Critique(s) of Violence
A series of online-events, hosted by the University of Amsterdam
In the winter of 1920/21, Walter Benjamin penned his “Critique of Violence,” a short essay which, despite (or perhaps because of) its apodictic style, its opaque use of metaphor, and its erratic argumentation has lost none of its fascination today. During the last 30 years, it has become a common point of reference for an array of academic disciplines that are concerned with scope, shape, and function of the different forms of violence associated with the modern nation state. The years 2020/21 mark the 100th anniversary of the writing and publication of this radical and timely essay. This event series takes up this occasion to explore its philosophical validity and political relevance for today.
Although Benjamin’s essay is thematically extremely rich and linguistically ambitious, the focus of these events is on the concrete political, legal, and social issues it addresses. His opening question: “whether violence, as a principle, could be a moral means even to just ends” poses an obvious challenge to the state’s claim to a monopoly on the use of force. Following Kant’s deontological moral philosophy, Benjamin unsparingly scrutinizes all forms of violence and in particular its use for legal purposes. Against the ideological, or as Benjamin says, “mythical” perpetuation of violence through law, he follows a Jewish-messianic tradition by aiming at a non-statist form of commandment that can be seen as opposing or distancing itself from the state. The “Critique of Violence” thus not only formulates a fundamental critique of state-sanctioned violence in all its different forms, it nothing less but reconceptualizes the foundational categories of the occidental legal and political tradition. Finally, Benjamin demands from us to think a fundamental social transformation that does not merely replace the holder of state violence but rigorously overcomes state power and the violence it depends on; hence to invent a new form of non-coercive community.
Many of the topics raised by Benjamin in his essay a century ago are of pressing urgency today. States have aggregated unprecedented amounts of violence and seem to be less and less capable to contain or mitigate it by means of democratic control or judicial oversight. Mass incarceration, police brutality, internment and deportation, and military interventions are but the most visible instances of state-inflicted violence; which in addition often works hand in hand with extra-legal forms of violence against marginalized and vulnerabilized groups. Benjamin’s text provides useful tools to describe, evaluate, and overcome unnecessary or illegitimate forms of violence.
At the same time, a multitude of political movements has formed to protest these forms of violence. Among them are prison abolitionist groups, the Black Lives Matter movement or refugee and no border activism. These groups often do not simply reject contemporary instances of violence, but at the same time try to come up with alternative models of political autonomy, conflict resolution and criminal justice beyond the state and legal coercion. Many of the motifs present in Benjamin’s text resonate in the demands of these movements.
This series is not “about” Benjamin’s essay in the narrow philological sense. Rather, it attempts to bring together scholars from different regional and theoretical backgrounds and invites them to address the topics present in it from their own political and philosophical perspectives, utilizing conceptual tools developed in their respective theoretical traditions and fields of activity. Benjamin’s essay thus does not serve as the basis for philological exegesis, but as an inspiration and starting point to explore the question of violence from several locally-bound taxonomies.
All events are open to all and will be hosted online via zoom. To receive the zoom link, send an email to Daniel Loick, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The series is supported by the Philosophy Department of the University of Amsterdam, the Philosophy & Public Affairs Group, the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA), the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Analysis (NICA) and the Goethe-Institute Amsterdam.
Critique(s) of Violence
*all events start at 18.00 h*
“Bloody power over bare life” – critique of borders (Natasha King, Dijon)
October 8th, 2020
“A ghostly presence in the life of civilised state” – critique of the police (Vanessa Thompson, Frankfurt/Oder)
November 5th, 2020
“The great criminal, however repellent his ends” – critique of the production of criminality (Koshka Duff, Nottingham)
December 3rd, 2020
“For with mere life, the rule of law over the living ceases” – sacrificial partisanship (Banu Bargu, Santa Cruz)
February 4th, 2021
“An upheaval that this form of strike not so much causes as consummates” – forms of social transformation (Eva von Redecker, Verona)
March 4th, 2021
“Deposition of Law” – Alternatives beyond state violence (speakers and format tbc)