Katechon : Peter Szendy

Mathilde Roussel / Pàn #4

Mathilde Roussel / Pàn #4

Katechon : Peter Szendy

When one looks up the entry for the verb katechō in an ancient Greek dictionary—let us say the Liddell and Scott—, one finds: to hold fast, to hold back, to withhold, to check, to restrain, to bridle, to detain, to inhibit, to gain possession of, to be master of, to control, to possess, to occupy, to fill, to be spread over, to cover.1

The polysemy of the word is restrained, though, or bridled by the context in which it occurs twice, in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians traditionally attributed to Paul (2 Thess. 2: 6-7). The author—let us say Paul2—uses the present participle form of the verb katechō, first in the neuter [to katechon] and then in the masculine [hō katechōn], in order to name “the restrainer”: that which—or the one who—holds back, defers, postpones. The passage reads as follows (I quote the New International Version of the Bible):

Concerning the coming [the presence: tēs parousias] of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion [apostasia] occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed [kai apokaluphthēi ho anthrōpos tēs anomias], the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back [to katechon], so that he may be revealed [apokaluphthēnai] at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness [to mustērion tēs anomias] is already at work [energeitai]; but the one who now holds it back [ho katechōn] will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed [apokaluphthēsetai ho anomos], whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming [tē epiphaneia tēs parousias autou].

Paul’s letter inaugurates the long and fascinating history of the katechon as a political concept that is still producing its effects today. So many strata of interpretation have accumulated ever since. For Tertullian, John Chrysostom, or Augustine, the katechon is the Roman Empire. In his Apology for the Christians (XXXII, 1) Tertullian thus very clearly states:

There is also another need, a greater one, for our praying for the Emperors, as for the whole estate of the empire and the interests of Rome. We know that the great force which threatens the whole world, the end of the age itself with its menace of hideous suffering, is delayed by the respite which the Roman Empire means for us. We do not wish to experience all that; and when we pray for its postponement are helping forward the continuance of Rome.

[Est et alia major necessitas nobis orandi pro imperatoribus, etiam pro omni statu imperii rebusque Romanis, qui vim maximam universo orbi imminentem ipsamque clausulam saeculi acerbitates horrendas comminantem Romani imperii commeatu scimus retardari. Itaque nolumus experiri, ea dum precamur differri, Romanae diuturnitati favemus.]3

A divergent reading is proposed by John Calvin in his commentary on Paul’s Second Epistle, where he considers it “more probable” [probabilius] that the Apostle declared: “the light of the gospel must be diffused through all parts of the earth before God would thus give loose reins to Satan” [prius circumferendam per omnes terrae partes Evangelii lucem, antequam Deus ita Satanae frena laxaret].4 The katechon would thus be the evangelizing mission itself: “This, therefore, was the delay, until the career of the gospel should be completed” [haec igitur dilatio erat, donec completus esset Evangelii cursus]. According to Calvin, then, we could say that the katechontic deferral is the time the evangelic word needs to unfold its effects.

It was Carl Schmitt who passed the concept on to contemporary political theory. In a letter to Hans Blumenberg dated October 22, 1974, Schmitt himself recognizes in the katechon the key to his political theory: “For more than 40 years I have been collecting materials on the problem of the ‘Κατεχων’ or ‘Κατεχον’ (2 Thess. 2, 6); and for all these years I have looked for a human ear that would listen to this question and understand it—for me the crucial question [Kernfrage] of (my) political theology.”5 Indeed, the word keeps recurring in Schmitt’s works from 1942 onward to characterize the most different entities or historical figures: it is used for the first time in an article published in the journal Das Reich on April 19, 1942, in order to negatively portray the United States as a “delayer of world history” [Verzögerer der Weltgeschichte] in front of the Nazi imperial project; it then appears later in the same year, in the essay Land and Sea, to describe the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire (said to have “acted as a rampart, a katechon, as it is called in Greek . . . against the onslaughts of Islam”) and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (depicted as being “not an active hero, but rather a brake, a delaying factor . . . able to delay the Thirty-Years War by several decades”).6 Even Hegel ends up becoming katechontic in a 1950 article where Schmitt, discussing Karl Löwith’s book The Meaning of History, speaks of “a force that defers the end and restrains the evil one” [einer Kraft, die das Ende aufhält und den Bösen niederhält]:

This is the katechon of the mysterious passage of Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. The medieval empire of the German rulers understood itself historically as the katechon. Luther still understood it in these terms, whereas Calvin takes a significant turn by no longer taking the empire but rather the preaching of God’s words as the katechon. The conception of withholding and deferring forces and powers can in some form probably be demonstrated to be active for every great historian [die Vorstellung haltender und aufhaltender 
Kräfte und Mächte lässt sich in irgendeiner Form wohl bei jedem großen Historiker nachweisen]. Nietzsche furiously identified Hegel and the sixth sense of the Germans, i.e., the historical sense, as the great deferrer on the way to expressed atheism [Nietzsche hat voller Wut gerade in Hegel und in dem sechsten, das ist in dem historischen Sinn der Deutschen, den großen Verzögerer auf dem Weg zum offenen Atheismus erblickt].7

