Three Essays on Walter Benjamin
Pablo Oyarzun / Translated by Stephen Gingerich
Introduction by Jacques Lezra
Pablo Oyarzun is one of the foremost Benjamin scholars in Latin America. His writings have shaped the reception of Benjamin’s work in Latin America and have been central to the effort to identify the tasks and responsibilities of the kind of critical theory that would interrupt social violence.
In this book Oyarzun examines some of the key concepts in Benjamin’s work – including his concepts of translation, experience, history and storytelling – and relates them to his own systematic reflection on the nature and implications of ‘doing justice’. What is meant by the words ‘justice was done’? The passive voice is important here. On the one hand, justice does nothing: it is not an agent, it can only prevail or fail, and if it fails, it does so without limit. On the other hand, the passive voice alludes to the agents of an action while covering them up; the allusion is the masking of the identity and traces of the person who accomplishes the action. And this cover-up can be dangerous: it can cover-up the executioners, who are subjects that everyone can confirm anonymously, without their being recognized and without their wanting to be recognized. Justice, argues Oyarzun, can only be done in the active effort to do justice – or, as Benjamin would say, in the striving to turn the world into the highest good.
This book by one of Chile’s most distinguished philosophers will be of value to anyone interested in Benjamin’s work and in the development of critical theory in Latin America.
What is said when one says “justice was done”? One hears the phrase used with reference to the most diverse situations, but it carries a charge that exceeds each one of them and all of them together, every past and future case. The absolute speaks in it in the mode of withdrawal from every particular instance in which the phrase and word might be applied. Of course, it is not possible to state, with regard to any of the imaginable cases, that “justice was done” in an absolute sense. The certainty of our putative knowledge about justice gives way. Let us consider the case of a crime involving premeditation and atrocity. The murderer, although suspected of acting as executioner, avoids even the possibility of being tried, thanks to a lack of secure evidence and unequivocal proof. He gets away with it for years. Finally, when he is captured for a lesser crime, someone manages to put the old story back together, tracing the deed back to him through a series of clues, as if by following recognizable footsteps. The criminal is sentenced to life in prison, or perhaps to the death penalty (if the laws of the country allow it). The family, even the entire society declares: “justice was done.” Maybe (in the country with this legislation) family members even bear witness that justice has been carried out. But, surely, in most of these cases (or possibly in all of them) there would be no way of distinguishing with absolute clarity, and completely beyond doubt, that the “justice” that has been done has nothing to do with vengeance. In a certain way and in a certain sense, this is the essential problem of what we call “justice”: the problem of its concept and of the word itself, of that which the word names and what it might name, what it would name, the problem of the bare possibility of there being justice. Only if, in a given case, what we call “justice” can be discerned in a consti- tutive way, separated out, distinguished infinitely from the primordial depths—the dark, bloody, atrocious realm of vengeance—is it possible for us to have justice, in the strict temporal indefiniteness of such a possession.
But this utterance involves even more. “Justice was done”: the use of the passive voice is important here. There is nothing more ambiguous than situating justice as the subject of the sentence. On the one hand, speaking about justice as a grammatical subject does not specify what action justice performs or has performed; it only indicates that justice prevailed. Justice “does” nothing; as a subject, it is not an agent; it can only prevail or fail, and if it fails, it does so without limit. On the other hand, the grammatical construction leaves indeterminate what or who has worked in such a way that “justice might be done”; the place reserved for an agent would appear in a phrase beginning with “by,” like “justice was done by the jury,” for example. As a conventional mode of expression, the passive voice in “justice was done” alludes to the agents of an action while covering them up; the allusion consists precisely in masking the identity and the traces of the person who accomplishes the action about which one states “justice has been done.” This cover-up can be contemptible. Allow me to appeal to my own context, to what I earlier called “a singular experience.”
In 2013—forty years after the coup d’état in Chile, the bombardment of the seat of government, the death of Salvador Allende, and the beginning of one of the most atrocious dictatorships in Latin American history—many things were written and said in commemoration of these fateful events. However, a glimmering promise prevailed— and I use this verb, “prevail,” deliberately—in Allende’s final words: “May you persevere in the knowledge that, sooner rather than later, they will open up [abrirán] once again the great avenues along which the free man walks, so that a better society might be built.” I, too, wrote a pointed text about a doubt that had plagued me for a long while. I had felt that this statement, “the great avenues will be opened up [se abrirán],” was lacking the pronoun that marks the passive voice. Many written versions of Allende’s words correct this statement. I listened to the speech on the radio, on that gray morning of September 11, 1973, and I have never been able to forget a single word or pause. For me, it was clear that the passage in question omitted the pronoun. At some point I must have thought (even though I wish it were not true) that the strain of the moment, provoked by a most despicable act of treason, could not fail to show up in this sort of grammatical infraction. It took me forty years to understand. The pronoun was not necessary: Allende was talking about the women and men of the Chilean people who “sooner rather than later … will open up … the great avenues” as before—as in those three short years during which those women and men had felt and known the dignity of belonging to the Chilean people: perhaps a phantasm, perhaps a specter that from time to time recovers its omen. The students have occupied this place, taking their protest and challenge to the streets; today it is the women of the Chilean people, the women of Chile, who fill in the air with the sound of a promissory “there will be justice.” As far as the pronoun is concerned, from that disastrous day onward, the ruthless regime of the passive voice [el régimen del “se”] was established and spread with the profusion of dark glasses and unmarked cars, with the daily surveillance and the kidnappings and disappearances, with the places where “it was known that” or “it was said that.” Also, knowledge was not sought after or it was not articulated in words; and the fact that atrocities happened was mentioned with an implicit threat. This regime spread thanks to the undaunted ferocity of the faces of conscripts sent to maintain order in the very towns and streets where they had been recruited, thanks to the heinous plundering of the Chilean state by private interests that enriched themselves through ill-gotten gains, thanks to the harsh, inept speech inflicted on us by the dictator: “in this country not a leaf moves [no se mueve ni una hoja] without my knowing about it.”
