Time, revolution and historical subjectivity

(Photographs by Alexey Titarenko)

In revolution, everything happens incredibly quickly, just like in dreams in which people seem to be freed from gravity.

Gustave Landauer, Revolution

We have merely to tear down the Bastilles of the future, restructure the past and live each second as though an eternal return ensured its recurrence in an endless cycle.

Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life

1. Revolutions “are the only historical events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of the beginning.” (1)  The words are Hannah Arendt’s and they impose on any reflection on revolution an equal consideration of time. And as events which do not merely change circumstances, but erupt into history, generating new temporalities, the “subject” of revolution, the creative agency that brings it about, is also not far to be found. The revolutionary subject breaks the flow of rectilinear time, and inaugurates a new time, a new history, the history of freedom. (2)  In Marxist attire, the irreversible, linear time of history is constituted through commodity production (time is universal, abstract labour time embodied in commodity exchange value) and all other uses of time must be repressed. The counter-time of revolution is then to be located in the proletariat. “In the demand to live the historical time which it makes, the proletariat finds the simple unforgettable centre of its revolutionary project; and every attempt (thwarted until now) to realise this project makes a point of possible departure for new historical life.” (3)

Yet what remains of historical subjectivities and revolutions in our time? Who are the agents of future new beginnings? If they have fled or if they have been chased from the stage of history, are revolutions still imaginable, or possible? And what if the ill fate of both is a consequence of a transfiguration of time, from a transcendent measure, to something that “pertains directly to existence” or as something immanent to it? (4)  What would then seem at first glance tragedy is rather the announcement of new revolutionary forms, the movement of a multitude constituting “time beyond measure”, the movement of “an immanent process of constitution” where subjectivities and times are made in revolution. (5)  And yet what if the loss of temporal transcendence heralds rather the end of time and the loss of subjectivity? In the ever more accelerated flow of commodities and their spectacularisation, the present “has been obliterated.” (6)  “All we have are things to look back on and things to look forward to, memory and anticipation.” With no present to mark the passage from future to past, we merely “pass the time”, spectators on a future that “is simply a past reiterated.” (8)  Unable to create a present, the active subject dries and withers, and revolution fades into a lost past of a species not our own.

These are the questions which inspire this reflection. Or stated more simply, what is the time that remains for revolution?

2. “What is necessary to breed an animal capable of making promises?” was Friedrich Nietzsche’s question in the “Second Essay” of On the Genealogy of Morals. (9)  Strange at first reading, the question’s significance reveals itself in the course of the essay as central to any understanding of morality, because it is upon the making of human beings as promising animals that all morality rests. From it is born duty, responsibility, guilt, conscience, in sum, the “sovereign individual” “entitled to make promises.” (10)  And the difficulty and pain of this labour is rendered all the more evident when Nietzsche reminds us both that without memory there can be no promises (I remember, or I am reminded, of my commitments) and that we are animated by an equally powerful force, that of forgetfulness. To forget is to actively minimise or hold at bay what would stimulate and disturb consciousness, providing some peace amidst the tumult of what would otherwise overwhelm us. Forgetting makes “room for the new”; new thoughts, new ways of being. (11)  Without it, there would be no present, as a time for the new. “The man in whom this inhibiting apparatus is damaged and out of order may be compared to a dyspeptic (and not only compared) – he is never ‘through’ with anything.” (12)  Memory is thus a “counter-faculty”, suspending forgetfulness, and holding an active “I will”, “I shall”, resiliently against the flux of events through time. (13)  Memory dissolves the future in the present, or projects the present into a future-present. Time is flattened out, the accidental, the contingent, is set aside for what must bind the present to the future. The future is thereby knowable, for the unpredictability of events between now and after is suppressed by the promise to remain true to one’s word. The forgetfulness is disciplined, while memory moulds us as “calculable, regular, necessary.” (14)

