Brendan Moran and Carlo Salzani (eds.), Towards the Critique of Violence: Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben. New York: Bloomsbury. 2015; 251+xii pages. ISBN: 978-1-4725-2324-2.

Reviewed by Michael P. A. Murphy, Queen’s University

This collection of essays offers readers of Giorgio Agamben and Walter Benjamin new avenues into their relationship as critics of political violence.  The volume is at its strongest when tracing new connections both between Agamben and Benjamin and these thinkers and their contexts. In Part One, editors Brendan Moran, Carlo Salzani, and three other contributors place Benjamin’s essay within context of his broader work. The eight essays collected in Part Two analyze Agamben’s reading of Benjamin. The final essay of the collection is Agamben’s own “On the Limits of Violence.”

Much of Part One of the collection focuses on the context of Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” in relation to his essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, written around the same time as the critique. Alison Ross explains the necessity of reference to works like “Goethe’s Elective Affinities” because many of the terms key to understanding Benjamin’s violence-essay “are substantially meaningless without the possibility of clarifying references to other pieces from the same period.” (40) The engagement of contemporaneous works is crucial as it avoids “the form of commentary that brackets out other pieces from Benjamin’s early oeuvre and focuses obsessively on particular phrases from the violence-essay alone.” (40) For Ross, a clear example of this is the notion of “ambiguity,” a term which Benjamin uses to refer pejoratively to “condemn the lack of clarity and absence of truth” in myth (39). By engaging the essay on the Elective Affinities, Ross is able to clarify the use of the concept of ambiguity within Benjamin’s polemic before tracing its development through Benjamin’s later work. Ross’s argument offers a method for contextualizing the terms of “Critique of Violence” within Benjamin’s works of similar age, which will be useful for academics approaching Benjamin from collections like Illuminations or Reflections.

In the next two essays, Amir Ahmadi and Brendan Moran also use “Goethe’s Elective Affinities” to contextualize “Critique of Violence,” bringing out two different themes. Ahmadi reviews the use of the myth of Niobe in this essay, which opens into a reflection on the foundational opposition of mythic violence and divine violence. Ahmadi examines the texts of Empedocles and others to argue that Benjamin employs a great deal of creative license in his use of the myth. In the end, Benjamin’s use of Niobe “does not so much reflect the features of the Greek myth as his programmatic and total opposition of ‘myth’ and ‘theology’”—meaning that his appropriation “can hardly be an acceptable interpretation.” (66) Moran analyzes Benjamin’s varying uses of the term “nature” as both mythic (the muteness of nature) and redemptive or destructive. Moran draws on a series of important oppositions, including those between sacredness and mere life (77), and between body-as-Körper and body-as-Leib (80), as he analyzes the sacredness of human and natural life.  When read with Salzani’s essay on the notion of bare life, Moran’s discussion of two bodies (human and natural) offers an important terminological clarification for those approaching the conceptualizations of “life” offered by Agamben and Benjamin: namely, the natural and the sacred are not synonymous. The sacred life (and Agamben’s homo sacer is perhaps the clearest contemporary example) is not merely reducible to the state of mere life.

The highlight of the collection, Carlo Salzani’s essay at the opening of Part Two, traces the concept of mere life from Benjamin’s bloβes Leben to Agamben’s nuda vita.  Despite Agamben’s presentation of nuda vita as direct adoption of Benjamin’s bloβes Leben, Salzani demonstrates how the two concepts “not only belong to two different historical, cultural and philosophical contexts, but are also literally ‘construed’ in very different ways, so that, in the end, they cannot be said to coincide.” (109) Salzani addresses a gap in the literature that had previously allowed for “a sort of ‘Agambenization’ of many…concepts, first and foremost das bloβe Leben.” (109) He traces Benjamin’s development of the concept of bloβes Leben in opposition to vitalism, biologism, and social Darwinism (111), then to a definition approximating “just and simply ‘mere life’” (113)—making it synonymous with Agamben’s term zoē, not nuda vita. (112) For Agamben, zoē refers to the natural organic life common to all living things, whereas the more specific bios defines the way of living proper to a human being in a community. Agamben, on the other hand, develops nuda vita through an opposition of law/creature in the 1970s, using the Italian equivalent of bloβes Leben, that is, nuda vita, only in Homo Sacer. By tracing the development of bare life through Agamben’s literary criticism—rather than as a new concept introduced in his political turn—Salzani highlights the problematic assumption that Agambenian and Benjaminian definitions “bare life” are the same.

The discussion of the coming politics in Thanos Zartaloudis’ “Violence Without Law? On Pure Violence as a Destituent Power” traces the relationship of life to law both in terms of juridification and divine violence. Zartaloudis then moves to a preliminary commentary on destituent potential, framed as a further development of Benjamin’s theory of divine violence. (179) I call this a “preliminary commentary” because Zartaloudis references Agamben’s public lecture and early article on destituent potential, yet Agamben’s sustained reflection on destituent potential offered in The Use of Bodies was unavailable to Zartaloudis (first published in Italian in 2014). The linking of destituent potential to Benjamin’s divine violence provides a genealogy of logic for this new concept: not only does it render “power (including its own) inoperative as such” (180), but also, as the potentiality of a singularity, it “can only become sufficient if it becomes the form-of-life adequate to the new historical era” (182). This Benjaminian genealogy offered by Zartaloudis provides a great deal of material for future investigations of destituent potential by situating Agamben’s nebulous notion of destituent potential within the broader Benjaminian critique of violence.

Separated by half a century at first encounter, Giorgio Agamben’s critique of violence has shifted the way that Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” is read.  From the beginning, the collection aims to comment on the links between Benjamin, Agamben, and the critique of violence, and this task it performs admirably.  The variety of the collection will appeal to those familiar with Agamben and Benjamin seeking terminological precision and genealogies of conceptual developments between the two theorists, and the explanations of context and sources will offer an intriguing point of entry to those just discovering the critique of violence in Agamben and Benjamin.