This article argues that a theory of destituent power must imply a twofold strategic orientation toward the state, based simultaneously in desertion and destruction. The article opens by first situating Giorgio Agamben's account of destituent power within the broader framework developed throughout his Homo Sacer project. Through a close consideration of his engagements with both Aristotle's modal ontology and Walter Benjamin's political theology, it aims to demonstrate that, although Agamben tends to disavow their consequences, the theoretical resources on which his project depends nevertheless entail destructive capacities.

This is where we meet each other

once the cameras have been destroyed,

once the metering of time by hallways and workdays

by which we experience a change of ownership

has been destroyed, and the face deformed by things it has to say, destroyed,

and the diagrammatic metals of combustible elsewheres, destroyed,

and the destruction, destroyed.

—Jasper Bernes, We Are Nothing and So Can You

Destituent power speaks to the sequence of riots, uprisings, and insurrections that we are all living today.1 Nevertheless, the subsequent return to normality continues to disappoint the hope that these events have managed to give to even the most cynical among us. Broaching the abstract and the concrete, the contemplative and the practical, the struggle to clarify the concept of destituent power contains within itself the possibility of a break with the current political impasse.

As is now commonly acknowledged, the militant research group Colectivo Situaciones (2011) is credited with coining the term destituent power. Drawing up a balance sheet of the Argentinian uprising of December 2001, the collective advanced the notion as a theoretical rendering of the revolt's most popular demand, ¡Que se vayan todos!, “All of them must go!”2: “The sovereign and instituting powers [potencias] were the ones that became rebellious without instituting pretensions . . . while exercising their de-instituting [destituyentes] powers on constituted powers” (52). In other words, Colectivo Situaciones posited the notion of destituent power to capture the Argentinian mass's insatiable drive to repeatedly topple and overthrow without seeking to replace the unseated authorities.

As is implied above, destituent power can be understood by way of contrast with earlier models that aim to institute revolutionary change on the basis of constituent power. According to Antonio Negri's (1999: 1–34) expansive view of constituent power, the latter can be broadly defined as any generative, constructive, or creative power or potential. In a specifically political context, this thoroughly modern conception of power is typically derived from some variation of the popular will, the people, the nation, the masses, or the multitude (Sieyes 2003; Loughlin 2017: 151–56).

Conversely, constituted power is the product or result of what a constituent power happens to construct, institute, or authorize. Accordingly, the binary coupling of constituent and constituted power will be a constantly recurring theme in what follows. As for its tangible instantiation, constituted power was initially conceived as a written constitution sanctioned by the people. However, for the present purposes, a more comprehensive list of institutions would include any established authority or normative framework, whether legal, juridical, or otherwise, or any executive or legislative governing body. In short, we may identify constituted power with any form of sovereignty or state. Note also that, for virtually every thinker discussed below, constituted power points toward a Thermidorian phase, which involves the capture and reification of emancipatory potentialities. In fact, the merits of each theoretical framework considered can be evaluated on the basis of how well it can elude, subvert, or undermine the constituted power of the state.

The Italian Marxist Mario Tronti (2008) was the next thinker to make a significant contribution to the debate. As did Colectivo Situaciones, Tronti thinks destituent power through the experience of concrete revolt, but he contextualizes the events in Argentina within an ongoing periodization of social upheaval: the Los Angeles rebellion of 1991, the Black bloc's directed militancy in Seattle in 1999 and in Genoa in 2001, the 2001 countercoup from the barrios of Caracas. Yet most of his attention is devoted to the uprising that erupted in the Parisian banlieues in 2005. From these observations, Tronti specifies two conditions associated with destituent power, in terms opposed to its constituent antithesis: first, destituent power rejects any program that strives to obtain an objective, goal, or ideal end, whether it be a constituted power or otherwise; and second, destituent power is taken be a wholly negative and destructive capacity.

To date, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben must be credited with having put forward the most sophisticated and rigorous account of destituent power, grounding it within the diverse conceptual apparatus that he has been systematically developing throughout his extended Homo Sacer project. More than merely pointing out all the apparent weaknesses that beset constituent politics, he relies on two theoretical schemas to demonstrate how these problems arise from an indissoluble link between constituent and constituted power. The first is Aristotle's modal ontology, as is most notably explicated in Book Theta of the Metaphysics. The second is the political theology that Walter Benjamin elaborates in his celebrated 1921 essay “Toward the Critique of Violence.” What is perhaps even more important is that each schema can provide its own illuminating example of destituent power. In the first, a notion of destituent power arises from an encounter between Athens and Jerusalem, in which the Apostle Paul's messianic visions are read through the lens of Aristotelian ontology. As for the second, it equates destituent power with Benjamin's explanation of a pure and divine violence.

Agamben undeniably lends much needed clarity and precision to the still burgeoning conversation, yet his analysis is not without its shortcomings. Contrary to what Colectivo Situaciones, Mario Tronti, and others have adduced from the current cycles of unrest (see Hostis2020), Agamben (2014b: 70) rejects any paradigm of political change centered on revolt:

And if revolutions and insurrections correspond to constituent power, that is, a violence that establishes and constitutes the new law, in order to think a destituent power we have to imagine completely other strategies, whose definition is the task of the coming politics. A power that was only just overthrown by violence will rise again in another form, in the incessant, inevitable dialectic between constituent and constituted power.

