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The Time That Remains, Part I: On Contemporary Nihilism


Art is the distinctive countermovement to nihilism.

—Martin Heidegger

In the late 1970s Aldo Rossi wrote: “Now it seems to me that everything has already been seen; when I design I repeat, and in the observation of things there is also the observation of memory.2 This “presentness” shouldn’t refer to the notion of a happy, ahistorical postmodernist pastiche directed solely by instrumental commodification—a temptation that Eisenman’s built architecture has often succumbed to—but should be seen instead within a new understanding of temporality: the perception of lack or deficiency of time in which we live.

It is significant that architectural theory’s struggle against the loss of meaning in the late avant-garde has often focused both on the aspects of temporal exhaustion and on relentless repetition. This essay invites you to rethink the avant-garde gesture through the concept of temporality as revealed in Giorgio Agamben’s meditations. Drawing both on the Pauline Epistles and Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history, in The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (2000), Agamben proposes a new type of temporality, one that cuts through notions of linear evolution and of history as a “stubborn faith in progress.” This “messianic” time, that is, time in the moment of a significant rupture, is understood not as the end of time, but as the “time that contracts itself and begins to end.” Messianic time is “the time that time takes to come to an end” and is thus a suspension both of the chronological (or sequential, historical time) and the ordinary order of things. It is a disruption of the apocalyptic anticipation of a utopian future, yet it remains inaccessible. Agamben’s position is obviously inspired by Martin Heidegger’s caesura in philosophical thinking and the attack against representational thinking that was initiated by the influential German philosopher. Heidegger declares in his Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics that the main problematic in his seminal book, Being and Time, is the negotiation of neither “being” nor “time,” but the negotiation of the “and” in the title, meaning the timely condition of being. Being is understood as a way to be—a Zu-sein, meaning the being that we ought to be, as a future being. However, this understanding refers to an instant, momentous future that must be constantly realized, at any time. In Heidegger’s conception of time, the “now” in conventional occidental philosophy from Plato to Hegel is always considered as a “not-anymore-now” or a “not-yet-now,” and is reduced to the general notion of an unchangeable eternity. Heidegger’s critique of the concept of temporality in Western thought can also be found in his book on Nietzsche: “Eternity, not a static ‘now,’ nor as a sequence of ‘nows’ rolling of into the infinite, but as the ‘now’ that bends back into itself.” Most significantly, the recurrent suspension of linear temporality and its chronological-historical representation produces new subjects. Interestingly enough, in his book Agamben endorses Benjamin’s claim that the idea of messianic time has found its secularized counterpart in Marx’s concept of a “classless society,” thereby opening up the question of “revolution” that goes hand-in-hand with the notion of modernity. The thesis of “remaining time” is obviously pertinent to us, because it functions as the common denominator of “ekklesia” (the messianic community of the early church), Marx’s proletariat, and, in the view of Boris Groys, which I partially endorse, the avant-garde artists’ community, which has claimed in modernity the role of the subject/object of history. As Agamben has pointed out, the debate on modernity has mistaken “messianism for eschatology, the time of the end for the end of time.” This perverted view has influenced conceptions of history and linear time as part of a Christian eschatological salvation, thus perpetuating modernity’s drive toward a future utopia, a state of things yet to come that infinitely postpones the end—thus creating the repetition of accumulation in view of a future redemption. This is the perverted mirror image of the messianic claim for a now-time once proposed by the avant-gardes, which has been identified by Derrida as a “messianicity without messianism” and a “messianicity, stripped of everything.” Such a notion of messianicity is understood as an “opening to the future or the coming of the other as the advent of justice, but without horizon of expectation and without prophetic prefiguration.” It is important, however, to point out that Agamben’s concept of messianic temporality does not have an ontological foundation regarding any kind of “permanent revolution” that has been so often identified as the essential attribute of modernity, but it signifies the right or opportune moment, the “kairotic” time within the sequential development of the already existing.

Such an expansive temporality is in my view a dialectical mirror image of another type of repetition that addresses nihilism as the sign of time. Drawing on Heidegger’s Nietzsche in his book, The Man without Content (1994), Agamben points toward the rise of nihilism, both as the prevailing condition of “the fundamental movement of the history of the West” and within the rise of the modern art system. Agamben’s book clearly shows that nihilism may indeed be symptomatic of the modern, narcissistic “artistic subjectivity without content.” The mega-artist, as a corporate business player of culture, is just such an opportunistic-nihilistic figure. And Agamben draws an exact genealogy of this figure of modern nihilism, which seems to dominate our contemporary art world.

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