“This divine power [violence] is not only attested by religious tradition but is also found in present-day life in at least one sanctioned manifestation. The educative power, which in its perfected form stands outside the law, is one of its manifestations.” –Benjamin, “Critique of Violence”. SW 1: 250
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On November 8th 1918 the pressures of the First World War led to the abdication of the German Kaiser; sensing opportunity, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) rushed to consolidate power under Friedrich Ebert. As moderates, they attempted to stem the spectre of Soviet-style Communism advancing in late-war Germany under the leadership of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. By January of 1919 Liebknecht had declared a ‘free socialist republic’, attempting to insight a revolution along the Russian lines. This revolt came to be known as the Spartacist Uprising: Despite gaining popular support, it was plagued by strategic disorganization (around the question of violence) and was met by violent repression from the Freikorps (state police) culminating in the torture and execution of both Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Having ‘legitimated’ itself through the use of force, the SPD would go on to sign the Treaty of Versailles, withdrawing Germany from the war and inaugurating many of the crises of Weimar Germany.
The early 1920s began with a reflection upon such events; thinkers from both the left and the right questioned the use of ‘violence’ as a means to political ends, along with the relationship of ‘the political’ vis-à-vis ‘the state’. Two important respondents emerged, Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt, each attempting to think ‘the political’ in a fundamental sense, alongside the basis of state sovereignty. According to Schmitt’s Political Theology, the paradox of any state (or constitutional order) is that it is founded by a “sovereign decision,” which both precedes and grounds specific legal considerations. State and legal authority is founded on the mythical ambiguity of the figure of the sovereign—an ambiguity demonstrated in the sovereign’s decision regarding the “exceptional case” (5). Or rather, the ability to decide (absolutely) when laws should be suspended or enacted. For Schmitt modern states had not moved beyond earlier theological-mythical models of authority (dictatorship, monarchy); in fact, they had forgotten such myths as their true basis. Benjamin will also diagnose such myths as fundamental to modern authority (specifically in “Critique of Violence”), though for him the myths must be overcome, not re-established. In order for political action to occur in a meaningful sense, one must understand the mythical foundation (and origin) of modern sovereignty and, in light of this, develop new techniques of resistance.
This essay will develop an important thread in Benjamin’s work, namely, a conception of politics capable of resisting the mythical foundation of the authority (or the law). This will be done by arguing that an affinity exists between his early writings on politics and violence (1920-21) and his 1934 essay on Kafka (“Franz Kafka: On the 10th Anniversary of his Death”)—an essay generally not considered relevant in considerations of Benjamin’s political theory. It will be shown that Benjamin reads Kafka as descriptive of the ‘mythical’ foundation of authority, while also elaborating possible modes of resistance to such a foundation. This will be shown as a fusing of theological and materialist domains, more generally a gesture at the heart of Benjamin’s thinking. This can be expressed as a certain ‘cunning of theology’: a ‘practical’ theology by which one is able to reclaim a sense of the political in the present moment, allowing for the ability to ‘study’ or act beyond the law. As will be demonstrated, this relates to Benjamin’s broader attempt to employ theology to political ends, or rather to fuse the influence of Scholem with that of Brecht.
In what follows, Benjamin’s early ‘critique of violence’ will be elaborated, presenting his conception of ‘divine violence’ as a mode of resisting the mythical basis of authority. Following this, the changing face of sovereignty (and the law) in modernity will be elaborated via Kafka and Benjamin’s early writings on the relationship between capitalism and myth. Once the mythical foundation of authority has been presented, Benjamin’s model for resistance will be expounded via his 1934 essay on Kafka: This will be shown as developing an immanent conception of theology which allows for a liberation of ‘study’ from the confines of the law, and in turn affords a sense of political action informed by Brecht.
The relevance of such questions for our time is not difficult to discern, in fact one could pose the question: Have our critiques and conceptions of politics correctly understood the mythical and ambiguous nature of the law? Today the drastic increase in explicit state sovereignty, alongside the haphazard curtailing of individual freedoms, suggests that perhaps we have not moved fundamentally beyond the political discourses of Weimar Germany. This work attempts to demonstrate Benjamin’s imperatives for thinking politics, so that they might be used in analysis of our contemporary situation.
BENJAMIN’S EARLY ‘CRITIQUES’ OF VIOLENCE (1920-21)
“The decisive moment of human development is continually at hand. This is why those moments of revolutionary thought that declare everything preceding to be an irrelevance are correct—because nothing yet has happened.” –Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms, #6.
In an early fragment, “The Right to Use Force” (1920), Benjamin problematizes any politics that would “deny the right of the state and the individual to use force [Gewalt],” rejecting any ‘ethical anarchism’ (or liberal humanism) that would attempt to ground the security of the person in an ethical or constitutional order (Selected Writings Volume 1: 231). For Benjamin such a belief pre-supposes an abstract concept of ‘justice’ (‘good’ and ‘evil’ à la Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality) and fails to understand the purpose of ‘the law’, which finds its truth in its own ‘self preservation’ and instantiates itself on the level of ‘fate’ and ‘myth,’ realms which most theories of politics generally fail to consider. The law is not based on what is ‘just’ or ‘good’ but on a mythical and violent desire for self preservation. This early text lays the imperative that politics (and critique) must be undertaken on a fundamental level (to follow Nietzsche again, ‘beyond’ good and evil), articulating the underlying force of ‘the law’ beyond its specific instantiations (‘laws’). Benjamin will further advocate that political analyses must proceed via his own ‘historical-philosophical method’, that is, through an exploration of the historical emergence and justification of various political ideologies. Concepts such as ‘justice’ and ‘violence’ must be understood historically—not as abstract or a-historical concepts, but as emerging in particular historical-philosophical contexts. In critiquing violence, Benjamin sought to understand when its use could be justified, understanding it in a historical sense: In what circumstance(s) is the use of force called for, and how would one arrive at such a criterion?
