Derrida’s Reading of Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”



“What the state fears, the state being law in its greatest force, is not so much crime or robbery, even on the grand scale of the Mafia or heavy drug traffic, as long as they transgress the law [loi] with an eye toward particular benefits, however impor­tant they may be. (It is true that today these state-like and international institutions have a more radical status than that of crime and represent a threat with which so many states negotiate by allying themselves to it — and by submitting to it, for example, by making their own pro t in money-laundering — while dissembling as fighting it by any means.) The state is afraid of founding violence — that is, violence able to justify, to legitimate (begründen) , or transform the relations of law (Rechts­verhältnisse) , and so to present itself as having a right to right and to law [comme ayant un droit au droit] . This violence thus belongs in advance to the order of a law that remains to be transformed or founded, even if it may wound our sense of justice (Gerechtigkeitsgefühl) (185/E283).Only this violence calls for and makes possi­ble a “critique of violence” that determines it to be something other than the natural exercise of force. For a critique of violence — that is to say, an interpretive and meaningful evaluation of it — to be possible, one must first recognize meaning a violence that is not an accident arriving from outside the law. That which threatens law already belongs to it, to the right to law [au droit au droit] , to the ori­gin of law. The general strike thus provides a valuable guiding thread, since it exer­cises the conceded right to contest the order of existing law and to create a revolutionary situation in which the task will be to found a new law, if not always, as we shall see in a moment, a new state. revolutionary situations, all revolutionary discourses, on the left or on the right (and from 1921, in Germany, there were many of these that resembled each other in a troubling way, Benjamin often finding himself between the two) justify the recourse to violence by alleging the founding, in progress or to come, of a new law, of a new state. As this law to come will in return legitimate, retrospectively, the violence that may o end the sense of justice, its future anterior already justifies it. The foundation of all states occurs in a situation that one can thus call revolutionary. It inaugurates a new law; it always does so in violence. Always, which is to say even when there have not been those spectacular genocides, expulsions or deportations that so often accompany the foundation of states, great or small, old or new, right nearby or very far away.”

“The legal system [I’ordre du droit] fully manifests itself in the possibility of the death penalty. By abolishing it, one would not be touching upon one dispositif among others. Rather, one would be disavowing the very principle of law. Thus is confirmed that something is “rotten” at the heart of law. The death penalty must [doit] testify that law is a violence contrary to nature. But what today testifies to this in a manner that is even more ”spectral” (gespenstische) (189/E286) by mixing the two forms of violence (preserving and founding) is the modern institution of the police. This is a mixture of two heterogeneous violences, “in a kind of spectral mixture (in einer gieichsam gespenstischen Vermischung),” as if one violence haunted the other (though Benjamin does not put it this way in commenting on the double meaning of the word gespenstich ). Spectrality has to do with the fact that a body is never present for itself, for what it is. It appears by disappearing or by making disappear what it represents: one for the other. One never knows who one is dealing with, and that is the definition of the police, singularly of state police the limits of which are, at bottom, unlocatable [inassignabIes]. This absence of a border between the two types of violence, this contamination between foundation and preservation is ignoble; it is, he says, the ignominy (das Schmachvolle) of the police. Prior to being ignoble in its procedures, in the unnameable inquisition that police violence allows itself without respect for anything, the modern police force is struc­turally repugnant, filthy [immonde] in essence because of its constitutive hypocrisy. Its lack of limit does not only come from surveillance and repression technology­ such as was already being developed in 1921 , in a troubling manner, to the point of doubling and haunting all public and private life (what we could say today about the development of this technology!). It comes from the fact that the police are the state, that they are the specter of the state and that, in all rigor, one cannot take issue with the police without taking issue with the order of the res publica. For today the police are no longer content to enforce the law and thus to preserve it; the police invent the law, publish ordinances, and intervene whenever the legal Situation is unclear to guarantee security — which is to say, these days, nearly all the time. The police are the force of law [loi] , they have force of law, the power of the law. The police are ignoble because in their authority, “the separation of law­-founding violence and law-preserving violence is suspended [in ihr die Trennung von rechtsetzender und rechtserhaltender Gewalt aufgehoben ist]” 189/E286). In the Aufhebung that the police signifies in itself, the police invent law; they make them­selves “rechtsetzend,” legislative. The police arrogate the right, arrogate the law [elle s’arroge Ie droit], each time the law is indeterminate enough to open a possibility for them. Even if they do not make the law [loi] , the police behave like a lawmaker modern times, if not the lawmaker of modern times. Where there are police, which is to say everywhere and even here, one can no longer discern between two types of violence — preserving and founding — and that is the ignoble, ignomin­ious, revolting ambiguity. The possibility, which is also to say the ineluctable neces­sity of the modern police force, ruins, in sum — one could say deconstructs — the distinction between these two kinds of violence that nevertheless structures the discourse that Benjamin calls a new critique of violence.”