With Schmitt, the differentiation in the concept’s extension—the pluralizing of its possible embodiments—is well under way, thereby turning the katechon into a metahistorical structure beyond the historically identifiable forces that represent it.8 As Schmitt himself notes in an entry in his Glossarium dated December 17, 1947:

I believe in the katechon: it is for me the only possibility as a Christian to understand history and find it meaningful [er ist für mich die einzige Möglichkeit, als Christ Geschichte zu verstehen und sinnvoll zu finden]. We have to be able to name the katechon for every epoch in the last 1948 years [Schmitt writes in 1947]. The place has never been unoccupied, otherwise we would not be present anymore [der Platz war niemals unbesetzt, sonst wären wir nicht mehr vorhanden] . . .  There are temporary, transient, splinter-like fragmentary bearers of this role [es gibt zeitweise, vorübergehende, splitterhaft fragmentarische Inhaber dieser Aufgabe].9

In Schmitt’s writings, then, we are witnessing a striking generalization of the katechon. It now becomes possible to consider the katechontic force that withholds as inherent to “every theory of the State, including Hobbes’s,” as Agamben puts it in The Time That Remains. It now becomes possible to ask, as Massimo Cacciari does in a recent book entitled Il potere che frena (“The Power That Withholds”): “[D]oes not every constituted power that is effectively in force belong to the dimension of the katechon? Shouldn’t it have at its disposal a katechontic energy?”10 Katechon is here abstracted from its initial context, it undergoes a process of “secularization,” as Agamben emphasizes, while obviously retaining something of its original Christian logic (or theologics).

With this (quasi-)secularization also comes a shift from the question “quid or quis est katechon?,” as Cacciari formulates it, toward the complex temporality of the katechontic as such.11 For the postponement that the katechon produces or enacts amounts to a double deferral. To borrow Roberto Esposito’s words in Immunitas: “[I]n delaying the explosion of evil . . . it also at the same time delays the final victory of the principle of good. The triumph of evil is held in check, true, but the divine parousia is also delayed by its very existence. Its function is positive, but negatively so.”12

Withholding the coming of an Antichrist who in his turn precedes the coming of the Messiah, the katechon amounts to a kind of postponement of a postponement. And this is the reason why Agamben goes as far as to identify Derrida as the paradigmatic thinker of the katechontic force of our times:

The katechon, suspending and withholding the end [sospendendo e trattenendo la fine], inaugurates a time in which nothing can really happen [or occur: avvenire] because the sense of historical becoming, that has its truth only in the eschaton, is indefinitely deferred [differito] . . . . Schmitt’s katechontic time is a blocked messianism [un messianismo bloccato]: but this blocked messianism reveals itself as the theological paradigm of the time in which we live [il paradigma teologico del tempo in cui viviamo], the structure of which is nothing else than the Derridian différance. Christian eschatology introduced a sense and a direction in time: katechon and différance, suspending and deferring this sense,14 render it undecidable.13

Of course, on the one hand, Derrida himself would have protested against this reduction of différance to a mere characterization of “the time in which we live.” The unity or consistence of such a “time” has always been the target or focus of deconstruction’s questioning, from Derrida’s early insistence on the impossible closure of a context to his appropriation of the Shakespearian motto quoted over and over again in Specters of Marx: “Time is out of joint.”15 But, on the other hand, Agamben’s attempt to historicize différance could very well be supported by some of Derrida’s own statements: suffice it to recall here that even when Derrida defined deconstruction as “what happens” [ce qui arrive], i.e. as what disrupts the very epochality of an epoch or a “time,” he immediately added: “It remains then to situate, localize, determine what happens with what happens, when it happens. To date it.”16 In other words, even if Agamben’s unashamed historicization of deconstruction seems to be at odds with the latter’s insistence on untimeliness, even if it apparently yields too quickly and easily to Schmitt’s Christian-historical requirement that “we have to be able to name the katechon for every epoch in the last 1948 years”—ours supposedly being deconstruction itself—, he also might be said to further one of deconstruction’s constant concerns or efforts. And this should be a sufficient reason to try to take Agamben’s suggestion seriously, or at least take it as a sign, as a symptom worth analyzing, without procrastinating anymore.

Indeed, you might be wondering what I am getting at with this long reconstruction of the history of the katechon, from Paul to Agamben and beyond. You might even be thinking that I keep deferring this very question—“what am I getting at?”—, that I delay the moment when, hopefully, I will finally spell out the political stakes of the katechon for today. In sum, you might be suspecting that I am using the archaeology of the katechon as the very katechon for my political discourse on it.

