Messianisms of All Kinds…


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…

6 thoughts on “Messianisms of All Kinds…

  1. Thanks for the consideration! I’m horrifically busy at the moment, due to an imminent relocation, but once that calms down I’ll give this the response it deserves.

  2. Strangely enough, I could never quiet get into this whole discussion of “messianic” in Derrida, although I do understand some of it. I suppose I am more comfortable with a kind of more traditional historiography, without all this sexiness of “to-come” or “always already” – I should go read Reid’s post in its entirety, I suppose…

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  4. Very interesting post Shahar.

    I’m certainly no expert on the matter, but I was wondering if you might offer a few pointers to help orient me with the idea of a midrashic politics. I mean, the kind of messianism that Scholem seems most interested in and that is in the background of Benjamin is not only anti-nomian (i.e. caught, as it were, between Scylla of restoration and the Charybdis of utopia, which you’ve already described), but a deeply nihilistic, anarchistic and destructive flavour. Scholem’s interest in the Sabbatians, for instance, seems to be connected to the transvaluation of values that will make the hidden Torah manifest through the breaking of the law (rather than through interpretation). And I’m not sure I would characterize this as some kind of sublation. I don’t see what’s preserved, and there does not seem to be any continuance. IN fact, there seems to be a leap….

    So I suppose I see where a midrashic politics would fit — or at least what it would be poised against — but I’m not sure I see how it’s different from most left leaning procedural theories of politics we already have (think of Habermas’ Between Facts and Norms, which is essentially a theory of interpreting legal notion in the face of ideas like common will formation and consensus).

    Full disclosure: I’m not a huge fan of anything messianic, and I tend to think that ‘Philosophical Messianism’ is usually occupied by secular folks who would like to take up a position within the religiously re-enchanted political spectra. However, it does seem to be the case that in some of its forms (e.g. Sabbatianism), there is a radical politics already at work (i.e. an anarcho-nihilism that not only resists governing powers, but actively seeks to collapse them by breaking there laws). And I wonder if all of these gestures towards the anti-existential, non-agency of messianism (which I really don’t see) are really caricatures of something deeper and more problematic.

  5. Hi, Alexei.

    Thanks for the comments. I’ll have to think about it, but I think your intuitions about “philosophical messianism” are interesting and certainly resonates a good deal.

    Honestly, the phrase midrashic politics was a thinking out loud kind of thing that I haven’t really thought through all that seriously just yet either. My original inclination was to think though such a thing with Levinas (sorry to be self referential, but something started here, but it occured to me (as you rightly point out, and Levinas alludes to such a thing in his comments above) that there is certainly a need to confront Scholem with regards to this stuff. Yes, messianic anticipation cannot but produce apocalyptic defiance of history and the reigning political order. In fact, you can see my sympathies already here! Scholem’s critique of Rosenzweig is interesting in this regard. For Scholem, Rosenzwieg ended up ignoring

    ..the truth that redemption possesses not only a liberating but also a destructive force – a truth which only too many Jewish theologians are loath to consider and which a whole literature takes pains to avoid (Messianic Idea, 323).

    Even with the whole insistence on a “saving catastrophe” and nihilation I think though, ultimately Scholem held that messianic hopes can’t really be pitched out of the Jewish imagination simply because the apocalyptic vision of a miraculous arrival of some sort of “otherworldly” redeemer rupturing the hold of history is simply lodged way too deep into our psyche. And yes, this lurks in Benjamin’s dialectical affirmation of everyday existence and the more apocalyptic, immanent arrival of the messiah that sheds light on the quotidian/profane with the light of redemption as well. Your observation regarding “leaping” and not sublation reminded me of Benjamin’s insistence that the mystic leaps forward to the idea of ressurection, not a very Jewish idea, the Jew in this scheme would be I don’t know, completely weighed down. In fact, I’ve been thinking about the relation between messianism and mysticism (is one an inversion of the other?), but that’s for another time I think….

    Anyway, per mysticism, Scholem, law etc, Elliot Wolfson has a written a book that I’ve only glanced at, but it looks promissing: see here

    Anyway, I’m hoping to follow though on some of these things if I can carve out some time…

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