Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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July 01, 2008
we will we will Korach you

Dr. Ariella Azoulay discusses some writings by Walter Benjamin, in "The Tradition of the Oppressed," from the current issue (vol. 16, no. 2) of the UC Berkeley journal Qui Parle.

She writes:
One day an editor might decide to publish a new and improved edition of Benjamin's complete writings, which would include postcards, pictures, newspaper cutouts, sketches, and the additional documentation of objects and places.

Such an edition, I believe, would provide the proper conditions for the transmission of Benjamin's texts.

What would such an edition look like? Perhaps it would resemble Verso's recent Archives volume? A reviewer has described the volume in part like this:
In these pages we can pore over newspaper clippings with marginalia, notebook pages, envelopes with scribbled lists, photographs, old toys, and more.

The Archive indeed started life as the catalog for a Berlin exhibition of Benjamin-related physical objects.

But back to Azoulay. She argues the importance of a visually aware/informed approach to understanding Benjamin's writings. She writes that the task of his readers is to "go back and forth between text and image." For example, she invites us to read Benjamin's reflections on a particular Bible story while imaging that "the scene was even recorded by the Biblical cameraman."

However, her delightful "cameraman" remark is not the most interesting of what she has to say about the Benjamin essay in question.

The Bible story discussed by Benjamin is that of Korach. Korach was a Levite rebel against Moses' leadership who was swallowed up by the earth for his impudence, according to the tale.

Benjamin writes about Korach in his essay "The Critique of Violence," from 1920-21. The essay is in Reflections. A .pdf of the "Critique" currently is on-line here.

The story of Korach's annihilation happens also to be this week's Torah portion.

What was Korach after? His grievance against Moses and his leadership is translated in one version as follows:
"You have gone too far!

The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them.

Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD's assembly?"

For this, pretty much, Korach gets buried alive.

Traditional commentators have seemed to view him as an evil villain who deserved everything he got.

His punishment extended even to his children. His kids were annihilated with him at the same time -- or so some seem to interpret the text of the tale. So, a footnote in the Soncino Chumash includes an explanatory comment from Rashi:
No court of law punishes little children.
[Is this really so?

Fortunately, Rashi never lived long enough to see some perverse occasional twists of contemporary family law -- or criminal sentencing.]
But the sin of strife is so grievous that its penalty extended even to the sucklings.

Against this harsh traditional view seems to stand a different (sometimes Gnostic) line, with a more empathetic outlook on Korach and his supporters.

Plaut's Commentary puts a kind of existentialist spin on things:
Ultimately, as Buber emphasizes, the question Korah asked poses an insoluble contradition: for holiness can never be fully realized within history, yet the people are to act as if it can be or even as if it has been realized.

This is the biblical way of dealing with a divine impasse. . . .

Plaut sources the above view of Martin Buber to Moses (1946). Moses is apparently now long out of print, but its chapter on Korach, "The Contradition," was reprinted in Herberg's Writings of Martin Buber. Therein, Buber summarizes the rebel's argument like so:
"[T]he whole people is holy, and because it is holy, all the individuals in it are holy. . . .

"If all are holy, there is no need for any mediation. If all are holy there is no need for human beings to exercise any power over other human beings. . . .

"Since the people are holy, commandments from without are no longer necessary. . . ."

The issue is always that of 'divine freedom' against 'divine law' . . .

[H]ere the eternal word is opposed by eternal contradiction. . . . [a] schizoid development from a common root.

Korach is able to make use of Moses' own words against him. . . .

[G]eneration after generation had to choose again and again between the roads. . . .

Drawing out this choice-saturated thread even more clearly in contemporary language, Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman, on his blog, shows in detail how smoothly the Korach vs. Moses confrontation can be cast into a narrative framework that's very familiar to contemporary thinking. In it, Korach plays the role of a kind of radical humanist with whom many modern minds would be inclined automatically to side:

We have here all the poignancy of a Greek tragedy: both sides are honest, sincere, and well-meaning, yet inevitably fall into a fatal, polarized conflict. . . .

[O]ne can imagine modern people seeing [Korach] as a hero, representing the democratic ideals of autonomy, of each man being as good as the next. One is reminded of the American frontier ethos, of such figures as Andrew Jackson, of the spirit of direct, simple democracy, the New England town meeting.

Chipman's spin on Korach, hypothetical though it may be, resonates with "The Critique of Violence" in that Benjamin's account of the Levite is tightly intertwined with a parallel account of an actual figure from Greek tragedy or tragic myth, Niobe. More on their parallel significance later.

[TiR does not presume to know or cast judgment on how the Korach story should "correctly" be interpreted. . . .

because to attempt to do so would only beg many preliminary questions:
correct to whom?

correct for whom?

correct for what purposes?

what is "correctness"?

and so on.]

[Meanwhile, this week's print Hamodia takes a different and refreshing look at the parsha to ask:
Whatever became of Dassan and Aviram, Korach's co-conspirators?

