THE NEVER-END OF HISTORY:
FINDING MEANING IN THE WORLD-HISTORICAL MOMENT
In 1989 Francis Fukuyama1 claimed that the end of history was upon us; Liberal Democracy had prevailed in the social, political, and ideological unfolding of secular modernity, and competing social forms could no longer pretend to offer viable alternatives. It would only be a matter of time, he felt, before deniers of this truth would be converted into the faith.
The end of history, as I understand it, is the end of politics; and politics, as I define it, is the process of contestation over social form. What Fukuyama was essentially claiming was that we had discovered a social form that would mark the end of contestation. The end of history is the achievement of justice: peace on Earth; the end of war, poverty, and misery. The end of history is the messianic moment.
Thirty years later, we can safely say that Fukuyama’s triumphant, premature declaration has been emphatically debunked and that politics is most definitely still in session. History has not ended, but was merely punctuated by an event of world-historical significance—the end of the Cold War—an event that opened up a new world horizon and a new world-historical moment (US unipolarity). Arguably, 9/11 was also an event of world-historical significance, in turn inaugurating a new world-historical moment (the Global War on Terror), and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis was an event of world-historical significance introducing a new world-historical moment, and so on.
- Francis Fukuyama, “The end of history?” The national interest 16 (1989): 3-18.
We may still be living amidst this last world-historical moment, or we may be living in a new world-historical moment that has not yet been fully recognized. Either way, determining a substantive characterization of the present world-historical moment—be it the decline of democracy, the Anthropocene, the rise of ubiquitous computing, or whatever—is beyond the scope of this essay. The question animating this essay is, instead: what does it mean to be in the midst of a world-historical moment? Moreover, how does a world-historical moment differ from a world-historical event, and why is this terminology significant? To me, this question is profoundly political, in that history as a concept is fundamentally dependent on politics (without contestation over social form, there is no history). But it is also profoundly theological, in that to speak of world-history is to suggest—however strongly or weakly—that humanity is living according to some ultimate purpose or meaning.
The central contention of this essay is that what it means to be in the midst of a world-historical moment, is to be in a state of anticipation concerning the end of history. It means, on the one hand, to be at a conjuncture that offers the possibility of justice, and, on the other, to be in a state of uncertainty as to its ultimate fulfillment. My argument proceeds in three parts. In the first, I examine the doctrine of the end of history, arguing that world-historical events always appear as a promise to end history, but have to date only punctuated it. Each world-historical event nevertheless opens up a historical horizon constituting a new world-historical moment, and therefore a new promise for justice and the end of history. In the second part, I examine the modes of signification by which we attempt to reveal, or have revealed to us, truths about human existence that suggest a/the path to the end of history. In the third part, finally, I explore the various ways in which human beings are subjectivated by world-history, along with the varieties of angst and uncertainty that each world-historical moment brings. I conclude with a summation, and some speculative offerings as to the possibility of justice on our horizon.
THE END OF HISTORY
The end of history is the achievement of justice on Earth; it is the moment of messianic fulfillment and appears in both religious and secular political-theological doctrines. It is the point at which history as a category no longer makes sense, for no new events can occur. With contestation over social form at an end, there will no longer be any meaning to the term ‘progress.’ Happenings will still occur, of course, but they will fall into cyclical patterns of ritualistic behavior—the kind we already experience by working five day weeks, or by ingesting 3 square meals a day. It is precisely this mode of cyclical being that Islamic faith professes to be the true Being of the world, the Being that is not yet manifest—history as “reiteration rather than progress”2. Moreover, it is on this point that many of the criticism directed at Fukuyama’s argument appear either misguided or are revealed as straw man arguments. The end of history is not the end of time—the eschaton—but rather the end of division, hostility, and inequality—the messianic.
For the time being, however, the world-history is in the mode of progress. This is because world-history, the path to any possibility of an end of history, is punctuated by world-historical events. Events are, for Badiou 3, appearance or manifestation of Being in the world. They are generally, though need not always be, the advent of something partial; an incomplete revelation,
- Norman O. Brown, The Challenge of Islam: The Prophetic Tradition: Lectures, 1981 (North Atlantic Books, 2009), 22.
