Hamacher Wetters Guilt History

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  • Guilt History: Benjamin's Sketch "Capitalism as Religion"Author(s): Werner Hamacher and Kirk WettersSource: Diacritics, Vol. 32, No. 3/4, Ethics (Autumn - Winter, 2002), pp. 81-106Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1566446Accessed: 01/04/2010 15:47

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  • GUILT HISTORY BENJAMIN'S SKETCH "CAPITALISM AS RELIGION"

    WERNER HAMACHER

    History as Exchange Economy

    Since history cannot be conceived as a chain of events produced by mechanical causation, it must be thought of as a connection between occurrences that meets at least two conditions: first that it admit indeterminacy and thus freedom, and second that it nonetheless be demonstrable in determinate occurrences and in the distinct form of their coherence. Relations can thus be called historical and can be recognized as historical only if they are determined by neither necessity nor chance, and if their causality is of a different order than the mechanical. The temporal structure of history can therefore be characterized on the one hand by the distinct connection of its elements-and on the other hand by the dissolution of all connections that do not assist these elements in achieving their independence.

    A temporal nexus that clearly does not satisfy these conflicting requirements has been characterized in one of the oldest texts of occidental philosophy as the time of guilt. According to the sentence of Anaximander (from about 500 BC), handed down by Simplicius in his commentary (530 AD) on Aristotle's Physics, the origin and end of all things is subordinated to the law of necessity (kata to kreon). "They must pay penance and be judged for their injustice, according to the order of time (kata ten tou chronou tdxin)"-so the fragment reads in the translation offered by Nietzsche in his treatise "Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks." According to Anaximander, the sequence of time orders the rise and fall of all things and orders them in accordance with the law of guilt and punishment so that becoming (genesis) is a guilt (adikia) that must be expiated in perishing. Time and more precisely its taxis, the positing of time, is thought in Anaximander's sentence as an order of guilt and retribution, debt and payback. It is a time of economy in the sense that it is the time of law-and precisely a law that is valid for all beings, a tdxis, a decree, an ordinance and an ordering-in which the unavoidable incurring of guilt is atoned in an equivalent penance that is just as unavoidable. The strict coherence of guilt and penance is ascertained by the principle of their equivalence. Time is therefore conceived here as a double process of coming into being and perishing,

    Translator's note: This essay was originally published in a slightly longer version, as "Schuldgeschichte: Benjamins Skizze 'Capitalismus als Religion,'" in Kapitalismus als Religion, ed. Dirk Baecker (Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2003), 77-120. The most important terminological difficulty of this translation concerns the German word Schuld and related terms. Schuld means, to put it simply, both "guilt" and "debt," as well as, in other senses andforms, "to blame," "to be atfault, " and "to owe." The original text of the essay typically has several of these senses in mind at once, and at certain points in the argument it may be useful to keep this in mind. Generally, I have translated according to the context, but, in the interest of terminological consistency, I have also tried to opt for the English word "guilt" whenever possible.

    diacritics / fall-winter 2002 diacritics 32.3-4: 81-106 81

  • a process that occurs in such a way that the genesis is erased in its passing away-so that time is thus erased by time itself.

    In Anaximander's sentence, however, time is not only the double-process of coming into being and passing away, it is-as a tdxis-the common and constantly enduring medium of the exchange of the contrary but equivalent motions of coming into being and perishing. It is the time of the quid pro quo of everything that is generated and passes away within time. Its measure is a justice that represents itself as a tdxis and thereby as the positing and the law of all becoming and vanishing, the law ofphysis and its demise as an onto-economic law. This taxiological order of time places every realm of the natural and human world under a law of substitution without exception; this also allows ethical, juridical, and economic concepts to substitute for one another within this order. The ethical dimension ofjustice, thus circumscribed by the order of time, is reduced to the juridical dimension of the decree, and both now define themselves according to the calculus of "an exchange economy in an eternally unchanging household of nature."' It can only, however, be a matter of an ethics of time to the extent that this ethics, already juridified and economized, is subordinated to the schema of exchange, trade, and the equivalence of guilt and retribution. The time of history, ethical time, is thus interpreted in Anaximander's sentence as a normative time of inculpation and expiation. Whatever enters this tdxis of time is thereby already guilty and can only become ex- cused by its perishing.

    According to the thesis of Anaximander, time is the schema of guilt and retribution: The injustice committed by the progress of time occurs, however, like its remediation, unfreely. This time is therefore that of a guilt- and debt-continuum, continually advancing without a gap in its eternal recurrences. But it is not the time of history.

    History, Etiology

    It is unknown whether Walter Benjamin was familiar with this sentence of Anaximander. Hermann Cohen, in many regards Benjamin's teacher, cites a fragment of the pre-Socratic saying, fleetingly and without reference, in his 1918 Religion of Reasonfrom the Sources of Judaism, in the chapter on "The Idea of the Messiah and Humanity": "The world must pay in punishment (diken did6nai) for its existence." From this and the earlier works of Cohen, Benjamin may have been familiar with the early Greek equation of time and guilt. In one of his fragmentary notes on the concept of history, perhaps to be dated at the end of the 1910s, Benjamin takes up the connection and declares guilt to be a category of "world history." He seeks to strictly differentiate this history of the world (it may be understood as the history that offers itself in the aspect of its worldliness) from divine history. The critical accent of his exposition is unmistakable: "Guilt is the highest category of world history for guaranteeing the uni-directionality (Einsinnigkeit) of what occurs" [GS 6: 92].2 Only by the category of guilt can the unambiguousness of

    1. This is how Heidegger describes it in his "Spruch des Anaximander" [304]. Hisformulation is used to characterize the commonplace but to his mind materially unjustified understanding of Anaximander's fragment. According to this misunderstanding, the situation is such that "moral and juridical concepts [. . .] mix themselves up with the image of nature" [304]. It would be possible to show that, despite his intention to be more true to the matter ofAnaximander's sentence itself Heidegger's understanding shares decisive traits of this "misunderstanding."

    2. Translator's note: Citations from Benjamin are given here in my own translations. This is also the case for all other citations, since the close analysis of the passages cited would otherwise seem implausible. English editions of the central texts of the essay are noted in the bibliography. The page references given in the body of the essay refer exclusively to the German editions. The

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  • what occurs be guaranteed, its linear orientation, its sense of direction, and the unity of its sense, because only this category refers occurrences in a nonmechanical way to an origin and to further consequences in other occurrences. The Greek aition means "provenance" as well as "guilt": guilt is a category of descent. It indicates that whatever is prior has had something taken from it by that which follows; or whatever is prior has withheld something from that which follows it. Every "having" is thus declared as a having from something else that previously had it-as in the debere, the de habere of debt. If guilt is a genealogical category, it is "the highest category of world history" insofar as it is the category of genesis itself and the only category that can account for occurrences in a homogenous sequence. Whatever happens, it happens from an other and toward yet another and i