By presupposing that revolt is, to some degree, responsible for the failure of constituent models of political transformation, Agamben infers that a destituent approach to politics must instead eschew these trappings in order to successfully sever itself from constituted power. As is also suggested in the above quote, his dismissal of revolt coincides with a repudiation of the tendencies for negation and destruction that had previously been detected within destituent power. More to the point, he speaks of “a destituent strategy that is neither destructive nor constituent” (71). So, instead of abolition, he often seems to suggest something of a delinking strategy, which insinuates flight, retreat, and desertion, such that a destituent power is meant to liberate itself from the web of relations that encompass constituted power.

In what follows, I argue that Agamben's (2016: 268) strategy of destitution as desertion cannot satisfy his own self-imposed requirement of devising “a purely destituent potential [that] never resolves into a constituted power.” As I seek to show, to finally rid the state from the historical horizon, Agamben's proposals must also be complemented with a strategy of destitution as destruction. To preserve the valuable insights of the Homo Sacer project, I proceed by way of an immanent critique, to demonstrate that both Aristotle's and Benjamin's frameworks actually imply two forms of destituent power: one as desertion, the other as destruction.

Peripatetic Messianism

In Agamben's (1998; 44–48; 2014a) heterodox interpretation of Aristotle's modal doctrine, constituent and constituted power are respectively translated into the ontological categories of dūnamis and enērgeia. On the one hand, dūnamis can be variously rendered as “capacity,” “ability,” “faculty,” “power,” “potential,” or “potentiality.” On the other hand, enērgeia is often rendered as either “being at work,” “act,” “activity,” or “actuality.”

As is well known, Aristotle repeatedly reminds us that potentiality or dūnamis can be said in many ways (lēgetai pollachōs; Aristotle, Metaphysics: 1019a34, 1046a5).3 Limiting its range of meanings, Agamben (2014a: 487) is primarily concerned with dūnamis as a specifically human potentiality. In particular, he focuses on the so-called second sense of dūnamis (483), due to its rank in the list of potentialities unfurled in De Anima (Aristotle, De Anima: 417a21–b1; cf. 429b5–9; see also Aristotle, Physics: 255a33–34). In its second sense, potentiality is that which can be possessed only after learning or acquiring a certain knowledge or skill. For example, a person must first learn the construction trade in order to become a builder, but after the necessary instruction, and barring any external hindrances, the person is capable of actualizing their potential to build and thereby can erect a house.

Following Martin Heidegger's (1995) influence, a pivotal stage in Agamben's interpretation is Aristotle's polemic against the Megarians, “who say that something only has potential [dūasthai] when it is actualized [energē], and when it is not actualized, it has no potential” (Aristotle, Metaphysics: 1046b29). For example, in the Megarian view, construction workers can maintain their capacity to build only within the very act of building, yet during their lunch break they lose this ability. However, Aristotle argues that this specious reduction of all potentiality to actuality entails “absurd consequences [sumbaīnonta ātopa]” (1046b33). To begin with, not only is it implausible for workers to be deprived of their potential to build when going on break, but it will also be unclear how they could resume their activities once their break is over. Similarly, the Megarian perspective would also imply that people go blind whenever they cease to actively exercise their sense of sight (1047a7–17). Due to its preposterous consequences, Aristotle concludes, “if we cannot say this, it is clear that potentiality [dūnamis] and actuality [enērgeia] are different” (1046a18). Accordingly, for Agamben (1998: 45), an adequate account of potentiality must therefore explain “the fact . . . that the [builder] keeps his ability [potenza] to build even when he does not build,” and likewise for all other tēchne.

To secure the independence of potentiality, Agamben turns to a series of remarks dispersed throughout Book Theta: “Every potentiality is impotentiality [adunamīa] of the same and with respect to the same” (Aristotle, Metaphysics: 1046a32);“What is potential can both be and not be. For the same is potential as much as with respect to being as not being” (1050a10).4 That is, if potentiality is truly set apart unto itself, then one must be able to withhold its actualization. For similar reasons, Agamben designates this abstaining from act as “potentiality not-to,” “capacity not-to,” or simply “impotentiality.” In his helpful discussion on the topic, Kevin Attell (2009: 40) clarifies why dūnamis and adunamīa are mutually constitutive and hence coexistent:

The potentiality not to (be or do) is, of course, absolutely essential to any potentiality. Indeed, you cannot have the latter without the former, since without the potentiality not to pass over into act, potentiality would always simply be and immediately lead to actuality; all potentialities would always be realized and the Megarians would be right. The two form an indissoluble pair and cannot be conceived independently of one another.

Put succinctly, only upon acquiring a power can its activation be suppressed, and vice versa. Thus, for example, a construction worker has the potential both to build and not-to build.

The focal point of Agamben's commentary is his elucidation of potentiality's transformation into actuality, which is encapsulated in a single proposition from Book Theta: “Potential is that for which, if the actuality of which it is said to have potentiality is realized, nothing will be impotential” (Aristotle, Metaphysics: 1047a24–26). The construction in the last clause (“nothing will be impotential”) signifies a double negation of potentiality. Following the specifications in Aristotle's De Interpretatione (21b), Agamben maintains that this is a privative negation, such that the negation of the “potential-not-to” is not canceled out in the formulation, the “potential-not-not-to.” That is, a self-negation within the realm of potentiality leads to actuality, in which potentiality is preserved and fulfilled in the act.

