2007 Northeast Modern Language Association Panels
1-4 March, 2007
Baltimore, Maryland

Justin Neuman
University of Virginia


"Critical Messianism: The Promise of the Future
and the Future of the Promise in 20th-Century Critical Thought"


Do not cite without permission of the author.

As the questions attending the call for papers to this panel suggest, fidelity is a troubled concept in tThe dominant trends of criticism and cultural theory identify a clear narrative in the history of 20th century: an increasing and pervasive skepticism of systemic thought aligned with the rise of secular multiculturalism, fragmentation, and pluralism. Yet within this tradition, critical thought in the twentieth century manifests a stubborn engagement with non-secular discourses, a tendency most clearly visible in the deep vein of messianism running from the thinkers of the Frankfurt School through to Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and Giorgio Agamben. This essay argues that messianism, understood as the promise of radical change, plays a central and poorly understood role in political and cultural critique. Criticism, I suggest, is founded upon a messianic promise.

I begin by tracing the genealogy of messianism from its roots the Frankfurt School , where secular criticism first engages the dialectic between utopian and restorative messianisms inherited from Judaic theology. Focusing on what I term the “apocalyptic messianism” of Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, and Theodore Adorno, I suggest that for these thinkers, the promise of the future requires the radical rupture of apocalypse. Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas, whose work recovers the “weak messianic power” dismissed by Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of history,” form the bridge to the restorative messianic thought that emerges with Derrida's Specters of Marx. In this text, messianism reemerges as the structure of experience that opens the self to the coming of an entirely unknowable other in an unpredictable future; it is an active and ceaseless form of waiting for the wholly other.

In a gesture that suggests the future of critical messianism, I conclude by applying messianic thought to the historical traumas of the past, arguing that the rift between present and past in the aftermath of limit events such as the Holocaust mirrors the asymmetry of the immanent/transcendent divide. The past, in short, assumes the position of radical alterity once occupied by god. I contend that only a messianic critique, devoted to understanding the advent of radical alterity within history, can do justice to historical trauma.