"Imagine indifference itself as a power - how could you live according to this indifference? Living - is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature?" -Friedrich Nietzsche
Even, or especially, in a democratic country the individual's right to violence is held by the state, subsumed and closed off as a just means, even to a just end. The forms of violence become purely legally dictated and remain as acts of either militarism or policing. "All violence as a means is either law-making or law-preserving", and is in this way removed from the field of possibilities for individual action. Even acts of self-defense come under heavy scrutiny within a system that recognizes the powerful, and empowering, effects of violent action as unsettling of the order of things. One can no longer `take the law into his own hands', although the heroism this attempt represents, whether through the patriot-rebel or the criminal-moralist, reflects the last vestiges of revolutionary thought.
Walter Benjamin's seminal work in political theory of this node's title (Kritik zur Gewalt1) asks crucial questions about how violence came to be held by the law, how violence was in fact the inception of the law, and how it is that a mythic bind keeps them inseparable. The problem, as Benjamin recognized it, was the abuse of an unclear distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of violence. A well-worn paradox emerges: violence is only deemed lawful or legitimate in so far as it works to create or preserve a legal framework. These days we seem to take this critique for granted, dissatisfied with, but beholden to, the might makes right attitude of American economic imperialism, but it is self-evident in war that the justification of military action is always either to "preserve" a nation, or to "create" one, depending on which side of the power lines you hold your gun.
"Lawmaking is powermaking, assumption of power, and to that extent an immediate manifestation of violence." In this way Benjamin, who here belies his proclivity toward Marx, looks to labor strikes as the most exemplary forms of violence interior to systematic law, but also productive of it. This notion and its critique are also extended into the realm of metaphysics by philosophers like Jacques Derrida who, although speaking metaphorically, claim that things like self-identity are dependent on a kind of linguistic violence, a sundering of language by a force that would contain it in one presence2. It is not a far stretch to think that the motions by which an individual becomes self-conscious in society mirror those by which a state gains political legitimacy; only the topography of the engagement is markedly different.
The connection can be pursued even further by once again examining Columbine. Mills' node on the topic recognizes a phenomenon wherein literal military violence is re-appropriated by the individual into the realm of self-identity. The scapegoating of the media and videogames is ludicrous at best, as the real issue is the human need to have identity. On the one hand you have a high school whose larger self-identity is the result of the exclusion of people like Eric and Dylan; the norm to which you conform is always the result of someone else's alterity. On the other hand you have the excluded; in this case they had guns and an above average drive to be recognized even within a community they obviously despised. School shootings invite us to look deep into American culture, into the production of the self as a linguistic entity and the uses of violence toward the unification of political bodies, whether national or individual.
I suppose there is a risk here of riding with Bill Maher into node heaven if I don't assure you that the intention is not to set trench coat mafia suicide bombers on a pedestal for some kind of revolutionary resolve or courage. But if Michel Foucault found that a power, having cohered in an institution, would always induce a reactive movement at the periphery of its influence (Discipline and Punish was written partially as an explanation of prison revolts in the sixties), how could we expect that the hell of institutionalized education wouldn't drive someone over the edge? Really it happens all the time, but in middle-class America, where the internalization of control seemed to be most effective, violence was just so unexpected.
From this tangent we should return to Benjamin's essay, because it is content neither with a reduction of society to a power relation nor with a simple recognition of the bond between law and violence. Being content there would be simply to decry what Benjamin calls "mythic violence" and its activities as we have described them. All well and good, but itself unproductive if we do not consider its opposite in Benjamin's mind: the use of "divine violence". The difference is not that between Zeus' bolt and the Hand of God. Walter Benjamin was not some right-wing catholic (he was a left-wing Jew), and his distinction runs as follows: "Mythic violence is bloody power over bare life for its own sake; divine violence is pure power over all life for the sake of the living. The first demands sacrifice, the second accepts it."3
What Benjamin poses here is an operative form of violence that has the ability, the possibility, to confront mythic violence in its systematic definition of power. This divine power exists in religious tradition, but it is confusing to think of it as such, because the educative function in general is also a manifestation of the divine. Education itself is the mistake of mythic power, the internally sanctioned activity that opens the possibility of its decay. Divine violence is the recognition and obliteration of myth, of the narrative prescriptions that mediate our relations with the rest of the globe and with history.
It should make sense that this is not a theological argument except in the purest of terms (that is, without the mythological blind of instituted religion). What is difficult to comprehend is exactly where Benjamin stands on the use of violence. Mythic violence is always a control, a production of limitations. Divine violence is always a release from these bonds, a lifting of the obscuring veil. But they are both forms of violence, so how can we tell them apart? We can’t. Only in the moment of the act can there be a distinction, in the truth of an intention that never appears, a truth that is covered over in myth before it sees the light of day. How do we know, then, that divine violence exists? Because as long as there is war, as long as there are beatings and shootings and executions, in short: as long as there is mythic violence, nothing is fully under control. Only in the remainder of the existence of close, brutal, everyday violence can we recognize the possibility that divine violence is at work to prevent a totality from consuming us.
So is it right, then, to use violence, as long as it combats the forces of evil? No. We say this provisionally, in lieu of a disclaimer, but Benjamin doesn’t give us a straight answer. What he does say is that violence that is used is already mythic in nature, and just as a revolution sets a new power on the throne, even divine violence is lost in its translation to history. Besides, only George Bush thinks he knows evil when he sees it. But Benjamin also says “the proposition that existence stands higher than a just existence is false and ignominious, if existence is to mean nothing other than bare life.” Essentially: if the price of living is that you are reduced to simple biological functions, it is not a price worth paying. But again, whether he means you should kill the guy who oppresses you or just kill yourself, we can’t say. As "Kritik zur Gewalt" was written in 1921, it is not so much a stand against life-support systems as it is a prediction of Nazi concentration camps. Benjamin was to become one of the most ardent opponents of National Socialism and is said to have killed himself rather than be captured, perhaps for fear of a life worse than death.
Is what we have done in Iraq a just thing, or are we a growing force of cultural totalitarianism? And the Columbine shooters? Was this divine violence at work, or just some young fascists? In retrospect it is all of it wrong. All of it. If there was a moment of just action it is no longer there to discern, and we simply do not have the capacity to imagine the kind of indifference that could bring the state of the world and the state of our country’s institutions to such events. But is it any wonder that people have wanted to live outside of this indifference?
Living – is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature?
(1) "Critique of Violence", Walter Benjamin. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings Vol. 1: 1913-1926, Belknap / Harvard Press 1996.
Unattributed quotes are from this essay.
(2) "To think the unique within the system, to inscribe it there, such is the gesture of the arche-writing: the arche-violence." -Of Grammatology. Disclaiming what I have said of Derrida would be its own project: he would never say what I have said. I have put words in his mouth and made him speak them. Such abuse, such violence under a name!
(3) I have slightly altered Jephcott's translation from "mere life" to "bare life" as is done in Giorgio Agamben's work Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, which refers extensively to this essay by Benjamin.