Circular Violence

May 5, 2011

Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence looks at violence from a perspective of means and ends and the complex, circular relationships between them. I think that some level of context should be established before reading this article, at least to understand Benjamin’s bias. Anthony Auerbach attributes it to Benjamin, (who was a German-Jew) attempting to make sense of the political situation he found himself in at the end of The Great War and his political and personal status as a Jew in an increasingly hostile Germany. The essay is full of contentious points regarding the use of violence though there is only a modicum of situated or historical narrative that, to me at least, gives it an air of universality.

One of Benjamin’s most important arguments looks at violence for means and ends. Natural law justifies an end that is judged to be right or just. Positive law uses the means as a criteria to judge – is there a historical precedent where the means were justified? “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.” Whilst they stand apart in what they critique, the end result is basically the same. Avoiding the justification of ends that both natural and positive law seek, Benjamin states that the important point to examine is the justification of violent means, regardless of ends.

Often, the ends of violent means are laws, which historically, are sanctioned because the ends are laws that currently govern society. “Law making is power making and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence.” A law, or a rule, gives someone the power to exercise violence against another to uphold it. And in this case, I think that Foucault’s concept of ‘power relations’ is an interesting aside because they exist in the everyday, at all levels of society. The laws that are violently upheld are not just sovereign laws, they could be the accepted, unspoken social laws that exist between citizens in any setting where a relationship occurs.

It is interesting to note that agreement between two parties is possible without violence; this is called diplomacy. Diplomacy, however, walks a tightrope and its existence is absolutely dependent on the acceptance of its manifestation by both sides. As soon as the agreement has to be enforced, there is violence.

Law is interested in the preservation of law.” Taking this into account, how then does one challenge the law? The law is enforced by violence or the threat of it, but written only after an act is perpetrated and its validity strengthened through a historical and political narrative. It is a circular argument, Benjamin argues, that is destined to repeat.

Where there are people, a society, operating with politics and laws set to govern them, there is violence, necessarily. Violence that both upholds and challenges, writes and is rewritten.


One Response to “Circular Violence”

  1. AM, I appreciate your even-handed reading of this complex essay. It’s good that you have also read alongside Benjamin in order to situate his argument in an historical and socio-political setting. In reading The Critique of Violence, you can feel Benjamin’s perplexity at work when faced with the insoluble problem of violence. He seems to admit that we need some form of law, rules, or conventions that we can agree upon if we wish to live together as a society, but that before agreement is possible some originary rift must occur, some violent event to establish the grounds for agreement. Laws necessarily constrain, which might also be perceived as a violence of sorts…
    I also appreciated you treatment of the distinction between natural and positive law, you made this very clear.
    Perhaps explain further what you mean by the relation between means and ends being circular…

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