Below the fold is something like the text delivered on Friday afternoon to the Derrida Today conference. This is a jointly-authored piece, delivered by NP, co-written with the appropriately recently-deceased, and therefore undeconstructibly spectral, Praxis Blog. Those who have been following along in the blog discussion leading up to this talk will realise that what is reproduced below the fold is half the argument: the talk covers our working interpretation of why Derrida omits the “hand” when he quotes the passage in which Marx christens the commodity fetish – and explores what this omission implies for how Derrida understands Marx and the possibility of inheriting Marx today. Along the way, we manage to talk in a somewhat rambling fashion, about a rather sweeping range of other things – but somehow in all of this, we never quite stumble across the second half of our own argument, which will attempt to outline a different sort of inheritance of Marx through a reinterpretation of the argument about commodity fetishism. The fetish, therefore, continues to haunt us – imminent, but not yet presenced, below – and yet not below – the fold…
Handling Value: Notes on Derrida’s Inheritance of Marx
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the face of the triumphalist declaration of the final victory over communism of the market and liberal democracy, Derrida’s Specters of Marx poses the question of whether and how we could inherit Marx today – whether we might find, in a certain spirit of Marx, the critical resources to challenge resurgent liberal ideals, without this challenge assuming a dogmatic or totalitarian form.
Derrida rules out the simplest response to this question: the response that the Soviet Union was a corruption of a “true spirit” of Marx – a perversion or false inheritance of a communist ideal that must be differentiated from the empirical entities that proclaimed themselves to be communist. His argument here is subtle – and displaced: offered in the form, not of a direct critique of this attempted defence of the communist ideal, but rather a critique of Francis Fukuyama, author of the triumphalist The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama, Derrida argues, defends liberal democracy by identifying it alternatively with its empirical manifestations or with a non-empirical counterfactual ideal. Empirically, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unravelling of centrally-planned economies are taken to ratify liberalism – as though the empirical hegemony of liberal institutions confirms their normative superiority. At the same time, Fukuyama systematically discounts the empirical failings of liberal institutions, arguing that liberalism must not be identified with its empirical manifestations, but must rather be understood as a counterfactual ideal from which “actually existing” democracies and markets might deviate, without these deviations undermining the ideal itself.
The manifest target of this argument is Fukuyama. Yet in the dreamwork of a text saturated with references to Freud, manifest targets are haunted and overdetermined by a series of latent contents, bound together and implicated in the explicit discussion. Fukuyama serves here as a kind of “residue of the day” – and Derrida’s critique of Fukuyama is also and simultaneously a critique of attempts to inherit Marx by distinguishing Marx’s “true spirit” from the empirical realities of “actually existing socialism”. Derrida’s critique of Fukuyama, moreover, is haunted by parallels with Marx’s critique of Stirner – parallels through which Derrida retroactively satirises aspects of his own critique of Fukuyama, by teasing Marx for making similar moves when criticising Stirner. In this tangled text, criss-crossed with these and other internal parallels that subtly destabilise and complicate the surface discussion, the structure of the text suggests that a certain spirit of Marx already haunts Derrida’s critique of Fukuyama – invoked even within Derrida’s critique of the attempt to distinguish a “true” spirit of Marx from various corrupt inheritances.
What does it mean, though, to structure the text such that it seems to invoke a spirit of Marx, but to do so in the service of a critique of any attempt to invoke a true spirit of Marx? What does it mean to inherit impurely? What sort of inheritance does not proceed by means of a burial – by means of an attempt to determine with certainty the location and the identity of the remains? This is the type of inheritance Derrida seeks in Specters of Marx.
This repudiation of the search for a “pure” inheritance is bound together with an argument that critique relies on the shattering of presence – on the ability to break apart the progression of time understood as a linear chain of homogeneous moments linked together in a necessary succession. For Derrida, the ability to break out of the chain of presents, and destabilise the apparent self-identity of the present time, is integral to the possibility of critique. Derrida links this ability with our capacity to form constellations between our own time and other times, our own generation and other generations, by recognising the implicatedness of the dead and the not yet living, in any present moment. He also links this ability with technology, suggesting that new media and technological developments generate conditions in which the self-identity of the present is increasingly difficult to assert. Derrida gathers together both of these destabilising factors under the overarching term “spectrality”. The category of spectrality thus captures a range of destabilising potentials that haunt any possible present and, in words Derrida cites from Hamlet, throw the time out of joint. Derrida ties the possibility of critique to this disjointure of the present – borrowing, again from Hamlet, the image that we are called to justice – called to set the time right – precisely by our sensitivity to those spectres that unsettle and destabilise any self-identity of the present time.