Translating this interpretation back into the domain of politics, Agamben's objection against the proponents of constituent power is that they essentially take up a Megarian position: since constituent power is generative and constructive, it is a misconception of potentiality that turns out to be indistinguishable from actuality. Furthermore, for Agamben, if constituent and constituted power are instead rendered into a proper Aristotelian modal binary of dūnamis and enērgeia, then it becomes apparent why constituent power, despite its emancipatory pretensions, always arrives back at the constituted power of the state: the former remains linked to the latter in the same way that potentiality is preserved in actuality. In speculating about how constituent and constituted power could be delinked and uncoupled, Agamben (1998: 47) offers an early prototype of his later notion of destituent power as desertion: “One must think the existence of potentiality without any relation to Being in the form of actuality.”

Agamben's (2005b: 88–112) fully developed account of destituent power is derived from a biblical exegesis of some of the more ostensibly antinomian remarks attributed to Saint Paul. In particular, he argues that the Messiah's return destitutes the constituted power of the law by specifically subduing its normative force. Put another way, it is a process that exclusively targets what the apostle from Tarsus refers to as “the law of works [nōmos tōn ērgon],” which strictly coincides with the legal sphere of prescription and proscription (Rom. 3:27–28).

For Agamben (2005b: 95–99), the messianic transformation of the law is disclosed through his distinctive translation of the Pauline use of the Greek verb katargēo, “I put out of work,” “I render inoperative,” or “I deactivate.” However, he is careful to distinguish this subtle enervation of the law from its outright abolition: “The messianic is not the destruction of the law but the deactivation of the law, rendering the law inexecutable” (98). This difference is initially drawn on the basis of an etymological analysis: “Katargeō is a compound of argeō, which in turn derives from the adjective argos, meaning ‘inactive.’ The compound therefore comes to mean ‘I make inoperative, I deactivate, I suspend the efficacy’” (95). Thus, the verb katargēo (“I put out of work”) is said to have inherited its meaning from aergōs (“not working,” “not doing,” “to idle”), which is the alpha-privative of ērgon (“work,” “task,” “action”). The analysis continues:

This term . . . does not mean “to annihilate, to destroy” or, as one recent lexicon suggests, “to make perish . . . ” (katargeō being the negative equivalent of poieō).” Even the most elementary knowledge of Greek would have shown that the positive equivalent of katargeō is not poieō, but energeō, “I put to work, I activate . . . ” The etymological opposition with energeō clearly demonstrates that katergeō signals a taking out of energeia, a taking out of act. (96)

The crux of his argument is that katargēo does not stand in opposition to the Greek verb poiēo, “I make,” “I create,” “I produce,” or “I construct.” Hypothetically, if there was such a contrast, then the reversal would convey meanings deemed unacceptable, such as “I destroy,” “I annihilate,” or “I eliminate.” Therefore, if the standard definition of katargēo is divided into two sets of meanings or reportative usages, as is indeed the case in most biblical lexicons, then clearly Agamben only approves of the first, “I make inoperative,” and rejects the second, “I destroy.”

In a more properly philosophical argument, katārgesis transposes the Aristotelian dūnamis/enērgeia dichotomy. Following Gersholm Scholem's paradigm of messianic inversion, which makes “the unfulfilled fulfilled and the fulfilled unfulfilled,” Agamben (2005b: 97) concludes that “here potentiality passes over into actuality and meets up with its telos, not in the form of force or ergon, but in the form of astheneia, weakness.” This reversal, rather than negation, of enērgeia and ērgon results in asthēneia, also “feebleness” or “lack of strength,” which is a correlate of impotentiality. In this way, the reversal suggests a kind of destitution through desertion by nonagents, who hear the Messiah's call and respond by withholding the activation of their potentialities.

Likewise, destituent katārgesis carries out a similar inversion on the constituted power of the law: “Just as messianic power is realized and acts in the form of weakness, so too in this way does it have an effect on the sphere of the law and its works . . . by de-activating them, rendering them inoperative, no-longer-at-work” (Agamben 2005b: 97). That is to say, the enērgeia inherent in earthly law, which is responsible for its binding and compulsory force, is depleted by destitution. Consequently, this deactivation also releases potentiality from the hold of actuality: “[The Messiah] makes the nomos no-longer-at-work and thus restores it to the state of potentiality, only in this way he represents its telos as both end and fulfillment” (98). The law must, therefore, endure, even after its destitution, because its latent and reversed soteriological tēlos is precisely what Paul judges as, “holy [āgios],” “just [dīkaios]” and “good [agathōs]” (Rom. 7:12).

