A Bullshit-y, Obscure Post: Literature as Violence

Posted by @ 6:21 pm on February 16th, 2010

From Walter Benjamin’s essay “Critique of Violence”:

If the rule of myth is broken occasionally in the present age, the coming age is not so unimaginably remote that an attack on law is altogether futile. But if the existence of violence outside the law, as pure immediate violence, is assured, this furnishes proof that revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of unalloyed violence by man, is possible, and shows by what means. Less possible and also less urgent for human kind, however, is to decide when unalloyed violence has been realized in particular cases. For only mythic violence, not divine, will be recognizable as such with certainty, unless it be in incomparable effects, because the expiatory power of violence is invisible to men. … Divine violence, which is the sign and seal but never the means of sacred dispatch, may be called “sovereign” violence.

Benjamin distinguishes between two species of violence: mythic violence, which founds and preserves law for the sake of law, and divine violence, which washes away law, expiates, and which emerges from outside of law, without bloodshed–divine violence is wholly other to the law. “God is the name of this pure violence,” Derrida writes in “Force of Law,” “and just in essence: there is no other, there is none prior to it and before that it has to justify itself. Authority, justice, power, and violence are all one in him.” According to Derrida, mythic violence is the undecidable–law itself–which is instantly readable, whereas divine is the decision which is always yet to be read, the unreadable decision. The anarchy to-come.

Of course the issue, as always, is much more complex, but I would like to ask: is the task of literature to embody this divine violence? To abolish law in secret–and because it cannot be read as such, because it resists being targeted as what has dissolved the law, is it always an abolition to-come, a task for the future, a task which names, or renames, but escapes all naming? Only after, for instance, Ulysses has founded a new law is it really revealed as a destroyer of law, as a force of revolution–only after its revolution is it revolutionary. It was the seal of immediate violence but neither the means nor a means.

As we know, language and literature / = / representation. They name, and re-name.

Is the task of literature an infinite task to erase its own law?

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