Derrida & Sons: Marx, Benjamin, and the Specter of the Messianic

Without atheism messianism has no place.
Ernst Bloch


Taking its cue from Derrida’s late figure of a messianicité sans messianisme, a messianic without messianism, a structural messianism without religion, my paper is concerned with a  materialist – if not atheist – reading of the messianic.[1] It is in Derrida where we can grasp the paradoxical structure of a messianic promise that can not be reduced to Judeo-Christian theology proper or, as others have argued, a theological turn of deconstructivism. Although messianic thought has its origins in the Jewish tradition, especially in the trends of Jewish mysticism, Derrida’s point of reference is of different nature. It was Walter Benjamin’s peculiar sort of Marxism who enlisted the services of messianic theology undermining – if not suspending – the instrumental logic of master and servant or, as his famous allegory of the chess automaton has it, puppet and dwarf.

In his essay on the Specters of Marx[2] from 1993 and his later comments on the debate, which was sparked by his essay, Derrida strategically placed the ambiguous figure of the messianic between the notions of spectrality and hauntology. Against all triumphant declarations in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall according to which liberal democracy and global capitalism have finally come-to-itself, Derrida conjured the specter of Marx – a specter that will not cease to haunt any political project aimed at fully accomplishing the ontology of capital-history. The spectral logic of haunting, Heimsuchung is not only present in Marx’s texts – be it the conjured specter of communism or the exorcised phantom-nature of the commodity form – but is already at work at the level of the spatial and temporal ontology established by the commodity form. On the flipside of this Heimsuchung, haunting, which contaminates the politics of ontological closure, there remains a promise, a messianic promise – even though we are to acknowledge that the communist projects of the past have failed. These failures and even their totalitarian outcomes have left the formal structure of a messianic promise defying all attempts to exorcise the conjured specters of universal emancipation.

Derrida’s parallelization of the messianic and the spectral, of messianicity and spectrality, relies on their materiality: exceeding the logic of binary oppositions such as apparition/essence, presence/absence, closure/openness, both the messianic and the spectral allude to a certain deviation or dislocation that is at work within the logic of promising (Versprechen) and its deferral. It is in the logic of promising itself where we encounter what Derrida calls “the singular spectrality of this performative utterance” – an utterance of promising and self-positing that implies its spectral deviation from its very position of uttering. The spectrality or phantomization effect does not only affect the performative utterance of a promise – Marx’s communist promise – but also the capitalist mode of production, that is, the commodity form and the spectral or ghostly materiality of the value. Taking the twisted logic of spectrality to its limits, the discourses of Marx and Benjamin intersect in way that points into opposite directions. The Specters of Marx are situated at the crossroads of both a theory of the spectrality of the messianic promise and a critique of ideology of the capitalist promise of the commodity form, that is, pure productivity and an infinite access to the future (the contemporary ideological name of which is, of course, “sustainability”).

Tarrying with the twisted logic of spectrality, my approach is threefold: tracing back Derrida’s reading of Benjamin I will argue that a certain “messianic without messianism” is already present in Benjamin’s work laying bare the paradoxical logic of the messianic promise as a relation of a non-relation – an “a-relation” between the historical and the messianic. Secondly, I will confront the Benjaminian specter of the messianic with Derrida’s notion of spectrality. In a last step, which is still open to further elaboration and missing in this paper, one would have to sketch a Marxian interpolation of Benjamin’s and Derrida’s figures of the messianic. As mentioned before, the spectrality effect is not only at work in the figure of the messianic but also in the Marxian theory of fetishism and the spectral nature of the commodity form. If, as Werner Hamacher’s essay on the “messianism of commodity-language”[3] has shown, the capitalist logic of universal exchangability speaks, promises, and “un-speaks” (ver-spricht) its own promise, how are we to conceive of a messianic promise that interrupts, de-rails and un-works the auto-performativity of commodity language?


The messianic is one of the key figures of Benjamin’s entire thought. For Benjamin, the messianic is neither about a messianism, a religion, nor a secular version of theology; rather, it is the paradoxical “account” of a non-accountable “something” within history and profane life – neither reducible to the field of science nor to the ‘misty realm’ of mysticism. This ‘something’ is not about an esoteric ‘secret’ knowledge but concerns a structural dislocation, a deviation, an Entstellung that prevents the order of the profane from being closed as a self-totalizing sphere.

