New Book: Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus

Writers and Rebels


To celebrate the news that my book, Writers and Rebels: The Literature of Insurgency in the Caucasus (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016), has been awarded the University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies and the award for Best Book by a Woman in Slavic/Eastern European/Eurasian Studies by the Association for Women in Slavic Studies, as well as honorable mentions for the Rothschild Prize in Nationalism and Ethnic Studies and the Davis Center Book Prize in Political and Social Studies, I am posting an excerpt from the epilogue here.

The book traces the development of the anticolonial bandit (abrek) who resisted Russian rule in the Caucasus, and argues that the form of anticolonial resistance he cultivated altered the relationships among colonial, indigenous, and Islamic law in the Caucasus. The epilogue seeks to come to terms with the abrek’s complex relationship to violence

Epilogue (excerpt, with minor edits)

Like the Bolshevik Revolution that preceded it by one month and from which it derived its inspiration, the November 1918 revolution that culminated in the creation of the Weimar Republic generated a ferment of discussions concerning the possibilities of dissent, the limits of state coercion, and the ethics of violence. One result of these new intellectual currents was a series of pioneering reflections on the foundations of political sovereignty by the legal theorist Carl Schmitt, whose “state of exception” anticipated the mentality governing the Third Reich, under which he later worked.[1] A second result of this ferment was Benjamin’s “On the Critique of Violence.” Benjamin was Schmitt’s sometime admirer and trenchant, if subtle, critic.[2]

Benjamin regarded his “Kritik” as a chapter in what was to become an ambitious book-length study on the problem of violence in politics, a project cut short by his untimely death. Far from simply judging violence negatively, as the English term critique imprecisely suggests, Benjamin aimed to systematically review the conditions for violence, to account for its efficacy, and to document the means through which violence attains hegemony in political modernity. In concluding this consideration of the literatures of anticolonial insurgency, I move from transgressive sanctity’s variegated critiques of colonial violence to the critique of the transgressive sanctity’s own forms of violence. While the concept of transgressive sanctity has driven this book, the relevance of its anticolonial ethos to politics as such remains unprobed.

Max Weber’s definition of the state as a Gewaltmonopol, an entity that wields a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence [Gewalt],” was one stimulus for Benjamin’s “Kritik.” Weber first described the state in relation to its dependency on Gewalt in “Politics as a Vocation,” a lecture he delivered to the Free Students Union at the University of Munich in 1919. In the preceding year, Aslanbek Sheripov had used the abrek to legitimate revolutionary violence. Weber anticipated Benjamin by defining the modern liberal state in relation to violence (Gewalt) during a period of political upheaval when the governmental forms that were to replace the old political order increasingly ceased to compel obedience.[3] When Benjamin incorporated Weber’s alignment between the state and violence into his “Kritik,” however, his focus on the conditions for the emergence of violence led to him to place the Weberian conception of the state’s legitimacy in a different light.

Benjamin subtly defamiliarized Weber’s account of the state’s legitimacy, arguing that “the law’s interest in a monopoly of violence [Monopolisierung der Gewalt] . . . is explained not by the intention of preserving legal ends but rather by the intention of preserving the law itself” (183). Benjamin’s formulation reproduces Weber’s definition but in a different affective register. In Benjamin, violence is the means through which the law, harnessed to the state, is justified. As Benjamin wrote in a fragment penned a year prior to his “Kritik,” the law is fundamentally concerned “with self-preservation. In particular, with defending its existence against its own guilt.”[4] Violence threatens the state until it is located within the law, for its extralegal location reveals the arbitrariness of the state rather than its legitimacy. Just as violence reveals the state’s illegitimacy, so does transgressive sanctity expose the colonial generation of violence. A Benjaminian reading of this process suggests that the monopoly on violence that Weber considers intrinsic to the state’s power is generated by contingent political relations. Weber perceived this contingency as well as Benjamin, but he lacked the latter’s interest in undoing the state’s claim to legitimacy.

