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On the Limits of Violence

Giorgio Agamben, Lorenzo Fabbri, Elisabeth Fay

diacritics, Volume 39, Number 4, Winter 2009, pp. 103-111 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/dia.2009.0034
For additional information about this article
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diacritics Volume 39.4 (2009) 103-111 2012 by the Johns Hopkins University Press
Editor's introduction
In February 1970, a twenty-eight-year-old Giorgio Agamben sends a letter to Hannah Ar-
endt. After introducing himself as a friend of Dominique Fourcade, with whom Agamben
attended Martin Heidegger`s 1966 and 1968 seminars in Provence, Agamben proceeds
to express his gratitude to Arendt: her books, he writes, provided him with a 'decisive
experience. He then indicates his intention to join with others in 'the gap between past
and future, and to work within the horizon that Arendt herself had opened up. He signs
the letter, 'Cordially Yours, Giorgio Agamben. But these are not his fnal words to her.
In a postscript Agamben adds: 'You will excuse if I take the liberty of enclosing an essay
on violence which I should have been unable to wright [sic] without the guide of your
A 1985 interview, 'Un`idea di Giorgio Agamben, in the Roman newspaper
Reporter sheds some light on the essay that Agamben sent to Arendt in 1970.
ing to a question about his involvement with 1968 social movements-posed by Adriano
Sofri, one of the cofounders of the extra-parliamentary leftist movement 'Lotta Con-
tinua-Agamben answers that he never really felt at ease with 1968. He was reading
Arendt at the time, an author whom his friends in the movement considered a reactionary,
someone absolutely not to be discussed. In fact, the essay on the limits of violence in
which Agamben was coming to terms with Arendt`s thought was rejected by a political
review and was ultimately published in a literary journal. While an oeuvre sometimes
functions as a historical detonator [detonatore storico] accelerating revolutionary mo-
ments, that was not the case with Arendt. Agamben concludes that such a missed appoint-
ment with history is one of the most humiliating experiences that time itself affords us.
Here then for the frst time in English is the essay in which Agamben frst attempted
to come to terms with Arendt`s philosophy of history, the essay that he sent to Arendt and
that she referred to in the German edition of On Violence.
The original essay, 'Sui limiti
della violenza, appeared in Nuovi argomenti in the winter of 1970.
Lorenzo Fabbri
Agamben's letter and Arendt's response are held at the Library of Congress and may be viewed
online. The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress. Correspondence File, 1938-1976.
Agamben's letter appears at the end of this essay.
Adriano Sofri, Un'idea di Giorgio Agamben.' Reporter 9-10 Nov. 1985: 32-33.
Macht und Gewalt (1970) mentions Sui limiti della violenza' in a footnote: 35n44a.
Nuovi argomenti 17 (1970): 159-73.
104 diacritics / winter 2009
Fifty years after the publication of Walter Benjamin`s Critique of Violence, and more than
sixty years after Georges Sorel`s Reections on Violence, a reconsideration of the limits
and the meaning of violence stands little risk of appearing untimely.
Today, humanity
lives under the constant threat of its own instantaneous destruction by a form of violence
that neither Benjamin nor Sorel could have imagined, a violence that has ceased to ex-
ist on a human scale. However, the exigency of rethinking violence is not a question of
scale; it is a question of violence`s increasingly ambiguous relation to politics. Thus,
this critique diverges from Benjamin`s exposition of violence`s relation to law and jus-
tice, seeking instead to determine its relation to politics, and in so doing, to uncover the
question of violence in and for itself. In other words, we aim to determine the limits-if
such limits exist-that separate violence from the sphere of human culture in its broadest
sense. These limits will allow us to address the question of the only violence that might
still exist on a human scale: revolutionary violence.
At frst glance, the relation between violence and politics appears a contradiction in
terms: European history itself is predicated on the notion that violence and politics are
mutually exclusive. The Greeks, who invented most of the concepts we use to articulate
our experience of politics today, used the term polis to describe a way of life founded
on the word, and not on violence. To be political (to live in the polis) was to accept the
principle that everything should be decided by the word and by persuasion, rather than by
force or by violence.
The essential characteristic of political life was thus peitharkhia,
the power of persuasion; it was a power so revered that even those citizens condemned to
death were persuaded to die by their own hand.
