Sunteți pe pagina 1din 68





















o u r n a


o f

s o






s t

a n d

f e

m i n


s t




l o

s o p h y


editorial collective Claudia Aradau, Matthew Charles, David Cunningham, Howard Feather, Peter Hallward, Esther Leslie, Stewart Martin, Mark Neocleous, Peter Osborne, Stella Sandford

Contributors Alberto Toscano teaches sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is an editor of the journal Historical Materialism, and is currently writing a book on politics and fanaticism. Irving Wolhfarth is assembling an essay collection on Walter Benjamin entitled No Man’s Land and writing a book on Benjamin’s politics. John Kraniauskas is Reader in Latin American Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, and an editor of the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies. David Cunningham and Jon Goodbun teach at the University of Westminster in the departments of English & Linguistics and Architecture, respectively. Antonio Negri’s book include The Politics of Subversion (1989; 2005), Insurgencies (1992; trans. 1999), Time for Revolution (2003), and, with Michael Hardt, Labour of Dionysus (1994), Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004).

Copyedited and typeset by illuminati

Layout by Peter Osborne and David Cunningham

Printed by Russell Press, Russell House, Bulwell Lane, Basford, Nottingham NG6 0BT

Bookshop distribution UK: Central Books,

115 Wallis Road, London E9 5LN

Tel: 020 8986 4854

USA: Ubiquity Distributors Inc.,

607 Degraw Street, Brooklyn, New York 11217

Tel: 718 875 5491

Cover TVCC & CCTV – facade complete, © Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).

Images p. 14: Lindsay Seers, Ventriloquism (2005) pp. 27, 28, 30, 31: Home Box Office Inc., The Wire, Seasons 1 & 3 (2004, 2007) pp. 53 and 58: Aaron Williamson, Animal Cage (2006) and Globe Head (2005)

Published by Radical Philosophy Ltd.

© Radical Philosophy Ltd


marCH/aPril 2009


The War against Pre-Terrorism: The Tarnac 9 and The Coming Insurrection

alberto toscano



Spectres of Anarchy: Walter Benjamin and the Red Army Faction, Part Three

irving Wohlfarth


Elasticity of Demand: Reflections on The Wire

John Kraniauskas



Propaganda Architecture

rem Koolhaas and reinier de Graaf interviewed by David Cunningham and Jon Goodbun


On Rem Koolhaas

antonio negri



Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life nathan Brown


Axel Honneth, Disrespect: The Normative Foundations of Critical Theory Axel Honneth, Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea, with Judith Butler, Raymond Geuss and Jonathan Lear nina Power


Xudong Zhang, Postsocialism and Cultural Politics: China in the Last Decade of the Twentieth Century Harriet evans


Raymond Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics David owen


Paolo Virno, Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation Jeremy Gilbert



Rebellion of Greek Youth

Panagiotis sotiris


Peace, Legality, Democracy

mihalis mentinis



The war against pre-terrorism

The Tarnac 9 and The Coming Insurrection

alberto toscano

o n 11 November 2008, twenty youths were arrested in Paris, Rouen and the

village of Tarnac, in the Massif Central district of Corrèze. The Tarnac

operation involved helicopters, 150 balaclava-clad anti-terrorist policemen, with

studiously prearranged media coverage. The youths were accused of having participated in a number of sabotage attacks against high-speed TGV train routes, involving the obstruction of the trains’ power cables with horseshoe-shaped iron bars, causing a series of delays affecting some 160 trains. The suspects who remain in custody were soon termed the ‘Tarnac Nine’, after the village where some of them had purchased a small farmhouse, reorganized the local grocery store as a cooperative, and taken up a number of civic activities from the running of a film club to the delivery of food to the elderly.

the case

The minister of the interior, Michèle Alliot-Marie, promptly intervened to underline the presumption of guilt and to classify the whole affair under the rubric of terrorism, linking it to the supposed rise of an insurrectionist ‘ultra-Left’, or ‘anarcho-autonomist tendency’. The nine were interrogated and detained for ninety-six hours. Four were subsequently released. The official accusation was ‘association of wrongdoers in relation to a terrorist undertaking’, a charge that can carry up to twenty years in jail. On 2 December, three more of the Tarnac Nine were released under judiciary control, leaving two in jail, at the time of writing (early January 2009): Julien Coupat and Yldune Lévy. Giorgio Agamben and Luc Boltanski wrote editorials decrying the disproportion and hysteria of this repressive operation. A petition was circulated by Eric Hazan, publisher and friend of Coupat, and signed by Badiou, Bensaïd, Butler, Rancière, Žižek and several others. 1 In Tarnac (a village proud of its role in the Resistance, and represented by a communist mayor for four decades) a committee of support was set up, conveying a virtually unanimous show of solidarity of the villagers with those arrested. Following the time-honoured reactionary motif of the wayward child of the bour- geoisie drifting into violent idealism, the media’s attention has focused on Coupat. Readers of the press were soon apprised of Coupat’s studies at the elite ESSEC business school; of his DEA dissertation on Guy Debord at the EHESS, where he worked closely with Boltanski; of his involvement in the journal and collective Tiqqun; and of his alleged authorship of the book L’insurrection qui vient (The Coming Insurrection), signed by the ‘Comité Invisible’. 2 In flagrant contradiction to both the tenor of L’insurrection and what may be surmised about the modus operandi of the Tarnac commune, he was fingered as the book’s author and depicted as the charismatic ringleader behind the commune and its subversive acts.


R a d i c a l

P h i l o s o p h y

1 5 4

( M a r c h / A p r i l

2 0 0 9 )

As the media feeding frenzy progresses, some of the ideological and investigative background has surfaced in the press. (The intelligence agency which reports directly to the Ministry of the Interior, the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur (DCRI), the ‘French FBI’ which replaced the famous Renseignements géneraux (RG) in July 2008, seems rather prone to leaks, managed or otherwise.) It appears that Coupat had long been an object of observation by the section of that RG tasked with monitoring the Left. One of their reports even describes him as a ‘critical metaphysician’ – one of several ironic indications in this whole affair of the passing acquaintance of French spooks with the world of theory. Increasingly, he is tagged as a leading light in an ominous and diffuse political agitation, which eschews the domains of organiza- tion, political representation and regulated conflict for the sake of direct action and irrecuperable opposition to capitalism. Unsurprisingly, for a case steeped in the new language of security and the ‘war on terror’, the Tarnac affair has a transatlantic component: the FBI contacted their French counterparts to signal an allegedly illegal crossing from Canada into the USA by Coupat and his companion Lévy, and the discovery, in a rucksack left at the border, of a picture of the recruiting office in Times Square, New York, that would later be the object of a small bomb attack. The broader context of the operation is the theorem, dear to Alliot-Marie, of the mounting threat of an anti-capitalist, anti-statist and anti-systemic radicalization of youth in France and across Europe which cannot be contained in the usual forms of social conflict. The revealing title of a report on this putative phenomenon by the DCRI is accordingly: ‘From the anti-CPE conflict to the constitution of a pre-ter- rorist network: Perspectives on the French and European ultra-left’. 3 The 2006 protests against the law on job contracts for the young (Contrat de première embauche), following hard upon the autumn 2005 revolts in the marginalized banlieues, played a defining role in the rise to prominence and eventual victory of Sarkozy, whose swaggering performance as minister of the interior during the riots became a kind of trademark. The Sarkozy presidency began under the sign of a deep anxiety, a reactionary rage for order whose other side was the obsessive scrutinizing of the future for signs of social turmoil and radical novelty – in this instance, one might very well agree with the Comité Invisible that ‘governing has never been anything but pushing back by a thousand subterfuges the moment when the crowd will hang you’ (83). Given the political peculiarities of France, this fear of the future (and its masses) took the form of an exorcising of the past – as in Sarkozy’s campaign ultimatum: ‘In this election, we’re going to find out if the heritage of May ’68 is going to be perpetu- ated or if it will be liquidated once and for ever.’ The compulsive reference to the rebellious past, which is simultaneously imagined as a future – as in Sarkozy’s recent statement to his cabinet, in view of the possible spread of the ‘Greek syndrome’, that ‘We can’t have a May ’68 for Christmas’ – provides the current French administration with its libidinal content, a much needed supplement to the grim vapidity at the level of its programme. The very notion of ‘pre-terrorism’ is deeply symptomatic: it makes patent the link between the obsessive identification of ‘dangerous individuals’ and the imagination of future revolts that call for repressive pre-emption. (There are interesting parallels here with the 2007 arrest of the German sociologist of gentrification Andrej Holm.) As Boltanski and Claverie have noted, there is an echo here of the film Minority Report and its ‘precogs’. The context of the world economic crisis and the not-unrelated upsurge of the ‘700 euro generation’ in Greece serve as a backdrop. Indeed, as an anti- terrorist magistrate recently confessed: ‘There is a temptation during a time of crisis to consider any illegal manifestation of political expression to be of a terrorist nature.’ 4 Reading the extracts from the secret service reports, the left pessimist might be heart- ened to see such confidence in the possibility of radical revolt being shown by the state

and its agencies. Alternatively, she might muse that the logic of immunizing oneself against ‘terrorism’ by nipping pre-terrorism in the bud – with all of its hackneyed refer- ences to Baader-Meinhof or Action Directe (‘they too started out by writing pamphlets and living in communes…’) – is more likely to accelerate and intensify a process of so-called radicalization, fashioning the state and the legal system into enemies with whom one cannot negotiate. Whatever it may say about the prospects for radical politics and its attendant sup- pression, this ‘affair’ illustrates the metastasis of a transnational politics of securitiza- tion, which is now being applied to any form of activity that importunes the established order – from hacking to separatism, from anti-war demonstrations to environmental activism. The looseness of anti-terrorism legislation recalls Walter Benjamin’s character- ization of the police in his ‘Critique of Violence’: ‘Its power is formless, like its nowhere-tangible, all-pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilized states.’ (See Irving Wolhfarth on Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’ and the Red Army Faction, the second part of his article, in RP 153.) This is a situation enhanced by the development

of what the parents of the accused pointedly refer to as ‘reality police’, as one might

speak of ‘reality-TV’. Julien Coupat’s father Gérard turned by his son’s ordeal into an eloquent and intran- sigent advocate for civil liberties, recently put the stakes of the police campaign in stark terms: ‘They are turning my son into a scapegoat for a generation who have started to think for themselves about capitalism and its wrongs and to demonstrate against the government.… The government is keeping my son in prison because a man of the left with the courage to demonstrate is the last thing they want now, with the economic situ- ation getting worse and worse.’ 5 Like many others, Coupat senior has underscored the ominous prospect of a form of government so politically illiterate and monolithic in its reactions that it cannot distinguish sabotage – a practice that has always accompanied social and workers’ movements – from ‘terrorism’, a term that is indiscriminately, albeit deliberately, used to cover everything from mass murder to train delays.

the book

What, then, of the book that – considering the meagre pickings for the police at Tarnac

(ladders, train schedules, bolt cutters) – seems to be the centrepiece in the state’s inqui- sitional arsenal: L’insurrection qui vient? The legal obscenity of basing arrests on a text

– one that moreover cannot be personally imputed to any of the accused – is obvious.

The right to practise collective anonymity, against the crude biographism of the press, should also be stressed. It is nevertheless of interest to consider the Tarnac affair in light of this combative pamphlet – half inspired dissection of the misery of everyday life in contemporary France, half breviary for a diffuse anarcho-communist defection

from capitalist society. It appears that L’insurrection was first brought to the attention

of the powers that be by the criminologist Alain Bauer, who, coming across it on the

shelves of the FNAC in 2007, immediately bought up forty copies and circulated them


various security experts and agencies. A passage from it has been repeatedly referred


as incriminating evidence against Coupat:

The technical infrastructure of the metropolis is vulnerable: its flows are not merely for the transportation of people and commodities; information and energy circulate by way of wire networks, fibres and channels, which it is possible to attack. To sabotage the social machine with some consequence today means re-conquering and reinventing the means of interrupting its networks. How could a TGV line or an electrical network be rendered useless?


socialist with some sympathies for the emancipatory and egalitarian potential of railway

travel might answer like Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste spokesperson Olivier Besancenot, commenting on the sabotage, that ‘we want more trains, not fewer’, and end the discussion

there. But it is worth considering the diagnosis and prognosis advanced by L’insurrection, if only to understand the intellectual backdrop to this call to interrupt the flows. Were one in the business of the RG and the DCRI, one could argue that a host of themes link L’insurrection to Tiqqun pamphlets such as Théorie du Bloom and Premiers matériaux pour une théorie de la jeune fille. A narrative of completed nihilism; a Debordian excoriation of the spectacle (embodied in the ‘young girl’, the commodity made flesh, and carried by the schizophrenic entrepreneur); the vitriolic polemics against sundry Lefts (Trotskyists, Negrians, ecologists…); the view of commu- nism not as a programme but as an ethical disposition and collective experimentation, an attempt to recover an emancipatory notion of community; ‘the silent coordination of a sabotage in the grand style’ 6 and the very idea of an Invisible Committee (or an Imaginary Party) – all of these betoken a certain political continuity. Yet the differ- ences are also significant. First, stylistically, the works of Tiqqun practised a kind of second-order situationist détournement, keeping Debord while losing much of the Marx and Lukács that the author of The Society of the Spectacle had felicitously plundered, and throwing into the mix a generous helping of Agamben – an author who, albeit not so hard to pastiche, does not lend himself all that well to Debordian operations. L’insurrection is a more measured and plain-spoken text, whose politics are rooted more in anti-urbanist libertar- ian anarchism than in the metaphysical auguries carried by Agambenian figures such as the ‘young girl’ or the ‘Bloom’ (after Joyce). Though the agenda of L’insurrection is still dictated by a situationist-inspired total critique of contemporary society, the lengthy analyses of the ills of everyday metropolitan life in the age of flexitime and the new economy are more in keeping with the recent concerns of criti- cal French sociology than with prophecies about Homo sacer. Just as a Bourdieuian perspective marks the sections dealing with France’s singular relation to the state and the school as structures of subjectivation, so the influence of Boltanski and Chiapello’s diagnosis of the dissolution of class solidarity as a foothold for social critique can partly account for the indifference of L’insurrection to a Marxist discourse of class struggle, and its delinking of anti-capitalism from class politics. This is not to say that a certain catastrophism, or, better, active nihilism, does not pervade this book too, as it did the bulk of Tiqqun’s production. L’insurrection begins with the lapidary lines: ‘From every angle, there’s no way out from the present. That’s not the least of its virtues.’ But as we move through L’insurrection it becomes clear that, despite the nod to Agamben in the title, his brand of messianic reversibility – a left interpretation of the Hölderlinian adage that ‘where danger is, grows the saving power also’ – is overtaken by an anarchist blueprint for the secession from metropolitan capitalism and the reorganization of everyday life in communes that will serve as bases for a diffuse and ‘horizontal’ overturning of the reigning system of misery. This rejoinder to European Nihilism 2.0 is based neither on waiting for eschatological

of the reigning system of misery. This rejoinder to European Nihilism 2.0 is based neither on

signs, nor on figures of the reversibility of catastrophe into promise (the young girl, Bloom), nor indeed on the ultra-modernist idea that accelerating moral and material

decomposition is the key to a transvaluation of the world. We are also not dealing with

a post-workerist exodus immanent to the resources of immaterial labour or cognitive

capitalism. Rather, L’insurrection advocates a comparatively sober practice of defection and sabotage, which aims to turn the machines of subjection against themselves. Much of L’insurrection’s tableau of modern European (more specifically French, and even more specifically bourgeois Parisian) misery is compelling, especially when it heeds the situationist injunction that to ‘understand what sociology never understands, one need only envisage in terms of aggressivity what for sociology is neutral’. 7 Like the Debord of In girum, it can even strike notes of dark comedy: ‘Europe is a penniless continent which secretly shops at Lidl and flies low cost so it can keep on travelling.’ At its core lies something like a social-psychological portrait of the micro-managed and multitasking subject of contemporary work, the function of which is regarded as fundamentally political: that of ‘biopolitically’ governing the entirety of social life and perpetuating a regime of exploitation that is increasingly superfluous. Though the insight is hardly novel, the Comité Invisible does succeed in pungently capturing the horror and imbecility of the current proliferation of disciplinary devices such as ‘personal development’, ‘human resources’, ‘social capital’ and other managerial mon- strosities. L’insurrection encapsulates this under the aegis of what it calls the ‘ethics of mobilization’, the colonization, through work, of the very domain of possibility:

Mobilization is this slight detachment with regard to oneself … on the basis of which the Self [le Moi] can be taken as an object of work, on the basis of which it becomes possible to sell oneself, and not one’s labour-power, to be paid not for what one has done but for what one is. … This is the new norm of socialization.

But what lies beyond this salutary vituperation of the modern ideology of work – an ideology that is all the stronger to the extent that it replaces the heroisms and anxieties of the Sartrean project with the soft schizophrenia of a thousand ‘projects’?

