Part III: the Spirit of Marx in Derrida ; from ontology to hauntology

by danielrolle

 

I suggested earlier that Marx’s critique of philosophy, particularly idealism, was the formation of a particular form of ‘materialism without matter’: Marx’s thinking should therefore be seen not as a systematic philosophy, but rather, as Frederic Jameson suggests, ‘a polemic stance…a procedure of demystification and de-idealization; or else a permanent linguistic reflexivity’.

Such a dematerialized critique allows for the demasking of ideology, which will circulate in ‘phantoms’ and ‘specters’ around the commodity. In distancing itself from matter, a dematerialized critique is able to penetrate these immaterial specters, these veils over reality which are seen to infuse the ‘real’ with character, substance, gravity.

Moreover, the ‘spirit’ of this dematerialized critique has the advantage of being able to take on multiple forms, since it is not tied down to materiality. As Etienne Balibar notes, ‘having broken with a certain form of philosophy, Marx was not led by his theoretical activity towards a unified system, but to an at least potential plurality of doctrines.’ This possibility of plurality is inherent to the Derridean notion of re-iterabilité [reiterability], whereby ‘la possibilité de répéter et donc d’identifier les marques est impliqué dans tout code, fait de celui-ci une grille communicable, transmissible, déchiffrable, itérable pour un tiers, pour tout usager possible en générale’ (Limited Inc, 28). The text is comprised of marks and traces: for Derrida, the trace expresses the absence of any essential or holistic frame of meaning. Instead, meaning is founded on difference, each trace being defined by its necessary difference from the previous one.

The text thus becomes a space of plurality and heterogeneity, spilling out over the page. The logic of reiterability suggests, moreover, that this plurality must be able to continue long after the death of the author. The ‘signature’ of the author on a text – be it “Derrida” or “Marx” – must therefore be a possibility of continued transmission of meaning. The ‘survival’ of the text depends upon this:

“Pour qu’un écrit soit un écrit, il faut qu’il continue à « agir » et être lisible même si ce qu’on appelle l’auteur de l’écrit ne répond plus de ce qu’il a écrit, de ce qu’il semble avoir signé, qu’il soit provisoirement absent, qu’il soit mort ou qu’en général il n’ait pas soutenu de son intention ou attention absolument actuelle et présente, de la plénitude de son vouloir-dire, cela même qui semble s’être écrit « en son nom ».” (Limited Inc, 28-29)

The radical element of Derrida’s critique is thus that the ‘signature’ of the author is not the impossibility of all discussion about the text, but rather the precondition of its possibility. Indeed, this signature functions precisely as an injunction to move beyond the text: the ‘plus de sens’ thus becomes an imperative assume the ‘inéluctabilité de l’événement’(Politique de l’amitié, 51), the impossible undecidability of the event which marks the beginning of ‘une rupture et d’un redoublement’ (L’écriture et la différence, 409), of the promise ‘de ne pas rester ‘spirituelle’ ou ‘abstraite’, mais de produire des évenements, de nouvelles formes d’action, de practique, d’organisation, etc’ (Spectres de Marx, 147).

Thus, on the one hand [d’une part], the spirit of Marx is a spirit of moving beyond Marx, of a radicalization of Marx. However, the spirit of Marx is not exempt from the logic of the double bind. Hence, on the other hand [d’autre part], in his critique of phantoms, Marx seems unable to move entirely away from an ontology which refuses spectrality: Marx continues to want to ground his critique of spectral simulacrum in an ontology of presence. In this way, Derrida alludes to the totalitarian heritage in Marx’s thought – a desire to ground his own work in solidity, history and the presence of myth.

As Simon Critchley notes, ‘in terms of Spectres de Marx, totalitarianism is premised upon a refusal of spectrality. It is, as Derrida puts it, a ‘panic before the phantom in general’; that is, before something which escapes, transcends and returns to haunt the social order.’ In refusing spectrality and grounding his critique in an ontology of presence, Marx has opened up the field for the arrival of a ‘Marxist ontology’, which is indebted to ‘une orthodoxie, à des appareils et à des stratégies dont la moindre faute n’était pas seulement qu’elles fussent, en tant que telles, privées d’avenir, privées de l’avenir même’ (Spectres de Marx, 151). What Derrida will suggest, then, is that this ontology become a hantologie [hauntology], and that ‘la déconstruction de l’ontologie marxiste…ne s’en prend pas seulement à une couche théoretico-speculative du corpus marxiste mais qui l’articule la plus concrète des appareils’ (Spectres de Marx, 146).  Hantologie refers to the desire to re-politicize and radicalize Marxism in line with ‘la logique spectrale [qui] est de facto une logique déconstructrice’ (Echographies de la télévision, 129). What informs Marx’s ‘materialism without matter’ is precisely this spectral logic, which is ‘à la fois visible et invisible, à la fois phénoménal et non phénoménal: une trace qui marque d’avance le présent de son absence’(Echographies de la télévision, 129). Like the logic of the trace, the logic of spectrality will act to defer meaning, and to act as a precondition for a plurality of meanings to emerge from the text. The implications of a spectral logic are such that:

La pensée déconstructrice de la trace, de l’itérabilité….se porte au-delà…de l’ontologie qu’elle suppose….C’est pourquoi une telle déconstruction n’a jamais été marxiste, pas plus que non-marxiste, quoique fidèle à un certain esprit du marxisme, à l’un d’entre eux du moins car on ne le répétera jamais assez, il y en a plus d’un et ils sont hétérogènes. (Spectres de Marx, 126-7)

The deconstruction of a “Marxist” ontology of presence undermines the axis of its apparatus and dogmas. In so doing, Derrida opens up the possibility of a reinvigorated understanding of the heritage of Marx, thus producing the conditions for a re-politicization, and perhaps another thinking of the political itself.

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