Messianic politics is often derided for its passivity, resignation, and ineffectuality. Yet these are not inherent vices, which I’ll attempt to demonstrate here by defending a very different sense of messianism.
God’s Waiting Room
Messianism is a matter of redemption. The past contains unspeakable horrors, so sublime in their gravity that we cannot possibly justify them. World- and natural-historical catastrophes whose impact was so shattering that no righteous God could ever allow them. Monstrous crimes on whose basis we enjoy the security of their regular prohibition. Vertiginous experiences in which we are not in control of ourselves, inhabited by some demonic stranger, with whom we cannot identify, yet with whom we are nonetheless identical.
God is often invoked as that principle of implicit, imperceptible meaningfulness which ultimately redeems even the most horrific events. Yet as Zizek has insisted, this face of the God-function is not the only one, nor is it primary. God is primarily invoked as the name of the inexplicable or unjustifiable: ‘only God knows why’ = ‘no one knows why’, God as the proper name of no one. It is only on this basis that the empty name is later filled in by man’s analogical semblant, a personal god who has his reasons. This is certainly not to imply that there was once a pure faith deprived of its ideological refastening on explicit prescriptions secured by higher purpose. The primary face is in fact exposed only in a glimpse before vanishing in the twisted visage of the later, incorporated as the buried substance grounding the exposed, naked surface. That which we must repress, bury, cover-up, is only the meaningless groundlessness of the surface itself.
Adswithoutproducts, in a masterful vignette, opines on the agony of the waiting room:
Waiting rooms are fascinating; it’s an obvious thing to say but even a relatively short amount of time spent in one re-confirms that hell would be just like that. Nothing to read, nothing to do, but wait for a number to be called (but the PA is too crackly to hear what they’re saying!) that never seems to get called. Someone has something that you desperately need but they have it on the wrong side of the glass partition and they’ve forgotten about you, and now there’s no line to join to let them know that they’ve forgotten you and thus you’re stuck there, in a little eddy of civilisation, forever and more.
Kafka’s hell perhaps, but one with which we are so intimately familiar. This desperate, hopeless anticipation is the product of repurposed messianism, submitted to the perverse ends of historicism. Ads, first quoting from Benjamin’s Paralipomena (XVIIa):
“In the idea of classless society, Marx secularized the idea of messianic time. And that was a good thing. It was only when the Social Democrats elevated this idea to an ‘ideal’ that the trouble began. The ideal was defined in Neo-Kantian doctrine as an ‘infinite [unendlich] task’ [...] Once the classless society is defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogenous time was transformed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity.”
Just to be clear, I’m no fan of messianism. But Benjamin’s description of the temporality of non-messianic politics is frightening, hellish even. Democratic socialism, in this formulation, is a sort of waiting room in which one is destined to wait forever, all while believing that one’s number is about to be called, will be called in the next round, just when the bureaucrat behind the glass window gets around to it, must be coming soon, we’ve been in here longer than anyone else at this point haven’t we?
Benjamin’s Theses are intended as a defense of messianism against its popular appropriation as the politics of waiting-around. Waiting room politics deserve to be vigorously denounced, but in the name of what exactly? If we do not commit to the notion that meaning will come, that the atrocities populating history will be finally justified, we must confront some variety of nihilism: hedonist, utilitarian, ascetic, or capitalist (which plays host to all the others).
This was recently the topic of a brief Twitter debate between Nick Srnicek, Anthony Paul Smith, Michael O’Neill Burns, Michael Austin, and a few others. Michael Austin does a good job summarizing the problem here. The question is whether the sort of cosmic/cosmicist nihilism, represented by Ray Brassier, which takes the inevitable heat-death of the universe as the ultimate guarantor of the meaninglessness of existence, nonetheless reinstates the ‘bad messianism’ of the waiting-room, in fatalistically anticipating the coming extinction. Michael shows how, for Brassier, universal extinction cannot be circumscribed by messianic coordinates because it is already accomplished from the outset:
Extinction surrounds life and conditions it. In his use of Freud’s myth of the first organisms, we see that death is the source and end of life, that which allowed the first forms of life (the birth of life is death, the death of the outer wall of the living to allow it to live, to reproduce, and to die). Death is the limit to life, with the death drive as the mark, the scar of the birth of death, of this original inorganic state of being.