Benjamin’s famous theses On the Concept of History from 1940 – that is also the text Derrida refers to in Specters of Marx – paradoxically enlist theology to conceive of the messianic structure of history without conflating politics with theology. Within the order of the profane or, to use Franz Rosenzweig’s term, “in the midst of life”[4], this peculiar sort of materialist theology leaves the position of the personal Messiah vacant conveying the task of revolution to truly profane politics. As well known, Benjamin’s theses were politically directed against vulgar-Marxism and its belief in historical progress that was irretrievably discredited after the Hitler-Stalin-Pact in 1939. However, the political miscalculations made by Western European socialist and communist parties were not only derived from tactical or strategic failures but concerned their underlying historicist concepts of history. Consequently, Benjamin’s messianic Marxism tried to sketch a different concept of historical temporality, which he called Jetztzeit or “now-time.”[5] As a “model of messianic time” Jetztzeit is a contracted time, a non-accountable account for a certain temporal constellation short-circuiting past and present and thereby arresting the linear, irreversible flow of “homogeneous, empty time”.

The punctual messianicity of Jetztzeit is not directed toward futurity – a decisive feature that separates the messianic from trans- or metahistorical teleologies or visions of Utopia. In this respect, Derrida’s notion of “messianicity” sides with Benjamin.

“Messianicity (which I regard as a universal structure of experience, and which cannot be reduced to religious messianism of any stripe) is anything but Utopian: it refers, in every here-now, to the coming of an eminently real, concrete event, that is, to the most irreducibly heterogeneous otherness. Nothing is more ‘realistic’ or ‘immediate’ than this messianic apprehension, straining forward toward the event of him who/that which is coming.”[6]

In difference to Derrida, however, the Benjamian messianic is not about an “irreducibly heterogeneous otherness” but about an inaccessible relation that refers the historical happening to redemption. If Derrida reminds us of the radical difference between telos and eschaton[7], we have to add with Benjamin that the structure of redemption leaves a remainder of teleological reference or deferral. Benjamin’s paradoxical formula of a “teleology without end” alludes to the non-historical eschaton without any claim of alterity. In this sense Benjamin’s thought remains, however loosely, connected to a post-Kantian discourse: the messianic is a pure relation grounded in a messianic nothingness, a nihil. Or, put differently: Benjamin’s “teleology without end” (or, in Kantian terms, “purposiveness without purpose”) is not the same as a “teleology without teleology”, as Derrida would have it. Although the historical happening has no final trans-historical goal or telos – be it classless society or the messianic kingdom –, history is referred to redemption. The structure of ‘referring-to’ is not identical with its impossible point of reference, the eschaton but concerns a weak, a powerless power on which a non-totalizing concept of history has to be based. This redemptive referral is, at the same time, destructive; the task of the historical materialist, hence, is “to discharge the destructive energies contained in the idea of redemption.”[8] It is only in this sense that “political action […], however annihilating, reveals itself as messianic.”[9]

The case of theology, however, remains undecided. Benjamin’s enlistment of the Judaist and early Christian motif of messianic time, famously expressed by his allegory of the humanly operated chess automaton, entangles materialism and theology in a way that renders any symmetric separation impossible. As Benjamin stated, this theological contamination is not exterior to Marxism but inherent to its own messianic promise: “In the idea of classless society, Marx secularized the idea of messianic time. And that was a good thing. It was only when the Social Democrats elevated this idea to an ‘ideal’ that the trouble began.” Derrida’s wager of “an atheological heritage of the messianic”, a messianic without messianism attempts precisely to cut off this logic of secularization elements of which are still present in the Benjaminian text.[10]

However one is to evaluate the difference between Benjamin’s weak messianic and Derrida’s notion of a structural messianicity devoid of any religious traces in the Abrahamic sense – a difference that Derrida explicitly insisted on –, I suggest that Derrida’s notion of spectrality could provide a point of convergence where the discourses of Benjamin and Derrida intersect. In a preparatory note to the theses On the Concept of History, on which Derrida probably would have commented if he had known it, Benjamin employed an intriguing metaphor to allude to the messianische Kraft, the messianic force or power in history.

