Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Critique and Violence: A Response to Andrew Benjamin's Working with Walter Benjamin

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Critique and Violence: A Response to Andrew Benjamin's Working with Walter Benjamin

Article excerpt

As I read Andrew Benjamin's book on Walter Benjamin this past March, the question of violence seemed to frame the world around me. Large parts of Bosnia were aflame due to a series of anti-capitalist protests against austerity, economic dispossession, and corruption. In Chicago, three activists collectively named the NATO 3 were being prosecuted for terrorism despite overwhelming evidence of police entrapment and prosecutorial misconduct. Thousands were living without consistent access to clean water due to a record level chemical spill in West Virginia. Eighty thousand platinum miners were on strike for safer working conditions in South Africa. Drone warfare has become the new normal. The birthdays of slain teen Trayvon Martin and civil rights activist Rosa Parks came and went, largely without remark. The intervening months seem merely to have accelerated the carnage and despair.

If philosophy is to be about the world, if it is to hold critical purchase on the structures we collectively inhabit and the experiences which constitute us as subjects, then central to our discipline must be a robust consideration of the question of violence in all of its varied manifestations. It is from this vantage, as thinkers situated inside a violent world, that we must consider and applaud Andrew Benjamin's framing question: what promises and possibilities do the texts of Walter Benjamin, one of the twentieth century's most prescient thinkers of violence, hold for us today?

Working with Walter Benjamin meditates on this very question, mounting a series of reinterpretations of key texts in Benjamin's corpus. Beginning with a consideration of Benjamin's early essay "Towards and Critique of Violence" and ending with an analysis of the multiple iterations of "On the Concept of History," Andrew Benjamin's text presents Benjamin's corpus as a coherent whole, one which grows and develops over time, but which remains anchored in certain key, central concepts and themes which recur. In this way, Andrew Benjamin stages "Towards a Critique of Violence" not only as the first text chronologically, but also as one which develops a crucial philosophical architecture for the pieces discussed in later chapters. As it would be impossible to comment adequately on all pieces of such dense and varied work, I will take Professor Benjamin's suggestion to consider "Towards a Critique of Violence" as fundamental to all Benjamin's works and confine my comments to his chapter on this seminal essay.

Andrew Benjamin frames his intervention into "Towards a Critique of Violence/Zur Kritik der Gewalt" by arguing for the necessity of retranslating Gewalt, traditionally rendered as 'violence' or sometimes as 'force,' as 'operability.' Drawing on Arendt's distinction between power and violence, Andrew Benjamin argues that Benjamin, when discussing Gewalt, means something more akin to what Arendt means by power-the condition for the possibility of structures, and in particular, political structures to operate. Under this paradigm, violence means only what Andrew Benjamin at multiple points calls "actual or literal 'violence'" and what other authors have referred to as individual, discrete, or subjective violence. The distinction between operability and 'literal' violence thus opposes divine and mythic violence as irreconcilable, non-contiguous, as modes of intervention which are fundamentally different in kind and which share nothing. Positing this irreducible difference is what allows Andrew Benjamin to, for example, translate Staatsgewalt as 'the operability of the state' while continuing to render göttliche Gewalt as 'divine violence'; as fundamentally opposed, there is no reason to render them under the same linguistic sign in translation.

Andrew Benjamin calls these "different and radically incommensurable,"1 but I'd like to pose the following question: if they are so incommensurable, why does Benjamin name both of them Gewalt? This question does not seek to reduce the obvious and marked differences between modes or kinds of Gewalt that Benjamin describes; rather, I would like to investigate why, despite these differences, Benjamin finds all of them to be differentiations of the same thing. …

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