Scheiner, Niobe (detail)
Lecture: Mythic violence and Niobe’s silence: Walter Benjamin’s ‘Towards a Critique of Violence’
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January 26, 2022
Mathura Umachandran
2:00 - 3:30pm PST

In this talk I examine the ideas and arguments about myth as a politico-philosophical category as they are presented in Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay ‘Towards a Critique of Violence’ (Zur Kritik der Gewalt). I want to show that Benjamin’s mobilization of Niobe—his illustrative example of the connections between myth, injustice and violence—can be questioned and meaningfully extended. If ‘Towards A Critique of Violence’ offers us a composite mythological story, attention to the various ways in which ancient authors have handled the Niobe story offers us the chance to map more complex conceptual ground on which to stake an understanding of the nature, and therefore the critique, of violence. I pay particular attention to Achilles' mobilization of Niobe as rhetorical exemplum at Iliad 24. 601ff. Reflecting on the fragments of Aeschylus' treatment of the Niobe story in connection with Benjamin's argument about the tragic hero, in 'The Origins of German Tragic Drama' (Ursprung des deutschen trauerspiels), 1928, I argue that the political implications of Niobe's silence are important to realise.