[Extinction] can only be described as transcendental in that only through extinction is there the condition of the possibility of life itself or perhaps more importantly, of Thought itself. It is only because everything is dead already that we can think at all.
We do not wait for the coming end, we are already living out that end, gradually, we are already dying off, disappearing, and we (the living) always have been. Death is not only a part of life, it is life’s element, that in and through which life lives. Life does not head toward death, life is identical to dying, decay, dissolution.
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.
Of course, the various mainstream versions of Christian dogma tend to rely on a reinstituted anticipation by reference to the ‘second coming’, but as Agamben points out in The Time that Remains, there is good reason to question this interpretation, at least insofar as it claims support in the letters of Paul. The ‘return’ of the Messiah, Agamben claims, should instead be understood as a being ‘beside’ or ‘next to’ the Messiah:
[Parousia] does not mean the “second coming” of Jesus, a second messianic event that would follow and subsume the first. In Greek, parousia simply means presence (par-ousia literally signifies to be next to; in this way, being is beside itself in the present). Parousia does not signal a complement that is added to something in order to complete it, nor a supplement, added on afterward, that never reaches fulfillment [a direct swipe at Derrida's 'Messianic']. Paul uses this term to highlight the innermost uni-dual structure of the messianic event, inasmuch as it is comprised of two heterogeneous times, one kairos and the other chronos, one an operational time and the other a represented time, which are coextensive but cannot be added together. Messianic presence lies beside itself, since, without ever coinciding with a chronological instant, and without ever adding itself onto it, it seizes hold of this instant and brings it forth to fulfillment. [...] The Messiah has already arrived, the messianic event has already happened, but its presence contains within itself another time, which stretches its parousia, not in order to defer it, but, on the contrary, to make it graspable. For this reason, each instant may be, to use Benjamin’s words, the “small door through which the Messiah enters.” The Messiah always already had his time, meaning he simultaneously makes time his and brings it to fulfillment. [70-1]
This is a remarkable passage for many reasons. First, the reference to Benjamin may seem strange in reference to Christian messianism, given that Benjamin is usually cited amongst the great Jewish mystical-messianic thinkers of the twentieth century. Yet Agamben’s book puts forward a convincing argument that Benjamin was deeply influenced by the letters of Paul, and that his masterpiece (the Theses) manages to draw together historical materialism with messianism by way of an unmarked citation of Paul (who is none other than the veiled hunchback theologian concealed by the Turkish automaton). Read in this light, Benjamin’s demand that we turn toward the past, rather than the future, as that which is at stake in political struggles seems far less ineffectual than is usually presumed. It would be necessary to take the last Thesis along with the last of the Paralipomena:
The soothsayers who queried time and learned what it had in store certainly did not experience it as either homogeneous or empty. Whoever keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past times were experienced in remembrance – namely, in just this way. We know that the Jews were prohibited from inquiring into the future: the Torah and the pryayers instructed them in remembrance. This disenchanted the future, which holds sway over all those who turn to soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future became homogeneous, empty time. For every second was the small gateway in time through which the Messiah might enter. [XVIII.B]
Two things to note here, before we go on: first, this still seems, despite what we observed above, to maintain the structure of anticipation, in making of each second the potential moment of redemption. Second, and on the other hand, we witness, in the disenchantment of futurity coextensive with remembrance, a structure not unlike Brassier’s nihilism. It is simultaneously the evacuation of the future, and the paradoxical anticipation of the past itself, of that which has already come. To resolve the seeming antagonism of these two points, let’s continue on to the conclusion of the Paralipomena:
The seer’s gaze is kindled by the rapidly receding past. That is to say, the prophet has turned away from the future: he perceives the contours of the future in the fading light of the past as it sinks before him into the night of times. This prophetic relation to the future necessarily informs the attitude of the historian as Marx describes it, an attitude determined by actual social circumstances.
Should criticism and prophecy be the categories that come together in the “redemption” of the past?