“The historical materialist who investigates the structure of history performs, in his way, a sort of spectrum analysis. Just as a physicist determines the presence of ultraviolet light in the solar spectrum, so the historical materialist determines the presence of a messianic force in history. Whoever wishes to know what the situation of a ‘redeemed humanity’ might actually be, what conditions are required for the development of such a situation, and when this development can be expected to occur, poses questions to which there are no answers. He might just as well seek to know the color of ultraviolet rays.”[11]

The messianic is not only invisible but also, as Benjamin stated in the later adopted final version of the 2nd thesis On the Concept of History, a weak force, a paradoxical powerless power, “on which the past has a claim.”[12] In his reading of Benjamin, Derrida insisted on the difference of this sort of messianic weakness to his own understanding of a messianic without messianism. I have no time here to elaborate on Derrida’s reading or misreading of Benjamin’s allegedly weak messianism;[13] I will only suggest that the weakness of the messianic has nothing to do with a quantitative measurement in the sense of a weaker or stronger messianicity. Rather, weakness alludes here to a logic of unworking, désœuvrement in the sense that Maurice Blanchot and Jean-Luc Nancy have used this term.[14] The revolutionary power of Benjamin’s messianic thought thus is derived from a weakness that ‘performs’ an unworking or, to borrow a term from Werner Hamacher, an “afformation”[15] of both the dominant historiography and the actual course of history as catastrophe. This weak or inoperative power is, nevertheless, a re-volving movement of redemptive restoration – a restitution of history’s not realized potentiality or, as Giorgio Agamben put it, of history’s “impotentiality.”[16] The messianic restitution of history, its tikkun, is thus the restitutio in integrum of history’s capacity to have also taken a different course – the restitution of its non-actualized, somehow spectral potentia. It is in this way that the weak messianic power is not only the inaccessible register of past failed or missed chances for collective emancipation and happiness but also the bearer of an ethico-political addressing that leaves the historical text uncompleted and open to retroactive modification. It is this weak power that infinitely separates history from its fully ontological closure as a fateful causal chain of historical events bound together in a deterministic way – as a linear progression in empty, homogeneous time. But how are we to conceive of the claims of a past that actually did not happen?

If modernity’s problem has always been that it cannot bury its dead, Benjamin’s “weak messianic power” is the messianic name of the persistingly haunting undeadness of the past. It is in this sense that we may read the famous opening lines of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare [Alp] on the brains of the living.”[17]

The proper psychoanalytical name of this nightmare or Alp is, of course, trauma. For Benjamin, however, these burdens, the haunting weights of all dead generations, carry with them a secret index by which they are referred to redemption; – and it is this secret index or messianic signature which prevents them from being fully historicized in the historical text.

Reading Marx and Benjamin with Derrida, both the traumatic pressure and the weak messianic power of the past bear witness to a spectral presence, a presence of the past that is neither absent nor fully present. For Benjamin and Marx, the spectral time of the past haunts the present; it can only be redeemed by an authentic revolutionary act, which is – at least for Benjamin – a redemptive repetition of the past restoring the crushed potentialities of failed revolutions and actualizing a virtual past that was not realized in the victorious course of history. In other words, besides or in between of past and present there is also a spectral time – a time of the specter of the messianic.


At this point, Derrida’s notion of spectrality provides us with an instructive insight:

“If there is something like spectrality, there are reasons to doubt this reassuring order of presents and, especially, the border between the present, the actual or present reality of the present, and everything that can be opposed to absence, non-presence, non-effectivity, inactuality, virtuality, or even the simulacrum in general, and so forth. There is first of all the doubtful contemporaneity of the present to itself. Before knowing whether one can differentiate between the specter of the past and the specter of the future, of the past present and the future present, one must perhaps ask oneself whether the spectrality effect does not consist in undoing this opposition, or even this dialectic, between actual, effective presence and its other.”[18]

In other words, what is at stake here, concerns the very distinction between oppositions such as past and present, present and future, actuality and potentiality. The logic of spectrality takes into question every concept of time based upon self-identity, linearity, continuity, and homogeneity. Before I will go into further detail of the temporal logic of what Derrida calls the spectrality effect, let us return to Benjamin’s spatial image of the messianic force as ultraviolet light rays.

Comparing this force to an invisible colour within the spectrum of light, Benjamin himself links the messianic to the realm of spectrality – a realm that is neither immaterial nor directly visible. The messianic as ultraviolet light rays is both a non-mystical, soberly scientific force and something that can not be registered by positivist science, that is, in Benjamin’s case, historicism and vulgar-Marxism. Benjamin, whose knowledge of French was almost on the same level as his command of German, was certainly aware of the double meaning the word spectre acquires in French: it does not only refer to the spectrum of light or other physical spectra, but also to something ghostly, a spectralité or Gespenstigkeit. Such a spectrality is somehow visible (though not for the human eye as in Benjamin’s metaphor) and, at the same time, sensuously invisible and even intellectually ungraspable. And indeed, with regard to the physics of light one might add: likewise the spectrum of historical colours cannot be exactly localized, the physical nature of a light wave can not be exactly measured: it is both a wave or frequency and a particle charged with energy or tension (as Heisenberg’s indeterminacy-relation claimed). It is this structural indeterminacy the Benjaminian historical materialist has to be aware of when he wishes to determine a messianic force in history. The messianic light rays are always displaced; they cannot acquire a proper place within history. It is only this spectral dislocation or, in Benjamin’s terms, Entstellung where we can encounter the inverse imprint of the messianic. There is no possibility of gradual approximation, of pointing to the messianic force directly at a non-displaced, proper place.

