the khora

Ad-hoc delvings into the depths of incoherence

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Part VI: Slavoj Žižek’s mis-reading of différance and democratie à venir in Derrida

ImageI’d like to use this post to further how Slavoj Žižek’s mis-reading of Derrida in his text Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? has led to a significant misunderestimation of Derrida as a potent political thinker; and to show how a thorough reading of important Derridean concepts such as différence and democratie à venir [democracy to come] contribute to his radical reading of the political.

As I have outlined previously, 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’. In Žižek’s reading of Derrida, the messianic 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.’ 

However, contrary to the claims of Žižek, messianism cannot be reduced to a kind of utopic religiosity, but rather ‘ici maintenant l’interruption du cours ordinaire des choses, du temps et de l’histoire’ (MS 70). Derrida reads Marx as possessing this appeal of a political injunction to rupture the normal running of things; this rupture is that which throws the ‘time out of joint’. As I have discussed previously, the untimeliness of Derrida’s radicalization (it’s non-historical element) has been misread by critics as either being ‘too late’, or rather postponing the coming of Marxism to a Utopic future – thus eternally deferring democracy. The centre of this criticism has surrounded the concept of différance, which Derrida describes as ‘plus alors simplement un concept mais la possibilité de la conceptualité, du processus et du system conceptuel en général’ (Marges de la philosophie, 11). Différance is essentially space of difference which separates the present from itself: it is difference and deferral at the same time.  Différance is, as Bernard Stiegler suggests, ‘neither the who nor the what, but their co-possibility, the movement of their mutual coming-to-be…Différance is below and beyond the who and the what; it poses them together, a composition engendering the illusion of an opposition.’ Différance will thus be precondition for the ‘plus d’un sens’ which we discussed above: it is situated within the double-bind of possible-impossibility, and is the essence of the decision. Since there is no absolute origin of meaning, no transcendental password to unlock the secret held within the signifier, the logic of différance opens up a plurality of appearances and meanings. 

The double-bind of différance has been interpreted by many as being a substitute for endless deferral, or the negation of responsibility; it thus becomes representative of ‘le délai, la neutralisation, le suspens, et par conséquent de trop desserrer l’urgence du présent, son urgence éthique ou politique en particulier’ (Echographies de la télévision, 18).

This could not be further from the truth: différance is, conversely, conditioned by the promise: it is thus the precipitation of an absolute singularity, differing, otherly and binding itself to the urgency of the present.  Différance is that which opens up the dimension and double-bind of the à venir, of the messianic, and thus of democratie à venir

As with all of Derrida’s thinking, the double-bind functions to upset the natural running of things. The thinking of impossibility is thus a central component of thinking in general. As Derrida outlined in an interview:

“Thinking takes place not on what we can do, but beginning with what we cannot do. And a democracy in which one thinks everything possible and that democracy exists is already gone. If I may be allowed an aphorism, democracy, for me, is the political experience of the impossible, the political experience of opening to the other as possibility of impossibility.” (Negotiations, 194)

The notion that ‘la démocratie reste à venir’, that ‘celle-ci n’existe jamais, elle n’est jamais présente, elle reste le thème d’un concept non présentable’ (Politiques de l’amitié, 339), is not to suggest, in line with Žižek, that democracy would remain forever postponed. On the contrary: that democracy is ‘à venir’ means precisely democracy is a task which must be attempted.

The experience of democracy is the experience of an engagement with the possibility of democracy, or a thinking of the political in relation to the other, to the arrivant, which we discussed above. If democracy is impossible, this impossibility is ‘l’inaccessible, ce n’est pas ce que je peux renvoyer indéfiniment: cela s’annonce à moi, cela fond sur moi, cela me précède et me saisit ici maintenant, de façon non virtuellement, en acte et non en puissance’ (Voyous, 123). 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. As such, democracy conforms to the logic of the ‘plus d’un’: democracy is both possible and impossible – it is this double-bind which acts as an injunction to render it constantly attainable, yet never present; a certain part of the democratic must be à venir in order for its spirit to be alive.

It is in this light that Derrida suggests that there is ‘pas de démocratie sans littérature, pas de littérature sans démocratie’ (Passions, 65). It is imperative for democracy that the logic of the ‘plus d’un’ survives; the possibility of multiple voices, the possibility of the arrivant, of the other, is essential for its very survival. The same is true for literature: the inexhaustibility of the literary, the fact that it should be re-iterable in a plurality of contexts, cannot be stressed enough.

The possibility of a plurality of Marx, then, becomes both the possibility and impossibility of its survival; to engage with this double-bind, however, is fundamental for the spirit of critique to continue.

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

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.

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

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.

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

 

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.

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

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.

Part I: Marx & Derrida; ghostly brothers

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In a series of blog posts, I’m going to explore the relationship between Jacques Derrida and Karl Marx. Both thinkers have been the subject of much comparison, contrast, high-level academic conjecture and refutation. Prominent cultural theorists have endured very public fallings out over the theoretical nexus that resides between Marx and Derrida’s thinking; the subject has spawned a major series of seminars and a significant collection of essays.

I’m going to use these blogs to show that Derridean deconstruction and Marxist thinking are profoundly linked; and that there is much to be gained by reading the two thinkers together. I’ll also use the blogs to explain most of the central tenets of their thinking – focusing particularly on Derrida. 

NB – many of the Derrida quotes I use below come from the original French. I’ve referenced page numbers from the texts as accurately and as often as I can.