It is here that what one may maliciously term the Epicurean tendency in situation- ism (present, for instance, in Debord’s laments for the disappearance of good wine in Panegyric) gets the better of L’insurrection. ‘Mobilization’ is linked not only to the

capitalist uses of a parallel-processed self, but to a discourse about the metropolis as

a space of deadening indifference and mortifying abstraction, and to the idea that the

modern city and its masters have perpetrated a kind of assassination of experience:

‘We have been expropriated from our language by teaching, from our songs by variety shows, from our flesh by pornography, from our city by the police, from our friends by the wage system.’ Despite the aptness of L’insurrection’s denigration of cities turned into posthumous museums and the excoriation of the uses of mobility and isolation for purposes of control – not to mention its call for the marginalization and ruination of Paris, that ‘frightening concretion of power’ – the hankering for revolutionary authentic- ity is unpersuasive, and ultimately myopic. Just as the short shrift given to the notion of labour-power leads to a Manichaean opposition between a malevolent economy and emancipated ‘forms of life’, so there is not much attention paid to the transformative uses of abstraction and alienation. There is more of a hint of Jane Jacobs in the scorn against ‘indifferent’ modern housing and the idea that ‘the multiplication of means of displacement and communication continuously wrenches us away from the here and now, by the temptation of being everywhere’. What’s more, the notion that the interruption of mobilization will give rise to practical solidarity, as the ‘facade’ of the ‘hyper-vulnerable’ city of flows crumbles, is too romantic to bear scrutiny. Blackouts and blockages can intimate communism but also be the occasion for even more insidi- ous forms of violence and hierarchy (Michael Haneke’s film Time of the Wolf is an evocative study in this regard). Likewise, despite the welcome corrective to the idea of

the banlieue uprisings of 2005 as an instance of criminal mob rule, it is doubtful that actions with ‘no leader, no claim, no organization, but words, gestures, conspiracies’ may be taken as a model for organized emancipatory politics. Though one wishes that the anti-urbanism of the Comité Invisible were more dialec- tical, some of their reflections on the ‘commune’ are worthy of consideration. Not only is renewed debate on the collective experimentation of everyday life to be welcomed, especially by contrast with nebulous figures of messianic transfiguration; L’insurrection also raises some important questions for a radical left which conceives of capitalism as an unacceptably destructive system and views crisis-management as an unappetizing and doomed vocation. Rather than an ephemeral image of a glorious tomorrow or a utopian enclave, the commune is envisaged simultaneously as a collective experimenta- tion of politics and as an instrument for a political action which is not merely instru- mental but existential, or ethical. Among other things, the emphasis put on the density of real relations – as against the issues of identity and representation that allegedly bedevil parties, groups, collectives and milieus – gives a concrete political meaning to friendship, over against the obsession, whether prudish or prurient, with the commune as the site of sexual exchange. Another classic motif, that of self-reliance, is given a contemporary twist: the commune is presented as a way of gaining and practising the kind of know-how (medical, agricultural, technical) to allow one to depend no longer on the metropolis and its forms of ‘security’ – in other words, to ready oneself for real crisis, as communistic survivalism prepares for capitalist apocalypse. One cannot gainsay the force and interest of concrete utopias, however minimal or marginal, nor deny the all too familiar truth – once again laid bare by this case – that the modern capitalist nation-state does not suffer alternatives gladly. The young activists and intellectuals at Tarnac, in this regard echoing if not necessarily following L’insurrection qui vient, have certainly shown that even very simple experiments with egalitarianism and emancipation can sow real political relations and solidarities. But, especially at a moment when the political question of the public is so crucial – whether we are speaking of uni- versities, hospitals, banks, or indeed trains – the opposition between the commune and the metropolis is a false one, as is, to borrow another dichotomy from L’insurrection, the one between hegemony and horizontality. To appropriate authenticity is not enough. Any truly transformative politics must surely appropriate distraction, mobility and, indeed, aliena- tion and indifference too. Trains, like sewerage systems, dams, airports and hospitals, are not to be repudiated, interrupted or merely abandoned to the whims of the capitalist state. Perhaps one day, rather than shuttling us from Human Resources conferences to Personal Development seminars, they may be put to more creative and revolutionary uses, like the Russian Kino trains of the 1920s.


1. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Térrorisme ou tragicomédie?’, Libération, 18 November 2008, www.liberation. fr/societe/0101267186–terrorisme-ou-tragi-comedie; Elisabeth Claverie and Luc Boltanski, ‘Christ ou caténaire? Du sacrilège religieux’, Mediapart, 13 December 2008,

tion/les-invites-de-mediapart/article/131208/christ-ou-catenaire-du-sacrilege-religieux-au-s; ‘Non à l’ordre nouveau’, Le Monde, 27 November 2008; English version at http://tarnac9.wordpress.


2. Comité Invisible, L’insurrection qui vient, La Fabrique, Paris, 2007; also available at www.; English version at the-coming-insurrection/.

3. Isabelle Mandraud, ‘L’obsession de l’ultragauche’, Le Monde, 3 December 2008, www.lemonde.


4. Quoted in Celestine Bohlen, ‘Use of French Terrorism Law on Railroad Saboteurs Draws Criticism’, Bloomberg News, 4 December 2008.

5. Quoted in Jason Burke, ‘France braced for “rebirth of violent left”’, Observer, 4 January 2009.

6. Tiqqun, Théorie du bloom, La Fabrique, Paris, 2000, p. 134.

7. ‘Critique de l’urbanisme’, Internationale Situationniste 6, 1961; English version at www.cddc.


radical philosophy conference

Power to the people?

… masses, proletariat, workers, soviets, nation,

commons …

community, subalterns, multitudes,

London, Saturday 9 May 2009

the general will

urban collectivities

multitude and commons

population & biopolitics

Further details:

or visit our website

Spectres of anarchy

Walter Benjamin and the Red Army Faction, Part Three

irving Wohlfarth

There is an excellent passage in Nadja on the ‘en- chanting days spent looting Paris under the sign of Sacco and Vanzetti’ and Breton adds the assurance that in those days the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle [Boulevard of Good Tidings] fulfilled the strategic promise of revolt that its name had always held. 1

‘the right to the Use of Force’

Benjamin’s critique of violence cannot be separated from its religious inspiration. Not merely does it open up a space of thinking unavailable to the profane discourse of his time; it also enables him to conceive of a ‘radical politics that is “just” and, precisely for this reason, wants to be nothing but politics’. 2 Conversely, and by the same token, this points to a notion of justice modelled on the Jewish God. Radical profanity in the spirit of theology: this seeming paradox is, we saw, the crux of the ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’. In acknowledging the autonomy of the profane order – and thus presumably the ‘legitimacy of modernity’ (Blumenberg) – it rejects any form of political theo- cracy 3 and obviates any attempt to (re)theologize the profane. Aside from the Protestant ethic analysed by Weber, there is perhaps no greater immunity to false idols, including those of the capitalist market, than the one afforded by an old religion. All the more so if, as here, it propels a radically ‘profane order of the profane’ on its way. Seen in this light, the modern state would be the ‘new idol’ 4 that Zarathustra calls it – a hybrid between myth and demythologization. A rough draft for a review article from the same period, ‘The Right to the Use of Force’ (Das Recht zur Gewaltanwendung), suggests as much. 5 It is irrelevant, Benjamin there writes, ‘whether the state imposes itself [sich einsetzt] as the supreme legal institution [Rechtsinstitut] by its own authority [Machtvollkommenheit] or by an alien one’ 6 – that is, as a secular or a religious theocracy. In either case, it needs to be dissolved into a politics that is ‘nothing but politics’.

Benjamin’s draft enumerates four critical options:

(A) to deny both the state and the individual the right

to use force; (B) to recognize unconditionally the right of both to do so; (C) to grant it to the state alone;

(D) to grant it only to the individual. To sum up an

already summary argument: Benjamin maintains that

(A) – termed ‘ethical anarchism’ by the author under

review – is valid for morality (though not for the reasons usually given), but not for politics; that (B) is intrinsically contradictory and effectively leads to (C), which would be defensible only if the state and its laws coincided with the ethical order; and that, since there is (contrary to C) a contradiction in principle between the state and ethical life and (contrary to A) none in principle between force and the ethical order, (D) remains the only logical possibility. It is its apparent material impossibility that prompts the author under review to reject it out of hand. 7 But a ‘word against the law’, the ‘Critique of Violence’ claims, is not necessar- ily spoken into the wind. All power to the individual: this is an at once terrifying and liberating Entsetzung of the monopoly on violence so jealously guarded by the modern state. Not to be subjected to it is presumably not to be a subject or individual in any accepted sense. Nor can the right (Recht) to use force in order to dis- mantle the law (Recht) be a legal one; it is perhaps no ‘right’ at all. Benjamin nevertheless continues to call it that:

An exposition of this standpoint is one of the tasks of my moral philosophy, and in that regard the term ‘anarchism’ may very well be used to describe a theory that denies a moral right not to force [Gewalt] as such but merely to every human institution, community or individuality that assigns itself a monopoly over it or in any way claims that right for itself, even if only in general and in principle, instead of revering it in a particular case as a gift of divine power, as perfect power [Machtvollkommenheit]. 8

R a d i c a l

P h i l o s o p h y

1 5 4

( M a r c h / A p r i l

2 0 0 9 )


Correlatively, the state, in its self-positing sovereignty (Machtvollkommenheit), is implicitly identified here with self-idolatry. In another early sketch, the just distribution of the power it monopolises is equated with the abolition of private property. 9 It is both possible and necessary, Benjamin con- cludes, to come to a universally valid decision about the right to apply force, ‘because the truth about moral- ity does not stop at the chimera of moral freedom’. A ‘truly subjective’ decision for or against its use cannot be made in the abstract, being conceivable only in the light of ‘the particular goals of one’s wishes [des Wunsches]’. 10 Whatever this might mean in concreto,

the general thrust is clear. The telos of a politics that is nothing but politics is, in the words of the ‘Theologico- Political Fragment’, a ‘striving for happiness on the part of a free humanity’ – one which announces the ‘quietest approach’ of the Messianic Kingdom. 11 In this sense, the ‘dynamics’ of the ‘profane order of the profane’ 12 would be ‘divinely commanded’. 13 Its political ‘method’ – ‘nihilism’ – is destined to bring down the pillars of profane theocracy, alias bourgeois democracy: the state, the rule of law and doubtless also the social contract. Benjamin did not explicitly return to the problems explored in this early draft, which belongs to his most extreme probings of the subject. Several years later, however, he claimed to see no reason to be ‘ashamed of’ or to ‘“forswear”’ his ‘“early” anarchism’. Anar- chist methods, he went on, were admittedly useless; but communist – indeed, all political – ‘goals’ were meaningless and non-existent. 14 His programme for

a coming politics thus remained a ‘teleology without

final goal’: an unconditional break with the millennial past, followed, presumably, by whatever the ensuing ‘union of free men’ (Marx) would then decide. To the last, he considered the winning combination to be a properly communist implementation of this anarchist project. Like the theological dwarf who may no longer show himself in public, his anarchism disappeared from view and entered into a secret pact with historical materialism. The latter was to be prevented by this anarcho-crypto-theology from becoming a set of false, quasi-religious dogmas that would sooner or later be

forsworn (e.g. Aron’s ‘opium of the intellectuals’), or a state religion, or whatever else a Turkish puppet with

a hookah in his mouth might stand for.

the state of emergency

Let him [the Messiah] come, but let me not see him. (Sanhedrin 98b)

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ [Ausnahmezustand] in which

we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism. One reason why fascism has a chance is that, in the name of progress, its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twenti- eth century is not philosophical. It is not the begin- ning of knowledge – unless it be the knowledge that the view of history from which such amazement arises is untenable. 15

It is not surprising that the leaders of the RAF should have cited this Thesis in their long ‘Declaration’ at the start of the Stammheim trial. Its inversion of the relation between rule and exception with respect to the ultima ratio of state power – the declaration of the state of emergency – ultimately denies the legitimacy of the rule of law. The leaders of the RAF set out in turn to subvert the authority of the court with every means at their disposal. ‘Where thinking suddenly halts in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives it a shock, by which thinking crystallizes into a monad.’ 16 This sentence from the Seventeenth Thesis describes Benjamin’s own strategy of positioning himself in a no-man’s-land between various fronts. His writings have in turn been caught in the crossfire of conflicting interpretations. The ‘Critique of Violence’ and the Eighth Thesis are cases in point. Their reception may conceivably have been marked by the cautionary example of the RAF; such matters are difficult to gauge. Two opposed positions may be schematically con- trasted here. On the one hand, interpretations of a liberal, broadly social-democratic persuasion close to that of Habermas find mirror images of Carl Schmitt in the Critique and the Eighth Thesis. 17 On the other hand, Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception – the offshoot of a much larger project 18 – draws on Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘biopolitics’ and Benjamin’s distinction between a permanent, catastrophic state of emergency and a real one yet to come. The upshot is an analysis of the current world-political situation, whose ultra-radicalism matches that of the RAF. But the politics of ‘pure means’ that Agamben endorses is no longer one of terror or revolutionary violence. He finds it rather in complementary Benjaminian figures of childhood and play. 19 The ‘real’ state of emergency invoked in the Eighth Thesis could not but strike terror at the heart of the powers that be (and that part of us that is wedded to them). A cryptic formula in a letter of April or May 1940 intimates that this prospect may have alarmed

Benjamin too – though for very different reasons. The outbreak of war and the larger constellation which brought it on have, he writes, induced him to set down certain reflections – later known as the Theses – which he has kept to himself, indeed from himself, for well-

nigh twenty years. 20 This return of the (half-) repressed may be speculatively reconstructed as follows. The constellation of the Second World War – the rise of Stalinism and fascism, the Hitler–Stalin Pact, and the inadequate resistance of ‘progressive’ forces, notably the Front Populaire – reactualizes a number of intui- tions first prompted by the First World War and its aftermath, notably the brief interregnum marked by the Spartacus movement. Chief among them is the conviction that the age-old cycle (Umlauf ) of violence can be broken only by violence of a quite different order. What resurfaces in the Eighth Thesis would thus be the anarcho-nihilist theology first formulated in the ‘Critique of Violence’. Benjamin would not always have wanted to admit to himself the enormity of what at bottom he knew: namely, that it would take nothing less than the institution of a ‘real’ state of emergency

– the ‘Entsetzung of the law and the state’ – to end

the ongoing state of emergency. This interplay between knowing and unknowing perhaps has its counterpart in the First Thesis, where a similar relation obtains between the oblivious puppet and the canny dwarf. Agamben proposes a complementary genealogy. As he presents it, the Eighth Thesis was Benjamin’s last move in a game of chess that he had been playing against Carl Schmitt for almost twenty years. 21 It would thus represent a variation on the First Thesis

– the allegory of the chess automaton that can take

on ‘all comers’. The unnamed ‘enemy’ invoked in the Theses would be, among others, Schmitt himself, the theoretician of the allegedly permanent, in reality prehistoric, antagonism between ‘friend’ and ‘foe’. Ironically enough, the allegedly ‘dangerous relations’ 22 between Benjamin and Schmitt, whom political cen- trists have been eager to see as twin extremes, would itself have been such an antagonism. ‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.’ The key phrase in this sentence is placed between inverted commas, which signal that Schmitt’s concept of the Ausnahmezustand (‘state of emergency’ or, literally, of ‘exception’) is being cited

against itself. ‘He is sovereign,’ so his definition goes, ‘who decides on the state of exception.’ 23 At the time the Theses were written, a state of emergency

– decreed by the sovereign, Hitler, and championed

by his jurist, Schmitt – had been in force for seven

years. For those at the bottom, however, the state of exception was no exception. (It is true that Nazism would turn out to be an unprecedented historical break – a Zivilisationsbruch – with the civilized past, but it was also, in an easily misunderstood but easily verifiable sense, its continuation.) This bitter experi- ence of the rule refuted the ruling standpoint. It was the standpoint of the oppressed – the one, that is, that could be ‘ascribed’ (Lukács) to them rather than their actual empirical consciousness – and it alone, that had normative, universalizable force. Normality – universal emancipation – had yet to be achieved. With this move, which recalls the grand theological reversal (Umschwung) with which the book on the German ‘play of mourning’ had closed, 24 Benjamin places Schmitt’s sovereign in check and indicates what it will take to bring a checkmate about. If the so-called state of exception is the rule, then the true state of exception will have to be the exception to it. Hence Benjamin’s strategic assessment that we cannot ‘improve our position in the struggle against fascism’ without checking the sovereign in all his guises (and doing so, clearly, with more than the ‘checks and bal- ances’ of bourgeois democracy). Otherwise the victory over fascism will, in the phrase of Sorel’s cited in the ‘Critique’, be no more than a change of rulers. 25 If the chess game is to be won, the kaleidoscope cannot be shaken into a new order; it will have to be smashed. The RAF clearly saw itself as the executor of such imperatives. Vulgar Communist platitudes, Benjamin had argued, capture more levels of meaning than bour- geois profundity ever will. 26 No such layers entered the RAF’s thinking. The point was indeed to change the world, not merely interpret it. But their acts needed in turn to be interpreted as the acting out of a dilemma that it was in no one’s power to resolve.

1. In 1967 the student movement had gained legitimacy through its militant protest against the so-called ‘emergency laws’ (Notstandsgesetze), which for the first time since the Second World War paved the way for the possible declaration of a state of emer- gency within the framework of the West German constitution.

2. It was the RAF’s declared aim to get the state to show its true colours by declaring such a state of emergency. The violence of the judicial system and security apparatus would then be exposed for all to see. This is indeed what happened. The state (over)played its role.

3. But so did the RAF. They imagined that they were extending the revolution from the Third World

into the heart of the First and heralding the end of internationalized class relations. A new constellation had brought on another war. American imperialism had, they thought, revealed itself to be an extension of fascism. (Marcuse, we saw, privately entertained similar thoughts.) The victories of the Vietcong seemed to mark a historical turning point. On the basis of this assessment, which was all the more warped for containing some truth, the RAF wanted to light the fuse of a ‘real state of emergency’ through a campaign of bombings and assassinations. But in the public mind the one that they actually provoked reinforced the necessity of the rule of law.