How should critique of the past…be joined to the redemption of the past?
To grasp the eternity of historical events is really to appreciate the eternity of their transience.
For Benjamin, the past is not some eternal burden we bear, and because of which we are in need of some miraculous divine intervention to relieve us. Rather, the past is identical to its own disappearance, and to the corresponding darkness progressively cast upon the future. Benjamin criticizes historicism for stringing the past along, using its presumed necessity to reinforce the permanence of the present state of affairs. Benjamin’s historical materialism, on the other hand, turns toward the past only to witness its eternal disappearance, and to recognize that the past inheres in the present only as the latter’s own utter impermanence, the vanishing ground into which the present progressively collapses. Finally, the future does not extend from the present as the continuation of the eternal progression that has hitherto constituted the past. Rather, the future is identical to the movement of collapse in which the disappearance of the past coincides with the transience of the present.
Thus in Benjamin, the prophetic dimension is reconceived as the manner in which the past and present can come together or constellate in the “now-time shot through with splinters of messianic time.” [XVIII.A] Such a constellation arrests the narrative progression of presents (what both Agamben and Deleuze calls ‘chronological’ time), in favor of an instantaneous complicity, as if the present is folded back onto a now extinguished fragment of the past. The vanishing mediators of the past, those episodes which were reabsorbed by that which they sought to interrupt, must be awakened, revealed as the unstable ground on which the present it built. They are like dynamite buried underneath us, awaiting the discovery of the detonator.
This constellation of past and present in what Benjamin calls the dialectial image must be sharply distinguished from the false notion of redemption as the justification of past catastrophes in the name of a better future. This is the very model of historicism that Benjamin seeks to criticize. The past is not a means that may be justified by the present order as its end. Redemption is, for Benjamin, quite the contrary, the very critical suspension of every such justification, pulling the emergency brake on the smooth stringing-along of the past by the present. Benjamin’s notion of redemption is more paradoxical than this simple sort of justification, as is hinted by his paradoxical identification of eternity and transience.
Agamben surely has this sort of paradoxical redemption in mind when he writes, in the appendix to his The Coming Community (“The Irreparable”):
Redemption is not an event in which what was profane becomes sacred and what was lost is found again. Redemption is, on the contrary, the irreparable loss of the lost, the definitive profanity of the profane. But, precisely for this reason, they now reach their end – the advent of a limit.
We can have hope only in what is without remedy. That things are thus and thus – this is still in the world. But that this is irreparable, that this thus is without remedy, that we can contemplate it as such – this is the only passage outside the world.
And we should supplement this with a passage from the main text, from the chapter titled “Outside”:
It is important here that the notion of the “outside” is expressed in many European languages by a word that means “at the door” (fores in Latin is the door of the house, thyrathen in Greek literally means “at the threshold”). The outside is not another space that resides beyond a determinate space, but rather, it is the passage, the exteriority that gives it access – in a word, it is its face, its eidos.
The threshold is not, in this sense, another thing with respect to the limit; it is, so to speak, the experience of the limit itself, the experience of being-within an outside.
The outside is only reached when you relinquish the presumed permanent and unlimited core of yourself, and expose yourself to your thoroughly thingly character. That you are not something more than the ‘things’ of which you are made and amongst which you dwell, and that you will pass away along with these things – this is being-outside.
The transcendence of being-outside is distinguished from the immanence of being-in-the-world only by the renunciation of the notion that there is something inside the thing, irreducible to that thing, in favor of making of oneself a pure exteriority identical to the world as immanence of things, no longer immanent in the world or to the world. One is immanence itself, transcendent to the things of the world in being outside them, while remaining nonetheless identical to them as pure exteriorities, and to the world as the Outside itself without-exteriority. Again, from “The Irreparable”:
Being-thus, being one’s own mode of being – we cannot grasp this as a thing. It is precisely the evacuation of any thingness. (This is why Indian logicians said that sicceitas, the being-thus of things, was nothing but their being deprived of any proper nature, their vacuity, and that between the world and Nirvana there is not the slightest difference.)