The Greeks` association of politics with language-and their understanding of lan-
guage as essentially nonviolent-was so pervasive that anything outside the polis, includ-
ing encounters with slaves or barbarians, was defned aneu logou: a phrase that did not
refer to actual physical deprivation of the word, but exclusion from the only way of life
in which language alone had meaning.
The idea that language precludes any possible violence, as Benjamin rightly notes, is
borne out by the fact that lying was not punishable under any ancient legal code. Politi-
cal life as peitharkhia depended upon a particular understanding of language`s relation
to truth: namely, the belief that truth, in and of itself, could exert persuasive power on
the human mind. The Greeks did not view 'persuasion as a specifc technique such as
sophistry, but rather as an essential characteristic of truth. From its origins, Greek phi-
losophy was in confict with the political sphere, where truths seemed to be losing the
power to persuade-one need only think of Plato`s bitterness as he helplessly watched
his master Socrates condemned to death. Feeling increasingly exposed to the threat of
violence, philosophers began seeking truths outside the politico-temporal sphere, truths
radically removed from any possibility of violence. Seen in this light, our experience of
politics is unlike that of the Greeks: we know frsthand that Greek philosophers were right
to suspect that truth in politics cannot persuade against violence. Furthermore, today we
are witnessing the proliferation of a form of violence totally unknown to the ancients, as
more and more lies are introduced into the political sphere.
We can thus say that the association of language with nonviolence no longer holds
up to scrutiny. Indeed, the dissolution of this relation forms a dividing line between our
experience of politics and that of the ancients; any political theory founded on Greek sup-
positions is inevitably unreliable today.
The modern age can claim the dubious honor of moving beyond a simple recogni-
tion of language`s suggestive power, enacting a calculated plot to introduce violence into
Modifed from the original to correct a reference to the publication date of Benjamin's Kritik der
Gewalt (1921).-Trans.
See Arendt's description of the Greek concept of politics in The Human Condition, chapter 1.
105 On the Limits of Violence / Giorgio Agamben
language itself. Today, organized linguistic violence aimed at manipulating conscious-
ness is such a common experience that any theory of violence must address its expression
in language. Moreover, linguistic violence is no longer limited to the political sphere: it
has entered the daily realm of human divertissements. The explosive diffusion of por-
nography at the end of the eighteenth century was nothing other than the discovery that
the experience of certain linguistic constructions can, in certain contexts, provoke reac-
tions entirely removed from the will of the individual. Language can infuence the body`s
instincts, overpowering the will and reducing humans to nature. Language can do what
violence does: language can arouse. In short, the appeal of pornography is its ability to
introduce violence into the realm of nonviolence: language.
To this end, the Marquis de Sade, a serious and coherent scholar of pornography,
devised a deliberate project (a perfect counterpart to the Kantian project seeking a maxim
for action that could be elevated to universal law) to fnd a form of 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 corruption so universal or a disturbance so formal that
even after my life was over I would survive in the everlasting continuation of my
wickedness. [Sade 525]
Sade found his universal catalyst in linguistic violence. And yet, careful analysis reveals
that pornography shares some essential qualities with another form of linguistic expres-
sion, one that usually occupies the highest position in any hierarchy of cultural values:
poetry. It is no accident that Sade`s search for a universal catalyst within linguistic vio-
lence coincides with Hlderlin`s description (the frst of many to use fgurative violence
to articulate the experience of poetry) of the tragic word`s violence, where 'the word
seizes the body so that it is the latter which kills [114].
In many ways, the idea that violence inheres in poetic language can be traced back to
Plato. Curiously, few have grasped the motive behind his much-debated ostracism of the
poets. In some respects it is a perfectly explicit manifestation of the belief that persuasion
should never be violent, one of the cornerstones of maieutika, the Socratic theory that
regards free linguistic relations among human beings as a 'midwife`s art. Maieutics is
incompatible with violence: as violence is an irruption of the outside that immediately
denies the liberty of its victim, it cannot reveal inner creative spontaneity, only bare cor-
poreality. Poetry introduces a form of persuasion that does not rely on truth, but rather on
the peculiar emotional effects of rhythm and music, acting both violently and bodily-
Plato was thus bound to cast the poets out of the city.
Perhaps the greatest divide between our experience of politics and that of the Greeks
lies in our awareness that persuasion itself becomes violence in certain forms and cir-
cumstances, specifcally when persuasion goes beyond the free linguistic relation of two
human beings, and is taken up by modern techniques of reproducing spoken and written
language. This is the essence of the only widespread form of violence that our society can
claim to have invented, at least in its modern form: propaganda.
