It’s All in the Timing: A Brief Note on Kairos


After responding to Jeffrey Bernstein’s piece on schlemiel temporality, I have been thinking about the relationship of messianic time (the Augenblick) to schlemiel temporality.  Are they, in fact, opposites?  The key term that Bernstein brought to the discussion was Kairos.  As I noted in the last blog entry, this term was used by Paul to signify a kind of time that is anticipated, messianic.  As Bernstein puts it, kairos is the “eschatalogically charged instant in which the encounter with God and the acknowledgment of messianic time occurs.”  In contrast to this time, Bernstein proposes a time that he calls more “prosaic” as opposed to the time of Kairos which is more poetic and resonates more with a Christian tradition that battles with presence. Jewish time, in contrast, is belated.  As I noted:

Bernstein brilliantly argues that “the schlemiel does not prophesy so much as ‘register prophetically’ what has already happened as what will always already continue to have been happening (Oy, look what I did).”   The schlemiel doesn’t have an “Ahah!” moment so much as an “oh…yeah!” moment.  And this is not by any means an moment of Kairos or messianic anticipation (with all of its poetry and pathos).  Rather, it is quite a prosaic and mundane moment.

This prosaic moment is necessarily comic.  And, as I note in the blog entry, Walter Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism marks such a discovery; however, in it, Benjamin realizes that he is the subject of the joke.  His writing, as the aphorism implies, is always-already childish, but he figures it as a surprise.

Bernstein’s reading of Kairos puts an interesting twist to my reading and it made me think about the other reading of Kairos; namely, the one that both Heidegger and Agamben reject. That reading is the reading of Aristotle.  To be sure, Aristotle’s reading is to prosaic for them.   They would rather have Paul’s reading of Kairos on their side.

I was curious about this reading of Kairos and it struck me that I had, in the past, come across another reading of Karios which I found very interesting and perhaps even relevant to schlemiel theory.   I found this reading in one of Roland Barthes’ lectures which he gave in 1978 in Morroco.  The lectures have been translated and complied in a book entitled The Neutral.

What I find most interesting about Barthes’ readings of Kairos is the fact that he doesn’t even mention Aristotle.  In fact, he mentions two “other” readings of Karios: one coming from the sophists and the other from the skeptics.  I’ll briefly sketch them out and, in the end of this blog entry, I’d like to think about whether or how they can be related to the schlemiel.

Barthes begins his lecture on Kairos by giving its etymology: Ho Kairos: right, appropriate measure.  And then he reads it in terms of time as a “timely moment” or “occasion.”

To illustrate his take on Kairos, Barthes contrasts the Sophist’s reading of Kairos to the Skeptics.  For the sophist, proper speech is always about finding and speaking at the right moment:

The temporality of the Sophist discourse by jolts, zigzags, catches: hunting for the “right moment.”  The tension is continuous, lengthy lookout > discourse of mastery: the “right moment” = weapon of power: today we would say: political swell.

In contrast to the Sophists, the Skeptics are not looking to appropriate time as a “weapon of power” that can be used to win whatever argument.  Rather, the skeptic’s sense of Kairos is about “marking” time and “undoing the time of the system.”  The skeptic:

Puts moments of flight in it (the system and is) about preventing the system from taking.

Barthes mentions how, if there could actually be a “virtual system of Skepticism,” it would be the “devise for undoing mastery.”

However,  regardless of their differences, both the Sophistic and the Skeptical sense of Kairos would agree that “Truth is not the ultimate instance.”  In his discussion of this point, which echoes Marx and Hegel, Barthes brings up Hegel’s words on Skepticism and relates it back to Kairos.  According to Hegel,  both the skeptic and the sophist are stuck on the level of “subjective certainty and conviction and not on the value of absolute truth.”

Skeptic: acts according to laws that don’t have truth value to this eyes: his consciousness is a completely empirical existence; his reality = total contingency; his self-identity – something completely empty.