The task of inheriting impurely is therefore linked in this text with the task of developing a form of critique that does not ground itself on presence – a form of critique that does not attempt to proceed by stripping away a veil of illusion or false appearance, in order to reveal some form of underlying essence that purports to provide a stable ground for critical ideals. For Derrida, critique relies instead precisely on the absence of stable ground – an absence that does not undermine the search for justice, but rather represents its condition of possibility. The preservation of spectrality – the embrace of the haunted and non-identical character that renders our time out of joint – is therefore central to Derrida’s concept of critique. When he seeks to inherit a certain spirit of Marx, it will therefore be a spirit willing to commune with the dead, rather than a spirit that seeks to exorcise their ghosts – a spirit that seeks to destabilise the present, rather than a spirit that seeks to bring to presence some underlying reality that would provide a firm ontological ground for critical ideals.
To develop this possibility of an impure inheritance of Marx, Derrida suggests that inheritance cannot be understood as a transmission. Inheritance is not comprised of the contents of some transparent communication from the dead, and therefore heirs cannot be distinguished from one another by their authenticity or accurate possession of what has been bequeathed. Inheritance is not a form of passive reception, but rather something actively enacted – a performative act – one that takes place through interpretations that selectively appropriate what will, and what will not, be inherited. The dead do not bury themselves – and so they, least of all, are safe from the actions of those who would inherit them: inheritance interprets the past in a way that intrinsically transforms it. In his most explicit discussion of this point, Derrida makes direct reference to Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach – where Marx criticises philosophers for having merely interpreted the world, when the task is instead to change it. Derrida argues that to interpret the world is always already to have changed it – a position not unknown to a certain spirit of Marx, who channelled great energy into the transformative interpretation of political economy, in order to open up new ways to inherit the sedimented historical potentials of our time.
Derrida thus sets out to enact a particular inheritance of Marx – without claiming that this inheritance is true or pure – with the express goal of transforming, in order to inherit – with the desire to invoke an impure spirit. While the machinery of this transformative interpretation unfolds throughout the text, a specific performative act stands out particularly clearly, both because it is foreshadowed so heavily, and because it represents the most blatant transformative citation of Marx’s work. When interpreting one of Marx’s own performative acts – the passage in which Marx christens commodity fetishism – Derrida materially transforms the passage, subtly altering its meaning. Marx’s passage reads:
In order, then, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (Capital, p. 165, italics added)
Derrida’s citation of this passage adds commentary that draws attention to the imagery of the head in the argument about religion (208-209). It also, however, removes a single sentence – specifically, the sentence in which Marx distinguishes the fetish from religion – the sentence that reads:
So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands.
Derrida foreshadows this elision heavily. The chapter in which it occurs is called “The Apparition of the Inapparent” – subtitled “the phenomenological ‘conjuring trick’”. Images of hands, prestidigitation, manipulation, and related terms are scattered throughout the text, as are references to disappearance, displacement, conjuring, and exorcism. The most direct foreshadowing, however, takes place in an extended discussion of Valéry that was added into Derrida’s first chapter after the lectures were originally delivered. In this passage, Derrida draws attention to a work in which Valéry reflects on the fate of Europe by staging a scene in which Hamlet surveys illustrious skulls and finds, in the skull of Kant, a line of inheritance that runs from Kant to Hegel, and then from Hegel to Marx. Derrida then remarks that Valéry returns to this same passage, quoting it entire in a later work – except for a single line. Derrida lingers over this point, drawing the reader’s attention to the omission, noting:
At this point, Valéry quotes himself. He reproduces the page of “the European Hamlet”, the one we have just cited. Curiously, with the errant but infallible assurance of a sleepwalker, he then omits from it only one sentence, just one, without even signalling the omission by an ellipsis: the one that names Marx, in the very skull of Kant. (p. 4)
Derrida then asks:
Why this omission, the only one? The name of Marx has disappeared. Where did it go? Exeunt Ghost and Marx, Shakespeare might have noted. The name of the one who disappeared must have gotten inscribed someplace else. (p. 4)
These questions return to haunt the text when Derrida effects his own elision, omitting just one sentence – signalled with an ellipsis this time, but leaving no less pressing the question of why this omission, the only one: the hands of Marx have disappeared. We may have some sense of where they have been most manifestly reinscribed – images of hands, fingers, and digital manipulations paw their way through this text, while the backdrop for the entire work is the apparent triumph of the market’s invisible hand, over the planned economies and the utopian communist project. But why this omission? What is Derrida attempting to preserve – and what is he attempting to excise – with this re-performance of the act through which Marx originally christened the concept of commodity fetishism? What sort of impure inheritance is Derrida attempting to effect, when he makes the hands of Marx disappear?