Derrida, Jacques. “Force of law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority.”” Acts of Religion. Edited by Gil Anidjar, 228-98. New York: Routledge, 2002.


From “Critique of Violence”




“…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 specically establishes as law not an end unalloyed by violence but one necessarily and intimately bound to it, under the title of power. Lawmaking is powermaking, assumption of power, and to that extent an immediate manifestation of violence. Justice is the principle of all divine endmaking, power the principle of all mythic lawmaking.”



Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence.” In Walter Benjamin Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913-1926. edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, 236-52. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

Georg Lukács on Dialectics



“…in dialectics the definite contours of concepts (and the objects they represent) are dissolved. Dialectics… is a continuous process of transition from one definition into the other. In consequence a one-sided and rigid causality must be replaced by interaction. … the most vital interaction… [is] the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process… in all metaphysics the object remains untouched and unaltered so that thought remains contemplative and fails to become practical; while for the dialectical method the central problem is to change reality.”


Lukács, Georg. “What Is Orthodox Marxism?”, in History and Class Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1972, pp. 1-26.

Enlightenment and Myth – An Extract From Dialectic of Enlightenment


Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno, Horkheimer


“Myth becomes enlightenment and nature mere objectivity. Human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted. Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. He knows them to the extent that he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things to the extent that he can make them. Their “in-itself” becomes “for him.” In their transformation the essence of things is revealed as always the same, a substrate of domination. This identity constitutes the unity of nature. Neither it nor the unity of the subject was presupposed by magical incantation. The rites of the shaman were directed at the wind, the rain, the snake outside or the demon inside the sick person, not at materials or specimens. The spirit which practiced magic was not single or identical; it changed with the cult masks which represented the multiplicity of spirits. Magic is bloody untruth, but in it domination is not yet disclaimed by transform- ing itself into a pure truth underlying the world which it enslaves. The magician imitates demons; to frighten or placate them he makes intimidating or appeasing gestures. Although his task was impersonation he did not claim to be made in the image of the invisible power, as does civilized man, whose modest hunting ground then shrinks to the unified cosmos, in which nothing exists but prey. Only when made in such an image does man attain the identity of the self which cannot be lost in identification with the other but takes possession of itself once and for all as an impenetrable mask. It is the identity of mind and its correlative, the unity of nature, which subdues the abundance of qualities. Nature, stripped of qualities, becomes the chaotic stuff of mere classification, and the all-powerful self becomes a mere having, an abstract identity. Magic implies specific representation. What is done to the spear, the hair, the name of the enemy, is also to befall his person; the sacrificial animal is slain in place of the god. The substitution which takes place in sacrifice marks a step toward discursive logic. Even though the hind which was offered up for the daughter, the lamb for the firstborn, necessarily still had qualities of its own, it already represented the genus. It manifested the arbitrariness of the specimen. But the sanctity of the hic et nunc, the uniqueness of the chosen victim which coincides with its representative status, distinguishes it radically, makes it non-exchangeable even in the exchange. Science puts an end to this. In it there is no specific representation: something which is a sacrificial animal cannot be a god. Representation gives way to universal fungibility. An atom is smashed not as a representative but as a specimen of matter, and the rabbit suffering the torment of the laboratory is seen not as a representative but, mistakenly, as a mere exemplar. Because in functional science the differences are so fluid that everything is submerged in one and the same matter, the scientific object is petrified, whereas the rigid ritual of former times appears supple in its substitution of one thing for another. The world of magic still retained differences whose traces have vanished even in linguistic forms. The manifold affinities between existing things are supplanted by the single relationship between the subject who confers meaning and the meaningless object, between rational significance and its accidental bearer. At the magical stage dream and image were not regarded as mere signs of things but were linked to them by resemblance or name. The relationship was not one of intention but of kinship. Magic like science is concerned with ends, but it pursues them through mimesis, not through an increasing distance from the object. It certainly is not founded on the “omnipotence of thought,” which the primitive is supposed to impute to himself like the neurotic; there can be no “over-valuation of psychical acts” in relation to reality where thought and reality are not radically distinguished. The “unshakable confidence in the possibility of controlling the world” which Freud anachronistically attributes to magic applies only to the more realistic form of world domi- nation achieved by the greater astuteness of science. The autonomy of thought in relation to objects, as manifested in the reality-adequacy of the Ego, was a prerequisite for the replacement of the localized practices of the medicine man by all-embracing industrial technology.”



Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University press; 2002, pp. 6-7.

