Passive Voice Gone Wild!

Here is an example of when writing in the passive voice gets out of hand:

At the heart of the legal orders that arose in conjunction with the Enlightenment idea of law as rules of conduct universally applicable to all those who belong to a properly instituted political body lies a formula for the justification of the violence on which the law depends in order for it to be an actual, effective, and therefore “living” law-and not merely an idea: violence is justified insofar as it is a means for the control of those violent acts that are not themselves means for the control of immediate threats of violence. As WalterB enjamin indicates in the opening paragraphs of his most explicit exposition of legal and political theory, “Toward the Critique of Violence” (1921), the justification of violence as a means is the point of contention around which arguments over the origin, nature, and purpose of the moder state endlessly circle. Justified violence is supposed to be of a different order than unjustified violence, and so in the context of legal reasoning it is no longer called “violence” but “coercion” or “punishment.” Yet as the formula for the justification of violence indicates, the violence of the legal order is not in general sanctioned for the purpose of subduing immediate threats to one’s own life-this is the justification for the extralegal violence of “private persons”-but for the purpose of preserving the law itself: the law is inviolable. As long as the legal order makes the law effective and thus gives it life, it, too, is inviolable, and all violence other than its own can henceforth be interpreted as an immediate threat not to life itself-however this may be understood-but to the legal order. The end of legally sanctioned violence, its purpose and function, is not to put an end to violence as such but, instead, to thwart all threats to the law in the name of which violence can be sanctioned. Everything that enters into the space over which the legal order imposes its sentence is therefore implicated in the disquiet-ing-or, as Benjamin says, “rotten” [GS 2: 188; SW 242]-ambiguity of legal violence understood as a means whose justification lies in the application of the law: the legal order can justify its own violence only insofar as this violence is a means to an end, but the end it serves can never be separated from itself as means, for the law, by virtue of its universality, is at bottom unconcerned with the life of those upon whom the violence it justifies is exercised or with the life of those whom this violence is supposed to protect. The violence of the legal order is concerned solely with itself, with its own majesty-without, however, ceasing to present itself as a means and reverting to what all legal violence once was: immediate manifestation  (Fenves 43).

This is the first paragraph from an article that was actually published!  There are abstract nouns and prepositional phrases all over the place, making the sentences convoluted and extremely difficult to understand.  As Dr. Pound said, writing in the passive voice is not wrong.  But this paragraph nicely demonstrates the problems that often come up when you use the passive voice.

From Fenves, Peter.  “‘Out of the Order of Number’: Benjamin and Irigaray toward a Politics of Pure Means.”  Diacritics 28.1 (1998): 43-58.



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2 responses to “Passive Voice Gone Wild!

  1. sarah swayze

    I would have to agree with you.this paragraph didnt really hold my interest. think the topic might have anything to do with it? or the light in which the topic is being discussed? i mean sometimes passive is good, but maybe when the topic is right?


  2. skosoris

    I think with this particular example it is hard to figure out exactly what Fenves’ topic is. And I think this is a particularly bad example of the passive voice (I chose it for just this reason). Most of the time the sentences are shorter and less convoluted.

    I found an example from a quick internet search to illustrate this point: “The metropolis has been scorched by the dragon’s fiery breath” (From a handout on the passive voice located at This sentence is in the passive voice, but it is shorter and has less prepositional phrases. I think it is a lot easier to understand.


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