The scope of Benjamin’s actual intentions with respect to the critique of violence are set forth only at the end of his essay. “The Kritik of violence,” Benjamin writes here famously, “is the philosophy of its history” (202). Conceiving of this philosophy as a temporal unfolding along Hegelian lines, Benjamin adds that only by excavating violence’s history can a critical, discriminating, and decisive (kritische, scheidende, und entscheidende) approach be articulated (202). Benjamin’s critique of violence suggests how violence can function as a tool to resist the state. Historically, prior to any given legal order, violence can, on Benjamin’s reading, overturn any political regime. At the same time, Benjamin goes further than many of the writers considered in this book with regard to his critique of violence, for he sought ways of using violence to overcome violence itself. One example was the general strike, a form of mass mobilization that Benjamin regarded as “a pure means, a purified, immediate form of violence which deposed the whole legal order founded upon violence” even as it “diminished the incidence of actual violence.”[5]

Transgressive sanctity took root in Caucasus cultures when a coercive legal order legitimized revolt. Similarly, violence for Benjamin is a reaction to the law. Praising the French philosopher Georges Sorel, whose Réflexions sur la violence (1908) pioneered a general theory of the strike, Benjamin notes that “in the beginning all right was the prerogative of kings or nobles—in short, of the powerful . . . mutatis mutandis, it will remain so long as it exists (198). Alongside Benjamin’s belief in the provisional political efficacy of violence lingered an equally compelling understanding of the capacity of violence to inaugurate what months before his death he would call “the real state of emergency [Ausnahmenzustand]” that emerges from the “tradition of the oppressed.”[6] Benjamin countered Weber’s autopsy of the state’s legitimacy by underscoring how violence becomes sacred in the act of transgression. Although they share a common origin in a concern with the relation between power and sovereignty, Benjamin is more interested in the tradition of the oppressed than in Weberian legitimation theory.

Of the many forms of violence Benjamin discusses, only divine violence is intimately related to ethics. One purpose of Benjamin’s “Kritik” is to trace how the state legitimizes itself by naturalizing the arbitrary relation between ethics and politics. Whereas Weber locates the state’s power in its control of violence, Benjamin locates the state’s power in its ability to naturalize its arbitrary relation to violence. Guided by the belief that every political order is founded on violence, Benjamin aims to produce a taxonomy of its immanent power. He elaborates two distinct but occasionally overlapping rubrics to bring these differences into relief. In the first instance, Benjamin distinguishes between law-founding (rechtsetzende) and law-preserving (rechtserhaltende) violence (187). In the second instance, Benjamin contrasts mythic (mythische) to divine (göttliche) violence, a distinction Jacques Derrida correlates to the difference between Greek and Hebraic legal systems.[7]

Recapitulating the continuum leading from law-founding to law-preserving violence, the concept of transgressive sanctity elaborated in this book proposed a new law that ultimately replaces the colonial order. Yet, as seen in chapter 4, it also produced a legal anarchy even more destructive than colonial rule. Transgressive sanctity drew on the affective power wielded by Benjamin’s “great criminal” (grossen Verbrecher, 183, 186), a paragon of the abrek, to contest the state’s violence. In a legal domain that is maintained through coercion, the law is equally compelled to rely on force. Hence the appeal of violence, which functions as a surrogate for authority. By opposing anticolonial violence to the coercion of the state, transgressive sanctity throws into relief these oscillations between divine and mythic authority, so intrinsic to modern governmentality. As Benjamin recognized, this dialectical relationship to violence sanctifies transgression and makes sanctity transgressive.

