Means Without End: A Paroxysm of Praxis

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. Nietzsche

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Divine Violence: A Life...

Throughout the writings of Agamben, the reader encounters what can properly be understood as his ‘liberatory’ programme: a call for categorical ‘divine violence.’ But, before we can discuss the implications of such a programme for geography, we must first take a quick Benjaminian detour into the nature of such a violence. The term ‘divine violence’ originates in Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Critique of Violence,’ whereby he confronts the problem of violence inherent to the matrix of law. By reflecting on the historical constitution of Western juridical structures (particularly those based in Germanic law), Benjamin discusses at length the traditional juridical distinction between natural law (a tradition concerned with justified ends despite the means), and positive law (a tradition that emphasizes justification of means despite any high-minded and potentially justified ends).

In a testament to Benjamin’s genius, it becomes clear that he is not interested in choosing between a juridical false opposition of natural and positive law, but rather in disclosing the ‘ultimate insolubility of all legal problems:’ namely their juridical foundation in ‘law-making’ and ‘law-preserving’ violence; i.e., law is founded [in/on?] violence. ‘Among all the forms of violence permitted by both natural law and positive law,’ Benjamin writes (1996: 247), ‘not one is free of the gravely problematic nature, already indicated, of all legal violence.’ But Benjamin is not concerned with alleviating a liberatory programme from violence. On the contrary, it is simply impossible, according to Benjamin, to ‘conceive of any solution to human problems, not to speak of deliverance from the confines of all the world-historical conditions of existence obtaining hitherto… if violence is totally excluded in principle (1996: 247).’ The ‘revolutionary task’ for Benjamin is to tap into those ‘kinds of violence [that] exist other than all those envisaged by legal theory;’ i.e., to employ a violence that is neither law-making or law-preserving, but rather ‘law-destroying.’ This ‘law-destroying’ violence is divine violence. Unlike the jurdicial violence inherit to natural and positive law, divine violence—pure violence—is a ‘mediality without ends’ (Agamben 2005: 62). Why a ‘law-destroying’ violence? Because, the bloodshed that results from legal violence, argues Benjamin, is the ‘symbol of bare life (1996: 250).’ In other words, the dissolution of legal violence, of sovereign juridical structures, is coetaneously the dissolution of bare life.


It is this dissolution of bare life that leads Agamben down the path originally set by Benjamin; i.e., for Agamben, divine violence becomes an immanent ‘true political action (2005: 88).’ Divine violence, or to use Agamben’s metonymic annotation ‘pure violence,’ is a relational action: ‘pure’ by its differentiation to juridical means, which in its violence, always has an end (law-making, and law-preserving). Pure violence, according to Agamben, ‘is that which does not stand in a relation of means toward an end, but holds itself in its relation to its own mediality… pure violence is attested to only as the exposure and deposition of the relation between violence and law (Agamben 2005: 62 our emphasis).’ Unlike legal violence, where ‘blood is the symbol of bare life,’ divine/pure violence is bloodless violence. What does this mean? The ‘true political action’ to Agamben is the ‘dissolution of the between the relation between violence and law (2005: 63);’ i.e., pure violence (i.e., pure means) is that which ‘severs the nexus between violence and law (2005: 88).’

To a word that does not bind, that neither commands nor prohibits anything, but says only itself, would correspond to a [political] action as pure means, which shows only itself, without any relation to an end. And, between the two, not a lost original state, but only the use and human praxis that the powers of law and myth had sought to capture in the state of exception (2005: 88;).

What does such a ‘pure’ political action mean for geography, or the theorization of space? Before answering this question, we need to re-address the topological nature not only of sovereignty, but divine violence as well. How should we understand the topological? According to Agamben, it can only be understood as potential. Potentiality: A central element in Agamben’s writings on sovereignty is a sovereign power that is at once topological and potential—a state of exception that captures zoe, naked life. Agamben understands potentiality to be ‘the presence of an absence; that is what we call “faculty” or “power” (Potentialities 1999: 179).’ Potentiality, according to Agamben, is intimately related to the ability—the faculty—to say ‘I can,’ without the action being materialized. To have a faculty, argues Agamben, means ‘to have a privation,’ i.e., the potential not to be. A central tension for Agamben in Homo Sacer is how the constituting/constituted power become indistinguishable, and Agamben looks to Aristotle’s two potentialities—the potential to be actual, and the potential to be im-potential—as central for understanding sovereign power as topological.

If potentiality is to have its own consistency and not always disappear immediately into actuality, it is necessary that potentiality be able not to pass over into actuality, that potentiality constitutively be the potentiality not to (do or be), or, as Aristotle says, potentiality be also im-potentiality (adynamia) (Homo Sacer 1998: 45).