The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility


The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility


“The scope for exhibiting the work of art has increased so enormously with the various methods of technologically reproducing it that, as hap­pened in prehistoric times, a quantitative shift between the two poles of the artwork has led to a qualitative transformation in its nature. Just as the work of art in prehistoric times, through the exclusive emphasis placed on its cult value, became first and foremost an instrument of magic which only later came to be recognized as a work of art, so today, through the exclusive emphasis placed on its exhibition value, the work of art becomes a con­ struct [Gebilde] with quite new functions. Among these, the one we are conscious of — the artistic function — may subsequently be seen as inciden­tal. This much is certain: today, film is the most serviceable vehicle of this new understanding. Certain, as well, is the fact that the historical moment of this change in the function of art — a change which is most fully evident in the case of lm-allows a direct comparison with the primeval era of art not only from a methodological but also from a material point of view.”



Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 3, 1935-1938. Boston: The Belknap Press of Harvard University; 2006, pp. 101-33.

Towards a New Manifesto?

Adorno and Horkheimer

“Adorno: Philosophy exists in order to redeem what you see in the look of an animal. If you feel that an idea is supposed to serve a practical purpose, it slithers into the dialectic. If, on the other hand, your thought succeeds in doing the thing justice, then you cannot really also assert the opposite. The mark of authenticity of a thought is that it negates the immediate presence of one’s own interests. True thought is thought that has no wish to insist on being in the right.

Horkheimer: When you speak, you always speak for yourself. When you defend a cause, you also defend yourself. To plead on behalf of a specific cause is not necessarily a bad thing. You feel deeply that your own interests are at stake. Everyone feels the injustice that would occur if one were to be extinguished. To plead on behalf of another is also to plead on one’s own behalf.

Adorno: The mistrust of argument is at bottom what has inspired the Husserls and Heideggers. The diabolical aspect of it is that the abolition of argument means that their writing ends up in tautology and nonsense. Argument has the form of ‘Yes, but . . . ’

Horkheimer: But the ‘Yes, but . . . ’ remains in the service of making something visible in the object itself.

Adorno: There is something bad about advocacy—arguing means applying the rules of thinking to the matters under discussion. You really mean to say that if you find yourself in the situation of having to explain why something is bad, you are already lost. Alternatively, you end up saying like Mephistopheles: ‘Scorn reason, despise learning.’ Then you will discover the primordial forces of being.”



Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Towards a New Manifesto.

Theodor Adorno on Nationalism



“The characteristic form of absurd opinion today is nationalism. With new virulence it infects the entire world, in a historical period where, because of the state of the technical forces of production and the potential definition of the earth as a single planet, at least in the non-underdeveloped countries nationalism has lost its real basis and has become the full-blown ideology it always has been. In private life, self-praise and anything resembling it is suspect, because such expressions reveal all too much the predominance of narcissism. The more individuals are caught up in themselves and the more fatally they pursue particular interests—interests that are reflected in that narcissistic attitude, which in turn reinforces the rigid power of the interests—the more carefully this very principle must be concealed and misrepresented, so that, as the National Socialist slogan has it, “service before self.” However, it is precisely this force of taboo on individual narcissism, its repression, that gives nationalism its pernicious power. The life of the collective has different ground rules than those at work in the relations between individuals. In every soccer match the local fans, flouting the rules of hospitality, shamelessly cheer on their own team; Anatole France, today so prone to being treated en canaille—and not without some justification—remarked in Penguin Island that each fatherland stands above all others in the world. People would only need take the norms of bourgeois private life to heart and raise them to the level of society. But well-meaning recommendations in this vein overlook the fact that any transition of this kind is impossible under conditions that impose such privations on individuals, so constantly disappoint their individual narcissism, in reality damn them to such helplessness, that they are condemned to collective narcissism. As a compensation, collective narcissism then restores to them as individuals some of the self-esteem the same collective strips from them and that they hope to fully recover through their delusive identification with it. More than any other pathological prejudice, the belief in the nation is opinion as dire fate: the hypostasis of the group to which one just happens to belong, the place where one just happens to be, into an absolute good and superiority. It inflates into a moral maxim that abominable wisdom born of emergency situations, that we are all in the same boat. It is just as ideological to distinguish healthy national sentiment from pathological nationalism as it is to believe in normal opinion in contrast to pathogenic opinion. The dynamic that leads from the supposedly healthy national sentiment into its overvalued excess is unstoppable, because its untruth is rooted in the person’s act of identifying himself with the irrational nexus of nature and society in which he by chance finds himself.”



Theodor W. Adorno. Opinion Delusion Society. Trans. Henry W. Pickford. The Yale Journal of Criticism, 10(2); 1997: 227-45. Continue reading Theodor Adorno on Nationalism