Only Agamben Can Save Us? Against the Messianic Turn Recently Adopted in Critical Theory

Matthew Sharpe


In this paper, I offer a strong criticism of Giorgio Agamben’s recent political texts. I argue that these texts bring to fruition a larger, contentious trend in the theoretical academy coupling one-dimensional, pessimistic accounts of modernity with strands of messianism. Since the political prospects of messianism, as Agamben’s analyses show, are very thin indeed, I reflectively question the presuppositions that lead him to this prescriptive juncture. In Part I, recurring to Scholem’s classic analyses of Jewish messianism, I show how Agamben’s messianism borrows more or less directly (in The Open) from kabalistic, antinomian, utopian messianism. Having established this exegetical point, I argue two theses in parts II and III. The first, specifically theoretical thesis is that Agamben is driven into his political messianism by the transcendental logic of his analyses of ‘the political’, one which by its nature occludes meaningfully political distinctions by instead seeking out their ontological grounds. The second, specifically politicalthesis is that the widespread embrace of ontological messianism by thinkers in the post-Marxian academy is a symptom of, rather than a cure for, the wider malaise of the political left in the first world. If critical theory is serious about engaging with progressive praxis,one thing it must do is recall the difference between politics and prima philosophia, so that it does not continue to seek out ‘redemption’ – or at least an apology – in the bowels of the latter.


Giorgio Agamben; messianism

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Bible and Critical Theory: ISSN 1832-3391