the strict sense once it stands in a relation – in a moral relation. Benjamin gives no further inherent definition of violence; it remains a relational concept, which can only be presented, defined and criticized from within these relations and their respective polarizations.

3. Means and Ends

Within a legal system the most essential relation is that between means and ends; if violence is not an ethical or legal goal, it can only be found in the sphere of means – as an effective force and sanctioning violence whatever its justification or legitimization might be. The basic dogma of any theory of violence is therefore: “just ends can be attained by justified means, justified means used for just ends” (237). Benjamin mentions two legal schools that diametrically legitimate violence: “natural law” and “positive law.” While the former “perceives in the use of violent means to just ends no greater problem than a man sees in his ‘right’ to move his body in the direction of a desired goal” (236), the latter, the school of positive law, is more concerned with just means. Benjamin does not side with either school, though he recognizes the effort of the school of “positive law” to focus on the justification of means as such, whereas the school of natural law conceives of violence as a quasi-organic “product of nature, as it were a raw material” (236f.). However, both schools, natural and positive law, share a common mistake: when speaking about violence they believe in the instrumental nexus of ends and means. “Natural law attempts, by the justness of the ends, to ‘justify’ the means, positive law to ‘guarantee’ the justness of the ends through the justification of the means” (237). In contrast, Benjamin denies any critique of violence based upon a theory of just ends or of just means.

This denial is not only of theoretical but also of major political importance. Whereas the position of natural law is often at issue when armed anti-hegemonic, anti-state, or anti-colonial struggles are to be legitimized, the opposite standpoint of positive law is normally put forward by the state in order to justify state repression and institutionalized coercion. Although both standpoints are diametrically opposed in their emphasis on either just ends or justified means, they share the belief that violence has always to be perceived within a causal chain of means and ends. Benjamin, however, insists on independent criteria for both just ends and justified means.

Following this argumentation, even the most basic theological principle from the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill,” cannot be perceived as a forbidden means with regard to certain just or unjust ends. On the contrary, the deed itself, the means of killing, has to be scrutinized as such without referring to a possible goal. Therefore, “no judgment of the deed can be derived from the commandment”; it does not exist “as a criterion of judgment, but as a guideline for the actions of persons or communities” (250). A guideline for actions, however, can never be fully applied to a situation since it only offers a general orientation; it always needs a negotiation whether and how a concrete situation can be guided by an ethical principle. It is precisely this infinite and non-accomplishable work of negotiation that arises from this lack of absolute judgment, which Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals wanted to contain. According to Kant’s first formula of the Categorical Imperative, you are to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”[7] Because this imperative is not a means to certain ends but a self-sufficient end-in-itself or pure end, it has to maintain a timeless and universal applicability to all possible historical situations. Yet Benjamin strongly opposes the empty and homogenous temporality of the Kantian Categorical Imperative. Since no historical situation is identical to another, nothing can be said categorically in advance. As much as the ‘force-of-law’ hinges on its universal applicability to any concrete historical situation, its classic foundation of morality in Kant’s Categorical Imperative is based upon a timeless universalizability abstracting from concrete historical and never recurring situations. For Benjamin, therefore, the universal value of an ethical guideline must never be conflated with the universalizability of judgments, principles, or imperatives.

4. Mythic Violence

As Werner Hamacher argues in his reading of Critique of Violence, every positing [Setzung] of law or ethical principle already implies its reversal for every positing requires its enforcement against any other acts of positing, setting, or constituting.[8] Hence, the logic of positing is always threatened by other acts of positing. Within the paradigm of the state, Benjamin distinguishes between two forms of violence that mutually presuppose and deconstruct each other: “All violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving” (SW 1, 243). While the former concerns the constitutive act of establishing power through violence, i.e. terror, war-on-terror, or capitalist “original accumulation” (Marx), the latter is embedded in state-institutions. Benjamin calls these two forms of violence “mythic violence” because their intrinsic dialectic leads into an inescapable and circular logic: any law-destroying act results in a new positing [Setzung] of law which again violently tries to preserve itself. For Benjamin this fateful cycle of overcoming law by re-establishing it is a clear indicator that there is something fundamentally “rotten in the law” (242).

Put into practice, however, these two forms of mythic violence are difficult to differentiate. In the sphere of direct state repression, i.e. police force, law-preserving force and law-making violence are always spectrally conflated (because the police preserves law precisely by enforcing new regulations or by re-evaluating established sanctions), whereas in the realm of the social order mythic violence has become almost invisible. While excessive law-making violence is today more or less ‘outsourced’ from the capitalist center to the periphery (euphemistically called “emerging markets”), in contemporary post-Fordist capitalism mythic violence tends to obscure its law-making force by turning into a seemingly intangible juridical web of bio-political practices. This form of law-preserving violence operates as a self-producing and self-eternalizing “microphysics of power” (Foucault) producing and re-producing, disciplining and controlling, regulating and sanctioning life as actual, potential or superfluous labor power.