Benjamin elaborates this in his 1921 “Critique of Violence,” where he criticises the understanding of violence (and politics) in both positive and natural law, both of which think politics as a ‘means’ to a certain ‘end’—the latter within the structure of a liberal Darwinism (as in Hobbes) and the former within a positivistic socialism. Via Sorrel’s distinction between the ‘political strike’ (‘law-preserving’, ‘mythical’ violence) and the ‘general strike’ (initiating its own ‘law-creating’, ‘divine violence’), Benjamin formulates political action in a broader and unconditioned sense with his infamous formulation of ‘divine violence’, a mode by which one can destroy the myths of the present and establish a new political order: “If mythic violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law destroying; if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythic violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates (…) if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood” (SW 1: 249-50). What is essential to note regarding ‘divine violence’ is its constructive capacity beyond the existing political order; it is not a ‘means’ to an established ‘end’ but a ‘purity of means’ in itself. It is in fact not ‘violent’ in a conventional sense: for Sorrel the ‘general strike’ (a stoppage of work in all spheres) is non-violent in that it interrupts the existing order, inaugurating its own logic. It does not violently attack the existing order but constructively inaugurates its own. For Benjamin, it is such gestures of ‘divine violence’ that are key to breaking the mythical cycle of the established political order—of inaugurating a new logic beyond existing laws.
Many, however, have noted the ambiguous (or problematic) nature of such formulations, downplaying them as ‘mystery mongering’ or ‘Jewish fascism’ and emphasising, instead, the more materialist aspects of Benjamin’s thinking as relevant to politics. Many of these criticisms arise out of a misunderstanding of the notion of ‘divine violence’ as explicitly advocating violence. Yet upon closer examination of the text this is clearly not the case: Not only does Benjamin argue that it has a constructive capacity beyond the existing political order (as shown in the previous paragraph), but he explicitly asserts that such a ‘divine’ capacity is mirrored in the constructive (non-violent) resolutions carried out in individual human relations. As in the quotation from the epigraph: “This divine [violence] (…) is also found in present-day life in (…) [t]he educative power, which in its perfected form stands outside the law” (SW 1: 250). This ‘educative power’ can be argued as the concept of ‘critique’ (or criticism) throughout Benjamin’s oeuvre, a mode by which criticism stands against myth in formulating new political possibilities beyond the existing order.
Thus these early political writings should not be repressed in favor of Benjamin’s later writings but should be seen as continuous in the development of a model of resistance to myth and the mythical foundation of authority. In such analyses Kafka seems a likely ally with his descriptions of the mystical aspects of the legal process; yet Benjamin will go further, employing Kafka to elucidate a constructive (and practical) model for politics via Brecht. These early formulations regarding the possibilities of divine violence should not be seen as overcome, rather as supplemented by a broader analysis of the law and by theological and materialist models of resistance.
Benjamin’s 1934 “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death” can be read as an extension of this early analysis of the mystical foundations of authority and the political possibilities therein. The essay itself should be seen as illustrative of two trajectories in Benjamin’s thinking more generally, an attempt to combine theological notions informed by Scholem with materialist politics informed by Brecht. Thus treated in the following considerations will not be Kafka himself but Benjamin as a reader of Kafka—reading Kafka allegorically so as to elaborate broader trajectories in Benjamin’s thinking. Throughout 1934 Benjamin composed the text in ‘correspondence’ with Brecht and Scholem—this is seen in a spatial and intellectual sense—earlier in the year conversing with Scholem regarding Jewish theology, and in the summer writing the essay at Brecht’s home in Svendborg, Denmark. It is in this sense that Benjamin would locate Kafka “at the crossroads at which my thought has taken” (Correspondences 139): as an attempt to supplement early analyses of the mythical foundation of authority with a practical model of resistance.
“Philosophy is always already constitutively related to the law, and every philosophical work is always, quite literally, a decision on this relationship.” –Agamben, Potentialities, 161.
During his summer in Denmark in 1934, Benjamin penned the following to Scholem: “I hold Kafka’s steady insistence on the law to be the blind spot of his work, by which I only want to say, that it appears to me impossible to put it interpretively into motion by way of this notion” (BSC 135-36). The drafts of the letter go further in downplaying ‘the law’ as “(…) the drawer of a mystery-monger” (Gesammelte Schriften 1245). Students of Kafka’s work will find such statements puzzling, especially given the primacy of the legal process in his writing; yet such bewilderment is perhaps due to the conflation of definite and indefinite denotation (i.e. ‘laws’ with ‘the law’). Kafka depicts legal proceedings with clerk-like clarity, though the telos or force of such processes is rarely broached—the goal of the law remains enigmatic. Kafka’s figures are left bewildered as to what crime they have (supposedly) committed, or where the true boundary of the father’s law lies. The particular nature of their transgression is notably left unspecified, and they are sentenced in ignorance to the basis of the law. It is precisely this ‘enigmatic character’ of the law which Benjamin broaches, via his reading of Pushkin’s Potemkin,  at the outset of his essay on Kafka: “The enigma which beclouds this story is Kafka’s enigma” (Selected Writings, Volume 2: 795). Though absent, the force or basis of ‘the law’ is read by Benjamin as the central aspect of Kafka’s work. Hence the ‘semblance-like character’ of its particular instantiations (‘laws’), “that in truth are only for display” (GS 1172). This ‘enigmatic’ or ‘semblance-like’ character of particular laws demonstrates not that the law is inessential, rather that its authority lies in some ambiguous elsewhere; what Rodolphe Gasché will define as the “lawless character of the law” (979)—a mythical and “law-preserving violence” [Gewalt].