- Alain Badiou, Logics of worlds: Being and event II. (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), 598.
as it were. A truth event for Badiou is a philosophically abstracted version of what in theological terms might be described as a prophecy; a transmission from God (or Being) revealing some occult truth about the world. For Badiou4, as for monotheists of both Christian and Islamic creeds, truth is not contingent, but our knowledge of it—at least presently—is.
As partial truths, world-historical events are always less than the achievement of justice. They may appear as attempts to achieve this justice, to reveal a complete truth and to foster universal conversion, but in the world-history of humanity they have so far always failed. Fukuyama’s Liberal Democracy is just one example—the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, 9/11, being others. All of these world-historical events sought justice as their end, and all of them failed. But in their revelation, they did change the world; they produced a new world-historical context in which their unsuccessful claims to justice—proven false or incomplete—produced the need for a new conception of justice; a new truth to be sought out.
Each world-historical event, then, having failed to achieve justice fully, advents a new world-historical moment: a new world-horizon with a new characterization of justice. We might call this a justice trap, whereby each new attempt to bring about a just world reveals either new injustices or leaves injustice unperturbed in the visible world. In Christian theological terms, this is what the New Testament did in relation to the Old Testament—it produced a reinterpretation of claims to justice contained within the latter, and offered a new set of claims about justice in the present and for the future5.
- Alain Badiou, Being and Event (Continuum, 2007), 513.
- Hayden White, Figural realism: Studies in the mimesis eﬀect. (JHU Press, 2000), 88.
What it is useful to recognize at this point is that world-historical events are not simply erased when the failure of justice is realized, but are preserved as part of the fabric of revealed Being in the world. This, again, is a feature of messianic faith deriving from Saint Paul and then later Martin Luther, the latter translating Paul’s verb for preservation in progress to fulfillment (katargein) as ‘aufheben’ (‘sublation’)—the same verb Hegel would later use to describe the progressive feature of his dialectical method in the service of secularized theology 6.
World-history, in some sense then, marries with the central concepts of monotheistic faiths that profess the unity of Being. World-history is a continuum of events forming a contiguous historical fabric in which truth is revealed only piece by piece. On the one hand, it is a process of revelation similar to the notion of tawhid professed in Islamic theology. In the world-view of tawhid, there are no contradictions in Being, only in appearance7. Being is either manifest or hidden8, and world-history is a history of occultation which, through the signifying power of world-historical events, moves humanity towards prophetic interpretation and revelation.
On the other hand, it is a process of messianic salvation similar to that described by Paul in Corinthians I (7:29): “time contracted itself, the rest is”9. Here, world-historical events are not revelatory in the sense of revealing an underlying cyclical Being and time but, rather, revelatory in the sense of fostering confession to the truth of Jesus Christ as Messiah, and in providing
- Giorgio Agamben, The time that remains: A commentary on the letter to the Romans (Stanford University Press, 2005), 101.
- Ali Shari’ati, On the Sociology of Islam (Mizan Press, 1979), 86.
- ibid., 83
- cf. Agamben, The time that remains, 5-6.
conversions to the prophetic truth already revealed by Jesus’ first coming. Conversions are the necessary path to the completion of a linear history that was opened up by the first messianic event, and that will be closed in the messianic moment of the second coming. Only then can time come to an end in the eschaton.
To be in world-history, and in particular to be in the midst of a world-historical moment, is to be in what anthropologists call a liminal state 10. Referring initially to religious rites of passage, and the ambiguous status of people who had not yet completed those rites, the term was later used to describe political and cultural changes whereby the dislocation of existing social hierarchies and traditions produces a state of uncertainty as to the status and possibility new customs and institutions 11. The moment of liminality then, which I think is an apt metaphor for the world-historical moment, positions human subjects in an uncertain state between historical memory as revealed and a future horizon comprised of expectation, desire, and faith. The impulse of human beings is, of course, to align these three anticipatory thoughts; something that can only truly be achieved in the denouement of world-history.