The answer seems to be:
"A spark of them both perdures in each of us! Be mindful!"]

Benjamin's "Critique of Violence" becomes richer (or more confusing -- same difference?) with the weaving into its tapestry of these alternative threads -- Korach as revolutionary hero, the reader of his story as presented with undodgeable choice and wracked with anguish.

A central concern of what seems to be the opening gambit of Benjamin's essay will ring familiar to any attention-payers to contemporary global history, and its discussions (brief, superficial and after-the fact as they may have been) of "just vs. unjust" war.

Debates between just and unjust violence forget that both involve violence. Benjamin seems to be wondering how we can move beyond "the basic dogma common to both theories." Or, in a civilization where any moral choice and human progress "might take a bit o' violence," to coin a phrase, how to investigate a possible "criterion for violence itself as a principle"?

So, Benjamin posits an "antinomy . . . [in which] justified means on the one hand and just ends on the other were in irreconcilable conflict. No insight into this problem could be gained, however, until the circular argument had been broken."

As Azoulay elswhere encapsulates the problem,
Mythic violence is trapped in the vicious circle of justifying the end by means of the means (positive jurisprudence) and justifying the end by means of the end (natural law).
The above is from her February 2005 article in the Cardozo Law Review, "The Loss of Critique and the Critique of Violence."

What to do in a world of might-makes-right logjam, where the only justifiable means of serious resistance at one's disposal seem fated to terminate in unjust ends -- or futility? And conversely, where the only hope for real, meaningful change seems like it can come only through methods that appear morally unjust or abhorrent?

How to break out of an endless reshuffling of the same terms?

Benjamin's introduction of the idea of "divine violence," later in the essay, might appear to be his hoped-for way out of the impasse, like a perpendicular or salvific beam of light dropped from a point hovering above a Flatland world.

However, use of exactly what kind(s) of violence is Benjamin agonizing over in his cryptic, sorta rambling essay? Azoulay's law review article notices "a series of disgressions, characteristic of the text in its entirety."

She further claims:
Like all Benjamin's writing, the essay on violence is a biographical text -- the writing of life, or, to use Benjamin's own words, the 'refraction of action in recognition.'
She concludes that the primary backdrop here is WWI, and Benjamin's knotty relationship in earlier years with the military draft, and the police.

Anthony Auerbach, on the other hand, in his "Remarks," persuasively places Benjamin's essay within the context of the internecine mayhem, bloodshed and heavy manners of the years of the so-called "German Revolution," with a backdrop that included the Luxemburg/Liebknecht assassinations (Jan. 1919), the Kapp Putsch and call for a general strike (March 1920), the "March Action" (1921) and so on.

Granted, TiR's sensitivity to the dizzying quantity of pressure, violence and counterviolence of that period of Weimar may be influenced by our attempt to absorb, several weeks back, a pair of articles that valiantly attempted to compress Pierre Broué's 1000-page history of the period into a mere dozen or so pages.

In any event, Benjamin's "Critique" moves on, through discussion of:

  • class struggle and the right to strike in general;

  • the "revolutionary general strike";

  • whether non-violent "withdrawal" (incl. passive resistance?) is truly non-violent;

  • Sorel's Reflections on Violence;

  • public fascination with the "great criminal";

  • "overthrow [of] the legal system";

  • the threat to the state from "thinkers";

  • the "abortive German revolution" as an apparent example of (in Sorel's phrase) the mere transfer of power "from the privileged to the privileged";

  • the proletariat's desire for a world of "wholly transformed work";

  • how "the modern economy, seen as a whole, resembles much less a machine that stands idle when abandoned by its stoker than a beast that goes berserk as soon as its tamer turns his back";
    [The preceding absolutely brilliant passage is of course in the rendering of Reflections' translator, Edmund Jephcott. Benjamin's original is:
    [D]ie heutige Wirtschaft als Ganzes angesehen viel weniger einer Maschine vergleichbar ist, die stillsteht, wenn ihr Heizer sie verläßt, als einer Bestie, die rast, sobald ihr Bändiger ihr den Rücken gekehrt hat.
    Benjamin's Zur Kritik der Gewalt in its original German is on-line at the moment in a .pdf file here.]

  • how some quantum or type of violence seems necessary in the enaction of a "solution to human problems" and "deliverance from the confines of all the world-historical conditions of existence obtaining hitherto";

  • the ethics in "exceptional cases" of "the revolutionary killing of the oppressor";

  • the founding of "a new historical epoch" through "the abolition of state power"; and

  • the possible moral justification for use of "revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of unalloyed violence by man."

Azoulay's 2005 law review article here plugs in consideration of Benjamin's unfinished text, "The Right to Use Force." She suggests that his recurring worry is over whether a possibile moral justification can be found for the individual's use of violence against the state, perhaps in the service of an "ethical anarchism," violence that would be revolutionary or insurrectional by state-scripted definition.

