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Post-secular Messianism Against the Law: Judith Butler on Walter Benjamin and ‘Sacred Life’


This essay focuses on Judith Butler’s configuration in Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012a) of sacred life from the mystical motifs that traverse Walter Benjamin’s writings as the pivot of an anti-identitarian ethics committed to non-violent resistance. To gain critical leverage on Butler’s post-secular stance, my analysis turns to Talal Asad’s ‘Redeeming the “Human” Through Human Rights’ chapter from Formations of the Secular (2003), where he enunciates a disparity between a ‘pre-civil state of nature’ and the notion of ‘inalienable rights’ that informs the subject’s rights under secular law. In underscoring the secular state’s inability or refusal to ascribe sacredness to ‘real living persons’ over and against ‘“the human” conceptualized abstractly, or imagined in a state of nature’ as presumed by natural law, Asad indirectly articulates what is at stake in Butler’s explication in Parting Ways of Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’. In this context, Butler unpacks Benjamin’s remarks about the sixth commandment’s non-coercive disposition and the inner struggle its provisional applicability prompts. A conception of ‘sacred life’ crystallizes through Butler’s emphasis on the open-endedness of this struggle, which encourages us to abandon a solipsistic investment in our own suffering in the process of acknowledging its eternally transient rhythm. I argue that Butler supplements this motif by drawing upon Hannah Arendt’s grounding of the political in cohabitation. My contention is that while ‘sacred life’ forms the backbone of Butler’s affirmation of civil disobedience, Arendt empowers Butler’s ethics to transcend Benjamin’s Jewish-messianic melancholy by radicalizing the passivity that refracts it.

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  1. Gil Anidjar (2007) focuses on the ‘disappearance’ of the figure of the Semite—alternately Jew and Arab—as the demonic others of Christian self-invention, or respectively, the enemy within and the enemy without. If, as Anidjar argues, ‘Jew’ and ‘Arab’ once served equally as avatars of race and religion for Europeans, in its secular turn, the West occults the ongoing power of Christianity as the ‘Semite’ fantasm fades into the repressed. Religion and race nevertheless continue to function as ‘coextensive and co-concealing categories’ (2007, p. 28); as a result, the mark of ‘religion’ eclipses the power and effects of ‘race’ and vice versa (2007, p. 21), polarizing ‘Jew’ and ‘Arab’ while separating religion from nationalism and opposing it to modern politics as such.

  2. See Benjamin Weinthal, ‘Frankfurt to award US advocate of Israel boycott,’ Jerusalem Post (August 26, 2012) and ‘Judith Butler responds to attack: “I affirm a Judaism that is not associated with state violence”,’ Mondoweiss (27 August 2012b). As reported in a U.C. Berkeley press release, the Adorno Prize is ‘a highly coveted German award that recognizes outstanding achievement in philosophy, theater, music or film. The prize, which brings 50,000 Euros or about $64,000, was established by the city of Frankfurt in 1977 to commemorate sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno. It is conferred every 3 years on 11 Sept., Adorno’s birthday.’

  3. Butler supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) in two specific ways: by ‘[opposing] investments in companies that make military equipment whose sole purpose is to demolish homes’ and by not ‘[speaking] at Israeli institutions unless they take a strong stand against the occupation’. She does not, however, align herself with ‘any version of BDS that discriminates against individuals on the basis of their national citizenship, and [she maintains] strong collaborative relationships with many Israeli scholars’ (‘Response’ 3). This essay was partly inspired by the continual denunciation of Butler’s positions, as illustrated by the campaign mounted against her speaking engagement with Omar Barghouti on the topic of BDS at Brooklyn College in February 2013. In this connection, see ‘Judith Butler’s Remarks to Brooklyn College on BDS’ in The Nation (13 January 2013); and Katha Pollitt, ‘New York Dems Shouldn’t Make Political Hay of Brooklyn College’s Panel on BDS’ (5 February 2013). See also The Nation’s defence of academic freedom, ‘Open Letter on Academic Freedom from “The Nation” to New York Elected Officials,’ The Nation (5 February 2013). Hot-headed protest preceded and followed Butler’s acceptance of an honorary doctorate degree from McGill University. Darin Barney observes that the accusations against Butler made by Hillel McGill and McGill Students for Israel are not only shamefully anti-democratic, but also seem to be marred by ‘a willful lack of intelligence’: ‘What is so discouraging about all this is that it is doubtful those who have denounced Butler so aggressively, and have protested against her honorary McGill degree so vehemently, have ever read a single piece of her scholarly work, or heard or read any of the published material in which she actually discusses her views on BDS and Israel. Instead, they are content to malign her, and to undermine serious consideration of the difficult issues her scholarship and activism raise, by recycling tired allegations based on willful misconstruals of two isolated sentences ripped from the context in which they might actually have meant something. And all of this simply to police and bully those who might contemplate criticizing the actions of the state of Israel or acting on those criticisms.’ See Barney’s ‘In Defense of Judith Butler’, Huffington Post (28 May 2013). See also Karen Seidman, ‘Honorary Degree Recipient Judith Butler a Controversial Figure,’ The Montreal Gazette (23 May 2013). For an opinion on Butler’s commitment to BDS, see Mohan Matthen, ‘Judith Butler and the Boycott of Israeli Universities’ (8 February 2013).