The literary term denouement is here used intentionally, for the state of liminality is precisely what is treated by literary texts of 20th-century existentialist literature and theater (to be discussed further in part 3 of this essay). In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot 12, for instance, the protagonists are all suspended in a state of uncertain expectation, waiting for someone or
- cf. Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Cornell University Press, 1970), 93-111.
- Bjørn Thomassen, “The uses and meanings of liminality.” International Political Anthropology 2, no 1 (2009), 5.
- Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot / En Attendant Godot: a bilingual edition (New York: Grove Press, 1982).
something that may never come (and in the play, does not), or may come in a different form. It is precisely this uncertainty that necessitates faith in theological discourse and leads to misguided claims of atheistic ‘belief’ in secularized modernity, not to mention the nihilistic writings of Beckett, Sartre, Stoppard, Camus, and others.
In less secularized terms, it is also the state that Weber discusses in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism 13. On his account, salvation is already decided, and yet divine grace can only be revealed by putting one’s faith to the test through a worldly vocation and laboring practice 14. Free will and determinism being seemingly incompatible, human beings (specifically protestants, in this instance) are thereby caught in a liminal state in which worldly existence must be carried out in accordance with certain rituals, even though those rituals may be meaningless in every possible scenario.
Perhaps this is why, despite our uncertainty, there are always attempts to categorize our present world-historical moment; attempts that fall into both secular and religious categories. On the side of religion, there are, of course, the monotheistic traditions already touched upon. Our present world-historical moment is either the moment of incarnation in Christ, whereby the messianic age is upon us, but the achievement of justice (the messianic second coming) is postponed indefinitely. Or it is incarnation through the text of the Quran 15, whereby the final prophecy has been given, and we must now act to bring about an end to injustice, war and
- Max Weber, The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. (Routledge, 2013)
- Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Economy and the future: a crisis of faith (MSU Press, 2014, 92.
- cf. Rémi Brague, The law of God: the philosophical history of an idea (University of Chicago Press, 2007, 72.
inequality. Either way, there will be one world united, or there will be none, and which eventuality unfolds is uncertain (Brown 11).
In secular terms, the story is more complicated; for outside religious orthodoxy, there appear at first to be no projects intended to bring about the end of history. In that sense, Fukuyama may have been right—the end of the Cold War really was the end of something: the end of modernity’s conscious attempt to bring about messianic justice. What characterizes our secular world-historical moment, then, appears in the form of unconscious processes that seem to be unfolding towards a forking path of damnation or salvation.
We have, first, the emergence of what Bratton 16 calls The Stack; the accidental megastructure of ubiquitous computing which, though of our own creation, and intended (though not designed) to serve our social desires and needs may eventually turn upon us for no other reason than that we exist in its presence as an imperfectly subsisting being. In the prophesied moment of singularity, when computing intelligence is speculated to overtake human intelligence and grow at a rate unprecedented in the history of the world, we will either be turned into Gods, or rendered slaves to the machine of our creation.
Second, we have the decline of democracy under the tyranny of neoliberal rationality and the privatization of social life (precisely what Fukuyama thought was not the character of our post-Cold War existence). This is an unfolding process that will either increase its intensity in rendering us class slaves to a Capitalist elite and impersonal market forces, or will accelerate us towards a new form democracy as collective self-mastery (democracy as an end), as opposed to
- Benjamin H. Bratton, The stack: On software and sovereignty. (MIT press, 2016).
the deficient and corrupt form of democracy as assembly and representation (democracy as a means)17.
Third, we have the Anthropocene and impending threat of climate crisis, whereby humanity will either become extinct due to indecision and an unwillingness to move beyond political and social divisions or will come together in great unity to face the crisis as one. In this final scenario, it perhaps matters not whether humanity, by coming together, develops a technical solution to ‘solve’ climate crisis—a deus ex machina in the narrative of world-history, if you like —or faces up to their sins against the Earth in peaceful unity and nevertheless becomes extinct. The point is to achieve justice.
