Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Writing

Someone, You or Me, Wants an Article

I’m in charge of student selection for a popular undergraduate program this year – around 1300 applicants for 60-odd places. I’m told that selection will severely restrict my ability to do anything else over the summer, aside from reading student applications, and so I’ve been seizing this last precious week before I’m able to access student files, to get some writing done. Two articles down, a third in process hopefully to be largely completed by tomorrow… I don’t normally write in such an assembly-line fashion, but my other work obligations have made it seem like this would be an appropriate skill to develop…

Producing several articles back to back like this has drawn my attention to aspects of my writing process that I hadn’t specifically noticed before. One of the things that strikes me is that I spend the overwhelming amount of my time working out how to get the article started. I don’t mean that I spend a lot of time staring at a blank piece of paper, wondering what to say – each of these pieces is being developed from one or more blog posts written earlier in the year, and so I’m starting with the argument and the bulk of the article structure in front of me from the outset. What’s taking time is working out how to frame the paper for a formal publication.

Writing for the blog doesn’t pose this same sort of problem, since I generally just start by saying something like “I was reading something recently that irritated me”, or “someone asked a good question in the comments to this other post”, or even “last we left off, I think I had finally gotten to the second sentence of Capital – maybe it’s time to talk about the third…”, or whatever… Even though I know people may stumble across blog posts fairly randomly, without much sense of other things I’ve written, I still tend to write blog posts as though I’m speaking to people who have been reading for some time, and so don’t require much of a run up to explain why I’m writing on some particular topic. This has the incidental effect of excising from blog writing the thing I find most difficult about formal writing: having to start a paper in a way that will provide a sufficient shared context to enable readers from a fairly diverse set of backgrounds to orient themselves to the issues you plan to cover.

So in the past week, I’ve written two papers and a bit, and have spent easily 80% of my time working on the opening couple of pages of each piece.

I was discussing this with Duncan the other day, and had a sudden association to the opening “exordium” to Derrida’s Specters of Marx. This opening has always annoyed me:

Someone, you or me, comes forward and says: I would like to learn to live finally.

Derrida then proceeds to unpack this sentence – which he has just made up – as one might unpack, say, the opening sentence of Capital. He queries the phrasing in his own question:

Finally but why?

To learn to live: a strange watchword. Who would learn? From whom? To teach to live, but to whom? Will we ever know? Will we ever know how to live and first of all what ‘to learn to live’ means? And why ‘finally’?

Now don’t get me wrong: these are pivotal questions which Derrida will explore in the text, and his reflections are moving and substantive – I’ve written in some detail about this work, and am not trying to mock it.

But this opening always throws me. These are the sorts of questions one generally asks of a received text, when trying to draw out the intentional or unintentional implications of its strange word choices or obscure imagery. To subject to the same treatment a question you’ve just introduced – a question that no one else may want to ask, or not in that way, with the peculiar phrasing and structure that you immediately begin to pick apart – this has just struck me as a strange thing to do.

Until I found myself talking the other day about how much time I was spending on preliminaries that were, in many respects, incidental to the argument I was trying to make. I rarely myself started writing on a topic for the reasons I end up putting at the tops of articles – the hooks and frames I use are almost never why I personally got engaged with the material – that’s why they don’t show up on the top of blog posts… By the time I’m drafting a formal version of a paper, I’ve almost always written the entire argument first, and then I end up having to go through an entirely separate process to work out how to communicate to other people “what’s in it for them”, that they should read the piece.

And as I was discussing all of this the other day, the exordium popped into my head. “Someone, you or me, comes forward…” Whatever Derrida’s intentions, it’s sort of the perfect response: “Someone, you or me, comes forward and says, ‘Hey Nicole! Why don’t you write an article on this!'” I can then earnestly respond, not having to explain why I should be writing this – I’ve been asked to! See! The question is right there! The exordium that’s been irritating me for so long, it turns out, is pretty much exactly what I myself do in almost every substantive blog post. Someone, you or me, has asked me to write this… Occasionally, it’s someone… More often, it’s me… But no matter… how am I going to answer the question now…

Somehow since thinking of this, I can’t shake the recurrent thought of this line as the universal article opening: someone, you or me, comes forward and says… how about a paper on commodity speech? someone, you or me, comes forward and says… whatcha reckon about that base/superstructure distinction? someone, you or me, comes forward and says…