Now, at the risk of appearing paradoxical, I would argue that nothing is more urgently needed than this concept of the katechon as general(ized) deferral, provided we pursue the movement initiated by Schmitt, i.e. its abstraction, the severing of its ties with its original Christian context. (Of course, the name of this abstracting process could well be Christianity itself as globalization, as what Derrida has called “globalatinization,” mondialatinisation.17)


What could it mean that, at the end of a long historical transformation, katechontic time becomes, if not identical, at least identifiable (and indeed identified by some) with différance?

On the one hand, the abstractive process that the katechon has been undergoing seems to reach here its limit: not only is it abstracted from its original set of referents (the whole series of names responding to the question “quid or quis est katechon?”: the Roman empire, evangelical discourse, etc.), but it is also abstracted from the very eschaton that it indirectly procrastinated. The deferral of différance is a deferral that does not simply defer the end: it displaces eschatology itself as a structure.

On the other hand, and on this very limit that it is reaching, the concept of the katechon also seems to shift from the theologico-political paradigm to which it has been considered to belong toward an economic field or play of forces. Derrida has always insisted on what he calls, in “Différance,” “the economic signification of the detour, the temporizing delay.”18 And if it is true, as Agamben writes in The Kingdom and the Glory, that “Christian theology” gave rise to the two—“antinomical but functionally related”—paradigms of “political theology” and “economic theology”,19 the katechon, then, in the moment when it comes to be named or diagnosed as sharing the structure of différance, clearly appears as belonging at least as much to the second paradigm as to the first. (Indeed, the katechon might be the very limit of the two paradigms, where they touch upon one another.)

Nowhere are these two movements—the severance from eschatology and the becoming-economic of the theologico-political—more apparent than in Walter Benjamin’s fragment entitled Capitalism as Religion, a fragment that is entirely dictated by a katechontic logic. Even if Capitalism as Religion was probably written in 1921, it not only belongs, without any doubt, to what Agamben loosely calls “the time in which we live,” but it also foretells it, it predicts—or better: it prereads—the contemporary developments of financial capitalism, in particular its practices of debt governance.

In the first paragraph of the fragment, Benjamin writes:

A religion may be discerned in capitalism—that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to pacify the same concerns, torments, and disturbances to which the so-called religions offered answers. The proof of the religious structure of capitalism—not merely, as [Max] Weber believes, as a formation conditioned by religion, but as an essentially religious phenomenon—would still lead even today to the deviation of an immeasurable universal polemic. We cannot draw closed the net in which we stand. Later on, however, we shall be able to gain an overview of it.

[Im Kapitalismus ist eine Religion zu erblicken, d. h. der Kapitalismus dient essentiell der Befriedigung derselben Sorgen, Qualen, Unruhen, auf die ehemals die so genannten Religionen Antwort gaben. Der Nachweis dieser religiösen Struktur des Kapitalismus, nicht nur, wie Weber meint, als eines religiös bedingten Gebildes, sondern als einer essentiell religiösen Erscheinung, würde heute noch auf den Abweg einer maßlosen Universalpolemik führen. Wir können das Netz in dem wir stehen nicht zuziehn. Später wird dies jedoch überblickt werden.]20

Setting out to name the theological structure of capitalism, the fragment strikingly opens with a deferral (“later”, später21) and a detour (or “deviation”, Abweg), as if not only capitalism as such had a katechontic structure (as we will see with Benjamin’s fascinatingly clairvoyant notations on debt), but also any discourse on it. Is Benjamin suggesting that any discourse about capitalism (about capitalism as it will soon appear in the guise of a katechontic general indebtedness) is performatively part of the same katechontic logic that it would seek to merely describe?

At the beginning of the long, second paragraph of the fragment, Benjamin then announces that “nevertheless, even at the present moment it is possible to distinguish three aspects of this religious structure of capitalism” [drei Züge jedoch sind schon der Gegenwart an dieser religiöser Struktur des Kapitalismus erkennbar]. Actually, and for essential reasons, as we will see, there will be four of them at the end of the paragraph.

The first two are intimately linked to one another since capitalism, being according to Benjamin a purely immanent cult that worships nothing else than itself, cannot anymore be circumscribed or delimited by what it would serve:

In the first place, capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed. In capitalism, things have a meaning only immediately in their relationship to the cult; capitalism has no specific body of dogma, no theology. It is from this point of view that utilitarianism acquires its religious overtones. This concretion of the cult is connected with a second trait of capitalism: the permanent duration of the cult . . . . There are no “weekdays.” There is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense of the unfolding of all the sacred pomp, of the utter strain of the worshiper.

