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Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2014.07.33
Richard J. Bernstein, Violence: Thinking Without Banisters, Polity, 2013, 228pp.,
$24.95 (pbk), ISBN 9780745670645.
Reviewed by Seyla Benhabib, Yale University
Violence has accompanied human culture from its earliest beginnings, and
representations of violence in art, narrative and song are ubiquitous. Yet it is
only in certain periods that violence emerges as a major preoccupation of
political thinkers: Machiavelli's The Prince (1532); Edmund Burke's Reflections
on the Revolution in France (1820), Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel (In
Stahlgewittern,1924) and Georges Sorel's Rflexions sur la Violence (1908) are
major works that have explored violence in different periods. Why has violence
resurfaced in contemporary thought in the first decades of the twenty-first
century?
Richard Bernstein observes that
We live in a time when we are overwhelmed with talk, writing, and
especially images of violence. Whether on television, the internet,
smartphones, films, or the video screen, we can't escape
representations of actual or fictional violence -- so much so that we
easily become numb and indifferent to still another report or depiction
of violence (viii).
The consequence of this inflation of violent images is a certain sloppiness in our
thinking and deep confusion about what is meant by violence. Bernstein does
not engage this confusion in our culture directly but by way of a critical dialogue
with five seminal thinkers: Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt,
Frantz Fanon, and Jan Assmann. Like so much of Bernstein's work, this book is
masterful in displaying the hermeneutical skills of patient and lucid exegesis and
hard-hitting criticism.
The choice of Schmitt, Benjamin, Arendt and Fanon is not arbitrary. Walter
Benjamin's 1921 essay "Zur Kritik der Gewalt," translated as "Critique of
Violence," was greatly admired by Carl Schmitt. Benjamin in turn took himself to
be inspired by Sorel's concept of the "general strike" in the
latter's Rflexions.Arendt, who was a close friend of Benjamin's and an editor of
some of his posthumous works, and who herself wrote two different essays on
violence, passed over in significant silence her young friend's musings on this
question. Frantz Fanon's, The Wretched of the Earth, and in particular, JeanPaul Sartre's Introduction to it, are in turn the object of Arendt's vehement
objections and polemics.
Why has the 28-year old Walter Benjamin's essay continued to exercise such
influence? Hardly noticed (except by Carl Schmitt) or debated when it was first

published, Benjamin's essay was subsequently included in a collection of his


writings edited by Theodor W. Adorno and Gershom Scholem in 1955, and
reissued ten years later in a small German volume edited by Herbert Marcuse
with an Afterword. Since then thinkers such as Adorno, Jacques Derrida, Jrgen
Habermas, Giorgio Agamben, Martin Jay, and more recently, Judith Butler,
Simon Critchley, Slavoj iek have returned to it. Benjamin's essay is dense
and apocalyptic, frequently positing distinctions that are hardly clarified.
Benjamin distinguishes between "law-making" and "law-preserving" violence,
thus scrambling liberal conceptions of the legitimacy of state power originating
in some consensual contract. "[A legal contract]," he writes,
however peacefully it may have been entered into by the parties leads
finally to possible violence. It confers on each party the right to resort
to violence in some form against the other, should he break the
agreement. Not only that: like the outcome, the origin of every contract
also points to violence (quoted in Bernstein, 51).
Benjamin thus washes away distinctions between the legitimate exercise of
power and coercion and illegitimate violence. Not only the origins of the state
but its continuous existence for him rest on violence.
It is not difficult to see why such a theory would appeal to critics of liberalism
and constitutionalism and, more specifically, to those who reject any Kantian or
neo-Kantian theory of the state as resting on the rule of law, the protection of
human rights, the rights of citizens, popular sovereignty and the like. But it is not
the distinction between law-making and law-preserving violence alone that has
led to the spilling of much ink; rather it is the tantalizing one between "mythic"
and "divine" violence, which has challenged one and all. Mythic violence is lawmaking as well as law-preserving violence (55), whereas "Justice
(Gerechtigkeit) is the principle of all divine endmaking, power (Macht) the
principle of all mythic lawmaking." (Benjamin, quoted by Bernstein, 55) How is
such divine violence to be understood? Who declaims it? How do we recognize
it? Bernstein works through a number of interpretations which read into
Benjamin's concept of "divine violence," not just a flirtation with apocalyptic
politics such as the Sorelian revolutionary violence of the oppressed manifested
through the general strike (Marcuse) or Leninist "real politics" that grabs state
power (iek), but which also parse Benjamin's text as endorsing "nonviolent
violence" (Butler) or an "ethical" form of violence (Critchley).
Bernstein agrees with Derrida and Dominick la Capra that Benjamin's distinction
between "mythic" and "divine violence" has a "seductive allure" (75) and that
Derrida is not unjustified in claiming that "despite all its polysemic mobility,"
Benjamin's essay, resembles "too closely, to the point of specular fascination
and vertigo, the very thing against which one must act and think, do and speak"
(Derrida quoted by Bernstein, 70). In other words, "the critique of violence" (the
title of Benjamin's essay) threatens to morph into a glorification of violence.
Bernstein resists this reading but agrees with Derrida that the undecidability of
Benjamin's text lends credence to such a move; instead, he prefers to see in
Benjamin's essay an essential reflection on all issues that an analysis of
violence must face and a warning that we can never know "with certainty

