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Jan-Werner Myth, Law and OrderSchmitt and Benjamin Read

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Jan-Werner Myth, Law and OrderSchmitt and Benjamin Read
  History of European Ideas 29 (2003) 459–473 Myth, law and order: Schmitt and Benjamin read reflections on violence Jan-Werner M . uller All Souls College, Oxford OX1 4AL, UK  Received 2 August 2003; accepted 7 August 2003 The Kingdome of God is gotten by violence: but what if it could be gotten byunjust violence? (Hobbes, Leviathan).Heidegger and next to him Carl Schmitt, author of public law y publications andto a certain degree pupil of Georges Sorel, turn out to be the two intellectualcatastrophes of the new Germany. Schmitt appears to me as the even moredangerous one. (Karl Vossler, in a letter to Croce, 25th August 1933).Our task is not one of deciding for all time, but rather one of deciding in everymoment. But we must make our decision. (Walter Benjamin, 26th May, 1926). 1. Introduction To talk about Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin in one breath still seems to havean air of the sacrilegious, maybe even an air of violence—doing violence toBenjamin, that is of course. 1 Is one not reinforcing what, at least at the time of Benjamin’s suicide, seemed to be the work of the historical victor, making, asBenjamin put it, death unsafe from the enemy? 2 Escaping this suspicion byemploying Benjamin’s own concept of ‘constellation’ seems merely an ultimatelyblocked intellectual escape-route: how can one associate Schmitt, the ‘Crown juristof the Third Reich’, unrepentant until the end, with Benjamin, its tragic andterrorized victim?.The answer is of course that they associated themselves, through Benjamin’sfamous (or infamous) letter in which he expressed his appreciation for Schmitt’s ARTICLE IN PRESS 1 Thanks to Michael Jennings, Andreas Kalyvas and John P. McCormick. 2 Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, In:  Illuminations , ed. Hannah Arendt, trans.Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1992), pp. 245–255; here p. 247.0191-6599/$-see front matter r 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2003.08.002  work on sovereignty and dictatorship. The necessity of dissociating them movedAdorno to eliminate references to Schmitt from Benjamin’s  Origins of GermanTragedy  and leave out this correspondence from the selection of Benjamin’s letters— thereby eventually giving substance to a vicious debate, typical of the Germanintellectual scene, and making the letter into an ideological weapon  par excellence . 3 Just as followers of Benjamin had to prove over and over again that there was noelective intellectual affinity by pointing out the obvious differences between Schmittand Benjamin, Schmitt’s apologists took the mere existence of the letter as proof thatSchmitt was not only an intellectually respectable figure, but also a major inspirationfor the Weimar Left. 4 The myth of Schmitt’s domination, however, seems to be borne out even duringtheir overlapping lifetimes: Schmitt, the  ! etatist who actually managed to positionhimself at the centre of the state, as Prussian state secretary, and Benjamin, theinstitutional outsider, both wrote articles on Georges Sorel’s  Reflections onViolence . 5 Schmitt claimed to have been the first to have introduced Sorelianthought into Germany. 6 While Schmitt did in fact briefly mention Sorel in a footnotein his 1921 book on dictatorship, Benjamin in the same year published his ‘Critiqueof Violence’, in which he took Sorel’s general strike as a starting point for a rich, butelusive theory of overcoming violence. Still, Schmitt tends to get credited with havinginitiated a Sorel reception in the German-speaking countries. 7 ARTICLE IN PRESS 3 Walter Benjamin,  Briefe , Eds. Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, 2 Vols. (Frankfurt/Main:Suhrkamp, 1966). On the discovery of Benjamin’s letter, see Jacob Taubes,  Ad Carl Schmitt: GegenstrebigeF  . ugung  (Berlin: Merve, 1987). Somewhat bizarrely, Derrida has gone to the other extreme and invented aletter by Schmitt congratulating Benjamin on the publication of ‘Critique of Violence’, alongside a wholecorrespondence between Schmitt and Benjamin as well as between Schmitt and Heidegger. See JacquesDerrida,  Der mystische Grund der Autorit . at  (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), p. 67 and 97. 4 Paul Noack,  Carl Schmitt: Eine Biographie  (Berlin: Ullstein, 1993), pp. 110–114. 