  4. In his review of Parting Ways, Chaim Ganz (2012) comments on Butler’s characterization of Zionism: ‘What supports and excuses Butler's view of Zionism as having a “structural commitment to state violence against minorities” is the fact that since the 1970s, Zionist policies cannot but be identified with the most abhorrent interpretations of this ideology and with this structural commitment.’ Ganz argues that Zionism before 1967 ‘could reasonably claim to be justified by the necessity created by the fact that the Jews had suffered from persecution in Europe culminating in the Holocaust and by the Arabs’ total rejection of any form of Zionism’; however, the Israeli victory in 1967 rescinded such claims to necessity. According to Ganz, Butler putatively recognizes that ‘morally acceptable’ interpretations of Zionism are possible; hence, he writes, ‘in order to reject Israeli policies of the last four decades, it is not necessary to reject all the possible interpretations of Zionism. The demand that Israel act according to morally acceptable interpretations of Zionism would be sufficient’ [ (downloaded on 27 May 2013)].

  5. Butler’s ethos corresponds with Arendt’s self-presentation ‘as a Jew who can and will take various political stands, whether or not they conform to anyone else’s idea of what views a Jew should hold or what a Jew should be’. In this vein, Butler praises Arendt for criticizing the increasingly uncompromising strategies that defined the Zionist state building project while stressing the latter’s definition of politics as a rebuke to both assimilationism and Zionism, which ‘“arise out of a shared Jewish fear of admitting that there are and always have been divergent interests between Jews and segments of the people among whom they live”. In other words’, as Butler explains, ‘living with others who have divergent interests is a condition of politics that one cannot wish away without wishing away politics itself’. See ‘I merely belong to them’, Butler’s review of The Jewish Writings in the London Review of Books 29.9 (10 May 2007): pp. 26–28.

  6. My colleague Catherine Kellogg interprets Butler’s return to the ‘Critique of Violence’ in light of her long-running debate with Slavoj Žižek, who has also taken up Benjamin’s 1921 essay in recent years. In Zižek’s view, Butler’s Benjamin reading, ‘makes use of the possibility left open in Levinas’ work to think the third term in terms of a divine “being,” whereby the “face” becomes something ultimately readable (in its very unreadability) as vulnerable, or precarious’ (Kellogg 2013, p. 84). In this connection, see Slavoj Žižek (2005, 2008).

  7. Butler cites the previously standard translations of Benjamin’s selected essays collected in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (Benjamin 1986c) and Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (Benjamin 2007a). Where she cites ‘Critique of Violence’, I have added corresponding page numbers from the more recent 1996a Belknap edition.

  8. Samuel Huntington’s notorious ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis (1993, 1996) assumed a dangerous currency in the aftermath of 9/11. Butler and Wendy Brown have been admirably vigilant about calling out ‘civilization’ versus ‘barbarism’ rhetoric in the decade after 9/11. Butler targets Thomas Friedman who has prototypically argued that ‘Islam has not yet achieved modernity’, which relegates it to ‘a childish state of cultural development’ while proclaiming that ‘the norm of adulthood is represented more adequately by critics such as himself’ (Butler 2008, p. 6). In this connection, see also Brown’s Regulating Aversion (2006).

  9. In Butler’s analysis, Benjamin’s messianic stance contests ‘those forms of political nationalism that depend on founding and continuing forms of expulsion and subjugation’ and thus dispatches with the uncritical Zionist premise that self-preservation justifiably unbridles an endlessly iterable state violence (Butler 2012a, p. 99).

