Response to Working with Walter Benjamin, by Andrew Benjamin

By Glyn-Williams, Owen | Philosophy Today, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Response to Working with Walter Benjamin, by Andrew Benjamin


Glyn-Williams, Owen, Philosophy Today


Andrew Benjamin, Working with Walter Benjamin: Recovering a Political Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013)

Andrew Benjamin's Working with Benjamin mounts a critique of sovereignty and the state by way of what he calls a "recovery" of Benjamin's political philosophy. Indeed, one of the central claims of the book is that Benjamin's work does in fact constitute a "philosophical thinking of the political," one which offers a singular vantage from which to think social and political transformation, what Professor Benjamin refers to as the "othering of the world." The specific strategy of recovery that he pursues consists of what we could call a movement of critique and retrieval of some of the most fundamental, classical concepts of political philosophy. Thus, Professor Benjamin will insist that what Benjamin provides is not an all out attack on law, for example, but a "critique of law in the name of law," referring to a transformed conception of law, namely one aligned with justice. At the heart of this strategy is the insistence on the "possibility of that which will be 'a little different' and that which will have comprised 'a slight adjustment,'" which lies in a "yet-to-be actualized possibility in the present" (29).

Any serious theoretical challenge to the concept of modern sovereignty, one could argue, has of necessity to reject the false Hobbesian choice between either a robust state order on the one hand, or total anarchic chaos on the other. This is a false choice offered by the reigning order for the sake of its self-preservation (and we see this alternative at work in Carl Schmitt as well). To this end, Professor Benjamin sees a strategic appropriation of Benjaminian thought as allowing for a conception of the political that is radically other than that of modern sovereignty, in such a way that the advent of another order-as opposed to sheer disorder-becomes thinkable. The names given to this other order are the 'just life' (as opposed to mere life) and the 'moral world' (as opposed to the legal system). Importantly, Professor Benjamin maintains that the possibility for the just life and moral world inheres in the present as an ineliminable potentiality.

Everything, then, hinges on the manner in which the transition from the order of state sovereignty as we know it today, to a transformed ('othered') world, is conceived. This is also the question of the transition from potentiality to actuality. Professor Benjamin thinks this transition through the development of what he calls a "politics of time," in which two radically divergent historical temporalities are contrasted. On the one hand, he claims (following Benjamin), capitalism and the State have effectuated a modality of time as fate, in which the prospect of a radical break within the continuity of the existing order is rendered unintelligible. Within the temporality of fate, human beings are fetishistically individualized and reduced to a disempowering subject position of guilt. On the other hand-and here the Benjaminian figure of the Messiah comes into play-another temporality is possible: the temporality opened up by what Professor Benjamin names a caesura of allowing, which is a dislocation and repositioning of time and subjectivity such that the cycle of fate is broken. What defines this conception of caesura is that it is structured by a concurrent gesture of destruction and inauguration. That which is destroyed in its occurrence is the naturalization and eternalization of the social order, while that which is inaugurated is a practical field of indeterminacy and contingency in which the potentialities buried by the capitalist and State mechanisms of domination are allowed a space to be realized. This movement of destruction and inauguration of an indeterminate field of political practice-in which immediate and decisionistic authority is supplanted by the mediation of deliberation and contestation-is also the structure Professor Benjamin mobilizes for thinking the specific form of Gewalt implied by 'divine violence,' which ruptures the cyclical and eternalizing temporality of the 'mythic violence' employed for the preservation of State power. …

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