This potentiality, argues Abamben, ‘maintains itself in relation to actuality in the form of its suspension; it is capable of the act in not realizing it, it is sovereignly capable of its own im-potentiality (1998: 45).’ Thus, the ban, that sovereign rationality of power that marks the exception is topological in that it has the ability not to be: it is potential; it is the zone of indistinction between constituting and constituted power.

Potentiality is that through which Being founds itself sovereignly, which is to say, without anything preceding it or determining it other than its own ability not to be. And an act is sovereign when it realizes itself by simply taking away its own potentiality not to be, letting itself be, giving itself to itself (1998: 46).

In the denouement of his essay ‘On Potentiality,’ Agamben closes by stating that ‘the greatness of human potentiality is measured by the abyss of human impotentiality.’ What could Agamben possibly mean by such a provocative statement? This is a return to Agamben’s concern with ‘true political action’ (i.e., divine/pure violence), since Agamben understands the ‘root of freedom’ to be found in the ‘abyss of potentiality.’ To be free, argues Agamben ‘is not simply to have the power to do this or that thing, nor is it simply to have the power to refuse to do this or that thing.’

To be free is, in the sense we have seen, to be capable of one’s own impotentiality, to be in relation to one’s own privation. This is why freedom is freedom for both good and evil (Agamben 1999: 183).

Both the sovereign and the ‘purely violent,’ yet bloodless human praxis that refuses to be captured in the state of exception are found in the abyss of potentiality. But Agamben poses the following question: how is it possible to consider the actuality of the potentiality to not-be? This is the axial, the paramount question for Agamben’s revolutionary programme. If a potential to not-be, Agamben argues, ‘originally belongs to all potentiality, then there is truly potentiality only where the potentiality to not-be does not lag behind actuality but passes fully into it as such. This does not mean that it disappears in actuality; on the contrary, it preserves itself as such in actuality (1999: 183).’ In other words, the preservation of potentiality within actuality is the contingent kernel of the ‘mediality without ends’ of divine violence—or to put it quite simply, the abyss of potentiality/impotentiality is means without end; a praxis that cannot be captured. For Agamben, this is ‘freedom’ without a nutshell.

It should come as no surprise that Agamben gives an affirmative nod to Gilles Deleuze in his chapter ‘Absolute Immanence’ in Potentialities, since the relation between immanence, divine violence, and ‘freedom’ are clearly entangled in Agamben’s writings. The importance of both Deleuze (and Foucault) for Agamben are their tantamount contributions to what Agamben calls ‘the coming philosophy’ on the concept of life, which weighs so heavily in his own works. Agamben’s concern in this chapter is Deleuze’s essay ‘Immanence: A Life…’, where Deleuze briefly outlines before his death what could—in more-or-less vulgar terms—be called a ‘liberatory moment.’ Following on his earlier life works on the historical tension between immanence and the transcendent, ‘immanence,’ Deleuze postulates without hesitation, ‘is the very vertigo of philosophy (1990: 67; quoted in Agamben 1999: 226).’

Immanence is immanent only to itself and consequently captures everything, absorbs All-One, and leaves nothing remaining to which it could be immanent. In any case, whenever immanence is interpretated as immanent to Something, we can be sure that this something reintroduces the transcendent (1994: 47; quoted in Agamben 1999: 227).

Agamben is compelled to turn to Deleuze in order to unfold the relation of potential divine violence and ‘a life.’ For Deleuze, Agamben writes, ‘we can say that between immanence and a life there is a kind of crossing with neither distance nor identification, something like a passage without spatial movement (1999: 223).’ This crossing, this ‘passage without a spatial movement,’ is a matrix of infinite desubjectification (1999: 232).

While the specific aim of the isolation of bare life is to mark a division in the living being, such that a plurality of functions and a series of oppositions can be articulated (vegetative life/relational life; animal on the inside/animal on the outside; plant/man; and at the limit, zoe/bios, bare life and politically qualified life), a life [the figure of absolute immanence] thus functions as a principle of virtual indetermination, in which the vegetative and the animal, the inside and the outside, and even the organic and the inorganic, in passing through one another, cannot be told apart (1999: 233).

Absolute immanence—in other words, potential, bloodless pure violence in actuality (‘mediality without end’)—is call for Benjamin’s barbarians: those law-destroying lives that cannot to be captured in a sovereign’s state of exception. It is a life… whose principle is ‘infinite desubjectification,’ that cannot be striated into a subject. It is this life, a life… of immanent desire to itself, a radical desubjectification that runs counter to the potentially subjectified bare life of biopower—that succubus that currently haunts our political landscape. ‘Pure immanence, a life…’ Agamben states, ‘is pure contemplation beyond every subject and object of knowledge; it is pure potentiality that preserves without acting… a life… is potentially, complete beatitude (1999: 234).’

Which leads us back to the question posed earlier: what does a potential ‘pure violence,’ a principle of absolute immanence, mean for geography?
To Be Continued...

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