Academic journal article Criticism

The Great Criminal, the Exception, and Bare Life in James Joyce's Ulysses

Academic journal article Criticism

The Great Criminal, the Exception, and Bare Life in James Joyce's Ulysses

Article excerpt

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, theories of the state increasingly grappled with the ethical questions raised by specters of colonial violence that give rise to equally violent nationalist revolutions. In few places has this violence been so sustained and long-drawn-out as in Ireland, and James Joyce directly confronts the rhetorical and physical violence of this conflict in Ulysses (1921-22).1 This article uses theories of origins of the state offered by two of Joyce's German contemporaries-jurist Carl Schmitt and literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin-to think through the interdependent ethics of violence, narratives of national origins and sovereignty, and the role of the would-be citizen in Joyce's novel. I propose that, in the character of Leopold Bloom, Ulysses develops strategies for negotiating violence and conceptualizing a form of citizenship that is more inclusive than those offered by the prevailing colonial and nationalist models. Bloom's actions attempt to imagine an Irish future beyond the terms offered by these models. These actions can be situated relative not only to the critique formulated by the novel's engagements with Irish nationalism but also to the broader concerns of those interested in questions of how state power rhetorically legitimizes itself.

Violence and the Sovereign: Benjamin, Schmitt, Agamben

Benjamin's "Critique of Violence" (1921) and Schmitt's Political Theology: Four Essays on the Concept of Sovereignty (1922) each provide an origin story for the sovereign state.' Schmitt's work famously opens "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception," and the work as a whole focuses on the structure and maintenance of sovereignty.3 According to Schmitt, the sovereign's power rests on his ability not to enforce but rather abrogate the law and declare a state of emergency; this power includes the ability to define the terms of both the emergency and its resolution. As a result, "the legal order rests on a decision and not on a norm" because

the sovereign produces and guarantees the situation in its totality. . . . The essence of the state's monopoly . . . must be juristically defined correctly, not as the monopoly to coerce or rule, but as the monopoly to decide. . . . The decision parts here from the legal norm, and (to formulate it paradoxically) authority proves that to produce law it need not be based on law.4

Schmitt's sovereign has the power not simply to establish law but also to determine when that law should be suspended, to decide what constitutes emergency and exception, and thus to "produce" rather than simply react to the juridical situation.

When this definition of sovereignty is read in tandem with Benjamin's account of state origins, it becomes evident that Schmitt's account elides or underestimates the violence of the sovereign decision over both the law and the norm. If the legal order rests on an original decision on the exception that defines the boundaries, both temporal and geopolitical, of the state, then that decision arises out of a violence that is inherent to the act of distinguishing inside from outside, exception from norm. This dynamic forms the context for Benjamin's "Critique of Violence," in which he treats theories of law that take the ends as justification for violent means as ethically inadequate; his essay concludes that "the violence of an action can be assessed no more from its effects than from its ends, but only from the law of its means," suggesting with the distinction between "effects" and "ends" that neither the intended nor unintended results of an act can serve as a basis on which to judge its ethical status.1

Faced with the a lack of criteria for judging violence, Benjamin writes anatomy of (foundational) violence, one that closely resembles Schmitt's sovereign decision:

The function of violence in lawmaking is twofold, in the sense that lawmaking pursues as its end, with violence as the means, what is to be established as law, but at the moment of instatement does not dismiss violence; rather, at this very moment of lawmaking, it specifically establishes as law not an end unalloyed by violence, but one necessarily and intimately bound to it, under the title of power. …

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


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.