If the messianic is spectral by nature, this nature is the site of spectrality. In Derrida’s and also Benjamin’s case, this site is language: a site of spectral dislocation. It comes with no surprise that Benjamin conceives of the messianic world in linguistic terms: in another note to the theses On the Concept of History he introduces a “universal language” on which a truly messianic notion of universal history is to based. Moreover, far from representing some transcendent or mystical power, the messianic is nothing else than a redemptive function of the fundamental relation of history and language, (which Benjamin also discussed in his essay on The Story-Teller by referring to the same metaphor of the spectrum of light).[19]

Although Derrida did not follow Benjamin’s redemptive concept of history, the inner relation of spectrality and language is key to his understanding of the messianic. A spectral moment of time can never be pinned down by the temporal-spatial register of the instant-point and linear-continuum. Translating the logic of spectrality into the terminology of speech act theory, Rastko Mocnik suggested a tentative definition of Derrida’s spectrality:

“At a first approximation, one would consider ‘spectral’ an utterance with a dislocated position of uttering. But since we could hardly claim that utterances normally possess comfortable and unequivocal localization, and since the burden to establish a link to its position of uttering – or even, at the limit, to produce such a position – rests upon the utterance itself, our provisional definition of spectrality has to be narrowed: is an utterance spectral with an inadequate, insufficient relation to its uttering position, an utterance somewhat incapacitated to establish such a relation; in other words, an utterance unable to symbolize its position of uttering?”[20]

With regard to Benjamin I am tempted to follow Mocniks reading here. If we consider the uttering position of past events within the historical text – which also, unlike historicism would have it, never possess a proper place within history as fully symbolized/historicized –, the spectrality of the past resides in utterances or claims that resist the symbolization of their position of uttering. The claims of history’s haunting undead – the Benjaminian name of which is the weak messianic power – remain spectral since their position of uttering cannot be symbolized – neither by official nor counter historiography. If the messianic has no proper place within the historical text of linear succession and if there is no sovereign subject of enunciation that could appropriate its utterances by deciding upon their uttering position within the symbolic, that is, the historical text, where do we encounter the messianic at all? If we are to take the spectrality effect to its limits, there is no messianic event to be awaited. And indeed, as Derrida put it: “[the] messianic opening to what is coming, that is, to the event that cannot be awaited as such, or recognized in advance therefore, to the event as the foreigner itself, to her or to him for whom one must leave an empty place, always, in memory of the hope – and this is the very place of spectrality.”[21] Instead of actively anticipating the messianic event or passively waiting for it, we are to leave open an empty space, the very place or non-place of spectrality. It is in this sense that spectrality questions our concept of time and temporal localization. “A spectral moment, a moment that no longer belongs to time, if one understands by this word the linking of modalized presents (past present, actual present: “now,” future present).”[22]

In this respect Benjamin’s and Derrida’s understandings of the messianic converge and reveal their radical incompatibility. Whereas for Derrida, the impossible place of the messianic opening is the place of spectrality, Benjamin seeks to overcome, to annihilate the spectral time of the coming the Messiah without appropriating his empty place, the messianic nihil. Precisely because we do not know where and how the messianic opening is coming we are to strive into the opposite direction of the messianic, which is, as Benjamin stated in his earlier Theological-political Fragment, the idea of happiness. Humanity’s collective striving for happiness paradoxically promotes the coming of the messianic Kingdom. And it is this teleological striving that interrupts, derails itself in happiness, happenstance, lucky breaks. Ultimately, for Benjamin the messianic is even less than a messianic “awaiting without horizon of the wait,”[23] as Derrida put it; rather he affirms a messianic nihilism that corresponds to the unworking, self-dismantling nature of the transient order of the profane. As the cryptic last lines of Benjamin’s fragment conclude: “the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality, in its spatial but also in its temporal totality, the rhythm of Messianic nature, is happiness. For nature is Messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive after such a passing away […], is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.”[24]

[1] Re-edited paper presented at the “International Derrida Conference,” Frankfurt/M., 2012, March 16. It is still a work in progress.Part III will soon be added.