Her reflection on Benjamin's critique of the state's monopoly on "legal" violence sounds creepily    topical:
Once it has achieved this monopoly, the state presents the violence that it employs as justified and inevitable, for it is subject only to the law, and thus every engagement in violence by the state becomes lawful by default, whereas any other use of force is depicted by the state as illegitimate violence that should be eliminated.

Thus, Azoulay's Qui Parle piece depicts Korach and Niobe as "rebels" fighting on the same side, wreakers of "revolutionary violence . . . which is a power that challenges the existing power and its claim for total and unified sovergeignty." Both show humankind the importance of learning how to
retrieve their use of revolutionary violence from out of an oblivion, as a violence that testifies to the permanent presence of such revolutionary violence outside the totality and self-preservation of the one law.

Thus Niobe and Korach become part of what Benjamin will later call 'the tradition of the oppressed.'

Perhaps so. But again, what kind(s) or "violence" is Benjamin so fascinated by here?

What does he mean when he calls such violence "divine"? Does he mean this only allegorically? "Allegory should be shown as the antidote to myth," as he writes in section 28 of "Central Park." Does divine mean "purest form," the identification of which will enable us to walk backwards (or downhill) from it, to figure out how to behave on the mundane plane of admixture, confusion and imperfection?

Or does he mean literally divine violence, in some sense? How then do mere mortals activate it? Through acts of human violence so outrageous that they promise to trigger a sweeping, counter-response from the heavens? By goading fate into a nihilistic smackdown to wipe clean the slate of screwed-up, interlocked earthly relations?

Who historically would Benjamin have be our educative role models (positive or negative) here? John Brown? Charles Manson? Or other true believers in the "defense of lost causes," to coin another phrase?

And even if Benjamin had provided his readers with some concrete, historical examples? Azoulay in Qui Parle hits the nail on the head:
Thus, reading [Benjamin] becomes an endless work of theoretical reconstruction, which collapses every time its results are projected back onto Benjamin's examples.

Or perhaps Benjamin had in mind the "violence" that state power perceives to exist in a "thinker's" very act of writing, or free thought.

Benjamin identifies writing with illegality and insurrection when he observes how "ancient Greek communities" believed that the setting of law down into written form was "a rebellion against the spirit of mythical statutes."

Unsurprisingly, the "Critique" contains a kind word for Prometheus, calling him a "hero" who "challenges fate with dignified courage." According to Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound, Prometheus was the god who taught humans how to write, along with how to count:

Moreover, number, the most excellent
Of all inventions, I for them devised,
And gave them writing that retaineth all,
The serviceable mother of the Muse.

Buber might echo this point in a refracted way, when he notes that Korach used Moses' "own words against him." That is, perhaps, "words" literally, physically, as writing?

The so-called rebel might well have asked: What is the point of creation of the Decalogue, a written legal code for public, tangible display, distinct from the persons of Moses the messenger and Aaron, if not to acknowledge the equal rights, dignity, agency and competence of every member of the community, who will be its readers? (or so the modern mind would have him ask)

[Another suggestive resonance with Buber is Benjamin's suggestion that the violence in the Niobe story is "mythical" because within history it "sets boundaries" and serves as "a boundary stone on the frontier between men and gods."

Buber's defense of Moses in "The Contradiction", meanwhile, goes in part like this:
[W]ithout law, that is, without any clear-cut and transmissible line of demarcation between that which is pleasing to God and that which is displeasing to him, there can be no historical continuity of divine rule upon earth.

(Note that two sounds with "resonance" are not identical, exactly; they can be different but share an overtone.)]

Or then again, maybe here is where some of the more traditional readings of Korach's fate may gain importance, to ponder on background.

If both Niobe and Korach set in motion "revolutionary" violence, then the momentum of it, foreseeably
[though foreseeable to whom?


from what vantage point of space, non-space or time?]
   or not, boomeranged back on them, to result directly in the annihilation of innocents, including their loved ones. Including their own children.

Maybe unavoidable ethical choice within history of this magnitude of horror is what Benjamin is contemplating in his "Critique."

Who among us is enlightened -- or nuts -- enough to think they would know how to navigate such a choice?

In 1859, Emerson told an audience that John Brown took the Declaration of Independence and the Biblical Golden Rule -- and by extension, the abolitionist cause -- so deadly seriously that Brown said,
"Better that a whole generation of men, women and children should pass away by a violent death than that one word of either should be violated in this country."

There is a Unionist, -- there is a strict constructionist for you.

Yes, numerous of John Brown's childen died in connection with their father's (and their own) anti-slavery campaign(s).
[H. Rap Brown:
John Brown was the only white man I could respect and he is dead.]

Or, looked at another way, the anguishing fork in the road (Buber's metaphor) becomes not that between Moses and Korach, but between Ivan and Alyosha     Karmazov:
Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature -- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance -- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.

What associations of those kind, rooted in the past or in worries about the century ahead, might Benjamin have had in the back of his mind, as he wrote in 1920-21?