“Justice was done [se hizo justicia]”: upon this assertion falls the shadow of the passive voice. It is an ambiguous shadow, a secret that appears in the operation of the Spanish reflexive pronoun. “Justice was done”: injured, in pain, perhaps indignant, the person who perpetrated this or that deed, taking on the guilt or whatever we may want to lay at her or his door, finally falls under the severe gaze of the administrators of justice (by which I mean the law and its agents) and suffers what is deserved: a debt incurred on account of the suffering she or he has caused. The person receives the fruit of her or his crime. The passive voice doubles back on itself. On the one hand, it covers up the executioners—subjects whom everyone can confirm anonymously without their being recog- nized or wanting to be recognized. In an execution, the subject of vengeance is erased qua subject of vengeance, because the execution is carried out in the name of (which is also supposed to mean by the work of) something that transcends all subjectivity, insofar as the subject is subjected to this something. It could (or should?) also be said that the subject is a subject by virtue of this subjection, of its relationship with the law. But this suggests, on the other hand, that the trace of vengeance at the origin of law has remained and is indelible. It could not be any other way, since a law that would not be applied to the singular case in its strictest and narrowest determinations would be inane. Application is what produces the law, with its case- by-case differentiations (that is, with its “in the name of,” “by the rule of law”). Vengeance casts its shadow over this process of differentiation.
“There will be justice [habrá justicia]” is different, as is “justice will be done [se hará justicia].” The passive voice here, without completely eliminating the ambiguity, aims to capture an altogether different kind of situation. “There will be justice,” “justice will be done,” in an indeterminate temporality that corresponds to the Spanish future tense, expresses not merely what is to come but a time that represents at once all the time and pure imminence (because “justice will be done” does not state a delay or a moratorium on a debt). It is, in its impersonal form, an indication (pointing in this case to the purely virtual sphere of the passive voice) that no one who presents her- or himself using the pronoun “I” may claim the faculty or the capacity to “do justice.” “Justice will be done”: no one will do it; no one is the place where that which comes imminently dwells and lingers. Benjamin gave that which comes an impersonal name, “the messianic.”
Although the word Gerechtigkeit does not appear frequently in Benjamin’s writings, I believe there is reason to state that he was a thinker of justice. He thinks of justice precisely where he thought of the messianic. He thinks of justice in his zeal for establishing an essential difference between law [derecho] and justice. Of course, nowhere is the affirmation and elaboration of this difference sharper than in his early work. I have in mind, namely, “Fate and Character” and, above all, “Critique of Violence.” One way or another, Benjamin attempted, in my view, to illuminate what I call here the fateful equivocity of the passive voice [la equivocidad aciaga del “se”] and to highlight in it all the vestiges of the demonic—this other impersonality, wrapped up as it is in vindictive, whimsical, and violent figures and poised to return at any moment, with the paraphernalia or the malicious claim of an “always, again and again.” In other words, Benjamin wanted to differentiate demonic violence from a radically different kind of violence, one that is erased in the very instant in which it is unleashed, because it has emanci- patory force. This ambition has left traces on his entire oeuvre.
In short, Benjamin thought—managed to think—in a complex and problematic way the essential, radical, abysmal difference between law and justice. He thought through this difference to the point of paradox, until a question was ignited and its gravity was felt: is it possible to do absolutely without law in the pursuit of justice? The suggestion of vengeance lurks in the shadows behind this abstention from law, and this gives voice to a warning that the relation between the two, abysmal as the difference between them is, cannot be resolved either a priori or on the basis of general considerations, but has to be considered, and its resolution attempted, in every particular case, in every particular situation. The obligation to find a resolution in particular cases is what makes this into an essential task, at once ethical and political. Social movements that aim at emancipation often experience this requirement in an especially acute way.
Excerpt from prologue of Doing Justice, xxxv-xl, Polity Press, 2020, Translated by Stephen Gingerich.
Conversation on Doing Justice, Pablo Oyarzún (University of Chile), Julia Ng (Goldsmiths, University of London), Paul North (Yale University), M. Ty (University of Madison, Wisconsin), moderated by Jacques Lezra (UC Riverside)
January 29, 2021
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