Part II: Deconstruction & Marxism as anti-philosophy; critique of the commodity & logocentrism

by danielrolle

Marxism is founded upon a desire to articulate the struggles of oppressed people, to critique existing systems of exploitation, and to change, rather than merely interpret the world.

As Terry Eagleton has suggested, “Marxism is a scientific theory of human societies and of the practice of transforming them”. This transformation is imperative: indeed, the most oft-cited line from the Marxian corpus is the demonstration of what Etienne Balibar will refer to as ‘a permanent oscillation between ‘falling short of’ and ‘going beyond’ philosophy’: as Marx writes, ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’. The eleventh of the Theses on Feuerbach is representative of an anti-philosophical position which is elaborated throughout Marx’s writing. In The German Ideology, Marx proclaims:

“Where speculation ends, where real life starts, there consequently begins real, positive science, the expounding of the practical activity, of the practical process of development of men. Empty phrases about consciousness end, and real knowledge has to take their place.” (The German Ideology, 43)

It is in this sense that Marx brings into question the very notion or essence of philosophical activity, and its uses or functions within the thinking of the political. Moreover, the notion of ‘empty phrases about consciousness’ gives rise to Marx’s critique of idealism, and his peculiar form of ‘materialism without matter’. As Balibar suggests, Marx’s critique of idealism is its attempt to perceive the coherence and meaning of the world, and ‘to impose an order on it’; this reduction of essence to the ‘idea’, or being to presence, to what reveals itself as given, becomes the object of Marx’s critique, and informs his reading of the commodity in Capital Vol I.

The commodity, Marx suggests, is ‘an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind’ (Capital Vol I, 125): the logic of use and exchange – whereby use-value is determined by the physical properties of the commodity, and exchange-value by the worth society places upon it –  renders the commodity ‘a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ (Cap, p163). The commodity becomes a means of social exchange, the bearer of a supposed ‘secret’, and the foundation of an entire language. Nonetheless, this exchange takes place on the basis of an ‘essence’ which is not inherent to the objects themselves, but resides in their being used, or their ‘performativity’. Thus, Marx writes: ‘If commodities could speak, they would say this: our use-value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however, is our value….We relate to each other merely as exchange-values’ (Cap, 177).  This exchange between commodities on the level of language is what Hamacher refers to as a ‘commodity-language’; indeed, it is language alone which constitutes and ‘qualifies them as commodities, identifies and forms them. Commodity-language appoints them commodities, syntagmatizing them as commodities and performing them as commodities’.  It is only via language that commodities gain meaning; their very structure reveals itself to be decentred, or devoid of a coherent centre. If value is placed from outside, this is due to a desire to supplement the commodity with an ‘essence’ which it does not possess.

This is the very basis of ‘commodity fetishism’, which will attempt to form definite relations between objects in the world where they do not already exist. The centring of the commodity-object, of language, and the world, thus becomes the precondition for the possibility of society, and for thinking in general. This ‘active appearing…constitutes a mediation or necessary function without which, in given historical conditions, the life of society would be quite impossible’. Ideology has the function of ensuring the proper functioning of this ‘active appearing’; it is the dominant discourse of the ruling elite, thus ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’ (The German Ideology, 67). It is the critique of this discourse which founds the Marxian position.

It is at this point that the significant convergence between Marx and Derrida becomes clear. I suggested above that the commodity gains its meaning from outside, that it has no definitive centre – that it is ‘decentred’ – and that commodity-language thus has the function of investing the commodity with meaning. Deconstruction will articulate a critique upon similar lines; deconstruction can thus be broadly defined as a critique of those dominant discourses which attempt to reduce meaning to binary oppositions, or to produce a definite meaning which founds a kind of ‘onto-theology’ – a religious attitude towards questions of being. Hence, Derrida notes:

“La déconstruction ne peut se limiter ou passer immédiatement à une neutralisation : elle doit, par un double geste, une double science, une double écriture, pratiquer un renversement de l’opposition classique et un déplacement général du system.” (Limited Inc, 50)

Deconstruction seeks not to neutralize, but to question and thus reverse the founding ‘essence’ of any thought system. Derrida will suggest that the history of western metaphysics is centred around the development of a stable centre of meaning, of the creation of an essence to objects, which ‘avait pour fonction non seulement d’orienter et d’équilibrer, d’organiser la structure…mais de faire surtout que le principe d’organisation de la structure limite ce que nous pourrions appeler le jeu de la structure’ (L’écriture et la difference, 409). The stabilization of meaning and the security of presence becomes the centre-point of what Derrida will refer to as a ‘logocentric’ discourse – the privileging of absence over presence, of speech over writing, which defines the logos of metaphysics since Plato. As Derrida writes in De la grammatologie:

“Le phonocentrisme [the privileging of the phonetic or the spoken] se confond avec la détermination historiale du sens de l’être en générale comme présence, avec toutes les sous-determinations qui dépendent de cette forme générale et qui organisent en elle leur système et leur enchaînement historiale….Le logocentrisme serait donc solidaire de la détermination de l’être de l’étant comme présence” (Gram, 23)

If the logocentric places speech as the dominant discourse, then writing will be placed on a lower schema. Writing becomes ‘supplementary’ to communication: ‘l’écriture est dangereuse dès lors que la représentation veut s’y donner pour la présence et le signe pour la chose même…il ne fait pourtant que suppléer’ (Gram, 207-8).  Supplementarity becomes (paradoxically) central in Derrida. As Christina Howells suggests: ‘the supplement conceals the absence it supposedly completes. The very movement of signification is that of supplementarity: the signifier masks a lack at the heart of the signified, the absence of presence, so to speak’. Supplementarity masks absence, presenting it as presence: ‘le supplément supplée. Il ne s’ajoute que pour remplacer. Il intervient ou s’insinue à-la-place-de’ (De la grammatologie, 208).  It is in this sense that the commodity and the supplement function on a similar logic of paradox and absence. As Derrida notes: ‘la marchandise [the commodity] est une ‘chose’ sans phénomène, une chose en fuite qui passé le sens’ (Spectres de Marx, 240).  Both the commodity and the supplement there have the power to rupture and reorder: ‘cette opération de supplementation n’est pas exhibée comme rupture de présence mais comme réparation et modification continue, homogène, de la présence dans la représentation’ (Limited Inc, p24). This spirit of critique and radicalization is inherent to both Marx’s reading of commodity-fetishism, and Derrida’s intervention on logocentricity. It is this spirit of reaffirmation that Derrida proclaims his oft-cited words regarding the relationship between deconstruction and Marx:

“[La] déconstruction eut été impossible et impensable dans un espace pré-marxiste. La déconstruction n’a jamais eu de sens et d’intérêt, à mes yeux du moins, que comme une radicalisation, c’est-à-dire aussi dans la tradition d’un certain marxisme, dans un certain esprit de marxisme.” (Spectres de Marx, 151)

It is the ésprit de Marxisme [spirit of Marx] which will found the basis of deconstructive critique, and inform the radicalization of both Marx and Marxism. In so doing, Derrida attempts to open up discussion and debate about the very possibility of a single “Marxism”, and to demonstrate the plurality of voices which emanate from the event-Marx.