Two “presents” are contrasted with each other in Nietzsche’s narrative: a present as beginning, or rupture, around which new pasts and futures dance, changing step, move and posture with each half-blind forgetful gesture and a present as coloniser of futures and pasts, fixed by a will that subjugates and assimilates novelty to consistent continuity. But if as Nietzsche says, there is no present without forgetfulness, the second of our two “presents” is in fact no present at all, but the effort to generate a timeless present, an eternity of the now that annihilates time in a congealed atemporality. Novelty, creativity, herein dies, supplanted by a repetition of the same forced on by duty. And then the paradox: however much the future is made present, it cannot vanish as future, for then the promise cannot be carried through. There is no promising without a future. “I promise to return what I have borrowed”, obliges me for the duration of my debt. But once the debt is settled, I am free. Yet should the debt be eternalised in an ever delayed future, which is precisely what Nietzsche believes takes place with the moralisation of such concepts as “duty” and “guilt”, then repayment is impossible. “The goal now is the pessimistic one of closing off once and for all the prospect of a definitive repayment.” (15)

For Nietzsche, the eternalisation of debt, and thus of duty, is at the origin of our conception of God as the ultimate creditor. (16)  And the sickness of guilt reaches its most feverish intensity when it devours the debtor, when guilt becomes irredeemable. The sovereign will becomes the “will to infect and poison things to their very depths … in order to cut off once and for all any escape from this labyrinth of idées fixes”; (17) a will so overwhelming that it even extends to the Deity itself in the Christian conception of a sacrificed god. All appears then as without value, nihilism triumphant. (18)

3. Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals permits us to read the crisis of modernity as a crisis of nihilism grounded in a resentful will to power that separates us from our “animal past”, from “old instincts”, from forgetfulness, the very conditions for “strength, pleasure, and fearfulness.” (19)  “The link between man and the world is broken”, is how Gilles Deleuze expressed this same modernity. We “no longer believe in this world”; we “do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us.” (20)

What is also however at stake is a metamorphosis of time, or time’s very possibility, as well as that of the subject. Nihilism is married to “idées fixes”, to the repetition of the same, because the present (and thus the past and the future), made possible by forgetfulness, is lost in the burning light of memory. At the very moment then of the noblest embodiment of morality in the sovereign subject (in the full subjugation of forgetfulness to memory), the subject begins to evanesce. “Man … is identical to time.” (21)  And as the latter slows to a stop, “man” passes away. From whence then is the renewal to come? Or is it no longer possible? Is ours’ the time of Blanchot’s “disaster”? “When the disaster comes upon us, it does not come. The disaster is its imminence, but since the future, as we conceive of it in the order of lived time, belongs to the disaster, the disaster has always already withdrawn or dissuaded it; there is no future for the disaster, just as there is no time or space for its accomplishment.” (22)

Nietzsche’s healthy übermensch, artists of the soul, are ultimately of little inspiration here, if for no other reason than it was they who formerly laid the ground for moral conscience. (23)  They offer but another variety of repetition, equally senseless in its own recurrence: either in the will to will against the “renunciation of existence”, (24) or in the will to create for the sake of creation, for creation is the subjective will surpassing itself, for greater and more intense life. “[T]o create signifies conceptually: to liberate possibilities of life.” (25)  In the first instance, a formal will that wills itself independently of its object or consequences, and in the second, a substantive will to power, a will to augment subjective power, but for power’s sake, against the obstacles that would constrain and mortify it (e.g., despair, the “I”, the world), but mortified in turn by an ethics of benefiting one’s friends and harming one’s enemies. (26)

Nietzsche’s diagnosis of our times nevertheless stubbornly resonates. If his question was why create, or why continue to create, it was posed against the “death of God”. Let the question then be rephrased and posed in a different setting, a setting which may suggest an answer distinct from Nietzsche’s: why continue to create in the “death of time”?

4. Maurizio Lazzarato, in The Making of the Indebted Man, reads our neoliberal economy through the lens of Nietzsche’s Genealogy. In the globalised economy of debt, the debtor-creditor relationship is generalised and intensified. Within “it no distinction exists between worker and the unemployed, consumers and producers, working and non-working population, retirees and welfare recipients”. Everyone is a “debtor” to capital, the “Universal Creditor”. (27)  Such a relationship is not one between equals, as Nietzsche had already maintained. If is contractual, it is so as one measures oneself up against another; a kind of joust to ascertain the relations of power that identify creditor and debtor. (28)  What “are contracts” to s/he “who is capable of giving commands”? (29)  In Lazzarato’s work, “debt is not only an economic mechanism, it is also a security-state technique of government aimed at reducing the uncertainty of the behaviour of the governed.” (30)

The debt economy is first an economy of time. Its aim is to reduce “what will be to what is, that is, reducing the future and its possibilities to current power relations.” (31)  The future is possessed in advance, objectivised in the current power relations between creditor and debtor. Debt “pre-empts non-chronological time, each person’s future as well as the future of society as a whole.” (32)  Time, “as the creation of new possibilities, that is to say, the raw material of all political, social, or aesthetic change”, is neutralised. (33)  Weighed upon by a future projected from and determined by the present, where possibility is subsumed to actuality, all action as a surpassing of oneself and of the world is stifled.