The application of mythic violence to life produces a very peculiar form of life that Benjamin calls naked or “bare life.” Bare life is not simply natural or biological life but a product of legal violence: life as bare life is rendered as the natural bearer of guilt, a culpable life, which is, at the same time, the subject matter of the modern humanist “doctrine of the sanctity of life, which [the humanists] either apply to all animal and even vegetable life, or limit to human life” (SW 1, 250). Benjamin, however, dares to ask what is sanctified in such doctrine – a doctrine, which is also the foundation of the modern idea of inalienable human rights. For Benjamin, the abstract subject matter of human rights is bare life – a life deprived of its supra-biological properties (what he calls the Lebendige, the living). As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the sanctification – we might even say fetishization – of life as such leads to a life without freedom, truth and justice. From this consideration Benjamin concludes that the “idea of man’s sacredness gives grounds for reflection that what is here pronounced sacred was, according to ancient mythic thought, the marked bearer of guilt: life itself” (251). The invention of life and its culpability share the same origin, which is also the mythic ground of modern state violence sanctioned and justified by the law.

5. Pure Means: Language and Politics

Against mythic violence and its inherent cycle of law-making and law-preserving violence Benjamin searches for a nonviolent, pure or unalloyed violence that could interrupt the application of law to bare life. His name for this violence is “divine violence” – a paradoxically pure or non-violent violence that coincides with its tautological opposite: a strikingly violent violence. Before we turn to the latter, let us dwell on the profane and have a closer look at Benjamin’s expression of “pure means,” which can break the cycle of mythic violence since it is not bound to any ends.

At first sight, the formula of pure means or ‘means without end’ is paradoxical since a means is normally defined with regard to an end. The common concept of means already implies a teleological reference to an end to which it is subordinated as a secondary instrument. This hierarchy becomes most apparent when speaking of an end-in-itself indifferent to its supplementing means. For example, values, ideals, ethical end-goals such as freedom, equality, or self-determination etc. From a Kantian perspective, Benjamin’s concept of pure means or means without end might be read as an inversion of the ethical end-in-itself. Ends-in-itself and pure means (means-in-itself, so to speak) are not the same. Shifting the perspective from ends to means and cutting off the reference to a final goal, Endzweck, Benjamin emancipates the medial sphere of means from its secondary, supportive role without giving up on the concept of mediacy. It is not by accident that in Critique of Violence Benjamin avoids an explicit discussion of Kantian Moralphilosophie.[9] Instead he takes his cue from Kant’s Third Critique, Critique of Judgment, and its paradoxical formulation of a Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck, purposiveness without a purpose, which Kant introduced when discussing the analytic of the beautiful:

“… the beautiful, the judging of which has as its ground a merely formal purposiveness, i.e., a purposiveness without an end, is entirely independent of the representation of the good, since the latter presupposes an objective purposiveness, i.e., the relation of the object to a determinate end.”[10]

In contrast to Kant, however, Benjamin’s version of Kant’s “purposiveness without a purpose” is not limited to the realm of aesthetics. Benjamin’s concept of pure means also refers to the site of language (A) and politics (B) articulating their inner non-instrumental relation.

(A) Language: Already in his early essay on Language as Such and on the Language of Man (1916), Benjamin introduced the idea of an a-teleological pure means in linguistic terms: “name-language” (SW 1, 66) is language deprived of all its communicating, instrumental and transmitting qualities. Generally, language does not only serve communicative ends but designates the pure medium of the “mental being” of man. The various contents of the latter (we might say in linguistics: the “signified”) are not communicated through but in language as the pure medium of language as such. “All language communicates itself” (SW 1, 63). Therefore, language is not the instrumental bearer of meaning but the ‘un-mediated’ pure medium in which cognition (Erkenntnis) becomes communicable. Hence for Benjamin, recognizability (Erkennbarkeit) is transcendentally rooted in language. Name-language, or “language as such,” speaks itself in all languages and thereby guarantees the translatability of every language into another. In his essay on The Task of the Translator, which Benjamin wrote shortly after Critique of Violence, he drew on his earlier theory of language in terms of “pure language” providing ground for his theory of the freedom of translation

“In this pure language […] all information, all sense, and all intention finally encounter a stratum in which they are destined to be extinguished. […] It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.” (SW 1, 261)

Already the concepts employed in this dense passage – extinction, devoiding, and liberation – indicate that Benjamin’s ‘politics of language’ features structurally similar arguments as his ‘politics of violence.’ As pure language extinguishes all positing of intention and information, pure violence de-activates and de-poses or de-posits, un-sets the law, which itself is an auto-performative function of language.

As Giorgio Agamben has argued, the sphere of law is the paradigmatic realm where all human language tends to become performative: ‘doing things with words’ immediately turns factic – legally factic.[11] If we remind ourselves of Austin’s classic argument, the paradox of performative utterances is the following: in the performative speech act, the meaning of an enunciation (such as “I swear” “I declare” or “I promise”) coincides with the reality that is itself produced through its utterance (this is why the performative can never be either true or false), as Agamben adds. This quality is particularly important in the case of the law. The juris-diction – the performative utterance of a sentence in the court – eliminates the denotative function of normal everyday language: every dictum becomes immediately factum, or, as Agamben put it:

“The performative thus substitutes normal denotative relations between words and deeds with a self-referential relation that, in ousting the first, posits itself as decisive fact. What is essential here is not a relation of truth between words and things, but rather, the pure form of the relation between language and world, now generating linkages and real effects. Just as, in the state of exception, law suspends its own application in order to ground its enforcement in a normal case, so too in the performative does language suspend its own denotation only in order to establish links with things.”[12]

This is why the relation of jurisdiction also formally sounds like a somehow senseless language out of touch with normal language. It needs to suspend language’s denotative function. In this sense, Agamben detects an uncanny parallel between the language of the law, juris-diction, and the political “state of exception,” which the legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt called Ausnahmezustand, state of emergency. We will later return to this parallel.