In an interview given in 1989, Jacques Derrida sowed the seeds of an argument that would reignite discussion about the very foundations of Marxist thought. In a context saturated by discourses pronouncing the end of Marxism as a functioning critique of the époque, Derrida suggested of his own work that:

“Marx is always immediately or virtually taken into account. My ambition (which is perhaps excessive) is to call for a new reading of Marx – a greater ambition than many Marxists…the blank on Marx is situated in my text in a certain way, that blank is not just any blank. That blank corresponds neither to a distraction, nor to a repressive denial that it brings about, but rather to an active calling into question of the Marxian legacy.”

The blank which Derrida refers to is the critically presumed absence of any actual ‘Marx’ in his texts: that is, the plethora of citations, footnotes and references to Marx’s work, which would normally act as a kind of signifier for the presence of ‘Marxism’ in the text. To cite Capital, or to pay homage to the various “Marxist” signifiers such as ‘class struggle’, ‘commodity fetishism’ or ‘dialectical materialism’, would therefore be enough to demonstrate a certain engagement, to place oneself in the heritage of Marxism.

Nonetheless, as Derrida suggested in the same interview, the simple act of hat-tipping to the Marxist legacy is not enough to render it an example of  a possible “Marxist” criticism: the designation of one’s writing as “Marxist” is less an act of engaging with the text, than of engaging with Marx’s legacy, or what Derrida will call his injonction [injunction]. The truly radical element of Derrida’s critique of “Marxist” criticism will therefore be his undermining of the discourse which purports to pay homage to, or support, its father-figure: ‘I will always wonder if the idea of Marx – the self-identity of a Marxist discourse of system… – is not in principle incompatible with the event-Marx’ (Negotiations, 188).  For Derrida, it is the establishment of a doxa, of an ideology, of an entire ontology and logic of Marxism, which is an affront to the very ‘spirit of Marx’, which seeks to change the world, rather than merely interpret it.

Indeed, if Derrida’s claim that his entire work is informed by a certain ‘spirit of Marx’ is valid, then his deconstruction will be an attempt to ‘éviter l’anesthésie neutralisante d’un nouveau théoretisme, et pour empêcher que prévale un retour philosophico-philologique à  Marx’ (Spectres de Marx, 62); instead, deconstruction will propose a radicalisation of ‘les concepts d’interprétation, de perspective, d’évaluation, de différence et tous les motifs ‘empiristes’ ou non-philosophiques qui, tout au long de l’histoire de l’Occident, n’ont cessé de tourmenter la philosophie’ (De la grammatologie, 31). Derrida thus seeks to move beyond this Western, ‘logocentric’ heritage, and, in its place, to propose a spirit of critique: ‘La déconstruction ne peut se limiter ou passer immédiatement à une neutralisation: elle doit, par un double geste, une double écriture, pratiquer un renversement de l’opposition classique et un déplacement général du système’ (Limited Inc, 50).

This double geste, this double-bind will, d’une part [on the one hand – to use Derrida’s phrasing], mean the radicalization of Marxism – that is, its reformalization for a new world, thus marking the possibility of its repetition for a plurality of contexts – and, d’autre part [on the other hand], the destabilization of the binary “Marxist/anti-Marxist”. This double bind symbolizes the impossibility that strikes at the core of any possibility, the ‘plus de sens’ whereby ‘le trop-plein et le vide se ressemblent’ (Politique de l’amitié, 51).  This relationship between the plural and the singular will condition the Derridean conception of language, such that ‘ce débordement et cet effacement ont le même sens, sont un seul et même phénomène’ (De la grammatologie, 16): thus, the double-bind which conditions the very thinking of Marxism effectuates both the impossibility of Marxism and the possibility of its proliferation; ‘plus d’un Marx’ – no more Marx, more than one Marx.

The death of Marx can, nonetheless, become the possibility of its living-on: ‘où il y a va de la déconstruction, il s’agirait de lier une affirmation (en particulier politique), s’il y en a, à l’expérience de l’impossible, qui ne peut etre qu’une expérience radicale du peut-être’ (Spectres de Marx, 65).  It is important to highlight the ‘peut-etre’, the perhaps, which will gain increasing importance in Derrida’s discussion of Marx, and of politics and the political in general. In Politiques de l’amitié, Derrida expands on this political element of this indécidable:

“On voit mal comment un peut-être pourrait jamais y trouver sa chance, la chance d’une effraction ou d’une hospitalité absolues, d’une décision ou d’une arrivance imprédictibles. Sauf par accident ou fortuitement, et c’est pourquoi nous parlons de chance; un peut-être se livre toujours à la chance; on ne peut donc pas, on ne doit pas espérer pour le peut-être une possibilité essentielle ou nécessaire, une condition non accidentelle. Peut-être le peut-être aura-t-il au contraire ouvert la possibilité pour cette configuration…de se configurer en oubliant le peut-être. (Politiques de l’amitié, p122-123)

The peut-être, the undecidable, the impossible can all give rise to a new thinking of (political) possibility. ‘Plus d’un Marx’, the possibility and impossibility of Marx, the questioning of the very possibility of “Marxism”, plays a vital role in this discussion.

Over the course of the next few blogs, I’m going to explore the way in which Derridean deconstruction undermines the “Marxist” in Marxist criticism so as radicalize and reinterpret Marx. Moreover, an analysis of Marx will demonstrate the deconstructive logic at work in the foundations of commodity fetishism, and the possibility of reading Marx as a prelude to discussions of Derrida’s la democratie à venir. I’ll try and demonstrate the flaws of the misreadings levelled at Derrida by the likes of Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Žižek and Ajaz Ahmed, and thus that Derrida’s ‘Marxism without Marxism’ is the possibility, rather than the impossibility, of a radicalized thinking of Marx.