In parallel, the debt economy is also an economy of subjectivation. (34)  As debt constitutes the moral subject for Nietzsche, so for Lazzarato, the debt economy transforms all of us into “human capital” or “entrepreneurs of the self”, in which each individual must assume the costs and the risks of innovation, precariousness, poverty, unemployment, a failing health system, housing shortages, and so on; in sum, a subject that “takes upon oneself the costs and the risks externalised by the State and corporations”, from which then profit is extracted and assured. (35)  Money, its circulation, not labour, is the principal source of wealth. Captured by the debt machine, each individual is transformed “into an indebted economic subject.” (36)  And if for Nietzsche our debts become infinite before God, capitalism accomplishes a similar feat through money.

[M]oney – the circulation of money – is the means of rendering the debt infinite. … The infinite creditor and infinite credit have replaced the blocks of mobile and finite debts. There is always a monotheism on the horizon of despotism: the debt becomes a debt of existence, a debt of the existence of the subjects themselves. A time will come when the creditor has not yet lent while the debtor never quits repaying, for repaying is a duty but lending is an option. (37)

5. Walter Benjamin discerned within capitalism a religion. Its god is money and it serves to allay the same despair as religion through cult (the cult of debt repayment). Indeed, it is “purely cultic”, possessing “no specific body of dogma, no theology.” (38)  It turns upon itself, “sans rêve et sans merci”; “each day commands the utter fealty of each worshipper”, rooted in a generalised guilt without atonement. (39)  And herein lies its unprecedented nature. As the Christian god gives birth to nihilism, for Nietzsche, capitalism equally “is a religion which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction.” (40)  The divinity of Money is hidden in the immanence of guilty despair; it is never stronger than in its death, when money is promised to all. Yet without redemption, the time of debt freezes over, the eschaton of future salvation fades from view, and dept burrows ever deeper into the body of the faith, feeding upon the animus of the believers, the mechanical marionettes of ritual.

With time lost, the future eternity of bliss, of salvation, is displaced for a present eternity of repetition. What time, if any, is this? Cannot the lost time of possible futures and remade pasts be balanced in a present, anew? Though if it must be sought out, created, why do so? What value lies in it? Is it even possible? Or is there not another time announced in this our seemingly inescapable timelessness? What if escape is precisely what should not be sought, and in its stead, substituted for an embracing of our distance from the world, by an action living without or outside time, in a present which is no longer present, but a condensation of all past presents? If nihilism destroys any possible liberatory, or even meaningful, eschatology, does not the religion of capitalism reveal the possibility of a messianic freedom? In the all consuming chronos of capitalism, in the destruction of chronological time in the time of debt, a time-reality is disclosed that lies not outside, beyond chronology, but in its folds, only unveiling itself in the exhaustion of linear time. What remains then for us beyond meaningless faith in ritual is belief in the world; not however “in another world, or in a transformed world”, but in the time-life that is just below the shrouded surface of the automaton bound to dutiful cult. “We need an ethic or a faith, which makes fools laugh; it is not a need to believe in something else, but a need to believe in this world, of which fools are a part.” (41)

Gloss: Paul Audi argues quite emphatically that Nietzsche’s diagnosis of nihilism cannot be taken merely as the reading of a historical contingency, of an accident in the history of the “Occidental or European Spirit.” (I leave aside here, and in the body of the essay, the otherwise significant distinctions made by Nietzsche between negative, reactive and passive nihilism). That it pertains to history, that it manifests itself in an epoch, is not testimony to a historical reality, but to its source in the very structure of subjective life. (42)

“I,” you say, and are proud of the word. But greater is that in which you do not wish to have faith – your body and its great reason: that does not say “I,” but does “I.” … Instruments and toys are sense and spirit: behind them still lies the self. … Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage – whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body. (43)

