Empty time and Now time

The second week of Advent brought us prophetic passages from Isaiah (11:1-10) that look forward to an idealistic time that seems entirely incompatible with the present.  “On that day,” wolves and lambs will live together, leopards will lie down with young goats, and a little child will lead the whole operation.  Such an occurrence would be something out of the ordinary indeed–wholly other from what we know as our current reality.

In the reading from Isaiah and among the critical theories and postmodern philosophies that shape my worldview, there is a structural or fundamental difference between time as we experience it and the time of the event that ruptures our current reality.  For Isaiah, the time in which such wildly pastoral events might happen is the time of the “to come,” an as-yet-unknown future, but one toward which we should look with active anticipation.  For Walter Benjamin, the difference stood between what he called a homogenous, empty time and the time of the now (Jetztzeit).  The former would be our ordinary conception of time as a series of moments, each more or less the same in terms of measurement and content.  The later, however, is the time of the now (but not necessarily the time of the present) that fills up the present moment.  This now time is pregnant or full of something new, something different, something other than the homogeneity or sameness of empty time.  In fact, it’s so full that when it gets itself inserted into homogenous, empty time Benjamin says that it blasts open the historical continuum.  The content of the time of the now is so potent that the present cannot fully contain it, at least not in the way that the present currently appears.  This now time, this event that gets itself realized, occurs in such a way as to alter the historical continuum, altering the homogenous present by inserting something new, something wholly other, such that the present can’t not respond.

Benjamin’s time of the now alludes to an eternal time in which the ordinary progression of time comes to a halt.  Time is at a standstill.  In Derrida’s (and Jack Caputo’s) terms, the arrival of the event interrupts the present in such a way that we are arrested, brought to a standstill, in the face of the event.  Isaiah too seems to long for this sort of arrival of the future, as he describes it in such a way that humans would be confronted with occurences that they couldn’t understand, couldn’t possibly fathom under present conditions.

Yet this shock of the time of the now, the standstill of time, allows us a moment to pause and arrange our thoughts.  For Benjamin, at least, the now time allows thinking to be arrested and to crystalize or become a constellation:  “Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystalizes into a monad.”  When we’re able to examine this monad, this crystallization of thought, we see the world not as it is, but rather as it might be.  And in this moment the messianic, the “to come,” flashes up, providing us a glimpse of what is always on the horizon.

It is only in the time of the now that, in Benjamin’s terms, something different might cross our horizon and enter our reality.  For Derrida, the wholly other does not come when or how we might expect, but rather it appears as the impossibility that surprises us by becoming possible.  For both, the goal is to blast open the homogenous time or the economy of the same that permeates our present reality.  Our call then is to grab ahold of the time of the now, to make the best of the standstill to arrange our thoughts such that the “to come” might show itself and alter our reality in profound ways.

Something different is coming and must come.  “On that day” things will not be as they are, but right relations will prevail–relations of equality, relations of justice, relations of peace.


Adorno and Critical Self-Reflection

Second post in the theology of remembrance series…

In the decades following World War II, a phrase was coined in Germany that can roughly be translated as “coming to terms with the past” or “mastering the past.” This is not an exact translation, since a precise translation simply looses some of the cultural understanding that goes along with the German phrase. But the process of coming to terms with the past became the goal of at least a subset of the German population (which included notable political and public figures), and this subset understand the process as a finite and measurable task with a clear goal. There could be, so they argued, some point at which Germans could come to terms with their Nazi past, after having considered, dissected, and discussed this past. The process, while perhaps wrong-headed, was a somewhat undertandable outgrowth of a situation of extreme guilt and shame. However, not everyone in Germany bought into such a process. Some, like philosophers Theodor Adorno and Eric Voegelin, viewed the project of coming to terms with the past as a suspicious process that in reality aimed at moving beyond the past in the sense of doing away with the past or sweeping the past under the rug. This post will talk about Adorno’s critiques of such a process and will outline what he viewed as more helpful ways of examining the past, including most importantly his notion of critical self-reflection.

A brief word about Adorno–Theodor Adorno was the son of a Roman Catholic mother and Jewish father who claimed at least a partial Jewish heritage throughout the course of his life. He was trained in both philosophy and musical composition and even studied with the early 20th century Austrian composers Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. Adorno completed his dissertation on Kierkegaard under the direction of Paul Tillich, who continued to be an influential presence in his life. He eventually joined the faculty at the University of Frankfurt where he became a member of the Institute for Social Research, run at the time by Max Horkheimer. Both Adorno and Horkheimer (as well as most others at the institute) were heavily influenced by Marx and socialist philosophical critiques, and the two used Marx’s critiques of economy and capital to develop a more robust critical theory. And in fact, Frankfurt is typically regarded as the birthplace of critical theory–a type of study that seeks to uncover the assumptions that may be hidden, displaced, or that go unvocalized in a society.

In 1959 Adorno delivered a radio address on “The Meaning of Working Through the Past.” The talk later became an essay that is his most salient response to the problem of coming to terms with the past as it appeared in post-war Germany. In it he speaks about the difference between working through the past and working upon the past. The first he sees as (and the translation of the German word corresponds to) carrying out an unpleasant task, as in clearing away the paperwork on one’s desk. The second, however, he understood as digesting or processing the past so as to understand it more fully, and it was this second notion (working upon the past) that Adorno advocated. He goes on in the talk to discuss how those who engaged in working through the past seemed to be merely brushing the past aside, hastily working through it so as to be rid of it; and wrote that this hasty process would result in an “empty and cold forgetting.” Forgetting the atrocities committed under National Socialism in Germany meant for Adorno that the conditions that made the Nazis’ rise to power possible in the first place would go unexamined and could therefore potentially re-present themselves even within the newly minted democratic republic of Germany. Thus, Adorno looked for a path toward remembrance that routed itself (consciouslly and critically) through the very deplorable past that some Germans most wanted to forget or move beyond.

He did this by suggesting that critical self-reflection become the cornerstone of intellectual and public discussion. By this he meant taking an honest and deep look at oneself in order to consider the motivations and influences affecting one’s decisions, actions, and discourse. In Germany this meant examining the factors that allowed National Socialists to come to power in the first place, and then taking a good, hard look at the present conditions to see what had changed, what remained the same, and if those original factors were still there.

Clearly the idea of critical self-reflection has a lot possibility outside of post-Holocaust discussions and outside of talk about German’s past. But in thinking about the atrocities of the Holocaust, critical self-reflection asks those involved (and even those of us who are heir to religious thinking that contributed to violent anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism) to work upon the past by looking closely at what created those factors that led to such atrocities and then asking whether or not those factors still exist today. Just because we live in a democratic society where we can’t even imagine such things taking place, Adorno reminds us that those same “modernist” systems (democracy, technology, industrialization) completely and totally broke down in the Second World War so as to lend themselves to the horrific acts of the Nazi state. Modernity ended up being the greatest help to the Nazis, rather than a safeguard against human brutality. For this reason, Adorno sees the on-going process of critical self-reflection as an extremely important part of the task of remembering the past.

There’ll be more to come on Adorno’s understanding of religion and theology in future posts. But for now we can consider what it would mean for religious persons to adopt a practice of critical self-reflection. This doesn’t necessarily mean undermining our entire belief system, but it could mean thinking critically about the past and present motivations, actions, and beliefs that are a part of our religious traditions in order to 1) understand our traditions more fully and know why we stand where we stand today, and to 2) ensure that there aren’t tendencies within our religious traditions that might cause undue harm to ourselves or others either inside or outside of our traditions.