whether the consequences of our actions break the cycle of mythic violence or
reinforce it." (77)
I am less convinced by the indispensability of Benjamin's essay to an analysis
of violence, and see in the loose and fast way in which distinctions are posited
and claims made about history and society rather the expression of a certain
spirit of the times, marked by the collapse of the old order in Europe, the
violence and carnage occasioned by World War I, the fragility of the doomed
Weimar Republic and a pending sense of even worse violence to come.
If Benjamin nonetheless held faith in a divine form of justice to arrive on earth
and destroy mythic violence, Carl Schmitt made the distinction between friend
and foe the sine qua non of the political realm. And contrary to such fashionable
readings of Schmitt as advocating an innocent form of "agonistic" competition
between rival political parties (Chantal Mouffe), Bernstein is clear that for
Schmitt "War is not the 'continuation of politics by other means.'" (21) He
observes that "We fail to do justice to the existential seriousness of politics
unless we realize that it entails the real possibility (but not the necessity) of
physical killing at those times when we believe that our very way of life, our
existence, is threatened by an enemy." (21) Yet surely it cannot just be his
alerting us to the ever-present possibility of violence in human life that has
occasioned what Bernstein names a "veritable [Schmitt] tsunami." (12) Rather,
as Bernstein rightly observes, many find Schmitt's approach to politics, which
avoids the rationalism, normativism and moralism of contemporary "suffocating"
Kantianism (13-14), refreshing and see in it one of the most "trenchant analysis
of liberalism" (13). How then are we to evaluate the lack of any justification in
Schmitt for his "normative-moral stance" (43) or for his discrimination among
three types of enemy: the conventional, the real and the absolute? Who is an
absolute as opposed to a real enemy? Is there a way out of "aporias of Carl
Schmitt" (Bernstein) without engaging in rationalism and normativism?
If Benjamin and Schmitt show the instability of the distinctions between lawmaking and law-preserving violence, friend and foe, and war and political
antagonism, it is Hannah Arendt's achievement to insist on the differences
between power, violence, force and strength. Against the conflation of power
and violence, which she names the "command-obedience model" of power (80),
Arendt introduces the concept of power as the "human ability to act in concert,"
and much of her political writing documents those episodic moments in human
history when power is exercised through acts of revolution and resistance,
sometimes giving rise to a novo ordo seclorum. The very concept of "political
violence" for Arendt is self-contradictory. Whereas political action is based on
"binding and promising, combining and covenanting," (Arendt, On
Revolutionquoted in Bernstein, 84), violence is mute and can always destroy
power; yet even as Arendt herself admits: "nothing . . . is more common than
the combination of violence and power, nothing less frequent than to find them
in their pure and therefore extreme form." (Arendt, On Violence, quoted in
Bernstein, 85). Isn't Arendt undermining her own distinctions then with this
admission? Arendt's answer is that political philosophy must precisely bring to
light those distinctions that have been forgotten with the rise of modern

societies, such as between labor, work and action, and thinking, willing and
judging. Political philosophy for Arendt is the "art of making distinctions."
Although she was not a pacifist and thought that there were occasions when the
use of violence was quite legitimate, such as defending oneself against Hitler's
armies by fighting as a Jewish army, Arendt was undoubtedly right in reminding
us of the power of non-violent resistance, whether individual or collective. In the
words of the late Jonathan Schell, who was much inspired by Arendt,
This is the promise of Mohandas K. Gandhi's resistance to the British
Empire in India, of Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil-rights movement in the
United States, of the nonviolent movements jn Eastern Europe and in
Russia that brought down the Soviet Union, and the global success of
democracy in its long contest with the totalitarian challenge. . . . The
century of total violence was, however, discreetly, also a century of
non-violent action.[1]
Both Arendt and Schell point out that the relevant political question never is
whether or not to engage in violence, but to clarify which political options are
open and which are closed and to judge among the politics of violence and nonviolence. Although violent resistance is certainly sometimes justified, as Arendt
admits in her discussion of Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth (1961), one
must also consider the political institutions that emerge out of such violent
resistance and the damage that violence inflicts on the psyches of all involved.
Bernstein agrees with Arendt in reading Fanon's work not as a glorification but
as a critiqueof violence (122ff).
The most surprising chapter is the penultimate one on the great Egyptologist
and cultural philosopher Jan Assmann, who in 1977 published his
controversial,Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western
Monotheism. Assmann is concerned with "mnemohistory," that is, the past as
remembered, narrated and passed down in memory. It is not so much the
historical question whether Moses was not a Jew but a rebellious Egyptian
priest or nobleman, which concerns Assmann, but rather the distinction between
Hebrew and Egyptian cultures and peoples as narrated and recollected in
Jewish memory through such central rituals as the Passover celebration of the
liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage. And at the heart of this memory
is what Assmann calls "the first distinction" (Assmann quoted in Bernstein, 128),
that is, "the distinction between true and false in religion that underlies more
specific distinctions such as Jews and Gentiles, Christians and pagans,
Muslims and unbelievers." (Assmann quoted in Bernstein, 128) How or why is
this "Mosaic distinction" related to religious violence? It is hard to do justice to
the hermeneutic complexities involved both in Assmann's text and Bernstein's
discussion as refracted through Sigmund Freud's essay on Moses and
Monotheism (composed from 1937-1939) in this brief space. But the question
which preoccupies Bernstein is:
If the Mosaic distinction is as rigorous and as absolute as Assmann
indicates, and if it introduces a new kind of religious truth -- 'absolute,
revealed, metaphysical, or fideistic truth' -- that is radically opposed to

