Agamben: The Messianic Kingdom

Key Concept

Wall painting of Agamben at the Abode of Chaos, France

Wall painting of Agamben at the Abode of Chaos, France [Src]

In “The Messiah and the Sovereign: The Problem of Law in Walter Benjamin,” Agamben explicitly addresses the difference between the state of exception in which we are living where the law is in force, but does not signify anything, and the real state of exception that somehow has the “potentiality” to overcome the problematic nature of sovereign power, with reference to Walther Benjamin’s “Theses on the History of Philosophy”.[i] Here, Agamben sees the possibility of going beyond the fundamental structure of law and sovereign power, and, drawing on Benjamin’s interpretation of the Messianic tradition names the real state of exception “The Messianic Kingdom”.[ii]

Messianism in religious context signifies a radical transformation of law as such because the Messiah at the same time has to re-establish the law as it was before the fall and at the same time bring a new utopian world order. The Messianic task is thus paradoxical: with Messiah, “the Law will return to its new form”.[iii] In the Cabalist tradition the Law before the fall is God’s name written as a medley of letters without any order, that is, without any meaning; the law before the fall is utterly meaningless. With this medley of letters that is God’s name, all other laws can be written, which means that the originary structure of the law is pure “potentiality”; something that might best be understood as Aristotle’s writing tablet, on which nothing was written and on which everything therefore could be written. If this is so, the task of the Messiah is to bring a utopian renewal by re-establishing the law that has no meaning; by re-establishing a commandment that does not command anything.

The structure of this Messianic law is structurally similar to the law of the state of exception in which we now live, where the law is in force but does not signify anything. The question now is how the Messianic Kingdom differs from the state of exception in which we now live and thereby introduces the real state of exception that has the “potentiality” of overcoming the very nature of sovereign power. The task of the Messiah is to make a small displacement that seem to leave everything intact and this is why Benjamin writes that in the Messianic Kingdom everything is as it is today, just a bit different. In the Messianic Kingdom,

humanity will play with the law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good.[iv]

To understand the difference between the state of exception in which we now live and the real state of exception we have to make a distinction between two different forms of Messianism or nihilism:

a first form (which we may call imperfect nihilism) that nullifies the law but maintains the Nothing in a perpetual and infinitely deferred state of validity, and a second form, a perfect nihilism that does not even let validity survive beyond its meaning but instead, as Benjamin writes to Kafka, ‘succeeds in finding redemption in the overturning of the Nothing’.[v]

The first nihilism is the “willed” state of exception in which we now live, where the law has been deprived of all content (there is no clear demarcation line between legal and illegal) but at the same time the law remains valid (all acts can potentially be judged illegal and all punishments can potentially be judged as appropriate); the law of the state of exception is “violence without any juridical form”.[vi] The second nihilism is the Benjaminian Messianic Kingdom, in which not only the law has been deprived of all content but also of its validity: the law is no longer in force in the Messianic Kingdom. This is why Agamben concludes that the Messiah, in order to open a passage for the perfected nihilism,

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 rule, must reckon.[vii]

By which he means that the task for political action in contemporary society—the task of the Messiah—is not to challenge a law with a concrete content (which we might want to change); the law that has to be challenged in contemporary society is the law of permanent the state of exception, that is, the law which is deprived of all content but still is valid; the law that has no content but has the force and validity to prescribe anything and pass any sentence.

The difference between the state of exception in which we now live and the real state of exception is that in the former the law is in force without signifying anything, and, in the latter, the law neither signifies anything nor is it in force. For this reason Benjamin writes that in the real state of exception everything is as it is now, just a bit different; the Messianic Kingdom is a small adjustment. This is why Agamben believes that the state of exception in which we now live can be transgressed only by an even more radical state of exception; the state of exception where the law is returned to its originary meaninglessness; to a medley of letter without any order.

An important question relating to the coming of the Messianic Kingdom has until this point in the analysis been excluded, namely the question of who the Messiah is or will be? Who are the (post)political agents in Agamben’s prognosis? Who is capable of returning the law to its originary meaninglessness? Agamben points to two different fictional characters as images of the Messiah: Franz Kafka’s the man from the countryside (The Trial, chapter 9: “The Cathedral”) and Herman Melville’s Bartleby (“Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”).

It is only possible here to briefly recall the story told to K. in the Cathedral about the doorkeeper who guards the door of the law and the man from the country who spends most of his life waiting, continually asking for the permission to enter the law that is never granted him, until he, just before he dies, is told by the doorkeeper that the door only was meant for him, that only he could have entered it, and that the door now will be closed. Agamben presents an interpretation of this story as an allegory of the law in the state of exception as being in force without significance: where the law is in force precisely because it does not prescribe anything, the door is impossible to enter precisely because it is open. The fundamental aspect of both is the ban, that is, the exclusion of the man from the countryside from the door of the law and the exclusion of homo sacer from sovereign power.

It is easy to interpret the man from the countryside as a “hindered Messiah”; an interpretation Agamben however rejects in favour of the reverse interpretation: the entire behaviour of the man from the countryside is a complicated strategy to have the door closed and overcome the force of the law. The story tells us, Agamben writes, not of the failure of the man from the countryside but of the complexity of the Messianic task; of “how something has really happened in seeming not to happen”.[viii]

The man from the countryside is the Messiah who overcomes the force of the law by constantly refraining from an action he is capable of (walking through the door); a behaviour that seem to be structurally similar to Agamben’s interpretation of Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to.” Neither the behaviour of the man from the countryside nor the behaviour of Bartleby are direct refusals to act. Instead, each actually expresses the potentiality both to act and not to act, that is, an expression of true potentiality which does not dissolve itself in actuality.

