Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Towards the end of On Violence, Arendt makes the following side-remark without developing it any further:
“For better or worse -- and I think there is every reason to be fearful as well as hopeful -- the really new and potential revolutionary class in society will consist of intellectuals, and their potential power, as yet unrealized, is very great, perhaps too great for the good of mankind. But these are speculations.”
You could hear an echo of this idea, which we may call “intellectual violence,” in Agamben’s early (and still untranslated) essay, “On the Limits of Violence.” Following in Arendt’s footsteps, he begins by admitting that on the face of it any link between violence and politics seems contradictory, because politics is the sphere of language, of persuasion, from which brute violence is strictly excluded. Nevertheless, Agamben argues that today we are witnessing with our own eyes the emergence of a new phenomenon that he calls “linguistic violence.” Probably the most obvious example for the way by which the modern age transforms the apparatus of language into a special form of violence is propaganda (in late capitalism, we seem to prefer the terms “public relations” or “advertisement”). Violence can become an integral part of language at the moment in which language crosses the thin line between rational persuasion and psychological manipulation. On the other hand, one could add that today it becomes clear how certain acts that we would traditionally call “violent” -- from independent terrorist attacks to established wars -- are nothing but twisted means of persuasion or manipulation of public opinion. Linguistic means and violent means -- which were completely separated in Arendt’s mind -- therefore enter a dangerous zone of indetermination, where the expression “linguistic violence” no longer appears to be contradictory at all. Agamben further claims that even the modern world of letters could be suffused with the sort of powerful linguistic violence that already led Plato to call for the banning of poetry from the Greek city. Agamben therefore treats Sade as an example of an author who exercised, by means of his writings, a form of intellectual violence that
"would go on having perpetual effect, in such a way that so long as I lived, at every hour of the day and as I lay sleeping at night, I would be constantly the cause of a particular disorder, and that this disorder might broaden to the point where it brought about a general corruption so universal or a disturbance so formal that its effects would still be felt even after my life was over"
The hypothesis that I would like to advance is that the field of human actions that we have placed under the provisional titles “intellectual violence” and “linguistic violence” is precisely what Benjamin calls “pure violence.” In “Critique of Violence,” Benjamin describes his adjacent notion “divine violence” as certain acts of God that have nothing to do with laws or boundaries, acts that are not meant as His retribution for the wrongdoing of the people. Such divine acts are supposed to evoke in the people neither fear nor guilt, but expiation or atonement. When humans witness an act of divine violence they usually come to change their ways, their minds and hearts, but not because of the threat that breaking God’s word will lead to dire consequences (like little children who finish their lunch only to be allowed to go out and play). Though divine violence might certainly be lethal, its aim is not the bloody annihilation of the bare lives of its victims, but first and foremost the transformation of the form of life of those who remain alive.
Benjamin’s only example of this divine violence is the Biblical story of Korah and his followers, who rebelled against Moses and were consequently swallowed alive by the earth. But I think that even more illustrative is the story of Jonah, to whom Scholem dedicated “On Jonah and the Concept of Justice,” an essay from 1919 that appears to be the model for Benjamin’s conception of divine violence. Scholem explains that what is so streaking about the Book of Jonah is its substitution of law for justice. Since it contains very little concrete prophesy, it is essentially a “pedagogical” or “didactic” book: “A human being is taught a lesson about the order of what is just. And there is indeed no figure more representative for the teacher than God himself, nor one more representative for the student than the prophet.” Jonah’s rebellion against God and his subsequent expiation (after spending three days and three nights inside the belly of a whale) is thus essentially a story about the education of the prophet, who is presented to the reader, according to Scholem, as “a childlike person.”
Going back to Benjamin’s essay, we could now easily understand his decision to move away from the notion of divine violence to an assertion that is one of the most decisive, and most neglected, in his entire cryptic essay: “This divine violence,” he writes, “is not only attested by religious tradition but is also found in present-day life in at least one sanctioned manifestation. Educative violence (erzieherische Gewalt), which in its perfect form stands outside the law, is one of its manifestations.” How, then, are we to understand this “educative violence”? In the narrow sense, it could stand for the (rather ineffective and usually controversial) violent measures (from spanking to detention and beyond) used by teachers or parents in order to achieve their pedagogical goals. But in a more general sense, one could define any effective form of education as a form of pure, immediate, and bloodless violence that does not appeal to a law or an end, but to a different way of thinking or living. Of course, education in this sense goes way beyond what we tend to reduce to “formal education” within the confines of the “education system.” The state’s monopoly on educative violence in the past two centuries is quite impressive, but far from being complete. Moreover, frontal education, with its fixation on the presence of a teacher and a student one in front of the other, is clearly not the only possible method to influence the way people think and act. From this perspective, education can be strictly distinguished from indoctrination (into an explicit or implicit set of laws or rules). In fact, education could be seen as something that you do to yourself much more than something that is done to you. Our model here could be the autodidact, the self-taught person, who is perhaps the pure incarnation of what Agamben calls in his early essay "self-violence." Any linguistic or intellectual endeavor, any human deed or act, that has the power to make or remake a human being, that allows one to see or do things differently, that has some ethical or political effect, has from this perspective an educative power.
Despite Arendt’s struggle against the confusion of violence with power, the sphere of the coming political power could therefore be ultimately indistinguishable from the sphere of pure violence, as long as both are conceived in their intellectual, linguistic, or educative manifestations. Following this lead, it becomes apparent why the opposite of bloody wars is not peace, but what we sometimes call “cultural war” -- which could be understood as the pure form of civil war -- where the guiding question is not whether we are going to live, but how are we going to live. The true threat (or blessing) is not necessarily death, but a different form of life, which is, when push comes to shove, what we need to fight for (or against). But it is also important not to forget Arendt’s warning that “words used for the purpose of fighting lose their quality of speech; they become clichés,” which then leads to an “impotent language, degraded to pure instrument,” as Benjamin once put it. Linguistic, intellectual, or educative violence could properly be called “pure” only when it remains within a sphere of means that are not directed at a particular or ultimate end, only which it has nothing whatsoever to do with law, only when it merges with the life that Agamben calls “form-of-life,” for which what is at stake in its way of living is living itself, and what is above all at stake in living itself is a way of life.