5 I should stress that this essay is not concerned with the adequacy of Schmitt’s and Benjamin’sinterpretations of Sorel. Apart from being methodologically both dubious and fruitless, such an exercise inassessing the ‘correctness’ of their views on Sorel would have to face the problematic fact of what JeremyJennings has referred to as Sorel’s ‘methodological, scientific, epistemological and ethical pluralism’ and‘the diversity of intention, style and subject-matter that Sorel’s work reveals’. See J. R. Jennings,  GeorgesSorel: The Character and Development of his Thought  (London: Macmillan, 1985), p. 15. 6 Carl Schmitt,  Positionen und Begriffe im Kampf mit Weimar-Genf-Versailles 1923–1939  (1940; Berlin:Duncker & Humblot, 1988), p. 313. According to Piet Tommissen, Schmitt first read Sorel during the FirstWorld War, when his task in the Munich Ministry of War was to screen foreign propaganda, newspapersand books. It was then that Schmitt became thoroughly acquainted with the works of Ernest Seilli ere andwas led on to the study of Sorel. See Piet Tommissen, ‘Bausteine zu einer wissenschaftlichen Biographie(Periode 1888–1933)’, in: Helmut Quaritsch (Ed.),  Complexio Oppositorum:  . Uber Carl Schmitt  (Berlin:Duncker & Humblot, 1988), pp. 71–100; here pp. 76–77. Schmitt was widely recognized as having treatedSorel for the first time ‘in political and historical context and in his true significance’. See Ernst Posse, ‘Derantidemokratische Denker und der moderne Sozialismus’, preface to the German edition of GeorgesSorel’s  La decomposition du marxisme, Die Aufl  . osung des Marxismus , (Jena, 1930), pp. 1–19; here p. 19,quoted by Helmut Berding,  Rationalismus und Mythos: Geschichtsauffassung und politische Theorie bei Georges Sorel   (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1969), p. 47. 7 See Andreas Koenen,  Der Fall Carl Schmitt: Sein Aufstieg zum ‘Kronjuristen des Dritten Reiches’ (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1995), p. 183. The major work on Sorel was MichaelFreund’s  Georges Sorel: Der revolution . are Konservativismus  (Frankfurt/Main: Vittorio Klostermann, J.-W. M  . uller / History of European Ideas 29 (2003) 459–473 460  Having said this, one has of course to face the possibility that Schmitt andBenjamin might be theoretically too close for comfort, or that they at leastentertained what Susanne Heil has called ‘dangerous liaisons’. 8 After all, it is nowwidely recognized that Benjamin felt certain theoretical affinities with extreme right-wing Weimar intellectuals such as Ludwig Klages, and that he freely appropriatedfragments of their thought for his own projects. 9 I shall argue, however, that ratherthan being too close for comfort, the two political theologians Schmitt and Benjaminwere on a collision course. This argument is of course in danger of leading to whatone already knows: that Schmitt was an authoritarian Catholic, with occasionalforays into totalitarianism, who—at least at certain points in his life—put his faith inthe Biblical figure of the  Katechon  who holds off the Anti-Christ; 10 whereasBenjamin subscribed to a Jewish messianism which Anson Rabinbach has aptlydescribed as ‘radical, uncompromising, and comprised of an esoteric intellectualismthat is uncomfortable with the Enlightenment as it is enamoured of apocalypticvisions—whether revolutionary or purely redemptive in the spiritual sense’. 11 Schmitt was consistently anti-materialist, always denying any legitimacy tomodernity, which he tended to see as the homogeneous disaster of secularization andthe loss of an old European civilization with its clearly demarcated state system andlegal order, the  ius publicum Europaeum . Benjamin, on the other hand, for all hisideological twists and turns between Marxism and radical conservatism, eventuallysought to uncover modernity’s redemptive potential. But given these obviousantinomies, how did they ever get theoretically so close? Was it simply because theyboth thought from extremes, radically pushing concepts to their limits, and becauseboth subscribed to a form of decisionism? A common vocabulary centred on ‘statesof exceptions’ would suggest as much—but not much more. Or is it perhaps that aradicalism, rooted in eschatology, and decisionism flow from any political theology,irrespective of content?.What I want to argue is that, at least during the early 1920s—when Schmitt wasstill clearly in the Catholic camp and Benjamin had yet to discover Marxism as wellas the perhaps redemptive potential of modern mythology—it was precisely theirdifferent conceptualization of the relationship between mythology and moralitywhich set them apart. 12 These conceptualizations were close enough to make them ARTICLE IN PRESS (  footnote continued  )1932). In the preface, Freund acknowledges Schmitt, along with the likes of Edouard Berth, H.D.G. Cole[ sic !], Croce, A. P. d’Entr eves, Waldemar Gurian and Hermann Heller. See pp. 10–11. 