The human is the being that, bumping into things and only in this encounter, opens up to the non-thinglike. And inversely, the human is the one that, being open to the non-thinglike, is, for this very reason, irreparably consigned to things.
Non-thingness (spirituality) means losing oneself in things, losing oneself to the point of not being able to conceive of anything but things, and only then, bumping into a limit, touching it. (This is the meaning of the word “exposure.”)
Before this apparent privileging of the human amongst other things draws calls of ‘correlationism’, it is important to recognize the programmatic character of this text. Agamben is not making a metaphysical claim that the human is that special thing that alone is capable of stumbling upon the non-thinglike (this sort of claim is the definitive trait of onto-anthropology, which, in spite of Heidegger’s efforts, reintroduced metaphysics into his system even after it was evacuated of onto-theology). Rather, he is providing us with a strategic reconception of what it is to be human – a condition in which you and I seem to be stuck, after all.
Being human is refigured as a mere point of passage to the outside, a threshold in which the limitation of things apprehends itself, takes hold of itself. This limited or transient character of things may be given in/as things themselves, but it is nonetheless denied by some of these things, in their attempts to understand the world. This denial may proceed from false pretenses, but this does not stop it from having real, tangible effects. The transcendental registration of transience, overturning its denial, is precisely what Agamben has in mind in his proposed reconception of the human. Of course, in fact, all things are already ‘consigned to things’, or to being-thus. What Agamben attempts is to repurpose our self-imposed human-being (or self-conception as human), which typically tends to elevate man above things and thingness, by conceiving non-thingness as nothing but the limit of things, or the sense in which things are nothing but the things of which they are made. There is no thing itself behind the ‘itself’; in themselves, things are no-thing. This transcendental registration of the no(n-)thingness or vacuity of things is the point at which man makes of himself a threshold, or a pure outside-without-exeteriority – he dissolves himself into the things (material and semiotic components) of which he is made, and insodoing, makes of the human nothing but this self-undermining in-itself as being-within the outside.
‘The human’ here names that which passes from denying being a mere thing while nonetheless reducing the world to mere things, to reducing itself to the things of which it is made while exposing the no(n-)thingness of things themselves, or the sense in which things are no-thing-in-themselves. Or again, man simultaneously ‘naturalizes’ the world while denaturalizing himself, treating himself as a thing apart from nature, as anti-phusis, only to pass into a total naturalization of himself which coincides with the denaturalization of nature, the revelation of itself transience, contingency, and lack of any transcendent justification. Humanity, in this paradoxical formulation, only comes into its own in turning against itself, revealing itself to be a fraud.
This is how we must understand Benjamin’s sense of redemption: far from providing final justification of the catastrophes of the past, after the model of historicism, Benjamin conceives redemption as the renunciation of such justification, and the embracing of the unjustifiable, irreparable, irredeemable character of the past. It is in this regard that Benjamin draws on Paul, but not without a slight adjustment:
While, for Paul, creation is unwillingly subjected to caducity and destruction and for this reason groans and suffers while awaiting redemption, for Benjamin, who reverses this in an ingenious way, nature is messianic precisely because of its eternal and complete caducity, and the rhythm of this messianic caducity is happiness itself. [TTR 141]
This ‘ingenious reversal’ should itself be understood as an example of the minimal difference which defines messianic time as distinct from chronological time:
Kairos (which would be translated banally as “occasion”) does not have another time at its disposal; in other words, a contracted and abridged chronos. The Hippocratic text continues with these words: “healing happens at times through chronos, other times through kairos.” That messianic “healing” happens in kairos is eviddent, but this kairos is nothing more than seized chronos. The pearl embedded in the ring of chance is only a small portion of chronos, a time remaining [restante]. (Hence the pertinence of the rabbinic apologue, for which the messianic world is not another world, but the secular world itself, with a slight adjustment, a meager difference. But this ever so slight difference, which results from my having grasped my disjointedness with regard to chronological time, is, in every way, a decisive one.) [TTR 69]
This slight adjustment is not only an intra-theoretical conception of messianic time; it is, in Benjamin’s reading of Paul, reflected back into theorizing itself, in the form of an adjustment to Paul’s treatment of redemption. We must understand the passage from Paul to Benjamin as a dramatization of the very passage from redemption in-itself to redemption for-itself.