Benjamin notes the lack of ‘firm outlines’ characteristic of the holders of power in Kafka’s world, “[w]e meet these holders of power in constant slow movement, rising or falling” (SW 2: 795). These figures do not draw their authority from explicit sovereignty (or a ‘position’) but from the strange realm of ‘pre-history’ [Ur-geschichte]. Kafka presents this as the ‘swamp world’ of Bachofen: a primordial matriarchal-tellurian world which underpins paternal models of authority, providing them with their mythical force. Yet Kafka does not allude to the relation of his world to our own; though, as Gasché speculates, “Kafka’s world is our world, in which the powers of myth have become magnified to such a degree as to make it the most terrible pre-historic world so far” (GS 982). Kafka’s world presents a ‘distortion’ [Entstellung] of our world to reveal the mystical foundation of authority: “pre-history [is] Kafka’s secret present” (GS 1165). Or rather, Kafka’s work explicates the pre-historical elements underpinning modern authority, laws.
For Benjamin, modernity did not entail a decisive break with such primordial myths, and he reads Kafka’s work to demonstrate the metamorphosis of sovereignty, the law under the pressures of capitalist social relations. For Marx and Lukács, capitalism reproduces itself not only via commodity exchange but also through the ‘naturalization’ of capitalist social relations, such that exchange relations appear as ‘self-evident natural laws’. In Lukács, the concept of ‘second nature’ is elaborated to explain the naturalization of such relations to the extent that capital serves the role ‘nature’ once did: the field of necessity against which human action must take place. In modernity capitalism has merged with the setting, moving beyond its particular instantiations (the ‘laws’ of exchange, wages, etc.), becoming or regressing to a primordial and mythical force—becoming fated and necessary. Describing this regression, Benjamin writes: “In this phase of capitalism [modernity], certain elementary relations as Bachofen’s swamp time become re-actualized” (GS 1201). Kafka’s work presents in stark repose the mythical and regressive elements of capitalism and modernity more generally—that the myths of the past have not so much been overcome but repressed. For Benjamin Kafka exposes (via distortion) the mythical foundation of authority still present in modernity—that modernity had not broken with myth. Hence Benjamin will write, “Kafka did not consider the age in which he lived as an advance over the beginnings of time. His novels are set in a swamp world” (SW 2: 808-09), that is, the world of myth.
This regression of capital to the level of mythology is discussed in Benjamin’s 1921 “Capitalism as Religion”: “Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement” (SW 1: 288). Capital enacts a metamorphosis of personal obligations into those of exchange, rendering them relations of creditor and debtor [Schulden] by disseminating guilt [Schuld] and accusation generally. This process is seen in Kafka through the conflation of laws from various spheres; the law of the father and the last judgement amount to the same thing. As Benjamin writes: “The sin of which they [the fathers] accuse their sons seems to be a kind of original sin” (SW 2: 796). In Kafka various laws have combined into one terrifying law, one which determines guilt through accusation and to which none have access: “It is characteristic of this legal system, that one is sentenced not only in innocence, but also in ignorance” (SW 2: 797).
Justice [Recht] will be of little help either, one need only recall Joseph K’s fate in The Trial. As Benjamin asserts in “Critique of Violence,” myth bastardizes violence and justice in the creation of the law. Hence what appears as ‘justice’ is in reality a “violence crowned by fate” (SW 1: 242), the ‘law-preserving violence’ at the heart of the law. In Kafka’s world, the law is presented as equally unjust [un-recht], yet it is this corruptibility that provides a semblance of hope. One must employ cunning and other means of deferral, rather than attempt to get justice on one’s side. Joseph K. grasps something of this in his discussions with Titorelli (The Trial). One will not be proved innocent, yet can prevent the trial from reaching conclusion, providing the small hope that exists in deferral: “’What is common to both methods is that they prevent the accused from being sentenced. But they also prevent him from being really acquitted,’ said K” (115).
In this horrific world of myth, explicit law (or parables) may be of some help, as Benjamin writes: “written law being one of the first victories scored over this world” (SW 2: 797). Written law becomes a mode of structuring existence against the myths of ‘second nature’, not as a moral victory but simply as a mode of deferral. For the Jews in exile such written law (The Torah, Kabballah) provided a way of dealing with the force of the divine and their condition as émigrés—remaining on the level of the Aggadah in an attempt to glimpse the Halakhah. Given this mystical foundation of authority, what can be said with respect to politics, or resistance? Should one attempt to understand it rationally in the form of critique as the ‘man from the country’ in Kafka’s “Before the Law”? Or can other modes of resistance be elaborated that allow one to shed guilt and act meaningfully in the present?
THEOLOGY IN THE SERVICE OF POLITICS
“It is only our notion of time that allows us to speak of the last judgement, in fact it is a court martial.” –Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms, #40
Given this transmutation (or explication) of the law in modernity, one is led to question the possibilities of redemption in a theological, or secular, sense: does a hope exist in Kafka’s world, and if so, for whom? For Scholem and Benjamin Kafka’s work provided a mode to discuss the fundamental tenants of Jewish thought, articulating their respective views of theology and revelation (messianism) as possible readings of Kafka’s parables. Their correspondence specifically surrounding Kafka contains many of Benjamin’s most explicit statements on theological matters, thus in order to understand these views it is instructive to articulate them against Scholem’s more orthodox views.
Both thinkers rejected a straightforward Judaeo-theological reading of Kafka’s work, agreeing that he was not a proponent of a religion in a conventional sense. Kafka’s texts presented a fracture between the Aggadah (Parable) and the Halakhah (Law), a nihilistic world in which redemption or revelation appears absent. The question is then shifted as to what is to be decided or deciphered in Kafka’s world: Would there come a moment of ‘revelation’ of the law or a last judgement in a religious or more secular sense? Or, do Kafka’s profanations provide points, or moments of hope?
