Giorgio Agamben. The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. Patricia Dailey, trans. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.
READING THE ITALIAN intellectual Giorgio Agamben is an experience similar to (re)reading Helene Cixous, or for that matter, (un)reading Jacques Derrida. In his 1993 text, La comunita che viene (The Coming Community), he examines Aquinas's "quodlibet ens est unum" and theorizes a new "whatever being," that is, being, not that it does not matter which, but, being such as it always matters. In his 1995 work, Idea Delia Prosa (Idea of Prose), Agamben explores the glückliche Mitte (happy middle) of Hegel and observes that, "For the poet, the element that arrests the metrical impetus of the voice, the ceasura of voice, is thought." He imagines a prose that does more than merely speaks but that both speaks and thinks. In The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, it is the Apostle Paul who commands Agamben's attention "now," however. For Agamben, Romans is not the commencement of a new religion, but the extrapolation of messianism, or how one should live in the days of the messiah, or the messiah time. "The restoration of Paul to his messianic context therefore suggests, above all, that we attempt to understand the meaning and internal form of the time he defines as ho nyn kairos, the 'time of the now.' Only after this can we raise the question of how something like a messianic community is possible" (2).
Also for Agamben, understanding the messianic community in the messianic time means understanding Paul's conception of law and faith. "If we want to comprehend the meaning that underlies the opposition between pistis and nomos in the Pauline text, we should keep in mind this rooting of faith in the sphere of the law—or rather, in prelaw, that is, where law, politics, and religion become tightly interwoven. In Paul, pistis retains something of the deditio, the unconditional self abandoned to the power of another, which obliges the receiver as well" (116). Paul's messianic community, according to Agamben, does not merely separate Jew from non-Jew, but from this a third contingent emerges. Agamben looks to the importance of "I Corinthians 9:20-21, in which [Paul] defines his position with regard to the division Jew 'under the law,' and non-Jew 'without law' according to the expression 'as without law, not without the law of God, but in the law of the Messiah.' [In other words] He who keeps himself in the messianic law is not-not in the law" (51). The messianic community in messiah time are the "non-non's" in the "now" time. But what does it mean to be a non-non in this now time, as opposed to being under the law or to being without law? For Agamben, Paul's interruption of the law, this ceasura, is the answer. "I think at this point it becomes clear why we can say that in Paul's setting pistis and nomos against each other, he does not merely oppose two heterogeneous elements. Rather, he brings into the fore two figures, two levels, or two elements that are present within the law—or within prelaw—in order to play them against each other, so to speak" (118). By putting both the law and faith in tension, Paul does not suggest a "chronos" time: first law, then faith, but a "kairos" time, faith and law existing simultaneously. It is thus through messiah time, the time of the now, that history, law, and religion find their commonality. What is that commonality? For Agamben, their "strength is found in weakness," i.e., their inability to fulfill themselves.
"The messianic is the instance, in religion and equally in law, of an exigency of fulfillment which—in putting origin and end in a tension with each other—restores the two halves of prelaw in unison. At this same moment, it shows the impossibility of them ever coinciding. But in this, it points, beyond prelaw, toward an experience of the word, or taking itself as a thing, without ever being infinitely suspended in its openness or fastening itself up in dogma—manifests itself as a pure and common potentiality of saying, open to a free and gratuitous use of time and the world" (136).
As one can see, The Time That Remains is first an exercise in translation, in hermeneutics, and faith, at least according to Agamben's definition. His messianic claim for Paul may not be easily understood, and certainly Agamben himself does not make this an easily accessible position. In many ways, then, The Coming Community (Minnesota 1993) is a much better entree to Agamben's thought on potentiality and the caesura which seems to drive his understanding of Paul. Second, this conception of the messianic community in messianic time now opens up the ambivalence of Paul's stylistic constructions, such as "I am crucified, nevertheless I live, yet not I...." For while The Time That Remains is a fruitful contribution to Pauline criticism, its main strength lies in demonstrating how complicated "proclaiming Christ crucified," actually was for Paul, in a time when "Judeo-Christianity" was a more fluid concept than we understand today.