While Benjamin’s concept of a permanent state of emergency had not meanwhile lost any of its force – as level-headed a political thinker as Hannah Arendt came close to endorsing it in her Benjamin essay of 1968 – no one could honestly believe that West Germany still found itself in a fascist ‘state of emer- gency’. Nothing is ever to be gained by denying the obvious. ‘Just’ and ‘radical’ are synonymous. We do not live in the same ‘dark times’ (Arendt). Darkness is a whole spectrum unto itself. In his essay on surrealism Benjamin spoke of ‘winning the forces of intoxication [Rausch] for the revolution’. 27 But he also made the following caution- ary assessment. To place exclusive emphasis on the intoxicating, anarchic components of the revolutionary act was ‘to subordinate the methodical, disciplined preparation for revolution entirely to a praxis that oscil- lated between exercise and advance celebration [Übung und Vorfeier]’. 28 At its weakest, surrealism would thus have travestied what was historically needed: a yoking together of anarchism and historical materialism. The RAF was an entirely different type of hybrid. It com- bined wild Marxian theory with the suicidal strategy of a would-be urban guerrilla without a sea to swim in. ‘To each his own chimera’: revolutionary aspirations had for Baudelaire been one more way of ‘getting drunk’ in a disenchanted world. The RAF drowned its illusions in killing, surviving and dying. 29 This deadly exercise was another variation of the ‘childish’ anarchism that both pacifism and activism represented in Benjamin’s eyes. What the RAF lacked was, in short, his powers of political judgement. Of these the Eighth Thesis is a highly contested example. Holding contradictory levels of meaning together, it makes the complicated claim that the anti- fascist position can be improved only in an absolute perspective. Benjamin usually associates the term ‘improvement’ with the belief in progress as a histori- cal norm – the very belief that he is here diagnosing as

the fatal weakness of the anti-fascist Left. The latter’s position therefore needs ‘improvement’ – but clearly not in any meliorist sense. Appearances to the contrary, the idea of substituting one emergency for another is not a politics of all or nothing; it aims for strategic gains. The RAF transformed this blend of prudence and daring into a very different kind of nihilism. 30 It hypostatized some of Benjamin’s political impulses

– just hatred, legitimate violence, positive barbarism

– and was oblivious to others. 31 Rainer Rochlitz makes the liberal case against the Eighth Thesis:

The recourse to an authoritarian politics in- dissociable from Carl Schmitt’s concept of a state of emergency is understandable within the terrible context of the triumph of Nazism in Europe. Contra-

ry to what Benjamin’s formulation implies, however,

it cannot be generalized beyond that situation. If the

state of emergency is the rule, then the only sane course of action is the politics of making things

worse [la politique du pire]. In the 1970s, the ethics of certain terrorist groups grew out of this despair; they described Western capitalist societies as fascist regimes, against which they sought to ‘bring about

a real state of emergency’. It was in the name of a

false actualization that Benjamin’s work exerted its greatest political influence. Whatever the ambigui- ties of postwar European regimes, their constitu- tions are those of states of law and do not rest on naked violence and oppression. We have to be able to differentiate between fascist regimes and demo- cratic ones that contain certain class privileges:

Benjamin’s thinking does not allow us to do so. The terrorist violence that struck at those regimes mistook its target. Far from redeeming the suffer- ing undergone by the victims of past generations, it merely created new injustices. 32

The RAF’s actualization of the Eighth Thesis is here called ‘false’. Yet the possibility of such misreading is located in the Thesis itself. In which case the RAF’s response to it would not be so false after all – and social-democratic and terrorist versions of the Eighth Thesis not that far apart. The need for new analyses of new situations was – pace Rochlitz – intrinsic to Benjamin’s method. 33 Correlatively, no text was to be generalized beyond the conditions of its emergence (or reduced to them). How to reappraise his own most exposed and time-bound texts in this light? How reactualize the Eighth Thesis better? Faced with our daily global news, Benjamin would surely have acknowledged the obvious – that the first task is to achieve the state of law. Whether he would have moderated his mistrust of it is another matter. To rethink his thinking today with its own imperatives in mind would mean, first, to give the ‘power [Gewalt] of

facts’ priority over ‘convictions’ 34 and, second, to let the agon between the best convictions – e.g. Rochlitz’s (all too narrow and innocuous) and Agamben’s (all too broad and catastrophist) accounts of the state of emergency – crystallize into other alternatives. Tertium datur. Justice was not a matter of scales and ‘balance’ (Ausgewogenheit) if these meant compromise. What Benjamin meant by the ‘organization of pes- simism’ 35 was precisely not a politique du pire 36 but an attempt to avert the worst. The RAF admittedly made comparable claims. But its version of the Eighth Thesis only made matters worse. If Benjamin’s attempt to ‘improve’ them through an anarcho-messianic clarifi- cation of the political situation was a wager, it was not a game of Russian roulette. The ‘Critique of Violence’, the Eighth Thesis, Ben- jamin’s game of chess with Schmitt, and the headlong career of the RAF form an instructive constellation of extremes:

1. In its reaction to the Schleyer crisis a social- democratic state decreed the first state of emergency in the history of the Federal Republic – a turn of events that was accompanied by a modest revival of interest in Schmitt. 37 It lends credence to Agamben’s larger thesis that since the end of the First World War Western democracies have increasingly inte- grated the possibility of declaring a state of emer- gency into their judicial arsenal. In which case, the claim that the ‘state of emergency’ is in fact the rule would apply, in a precise judicial sense, far beyond Benjamin’s epoch. 2. Why, Kraushaar asks, did the state react to a group that it refused to recognize as a political association but only as a marginal ‘band of criminal elements’ as if it constituted a threat to its existence? 38 Surprise at this, Benjamin would surely have said, is ‘not philosophical’. According to the ‘Critique of Vio- lence’, the modern state is allergic to any challenge, however disproportionate, to its authority. An order that ‘creates a world in its own image’ (Marx) toler- ates no violence beside its own. Like the Enlighten- ment in general, it fears whatever it is unable to reduce to its own measure. 39 This the RAF put to the test. If its fate confirmed Benjamin’s diagnosis of the state, its actions, far from implementing his critique of violence, helped worsen the latter’s position.

To repeat: by what ‘pure means’ that critique can be implemented today remains the unanswered question.

a Trauerspiel

The conclusion to Benjamin’s ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, written in 1938, reads:

On occasion, Baudelaire also claimed to recognize the image of the modern hero in the conspirator. ‘No more tragedies!’, he wrote in the Salut public during the February days. ‘No more history of ancient Rome! Are we not greater today than Brutus?’ Greater than Brutus was, to be sure, less great. For when Napoleon III came to power, Baudelaire did not recognize the Caesar in him. Therein Blanqui was his superior. What they shared nevertheless went deeper than their differ- ences: obstinacy and impatience, the force of their indignation and their hatred, and the powerless- ness that was their common lot. In a famous line Baudelaire lightheartedly takes leave of a world ‘in which action is not the sister of dream’. His was not as forsaken as he thought. Blanqui’s deeds were the sister of Baudelaire’s dreams. The two are intertwined – the entwined hands on a stone under which Napoleon III had buried the hopes of the June fighters. 40

In an age that had no use for heroes only the role of hero in the Trauerspiel of modernity was available. 41 An earlier passage reconstructs Baudelaire’s notion of modern heroism as follows:

The resistance that modernity pits against a man’s natural productive élan is out of all proportion to his strength. It is understandable that he should weary and seek refuge in death. Modernity cannot but stand under the sign of suicide. Suicide sets its seal under a heroic will that makes no concession to a hostile environment. It is not renunciation but heroic passion. 42

Anger, impotence, failure, the disproportion between

a heroic will and the existing order – these traits form

a constellation in which revolutionary and counter-

revolutionary impulses can veer into one another. ‘To interrupt the course of the world – this was Baudelaire’s deepest wish’; 43 he raged against the crowd ‘with the impotent anger of one who goes against wind and rain’. 44 In his last work, Blanqui pronounces ‘the most terrible indictment’ of his own revolutionary efforts. 45

Nietzsche’s ‘eternal return’ is as intimately at odds with revolution as it is with religion. Benjamin and the RAF constitute two further poles in this persisting ‘Saturnine’ constellation of act, dream, will, anger, impotence and suicide. Both represent a return of the bid to interrupt the eternal return of the same. But are their hands entwined on

a stone under which their hopes lie buried? There is

little to suggest that Benjamin’s dream corresponded

to the ‘terroristic daydream’, 46 let alone the deeds, of

the RAF. In his late writings Benjamin considers not merely Baudelaire but also Blanqui from varying angles. Within

three decades social democracy had, according to the Twelfth Thesis, managed to ‘erase almost entirely’ a name ‘whose sound sent tremors [erschütterte] through the last century’. 47 Benjamin detects this effect even in Blanqui’s final capitulation, L’Éternité par les astres. 48 Two years before, however, in the opening pages of his first published work on Baudelaire, he places Blanqui in a context which raises doubts about the effectiveness of his methods. He here occupies a ‘hybrid’ position. Marx, while acknowledging Blanqui as one of the ‘real leaders of the proletarian party’, portrays the profes- sional conspirators as ‘alchemists’ who ‘improvise’ the revolution and ‘despise the more theoretical enlighten- ment of the workers concerning their class interests’. Their firebombs and other engines of destruction seem all ‘the more miraculous and surprising’, he claims, ‘the less rational their foundation is’. 49 Elsewhere Benjamin transforms this objection into a far-reaching insight:

One might well ask whether Blanqui’s political activity does not display features which reveal it as the action of the same man who in old age wrote L’Eternité par les astres. H.B. [Heinrich Blücher] even assumes that the world-view devel- oped by Blanqui at seventy was conceived at the age of eighteen, and that this explains the desper- ate [desparat] character of his political activity in general. There is, clearly, no precise argument which could substantiate this assumption. On the other hand, we should not simply dismiss the idea that Blanqui’s persistent lack of interest in the theoretical foundations of socialism may have sprung from a deep-seated mistrust of the conclu- sions that await anyone who immerses himself too deeply in the structures of the world and of life. Blanqui would not, at the last, have escaped such immersion. 50

The hidden link suggested here between Blanqui’s revolutionary activities and his concluding quasi- scientific postscript on the eternal revolutions of the stars stands in stark contrast to the ‘unity of theory and praxis’ postulated by Marx. A split unity is now located not merely between Baudelaire’s dream and Blanqui’s action but also in the contradiction within the latter between theory and praxis. 51 Not unlike the sudden, apparently gratuitous acts described in Baudelaire’s prose poems which serve to give ennui the slip and suspend the tyranny of Time, Blan- qui’s coups would have been so many attempts to forestall the demobilizing effect of the recognition that revolution was not pace Marx – inscribed in the logic of history. It could, if at all, only be snatched from its so-called progress. This widening

split between dream, action and knowledge recalled the post-mediaeval dissociation between knowledge and belief. Like the concluding section of the preface to the Trauerspiel book, the above-quoted note could have been entitled Pro domo. It also sheds an oblique light on the desperado tactics of the RAF. Amalgamating

light on the desperado tactics of the RAF. Amalgamating some of the above-mentioned motifs from Benjamin’s

some of the above-mentioned motifs from Benjamin’s Baudelaire with others from his Arcades Project, one

might characterize the RAF as follows. They acted like

a man trying to brave wind and rain with a machine-

gun. Unable to accept that the heroic role of the

revolutionary agitator had been played out, they played

it for real and tried to prove its – and their – existence

by force. Their activism was an ago quia absurdum,

a macabre theatre of the absurd. If capitalism was a

religion, so was their anti-capitalism. For them, as for Benjamin, history was (in Stephen Dedalus’s phrase) a nightmare from which they wanted to awaken; or rather they wanted, by their example, to awaken the others

– the ‘historical subject’ – to action; but they too were

a ‘dream-collective’ and their sleep – a Marxist variant

of Goya’s ‘sleep of reason’ – engendered monsters; in short, they merely contributed to the nightmare. Neither the rhetoric of their acts nor the phraseology of their declaration to the court could bridge the gulf between theory and praxis. What their lurid trajectory

did do, however, was to highlight that abyss and with

it the intolerable political blockage of our times. Certain ‘relational concepts’ (Relationsbegriffe),

Benjamin writes in 1923, are perhaps best understood

‘if they do not from the outset refer exclusively to man’.

A life or a moment could be unforgettable even if all

men had forgotten it. They would contain ‘a demand unfulfilled by men’ and ‘probably also a reference to

a realm in which it is fulfilled: God’s remembrance’. 52 The Theses restate this demand as the claim of our

oppressed forebears on our attention. 53 This claim too

– the demand for justice, for remembrance in action

– would surely persist even if most men had forgotten

it. Benjamin’s ‘theology’ is synonymous with this melancholy experience of human obliviousness. Is it an accident that the winning combination of the First Thesis consists of two non-human partners, a puppet and a dwarf? Where are those to do the job? Is the human species up to it? If not, who? The sad, failed history – the Trauerspiel – of the RAF renews these questions.

test of time

We began this essay with various forms of Entsetzen

– the RAF’s actions, their unclear association with

Benjamin, the dormant anarchy awaiting collective release – and the spectrum of meanings that Benjamin associates with this word, ranging from the ‘removal’ [Entsetzung] of the state to certain minimal ‘devia- tions’ from the standard course. 54 It is ‘not by violence’, we recall, that the Messiah will change the world, but ‘merely by adjusting it ever so slightly’; 55 and the historical materialist must in turn attend to these ‘most unobtrusive’ of changes. 56 The greatest transformation can thus prove to be the merest shift of position. Power and powerlessness are as dialectically interlinked as sobriety and intoxication. 57 ‘Pure’ violence is the counterpart of ‘perpetual peace’. All the above-named elements coexist in Benjamin’s thinking. It is as if the ‘chess master’ evoked in the First Thesis combined every virtue named thereafter, though doubtless not in any single move: the ‘weak Messianic force’ and the virile explosive power; the paralysed horror of the angel and the avenging hatred of the oppressed; single-minded resolution and devious humour; a monastic distance from world events and the closest attention to detail; violence and non-violence. All these conflicting, heterogeneous impulses are needed if historical materialism is to prove a ‘match for all comers’. To object that they can cohere, if at all, only on paper is to ignore the relation that they state – and, in so doing, perform – between word

and deed. Benjamin’s writings illustrate his theory of language – one in which the word partakes of the Word. Here at least a certain unity between theory and praxis obtains. To return to the sticking point: what is the share of physical violence in the ‘whole contradictory fund’ 58 of his thinking? This can, he claims, only be decided from case to case. Let us therefore briefly consider a particularly relevant one: The Destructive Character (1931). 59 Like its model, who does not worry about ‘being misunderstood’, this text is exposed ‘on all sides to idle talk’. 60 In today’s climate, it could even be suspected of condoning terrorism. ‘Ripeness for destruction’ (Zerstörungswürdigkeit) is what the destructive character ‘tests’ the world for. ‘Not always with brute force [Gewalt]; sometimes it is refined’. Unconditional non-violence is not a political option here; violence is essential as a ‘pure means’:

‘What exists he reduces to rubble, not for the sake of the rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.’ What does this stupendous programme involve? The dying fall of another sentence gives an ominous hint:

‘First of all, for a moment at least, empty space – the place where the thing stood or the victim lived.’ 61 Not merely are (inanimate) thing and (living) victim given equally short shrift here. All superfluous affect, notably the smokescreen of virtuous indignation, is likewise removed. 62 But can one assent without ques- tion to this suspension of moral affect? Questions and objections arise here thick and fast. Is it only a ‘fine’ terror (schönes Entsetzen) that the above sentence inspires? After all that has meanwhile happened, who can still derive satisfaction from such results? What if the victims’ names were Philemon and Baucis? Was it because an end to mythical violence still did not appear ‘unimaginably remote’ to Benjamin that he could so coolly envisage the sacrifice of human life? If so, how tenable was such an assessment? How do we read it in the light of the subsequent Nazi and Stalinist campaigns of ‘liquidation’ and ‘purification’? Would not the deadly misuse of such terms soon render them unusable? Or was it now all the more necessary to reaf- firm them – in the teeth of possible misunderstanding? Benjamin seems to have adopted the latter strategy. The closing paragraphs of his Kraus essay, written in the same year, oppose a purifying, destructive justice both to the ‘constructive ambiguities of the law’ and to the impure rhetoric of the George circle, despite and because of the latter’s talk of ‘purity’, ‘sacrifice’ and a ‘new humanity’. 63 Here as elsewhere Benjamin pronounces judgement on what constitutes pure and impure violence, purity and sacrifice with apodictic

certainty and a biblically inspired furore. 64 Who does

not share that fury? But who is granted that certainty? Can such distinctions always be so clearly made? Did not Benjamin once argue that Communism was not

a matter of the ‘right’ course, but of a necessarily,

symptomatically and productively false one? Doesn’t

the historical Trauerspiel show in terrible detail that

a ‘false’ order imposes an impure, mixed violence

even on its best enemies and that the circle of mythic violence could never be broken in entirely ‘pure’


‘The destructive character knows only one watch- word: make room. And only one activity: clearing away.’ 65 Such evacuation (Entsetzung) causes terror (Entsetzen). Wittingly or not, it is driven by the need to clean up a fallen, profaned, ‘overnamed’ Creation. The destructive character – the (in)human counter- part of an exterminating angel – fulfils Benjamin’s anarcho-theological dream of justice in action. Here too, however, dream is not the sister of action; it is rather its distant relative. The fulfilment of the dream is still part of it; the portrait is not its model; his activity is mimed here by an act of language which symbolically partakes – but by the same token falls short – of it. Nor is it an accident that the actual models for this portrait were (anti-)cultural figures – destroyers of ornament (Loos), cliché (Kraus), catharsis (Brecht), and so on. Where, then, are this text and the charac- ter it describes to be situated? Notwithstanding the ‘symbolic’ relation of word to Word – and the ‘spark’ between speech and act – the separation between the literary and political spheres remains. While not therefore a directly political statement, The Destructive Character nevertheless stands for a politics that would be ‘nothing but politics’. Benjamin’s theology of the profane has almost dissolved here into the profane. But theological elements persist, 66 among them an echo of the Jewish ban on graven images. The destructive character has ‘no image’ of the future and can thus pursue a ‘teleology without end-purpose’. He is, in short, the profane executor of Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’. The question thus arises once again: under what circumstances can the most ‘monstrous’ cases that these texts evoke – the ‘revolutionary killing of the oppressor’ or the ‘clearing away’ of the ‘victim’ – still be envisaged? At least in the West, it has long made little political sense to shoot replaceable ‘character-masks’ (Marx). Let us consider the issue from another angle. Benjamin will later refer to his ‘psychology’ of the destructive character. 67 But what this figure repre- sents is in fact the clearing away of what is usually

understood by psychology and character. Just as the surrealists ‘exchange, to a man, the play of human features for the dial of an alarm clock’, 68 he reduces not merely the world but his own psyche to a bare minimum. Benjamin’s commentaries on Brecht like- wise turn on the dismantling and retooling of person, name and function. 69 Those who ‘stand firmest’ in the Communist cause, he comments on ‘Of poor B.B.’, ‘are those who started by letting themselves fall’. 70 Here, too, the question arises whether such claims have not meanwhile been refuted by events. Would not Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon show that it was precisely those who had stood firmest in the revolutionary cause who were reduced to testifying against themselves in the name of revolutionary justice? 71 But surely the destructive character is armed against this travesty of revolutionary self-sacrifice by his ‘insuperable mistrust of the course of events’ and his permanent awareness – that of ‘historical man’ – that ‘everything can always go wrong’. 72 He thus stands for powers of instant, active, critical judgement in a rapidly changing environment – in short, for what Benjamin calls ‘presence of mind’. A German Bolshevist revolution, he wrote only a few months before this text appeared (in November 1931 in the Frankfurter Zeitung), might allow him to write differently; but he had no illusions about the reception his writings could expect from a victorious KPD. 73 This remark sums up the context of The Destructive Character. It intervenes in the virtual space – the no- man’s-land – opened up between East and West by ‘the fact of “Soviet Russia”’. 74 This fact no more convicts it of complicity with Stalinist purges and terror than its free-standing status frees it from the ‘context of guilt’ (Schuldzusammenhang) in which it, like all texts, is implicated. A just critique of this text would like- wise involve presence of mind: rapid historico-critical judgement of its historico-critical judgement. The mistrust – which Benjamin attributes to Blanqui – of the ‘conclusions awaiting anyone who immerses himself deeply in the structures of the world and of life’ may also, we suggested, have been his own. 75 Instead of seeking to come to terms with, say, Nietzsche’s ‘psychology of ressentiment’ or Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, which gave advance insight into the mass psychology of fascism, he focuses on the mass as the matrix of a liberation from the entanglements of bourgeois psy- chology. It is this promise that the destructive char- acter fulfils. Neither a communist ‘new man’ nor a Nietzschean ‘superman’ but an Unmensch (a ‘monster’ qua ‘un-man’), this terrible simplificateur has effected

