May 14, 2012

Milton, Reading, and Walter Benjamin's "Critique of Violence"

Violence, in Benjamin’s theory, occurs at the instance that any positive law is put into place. “Law-instating violence” falls under the category of “mythic violence” because it unfolds arbitrarily, as though by fate. “Law-preserving violence” is a byproduct of mythic violence; it is tautological in the sense that it legitimates violence for the sake of its own name. It reproduces the law by re-asserting its binding function through state institutions and policing. These overlapping forms of violence work together to produce a subject accountable to the law. Benjamin’s theory of divine violence attempts to articulate a form of violence that occurs outside of this framework and, similarly, outside of the instrumental logic of means and ends that defines the activity of its agents. In her reading of Benjamin’s essay, Judith Butler highlights the distinction between the guilt necessary to legal accountability, and the divine violence of the Jewish God who, for Benjamin, is “decidedly not punitive.” Rather than a guilt-inducing law, she writes, Benjamin understands the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” as
mandating only that individual struggle with the ethical edict [that is] communicated by the imperative. This is an imperative that does not dictate, but leaves open the modes of its applicability, the possibilities of its interpretation, including the conditions under which it may be refused.
The commandment is not coercive, but is rather an occasion for interpretive struggle, from which, Benjamin writes, “no judgment of the deed can be derived.” As he acknowledges in the essay’s conclusion, divine violence will not be recognizable with the certainty that can be attached to mythic violence “because the expiatory power of violence is not visible to men.”  Benjamin’s definition thus helps us to articulate the moment of transition that Samson’s destruction initiates.

Rather than producing a site of free interpretation for his audience, I want to suggest that Samson’s violence reproduces a textual space: a space of reading and struggle, premised on the destruction of theatrical spectacle. Indeed, a similar kind of operation is at work in Milton’s 1671 publication. In a recent essay for the PMLA, Daniel Shore notes how Milton’s rhetorical strategy in the combat of idolatry is not to destroy idols, but to preserve such monuments by putting them on display for his readers. “Like errors more generally,” he writes, “idols must be singled out, materially preserved, and made available for ‘survay’ and ‘scanning.’” Milton’s late poetry, in particular, finds him countering his opponents by reinscribing them in the material text, thus reintroducing them to an active ground of biblical hermeneutics. The point is to deliver an interpretive situation to his audience that reveals the contradiction of their present political moment. No surprise, then, that Milton’s preface to Samson Agonistes is preoccupied with the development of a reading audience against the popular appetite for theatrical spectacle. Rather than a revolution in form, however, Milton’s description sees the poem as a reformation of classical elements. Scolding his contemporaries for having embraced the “intermixing” of comic and tragic elements on the Elizabethan stage, Milton presents Samson Agonistes in opposition to common taste and public opinion, working against the grain, not simply “to gratify the people,” but by raising “pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those such-like passions . . . stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well-imitated.” At once gesturing back to the Greek tradition and forward to the cathartic potential of his dramatic poem, Milton’s preface reconfigures the genre specifically for an audience of readers.

Although Samson Agonistes takes a dramatic form, the author’s preface makes it clear that his work is not to be publicly performed. Rather, the poem is a text awaiting collective interpretation within a culture defined by theatrical representation and architectural restoration. This formal opposition is reproduced within the poem, where, as I’ve mentioned already, the public visibility of Samson’s labor conditions its reception as idolatry for the Israelites and divine proof for the Philistines. At the poem’s ideological centre, is the Philistine temple. “The building,” relays the Messenger,
was a spacious theaterHalf round on two main pillars vaulted high, With seats where all the lords and each degree
Of sort, might sit in order to behold. (1605-8)
The sight of Samson in this highly charged political space is enough to excite the Philistine audience into shouts of praise to Dagon. After he has fulfilled their requirements for performance, Samson is allowed to rest between “two massy pillars / That to the arched roof gave main support.” In what follows, Samson strikes his enemies precisely where they are most powerful: at the very site of cultural production. We, along with Manoa and the Chorus, are again reminded of our textual condition when the Messenger appears and begins to describe the actual violence of the event with a list of natural similes. Along with Manoa and the Chorus, the reader is left to imagine the disaster, prevented from accessing Samson’s inward state at the time of his performance. All that’s clear in the Messenger’s description is the class status of Samson’s victims:
Lords, ladies, captains, counselors, or priests,
Their choice nobility and flower, not only
Of this but of each Philistian city round
Met from all parts to solemnize this feast.
Samson with these immixed, inevitably
Pulled down the same destruction on himself;
The vulgar only scaped who stood without. (1653-59)
Here, Milton alters the biblical account, in which three thousand commoners, watching from the roof, die along with the Philistine nobility. Rather than a moment of transcendent irruption, Samson’s final act repositions his people, along with the vulgar Philistines, as readers within an immanent horizon. Samson embodies what Benjamin has called “the destructive character,” whose only activity is that of “clearing away.” This character is by nature iconoclastic. As Benjamin writes,
No vision inspires the destructive character. He has few needs, and the least of them is to know what will replace what has been destroyed. First of all, for a moment at least, empty space, the place where the thing stood or the victim lived. Someone is sure to be found who needs this space without its being filled.
On the Philistine stage, the identity of labor and idolatry achieves its apotheosis in Samson’s feats of strength: shows of power that would reaffirm the ruling elite but instead lead to its destruction. While it is common for traditionalists, writes Benjamin, to “pass things down to posterity, by making them untouchable and thus conserving them,” the destructive character passes on “situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them.” Samson’s demolition of the Philistine temple delivers a pivotal situation to his people; but, by the end of Samson Agonistes, they have again exchanged this textual space for the theatrical space of visible signs and proofs.

No comments:

Post a Comment