Ultimately, however, what binds all characterizations of the world-historical moment is the possibility of justice offered by their denouement. Moreover, interestingly, what binds all of the secular characterizations together is the role of capitalism, and the contradictions it introduces into social being. This may be why Benjamin’s theses on history 18 present the idea of a classless society (i.e. capitalism overcome) as a secular form of messianic time 19. It is also why political-theology becomes such a useful method of description: it adds faith and fidelity about what is possible and allows us to question whether what is happening in the world is something new—a miracle, a world-historical moment and or event—or more of the same. It also allows us
- Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”. In #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader. Eds. Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian. (Lulu Press, Inc, 2014), 358.
- Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings. Vol. 4, 1938–1940., Eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Harvard University Press, 2006), 389-397.
- Agamben, The time that remains, 30.
to see the end of history as the possible end of every world-historical moment and leads us (intentionally or not) towards and through new world-historical events in pursuit of this aim.
World-historical events, and the moments they bring with them, would not be recognizable if they were not marked with significance, in the literal sense of being signifying events and moments. Marshall Sahlins 20 describes events as a reconfiguration of signs and determines that it is this that makes them significant. In his account, an event is the empirical form of a system, or, “a happening interpreted”21. Each side of his description echoes ideas already discussed this essay—the former, Badiou’s theory of the event; the latter, Islamic modes of prophetic revelation —and signification, therefore, emerges as a term central to any analysis of the world-historical moment.
In theological terms, all signification is the signification of God as signified. The monotheistic ‘oneness’ of God is unnamable, but nonetheless, all signifiers refer to God as signified in the composite form of the sign. Deleuze 22 has the following to say on this point:
“The univocity of Being does not mean that there is one and the same Being; on the contrary, beings are multiple and different, they are always produced by a disjunctive synthesis … The univocity of Being signifies that Being is Voice … That of which it is said is not at all the same, but Being is the same for everything
- Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2013, 153.
- Gilles Deleuze, Logic of sense (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004, 179.
about which it is said”
Thus what we are dealing with is an inexpressible Being that our signifying capabilities can only abstractly and imperfectly overcome through texts and rituals.
This process of signification is what we might call revelation, the revealing of some eternal truth that has been hidden from us. Whether we are talking about truth events or miracles, Being (or creation) is not Being (or creation) unless it appears. However, this is not to say that the truth is revealed to us as it is in-itself; we are not fully equipped for that. The world is in a state of becoming and is not yet complete, and we are caught between creation and revelation: “This cosmos does not appear to be hidden like God seen retrospectively from Creation, nor closed off like man from Revelation; it is neither invisible like the hidden God, nor unapproachable like man closed upon himself, but it is ungraspable: it is an enchanted world.”23 This, I think, is what it means to be in the midst of a world-historical moment; to be in a liminal state between creation (an event) and revelation (either an event or the end of history), with signification our only guide.
In the prophetic tradition of Islam, signification is a process of theophany; the appearance of God in the world 24. The creed of tawhid (i.e., the essential indivisibility of Being), states that the universe is a unity with two relative aspects—the manifest and the unseen 25. God is always in the world, but His manifestation(s) must be interpreted or will remain hidden. Prophecy, then, is
- Franz Rosenzweig, The star of redemption (University of Wisconsin Pres, 2005), 235-236.
- Brown, The Challenge of Islam, 34
- Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Ṣūfism of Ibn ʻarabī. (Princeton University Press, 1998, 112.
an ongoing process: Islam claims that we must move beyond the Old Testament prophecy 26. God’s prophetic revelation is contained within the Quran, which He dictated directly by Muhammad 27. That text therefore serves as an alternative to Christian incarnation: God’s appearance is not mediated by the figure of Jesus Christ, but by signs—literally Quranic signifiers—which cannot faithfully be translated from the Arabic, for to translate would be to further abstract from what are already imperfect signifiers referring to the perfect signified of God. Still, the sign has profound meaning and, through nature, manifests God’s voice in order that we should find truth 28.
