Jacques Derrida on The Messianic Principle:

The Eschatological Relation




In Spectres of Marx Derrida outlines the implications of a messianism that would work in tandem with the critical aspects of Marx.  Such a messianism would be “messianic” in so far as it would assume the structure of messianic thought, but it would be “a messianism without religion” (59).  This is how he describes it:


The effectivity or actuality of the democratic promise, like that of the communist promise, will always keep within it, and it must do so, this absolutely undetermined messianic hope at its heart, this eschatological relation [i.e. the relation to the final event or last judgment] to the to-come of an event and of a singularity, of an alterity that cannot be anticipated. (65)


When he refers here to “the democratic promise” he draws our attention to the central problem of both politics and religion, in so far as it devolves upon those in power to guarantee a just treatment of every individual at the expense (therefore) of none.  No one (no rights, properties, goods or lives) must be sacrificed for any other.  In the Christian tradition the sacrifice is the only guarantee of redemption.  A messianic thinking without religion defers the sacrifice but maintains the possibility of “a second coming.”  In Derrida’s radicalized notion the arrivant is affirmed as an “absolute alterity,” meaning that the absolute must be permanently absent.  The removal of the notion of absolute (the religious motif) is made up for, or supplemented, by the notion of “absolutely undetermined” event (the unpredictability of the future).  In other words, those aspects of the future that are not yet determined (such that decisions as well as accidents and chances become possible) must be the result of an absolutely undetermined aspect, which Derrida here calls “an alterity that cannot be anticipated.”  We must wait but on the assumption that the one we wait for cannot ever arrive:


Awaiting without horizon of the wait, awaiting what one does not expect yet or any longer, hospitality without reserve, welcoming salutation accorded in advance to the absolute surprise of the arrivant from whom or from which one will not ask anything in return and who or which will not be asked to comit to the domestic contracts of any welcoming power (family, state, nation, territory, native soil or blood, language, culture in general, even humanity), just opening which renounces any right to property, any right in general, messianic opening to what is coming, that is, to the event that cannot be awaited as such, or recognized in advance therefore, to the event as the foreigner itself, to her or to him for whom one must leave an empty place, always, in memory of the hope—and this is the very place of spectrality [i.e., ghosts]. (65).


In a language that subtly includes Judaic, Islamic and Christian structures of thought (the three monotheisms) and addressing those of modern democracy and communism, Derrida here outlines the singular deconstructive project: that one must read in order to leave an empty space.  One must fail at all costs to finish, close down, tie up, fill in (or whatever suitable metaphor arises in whatever context) the space that makes our decisions possible and gives us our chances.  So the eschatological relation reveals a relation to finality, to ending, but without allowing us to think that the Second Coming or Last Judgment will ever occur.  Such a wait would be without end.


Jacques Derrida. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International.  Trans. Peggy Kamuf. London: Routledge, 1994.


To read more about Jacques Derrida, you might want to access my own article, ”Derrida and Deconstruction