Over at Planomenology, Reid has a great post about messianism and politics, aptly titled “Impatient Messianism.” Honestly, and this is by no means addressed to Reid’s post, but is instead a more general remark, I think that all this “philosophical messianism” stuff may need to be rethought. Moreover, I think this whole idea of the fulfillment of the law as the sublation of the law, whether in revolution or charity or whatever, or better, reading redemption as the “real state of exception” needs to be critically examined and rethought as well. Here’s the thing, when we’re thinking through the good kind of messianism–as opposed to the bad messianism of waiting–how might we make a distinction between the state of exception that is announced by the despot and redemption as actually being the real state of exception? Someone like Derrida, with the whole “messianicity without messianism angle” seems to suggest that we should oppose all states of exception, period. I just think we need to be careful with the growing mystique that surrounds these various messianisms, especially in light of the recent readings of say, Strauss that have formed the scaffolding of a good deal of American policy in the last ten years (at least). Regardless, this paragraph caught my eye:
Yet this so-called ‘bad messianism’ or fatalism does not exhaust the potentials of messianic politics. The former, be it in the form of concrete, qualified messianisms which ‘anticipate something specific’, or for which the Messiah is an actual figure (Christ, the proletariat, etc), or in the form of an abstract ‘Messianic-without-messianism’ as the very structure of anticipation of the Other-to-come,nonetheless omits the crucial dimension of the messianic at the heart of Christianity. This omission marks every messianic thinker from Scholem and Adorno to Levinas and Derrida. The argument is often made (by Zizek and others), that this anticipatory messianism is essentially derived from Judaic theology, in which the remnants of Israel still await their coming redemption. By contrast, the Christian messianic tradition begins from the premise that the messiah has already come, we are already redeemed.
Hmmm. Politics aside, I suppose it’s fair game to try to fault Levinas, Derrida, Adorno, Scholem for failing to “incarnate” (?) messianism, but the criticism, if I understand it is that “Jewish” thinkers aren’t properly, well, “Christian” enough.
Here’s Reid again:
The Messiah has already come, we are already saved: this is the crucial tenet of Christian messianism. Yet we should add an equally crucial qualification: we are already saved, but we do not know it. The Messiah is not a person, it is nothing but the very time which, absorbed in the forward march of history, nonetheless can exert a clandestine influence upon the present. The Messiah will not come to save us, not for a first or second time. The Messiah has already come and gone, and now it is a matter of whether we continue to disavow the messianic splinters buried in our history, or we awaken to them and become their avatars. Christ Jesus was the allegorical vehicle for this profound inversion of messianism from a doctrine of anticipation and patience to one of inheritance and action. And as such, there is an interesting meta-theoretical reflexion of messianism into the structure of Christianity itself (not unlike Benjamin’s application of the messianic adjustment to Paul’s theory of messianism).
Reid follows Agamben pretty closely and I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Agamben’s book on Paul (which I don’t have in front of me, unfortunately), as far as I understand it, basically takes the view that the same indeterminacies and indistinctions of the state of exception characterize Paul’s account of messianic time. For Paul, the messiah ushers in the future, a future in which the law is fulfilled and in being fulfilled rendered inoperative. Agamben thus interprets the Pauline law of a faith that holds in messianic time as a law that surpasses legal obligations. In this time, law may be available for use, but it isn’t binding; it has no hold on those bound in and through faith. The operative term here I think is unsurprisingly, grace. It’s a grace that exceeds relations of contract and/or exchange to persist as the potential for a goodness that is freely extended but never exhausted, never completed, never encapsulated in some sort of coherent injunction. The “politics to come” Agamben is reaching at, I think, wants to shift the very way we experience time. That is, let’s avoid talking about transcendence. Rather, Agamben insists there some sort of possible transformation of our way of “being profane:” as far as I understand him, it seems to be an attempt to transform our lives so that our own praxis becomes the means that it has always already been. It’s an interesting reading of Benjamin, indeed.
