on 5 September 2010
This is a fascinating book. To make the most of what this work has to say, I recommend reading 'ghostly demarcations' afterwards, for a discussion of this book by Derrida and many marxist readers. 'Specters of Marx' is based on talks conducted by Derrida addressing the question 'whither Maxism?' - where does it stand? Where is it going? He outlines various answers to this, but the bulk of this work discusses what deconstruction's relation to Marx is, and what this seeks to achieve.
Derrida tells us that deconstruction follows a 'certain spirit of marxism'. There are many different aspects of Marx's thought which various 'marxisms' have picked up on and use as a critique/tool of analysis for modern political issues. Derrida draws upon Marx's notion of 'spectrality'. What is spectrality? It is 'a non-living present in a living present'. This sounds complex, so lets unpack what this meant to Marx, and then to Derrida...
For Marx, capitalism has transformed the nature of objects, they are no longer determined by their use value. Rather, we identify ourselves with commodities, they become a part of our identity, they dictate who we wish to be. Think today of how advertising is used to sell products - through the use of models, sexual imagery and so forth. The product is more than an object to use, it is seen as a means of transforming oneself into something ideal (but something that we can never, in reality become). Spectrality is thus what is never there, but not strictly speaking simply absent either. It haunts the present.
But for Derrida, Marx is mistaken that, through abandoning capitalism, we can shake off these specters. The specters are always there, every 'self-same' is haunted by its 'other', nothing is quite as simply, sharply determined as it may seem. Derrida constantly references Macbeth throughout this book, in particular the line 'this time is out of joint' is quoted frequently. Derrida challenges the idea that we can ever fully see the world as it is, its ontology, what it is 'in itself' (see it in-joint). Rather, out condition is that we see the world through a conceptual lens that is organised through language, but the meanings of words change, they defer, subtlely shift in relation to one another.
Derrida ties this into ethics and politics. Deconstructive ethics, then, is an openness to otherness, which is also an openness to l'avenir (the future-to-come). What this means is that we should never believe we can fully tie everything down, categorise everything, recognise everything, and everyone absolutely. We should not believe categories such as race, nation, class etc are simple reflections of the world in itself. Derrida wants us to open politics to otherness, that is, recognise that our perspective is context dependent, and that how we percieve things now is not simply 'right'. We need to be open to the possibility of change - changes that we cannot even fathom, and that this openness to the unfathomable is itself where justice lies, for, as Kierkeguaard once said, 'once you label me, you negate me'. Reality is not reduceable to any categories, any ontology. This reduction is what Derrida seeks to break from, deconstructive ethics and politics is 'infinitizing' for it remains open to a beyond categorisation. This is what Derrida calls a 'messianicity without messianism'.
The book is an interesting to read, it seems to flow from a philosophical critique to a work of literature in itself. It is very enjoyable and thought-provoking. Derrida wants to challenge the views of the right, in particular Fukuyama, who's recent work has celebrated 'the end of history', which amounts to the death of communism. He also warns against seeing Marx as merely a great philosopher, with no practical relevance on politics today. But he also calls for marxists to acknowledge the crimes committed in their name.
Challenges and shorcomings of this book are raised in the symposium I mentioned earlier, published by verso, entitled 'Ghostly Demarcations', so I shall outline those in more detail in a review of that book. I will, however, mention that perhaps the biggest problem with this book is that Derrida doesnt properly address the issue perhaps closest to the heart of nearly every form of marxism - class. In what way does deconstruction challenge the exploitation of the powerless?