[Erstens ist der Kapitalismus eine reine Kultreligion, vielleicht die extremste, die es je gegeben hat. Es hat in ihm alles nur unmittelbar mit Beziehung auf den Kultus Bedeutung, er kennt keine spezielle Dogmatik, keine Theologie. Der Utilitarismus gewinnt unter diesem Gesichtspunkt seine religiöse Färbung. Mit dieser Konkretion des Kultus hängt ein zweiter Zug des Kapitalismus zusammen: die permanente Dauer des Kultus . . . . Es gibt da keinen „Wochentag“, keinen Tag der nicht Festtag in dem fürchterlichen Sinne der Entfaltung allen sakralen Pompes, der äußersten Anspannung des Verehrenden wäre.]22

As the cult of the cult that it is, capitalism, then, cannot stop celebrating itself, over and over, always more. 24/7.23 Without end.

The third aspect of the religious structure of capitalism, though, seems to indicate the possibility of an end, of an eschaton, even if—or precisely because—this salvational extremity has to be reached after total destruction (which is, after all, the very apocalyptic logic of the Antichrist). Reading these lines that I am about to quote at some length, let us remember that the German word Schuld also means “guilt,” though I unilaterally translate it here as “debt,” drawing all the other contextual consequences of this decision on other nouns or verbs:

And third, this cult indebts. Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that, instead of redeeming, indebts . . .  A vast consciousness of debt that does not know how to redeem itself seizes on the cult, not to absolve this debt but to make it universal, to hammer it into the consciousness and finally and above all to include God in this debt, so as to finally interest even Him in redemption. The redemption cannot then be expected from the cult itself, or from the reformation of this religion—which would need to be able to hold on to something stable in it—, or even from the complete abjuration of this religion. [Remember that the first and second aspect of the religious structure of capitalism were the absence of a dogma and the permanent duration of the cult: without dogma, there is no basis on which one could consider reforming a cult (let alone a perpetual cult) or abjure it. Benjamin continues:] It is in the essence of the religious movement that capitalism is to endure until the end, until the final and total indebtedness of God . . .  The expansion of despair into the religious state of the world from which salvation is expected.

[Dieser Kultus ist zum dritten verschuldend. Der Kapitalismus ist vermutlich der erste Fall eines nicht entsühnenden, sondern verschuldenden Kultus . . . . Ein ungeheures Schuldbewußtsein das sich nicht zu entsühnen weiß, greift zum Kultus, um in ihm diese Schuld nicht zu sühnen, sondern universal zu machen, dem Bewußtsein sie einzuhämmern und endlich und vor allem den Gott selbst in diese Schuld einzubegreifen, um endlich ihn selbst an der Entsühnung zu interessieren. Diese ist hier also nicht im Kultus selbst zu erwarten, noch auch in der Reformation dieser Religion, die an etwas Sicheres in ihr sich müßte halten können, noch in der Absage an sie. Es liegt im Wesen dieser religiösen Bewegung, welche der Kapitalismus ist, das Aushalten bis ans Ende, bis an die endliche völlige Verschuldung Gottes . . . . Die Ausweitung der Verzweiflung zum religiösen Weltzustand aus dem die Heilung zu erwarten sei.]24

What could seem, at first reading, an apocalyptic logic—capitalism as a cult of indebtedness resulting in its own ruin and hence its possible salvation—is actually more complex than it appears. For, if the god whose cult is celebrated in capitalism is indebtedness itself, if the end of the capitalist cult to the capitalist cult is the becoming-indebted—or better: the becoming-debt—of divinity itself, then this process can have no end: God can never become completely indebted, God can never coincide entirely with Debt, since an absolute Debtor is an oxymoron. In other words: if debt consists in deferred payment or redeeming, then the cult to debt can only be celebrated by generating more debt to sustain debt, to avoid absolution from debt, or—it amounts to the same—to avoid absolute Debt. (Even bankruptcy or default, in this logic, would appear as a provisional credit to better regenerate or resuscitate debt.)

Indebtedness, then, as the theology without dogma of capitalistic cult, has the structure of a double deferral: debt as deferred payment can only be absolutized by deferring its very absolutization. And this is the only way, I think, we can understand the mysterious conclusion of the long second paragraph of Benjamin’s fragment. For Benjamin, as I said, adds a fourth aspect to the three he had announced, as if this unexpected sequel were a most natural supplement:

Its fourth trait is that its God must be kept secret and may be addressed only when his indebtedness is at its zenith. The cult is celebrated before an unmatured deity; every representation, every thought of it violates the secret of its maturity.