Here it is necessary to confront another of our society`s inventions, namely, the the-
ory of violence that has emerged in our era, completely upending traditional ideas. In
this theory, violence is not at all incompatible with the midwife`s art, as Plato believed.
Rather, it is, as Marx writes in Capital, 'the midwife of every old society pregnant with
a new one [824]. This phrase is noteworthy, not only because one could argue that all
modern discussions of violence are simply attempts at exegesis, but because Marx`s char-
acterization of politics and society reveals his understanding of the relation of violence
to politics. Of course, the above observation was not meant to be applied to all kinds of
106 diacritics / winter 2009
violence; the violence that demolishes an old social order by exercising maieutic action
upon a new one is distinct from the violence that preserves existing law, opposing change
of any kind. The problem lies in identifying a just violence, a violence oriented towards
something radically new, a violence that can legitimately call itself revolutionary.
The most common criterion employed to identify this violence is drawn from a kind
of historical Darwinism. This theory-often mistakenly associated with orthodox Marx-
ism, but actually derived from bourgeois sociological constructions of history infuenced
by Darwin and developed in the late nineteenth century-confgures History as a linear
progression of necessary laws, similar to the laws governing the natural world. Accord-
ingly, the Marxian conception of man and nature, and the radical transformation con-
tained therein (their Aufhebung, in dialectical terms), is clumsily construed as reducing
History to prevailing ideas of nature in nineteenth-century science.
In this theoretical
framework, the Hegelian reconciliation of liberty and necessity-which Marx consistent-
ly criticized-becomes the precondition for establishing a reign of mechanistic necessity
that contains no space for free and conscious human action.
Within this framework, identifying just violence is no problem at all: if violence is
the midwife of history, it need only hasten and facilitate the (inevitable) discovery of His-
tory`s necessary laws. Violence that serves this end is just; violence that resists this end is
unjust. To appreciate just how clumsy this interpretation is, we need only consider that it
paints the revolutionary as a naturalist who discovers a plant species destined for extinc-
tion and then uses everything in his power to hasten its demise so that he may realize the
laws of evolution. This was precisely the model adopted by totalitarian movements in the
twentieth century, whose self-proclaimed exclusive right to revolutionary violence fos-
tered involutional processes within authentic revolutionary movements. This was exactly
what happened in Nazi Germany with the deportation of the Jews, and what happened in
Russia with the great purges of 1935, when whole Soviet populations were deported-the
only difference being that Hitler sought to 'hasten the realization of a natural law (the
superiority of the Aryan race), while Stalin believed he was 'hastening the institution of
an equally necessary historical law.
Even if we could ignore the disastrous political consequences that this theory of
violence has wrought, we would still be able to identify its true defect: namely, that it
situates the justifcation for violence outside of violence itself. In other words, it simply
places violence within a broader theory of means that justify a superior end; the end is the
sole criterion to determine the justice of the means. Benjamin correctly noted that, while
such a framework can justify the application of violence, it fails to justify the principle of
violence itself. Ultimately, any theory that defnes the legitimacy of revolutionary means
through the justice of their end is as contradictory as legalistic theories that guarantee a
just end by legitimizing repressive means.
Violence in nature may only be called just by those who believe in cosmic plans and
divine providence; human violence may only be called just by those who believe that
history is a steady advancement along the predetermined route of linear time (the vision
of vulgar progressivism). In European culture, the need for theodicy-the philosophical
justifcation of God-arose only when the capacity to reconcile history`s cruelty with
divine goodness had been lost, extinguishing immediate faith in divine justice. Likewise,
the need to justify violence arose only when all consciousness of violence`s original sig-
nifcance had been lost. A theory of revolutionary violence is meaningless within his-
torical theodicy, which paradoxically renders the revolutionary into a kind of Pangloss,
convinced that everything is happening for the best, in this best of all possible worlds.
It is well known that contemporary science, having abandoned this idea, no longer derives natural
laws from a mechanistic model of the world.
