Marxism and time
Sami Khatib: Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin and the Spectre of the Messianic: Is There a Materialist Theory of Time? / Blair Ogden: Cycles, Lines and Exceptions: Elucidating the Ideology of Progress in ‘On the Concept of History’ / Amedeo Policante: Between History and Myth: The Insurrectionary Experience of Time in Furio Jesi’s ''Spartakus''
Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin and the Spectre of the Messianic: Is There a Materialist Theory of Time?by Sami Khatib
In the light of the current crisis of capitalism, the question of utopia and the search for a new U-topos outside of capitalism has gained urgency once again. Instead of raising the inevitable question of alternatives, my paper takes a step back. I would like to suggest that if today we are to ask the utopian question of a non-capitalist future, we will also have to rethink our concepts of time and history.
Starting with Walter Benjamin’s critique of historicist and vulgar Marxist historiography, I am interested in Marx’s own concepts of history and time and their oscillation between continuity and rupture. In Marx, we can distinguish at least two dimensions of time: a closed time of capitalism and a disruptive, excessive time of revolution (see e.g. H.-D. Kittsteiner, P. Osborne). This duality is doubled and twisted in itself: it can be addressed in terms of the historical process within time, that is to say, political struggles, social relations or dynamical productivity, as well as in terms of time itself as a repetitive, linear or ‘homogenous and empty time’ (Benjamin) of capitalism. The same applies to the invoked end of capitalism: whereas for traditional Marxism history was driven by ‘objective’ historical forces towards its communist telos within history, critical Marxism attempted a blast of the very horizon of capitalist history itself.
According to Slavoj Zizek (1989), in Marxian thought this ‘non-historical ‘ex-timate’ kernel of history’ was only touched by Walter Benjamin’s last reflections On the Concept of History (1940). The motif of a ''Jetztzeit'' ‘now-time’ in Benjamin’s emphatic attempt to read history ‘against the grain’ provides a model of messianic time. This non-linear, ‘contracted’ time is not to be mistaken for esoteric obscurantism: on the contrary, as Werner Hamacher (1999) points out, Benjamin uncovers ‘the temporal structure of the political affect.’ Following this line of interpretation, Benjamin’s ''Jetztzeit'' concerns the temporality of something that, according to Alain Badiou, we might call the ‘Event’. In Benjamin’s materialism, however, the messianic instance ‘ when the ‘homogenous and empty time’ of capitalist history is suddenly immobilized and past and present crystallize into a monad ‘ is addressed politically (in terms of a proletarian revolution), epistemologically (in terms of the ‘now of recognisability’) and theologically (in terms of redemption).
Finally, with reference to Jacques Derrida (1994), my paper examines whether it is possible to ‘conceive an atheological heritage of the messianic’. Can we think of a ‘structural messianism’, a kind of ‘messianism without messianism’? And concerning Benjamin’s peculiar sort of ‘materialist theology’: could we distinguish the Benjaminian messianic as inherently different from Judeo-Christian messianism and its eschatological temporality? ‘ As a subtractive messianic which opens up to a politico-temporal actuality that is neither fully identifiable with theological concepts of time, nor with secular ideas of a u-topic Utopia?
Cycles, Lines and Exceptions: Elucidating the Ideology of Progress in ‘On the Concept of History’by Blair Ogden
Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But perhaps this is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on the train - namely, the human race - to activate the emergency brake.
Our conception of Benjamin’s idiosyncratic Marxism has largely been shaped by his correspondence with Adorno. Here, Benjamin’s valorization of experience is pejoratively characterized as ‘anthropological Marxism’. The terms of this debate are reminiscent of Marx’s disagreement with Feuerbach. The Young Hegelian’s ‘fantasy’, Marx argues, is that ‘the relationship of men, all their doings, their chains and limitations are products of their consciousness.’ Can Benjamin’s recourse to anthropological explanation be defended despite its connotations of voluntarism? This paper proposes a new reading of On the Concept of History that eschews the idea that Benjamin’s interest in experience has anything to do with false consciousness.