We can understand ‘adjustment’ here as a precise technical term, distinct from the traditional notion of justice or justification to which even Derrida adheres (recall that he claims ‘justice’ is the undeconstructable core of deconstruction). Ad-justment, from ad-juxtare, literally means to bring near or close, or possibly to approximate ‘right’ or ‘proper’. To adjust is not to justify, any more than ‘adequate’ means ‘equal’. It rather has the sense of being near to justice, proximal to or beside justice. Yet this proximity must be grasped in its specificity. It does not amount to a deficient or imperfect mode of justice; rather, it should be understood in the same sense as parousia, or being beside itself. To forgo justice in favor of adjustment is to place justice beside itself, in the sense of the idiomatic expression ‘to be beside oneself’, to be in so extreme a state that one is (almost) distinct from oneself. This extreme state, representing the very limit of one’s identity, the point beyond which one would no longer be oneself, nonetheless is that which is most definitive of that identity, in marking the limits of what it can do while still remaining itself.
Redemption does not justify what was previously thought unjustifiable or irredeemably wrong. Redemption is only a slight adjustment to injustice, a meager qualification that sees injustice not as distinct from the justified, but as the extreme case that touches the limits of justice. Injustice is justice beside itself, (almost) unable to identify with itself. This adjustment in perspective by which injustice is taken as paradigm of the just reveals the latter, at heart, to be only artificially distinguished from the former, thereby suspending the efficacy of their conceptual opposition. Adjustment as the establishment of a corrosive proximity between a category and its negation, such that the latter exemplifies the former. Agamben has developed this function of exemplification in his lecture, “What is a Paradigm?”:
We don’t have here a dichotomy, meaning two zones or elements clearly separated and distinguished by a caesura, we have a field where two opposite tensions run. The paradigm is neither universal nor particular, neither general nor individual, it is a singularity which, showing itself as such, produces a new ontological context. This is the etymological meaning of the word paradigme in Greek, paradigme is literally “what shows itself beside.” Something is shown beside, “para”.
For instance, I say “I swear” as an example of the performative. In order to give an example of the syntagm, “I swear” cannot be understood in the normal context as an oath and yet must be treated as a real utterance in order to be taken as a example. This is the paradoxical status of the example. What an example shows is its belonging to a class, but for this very reason, it steps out of this class at the very moment in which it exhibits and defines it. Showing its belonging to a class, it steps out from it and is excluded. So, does the rule apply to the example? It’s very difficult to answer. The answer is not easy since the rule applies to the example only as a normal case and not as an example. The example is excluded from the normal case not because it does not belong to it but because it exhibits its own belonging to it.
Injustice, when adjusted or taken as justice beside itself, functions as a paradigm of justice, or exhibits its intelligibility while suspending the rule which defines the category itself. Injustice does not belong to the category of justice so much as it renders justice intelligible as such: the just or justified is always justified injustice; or rather, all is without-justice, and justice is only subsequently imposed upon a world indifferent to this determination. Taking injustice as an example of justice thereby reveals the manner in which it belongs to the class ‘justice’, yet with the criteria for membership nonetheless suspended. If redemption is meant to justify all injustice, it only does so by revealing the content of the justified to be the unjust itself, thereby subverting its apparent intention. Instead of justifying the unjust, redemption qua adjustment reveals justice itself to be unjust. Rather than making everything right, it reveals that even ‘right’ is wrong, only artificially distinguished from the latter. Redemption does not restore justice to the unjust, it suspends the distinction between justice and injustice in the name of the Real without-justice, already-redeemed without redemption.
