March 15, 2011

Common time: Benjamin, Agamben and the Messianic

While the historicist finds satisfaction with the establishment of causal connections between various events, suggests Walter Benjamin, the materialist historian “establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time." Such a view of the past is inevitably bound up with redemption, and the Messianic promise of revolutionary act will, according to Benjamin, retroactively redeem and realize the muffled longings of the past—it will make good on the utopian promise of its failed revolutionary attempts. Therefore, our attempts to understand the past must take this negated longing into account. “Like every generation that preceded us,” writes Benjamin in his second of his Theses on the Philosophy of History, “we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that."

In The Time That Remains, a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, Agamben attempts “rescue” Messianic time from its common misconception as eschatology; this distinction, he argues, is essential to Paul’s letters. A Messianic conception of history does not wait for the Messiah to come (i.e., for the end of history), but is instead a paradigm of historical time in which we act as though the Messiah is already here. As Agamben has pointed out, this is not an apocalyptic vision of history; “the Messianic is not the end of time, but the time of the end.” Such time does not wait for a decisive moment but instead sees the present as "now-time." Another word for this is kairos (often translated as occasion, but in Paul’s sense, properly Messianic), which is traditionally opposed to chronos (chronological or secular time). Both concepts, Agamben points out, are necessarily interlaced such that “kairos is nothing more than seized chronos, a time remaining.” Messianic time, says Agamben, rather enigmatically, is the relation itself. The difference is minute, but it is also decisive. 

For Paul, this means that we will retain out distinctions (callings, vocations), but they will cease to divide us—such categories (circumcision, for example) become “nothing.” For Paul, the divisions of law are not forgotten or annihilated, but are rendered "inoperative." The community that Paul is attempting to assemble is both inside and outside the law.

Benjamin’s “real state of exception” coincides with the messianic interruption. As Agamben points out in Homo Sacer, “from the juridico-political perspective, messianism is . . . a theory of the state of exception—except for the fact that in messianism there is no authority to proclaim the state of exception; instead, there is the Messiah to subvert its power.” Benjamin emphasizes that a connection to the Messiah is not to be created from this side of history.

Benjamin's conception of messianic time (now-time) shows us that we have something in common with the past, and lives in the faith that we will have something in common with the future.

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