This line of reasoning, however, suffers from weaknesses, which initially emerge from a far too restrictive conception of ērgon and enērgeia. As for ērgon, it can in fact stand for more than just “work,” “force,” and “deed,” as it can also mean the product of labor. Thus, there are instances in which it would be correct to render ērgon as “thing,” “the result of work,” or “that which is made.”5 As for enērgeia, Aristotle acknowledges, in the sixth chapter of Book Theta, that the word has a fairly broad meaning, since it resists being delimited by a straightforward definition (hōron) (Aristotle, Metaphysics: 1048a37; see Chen 1956). Along these lines he states that, “things are not said in all cases to exist in actuality (energeīa) in the same way” (Aristotle, Metaphysics: 1048b7). So, rather than engaging in a futile effort to stipulate a definition, the Stagirite recommends that it is better to review, by way of induction (epagogē), the various linguistic uses of enērgeia (1048a35). As the sixth chapter comes to a close and throughout most of the eighth, Aristotle tends to distinguish different forms of activities and actualities with reference to a set of terms that indicate a teleological end, all of which can be heard with theological-messianic resonances: tēlos; apeirgāzomai, to “finish off,” “complete,” or “bring to perfection”; entelēcheia, “fulfillment,” “complete realization,” or “accomplished”; and ēschaton, “last,” “final,” or “ultimate” (1048b4–31, 1050a7–27). What is decisive for us is that Aristotle will show that there is a distinction in enērgeia, much like its linguist relative ērgon, between activities that have either a productive or an unproductive end.

Refining an argument that appears in the Protrepticus (36, B68–70), Eudemian Ethics (1219a), and Nicomachean Ethics (1094–1095, 1098b31), the philosopher discriminates between enērgeia by differentiating teleological ends, in a passage I quote at length:

For work [ērgon] is the end [tēlos], actuality [enērgeia] is the work. And this is why the name, “actuality” is said with respect to work and strives towards complete fulfillment [entelēcheian]. And since in some cases it is the use [chrēsis] that is the ultimate [ēschaton] (for example, seeing in the case of sight, and nothing comes-to-be [gīgnetai] different from this besides that of sight); but from others something does come-to-be (for example, from the craft of building, a house, besides the act of building). Nevertheless, the former case is no less an end, and, in the latter case, more an end than is the potentiality [dunāmeōs]: for the act of building is in [ēn] what is being built and it comes-to-be and exists [ēsti] simultaneously with the house. Therefore, in the cases where something different from the use is what is coming-into-being, the actuality exists in what is being created [enērgeia ēn tō poioumēno estīn] (for example, the act of building is in what is being built, the act of weaving is in what is being woven, and similarly in other cases, movement is in what is being moved [kīnesis ēn tō kinomenēno]). But where there is not some other work besides actualization, the actuality is in the subject [hupārchei]—for example, the act of seeing is in the one who sees, the act of contemplation is in the one who contemplates. (Aristotle, Metaphysics: 1050a24–37)

Following the terminology standardized by the Scholastics, I refer to what is outlined above as the distinction between immanent and transeunt activity (see Zylstra 2018).

On the one hand, immanent activity emphasizes use or chrēsis and is obviously favored by Agamben. In the immanent case, the use itself is the end (tēlos) as well as the final and ultimate (ēschaton) objective. Accordingly, immanent activity is an essentially unproductive act, as there is no additional coming-to-be (gīgnetai) of a product or result beyond the active use itself. Put another way, there is no other ērgon besides the enērgeia that is located wholly within the acting subject.

On the other hand, transeunt activity, which Agamben tends to downplay or overlook, emphasizes a product or result above and beyond the use. Thus, in the transeunt case, the activity is productive: a different thing comes to be from this act, which is the tēlos and ēschaton. Accordingly, there is an additional ērgon, which contains enērgeia. In Aristotle's examples of transeunt activities, building, weaving, and, more generally, moving and making, can each be construed as the actualization of a corresponding potentiality in its second sense. Yet, in the transeunt cases, the enērgeia is in the very thing being built, weaved, moved, or made.

Recalling the objection against a destructive katārgesis, it should be evident that an analysis of the term that considers enērgeia while exempting poīesis is only half the story. It is only in immanent cases, in which the ērgon and enērgeia are strictly in the use, that the antipode of act and actuality is to deactivate and render inoperative. In transeunt cases, however, ērgon and enērgeia are productive acts that entail construction, creation, or, in other words, poīesis. What is crucial for our considerations is that transeunt energeia is located squarely within the object that is being made. In fact, Aristotle underlines the subsumption of actuality in the constructed thing by referring to this relationship in the dative case, ēn tō poioumēno (in the thing being created).6 Therefore, in transeunt cases, the equivalence among to make (poieīn), to become (gīgnesthai), and to be (eīnai) is such that the messianic reversal denoted by katargēo must be, without mincing words, phtheirein, “to destroy,” “to annihilate,” “to ruin.” Looked at another way, if the enērgeia is inside the thing, then its reversal must be its coming apart.

It is not surprising that, in Book Theta, immediately after affirming the coexistence of potentiality and impotentiality, Aristotle then explicitly connects the pair with destruction: “What has the potential not-to be admits of not-being; and what admits of not-being is destructible [phthartōn]” (Aristotle, Metaphysics: 1050b13). In other words, destruction is intrinsic to anything that could potentially exist or not exist. It follows that every coming to be that ends in an object, including those that are the actualization of the second sense of potentiality, must contain within themselves the possibility of their destruction. It also deserves mention that, in the philosophical lexicon that comprises Book Delta, Aristotle unambiguously claims that the reverse of coming to be is destruction: “Things being opposite are called contradictories and contraries . . . from out and into which the ultimate extremes of becoming and destruction [genēseis kaī phthoraī] take place” (1018a20; cf. Aristotle, Physics: 201a10–15).

