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.

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.

From Walter Benjamin



The crowd is not only the newest asylum of outlaws; it is also the latest narcotic for people who have been abandoned. The flâneur is someone abandoned in the crowd. He is thus in the same situation as the commodity. He is unaware of this special situation, but this does not diminish its effect on him; it permeates him blissfully, like a narcotic that can compensate him for many humiliations. The intoxication to which flâneur surrenders is the intoxication of commodity immersed in a surging stream of customers.

“The pleasure of being in the crowd is a mysterious expression of the enjoyment of multiplication of number.” [Quoting Baudelaire]

…the web of the woods appear as the archetypes of mass existence.

A street, a conflagration, or a traffic accident assembles people who are not defined along class lines.

In the flâneur, the joy of watching prevails over all.

The hero is the true subject of la modernité. In other words, it takes heroic constitution to live modernity.

Modernity must stand under the sign of suicide, an act which seals a heroic will that makes no concession to a mentality inimical toward this will. Such a resignation is not resignation but heroic passion.

The black suit and the frock coat not only have their political beauty as an expression of general equality, but also their poetic beauty as an expression of public mentality… we are all attendants at some kind of funeral. — The unvarying livery of hopelessness testifies to equality…

“The majority of the writers who have concerned themselves with really modern subjects have contented themselves with the certified, official subjects… Yet there are subjects from private life which are heroic in quite another way…” [quoting Baudelaire] The apache abjures virtue and laws; he terminates contract social forever. Thus, he sees himself as a world away from the bourgeois and fails to recognize in him the features of the philistine accomplice which Hugo was soon to describe with such powerful effect in Les Châtiments.

The poets find the refuse of society on their streets and derive their heroic subject from this very refuse.



Walter Benjamin. “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, BostonBelknap Press; 2006, pp. 3-92.