Derrida foreshadows what he believes to be at stake, through an extended analysis of how Marx criticises Stirner in The German Ideology. Derrida characterises The German Ideology as a “whirling dance of ghosts” in which both Stirner and Marx share a common wish “to have done with the revenant” through a “reappropriation of life in a body proper” (161). Marx and Stirner thus share the goal, Derrida argues, of exorcising the ghost. Where they differ is simply over the means through which this exorcism must be performed: Stirner seeks an immediate reappropriation of the spectral into an egological body; Marx declares Stirner’s concept of an egological body itself to be a ghost. This stance does not render Marx any more friendly to spooks – Marx’s objection is, instead, that Stirner obscures the means to achieve a true exorcism, in the form of a reappropriation of the spectral that must take place, not immediately, as in Stirner’s egological reappropriation, but rather through the mediation of work – through a labour of thought and practice that takes into account all the social mediations constitutive of the spectres that throw the time out of joint, and that therefore must be exorcised (163). In Derrida’s account, Stirner thus stands criticised for attempting to destroy, in thought alone, a spectrality that, because it does not originate in thought, could never be abolished there. Instead, the exorcism can be effected only in practice. As Derrida argues:
Marx denounces a surplus of hallucination and a capitalization of the ghost: what is really (wirklich) destroyed are merely the representations in the their form of representation (Vorstellung). The youth may indeed destroy his hallucinations or the phantomatic appearance of the bodies – of the Emperor, the State, the Fatherland. He does not actually (wirklich) destroy them. And if he stops relating to these realities through the prostheses of his representation and the “spectacles of his fantasy [durch die Brille seiner Phantasie],” if he stops transforming these realities into objects, objects of theoretical intuition, that is, into a spectacle, then he will have to take into account the “practical structure” of the world: Work, production, actualization, techniques. Only this practicality, only this actuality (work, the Wirken or the Wirkung of this Wirklicheit) can get to the bottom of a purely imaginary or spectral flesh (phantastiche… gespenstige Leibhaftigheit). (162-163)
As Derrida sees this argument then, Marx seeks, like Stirner, to abolish spectrality. Marx, however, believes that this abolition can be achieved only through a process that transforms the “practical structure of the world”, transformation effected specifically, in Derrida’s reading, through the mediation of labour. On this reading, labour figures as a despectralising form of action – and production, actualisation and technique are positioned as forms of practice that can effect an exorcism, abolish the ghost that renders the time out of joint, and set the time right, once and for all, by constituting a self-identical present moment that is rationally and transparently in control of its own emancipatory possibilities.
Derrida finds a similar logic in Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism. He understands Marx to be mobilising a form of critique that relies on the possibility of unveiling and bringing to presence a pure ontological ground – in this case, the “material” ground of use value, labour, and production. Derrida takes Marx’s argument to be that this pure “material” essence is currently distorted, corrupted, and hidden by the market – by exchange value. In this reading, exchange value is a “spectralising” force – a factor that renders the time out of joint and non-identical with itself – because it conceals and prevents labour’s central social role from achieving presence. The christening passage in which Marx names the fetish looks like the attempt to distinguish a proper, “material” body – the body of use value, constituted by labour and by technology – from the spectralising force of the market that distorts and conceals this proper body, generating the need to set the time right by bringing the proper “material” body to light and allowing labour to structure social life in an open and transparent way.
Derrida thus hears Marx’s argument about the fetish as an attempt to locate and identify the remains of the spectre that spurs critique, by situating this spectre in some contingent, and therefore exorcisable, element of the practical structure of the world. He sees Marx’s theory as aimed at the abolition or burial of this spectre, in order to enact a time that has fully and transparently realised its own potentials, and is therefore no longer out of joint. From Derrida’s perspective, Marx’s conception of emancipation therefore also entails the abolition of the possibility of critique, as the non-identity that fuels critique can be overcome through the transformation and abolition of those elements of the practical world that prevent the present from achieving full self-identity, transparency, and rationality.
In this attempt to ground critique in the bringing to presence of an underlying essence of labour, and in the ideal of emancipatory transformation as the achievement of a time in which nothing remains out of joint, Derrida sees the elements that were selected and gathered together into the dogmatic and oppressive Soviet inheritance of Marx.
