Academic journal article German Quarterly

Against Biopolitics: Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, and Giorgio Agamben on Political Sovereignty and Symbolic Order1

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Against Biopolitics: Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, and Giorgio Agamben on Political Sovereignty and Symbolic Order1

Article excerpt

Recent attempts by Giorgio Agamben to understand the relationship between politics and the human body have resulted in a notion of "biopolitics/ derived from texts by Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault, in which there is a merging of biology and politics into a unified system that subjects the body to the direct violence of a political order. Though these theories have been helpful in focusing attention on the particular dynamics that link politics with the individual subject, the accompanying suppression of a cultural dimension to this linkage has obscured the role of ideological concerns in determining political events in the modern world. Unexpectedly, Carl Schmitt, one of the theorists who has been most criticized for reducing politics exclusively to questions of power, turns out to offer the most consistent attempt to understand the centrality of cultural ideals for the construction of the link between politics and the subject. Though Ellen Kennedy ("Carl Schmitt" 42-45), Agamben State of Exception 52-64), Horst Bredekamp, and Susanne Heil have documented the extent of the intellectual connections between Benjamin and Schmitt, they have not recognized the degree to which Schmitt more consistently emphasizes the role of culture in the structure of the political subject. For in contrast to the attempts by Benjamin and especially Agamben to consider law and politics purely in terms of mechanisms of violence and the body, Schmitt's contribution has been to establish the centrality of metaphysical ideals in the structuring of subjectivity. Instead of using concepts such as violence or bare life, which exclude issues of culture, Schmitt's meditations on the decision and the enemy place theological and cultural choices at the center of his analysis, underlining the role of ideology in constituting the subject.

Benjamin on Law and Violence

The differences between Benjamin's and Schmitt's approaches to law and violence stem from the diverging goals of their analyses. While Schmitt consistently defends the status quo of a particular political order, fearing the instability and chaos that change could bring, Benjamin begins with the idea that meaningful change is possible and that the current conditions of law and political order contain elements of domination that can be eliminated through human action. The key to such a project of emancipation becomes for Benjamin the disruption of the existing order in a way that opens up unexpected new possibilities for the future. The primary strength of his approach lies in the "Doppeleinsicht" that he describes in his Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels and that links a sense for the new with structures of thought and imagination from the past (1.-226). In designating the baroque as an age in which "Geist . . . weist sich aus als Macht" (1 :276), Benjamin identifies the reduction of spirit to power as the key source of the melancholy that pervades the Trauerspiel genre. The only way to escape this world determined by power would be to leap out of it conceptually into a perspective that denies the necessity of power and thereby transcends its facticity through an appeal, in the case of the baroque, to a "Christian spirit" (Benjamin 1:335; Pan, "Political Aesthetics" 157-58). Benjamin's strategy for maintaining the presence of a spiritual alternative to a world dominated by power is then to create the possibility for transcending this existing world in a redemptive moment leading into a new future. He develops this mode of political messianism . for instance, in his invocation of "profane Erleuchtung" in Der Surrealismus (2:297) and of "Jetztzeit" in Über den Begriff der Geschichte (1:701).

The assumption behind this goal of breaking the historical continuum through a moment of transcendence is that this continuum extends a rule of power that undermines the existing law's claim to manifest a higher principle. As both Jacques Derrida (1017) and Jan-Werner Müller have documented (469), Benjamin grounds this assumption in Zur Kritik der Gewalt with the idea that the origins of law lie in violence. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.