Political Theology was published in 1922, just before the Weimar Republic began its decade-long descent into madness. The book consists of four related essays, though we will focus on the first three. The first chapter, “Definition of Sovereignty”, argues that sovereignty, the highest power in a political system, is defined as the ability to decide on an exception; that is, to decide when the rules no longer apply. The second, “The Problem of Sovereignty”, is a criticism of (mostly Neo-Kantian) attempts to describe a state founded entirely on rule-based procedures. Finally, “Political Theology” argues that political concepts are secularized theological concepts, and that a given time’s or culture’s theory of the state tracks with its theology.
Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”, published in 1921, is an analysis of violence as it relates to the law, as means and as ends. He thinks that typical analyses of violence depend too much on its relation to ends, as in “the ends justify the means.” Here, he is trying to describe violence in itself, as somehow abstracted from particular legal frameworks or ends.
The essay works through several pairs of terms. First, he describes natural and positive law. Natural law is primarily concerned with its ends, either God’s justice or Darwinian evolution, while positive law is primarily concerned with means. However, they both agree that justified means and justified ends are related. Since Benjamin is primarily concerned with violence as means, he focuses on positive law. The legal system distinguishes between sanctioned and unsanctioned violence, and this pair turns out to depend on the difference between lawmaking and law-preserving violence. Finally, he shows how law making/preserving violence infects a wide variety of social relations and political causes, and attempts to find a kind of violence that is “outside” the law (and so outside typical social relations, in a revolutionary sort of way): divine violence.