Derrida therefore sets out to criticise the christening passage by attempting to destabilise the ontological distinctions on which he believes this passage relies. He argues that labour and technology cannot be seen as ontologically pure, “material” essences that are then corrupted by exchange. Instead, labour and technology must themselves be understood as already and intrinsically spectral – already haunted by non-identity, already prosthetic, already introducing into the “practical structure of the world” the destabilising force that Derrida takes Marx to locate in the market alone. Production and labour, Derrida argues, are not transparent, self-identical “material” processes whose essence is subsequently veiled by exchange: they are always already impure; they are, in fact, a locus for spectrality, themselves rendering the time out of joint and generating the possibility of critique. This impurity undermines the attempt to view labour as a despectralising form of practice, or technology as a force that can exorcise ghosts. From the standpoint of a techne that is always already spectral, critique cannot take the form of stripping away a veil to reveal labour as some sort of pure essence that has been distorted or concealed. Instead, production is itself generative of non-identity, a position that leads Derrida to propose a very different vision of critical work – in this case, a work of mourning that seeks, not to overcome the spectre, but rather to remain in communion with it. By reconceptualising critique in terms of the work of mourning, Derrida points to the possibility for a form of critique that would remain open to the imminent return of the revenant, rather than seeking the spectre’s abolition. Derrida sees this approach to critique to open up the potential, not simply to criticise empirical reality against a counterfactual regulative ideal, but to criticise regulative ideals themselves.
It is from this perspective that Derrida effects his selective and impure inheritance of Marx. Derrida returns to what he regards as one of Marx’s central performative acts: the passage in which the fetish is christened. Derrida interprets this passage as an attempted exorcism, through which Marx seeks to abolish the spectrality of the market, by revealing labour to be the true “material” content that the market has hitherto veiled. Seeking to interrupt Marx’s performance, Derrida excises from this passage the pivotal sentence through which, he believes, Marx attempts to bring to presence the hidden content that the market veils: Derrida takes away Marx’s reference to labour – he hides the sentence that refers to “the products of men’s hands”.
Derrida’s edit to Marx’s text thus symbolically keeps labour secret, removing the step by which, in Derrida’s reading, Marx attempts to reveal the true “material” relations of capitalist society. In Derrida’s transformative reenactment of the christening passage, the ghost gets to stay. Always still to come, always to haunt, forever non-identical with a present time perpetually out of joint: this is the certain spirit of Marx that Derrida enacts in his selective iteration of Marx’s text.
What Derrida effects here, then, is an exorcism of exorcism. He attempts to inherit in a way that maintains in perpetuity our ability to communicate with the ghost. In a text filled with figures chasing ghosts in order to eradicate spectrality, Derrida enjoins us to chase ghosts as well. He asks us to do this, however, not in order to drive the ghosts away, but in order that they we may be receptive to the ways in which these spirits continue to haunt us to set our time right. A certain spirit of Marx, Derrida believes, suggests this possibility: the spirit of the Communist Manifesto – the spectre of a communism that is threatening, but not yet presenced – the spectre of a communism that, in this interpretation, is eternally to haunt, a stranger always already inhabiting Europe, an abstract, “desert messianic” spirit that remains unaligned with parties, organisations, programmes, and presence, providing critical purchase on both empirical realities and regulative ideals. It is this spirit that Derrida attempts to inherit through his impure, transformative interpretation of Marx’s work.
This transformative interpretation establishes certain possibilities for how we might inherit Marx today. It sets forth the possibility for a non-dogmatic, non-essentialising inheritance of Marx that would not ground its standpoint of critique on the potential to bring essence to presence. The excision through which Derrida enacts this inheritance, however, forswears much more than dogmatism and essentialism: it also cuts away the elements of Marx’s critique that are oriented toward the practical transformation of social institutions through which contemporary forms of injustice are enacted. Derrida leaves unclear how the abstract “desert messianism” that he seeks to inherit from Marx’s work could provide critical resources to engage with the specific historical circumstance of the collapse of planned economies and the re-emergence of the market, or even with the “ten plagues of the new world order” that Derrida himself lists, or the possibility for a “new international” that he puts forward – resulting in a form of critique whose categories seem disengaged from the social phenomena that provide the “residue of the day” for this text. Derrida’s transformative interpretation of Marx seems aimed instead at the much more abstract goal of securing an undeconstructible potential for non-identity, than at mobilising resources for the critique of a determinate form of social life: the specificity of Marx’s work – which positions itself as a critique of political economy – is therefore lost in this translation.
Is this level of abstraction, this disconnect between critical categories and the “practical structure of the world”, a necessary consequence of the attempt to inherit Marx in a non-dogmatic, anti-essentialising form? Or might there be yet another spirit of Marx we could selectively inherit – another way to transformatively interpret Marx’s work, to open up the possibility for a non-dogmatic and anti-essentialist critique while engaging more intimately with the determinacy of our historical moment? Is there, perhaps, another way to inherit Derrida, so as to retain a certain spirit of sympathetic deconstructive engagement with Marxism, while moving selectively beyond Derrida’s particular vision of dry messianic critique? These are questions central to the broader project to which this paper is a contribution, which considers more deeply how we might take up Derrida’s challenge to inherit Marx in a way that captures a certain non-dogmatic and anti-essentialist spirit, while also opening the possibility for a more determinate engagement with the political challenges of our own time.