It’s Always Now: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History A & B
Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the “time of the now” which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.
The soothsayers who found out from time what it had in store certainly did not experience time as either homogeneous or empty. Anyone who keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past time experienced in remembrance – namely, in just the same way. We know that the Hews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, pp. 263-264
These two, not precisely theses but perhaps better understood as assumptions with which Benjamin was working, make clear both what Benjamin understood by “Messianic time”, “the time of the now”, and other terms he would use as well as the ever-present possibility that exists once one grasps that “now” is not a quantitative word, but qualitative. For Benjamin, “the past” is not a series of events in a causal chain that lead to “now”. Rather the past is what is what “the present” is for those who live it: the ever-present moment filled with the past-present-future of that moment filled with possibility, or as he writes, “shot through with chips of Messianic time”. The “now” is not a creation of Marxist theory; it is, rather, the very real, qualitative difference between time understood by the ruling classes and the oppressed. The latter understand “now” dialectically, as that moment that both passes them by and yet is theirs precisely because it contains the possibilities for a very real, truly human future. It is the “now” that differentiates historicism and historical materialism. It is the “now” that demonstrates the differences between the ruling classes, with their filling up of a void with meaningless events, allegedly connected to one another with the oppressed for whom “now” is connected to a human past precisely because it creates possibilities for a human future.
The unique quality of the Jewish celebration of the past, of remembrance, is the explicit model Benjamin uses. Setting to one side any matter of “predicting” the future, with its seductive magic, this remembrance is a recollection of the life-world of the people not as empty, disconnected moments and events, but as a living thing, the possibility for the future to be made real now. Each moment, as “the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter”, provides the possibility for the collapse of “time” and the arrival of the “now”, as the present is this always moving, always possible coming of the “end of time”, at least as understood by the historicist – empty, homogeneous, without structure or reference.
This Messianic understanding of the “time of the now” is deliberate. Benjamin understands history through both Marxist and uniquely Jewish sensibilities (and, I would argue, Christian as well, although only by adoption). Precisely because the Jews kept history open, their understanding was always qualitatively distinct from those in whose midst they lived. Like the oppressed everywhere, Jewish communities kept alive the past, not through an empty collection of facts, but through a very real, ritually enacted remembering-as-living-now the Greeks called anamnesis. And by this remembering, they rendered insensible the idea of “history” thrust upon them, precisely because they lived by a different understanding of time.
Like the revolutionary classes in our day, who live always with the “now” as possibility, the Jewish people live with the “now” as the moment when the Messiah enters and ends history; completes and sustains history; defines and destroys the definition of history and time. Defining what comes “after” misses the important point that precisely as the “now” always has the potential to end time, we have no need to understand or investigate or think about something that will be meaningless. There is no “after” is the “now” becomes the real time through the action of the revolution. It is through an investigation of the past rooted in a materialist theoretical lens that this reality is understood: the past is not “prologue”. It isn’t even past.
All time is “now”. In that lies the hope for the oppressed.