More to the point, any ontological model that would omit the creation of objects, in which there is ērgon and enērgeia without poīesis, risks giving way to an absurd metaphysical picture: a caricature of a Heraclitean flux, swarming with unproductive powers and forces. Additionally, Agamben's repeated echoes of Guy Debord's indictment of the spectacle certainly demands an account of reality that admits the stable existence of objects, because spectacular reification is meant to, quite literally, transform human potentiality into actual material things.7 Finally, the law itself should likely also have a status that is similar to that of a constructible/destructible object in order for it to serve as a basis from which its enērgeia could be drained out through a process of destitution. What is more, simply put, if you can drain it, then you can also break it.

In his later work, Agamben seems to have become aware of what these tensions entail for his larger Homo Sacer project.8 For instance, in The Use of Bodies, Agamben (2016: 13) addresses the earlier block quote so as to insist that Aristotle appraises an “excess of energeia over the ergon [as a product],” “being-at-work over the work,” and “[the] primacy of operations in which nothing is produced other than the use over poetic operations.” However, Aristotle does not show any definitive preference for immanent or transeunt enērgeia in the above passage, and the instances in his corpus where he does make value judgments tend to be inconsistent with one another.

As for the messianic katārgesis, it should therefore be acknowledged that it could be either deactivation or destruction, depending on whether the original activity to be inverted was immanent or transeunt, unproductive or productive. Truth be told, this ambivalence better reflects the fact that the Pauline epistles were written not by a systematic theoretician but by a militant activist responding to the daily exigencies of bringing about the kingdom of god. As theologian Dale B. Martin (2012: 231–46) has explained, it is likely that the radical antinomianism in Galatians was tempered in Romans due to the practical concerns of the new Jesus movement. In this way, the former epistle would therefore coincide with destitution as destruction and the latter with destitution as desertion.

Concerning Violence

In “Critique of Violence,” Benjamin (2021: 48) views violence (Gewalt) as preliminarily differentiated into two forms: “All violence as a means is either law-positing or law-preserving.” That is, on the one hand, law-positing violence is a means toward the creation and institution of a new legal order or state. Since it is constructive and generative, it corresponds precisely to that of a constituent power and is therefore also a fully Megarian potentiality. On the other hand, law-preserving violence is equivalent to constituted power and serves as a means toward upholding a prevailing legal order or state. Since the law-preserving violence of the state is a result that is distinct from the act of its creation, law-positing violence must also be deemed a transeunt productive activity.

The difference in ends notwithstanding, Benjamin deduces that “every violence as a means . . . itself participates in the problematic character of law as such” (2021: 48). In fact, he demonstrates that the positing and the preservation of the law merge into one another:

For the function of violence in law-positing is twofold in the following sense: the positing of the law uses violence as a means, pursues as its end precisely what is to be established as law; in the moment of instating as law the end at which it aims, however, law-positing does not simply relinquish violence; rather, now in a rigorous sense and, indeed, immediately, it turns this violence into the law-positing kind by establishing not an end that would be free of, and independent from, violence but, on the contrary, an end that, under the name of power [Macht], is necessarily, and intimately bound up with it. (55–56)

This continuation of violence beyond obtaining its original end is what Benjamin calls “mythic violence” (55). As Sami Khatib (2016: 45) observes, the two forms of violence that “mutually presuppose and deconstruct each other” are combined into “an intrinsic dialectic [that] leads into an inescapable and circular logic.” For Benjamin (2021: 57), the mythic power of the law triggers this endless back-and-forth cycle of emergence and decay, revolution and dissolution, which is identified with history itself.

What Benjamin alternatively calls pure, revolutionary, or divine violence is that which contests the perpetuation of the law's mythic violence: “A new historical era is founded on breaking through this cycle that spins under the spell of mythical forms of the law, and on de-posing [Entsetzung, “destituting”] law . . . and finally, therefore, on de-posing state violence” (2021: 60). In contrast to the two forms of legal violence, which operate as means to an end, this violence is distinguished as a pure means: “A kind of violence that definitely could not be either a justified or an unjustified means to those ends, and would, instead, relate to them not as a means at all but somehow differently” (54). As is indirectly implied by law-positing violence's Megarian disposition, pure violence, which is nevertheless a means, albeit a pure one, leans more toward act and activity than toward impotentiality and suppression. In fact, in “Critique of Violence” Benjamin refers to pure violence as an “action [Handlung],” a “deed [Tat],” “conduct [Verhalten],” and “exercise [Ausübung]” that “executes [vollzieht]” (44, 53–54, 58–59). Likewise, in an in-depth treatment of pure violence, Agamben (2005a: 54, 59–60, 63) repeatedly refers to it as either an “act [agisce]” or an “action [azione].” Kant's definition of means in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1998: 4:428) demonstrates how intimately it is bound up with action: “What . . . contains merely the ground of the possibility of an action [Handlung] the effect of which is an end is called a means [Mittel].” Indeed, it is so hard to conceive of a means without action that Benjamin (2021: 43) goes as far as to even include the “omission of action [Unterlasung von Handlungen]” within the realm of means. The difference between legal means having an effect and how pure means simply affects can be exemplified in George Sorel's distinction between the two forms of strikes: on the one hand, the political strike is a law-positing violence that can cause, induce, or occasion (veranlaßt) a reform as its end; on other hand, a proletarian general strike is a pure violence that simply can execute, consummate, or realize (vollzieht; 52).

