Issue #72 June 2024

Justice and Blindness: Antinomies of Violence

Henri Michaux, Plate (page 7) from "Meidosems", (1948)

We will here explore some concepts of justice and its undoing through certain ideas formed over the past century in political philosophy: Walter Benjamin’s “die reine Gewalt” (pure violence) will be put in relation to Giorgio Agamben’s conception of “lo stato di eccezione” (state of exception) as well as Jacques Derrida’s notion of “la démocratie à venir” (democracy to come), so as to sketch a theoretical basis for confronting and transforming power through a critique of the forms of historical blindness to which it gives rise. The idea of a justice unassimilable to the hegemonic forms of domination necessitates the reformation of our relations to history, which requires making legible the violence covered over by the march of historical progress. We shall explore the status of the equality of individuals before the law as one of the essential problems of rendering the justice that only the work of concepts can bring forth.

The question of whether the full equality of persons can lead to the fulfillment of a substantial notion of justice is one that itself leads to the historical possibility for the grounding of right. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s understanding, the positive sphere of law, in the varying degrees in which it exists in modern states, is rooted in a violence expelled from consciousness as its prehistory. This process is expressed by the movement from immediate to mediated domination, or as they have it, from the system of domination fetish objects institute over the lives of human beings to a system of quantified equality as the fetish of modern rationality: “Zuvor standen die Fetische unter dem Gesetz der Gleichheit. Nun wird die Gleichheit selber zum Fetisch. Die Binde über den Augen der Justitia bedeutet nicht bloß, daß ins Recht nicht eingegriffen werden soll, sondern daß es nicht aus Freiheit stammt”.1placeholder The political necessity of the blindfold over the eyes of Lady Justice, however, is here unremarked. If justice is to maintain itself in its idea, it must blind itself to the unfreedom, or injustice, from which it comes. But how is this injustice more than the psychological inheritance of violence ideologically relegated to the prehistory of positive law? In Benjamin’s “Zur Kritik der Gewalt”, the injustice inhering in the founding legitimacy of rights-based normative frameworks is not simply that of a repressed inheritance of violence mediated by instrumental systems of control, but rather as what he understands to pertain to the allocation of sovereignty needed for positing a sphere of right: the act of war. Violence forms not only the genealogy of legal institutions which erase its memory from the subjects bound by them, but is incorporated into their fabric insofar as the victors of “legitimate wars” establish the conditions of peacetime relations that the defeated are bound to under the threat of a punishment whose horizon is that of the decision over life and death. The violence utilized as means to a new establishment (or preservation) of a system of ends—the violence that underwrites the notion of justice embodied in the police whose proper end solidifies the space opened by the natural ends of war—not only forms the condition of the modern nation-state, but in Benjamin’s reading, forms it such that peace becomes an extension of war by other means. The conditions set by the victors compose the blindfold put over the eyes of the legal subjects bound by the legality it institutes: “Ja, das Wort »Friede« bezeichnet in seiner Bedeutung, in welcher es Korrelat zur Bedeutung »Krieg« ist […] geradezu eine solche a priori und von allen übrigen Rechtsverhältnissen unabhängige notwendige Sanktionierung eines jeden Sieges”.2placeholder Between these two aspects of blindness, the turning away from an unredeemable past and the enforcement of an unredeemable present, can the sense of T.S. Eliot’s description in the “Four Quartets” of the blindness of wisdom be read in a way anew: “Had they deceived us, / Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders, / Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit? / The serenity only a deliberate hebetude, / The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets / Useless in the darkness into which they peered / Or from which they turned their eyes”.3placeholder The death of the secret, or the break in the transmission of the sacred, is brought into existence through the long history of violence inflicted to establish it.