[2] Jacques Derrida: Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, transl. by Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, London; New York, 1994.

[3] Cf. Werner Hamacher: “Lingua Amissa: The Messianism of Commodity-Language and Derrida’s Specters of Marx”, transl. by Kelly Barry, in Michael Sprinker (ed.): Ghostly Demarcations. A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. Verso, London; New York, 1999, pp. 168-212.

[4] Franz Rosenzweig: The Star of Redemption, transl. by Barbara E. Galli, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison; London, 2005, p. 446.

[5] Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, ed. by Marcus Bollock; Michael W. Jennings, Vol. 4, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2006, p. 395.

[6] Jacques Derrida: “Marx and Sons”, transl. by Kelly Barry, in Michael Sprinker: Ghostly Demarcations. A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. Verso, London; New York, 1999, pp. 213-269, here p. 248.

[7] This difference follows Derrida’s strict separation of éschaton and telos, messianic eschatology and utopian teleology. His wager hence read: “Is there not a messianic extremity, an eskhaton whose ultimate event (immediate rupture, unheard-of interruption, untimeliness of the infinite surprise, heterogeneity without accomplishment) can exceed, at each moment, the final term of a phusis, such as work, the production, and the telos of any history?” (Derrida: Specters of Marx, p. 48).

[8] Benjamin: Gesammelte Schriften, ed. by Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Rolf Tiedemann, Vol. 1.3, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M., 1974, p. 1246; transl. mine.

[9] Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 4, p. 402.

[10] Derrida: Specters of Marx, p. 211.

[11] Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 4, p. 402.

[12] Ibid., p. 390.

[13] Cf. Derrida: “In the text of Benjamin’s to which I referred, the reference to Jewish messianism seems to me to be constitutive – and, to all appearances, ineradicable. That appearances may be deceptive is a possibility I do not exclude, but, in that case, a considerable effort would be required to dissociate the Benjaminian allusion to a ‘messianic power’, however ‘weak’, from any and all forms of Judaism, or, again, to dissociate a certain Jewish tradition from the usual figures or representations of messianism, of the kind that can dominate, not only the prevailing doxa, but sometimes even the most sophisticated orthodoxies. It may be that what I am attempting to do tends in that direction. But I am not at all sure; for, in principle, my use of the word ‘messianic’ bears no relation to any messianistic tradition. That is why I speak, precisely, of ‘messianicity without messianism’. And that is why I wrote, if I may insist on the letter of this short sentence, that ‘the following paragraph names messianism, or, more precisely, [the] messianic without messianism, a “weak messianic power” [eine schwache messianische Kraft; Benjamin’s emphasis]’” (Derrida: Marx & Sons, p. 250).

[14] Cf. Maurice Blanchot: The Unavowable Community, transl. by Pierre Joris, Station Hill Press, New York, 1988; Jean-Luc Nancy: The Inoperative Community, transl. by Gisela Febel; Jutta Legueil, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1991.

[15] Werner Hamacher: “Afformative, Strike: Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’”, in Andrew Benjamin; Peter Osborne: Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy. Destruction and Experience. Routledge, London; New York, 1994, pp. 110-138.

[16] Giorgio Agamben: Potentialities. Collected essays in philosophy, ed. by Daniel Heller-Roazen, transl. by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, 1999, p. 181ff.

[17] Karl Marx: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, International Publishers, New York, 1975, p. 15.

[18] Derrida: Specters of Marx, p. 48.

[19]            Cf. Benjamin “Any examination of a given epic form is concerned with the relationship of this form to historiography. In fact, one may go even further and raise the question whether historiography does not constitute the common ground of all forms of the epic. Then written history would be in the same relationship to the epic forms as white light is to the colors of the spectrum. However this may be, among all forms of the epic there is not one whose incidences in the pure, colorless light of written history is more certain than the chronicle. And in the broad spectrum of the chronicle the ways in which a story can be told are graduated like shadings of one and the same color. The chronicler is the history-teller” (Benjamin: Selected Writings, ed. by Marcus Bollock; Michael W. Jennings, Vol. 3, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2002, p. 152.

[20] Rastko Mocnik: “After the Fall: Through the Fogs of the 18th Brumaire of the Eastern Springs”, in: Derrida: Marx & Sons, p. 110f.

[21] Derrida: Specters of Marx, p. 82.

[22] Ibid., p. XIX.

[23] Ibid., p. 81.

[24] Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 3, p. 306.

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