(B) Politics: In the political arena, the realm of true freedom and ethical acting beyond instrumental cause-and-effect-calculations can be found in class struggle. Benjamin refers to Georges Sorel and his anarcho-syndicalist distinction between the political and proletarian general strike. While the former fights for certain political-economic ends (political rights, higher wages, better working conditions etc.) the latter questions the Staatsgewalt, the state and its power/violence as such. The antithetical relation of the political and proletarian general strike is to be located on the level of their relation to violence: for if the strike is a means to an end, its violence will be instrumental; but if a strike is a pure means without any concrete goal other than overcoming the state, it will reach beyond the vicious cycle of mythic violence. In Sorel’s words: “The political general strike demonstrates how the state will lose none of its strength, how power is transferred from the privileged to the privileged, how the mass of producers will change their masters.” (Sorel) In contrast to this form of strike, the proletarian general strike “nullifies all the theoretical consequences of every possible social policy”[13]. Moreover, it “announces its indifference towards material gain through conquest by declaring its intention to abolish the state” (Sorel, quoted in Benjamin, SW 1, 246). To put it differently, the proletarian general strike is not a violent means to an end because there are no concessions to be made under which the workers will resume their work under modified or improved conditions. The strike’s ‘striking’ character stems from its unconditional character. It is a pure means and therefore nonviolent. While the political general strike remains in the domain of mythic violence since it establishes a new law, the proletarian general strike is anarchistic insofar as it reaches fully beyond law-making violence. In doing so, its truly an-archistic, a-teleological and non-instrumental character is strictly non-utopian. As a pure means without taking into account its possible consequences, however destructive they might be, the proletarian general strike does not envision a stateless new society. Against any future program Benjamin sides with Sorel’s comment that with the general strike, all utopianism will disappear: “the revolution appears as a clear, simple revolt, and no place is reserved either for the sociologists or for the elegant amateurs of social reforms or for the intellectuals who have made it their profession to think for the proletariat” (Sorel, quoted in Benjamin, SW 1, 246). Benjamin’s famous theses On the Concept of History from 1940 and their fierce criticism of socialism’s belief in progress will later echo this Sorelian stance towards future programs and visions.

6. Law versus Justice

As many commentators have noted (think for instance of Jacques Derrida’s essay Force de loi[14]), Benjamin’s most controversial concept remains “divine violence” – a term the later Marxist Benjamin explicitly dismissed as “an empty blind-spot, a limit concept, and regulative idea.”[15] The pre-Marxist, more Anarchist Benjamin of 1921, however, is still fighting from a radically ethical stance against the mythic link between law and its application to life reducing the latter to “bare life.” But how are we to understand Benjamin’s explicit reference to the language of theology and the antithesis of “divine and “mythic”?

For the early Benjamin, ethical monotheism as developed in Hermann Cohen’s Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism (1919) still provides a – however problematic – theoretical framework according to which structural paganism can be criticized from the standpoint of ethical monotheism (out of the sources of Judaism) purified from all forms of mythic cult religions and relations. In contrast to Cohen, however, Benjamin’s anti-pagan and anti-mythic stance is not limited to theology and ethics; rather, for Benjamin the antithetical opposition of mythic paganism and divine monotheism functions as an analytical device to criticize the modern capitalist state and its legal violence.[16] Already in his essay Fate and Character (1919), Benjamin rejects the “dogma of the natural guilt of human life, of original guilt, the irredeemable nature of which constitutes the doctrine, and its occasional redemption the cult, of paganism […]” (SW 1, 206). In the center of Benjamin’s refutation stands the principle of guilt and retribution, or, more generally, the individualized nexus of cause and effect, which is the foundation of any modern form of law and moral sentiment. From Benjamin’s structurally monotheist perspective, there can be no ethical order based on the “guilt nexus of the living” (204). For the nexus of guilt and retribution is a mythic belief and must not be conflated with the ethico-political standpoint of justice.[17]

In the years preceding his essay on the Critique of Violence, while studying in Switzerland, Benjamin and his close friend Gershom Scholem thoroughly discussed the concept of justice in its political, theological and ethical dimension. In 1916, Benjamin shared his “Notes to a Study on the Category of Justice” with his friend who transcribed them into his own notebook. In this stunning note Benjamin writes:

“justice is not a virtue like other virtues (humility, neighborly love, loyalty, courage), but rather constitutes a new ethical category, one that should probably no longer be called a category of virtue but a category of virtue in relationship to other categories. Justice appears not to be based upon the good will of the subject but forms the state of the world. Justice refers to the ethical category of the existing, virtue the ethical category of the demanded. While virtue can be demanded, justice, in the end, can only be the state of the world or the state of God. […]
Justice is the ethical side of the struggle. Justice is the power [Macht] of virtue and virtue of power [Macht]. The responsibility for the world that we share is shielded from the instance of justice. […] The great impasse of knowledge extending between law [Recht] and justice [Gerechtigkeit] is captured by other languages:
[law:] ius [Latin] themis [Greek] mishpat [Hebrew]
[justice:] fas [Latin] dike [Greek] zedek [Hebrew]”[18]