The self is not the “I”, or the ego; it is that which precedes and exceeds the “I” in its consciousness of itself, what sustains its being. (44)  It is subjective life itself, life as incessant self-affection, permanent self-surpassing, the source of all creative experience. (45)  Life is ceaseless, immanent self-transgression (to which the “I” is subject) and creation is the giving of form to life, thus giving greater life to subjective life, giving new possibilities or powers to its becomings. “I” “cannot not possess a certain capacity to act, to will, to feel, to imagine or to create.” (46)  But “I” do not master this power; “I” am its hostage, hostage to my self, and exclusively to my self. (47)  The self is the source of the “I” and also the source of the experience of the “I” as surpassed, exceeded. Audi’s ethics of creation is thus an appeal to the “I” to continue to create, to allow creation, rather than abandon itself to the despair of its own apparent impotence. For Audi, nihilism is born here, in a despair that testifies to a possibility, the possibility of passivity, grounded in the very ontological structure of human subjectivity, a permanent possible mode of life, and not some historical tragedy. (48)

Yet if nihilism is not reducible to a historical epoch, neither is it imaginable outside of history. Between the self and the I are processes of subjectivation which are not simply of the domain of ontology, as Audi would have it (“…the I becomes the “subject” that it is, or that it recognises itself as, on the sole condition of a previous, transcendental, a priori submission … submission to one’s self.”), (49) but also historical. In other words, the self is subject to agencies of subjectivation that mould, channel, domesticate the forces of the self, thus giving life to particular forms of subjective life and self-consciousness. To speak with Franz Kafka, even without awareness or knowledge of judgement, sentence, or the possibility of defence or reaction, judgements are inscribed on the body, on the carnal self. (50)

6. In the beginning was the decision. Such we may take as Jacob Taubes’ central thesis about the nature, if not of the human condition, then of “Western man”. Human beings act in time. Yet as time extends to infinity, human finitude cannot accompany it; it must cede its place in eternity, effect eternity’s dissolution, something that is accomplished through decision. (51)  The decision arrests eternity, it inaugurates a presence, that of the self (it is I who decides), an acting self. This last marks the eruption of time and history in life (to act is to be projected towards a future end, from a present, with both together defining a past), and it determines the domains of morality and law. To so elaborate these notions is to conceive of human beings as essentially historical, in the sense of being driven along a linear time towards an end or goal: an eschaton. Only “the experience of the end of history has it that history becomes this ‘one way path’”. (52)  History, and revolution with it, is thus essentially both eschatological and apocalyptic: it heralds a new beginning directed towards an end and it unveils the end.

Gloss: “To venture a statement about the meaning of historical events is possible only when their telos becomes apparent. … The temporal horizon for a final goal is, however, an eschatological future, and the future exists for us only by expectation and hope. … The future is the ‘true’ focus of history, provided that the truth abides in the religious foundation of the Christian Occident, whose historical consciousness is, indeed, determined by an eschatological motivation, from Isaiah to Marx, from Augustine to Hegel, and from Joachim to Schelling. The significance of this vision of an ultimate end, as both finis and telos, is that it provides a scheme of progressive order and meaning, a scheme which has been capable of overcoming the ancient fear of fate and fortune. Not only does the eschaton delimit the process of history by an end, it also articulates and fulfills it by a definite goal. The bearing of the eschatological thought on the historical consciousness of the Occident is that it conquers the flux of historical time, which wastes away and devours its own creations unless it is defined by an ultimate goal.” (53)

7. In the densely argued pages of Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology, a conceptual edifice is bared which we must walk through to hear the messianic on the other side of nihilism.

The possibility of history, the historical significance of events, rests upon the eschaton. “For in the eschaton, history raises itself above its own limit and becomes visible to itself.” (54) The eschaton is in other words history’s transcendental condition of possibility. History in turn unfolds in time, time understood as the exteriorisation of subjective life. The latter depends upon time to exteriorise itself and time orders the world in such a manner that the exteriorsation becomes possible. “Time is the order of the world that is torn between interior and exterior.” (55)  The historical subject exists, or acts, in the balance between its inner life and its temporalised objective life.

