Giorgio Agamben-The Unforgettable

The following essay is taken from Agamben's commentary "The Time That Remains" on the Pauline text "Letter to the Romans"

The Unforgettable

I imagine Benjamin had something like this in mind when, referring to the life of the idiot, he spoke of the exigency to remain unforgettable. This does not simply mean that something forgotten should now reappear in our memory and be remembered. Exigency does not properly concern that which has not been remembered; it concerns that which remains unforgettable. It refers to all in individual or collective life that is forgotten with each instant and to the infinite mass that will be forgotten by both. Despite the efforts of historians, scribes, and all sorts of archivists, the quantity of what is irretrievably lost in the history of society and in the history of individuals is infinitely greater than what can be stored in the archives of memory. In every instant, the measure of forgetting and ruin, the ontological squandering that we bear within ourselves far exceeds the piety of our memories and consciences. But the shapeless chaos of the forgotten is neither inert nor ineffective. To the contrary, it is at work within us with a force equal to that of the mass of conscious memories, but in a different way. Forgetting has a force and a way of operating that cannot be measured in the same terms as those of conscious memory, nor can it be accumulated like knowledge. Its persistence determines the status of all knowledge and understanding. The exigency of the lost does not entail being remembered and commemorated; rather, it entails remaining in us and with us as forgotten, and in this way and only in this way, remaining unforgettable.
From this stems the inadequacy in trying to restore to memory what is forgotten by inscribing it in the archives and monuments of history, or in trying to construct another tradition and history, of the oppressed and the defeated. While their history may be written with different tools than that of the dominant classes, it will never substantially differ from it. In trying to work against this confusion, one should remember that the tradition of the unforgettable is not exactly a tradition. It is what marks traditions with either the seal of infamy or glory, sometimes both. That which makes each history historical and each tradition transmissi- ir ble is the unforgettable nucleus that both bear within themselves at their core. The alternatives at this juncture are therefore not to forget or remember, to be unaware or become conscious, but rather, the determining factor is the capacity to remain faithful to that which having perpetually been forgotten, must remain unforgettable. It demands [esigel to remain with us and be possible for us in some manner. To respond to this exigency is the only historical responsibility I feel capable of assuming fully. If, however, we refuse to respond, and if, on both the collective and individual levels, we forgo each and every relation to the mass of the forgotten that accompanies us like a silent golem, then it will reappear with- in us in a destructive and perverse way, in the form Freud called the return of the repressed, that is, as the return of the impossible as such.
What does all of this have to do with Paul? For Paul, the redemption of what has been is the place of an exigency for the messianic. This place does not involve a point of view from which we could see a world in which redemption had taken place. The coming of the Messiah means that all things, even the subjects who contemplate it, are caught up in the as not, called and revoked at one and the same time. No subject could watch it or act as if at a given point. The messianic vocation dislocates and, above all, nullifies the entire subject. This is the meaning of Galatians 2:20, "It is no longer I that live (zo ouketi ego), but the Messiah living in me." He lives in him precisely as the "no longer I," that dead body of sin we bear within ourselves which is given life through the spirit in the Messiah (Rom. 8:II). The whole of creation was subjected to caducity (mataiotes), the futility of what is lost and decays, but this is why it groans as it awaits redemption (Rom. 8:20-22). The thing in the spirit to correspond with this creature's continuously lost lament is not a well-formed discourse able to calculate and register loss, but "unspeakable groanings" (stenagmois alaletois) (Rom. 8:26). This is why the one who upholds faith in what is lost cannot believe in any identity or worldly klesis. The as not is by no means a fiction in the sense intended by Vaihinger or Forberg. It has nothing to do with an ideal. The assimilation to what has been lost and forgotten is absolute: "We are made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things" (I Cor. 4:13). Pauline klesis is a theory of the interrelation between the messianic and the subject, a theory that settles its differences once and for all with presumed identities and ensuing properties. In this sense, that which is not (ta me onta) is stronger than that which is.
Karl Barth's thesis that there is no place for the as if in the messianic except when "hope is the Aufhebung of the as if" and that "we now truly see ... that which we nevertheless do not see" (Barth, 298), is substantially correct, even if it lags behind Pauline exigency. Just as Kafka intuited in his extraordinary parable on parables ("Von den Gleichnissen"), the messianic is the simultaneous abolition and realization of the as if and the subject wishing to indefinitely maintain himself in similitude (in the as if), while contemplating his ruin, simply loses the wager. He who upholds himself in the messianic vocation no longer knows the as if he no longer has similitudes at his disposal. He knows that in messianic time the saved world coincides with the world that is irretrievably lost, and that, to use Bonhoeffer's words, he must now really live in a world without God. This means that he may not disguise this world's being-without-God in any way. The saving God is the God who abandons him, and the fact of representations (the fact of the as if) cannot pretend to save the appearance of salvation. The messianic subject does not contemplate the world as though it were saved. In Benjamin's words, he contemplates salvation only to the extent that he loses himself in what cannot be saved; this is how difficult it is to dwell in the calling.


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