Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, September 2, 2013

Giorgio Agamben, _The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans_

...IN FACT, A commentary on just the first ten words of the Epistle to the Romans, but Professor Agamben has more than enough intellectual resources at his command to find in those ten words not just the key to the whole epistle, but to the whole Pauline project, even, before he is done, to Western thought in general.

Back when I was in graduate school in the 1970s and early 1980s, most of my professor had been in graduate school in the fifties and sixties, and they used to chuckle at the memory of the old school Dryasdust dead-but-won't-lie-down philologists clinging like barnacles to the departmental hull, ignorant of New Criticism, Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye as they compiled their tables of irregular datives...but the brilliance of The Time That Remains is all in its philology. (What goes around....)

For one thing, Agamben is able to pick up these ten words of Paul's koine Greek and chip off the centuries of accumulated theology encrusting them, imagining what their possibilities were when Paul first handled them, the leaps Paul might have made in trying to fit Judaic concepts into the language of the eastern mediterranean marketplace. (For instance, words for faith and belief were always already deeply implicated in matters of contract, commerce, and finance.)

Thus, even in this brief book, we get a large glimpse of Christianity before it was Christianity, when it was still a damp yet incandescent newborn heresy of Judaism.

For another, Agamben can track the word Paul uses to describe what faith does to the law--katargein, usually translated as make void, or nullify, or overthrow--and not only unpack it to a fare-thee-well, but also trace it through Luther's translation of the Bible, where it becomes aufhebung, to...well, you see where this is going, don't you?...to Hegel, and the Hegelian, Marx, etc., etc., so that Paul stands at the head of all radical western philosophy.

The final brief chapter discerns the Pauline in the work of Walter Benjamin--utterly convincingly, I would say.

Agamben gives us a Paul who has been galvanized by possibility, who is able to conceive of an unprecedentedly new relationship between people and time, between people and other people, between people and their own brief but unique lives.

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