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  • Writer's pictureChristine Skolnik

Secular Messianism, Myths of Progress, and the Fall of Time

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

The following is an excerpt (set of excerpts) from a previous SLSA talk, and a companion piece to Sam Stoeltje's recent post, Spivak on the Supernatural. Because I was working from a Kindle edition I have added section titles to my citations, such as they are (given that the talk necessitated aggressive summary).

In Giorgio Agamben: Beyond the Threshold of Deconstruction, Kevin Attell contrasts Derrida’s future-oriented messianic time with Agamben’s “uni-dual” relational concept. (Both are secular.) Though Derrida dislocates time from Christian and Hegelian progress, to a great extent, Agamben characterizes Derrida’s messianic time as linear and still, in a sense, progressive. Attell claims that Agamben offers a “model for conceiving the present,” by adding a concept of deactivation to Derridean deconstruction of origins (location 4708 / “Nun, Jetzt (II)”).

[ . . .]

So, to a gross oversimplification (part interpretation) of Attell’s and Agamaben’s discussions of time. Conventional Christianity, Hellenism, Judaism . . . reinforce a sacred, linear, progressive time. Let’s say with the spread of Christian power/knowledge, we inherit a set of archetypal data points from the Old and New Testaments. Creation, the fall, the flood, Sinai (skip a few), the birth of Christ, salvation, and the end of the world. A hero’s journey. Traditional narratives generally end before the end of the world. However, when the end of the world comes upon us, in plague times for example, apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic narratives insert the end of the world before salvation or begin after an end of time (civilization) as the fall. Still, a hero’s journey and a linear progression, actually, though interestingly with two ends.

For Derrida, in Specters of Marx for example, the end of time and the second coming, like any foundational concept, are infinitely deferred. Nevertheless, Agamben argues, Derrida is part of the chronological tradition because he generally works within a linear concept of time. Presence is always receding into a more or less real past, we may recall, and différance invokes a more or less real future. Of course, Derrida is sophisticated, and he may be a precursor to the fall of time. But, for the sake of argument, Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence is a linear conceit (location 4170 – 4245 / “Prophet or Apostle”).

What Agamben discovers in Paul is something quite distinct from Derrida, though arguably an iteration of pre-Christian or early Christian Gnosticism. Per Agamben’s reading of Paul, the Messiah will not come on the last day, at the end of the line of time, but will arrive when he is no longer necessary, “on the very last day” (location 255 / “Introduction”), when the myth of progressive time is deactivated (location 4170 – 4245 / “Prophet or Apostle”).

How is time deactivated? Agamben’s argument is very subtle, possibly too subtle on the surface, but also compelling because it evokes an intuitive sense of time as plural. He begins with Paul’s focus on messianic time as the present interval between the first and the second coming. What is significant about this bracketing of time, however, is that messianic time deactivates the time of empire (location 4170 – 4245 / “Prophet or Apostle”).

Agamben also compares messianic time with linguist Gustave Guillaume’s notion of operational time. Between the least perceptible duration of time and the representation of that moment, Guillaume posits a delay, and this delay is an elusive operational time that cannot be accounted for in representational schemes (location 4603 / “Nun, Jetzt (II)”). I actually don’t think such a duration is necessarily very brief. It’s only brief when we are engaged in the thought experiment of trying to think about time. Representational time, the time of empire, is also, arguably, arrested whenever we are intensely focused or engaged in a truly creative activity.

In any case, this is Agamben’s uni-dual time. Dual because there are two times: representational and operational. However, operational time exists within representational time, so also unified. Agamben argues that operational time introduces a new temporal dimension. The question of dimensionality is less significant in Attell’s reading (though) than Agamben’s repeated claims that operational time deactivates representational time, just as messianic time deactivates the time of empire. Deactivation is a kind of negative/negating potential within time. The existence of the two times is also less significant in Agamben’s reading of Paul, than the relationship between them. Deactivation describes the relationship between two regimes of time. In Agamben’s words, "The messianic is not just one of two terms in this typological relation, it is the relation itself” (Agamben, The Time That Remains 74 in Attell location 4696 / “Nun, Jetzt (II)”).

Agamben’s uni-dual time is a plausible explanation for our tendency to vacillate between faith in progress and doubt. When in thrall to empire we are motivated to believe in progress, but when we become aware of the empire “corroding from within,” progressive time is deactivated. We don’t just stop believing in progress, though; we become generally disoriented. We are spit out of time in a sense. But we’re not really out of time; we’re in a different time. Perhaps we turn our attention to a more intimate social time, biological time, or perhaps we become increasingly aware of ecological time, or hauntology. In any case we may ask, “How did we get here?” In doing so we may become more critically aware of imperial (institutional) time and this may be the beginning of a returm to our own vital creativity.

Works Cited:

Agamben, Giorgio. The Time That Remains. Trans. Patricia Dailey. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005.

Attell, Kevin. Giorgio Agamben: Beyond the Threshold of Deconstruction. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015. Kindle Edition.

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