Berkeley Law and Contemporary Theory Speaker Series: James Martel - "The One and Only Law"

To those in the Law and Contemporary Theory Working Group and other potentially interested parties:


The Department of Rhetoric, and the Townsend Center Working Group on Law and Contemporary Theory invite you to attend A COLLOQUIUM and RECEPTION

JAMES MARTEL Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, San Francisco State University


WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 9, 2013 6:00 to 7:30 7415 Dwinelle Hall



James Martel teaches in the department of political science at San Francisco State University. He is working on completing a trilogy of books on Walter Benjamin. The first two books, which have already been published, are Textual Conspiracies: Walter Benjamin, Idolatry and Political Theory (Michigan, 2011) and Divine Violence: Walter Benjamin and the Eschatology of Sovereignty (Routledge, 2011). The paper he will be presenting is on the third book, The One and Only Law: Walter Benjamin and the Second Commandment (forthcoming, Michigan 2014); it is a slightly altered version of one of the key chapters on Benjaminian legal theory. In the chapter, Martel describes how for Benjamin, given his theologically inflected theory, it seems at first glance as if all instances of human law are of necessity illicit, what he calls "mythic violence." This is because in his view, since the Fall of Adam, human beings have no choice but to engage in idolatry, to project their own false truths onto God (or other screens such as nature and sovereignty). Yet, at the same time, for Benjamin, we are beholden to divine laws even though we (no longer) know what they ask of us. In the face of such a dilemma, Martel argues that Benjamin does not give up on law. Instead he effectively asks us to obey only one law, the second commandment against idolatry. This is the one law that human beings can safely obey without fear of engaging in yet more mythic violence. The outcome of following this law, Martel argues, is a set of anarchic legal and political practices, what Benjamin himself calls "pure means." When (idolatrous) ends have been cut off via an obedience to the Second Commandment, our usual means orientation becomes altered. No longer in service to false ends, it becomes up to us to determine what our judgments will be, what decisions we will make.

We will circulate the paper to those interested (please email to request the paper), and recommend that it be read before the colloquium. The presenter will speak for 10 to 15 minutes, followed by discussion.

Event details
Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 6:00pm - 7:30pm
7415 Dwinelle Hall


Doris Fine

Benjamin's theory of law

One big question:Under what social conditiions does a "community" form to address issues of law and justice? 


Your paper suggests that such a community is the world as it now exists through which one can at times discern the "just" ruling or action. In other words, no special conditions are needed. 

I guess I'm concerned that if only God is responsible for issuing judgements, what need is there for community?


I'm sorry I couldn't come to your talk. I would have liked to hear what you might say to those who argue for natural law as the underlying basis for positive law. Law in context, with special attention to particularities, is also a theme I find congenial to your exposition of  Benjamin's ideas on law.