As the Latin word fas, that is, divine law or God’s will, already indicates, Benjamin’s concept of Gerechtigkeit is radically distinct from what we call today justice, derived from the Latin iustitia or the German Recht. For the sake of translation and in line with its German and English etymology, we have to rely on the word “justice.” However, when we read justice in Benjamin we have to also read fas, divine law, which is a category that exceeds humanist morality, Kant’s “good will,”[19] and state enforced jurisdiction. As an existing category, Benjamin’s concept of justice is an inaccessible category, which cannot be executed, monopolized and fulfilled by a sovereign subject. Rather, for Benjamin justice is a messianic category, which may be enacted by a human subject insofar as she does a just deed – enacts an existing category the origin of which remains inaccessible for humans. (“Divine” is nothing else than Benjamin’s theological term for a profane sphere inaccessible and impenetrable for the totalizing demands of a sovereign subject.) In other words, for Benjamin justice is not a regulative idea (like in Kant) or the equal and reciprocal distribution of goods, responsibilities and duties within the social order (like in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) but an ethical category exceeding the boundaries of the law and all legalistic and moralistic concepts of justice.[20]

If justice and law are irreconcilable categories, belonging to heterogeneous spheres, justice is asymmetric, immeasurable, non-arithmetic, non-distributive and non-reciprocal. Accounting for the unaccountable, Benjamin’s concept of justice draws from the language of theology. Theology here is not limited to the realm of religion but functions as a corrective notion to articulate categories, which otherwise have no proper place in the fields of philosophy, religion, culture and law. It is in this sense that justice is related to messianic categories of fulfillment and “forgiveness,”[21] which cannot be achieved through relations of equation or retribution. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s understanding of justice is relevant for profane life. In order to give it its full weight, we have to break with the classic emblem of iustitia or dike as an equalizing balance between good and evil deeds, moral metrics of guilt and retributive punishment. Benjamin’s anti-mythic, that is, monotheistic or Jewish point is that justice is not “balanced” – it is not derived from relations of equality and reciprocity. In this context, Slavoj Žižek is right to remind us that “the Jewish Law is not a social law like others: while other (pagan) laws regulate social exchange, the Jewish Law introduces a different dimension, that of divine justice which is radically heterogeneous with regard to the social law.”[22]

In contradistinction, the modern legal concept of justice is based on the ideal of achieving equality or equal relations within the social order. Equating guilt and retribution, misdeed and punishment, the legal system establishes a causal chain of events, which allegedly lead to a criminal deed, perceived as the imbalance or disorder of the balance of justice. Benjamin, however, argues that law turns into mythic fate once it deduces its judgments from such fictitious causalities. “The judge can perceive fate wherever he pleases; with every judgment he must blindly dictate fate. It is never man but only the life in him that it strikes […]” (204). Consequently, there is no essential difference between the mythic (structurally pagan) belief in guilt and fate and the modern (secular) principle of law and judgment. Fate as the opposite of freedom originates from the realm of the mythic where man was subordinated to the will of gods. As Georg Lukács and early Frankfurt School thinkers have argued, with the rise of modernity and its intrinsic “dialectic of enlightenment” the ancient pre-modern mythos has returned in the form of mythic beliefs and mythic social relations. Man’s original emancipation from first nature has turned into the subordination to second nature, that is, society. This materialist insight is already at work in Benjamin’s early writings when he criticizes the legal violence of the modern state in terms of a mythic cult of guilt resulting in fate.[23]

 7. Mythic versus Divine

Against the backdrop of Benjamin’s early sketches and essays between 1916 and 1921 and in light of his take on Cohen’s ethical turn of monotheism, it comes as no surprise that his essay on the Critique of Violence employs the antithetical pair pagan/mythic and monotheist/divine as its most crucial distinction. If we consider the following chart, this contraposition becomes apparent.[24]

Mythic violence Divine Violence
Grenzen setzend
Boundlessly destroys boundaries
grenzenlos Grenzen vernichtend
Indebting/incriminating and atoning
verschuldend und sühnend
Expiatory (“de-atoning”)
Lethal without spilling blood
auf unblutige Weise letal
Bloody violence over bare life for its own sake
Blutgewalt über das bloße Leben
Pure violence over all life for the sake of the living
reine Gewalt über alles Leben um des Lebendigen willen
Demands sacrifice
fordert Opfer
Accepts sacrifice
nimmt Opfer an
Law-making violence is executive violence
[schaltende Gewalt]
Law-preserving violence is administrated violence
[verwaltete Gewalt]
Divine violence is violent/non-violent violence
[waltende Gewalt]

The last antithesis above – schaltende and verwaltete versus waltende Gewalt – brings us back to the German word for violence, Gewalt, which derives from waltan. Hence, Benjamin’s formulation waltende Gewalt is strictly speaking tautological: a violent violence which coincides with its opposite, a non-violent violence. Divine violence as violent violence does not perform a double negation in the classic Hegelian sense of becoming positive again. Rather, divine violence remains negative, unstable, indeterminate; as an entsetzende, de-posing or de-positing, violence it denotes neither a positive quality, a positing of something, nor a definite or predictable event. As Benjamin writes, “only mythic violence, not divine, will be recognizable as such with certainty, unless it be in incomparable effects, because the expiatory force of violence is not visible to humans” (SW 1, 252). Divine violence as the zero-level of mythic violence can only be retroactively identified as such; in the present situation, however, Benjamin leaves us with vague insinuations: “It may manifest itself in a true war exactly as in the divine judgment of the multitude on a criminal” (252). This comment indicates that divine violence is not simply an external power, an intrusion from outside. On the contrary, the difficulty of divine violence is precisely that it can take the form of profane violence insofar as it is not mythic.

