Walter Benjamin, for one, offered a different account. Attending in this particular translation to the subject of law and violence, Benjamin identified three kinds of Gewalten, by which he meant violence, indeed, but also force, power and authority, governance, and even sovereignty. (The German verb walten has the English verb to wield—authority or a weapon—as a cognate. The Yiddish exclamation “Gevalt!” expands on the ambivalent matter by hinting or hitting at the receiving end, signaling surprise or alarm, sometimes fright.) The first kind of Gewalt, for Benjamin, is founding or instituting, one might say, creating, as it brings about something out of nothing (the being that was having been conveniently governed or violated out of existence, but why quibble?). The second Gewalt conserves. It guards and preserves, making sure that whatever there is—persons and things, as Roman law had it—remains that way. The third kind of Gewalt Benjamin might have called, after Franz Kafka, the commentators’ despair. It is the destructive kind and Benjamin, remarkably, puts it in a class of its own, alluding elsewhere to “the destructive character” and insisting on its qualitative difference.
Walter—“one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage”—Benjamin is thus one among rare thinkers who concerns himself with destruction. He writes of something very strange about it, about “the destructive character” in its human and inhuman iterations. In the difficult text that bears its name, that character appears, for a moment at least, as an example of homo laborans, if not of homo faber. But why would destruction be thought of as productive or as laboring? Like capitalism (or at least like the workers it exploits and abandons), the destructive character is “always fresh at work.” And yet, if the destructive character works, Benjamin goes on, if “he does his work, the only work he avoids is being creative.” As if anticipating Joseph Schumpeter’s famous take on Marx, Benjamin denies the work of creative destruction. Still, why does the destructive character work so much (and so quick too)? Because, Benjamin says, he must “forestall” nature, who prescribes and inscribes the tempo. It is nature who is the ultimate destroyer; she—for she is female—inscribes and destroys, or at least threatens to do so. “It is nature that dictates his tempo, indirectly at least, for he must forestall her. Otherwise she will take over the destruction herself.” Staying true to Benjamin and to his (gendered) politics of means, one could therefore argue that destruction—which is to say, inscription and erasure (“the destructive character obliterates even the traces of destruction”)—is a means or a medium.
As Benjamin describes it, in fact, destruction is a “signal,” it is just like a sign, “wie ein trigonometrisches Zeichen.” Destruction is an imprint, a “character” that forestalls but also foretells destruction. Destruction is that which prescribes (Benjamin sees in it the origin of “almost all the deeper bonds or obligations”) and clears away the traces of its own (un)doing, the traces of destruction. Destruction has no vision (“no vision inspires the destructive character”). It is rather ambiguously located between conservation and liquidation (with “the traditionalists,” it passes things down to posterity, it passes on “situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them”), as well as between nature and culture, physis and nomos, “those destructive institutions of the state.” Remember, though, that, ultimately, nature is she who “will take over the destruction herself.”
Destruction—but it is many—must be thought of as a rapport to the world, and to that extent, it is profoundly political. And apolitical. For it is also about taking this rapport to the very edge (the outside edge?) of existence, toward the very destruction of politics, the destruction of everything. Benjamin calls it a simplification, speaking of “the realization of how immensely the world is simplified when tested for its worthiness of destruction.” After use and exchange value, destructive value. This also to say that destruction constitutes (if this is the right word) historical consciousness, insofar at least as the latter is “an insuperable mistrust of the course of things and a readiness at all times to recognize that everything can go wrong.”
By the same token—the same sign or signal—destruction is “reliability itself,” Benjamin says, for it sees “nothing permanent.” All it sees are means, or ways. It lacks vision, yet it sees “ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains,” destruction—which may very well have erected these walls or mountains when it reduced whatever existed to rubble—“sees a way.” Does the way of destruction lead anywhere or does it go nowhere fast? Destruction is a way, a means, or a medium, that neither affirms life, nor denies it. And though it has a goal of sorts, that goal is also the absence of goal, the destruction of the target, as well as the destruction of its own origin, “a complete reduction, indeed eradication,” of its own situation or condition. Thus destruction—which is always on the way, always on its way to auto-destruction—lives. It “lives from the feeling, not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.”
Since Aristotle at least (or Zoroaster, depending on who you think spoke a “classical” language), creation and destruction have, as it were, existed on a continuum, two vectors moving in opposite but more or less equal directions, two forces or powers vying for frangible dominance. To be sure there is no established symmetry between them, yet there is a symbiosis where existence hovers; a balance or a dialectic, a togetherness of sorts as the two very much serve an organizing function. By insisting on the asymmetry, however, Benjamin was acknowledging the rift that separates, if tenuously and unevenly, violence from destruction. He was calling attention to the very different temporalities in which creation and destruction operate. Not unlike Martin Heidegger (who sampled the call of the mad man, shouting: “the desert grows!”), Benjamin was also signaling the remarkable bias that governs our current lexicon, filled as it is with work, action and production, fashion and construction (passion and passivity having failed to make a real comeback). Michel Foucault, our father in scholarly heaven, confessed two powers, and the most popular among them has surely been productive and enabling. Jürgen Habermas referred to “the production paradigm,” finding it wanting, and asked for more action and interaction.
Am Anfang war die Tat. Everything we do, whatever we do, we do. As for the rest—history, our selves—we make sure it is made. Question authority and perform agency, become an actor or an activist. Make something of yourself. Just do it, that is, act it out or work it through, and we are going to make it. We will make history, the world, a better place. This is the age of the construction of everything.
It is not so much that we do or do not find ourselves in a zero sum game. In the grand scheme of things, destruction—the power, rule, or government of destruction—has simply not received the hearing it deserves. (Then again, nothing is less certain than the consoling, redeeming notion that one could witness destruction, much less acknowledge it.) Our hyperactive vocabulary leaves little room to dwell on destruction and termination, on disintegration or corruption, desolation and demolition, ruination and putrefaction, consumption and consumation (with one “m,” though consummation is implied), devastation or annihilation. No wonder the main names we have for it all these days are: “collateral damage,” “side effect,” or just “accident.” The proverbial breaks of the omelet. Better yet: “global warming” (as if the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was some kind of bouillon on your grandmother’s back burner).
I am not suggesting that we have failed to notice destruction, that we have not narrated it, that we have not profited from it, built on it, that it has not served growth or expansion, natural, colonial, or astronomical. Only that, a failed language, destruction exceeds narration, reflection, redemption. It puts an end to it all without giving anyone—or anything—the last word, or the next. Benjamin, remember, says that destruction obliterates even the traces of destruction.
Strangely enough, the ongoing, and somewhat spurious, debates about creation and evolution have made us lose sight of (no) things by looking at the wrong end. In the Middle Ages, Muslims and Jews had been rereading Aristotle in order to determine less whether the world had come to be and how, but whether it would come to nothing. Neither modern physics (otherwise known as the laws of thermodynamics), nor evolutionary theory (otherwise known as Richard Dawkins), concern themselves with destruction. The philosophers, whether or not they have sought to abide by Marx’s imperative to change the world, have done no better, but for one or two exceptions. And the so-called creationists are surely in no position to give any lessons, even when they wish for the apocalypse. Particularly when they do. No doubt it is hard to escape the persistent sense that things will go on to some next stage (even the immanentists and the materialists are rooting for the next age). But destruction—which does not make much by way of demands, if you think about it, doing its un-work in and under a distinct neighborhood watch—may require a suspension of disbelief, a kind of trust, an aspiration even. So Benjamin had it, at least, when he proposed to call its government divine.