One interpretation of his theses on history would suggest that the cause of the providential conception of time is the realm of ideas. Progress, it would appear, is a norm imposed by consciousness onto history, which, when the emergency break is activated can be torn away like a veil. This erroneous reading discounts the forms of life which materially buttress the ideology. The reason Benjamin turned to anthropology was to explain how the norm of progress reproduces itself in the domain of the everyday. There is no connotation here of a ‘real’ world behind the doxa. Three sub-explanations are advanced to account for the persistence of continuity, crossing the sociological thought of various thinkers:
# Marx’s conception of cyclical time - the French revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It cited ancient Rome exactly the way fashion cites a bygone mode of dress.
# Weber’s notion of rationalization - historical progress cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time.
# Schmitt’s idea of the exception - the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain a conception of history that accords with this insight.
Can these disparate explanations of continuity (the cycle, the line, the exception) be developed into a unitary explanation? At this point scholarship flounders. In response to this aporia this paper advances two arguments. Firstly, that Benjamin’s notion of a mimetic faculty accounts for the elasticity of progress. It reveals how a normative paradigm is ‘mimetically transmitted’ from one set of dissimilar practices to another. The second argument is perhaps more controversial: Wittgenstein’s conception of anthropology clarifies Benjamin’s framework. ‘Whence comes the idea’, Wittgenstein asks, ‘that the beginning of a series is a visible section of rails invisible laid to infinity? Well, we might imagine rails instead of a rule. And infinitely long rails correspond to the unlimited application of a rule.’ This notion of temporality is used by Wittgenstein to probe what he calls the ‘mythology’ of continuity behind our everyday practices. Significantly, Wittgenstein, too, pays recourse to mimesis as the mechanism behind the phenomena of progress: ‘the line’ he argues, ‘intimates to me the way I am to go.’ This spatial formulation of time resonates with Benjamin’s interest in Parisian Arcades.
This cross reading aims to reinvigorate Marxism’s interest in anthropology beyond the philosophical straightjacket of voluntarism and determinism.
Between History and Myth: The Insurrectionary Experience of Time in Furio Jesi’s ''Spartakus''by Amedeo Policante
If, as stated by Hannah Arendt, men are free only in the moment in which they act, neither before not after, today the epiphany of freedom can only coincide with gestures that herald and resuscitate conflict at the centre of our lived experience. With the global expansion of capitalist technology, as power of repetition of the always-already-integrated, and the crisis of politics, as incapacity of producing real oppositions in place of automatism and conformism, only the immediacy of revolt can create volatile spaces in which freedom may suddenly “appear in the world”. Michel Foucault once remarked: “there is blood dried in the codes, behind which we must hear the rumble of battles”. Behind the eternal return of the same we must glimpse the incessant multiplication of conflicts born from the absolute contingency of revolt. On this relation between freedom and revolt, as event and as suspension of historical time, Furio Jesi wrote a long stream of inflammatory pages, aimed at rescuing the specific value of the ‘insurrectionary instant’ from the historicist tendencies of orthodox Marxism. The work of the Italian mythologist, who died prematurely in 1980, remains largely ignored by established academic debate both inside and outside Italy. And yet already ten years ago, in an introduction to a monographic volume on Jesi published by ''Cultura Tedesca'' Giorgio Agamben urged Marxist scholars to consider how the study of myth and the practice of insurrection may be integrated within a wider theoretical paradigm. Following the recent publication of Jesi’s research on the Spartakus myth I would like to introduce his theoretical work to the wider public. It may be a useful starting point to consider the possibility of overcoming historicist, “external” readings of the insurrectionary instant toward a phenomenological, “internal” interpretative matrix. Reflecting on the relationship between insurrection and myth, on the ways in which the instant of revolt emerges at the intersection between historical and mythical time, we may start to question how the instant of revolt and the perspective of revolution relate to each other. If the instant of revolt indicates a rupture in the linearity of historical time, which escapes both “bourgeois manipulation of temporality” and its bipolar opposition myth/history, what is revolution?