Part V: “The time is out of joint”; deconstruction, “Marxism” and totalitarianism

by danielrolle

The assumption of the spirit of Marx, of the ‘heritage’ of Marxism, Derrida believes, means to assume its most living part, that which survives, or lives on beyond the text. 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 the spirit of Marx. This future is not held in a teleological model of epochal history, of the traditional “Marxist” teleological historicity, where ‘the history of hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’, but in a promise of a radical messianism.

The injunction to radicalize in Marx, Derrida argues, is thus an injunction to live a ‘time out of joint’ – to assume and embrace the nauseating undecidability of the future.

The ‘maintenant [the ‘now’ of] les spectres de Marx’ (SdM, 21) is a disjointed or misadjusted present, one which gives itself over to the undecidable, and the im/possibility of the future. If a ‘specter is haunting Europe’, the very order of this spectre, of communism itself, is not dated, it is not awaited ‘docilement, dans la chaîne des présents, jour après jour, selon l’ordre institué d’un calendrier’ (SdM, 22).  Communism, the arrivant par excellence, arrives undecidably and unannounced: his arrival is untimely. As Ernesto Laclau has suggested, ‘anachronism is essential to spectrality: the spectre, interrupting all specularity, desynchronizes time.’ The spectre is that which is both spirit and flesh à la fois; this logic of im/possibility, of the full and the empty, of the ‘plus d’un sens’, informs both the text and the interpretation of that text: the à la fois installs the compatibility of two incompatible theses within a text: ‘or l’impossibilité de cet “à la fois”, c’est à la fois ce qui arrive. Une fois et chaque fois’ (De l’hospitalité, 111).  The spectre of the text is thus both the arrivant and the revenant: the plurality of interpretations opened up by the injunction to interpret and radicalize will continue to reappear and haunt the text undecidably: ‘tout s’ouvre dans l’imminence d’une – apparaition, mais de la réapparition du spectre comme apparition pour la premiere fois dans la piece’ (Spectres de Marx, 22).  Therefore, it is the spectres of Marx (the plurality of Marxisms) which inhabit the borders of the text and threaten to arrive undecidably, and thus unhinge any attempt at a synthetic reading. The logic of possible-impossibility requires that one be ready for the coming of the spectre, the coming of the other, that one position oneself for the messianic calling, which is (undecidably) à venir.

Derrida’s position that attempts to return to Marx via a radical reaffirmation that undoes its physical apparatus, and progresses in line with a vague ‘spirit of Marxism’, came in line for considerable critique from the new left academic community – particularly given what Derrida will refer to as the ‘presumptive property deeds’ which many self-styled “Marxists’ presumptively hold over Marx. Specters de Marx became the object of a virulent critique of deconstruction by various Marxisms, which variously described its radicalization of Marx as opportunist, utopian, and even totalitarian. Nonetheless, as Derrida suggests, the plurality of critiques which arose from the so-called “Marxist” camp suggests the shift from Marx to Marxism is not so evident as it may seem:

Qui est le marxisme ? Ahmad ? Tous ceux dont il se fait le représentant ? Mais déjà, dans ce livre même, il n’y a aucun accord, aucune homogénéité possible entre tous les ‘marxistes’, entre tous ceux qui se disent ou qu’on dit ‘marxistes’/ A supposer qu’ils soit possible de les identifier comme ‘marxistes’, il reste impossible de les identifier entre eux. Ce n’est pas un mal à mes yeux, mais cela devrait rendre l’appellation identitaire ‘marxiste’ plus incertaine que jamais. (Marx and Sons, 30)

For Derrida, the plurality of readings of “Marx” gives rise to heterogeneous “Marxism”. Nonetheless, this does not prevent thinkers such as Terry Eagleton from associating Derrida’s radicalisation with ‘a sudden dramatic somersault onto a stalled bandwagon’. For Eagleton, Derrida has arrived ‘too late’ – ‘the time is out of joint’ insofar as Derrida’s commitment to Marxism comes at a time when it is needed the least, and least relevant to the contemporary critical debate. Eagleton refuses to be taken in by Derrida’s rhetoric of messianic affirmation; instead, he sees Derrida’s intervention as ‘unavoidably opportunist’. It is thus a critique which ‘wants to exploit Marxism as critique, dissent…but is far less willing to engage with its positivity. What he wants, in effect, is a Marxism without Marxism, which is to say a Marxism on his own coolly appropriative terms’.