Anyway, Reid’s post got me thinking about messianism more broadly, especially from the Jewish perspective. The messianic idea in contemporary Jewish existence has taken a variety of forms, according to Gershom Scholem’s well-known introduction:
Judaism, in all its forms and manifestations, has always maintained a concept of redemption understood as a process that takes place in the public sphere, on the stage of history, and in the medium of the community; that is, takes placedecisively in the world of the visible and which cannot be thought apart from such appearance in the visible…The Messianic idea came into being not only as the revelation of an abstract proposition regarding the hope of humankind for redemption, but rather each time in very specific historical circumstances. The predictions and messages of the biblical prophets come to an equal degree from revelation and from the suffering and desperation of those to whom they are addressed; they are spoken from within situations and again and again have shown themselves to be effective in situations where the End was perceived to be imminent, to be about to break in abruptly at any moment.
In Judaism, the Messianic idea has compelled a life lived in deferment in which nothing can be done definitively, nothing can be irrevocably accomplished…the messianic idea is the real anti-existentialist idea. Precisely understood, there is nothing concrete that can be accomplished by the unredeemed. This makes for the greatness of messianism, but also for its weakness. Jewish so-called Existens possesses a tension that never finds true release…And when it does discharge, it is foolishly decried as “pseudo-Messianism.” (Messianic Idea in Judaism, 4-5, 34)
There are several aspects of the messianic idea we need to draw out of Scholem’s characterization. First, like Kant’s idea of universal history, which posits a telos of history that we cannot remain indifferent to, the messianic idea is tied to a “concept of redemption” which has hope as its object. Second, the object of the messianic hope is not a particular construct akin to a Kantian a priori, e.g., universal history, but instead, as Scholem writes, “takes place decisively in the world of the visible.” Finally, the messianic event is not the finale of a synchronic temporal process, but is “about to break in abruptly at any moment.” However, Scholem’s conception of the messianic idea in Judaism consists of two deeply contradictory tendencies, a restorative trajectory, which tends towards a restoration of a past idyllic condition, a broken harmony, and a utopian trajectory, which hopes for a new age.
In the second passage, Scholem suggests that the messianic idea, even though it was the promise of joy, was at the same time the constant deferral of that joy. As Susan Handelman quite properly points out, “Messianism, from Scholem’s adamant Zionist perspective, also extracted a great price: his underlying claim is that messianism made Jewish history provisional and Jews ultimately powerless on the stage of world history.” (see Fragments of Redemption, p45) Scholem’s understanding of the messianic idea in Judaism provides a nice starting point for considering messianism in Levinas. Scholem’s notion of messianism, as being tied to the Jewish return into history through the construction of a Jewish homeland, (at best) warps his perception that historical activity is hollow.
To continue along the lines of the usual (messianic) suspects, it seems apropos to bring up Levinas here. There are two noteworthy comments made by Levinas pertaining to Scholem’s essay and more broadly the messianic idea. First, referring directly to Scholem’s argument that Jewish messianism is caught between the impossible poles of a passive incapacity, which render any type of action hollow, and the apocalyptic destruction of the
present to realize the messianic future. Levinas writes in a footnote to “Messianic Texts” in Difficult Freedom:
Not everything has been said, however, as Scholem sometimes seems to think, on the subject of the rationalist nature of this messianism—as if rationalization meant only the negation of the miraculous and as if, in the realm of the spirit, we could abandon one set of values without setting other values in motion. It is this positive meaning of the messianism of the rabbis that I want to show in my commentary.
In an interview with Phillipe Nemo, Levinas comments:
I was once asked if the messianic idea still had meaning for me, and if it were necessary to retain the idea of an ultimate stage of history where humanity would no longer be violent, where humanity would have broken definitely through the crust of being, and where everything would be clear. I answered that to be worthy of the messianic era one must admit that ethics has a meaning, even without the promises of the Messiah (ethics and infinity, 114).
Placed side by side with Scholem, Levinas’s comments are pretty revealing, I think. For one, according to Levinas, the messianic does not take the form of “to come;” it is not the promise of a promise. The rejection of this aspect of messianism—as promissory—is largely dependent upon–I would argue–Levinas’s de-formalization of time through which he separates himself from both Aristotle and Heidegger. That, however, is for another post or another time. I think Levinas is a good resource for thinking through political/personal messianism, but I’m far too busy today to go through the sectionson messianism in Difficult Freedom. My inclination is to favor a “midrashic” politics rather than a “messianic” politics…