I am currently preparing an abstract on Agamben’s messianism for this conference: http://holylit.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/call-for-papers-on-messianism/
So far I have read The Time That Remains (the main work presenting his theses on this subject, based on a close reading of the first ten (!) words of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans) and Messiah & Sovereign (an earlier essay anticipating some of his thoughts about the relation between messianism and time as well as linking it to his more explicitly political works on the state of exception). I have also read some secondary literature and a couple of days ago finally managed to read The Church and the Kingdom, a talk – or to use Agamben’s qualification „a homily“ – he performed in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on 8 March 2009, „in the presence of the Bishop of Paris as well as a number of other high-ranking Church officials.“
To be honest I don’t quite understand why this was released in book form instead of just making it available for download on the internet, since it is a very short text and the afterword by Leland de la Durantye (author of Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction, 2009) does not really add much to it. Alas, that’s what happens with famous authors in the age of commodification of knowledge…
Anyway, the homily is basically a summary of some of his central theses from The Time That Remains combined with a fundamental critique of the institution of the Church which according to Agamben has lost its vocation and started to „function like any other worldly institution“ (4) and is thus in danger of being „swept away by the desaster menacing every government and every institution on earth“ (41). What is the origin of this desaster: The fact that „nowhere on earth today is a legitimate power to be found; even the powerful are convinced of their own illegitimacy.“ (40) The times we are living in can be described as „hell on earth“ since according to Christian theology hell is the only „legal institution which knows neither interruption nor end“ (41) and contemporary politics pretends to an infinite economy – thus assuming an infernal character.
What is this vocation that the Church has lost? According to Agamben „the ultimate meaning of the messianic vocation is the revocation of every vocation“ (16). And to be sure: It is not a matter of choice whether the Church wants to live in messianic times or not: either it does or „there is no Church at all“ (26)!
Agamben’s homily not only links his Paulus exegesis to a fundamental critique of the institution of the Church but also to his recent works on the genealogy of governmentality. He opposes two forces traversing the field of history, one which he calls „Law or State“ (35) and another one which he calls „messiah or Church“ (ibid). The task of the first one is the governance of the world, the oikonomia (cf. The Kingdom and the Glory), while the economy of the other one is one of salvation. The problem is that both forces, and the dialectic tension between them, are necessary for a community to last and that today we are faced with a weakening or elimination of the messianic force which results in the economy extending „its blind and derisive dominion to every aspect of social life“ (35).
In Messiah & Sovereign Agamben – following Walter Benjamin’s famous statement that „the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule“ – characterized the contemporary epoch as being at the same time the messianic time and the time where the state of exception has become the rule. In The Church and the Kingdom Agamben re-affirms his close affinity to Benjamin’s thought when he acknowledges that in messianic time there is no place for delay. According to Giacomo Marramao this is exactly how Benjamin’s messianism – which he qualifies as „in equal measure post-secular and post-religious“ – should be described, namely as “Messianism without delay”.
Marramao connects Benjamin’s messianism with the kabbalistic tradition, especially the cabbala of Yitzchak Luria, principle exponent in the sixteenth century of the Safed Cabbalistic school in Galilee. The main similarity being that for both „the fulfillment of creation is the task of human action“. In our post-secular times evoking the notion of the Messiah can seem troubling to some or display a form of escapism to others. However an attentive reading of Agamben’s texts makes it clear that – similar to this kabbalistic tradition – there can be only on messianic subject and that is us: „The Messiah’s task becomes all the more difficult from this perspective. He must confront not simply a law that commands and forbids but a law that, like the original Torah, is in force without significance. But this is also the task with which we, who live in the state of exception that has become the rule, must reckon.“ (Agamben, Messiah & Sovereign, in: Potentialities). Similarly Benjamin: „Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.“
Contrary to many critics which qualify Agamben’s work as „unpolitical“ a close reading of his books makes clear that both his and Benjamin’s messianism can not be isolated from a radical political task. Let’s start with Benjamin’s explanation of the link between messianism and political action: “In Wirklichkeit gibt es nicht einen Augenblick, der seine revolutionäre Chance nicht mit
sich führt – sie will nur als eine spezifische begriffen sein, nämlich als Chance einer ganz neuen Lösung vorgeschrieben von einer ganz neuen Aufgabe. Dem revolutionären Denker bestätigt sich die eigentümliche revolutionäre Chance aus einer gegebenen politischen Situation heraus. Aber sie bestätigt sich ihm nicht minder durch die Schlüsselgewalt eines Augenblicks über ein ganz bestimmtes, bis dahin verschlossenes Gemach der Vergangenheit. Der Eintritt in dieses Gemach fällt mit der politischen Aktion strikt zusammen; und er ist es, durch den sie sich, wie vernichtend immer, als eine messianische zu erkennen gibt.“ [„In reality, there is not a moment that would not carry with it its revolutionary chance – provided only that it is understood in a specific way, namely as the chance for a completely new resolution of a completely new task. For the revolutionary thinker, the peculiar revolutionary chance offered by every historical moment is confirmed by the political situation. But it is equally grounded, for this thinker, in the right of entry which
the historical moment enjoys vis-à-vis a quite distinct chamber of the past, one which up to that point has been closed and locked. The entrance into this chamber coincides in a strict sense with political action, and it is by the means of such entry that political action, however destructive, reveals itself as messianic.“]
For Agamben (in Messiah & Sovereign) the „essential character of messianism may well be precisely its particular relation to the law“ and the „crucial problem of messianism (…) becomes: how can the Messiah restore a law that has no meaning“. Having no meaning refers at the same time to the idea that according to a certain cabbalistic tradition „the original Torah was not a defined text, but rather consisted only of the totality of possible combinations of the Hebrew alphabet“. It is only with the advent of the messiah that God will „compose the letters into other words, which will form new sentences speaking of other things“. This can be described by Benjamin’s formulation of „Geltung ohne Bedeutung“ (being in force without significance). But if it is true that we live at the same time in the messianic time and in a permanent state of exception, then the „formula ‘being in force without significance’ defines … also and above all our current relation to law“.
The answer Agamben gives to this question (how the Messiah can restore a law that has no meaning) in The Time That Remains is that the messianic task is to render (normative) law inoperative by fulfilling it: „The messianic law is the law of faith and not just the negative of the law. This, however, does not mean substituting the old miswoth with new precepts; rather. it means setting a non-normative figure of the law against the normative figure of the law.” (95) „The messianic is not the destruction but the deactivation of the law, rendering the law inexecutable.“ (98) „Messianic katargesis does not merely abolish; it preserves and brings to fulfillment.“ (99)
If this sounds pretty anarchic then I believe it does because that’s Agamben’s attitude. While de la Durantye again and again claims that it is not (without any real arguments), Lorenzo Fabbri has recently published an essay in Radical Philosophy (http://interactivist.autonomedia.org/node/36678) arguing that “anarchism lies at the heart of his [Agamben’s] philosophical project.