No doubt this falls into line with Eagleton’s scepticism towards ‘theory’ in general: indeed, in an afterword to his Literary Theory, Eagleton notes that ‘Theory has been one symptom in our time of the commodifying of the intellectual life itself, as one conceptual fashion usurps another as shortwindedly as changes in hairstyle.’

As amusing as this may be, Eagleton’s staunch, and perhaps conservative, Marxism fails to account for the subtleties of Derrida’s radicalization. Indeed, Derrida will respond to Eagleton’s remarks that the former’s is a “Marxism without Marxism” with ‘mais oui, c’est exactement ca!’ (MS, 73). Here, Derrida is alluding to the logic of the sans [without] which arises in Blanchot, and which becomes the subject of his analysis in Pas. Thus, the logic of the sans is such that:

Il remarque le même X (X sans X), sans l’annuler, du tout autre qui l’écarte de lui-meme….Il neutralise sans négativité, en affectant le neutre d’une hétérogénéité absolue, et d’abord par rapport à ce qui, dans la langue ainsi neutralisée, aurait pu le river au négatif du ‘ni l’un ni l’autre’. (Par, p91).

This logic of the sans is the precondition of a pluralisation of the word which precedes it. Far from negating, ‘cette rapidité absolue est celle d’une affirmation…de l’hétérogène absolu qui ne le prive de rien sauf de son identité à soi’(Par, p92) : a Marxism sans Marxism will thus be the possibility of a rethinking of the very axis of Marxism, the neutralization of any ontology that it might presume, and will project Marx into the contemporary space of technics and le médiatique.

Such an affirmation does not counteract the more serious claims made by Slavoj Žižek regarding the apparent totalitarian character of Derrida’s thought: Žižek misreads categories such as the promise and messianism so as to posit an anti-political element within deconstruction itself: ‘what Derrida’s ‘radicalization’ of Marx means (in a practical way) is the renunciation of any actual radical political measures.’ For Žižek, the very ‘radicality’ of a deconstructive politics involves an almost irreducible gap between the messianic promise of democracy and justice and any feasible actualization of such categories. Such ‘radicality’, rather than reigniting the political, ensures that it is ‘forever a promise, and can never be translated into a set of determinate economico-political measures’. For Jameson, the messianic translates to the ‘Utopian’; in Žižek’s reading, it takes on a more malign figure, where democracy’s arrival is forever postponed, and totalitarianism is installed.

Hence, it is in placing the democratic as ‘to come’, as an otherly messianic force that Derrida falls victim to a religious temptation: ‘instead of the religious matrix with God at its heart, post-secular deconstruction gives us this matrix itself, deprived of the positive figure of God that sustains it.’ The misreading of the messianic as a religious force is not only applicable to Žižek; indeed, Aijaz Ahmad will suggest in his essay on Spectres de Marx that the à venir is ‘replete with a powerful religious imagery’, in the same sentence that he admits that Derrida is forceful that the messianic is precisely not religious.

As Ernesto Laclau correctly suggests, ‘by the ‘messianic’ we should not understand anything directly related to actual messianic movements – of the present or past – but, instead, something belonging to the general structure of experience.’ The messianic is rather ‘the continual commitment to keep open the relation to the other, an opening which is always à venir, for the other to which one opens oneself is never already given in any aprioristic calculation.’ The messianic is thus the spirit of openness to the future and the coming of the other, never a quasi-totalitarian theological delusion founded in fixity, history and absolute truth.

It is on the basis of these premises that Derrida founds his particular brand of democracy – democratie à venir– which will be the precondition for a radicalized interpretative strategy that demands the coming of the other – of plurality and constructive adversarial thinking. Democracy, for Derrida, is both an imperative, and an inexhaustible force; it is one that is able to constantly reinvent itself, to constantly radicalize itself. This, Derrida will argue, is precisely Marx’s vision of the political itself.