Agamben's (2005a: 61) strongest argument for a pure violence without destruction is derived from Benjamin's scattered remarks on purity (Reinheit) in the latter's notes and correspondence: “Purity . . . is not a substantial characteristic belonging to the violent action itself. . . . The difference between pure violence and mytho-juridical violence does not lie in the violence itself, but in its relation to something external.” Presuming a link between pure violence and something other, he then concludes that “even the criterion of the ‘purity’ of violence will therefore lie in its relation to the law” (61). It follows, given the supposed enduring connection between pure violence and the law, that the former obviously cannot destroy the latter. Instead, the law survives its destitution by undergoing veritably the same process that drained the law of its enērgeia: “Pure violence exposes and severs the nexus between law and violence” (62). Also, Agamben asserts that, similar to how the deactivated law became holy, just, and good, pure violence opens up “another use of the law,” which is again considered its “fulfillment” (64).

Given the vast primary textual evidence that speaks to the contrary, it is difficult to accept any interpretation of the “Critique of Violence” that denies that pure violence somehow encompasses destruction, annihilation, or revolt. Indeed, if we follow the letter of the text, everything points toward a characterization of its author as a fervent partisan of revolutionary destruction. Consider, for example, what Benjamin (2021: 52) says about the proletarian general strike, which he unequivocally identifies with its capacity for destruction: “The proletarian general strike sets itself the sole task of annihilating [Vernichtung] state power [Staatsgewalt].” More verification can be found in Benjamin's translation of Sorel's use of the French supprimer with the German aufheben: “This general strike clearly announces its indifference toward material gain through conquest by declaring its intention to abolish [supprimer/aufheben] the state” (52). Finally, the proletarian strike is referred to as an “upheaval [Umstruz],” which is categorized as both “anarchistic [anarchistisch]” and “genuinely revolutionary [echt revolutionäre]” (52–53).9

So as to preempt accusations of pedantry, it is worthwhile to underscore how destruction, in the “Critique of Violence,” is assigned a crucial theoretical function that marks a distinction between impure mythical violence and pure divine violence. On the one hand, two of the main examples of mythic violence do not amount to destruction, because their impurity is tantamount to a restraint that holds back destruction from achieving a totalizing scope. The first example is the Greek myth that recounts how the pagan gods punished Niobe for her hūbris by killing her children, but nevertheless, she is spared from death to instead be left, cast in stone, on Mount Sipylus. In Benjamin's (2021: 55) interpretation of the myth, he concludes that “this violence is not actually destructive [zerstörend],” because it stops short of fully erasing Niobe's presence. The second, more realistic example considers a war for territory, in which the victory of one side of the belligerents is absolute, yet despite the complete dominance of one over the other, both the conquerors and the conquered take part in a peace treaty (44–45, 55–56). Given that the losing party's survival is a necessary condition for both factions to engage in a mutual agreement, Benjamin will therefore categorize such cases of warfare and reconciliation as instances of mythic violence, because “the adversary is not utterly annihilated [schlechterdings vernichtet]” (56).

On the other hand, in the biblical example of divine violence, the wrath exhibited by the monotheistic god indeed measures up to destruction, because it attains an exhaustive completeness of which no one is exempt. This all-encompassing level of destruction is illustrated by Benjamin (2021: 57) in his telling of the story of “God's judgment on Korah's horde” from Numbers 16: “The judgment strikes privileged ones, Levites; it strikes them unannounced, without threat, and does not stop short of annihilation [Vernitchtung].” Peter Fenves (2021: 33) articulates what is distinct about divine violence in his introduction to the “Critique of Violence”: “The site of devastation is erased too and thus, in its own way, devastated too. . . . After the earth opens up and swallows Korah, not only is there no earthly or heavenly trace of this event, there is no ceremonial commemoration either.” A decade later, Benjamin (1999: 542) returned to how this self-consuming violence is so absolute that it even destroys itself, when he writes that “the destructive character obliterates even the traces of destruction.”

Benjamin's reason for distinguishing mythico-legal violence on account of its lack of destructive capacities is a reciprocal demand for the constituted power of the law to maintain a certain twofold material stratification of secular reality: on the one side, there exists the sheer objectification of the law as power (Macht); on the other side, this power must always leave behind some remainder, “as an eternal, mute bearer of guilt,” to assert its dominance over (Benjamin 2021: 55). In a highly condensed argument, Benjamin demonstrates that this dual reification, as opposed to complete annihilation, is essential to the mythic character of the law.

The line of reasoning begins with the recognition that the conflation of law positing and law preserving into a mythic violence involves a problematization of the relation between means and ends, because there is a sustained violence even after the perceived objectives have been accomplished. Since mythic violence can no longer serve as a “means to a predetermined end,” Benjamin (2021: 54–55) will then designate it as a kind of “non-mediate [nicht mittelbare]” or “immediate [unmittelbare]” violence. He asks the reader to consider a temper tantrum as a simple example of a nonmediate violence: because it is an immediate expression of anger with no identifiable goal, it serves no purpose other than indicating that anger. In other words, an act of rage (Zorn) reinforces itself as its own end.