In the messianic tradition, this signification has already, in part, occurred. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is, says Brown 29, the decisive world-historical event, an event that will be closed at the end of history by the second coming. The New Testament, which tells of this event, is not simply an addition to the teachings of the Old Testament but, rather, a completion of the Old Testament that reorients and reinterprets its claims in light of the messianic revelation. For Benjamin 30, “Only the Messiah himself completes all history, in the sense that he alone redeems, completes, creates its relation to the messianic.” He goes on to say, as I have been arguing, that:
- ibid., 11.
- Brague, The Law of God, 72.
- Shari’ati, On the Sociology of Islam, 84.
- Brown, The Challenge of Islam, 33.
- Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings., Ed. Peter Demetz. (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 312.
“[N]ature is Messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive after such passing, even for those stages of man that are nature, is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.”31
I interpret this to be a version of the claim that each new world-historical event is an attempt to bring about justice—the Messianic moment—and yet each world-historical event, so far in history, has only brought with it a new world-historical moment of uncertainty and disorientation. In some sense, this is precisely what Brown is describing: God, through Jesus, has saved the world by carving our new time and allowing history to continue. The messianic on this understanding is not the end of time, but the time of the end—the revelation that time is now in a state of contraction as we move towards the second messianic coming and the end of history 32. The time created is linear space within cyclical time, and this space in time is the secular, hence why world-history appears as the universal form with which we moderns may interpret it.
Secular signification, then, is merely a continuation of these themes in the language of modernity. Schmitt’s argument in Political Theology is perhaps one of the most recognizable in this regard. Substituting sovereign power for the power of God, he re-figures manifestations such as the miraculous in terms of the sovereign’s exclusive ability to determine the exception: “The exception in Jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology”33. The point, made well by
- ibid., 313.
- Agamben, The Time that Remains, 62.
- Carl Schmitt, Political theology: Four chapters on the concept of sovereignty (University of Chicago Press, 2005), 36.
Asad 34, is that rituals and other practices leading to the signification of more profound truth do not cognize themselves as such—we misrecognize significance in secular modernity. Furthermore, a secular state does not have as its aim the messianic end of toleration and universal justice, because its raison d’etre is not to eliminate violence and conflict but, instead, merely to regulate it 35.
Hegel’s secularization of salvation and the messianic is perhaps the only political-theology (or political philosophy) that preserves the idea of justice at its core and therefore provides a justifiably sound theory 36. As already noted, his dialectical method employs the notion of aufheben to describe the world-historical truth event, and his philosophy is always anchored in the notion of world-history and progress. His notion of the Absolute is, as I read it, the messianic end of history. He says of world-history 37:
“In all these occurrences and changes we behold human action and suffering predominant … the sight of the ruins of some ancient sovereignty directly leads us to contemplate this thought of change in its negative aspect … But the next consideration which allies itself with that of change, is that change, while it imports dissolution, involves at the same time the rise of a new life, that while death is the issue of life, life is also the issue of death,”
- Talal Asad, Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason (Columbia University Press, 2018), 25.
- Talal Asad, Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003), 8.
- Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History. (University of Chicago Press, 2011), 12.
- ibid., 52
which is, I think, his way of describing the justice trap: each new world-historical moment offers up a new the hope of justice succeeding the world-historical event that failed to deliver it.
Though world-historical events occur and are always apparent to humanity, the status of the world-historical moment is always more ambiguous. Whether we are speaking in secular, messianic, or prophetic terms, human subjects must be aware of and accept their position in the world-historical moment if it is, and they are, to reach denouement. Just as salvation and the completion of the messianic moment will, for Saint Paul, only come when everyone has confessed their sin and accepted Jesus Christ into their heart 38, so too can secular or prophetic history end only when all subjects have been converted into the faith, and for this they must be aware of their position in relation to history.
One way to describe these transitions, or conversions, might be to speak of new nomoi of the Earth; new orientations between the self and the order that governs it. The Stack, for example, with its accidental megastructure and growing omnipotence, can only be guided towards just ends if the subjects subjectivated by it (i.e., amalgamated and divided into users) 39 are aware of their subjectivation and the possibility of truth—any truth—that it might reveal. The awareness of such subjectivation leads to myriad interpretations—similar to that of the prophetic tradition—which in their turn transform the subject and effect a new process
- Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The foundation of universalism (Stanford University Press, 2003, 88.