107 On the Limits of Violence / Giorgio Agamben
In light of all this, we do not seek to identify a justifcation of violence (the means to
a just end). Rather, we are searching for a violence that needs no justifcation, that carries
the right to exist within itself. As Sorel and Benjamin refected on possible theories of
revolutionary violence, they both recognized the necessity of breaking the vicious cycle
of means and ends in order to discover a form of violence that would, by its very nature,
be irreducible to any other. Sorel distinguishes between force, which aims at authority and
power-in other words, the creation of a new state-and proletarian violence, which aims
at abolishing the state. For Sorel, proletarian violence had been misunderstood primarily
because Marx, while offering a detailed and thorough description of the capitalist order`s
violent evolution, had been quite sparing in his account of the proletariat`s organization:
The consequence of this inadequacy of Marx's work was that Marxism deviated
from its real nature. The people who pride themselves on being orthodox Marx-
ists have not wished to add anything essential to what their master has written
and they have always imagined that, in order to argue about the proletariat,
they must make use of what they have learned from the history of the bourgeoi-
sie. They have never suspected, therefore, that a distinction should be drawn
between the force that aims at authority, endeavouring to bring about an auto-
matic obedience, and the violence that would smash that authority. According to
them, the proletariat must acquire force just as the bourgeoisie acquired it, use
it as the latter used it, and end fnally by establishing a socialist State which will
replace the bourgeois State. [Sorel 169-70]
Benjamin expands upon the Sorelian theory of a general proletarian strike, fnding
his model of revolutionary violence in the distinction between mythic violence, which
imposes law and may thus be called dominant, and 'pure and immediate violence, which
seeks to impose no law, not even in the form of ius condendum. Instead, pure and immedi-
ate violence ousts both law and the force that upholds it, the State, thereby inaugurating
a new historical age.
However, in both cases the objective of fnding a violence that contains its own
principle and justifcation remains only half fulflled. Ultimately, the criterion remains
teleological: the end of ousting the State and instituting a new historical order is the de-
termining factor. Despite this, both Sorel and Benjamin push themselves to an outlying
threshold from which we can begin to perceive the outlines of a theory of revolutionary
violence. After all, what is violence that imposes no law? Isn`t violence divorced from the
assertion of power a contradiction in terms? What gives revolutionary violence the mi-
raculous ability to blast open the historical continuum, beginning a new era? These ques-
tions will guide our approach as we consider a possible theory of revolutionary violence.
A violence that deliberately refrains from enforcing law, and instead breaks apart
the continuity of time to found a new era is not as inconceivable as it initially seems. We
know of at least one example of such violence, though it is situated outside our 'civilized
experience: sacred violence. Most primitive peoples celebrated violent rituals designed
to rupture the homogeneous fux of profane time. These rituals resurrected primordial
chaos, making humans contemporaries of the gods and granting them access to the origi-
nal dimension of creation. Whenever the life of the community was threatened, whenever
the cosmos seemed empty and vacant, primitive peoples would turn to this regeneration
of time; only then could a new era (a new revolution of time) begin.
Curiously, these rites of regeneration were often celebrated among peoples common-
ly considered to be the creators of history: Babylonians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Iranians,
Romans. It is almost as though these peoples, no longer bound to a way of life determined
by purely cyclical and biological temporality, felt more keenly the need to periodically
regenerate time, ritually reaffrming the violence at the origin of their history.
108 diacritics / winter 2009
The desire to reintroduce the time of original creation through sacred violence did
not arise from a pessimistic refusal of life or reality. On the contrary, it was precisely
and only through the sudden irruption of the sacred and the interruption of profane time
that primitive humans could fully engage with the cosmos, asserting power through the
extreme act of spilling their own blood. In this way, they regained the authority to partici-
pate in the creation of culture and a historical world.
The conception of the polis lent a special urgency to Greek examinations of sacred
violence, which articulated its unsettling power in the fgure of Dionysus, a god who dies
and is reborn. Sacred violence reveals itself where humans intuit the essential proximity
of life and death, violence and creation; it emerges when humans discover that the expe-
rience of this proximity is rebirth and the generation of new time. Seen in this light, the
closing words of Euripides`s Bacchae become signifcant. The tragedy, which tells of the
confict between the god`s sacred violence and the tyrant`s profane violence, concludes
with an expression of man`s eternal faith in a new, unexpected possibility: the possibility
of restarting time.
Many things the gods accomplish unexpectedly.
What we waited for does not come to pass,
while for what remained undreamed the god fnds ways. [86-87]
In The German Ideology, Marx draws an explicit connection between the proletarian
experience of revolution and the ability to restart history and found society along new
lines. He writes that 'the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling
class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it
can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become ft-
ted to found society anew [60]. The ability to open a new historical age belongs solely
to a revolutionary class that experiences its own negation in the negation of the ruling
class. Applying Marx`s characterization of the revolutionary experience to the question
of violence will reveal the criterion necessary to our inquiry.