For Scholem, Kafka’s world is a nihilism in need of redemption—the ‘nothingness of revelation’, (Nichts der Offenbarung)— or rather, the nothingness prior to redemption. Despite Kafka’s pessimistic world, the possibility of redemption or the revelation of the law still exists, however slight. The law is not absent or ‘enigmatic,’ it just cannot be deciphered at this moment. This relates allegorically to the exiled tradition of the Jewish people: exiled out of the divine, and into a finitude of understanding. Within this exiled condition one must remain reticent, studying parables so as to catch a glimpse of revelation of the ‘true’ law, or the last judgement. For Scholem, Kafka’s students are exemplary of such gestures, in their studies they hold open the possibility of future revelation: “Those pupils of whom you speak at the end are not so much those who have lost the scripture…but rather those students who cannot decipher it” (BSC 127). This element of decipherability (contra absence) holds out that redemption may in fact manifest itself: Though its content cannot be recognized at this moment, perhaps one day it will be. Hence a hermeneutic importance is placed upon ‘study’. Through engagement with the law and parables (in Scholem’s case the Torah) one catches a glimpse of the redemptive messianic moments hidden in the present. Hence the nihilism of Kafka’s world is not absolute; though redemption appears absent at this moment, it exists as a possibility to come—as something deferred, not wholly absent.
Benjamin will find such views problematic due to their evacuation of the present-moment in favor of some future revelation; that justice for the present will come from the future. For Benjamin such a view mortgages the present and does not account for the absolute nihilism that is Kafka’s world. Already in “Critique of Violence” Benjamin was skeptical of such futural promises of justice, or that the myths of the present could be overcome or revealed by some future enlightened order. In fact, it is a myth of enlightenment—of the rational articulation of such mythical structures—that Benjamin’s notion of political action attempts to overcome. In Kafka’s world one cannot resist via rational categories, and such enlightened categories have come to serve the greater rationality of domination.
One cannot attempt to maintain or prove one’s innocence before the law (The Trial); attempt to survey or reach the castle (or The Castle); or logically integrate oneself into American society (Amerika)—resistance must proceed by other means. Benjamin reads Kafka as a thinker of immanence, as one who does not hold out hope for some future redemption, but demonstrates the small fragments of hope existing in the present. Instead of holding out for future redemption, one should look to those who remain innocent in Kafka’s world, which is the same as those who are not accused: “assistants (…) for whom in Kafka’s world, there is ‘an infinite amount of hope’” (BSC 135).
For Benjamin, hope exists in Kafka’s world, but perhaps not for us critics. Hope for Kafka is different: It exists only for those fringe figures—the assistants, the students, Karl Rossman, Odradek—those who foreclose future redemption, doing their duty as they can. According to Benjamin it is they who take seriously Scholem’s “Nothingness of Revelation,” but in a literal sense: That there will be no last judgment or final revelation; there is only immanent life (and action) in the present. The world is nihilistic in the sense of having no meaning independent of constructive human projects. As Benjamin’s Baroque, Kafka’s world “knows historical activity only as the depraved goings-on of schemers” (Weber 192). That is, the activity of those who dwell on their duty.
As assistants, they are creatures of becoming, and they find mercy from the apparatus of accusation via the strange immensity of their tasks that seem to perpetually remain in process. As Benjamin will write: “It is for them and their kind, the unfinished and the hapless, that there is hope” (SW 2: 799). This hope comes through the fact that these figures ally themselves wholly with their duty—they do what is in their power and do not overextend themselves into grand narratives of redemption. In so doing, they catch a glimpse of the “nothing which makes anything possible” (SW 2: 813), of the condition of action in the present as such. These figures affirm the minimal innocence granted to them—a celebration of their weak messianic powers.
Hope comes only for those who ally themselves wholly with immanence; those who play their own roles and understand their powers of construction in the present moment. For Benjamin this entails taking seriously the nihilistic ambiguity of the law: it is not simply indecipherable at this moment, it is lost; there is no as-if of redemption in the future, only immanent ‘life’ in the present. Responding to Scholem’s assertions regarding the ‘nothingness of revelation’ Benjamin will write:
You take the ‘nothingness of revelation as your point of departure…I take as my starting point the small nonsensical hope, as well as the creatures for whom this hope is intended and yet now on the other hand are also the creatures in which this absurdity is mirrored…. Whether the pupils have lost it [the law], or whether they are unable to decipher it comes down to the same thing, because without the key that belongs to it, the Scripture is not scripture but life. Life as it is lived in the Village at the foot of the hill on which The Castle is built. (BSC 135)
For Benjamin, Kafka is uninterested in providing a model by which the last judgment could redeem the nihilistic world, rather he begins to think redemption in a wholly profane and immanent sense—the elaboration of ‘life’ as it could be lived at the foot of ‘The Castle’. Kafka depicts the impotence of such grand messianism, yet also demonstrates the potential inherent in the newly awakened power of ‘life’, weak messianism. Kafka’s assistants remain on the level of the profane (immanence), attempting to win “victory over that nothingness,” as Kafka attempted to “feel his way toward redemption” (BSC 129). In foreclosing redemption to come, one gains a renewed sense of the present moment, of the new hope that comes for “those who reckon with the brevity of life in a peculiar way” (SW 2: 799). Hope in Kafka’s world is not for Joseph K., who hopes for justice and future redemption, rather for the lowly figures who understand their condition and do what they can.
Due to the minimal hope such a reading of Kafka provides, the charge of nihilism or defeatism could be leveled against Benjamin. Yet it is just this destruction of utopia, of the grand meta-narrative that is necessary for Benjamin’s concept of political action. In foreclosing the revelation of the law (Halakhah) and future possibilities of redemption, one is able to regain a new sense of action in the present: a minimal victory over the mythical basis of the authority, an ability to think outside the law, liberating a sense or gesture, creativity and experimentation. The constructive possibility of such a method for politics will now be elaborated through Benjamin’s discussion of ‘study’.
STUDYING OUTSIDE THE LAW
“Perhaps these studies had amounted to nothing. But they are very close to that nothing which alone makes it possible for something to be useful—that is, they are very close to the Tao.” –Benjamin, “Franz Kafka”. SW 2: 813.
