Leiden International Studies Blog

Resistance, Disobedience and Barbarity: Connecting Walter Benjamin to Decolonial Theory

Resistance, Disobedience and Barbarity: Connecting Walter Benjamin to Decolonial Theory

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Jaider Esbell, TransMakunaima, published on Amazônia Real, May 28, 2018, https://amazoniareal.com.br/jaider-esbell-expoe-transmakunaima-na-casa-das-artes-em-manaus/

Can violence be imbedded in normativity? In this post, by investigating the force that rationality exerts, I will present a defense of political unreason. Or, put better, a politics of what is presented today as irrational but which upon further consideration could very well be a sensible political claim against an unreasonable political reality. I developed these ideas in two previous publications, “Barbaric Jewishness: Resistance to Anti-Semitism and Judeo-Christianity” and “Judeo-Christianity, Jewish Barbarism and the Necessity to Decolonize Jewishness


For the Stepping Stones seminar I presented an article that I submitted for New Formations entitled “Epistemic Disobedience as Law-Annihilating Violence.” The journal will put out a thematic edition on ‘The Ends of Violence.’ The edition invites reflections on the possibilities of ending violence and whether violence itself can serve that end. My contribution will reflect on the violence imbedded in normativity via an investigation of the force that rationality exerts. My response will then be a defense of political unreason: a politics of the irrational, the mad, the barbarian, the liminal, etc. Or, put better, a politics of what is presented today as irrational but which upon further consideration could well be a sensible political claim against an unreasonable political reality. My intervention aims to respond to three of the central questions that were proposed by the editors:

  1. How has the role of violence in contemporary configurations of culture and power changed, if at all?
  2. What role are violent and non-violent revolutions likely to play in future national and international crises?
  3. How do theoretical insights of feminism, anti-racist theory, and queer theory help us understand the role of violence in our intimate and everyday lives?

What Is the Problem?

The main issue is the perception that laws always depend on some degree of force to enact themselves. This might sound trivial, but the idea is that normativity is always dependent on its own strength to legitimate itself. Think, for example, of the fact that we talk about the strongest reason to act in a certain way rather than another. An appeal to strength is consistent in all conceptualizations of norms and in that sense every norm is to some degree the law of the strongest. In other words, it is only the law because it establishes itself by force. Law is inherently associated with some form of imposition and therefore to some form of violence.

The dynamic between the two—law and violence—becomes even more forceful when we consider that this violence is always imposed toward those who do not recognize the legitimacy of the law. Think, for example, that if a norm is validated by the strength of its rationality, then those who understand those reasons don’t need the law because they already accept its normative force. It is only those who do not see it as valid, either because they disagree with it or because they don’t understand it, that encounter this force. In other words, normativity only needs to flex its strength against those who do not automatically recognize its strength and therefore automatically comply to the norm. I say automatically because even the humanist act of educating someone in the logic of the law is a form of showing strength—that is, demonstrating that there a strong reason for this to be the case.

I would also add say that understanding cuts deeper than merely recognizing a law or its rationale. One can recognize the force a law has and not accept it: for instance, when one disagrees to a prohibition but recognizes this law exists and recognizes what a law is. One understands that laws demand obedience, even if one does not obey it. In this context, one is aware of the validity of its force. The argument here states that if one does not understand the law, one cannot recognize it, but its force is extended regardless. In this last contexts, we could say, with even more legitimacy because it becomes even more necessary. As in the previous example of education, one might disagree with the law but still recognize its validity after being shown its rationale. In this circumstance, one would merely not automatically understand the law but would be made to understand. But if one does not understand it, law is just force.

The dynamic that is created is one where it is the reasonable, those who understand the law, who are constantly employing force against those who are unreasonable. Contrary to an intuitive account, violence is used by the so-called civilized against the so-called barbarian and more importantly, within this account this is unsurprising. It seems law is necessarily entangled with violence given the forceful need to always impose norms on those who are deemed ungovernable. An extension of this would be to question whether things we call barbaric, like racism and sexism, are in fact barbarian or whether they ‘speak the language of reason’ and hence gain legitimacy.

It is also important to note that this violent dynamic creates a faulty circularity: given that there are always going to be those who refuse the law, its forceful imposition becomes necessary to protect those who accept the norm and behave properly against those who do not. In other words, we need laws to be imposed because some people do not accept them, but the imposition of laws is never sufficient because it never actually succeeds in governing those who do not recognize them which in turn legitimates a stronger imposition of the law. Law must be imposed because it never fully governs.

With this in mind, I want to argue that we should abolish the law since it only serves as this imperative imposition. More specifically, I want to argue we should cancel the law by doubling down on this possibility of not understanding. This non-understanding posture I will call ‘epistemic disobedience’ and it consists of refusing the obligation to be reasonable that was framed previously. In other words, it is taking the ‘inability’ to behave and be governed by law as something to be instigated rather than avoided. My argument investigates the possibility that being purposely uncivilized/barbarian can be viewed as a form of deposing a civilizing imperative.