Benjamin (2021: 54) also uses manifestation (Manifestation) as a technical term for a nonmediate violence that reflexively exhibits itself: “In its archetypal form, mythic violence is a manifestation of the gods. Not a means to their end, scarcely even a manifestation of their will, but in the first instance a manifestation of their own existence” (55). Eli Friedlander (2015: 165) frames this self-emphasis by the gods in the pantheon as “a manifestation of force [that] is the intensification of its very identity in experience [and] its very existence.” What's more, Benjamin's (2021: 55) foregrounding of mythic manifestation is what lies behind his deeper alternative reading of the Niobe story, “[the pagan gods'] violence establishes a law far more than it punishes the transgressions of an existing one.” That is to say, their wrath and vengeance are not a means toward correcting Niobe's behavior as its end but instead the immediate consolidation of their rule over mortals.

Removed entirely from the sphere of means, it is no overstatement to categorize mythic violence as an impure end in itself. This explains Benjamin's paradoxical (2021: 57) formulation of the law as a violence to preserve its own violence: “Mythic violence is blood-violence over [über] mere life for the sake of violence.” Looked at another way, mythic violence comes to demonstrate itself as a reified object, in the form of power, by continually realizing its own existence as its end.

As is implicit in the relation of mythic violence over (über) mere life, the objectification of power imposes a two-tiered division that solidifies the “domination of the law over the living [Herrschaft des Rechtes über den Lebendigen]” (Benjamin 2021: 57). It follows that the law, as power, seeks to uphold itself in a specifically hierarchical and authoritarian existence. As Friedlander (2015: 166) clarifies, “[Mythic violence] shows itself as that which is over and above everything else. In showing itself, it proves its authority. Its manifestation is a mark of distinction, it marks the very distinction of the unlimited from the finite.” This dual reification of unlimited power, on the one side, and a finite and guilty victim, on the other, is what is at the heart of Benjamin's (2021: 55) interpretation of the Niobe myth: “As a stone marking the border [Grenze] between human beings and gods, a life [is] now more inculpated than before.” Gil Anidjar (2009: 165) is therefore right to regard the attachment of blood to mythic violence as a symbolization of this division by permanently branding the condemned with an “indelible, bloody mark (Gr. stigma, pl., stigmata).” What the two examples are meant to illustrate is how mythic violence perpetuates itself by setting itself over and above those who are forever blameworthy.

Upon considering Benjamin's account of the law as mythic violence, it is now possible to show that the upshot of his analysis, for a number of reasons, can only point toward the destruction of such a constituted power. The first is gestured at by the fact that law-positing violence, as transeunt productive activity, creates the law as an outcome other than itself. As was demonstrated in the previous section, the reversal of such an act of creation would therefore entail an opposing act of destruction. In fact, this is precisely how Benjamin (2021: 57) situates this contrast: “If mythic violence is law-positing, divine violence is law-annihilating [rechtsvernichtend].” Second, since the very essence of the created law is its existence as a reified object, a pure violence that destitutes by merely draining the force, violence, or enērgeia, from the law would fail to alter its fundamental character as a thing. Consequently, the only real transformation that can be provoked in the law is that which rids it of its existence. Third, given that the law is an innately violent and authoritarian power standing over the guilty, it is doubtful that anything holy, just, or good could be retrieved from something so intrinsically repressive. Since there is nothing in mythic violence worth salvaging, its objective manifestation, along with its correlated hierarchical partition, is allocated for destruction by pure violence: “If the former establishes boundaries, then latter boundlessly annihilates [vernichtet] them” (57).

Indeed, for Benjamin (2021: 57), “divine violence designates in all respects an antithesis to mythic violence.” So, according to this opposition, if law is the mythic positing of an impure and substantial existence, then its antithesis must be its pure elimination. In a preliminary study for the “Critique of Violence,” a fragment titled “World and Time,” Benjamin (2021: 83–84) repeatedly underlines precisely this aspect of destructive negativity:

The principle is here: genuine divine violence can manifest itself other than destructively [zerstörend] only in the coming world (of fulfillment). Where, by contrast, divine violence enters into the earthly world, it breathes destruction [Zerstörung]. . . . The divine manifests itself only in revolutionary violence [revolutionären Gewalt]. . . . (In this world, divine violence is higher than divine nonviolence; in the coming world, divine nonviolence is higher than divine violence).

That is, if a pure, revolutionary, or divine violence is a pure means that simply acts and affects, then it must be thoroughgoing in its destruction so as to ensure that nothing is left behind that could reassemble itself into an impure constituted power. Furthermore, if the purity of such a violence does happen to necessitate that it stand in relation to something other than itself, then the latter is a wholly transcendent thing, which is referred to above as the “coming world of fulfillment.” In a few brief and passing moments in the “Critique of Violence,” Benjamin (2021: 54, 56) denotes this otherworldly relatum as “justice [Gerechtigkeit]” itself, which contradicts law and is identified with nothing other than “God [Gott].”

