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  • Guilt History:Benjamin's Sketch "Capitalism as Religion"
  • Werner Hamacher (bio)
    Translated by Kirk Wetters (bio)

History as Exchange Economy

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

A temporal nexus that clearly does not satisfy these conflicting requirements has been characterized in one of the oldest texts of occidental philosophy as the time of guilt. According to the sentence of Anaximander (from about 500 BC), handed down by Simplicius in his commentary (530 AD) on Aristotle's Physics, the origin and end of all things is subordinated to the law of necessity (katà tó kreòn). "They must pay penance and be judged for their injustice, according to the order of time (katà tèn tou chrónou táxin)"—so the fragment reads in the translation offered by Nietzsche in his treatise "Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks." According to Anaximander, the sequence of time orders the rise and fall of all things and orders them in accordance with the law of guilt and punishment so that becoming (génesis) is a guilt (adikía) that must be expiated in perishing. Time and more precisely its táxis, the positing of time, is thought in Anaximander's sentence as an order of guilt and retribution, debt and payback. It is a time of economy in the sense that it is the time of law—and precisely a law that is valid for all beings, a táxis, a decree, an ordinance and an ordering—in which the unavoidable incurring of guilt is atoned in an equivalent penance that is just as unavoidable. The strict coherence of guilt and penance is ascertained by the principle of their equivalence. Time is therefore conceived here as a double process of coming into being and perishing, [End Page 81] a process that occurs in such a way that the genesis is erased in its passing away—so that time is thus erased by time itself.

In Anaximander's sentence, however, time is not only the double-process of coming into being and passing away, it is—as a táxis—the common and constantly enduring medium of the exchange of the contrary but equivalent motions of coming into being and perishing. It is the time of the quid pro quo of everything that is generated and passes away within time. Its measure is a justice that represents itself as a táxis and thereby as the positing and the law of all becoming and vanishing, the law of physis and its demise as an onto-economic law. This taxiological order of time places every realm of the natural and human world under a law of substitution without exception; this also allows ethical, juridical, and economic concepts to substitute for one another within this order. The ethical dimension of justice, thus circumscribed by the order of time, is reduced to the juridical dimension of the decree, and both now define themselves according to the calculus of "an exchange economy in an eternally unchanging household of nature."1 It can only, however, be a matter of an ethics of time to the extent that this ethics, already juridified and economized, is subordinated to the schema of exchange, trade, and the equivalence of guilt and retribution. The time of history, ethical time, is thus interpreted in Anaximander's sentence as a normative time of inculpation and expiation. Whatever enters this táxis of time is thereby already guilty and can...