Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Emancipatory Desire and the Messianic Promise

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Emancipatory Desire and the Messianic Promise

Article excerpt

In Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida writes that deconstruction from the start has questioned an archeo-teleological and onto-theological concept of history as found in Hegel and Marx, in order to think another historicity that does not neutralize or cancel itself. What is required, he states, is "an affirmative thinking of the messianic and emancipatory promise as promise: as promise and not as onto-theological or teleo-eschatalogical program or design."1 Not to proclaim the end of history, or even a new historicism, but another historicity that does not renounce the desire for emancipation:

Not only must one not renounce the emancipatory desire, it is necessary to insist on it more than ever, it seems, and insist on it, moreover, as the very indestructibility of the "it is necessary." This is the condition of a re-politicization, perhaps of another concept of the political.2

An intriguing question arises here: desire for emancipation is the condition of a changed concept of the political, and of another historicity that will not close in and collapse on itself, yet this desire cannot be for a messianism that is teleological, that ends in an absolute freedom. Yet in the struggle for liberation from repressive regimes, in the longing for freedom from violence and suffering, is it not a teleological hope for an end to intolerable conditions that moves one to resist, even perhaps to sacrifice one's own life? Is it not necessary, as the young Peruvian Marxist, Jose Carlos Mariategui once wrote, to believe in a myth, to have faith or the will to believe, for the revolution to succeed?

In this essay I am concerned with Derrida's insistence on the desire for emancipation, a messianic desire that clings to faith in a justice that cannot be deconstructed. The possibility of politics, of a repoliticization, rests in this be- lief in a future-to-come. But this possibility must be subject to the impossibility that is its condition, a rigorous undecidability that refuses to submit to the temptation of the political program. How can one address the criticism that such an undecidability leads to political ineffectiveness? As Enrique Dussel asks, in response to those he believes are denying "a realizable utopia," "how can the hungry not hope to eat tomorrow?"3 Above all, I am interested in what an affirmative thinking of the messianic promise "as promise" can mean for liberation struggles. For if it is the condition of a new politicization is it also the condition of a reconceptualization of emancipation?

Messianicity without Messianism

Derrida's use of the notion of messianism is a provocative and performative conjuring of a certain spirit of Marxism; one, he reiterates often and forcefully, that he will never renounce. He refers to this spirit with a host of robust descriptions: as emancipatory desire, faith, hope, messianic apprehension, exposure without horizon, belief, and promise. These terms reflect the messianic spirit that Derrida argues is an ineffaceable mark of Marx's legacy, and that renders his writings most urgent for today. Indeed, this urgency to address the ghost of Marxism (at least one) is an imperative for Derrida, for there is "no future without Marx," he writes, not without the memory and the inheritance of a certain Marx, of at least one of his spirits.

The messianic first appears in Specters of Marx in the context of yearning for a justice that appears to be inaccessible. Given Hamlet's discovery that law or right stems from vengeance, Derrida asks, can there be a "quasi-messianic" day for a justice that will be infinitely heterogeneous at its source?5 Here the "quasi" is an attempt to invoke the irreducible ambiguity of a term that on the one hand becomes an arbitrary reference to what is otherwise a familiar Judeo-Christian symbol, and on the other, remains impossible to extricate from this very symbolic meaning, with its long history of affiliation with one language, one culture, one revelation. …

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