Revolutionary violence is not a violence of means, aimed at the just end of negating
the existing system. Rather, it is a violence that negates the self as it negates the other; it
awakens a consciousness of the death of the self, even as it visits death on the other. Only
the revolutionary class can know that enacting violence against the other inevitably kills
the self; only the revolutionary class can have the right (or perhaps, the terrible impera-
tive) to violence. Like sacred violence before it, revolutionary violence can be described
as passion, in its etymological sense: self-negation and self-sacrifce. When seen from
this perspective, it becomes clear that repressive violence (which enforces law) and delin-
quent violence (which defes law) are no different from the violence aimed at establishing
new laws and new power: in each case, negation of the other fails to become negation
of the self. Executive violence is fundamentally impure, regardless of its objective-as
conventional wisdom recognizes, vilifying both the hangman and the cop-because it
always excludes the only hope of redemption, it refuses to negate the self as it negates the
other. Revolutionary violence alone can resolve the contradiction that Hegel described as
a basic dissonance in the concept of violence: 'force or violence destroys itself forthwith
in its very conception. It is a manifestation of will that cancels and supersedes a manifes-
tation or visible expression of will [Philosophy of Right 33].
Thus, there is but one criterion by which violence may call itself revolutionary. Expe-
rience tells us that our society is hardly ever conscious of the fundamental contradiction
of the violence it enacts. Most violent revolts against the dominant class do not bring
about revolution, just as most doses of medicine do not bring about miraculous cures.
Only those who consciously confront their own negation through violence may shake off
109 On the Limits of Violence / Giorgio Agamben
'all the muck of ages and begin the world anew. Only they may aspire, as revolutionaries
always have, to call a messianic halt capable of opening a new chronology (a novus ordo
saeclorum) and a new experience of temporality-a new History.
Revolutionary violence must be understood in light of its relation to death, a fact
that allows us to extend our inquiry to revolutionary violence`s relation to culture. Every
culture aspires to overcome death. Everything that humankind has thought, known, writ-
ten, or created as 'culture has been created, written, known, and thought with the aim of
making peace with death. This is the basis of our perpetual inclination to separate violence
and language: language is, frst and foremost, the power we wield against death, the only
possible space for reconciliation. To the eternal question 'why is there something, rather
than nothing, culture responds by exploring the mystery that Benjamin once called 'that
object, to which in the last instance the veil is essential [351]; culture transports us to a
region where 'nothing and 'something, 'life and 'death, 'creation and 'negation
reveal themselves as inextricably bound, bringing us to the very limits of language`s pos-
sibilities. Once it has led us to the threshold of what cannot be known through language,
culture exhausts its function. Because it aims at reconciling us to death, culture can go no
further without negating itself.
Revolutionary violence alone may cross this threshold. It occurs in the stunning real-
ization of the indissoluble unity of life and death, creation and negation. This realization
can only occur in a sphere beyond language, which radically disturbs and dispossesses
humankind. Violence, when it becomes self-negation, belongs neither to its agent nor its
victim; it becomes elation and dispossession of the self-as the Greeks understood in
their fgure of the mad god. The living cannot recognize their own essential proximity to
death without negating themselves, and this contradiction acts as the seal guarding the
most sacred and profound mystery of human existence.
As an experience of self-negation, revolutionary violence is the arrheton par excel-
lence, the unsayable that perpetually overwhelms the possibility of language and eludes
all justifcation. It is precisely by going beyond language, by negating the self and pow-
ers of speech, that humanity gains access to the original sphere where the knowledge of
mystery and culture breaks apart, allowing words and deeds to generate a new beginning.
At the dawn of every history aimed at ensuring security and making peace with
death, it shall be written: 'In the beginning, there was the word. At the dawn of every
new temporal order, however, it shall be written: 'In the beginning, there was violence.
This is both the limit and the insuppressible truth of revolutionary violence. By cross-
ing the threshold of culture and occupying a zone inaccessible to language, revolutionary
violence casts itself into the Absolute, validating Hegel`s observation that the most pro-
found representation of truth is contained in the violent image of the 'Bacchanalian revel
in which no member is not drunk [Phenomenology 27].
Translated by Elisabeth Fay
110 diacritics / winter 2009
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