Benjamin contra Schmitt: A Reappraisal of Agamben through “Critique of Violence”

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Erik Pomrenke looks at Adam Kotsko’s “On Agamben’s Use of Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence'” from Telos 145 (Winter 2008).

“On Agamben’s Use of Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence'” represents an illuminating attempt by Adam Kotsko to reassert the primacy of Walter Benjamin over Carl Schmitt in Giorgio Agamben’s work. These two thinkers serve alongside Heidegger, Aristotle, Foucault, and Arendt as the center of Agamben’s genealogy of bare life; as such, configuring this constellation correctly is of signal importance to the reception of Agamben’s Homo Sacer project. Kotsko contends that Benjamin’s primacy is both a theoretical and chronological matter.

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Giorgio Agamben and the Ambiguity of the Sacred

Robbie Duschinsky’s “Pure and Impure in the Philosophy of Giorgio Agamben” appears in Telos 160 (Fall 2012). Read the full version online at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue here.

The issue of the “ambiguity of the sacred” plays a significant role in Giorgio Agamben’s thought. Both the importance of the pure and impure to Agamben, and the nature of his theory of this issue, are revealed more clearly in his recent text Il Sacramento del Linguaggio. In contrast to functionalist explanations of themes of purity and impurity as an expression and affirmation of the social order (e.g., Emile Durkheim, Mary Douglas), Agamben considers purity and impurity as essentializing discourses. They contribute to the establishment of a transcendent but empty ideal, as the mandate for the social and political governance of individuals. In the course of this analysis, Agamben offers many philosophical reflections on purity and impurity that will be of note to researchers across the social sciences and humanities.

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Ongoing Founding Events in Schmitt and Agamben

Jeffrey Bussolini’s “Ongoing Founding Events in Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben” appears in Telos 157 (Winter 2011). Read the full version online at the TELOS Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue here.

This article considers ongoing founding events in the work of Carl Schmitt and its interpretation by Giorgio Agamben. The term refers to decisive “events” in Schmitt, which, although they may be exceptional (or perhaps because they are), play a continual role in generating and maintaining the political order. These events are not merely mythic or imaginary devices to describe politics, like the social contract and the veil of ignorance. These events are crucial, in Schmitt’s terms, for understanding “concrete reality.” His idea that the event of decision generates sovereignty, and the related formulation of the friend-enemy distinction founding the political order, are the initial and best-known examples of this argument, and they form a paradigm for considering other instances of this kind in his work and that of Agamben. The article contains five subsections considering events that have enduring effects on the political order. The term “ongoing founding events” calls attention to the persisting action and effect of these events, distinguishing them from historical turns or developments which don’t seem to have the same degree of internal necessity for contemporary politics. In addition to multiple interrelations between them, these five aspects share the evental structure of the exception as described by Schmitt and its special epistemological status for understanding concrete reality and the norm itself.

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On the Exception and the Rule

Ulrike Kistner’s “The Exception and the Rule: Fictive, Real, Critical” appears in Telos 157 (Winter 2011). Read the full version online at the TELOS Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue here.

Walter Benjamin’s famous statement, in the eighth of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), that “the state of exception in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” has become as normalized as its proposition asserts. Yet it has given rise to different and contrasting understandings variously bounced around between Carl Schmitt, Benjamin, and Giorgio Agamben. Benjamin’s thesis could be read in correlation with Schmitt’s invocation of the state of exception to protect the Weimar Constitution from its own fragility. However, this would not explain the adjective “real” in “a real state of exception” of the task posed by the thesis. The term clearly points in the direction of the distinction between “fictive” and “real” states of exception, which in turn brings into focus the distinction and relation between sovereign and commissarial dictatorship, as outlined by Schmitt in his history of the concept of sovereignty. It is within the paradox of an impossible form of sovereign dictatorship that Schmitt indicates the possibility of constituent power in constitutional democracies. This idea can be connected with the ruptural power of divine violence of Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (1921). While Agamben recognizes some of the lines of derivation of “state of siege” and “state of exception,” he does not realize the critical force of Schmitt’s paradox of sovereign dictatorship or Benjamin’s notion of pure violence. This blind spot is consequential: it eclipses the possibility of critique, along with the imagination figuring possibilities of the new.

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Telos 157 (Winter 2011): Plato, Schmitt, Agamben

Telos 157 (Winter 2011) is now available for purchase here.

The political disorder grows ever thicker. As of this writing, the European financial crisis seems as far away from resolution as ever, although the same complaint might have pertained three months ago nor is the diagnosis likely to lose its validity three months hence. The eurozone insists on tumbling toward an economic catastrophe that may drag the rest of the world down as well. Meanwhile prospects for a liberalizing democracy in the former Communist empire have largely vanished from living (or incarcerated) memory, and the trajectory of the Arab Spring poses more questions than answers. To be sure, things may still take a turn for the good, and the ignominious ends of some of the dictators merit celebration. Yet deserving candidates for violent overthrow and execution remain in power, in Damascus and Tehran, terrorizing their populations, amidst a larger civil war throughout the Middle East. Much of this disorder has profound local roots, stemming from competition among alternative religious traditions, political models, and economic agenda. But some of the instability results as well from the loss of ballast in the wake of the American retreat, itself a symptom of the chaos of American politics. The pre-primary period optimizes neither political virtue nor sober leadership, but even with that qualification, this lead-up to the 2012 electoral season stands out for its chilling hopelessness. It is hard to imagine a happy end to the story. The power of the state continues to expand, which undermines the integrity of individuals, but its capacity to influence the economy nonetheless diminishes. Disorder surrounds us, and the center gives way. Is there room for civic virtue?

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