This book focuses on the paradoxical character of law and specifically concerns the structural violence of law as the political imposition of normative order onto a "lawless" condition. The paradox of law which grounds and motivates Christoph Menke's intervention is that law is both the opposite of violence and, at the same time, a form of violence. The book develops its engagement with the paradox of law in two stages. The first shows why, and in what precise sense, the law is irreducibly characterized by structural violence. The second explores the possibility of law becoming self-reflectively aware of its own violence and, hence, of the form of a self-critique of law in view of its own violence. The Book's philosophical claims are developed through analyses of works of drama: two classical tragedies in the first part and two modern dramas in the second part. It attempts to illuminate the paradoxical nature of law by way of a philosophical interpretation of literature. There are at least two normative orders within the European ethical horizon that should be called "legal orders" even though they forego the use of coercion and are thus potentially nonviolent. These are international law and Jewish law. Understanding the relationship between law and violence is one of the most urgent challenges a postmodern critical legal theory faces today. Self-reflection, the philosophical concept that plays a key role in the essay, stands opposed to all forms of spontaneity.
The use of violence in law, the argument for its legitimacy says, constitutes an "unsurpassable limiting case"; it is at the disposal of law, whose internal organization is "symbolic" or normative, as a "symbiotic mechanism" that operates by action upon "physical-organic existence." The law to be discussed here is the law of tragedy; not just any sort of order guaranteed by a power that establishes a minimum of reliability of expectations, but the specific form of law engendered by the tragic labor of reflection. Oedipus issues the legal curse of autonomy only as a proxy, in his role as judge. Walter Benjamin offers an alternative to consent or rejection, instauration or destruction, an alternative he calls "relief of law". The dualism of bourgeois liberalism consists in confronting autonomous participation in the law and the right of free non-participation as mutually external registers.
Law begins with the experience of violence. Law exists because there is violence, and because recognizing the existence of violence appears to be tantamount to saying that violence should not exist. Law translates the violence that one inflicts upon another into the violation of a law. Walter Benjamin calls the transformation of law in the face of the experience of its violence its Entsetzung. For taking the violence of law seriously, that is, taking the Nietzschean demand which all experience of violence raises seriously, namely the demand to go, "Away, you pain!", must mean to go beyond law. For the "impulse" or "force" at the ground of law is justice: the resistance to violence. "Law and Violence" tries to show this by reference to the experience of law in tragedy, especially the Oresteia, and its philosophical reflection in Benjamin's "Critique of Violence."