The equality of individuals before the law reveals ultimately that the possibility of allotting rights implicates a power unequal to the powers codified as belonging to the field of right. The limitations of right-maintaining existence are the surfaces that compose the fluidity of this power, which is nothing other than the threat of punishment which the police maintain, whose limit is that of the decision over life and death. The law in its exceptional element, the direct recourse to violence that maintains the mediated forms of civil life, what Giorgio Agamben describes as “Il punto di indifferenza fra violenza e diritto, la soglia in cui la violenza trapassa in diritto e il diritto in violenza”,4placeholder must be understood in accordance with the antinomy internal to nomos. Agamben presents its structural manifestation as a comprehension of what Benjamin, at the end of his essay, poses as the locus of pure violence, “die reine Gewalt”, which is that aspect of life that in its mere existence exceeds what the form of mediating law circumscribes, a system of ends by which life is configured as a means. It is this aspect of life that is “holy” because only it is capable of being sacrificed, of being returned to the gods: the life of spirit, shorn from a kingdom of ends, is identical with material existence as such. The transgression of the limit between human life and life itself (das bloße Leben, la nuda vita) is ambiguous in its finality, insofar as it is in itself the suspension or erasure of final reasons. Because it presents a lack of distinction between fundamental categories pertaining to law and ethics, it is at once utilized through a legal order as the limit between law and lawlessness and incorporated into sovereignty as the exceptionality of force within law, what Agamben describes as “Lo stato di eccezione” that “non è tanto una sospensione spazio-temporale, quanto una figura topologica complessa, in cui non solo l’eccezione e la regola, ma anche lo stato di natura e il diritto, il fuori e il dentro transitano l’uno nell’altro“.5placeholder Yet this universalizing of biopolitical power at the basis of any state wherein a system of legal recognition between political subjects is carried out maintains itself in dissymmetry with what Benjamin ultimately describes as the dimension of bare life that persists beyond its inclusion through exclusion, holding fast in the aspect of its transgression: that is, revolutionary violence as the only hope for a refoundation of the political: “Ist aber der Gewalt auch jenseits des Rechtes ihr Bestand als reine unmittelbare gesichert, so ist damit erwiesen, daß und wie auch die revolutionäre Gewalt möglich ist, mit welchem Namen die höchste Manifestation reiner Gewalt durch den Menschen zu belegen ist”.6placeholder The “that” and “how” of revolutionary violence, in the specificity of its designation, would not be what returns to right-maintaining power, but rather what introduces into the terrain of history a value-form that poses anew the relation of life to itself, wherein human life is no longer metaphysically separable from its other, material constituents. Die reine Gewalt, or revolutionary violence, would be the overcoming of what Agamben poses as the metaphysical foundation of the dominant discourses of political philosophy, and by implication, political life: “La “politicizzazione” nella nuda vita è il compito metafisica per eccellenza, in cui si decide dell’umanità del vivente uomo, e, assumendo questo compito, la modernità non fa che dichiarare la propria fedeltà alla struttura essenziale della tradizione metafisica. La coppia categoriale fondamentale della politica occidentale non è quella amico-nemico, ma quella nuda vita-esistenza politica, zoe-bios, esclusione-inclusione”.7placeholder Agamben accordingly understands biopolitics not as what emerges late in the history of occidental governmentality, but rather as what inscribes the metaphysical core of politics from its inception as the force of demarcation between mere existence and spirit. The task, then, of reconfiguring what is fundamentally included through an exclusion—the sphere proper to the human being maintained through laws issued in rituals of mythical violence perpetrated against what is considered expendable material—falls to the work of a pure violence whose revolutionary orientation is maintained in the forsaking of right-maintaining discourse and existence such as it has been practiced in modernity under the sanctions of the capitalist state. That Benjamin’s conception is not simply consumed in an anarchic moment deprived of lasting political force, an immediacy deprived of the means of overturning entrenched mediations of the police state, is made good through the enjoining theoretical element by which a new practice may be led: “Die Kritik der Gewalt ist die Philosophie ihrer Geschichte. Die »Philosophie« dieser Geschichte deswegen, weil die Idee ihres Ausgangs allein eine kritische, scheidende und entscheidende Einstellung auf ihre zeitlichen Data ermöglicht8placeholder The idea of what leads outside of the temporal data given to us by our proper history, that which breaks with the history of what is given as the history of violence itself, might it be what one may call, with full awareness of the blindness it can cause within that history, the idea of justice? One then returns to the basic questions: What is a justice that is actually just? What is an equality that is truly equal? Finally, what is a politics no longer steeped in the metaphysics of exclusion, the history of mythological violence and the conditions of peace that mask conditions of war?

Henri Michaux, Plate (folio 10) from "Parcours", (1966)