The Two Reservoirs of a New Configuration of Power

As with the messianic katārgesis, applying something like a Platonic method of definition by division to the cluster of uses surrounding the Latin term destituo reveals two strikingly similar collections of related significations. What is all the more interesting is that each reflects how a destituent power can relate to a constituted authority. On the one hand, the first grouping, to “leave,” “give up,” “forsake,” or “abandon,” suggests destitution as desertion: a line of flight that evades the reach of authority. On the other hand, the second, to “deprive,” “rob,” “suppress,” “void,” “delete,” “eliminate,” “cancel,” or “abolish,” instead intimates a more confrontational act of destitution as destruction.

Over the past few decades, these two forms of destituent power have coincided with two increasingly prevalent kinds of social upheavals. Let us consider how this unfolds in the American context. On the one hand, destitution as desertion was best exemplified by the Occupy movement. Indeed, the nonevents of 2011 can easily be read as a spontaneous mass attempt to escape the reified constituted powers that suffocate American middle-class life. Yet what is truly startling is that these protests tended to amount to nothing more than exhibiting the bare fact of human existence: standing in a city plaza, abstaining from action, the participants became the very expression of impotentiality and self-deactivation by simply being-there. Likewise, the drawn-out assemblies, which never seemed to reach a practicable decision, cry out to be interpreted as a collective exercise in verifying that the interlocutors have retained their human faculty for language, but as a pure means without content. On the other hand, the nationwide revolts sparked in Ferguson in 2014 and again in Minneapolis in 2020 were practical demonstrations of destitution as destruction. It is not hard to interpret these events as a twenty-first-century rendition of Sorel and Benjamin's proletarian general strike. Refusing all channels for mediation and reform, this combative mode of destituent power was the active negation of the constituted power of the State in its various guises.

Playing out side by side, yet at different spatial and temporal proximities to each other, this bipartite destitution can be observed in a host of other contexts. In the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, student civil disobedience marked the earliest incarnation of a string of color revolutions, yet their passive resistance occurred only a stone's throw away from the clashes between the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation and the Chinese “People's” Liberation Army.10 During the Egyptian Arab Spring, crowds gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, in a way that frequently draws comparison to the subsequent movement of the squares and Occupy, whereas farther to the north the militant soccer fans of Port Said took a more active and antagonistic approach (Mason 2013: 5–24). Throughout the 2000s in France, a call-and-response dynamic set in between waves of student protest and the torching of cars in the banlieues. Finally, in Myanmar, ongoing repression has led to the nonaction of silent protests in the cities, while the Burmese youth continue to flock to the jungle outskirts to receive training from the Karen people's armed formations.

As simple as black and white in the United States, these observations about the dual form of destituent power show that each corresponds to society's division between the included and the excluded. Much like Guy Debord's (2003) description of the spectacular salariat in his film In girum (1978), the characteristic behavior of the included yet disaffected tends to resemble Agamben's figurations of Bartleby and the Muselmann, and yet, as for the story of the excluded, it remains largely unwritten. However, as both Agamben (1993: 82–86) and I (Robinson 2020) have argued, what is certain is that the state's deployment of identity is what, for now, keeps them separated. Therefore, it will be in the overcoming of this caesura that we will witness a power that is neither of the state nor its postmodern dispersal but is instead destituent.

Notes

1

Early drafts of this article were presented at the University of New Mexico, the University of Indiana, Red May Seattle, and an outdoor public event in Olympia, Washington, during the George Floyd uprising.

2

Roughly the same demand was later echoed during the Arab Spring with the chant Ash-sha'b yurīd isqāt an-nizām!, “The people want to bring down the regime!”

3

Unless otherwise indicated, all Greek translations are my own.

4

For the sake of consistency, I have here followed the translation in Agamben (1998: 45).

5

Agamben (2016: 13–15) does, in fact, later acknowledge this sense of ērgon as a “product” or “result.”

6

Poioumēno is the present, middle-passive, dative participle of poiēo.

7

See Debord 1994: §§5, 8, 19, 20, 32, 212–21. See also the endorsements of Debord's conception on the spectacular reification in Agamben 2000: 73–90 and the prologue to The Use of Bodies (Agamben 2016: xv–xxi).

8

In my view, these tensions are also indicated by a recent and rather dramatic shift in Agamben's interpretation of Aristotelian potentiality. For instance, in Homo Sacer, Agamben (1998: 47) states, “It is never clear, to a reader freed from the prejudices of tradition, whether Book Theta of the Metaphysics in fact gives primacy to actuality or to potentiality.” However, the ninth chapter of Book Theta is devoted to showing how actuality is better (beltīon) and valued higher (timiotēra) than potentiality. Hence, there is an abrupt change in The Use of Bodies, in which Agamben (2016: 276) comes to admit Aristotle's preference for actuality: “[Aristotle] thinks potential as existing in itself . . . and act as ontologically superior and prior.”

9

The only counterevidence is Benjamin's classification of the proletarian strike as nonviolent (gewaltos), but he is referring not to the action implicit within its pure means but to the fact that its rejection of reform entails that it refuses to reinstate the violence of capitalist labor and production.

10

It is useful, in this case, to compare Agamben's (1993: 86) celebrated interpretation of the Tiananmen affair as consisting of “singularities [that] peacefully demonstrate their being in common” with Andrew Walder and Gong Xiaoxia's (1993) narrative, compiled from first-hand accounts, of conflictual proletarian self-activity, as well as internal class divisions amongst the protesters.

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