a ‘complete reduction of his own condition, indeed

the extraction of his root [Radizierung]’. 76 ‘To be radical ’, Marx had written, ‘is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself.’ 77 Communism, thus conceived, completes the project of Enlightenment humanism. If, as the last-quoted sentence from The Destructive Character suggests,

man in turn now needs to be reduced to his root, this

is because bourgeois humanism has meanwhile got in

the way. Such a quasi-mathematical reduction of the

human – of what Nietzsche called the ‘human, all-too- human’ – naturally raises a host of questions. (How avoid a return of the repressed? The RAF’s attempt

to cut through all political and psychological knots is

a warning example.) But its purpose is clear: to find a way through the labyrinthine ‘structures of the world and of life’, including bourgeois psychology and moral-

ity. It is, however, a measure of the difficulty of finding the right man for the job that the one presented here should not be a ‘man’ at all but rather an ideal type, a drawing-board model sketched at a certain distance from empirical reality. 78 He represents one experimen- tal solution among a ‘contradictory fund’ of others in Benjamin’s work to the problem of how to sidestep – or

in his case demolish – the quasi-ontological ‘structures

of the world and of life’ in order to do what needs

to be done. ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity’,

Kant had written, ‘no straight thing was ever made’. 79

If its knots are nevertheless to be undone, an equally

crooked strategy is needed. Benjamin entrusts it to a hunchbacked dwarf, whose motto might be: ‘The devil is old; grow old to understand him.’ 80 ‘We have become poor’, he wrote two years later; but he still saw a political chance in that reduced condition. 81 Our world is characterized by a poverty

of political alternatives. Many will, however, assent to

Habermas’s objection that the alternative posited by Benjamin between pure revolutionary violence and a mythical status quo is, under today’s circumstances, too starkly Manichaean to be viable. But the destruc- tive character is, precisely, a genius of the viable. ‘Where others come up against walls and mountains,

there too he sees a way.’ It is in this refusal of exist- ing alternatives that his actuality lies. Every moment, Benjamin claims, has its own ‘peculiar revolutionary chance.’ 82 The question is: what type of genius would

it take to seize it in post-revolutionary times? For Hegel world history is its own Court of Judge-

ment (Weltgericht). For Benjamin the historical equiva- lent to the Last Judgement is the ‘standing judgement’

of one historical moment on ‘certain preceding ones’ 83

– not, then, on the whole past, but on that past that is

à l’ordre du jour. Such summary justice is ‘untimely’ (Nietzsche), ‘involuntary’ (Proust), ‘partial, passionate and political’ (Baudelaire). Its enabling medium is the critical passage of time, its modality the flash in which the present and a no less particular past coincide in an unrepeatable image. 84 At every turn of phrase and events, the historical materialist, the literary critic, the writer and the translator, as Benjamin conceives them, exercise such judgement. And so does the destructive character. What verdict, then, is our historical moment entitled to pass on his intervention in his? He is ‘the bearer of a mandate’. 85 Do we still have one? The only question, Benjamin writes on his return from Moscow in 1927, is:

Which reality is inwardly converging with the truth? Which truth is inwardly preparing to converge with the real? Only he who gives clear answers to these questions is ‘objective’. Not toward his contempo- raries (that’s not what matters) but towards events (that is decisive). 86

Just as all language and works of art ultimately address themselves, in the early Benjamin’s scheme of things, not to an audience but to God, 87 so a political mandate issues here from the need of the times and not from public opinion, which might be oblivious to it. ‘Truth’ and ‘reality’ are destined to coincide. Global capitalism, which knows no truth outside reality, has reduced this revolutionary ontology to a ghostly, under- ground existence. 88 But even though no viable political alternative to this one-dimensional religion has so far emerged, it cannot lay its ghosts for good. If it could, world history would indeed turn out to be its own Last Judgement.

the aftermath

‘Tiny radical minorities’ make convenient scapegoats. But all the blame cannot be laid on the RAF. How Benjamin would have judged this particular ‘extreme’ we cannot know. He did, however, speak of the social order as a chronic ‘context of guilt’. The so-called ‘Baader–Meinhof complex’ was surely one of its acutest contemporary symptoms. Extrapolating from one of Benjamin’s boldest anthropological speculations, 89 one could also see the RAF as having acted out buried desires of the collective political unconscious. Hence the vestigial ‘aura’ that surrounds them, nowadays trivialized on the T-shirt market. That their strategy would fail was foreseeable. But what alternatives did ‘false’ circumstances permit? How, in a ‘state of emer- gency’, ‘reach for the emergency brake’? 90 How move in an ‘iron cage’? To act where action is blocked: can this be done without a streak of madness – a passage

à l’acte? Not to act when action is needed: is this not the reverse ‘pathology of the normal’, which serves to protect us from such madness? Only if this dilemma were no longer taken in the safe doses with which the media inure us to it could it begin to be resolved. ‘Where are those’, the young Benjamin quotes Nietzsche as asking, ‘who are in need [Not]?’ 91 No one is belatedly being asked to become a ‘sympathizer’ with the ‘real existing’ RAF – but rather a ‘foreign friend’ 92 of the need that drove them before it was supplanted by the activity of staying alive. What it drove them to provoked a massive reaffirmation of the status quo. It was against their cause that they united the collective. Their desperate gamble proved, if proof was needed, the impossibility of achieving justice through terror. This did not, however, yet prove that it was attainable without violence – violence of a ‘purer’ kind. Politico-ethical judgement can surely be exercised only from within this dilemma. The real and imagined challenge posed by the RAF bore little relation to the relatively small number of its victims; the apparatus mobilized against it was even more disproportionate. It seems likely that the ‘unmastered’ German past was at work on both sides; but such a hypothesis is not easily tested. How deeply those ‘leaden years’ have impressed themselves on the collective memory is equally difficult to assess. The needs of capitalist production dictate that each present ‘antiquate’ what went before, which becomes as stale as yesterday’s newspaper, as passé as a recent fashion and as unreal as last night’s dream. 93 So too in the case of the RAF. The ensuing process of ‘normalization’ has closed the episode. By ‘historicizing’ it, scholarship too has helped lay it to rest. Without too much outcry, things again ‘go on this way’. 94 And yet – to continue citing Benjamin – the enemy still does not feel entirely safe from the dead. 95 In the second exposé for the Arcades Project Benjamin observes of nineteenth-century France that ‘the glitter and splendour with which this commodity-producing society surrounds itself, along with its illusory sense of security, are not immune to dangers; the collapse of the Second Empire and the Commune of Paris remind it of that’. 96 The ‘spectre’ of revolution (Marx) and the ‘uncanny guest’ of nihilism (Nietzsche) were the writing on the wall. The RAF was a latter-day heir to both. To criminalize their acts, to pathologize their motives, to demand their repentance, and to leave it at that, as the prevailing wisdom does, is to want to exorcise the vast problem – that of elementary political justice – which, however criminally and pathologically, they refused to ignore.

But the Left, too, has its ghosts. 97 ‘We did 1968’, said Wolinski, ‘so as not to become whom we became’. Putting the past behind one is, however, the very sin for which the German protest movement originally denounced its fathers. 98 Dr Strangelove, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb: most ex-protesters have meanwhile gone with the times, exchanging the critical theory they once learned from their adoptive fathers for a reality principle which is, from their former standpoint, the most insidious, self-effacing ideology of all. They have ‘matured’ and expelled their daimon (if they had had one) along with their demons. 99 Once burned, twice shy: how many former sympathizers with the RAF now keep a low profile? Others have recanted and joined the other side, like the ex-Communists of a former period. 100 Today’s ‘sobering-up’ (Ernüchterung) knows only Weber’s notion of soberness and disenchantment, not those of Marx or Benjamin, with which it is, precisely, dis- enchanted. In short, the observation made by Adorno and Horkheimer in 1969 that the disenchantment of

the world has traversed all world-historical convulsions undeterred 101 has been borne out by the aftermath of the student movement and its terrorist sequel. In this sense, they may indeed prove to have been mere episodes. Benjamin’s fortunes on the cultural market have followed suit. 102 A long initial vogue 103 was borne by the ‘cultural revolution’ initiated by the student movement, whose break-up in the mid-1970s marked the ‘turning of the tide’ (the so-called Tendenzwende). The entry of Benjamin’s writings into the academic canon and the cultural feuilletons was accompanied by

a more sophisticated awareness of their complexities, but also by an increasing disengagement from their

political stakes. 104 A project that was intended to smash the kaleidoscope of so-called cultural history is now

a ‘challenging’, ‘provocative’ part of it. A conference

held in 2006 by an international Benjamin society could in all impunity call itself a ‘Benjamin festival’. All this parasitic activity around him cannot conceal the falling of his political stock. They ‘confirm their defeat’, he wrote at a more threatening moment, ‘by betraying their own cause’. 105 Today’s (ex-)Left has confirmed its defeat by aban- doning much of the ground it lost meanwhile and internalizing many of the arguments it used to fight. The debacle of the RAF may well have contributed its share to this general retreat. The horizon is one of non-expectation; and it is against this blocked prospect that Benjamin’s writings are read today. There seems to be tacit agreement on all sides that their interest

can no longer lie in their politics. To excise these from Benjamin’s corpus is, however, to abort its afterlife. A different type of ‘mortification’ 106 is needed. Benjamin’s own materialist historiography and liter- ary criticism point the way. They show how works become ‘readable’, ‘quotable’ and ‘criticizable’ only in the medium of the historical experience that links them to, and separates them from, our present. To try to bring this method to bear on his own texts is to engage at every turn in a difficult exercise of judgement in which the ‘court’ itself may not emerge intact. The task is to develop combined powers of historical, political and aesthetic decision which draw their strength from the – always ‘meagre’ 107 – present without succumbing to the so-called spirit of the times. This is easier said than done. A tentative beginning was sketched above in the case of The Destructive Character – a text which posed the question of violence under vastly different conditions over seventy-five years ago. Two sets of comments, objections and questions should at least be mentioned in conclusion:

1. While the RAF emerged out of the specific conditions of postwar Germany, we now know that it also stood at the threshold of an unforeseeable renewal of political terrorism in a new multipolar world. At a moment when the armed struggle of small ultra-radical groups had played itself out in the West, the destruction of the Twin Towers precipitated a new form of asym- metrical warfare between realigned geopolitical and ideological forces. The rhetoric of international class struggle was replaced by that of ‘the clash of civiliza- tions’ and by reciprocal neo-religious anathema worlds apart, and light years behind, Benjamin’s theology of the profane. But there is, thanks to globalization, now no corner of the earth where the demand for justice is not heard. One of the most tangible responses to it has been the creation of international courts of law to which nation-states cede a small portion of their sovereignty. Has, then, the case for weakening the rule of law become moot in a world where the first task is often to strengthen it? Would Benjamin have conceded that the state often needs to be bolstered before it can properly wither away? And what place can a particular – in this case, anarcho-messianic – version of universal justice claim in an increasingly multicultural context? To this latter question two late notes suggest the makings of an answer: ‘The constructive principle of universal history allows it to be represented in partial histories.… Universal history in the present-day sense is never more than a kind of esperanto.’ 108 2. Benjamin wrote of pointing a self-constructed telescope through a ‘fog of blood’. 109 Now as then,

‘impure’, ‘mythical’ violence remains the rule, not the exception. The fog is partially pierced by isolated political demonstrations and strikes, some philo- sophical thinking, historical analysis and investigative journalism, a few works of art, and countless daily acts of resistance. Today’s states, reaping the harvest of the violence that they inflict at home and abroad, are subject to intermittent disturbance from their inner margins and the threat of terrorist attack from without. The threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) that hung over the Cold War has yielded to another worst-case scenario: weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists with nothing to gain or to lose. In this climate of latent terror, harassed, docile popu- lations indiscriminately abhor ‘violence’ and blindly demand ‘security’ – unspecific notions behind which specific interests take cover. Under such conditions Benjamin’s plea for ‘pure’ violence would seem to have little or no constituency. The critique of violence, he argues, cannot afford to stop short at the law and the state. A ‘lesser programme’ will not suffice: the minimum is the maximum. Only the prospect of a ‘way out’ of all previous history – the term is Ausgang, as in Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ – would enable a ‘critical, discriminating and decisive [scheidende und entschei- dende] angle of vision [Einstellung] on its temporal data’. 110 It is on this premiss, conceived not as a regula- tive but as a realisable idea, that the Theses likewise rest. If the Angel of History, who sees one unbroken catastrophe, hardly seems to discriminate between the ‘temporal data’, such discrimination nevertheless remains the task of the ‘historical materialist’, who looks, as it were, over his shoulder. One might be tempted to conclude that Benjamin’s ‘idea’ has meanwhile been buried once and for all under all the ‘temporal data’. The idea – the Angel – sees it differently. From his angle of vision, it is the earth that is buried, and the sky obscured, by the mounting facts. 111 Without some such perspective, history would, from this perspective, merely be what Anglo-Saxon understatement says it is: ‘one damned thing after another’. Not for nothing, however, does Benjamin compare the historical materialist to a cameraman who adjusts the lighting and angle of his shots to the needs of the moment. 112 The wide metaphysical angle of vision does not suffice on its own. From this we may perhaps extrapolate the following conclusion. What is needed today is not a lesser programme – what other objective can there be than the institution of a classless society without further delay? – but its adjustment to straitened circumstances. If Benjamin never gave up

his minimum programme, several late formulations nevertheless reduced it to its minimum: a ‘dwarf’, a ‘weak Messianic power’, the ‘smallest guarantee’. 113 A reduced model of anarchy is needed – one that could no longer lead anyone into the dead end of trying, against all better knowledge, to force the way out, go it alone, and claim, in so doing, to represent the oppressed. Might this, under the present circumstances, mean casting our lot with non-violence? Yes, if it is violent enough. Today’s winning combination might be one in which Benjamin’s critique of violence joined forces with those of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Who, though, does not feel perplexity 114 in the face of unabated global violence? ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.’ 115 But what if the former had made them- selves at home in the void and the latter were merely trying to deny it? Something else is clearly needed if it isn’t ‘mere anarchy’ but, on the contrary, anarchy of an unprecedented kind that is to be ‘loosed upon the world’. 116 The young Benjamin calls it belief, but adds that ‘everything depends how one believes in one’s belief’. 117 Two decades later he is still ‘inclined to assume’ that the planet is waiting for an end to blood and horror. Whether we are capable of presenting it with this three or four hundred millionth birthday gift is, he goes on, highly questionable. But if we don’t, the planet will finally ‘have us, its heedless well-wishers, served the Last Judgement’. 118

The day we do, Judgement too will have withered away. The planet, then, is waiting. What, then, are we waiting for? But what we?


1. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften (henceforth GS), ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppen- häuser, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1972– 89, II, 1, pp. 297–8; ‘Surrealism’, in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings (henceforth SW), ed. Michael W. Jen- nings, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1999, vol. 2, p. 209.

2. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe (henceforth GB), ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, Suhrkamp Ver- lag, Frankfurt am Main, 1995–2000, III, p. 159, let- ter to Scholem of 29 May 1926; The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910–1940, trans. R. and E.M. Jacobson, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994, p. 301.

3. Theocracy ‘has no political, only a religious, meaning’. GS, II, 1, p. 203; ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’, in SW, vol. 3, p. 305.

4. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I, ‘On the New Idols’, Fried- rich Nietzsche, Kritische Gesamtausgabe (henceforth KG), ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, De

Gruyter, Berlin, 1969, VI, 1, pp. 57–60.


GS, VI, pp. 104–8; ‘The Right to Use Force’, in SW, vol. 1, pp. 231–4.


GS, VI, p. 105; SW, vol. 1, p. 231.


GS, VI, pp. 105–6; SW, vol. 1, pp. 231–2. Non-violence, Benjamin here claims, has little prospect of political success. Non-resistance to the point of martyrdom can, however, be a moral, indeed a sacred action, as when communities of Galician Jews let themselves be cut down in their synagogues.


GS, VI, pp. 106–7; SW, vol. 1, p. 233.


Cf. Benjamin’s early ‘Notes for a Work on the Category of Justice’, Frankfurter Adorno Blätter IV, 1992, pp.




GS, VI, pp. 107–8; ‘The Right to Use Force’, in SW, vol. 1, pp. 233–4.


GS, II, 1, pp. 203–4; SW, vol. 3, p. 155.




GS, VI, p. 203; ‘The Right to Use Force’, in SW, vol.


p. 233.


GB, III, p. 160; Correspondence, p. 301.


GS, I, 2, p. 697; ‘On the Concept of History’, Thesis VIII, in SW, vol. 4, p. 392.


GS, I, 2, pp. 702–3; Thesis XVII, in SW, vol. 4, p.



Cf. in addition to Habermas’s essay, Axel Honneth’s in- terpretation of the ‘Critique of Violence’, in Burkhardt

Lindner, ed., Benjamin-Handbuch, Metzler Verlag, Stuttgart, 2006; and Rainer Rochlitz, The Disenchant- ment of Art: The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin, trans. J.M. Todd, Guilford Press, New York, 1996. From entirely different perspectives, the aforementioned texts of Bolz and Derrida place Benjamin, Schmitt, Heidegger and others in the context of a ‘philosophical extremism’ that emerged between the world wars.


Cf. on the overall structure of this project Lieven De

Cauter, ‘The Bloody Mystifications of the New World Order: On Agamben’s Homo Sacer’, in The Capsular Civilization: On the City in the Age of Fear, NAi Pub- lishers, Rotterdam, 2004, pp. 154–71. It turns on two extreme theses: the concentration camp as the biopoliti- cal paradigm of modernity and the ‘state of exception’ as that of modern governance.


Cf. Vivian Liska, Giorgio Agambens leerer Messian- ismus, Schlebrügge, Vienna 2008.


