“Only that without history can be defined…”
– Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morals.
Nietzsche crystallizes in that quote two of the most prominent philosophical concerns: definitions and history; trying to define (de-limit) things, events, their existence, and interpret the present in terms of the past and future. Such matters, towards the beginning of the twentieth century, made Martin Heidegger challenge the notions of time and being (BW: 245-250), and prompted Walter Benjamin to critique the progress and fullness of history (IER: 261)–both thinkers against whom Maurice Blanchot argued after World War II and “the burn of the holocaust” (WD: 6). How to understand history and existence after the disaster? “How is it possible to say: ‘Auschwitz has happened’?” (WD: 143).
To try to answer these questions is madness, the type to which one abandons oneself in an attempt to master it (WD: 43) with “a struggle against the master with the instruments of its mastery” (WD: 138) which could be the very definition of metaphysics, ontology, or philosophy. But what if the master, the answer, exists but is absent? How to understand that which “does not figure in language” (WD: 31), “anterior to all past-present…posterior to every possibility of a present yet to come” (WD: 60)? How to speak or write an absent answer? How to “pronounce the unpronounceable” (WD: 72)? How to understand history and the disaster? Maybe that understanding, though not the answer, relies in enlisting the services of theology (IER: 253), meaning to entrust messianic language with explaining history and the disaster, just the way Benjamin and Blanchot did (IER: 253-264, WD: 141-143), though with opposed significations. It was mandatory for them to address the issue in that language for the sake of an understanding.
In their explorations, however, these thinkers retorted to different messianic references, each in accordance with his philosophy. Benjamin’s notion of the messianic resembles the Christian tradition, closely related to Hegel and Marx (IER: 254), whereas Blanchot’s messiah comes from the Judaic, criticizing the Christian apotheosis (WD: 141-143), and following Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. However, despite differences between their approaches, they both aim at defining messianic time–how the Messiah redefines the relationship of history and time.
But both Benjamin and Blanchot first challenge the pre-established notions of time and history, defining what these are not, before linking and introducing their ideas of the messianic. For neither of them does history represent a mere chain of events, a Historie or Geschichte (WD: 138), or “the beads of a rosary” (IER: 263). History is not simply what fills up “homogenous, empty time” (IER: 261), which is the idea behind historicism and the notion of a cumulative, universal history (IER: 262). Rather, history gives an intelligibility to time (WD: 143) that depends upon the messianic thought (IER: 264, WD: 143), whether this be something desirable (for Benjamin) or dangerous (for Blanchot)–history and time depend on the parousia, the coming of the Messiah (WD: 110, IER: 263).
Hereby, with the different notions of “the coming”, begins the contrast between the messianic thoughts of Benjamin and Blanchot, differing not only in their philosophical influences as mentioned before, but also in how these affect aspects of their thoughts, such as the significance of history, temporality, and ethics, and the power of the messianic upon these all.
Benjamin’s essay focuses mostly on this relationship between history and the messianic, approaching it through a deeply critical analysis of the two prime philosophical tendencies towards history: historicism and historical materialism (IER: 253-264). The first is wrong because it merely accumulates data, and this “does not mean to recognize it the way it really was” (IER: 255) as Ranke intended with selbstauslöschung (German: self-extinguishment). Immersing oneself to a specific instance of the past, “a memory that flashes up at a moment of danger” (IER: 255) or “an ‘eternal’ image of the past” (IER: 262), means empathizing (Greek: em+pathos: feelings) with the victor (IER: 256) and rendering every event, good or bad, as a positive advance towards progress, for it is presupposed that the labor progress ultimately is good (IER: 259), when in reality progress is a storm, a catastrophe (Greek, cata: downward, strephein: turn)–a disaster (IER: 257-258).
But where historicism has failed, which means at interpreting history, Benjamin considers historical materialism to be erring too. Historical materialism, doing almost the exact opposite of historicism, appropriates the flashes of the past, making them a part of the present (IER: 255). Even spiritual matters are applied retroactively when questioning the past, as Marx did when criticizing Hegel (IER: 254-255). Historical materialism, while claiming the present to be a transitional point, stops time in order to write history in an attempt to supply an interpretation, an experience (Greek, ex: outside, peras limit) to “blast open the continuum of history” (IER: 262). This is a messianic cessation which tries to justify the revolution, the revolution of the oppressed (IER: 257) through an understanding of a single era, free of historical bias (that is, of victors and the ruling classes), applying the Hegelian aufheben–opposing, preserving, canceling (IER: 263).
In this sense, historical materialism is constructive when compared to historicism, since the former considers the past in terms of the present instead of solely accumulating events in terms of their epoche (Greek: cessation, fixed point).
This construction of historical materialism turns time messianic precisely because of its attempt to set origin as a goal. Time becomes the structure to be filled not only with events, but with a sense, a presence of the Jetztzeit, the now. The revolution would fulfill the goal of history (IER: 261), redeeming future generations thanks to the present one (IER: 260)–the one “endowed with a weak messianic power” since this was “the secret agreement between past generations and the present one” (IER: 254).
Nevertheless, this messianic power is weakened precisely because of the construction supporting it, which misses to recognize that the foundation of the agreement, the claim to redemption (Latin: re: again, emere: to buy, to bring), happens not from present to future or from past to present–messianic redemption “comprises the entire history of mankind” (IER: 263). Time is therefore linear, eschatological (Greek, escathon: last, goal; logos: convention), because it means redeeming, bringing together “the fullness of the past” with the present and an uncertain future–history and time lead to a messianic redemption (IER: 254, 263).