On this thin, almost hairsplitting but nonetheless crucial difference hinges the antithesis of mythic and divine violence: In revealing no deeper meaning or mythical secret, divine violence has a proto critico-ideological function rendering it impossible to justify or legitimize it. In this context, it is important to understand that Benjamin’s critique of violence neither argues for pacifism nor opposes capital punishment. Years later, in his aphorism book One-Way Street (1926-28), he writes: “The killing of a criminal can be moral [sittlich] – but never its legitimation” (SW 1, 481; GS IV, 138). In a Kantian sense, critique of violence does not mean the refutation of violence but the measuring out of its scope and its area of competence.

8. Divine Violence

With the term divine violence as a problematic limit-concept, Benjamin is testing out the scope of the entire concept of violence, entering a zone of indistinction where a stance for or against violence loses its significance. However, divine violence is not a lacuna, an empty signifier, a mere stand-in for something untouchable but the inaccessible correspondence to the revolutionary deactivation of mythic violence, that is to say, of undoing law through the deposing, Entsetzung, of the cycle of law-positing and law-preserving violence. It is this revolutionary deactivation as pure immediate violence that deposes the law:

“ … on the deposing of law [Entsetzung des Rechts] with all the forces on which it depends as they depend on it, finally therefore on the abolition of state power, a new historical epoch is founded. If the rule of myth is broken occasionally in the present age, the coming age is not so unimaginably remote that an attack on law is altogether futile. But if the existence of violence outside the law, as pure immediate violence, is assured, this furnishes proof that revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of pure violence by man, is possible, and shows by what means.” (SW 1, 252)[25]

It is crucial not to conflate divine violence with “the highest manifestation of pure violence by man,” that is, revolutionary violence as a pure means (e.g. in the proletarian general strike). Before examining the paradoxical structure of the deposing of law, let us take a closer look at the difference between divine violence and revolutionary violence as a non-violent – pure – means. How are we to conceive of the nature of their correspondence? What is the divinity of divine violence as opposed to the profaneness of the deposing of law?

As a preliminary answer, I suggest to understand divine violence as the theological name for an inaccessible site within the order of the profane, that is to say, divine violence is not some exterior, transcendent power intervening into human affairs from outside but corresponds to a certain domain at the very heart of profane life. As a paradoxical violent-non-violent violence, it refers to an ‘extimate kernel’, an excess of profane life not reducible to mythic violence. From the perspective of mythic violence (law and the state), divine violence thus remains an empty blind spot introducing a minimal cut into the quasi-organic cycle of becoming and decaying of bare life, rendering it impossible to finally close the bio-political web of mythic violence. Benjamin operates here with two incommensurable perspectives on profane life: divine violence and justice relate to profane life only as “the living,” das Lebendige, in contradistinction to bare life, bloßes Leben,[26] which is the subject matter of mythic violence – a life deprived of its ethical excess over biological life. Therefore, from the perspective of bare life, divine violence, in fact, represents a dimension exterior to the everyday of mythic violence. From this violently deprived viewpoint, the divine character of divine violence consists of a lack that can only be addressed in terms of correspondences and not by means of equations or identifications. In other words, revolutionary violence as the profane embodiment of something inaccessible at the very heart of the profane only refers to divine violence (without being identical with it). Paradoxically, on the one hand, divine violence belongs to the order of the Event: it is not an integral part of everyday life but introduces a caesura into the mythic nexus of life and law; on the other hand, however, it can be performed, embodied or presented by humans in the form of revolutionary pure violence without being predictable or predicable beforehand.

9. The Real State of Exception

Lacking definite predications in advance, divine violence can easily be mistaken for its asymmetric negation, that is, the violence of the sovereign, which aims at constituting mythic violence through the suspension of law. However, the state of emergency, Ausnahmezustand (literally: “state of exception”), in which sovereign power seeks to ground its authority by suspending the law, has to be strictly distinguished from divine (violent/non-violent) violence and the revolutionary deposing of law.[27] With regard to fascism, in the eighth thesis On the Concept of History (1940) Benjamin clearly states:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ [Ausnahmezustand] in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of exception, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism. One reason fascism has a chance is that, in the name of progress, its opponents treat it as a historical norm.” (SW 4, 392; GS I, 697, trans. changed)

Putting Ausnahmezustand in quotation marks, Benjamin makes an unmistakable reference to the fascist state of exception, which was theoretically anticipated, rationalized, and, ultimately, legitimized by Carl Schmitt.[28] In the same way as the real state of exception relates to the fascist state of exception, so does divine (violent/non-violent) violence as the deposing of law to the violent suspension of mythic violence by virtue of sovereign power.[29] The entire argument of Critique of Violence hinges on this minimal but crucial distinction, which is later historical-materialistically reflected in the theses On the Concept of History. In fact, already Benjamin’s earlier essay demonstrates how sovereign violence as the false suspension of mythic violence partakes in the spurious dialectics of the cycles of law-making and law-preserving violence. Benjamin’s relational definition of mythic violence, however, proves difficult if one focuses on the prospective content and attributes of divine violence.