Walter Benjamin/Gretel Adorno. Briefwechsel 1930– 1940, p. 410; also cited in GS, I, 3, p. 1223. It like- wise takes Zarathustra the longest time to face his ‘most abysmal thought’ and ‘heaviest weight’. (Also sprach Zarathustra, III, ‘Der Genesende’, KG, VI, 1, pp. 266–7). Nietzsche’s affirmation and Benjamin’s refusal of ‘the eternal return of the same’ are perhaps the most intimate of enemies.


Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. K. Attell, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005, ch. 4. The earlier moves in this game could be described as follows. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama Benjamin offered a subversive variation on Schmitt’s definition of the sovereign. The latter had in turn been

a response to the ‘Critique of Violence’. The sover-

eign had filled the power vacuum resulting from the threatened suspension of law and state; deposed by revolution from below, he was restored by counter- revolution from above. If Agamben’s reconstruction is accurate, then Schmitt, for one, would not have considered the prospects of Benjamin’s ‘word against

the law’ to be ‘unimaginably remote’.

22. Cf. Susanna Heil, Gefährliche Beziehungen. Walter

Benjamin und Carl Schmitt, Metzler Verlag, Stuttgart,


23. Carl Schmitt, Politische Theologie. Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität, Duncker & Humblot, Ber- lin, 1985, p. 11; Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1985, p. 5.

24. GS, I, 1, p. 406; The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne, Verso, London, 1998, p. 232.

25. Cf. GS, II, 1, p. 194; ‘Critique of Violence’, in SW, vol.

1, p. 246.

26. GB, IV, pp. 19–20; Correspondence, pp. 372–3.

27. GS, II, 1, p. 308; ‘Surrealism’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 215.

28. GS, II, 1, p. 307; SW, vol. 2, pp. 215–16.

29. Distant parallels may perhaps be drawn between the hard revolutionary romanticism of the RAF and the fin de siècle decadence that Benjamin saw at work in Jünger’s cult of war. It ‘complied with the desires of the bourgeoisie, which longed for the downfall of the West the way a schoolboy does for an inkblot in the place of a wrong answer’ (GS, III, p. 243; ‘Theories of German Fascism’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 316). The difference be- tween this ‘downfall’ (Untergang) and the one sought (according to the ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’) by happiness is roughly that between Thanatos and Eros. Zarathustra’s love for ‘those who know not how to live except by going under’ (‘Zarathustra’s Prologue’ (4), KG, VI, I, p. 11) embraces both.

30. Cf. on the differences between nihilisms my articles

‘Messianischer Nihilismus. Zu Benjamins Theolo- gisch-politischem Fragment’, in Ashraf Noor and Josef Wohlmuth, eds, ‘Jüdische’ und ‘christliche’ Sprachfigu- rationen im 20 Jahrhundert, Schöningh, Paderborn, 2002, pp. 141–214; ‘Nihilismus kontra Nihilismus. Walter Benjamins Weltpolitik aus heutiger Sicht’, in Bernd Witte and Mauro Ponzi, eds, Theologie und Poli- tik. Walter Benjamin und ein Paradigma der Moderne, Erich Schmidt Verlag, Berlin, 2005, pp. 107–36.

31. ‘To do the job properly [um ganze Arbeit zu leisten], one must … have felt what one wants to destroy’ (GS, III, p. 265).

32. Rochlitz, The Disenchantment of Art, p. 235. Rochlitz also rejects Benjamin’s version of the proletariat as the ‘avenging’ class that social democracy has schooled to forget its ‘hatred’ and its ‘spirit of sacrifice’ (GS, I, 2, p. 700; Thesis XII, in SW, vol. 4, p. 394). Here Benjamin is, Rochlitz claims, far from Marx’s class analysis and close to Nietzsche’s identification of socialism with ressentiment. In fact, however, Benjamin’s equation of vengeance with justice is remote from Zarathustra’s psychological diagnosis (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, II, ‘Of the Tarantulas’, KG, VI, I, pp. 124–7) and close to Marx’s biblical sense of justice and to Nietzsche’s de- fence of active virtues against reactive vices. The early fragment ‘The Meaning of Time in the Moral Universe’ makes it clear that vengeance is not to be equated with retribution: the ‘retributive power’ of law is contrasted here with the fury of divine justice – a fury which sweeps through history in a ‘storm of forgiveness’ (GS, VI, p. 98; SW, vol. 1, p. 286–8). Similarly, Benjamin alternately admires the ‘hatred’ of the downtrodden and

a ‘need for fresh air and open space’ that is ‘stronger than any hatred’ (GS, IV, 1, p. 396; ‘The Destructive Character’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 541). An overwhelming

mass of historical and social-psychological material can undeniably be adduced in support of Rochlitz’s claims. But even if (as Marcuse observed in 1965 of

terms such as ‘culture of the heart’ and ‘redemption’) Benjamin’s notions of ‘vengeance’ and ‘hatred’ sound today like echoes from another age, can we forgo them without becoming Nietzsche’s ‘last men’?

33. Cf. GS , V, 1, p. 593 (N10, 1); The Arcades Project , trans. H. Eiland and K. McLaughlin, Harvard Univer- sity Press, Cambridge MA, 2002, p. 474 (N10, 1).

34. GS, IV, 1, p. 85; ‘One-Way Street’, in SW, vol. 1, p.


35. GS, II, 1, p. 308; ‘Surrealism’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 216.

36. To prove that it was, it would be necessary to show that Benjamin’s insistence on separating historical materi- alism from the forces of ‘progress’ could only further weaken the anti-fascist position. His answer to the centrist argument that both left and right extremisms played into the hands of fascism by undermining the democratic structures of the Weimar Republic would presumably have been that it was, on the contrary, the liberal centre that caved in.

37. Cf. Wolfgang Kraushaar, ‘Die Schleyer-Entführung:

44 Tage ohne Opposition’, in Revolte und Reflexion. Politische Aufsätze 1976–1987, Verlag Neue Kritik, Frankfurt am Main, 1990, pp. 84–92. In the course of this crisis, the executive established two new bodies which ‘simply undercut the legal and constitutional principles which it constantly invoked’ (p. 90). The Committee for Internal Affairs oversaw the creation of a secret police agency no longer subject to pub- lic, federal or parliamentary processes; and the Crisis Command robbed parliament of its ‘last possibility of influence, namely the power of defining what situation may be designated as a “state of emergency”’ – a step ‘not even foreseen in the regulations governing the declaration of a state of emergency’ and ‘utterly con- trary to the constitution’ (ibid.). This suspension of the constitution for reasons of state was uncomplainingly accepted by the media (p. 91). The statesman who took upon himself the decision to sacrifice Schleyer, Helmut Schmidt, enjoyed widespread support. The popular ad- miration of which Benjamin’s Critique speaks for the great criminal who defies the law yielded here to that for an iron chancellor who showed what stuff the state was made of.

38. Kraushaar, ‘Die Schleyer-Entführung’, pp. 91–2.

39. The ideal of the Enlightenment is ‘the system from which everything and anything follows.… In their mas- tery of nature, the creative God and the ordering mind are alike.… Man’s likeness to God lies in his sover- eignty over existence, in the lordly gaze, in the com- mand.…Whatever might be different is made the same’ (Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1969, pp. 12–18; Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philo- sophical Fragments, trans. E. Jephcott, Stanford Uni- versity Press, Stanford, 2002, pp. 4–8). Cf. on the ‘fear’ at the core of the Enlightenment (p. 22; p. 11); and on the fear that haunts the modern state (GS, II, 1, pp. 185, 192–3; ‘Critique of Violence’, in SW, vol. 2, pp. 240, 245). Witness the Berufsverbot (the disqualification of politically undesirable individuals from employment in the civil service, including the teaching profession) and perhaps also de Gaulle’s secret visit to Baden-Baden on 29 May 1968.


GS, I, 2, p. 604; ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, in Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, trans. H. Zohn, Verso, London, 1997, p. 101.

confused with the fascist and futurist ‘aestheticization’ of war and politics that Benjamin denounces four years later.

41. GS, I, 2, p. 600; Charles Baudelaire, p. 97.

42. GS, I, 2, p. 578. Cf. Baudelaire, ‘De l’Héroisme de la Vie Moderne’, Salon de 1846, in Charles Baudelaire, Œuvres Complètes (henceforth OC), ed. Y.-G. le Dan- tec, Gallimard, Paris, 1968, pp. 949–52.

43. GS, I, 2, p. 667; ‘Central Park’, in SW, vol. 4, p. 170.

44. GS, I, 2, p. 652; ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, in Charles Baudelaire, p. 154. It is of the essence of anger, Benjamin writes of Baudelaire, to rage against friend and foe alike (GS, I, 2, p. 642; Charles Baudelaire, p. 143). Contrast God’s just anger in the ‘Critique of Violence’ (GS, II, 1, 196; SW, vol. 1, p. 247).

45. GS , V, 1, p. 75; ‘Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Cen - tury’, Exposé of 1939, in The Arcades Project, p. 25.

46. GS, I, 2, 516; ‘Paris of the Second Empire’, in Charles Baudelaire, p. 14. Benjamin is referring here to the dreams of mid-nineteenth-century French conspirators.

47. GS, I, 2, p. 700; Thesis XII, ‘On the Concept of His- tory’, in SW, vol. 4, p. 394.

48. ‘Blanqui submits to bourgeois society. But his genu- flection is of such violence that its throne begins to totter.’ GS , V, 1, p. 168 (D5a, 2); The Arcades Project , p. 111.

49. ‘For them’, Marx adds, ‘the only condition of revolu- tion is the adequate organization of their conspiracy’ (cit. GS, I, 2, pp. 514–19; ‘Paris of the Second Empire’, in Charles Baudelaire, p. 13).

50. GS, I, 3, 1154 (Ms 1080).

51. Cf. on the ‘shattered components of authentic histori- cal experience’ GS, I, 2, p. 643; ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, in Charles Baudelaire, p. 144.

52. GS, IV, 1, p. 10; ‘The Task of the Translator’, in SW, vol. 1, p. 254.

53. GS, I, 2, p. 694; Thesis II, in SW, vol. 4, p. 390.

54. Cf. on ‘deviations’ and ‘differentials’ GS , V, 1, p. 570; The Arcades Project, p. 456 (N1, 2).

55. GS, II, 2, p. 432; ‘Kafka’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 811.

56. GS, I, 2, p. 695; Thesis IV, ‘On the Concept of His- tory’, in SW, vol. 4, p. 390. Zarathustra says something similar against ‘great events’ – by which, however, he means revolutionary uprisings: ‘Then it spoke to me again as a whisper: ‘It is the stillest words that bring on the storm. Thoughts that come on doves’ feet guide the world’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, II, ‘The Stillest Hour’, KG, VI, 1, 185).

57. Cf. on the ‘dialectic of intoxication’ GS, II, 1, pp. 299, 307; ‘Surrealism’, in SW, vol. 2, pp. 210 and 216. Is Benjamin, to cite his critique of the surrealists, always ‘up to’ this dialectic? Doesn’t his language sometimes seem ‘drunk’ on theology – as if its recourse to the power and glory of the Word were calculated to com- pensate for its actual powerlessness on the ‘literary battle-field’? The sober materialist style of his late work deliberately blunts this élan.

58. GB, IV, 408 (letter to Scholem of 6 May 1934); Cor- respondence, p. 439.

59. GS, IV, 1, pp. 396–8; ‘The Destructive Character’, in SW, vol. 2, pp. 541–2.

60. One such misunderstanding should be mentioned here. The ‘spectacle of the deepest harmony’ that the world affords the ‘destructive character’ as he goes about making room for a viable world is clearly not to be

61. GS, IV, 1, p. 397; SW, vol. 2, p. 541, my emphasis.

62. ‘For to organize pessimism means nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics.’ GS, II, 1, p. 309; ‘Surrealism’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 217.

63. Cf. GS, II, 1, pp. 366–7; ‘Karl Kraus’, in SW, vol. 2, pp. 456–7. Derrida argues for an exploration of the ‘shared thematic of “destruction” that emerged in the interwar period, and especially of its German-Jewish “reflections” in Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Heidegger and Others’, Force of Law, pp. 65–6. Benjamin, for his part, sought to make his writings as ‘unpalatable’ as possible to the ‘counter-revolution’, at the risk of making them ‘unpalatable to everyone’. GB, IV, p. 25 (letter to Scholem of 17 April 1931); Correspondence, p. 378.

64. ‘As the cleansing hurricane goes before the storm, so God’s wrath roars through history in a storm of for- giveness in order to sweep away everything that should [müßte] be consumed forever by the lightning-flashes of the divine weather’ (GS, VI, p. 98; ‘The Meaning of Time in the Moral Universe’, in SW, vol. 1, p. 287).

65. GS, IV, 1, p. 396; ‘The Destructive Character’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 541.

66. The destructive character’s ‘insuperable mistrust of the course of things’ (ibid., p. 398; SW, vol. 2, p. 542) is the reverse side of an unspoken, theologically inspired faith in the revolutionary potential of the real. Cf. by contrast Zarathustra’s pagan trust in the ‘heart of the earth’ and his accompanying mistrust of the ‘overthrow- and scum-devils’ of revolution. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, II, ‘On Great Events’, KG, VI, 1, p. 166.

67. GS, I, 3, p. 1244 (notes and materials for ‘On the Concept of History’).

68. GS, II, 1, p. 310; ‘Surrealism’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 218.

69. Cf. in particular GS, II, 2, pp. 506–10; ‘From the Brecht Commentary’, in SW, vol. 2, pp. 374–7; and GS, II, 2, pp. 526–27; ‘What is Epic Theatre?’ (first version), in Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock, London 1973, p. 9.

70. GS, II, 2, p. 554; ‘Commentary on Poems by Brecht’ in SW, vol. 4, p. 231.

71. ‘In the interests of communism’: this formula from Brecht’s didactic play Die Massnahme (‘The Measures Taken’) is put in the mouth of the young comrade who is sacrificed for the cause; Die Massnahme, ed. Reiner Steinweg, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1972, pp. 82–3. It alone does not suffice to substantiate Ruth Fischer’s interpretation of the play as an ominous an- ticipation of the Moscow show trials (416–18). But it is against these that the play has meanwhile to be read. The issue of revolutionary violence is ventilated here in connection with the execution of a comrade whose lack of discipline has endangered the other members of an underground group: ‘Terrible it is to kill./ Not only others, we are ready to kill ourselves if neces- sary./ For this deadly world can only be changed by force [Gewalt]/ As every living man well knows’ (pp. 80–81). From here it is not far to The Destructive Char- acter. However problematic certain communist motifs in Brecht’s and Benjamin’s writings may appear in hindsight, they allow us to measure the narrowing of the horizon within which the question of violence has meanwhile come to be considered.

72. GS, IV, 1, p. 398; ‘The Destructive Character’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 542.

73. GB, IV, 24 (letter to Scholem of 17 April 1931); Correspondence, p. 377.

74. GS, IV, 1, 317; ‘Moscow’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 22.

75. Anyone of his generation, writes Benjamin in 1926,

who grasps the historical moment ‘not as mere phra- seology but as a struggle cannot renounce the study and practice of the mechanism through which things (and conditions) interact with the masses’ (GB, III, p. 159; Correspondence, p. 300). Was it in order to pre- serve his model of a potentially critical mass that he gave little emphasis to the conservative, even ‘counter- revolutionary’, mechanisms at work in that struggle? To that extent Blanqui’s willed ignorance would also have been his own.

76. GS, IV, 1, p. 397; ‘The Destructive Character’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 541. Cf. the transvaluation of the Unmensch and the ‘barbarian’ in ‘Experience and Poverty’ and ‘Karl Kraus’, GS, II, 1, pp. 215, 355, 367; SW, vol. 2, pp. 732, 447–8, 456–7.

77. In A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

78. ‘Among the great creators’ – Descartes, Einstein, Scheerbart, Klee, Brecht, Loos and the Cubists are named here – ‘there have always been the inexorable ones who began by clearing a tabula rasa. They wanted a drawing-table; they were constructors’ (GS, II, 1, p. 215; ‘Experience and Poverty’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 732). As an abstract of these figures, the destructive character has in turn, like Klee’s figures, been ‘con- structed at the drawing-board’ (ibid.). This whole text sketches the precise, unrepeatable context in which the notion of a destructive character could emerge. But whereas the ‘barbarian’ artists, engineers and math- ematicians evoked here clear away spurious cultural excess or intellectual obstacles, he allegedly clears away realities.

79. In his ‘Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent’.

80. Cited by Max Weber in ‘Science as a Vocation’, in Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. H.H. Gerth and C.W. Mills, Oxford University Press, New York 1946, p. 152.

81. GS, II, 1, p. 219; ‘Experience and Poverty’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 735.

82. GS, I, 3, p. 1231; ‘Paralipomena to “On the Concept of History”’, in SW, vol. 4, p. 402.

83. GS, I, 3, p. 1245; SW, vol. 4, p. 407. ‘The saying from an apocryphal gospel – “Where I meet someone, there will I judge him” – casts a peculiar light on the Last Judgement. It recalls Kafka’s note: “The Last Judge- ment is a kind of martial law [Standrecht]”’ (ibid.). Like the ‘state of exception’ in the Eighth Thesis, martial law is here cited against itself – against the army, the state, the law. What distinguishes martial from regular law is the summary of its verdicts. Cf. on the immediacy of divine justice GS, I, pp. 154, 198–9; ‘Critique of Violence’, in SW, vol. 1, pp. 249–50.

84. Cf. GS , V, 1, pp. 576–7 (N2a, 3); Arcades Project , p.


85. GS, IV, 2, p. 999, notes and materials for ‘The Destruc- tive Character’.

86. GS, IV, 1, p. 317; ‘Moscow’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 22.

87. GS, IV, 1, p. 9; ‘The Task of the Translator’, in SW, vol. 1, p. 253. Cf. GS, II, 1, p. 144; ‘On Language’, in

SW, vol. 1, p. 65.