[Ihr vierter Zug ist, daß ihr Gott verheimlicht werden muß, erst im Zenith seiner Verschuldung angesprochen werden darf. Der Kultus wird vor einer ungereiften Gottheit zelebriert, jede Vorstellung, jeder Gedanke an sie verletzt das Geheimnis ihrer Reife.]25

The God of capitalism seems bound to defer his maturity, then. As we saw, for this divinity that awaits its complete indebtedness, being ripe (ripe as a fruit about to fall from the tree) would amount to become an absolute Debtor, which is a contradiction in terms. But Benjamin suggests more than that. Indeed, with this fourth and supplementary trait, he takes up again the argument that he was hinting at in the last two sentences of the first paragraph: “We cannot draw closed the net in which we stand. Later on, however, we shall be able to gain an overview of it.” What Benjamin implies, then, by an added trait embodying the very supplement or deferral that it names, is that there is no closing of the network of debt-cult because the immaturity of the Debt-God is structural. Its cult is celebrated while the divinity is not mature yet; and this cult, as a cult of debt, essentially defers the very maturity of its divinity, i.e. its complete or absolute indebtedness. Therefore, there can be no zenith, no revelation, no apocalypse of this Debt-God, since the very consistence or insistence of indebtedness is its deferral by itself and in view of itself. The parousia of debt coincides with its own delay. In other words: the Debt-God can never appear as such; or, to paraphrase Paul’s words in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians: it can never be “revealed” [apokaluphthēnai] in “the splendor of his coming” [tē epiphaneia tēs parousias autou].

This fourth trait—the supplementary trait that both describes and enacts supplementarity itself—definitely internalizes the katechon. In other words, katechon is made immanent in and as the structure of debt-cult. Capitalism is not katechontic because, by alternating loans and debts and deadlines and new loans, it defers complete indebtedness and ruin, thereby deferring also the absolving or redeeming of debt. This would be the Paulinian katechontic logic, or the Schmittian one, for that matter. Rather, capitalism is katechontic because indebtedness defers itself as itself and for itself, because debt perpetuates itself by the very process of delaying itself, or vice versa.


Where do we stand, with or within this “net,” as Benjamin calls it, with or within this network of debts that we cannot “draw closed?”

We have followed the historical process of the generalization of the katechon, until the moment when it reached its maximal extension with Schmitt. But it was a generalization that left the concept itself untouched: it was a universalization that remained external, so to speak, to its conceptual structure.

Reading closely Benjamin’s theologico-economic reinterpretation of the concept, we have then witnessed a much more radical displacement of it, since it touches at the very heart of its scaffolding. Indeed, we could compare what happens to the katechon when Benjamin renames or rechristens it as debt to the operation that Derrida was calling for in Glas in terms of a general fetishism: “If what has always been called fetish, in all the critical discourses, implies the reference to a nonsubstitutive thing . . ., [to] a decidable opposition of the fetish to the nonfetish,” then the generalization of the concept itself—beyond its general application or use—would consist in “reconstruct[ing]” (Derrida’s word) a concept of fetish “that no longer lets itself be contained in . . . the opposition Ersatz/nonErsatz, or simply in the opposition.”26 Mutantis mutandis, in Benjamin’s fragment, katechontic debt—or debt tout court, since debt and katechon become pleonastic synonyms in the religion of capitalism—is generalized to the point that it has no opposite other than itself.

Derrida’s generalized fetishism was formulated at a “time” (maybe out of joint) when the deconstruction of the concept of fetish could still be said, in the wake of Bataille, to be “in the service of a general economy whose field must then be opened.”27 In his later work, Derrida dropped this Bataillean mot d’ordre (indeed, Bataille practically disappears from the text of deconstruction) in favor of a growing concern with the “aneconomic.” The most conspicuous symptom of this inflection is Given Time, where Derrida insists that any gift as such has to be “aneconomic” in order to remain a gift worthy of the name.28 And when Derrida explicitly discusses the economic stakes of debt, in Given Time and later, he does so by opposing it to gift (the insistence on the impossibility of the gift does not really alter its oppositional relation to debt). Or, more precisely, even if a generalized and non-oppositional concept of debt is hinted at in some passages of Given Time, Derrida does not seem to draw all the consequences of it.29

One is tempted to think that it is because indebtedness thus remains more often than not caught in this oppositional logic that Derrida’s brief and worried mentions of the crisis of “foreign debt” in Specters of Marx are mere wishful thinking, in spite of the title of the book and its promise of an explicit discourse on the “State of the Debt”.30 But in what way could our reading of debt as generalized katechon in Benjamin open other possibilities, other perspectives? After all, one could easily fear that a radical generalization of debt (in its very concept) would only accompany its planetary universalization, thus confirming the worst logics of contemporary capitalism. In other words: are we stuck in the alternative between a right-thinking or righteous condemnation of debt in the name of unconditional gift and a mere conceptual laissez-passer for the ruthless forces of financial capital?