  10. Prompted by Athena Athanasiou, her interlocutor in Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, Butler acknowledges that the law’s performativity as evinced in Derrida’s ‘Force of Law’ inspired her deconstruction of gender as an ‘internal essence’. In that context, Derrida’s reading of Franz Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’ demonstrates for Butler how the law’s truth ‘never fully materializes in any full or definitive way’, yet its eternal inaccessibility propels anticipations of its fulfilment from which it derives both its force and promise. This point is key to Butler’s analysis of Benjamin’s messianism, for if, as she writes, ‘there is a sense of the messianic within the performative, it would doubtless be a way of thinking about this anticipatory form of positing that fails to achieve a final resolution’ (Butler and Athanasiou 2013, p. 129).

  11. Butler questions the grounds for Derrida’s worry about Benjamin writing to Carl Schmitt ‘the same year he published “The Critique of Violence”’, since a two-line letter thanking Schmitt for sending his book ‘is hardly the basis for inferring that Benjamin condones Schmitt’s book in part or in whole’ (Butler 2012a, p. 77). Of course, Derrida is not the only one who worried about this relationship, though it seems pointless to deny it, since Benjamin was neither the only leftist nor Jewish intellectual to find inspiration in Schmitt’s writings. Horst Bredekamp cites the 1923 letter to Gottfried Salomon and the short curriculum vitae of 1928, where Benjamin acknowledges Schmitt’s Politische Theologie as the ‘political-theoretical basis in a central chapter of his Habilitation on The Origin of German Tragic Drama’ Benjamin (2003), published 2 years later (Bredekamp 1999, p. 249). While remarking that, ‘Walter Benjamin’s esteem for Carl Schmitt is one of the most irritating incidents in the intellectual history of the Weimar Republic’ (1999, p. 247), Bredekamp identifies Benjamin’s use of Schmitt’s political theory to clarify the former’s concept of art as well as his own understanding of sovereign violence, as that which ‘decides what law is’, as Kellogg suggests (Kellogg 2013, p. 76). Whereas Schmitt ‘views the state of exception as the conditio sine qua non for the establishment of sovereignty, Benjamin’, as Bredekamp contends, ‘sees sovereignty as existing in order to avoid the state of exception in the first place’ (Bredekamp 1999, p. 260). Thus, even though, in 1930, he praises Schmitt’s work on Diktatur, Benjamin ‘criticizes authority as a masquerade of the chaotic state of nature, the endless repetition of change without substance, and the meaningless use of pliable allegories’ (Bredekamp 1999, pp. 260–61). Ultimately, then, ‘[i]nasmuch as Benjamin views the absence of sovereignty as catastrophic,’ Bredekamp writes, ‘he remains, despite his “theological anarchism”, within the Schmittian framework’ (1999, p. 261). Beatrice Hanssen reads Benjamin’s ‘messianized’ Sorel as counteracting Schmitt’s decisionism as well as the Catholic jurist’s anti-liberal scaffolding of sovereignty, which justifies autocratically determined exceptions to the state’s protective guarantees and glorifies warfare as an existential mode: a primordial opposition between friend and enemy that founds the political ‘in belligerent violence’. She nevertheless finds that Benjamin’s Sorelian Schmitt falls short of his goal to ‘think through the paradoxical politics not of a legal but a legitimate mode of violence’ (Hanssen 2000, p. 23).

  12. Anson Rabinbach suggests that apocalyptic messianism lends itself to Marxist adaptations because it acknowledges an aspiration to transform the current order and thereby achieve a completely realized justice that thrives in the dust of the system it overturns. In this vein, Benjamin’s admixture of restorative and utopian motifs conveys modernity simultaneously as a process of decline and as an anticipation of apocalyptic renewal.

  13. Benjamin’s predilection for apocalyptic visions fits into this ‘esoteric intellectual’ mould while his restorative-messianic inclination resonates with a melancholic tradition of ‘romantic anti-capitalism’, as Georg Lukács called it, which codifies the theme of a European culture in decline (Rabinbach 1997, p. 28). Romantic anti-capitalists converge in their desire for the transcendence of Europe’s ‘spiritual crisis’ that arises as the repressive forces of civilization bear down upon the free play of the imagination. The romantic thematics of spiritual decline meshed intimately with the Jewish-messianic trope of post-Paradise exile that is inseparable from a Tikkunic longing for a ‘world made whole’ while providing a ‘pre-political’ vehicle for an anarchical rejection of quotidian politics (1997, p. 29). On romantic anti-capitalism, see Rabinbach (1997), Sayre and Löwy (1984), and Heller (1972).

  14. Sorel conceives myth as inspiring a crucial desire for glory among the workers while provoking fear among those who subscribe to the cult of the state. Benjamin’s mythical violence that inexorably imposes fate does not seem to share any elements with Sorel’s myth.