88. If the destructive character can tell that things ‘can’t

go on this way’, this is because ‘at their hidden core’ (wirklich, im Innersten, Verborgnen) they don’t: they go ‘from one extreme to the other’ (GS, IV, 2, p. 1001, notes and materials for ‘The Destructive Character’). He thus has ontology on his side, but a subversive one, an ontology of extremes at the opposite extreme from the above-mentioned quasi-ontological ‘structures of the world and of life’. The latter – alias the continuum of ‘homogeneous empty time’ (GS, I, 2, p. 701; Thesis XIII, in SW, vol. 4, p. 395), the ‘reality-principle’, and so on – ensure that life does go on this way. The first ontology, which is perhaps the ‘unconscious’ of the second, introduces hairline fractures into it – ‘fissures’ and ‘asperities’ in the wall of the real that offer ‘foot- ing to one who would cross over them’ ( GS , V, 1, pp. 591–2; Arcades Project, pp. 473–4 (N9, 4 and N9a,


89. Cf. Schönes Entsetzen (‘Fine Terror), GS, IV, 1, pp. 434–5. Partially cited as a motto to Part 1 of the present essay, this piece is not included in the selection from Denkbilder (‘Thought Images’) in SW, vol. 2.

90. GS, I, 3, p. 1232; Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’, in SW, vol. 4, p. 402.

91. The full quotation reads: ‘My writings are said to be so difficult. I would have said that all those understand me who are in need. But where are those who are in need?’ (cit. GB, I, p. 161, letter to Carla Seligson of 4 August 1918; Correspondence, p. 50).

92. Ibid., p. 182, letter to Carla Seligson of 17 November 1913; Correspondence, p. 57.

93. Cf. GS , V, 1, pp. 47, 501; The Arcades Project , pp. 4, 397 (K4, 3).

94. ‘That things “go on this way” is the catastrophe.’ GS, I, 2, p. 683; ‘Central Park’, in SW, vol. 4, pp. 184–5.

95. Cf. GS, I, 2, pp. 694–5; ‘On the Concept of History’, in SW, vol. 4, pp. 390–91. Meanwhile a complication of the fronts has taken place. The enemy remains; but ‘we’ are in large measure part of him.

96. GS , V, 2, p. 1256.

97. Cf. on ghosts and justice, Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, New York, 1994.

98. ‘Having sold their soul to the bourgeoisie, along with profession and marriage’, Benjamin writes in 1915, ‘students insist on those few years of bourgeois free- dom.’ GS, II, 1, p. 85; ‘The Life of Students’, in SW, vol. 1, p. 45.

99. In their book Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern (The Inability to Mourn; Piper, Munich, 1967), Alexander and Marga- rete Mitscherlich venture a parallel between the secret service technique of ‘turning’ someone ‘around’ and the collective process by which, after the collapse of the Third Reich, love for the Führer was transformed into its opposite. We lack any corresponding psycho- historical study of the inner permutations undergone by succeeding generations. Two initial attempts contradict one another: Wolfgang Leuschner, ‘Kriegskinder und 68’ and Günter Franzen, ‘Nach Auschwitz. Zur Iden- titätsproblematik der 68er’, Psyche, no. 60, issues 4 and 6 respectively.

100. One of the most influential contemporary ex- communists, varying The Future of an Illusion and The God that Failed, has diagnosed his former creed

as a religion without a future. Cf. François Furet, Le Passé d’une illusion. Essai sur l’idée communiste au


Cf. on this concept GS, I, 1, p. 357, and GB, II, p. 393; Correspondence, p. 224.

vingtième siècle, Robert Laffont/Calmann-Lévy, Paris 1995; The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Commu-


Cf. GS, 111, p. 259; ‘Against a Masterpiece’, in SW, vol. 2, p. 383.

nism in the Twentieth Century, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999.


GS, I, 3, pp. 1234, 1238; ‘Paralipomena to “On the Concept of History”’, in SW, vol. 4, p. 404.

101. ‘The development toward total integration … has been interrupted, but not halted; it threatens to realize

102. I have elsewhere discussed a test case: ‘Warum hat

103. The counter-culture was also a consumer culture, a

104. Already in 1973 Habermas observed that the academic


GB , V, p. 193, letter to Werner Kraft of 28 October 1935; Correspondence, p. 516.

itself through wars and dictatorships’ (Dialektik der Aufklärung, pp. ix–x; Dialectic of Enlightenment, pp. xi–xii).

man das Passagenarbeit nicht gelesen?’, in Peter Raut-


GS, II, I, p. 202; ‘Critique of Violence’, in SW, vol. 1, p. 251. Elsewhere Benjamin puts this in secular terms:

all historiography needs to be tested against the notion of the classless society (GS, I, 3, p. 1245; Notes and materials for ‘On the Concept of History’).

mann and Nicolas Schalz, eds, An Walter Benjamins


GS, 1, 2, p. 697; Thesis I, in SW, vol. 4, p. 392.

Passagen-weiterschrieben. Ein Bremer Symposium,


GS, I, 3, pp. 1164–5.

Hochschule für Künste, Projekt, Bremen, 2006.

‘scene’ whose ‘icons’ included Benjamin as well as ‘El Che’. Cf. Otto Karl Werckmeister, Linke Ikonen


Cf. GS, I, 2, p. 693; Thesis I, in SW, vol. 4, p. 389; GS, I, 2, p. 694; Thesis II in SW, vol. 4, p. 390; GS, I, 3, p. 1243 (Notes and materials for ‘On the Concept of History’).

(Icons of the Left), Munich and Vienna 1997. Ben- jamin’s ‘cult-value’ was boosted by his fate as a Jew- ish Marxist refugee driven to suicide. The academic


Benjamin traces the decay of ‘counsel’ to the rise of capitalism. Cf. GS, II, 2, pp. 442 ff.; ‘The Storyteller’, in SW, vol. 3 pp. 145 ff.

study of his work has partially counteracted this cult


Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’.

of personality. But it too belongs to a market whose


Ibid.; stress mine.

concerns are well insulated against his.


GB, 1, p. 182, letter to Carla Seligson of 17 November 1913; Correspondence, p. 57.

treatment of Benjamin offered ‘at best a corrective, but no real alternative’ to the conflict of partisan interpre- tations (‘Walter Benjamin: Consciousness-Raising or Rescuing Critique’, p. 92).


GB , V, p. 193, above-cited letter to Kraft; Correspond - ence, p. 516. The double meaning of the (Welt)gericht that we are to be served – ‘judgement’ and/or ‘meal’ – combines biblical affect with ironic play.

105. GS, 1, 2, p. 698; ‘On the Concept of History’, Thesis X, in SW, vol. 4, p. 391.

translated by nick Walker and irving Wohlfarth

the network for editors of interdisciplinary Journals presents

the network for editors of interdisciplinary Journals presents

the network for editors of interdisciplinary Journals presents
interDisCiPlinarity in the arts and humanities research, Policy, Publishing

interDisCiPlinarity in the arts and humanities research, Policy, Publishing

interDisCiPlinarity in the arts and humanities research, Policy, Publishing
A One-Day Conference: Friday 20 March 2009, 9.30 am–5.00 pm The Swedenborg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury

A One-Day Conference: Friday 20 March 2009, 9.30 am–5.00 pm The Swedenborg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A

A One-Day Conference: Friday 20 March 2009, 9.30 am–5.00 pm The Swedenborg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way,
pm The Swedenborg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A Georgina Born Anthropology & Music, Cambridge thomas
pm The Swedenborg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A Georgina Born Anthropology & Music, Cambridge thomas
pm The Swedenborg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A Georgina Born Anthropology & Music, Cambridge thomas
pm The Swedenborg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A Georgina Born Anthropology & Music, Cambridge thomas
Georgina Born Anthropology & Music, Cambridge thomas Docherty English, Warwick susan melrose Performance Arts,

Georgina Born Anthropology & Music, Cambridge thomas Docherty English, Warwick susan melrose Performance Arts, Middlesex Peter osborne Philosophy, Middlesex adrian rifkin Art History & Theory, Goldsmiths shearer West Director of Research, AHRC

interdisciplinary Journals Panel

interdisciplinary Journals Panel

marquard smith David Cunningham Jeremy Gilbert Joanne morra Joanna Zylinska

Chair Radical Philosophy New Formations Journal of Visual Culture Culture Machine

Free aDmission RSVP to Sharon Sinclair at

Free aDmission RSVP to Sharon Sinclair at

Elasticity of demand

Reflections on The Wire

John Kraniauskas

Can’t reason with the pusherman Finance is all that he understands

Curtis Mayfield, ‘Little Child Runnin’ Wild’

David Simon and Edward Burns’s TV series The Wire (HBO, 2002–08) opens with a killing and builds from

there, over five seasons and sixty hours of television. What it narrates is the present life of a neoliberal- ized postindustrial city, from the perspective of the bloody ‘corners’ of West Baltimore, USA. 1 The Wire is a continuation of Simon and Burns’s earlier series The Corner (HBO, 2000), a quasi-anthropological reconstruction of real lives, directed by Charles S. Dutton. In fact, in many ways it is a combination and development of two previous TV series: NBC’s cop show Homicide (based on Simon’s book Homicide:

A Year on the Killing Streets, 1991) and The Corner

(based on Simon and Burns’ book The Corner: A Year

in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, 1997). 2

Corners are where everyday drugs business is carried out. They are violently fought over and defended as what remains of the local economy is bled dry and addiction extends. They are the places, in other words, where the stories of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market and/or ‘originary’ capital accumulation are played out. This is the local, street experience of (illegal) capitalist globalization. It provides the pathetic script for the

character Bubbles, for example – drug addict and police informant – which is literally written into his body. These are places of labour too, including child labour: the ‘corner boys’. Finally, they are places of intense state scrutiny and surveillance. The ‘wire’ that gives the programme its name is a bugging or wire-tapping device, fundamental to the narrative structure of each one of The Wire’s seasons. It is the main technological means of secret intel- ligence gathering, sought and deployed by the police to listen to, identify and decode the telephone messages circulating between the drug dealers. In this respect, The Wire presents itself as a police procedural, centred on the detective work involved in juridically justifying

and then deploying the bugging technology required. Unlike the police-procedural pedagogic norm, however, The Wire critically foregrounds technological under- development and uneven distribution, educating its viewers into a culture of everyday police bricolage and ingenuity, very different from the hyperbolic scientific know-how of CSI and its many imitators. The activities of pushing and policing in The Wire mark out a territory that is divided, crisscrossed and sutured (constituted in antagonism); in other words, wired. Crime at one end, joined to the law at the other, it constitutes ‘a whole way of life’. 3 In this respect a work of urban anthropology, The Wire nonetheless turns its corners so as to accumulate characters, stories and ‘adventures’. It expands and opens out onto the world, charting encounters, much like the novel in its chivalric, educational and realist historical modes. Although here it is a TV camera-eye that travels, explores and frames the city, emplotting its socio- cultural environments (in particular, their racialized, gendered and class divisions), activating, in Franco Moretti’s words, their ‘narrative potential’; which is to say, their relations of power, their ‘plots’. 4 But only so as to return, repeatedly, to illuminate its point of departure, the streets, and its principal object of attrac- tion, the everyday experience and effects of the trade in drugs and its policing. Like other works of detective and/or crime fiction, The Wire relays and establishes the political and cultural contours of the contemporary, at speed. Indeed, in this sense, it fulfils one of the prime historical functions of the genre. 5 As The Wire voyages out from the low- and high- rise housing projects whose corners it films, accu- mulating and weaving together its stories, it accretes social content as part of its overall moving picture. This is conceived primarily in terms of a set of over- lapping institutions and their hierarchized personnel:

the police (both local and federal), the port authority and trade-union organization (in Season 2), the city administration, its juridical apparatus and its shifting political elites (especially from Season 3 onwards), the

R a d i c a l

P h i l o s o p h y

1 5 4

( M a r c h / A p r i l

2 0 0 9 )


local educational state apparatus (Season 4), and the local city newspaper (in Season 5). It is important to note that these are all places of work. Work is a struc- turing ideologeme of the series, as it was previously of The Corner – with its dealers – and more recently of Simon and Burns’s disappointing subsequent series about US soldiers in Iraq, Generation Kill (2008), with its ‘grunts’. 6 They are also sites of political power-play, concerned, like The Wire’s ‘auteurs’ themselves, with establishing their own standpoint with respect to the dramas played out and filmed in the streets. Thus The Wire’s own TV camera-consciousness produces itself, as it were, in counterpoint to the multiplicity of insti- tutional perspectives it reconstructs, taking the side of the dominated, that is, of the ‘workers’ portrayed in each case. The Wire’s populist images are, to use Sartre’s words, ‘act(s) and not … thing(s)’. 7 Season after season, over years of programming, The Wire’s looping narrative methodology transforms and enriches its own story and perspective. There is, however, a tension here that drives its realist compo- sitional logic – and which its long-running television format invites – that is both formal and analytic. The Wire attempts to resolve the enigmatic character of the social that grounds the crime and/or detective fiction form through an accretive looping logic that incorporates more and more of the social (through its institutions), but that thereby simultaneously threatens to overload and diffuse its televisual focus on what is most compelling: the dramatization of the political economy of crime as the key to the understanding of contemporary neoliberal capitalist society (in Bal- timore) and its policing. Inverting the procedure of classic police-procedural film The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1947), instead of zooming in on one of ‘8 million stories’, the series zooms out, arguably too far, attempting to show them all. The paradox of The Wire’s accumulative compositional strategy – and the epistemological and aesthetic problem it poses – is that the more of the social it reconstructs, shows and incor- porates into its narrative so as to explain the present, the less socially explanatory its vision becomes. 8

Crime scenes

It is as if The Wire had been produced in response to questions initially posed by Walter Benjamin in his ‘A Small History of Photography’ (1931) regard - ing the photographic mediation of the experience of the modern city. Noting how the journalistic – and quasi-cinematic – work of photographers like Atget was increasingly able ‘to capture fleeting and secret moments’ that thus demanded explanation (he refers

specifically to the emergence of the use of captions in this regard), Benjamin asks ‘is not every square inch of our cities the scene of a crime? Every passer- by a culprit?’ And further, ‘is it not the task of the photographer … to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures?’ 9 Three-quarters of a century (of technology) later this is where the first episode of The Wire begins, with a crime scene in a Baltimore city street, one of many. The opening scene of The Wire is both generi- cally conventional and narratively surprising. It is also intensely televisual. A crime has taken place, and The Wire takes us to it immediately, opening directly onto a bloodstained street in close-up, bathed in the flashing red and blue lights of police vehicles, and to the sound of their sirens – images familiar to TV viewers from reality cop shows and local news programmes. But if The Wire begins TV-like, it soon becomes cinematic:

the camera scans and tracks, revealing the dead body of a young man. It then pulls back, encircling and framing the scene (thereby producing it) in which the key elements of its juridical and cultural coding – that is, the wired (bloody) territory of the series’ diagetic space – are crystallized: from a dead black Afro-American young man, the victim of a ridiculous and arbitrary crime, we pass on to a Afro-American witness, who tells its story, and then to a white Irish- American police officer, who listens and chuckles at its utter banality. 10 The streets of The Wire’s crime scenes thus consti- tute a central social space of encounter where, to put it in Althusserian terms, social power is transformed and normalized by the state apparatus qua machine, institutionalized as law, and actualized as force. 11 The police are the main agents of this process, of course, and homicide detective McNulty, the main star of the show, is at his post asking questions and making his presence felt. Most importantly, thanks to the invisible presence of the camera, audiences magically become privileged viewers of the crime scene too, positioned alongside the police at work for the local city state, and given immediate access to look upon and accompany the process of crime interpretation. So far, so generi- cally conventional: The Wire is a traditional work of detective fiction, adopting a critical (that is, a ‘worker- ist’) police perspective that McNulty embodies. What is narratively surprising about The Wire’s first scene, however, is that the crime that opens the series has no particular significance for it, except in its gen- erality, and will be neither reconstructed nor emplotted into its interlocking narratives. The death of the young man holds no mystery for the police and will not be

interpreted and tracked. (This is to be expected in this part of town; it has been socially and culturally coded that way.) It does, however, register an important, although banal, truth that is significant for the relation the series establishes between narrative form and its own historical material: the excess of history over form. The Wire thus signals, on the one hand, its own partiality and, on the other, its consequent status as a work of narrative totalization which is always already incomplete. In this sense, the programme emerges not only from a realist desire to accumulate social content, as noted above, but also from a modernist acknowledgement of its own narrative limits (imposed by narrative form) and thus not so much as a representa- tion as an invention. The first killing functions as just one of a continuous, repetitive series that composition- ally divides The Wire’s overarching narratives off from the history that determines and contextualizes it. It stands in for all the victims associated with the com- mercialization of drugs who precede the stories told across the five seasons, for all those who will follow them, as well as for the collateral damage, those victims who accompany the telling of the stories dramatized in The Wire, episode after episode. It is possible to identify other such series too, although these are built into the narratives that make up The Wire over time, season after season, imposing, for their appreciation, a discipline on its viewers that is specifically televisual: they have to stick with it, for years (or for countless hours of DVD watching). For example, there is a series of insider witnesses, many of them doomed by their contact with the police, especially with McNulty; and a series of wakes for members of the force who pass away, which ends with McNulty’s own symbolic one, when he leaves the pro- fession at the conclusion of the final, fifth Season. He will be replaced. So, if one series – of killings – opens The Wire, another – of deaths – brings it to conclu- sion. McNulty’s institutional death, meanwhile, finally reveals The Wire’s central articulating narrative: from the beginning, its first crime scene, it tells the story of McNulty’s way out, the ‘death’ of a policeman. ‘Like detectives’, writes John Ellis in Seeing Things:

Television in the Age of Uncertainty, ‘we are rushed to

Television in the Age of Uncertainty , ‘we are rushed to the scene of the crime

the scene of the crime hoping to make sense of what happened from the physical traces that it has left.’ Ellis is not describing The Wire here, or a programme like it, but deploying the conventional hermeneutic of detective fiction to account for a general effect of contemporary televisuality – which also, it so happens, describes the TV experience of tuning in to a programme like The Wire and being ‘rushed to the scene of [a] crime’. 12 Ellis’s description of television form connects with Benjamin’s account of photography. As is well known, the revelatory potential of photographic technology, in which once hidden historical determinations are brought into the light of day by the camera demand- ing explanation, underpins Benjamin’s notion of the ‘optical unconscious’. In this way, the camera’s ability to capture reality in photographs is associated with a modern hermeneutic – one that Carlo Ginzburg links to art criticism (the discovery of forgeries), psycho- analysis (listening out for signs of the unconscious) and detection (revealing criminal intent) – in which captured scenes may be read as ‘symptoms’ of some- thing else (a criminal capitalist economy, for example) and thus demand close scrutiny and interpretation. 13 Such technological developments are deployed and advanced by the state too, in surveillance operations, like those portrayed in The Wire. These involve not only new visual technology, but devices geared specifically for sound. For it turns out that there is also a ‘sonic’ unconscious, made avail- able for scrutiny today by mobile phones. This is what McNulty and his colleagues seek to access by ‘wiring’ and grabbing the messages exchanged between corner boys and drug dealers. Ellis, meanwhile, is interested

in camera work, but more than just with its recording function: combining aspects of both the cinema and radio, with television the camera has become a broad- casting and transmitting device too. In the words of Rudolf Arnheim, ‘television turns out to be related to the motor car and the aeroplane as a means of transport of the mind’. 14 This is how ‘we are rushed’ to other places, such as West Baltimore’s corners, or how other places are tele-transported to viewers, as scenes, as they relax in living rooms and bedrooms. Television, in other words, appears to overcome both the distance between its subjects and objects and their different times, making them co-present in viewing; and not just mentally, as Arnheim suggests, but sensually too – sounds and images tugging at the body through eyes and ears. Ellis refers to the new social form of looking produced by contemporary television as ‘witness- ing’, and to television form itself as a kind of dramatic ‘working through’ of the materials thus broadcast in an era of information overload: they are managed and formatted into genres (from the news, to sports programmes and soaps), dramatized and put into narrative, serialized and scheduled. 15 Again, Ellis might also have been describing The Wire and its first scene, whose last shot is a close-up of the dead victim, his blank wide-open eyes staring out from the TV screen at the tele-transported viewers; and in the background, the witness and the detective, working through. There is another crime scene in the first season of The Wire that is destined no doubt to become a classic of its type. In contrast to the first scene, however, this one, although approaching abstraction in its sparseness, is full of significance for the articulation and unravel- ling of its narratives and dramas. It involves McNulty and his partner ‘Bunk’, and a disenchanted middle-level drugs dealer D’Angelo Barksdale (known as ‘D’), the nephew of West Baltimore kingpin Avon Barksdale. The latter is the prime target of McNulty and his associates’ police investigation, the object of the wire, and remains so across three of The Wire’s five seasons. Despite all the surveillance, however, information- and evidence-gathering is difficult, since Barksdale and his crew are deadly, ruthlessly shoring up any possible weakness or leakage in their organization. Like so many subaltern outlaw groups, the Barksdale crew have internalized and replicated state-like repressive

structures that are ferociously hierarchical, and, within their own terms, strategically meritocratic. Even before McNulty and Bunk arrive at the murder scene, viewers know that D’Angelo has killed one of Avon’s girlfriends (who had threatened to give him away and talk). We know this not because it is a crime that is shown and witnessed, but because in a previous scene he tells the corner boys he organizes. As noted above, The Wire is made up of a number of proliferating narratives, and moves between and through them transversally. As it jumps from scene to scene, it travels between different characters, the social spheres they inhabit and work in (institutions), as well as their locations (streets, offices). Thus all nar-

well as their locations (streets, offices). Thus all nar - ratives are interrupted and crossed by

ratives are interrupted and crossed by others, looping back and forth, such that at and through each level

– episode, season and series – The Wire resembles a

collage or a montage of segments. This is the relation established between the scene of D’s ‘confession’ and the scene in which McNulty and Bunk reconstruct his crime. However, what happens before, at the level of narrative emplotment, happens simultaneously at the

level of its story. These scenes, like others, are part of

a constellation of mutually dependent segments with

a shared temporality, but distributed across different

spaces. This means that viewers know ‘D’ is guilty before McNulty and Bunk do, but they then – in their decoding of the crime scene – work it out and catch up, such that by its conclusion characters and viewers become co-present again at the level of knowledge as well as that of action. But if The Wire’s polydiegetic and segmentary character may be described as either novelistic or cinematic, its televisual character should not for that reason be ignored.

Indeed, it has been suggested that the segmentary quality of the television moving image is definitive of its form: originally anchored in domesticity, dis- traction, and the predominance of the glance over the cinematic gaze. Interrupted viewing (by adverts, for example) is constitutively inscribed into both the medium and television form itself, most obviously in news programmes and soaps. Being an HBO produc- tion, however, whose broadcasting is advert-free, The Wire is able both to put such segmentarity to use as a compositional strategy and simultaneously to subvert the temporality of its viewing. This is because, for the most part, its compositional segmentarity works to extend the action and narrative continuity beyond the fixed temporality of the episode, undermining the latter’s semi-autonomy within the series (as main- tained even by The Sopranos), slowing down and spreading the action and stories it portrays beyond episodic television time (and its scheduling), giving the impression, at times, that ‘nothing happens’. At this level, The Wire de-dramatizes the serial form from within. This experience of ‘slowness’ – which contrasts markedly, for example, with the hectic deployment of segmented scenes in 24 16 – may be one of the reasons why The Wire has attracted so few viewers on tele- vision, although it is a growing success on DVD and ‘on demand’ platforms. This other crime scene may be only a short segment, but its significance flows through Season 1 and into Season 2. 17 It knots their narratives. This is underlined by the inclusion of another brief segment within this constellation of scenes in which Lester – McNulty’s partner on the wire detail – identifies a phone number he has picked up off the wall at another crime scene (where the romantic character Omar Little, a kind of urban cowboy, has stolen one of Avon’s stashes), which he identifies as linked to a corner phone used by ‘D’ at work. 18 Through composition and editing, all of these discrete segments feed the central narrative: they become part of the story in which, first, the wiretap is justified and put to use and, second, ‘D’ is persuaded to give up his uncle-boss Avon (and is then murdered in jail). The scene is a kitchen in a house that has been stripped bare and wiped clean. It has become a white box. And in such a space, the detectives’ reconstruction of the crime is almost a work of performance art. Bereft of forensic technology, they use their bodies, their pens and a tape measure like bricoleurs to re-imagine the crime, the trajectory of the bullet, the position of the shooter (‘D’) as he taps the window (‘tap, tap, tap’, as ‘D’ has already described it) and shoots the young

naked woman as she turns to see who is there. This is the work of the imagination, and in its eccentric performance both Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Poe’s Dupin are parodically evoked. Most important for this reconstruction, however, are the photographs of the barely clothed dead victim that McNulty and Bunk scrutinize for clues and place about the room so as to visualize the event – for this work of detection is also the work of fantasy. McNulty and Bunk perform the scopic drive. Whilst scrutinizing they only enunciate one word and its derivatives – ‘fuck!’ – over and over again as they realize how the murder was committed, reaching a climax of discovery – ‘fucking A!’ – as they find the spent bullet in the fridge door and its casing in the garden outside. It is as if the discovery were a restaging of the primal (crime) scene. ‘Fucking’ and detection intertwine. In a sense, this is just an extension of the sexualized homosociality that characterizes the office of the homicide division of the Baltimore Police Department run by Sgt Lands- man, its principal promoter. But it also says something about McNulty’s and Bunk’s own addictive relationship to their work: they do not spend time together drink- ing so as to forget and obliterate their experiences as police; on the contrary, they do so to maintain and extend it, and in fact to obliterate everything else, the rest of their private, non-police lives.

adam smith in Baltimore

The main conflict within the police institution in The Wire is between its upper bureaucratic echelons with more or less direct access to the political elites (associ- ated with city hall) and the working detectives from the homicide (McNulty) and narcotics (‘Kima’ Greggs, ‘Herc’ Hauk and Ellis Carter) divisions, joined to form a special detail in the pursuit, first, of Avon Barksdale (Seasons 1–3) and, then, of his ‘successor’ Marlo Stan- field (Seasons 3–5). 19 Under the command of Cedric Daniels, they are joined by a variety of marginalized officers such as Lester and Prez. The ‘brass’ imposes targets and, therefore, arrests. In Lester’s version, they ‘follow the drugs’ and arrest low-level drug dealers and addicts. Keeping minor criminals off the streets helps the mayor. For their part, the detectives ‘who care’ (such as McNulty, Lester, Kima and Daniels) want to build cases against the kingpins inside and outside the state, and ‘follow the money’, exposing economic and political corruption. In this context, the strug- gle to justify the wiretap legally becomes a political one, requiring legal justification and the allocation of resources (and finally the goodwill of the mayor). It is hindered at every turn.

However, The Wire ’s principal interest lies in the way in which the conflicts inside

However, The Wire’s principal interest lies in the way in which the conflicts inside the state apparatus are mirrored – across the wire – within the criminal, drug-dealing community it portrays and its political economy. This includes not only the influence of the police on the illegal, subalternized capitalist economy, but also the ways in which the latter, through bribery, loans and money-laundering underwrites upper ech- elons of the local state and economy through the circulation of its accumulated wealth – at which point it becomes finance capital. 20 The intra-crime conflict presents itself on the ground as a struggle between fractions for territory and corners (between the East and West Sides of Baltimore) and takes three main forms, each of which is associated with a particular economic logic and specific characters: ‘Proposition’ Joe, Avon Barksdale and Marlo Stanfield, and Omar Little, respectively. The first form involves an attempt to overcome the struggle between competitors. In this context, the character of Proposition Joe (who comes increasingly to the fore in Seasons 4 and 5) is important since he represents a tendency towards the formation of a kind of Baltimore cartel, a co-operative of dealers, which can manage quality, prices and security. For some, however, this delegation of business administration undermines the pursuit of self-interest, self-reliance and, thereby, control. Avon and Marlo, who represent a second street-level, ‘competitive’ form of the drugs business, are suspicious of Proposition Joe’s corporate, conference-room style (he is finally assassinated by Marlo’s henchmen towards the end of the series), preferring instead to impose their own more neoliberal economy. The third form is a romantic version of the second, and is represented by Omar, the transgressive outlaw’s outlaw (McNulty’s criminal mirror-image and sometime ally). Taking advantage of the mis-

trust generated between the corporate and competitive styles, Omar uses guerrilla tactics to trick and rob all the local kingpins. On the one hand, Omar becomes a local myth in his own (albeit brief) lifetime; on the other, he violently debunks the myth of original accumulation. 21 The tension between these regimes of accumulation is what drives the segmented narratives of The Wire as they loop across and through each other. The nar- rative loops connecting the different scenes may thus also be thought of as narrative cycles: from the cycle of capital accumulation as it passes through commod- ity exchange, which takes place on the streets (or in prison), to the cycles of finance and capital investment, which take place mainly in offices, restaurants or luxury yachts. This is why the policing that McNulty and Lester struggle against represents a racist dis- avowal on the part of the state. The imposition of a policy based on targets and the pursuit of street crime (that is, of corner boys and drug addicts), which ignores the circulation of money capital, involves, in the first place, the fabrication of the otherness of the criminal ‘other’ (a racist production of difference) and, second, the deployment of the resources to insist on it. The flow of money, however, tells us that the supposed ‘other’ is in fact constitutive of the state in the first place. This is why drugs money is ‘laundered’. 22 Lester and McNulty pursue the money – so much so that, in the end, they almost break the law 23 – to reveal its origins and, particularly, its ends. In other words, they are involved in a radical act. Taking the side of the ‘working’ detective within the police institution, from scene to scene and location to location, The Wire follows the money too. Nevertheless, the narrative pursuit of money through the cycle (or loop) of accumulation from the streets into finance only goes so far, and this narrative limit constitutes the generic limit of The Wire as a work of crime fiction. Crucial, here, is another important char- acter in the series, ‘Stringer’ Bell, the key to McNulty and his colleagues’ surveillance operation, via ‘D’. He is murdered at the end of Season 3 by Omar and Brother Mouzone (a hitman from New York) with the tacit agreement of Avon Barksdale. Stringer Bell is Avon’s second in command, the manager of the business (he counts the money), a close associate and friend (he advises him to have ‘D’ killed) – indeed, he is the ‘brains’ of the outfit (much like Lester is for the wiretap detail). Avon is a more charismatic leader with a keen sense for the uses of violence as a strategy of power and drugs commerce. Inside the partnership Barksdale and Bell (Stringer

eventually dies under a sign for ‘B&B enterprises’) there coexist in increasing conflict two of the above logics of accumulation, associated with commodity exchange, on the one hand, and corporate finance and investment, on the other. The Wire traces this conflict, and Stringer’s attempts to consolidate the ‘co-operative’ with a reluctant Avon, following him right into the offices of Baltimore’s luxury-apartment redevelopment projects in which he invests (with the help of Senator ‘Clay’ Davis, among others). Until he is shot, when Avon decides against the world of finance capital. The Wire follows suit, abandoning the compo-

Stringer?’ asks (states) McNulty; ‘Yeh!’, replies Bunk. Their scopic prowess has clearly reached its limits: the more they scan the apartment, the more unreadable it becomes. Bunk stands in the middle of the living room as if there were nothing to be decoded, no clues, none of those traces on which his and McNulty’s subjectivization as detectives depends. McNulty and Bunk have reached the limits of their considerable interpretative powers and find no pleasure – no crime – in the scene. This is because Stringer has ‘laundered’ his lifestyle and wiped his apartment clean, so that it would seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with crime – that is, the drugs business, the murder that he administers, the vio- lence of the exchange of commodities he coordinates, nor with the ‘culture’ associated with it. McNulty goes over to a bookshelf and looks at the books. He takes one down and glances at it and asks: ‘Who the fuck was I chasing?’ (as if to the viewers, since they know more than he) and puts the book down again. At which point the frustrated detectives turn and leave. The scene is never mentioned again, never returned to and ‘looped’ into the narrative. However, just as they turn away, the camera detaches itself from their perspective and becomes momentarily autonomous – this is The Wire’s TV camera consciousness at work again – to concentrate the viewers’ gaze momentarily on the title of the book McNulty has discarded. It is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. The detectives don’t pick up on Stringer’s particular knowledge, even though McNulty had previously fol- lowed him to a college where he studies Business Administration, specifically the idea of ‘elasticity of demand’. It is clear in class that Stringer’s practical

demand’. It is clear in class that Stringer’s practical sitional strategy of looping in and between
demand’. It is clear in class that Stringer’s practical sitional strategy of looping in and between

sitional strategy of looping in and between accumula- tion cycles linking the office scenes of finance with commodity exchange on the streets. Instead, it returns to foreground the battle for corners and corner-boy allegiances in the streets, where accumulation begins, and where The Wire’s story over Season 1 to 3 is replayed across Seasons 4 and 5 – this time between different crews and kingpins: Proposition Joe and his nemesis Marlo Stanfield. The significance of Stringer Bell’s story as a limit for both the narrative of The Wire as a whole and its narration is given in a brief scene – again starring McNulty and Bunk – at the beginning of the last episode of Season 3. It repeats the conflict of accumu- lation regimes, as a problem of police interpretation. Stringer has just been killed and the detectives find an address they did not know about in his wallet. They go there and are uncharacteristically stunned into silence by what they (do not) find. They wander into Stringer’s open-plan designer apartment, and just stare, as if it had become stuck in their eyes (it refuses to open up and become an object for them). ‘This is

knowledge of the market in heroin has given him a head start on his peers since he already appreciates, as he tells the teacher, the importance of the creation of consumer demand, of feeding desire, so as to sell more and more commodities of a particular type. This feeding of consumer desire has its correlate in Stringer, an addict too, since the elasticity of demand also feeds his own desire: to accumulate. Giovanni Arrighi teaches at Johns Hopkins Univer- sity in Baltimore, although it is by no means certain that Stringer Bell attended his lectures. We might speculate, however, about what might have been the result if, like The Wire, rather than looking to China in his recent study of the contemporary world economy, Arrighi had turned instead to the ‘wired’ territory of the local drugs trade, at Adam Smith in Baltimore, rather then Adam Smith in China (2007 – reviewed in RP 150) – a book probably composed over the same period as The Wire. In his discussion of Smith’s account of the role of commodity exchange and competition in capitalist development, given in the formula C–M–Ć – in which commodities are exchanged for money in order to purchase commodities of greater utility (hardly what is going on in the territories The Wire maps) – he counterposes to it Marx’s general formula of capital, M–C–Ḿ, in which ‘for capitalist investors the purchase of commodities is strictly instrumental to an increase in the monetary value of their assets from M to M´.’ The formula M–C–Ḿ describes Avon Barksdale’s mercantilist street economy of commodity exchange, its accumulative logic (backed up by extreme violence). But if Avon’s activities are M–C–Ḿ, Stringer’s are M–Ḿ. As Arrighi notes, in certain circumstances, ‘the transformation of money into commodities may be skipped altogether (as in Marx’s abridged formula of capital, M–Ḿ).’ In his previous work, The Long Twentieth Century (1994), Arrighi fleshed out this point further: if

[i]n phases of material expansion money capital ‘sets in motion’ an increasing mass of commodities [for example, drugs] in phases of financial expan- sion an increasing mass of money capital ‘sets itself free’ from its commodity form, and accumulation proceeds through financial deals.… Together, the two epochs or phases constitute a full systemic cycle of accumulation (M–C–Ḿ). 24

Stringer’s ‘financial deals’ and ‘abridgement’ of the M–C–Ḿ formula to M–Ḿ threatens either to break away from the cycle of the commodity exchange of drugs – and set him free – leaving his friend and

partner Avon behind, or to subordinate them both to its logic. One of the most important contributions The Wire makes to crime fiction is the detail with which it dramatizes, on the one hand, the procedures and limits of detection and, on the other, crime as a complex prac- tice which it conceives formally and compositionally, through its narrative loops and cycles of accumulation (which constitutes in turn the TV series’ polydiegetic, segmented architecture), not as crime against capital- ism, but as crime that is thoroughly capitalized (a neoliberal utopia, in fact). The Wire uses the crime and detective fiction genre classically, but creatively, to unpack and unravel Marx’s formulae for capital accumulation. The abridged formula M–Ḿ provides the clue to Stringer Bell’s tendency towards ‘freeing’ capital from its commodity basis in drugs (and thus to his conflict with Avon), as well as for reading the unreadability of his abstract, apparently contentless existence in his designer apartment – it is, or pretends to be, pure money. Such unreadability constitutes a limit for The Wire too; however, a limit beyond which it cannot go. So it also returns to the streets, to Avon and Marlo, the corner boys, to M–C–Ḿ.

