‘Impossible Histories: Derrida, the (Re)turn of Religion in Cultural Criticism, and Messianic Historical Theory’

A paper delivered on the 6th November at the Institute of Historical Research by Mark Mason (Deputy Dean, University of Chichester) and reviewed here by Peter P Icke.


Mark Mason’s brilliant, lucid and (considering the demanding nature of its subject matter) remarkably accessible paper, ‘Impossible Histories: etc.’, drew upon the conceptual resources of ‘the (re)turn to/of religion’ as expressed in recent cultural criticism and, in particular, upon its focus on Derridean deconstruction. Or, to put that differently, deconstruction as it equates to the messianic[i] motif in Derrida’s work and the manner in which that motif can be seen to destabilise all historicisations. At bottom, I think that this paper might best be grasped as a singular, uniquely argued and, indeed, damaging critique of ‘historical representations’ as variously circulated in our current cultures, complimented with the suggestion of a positive ‘way forward’ shaped in the form of an appeal for a more overtly self-critical, reflexive mode in its theorisation. That is to say, a suggested style of theorisation which explicitly recognises, foregrounds and affirms the ‘im-possible’ condition of all historical (re)presentations[ii], both in their unavoidable epistemological failures to determine ‘what is to come’ (argued here as a very good thing) and in their, let us say, conspicuous or even wanton over-production generated through the agency of a ‘history machine’ which is simply not configured to reflect on its own condition of im-possibility. And, seen in this way, Mason’s overall argument constitutes a move towards a (messianic) renewal in history rather than a move towards a rejection/extinction of it.

Now, in such a brief review as this I cannot expand on the multiplicity of concepts indicated above and, accordingly, I direct the reader to Mason’s ‘Deconstructing History’[iii] and his ‘Exploring The Impossible’[iv] for an account of the messianic and its implicit notion of ‘openness to the other’  in Derridean deconstruction. I would, nevertheless, highlight here a central and important strand of Derridean thought, an imperative, which informed to some substantial degree the argument presented. And I refer to Derrida’s urgent demand to keep the future open through the rejection of all ‘discourses of closure’ which, to the obvious distress of some of those attending the presentation, would include pretty much all of history as currently practiced. For the doing of history, notwithstanding historians’ best efforts to claim otherwise, is a goal seeking, teleological enterprise driven by the desire for truth-at-the-end-of-enquiry. The point here being that notwithstanding historians’ acknowledgements of history’s incompleteness, their magnanimous embrace and incorporation of plurality, their understanding and agreement that its arguments might be subject to revision and so on and so forth, it still remains the case that historians’ very evident collective purpose/desire is to eventually, and against all the odds, get at the “truth of the past” and tie it down, fix it once and for all. And that’s closure.

Borrowing for a moment here something of a supplement to that previous point which I draw from Keith Jenkins’ essay, ‘Sande Cohen: on the verge of newness’, where, in the course of reviewing Cohen’s History Out of Joint, Jenkins notes Cohen’s observation that historical writing/narration has, right across the discipline, become very much a war amongst ‘claimants’ – claimants who each seek to legitimate their own individual, contentious, present interests through their respective attempts at narrative closures –  and further that, with all of this in mind, the central thesis of Cohen’s book may now be stated thus: ‘that narrative historicisations aim to prevent the appearance of new claimants on the future’[v].  And, of course, such attempts to close down the future through ideologically positioned ‘fixes’ in the present make no concessions whatsoever to that urgent Derridean ‘imperative’ mentioned above.

To close this short review, then, a summing-up, or rather a summing-up of a summing-up which necessarily carries along with it all sorts of risks. But here it is anyway.

So, the central message advanced and defended by Mark Mason might be boiled down to this; that all historical (re)presentations are already ‘marked for failure’ and that it might just be worthwhile to explore what it means to rethink historical (re)presentation and its theorisation as emancipatory in the messianic sense outlined by Derrida. Or, to spin that around and into the interrogative, what would be the implications of theorising histories as ‘messianic and emancipatory promises’, endlessly subject to failures which would in themselves help to both affirm and maintain the opening of a non-determinable future? That, I think, is the crucial question addressed in this paper.

Peter P Icke

[i] I should make it clear that Derrida’s use of the word ‘messianic’ does not signify a space that belongs to any determinate Abrahamic religion. Put simply, it concerns a performative notion of faith – the ‘believe me’ or, for Derrida, ‘the promise’ which launches any discourse and which, in a sense, can be taken as that discourse’s absolute presupposition(s). This, then, the performative dimension of the promise, is embedded in and rests on the messianic or, better still, the messianic structure that belongs to all language.

[ii] Just a short explanation for the bracketed (re) in (re)presentation as follows: History, articulated through the medium of narrative, merely “presents”. Strictly speaking it can’t “represent”, it can’t be a representation because a representation presupposes a represented and in the case of history there is no perceivable represented available since the past is dead and gone. The very notion of a represented, a supposed concrete referent exterior to the historians text, is an illusory reality effect generated within history’s characteristically narrative medium of transmission or exchange. It’s the product of a style of figurative internal circularity that has no linkage outside its own discourse and this notation, this (re), signals that problematic. To neatly sum-up this point one might say, following Roland Barthes (in spirit at least), that a ‘crafty’ operation is in play here, a scarcely noticed operation which collapses the putative referent into the signified.

[iii]Mary Caputi and Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. (Eds.), Derrida and the Future of the Liberal Arts: Professions of Faith. Bloomsbury (2013), pp93-121.

[iv] Mark Mason, ‘Exploring the Impossible – Jacques Derrida, John Caputo and the Philosophy of History’, Rethinking History, Routledge, No.4 (2006), pp 501-522.

[v] Keith Jenkins, At the Limits of History: Essays on Theory and Practice, Routledge (2009), p283.