8 Susanne Heil,  ‘Gef  . ahrliche Beziehungen’: Walter Benjamin und Carl Schmitt  (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler,1996). 9 See for instance Richard Wolin, ‘Introduction to the Revised Edition’, In:  Walter Benjamin: AnAesthetics of Redemption  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp. xix–lviii. 10 For the most careful and comprehensive, but ultimately inconclusive study of Schmitt’s view of the Katechon , see Felix Grossheutschi,  Carl Schmitt und die Lehre vom Katechon  (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot,1996). 11 Anson Rabinbach, ‘Between Enlightenment and Apocalypse: Benjamin, Bloch and Modern GermanJewish Messianism’, In:  New German Critique , No. 34 (1985), pp. 78–124. 12 It seems to me undeniable that Schmitt was a peculiar kind of Catholic in the late teens and early1920s—but I do not wish to suggest that he subscribed to a homogeneous Catholic political theology J.-W. M  . uller / History of European Ideas 29 (2003) 459–473  461  take an intense interest in each other’s work—in Schmitt’s case, in fact until the1960s and 1970s, when he almost obsessively followed the Benjamin renaissance onthe West German New Left. 13 But the differences are crucial and illuminate largeraspects of Schmitt’s and Benjamin’s  ouevres .To stake out this argument, I shall focus on Schmitt’s major article on Sorel,entitled ‘The Political Theory of Myth’, which was later incorporated into his  Crisisof Parliamentary Democracy , and on Benjamin’s essay ‘Critique of Violence’, whichappeared in 1921 in the  Archiv f  . ur Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik  . On the otherhand, Benjamin’s book on German tragedy and its relation to Schmitt’s work ondictatorship will remain beyond the scope of this article, as will the recentdeconstructive readings of Benjamin’s ‘Critique’ undertaken by Jacques Derrida andWerner Hamacher. 14 2. Schmitt reads Sorel: the power of myth Carl Schmitt first mentioned Sorel in his 1921 book  The Dictatorship , but onlyengaged extensively with Sorel’s thought in his 1923 piece on ‘The Political Theory of Myth’. 15 In this review of   Reflections on Violence  Schmitt argued that Sorelpresented an anti-rationalist, anti-materialist theory of direct action and ‘unmediatedconcrete life’. This theory constituted a major improvement on ‘intellectualistMarxism’. What Sorel taught was that the ‘unmediated’ active decision, and thesheer psychological power required for such a decision, were both generated bymyths. Schmitt spoke admiringly of Sorel’s idea that ‘out of true life-instincts comethe great enthusiasm, the great moral decision and the great myth’. 16 Myths createdcourage and a new morality, a morality which was to bring about a great cataclysm,the moment when in turn the ‘great moral decision’ was required. Mythical images,through their aesthetic immediacy, induced action and heroism. In short, myth andmorality would feed on each other. Far from vitalism and voluntarism leading todisorder, irrational myths actually contributed to a new grounding of authority,discipline and hierarchy. Schmitt endorsed this contribution of myths, conceding ARTICLE IN PRESS (  footnote continued  )throughout his life, as Heinrich Meier has done in  The lesson of Carl Schmitt: Four Chapters on theDistinction between Political Theology and Political Philosophy , trans. Marcus Brainard (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1998). 13 On Schmitt’s interest in New Left publications on Benjamin, see Helmut Lethen, ‘Unheimliche N . ahe:Carl Schmitt liest Walter Benjamin’, In:  Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , 16th September 1999. 14 Derrida,  Der mystische Grund der Autorit . at ; Werner Hamacher, ‘Afformative, Strike: Benjamin’s‘Critique of Violence’’, in: Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne (Eds.),  Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy:Destruction and Experience  (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 110–138. For an excellent discussion of Benjamin’s use of Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty in  The Origin of German Tragedy , see Lutz Koepnick, Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power  (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), pp. 35–52. 15 Carl Schmitt-Dorotic,  Die Diktatur: Von den Anf  . angen des modernen Souver . anit . atsgedankens bis zum proletarischen Klassenkampf   (Munich: Duncker & Humblot, 1921), p. 149. 16 Carl Schmitt, ‘Die politische Theorie des Mythus’, In: Schmitt,  Positionen und Begriffe , pp. 9–18, herep. 11. J.-W. M  . uller / History of European Ideas 29 (2003) 459–473 462
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