Given the theological sentiment of the absent or indecipherable Law, the gesture of ‘study’ must undergo a fundamental metamorphosis. What form can study have if it is taken outside the law? In response to this question, Benjamin draws attention to Kafka’s Amerika, a text often overlooked due to its tonal divergence from Kafka’s other novels: “That Amerika is a very special case is indicated by the name of its hero… he undergoes a rebirth and acquires a new name” (SW 2: 800). Joseph K. is metamorphosed to the inquiring and optimistic Karl Rossman, a man who attempts to get by in America, yet stumbles upon the nothing which makes everything possible at the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma in the book’s final chapter. In one particular episode—after fleeing his ex-assistant Delamarche—he interrupts a student reticently studying: “’Am I disturbing you?’ asked Karl. ‘Of course, of course’” (Kafka 262), yet it is unclear what has been interrupted, as the studies do not seem to be getting anywhere. In fact, the dimly lit environment and the student’s readiness to interact with Karl cast doubt on his diligence, and Kafka does much to convey that the end (telos) of these studies may be beside the point. The student’s gestures resemble a monotonous form of prayer, an ascetic repetition, which reaches far beyond the normal range of study.
For Benjamin, these students are part of the interstitial class that inhabits Kafka’s world, “a clan which reckons with the brevity of life in a peculiar way” (SW 2: 813). This includes ‘the assistants’, the hunger-artists, the gatekeepers; those who attain a certain quietus through the monotony and immensity of their tasks. Or it is these tasks which keep them from being accused. As Benjamin is apt to note, it is these figures who understand the logic of Kafka’s world—the way to The Castle, The Law, or the means to avoid The Trial—and this is because they choose only to do what is in their power. In an extremely Taoist moment Benjamin writes regarding the students: “Perhaps these studies had amounted to nothing. But they are very close to that nothing which alone makes it possible for something to be useful” (SW 2: 813). In their foreclosure of ‘ends’ (teleology or revelation), these figures awaken the power of ‘life’ in the present moment—of a life lived as ‘means’ for itself.
It is precisely because their gestures are ‘useless’ that they are the most essential—because they do not aim for some future goal, they come to understand what ‘life’ could mean as lived for itself in the present. In their monotony they catch a glimpse of the ‘nothingness of revelation’—the insight that “hammering is real hammering and at the same time nothing” (SW 2: 813)—that is, the space of construction that is the present moment. Through repetitions such as ‘study,’ or ‘hammering,’ they come to understand nothingness not as empty, but as something which could be filled with meaning through human action, not divine revelation. In the reversal of the students against progress and teleology, the messianism of Scholem is fractured into the weak messianism of Benjamin—to the possibilities in the past and present awakened by foreclosing the future.
These gestures move not only against ‘progress’ in the sense of future revelation but revolt against the authority of the law in the sense of the Halakhah, remaining on the level of the parable (Aggadah) which blasts open the present via storytelling. Benjamin notes that storytelling has always been a mode of fending off the forces of myth, and recalling his 1927 prolegomena (“The Storyteller”), such stories must always be (re)told from the perspective of the present. The parable presents a different relationship to temporality from that of the law: While the law anticipates the future of revelation, the parable re-actualizes the past through its re-telling in the present. One can see many of Benjamin’s writings on history latent in such a conception, yet what is essential to note is the recovery of the present as a site of construction that the gesture of study affords.
For Weber, Kafka’s reversal recovers the pure Mittleilbarkeit (Ability-) of language, a language of means: one outside the law or ends as such. This is the language Benjamin attempts to harness so as to adequately speak politically of the present moment. This would entail the transmutation of ‘study’ outside the Law, and perhaps Kafka’s parables are attempts to enact this; to articulate a life that could be lived at the foot of The Castle in the absence of doctrine or dogma. After all, Kafka’s parables take a swipe at the myth of the authority of the text, and through a certain cunning of storytelling can aid in maintaining the present as a site of construction. In this sense, they fulfill his early conception of divine violence, a constructive gesture beyond the existing order of things. Such stories must always be retold from the perspective of the present, employing the past in constellation so as to open the present as sight of fulfillment, and stand against the myths of the law. Speaking to this ability of the parable, Benjamin writes:
Kafka’s genius lay in the fact that he tried something altogether new: he gave up truth [The Law] so that he could hold to its transmissibility, the [parabolic] haggadic element. Kafka’s writings are by their nature parables. But that in their misery and their beauty, that they had become more than parables. They do not modestly lie at the feet of doctrine [the law], as the Aggadah lies at the feet of the Halakhah. Though apparently reduced to submission, they unexpectedly raise a mighty paw against it. (BSC 225)
In giving up truth, Kafka gained the possibility of trying something new—of experimentation. As Brecht does, he sacrifices the plot via the parable form so that individual gestures can become meaningful for a coming politics. In this context such repetitive gestures gain a further revelatory quality: They become informative to the habits that abound in modernity, to the ‘optical unconscious’ that conditions human action. Through the interruption and repetition of gesture, one glimpses the theatre that is played at in Kafka’s world and in modernity: The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. This theatrical sentiment is exemplary of Brecht’s influence upon Benjamin’s “Kafka” essay in the latter half of 1934, and it will be shown below that much of the piece consists of a response to Brecht’s imperatives regarding Kafka.
BRECHT AND THE SPACE OF THE POLITICAL
“An author who teaches writers nothing teaches no one. What matters, therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able, first, to induce other producers to produce, and, second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers—that is, readers or spectators into collaborators.” –Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”. SW 2: 777.
