Part IV: The Messianic Marx; heritage, the promise and the injunction to radicalize

by danielrolle

Remember that for Derrida spectrality acts to defer meaning, as a precondition for a plurality of meanings to emerge.   Derridean spectrality is, you will recall, a thinking which is at once  ‘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.

Spectrality therefore functions in much the same way as Marx’s ‘materialism without matter’; it is a dematerialized form of critique that 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. 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. This, for Derrida, is the central tenet of Marxism, its most radical element, its core, it’s spirit.

And it is the ésprit de Marxisme [the spirit of Marx] that will found the basis of Derrida’s 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.

The heterogeneity of Marx is thus symptomatic of the spirit of Marx which informs a plurality of “Marxisms”.

The logic of the ‘plus d’un’ – (which in French translates as both ‘no more’ and ‘more than one’, and therefore describes a paradigm of impossible-possibility, providing the precondition and impossibility of any discussion of a future Marx – functions in much the same manner as the spirit of Marx:

Il y a toujours plus d’un esprit. Quand on parle de l’esprit, on évoque aussitôt des esprits, des spectres, et quiconque hérite choisi un esprit plutôt qu’un autre. On sélectionne, on filtre, on crible parmi les fantômes ou parmi les injonctions de chaque esprit. (Echographies de la télévision, 34)

Amongst the plurality of all possible specters, the injunction to assume the heritage of “Marx” is an injunction not only to interpret, but to change: ‘il n’y a héritage que là ou les assignations sont multiples et contradictoires, assez secrètes pour défier l’interprétation, pour exiger le risque sans limites de l’interprétation active.’(Echographies de la télévision, 34)

Thus, Derrida seeks a definition of interpretation that transforms, in the spirit of Marx, the very thing it interprets: let us remember that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’. Interpretation is thus a question of ‘s’engager de façon performative’ (Spectres de Marx, 89), of assuming ‘un héritage fidèle-infidèle de “Marx”, infidèle pour être fidèle (infidèle pour être fidèle: à la fois en vue d’être fidèle et parce qu’il est ou voudrait être fidèle)’(Spectres de Marx, 18).  Deconstruction will thus be the attempt to transform the very thing it critiques. Nonetheless, if it is a spirit of critique this does not amount to disqualifying, negating, disavowing, or surpassing the text, of doing the critique of critique but of thinking its possibility from another border, from the genealogy of judgment, will, consciousness or activity, the binary structure, and so forth.

Thinking possibility from another border in order to transform a ‘negative’ critical space in an ‘affirmative’ manner acutely describes Derrida’s radicalization of Marx.

The ‘il faut assumer l’héritage du marxisme’ (Spectres de Marx, 93) means to assume its most living part, that which survives, or lives on. It also demands that one do away with the “Marxist” ideological apparatus (States, parties, workers unions): the ‘dead’ part of a “Marxism” must be set aside, and instead responsibility must be taken for the future of Marxism, under a spirit of Marx: ‘d’un certain Marx…il y a plus d’un, il doit y en avoir plus d’un’ (Spectres de Marx, 36). This future is not held in a teleological model of epochal history, of the traditional “Marxist” historicity of onto-theological or teleo-eschatological program or design, where ‘the history of hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’, but in a promise of messianism, of a future à venir [to come].

For Derrida, the promise is inscribed in the very structure of language; as he suggested in an early interview: ‘one cannot imagine a language that is not in a certain way caught up in the space of the promise. Before I even decide what I am going to say, I promise to speak to you, I respond to the promise to speak, I respond’ (Positions, 384).  The performative is thus a manifestation of this promise in language: in saying I will do something, I performatively enact my own language.

In this sense, the performative goes beyond communication, into the realm of action. The possibility of language requires this performativity, this going-beyond of mere semantic content. In is in this sense that ‘le performatif est une “communication” qui ne se limite pas essentiellement à transporter un contenu sémantique déjà constitute et surveillé par une visee de verité’ (Limited Inc, 38): the absence at the heart of language means that the very possibility of language is also the condition of its impossibility. “Marxist” is devoid of “Marx” until one performatively enacts a “Marxism”. The undecidability of “Marx” is inscribed in this model of the impossible-possible (or what I will refer to here as the im/possible) future decision and the nauseating open-endedness of the future.

For Derrida, the messianic [la messianique] is the category which describes this absolute openness of the future, and is ‘une structure générale de l’expérience’ which ‘ne dépend d’aucun messianisme, elle ne suit aucune révélation déterminée, elle n’appartient en propre à aucune religion’(Foi et Savoir, 31) – i.e. the messianic is precisely not a religious moment. This messianic-without-messianism [messianicité sans messianisme] will be less a force which waits eternally for the arrival of the messiah-like figure, but rather informs the very state of urgency, the undecidability of the future which is central to Derridean deconstruction.

As Derrida states in De la grammatologie, ‘l’avenir ne peut s’anticiper que dans la forme du danger absolu. Il est ce qui rompre absolument avec la normalité constituée et ne peut donc s’annoncer, se présenter, que sous l’espèce de la monstruosité’ (De la grammatologie, 14).  This monstrosity follows the logic of the supplementary, insofar as it takes the form of impostor that covers up absence. The question of monstrosity is a one which concerns the im/possible arrival of the absolute other, or arrivant. In arriving, the arrivant ‘excède même l’ordre de la promesse, ou du moins de toute promesse déterminable’ (Apories, 68).  The arrivant, the supplement, and, later, the gift, are all undecidables which threaten to undermine the fabric and very thinking of normality.

As such, it is the messianique and the arrivant that will be the precondition for the possibility of the reinvigoration of justice and radical democracy. The spirit of Marx is therefore less grounded in an absolute theory of history (or what many have critiqued as Marx’s temptation to historicism), more in an injunction to uncover, scrutinise and radicalise. In essence, Marxism will become an injunction to deconstruct.