In “Divine Violence” We Trust?
(Soundtrack: –The Distillers )
Well, you may have noticed that I just haven’t been writing much about comics lately–and that I’ve completely reneged on my promise to discuss Squadron Supreme at length! The short explanation? Grad School. It’s as simple as that… The longer explanation, however, is that, thanks to an amazing seminar (“9/11: The Prelude, in Literature and Theory”), I will finally be getting my first opportunity to write an academic paper on comics! In just a few short weeks, I’ve been exposed to so much interesting/insane writing (by Sorel, Benjamin, Derrida, Foucault, Virilio, Hegel, Hobbes, Carl Schmidt, Giorgio Agamben, Richard Ashley, etc) on the related concepts of sovereignty, statecraft/founding, and, most importantly, the theory of “The Unprecedented Decision” (as a founding force which is the source of all political violence, but is not, in itself, “violent”, in the very special sense that these folks are using that term!)
Naturally, I’m going to write on the ways in which these theories apply to Squadron Supreme, Watchmen, and Kingdom Come (with, hopefully, some Morrison Doom Patrol thrown in to complicate matters!)… Needless to say, I’ll be thinking a lot about these works on this page in the very near future–just not quite yet!
This weekend, I’m planning to answer two sets of “Five Questions” + toss out some thoughts about Spider-Man: Blue and nostalgia!
In the meantime, here’s a little presentation I gave last week on “political violence”:
The political gospel according to
Jacques Derrida proclaims the “good news” that “all law is essentially deconstructible”,
casting deconstruction itself in a role that is scarcely distinguishable from
that played by the Holy Spirit in the dispensation which preceded it. Derrida
erases the boundary between Benjamin’s “mythic” and “divine” violence,
demonstrating that, in the final analysis (in the “Final Solution”), the two
modes collapse into one another. He treats all
statecraft as pure incantation, an audacious form of witchcraft that retains
something of Benjamin’s “divine spontaneity”, but which owes more to Emerson’s
model of history-as-biography. As a result, “justice”, for Derrida, becomes
something very like the Kantian ding an
sich: incorporeal, impossible to institutionalize, but always, in its
nebulous way, available to shed critical light on the phenomenal world.
is extremely respectful of the distinction between “divine” and “mythical”
violence throughout the “The Mystical Foundations of Authority” until, in the post-scriptum, he uses the historical
fact of the Holocaust to smash Benjamin’s dubious binary to bits. From our
vantage point, on this side of the Second World War, it is hard to disagree
with Derrida’s characterization of Benjamin as “too Heideggerian, too
messianico-marxist or archeo-eschatological” (Derrida, ‘Mystical Foundations’,
62); and this prompts the question: why does he wait fifty pages to render this
judgment? Is the “Critique of Violence” really as “polysemic” as Derrida claims
(62)? Or is it, in fact, so unprecedentedly locked into a teleological
discourse that it rushes headlong into a partial (but crucial) insight: namely,
that “history”/”God” is “on the side of” “purely expressive”, “apolitical”,
“expiatory” violence (Benjamin, 249). It
seems clear, in retrospect, that Sorel and Benjamin’s millennial hopes for the
proletarian general strike are thoroughly mytho-ideological in character, and
that, moreover, any violent
manifestation must be both “mythological” (as an expression of human agents
working in concert, unified by some linguistic
fiction, even—or perhaps especially—one
as rudimentary as populist anti-Semitism) and
“divine” (because “sanctioned”, at least for a time, by “history”).
implications of this inseparability between “mythological” and “divine” violence
become much clearer when Derrida undertakes his tentative analysis of the
Declaration of Independence. Here the performative aspect of political
foundation takes center stage. Derrida is forced to marvel at a “people” who
conjure themselves into existence
through a kind of “fabulous retroactivity” (50). When he asks himself what is
meant by “the state”, he comes to the conclusion that it is nothing more (but
also nothing less) than a “state-ment”(53). In this reading, a “declaration of
principles” proves to be more revelatory of the principals involved in the undertaking than their ideas (which
helps to explain how a nation as indebted to Enlightenment values as America
undoubtedly is could develop such an incongruous tradition of ancestor worship
as the cult of the “founding fathers”). In upholding “self-evident truths”,
these men hold up evidence of themselves. “Holed up” in the attic of “truth” is
the naked fact of self-assertion. And yet, for Derrida, this is not at all the
most “fabulous” aspect of the spectacle in question. More fabulous by far is
the infinite regress generated by the series of questions he leaves us with at
the end of the piece:
How is a state made or founded,
how does a state make or found itself? And independence? And the autonomy of
one that both gives itself and signs its own law? Who signs all of these
authorizations to sign? (53)
The author’s only answer to these questions
is to shrug in the general direction of God, the fabled “unmoved mover” of
his piece on Benjamin, Derrida quotes Pascal to the effect that “custom is the
sole basis for equity, for the simple reason that it is received; it is the
mystical foundation of authority. Whoever traces it to its source annihilates
it”(12). By contrast, the analysis of the Declaration demonstrates that
authority cannot be traced to its
source, and that any attempt to do so only deepens the mystery. Authorization always comes from elsewhere. For
Derrida, the human agents involved in the foundation of states are actors, not architects.
does not mean, however, that nothing is built. After all, a republic—the
“public thing” itself—is called into being (out of “thin air”, or, perhaps,
more accurately, out of the “hot air” generated by the ratifying, and reifying,
enthusiasm of a “good people” in love with their own representations of
themselves). Not all at once, to be sure—and it is important to remember that
the American Republic was founded de
facto upon two momentous
expressions of political self-confidence (the Declaration and the
Constitution), separated by an anxiety-ridden gap of thirteen years, thus
giving birth to a political tradition in thrall to the impossible dream of
aligning the hopelessly incongruous documents. One might expect that this
fundamental instability would have produced an essentially skeptical attitude,
in America, toward foundations in general; however, in the actual event, the
fact that, by and large, the same group of men were responsible for both halves
of the dyad has anchored it all the more securely in the bedrock of
personality, thus reinforcing a conception of statecraft-as-creative-outburst,
as distinguished from an “objective”/”scientific” model. This is, perhaps, just
as well. After all, this climate furnished Emerson with the tools to anticipate
Derrida by more than a century; as, here, in “History”:
We are always coming up with the
emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here.
All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history;
only biography… every law which the state enacts indicates a fact in human
insight is Kantian to the core; in fact, it could be argued that he is a more
thoroughgoing Kantian than Kant (who involved himself in certain well-known
absurdities with his creative glosses upon the noumenal). He asserts that
whenever human beings (be they warriors, bureaucrats, or proletarians) come
together to “make history”, they inevitably participate in both “divine” and
“mythic” violence, by assigning a value to the indeterminate “x” that is
justice; and, in doing so, they create the necessary preconditions for
deconstruction, which partakes of the divine without being mythical or violent. Deconstruction finds loopholes
(where myth and divine decree attempt to close
them), it ties ideology in knots, but it creates nothing out of whole cloth. In
fact it does not create at all. It cannot materialize on the phenomenal plane.
It deals with states as it finds them, but it cannot found them.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Walter. “Critique of Violence,” from Selected
Writings, Volume 1, 1913-1926. Eds. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings.
Harvard UP, 1996.
Stanley. Conditions Handsome and
Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Jacques. “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundations of Authority’,” in Drucilla
Cornell, Michael Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson, eds., Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice. New York: Routledge, 1992.
“Declarations of Independence,”
in Negotiations. Ed. Elizabeth
Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.
Robert, ed. A Casebook on the Declaration
Good Afternoon Friends!