In a previous post I introduced the very idea of Diagramming Derrida before explaining his notion of différance diagrammatically. In this post I set out to tackle the idea of “messianicity without messianism” and, more generally, Derrida’s characteristic motif of “x without x”, for example “religion without religion” or “God without God”.
Messianism as Derrida understands it can be either religious or secular. His main religious reference is Jewish messianism, the hope for the future appearing of God’s anointed who will bring justice and peace on earth and who will restore the fortunes of God’s people. The present is lived in expectation of the future time when messianic prophecy will be fulfilled.
The primary secular messianism, as far as Derrida is concerned, is to be found in Marx’s philosophy of history, according to which the inevitable proletarian revolution will bring about, after a period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, a classless society of justice and peace. As in the case of Jewish messianism, the present is lived in confident expectation of the inevitable future overturning of fortunes.
Both these messianisms have a determinate content: we know what will happen to bring justice and peace (the coming of Yahweh’s Messiah or the overthrow of the capitalist system by a proletarian revolution). But in terms of his own thinking what Derrida offers is not this or that determinate messianism but what he sometimes calls “messianicity without messianism,” or “structural messianism” or again a messianism “which I regard as a universal structure of experience, and which cannot be reduced to religious messianism of any stripe” (‘Marx and Sons’, 248). He seeks to maintain the expectation of a future overturning of the status quo (= “messianicity”) without ascribing that change to any determinate agent (= “without messianism”).
Derrida retains the structure of the promise of something to come, an “endless promise” (‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’, 38) in that it can never be co-opted or reduced to any particular determinate content. What will come is not any named Messiah but “the most irreducibly heterogeneous otherness” (‘Marx and Sons’, 249) which means that whatever it is it that comes, it will certainly not be what, or who, we are expecting. As for the transformation that this advent will bring about, Derrida describes it as the “democracy to come,” by which he does not mean the linear prolongation into the future of contemporary systems of parliamentary and representative democracy, but a disruptive, non-linear “event” which is unforeseeable and unexpected:
The event must also announce itself as im-possible; it must thus announce itself without calling in advance, without forewarning, announcing itself without announcing itself, without any horizon of expectation, any telos, formation, form, or teleological preformation. Whence its always monstrous, unpresentable character, demonstrable as un-monstrable. (Rogues, 144)
This figure of the monstrous parallels Derrida’s insistence on the justice that exceeds all calculable law. If we could predict what is to come then it would no longer be radically other to what already exists but an event within the current horizon of expectation, and it is this calculable predictability of the future that Derrida wants to avoid at all costs: “A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow” (Positions, 387). What Derrida is seeking to do here is retain certain formal, structural features of theological messianism while evacuating it of its determinant content. This does not mean, though, that the democracy to come is radically unknown and that, to put it crudely, it could be anything. Derrida does specify that the democracy to come will bring about the impossible concurrent realisation of absolute freedom (and singularity) and absolute equality (and equivalence). Freedom and equality are both necessary for democracy, but also contradictory because equality demands that people be thought of as equivalent, and freedom that they be thought of as singular.
The evocation of freedom and equality means that, though the advent of the democracy to come will be monstrous, it is not radically indeterminate. If another Hitler-like figure were to come, for example, with a National Socialist ideology of Aryan supremacy, Derrida would have no hesitation at all in affirming that the figure is not that for which he was waiting. The “to come” will surprise our expectations, but it will not surprise the deconstructive expectation of surprise.
So what, then, are we to make of this absolute freedom and equality? Have we caught Derrida smuggling some determinacy back into his supposedly indeterminate ethics and politics? Is the universal democracy-to-come in fact a badly disguised reworking of the freedom and equality of French republicanism? Some have certainly thought so, arguing that if the monstrous to-come is truly other and unpredictable then it must be possible for it to be evil and despotic just as much as benevolent and benign, and “what I welcome as a vital chance may turn out to be a lethal threat.” Derrida does have a response to such criticism, however. Take the example of Hitler again: his ideology relies upon a series of determinations, divisions and categories: Jew and Gentile: Aryan and non-Aryan, and so on, and therefore it sets itself up directly against the indeterminacy which Derrida is seeking to place at the heart of his ethics and politics. The absolute freedom and absolute equality of which Derrida speaks, by contrast, introduce no rigid distinctions between different groups of people (or, as some of his later work explores, no fixed and rigid distinctions between humans and “non-human” animals either) and so it could be argued that it enacts, on the level of political content, the ontological openness which Derrida prizes. All are to be equal without distinction; all are to be free without exception. Of all possible political systems, it could be argued, the democracy to come is the least determinate and prescriptive.
 Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008) 31.