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.


Anthony Paul Smith said...

This really seems to be simply trying to argue that what Taubes criticized is just, you know, actually right. Balthazar, the reactionary Catholic, gets it right and Taubes, the Gnostic Jew, gets it wrong. When I saw the original CFP I was worried that this would essentially be the tactic of these papers and I'm a little disappointed that it looks like I was correct. I'm curious to see what you mean by "nostalgia for Gnosticism".

Yes, I'll come heckle. You can come heckle us and try to convert the panel on After the Postsecular and the Postmodern.

Paul Tyson said...

This looks really interesting Ben. I've just read Abraham Heschel's "The Sabbath" and it seems to me that the powerful sacramental realism of Jewish notions of time and promise Heschel sings to us holds out remarkably fresh vistas on history and human nature. 'If I were a rich man' I'd certainly come along to the AAR to hear and counter-heckle!

Paul Tyson said...

Oh, I should add, that my desire to counter-heckle is NOT intended to imply that (a) Ben needs any defense that he can't provide much better than I, or (b) that I would be in any sense an intellectual equal to the high powered APS. Rather, its just something I would enjoy doing.

Robert said...


This sounds interesting and (as you know) a cognate to my work on fashion, theology and time. I'm very excited to hear your paper. Coincidentally, I will be comparing Benjamin's conception of fashion/historicism with Dooyeweerd's view of fashion and individuation in history -a view I'm guessing some might see as complicit in a "secularized eschatology of progress" that Taub's sought to escape- this summer in Amsterdam at "The Future of Creation Order" conference.

R.O. Flyer said...

Looks great, and not in the least bit reactionary Catholic.

dbarber said...

Just out of curiosity, Ben, are you saying that Taubes's _gnosticism_ is one of an "interior apocalypse? If so, just two questions / remarks that may be worth thinking about:

1. According to Taubes, the interiorization of apocalyptic actually occurs with Christianity, for example Augustine (Occ. Esch. p.80) -- I believe Origen plays a role as well

2. Have you read King's account of Gnosticism? She argues that Gnosticism was not at all about interiority, it was about politics. And that the equation of Gnosticism with interiority is actually a sort of misdescription (interpellation / mode of domination) that was produced by orthodox Christianity.

So obviously idk how your paper is proceeding, meaning you may take this sort of stuff into account -- but in any case these, i think, would have to be addressed by your thesis.

Anonymous said...

Do we really live with the feeling that "history" lacks a direction? I would argue, with Karl Loewith, that the opposite is the case. History is experienced as a runaway train.

Post a Comment

Our books




Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.