Critical comments on Nick Axel’s recent gloss of Walter Benjamin, “Critique of violence” (1921)

History or metaphysics?

Image: Walter Benjamin as a young man,
photographed smoking a cigarette (1922)

Nick Axel recently wrote up an exegetical piece going over Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay, “The critique of violence” on his blog, Awaking Lucid (mentioned in the last post). I came across it in connection with the other piece Axel wrote, “What is the problem?”, in which Benjamin’s essay likewise plays a crucial role.

Perhaps I’d need the aid of Agamben here, as he is Axel’s primary interlocutor in reading Benjamin, but as things stand I find his account of the essay virtually unrecognizable. At first I thought I must just be misremembering its contents, but upon rereading it I’m left even more confused. Though Axel begins by suggesting that the relation between ethics and violence is his overriding concern, and that Benjamin’s article only interests him insofar as it elucidates this relation, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between his concerns and those he ascribes to Benjamin. He writes:

Benjamin starts by declaring that the force of law becomes violent when it infringes on ethical issues, and that it is therefore in relation to law that both ethics and violence exist. Although this strongly echoes the reflex mentioned above with ethics and violence composing the two ends of a spectrum, this juridical framework is fundamentally inadequate as this would sanction violence as ethical as long as history records it as righteous, as is often the case (if not the impetus) of those who write history and depend on its words for the maintenance of their powerful status as embodiments of law.

For one thing, the main tension does not in my view consist in an opposition of ethics to violence. Indeed, “ethics” is almost nowhere to be found in the essay. (Perhaps Axel takes Benjamin to mean “ethics” whenever he speaks of “justice,” and thus ethical/unethical to just/unjust? This seems to me slightly more plausible). Rather, there is the fundamental opposition between means and ends in modes of justification, and then in the sphere of legality between natural and positive law. There is a further gradation between “legitimate” (sanctioned) and “illegitimate” (unsanctioned) uses of violence.

What strikes me most about this text is not what it says about the complexities of violence and its potential deployment or non-deployment toward an end irrespective of place and time, but rather the way Benjamin was attempting to work through the political exigencies of his day. Violence was a salient issue in 1921 because the world had just witnessed the greatest concentrated bloodbath in history to that point. Not only from the interimperialist war, but from the many domestic struggles throughout and the revolutionary struggles between 1917-1923. How could violence be justified in one case and not in the other? Why was it that the unjust slaughter of millions in the trenches of Northern France was perfectly legal according to agreed-upon international rights of war, while the violent attempt to overthrow unjust social relations was everywhere decried as illegal?

René Magritte, Act of Violence (1932)

René Magritte, Act of Violence (1932)

One can almost see Benjamin working through these concepts as he’s writing them down. It’s a subtle, complex argument, and contains many of those flashes of insight for which Benjamin was known. But the range of figures he engages, and the way he engages them, is telling. On the one hand he takes on Neokantianism through the figure of Hermann Cohen. Surely Max Weber’s investigations of violence and the State are floating around somewhere in the background, but no explicit reference is made. It’s also important to remember that Benjamin was not yet a Marxist at this point. The only mention of Marx comes indirectly, in trying to parse some of Sorel’s reflections on violence.

On the other, the broader sociohistorical phenomena Benjamin deals with says much about the specific conjunction in which he was writing. The issue cried out for critique, and Benjamin supplied it. In so doing, he works from a particular set of examples in order to illustrate the dynamics he describes. Early on, the Reign of Terror is cited as establishing an historical precedent for a certain (revolutionary) exercise of violence. Later, he examines militarism and labor militancy. While sympathetic toward their general aims, the Bolsheviks and Syndicalists appear to Benjamin almost as alien entities whose significance must simply be collated and ascertained.

The closing paragraphs of Axel’s entry, which cover temporality and the relation of past and present to the future, get more to the point. Nevertheless, it should be said that I find his repeated use of the term “metaphysics” and “metaphysical” totally misplaced. Temporality is indeed important to consider in the relation of means to ends. Yet that should also entail a reworking of the peculiar temporality of our historical moment. Malcolm Bull, whose work I generally find quite uneven, had an interesting bit on this in a review piece he did for LRB on “What is the rational response?” He uses the Burke, Paine, and Lenin as exemplary figures for the tyranny of the past, present, and future over the other temporal modes. Worth a read.

Regarding Agamben, there is very little more I can say without having read the man’s work. At my request, Reid Kane provided me with a very useful synopsis of Agamben’s work as it pertains to the post-Hegelian aftermath in world philosophy, and his attempt to overcome problematics introduced by Heidegger with recourse to Benjamin. But I’ll leave it up to him whether or not he’d like to repost it.

3 thoughts on “Critical comments on Nick Axel’s recent gloss of Walter Benjamin, “Critique of violence” (1921)

  1. Hi Ross,
    I do realize that the essay not only ends abruptly and is vague in its political intention, but is poorly contextualized. For the latter problem I must thank you for writing this post, which, as you said, serves primarily to contextualize Benjamin’s text.

    After conversing with you on Twitter, I would like to urge any potential readers to not focus on the terminological or etymological qualms that do seem to arise and figure prominently in your critique of the essay, but instead to read the original essay itself and understand that the intention of using such words as “ethics” and “metaphysics” was more to outline a contemporary understanding, as opposed to historically reflect.

    As I mentioned to you, but just to post here for general clarification, I believe your problem with the the word “ethics” is undeserved. In the first sentences of Benjamin’s essay he essentially links any possible notion of ethics to law, and therefore when you question whether I equate ethics to justice is correct.

    Lastly, while my importation of Agamben into this discursive context may need justification for the sake of the essay, it is not unfair to claim that Agamben consciously takes up Benjamin’s project where he left off (as Agamben does with Foucault as well). I focused on their respective treatment of linguistic agreements, for Benjamin in the form of a contract, and Agamben in the form of the oath, as they are both presented as pacified forms of violence which nonetheless have the power to achieve the violent act’s goal.

    Anyways, again, thanks for taking the time and dedicating the thought to the essay I wrote, despite its fragmentary and decontextualized form (as I mentioned, I originally used Sokurov’s ‘Faust’ as a test case for Benjamin’s theory of violence, but ultimately found to be infuriatingly impossible to make any sort of judgement, which was, it should be noted, the intention of Sokurov).

    • Perhaps it’s just the suspicious hermeneutician in me, but I tend to recoil in horror from invocations of ethics, metaphysics, or even justice. At least as I’ve always understood it, ethics is more concerned with the question of how one leads “the good life” and habituates himself to exemplary standards of behavior. There is an urban/political aspect to this, of course: Aristotle famously asked whether there could be such a thing as a good person in a bad city. He concluded emphatically that there could not.

      Etymologically, at any rate, it should be admitted that there’s some basis for your reading of the text. Sittliche recurs often as an adjective in Benjamin’s article, and this word is often rendered into English as “ethical” (this provides the basis for Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit or “ethical life).

    • Also I have to say that despite the difficulty I had following your argument, I find your style of argumentation less jarring than someone like Nadir Lahiji. His essay in the volume Architecture and violence is overflowing with casual references to various theorists whose work I believe is at odds with each other.

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