Thursday, 5 May 2011

Jacob Taubes: apocalyptic time and the retreat from history

At this year's AAR panel on Jacob Taubes and Christian Theology, I'll be giving a paper titled "Jacob Taubes: Apocalyptic Time and the Retreat from History". I wrote a paper last year on Taubes' interpretation of Paul; this one will focus more on his recently translated works, Occidental Eschatology and From Cult to Culture. Here's my rather long and rambling abstract:

In his famous theses on history, Walter Benjamin proposed that only a messianic conception of time can burst apart the claustrophobic historicism of modern thought, with its endless cycle of cause and effect. Jacob Taubes’ work was developed against the same backdrop of modern doctrines of homogeneous time; like Benjamin, Taubes wanted to inject the possibility of freedom into the tragic continuum of history.

Taubes sees Nietzsche and Freud as the two great architects of a modern tradition of ‘tragic humanism’, where human actors are utterly imprisoned by fate. ‘There is no hope for redemption from the powers of necessity.’ Taubes largely accepts this post-Christian tragic vision, especially as a corrective to secularised eschatologies of progress. Yet he also advocates a return to the theological conception of time in Jewish and Christian apocalypticism. If time is endless repetition, then the urgency of political commitment is diffused; we are compelled into a situation of ‘decision’ only where the present stands under the shadow of the end. Politics, Taubes thinks, becomes possible only where time is rushing towards this end, and thus where the present is not trapped in a web of repetition, but is a moment of absolute crisis and ‘distress’.

This accounts for Taubes’ lifelong preoccupation with Gnosticism. For him, Gnosticism is a form of non-revolutionary apocalypticism: its doctrine of time locates us within a moment of urgency and decision, while withholding from us any claim to political power, as though we could bring about the end through our own agency. Early Christian apocalypticism is fertile because it yields up not simply a rival politics, but a rival to politics, ‘a critique of the principle of power itself’.

In Taubes’ thought, therefore, a tragic vision of history is set within a wider apocalyptic context – though not in a way that is directly liberating, or that issues in any specific political involvement. Taubes wants to retain the tragic pessimism of Nietzsche and Freud even while relativising it apocalyptically, just as Benjamin relativises historicism not by arguing for the possibility of revolution but by an immense deferral of historical hope, in which history is broken open by the coming messiah.

In this paper I will explore this unresolved tension – so characteristic of modern Jewish thought – between tragedy and expectation, freedom and fate. I will argue that Taubes’ nostalgia for Gnosticism represents an attempt to relieve this tension; but that Gnosticism, with its retreat into an ‘interior apocalypse’, ultimately fails to break the deadlock of modern historicism. Instead I argue that the realism of early Jewish and Christian apocalypticism – a doctrine not about the interior life, but about history – is the only genuine alternative to the tragic fatalism of modern thought.

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