The nature of time is to be found in its unique, single direction. Time stretches itself out upon an irreversible line, a line directed toward an end. Without the latter, it would be without orientation, senseless. The end however is essentially the eschaton. (56)  History and time here coincide structurally; indeed, for Taubes, they mutually presuppose each other. History is the “in-between” of eternities (sequential events rendered meaningful against a repetition to infinity of eternity) and time is the temporalisation of eternity in history. Time denotes the advent of beginnings and death, where eternity is life inexhaustible. History is then the stage upon which life and death dance until the end of ages, the end of time. (57)

Uniquely directed time is in turn founded on the will, and as such, the self is time. As the will is directed, so it directs time towards the future, the first dimension of time according to Taubes. In separating itself from the non-willed, the will lets this last pass. Time thus separates what passes as past, the second dimension of time. “The order of time is founded on the distinction of past and future and on the decision between past and future.” (58)  The decision, for its part, is effected in the act and the act then takes place in the present, “the place of encounter between the past and the future.” (59)

The decision is thus the foundation of the self, time and history, of the self as it constitutes time and history in action. Thrown towards a future end, the eschaton, the decision is revelatory (apocalyptic) of the truth of each element of this trinity and of it as a whole. Without the decision, without freedom, all three would collapse back into the indifference of eternity. (60)  And with the decision as conceptual key, Taubes reads the whole of Western history (until his own present) and revolution as eschatological: (61)  history as the ever renewed endeavour of making real the Kingdom of God on earth; the will to overcome our separation from the world, our strangeness, through the remaking of it (as an ecclesia spiritualis or a material community of brothers/sisters or friends). “The interior light becomes a devouring flame that transforms itself into a fire on earth.” (62)

If this fire no longer burns, it is because our times have witnessed the eclipse of God and revolution, and the call to decision is rendered impotent by a separation of interiority and exteriority, whose interplay were the very fabric of time, history and the self. (63)  Without the measure of the eschaton rooted in decision, we are lost like wandering shadows amidst darkness: a spectral nihilism. And as for revolution, deprived of an end, what remains of it descends into pure violence. (64)

The intensity of Taubes’ reading of our time and our history brings to bear on the crisis of modernity a light so white that all appears monstrous. Nietzsche’s last man, Lazzarato’s indebted subject, are embodiments of our blindness, beings without time or history, selfless, and thereby condemned to a conscious oblivion of their own making. Yet if Taubes’ diagnosis seems literally terrifying, his response betrays this horror by its problematic fragility: he can say little more than, one must decide. These words evince the echoes of Nietzsche’s philosophy as creation and Carl Schmitt’s politics of sovereignty. (65)  From what unknown source however can such a will emerge from? And again, perhaps our task lies elsewhere; not to decide upon new ends and initiate new eschatologies, but to let go of decision, of the self and of the times of the will, to so discern other forms of human life, of different kinds of time. Perhaps it is time to turn our backs upon Heraclitus’ imperative: “The people must fight for the law as for the city wall”; perhaps it is time to forget, and thus surrender sovereignty. (66)

8. Taubes eschatological retrieval of the historicity of the human condition is sensitive enough to register an anomalous resonance in the narrative. He notes that in “the Christian Apocalypses and the Gnostic systems, interest in the course of history is weaker because the figure of the Redeemer and his return occupy a central place.” (67)  In the early Christian community, it is Paul who expresses the turn from the apocalyptic to the Gnostic. The world here below and the world above are no longer separated by history and time, but touch and slide one into the other, constituting a kairos (a moment in time that marks the duration of an event – e.g. the time in which God acts –, a lapse in chronological time, that is without quantitative determination as seen from the perspective of the former). (68)  Taubes however records this kairos in the way a seismograph registers the movement of the earth’s surface: the moment shakes foundations, destabilises, even destroys carefully crafted edifices, but the interpretation must continue without detour or hesitation. Yet what Taubes hereby passes over is a radically distinct conception of time, messianic time, which is not to be confused with eschatological time and which opens on to and offers other possibilities of understanding and action before the crisis of time.

9. In Giorgio Agamben’s extensive reflections on time and the messianic, the distinction between the latter and chronological, eschatological and apocalyptic time is sustained and presented as essential. (69)  It may initially be discerned in the difference between prophet and apostle, as these notions are elaborated in the overlapping histories and theologies of Judaism and Christianity. The prophet is someone with an immediate relation to God, who receives the word of God regarding a future time (e.g. the coming of the messiah). The apostle, by contrast, is an emissary of God who speaks in the “presence” of the messiah. (70)  What is spoken of in this instance is not the future, but the present; the messianic event unfolds, in Paul’s letters, in “the now time, the jetztzeit, the actuality.” (71)