As an elaboration of what is often referred to as Benjamin’s messianic orientation, Jacques Derrida poses the familiar term of “democracy” as the locus wherein such a reorientation of violence may be carried out, or has always been carried out even if it never has, or never can fully, arrive. The essential gesture of this position is to state that political and rational sovereignty are never fundamental, absolute realities. Democracy, then, would be the attestation of an original opening by which political subjectivity can only ground itself in relation to something it is not, that is, in relation to the other, the not-I, whose status within the history of democratic societies is variable and essentially open to contestation, for better or worse. Rather than the closed relation of sovereign to subject in which the modality of power and recognition is well defined, there is given an interminable opening to otherness which makes of the concept of democracy something both within and outside of the time of history, thus, an unconditioned term igniting an endless contestation of authority: “Quant à la raison et à la démocratie, quant à une raison démocratique, il faudrait en effet tenter de dissocier la « souveraineté » (toujours en principe indivisible) et l’«inconditionnalité ». L’une et l’autre se soustraient absolument, comme l’absolu même, à tout relativisme. C’est leur affinité”.9placeholder What is unconditional, then, is a relation to the other that political sovereignty (lo stato di eccezione) negates through the transformation of this opening to otherness—that wherein the demarcation between spirit and material existence is infinitely refracted—into the sphere of law as exclusive inclusion, itself absconding behind the established mediations as that element of force embodied in the police. In step with the route taken by Benjamin, Derrida attempts in his late political reflections to relocate the sphere of law within a different idea of its development, even though this idea bears the name of “democracy”, a system of government that has historically favored the rights of the owners of capital such that the terms “democracy” and “liberal economy”—state-sanctioned private exploitation of working people and the environment—form part of largely the same plane. Yet “democracy” for Derrida remains an idea that differs from its enactment in modern nation states while also naming the actuality of what he considers to be an increase in equality for the different peoples living within such nations. However, the question concerning the colonial and subsequent post-colonial condition of those living under the development of the liberal-democratic enterprise, as well as the neglected masses within the “first-world”, challenge what is a deeply ambiguous but at least hopeful position of a “democracy to come”. Such a position will hold that only with the contestation of political boundaries and their recognitive conditions does democracy unveil both its actual limits and its ideal form of inclusion, the restless mobility of the boundary line being what belongs to a democratic ethics, or cosmopolitanism: “L’éthique pure, s’il y en a, commence à la dignité respectable de l’autre comme l’absolu dissemblable, reconnu comme non reconnaissable, voire comme méconnaissable, au-delà de tout savoir, de toute connaissance et de toute reconnaissance: loin d’être son commencement, le prochain comme semblable ou ressemblant nomme la fin ou la ruine de l’éthique pure, s’il y en a“.10placeholder It follows that the exercise of questioning the limits of democracy in the name of a greater democratic equality with its associated freedom, as organized workers, women, and people of color all over the world have done in our recent history, places one outside of any established sense or consensus regarding the actual content of democratic form. A “democracy to come” would be more than an unpresentable idea, but the object of a concrete political practice that traces and complicates the limits of political understanding and ethical existence. At a geopolitical level, however, proclamations of human rights and the creation of international bodies, even if effective in combating certain kinds of threat to democracy, cannot be seen to constitute definitive realizations of it given the nearly uninterrupted trajectory of global capitalism protected by democratic state power. Most recently, the reign of post-Cold War neoliberal consensus has composed one of the thickest blindfolds by which the horrors perpetrated and misery produced by it are shielded from the eyes of the citizens of “democratic” nations, which amounts to the ruin of a democratic politics, if there is one.11placeholder Against the overwhelmingly reactive forces that compose most “democratic” nation states, is there nonetheless a democratic idea that escapes domination by the ideological and material relations that have composed the present? If one were to say that la démocratie à venir and die reine Gewalt share the same conceptual space inflected by a messianic orientation, the ground of their identity is to be located in what each supposes of the other: Derrida’s sense of democracy cannot be removed from the violence of the immediate in which contestation of order occurs without falling into the abstraction of a regulative idea, and most dangerously, an acceptance of the notion of progress with which the bourgeois-dominated nations of the world spin the fibers of their blindfold. Inversely, Benjamin’s conception of pure violence cannot exist without the dimension of a possible equality and recognition between political subjects grounded in a positive law that protects the singular powers of the bodies and minds that compose a plural demos. The idea that guides such an orientation is not so much what makes immanent that which transcendentally marks the boundaries of a developmental necessity whose end confers the progressive realization of what is native to its sovereign immunity, but rather a trajectory of progressive divestment of an unredeemable past. Die reine Gewalt is brought against the historical violence that makes the present ideologically intelligible, democracy is waged against democratic regimes in the name of a justice whose history is that of its betrayal by human individuals and collectives, its sacrifice as la nuda vita, materiality expelled as refuse: the ocean swollen with drowned immigrants, the factories razed by fires of neglect, the families destroyed in the rubble of exploded buildings, the decay of the postindustrial desert, the Earth itself as a site of waste.