In the first essay of his Homo Sacer series, Agamben remarks: “The violence that Benjamin defines as divine is […] situated in a zone in which it is no longer possible to distinguish between exception and rule. It stands in the same relation to sovereign violence as the state of actual exception, in the eighth thesis, does to the state of virtual exception.”[30] Against the backdrop of this reading, we are to insist that the indeterminate content and attributes of divine violence as the “real state of exception” and the “deposing of law” cannot symmetrically be opposed to the fascist “state of exception” in which it is no longer possible to distinguish between exception and rule. Even in the absence of assignable determinations there is no symmetry ex negativo of divine (violent/non-violent) violence and sovereign violence vis-à-vis the spurious dialectics of mythic violence. In his later essay on State of Exception, Agamben clarifies this point, arguing that the lacuna, which separates the law from its application and enforcement, always remains blind from the perspective of the apologetics of state violence and law. In other words, the Schmittian theory of the “state of exception” misses the nature of the lacuna it is pretending to theorize by introducing a fictitious problem: “Far from being a response to a normative lacuna, the state of exception appears as the opening of a fictitious lacuna in the order for the purpose of safeguarding the existence of the norm and its applicability to the normal situation.”[31] Put differently, the theory of the state of exception can be read as an attempt to include that what is outside the law, yet always remains blind from the latter’s perspective, into the law by inventing a fictitious zone of indistinction within a field that Benjamin defines as mythic violence. Unlike sovereign violence, divine violence is not introducing a zone of indistinction between law and nature, outside and inside, violence and law, but short-circuits the spurious dialectics that always anew inscribes life into mythic violence as bare life.

Implicitly criticizing Agamben’s earlier line of argument, in his essay on Violence, Slavoj Žižek rightly stresses the importance of clearly distinguishing between divine violence and the state of exception imposed by the state: “Divine violence is not the repressed illegal origin of the legal order […]. Divine violence is thus to be distinguished from state sovereignty as the exception which founds the law, as well as from pure violence as anarchic explosion.”[32]

10. Entsetzung

To conclude, let us return to the asymmetric structure of Entsetzung des Rechts, deposing of law, revealing the incompatible and incommensurable nature of divine violence. If divine violence and revolutionary pure violence can enter an unstable, non-identical zone of indistinction (which is not the fictitious zone introduced by sovereign violence), we can still distinguish between three paradoxical, yet mutually illuminating features in terms of quality, agency and temporality.

(1) Pure violence as a pure means designates a ‘non-quality’, an absolute ‘zero-level’ of mythic violence, which is not simply non-violence but introduces a “critical violence”; it is a striking quality-less and “expressionless” violence which interrupts like a “caesura” the fatefully oscillating course of law-making and law-preserving violence.

(2) The ‘agency’ or ‘activity’ of deposing performs a reversal, a withdrawal of law from its application to bare life; this de-activating act indicates a movement of désœuvrement[33] – an active passivity, an act of retreat dissolving, de-creating the application of law to bare life. Paradoxically, in the political event of the deposing of law a radical activity (“revolution”) coincides with a strikingly destructive, annihilating, and disastrous Event (“divine violence”) that can only be suffered. Despite this coincidence, however, divine violence is “precisely not a direct intervention of an omnipotent God to punish humankind for its excesses, a kind of preview or foretaste of the Last Judgment.”[34]

(3) Deposing designates a “non-Event”, an ‘A-Event’, the temporality of which, as Hamacher comments, “does not conform to any known temporal form, and never to temporality as a form of positing; and one can say that this non-positing violence is contretemporal or anachronistic. Just as pure violence is pre-positional, it is also pre-temporal and thus not representable.”[35]

To account for this paradoxical structure, I am tempted to follow Hamacher’s reading of the deposing of law. As mentioned before, within the realm of law language becomes auto-performative.

“If one […] characterizes law imposition in the terminology of speech-act theory as a performative act – and specifically as an absolute, preconventional performative act, one which posits conventions and legal conditions in the first place – and if one further calls the dialectic of positing and decay a dialectic of performance, it seems reasonable to term the ‘deposing’ of acts of positing and their dialectic, at least provisionally, as an absolute imperfomative or afformative political event, as depositive, as political a-thesis.”[36]

The asymmetric structure of the afformative[37] can undo the auto-performative cycle of law and its application to bare life because it can account for the two unaccountable media of pure means that Benjamin mentions: language and politics. In this sense, the proletarian general strike is the afformative a-thesis to all political acting based on the state and its mythic violence.



[1] This paper is a work in progress. The earliest version was presented at the “Historical Materialism” conference in London/UK, Nov. 13, 2010. A reworked version will be published in Black Box: a Record of the Catastrophe, Vol. 1, Dec. 2015. This reedited version was published in May 2015.

