I’ll not attempt to summarize the essay – or its response to Agamben’s use of the Haggadah’s Talmudic parable about Rabbi Akiba, who succeeds in contemplating the transcendent whole, in contrast to Aher, who analytically isolates the separate qualities of the whole, thus “cutting the branches for Akiba.”
Instead, I’ll just mention some of what I found particularly stimulating about the larger themes at work in Adam’s essay.
The potential to achieve the highest meanings can be thwarted by isolating and separating meaning into the constituent parts that can be communicated – that can be said. As a result, “saying” the separate parts can “occlude” that larger potential to posit and sustain transcendent meaning, what can be termed “sayability.”
In a sense, Akiba’s attainment of the embrace of transcendent wholeness is an example of the Paradisal state Walter Benjamin identifies in the Edenic Adam’s naming of the contents of the world, a state of being in which the name and the named, the word and the thing, sustain an organic connection and embody a transcendent meaning, proclaiming an ideal world where the symbol conjures up the spirit, where to say is to be.
We live in a world in which that organic connection is broken, in which the edifice of power and of images is fractured in a wide range of ways. Allegory replaces symbol and is a symptom of the break, embodying a recognition of that breakdown of connection between language and reality or sign and signified, “leaving language in an arbitrary and ‘autonomous’ relationship to reference” (page 177 in Adam’s essay).
What sort of ethics can emerge in the face of the broken connections? Here’s a rough summary of the logic Adam Thurschwell presents (though all distortions in this representation of his pages 192-6 of his essay are mine alone):
There is the ethical challenge to identify the showing forth of transcendent possibilities as if through cracks in the edifice of speech and acts, of the here and now. Derrida’s exploration of Benjamin’s thinking explores this challenge to resurrect the broken, abandoned, discarded hopes of human beings – what Benjamin calls a second order of messianic possibilities.
Yet the search through the perpetually collapsing edifice can be misguided. Another possibility is to call for an end to it, a sort of death of law, the state, and history itself – to follow Agamben in comprehending death as an opening-up or unfolding of being, “an eschatological ontology.” But even for Agamben, a sort of messianic ethics can apply in “the time that remains” before the end of history.
Agamben finally builds on the ideas of Benjamin and Derrida (and finally also Levinas) by developing the notion of “responsibility” – almost in the sense of ‘responsability’ or the ability to respond, and the obligation. For responsibility is presupposed by the urgency even of posing a question, of speaking itself, of saying. Language itself emerges finally from the ability and necessity to respond. Such at least is the hope.