Not Understanding What Must Be Understood

My paper aims to offer a novel account of Walter Benjamin’s notion of law-annihilating/deposing violence presented in Towards a Critique of Violence (1921). Considering that his aim in the text is not merely to replace one form of violence by a ‘better’ alternative, his analysis invites us to investigate the way law-annihilating/deposing violence does not depend on a ‘stronger’ abolishing force to implement itself. I explore this via a possible connection between Benjamin and the idea of ‘epistemic resistance’ as it is presented in decolonial theories.

Jacques Rancière (1999, 44-46) offers us a good starting point for understanding the connecting point between these two theoretical frames. In his analysis of the way domination is enacted, he argues that political domination is naturalized via the rhetorical ‘do you understand?’ interpellation. This subjugates those inferior to the role of obeying without questioning: understanding what they must do while also understanding their social role as those who do not fully know and hence must obey. I would argue that Enrique Dussel (1975, 25-26), one of the proponents of decolonial theory, offers a response to such a subjugation: not understanding, being de facto unable to comprehend and to respond in a manner that is reasonable. As Dussel argues: Otherness is not a form of comprehension but of incomprehension (i.e. being ignorant/uncivilized).

To illustrate this claim, Dussel uses a line from an Argentinian folktale where one of the characters states that “in my ignorance, I know that I am worth nothing.” This is a clear demarcation of the oppressive structure where ignorance amounts to a lack of worth, but instead of reclaiming one’s worthiness and hence correcting this discriminatory posture, epistemic resistance means doubling down on this nothingness. It entails refusing an idea of homogenizing value that governs universally and, in this sense, the very same elements that demarcate oppression also allow for its destitution. In other words, to epistemologically disobey means to dismantle the idea that there is such thing as value, whichever that might be, which can then be translated into a normative structure.

Resisting by Being Uncivilized

Perhaps being purposely uncivilized/barbarian can be viewed as a form of deposing a civilizing imperative. This will be explored via possible connections between Walter Benjamin, Rancière, and the idea of ‘epistemic resistance’ as it is presented in the decolonial theories of Dussel, Silvia Cusicanqui, Fred Moten, and Denise Ferreira da Silva. This counter-hegemonic posture is supported by the fact that the barbarian could represent a refusal of the benefits of universalistic hegemony. The argument will demonstrate that epistemic disobedience amounts to a political system where qualities of the intellect that could engender political order become morally/politically irrelevant. Hence, the barbarian act of epistemic disobedience destitutes hegemonic power. The central idea is not to neutralize differences but to make them politically inconsequential. We recognize that humans are not homogenous but create a system where those differences result no political consequence, hence allowing for a form of equality.

This topic is developed in Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui’s argument that to refer to some ‘essentialist’ account of natives means a form of reducing their struggle to something of the past. In other words, it is to locate their existence beyond the contemporary political dispute. In this context, their demands can only be resolved by a mediated multiculturalism where reason demands the integration of its otherness: what was once strange, now fits within the mainstream logic. This absorption is presented by her as a double trap: it first conditions the existence of the alternative, hence reducing its positions as an alternative, and it reinforces the moral superiority of the dominant as the tolerant and flexible one.

Against this logic, Cusicanqui offers the term ch’ixi, which is ‘neither nor,’ and therefore disobeys the logic of being one or the other: civilized or barbarian, working or resting. This form of epistemic resistance is one that frames the opposition to the conditioning of normativity, not the collection of all possible options in one mixed hybridity as in a pluralism of normativities. It is instead the option of being ‘not even one,’ of having no normativity and hence no government. This can be a form of abdicating control, of sitting outside the driver’s seat, of not understanding and being ok with it; not the indifference of a universal common ground that presupposes or imposes homogeneity but the indifference of difference without reasonable measure and therefore without reasonable control.

Denise Ferreira da Silva delineates the meaning of this posture as a resistance to an enlightened posture of a transparent self that acts in the world against a project that stands on the idea of autonomy, and therefore on the idea of those who have their own laws (nomos) in opposition to those who have to be shown the law: those to whom law must demonstrate its force. Remembering that this demonstration comes both as education and as imposition or, more interestingly, first as an education and only then as an imposition which reinforces both the humanism of the imposer and the savagery of the victim.

For her, to abolish law is to abolish the presupposition that the negation of law comes only as chaos. Instead, one must see that the non-law means the absence of any government, including self-government, a form of incommensurable difference that grants equality. Beyond a law of equivalence that presupposes a principle of homogeneity only to find difference, one must encounter difference as it is. Or, to put it in perhaps simpler words, not a form of lawlessness of something ‘not yet under government’ but to whom government must be extended. Instead, it is a form of the ungovernable that merely establishes that which is already the case: that as much as law governs and forcefully keeps order, it never fully governs and therefore is always a contingent/arbitrary imposition. It represents solely an application of violence.

If I can summarize it in an even more provocative manner, isn’t this definition of barbarity a form of democracy? Isn’t it the possibility of unconditional and undermined political participation? And to this extent the whole panic about the death of democracy should be confronted by the question of whether we ever had it in the first place or whether all we experienced so far are waves of governing people, some more forceful some less, but never a political system that was truly free of this administrative logic.