On Violence and Assassination

Violence has been a significant part of human history, for it has been present, either as a central or as a related element, in many important events throughout the ages. Given my ongoing research of World War I, I will take the assassination of Franz Ferdinand as a case study on the topic of violence. Hence the question, how can we understand this particular event in terms of violence? A Bosniak highschooler named Gavrilo Princip joins a nationalist group; he has tuberculosis and believes that he will most likely die; he shoots the heir of a foreign empire in the streets of Sarajevo, preventing him from ruling over the territory of which Princip is a citizen; he declares later that it does not matter to him what kind of government comes after only that it should be a legitimately national state.

In his Critique of Violence (1921), Walter Benjamin aims to understand the topic of violence, not merely for what it may be at an isolated conceptual level, but on its relation to law and justice. Nor does he focus on a particular example, but on what function it has had throughout history since the origins of the greek polis. In a way, Benjamin does a sociological assessment of violence that begins with the separation of the categories of law, claiming that in society people act according to their sense of natural law and positive law. Natural law deals with the ends of law (the extrajudicial conception of how things ought to be), while positive law represents the means to achieve the just ends as they ought to be perceived by a clear perception of natural law. The critique points to the inherent violence of the state provided effort to preserve the legal order, insofar as it places a heavy strain on any individuals that deviate from the practical path that is needed for the preservation of the legal establishment. Then, this produces a dialectic response which results in a different kind of violence, a law-breaking sort of violence, which he refers to as divine violence. Benjamin’s critique suggests that it is often the case that the state tends to disregard the ends that justify its exercise of legal violence for the sake of self-preservation, provoking a political scenario in which law-preserving violence has become more prominent than violence that is merely instrumental towards the objectives of natural law.

In order to apply this sense of divine or law-breaking violence to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, one has to determine whether Gavrilo Princip had broken the law as a response to the violent manifestation of a law-preserving and thus self-preserving regime. This is a very special case given that the crime against the heir of the regime is, at a symbolic level, the destruction of the future of the regime. In other words, it is not an act devoid of meaning, which would be a form of irrational violence that according to Slavoj Žižek is the equivalent to making noise. Applying Lacanian theory, Žižek classifies some acts of violence, such as the Paris riots of 2005 (given that they were not directed towards any one particular object, but instead they destroyed random cars and buildings), as impulsive movements that can’t be translated into speech or thought but carry a great deal of frustration. The assassination of the archduke was not this, but an action that carried the classic ideology of revolution.

Žižek comes up with different categories of violence. He sees subjective violence as the all too visible kind of violence that individual subjects do onto other members of society. Gavrilo Princip’s act would qualify as such. He also understands objective violence as the conditions of the setting (time and place) that drive subjects such as Princip to commit visible acts of violence through a less visible kind of violence, pointing of course, towards economic oppression. Both in Žižek as well as in Benjamin’s take on violence, there is a clear reference to class struggle given that those that break the law and perform acts of subjective violence are usually individuals affected by the conditions of the environment. In the case of Žižek, it is quite explicit. In the case of Benjamin, breaking the law presupposes a struggle against the political sphere which had without exception been composed by the economically powerful. Gavrilo Princip had been a young man infected by a disease that was related to the poor hygienic conditions of the lower part of the social pyramid. The education he had received did not result in a critical capacity that was sufficient to not be easily convinced by nationalist propaganda. His final act was one that can be read as the ultimate break up with the law.


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