Barthes builds on this reading and exults Kairos as the time of contingency.  He notes that it has a “humbling” feature:  it is what “prevents the becoming system, the becoming arrogant of worldliness.”  He translates this into a way of avoiding being on time or what he calls “perfectly dodging time.”  To illustrate, Barthes cites a passage about the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales and his avoidance of marriage:

The story is told that, when his mother tried to force him to marry, he replied that it was too soon, and when she pressed him again later in life, he replied that it is too late.

The point of this version of Kairos, which “perfectly dodges time,” is to avoid being taken into any system or even having one’s own system.   Ultimately, Barthes throws out the possibility that Kairos is to be associated with Satori.  But instead of translating this into a timeless spiritual state, Barthes associates it with “an energetic time: the moment insofar as it produces something, a changeover: it’s a force > non-tactical kairos (not meant to trap the other but rather interiorized).  This leads him to claim that, unlike an intellectual “insight,” the Kairos is an energetic “burst of brilliance” – “of the moment in its pure status of exception, its absolute power of mutation.”  And this relates back to the skeptics insofar as, for Barthes, the main mode of perception for the Skeptic is skepsis which he translates as “intense observation.”

And out of Satori, out of this “intense observation” that is Kairos there is an exclamation: “Ah, this!”  This is opposed to a rational apprehension of things: “That’s how it is!”

After reading through Barthes’ reading of Kairos, I wonder: is this “Ah, this!” (Kairos) moment different from the moment of schlemiel temporality which exclaims, as Bernstein puts, “Oh…yeah!”?   I’m inclined to say yes and I do this with the thought that, for Barthes, the Kairos he describes is still caught up with the loss of truth and the experience of time as contingency.  What’s different with the schlemiel is the tension between the hope and skepticism (which is a temporal tension).  The schlemiel – or the viewer of the schlemiel – cannot simply settle for the skeptical.  Its there, as is the tact of the sophist, but there’s more.  And this leads to a kind of irony that is temporal in character.  Perhaps this is the comic aspect that Barthes’ reading lacks.  It wouldn’t make sense to him or to a Sophist or Skeptic – to be caught in such a temporal jam of absent-mindedness.  To state it simply, Jews know very well the meaning of contingency; that’s not the issue.  It’s the relation of contingency to election and to its frustration.

By election  I don’t simply mean the election of the Jews by God as stated in the Torah.  Rather, by election I mean, as Emmanuel Levinas says, that one is elected by the other to be responsible.  (This is something outside of oneself and beyond one’s control.  But it is constantly coming toward one, as it were, from out of the future.  It, so to speak, haunts one’s every move.)  And this creates a different sense of temporality than the temporality of Kairos.  This election comes from out of the future and by way of the other person (and, for the schlemiel, that could be the shlimazel, the audience, etc) and it reminds one that one is always-already indebted to the other and that, most likely, one will fail – in one way or the other – to “properly” respond to the other. And, as in many a schlemiel routine, this always comes as a surprise.  The schlemiel is, in a sense, always belated vis-à-vis the other.  He comes too late.  And this isn’t so much a “perfect dodging of the system” (as we saw above with Thales witty way of dodging marriage) as being dodged.

And on this note, the belated “oh…yeah!” of the schlemiel resonates differently that the “Ah, this!” of the Zen master.  Perhaps this is the temporal key to why the schlemiel is so funny: she will always be to late not because she is simply absent-minded but because she is – so to speak – too late for the other.    And, as I suggested in my title, it’s “all in the timing.”  This timing of the other does have a Messianic aspect to it since, in this kind of time, one is constantly standing in judgment (a judgment that is alway to come).  The awkwardness of the schlemiel and her acknowledgment – stated in the “oh yeah!” –  is constantly repeated.  And this repetition reminds us that the schlemiel, as a Jewish comic character, stands continually in this kind of temporal relation.  It is a relation that Jews have, so to speak, inherited from their tradition and, as Levinas argues, from their acute awareness of an other who – I might add – may or may not laugh at one’s jokes.

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