- Bratton, The stack, 12.
of active subjectivation—that is, a process of subjectivation where the subject is both consciously aware and, potentially, in control.
To give another secular example, we may ask what kind of subjective belief and conversion takes place in the context of climate crisis and the Anthropocene. Here, what we are dealing with is a conversion to the truth of climate science and the reality of human-driven geological change on Earth 40. The climate, given humanity’s fragility in relation to eco-systematic changes, is the master signifier of life as we know it. It is a truth that extends not merely to the boundaries of human life, but potentially to all life (plants, trees, insects, bacteria, and so on) for the truth of the Anthropocene reveals to be intrinsically entwined. That is: as natural beings, we cannot exist as mere witnesses to the destruction of nature. It is a revelation akin to the Deuteronomic claim of monotheism—there are no other gods!—and fosters what Assman describes as “the pathos of conversion: the passion of a life-changing commitment, the fear of relapse, and the resolve to exterminate the pagan within.“41. It is to experience a subjectively profound and irreversible transformation towards the commitment that no other truth matters. For those converted to the apocalyptic pronouncements of climate science, the truth of our shared fate surpasses all social divisions based on class, nationality, race, religion, and so on. The subject is now situated in relation to all others as Saint Paul stressed humans would be after Jesus Christ—no longer Jews or Greeks, freemen or slaves, men or women, but simply believers 42.
- cf. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The climate of history: Four theses.” Critical inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197-222.
- Jan Assman, Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008, 124.
- Brague, The Law of God, 67.
Of course, many human beings have not undergone any form of conversion, either to secular or religious truths. Many live unaware of, and unconverted to, the world-historical moment, or deny the existence of any horizon of justice. This is the state of being characterized by the so-called ‘Theater of the Absurd,’ or ‘Absurdist Literature.’ Absurdism, a term coined by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus 43, is a term used to describe the meaningless repetitiveness of human existence. Just as Sisyphus is condemned to repeatedly push a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again, so too do humans lacking faith in world-history engage in endless iterations of morally vacuous action. The point to note—with anthropocentric climate change, for instance—is that the truth of history (be it a new world-historical event or the end of history itself) will occur regardless of our conversion to the faith.
Consider, for instance, Stoppard’s absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are D e a d 44. T h e t w o e p o n y m o u s p r o t a g o n i s t s i n t h i s p l a y a r e d e r i v e d f r o m Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but here serve as our central focus; we watch as they find themselves unwittingly caught within the master-narrative of Hamlet. All along, regardless of their actions and musings, the advent of their death is foretold by the parallel narrative of Shakespeare’s ur-play which we, the audience, have (or are supposed to have) already seen and understood. We know, and they do not, the death is coming for them regardless of their actions or subjectivation to this truth.
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus. (Penguin UK, 2013).
- Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007).
In the opening of the play, Rosencrantz finds a coin which, no matter how often it is tossed, lands on heads 45. “Time has stopped dead” they muse 46. “A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith.”47. But by the end this resolve is waning as Guildenstern ponders: “Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths?”48. The truth is that they were driven by a narrative they were unaware of and therefore did not control. But, then again, were they completely unaware, or only in denial? There are suggestions that their absurd existence was, for a while, enough to stave off any search for revelation:
“I’m very fond of boats myself. I like the way they’re –contained. You don’t have to worry about which way to go, or whether to go at all-the question doesn’t arise, because you’re on a boat, aren’t you? … One is free on a boat. For a time.
The situation is similar in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot 50, but now we, the reading or watching audience, are the subject(s) in search of meaning. Alas, just as Godot will not arrive for the protagonists, Estragon and Vladimir, clear meaning will not arrive for us. And this is the point: existence avoids definition, and if we go looking for one, we may well get it wrong.
- ibid., 3
- ibid., 12.
- ibid., 4.
- ibid., 209.
- ibid., 168
- Beckett, Waiting for Godot.