  15. Toward the end of his ‘Critique’, Benjamin asserts that ‘[h]owever sacred man is (or however sacred that life in him which is identically present in earthly life, death, and afterlife), there is no sacredness in his condition, in his bodily life vulnerable to injury by his fellow men’ (Benjamin 1996b, p. 251).

  16. Butler’s emphasis on transient suffering echoes Rabinbach’s exposition of the ‘Theologico-Political Fragment’. According to Rabinbach, even if ‘the quest of free humanity for happiness runs counter to the messianic direction’, as Benjamin insists, ‘the actions of human beings can, “just as force can, through acting, increase another that is acting in the opposite direction”’. This is how, for Benjamin, ‘“the order of the profane assists, through being profane, the coming of the messianic Kingdom”. It does this by bringing about misfortune and suffering which, in its transience, presses toward the messianic epoch.’ In effect, then, Benjamin proclaims that nature itself is messianic ‘by reason of its eternal and total passing away’ (Rabinbach 1997, p. 59 citing Benjamin 1986c, p. 313).

  17. Butler’s reflections on dispossession bear the sediments of myriad intellectual lineages. Previously, in Bodies that Matter, Butler cites Gayatri Spivak’s concept of an ‘enabling violation’ to refer to the paradoxical agency the ‘I’ accrues from the ‘mesh of interpellations’ that constitute and traumatically wound it as well as from its implication in the very power relations it opposes (Butler 1992, pp. 122–123). In Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler draws upon Jean Laplanche to argue that, ‘the ego is not an entity or a substance, but an array of relations and processes, implicated in the world of primary caregivers in ways that constitute its very definition’ (Butler 2005, p. 59).

    Butler’s engagements with Spivak and Laplanche prefigure her demarcation, in conversation with Athena Athanasiou, of a relational form of dispossession conditioned by the interdependencies that constitute our susceptibility to others. In Dispossession (2013), Butler and Athanasiou also identify an oppressive form of privative dispossession that transpires ‘when populations lose their land, their citizenship, their means of livelihood, and become subject to military and legal violence’ (Butler and Athanasiou 2013, p. 3), or when neoliberal policies (austerity and debtocracy) induce economic abandonment in certain populations through a differentially rationalized distribution of precarity (2013, pp. 173–174). The exchange with Athanasiou spurs Butler to reiterate her commitment to finding ethical and political means of opposing forcible and privative forms of dispossession without valorizing the possessive-individualist ideal of self-sufficiency (2013, p. 7).

    In Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015), Butler expands upon her conception of relational dispossession by citing Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza, which posits a body’s openness ‘onto the body of another, or a set of others’ (Butler 2015, p. 129). According to Butler, bodies are not ‘self-enclosed’ entities, since, as she claims, their ‘ecstatic relation to the supporting conditions [they have] or must demand’ means that they ‘are always in some sense outside themselves’ (Butler 2015, pp. 128, 129). Because we are inextricably dependent upon sustaining institutions and networks, she writes, ‘we are, always elsewhere, constituted in a sociality that exceeds us’ (2015, p. 87). This ecstatic body concept aligns with Levinas’s view of sensibility as a ‘region of responsiveness that implies a dispossession of the egological’ (2015, p. 91); it also accords with Arendt’s insistence on the unchosen valence of cohabitation, which, as Butler phrases it, ‘yields the radical potential for new modes of sociality and politics beyond the avid and wretched bonds formed through settler colonialism and expulsion’; hence, as Butler confirms, ‘[w]e are all, in this sense, the unchosen, but we are nevertheless unchosen together’. Butler’s ethics hereby derives a normative or universal force from the one-time Jewish refugee’s recognition of her own ‘obligation not to belong to the “chosen people” but, rather, to the unchosen, and to make mixed community precisely among those whose existence implies a right to exist and to lead a livable life’ (2015, pp. 102–103).

  18. Rabinbach (1992, xxxviii), citing Scholem (2003), Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, p. 53.

  19. See Footnote 15 above.

  20. Rabinbach cites Benjamin’s letter to Ludwig Strauss from 7 January 1913.


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I am grateful to Bradley Lafortune, Melissa Haynes, and Eyal Amiran for their feedback about various drafts of this essay.

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Ball, K. Post-secular Messianism Against the Law: Judith Butler on Walter Benjamin and ‘Sacred Life’. Law Critique 27, 205–227 (2016).

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  • Cohabitation
  • Jewish messianism
  • Post-secular critique
  • Sacred life
  • Sixth commandment