The apostle is also to be distinguished from the apocalyptic, messianic time from eschatological time. The apocalyptic points to and unveils the end of time, the last day. The time of the apostle however is not the end of time. If there is specificity to messianic time, as Agamben believes there is, it is neither chronological nor eschatological; rather than the end of time, it is the time of the end, the contraction of chronological time into a moment between time and its end, between chronos and the eschaton. (72)

Yet how can messianic time be represented? Chronological and eschatological time seemingly present no such difficulties; they are simply imagined along a line, with chronological time being the movement between past, present and future, and eschatological time being the terminus of the movement. The simplicity here is nevertheless illusory, because both times are represented through a translation into spatial metaphors. Representation is accordingly successful, but all thinking about time, and of our experience of time, is made impossible. This equally holds for messianic time. (73)

To move beyond this antinomy, the antinomy of representing and thinking time, Agamben makes appeal to a further concept of time, “operative time”, which he borrows from the linguist Gustave Guillaume. (74)  The spatial representation of time is a representation of a finished or concluded time; it fails to capture the constitution of this time, the time of the act of thinking about time. (75)  This is Guillaume’s “operative time”, and it refers to the time it takes to create the spatial image of time. (76)  Operative time is not a second, additional time to chronological time; it is a time within time that measures the impossibility of the coincidence of thinking about and representing time. (77)

The discussion here recalls Taubes’ presentation of time (which in light of the above, would be more correctly described as time represented) as a condition for the exteriorisation of interior subjective life or experience; subjective life as a recurrent, self-constituting or creating ipseity extended over a past-present-future. (78)  The crisis of modernity as a crisis of time is a consequence then of a series of divisions, grounded in the separation of experienced time and represented time: the separation of interiority and exteriority, of subjective life and the world, of pre-personal consciousness and self-consciousness. The reification of and alienation from time, if it is to be surpassed, calls for, following Taubes, a decision, and a decision that gives rise to a new, redeeming eschaton. Such a decision though looks to be impossible, for the human freedom which is its essence is emptied of all substance in the moment of crisis. Detached from the world, from itself, from time, what can possibly remain of freedom?

The notion of operative time, if taken as a way to approach messianic time, points to another possible response to crisis. As the time lived or experienced in the constitution of time, as not a different or coincident time with chronological time, but a time within the latter, it is capable of deferring and suspending it. The surpassing of the alienation from chronological time, that is the crisis of time, is thereby accomplished not by a decision, or a will, which bridges interiority and exteriority, but through the experience of an “interior” time that is the animus of “exterior” time. No bridge is required for the two are never separate from each other, even if they are not identical. Our difficulty is not architectural, but ethical or existential.

Messianic time is then, on the analogy with operative time, the time needed to accomplish time, to bring time to an end, to close the representation of time. (79)  But this very time between the passage of time and its end keeps the end in abeyance; it drives time forward, slows it up, transforms it, and even brings it to a stop. It contrasts, condenses chronological time in a kairos that is the time that we are.

10. The messianic as so far circumscribed enables us to better understand Benjamin’s description of the messianic as a “cessation of happening.” (80)  Chronological-eschatological time transforms time into an empty vessel to be filled by “objective” events. What ethics or politics are then possible can be measured by the direction on the line of time they find most sympathy with: traditional/conservative/reactionary versus modern/reformist/progressive. Messianic time however blasts “open the continuum of history.” (81)  The shards of the explosion, freed from chronos or any eschaton, become “chips of Messianic time”, moments of the “time of the now”, which may be recomposed into constellations of events with which we are contemporaneous. (82)  Through typologies and recapitulations (83) of pasts made present (through blasting: “blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work of the lifework.”), (84) historical realities (political, social, economic, etc.) are suspended, not destroyed, against a time which renders their justifications and legitimations meaningless (progress, growth, increased security and the like). The worldly, in other words, falls or passes away as the necessary, the essential, and we free ourselves from the prideful sovereignty of time over life, opening ourselves to the rhythm of “eternally transient worldly existence.” (85)  For Benjamin, to “strive after such a passing … is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.” (86)

11. In a very close and careful commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Agamben endeavours patiently to catch messianic life. Neither the promise of a new earthly political constitution, nor of a future salvation at the end or beyond time, it is rather a way of life in which the world and one ’s self shifts slightly, but fundamentally, as we experience and live them in messianic time.