This construction of history is what Blanchot deconstructs with the best Derridian tradition–by questioning down to the absent foundations of the notions of history and time (AR: 231, 235), for these are phenomena not to be fused or confused with objects or events.
History, for Blanchot, leads to a present, a now belonging to a “severe, fictitious narrative” (WD: 142). Be it historie or Geschichte, cumulative historiography or events regarded as historical, history totalizes human life and its events into an ordered narrative with a beginning and an end, and subjugates time to the coming of this end, a goal and finality. History, in a Hegelian idea that “the true is the whole”, attempts to give finitude to time and Being (BW: 239), when both of these belong to the Infinite; both are an-archic (Greek: an: without, arche: origin).
How can history be an-archic when it implies a type of structure? History, understood as human events, is a “simulacrum of unity” (WD: 2) which in reality has no origin because it is fragmented, “pulling to pieces…that which never has preexisted as a whole” (WD: 60). Compared to Nietzsche’s quote, a similarity arises: that having a history, a past, does not simplify the definition of things, but rather makes it impossible, as opposed to the Hegelian ideal that totality of knowledge would mean finding the essence. However, “the essential in time consists in being…a multiplicity of acts where the following act resolves the previous one” (TI: 284). If every historical fragment has its beginning, if “every beginning is a beginning over” (WD: 117), then Nietzsche was correct when he claimed everything as a Rückkehr (German: return), a cyclic phenomenon to which an origin cannot be tracked among “the nothingness of the interval…the production of infinity” (TI: 284).
Even when the fragments have finitudes of their own, beginnings and ends, though maybe without a conclusion, the time that contains these historical fragments does not. “The time in which being ad infinitum is produced goes beyond the possible” (TI: 281). Time belongs to infinity, that which cannot be grasped, for it is no object, subject, or presence whatsoever, but just a phenomenon stemmed from consciousness (TI: 281) which “overflows the thought that thinks it” (TI: 25)—a phenomenon existing beyond temporality.
“But infinite time is putting back in the question of the truth that promises” (TI: 284)—the promise of the coming of the Messiah, and the threat of the disaster. Both of these are asymptotic, getting closer but forever eluding being present or re-presented. “When the disaster comes upon us, it does not come” (WD: 1), “his coming does not correspond to any presence at all” (WD: 142). The messiah and the disaster, being ab-sent, lack a past, hence a history, a Hegelian essence. Absence that “does not belong to ordinary time,” but destabilizes it (WD: 142).
How can the disaster and the Messiah have such powerful relationship to history and time, even in their absence? Because their absence is haunting, a hauntology (AR: 252-254), always past, forever to come—“a silent, harmless return” (WD: 6) which breaks from the totality and the totalization of history, and cannot be experience since their time is that of the infinite (WD: 2). The haunting is not a condemnation, for neither the disaster nor the Messiah come with “destruction’s penalty” (WD: 6). “Breaking away from the star” (WD: 75) “brings the light” (WD: 7), for it does not deny the vacuum left, the need of fulfillment in the infinite continuum of time.
Such is why history is devised, written (WD: 138-139) in an attempt to fill in the unknown, to “fictively open and close the absence” (WD: 58). But the system of history is not enough. Our language, if “language is itself already skepticisim” (WD: 77), then it does not “destroy the system” (WD: 76). Writing history, writing of the disaster or the Messiah, does nothing. History merely attempts to appropriate time and being, codifying it. But “the code no longer suffices. The translation is infinite” (WD: 136).
The translation fails because the infinite exceeds all language. Only silence, an absence of answer, could reply an absent question by answering “what remains to be said” (WD: 146).
Yet, writing still happens, trying to instantiate through history the disaster, the Messiah, and their promise to bring justice. However, justice too cannot be instantiated–not in the code of law (AR: 232-250) or in interpretations of history (WD: 138). Justice, coming from the infinite, promises forever to come—to come with the Messiah, to come with the disaster. “Justice won’t wait” (WD: 143).
This judgment, not through law or history but from justice, empowers the non-occurring, absent Messiah, for such absence perpetuates time. “The Messiah does not yet signify the end of history, the suppression of time” (WD: 142), regardless if the Messiah is the redeemer (IER: 255) or a comforter (WD: 142). The end does not matter, but the possibility of it. Being relates to time not in the terms of exact finitude, but in the terms of the possibility of one.
The Messiah redeems and comforts because the possibility of the coming, the possibility of an end, prompts questioning “every just act,” making “the most commonplace ordinary, extraordinary” (WD: 143). The promise of the coming, or the threat of the disaster of a judgment, makes ethics possible, questioning actions, language, history “for each moment…becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour” (IER: 254)—effacing the questions, the answers, and constructing them again (WD: 52). “The disaster is a gift” (WD: 5) which gives ethics and justice.
Time and being relate through this justice—the justice of messianic time, a judgment “[not] reserved for the end of time” (WD: 143), a redemption given in Judgment Day (IER: 254), “the youngest day, surpassing all days” (WD: 143), “for every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter” (IER: 264). Messianic time redeems by bringing together the I and the Other in a relation of justice (TI: 89), in which neither is totalized but relate in aporia, “experiencing what we are unable to experience” (AR: 244). Messianic time, thence, “takes care of everything” (WD: 3).
OGM: Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals.
BW: Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. 1977. New York.
IER: Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. 1969. New York.
WD: Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of the Disaster. 1980. Nebraska.
AR: Derrida, Jaques. Acts of Religion. 2002. London, UK.
TI: Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. 1969. Pennsylvania.