Sovereignty, genealogy, and the critique of state violence

Constellations (forthcoming)
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While the immediate aim of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “Critique of Violence,” is to provide a critique of legal violence, commentators typically interpret it as providing a further critique of state violence. However, this interpretation often receives no further argument, and it remains unclear whether Benjamin’s essay may prove analytically relevant for a critique of state violence today. This paper argues that the “Critique” proves thusly relevant, but only on condition that it is developed in two directions. The first direction is conceptual, and consists in an explanation of the necessary relationship between states and violence. This explanation is found by appealing to a concept not cited in Benjamin’s text, but which, I argue, remains its implicit basis: sovereignty. According to this conceptual development, state violence is the necessary result of the state's attempt to maintain its sovereign law at the expense of emancipatory struggles to generate non-sovereign law. The second direction is genealogical, and consists in destabilizing the modern belief that justice is best served through the judicial channels of a sovereign state. Here I employ Michel Foucault’s genealogical research to demonstrate the historical contingency of state justice and, by extension, the possibility of a justice beyond the state.
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Archival date: 2021-09-16
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