Benjamin’s “Notes from Svendborg” recounts conversations and experiences with Brecht surrounding the composition of the Kafka piece. According to Brecht, Kafka was a great artist, yet a failure in a more fundamental sense: he was overly mystical, containing little of value for resistance or politics. As Brecht asserts to Benjamin: “You will find a number of very useful things. The Images are good. The rest is just mystery mongering. It is nonsense. You must ignore it. You cannot make progress with depth. Depth is simply a dimension; it is just depth—in which nothing can be seen” (SW 2: 786). For Brecht, Kafka bestows little agency for politics, the image of which is a “man who has fallen at the wheels,” who “offers scarcely any resistance; he is wise” (SW 2: 787; 787). Benjamin is clearly affected by Brecht’s scathing remarks, which are directed against an esoteric thread Brecht sees running through both Benjamin and Kafka—that they succumb to the same myths they attempt to critique. For Brecht such mysticism beclouds the materialist human agency necessary for meaningful political action. Given these criticisms, it is possible to read much of Benjamin’s 1934 essay, specifically the section “The Nature Theatre,” as a response to Brecht’s imperatives—as demonstrative of the practical value of Kafka’s work for analysis and resistance to myth, and further, that theology and materialism could be combined in a meaningful sense. As already argued, the ‘pure means’ of Benjamin’s theological politics restores a sense of the present moment itself; revealing ‘the nothing’ which makes any action, political or otherwise, meaningful. Put otherwise, Kafka aids in recovering a certain dignity of the present moment, weak messianism, which is essential for any practical action.
Hence Benjamin’s discussions of Gesture and Theatre throughout the piece entail an attempt to bridge these two realms—theological, political—and the two figures, Scholem and Brecht, associated with these concerns. Or rather, Benjamin employs Brechtian categories to further demonstrate the possibilities of his immanent theology—a possibility of acting outside the law that is outside of myth. Situating the discussion, Benjamin recalls the final scene from Kafka’s Amerika:
[In Kafka] (…) man is on the stage from the very beginning. The proof is the fact that everyone is hired by the Nature Theatr of Oklahoma. What the standards for admission are cannot be determined. (…) [A]ll that is expected of the applicants is the ability to play themselves. (SW 2: 804)
Upon his entrance to the Nature Theatre, Karl becomes “transparent, pure, without character” (SW 2: 801), an individual who is aware of the nothingness of all things, or rather the Theatre that is perpetually being played. For Benjamin this summons Brecht’s ‘Chinese Theatre’, “which is a theatre of Gesture” (SW 2: 801); here actions are endowed with meeting via their episodic context, they are nothingness in themselves. Hence Kafka’s parables should be read as plays performed in the Nature Theatre, they do not have a definitive, symbolic, a-historical meaning; rather, they are allegorical or episodic in nature. They relate not to a specific idea or doctrine; rather they relate self-referentially to the practice of gesture or action as such. In fact, these gestures generate a narrative around themselves, and are perhaps the condition of all narrative: “Each gesture is an event—one might even say a drama—in itself. The stage on which this drama takes place is the World Theatre, which opens towards heaven” (SW 2: 802). The immensity of individual gestures in Kafka opens past the individual story or parable which contains it, demonstrating the power of gesture, or individual action itself. As Benjamin writes, “the gestures of Kafka’s figures are too powerful for our accustomed surroundings and break out into wider areas” (SW 2: 801). Reminiscent of the Brechtian image of ‘Astonishment’, the overtly dramatic nature of these gestures shocks one into an analysis of the conditions of one’s own Gestus, of the social relations constraining action, while alluding to the modes by which these might be overcome or shaped.
For Brecht, with the sacrifice of the plot (truth, the law (Halakhah) new importance is thrown upon the gestures of individual actors, and Epic Theatre becomes a site where one could experiment with new forms of life; that is, a life that could be lived outside the law, a space of the political beyond myth. As Benjamin writes, “[Kafka] divests human gesture of its traditional supports, and then has a subject for reflection [experimentation] without end” (SW 2: 802).
For Benjamin, ‘studying’ (theology) and ‘acting’ (gesture) amount to the same thing: repetitions which lead to a realization of the nothing which conditions possible action, gestures of ‘divine violence’ which move beyond the current mythical political order. For Weber, this element of repetition (or re-staging) allows a certain perspective, one gains an insight into the conditions of gesture, gaining the possibility of experimentation, and further re-stagings. In reinventing a subject with a minimal distance from itself, one is able to regain a sense of sovereignty or the political in a historical sense: the possibility of a definitive action other than the course of things. As Kafka’s allegory always contains the possibility of an ‘about-face’ (Weber 209) at the last moment, we too discover the singularity of the ‘now-time,’ the existence of the present as the “true state of exception” for sovereign individual action. This is the sense of Benjamin’s pronouncement in “The Author as Producer”: that the political importance of Epic Theatre lies in its ability to “…expose the present moment” (SW 2: 778).
For Brecht and Benjamin, capitalist modernity exposes the body to various forms of reproduction, divesting it of its traditional models of support (as Marx’s alienation). Yet this destruction of human aura opens the new possibility of experimentation, of the ability to reconstruct oneself (and tradition) anew. It is such a site of pure possibility, of the nothing which makes everything possible that Kafka’s gestures attempt to recover. The students not only study the law in their gestures, but through their repetitions they come to recover the fundamental difference of themselves; that is the condition of possibility for action in the present. Throughout his work, Kafka will deliberately inflate the most minute gestures: clapping appears as ‘steam-hammers’ in “Up in the Gallery”; the removal of a bed sheet entails the removal of a cosmic ‘burden’ in “The Judgement”; and study recovers the possibilities of the present. Study for Benjamin then is not the study of a potential decipherability—of the truth of the law—but rather the recovery of the space of gesture construction as such. As his early ‘divine violence’ it contains within it the possibility to break the cycles of myth, allowing one to recover a space of the political in the present.
Thus the figure of resistance in Benjamin’s Kafka (and his thought in general) is the assistant or student, one who forecloses future redemption and discovers the immense capacity of their gestures in the present moment. Benjamin concludes his essay with Kafka’s version of Sancho Panza, the assistant par excellence who embodies such possibilities in Kafka’s world. In his delay and diligence, he becomes the hero of Kafka’s world by simply playing his own role. As Benjamin writes: “The situation of the subject in such experiments is Kafka’s situation; this is what leads him to study, where he may encounter fragments of his own existence—fragments that are still within the context of the role” (SW 2: 814).
