Category: Materialist Theology

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

In his compelling essay on the On the Critique of Violence (1921), Benjamin dwells on the dialectic of “mythic violence” consisting of law-preserving and law-constituting violence (Gewalt), which mutually presuppose each other. While the former might be identified with today’s bio-political microphysics of power, the latter refers to the constitutive act of establishing power through violence (terror, war, “original accumulation”). Whereas in the sphere of direct state repression the two forms of mythic Gewalt – law-preserving force and law-constituting violence – are always spectrally conflated and their inherent dialect is concealed, in the realm of the social order mythic violence has almost fully turned into the juridical web of bio-political practices. Against the repetitive cycle of law-preserving and law-constituting Gewalt, Benjamin introduces the term “divine violence” which suspends mythic violence and its legal supplementation. The profane correspondence to divine violence is ‘pure’ or ‘revolutionary violence’ – a paradoxical non-violent violence that de-poses the law and its application to “bare life.” Revolutionary violence as a non-violent “pure means” is not bound to thetical, teleological, or purposive-rationalist acting. Rather, it ‘inoperates’, deactivates the nexus of means and ends within the realm of ethical acting, that is to say, the revolutionary de-posing of law suspends any instrumental use of violence and the violent inscription of bare life into the socio-juridical web of capitalism’s mythic violence.

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