Britain’s coast has been ‘battered’ by storms, and there are more ‘assaults’ forecast for weeks ahead. The conventional metaphors in the news coverage point towards what went without saying from ancient mythology to Defoe: that storms are sent by the gods, that they personify them and manifest their sovereign force. But by 1843, the art critic John Ruskin complains about what he calls the ‘pathetic fallacy’, where a ‘weakness of temperament’ in his contemporaries makes them see ‘raging waves’, ‘remorseless floods’ and ‘ravenous billows’ (Modern Painters, 367). In what he diagnoses as a symptom of a morbid, degenerate modernity, observers erroneously invest brute nature with human passion.
Spurred or not by meteorological polemics in the news coverage, many have come to the seaside to witness the waves and the damage in recent months; ‘storm chasers’, middle-class families, amateur photographers. Why do people want to see 14ft waves and ruined train lines even where they put themselves in (media-friendly) danger to do so?
Popular novels and films, like J.G. Ballard’s Crash in the seventies and Chuk Palahniuk’s Fight Club in the 90s, have offered urban, postmodern variations on Sigmund Freud’s death drive as the impulse towards death and a return to an inorganic state by living things. But more often than not, the people getting more or less dangerously splashed on the news are holding up the camera phones: the primary point here seems to be to document, perhaps to bear witness.
Maybe Ruskin missed a trick by leaving the gods out of the picture. In his essay ‘The Critique of Violence’, Walter Benjamin discusses the relationship between violent force, power, and the law. He makes the point that modern European states like the Weimar Germany of his time, while they claim that their laws serve their citizens, try increasingly to restrict individuals’ rights to use force and exercise power (including the right to strike). ‘This is explained not by the intention of preserving legal ends but, rather, by the intention of preserving the law itself’. Like the gods in ancient myth, modern states lay down the law through self-confirming acts of violence. The people, Benjamin suggests, know this, however vaguely; and a sense of resistance against this is expressed when they admire forms of violence that are pitted against what he calls the ‘pernicious’ self-preservative force of the state. For example, great criminals: a certain popular admiration for them stems not from criminals’ ‘repellent deeds’, but rather from the way in which their resistance makes visible the force of the state. In the course of his opaque, strange, and notoriously difficult essay, Benjamin also links this function identified in criminal violence to the possibility of what he calls divine violence. This violence is not that of the gods in myths, who brutally claim their patch. It is imagined as god-like in the sense that, like lightening, it strikes from some place else, outside the law, outside its language and therefore difficult, maybe impossible to decipher, but with the potential for radical change.
Maybe the increasingly unembarrassed pleasure in photographing broken harbour walls, crumbling cliffs and broken train lines has something to do with the secret pleasure in the stories of ‘great criminals’ – a vague hope, like Benjamin’s, that the fundamentally violent structure of the law might be countered by something, anything, that is radically different from its ‘pernicious’ mechanisms. ‘Divine violence’ – even if the radical other is only the momentary force of bad weather.
It’s worth noting that there is an aside in Benjamin’s essay that is often overlooked, where he suggests there is one form of ‘divine violence’ already found in everyday life – education. In ‘its perfected form’, education should stand entirely outside the law, and strike, ‘without bloodshed’ to revolutionize the state. Jacques Derrida, writing along similar lines in Without Alibi, refers to this as the responsibility of the university to be ‘unconditional’: its task is to challenge ossified laws of state as much as of thought, beyond self-preservation, in an event that, like Benjamin’s divine violence, might ‘tear up’ time.