There are many signs, on the contrary, that what is most urgently needed is precisely a self-differentiation of debt, beyond its oppositional determinations. Not its powerless critique, then, based on supposedly higher ideals of generosity, but precisely the auto-immune power that opposes it to itself.31 Since there is no absolution from debt, it is only in the name of other debts that the endless and enslaving extension of “foreign debt” can be opposed and fought. Marx, in the third volume of Capital, already suggested that there could be something like an indebtedness to the Earth as a whole:

From the standpoint of a higher socioeconomic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth [more precisely: the globe, Erdball] will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations [den nachfolgenden Generationen verbessert zu hinterlassen].32

This “global” debt—radically different from the debts generated by “globalization”—is also a debt to the future, to the generations or times to come. We could go further and, in the wake of Günther Anders, think of a debt not to something or someone in the future, but to the possibility of future itself, as such. A debt to time, then, to a time that, as Anders writes, cannot anymore be conceived of as unconditional, i.e. as given, but “has become—as absurd as this may sound to certain philosophical ears—something conditioned [zu etwas Bedingtem geworden].”33

This is the reason why Anders also felt the need to appropriate the Paulinian concept of the katechon as a concept for “our time”—which is “ours,” he writes, because it owes its very possibility as a time to come to our decisions.34 If, for Anders, “the situation of Paul’s generation” [die Situation der Generation Pauli] could be thought of as “deferrals of the parousia” [Parusieverzögerungen], it is also a “model for our own situation” [Vorbild unserer eigenen Situation]. Indeed, from its theologico-political history to its theologico-economic reinterpretation in terms of general indebtedness as deferral, katechon is a crucial political concept for “the time in which we [still] live.”


Peter Szendy is David Herlihy Professor of Humanities and Comparative Literature at Brown University 


Published on August 14, 2016

1. These pages were presented at the Political Concepts conference held at Brown University in April 2015. I wish to thank Bonnie Honig for her invaluable suggestions and comments that have led me to revise and—hopefully—clarify a number of passages.

2. On the question of the authorship of the Second Epistle, see Paul Metzger, Katechon: II Thess. 2, 1-12 im Horizont apokalyptischen Denkens (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), 51ff.

3. Tertullian, Apology, trans. Terrot R. Glover, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 154-155. In his fourth homely on Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, John Chrysostom writes: “One may naturally enquire, what is that which withholdeth, and after that would know, why Paul expresses it so obscurely. What then is it that withholdeth, that is, hindereth him from being revealed? Some indeed say, the grace of the Spirit, but others the Roman empire, to whom I most of all accede. Wherefore? Because if he meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely, but plainly . . .  But because he said this of the Roman empire, he naturally glanced at it, and speaks covertly and darkly. For he did not wish to bring upon himself superfluous enmities, and useless dangers. For if he had said that after a little while the Roman empire would be dissolved, they would immediately have even overwhelmed him, as a pestilent person, and all the faithful, as living and warring to this end.” See “Homilies on the Epistles of St. Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians,” A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, trans. John A. Broadus, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. XIII (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1889), 388-389. See also Augustine, De Civitate Dei, XX, 19.

4. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, trans. and ed. Rev. John Pringle (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 333. 

5. Hans Blumenberg, Carl Schmitt, Briefwechsel 1971-1978 und weitere Materialien (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007), 120, my translation. 

6. Carl Schmitt, “Beschleuniger wider Willen”, Das Reich, April 19, 1942; Land and Sea [Land und Meer, 1942], trans. Simona Draghici (Washington: Plutarch Press, 1997), 8, 43. 

7. Carl Schmitt, “Drei Stufen historischer Sinngebung” (the original title intended by Schmitt was: “Drei Möglichkeiten eines christlichen Geschichtsbildes”), Universitas 5, no. 8 (August 1950): 929-930; “Three Possibilities for a Christian Conception of History,” trans. Mario Wenning, Telos, no. 147 (2009): 167-170. Schmitt is alluding here to The Gay Science, § 357, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 219: “one might charge precisely the Germans—those Germans who were contemporaries of Schopenhauer—with having delayed this triumph of atheism most dangerously for the longest time. Hegel in particular was a delayer par excellence, in accordance with his grandiose attempt to persuade us of the divinity of existence, appealing as a last resort to our sixth sense, ‘the historical sense’.” The same portrayal of Hegel as “the great deferrer”, with the same allusion to Nietzsche, can be found in a short article, “Die andere Hegel-Linie,” published by Schmitt in Christ und Welt, July 25, 1957: Nietzsche hat mit einem Wutanfall erklärt: Hegel ist der grosse Verzögerer auf dem Wege Deutschlands zum Atheismus.

8. See the interesting classification that Felix Grossheutschi proposes in his study: Carl Schmitt und die Lehre vom Katechon (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1996), 103. There would thus be in Schmitt’s oeuvre “local and universal katechons” (lokale und universelle Katechonten), the latter being further differentiated into “immanent to history and transcendent to history” (geschichtsimmanente und geschichtstranszendente).

9. Carl Schmitt, Glossarium. Aufzeichnungen der Jahre 1947-1951 (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1991), 63, my translation.

10. Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 109-110, translation slightly modified: “An ancient tradition, which is already found in Tertullian, identifies the power which delays or withholds (ritarda o trattiene) the end of time as the Roman Empire, which in this sense has a positive historical function . . . . This tradition culminates in the Schmittian theory that finds in 2 Thessalonians 2 the only possible foundation for a Christian doctrine of State power . . .  In a certain sense, every theory of the State, including Hobbes’s—which thinks of it as a power destined to block or delay catastrophe—can be taken as a secularization of this interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 2.” See also Massimo Cacciari, Il potere che frena. Saggio di teologia politica (Milan: Adelphi, 2014), 14, my translation: Ci possiamo chiedere: non appartiene forse ogni potere costituito, effettualmente vigente, alla dimensione del katechon? Non deve esso disporre di un’energia catecontica?

11. Massimo Cacciari, Il potere che frena, 32.

12. Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life [2002], trans. Zakiya Hanafi (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 63. Explicitly referring to Esposito, Paolo Virno writes: “Katechon not only oscillates between the negative and the positive, without ever expunging the negative; it also safeguards the state of oscillation and its persistence as such.” Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation (New York: Semiotext(e), 2008), 61.

13. Giorgio Agamben, introduction to Carl Schmitt, Un giurista davanti a se stesso. Saggi e interviste (Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 2005), 16-17, my translation.

14. Dilazionare, the verb used by Agamben, has distinctly economic overtones: dilazionare un credito means to “extend credit”: we will come back to this.

15. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 1, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28 . Already in The Time That Remains (103, translation modified), Agamben describes deconstruction as “a blocked [or obstructed, jammed, stuck] messianism” (la decostruzione è un messianismo bloccato, he says). Every time I think of this sentence, it brings to my mind the memory of a moment particularly dear to me. In June 2014, my wife Laura and I visited Marguerite Derrida in the house where she lived for so many years with Jacques. Derrida’s library was already half packed and ready to be sent to Princeton, where it will be archived and—some day—made accessible to the public. But many books were still on the shelves and Marguerite generously told us that we could take a look at them. After browsing through a number of annotated volumes (Heidegger, Husserl . . .), I opened, without any apparent reason, Derrida’s copy of Agamben’s The Time That Remains. And, thumbing through it, I stumbled upon precisely this passage, with a marginal annotation in Derrida’s handwriting; next to the sentence about deconstruction as a “messianisme bloqué” (in French), I read: “tu débloques . . .” These two words economically condense in a pun—in a Witz—two different and opposite meanings: on the one hand, Agamben could be the one who “unblocks” messianism; but, as the other marginal annotations clearly confirm, it is the slang meaning of the expression that Derrida has in mind here, i.e. “you are out of your mind” or “you talk rubbish.”

16. Jacques Derrida, “The Time is Out of Joint,” Deconstruction is / in America: A New Sense of the Political, ed. Anselm Haverkamp (New York: New York University Press, 1995), 17. See also “A ‘Madness’ Must Watch Over Thinking,” Points . . . Interviews, 1974-1994, ed. by Elisabeth Weber (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 356: “‘deconstructions,’ which I prefer to say in the plural . . . is one of the possible names for designating, by metonymy in sum, what happens or doesn’t happen to happen [ce qui arrive ou n’arrive pas à arriver], namely, a certain dislocation.”

17. Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” Acts of Religion, ed. and trans. Gil Anidjar (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), 50-51, 67, 79, 86, 89.

18. Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” Margins—of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), 13.

19. Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Homo Sacer, II, 2), trans. Lorenzo Chiesa (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 1.

20. Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, Selected Writings, vol. 1: 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 288, translation modified; Walter Benjamin, “Kapitalismus als Religion,” Gesammelte Schriften, VI (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991), 100. My reading is deeply indebted to Samuel Weber’s remarkable analyses of this fragment in “Closing the Net,” Benjamin’s –abilities (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2008). Some of my modifications in the available English translation of “Capitalism as Religion” are dictated by Weber’s illuminating comments.

21. About this puzzling “later” [später], Samuel Weber perceptively asks: “Does this mean that the “net in which we stand” will “later” be drawn sufficiently to a close to allow us to look it over, taking it all in with our own two eyes? Where will those eyes be positioned? And just what will they see: what exactly is the “this”—dies—that is “later” to be seen through? Is it the net? Our situation standing in it? The impossibility of drawing it to a close? The universal polemics its naming and exhibition would produce? All of these? Some of them? None? Something else? As if this were not complicated enough, there is a second conundrum. Where are we to place this “later” that will bring the solution to which Benjamin refers? Is it simply further on in his text? Is it in a text written later by Benjamin (for instance, the Passages)? Or is it after Benjamin’s texts as a whole, part of their “afterlife,” perhaps including a situation in which “we” no longer “stand” in the same “net,” or at least not in the same way? Could that later be today? Tomorrow? Yesterday?,” (Benjamin’s –abilities, 252).

22. Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion,” 288, translation modified; “Kapitalismus als Religion,” 100. See also Samuel Weber’s reading of these first two aspects: “Capitalism . . . frees the cult from its traditional service of theological dogma, understood as a series of ideas that would be exemplified or realized through the celebration of rites .  . . Capitalism takes the cult to the extreme, Benjamin’s argument implies, by allowing it to become its own source of meaning, that is, by endowing it with a certain autonomy . . .  Since the cult no longer draws its meaning from something radically separate from it, but only from itself, that self consequently becomes its own measure. And the measure of a self is its ability to endure . . .  A cult is traditionally bound up with a spatial-temporally organized practice. As such it must be delimitable in space and time. That however is precisely what no longer holds of the cult of capitalism: it never stops, never pauses,” (Benjamin’s –abilities, 254-255).

23. See Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013).

24. Samuel Weber translates Schuld as “debt-as-guilt,” 253, 256. “Capitalism as Religion,” 288-289, translation modified; “Kapitalismus als Religion,” 100-101. 

25. Samuel Weber, “Capitalism as Religion,” 289 (translation modified); “Kapitalismus als Religion,” 101.

26. Jacques Derrida, Glas (1974), trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. and Richard Rand (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 209.

27. Jacques Derrida, Glas, 210.

28. Jacques Derrida, Given Time, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 7: “the gift must remain aneconomic.” Given Time was published in 1991 and announced as the first part of a diptych, the second half of which never came, leaving Given Time itself as an open debt that never reached its “maturity” (as we could say in the economic lexicon of credits or loans). The second volume is not only implicit in the numbering present in the complete title of the first (Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money), but it is also explicitly promised in a footnote: “We will come back to this point much later, in the second volume of this work,” 20, n10.

29. The sentence I just quoted continues (Given Time, 7): “the gift must remain aneconomic . . .. It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is the impossible.” Later in the same chapter, Derrida writes: “For there to be a gift, it is necessary [il faut] that the donee not give back, amortize, reimburse, acquit himself, enter into a contract, and that he never have contracted a debt. (This ‘it is necessary’ is already the mark of a duty, a debt owed, of the duty-not-to [le devoir de-ne-pas]: The donee owes it to himself even not to give back, he ought not owe [il a le devoir de ne pas devoir] and the donor ought not count on restitution.),” 13. This last parenthesis could entail a radical generalization of debt, but in the economy of Given Time and of Derrida’s later work it doesn’t seem to unfold, it remains parenthetical.

30. When discussing Heidegger on the “gift without debt,” Specters of Marx refers back to the argument of Given Time (31). When Derrida later mentions debt, i.e. “foreign debt,” it is to lament—who wouldn’t?— “the phenomena of pauperization and the ferocity of the ‘foreign debt’” (79), “the aggravation of the foreign debt and other connected mechanisms [that] are starving or driving to despair a large portion of humanity” (102), or the fact that “the ‘foreign Debt’ [now with a capital D] has not been treated head-on, in as responsible, consistent, and systematic manner as possible,” i.e. with “at least the spirit of the Marxist critique” (117). It is precisely such a “systematic manner” that I am advocating here in the wake of Benjamin.

31. On what Derrida calls the “general logic of auto-immunization,” see “Faith and Knowledge,” 79-80: “We are here in a space where all self-protection of the unscathed, of the safe and sound, of the sacred (heilig, holy) must protect itself against its own protection, its own police, its own power of rejection, in short against its own, which is to say against its own immunity.” In a footnote that is crucial for our argument here, Derrida adds: “The ‘immune” (immunis) is freed or exempted from the charges, the service, the taxes, the obligations (munus, root of the common of community),” 80, n27. Immunity and auto-immunity are obviously and maybe primarily a matter of debt.

32. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, trans. David Fernbach (Penguin Classics, 1991), 911.

33. Günther Anders, Endzeit und Zeitenende: Gedanken über die atomare Situation (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1972), 204, my translation. Anders puts the German verb geben (“to give”) between quotation marks in the idiomatic expression (well-known to the readers of Heidegger): es gibt. In German, es gibt Zeit means literally “time is given”. Anders writes: “Few suppositions would be more naïve than the one according to which time ‘is given’ for us today in the same sense as it was ‘given’ earlier: that time would be a patient receptacle, indifferent to its contents.” [Es gibt wenige Unterstellungen, die naiver wären als die, dass es für uns Heutige im gleichen Sinne Zeit „gebe“, in dem es früher Zeit „gegeben“ hatte: dass die Zeit ein geduldiges und gegen seine Inhalte gleichgültiges Gefäss darstelle.]

34. Günther Anders, Endzeit und Zeitenende, 205: Dies ist also „unsere Zeit“. Die „unsere“ freilich in einem neuen Sinne ist. Eben weil es zu ihr gehört, dass die Entscheidung darüber, ob sie als weitergehende bleibe oder nicht, in unserer Hand liegt.