The example or paradigm as being-beside-itself can help us understand the messianic conception of time in Benjamin and Paul. What Agamben calls the paradigm or example has the same function as the dialectical image in Benjamin and the figure or typos in Paul. The typological, figurative, or imagistic relation is one in which a fragment of the past enters into a constellation with the present moment. This prefiguration of the present does not amount to being doomed to repeat the past, nor blessed to learn from it. Rather, prefiguration dislocates the present from its temporal continuity. “What matters to us here is not the fact that each event of the past – once it becomes figure – announces a future event and is fulfilled in it, but is the transformation of time implied by this typological relation.” [TTR 74] This transformation comes in the revelation that the past event, apparently ‘complete’ in having happened, and hence having been smoothly assimilated into the temporal continuum of history, is ‘incompleted’ in the remote effect it exerts in the present. In undermining the stability of its foundation (the past), the present thereby undoes its own assimilation, un-determining itself, arresting the flow of time within which it is caught in the name of that which was forsaken so that the present could be.
This figuration is paradigmatic or exemplary, in Agamben’s sense, in that we take an instance of our own history, which the historicist insists progresses toward ever greater justice and virtue, as an example of that movement toward justice. We take an event whose injustice history is said to have corrected or compensated, and throw into stark relief the unassimilable, monadic character of that event, the sense in which it constitutes that “precious but tasteless seed” at the core of the “nourishing fruit” of history. [XVII] By revealing the irreducibility of injustice to justification, its unshakable though invisible inherence within our present, we make of it an example or figure of our self-justifying present, thereby revealing the mass graves upon which we’ve laid the foundations of progress. Agamben says that messianic time or kairos is not in the past, present, or future, but rather, is in this figurative relation between past and present by way of which time is arrested, blasted out of its continuum, and through which the future comes as the implosion of the bloodstained values that had once driven it forward. Messianic time is that adjustment within chronological time which reveals a fissure in the past where another future was possible but forgone, making of the present the potential resurfacing of that other future, the manifest future of a disappeared past.
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). The whole history of the Church may be tainted by a corruption of this messianic spirit, reinstituting impassive patience in the name of the ‘second coming’ and so on, but it nonetheless is built upon ground thick with explosives, waiting only for the revolutionary spark to ignite it. Christian theology and the various churches, whatever good they have done, are nonetheless monstrous abominations in their obfuscation of their revolutionary heritage, formally no different than China today vis a vis its Marxist origins. Yet, whatever ills they have caused, these monsters nonetheless continue to carry the seeds of their own undoing, waiting only for us to tend to them. It is not we who should wait for the Messiah, it is the Messiah who waits for us.
Politics of Abandon
In the aforementioned discussion, Nick worried that messianically-inclined thought tends toward the “belief that some big event will save us.” Yet the sort of messianism I’ve defended here displays the exact opposite inclination: it is we who must save the messianic event from its erasure in the name of progress. There is, in this regard, no ‘once and for all’ break that will redeem and rescue us. On the contrary, messianism makes visible those fault lines on which the present rests with such confidence, and the sense in which we might aggravate them. There is one final problem, however: why should we? Why should we prefer something else to the existing order(s) of things? Here we must return to Benjamin’s notion of the eternal transience of historical events, the sense in which they were always and will always have been fleeting, insignificant blips in the universe (this is very close to Brassier’s nihilism, in which the anterior posteriority of universal extinction annuls all claims to significance). Benjamin’s messianic fulfillment of history does not amount to the replacing of a false significance with the true one, or the trading one order and its progress for another. In recalling the unassimilable catastrophes upon which the present is built, Benjamin’s messianism demands that we cease incorporating them into a meaningful narrative of progress, and instead come to terms with their utter meaninglessness or unjustifiability. In this manner, the meaninglessness established by messianic time contaminates the present, undermining the validity of the values by which progress secures its prescriptive valence, persuading people to act in accord. The arrest of progress by messianic recapitulation reveals the meaninglessness of every meaning, the injustice of every justification; in short, it suspends every law defining inclusion and exclusion.
