International Conference of the International Walter Benjamin Association location:Antwerp, Belgium date:September 2009
This paper intends to show how Benjamin’s work on sovereignty and the messianic actually serves to illuminate a broader theory of the canonical and how this, in turn, can inform contemporary discussions of a monotheistic canon. Firstly, in Benjamin’s analysis of the relationship between sovereignty and the messianic, a deeper theological tension is unlocked between the juridical processes of codified representation (a stage on the way to the canonical) and the prophetic testimony of the tragic (a stage on the way to the messianic). It is in this juxtaposition that one begins to see how the processes of canonicity themselves, as the contested sites of memory insofar as it is codified, juridified and, hence, (mythically) commemorated, stand in direct relation to the processes of the messianic insofar as it is an interruptive power working upon a normative history embodied in an always particular canonical form.
Secondly, this fundamental connection, then, is expanded through a reading of Derrida’s (re)appropriation of Benjamin’s notion of the messianic in direct contrast with Derrida’s own vision of the archive, the precondition for any canonical formulation. In this fashion, Derrida’s seeking to correct Benjamin’s ‘utopian’, nonviolent horizon for historical action with a necessary account of an ‘originary violence’ actually serves to elucidate the conditions for a possible (‘bloodless’) ‘violence’ of forgetting, seen here as necessary to the processes of canonicity, and likewise to the realm of juridical representation as well. This paper will therefore seek to illustrate the unique role of the monotheistic (Judaic) canon in relation to an ‘originary violence’ at the heart of the processes of canonicity, a more specific narrowing of those which govern the processes of archivization and its relation to messianicity, and which serve to identify the religious subject.
Finally, the nuance taken in the most recent work of Egyptologist Jan Assmann on violence and its relation to monotheism, done with direct reference to Benjamin, offers us a glance into how Benjamin’s work on history can further be brought to bear upon the concept of ‘canonicity’ as a particular historical instance of making a critical distinction between the political and the religious. This tension, then, present in the legalistic and prophetic tensions of the Hebrew canon itself allows us to observe Benjamin’s own tensions between the secular and the religious from a unique vantage point, again demonstrating why his writing is ‘soaked through’ with the structures of the theological even when immersed in the material.