In Search of Year Zero
A Year Zero signifies a radical re-beginning, making universal claims. In modern, especially recent modern times, it is associated above all with ultra-modernist visions of total politics, at is maximum point of utopian and apocalyptic extremity. The existing order of the world is reduced to nothing, from which a new history is initiated, fundamentally disconnected from anything that occurred before, and morally indebted only to itself. Predictably enough, among conservative commentators (in the widest sense), such visions are broadly indistinguishable from the corpse-strewn landscapes of social catastrophe, haunted by the ghosts of unrealizable dreams.
Christianity’s global Calendric Dominion is paradoxical — perhaps even ‘dialectical’ — in this regard. It provides the governing model of historical rupture and unlimited ecumenical extension, and thus of total revolution, whilst at the same time representing the conservative order antagonized by modernistic ambition. Its example incites the lurch to Year Zero, even as it has no year zero of its own. Ultimately, its dialectical provocation tends towards Satanic temptation: the promise of Anti-Christian Apocalypse, or absolute news to a second power. (“If the Christians could do it, why couldn’t we?” Cue body-counts scaling up towards infinity.)
This tension exists not only between an established Christian order and its pseudo-secular revolutionary after-image, but also within Christianity itself, which is split internally by the apparent unity and real dissociation of ‘messianic time’. The process of Christian calendric consolidation was immensely protracted. A distance of greater than half a millennium separated the clear formulation of the year count from the moment commemorated, with further centuries required to fully integrate historical recording on this basis, digesting prior Jewish, Roman, and local date registries, and laying the foundation for a universalized Christian articulation of time. By the time the revolutionary ‘good news’ had been coherently formalized into a recognizable prototype of the hegemonic Western calendar, it had undergone a long transition from historical break to established tradition, with impeccable conservative credentials.
Simultaneously, however, the process of calendric consolidation sustained, and even sharpened, the messianic expectation of punctual, and truly contemporary rupture, projected forwards as duplication, or ‘second coming’ of the initial division. Even if the moment in which history had been sundered into two parts — before and after, BC and AD — now lay in quite distant antiquity, its example remained urgent, and promissory. Messianic hope was thus torn and compacted by an intrinsic historical doubling, which stretched it between a vastly retrospective, gradually recognized beginning, and a prospect of sudden completion, whose credibility was assured by its status as repetition. What had been would be again, transforming the AD count into a completed sequence that was confirmed in the same way it was terminated (through Messianic intervention).
Unsurprisingly, the substantial history of Western calendric establishment is twinned with the rise of millenarianism, through phases that trend to increasingly social-revolutionary forms, and eventually make way for self-consciously anti-religious, although decidedly eschatological, varieties of modernistic total politics. Because whatever has happened must — at least — be possible, the very existence of the calendar supports anticipations of absolute historical rupture. Its count, simply by beginning, prefigures an end. What starts can re-start, or conclude.
Zero, however, intrudes diagonally. It even introduces a comic aspect, since whatever the importance of the Christian revelation to the salvation of our souls, it is blatantly obvious that it failed to deliver a satisfactory arithmetical notation. For that, Christian Europe had to await the arrival of the decimal numerals from India, via the Moslem Middle East, and the ensuing revolution of calculation and book-keeping that coincided with the Renaissance, along with the birth of mercantile capitalism in the city states of northern Italy.
Indeed, for anybody seeking a truly modern calendar, the Arrival of Zero would mark an excellent occasion for a new year zero (AZ 0?), around AD 1500. Although this would plausibly date the origin of modernity, the historical imprecision of the event counts against it, however. In addition, the assimilation of zero by germinal European (and thus global) capitalism was evidently gradual — if comparatively rapid — rather than a punctual ‘revolutionary’ transition of the kind commerorative calendric zero is optimally appropriate to. (If Year Zero is thus barred from the designation of its own world-historic operationalization, it is perhaps structurally doomed to misapplication and the production of disillusionment.)
The conspicuous absence of zero from the Western calendar (count), exposed in its abrupt jolt from 1 BC to AD 1, is an intolerable and irreparable stigma that brings its world irony to a zenith. In the very operation of integrating world history, in preparation for planetary modernity, it remarks its own debilitating antiquity and particularity, in the most condescending modern sense of the limited and the primitive — crude, defective and underdeveloped.
How could a moment of self-evident calculative incompetence provide a convincing origin-point for subsequent historical calculation? Year Zero escaped all possibility of conceptual apprehension at the moment in the time-count where it is now seen to belong, and infinity (the reciprocal of zero) proves no less elusive. Infinity was inserted into a time when (and place where) it demonstrably made no sense, and the extraordinary world-historical impression that it made did nothing — not even nothing– to change that situation. Is this not a worthy puzzle for theologians? Omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, yet hopeless at maths — these are not the characteristics of a revelation designed to impress technologists or accountants. All the more reason, then, to take this comedy seriously, in all its ambivalence — since the emerging world of technologists and accountants, the techno-commercial (runway-industrial, or capitalist) world that would globalize the earth, was weaned within the playpen of this calendar, and no other. Modernity had selected to date itself in a way that its own kindergarten students would scorn.