[2] Cf. the editor’s note in Benjamin, Walter: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. II, Frankfurt a. M., 1977, p. 943. See also M. Tomba: “Benjamin’s text was conceived as part of a work entitled Politik, subdivided into two parts: the first titled ‘Der wahre Politiker’, of which the review by Paul Scheerbart is all that remains, and the second, entitled ‘Die wahre Politik’, in turn divided into two chapters, a) ‘Der Abbau der Gewalt’ and b) ‘Teleologie ohne Endzweck’. The first chapter is included in ‘Zur Kritik der Gewalt’, while the second can be traced throughout the dense Theologisch-politisches Fragment” (Tomba, Massimiliano: “Another kind of Gewalt: Beyond Law Re-Reading Walter Benjamin”, in Historical Materialism, 17, (2009), p. 127.

[3] Agamben, Giorgio: State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell, Chicago; London: Univ. Press Chicago, 2005, p. 53.

[4] Benjamin citations are taken from the editions Benjamin, Walter: Selected Writings, ed. Marcus Bollock; Michael W. Jennings, 4 vols., Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1996ff. [henceforth abbreviated “SW, number of volume”] and Benjamin, Walter: Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Hermann Schweppenhäuser; Rolf Tiedemann, 7 vols., Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1972ff. [henceforth abbreviated “GS, number of volume”].

[5] The German Parliament, the Bundestag, chose the translation “authority” for the German word “Staatsgewalt”, cf. <>, (Article 20).

[6] Balibar, Étienne: “Reflections on Gewalt, in Historical Materialism¸17 (2009), p. 101.

[7] Kant, Immanuel: Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 3rd ed. Hackett., trans. James W. Ellington, Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett, 1993, pp. 30f.

[8] Cf. Hamacher, Werner: “Afformative, Strike: Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’”, in Andrew Benjamin; Peter Osborne: Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, London; New York: Routledge 1994, pp. 110-138; here pp. 110ff.

[9] However, already in earlier letter to Ernst Schoen, dated from Dec. 28, 1917, Benjamin mentioned his “desperate reflections on the linguistic foundation of the categorical imperative” (Benjamin, Walter: Correspondence, ed. Theodor W. Adorno; Gershom Scholem, trans. Manfred R. Jacobson; Evelyn M. Jacobson, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910-1940, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 108).

[10] Cf. Kant, Immanuel: Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 111 (§ 15, Akademie Ausg. vol. V, p. 226).

[11] Agamben, Giorgio: The Time That Remains: a Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey, Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2005, pp. 131ff.

[12] Agamben, Giorgio: The Time That Remains: a Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey, Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2005, p. 133.

[13] Sorel, Georges: Reflections on Violence, trans. T. E. Hulme, London: Allen and Unwin, 1915, p. 147; quoted in Benjamin, SW 1, 246.

[14] Derrida, Jacques, ‘Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority”‘, Cardozo Law Review, 11 (1990), pp. 921-1045.

[15] Benjamin quoted in Kraft, Werner: “Tagebucheintrag vom 20.5.1934”, in Werner Kraft: “Tagebucheintragungen. ed. by Volker Kahmen“, in Ingrid a. Konrad Scheurmann (eds.): Für Walter Benjamin. Dokumente, Essays und ein Entwurf, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1992, pp. 47ff.; trans. mine.

[16] In his fragment “Capitalism as Religion” (SW 1, 288-290), written in 1921, around the same time as Critique of Violence, Walter Benjamin characterizes capitalism as a pagan cult religion, which has emancipated itself like a parasite from its historical “host,” the mythical-pagan elements of Christianity, in order finally, in capitalism, to install its own cult as a mere cult, as cult praxis without theology.

[17] In “Capitalism as Religion, Benjamin identifies this principle with capitalism; the ambiguity of the German word Schuld, which denotes moral guilt as well as economic debt, leads him to the thesis that capitalism is a pure cult religion deprived of any specific theological dogma (cf. SW 1, 288-290).

[18] Benjamin: “Notizen zu einer Arbeit über die Kategorie der Gerechtigkeit,” in Scholem, Gershom: Tagebücher, ed. Karlfried Gründer; Herbert Kopp-Oberstebrink; Friedrich Niewöhner, 1. Halbband 1913-1917, Frankfurt a. M.: Jüdischer Verlag, 1995, p. 402; English trans. is taken from Jacobson, Eric: Metaphysics of the Profane: the Political Theology of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, New York: Columbia UP, 2003, p. 166f. In his later “Theses On the Concept of Justice” (1919/25), Scholem will echo Benjamin’s earlier “Notes to a Study on the Category of Justice” (1916): “Justice is not a virtue, (where virtue defines the ethical category of the demanded) but rather (provisionally) the Category of the ethically existing. […] Truth is not a mover – it is deeply unrevolutionary. Revolutionary are those positions whose demands are absurd (objectively) and obvious (subjectively). But truth is limited by its ironic appearance (which is the only moving force). [Thesis] 4) Justice as a demand is the virtue of violence [Gewalt] – the most revolutionary and catastrophic of all demands. Virtue has, in particular, an individual subject; the humble have a clear uncomplicated relationship to humility. The subject of violence [Gewalt] – which is a more complex phenomenon – is however as an individual only symbolic; the true, non-symbolic proprietor of violence is anonymous: society” (Scholem in Jacobson: Metaphysics of the Profane, p. 175).

[19] Kant, Immanuel: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011, p. 15.