repetition and reproduction

The context of the return to the mercantile accumula- tion of the corners, and to Stringer’s story, is told in Season 2, which focuses on the plight of the harbour workers’ union, whose members struggle to survive in a deindustrialized port in the process of being redeveloped for tourism and luxury homes (part of Stringer’s investment portfolio). They still refer to themselves as ‘stevedores’. The union turns a blind eye (for money) to the illegal importation of goods, including sex workers, by a Greek mafia-like outfit. In The Wire deindustrialization feeds and drives the criminalization of the economic system. Indeed, it is the dominant form taken by the informal economy. 25 McNulty and the police become involved because a container-load of sex workers are murdered. The main story centres on the trade-union leader Frank Sobotka, his reaction to the murder as he turns against ‘the Greek’, as well as on his unhinged son Ziggy and his nephew Nick, who, increasingly des- perate for work and money, also get involved with ‘the Greek’ and his gang – stealing container trucks of goods to sell on. Its principal object is to reflect on the idea of workers who have lost their work, as industry disappears. It is the dramatic background for The Wire’s own workerist sentiments (which pervade each of its seasons and each of the social institutions

it represents), providing it with its critical standpoint throughout. In this respect, the harbour – like the corners, the police, the schools and the local newspaper – is also subject to the ‘abridging’ effects of the M–Ḿ formula of capital. More specifically, abridgement here means the loss of industry, for the formula M–C–Ḿ does not only refer to the buying and selling of retail goods, but to another cycle of accumulation, that of industrial capital – in which money is invested in special kinds of commodities (forces of production, including labour-power) that make other commodities, which can be sold for a profit. This is what has been lost, including in the form of its negation: the organiza- tions of the working class. As Sobotka, ‘Gus’ Haynes (the city editor of the Baltimore Sun) and McNulty complain, ‘proper’ work – in which, as Sobotka says ‘you make something’ – has disappeared. This loss of good work is melancholically performed, daily, in the local bar at the port, where generations of workers meet to regenerate, and attempt to make good, an increasingly sentimental and nostalgic sense of com- munity. (One question is the degree to which such ‘workerism’ feeds The Wire’s sense of radicalism.) However, all of their activities are financed by crime. Needless to say, the mysterious Greek connection has Sobotka killed. In ‘Prologue to Televison’ Adorno characteristically sets out the authoritarian and regressive character of television as it plugs ‘[t]he gap between private exist- ence and the culture industry, which had remained as long as the latter did not dominate all dimensions of the visible’. With its new, digitized and mobilized delivery platforms, televisuality in a post-television age keeps on plugging. The Wire, for example, although televisual at the level of production, is almost re-novelized by its consumption in DVD format: episode after episode may be viewed outside the TV schedules, on demand. Indeed, there is a sense in which it has reflexively incorporated this aspect into its composition. Despite his well-known cultural pessimism, Adorno did evoke future emancipatory possibilities, even for television (without them, critique would be pointless). He con- cludes his essay:

In order for television to keep the promise still resonating within the word [tele-vision], it must emancipate itself from everything with which it – reckless wish-fulfillment – refutes its own prin- ciple and betrays the idea of Good Fortune for the smaller fortunes of the department store. 26

The ‘dependent’ and ‘autonomous’ aspects of each artwork cannot be thought of as mutually exclusive, nor be simply read off from their social inscriptions, but

need to be established through critical interpretation. The Wire’s dependency on HBO’s fortune can be con- ceived as providing one of the material conditions for its freedom – which takes the form of time, the time for Simon and Burns to pursue its realist compositional logic. 27 Returning to the corners and their economy, in Season 4 a school is added to The Wire’s expanding world, as are the life and times of a number of potential ‘corner boys’. The business in drugs has been taken over by Marlo with extreme violence – and the dead bodies of countless ‘competitors’ hidden in the abandoned houses of the area (now, in the children’s minds, an eerie cemetery haunted by ghosts and zombies: typical of zones of continuous ‘primitive’ accumulation in the Americas) by the scary killers Chris and Snoop. At the level of crime, Season 4 repeats the conflict between logics of accumulation, but refuses to return to the unreadable sphere of finance capital. At one level, Seasons 4 and 5 may thus be experienced as mere repetition. At another, however, the moving story of the corner boys, suggests that the addition of another institution has a strategic intention: systematicity. It shows the social reproduction of the logic of criminal accumulation. Its portrayal of the education system demonstrates the complete failure of hegemony, as a reproductive power of the state. Overall, the dangers of naturalistic containment notwithstanding, The Wire shows the constitutive, systematic and reproductive power of M–C–Ḿ in both its unabridged and abridged forms.


1. There are few temporal markers of exactly when the action depicted in The Wire takes place, but it seems to begin some time in 2000 or 2001. This suggests an

intention to understand and film the present, over several years, more or less as it happens.

2. David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, Holt Paperbacks, New York, 2006; David Simon and Edward Burns, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, Broadway Books, New York,


3. As described by the luckless Gary McCullough in The Corner: ‘There’s a corner everywhere… The corner dominates … I was loyal to the corner … it don’t care where you come from … it’s big enough to take us all.’ Addictions of all kinds are, of course, fundamental to such a culture.

4. Franco Moretti, ‘The Novel: History and Theory’, New Left Review 52, July–August, 2008, p. 115.

5. Michael Connolly’s recent series of thrillers starring his LAPD detective Hieronymous Bosch, is another exam- ple of this relaying: from post-Rodney King cultural sensitivity to Homeland Security.

6. Responding to the question ‘Is this how true warriors


feel?’, the resentful Sergeant Brad ‘Iceman’ Colbert of Generation Kill is very specific: ‘Don’t fool yourself. We aren’t being warriors down here. They’re just using us as machine operators. Semi-skilled labour.’ Both the soldiers in Generation Kill and the cops in The Wire make do – that is, proceed – with out-of-date technology.

approach that links the discussion to recent technologi- cal developments, see William Uricchio, ‘Television’s Next Generation: Technology/Interface Culture/Flow’, in Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson, eds, Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, Duke University Press, Durham NC and London, 2004, pp. 163–82. In ‘Is Television Studies History?’, Cinema Journal, vol.

18. McNulty and Lester’s partnership is Kantian: without


Jean Paul Sartre, L’Imagination (1936), PUF, Paris, 1981, p. 162.

47, no. 3, Spring, 2008, pp. 127–37, Charlotte Brunsdon notes a masculinizing shift in television discourse, away


In contrast, Generation Kill has the inverse problem:

from feminized melodrama and its inscription into the

refusing to ‘loop’ its narrative through other spheres, it remains fixated on the field of military operations.

living room, to masculinized quality cop shows, like The Wire and, especially, The Sopranos, and their inscrip-


Walter Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’, in

tion into redesigned living spaces (and TVs) organized

One-Way Street and Other Writings, New Left Books, London, 1979, p. 256. Benjamin also notes that with such developments ‘photography turns all life’s relationships into literature’. Before working on TV programmes,

around a variety of new delivery systems.

Lester, McNulty’s intuition is ‘blind’; without McNulty, Lester’s reason is ‘empty’.

David Simon was a journalist for the Baltimore Sun, whilst Edward Burns was a police officer and subse- quently a schoolteacher (like the character Prez in the

19. For example, in Season 2 Major Valchek pressurizes Commissioner Burrell to reform the detail that pursued Barksdale in order to investigate Frank Sobotka, the


leader of the stevedores’ union – out of religious jealousy


The dead kid had been given the unfortunate nickname

and thus pave the way for the eventual institutional

‘Snot Boogie’. Every Friday he attempted to ‘snatch and run’ with the proceeds from a local craps game. He

rise of Daniels. In this context Daniels’s own shady past dealings are hinted at.

was regularly caught and beaten up, almost as if in a

20. Such entry into the sphere of the local ruling class is

ritual. This time, however, he was shot dead. Puzzled, McNulty asks the young witness, ‘Why did you let him play?’ ‘Got to’, he answers, ‘it’s America man!’

also mediated by lawyers, particularly Maurice ‘Maury’ Levy, who acts for and counsels the crime bosses (Avon and then Marlo).


Louis Althusser, ‘Marx in His Limits’, in Philosophy of

21. Omar is a transgressive character in a variety of ways

the Encounter: Late Writings, 1978–1987, ed. François

most annoyingly for the gangsters he robs in terms of

Matheron and Oliver Corpet, trans. G.M. Goshgarian, Verso, London and New York, 2006, pp. 95–126.

his sexuality (a key theme for many of the back stories in The Wire).


John Ellis, Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Un-

See Carlo Ginzburg, ‘Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Hol-

22. In this sense, the territory of The Wire may be read from


certainty, I.B. Tauris, New York and London, 2002, p. 10.

the perspective provided by Homi Bhabha’s account of racism in his The Location of Culture, Routledge, London and New York, 1994.


mes: Clues and Scientific Method’, History Workshop Journal 9, 1980, pp. 5–36. Ginzburg refers to the emer- gence of a ‘medical semiotics’.

23. Much to the annoyance of Bunk and Kima, McNulty and Lester transform dead bodies into the victims of a serial killer so as to generate funds to pursue their by- now ‘private’ investigation of Stansfield.

Quoted in Margaret Morse, ‘An Ontology of Everyday

24. See Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages


Distraction: The Freeway, the Mall and Television’, in Patricia Mellencamp, ed., Logics of Television: Essays in

Cultural Criticism, Indiana University Press, Blooming- ton and Indianapolis, and BFI, London, 1990, p. 193.

In Seeing Things, Ellis gives a periodization of tele- visual eras: a first ‘era of scarcity’ that lasted until the late 1970s (characterized by few channels broadcasting for part of the day only); a second ‘era of availability’ that lasted approximately until the end of the 1990s (characterized by ‘managed choice’ across a variety of channels – including satellite – twenty-four hours a day); and a contemporary third ‘era of plenty’ (characterized by ‘television on demand’ and interactive platforms).

of the Twenty-First Century, Verso, London and New York, 2007, p. 75; and The Long Twentieth Century:

Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times, Verso, London and New York, 1994, p. 6. 25. See David Harvey (a critic who has ‘lived in Baltimore

City for most of [his] adult life’ and also taught at Johns Hopkins University), ‘The Spaces of Utopia’, in Spaces of Hope, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2000, pp. 133–81: ‘Manufacturing jobs accelerated their move- ment out (mainly southwards and overseas) during the first severe post-war recession in 1973–5 and have not stopped since… Shipbuilding, for example, has all-but

26 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Prologue to Television’, in Critical


24’s impression of speed is further enhanced by the use of the split screen. See Michael Allen, ‘Divided Inter- ests: Split-Screen Aesthetics in 24’, in Steven Peacock, ed., Reading 24: TV Against the Clock, I.B. Tauris, Lon- don and New York, 2007.

disappeared and the industries that stayed have “down- sized”’ (p. 148). If Season 2 stands out in the series, lo- cationally, this is because of the territorial significance of the phases of accumulation foregrounded by Arrighi. As Harvey makes clear, the predominance of the abridged


For a discussion of the relation between ‘segment’ and

formula of finance capital represented by Stringer chang-

‘flow’ in television, a staple of Television Studies, see in particular Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Fontana/Collins, London, 1974; John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video, Routledge, London and New York, 1992; Richard Dienst,

es the urban and social geography of Baltimore.

Models: Interventions and Catchwords , trans. Henry W. Pickford, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998, pp. 49–50, p. 57.

Still Life in Real Time: Theory after Television, Duke University Press, Durham NC and London, 1994. For an

27 In its autonomy The Wire also contributes to ‘brand’ HBO, a subsidiary of TimeWarner.


rem Koolhaas and reinier de Graaf

r em Koolhaas is perhaps the most feted and influential figure in architecture today, as well as one of the most original contemporary theorists of its changing relations to urban and socio-economic forms. Co-founder in 1975 of the Office

for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), he is also Professor in Practice of Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard University. Starting in the late 1970s OMA established its international reputation through a series of competition entries, after which it was able to realize a number of built projects, including the Kunsthal, Rotterdam (1992). In 1994 it completed its most ambitious project up to that date: the master plan for Euralille in France, a 70-hectare civic and business centre com- prising the central node for Europe’s high-speed railway network, described by Koolhaas himself as the basis for a new form of ‘virtual metropolis spread in an irregular manner’ which connects together some 70 million people. Since the turn of the millennium OMA’s practice has dramatically expanded, both in terms of its number of commissions and in its geographical scope, opening further offices in New York and Beijing. Among its many celebrated projects have been the IIT Campus Centre in Chicago (2003), the Seattle Public Library (2004), the Casa da Musica in Porto (2005), and stores for the fashion designer Prada in New York and Los Angeles. Today, the practice is hectically active in almost all parts of the globe, with current projects including controversial (and heavily criticized) work in China – most famously, the iconic CCTV Building in Beijing – and a host of buildings and master plans in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Koolhaas is, however, at least as well known for his writings as for his buildings. Originally schooled in the 1960s as a screenwriter and journalist, he has become arguably the most important and widely read architectural writer–practitioner since Le Corbusier. Following on from formative studies of Soviet Constructivism and the Berlin Wall, Koolhaas’s breakthrough text was the 1978 Delirious New York. Subtitled A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, the book, written while Koolhaas was a visiting scholar at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, proposed a provocative rereading of modern architecture and urbanism, which set a celebratory account of the surrealistic ‘culture of congestion’ to be found in New World ‘Manhattanism’ against the puritan uptightness and classicism of Le Corbusier’s European Modernism. It was followed in 1995 by the 1,000- plus-page S,M,L,XL, co-designed with Bruce Mau, which both summarized the work of OMA up to that point and collected together a number of important shorter texts. These included pivotal pieces on the ‘Typical Plan’ (1993), ‘Bigness’ (1994) and ‘The Generic City’ (1994), all of which pursued a strikingly novel, and often slyly ironic, conception of architecture as that form of cultural production compelled, within twentieth-century modernity, to relate ‘to the forces of the Groszstadt [metropolis] like a surfer to the waves’. As much concerned with the ‘dislocations of modern capital’ as conventional architectural issues of form and space, Koolhaas’s writings of the 1990s counterposed the metropolis as an endlessly productive ‘system of fragments’ to the ‘meanness of architecture’ as discrete aesthetic object. At the same time, such texts served to distance Koolhaas’s intellectual concerns from the often more abstruse interest in philosophical work, particularly Derrida, dominant among many of his architect-theorist contemporaries. And while the likes of Fredric Jameson effectively tried to claim him in the 1980s for some emergent new postmodernist aesthetic, Koolhaas himself always resisted such identifications. Indeed he has consistently, and vigorously, promoted his allegiance precisely to the modern, if not to architectural modernism as a movement – as it was ‘completely stripped from its social programme’ – and to the need ‘to align [with] and find an articulation’ for what he affirms as the ‘forces of modernization’.

R a d i c a l

P h i l o s o p h y

1 5 4

( M a r c h / A p r i l

2 0 0 9 )


In the texts bearing his name since the late 1990s, Koolhaas has tended to take on more

of an editorial or curatorial role. Although collections like Content (2004), printed in garish magazine form by the German art publisher Taschen, also include key sole-authored texts

– most notably the essay ‘Junkspace’ – they are most distinctive for the breadth of intel-

lectual interest exhibited in the writers and texts that they bring together, which escape all ‘disciplinary categories’, as Jameson has put it, and extend from sociologists and geogra- phers to post-conceptual artists and philosophers of science. This transdisciplinary scope is apparent, too, in the series of studies that Koolhaas oversaw at Harvard during the late 1990s and early 2000s, under the general title of ‘The Project on the City’, which sought ‘to document the combined effects of the market economy and globalization on the archi- tectural discipline’. These included volumes on the architecture and sociology of shopping, the unprecedented urbanization of the Pearl River Delta in China, and, most notoriously, the African metropolis of Lagos, in the organized chaos of which Koolhaas provocatively found ‘the future of the modern city’: ‘a developed, extreme, paradigmatic case-study of a city at the forefront of globalizing modernity’. Such works continue to promote Koolhaas’s often violently expressed opposition towards what he has called architecture’s ‘fundamental moral- ism’ about the contemporary, as well as his principled scepti- cism towards the possibility of any directly critical architectural practice. If this has served to associate him, latterly, with the politically complacent, and ultimately formalist, arguments of so-called ‘post-critical’ thinkers in the North American archi- tectural academy, in fact at the heart of Koolhaas’s work has always been a profound concern with the relationship between architectural and social form. It is in this sense that he has written of a desire for architecture to ‘regain its instrumentality as a vehicle of modernization’, and which, in part, no doubt explains his interest for a number of contemporary thinkers within the Marxist tradition such as Jameson and Antonio Negri, whose short 2007 ‘presentation’ on Koolhaas’s concep- tion of the contemporary condition of the metropolis we publish in English for the first time below. In 1999, Koolhaas established AMO as a separate research and design studio, ‘dedicated to the virtual’, and running along- side the conventional architectural practice in Rotterdam. Since 2002 its director has been Reinier de Graaf. As a somewhat unique think tank, AMO has worked commercially for the likes of Volkswagen, Heineken and IKEA, as well as Prada. While such work certainly risks complicity with what Okwui Enwezor describes as the ‘transformation of research into a commodity in the global culture of multinational consultancy’, AMO’s most interesting projects have been those which have seemed best to realize Koolhaas’s and de Graaf’s conception of of architectural knowledge as inherently implying ‘a web of umbilical cords to other disciplines’. This is apparent in, for example, the study of the new forms and economics of global museum design, the ‘Hollocore’ project on Europe’s new urbanity, and the novel text-and-image pieces on global capitalism and ‘rampant modernization’ that are the ‘Y€$ Regime’ and ongoing ‘AMO Atlas Worldwide’. To date, the most ambitious of these projects has been The Image of Europe,

a research study, overseen by de Graaf, which resulted in exhibitions, staged in Brussels,

Munich and Vienna, consisting of two enormous panoramic murals documenting the history of Europe’s representations and iconography. In such projects, as Koolhaas has mused else- where, ‘Maybe architecture doesn’t have to be stupid after all. Liberated from the obligation to construct, it can become a way of thinking about anything.’


be stupid after all. Liberated from the obligation to construct, it can become a way of



radical Philosophy

What was the thinking behind the formation of a separate ‘research unit’ within the main architectural practice? What has it allowed you to do that OMA didn’t?

Let’s begin with the question of why you decided to start AMO.

rem Koolhaas

always been a journalistic dimension that underpins all of my work. Architecture has severe limitations, and, first of all, AMO simply provided us with a new way of looking at the world. In this way we try to create context and to extract new insights from it. The second thing is that we realized that there has always been something very problem- atic about the architectural profession in terms of the degree to which you are able to define your own agenda. Fundamentally, as a professional architect, you are submitted constantly to the wishes of others. Through AMO we have been more able simply to announce interests on our own and pursue them independently.

The driving force behind both OMA and AMO is curiosity. There has

reinier de Graaf

instance. We pursued a competition for an architectural extension [to the Museum] that we didn’t wi