all false religions, then it would seem that the Mosaic distinction
isintrinsically violent. (143)
This is a disturbing conclusion not only because it echoes some of the wellknown anti-Judaism of German thinkers who saw in Judaism a "religion of
command and obedience" alone (Kant as well as the young Hegel thought so),
but also because religious violence then becomes intrinsic to all monotheistic
religions that distinguish between "true" and "false" religion. Bernstein quotes
Assmann's use of Schmitt's categories in his Of God and Gods. "What, then, is
religious violence? By this term I mean a kind of violence that stems from the
distinction of friend and foe in a religious sense." (Assmann quoted in Bernstein,
151) Whereas Freud saw in monotheism a step toward spirituality or
intellectuality (Fortschritt in der Geistigkeit), toward Enlightenment, Assmann
appears more ambivalent toward the enlightening legacy of monotheism, in the
sense that both violence and progress seem contained in this step.
Unlike Benjamin, for whom divine violence would bring transformative justice
that would right all wrongs, for Assman any concept of the monotheistic divine is
itself marked by the "murderous distinction" that carries the seeds of political as
well as religious violence. Given how deeply monotheism is imbricated in the
fibers of our culture, what is being said then?: that we, the legatees of Jewish,
Christian and Muslim monotheisms, are condemned to repeat cycles of violence
-- a view which Bernstein also seems to endorse? (177ff.) How can the level of
abstraction at which such assertions are made really help us understand the
entangled history of religious borrowings and competition, of coexistence as
well as toleration? It is too easy to posit "the limits of toleration" to have been
just an Enlightenment illusion without analyzing historically and philosophically
the ways in which monotheistic religions have had to incorporate into their own
doctrinal and political hermeneutic the existence of "other" truths, thus
struggling with forms of tolerance as aspects of religious doctrine. [2] Nor can
such a culturalist perspective explain why and how Sunni and Shi'a or Serb and
Bosnian populations, which had coexisted for centuries, all of a sudden erupt in
violence. The theory of the "murderous distinction" explains too much and too
little: it explains too much because it postulates the intrinsic propensity toward
religious violence at all times and among all monotheistic peoples, and it
explains too little because when violence erupts it has little to say about why or
how, under these particular circumstances, here and now?
I have to ask whether Bernstein, despite his balanced and sagacious reading of
all these thinkers, is not too indulgent of theories of violence that, with very few
exceptions, lack historical and socio-economic specificity. Is it plausible to flirt
with theories of violence in order to free oneself from the "stultifying Kantianism"
of the present? When the chips are down and distinctions need to be made
between legitimate power and structural violence, symbolic violence and the
like, how are we supposed to be able to do that without normative thinking,
whether Kantian or not?
We need to remind ourselves of Jonathan Schell's words:

in a steady and irreversibly widening sphere, violence, always a mark


of human failure and a bringer of sorrow, has now also become
dysfunctional as a political instrument. Increasingly, it destroys the
ends for which it is employed, killing the user as well as his victim. It
has become the path to hell on earth and the end of the earth. This is
the lesson of the Somme and Verdun, of Auschwitz and BergenBelsen, of Vorkuta and Kolyma; and it is the lesson, beyond a shadow
of a doubt, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[3]

[1]

Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World. Power, Nonviolence, and the


Will of the People (A Metropolitan Book: New York, 2003), p. 9.
[2]

See here Rainer Forst's impressive work, Toleration in Conflict. Past and
Present, trans. by Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2013).
[3]

Schell, The Unconquearable World, p. 7.