Reading Guide to: Derrida J (1994) Specters of Marx, London: Routledge

by Dave Harris

This is Derrida's long-awaited discussion of the relevance of marxism. It was seen as the first explicit attempt to discuss Marxist politics, and thus deconstructionist politics, after Derrida's long tactical silence (see file on Fraser). I have not attempted to summarise the arguments in great detail, but have contented myself with attempting to give a gist. Of course, this is precisely what one must not do, and, indeed, cannot do, for Derrida. I have been guilty of foreclosing the beautifully deferred/differed meanings that Derrida has been so careful to establish. He wanted to playfully remind us of the connections, however unlikely at first blush, between Marx and Shakespeare. I have performed the dreaded 'cut-out' on all that, and even offered a 'commentary'. So I'll suffer if any Derridavians read this. But my guess is that none will. If they do -- hey guys, I'm a teacher...I want students to go on and read the works of yer man. They have to start somewhere -- why not here, with me?

Apart from other losses, this summary omits much of the pleasure of reading the original, especially Derrida's sense of humour and playfulness. The title refers of course to the much used metaphor of the spectre [UK spelling] or the ghostly presence which chronically haunts all texts, and which might be seen as that collection of meanings which have been repressed or denied in the final construction and attempts to fix meaning. All such attempts are in vain, despite the skill of the writer or film-maker, and repressed meanings continue to haunt the final text.

Derrida is interested in trying to see which aspects of Marx's legacy might still be useful in the 1990s. It is clear that this is to be no simple 'application' of marxism, but more a matter of recapturing a spirit or spectre. It is to be a 'spectropoetics', an examination of the ways in which Marx and marxism still haunts us, still has influence  [the 'poetics'  bit refers to the well-known 'method' of uncovering layers of meaning in events or texts, often by pursuing analogies, metaphors, allusions and other literary devices]. There are lots of parallels between this task and the exposition of meanings in the Shakespearean play Hamlet (or Timon of Athens), and this analogy is pursued [slightly too much for my taste!]: Hamlet was of course classically haunted by the ghost of his father. Pursuing these parallels will help us to uncover the spectral world of capital, and the fetishism of its mechanisms. Apart from anything else, this will help us dismiss those anti-Marxist critics who are predicting the naive and notorious 'end of history'  [such as Fukuyama specifically]. 

What we need to do is to reconsider and reassert the spirit of Marx, even if some of the concrete applications of marxism have been disastrous and dated, as in Soviet communism. This includes the need to reawaken the notion of dialectic and struggle, and even hegemony, but in a more general way, without the specific central emphasis on class. [The project seems similar to the efforts made by Deleuze and Guattari to generalise a theory of Desire from Freud, without necessarily emphasising the specific mechanisms such as the Oedipus complex. Again, Fraser's commentary explains this attempt to generalise a broad context for specific theories or events]. It is possible to split marxism like this. Indeed it was always/already split. It has been certain groups of believers who have tried to impose unities on marxism, by a process of ‘conjuration’, a word which implies both a conjuring trick, and the practice of swearing an oath together. Anti-marxists, wishing to reject the entirety of Marx's work operate with a similar conjuration.  [Derrida also comes close here to spelling out a particular role played by philosophers and universities in unifying and systematising marxism -- page 31. If only he had pursued this hint!]. 

A fairly conventional analysis of hegemony follows. There are three major apparatuses involved in the establishment of hegemony -- the media, political culture, and academics  [French academics, that is, who have always had much public influence] These three link, overlap and mix. One intellectual in particular is criticised -- Fukuyama, who tries to explain away all the bad side of capitalism as merely contingent, or 'empirical'. He has a notion of some Spirit as well, which ends with him equating the USA, or the EC, with Hegel's Universal State.  [So this is a bad use of the distinction between concrete applications and underlying Spirit, quite unlike Derrida's use of the distinction?]. 

Deconstruction is fully in the spirit of marxism. It attempts to find traces, ghosts, and uncovers undecidability. Such analysis can obviously be aimed at 'ideologems', which is clearly in the spirit of marxism. [Again, Derrida has simply identified and rejected the bits of marxism he disapproves of].

A rather standard Marxist critique of liberal capitalism follows, including criticism of the evacuation of the real public spaces by the media, who construct a new 'phantom State'. They also help to construct an equally spectral 'New International', even if only as a 'counter-conjuration'. Marxism is badly needed here, at least to explain the discrepancies between people in these new orders, and to criticise the ideal picture that is presented of liberal capitalism. We need to preserve the critical and self critical strain, even if we do need to discard concepts such as ‘mode of production, social class... the International, the dictatorship of the proletariat, a single party state and totalitarian monstrosity’  (88). Derrida also likes the ‘Messianic affirmation' of marxism  (89), including its promise to produce revolutionary action. Deconstruction can operate properly only within the space left by Marxist critique, which is both rational and universal in its appeal.

A useful discussion ensues, based on bits in Marx's 18th Brumaire... about ‘borrowed languages’ and their political role [for those who do not know this text, Marx is explaining how Napoleon III, great-nephew of the real Napoleon, came to power in 1851 by stitching together a number of statements and appeals, some evoking past images of glory and greatness, others invoking a golden age of rural peace, still others promising modernisation. These are the 'borrowed languages' in question].  Derrida says this shows how ghosts continue to haunt the living, and how difficult it is to separate the living from the spectre [invoking a new discipline wittily called 'hauntology'-- try this with a French accent]. This text also shows the power of the metaphor of the spectre, where it is central to marxist analysis.

[The main critical tactic identified in Marx's work seems rather similar to the argument in Colletti -- that philosophical abstraction can be re-embodied, when 'applied', but in a phoney and uncriticised body representing the actual existing society]. The mechanism of fetishism is taken as central for Derrida  [quite unlike the Althusserians]. A number of layers can be detected in 'reality': ideas tend be abstracted from this complex layering and then recombined in abstract thought. Marxist critique of Stirner, in the German Ideology, shows this tendency best, but Derrida suggests that this is found in all phenomenological analysis  [I think this means any analysis which operates at the merely phenomenal level, rather than the specific academic tradition].   

Phenomenal forms and phenomenal egos [so perhaps there is a link with academic Phenomenology?] are still spectral, involving a falsely embodied spirit . Such spectres do still require a spirit to redeem them and reanimate them  [that is, to stop them being merely descriptive and banal?]. In Marx's case, the careful analysis of the spectral forms leads to an uncovering of the real mechanism of exchange value [hailed by many Marxists, including Engels, as the major achievement demonstrating the superiority of Marx's criticism. It still seems odd to find Derrida in this company, for some reason]. 

Derrida’s own skilfully poetic re-rendering of the analysis of commodity fetishism ensues. This includes a very clever piece on how use-value and exchange value are not clearly separated but 'haunted', by culture and by each other. Derrida takes this as a classic example which has very general application, and reasserts his plea for ‘hauntology’ rather than the usually carefully separated and compartmentalised ontology. Exchange value haunts use-value, for example, by expressing repetition, exchange ability, and the loss of singularity  (161). Use-value haunts exchange value, because exchange is only possible if the commodity might be useful for others. [It is possible that Marx is being criticised himself here for offering too simple a separation, an ‘ontological’ attempt to fix and stop and separate elements that are combined in a flux, possibly for political reasons].  

The book ends with a plea for constant and endless examination of such conjurations [that is deconstruction?]. Derrida thinks it needs to be extended urgently to the whole issue of simulacra [a comment on Baudrillard?], especially media-generated ones

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