What is unpresentable in the idea of justice is the constellation that community forms, its unconscious multiplicity, which can never be thought in the form of race or nation. If the revolutionary class has sense still, it is in the political contestation that binds actors in their violence against violence, performed in the constellations of sense that fulfill the call of an endless freedom and infinite difference. This would be the justice internal to equality. The becoming equal of persons, however, is not only a destination but a destruction of the notion of progress that binds us to a false equality and false past, against which one must realize, as Eliot enjoins, despite his blindness, “That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere / sequence— / Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy/ Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution, / Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning / the past”.12placeholder The idea of progress, if there is one, demands the sundering of all relations to the past that enforce relations of domination in the present. The basic intuition that underlies Benjamin’s thought can only be repeated in strategically new ways according to the actuality of what is under duress, the call of which bends the sails of concepts to its rescue. In the interstices of the narrative of the victors is gathered that constellation of the past that threatens the solidity of its enclosure, a violence whose multiplicity and many names is held captive through the historical violence inhering in the founding legitimacy of nations and their modes of commerce. The equality of persons within such walls amounts to nothing more than the sharing of spoils, the right to consumption and expulsion, a democracy of the unredeemable. The work of justice, however, whose blindfold is that which men have forced over her eyes to make her believe in the society they have created, consists not so much in tearing it away so that vision may be restored, but in seeing through the stitching of its fibers, its temporal porousness, the inheritance of a world to come, forsaken but not yet destroyed.

Turner Roth is an essayist and poet. He received a MA in Philosophy from Université Paris 8 and Kingston University London, and a BA from Bard College. His writings have appeared in Epoché Magazine, The International Magazine, People’s World, Movable Type, among others. He lives and works in New York City.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W.  & Horkheimer, Max. Dialektik der Aufklärung. S. Fischer Verlag. Frankfurt am Main, 1969.

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo sacer: Il potere sovrano et la nuda vita. Giulio Einaudi editore. Torino, 1995.

Benjamin, Walter. Gesammelte Schriften II.1. Suhrkamp Verlag. Frankfurt am Main, 1977.

Derrida, Jacques. Voyous. Galilée. Paris, 2003.

Eliot, T.S. Collected Poems 1909-1962. Harcourt, Brace & World. New York, 1963.

Foucault, Michel. Naissance de la biopolitique : Cours au Collège de France (1978-1979). Seuil/Gallimard. Paris, 2004.


Theodor W. Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung. S. Fischer Verlag. Frankfurt am Main, 1969, p. 23.


Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften II.1. Suhrkamp Verlag. Frankfurt am Main, 1977, pp. 185-186.


T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962. Harcourt, Brace & World. New York, 1963, pp. 184-185.


Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer: Il potere sovrano et la nuda vita. Giulio Einaudi editore. Torino, 1995, p. 38.


Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer: Il potere sovrano et la nuda vita. Giulio Einaudi editore. Torino, 1995, p. 44.


Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften II.1. Suhrkamp Verlag. Frankfurt am Main, 1977, p. 202.


Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer: Il potere sovrano et la nuda vita. Giulio Einaudi editore. Torino, 1995, p. 11.


Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften II.1. Suhrkamp Verlag. Frankfurt am Main, 1977.


Jacques Derrida, Voyous. Galilée. Paris, 2003, p. 13.


Jacques Derrida, Voyous. Galilée. Paris, 2003, p. 90.


The perspective given by Foucault concerning the transition from liberal to neoliberal governmentality, viz., from that of natural marketplace laws comprehended by laissez-faire nonintervention to that of direct intervention at the behest of creating concurrence in the global marketplace (which by no means excludes furnishing the conditions for powerful actors to accumulate vast sums of capital at risk of triggering economic crisis, as 2008 demonstrated), rests a decisive analysis to this day of the fundamental tendencies of neoliberal reason, that wherein “Le gouvernement doit accompagner de bout en bout une économie de marché. L’économie de marché ne soustrait pas quelque chose au gouvernement. Elle indique au contraire, elle constitue l’index général sous lequel il faut placer la règle qui va définir toutes les actions gouvernementales. Il faut gouverner pour le marché, plutôt que gouverner à cause du marché”. Governing for the market requires a wholesale adoption of marketplace logic such that the distinction on which liberalism rests, that between free market commerce and public law, is eroded. Within this trajectory, the notion of a “democracy to come” frays in the light of this actuality. See Michel Foucault, Naissance de la biopolitique : Cours au Collège de France (1978-1979). Seuil/Gallimard. Paris, 2004, p. 125.


T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962. Harcourt, Brace & World. New York, 1963. p. 194.


June 2024


Laughing at Darkness: Bataille’s Theory of Laughter

by Tung-Wei Ko

Schelling on the Organic Genesis of Space

by John C. Brady

Justice and Blindness: Antinomies of Violence

by Turner Roth

Diverse Thoughts on the Lightly Enlightened, circa 17th Century France, Part II

by Trent Portigal