The messianic vocation is not a right, nor does it furnish an identity, it is a generic potentiality … that can be used without ever being owned. To be messianic, to live in the Messiah, signifies the expropriation of each and every juridical-factical property (circumcised/uncircumcised; free/slave; man/woman) under the form of the as not. This expropriation does not, however, found a new identity; the “new creature” is none other than the use and messianic vocation of the old. (87)

Messianic time suspends distinctions of law and morality, the politics of friend and enemy, the economics of property against simple use, and it does this by destituting “man” of his sovereignty, of his power to command and appropriate. The destitution is not the result of the intervention of a counter-sovereignty, but of a withdrawal from sovereignty altogether. It is not a negative opposition to what is, an imperative to act “as if …” the present were already overcome by a promised future. The messianic is instead a way of being in the world in which what is encountered is as not; not as if it was not, but it is not. The value and meaning of all that surrounds us (including ourselves) suddenly falls away in a complete profanation (Benjamin’s world politics of nihilism). And once this is brought about under the Messiah, all that remains is to use what is available, and to use it playfully. (88)

Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.

Tadeusz Borowski, This way to the gas, ladies and gentlemen

12. What remains of revolution in the messianic? Not the eschaton of the event, which has collapsed with the disintegration of eschatological time. Nor the revolutionary subject, which we now know to have been a prisoner of this same time since its conception. And all around us, indeed we, we have become but sequences of fleeting sensations, images, compressed into a linear time which moves not, that has been stifled by the government of time under the reign of debt; severed from ourselves and the world, creatures metamorphosised into spectacles of themselves and each other, directionless, purposeless, without substance, we have become Bloom: “The Bloom is the nothing masked”, a human without qualities, without this being a quality; “man as man, the final realisation of the human generic essence, which is precisely the privation of essence, pure exposition and pure availability.” (89)

If revolution confronts us with the problem of beginnings, as Arendt affirmed, she also reminds us that the word originally signified “restoration”. (90)  For those who led the American and French revolutions, the initial ambition seems to have been to restore lost freedoms and privileges, which only the force of circumstances pushed them to imagine that what they were actually involved in was the creation of something altogether new. (91)  The notion of revolution as a return to the past signals another feature of messianic time, namely, that it is not a time directed to the future, but rather is a contraction of past and present; it is first turned to the past to be able to speak in the now time. (92)  Messianic time however calls upon us to abandon any nostalgia for a dialectics that could generate futures from pasts; it speaks rather of the need to live pasts as presents without futures.

The time of the present is no time, crushed under commodity and financial flows so rapid that time exhausts itself. Yet in this present made eternal, the cold abode of nihilism, meanings lose their ground, values their being, subjects their identities. The flows turn upon themselves and the river that we once learned that we could not step into more than once, itself dissolves, along with all else.

However amid the general disaster, to again employ Blanchot’s term, the messianic appears; it appears not in history or time, but in their ceasing to hold sway. The messianic “as not” actually becomes reality, hidden only by the seduction of spectacle. But even this last tires. And when all is nothing, then nothing restrains us; nothing any longer impedes us from the pleasure of a common use of a newly unveiled world.

The elements of a transcendentally justified revolution are absent: an eschaton, a sovereign subject, moral imperatives. Whatever notion of revolution that then remains must be immanent to gestures of refusal, withdrawal, creativity. In the end, the call for the overthrow of capitalism or the state never augured well for revolution. Perhaps then it is time to loosen our hold on hope, the hope in the future. And rather than seeking to conquer kingdoms at the end of time, to embrace the gesture of the scribe Bartelby, who in response to the imperative of authority, responds “I would prefer not to”. Bartelby’s preference is neither refusal nor impotence. He does not do nothing. He instead makes clear the condition for the possibility of all doing: the suspension of time in a messianic openness to all that is and can be. To end where all begins, in the words of Fernando Pessoa, “I’m nothing. I’ll always be nothing. I can’t even wish to be something. Aside from that, I’ve got all the world’s dreams inside me.” (93)


1. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1965), 21.

2. Ibid., 28-9.

3. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle [1967] (Detroit: Black and Red, 1983), paragraph 143.

4. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 401-2.

5. Ibid., 402.

6. Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life [1967] (London: Left Bank Books and Rebel Press, 1983), 177.

7. Ibid. (emphasis mine).

8. Ibid., 177-8.

9. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals [1887] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), II.1.