[20] In similar fashion, Benjamin’s category of truth has to be differentiated from objective knowledge; truth is the actual interruption of the continuum of knowledge, which cannot be produced objectively. Truth is an involuntary encounter – a flash – inaccessible from the perspective of the cognizing intentions of the subject of cognition (cf. my article “Walter Benjamin and the Subject of Historical Cognition,” in Walter Benjamin Unbound, Special Issue of Annals of Scholarship, Vol. 21.1, ed. Alexander Gelley, Ilka Kressner, Michael G. Levine, forthcoming 2015).

[21] Cf. Benjamin’s fragment “The Meaning of Time in the Moral Universe” (SW 1, 286-287), where forgiveness is introduced as a non-retributive divine category against the pagan conception of the Last Judgment as “the date when all postponements are ended and all retribution is allowed free rein” (SW 1, 286).

[22] Žižek, Slavoj: The Puppet and the Dwarf: the Perverse Core of Christianity, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003, p. 119.

[23] Consider for instance the following passage from “World and Time,” a fragment from around 1919/20: “In its present state, the social is a manifestation of spectral and demonic powers, often, admittedly in their greatest tension to God, their efforts to transcend themselves. The divine manifests itself in them only in revolutionary violence/force [Gewalt]. Only in the community [Gemeinschaft], nowhere in ‘social institutions,’ does the divine manifest itself either with violence/force [Gewalt] or without. (In this world, divine violence/force [Gewalt] is higher than divine nonviolence; in the world to come, divine nonviolence is higher than divine violence/force [Gewalt]” (SW 1, 227; GS VI, 99).

[24] A similar chart can be found in Reijen, Willem van: Der Schwarzwald und Paris. Heidegger und Benjamin, München: Fink, 1998, p. 201; cf. Reijen, Willem van; Doorn, Herman van: Aufenthalte und Passagen. Leben und Werk Walter Benjamins. Eine Chronik, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2001, p. 66. See also my book “Teleologie ohne Endzweck”. Walter Benjamins Ent-stellung des Messianischen, Marburg: Tectum, 2013, p. 395 (chart 6).

[25] Trans. modified.

[26] “Die mythische Gewalt ist Blutgewalt über das bloße Leben um ihrer selbst, die göttliche reine Gewalt über alles Leben um des Lebendigen willen” (GS II, 200). “Mythic violence is bloody violence over bare life for its own sake; divine violence is pure violence over all life for the sake of the living” (SW 1, 250, trans. changed).

[27] It is worth noting that the sovereign “suspension” of law has also terminologically to be differentiated from the revolutionary “deposing of law” (Entsetzung). Unfortunately, the common English trans. of Benjamin’s essay renders Entsetzung into English as “suspension” (SW 1, 251), which blurs this crucial line of difference.

[28] Cf. Schmitt, Carl: Politische Theologie. Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität, Berlin: Duncker u. Humblot, 1922, 2004.

[29] Benjamin already discussed Schmitt’s theory of the “state of emergency/exception” in his earlier book on German Trauerspiel, published in 1928, cf. GS I, 245-253. Benjamin argues that the position of the Fürst, prince, is caught between the antithesis of Herrschermacht, the ruler’s power, and Herrschvermögen, the capacity or potency to rule. As a result, the prince is exposed his own incapacity to decide on the state of emergency/exception (cf. GS I, 250). For Schmitt, however, this decision is precisely what defines sovereign power (cf. Schmitt, Carl: Politische Theologie. Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität, Berlin: Duncker u. Humblot, 1922, 2004, p. 13).

[30] Agamben, Giorgio: Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1998, p. 42.

[31] Agamben, Giorgio: State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell, Chicago; London: Univ. Press Chicago, 2005, p. 31.

[32] Žižek, Slavoj: Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, New York: Picador, 2008, p. 201.

[33] Cf. Blanchot, Maurice: The Unavowable Community, trans. Pierre Joris, New York: Station Hill Press, 1988; see also Nancy, Jean-Luc: The Inoperative Community, trans. Gisela Febel; Jutta Legueil, Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991.

[34] Žižek, Slavoj: Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, New York: Picador, 2008, p. 201.

[35] Hamacher, Werner: “Afformative, Strike: Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence”’, in Andrew Benjamin; Peter Osborne (ed.), Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, London; New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 112.

[36] Hamacher, Werner: “Afformative, Strike: Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence”’, in Andrew Benjamin; Peter Osborne (ed.), Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, London; New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 115.

[37]Afformative is not aformative; afformance ‘is’ the event forming, itself formless, to which all forms and all performative acts remain exposed. (The Latin prefix ad-, and accordingly af-, marks the opening of an act, and of an act of opening, as in the very appropriate example of affor, meaning ‘addressing’, for example when taking leave.) But of course, in afformative one must also read aformative as determined by afformative” (Hamacher, Werner: “Afformative, Strike: Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence”’, in Andrew Benjamin; Peter Osborne (eds.), Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, London; New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 128, note 12).

Cite this blog post
Sami Khatib (2011, August 28). Towards a Politics of ‘Pure Means’: Walter Benjamin and the Question of Violence. ANTHROPOLOGICAL MATERIALISM. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

1 Response

  1. 02/03/2020

    […] of the essay: "Notes on the Thought of Walter Benjamin: Critique of Violence" by Signe Larsen and "Towards a Politics of 'Pure Means': Walter Benjamin and the Question of Violence" by Sami […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search