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James Martel Divine Violence

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Benjamin & Derrida on Violence
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  DIVINE VIOLENCE: WALTER BENJAMIN & THE ESCHATOLOGY OF SOVEREIGNTY  JAMES R. MARTEL Divine Violence  is a book about the way that sovereignty, taken both as a political practice and a theoretical notion, has proven itself to be very resilient, almost impossible to do away with. In this book, I look to the work of Walter Benjamin as a way to engage with sovereignty in order to subvert this system of rule. In Benjamin’s work we find a way, not so much to get rid of sovereignty (because, as I will show, such attempts tend to reproduce sovereignty in new guises but rather to reoccupy it, to create space for political actions that are not merely reflections of sovereign authority. !he goal of such an endeavor is to radically undermine sovereignty’s claims for absolute power and e clusivity, to make sovereignty something unrecogni#able from the perspective of its current iterations.In practice, despite many announcements in recent years that sovereignty was being undone by new non$state actors such as terrorist organi#ations and the effects of globali#ation, we find that sovereignty has survived and even thrived in our current moment (albeit in new and complicated forms. In theoretical terms, while many leftists ranging from %annah &rendt to 'acues )errida have sought to do away with sovereignty, we find that  they prove curiously reluctant or unable to finally do so. &lthough she tells us that sovereignty is nothing but the will of one or a few individuals superimposed on the rest of a community in the name of representing them, &rendt goes on to make a space for sovereignty in part because she doesn’t see us as having any alternatives. )errida too finds sovereignty both bloody and patriarchal and yet he too hesitates to call for its elimination (in part because he fears what would replace it more than he fears its own pernicious effects. In seeking to eliminate sovereignty, these thinkers come up against a kind of trap described by *arl +chmitt in his own writings on the subject. or +chmitt, when the political subject is faced with sovereignty, she seems to have only one choice, that between sovereignty and anarchy. -ven if the subject chooses anarchy, +chmitt goes on to say, she must decide against the decision./ &n anarchist politics, +chmitt says, can only serve to produce a dictator of the antidictatorship./ or +chmitt, as for many other thinkers, there is a secret (or even not so secret theology to sovereignty0 it comes to us as a seculari#ed version of divine sovereignty and, as such, is written deeply into the most basic aspects of our political foundations. &gainst this trap, it seems we have no choice but to accept and learn to live with sovereignty, as both &rendt and )errida do, albeit with great reluctance.  In the work of Walter Benjamin, I find an alternative to the forced choice or trap that +chmitt presents to us. 1nlike &rendt and )errida, Benjamin does not try to eliminate sovereignty altogether. Instead he subjects sovereignty to the kind of anti progressive historical materialism that comes out of his larger theori#ing. 2ather than seeing sovereignty as being the inevitable result of long teleological chain from 3od’s own sovereignty, down to human kings and eventually to modern political systems (a genealogy that lies at the heart of traditional understandings of sovereignty as handed down to us by thinkers like -rnst 4antorowic#, Benjamin sees sovereignty as a partaking in a kind of rebellion against 3od’s authority. In his strongly theologically inflected language, Benjamin sees sovereignty as being part of what he calls (after 5ar  the phantasmagoria,/ a network of fallacious ideas that are wrongly projected onto 3od, or given divine attributes when they are in fact entirely of human derivation. or Benjamin, in paradise, &dam had an original relationship to the objects in the garden0 he saw and basked in the divine truth that lay all around him. By choosing knowledge over truth (through the serpent’s temptation, &dam chose false, human derived notions over a genuine relationship to the things of the world.In this way, in a postlapsarian world, human beings are ensconced in what Benjamin calls mythic/ forms of violence. We are cut off from truth and have no recourse but to representation and symbolism. 6ur institutions, sovereignty very much included,  reflect this fallen state and so those things that we attribute to 3od are in fact a sign of our distance from 3od, of our mortal rebellion against divine truth and divine law. +overeignty, in this view, is a thoroughly idolatrous political system where we project our own desires onto the screen of 3od and in this way alienate our own power (in effect to a small group of individuals who are willing to speak for 3od./. In sovereignty, we see a practice that is true of representation more generally for Benjamin. %ere, the symbol (manifested in this case as the idea of a representational government actually supplants what it is meant to stand for. It becomes an idol which ensures that ordinary human politics are not recogni#ed, overshadowed as they are by the sovereign idol. 7et all is not lost for Benjamin. *rucially, in his view, we have a vital ally in our struggle against idolatry, namely 3od. In his *ritiue of 8iolence,/ Benjamin contrasts mythic violence with divine violence. !he e ample he offers there of divine violence is the story of 4orah, an idolator who, along with his followers, rebelled against the authority of 5oses. In conseuence, 3od opened up the earth and swallowed up 4orah and his followers, leaving no blood, no trace of their e istence or of the act that unmade them. In this way, we see that acts of divine violence do not introduce new truths into the world (which would then instantly become idols themselves. Instead it simply removes false truths, leaving us radically alone and on our own. Insofar as such acts of divine violence can be presumed to be happening at all times (Benjamin tells us that each generation is endowed with
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