As to the second distinction drawn by Benjamin, between mythic violence, based on Greek norms, and divine violence, epitomized by the Hebraic tradition, Benjamin’s examples have particular salience for the Caucasus. Endeavoring to retrieve a conception of divine violence from within the mythic violence he seeks to overcome, Benjamin invokes the archetypal rebel within Caucasus mythology, Prometheus. Known in Chechen as Pxarmat and in Georgian as Amirani, Prometheus epitomizes the struggle between the worlds of the gods and the human will. Benjamin uses the story of Prometheus’s attempt to steal fire from Zeus and his punishment for this act on Mt. Elbrus to distinguish between divine violence, which he admires, and the “law preserving violence of punishment,” which he regards as a hallmark of a world overrun with injustice. The legend whereby Prometheus “challenges fate with dignified courage” in the hopes of “one day bringing a new law [ein neues Recht] to men” (197), demonstrates how the mythic figures onto whom are projected the desire to rebel against unjust laws promulgate new legal codes through acts of transgression. The global renown of Prometheus, from Aeschylus to Shelley, attests to the persistent appeal of rebellion against arbitrarily instituted legal orders within and outside Benjamin’s political theology.

Only at the very end of his essay does Benjamin pass negative judgment on the object of his critique: Gewalt. Here Benjamin states, in a clear if nuanced allusion to Schmitt’s state of exception, that “all mythic, lawmaking violence, which may be called executive, is pernicious [verwerflich]” (204). (Benjamin’s more frontal attack on Schmitt would have to wait until 1940, for his “On the Concept of History.”) For the majority of his “Kritik,” Benjamin examines how violence is made efficacious, with the ultimate aim of overcoming violence as such. In the spirit of Benjamin’s hermeneutics of ambivalence, this book has offered a double-edged critique of transgressive sanctity. Rather than seeking to dismantle the ideological constellations that hold transgressive sanctity together, I have examined the concept’s visceral and verbal power. I have explored transgressive sanctity’s literary genesis while attending to the elements of its aesthetic and affective form that compel and inspire insurgents to sacrifice their lives.

Transgressive sanctity reverberates beyond the archives I have engaged. More thoroughly than prior paradigms for understanding violence, transgressive sanctity captures the ethical ambivalence of violence in the service of justice. Responding to the aestheticization of violence that Benjamin considers a hallmark of fascism, transgressive sanctity exemplifies the socialist politicization of art. While the Soviet state claimed a monopoly on violence to secure its legitimacy, poetry was sanctified, and came to perform the work of religion under the conditions of official atheism.

As with the early Soviet aestheticization of violence, Benjamin’s endorsement of revolutionary and messianic violence marks a limit in liberal ideologies of governance. At the site of this impasse, the literary imagination is alienated from history. For those who remain tethered to history, the suffering entailed in the bandit’s revolutionary violence calls for critique (and not mere analysis). Transgressive sanctity acquires power at precisely this juncture, as a justification of literature’s ambivalent relation to violence. Amid the many transformations in post-Soviet society, the shift from the earlier aestheticization of violence to the sanctification of transgression within the postcolony has been by and large ignored. Meanwhile, the literary critique of violence has been drowned out by belligerent calls for war, from Grozny to Sukhumi to Vladikavkaz.



[1] For the classic elaboration of the Schmittian state of exception, see Carl Schmitt, Politische Theologie (Munich: Duncker and Humblot, 1922).

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Zur Kritik der Gewalt,” Gesammelte Schriften, 179–202.

[3] See Max Weber, “Politik als Beruf,” Gesammelte Politische Schriften, ed. Johannes Winckelmann (Tübingen: Mohr, 1988), 505–560, later elaborated on in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie (1922), §17.

[4] Walter Benjamin, “Das Recht zur Gewaltanwendung [1920],” Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, vol. 6 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), 105.

[5] Jan-Werner Müller, “Myth, law and order: Schmitt and Benjamin read reflections on violence,” History of European Ideas 29.4 (2012): 469.

[6] Walter Benjamin, “Über den Begriff der Geschichte,” 697. Ausnahmenzustand, translated here as “state of emergency,” is a direct allusion to Schmitt.

[7] Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law,” Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (New York: Routledge, 2002), 259.


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