10. Ibid., II.2.

11. Ibid., II.1.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., II.21.

16. Ibid., II.19.

17. Ibid., II.22.

18. Ibid., II.21.

19. Ibid., II.16

20. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 171-2.

21. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, paragraph 125.

22. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 1-2.

23. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, II.17.

24. Ibid., II.21.

25. Paul Audi, Créer (Paris: Encre marine, 2005), 16. (All translations of Audi’s work in the essay are mine).

26. The reference is of course to Plato’s The Republic (332d), but it is an ethics that imbues Nietzsche’s ethics of creation: “You give up the great life when you give up war.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, “Twilight of the Idols: Morality as Anti-Nature, sec. 3” [1888], in The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 173).

27. Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man (Amsterdam: Semiotext(e), 2011), 7.

28. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, II.8.

29. Ibid., II.17.

30. Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man, 46.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid., 46-7.

33. Ibid., 49.

34. Ibid., 46.

35. Ibid., 51.

36. Ibid., 53.

37. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia 1: Anti-Oedipus [1972] (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), 198.

38. Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion”[1921], in Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913-1926 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996), 288.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid., 289.

41. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 173.

42. Paul Audi, Créer, 65.

43. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra: First Part – On the Despisers of the Body” [1883-5], in The Portable Nietzsche (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), 146.

44. Paul Audi, Créer, 61.

45. Ibid., 59.

46. Ibid., 68.

47. Ibid., 70.

48. Ibid., pp. 71-2. See also: Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (New York: Columbia University, 2006), 151-2.

49. Paul Audi, Créer, 70.

50. Franz Kafka, “The Penal Colony”, in The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces (New York: Schocken Books, 1976).

51. Jacob Taubes, En divergent accord : À propos de Carl Schmitt (Paris: Éditions Payot et Rivages, Rivages poche), 96-7.

52. Ibid., 46. (translation mine)

53. Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1949), 5, 6, 18.

54. Jacob Taubes, Eschatologie occidentale (Paris: Éditions de l’éclat, 2009), 3. (All translations from Taubes’ work are mine).

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid., 3-4.

57. Ibid., 4-5.

58. Ibid., 4.

59. Ibid., 4.

60. Ibid., 4-5.

61. Ibid., 12.

62. Ibid., 105.

63. Ibid., 239-41.

64. Ibid., 12.

65. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology [1922/1934] (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1985).

66. Heraclitus of Ephesus (DK22B44), in Richard D. McKirahan, Jr., Philosophy before Socrates: An Introduction with Texts and Commentary (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994).

67. Jacob Taubes, Eschatologie occidentale, 39.

68. Ibid., 184.

69. Giorgio Agamben, “The Time that Is Left”, in Epoché, Vol. 7, Issue 1 (Fall 2002), 1.

70. Ibid., 1-2.

71. Ibid., 2.

72. Ibid., 2. See also: Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 62-78.

73. Giorgio Agamben, “The Time that Is Left”, 3-4.

74. Ibid., 4.

75. Ibid.

76. Ibid.

77. Ibid., 5.

78. The use of the term “subjective” here should in no way be taken to suggest a self-conscious subjectivity. Self-consciousness would in this case be but a moment in pre-conscious self-making. See: Jean-Paul Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego[1936] (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960); Gilles Deleuze, “Immanence: A Life” [1995], in Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, (New York: Zone Books, 2001).

79. Giorgio Agamben, “The Time that Is Left”, 5.

80. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” [1940], in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), Thesis xvii.

81. Ibid., Thesis xvi.

82. Ibid., Thesis xviii-A.

83. Giorgio Agamben, “The Time that Is Left”, 8-10.

84. “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Thesis xvii.

85. Walter Benjamin, “Theological-Political Fragment” [1921], in Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1978).

86. Ibid.

87. Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, 26-7.

88. Giorgio Agamben, “Reflections on History and Play”, in Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience [1978] (London: Verso, 2007); Giorgio Agamben, De la très haute pauvreté: Règles et forme de vie: Homo Sacer IV, 1 (Paris: Rivages, 2011).

89. Tiqqun, Théorie du Bloom (Paris: La fabrique editions, 2000), 39.

90. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 43.

91. Ibid., 43-7.

92. Giorgio Agamben, “The Time that Is Left”, 10.

93. Fernando Pessoa, “Tobacco Shop”, in Poems of Fernando Pessoa (SanFrancisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 98.

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