For Benjamin “Sancho Panza’s existence is exemplary because it actually consists in re-reading one’s own existence” (BSC 135). In following Don Quixote rather than leading—in going along for the ride—he gains a minimal distance from himself, a perspective on his own immanent distorted position. For Benjamin and Kafka this is perhaps all that can be hoped for in terms of resistance in modernity: repetitions which recover the nothingness of all things and the condition of possibility for constructive political action. Yet, perhaps, this minimal gesture is all that is necessary: a weak messianism that affirms individual action.
“Barbarism? Yes, indeed. We say this in order to introduce a new, positive concept of barbarism. For what does poverty of experience do for the barbarian? It forces him to start from scratch; to make a new start; to make a little go a long way.” –Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty”. SW 2: 732
In “Critique of Violence” Benjamin noted the difficulty of thinking violence and politics beyond traditional means-ends relationships. Both natural and positive law end up preserving the existing mystical order through their use of violence, hence are unable to think politics in the constructive sense afforded by divine violence. Though Benjamin positions divine violence as destructive of myth, he seems skeptical to speak assuredly of its concrete political possibilities beyond his 1921 text. As has been shown, though the term is absent in the rest of his oeuvre, its imperatives regarding the constructive possibilities of politics against myth are continually developed—specifically in his 1934 essay on Kafka. Though he argues the ‘general strike’ as exemplary of the notion, after 1921 he moves away from such grand messianic gestures, focusing instead on the weak messianic capacities afforded to all.
It has also been demonstrated that Benjamin’s early writings on politics and violence attempt to develop the notion of divine violence as a constructive model for politics outside the existing order. Benjamin continues this method in his 1934 essay on Kafka, whose works allow for analysis of the changing face of the law in modernity, while also allowing for the formulation of potential models of resistance through theological and Brechtian categories.
To the inevitable question of what the concrete political program afforded by such work is, Benjamin is uninterested in providing grand narratives of revolution, though he does provide a ‘purity of means’ by which to resist the myths in our time, a mode by which to recover the constructive capacity inherent in the present moment—to think politics beyond the law. Too often one turns to theory for a program for the global revolution, ceding one’s autonomy to the ‘revolutionary situation’ or other dialectical narratives. In so doing one forgets the power one has to act in the present moment, one’s weak messianic capacities. Benjamin’s work will provide no such grand narrative, though it can aid in the recovery of a capacity of divine violence at any moment, of the constructive capacity to resist myth.
Jeremy William Arnott
1. For Schmitt no legal or political order has authority in itself, rather it draws this power (or force) from some primordial ‘elsewhere’. A constitution is not simply valid in-itself, but because it is backed by the power of the state to enforce its principles via its monopoly on violence, or rather its power to suspend the ‘legal norm’ and declare the ‘exceptional case’. In Political Theology Schmitt will write, “[a]ll significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological categories” (36), and he goes on to argue that the authority of the state is based on the secularization of theological notions of the absolute authority of the divine (in a Catholic sense).
2. Until 1936 Schmitt was interested in the possibilities afforded by National Socialism for a revival of the fundamental basis of sovereignty, specifically its emphasis on the ‘Führer’, which Schmitt felt to recapture the primordial force of sovereignty, enacting many of the principles he described in his 1921 work Dictatorship.
3. The term ‘Gewalt’ is difficult to render in English, but should be seen as connoting both ‘force’ and ‘violence.’ The Gewalt of the law is the sense given to it by the force of its (potential) enactment or suspension, or rather the reverence one has to the law because of its capacity to be enacted or suspended in Schmitt’s ‘state of exception’.
4. In his On the Genealogy of Morals (specifically the first treatise “Good and Evil”) Nietzsche presents a historical genealogy of the emergence of such concepts. He asserts that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (and morals more generally) are not abstract or a-historical concepts, rather they emerge in certain historical epochs to justify certain behaviors deemed ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Likewise, in these early writings, Benjamin is asserting that no such a-historical sense of ‘justice’ exists, only that which is justified by the current legal order. Benjamin will in fact go further in asserting justice to be a “Bastard” (SW 1: 252) of the law preserving violence of the current legal order.
5. Positive law “…sees violence as the product of history” (SW 1: 237) and is concerned with a justification of ‘means’, while natural law holds that “…just means can be attained through justified ends” (SW 1: 237), that justified ‘ends’ (such as the preservation of the state) justify the ‘means’ of violence. For Benjamin both are problematic in that they think violence within a binary ‘means’/’ends’ structure. In the essay, Benjamin describes natural law in a Hobbesian sense, as justified because of natural antagonisms in human beings and the need to preserve the state. Benjamin is much more interested in positive law, which attempts to justify the use of violence historically—and the essay itself attempts to determine the criterion by which such a judgment could be made.
6. Most notably Derrida’s essay “Force of the Law: On the Mystical Foundation of Authority,” which calls Benjamin’s distinctions “radically problematic” (Acts of Religion 981), reflected the “…anti- Aufklarung,” sentiments of fascism and the “terrible ethno-political ambiguity of the text” (Acts of Religion 1024). He then goes on to assert Benjamin’s texts as emblematic of the practice (and need) of deconstruction. Gasché however notes that Derrida perhaps misinterprets the importance of (binary) distinctions in the text, drawing attention to the necessary impossibility of Benjamin’s ‘divine violence’ as a specific political program. See Gasché, The Honor of Thinking, 21-38. As is argued in this work, it is perhaps the constructive possibility of thinking the political beyond the current mythical political order.
7. Throughout much of Benjamin’s work, critique is a historical gesture against a-historical mythical categories. The task of criticism entails reading myths historically, demonstrating that things could be (thought) otherwise. This practice has much in common with Nietzsche or Foucault’s genealogical method.
8. Here allegory should be understood in the sense of Benjamin’s Origin of the German Tragic Drama: as a ‘ruin’ which allows meaning to be thought historically, allegories are able to be re-endowed with meaning when place in constellation with different epochs. This is opposed to the trans-historical truth of symbol.
