Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


Hamlet's FatherI’ve just finished reading Specters of Marx, and am fighting to get a particularly stupid grin off my face. I had read this work a long time ago, in another life entirely, and what struck me then – and therefore remained in memory – bears little relation to what strikes me now. I have been promising a number of people that I would at some point re-read and comment on the work here – tonight’s post will at best be a very partial gesture at this promise. At the moment, I am simply too gleeful to write anything sensible on the text: I am finding myself – quite literally – laughing in enjoyment of the parallel – beautiful and perplexing – that Derrida sketches between himself, criticising Fukuyama, and Marx, criticising Stirner. What a delightful, ironic self-critique and, of course, critique of Marx. I’ll need to leave this – and, with it, the overwhelming bulk of the text – completely aside, until some point when I am feeling a bit less captivated by it…

I do want to archive a couple of issues here for later, more adequate development. First, as will probably be clear from the discussion I’ve already written here on “supersensible” categories like “value”, I like the use of metaphors related to the spectral, in trying to capture what’s unfolding in Capital – the issue of what I’ve been calling “supersensible” categories, what Derrida tends to refer to as the sensuous non-sensuous, is, I think, perhaps the most central dimension to the argument in Capital. And the metaphor of spectrality, as Derrida deploys it here – to capture the dual sense of something invisible/intangible/supersensible and something embodied or incarnated – is a particularly comprehensive metaphor for grasping the strange social characteristics of the sorts of entities Marx is trying to pick out, through categories like “value”, “abstract labour”, and “capital”. Whether Derrida quite grasps the practice theoretic dimension of the argument, I’m uncertain, but the metaphorisation is difficult to surpass.

Second, Derrida makes a very nice distinction that expresses something that has been nagging me in my own writing – a distinction that I will likely steal, although I don’t believe Derrida wields it in quite the way I likely will. Derrida spends quite a lot of time making a case that Marx distinguishes between spirit and spectre, or good and bad instantiations of spectrality. For Derrida, this argument is bound together with a claim that Marx shares with the people Marx criticises, a common desire to banish spectres – a fear of the spectral. Again, I would need to spend much more time with Derrida’s text to decide whether I agree with this critique. In a short-term and selfish sense, what I take from the distinction Derrida draws, is the realisation that I need to express much more clearly two dimensions of Marx’s “spectral” that emerge in the course of my own argument. Capital involves a complex critique of the empirically sensible – capitalism figures as a haunted context, in which empirically sensible entities are incarnations of supersensible relations. The supersensible dimension of capitalism figures in Capital both as the object of critique (the social practices that constitute supersensible social entities like “value” need to be overcome, in order to transcend capitalism), and as part of the standpoint of critique (the potential to “carve up” existing social practices, ideals, and institutions in different ways – the latent structure of alternative organisations of social life, necessarily reproduced with the reproduction of capitalism – provides an immanent standpoint from which the reproduction of capital can be recognised as a form of domination). Derrida’s argument about Marx’s attempt to distinguish spectres and spirits intersects in complex ways with this sort of claim – for present purposes, I am simply flagging for myself that Derrida’s argument reminds me that I need to be clearer in my own writing, about the complex ways in which Marx’s critique of empirical “givens” runs through his conception of both the target and the standpoint of his critique.

One brief critical comment, which I will hopefully have time to develop more adequately in the future: Derrida seems to take Marx as offering a critique from the standpoint of use value, and therefore takes exchange value as the target of the critique – certainly not an uncommon reading, and Derrida’s version is vastly more sophisticated than most. My argument has been to take more seriously that the “elementary form” is actually the commodity – not some part of the commodity – and then to tug on this thread, to uncover within Marx’s argument an analysis of a tripartite social structure in which an unintended side effect of our collective practice is the generation of a dynamic of historical transformation that is effected via the transformation of material nature and overtly social institutions, in such a way as to enact or confer on specific aspects of our practical experience, those qualitative attributes that we intuitively experience as “material” or “social”. This is a difficult point to express – for present purposes, suffice to say the argument does not use the concept of a “material world” or “use value” as an “unexplained explainer” for other phenomena, but rather attempts to account for the category of “materiality” and “sociality” (and, for that matter, “historicity” and a number of other pivotal categories) in their distinctive capitalist forms.

I suspect that a great deal of Derrida’s critique here hinges on Derrida’s conviction that Marx is too “spooked” to allow both “content” and “form” to float free, untethered to some ontological ground – too foundationalist to maintain that critique has no “standpoint” outside what is criticised. I read Marx somewhat differently, of course – as an immanent critical theorist, and so as someone not seeking an external ground, but still as someone who tries to answer the question of why we find it so intuitive, to think that the “material” world should be able to provide such a ground, to perceive the determinate qualitative characteristics we most readily ascribe to materiality, as simple negations – as what is left behind, once everything anthropologically specific has been stripped away. Marx also, of course, uses the categories he analyses – an immanent critique must – and so those dimensions of our practical experience that we enact as “material” realities carry a critical force in his argument. So do those dimensions of our practical experience that we enact as (overtly) social. And so do those dimensions that we enact as “spectral” – that are not subject to immediate empirical verification, but whose existence can be deduced through watching how empirically-observable realities unfold over time. But I’m being very abbreviated, and possibly quite unfair to Derrida’s concerns – I’ll have to take this up again, at an earlier hour, when I can do better justice to the text…

2 responses to “Speculation

  1. Pingback: » Disappearing the Apparent: Further Comment on Specters of Marx

  2. Pingback: Specters « Contaminations

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