What remains after this suspension, what reason is there to go on? Or in a more positive sense, what does messianism seek to establish, if not a new order? To make an example of oneself; to set an example. Here we can make a useful reference to prefigurative politics, in which the means must conform to the values they are used to establish. The similarity of terms here is no coincidence: our very efforts to change things must set the example for what we want to achieve, they must prefigure what is to come as a result. The crucial difference here, however, is that whereas this sort of praxis seeks to prefigure the future in the present, Benjaminian messianism seeks to prefigure the present with the past, or to bring the past into direct contact with present without mediation by historical progress. The difference is not unlike the one Benjamin draws between the soothsayers and the Jews. In fetishizing the future in the name of some new order to be progressively established, prefigurative praxis ultimately invests action with a new justification to replace the present one. Benjaminian messianism, on the other hand, does not seek to establish a future order by directly enacting it in the present; rather, it seeks to reveal the disorder upon which the present is built by recalling the impenetrable meaninglessness of the past, thereby transplanting past dis-order into the present (whereas the former transplants future order into the present).
For Benjamin, as for Marx, ruminations about what communism would be like were mostly worthless, even dangerous:
The existence of the classless society cannot be thought at the same time that the struggle for it is thought. But the concept of the present, in its binding sense for the historian, is necessarily defined by these two temporal orders. Without some sort of assay of the classless society, there is only a historical accumulation of the past. To this extent, every concept of the present participates in the concept of Judgment Day. [from the Paralipomena]
What sort of assay can resolve this apparent contradiction? I unfortunately don’t have the German, so I’m not sure what term ‘assay’ translates, but within the English translation we see a hint. Assay means both to analyze or assess, and to attempt or experiment. We may not be capable of thinking the classless society, but that doesn’t mean we can’t directly attempt to constitute classless social bodies. Moreover, classless society cannot have some positive existence apart from the struggles and attempts to attain it, for if it did, we would be reinstituting a model of historical progression. We should understand classless society as directly actualized in the revolutionary arresting of historical progress, be it in an impermanent and transient form. Classless society will never be some enduring finality, but will always be threatened with assimilation into a new progression, and hence can never cease to defend itself and struggle to maintain itself. As Marx and Engels famously put it in The German Ideology: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” The movement of abolition of the present will never be completed, it will persist until its final eclipse in either absorption by progress or the extinction of its agents.
Communism as classless society is nothing apart from the assays into it that constitute class struggle. These experiments are only possible on the grounds of the suspension of the normative valence of the existing social order, which is caused by the revelation of its eternal transience, or the activation of the messianic time contained within history. Messianic time is the time of suspension in which we sustain an endless experimentation with classless existence. In this sense, classless society is not a substantially different social order that comes after this one; it has no content other than this society, these ‘premises now in existence’, only subjected to the slight adjustment that suspends normative valence (or the fixity of reasons), thereby opening the world to an experimental appropriation without reason. (This theory is indebted to Nicole Pepperell’s reading of Capital, which understands Marx’s task as one of taking inventory of the ideo-practical structures currently operative so that we can begin to think of other ways to use them.) Transcendental extinction or eternal transience renders all reasons open to study, play, and use without propriety or misuse-value. Private property (and propriety in general) refers not to concrete objects, but to a relation we maintain with objects in which their use is fixed in the name of progression towards ends. Messianic or classless society is not one in which all private property is made public, but in which propriety itself is universally suspended, thereby making all use equivocally improper.
Thus, impatient messianism differs from prefigurative politics in that it does not posit the values of the society to be achieved, only to institute them within the struggle for that society. Rather than orienting itself toward an imagined future, impatient messianism manifests the futurity of the past, or in other words, its eternal insignificance. It suspends all progression in the name of experimentation without end. This struggle no more imitates what it pursues than it differs from it. It pursues only itself, and struggles only to maintain the suspense of progress and experimentation with a thereby ex-propriated world. Messianism does not anticipate anything; rather, it recognizes itself as what all of history had hitherto anticipated: the passing away of fantasy progression in the name of a valorized eternal transience. The most succinct summary of life in the messianic kingdom or the classless society comes from an unlikely source, Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library”. As Benjamin describes the reveling in the disorderly piles of his book collection, we should imagine dwelling amongst the ruins of the present, once its fixity to progress has come undone. Instead of books, there are laws, institutions, conventions, buildings and infrastructures and cultures and languages all scattered around, now bereft of their meaningful mobilization in the name of progress:
Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?
Habituated to disorder, such that it appears as order, this is experimentality, this is utopia.