9. Whether or not Benjamin succeeds in bridging this gap cannot be decided here, though in a letter to Scholem (17.8.1934) Benjamin utilizes the image of the ‘Bow’ to describe the composition of the essay: writing it should be thought as an attempt to “arch the bow so the arrow zings into flight…[pulling] two ends at once, the political and the mystical” (BSC 143). From this image one can see the ‘tension’ between theology and materialism which gives such a formulation its power.
10. Benjamin employs this distinction via Werner Kraft who argues for a distinction between ‘the law’ and ‘laws’ in Kafka’s work. Benjamin asserts the ‘laws’ to have merely a ‘semblance like character, focusing instead on the primordial ‘force’ of the law. See GS 1250.
11. Pushkin’s story tells of Shuvulkin the assistant, one who attempts to take the place of the disabled emperor (in signing his letters), yet is only able to write his own name, hence is unable to assume the position of authority. For Benjamin this depicts the mythical and ambiguous character of the law and the figures of authority in Kafka’s work.
12. Johan Jakob Bachofen, a 19th century Swiss philologist and legal theorist noted for his 1861 text Mother Right, which argued that modern patriarchal authority gained its force from the mythological (and ambiguous) power of the mother in more ‘primitive’ times. For Benjamin ‘pre-history’ connotes a world of myth un-aware of its historical index (as the Baroque), hence it feels its gestures and decisions to be eternal or divine.
13. As Lukács writes, expressing ‘second nature’ as a means to ‘be at home’ in alienation: “This second nature is not dumb…it is a complex of senses—meanings…it is a charnel-house of long-dead interiorities” (64).
14. Kafka’s The Judgment can be read as demonstrative of this conflation of legal levels (the law of the father and last judgment). The son’s condemnation by the father is also his damnation, and causes his death in the stories final scene.
15. Describing this in “Critique of Violence”: “Once again all eternal forms are available to pure divine violence, which myth bastardizes with law” (SW 1: 252). That is, myth bastardizes this pure constructive power in the creation of the ‘law’.
16. In the Jewish tradition the law (Halakhah) as the doctrine of the divine is clarified by the parable (Aggadah), which does not exhaust or articulate its meaning fully. The Halakhah can be taken as the textual ‘truth’ of the parable, though it is never grasped or articulated fully. This relationship will be explored more in depth in the following section.
17. Writing to Benjamin, Scholem describes this as follows: “You ask what I understand by the ‘nothingness of revelation’? I understand by it a state in which revelation appears to be without meaning, in which it still asserts itself, in which it has validity but no significance [Force without significance]. A state in which the wealth of meaning is lost and what is in the process of appearing (for revelation is such a process) still does not disappear, even though it is reduced to the zero point of its own content, so to speak” (BSC 127). Kafka’s world is one in which theological revelation remains un-noticed (“force without significance”), though for Scholem this holds out for a time when it could be of ‘significance’.
18. What is essential to note is similarity of such theologies with orthodox ‘critical theory’, a belief that some (Marxist) theory of enlightenment will redeem the present from the future. For Benjamin such a method robs the present of power as a site of possibility in favor of some future to come.
19. As in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, the enlightenment fails to recognize its own mythological basis in thinking that it has ‘overcome’ myth—in fact such narratives are themselves myths. Further, Benjamin forecloses such a positivistic hope in the future, hence inaugurating a ‘reversal’ which brings us back to our current ‘guilty’ condition, the first step towards redemption: “The prophet views the future from the perspective of punishment…in reality his who interest is directed upon the new—the punishment—in whose light, however, guilt becomes already the first step towards redemption” (GS 1192).
20. This student is perhaps Kafka himself, as it is mentioned he is a clerk by day and a ‘student’ by night; Kafka too was a clerk by day, writing stories (or studying) in the evening.
21. Weber stresses this as the ‘pure potential’ of language as such, that is the ‘–ability’ of language to become ‘itterable’ and re-inscribable. He further asserts that ‘pure-language’ in the sense of Benjamin’s ‘On Language as Such’ is just this progression or infinite translatability of language. See Benjamin’s –abilities, 53-95. In foreclosing future revelation one gains the ‘-ability’ of reconstruction in the present moment.
22. In the text Benjamin subtly switches terms from the “The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” (Amerika) to the ‘Nature Theatre’ (of Modernity). Evoking that Kafka’s work could be read to describe the theatre that is played at in modernity more generally.
23.As opposed to this Brecht possess “What is he doing?” (SW 2: 786) as a concrete political question to pose with respect to Kafka’s work, searching his images for ‘what is useful’ in the service of materialist politics. For Example, Brecht felt The Trial to provide a relevant description of the political situation in German and the USSR, with its secret police and trials.
24. Brecht derides Benjamin’s persistent use of Kafka as a sort of ‘Jewish Fascism’, a mystification of real political action. Latent is this Brecht’s feeling that many of Benjamin’s own categories mystified political action as well.
25. Exemplary of this is the interchangeability between human and animal throughout Kafka’s work. For Benjamin, such metamorphoses “divests human gesture of its traditional supports, and then has a subject for reflection without end” (SW 2: 802).
26. See Brecht: “On Experimental Theatre,” specifically his definition of Theatre’s dual role as ‘entertainment’ and ‘instruction.’ The importance of experimentation is emphasized in Benjamin’s ‘What is Epic Theatre?’.
27. Agamben (in Potentialities) takes this foreclosure of truth to open the possibility of ‘play’ (a la Deconstruction). Yet as Weber and others have noted, this does not do justice to the radicalism of ‘experimentation’ as beyond simple ‘play’ within a given context.
28. See Weber’s discussion of the experimental possibilities of ‘re-staging,’ notably “Citability—of Gesture” in Benjamin’s –abilities. 95-115.
29. In his 1940 “Theses on the Concept of History” Benjamin continues his engagement with Schmitt, arguing that the ‘state of exception’ can be seen as perpetually existing, not as contingent upon a sovereign decision (as in Political Theology). This should be taken to mean that for Benjamin a true sense of the political is perpetually at hand, or that the possibility of a constructive politics can be developed at any point in time.
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