Tuesday, 7 July 2009


I'm starting work on the paper I'm giving in Brisbane on 23 July (yes, yes, about time too) and am rereading Benjamin's 'Critique of Violence', the 1921 essay where he makes a distinction between 'lawmaking violence' and 'law-preserving violence'. (I think he is actually still friends with Schmitt at this point,* and there's a strong similarity between some of the ideas here and some of the ideas in The Nomos of the Earth.) Anyway, Benjamin is talking about how 'a totally nonviolent resolution of conflicts can never lead to a legal contract' (because any legal contract 'confers on both parties the right to take recourse to violence in some form against the other, should he break the contract'), and he goes on to say:

When the consciousness of the latent presence of violence in a legal institution disappears, the institution falls into decay. In our time, parliaments provide an example of this. They offer the familiar, woeful spectacle because they have not remained conscious of the revolutionary forces to which they owe their existence.

I have no idea whether I agree with that or not.

(All quotes from Benjamin, 'Critique of Violence' [1921], in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz [New York: Schocken, 1978], pp.277-300).

(I should actually be blogging about this conference, which I went to last weekend and which was marvellous, but in the countdown to setting off to Oz next Wednesday - by which time I have to have written the Introduction to Now and Rome, checked all the Latin in the manuscript, sent it off to beta-readers, and written the Brisbane paper, not to mention dyeing my hair and going to the spa with my best friend H - things are getting rather squeezed.)

*I looked this up on Google and found this extract from an essay by Horst Bredekamp in Critical Inquiry 25:2 (1999), which has some of the details about Benjamin's relationship with Schmitt, including the letter Benjamin sent Schmitt together with a copy of the Trauerspiel (The Origin of the German Mourning Play). Wikipedia (yes, I know, shush) says that, according to Agamben (States of Exception, pp.52-55),

Schmitt's conceptualization of the "state of exception" as belonging to the core-concept of sovereignty was a response to Walter Benjamin's concept of a "pure" or "revolutionary" violence [in 'Critique of Violence'], which didn't enter into any relationship whatsoever with right.


Una McCormack said...

How interesting. All this reading and watching I'm doing at the moment about the (English) Civil War brings into sharp focus "the revolutionary forces to which [it} owes its existence". Yet to most people in this country, right now, surely Parliament's pomp is meaningless, pointless, archaism.

I have to think through the question of violence more, but certainly something happens when connection with roots is lost (thanks Simone Weil). Hmm. Perhaps the latent presence of violence is as much a trace-memory of the violence that happened in the creation of the new settlement, the new dispensation, as a sense of a threat of coercion. The reason we (or, more generally, a significant proportion of those who survived) agreed to it in the first place.

Una McCormack said...

Previous comment got too long...

That conference looks pretty amazing. In this series about the Civil War I'm watching, there was a witch trial episode: absolutely done as a drama of social trauma, with the guilt of war and regicide spilling over into scapegoating. Compelling stuff.

Ika said...

Perhaps the latent presence of violence is as much a trace-memory of the violence that happened in the creation of the new settlement, the new dispensation, as a sense of a threat of coercion.

I think totally! Benjamin is in the middle (which I didn't say, but should have) of developing an argument about law-making (revolutionary) vs law-preserving violence, so I think the 'good' violence he seems to be talking about here is exactly what you say - a trace memory of the new dispensation, as against a threat of coercion into the law. (He goes on to say that the trouble with the police is that they mix law-making and law-preserving violence and thus have no authority, which is extremely convincing.)

The Civil War witch-trial thing sounds awesome, btw.