In The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Giorgio Agamben reads Paul’s letter as an extended commentary on messianic time and the grace that attends early onset postmortality.
The model for what Agamben calls messianic time is that peculiar time—that remnant of time that remains—following the messianic event but preceding the end of time. Agamben argues that this messianic remnant should not be understood either as what remains to be saved or as what postpones an apocalyptic day of redemption. Rather, it should be understood as a kind of “time within time.”
On this score, Agamben argues, Paul is not a prophet but an apostle. “The prophet is essentially defined through his relation to the future” and “each time the prophets announce the coming Messiah, the message is always about a time to come, a time not yet present” (TTR, 61). But Paul speaks not as a prophet about a future event, but as an apostle about the present unveiling of a salvation that, despite history’s failure to end, has already arrived. “The apostle speaks forth from the arrival of the Messiah. At this point prophecy must keep silent, for now prophecy is truly fulfilled. . . . This is why Paul’s technical term for the messianic event is ho nyn kairos, ‘the time of the now’” (TTR, 61).
In this sense, an apostle’s explicit job is to evangelize early onset postmortality.
The key to understanding Paul’s letter, Agamben contends, is to recognize that messianic time (kairos) is not some time outside of or opposed to ordinary secular time (chronos). If that were the case, secular time would have already come to an end. But secular time, despite the accomplishment of the decisive messianic event, despite Christ’s resurrection, has continued along just as before. Rather, the force of the messianic event resides in its capacity to reveal messianic time as a kind of time that has always already been at work in secular time, simultaneously disrupting and composing it from within.
Messianic time testifies to the impossibility of any simple secular history. And, more, it announces a complex temporality that harbors the possibility of repentance.
Drawing on Gustave Guillaume’s account of “operational time,” Agamben describes messianic time as the time it takes for a temporal representation to be accomplished. Secular time, on the other hand, is a homogenous time composed of completed representations. It “presents time as though it were always already constructed, but does not show time in the act of being constructed” (TTR, 65).
In order to truly understand something, Guillaume says, considering it only in its constructed or achieved state is not enough; you also have to represent the phases through which thought had to pass constructing it. Every mental operation, however quick, has to be achieved in a certain time, which, while short, is no less real. Guillaume defines “operational time” as the time the mind takes to realize a time-image. (TTR, 65-66)
In this sense, all secular time implies a second time that cannot be included within the scope of its finished representation: this second time is the time necessary to complete the secular’s own construction. This second “operational” time names a time within time that complicates and disrupts secular time, even as it gives it. Operational time is the time that remains unaccounted for once secular time has added up everything else.
Consider a photo of the night sky. The photo documents a simple, contemporaneous image of light shining from stars. But the simplicity of the accomplished image masks the complex temporality at work in its construction. It masks the time lag (the operational time) that makes it possible. Here, such lag is dramatic and can be measured in terms of the millions of years it took for that star light to reach us. A photo like this is shot through with operational time.
But the same operational lag is at work in all of our experiences, though often on a micro scale. The time it takes for sound to travel, for light to arrive, for meaning to be constructed, for experience to be assembled, for the mind to think a thought, etc. These things have a price, they take time to complete. Secular time is both dependent on and riven with a complex temporality working on countless overlapping scales, both micro and macro, that it cannot master or include in its own representations.
As Agamben notes in his collection of essays entitled Nudities:
In the firmament that we observe at night, the stars shine brightly, surrounded by a thick darkness. Since the number of galaxies and luminous bodies in the universe is almost infinite, the darkness that we see in the sky is something that, according to scientists, demands an explanation. . . . In an expanding universe, the most remote galaxies move away from us at a speed so great that their light is never able to reach us. What we perceive as the darkness of the heavens is this light that, though traveling towards us, cannot reach us, since the galaxies from which the light originates move away from us at a velocity greater than the speed of light. To perceive, in the darkness of the present, this light that strives to reach us but cannot—that is what it means to be contemporary. As such, contemporaries are rare. (14-15)
The darkness of the night sky is full of light, but it is full of a light that cannot reach us in time to be included in the image. Operational time is this dark light, this temporal remnant, this time tucked away inside of time, that renders our image of the heavens fragile and backdated and incomplete.
To experience early onset postmortality is to be displaced out of time’s completion in the faux-sufficiency of a secular image and into this dark light.
Another way to say this is that operational time, this time that remains, is the remnant of time that is left once secular history has exhausted itself in actuality. Operational time, as messianic time, is what makes room for an early onset post-secularity.
The messianic takes advantage of time’s complexity, of the time within time, of the potential that has not exhausted itself in the actual, of the light still traveling toward us in darkness, for the sake of life and repentance. Rather than being linear, the inclusion of operational time in our account of history and temporality renders time complex and three-dimensional and puts us in relation not just to time’s product but to the power inherent in time’s ongoing, present-tense production, the supercharged fullness of time.
The messianic depends on the fact that the end can arrive without time having been used up.
To experience redemption is to experience time from the perspective of this temporal remnant rather than from the perspective of secular history. It is to experience history’s point of origin as located in an open present rather than in a closed past. It is to experience life from the perspective of the (im)potential that constitutes but is never exhausted in the actual. It is to experience life as a present-tense, ongoing power of creation rather than an accomplished past tense event.
It is to experience the past as incomplete, as decompleted by the operational time it could not incorporate, and the present as overflowing with a fullness that it cannot contain.
Messianic time is this fullness of time in which the day of judgment has already passed and life, both irrepressible and irreparable, continues on anyway. “Messianic time is neither the complete nor the incomplete, neither the past or the future, but the inversion of both” (TTR, 75).
The Messiah has already arrived, the messianic event has already happened, but its presence contains within itself another time, which stretches its parousia, not in order to defer it, but, on the contrary, to make it graspable. For this reason, each instant may be, to use Benjamin’s words, the “small door through which the Messiah enters.” (TTR, 71)
Messianic time, as a sabbatical day of rest, “is not another day, homogeneous to others; rather, it is that innermost disjointedness within time through which one may – by a hairsbreadth – grasp time and accomplish it” (TTR, 72).
Passing through the messianic gate of time’s innermost disjointedness, you see that the past was made for the sake of the present, not the present for the sake of the past. In other words, you repent. Repentance is only possible if time is complex and the past persists unfinished, kept alive beyond itself by a remnant of time that no amount of pride or sinful pretension to self-possession could include.