James Martel: Divine Violence
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. The goal of such an endeavor is to radically undermine sovereignty’s claims for absolute power and exclusivity, to make sovereignty something unrecognizable 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 organizations and the effects of globalization, 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 Hannah Arendt to Jacques Derrida have sought to do away with sovereignty, we find that they prove curiously reluctant or unable to finally do so. Although 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, Arendt goes on to make a space for sovereignty in part because she doesn’t see us as having any alternatives. Derrida 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 Carl Schmitt in his own writings on the subject. For Schmitt, when the political subject is faced with sovereignty, she seems to have only one choice, that between sovereignty and anarchy. Even if the subject chooses anarchy, Schmitt goes on to say, she must “decide against the decision.” An anarchist politics, Schmitt says, can only serve to produce a “dictator of the antidictatorship.” For Schmitt, as for many other thinkers, there is a secret (or even not so secret) theology to sovereignty; it comes to us as a secularized version of divine sovereignty and, as such, is written deeply into the most basic aspects of our political foundations. Against this trap, it seems we have no choice but to accept and learn to live with sovereignty, as both Arendt and Derrida do, albeit with great reluctance.
In the work of Walter Benjamin, I find an alternative to the forced choice or trap that Schmitt presents to us. Unlike Arendt and Derrida, 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 theorizing. Rather than seeing sovereignty as being the inevitable result of long teleological chain from God’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 Ernst Kantorowicz), Benjamin sees sovereignty as a partaking in a kind of rebellion against God’s authority. In his strongly theologically inflected language, Benjamin sees sovereignty as being part of what he calls (after Marx) the “phantasmagoria,” a network of fallacious ideas that are wrongly projected onto God, or given divine attributes when they are in fact entirely of human derivation. For Benjamin, in paradise, Adam had an original relationship to the objects in the garden; he saw and basked in the divine truth that lay all around him. By choosing knowledge over truth (through the serpent’s temptation), Adam 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. Our institutions, sovereignty very much included, reflect this fallen state and so those things that we attribute to God are in fact a sign of our distance from God, of our mortal rebellion against divine truth and divine law. Sovereignty, in this view, is a thoroughly idolatrous political system where we project our own desires onto the screen of God and in this way alienate our own power (in effect to a small group of individuals who are willing to “speak for God.”). In sovereignty, we see a practice that is true of representation more generally for Benjamin. Here, 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 recognized, overshadowed as they are by the sovereign idol.
Yet all is not lost for Benjamin. Crucially, in his view, we have a vital ally in our struggle against idolatry, namely God. In his “Critique of Violence,” Benjamin contrasts mythic violence with divine violence. The example he offers there of divine violence is the story of Korah, an idolator who, along with his followers, rebelled against the authority of Moses. In consequence, God opened up the earth and swallowed up Korah and his followers, leaving no blood, no trace of their existence 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 a “weak messianic power,”) human beings can opt out of idolatrous forms of authority.
This does not mean that human beings can freely say “no” to sovereignty; idols and mythic violence will always be asserting and reasserting themselves in our postlapsarian state. If we think we can be free from such delusions, we set ourselves up for new forms of sovereignty that we do not even recognize as such (for Benjamin, this helps to explain the failure of so many leftist revolutions). But we can understand that the assertion of sovereignty is itself vulnerable and troubled, potentially unmade by the very deity in whose name it is proffered.
This insight offers us a chance to think differently about our options as political subjects. In Divine Violence, I use the metaphor of a fountain to explain our situation in respect to sovereignty. If we think of sovereignty as a fountain (a metaphor that we find Hobbes using at one point), we can see it as an awesome display. But we can also see that the fountain is composed of water, which is akin, I would argue, with ordinary politics. Normally we think of the two as being the same thing; the water that composes the fountain is simply part of its production. For this reason, we tend to think of politics and sovereignty as being synonymous terms, indistinguishable from one another. But, if we can learn to see the political as distinct from sovereignty, if, for example, we can see the waters resting at the perimeter of a fountain as being itself, it can help us to think about a human politics that is not itself entirely determined by sovereignty idolatry. Furthermore, if we think about the fountain being disrupted by acts of divine violence (not undone once and for all, but exposed, however temporarily, as being something other than what its form suggests) we might learn to see and give better credit to those kinds of human political acts that are not entirely caught up in sovereignty. In this way, we might begin to reclaim from sovereignty an entire network of political practices that sovereignty gets all the credit for but which it has little or nothing to do with (leading us to think that without sovereignty politics is entirely impossible).
In my reading, these practices–that is those political practices that become legible to us as a result of looking at sovereignty through the lens of Walter Benjamin’s writing and theorizing–amount to a kind of anarchism that escapes from Schmitt’s trap. Rather than being an anarchism that is reduced to “deciding against the decision,” these practices are to be found at the perimeter of the decision; such practices are not the basis for some utopia to be found in a post sovereign world but are actually already undertaken all the time even as we, bedazzled by sovereign authority as we are, do not recognize our own distinct politics as such.
Divine Violence engages with the work of Arendt and Derrida, along with other thinkers such as Étienne Balibar and Alain Badiou, in order to delineate a long theoretical struggle with sovereignty (and a concomitant political struggle as well). By engaging with Walter Benjamin and reading him as an ally of these various thinkers, I seek both to give these thinkers a way to escape some of the conundrums of sovereignty that they have encountered, as well as a way to engage Benjamin’s own work with an explicitly political vocabulary that he himself does not always offer us. The point of this engagement (what Benjamin himself would call a “constellation,”) is to show that we are not in fact trapped by sovereignty, that, even (or perhaps especially) from deep within its maw, we are not totally determined by sovereign or mythic power.
In the penultimate chapter of the book, I look at Hobbes and Spinoza’s respective treatments of the so called “Hebrew Republic,” that is the time when God was said to be the king of Ancient Israel, as a potential model to think further about the kinds of dissipated and reoccupied form that sovereignty might take when it is not distinctly idolatrous. In that time, these authors tell us that God’s authority was spoken for by priests, thus offering another example of an idolatrous form of representational politics. Yet, at the same time, the reign of the priests was periodically disrupted by the eruption of prophecy, of claims to speak for God directly. The authority generated by such prophecy, both Hobbes and Spinoza tell us, came from a decision by the community as to whether to believe that a given prophet did indeed speak for God (sometimes they held that a prophet was speaking falsely).
In effect, the ultimate interpretive power, the power to speak for God, thus belonged not to the priests but to the political community itself. In this way, sovereignty was diffused, effectively suspended as a centralized form of rule, by relegating it beyond the realm of human law. Here, sovereignty is not eliminated but rendered (at least at times) anti-idolatrous. The effect of prophecy—akin to acts of divine violence–is to disrupt the idolatrous forms of interpretation that the idea of God as king normally produces and to allow a decentralized and political form of authority to emerge in its stead. While this model of theocracy may not seem all that connected or relevant for the idea of an anarchist politics that I promote elsewhere in the book, I argue that it offers us a model for how sovereignty can be decentered, how the distinct politics of a human community can be recovered without recourse to a sense of absolute (and hence, false) freedom from idolatry. By thinking of such a possibility in line with the larger works of Benjamin and the constellations that he forms with other authors, we get glimpses of how to engage in a subversion of sovereign authority.
James Martel is a Professor of Political Theory at San Francisco State University. His research areas include early modern contemporary thought. Recent books by the author include “Textual Conspiracies: Walter Benjamin, Idolatry and Political Theory (2011) and “Subverting the Leviathan: Reading Thomas Hobbes as a Radical Democrat (2007).