Walter Benjamin, Byung-Chul Han, and Degrees of Freedom in the Law in Antebellum Charleston, SC

Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “Critique of Violence,” argues that laws function as violence to protect those in power, stating, “[l]awmaking is power making and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence” (1986, 295). Byung-Chul Han takes to issue some of the reading of Benjamin’s marriage of law and violence in his short text, Topology of Violence. At one point Byung-Chul Han seems to dismiss Benjamin (and Giorgio Agamben) as being relics of a previous age, an age of world wars unprepared for the new world order of organized media, which he perhaps gives too much credit towards as being an indicator of contemporary mass existence. Byung-Chul Han separates law and violence, putting forward that, “[s]heer violence alone is not capable of forming spaces or creating locations. It lacks the space-building force of mediation. Thus is cannot produce a legal space. Only power, not violence, is capable of space building” (2018, 56). Both Walter Benjamin and Byung-Chul Han give consideration to (perhaps measures and degrees of) a pure (unalloyed) violence,….and law, that can be stapled free of the meditations of willful coercion. Where Benjamin sees a marriage of necessity and form, Byung-Chul Han sees an indication of uniqueness. 

It is, perhaps, not altogether inappropriate to state that Byung-Chul Han perceives of a perversion of the State that has embedded inside it a potentiality, as though it is not tied to slavery and ransom. This romanticism can be the same worldview that looks as though there is the benefit of fond mercy of the Charleston, South Carolina of the early 1800s. Amrita Chakrabarti Myers writes in Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston, that South Carolina had “become something of a haven for free blacks prior to 1820” (2011, 48). Women outnumbered men in those who were able to purchase their freedom. South Carolina demanded that those manumitted must be self-sufficient and not be put in a position to be considered a “burden” on the state. Many Black women were freed as skilled workers. In Charleston County, between 1801 and 1820, among the records of manumission, 62% were female (2011, 48). But Byung-Chul Han would not see the law as an acquaintance to murder, instead, he might insist slavery not be law at all, but a diversion in time. Still, he cannot argue that it is not the same power that he holds as unique that forces us to separate degrees of freedom and fortitude within the bonds of slavery. If power and law are married it is an indicator of the stationed time and space of violence, which disputes Byung-Chul Han’s dismissal of Benjamin despite Byung-Chul Han’s perceived dissolution of violence through sanctioned spaces of power. 

Charleston was among New Orleans, Baltimore, and Washington, DC as the major cities with the highest percentage of a free Black population. More than half of Charleston’s population were women and in 1850 roughly 40% of South Carolina’s free Blacks were living there (Myers 2011, 31). Then “mass hysteria in the midst of [the] reenslavement crisis” came along with the “anti-free black laws that were being advanced in the General Assembly” (Myers 2011, 208). There can be no separation of law and power as united in a tied bond to wed violence with the absolution of power. Free Blacks in Charleston literally petitioned and lobbied those in the community to honor previous standards of the degrees of freedom permitted under state law so that they could avoid losing all the was gained in the slow manumission of some individuals, who in turn purchased and secured an appearance of freedom for others through the measures of the law and social constructs. A law of violence meted out by degrees of force and not subject to Byung-Chul Han’s misinterpretation of Benjamin’s completely separate vision of a “pure,” divine violence that is not orchestrated by the will of power in the hands of men. 

With the increase in arrests, free Blacks in Charleston began to flee the South and migrate north. Amrita Chakrabarti Myers writes that by “November of 1860, roughly eight hundred free people of color had left Charleston and headed for Philadelphia with the help of white friends and business associates” (2011, 209). These connections and bonds formed through former slave’s skilled labor, the same that attested to their winning their freedom, arrived as safe-havens for distributed justice in a capitalist hallmark of degrees of worth petitioned by degrees of violence that was made whole through law. This mired law in the accustomed journey of labor and freedom did not resist the ugliest motivations of humanity, but, instead, those motives protected itself. We still perceive of a law that protects us from violence as a higher order principle that delegates transitions of law and order across time boundaries to be perfected and meted into a discourse of freedom. This discourse is what Byung-Chul Han esteems as a liberator of souls through a law, a pattern of justice, that has a space wrapped outside of time. Though Walter Benjamin saw a little farther into an structuralism of equality that exists by law that protects violence for its own use. Benjamin understood punitive measures of the law as a protectorate of its own institution, not order, but the self-preservation of power: “Its purpose is not to punish the infringement of law but to establish new law. For the exercise of violence over life more than in any other legal act, law reaffirms itself” (1986, 286). This prose, of course, is in reference to the death penalty. What we secure in a society that is orchestrated in such a way to protect demoting some degrees of life over others, some skills more than most, and other fossils of persuasion that force difference and the deterrence of othering is a bond-capitalism that annotates to murder. We only exercise in degrees of its limits, but the law is violence and it is measured by our tolerance. 

Benjamin, Walter. “Critique of Violence.” Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. 

Han, Byung-Chul, Topology of Violence. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2018

Myers, Amrita Chakrabarti. Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.