Interpretations of Beckett’s play abound—the characters are archetypes, Godot is God, it is about a particular historical context, it is about the universal context, and so on. However, none of this is relevant; what it is more important to note is that the protagonists keep themselves busy, hopeful, faithful, and quizzical throughout. This, I think, is a profoundly political-theological point in that we are driven to search for meaning absent of a conception of justice. There is no world-history here. In Meillassoux’s unpublished doctoral dissertation, Divine Inexistence, he ponders the possibility a God who does not exist or has not yet appeared may still exist or appear at some point—in messianic spirit, he claims that God and justice could merely be what happens next in world-history 51. This is precisely the hope of Estragon and Vladimir, and it is precisely the hope of we the audience.
Beckett’s plays, all of them, are austere in context precisely to make a point about humanity’s aimless and useless passion grounded in ersatz morality. Godot is never identified with God, and Beckett is said to have denied explicitly that Godot was God, for everything he knew about God and Godot was put right there into the play. This is a confession of the univocity of being, and of the inability for any signifier to truly reveal the signified God. Beckett’s protagonists and audiences alike are driven to find revelation only indirectly, for to be told is an impossibility.
The key concept here, I think, is confabulation. It is an image of humanity blindly laying bricks for a road that leads to no real destination, but all the same constructing meaning and purpose in the meantime. In Oliver Sack’s The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat 52,
- cf. Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making: Philosophy in the Making. (Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 97-99.
- Oliver Sacks, The man who mistook his wife for a hat. (London: Picador. 1985).
he recounts the treatment of a patient who could form no new long-term memories. The patient, now elderly, had a memory function that was intact only up until his nineteenth birthday. Beyond that, he was only able to employ a faculty of working memory, lasting but a few seconds at each iteration. The astonishing thing about this individual was that he continuously acted as if everything was normal and as if he understood where he was and what was going on. He was engaged in what cognitive scientists refer to as confabulation: narrative explanation based solely on the environmental cues at hand. The patient, remarkably, often appeared unaware that this is what he was doing.
The point is that history may just be a grand theater of the absurd. Ayache 53 speaks of the market as the medium of contingency, which is to say that markets operate by continuously recalibrating the future in the present—the surprising newness of reality becomes the mundane sameness of world-history. I think this is confabulation on a grand world-historical scale.
It is also the absurdity of existence. It is the fact that regardless of ultimate purpose or direction, of ground or spirit, human beings are the conduit between being and value in the world, and in world-history. It matters not if God exists, because the end of history, the achievement of justice—whether in messianic, prophetic, secular, or absurdist terms—will be achieved or not achieved by humanity and humanity alone. After all, in the end, justice only has value in being, and being only has value in justice.
- Elie Ayache, The medium of contingency: An inverse view of the market (Springer, 2016).
To conclude, I offer a summation and a diagnosis. I have argued in this essay that what it means to be in the midst of a world-historical moment is to be in a state of uncertainty as to whether world-history is progressing inexorably towards the end of history, or if we are simply confabulating our way through meaningless, and incorrigibly unjust, existence. World-history, as I have defined it, is punctuated by world-historical events that have sought justice but failed in their task. Each world-historical event has opened up a new world-historical moment, and with it, a new world-historical horizon with its own novel quest for justice. Until justice arrives, humanity is condemned to drive world-history in a constant reiteration of the desire to achieve it. To illustrate my argument, I have drawn on texts from monotheistic theology, political theory, and absurdist literature. I have aimed to provide a vignette of different approaches to the question of justice and world-history, in order to demonstrate that regardless of the certitude that any individual world-view might have about justice, the only valid response is to maintain faith in humanity. Whether justice arrives or not, world-history depends on the actions and strivings of human beings to continue existing. So we must wait, and we must act. It is the only faith we need.
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About the author…
I am a graduate student in Politics and History of 1Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I hold an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Macquarie University, and a Masters in International Relations Theory from the London School of Economics. My research concerns the epistemological problems associated with recognizing and responding to historically significant change in the present, and is grounded in Political Theory, Political Economy, and Political Theology.