Potentiality, that is, the moment where the possibility of acting and not acting, being and not being co-exist, rests in the heart of Agamben’s conception of (post)political action. Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” is the formula of potentiality because Bartleby could do what he is asked but he prefers not to; in Bartleby’s behaviour there is always the possibility that he could act differently.

Agamben does not explicitly discuss Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” in his analyses of Bartleby and the man from the countryside as images of the Messiah; this connection is surely on his mind.[ix] however, and can shed some light on the reason why (post)political action must lie in the heart of the potentiality and contingency (that which could have been its opposition). In “Critique of Violence” Benjamin argues that all violence as a means either is lawmaking or law-preserving, which means that human actions under normal circumstances either will be an affirmation of the present law, or human actions will strive to transcend the present law by creating a new law. Since all law is pernicious—something that Agamben and Benjamin agree upon but for different reasons—it is only possible to overcome sovereign power by an utter destruction of the law without instituting a new law. This call for something which does not rest within the realm of means to ends since this realm necessarily will be either lawmaking or law-preserving. What is demanded in Benjamin’s perspective is violence as pure means, that is, violence as a means without ends; “divine violence”.[x]

Agamben’s conception of potentiality is an answer to what this divine violence is. Bartleby’s behaviour exceeds the realm of means to ends; he does not act to obtain anything; his behaviour is utterly deprived of meaning. Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” is neither law-making nor law-preserving; Bartleby neither challenges the law by negating it nor does he reaffirm the law; he neither accepts nor refuses the law and in that sense he renders the law meaningless. In this sense the nihilism of Bartleby is structurally similar to Benjamin’s conception of divine violence. For both Benjamin and Agamben it seems to be only the nihilism of the divine violence that finally can destroy the force of the law by returning the law to pure potentiality, that is, its originary stage of meaninglessness.

Signe Rehling Larsen holds her MA in Politics from The New School for Social Research (2014) and her BA in Philosophy from The University of Copenhagen (2011). She is currently a PhD-student at the Department of Law at The London School of Economics and Political Science.

[i] Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities—Collected Essays in Philosophy. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1999, p. 160.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid. at p. 167
[iv] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2005, p. 164.
[v] Agamben, Potentialities, p. 171.
[vi] Agamben, State of Exception, p. 59.
[vii] Agamben, Potentialities, p. 171.
[viii] Agamben, Potentialities, p. 174.
[ix] Agamben discusses Benjamin’s ”Critique of Violence” extensively elsewhere: Agamben, State of Exception, p. 63 and Agamben, Homo Sacer—Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1998, p. 63-67.
[x] Walter Benjamin. Critique of Violence, Selected Writings; Volume 1;1913-1926. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996, p. 249.

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Signe Larsen

Signe Larsen (1987) holds her B.A. in Philosophy from University of Copenhagen (2011). She is currently an M.A. student in Politics at The New School for Social Research in New York. Her main interest lies within political theory and philosophy of law. 

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  2 comments for “Agamben: The Messianic Kingdom

  1. john r morss
    1 February 2016 at 7:24 am

    Haven’t read this yet, and apologies to jump the gun, but can anyone refer me to a really rigorous extended critique of Agamben on exception etc? thanks John M

  2. eric d. meyer
    9 February 2016 at 2:38 am

    I’m troubled by Agamben’s repeated citations of Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” which was written during the Spartacist (German Communist/Bolshevik) period in Weimar Germany and comes dangerously close to advocating violent (leftist?) revolution, albeit admittedly in opposition to the German National Socialist (Nazi) (rightist) revolution. (But was Bolshevik “Red Terror” really much better than Nazi “Black Terror”? Or just two sides of the Western vs. Eastern European civil war between communism and fascism?…) Derrida points out some of these dangerous implications in “Force of Law,” and also talks about the strange communications between Benjamin and Carl Schmitt (Nazi theorist of dictatorship and Hitler supporter also cited by Agamben). In Agamben’s L’uso dei corpi (not yet translated), Agamben compares Benjamin’s advocacy of a “destituent violence” (“violenza destitutente,” Agamben’s translation of Benjamin’s “Gewalt”) with his own advocacy of “destituent power (“potere destituente”) in opposition to the “constituent power” of the State. I don’t think Agamben’s anarchism really advocates violent revolution (it’s closer to Reiner Schuermann’s an-archism in L’principes de l’anarchie), but the comparisons between an anarchism that refuses to accept “constituent” principles (ethics, morality, etc.) and the Trotskyite advocacy of “permanent revolution” (which becomes the Bolshevik state of permanent terror) can become a bit problematic. (And then there’s the “Zionist” fundamentalist implications of this “messianic” business…) I’ve tried to point out these disturbing aspects of Agamben’s thought in reviews of “Pilate and Jesus” and “Stasis” in Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Journal, if anybody’s interested. But the translation of L’uso dei corpi should be out next month, and it’s a major Agamben work, which builds on The Coming Community and the Homo Sacer series, and interested parties should check it out, for themselves, and decide…

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