Now time to get back to writing that last intro…


Over at Limited, Inc., roger has just written one of those lovely comments from which it’s possible to draw a large amount of energy in an otherwise gruelling period. There are moments in the process of navigating the final stages of the thesis, where everything related to the work can look so familiar and worn that it becomes blurry whether I’m talking to anyone other than myself and uncertain whether the work “communicates” – not whether it communicates some particular content that I’m trying to convey, but more whether it sparks anything in other people, whether it generates anything useful or creative for anyone other than me. It’s a wonderful gift in these periods to receive the work refracted back, fresh and with a playful spin:

go to Rough Theory, who has been writing about the Grundrisse. As always, Marx, in her hands, begins to seem like a Henry James character – if James had only created a character with his own genius, instead of the subpar strivers from the upper class who never quite live up to the authorial voice in which they are caught. RT’s Marx is a man who is hyper-aware of epistemological traps, including the trap of thinking that there are just too many epistemological traps to make broad and monumental generalizations.

That final sentence may be my new favourite characterisation of Marx.

Marx and Philosophy

Okay, so if you were me, and you had been invited to give a talk to the Marx and Philosophy Society conference in June, what would you talk about? There are a couple bits from the thesis I would consider developing, and the inertia from the thesis may well win out, but I was curious whether anyone might have any suggestions that could stir my thoughts out of the thesis rut a little bit…

Talking to Myself

I have been editing the introductory chapter of the thesis (I’ll put this online with the others soon). This morning, editing was taking place with my son bouncing up and down all around me on the couch, chanting various things, clambering up my back, and generally doing the sorts of things kids do when adults are visibly concentrating on other things. At some point, he plonked down beside me to read the text over my shoulder – out loud. This resulted in an extended period of having the text read out to me just as I typed it in, which… had a bit of a surreal effect on the editing process. At some point, he paused, confused, and asked: “Where is the other person?”

“What other person?” I asked, confused myself.

“Who are you talking to? Is it Jessica?” he wanted to know.

I suddenly realised he thought I was chatting with someone else online, and tried to explain, “No no – I’m not chatting with anyone. I’m writing. There’s no one else there.”

He mulled over this for a while, looking increasingly puzzled, and then, in an uncertain, quavering voice, slowly asked, “So… are you? Are you talking to yourself?”

Hmm… Good question…


The printer in my office has broken down while trying to print the current draft of my thesis. What error message is it flashing?

Page 21 is too complex.

Thesis Workshop: Crossed Circuits

After this chapter, readers will finally be able to make their escape from the deconstructive thicket that is the third chapter of Capital. Before we part ways with this chapter, though, Marx engages in some extremely clever moves to begin to open a wedge through which he will finally drive the category of capital in the following chapter. Here he begins to make the case that commodity circulation allows – and, in some cases, necessitates – exchanges that are not driven by the need to meet material needs, but rather by the need to make money. This may sound like an obvious point, but Marx needs to make it in a way that makes clear that this is not a possibility that arises extrinsically to commodity production, as some sort of corruption of a more fundamental process, but rather is implied by the very nature of the process itself. This chapter is also, by the way, where I most directly treat the issue of crisis – a topic I can approach only in an extremely preliminary way in the thesis, since I am focussing only on the opening chapters of Capital

So one last dance with chapter 3 – and then we get to meet the Geist!

[Note: To read the thesis chapters in order, check the full list under the Thesis Tab. I will update the list as I add chapters, and also eventually publish the PDF of the entire thesis when I submit.]
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If You Try Sometimes…

Somewhat to my surprise, I realised a few days ago that I’ve finished the final structural draft of my thesis. How could such a milestone sneak up on me by surprise, you ask? Because, of course, like an idiot, I was trying to press a megalomaniacal amount of content into the thesis (I’ve been working from something like 300,000 words of draft material). This was never all going to fit into the word length allowed for the thesis – and I know from experience that my drafts tend to grow with revision, rather than shrink, so I was looking forward to this final major revision with considerable dread.

So I started the revision process working on this particular section. And I kept watching the section grow and grow and… grow… And this section just became utterly cancerous. And, more problematic: although I’m generally quite ruthless with cutting things out of my writing, I liked the narrative and content of the section enough that I really didn’t want to cut any of it out. And, in writing it, I somehow made all the general theoretical points I had intended to make in the thesis – points that I had originally assumed would need to be spread over much more content. And somehow the section just grew so organically, in terms of how the argument was developing, that I let it get completely out of control, until it became 80,000 words long, minus an introduction and conclusion. Since my thesis as a whole is not allowed to be more than 90,000 words… perhaps you see my problem…

So I spent a few days frantically considering how to hack this section to bits, to give myself more room to say the other things I had intended to fit in. I generally don’t hesitate to slash and burn through my own text. But I kept baulking at every notion I had for cutting this text, since the argument is clearer than other attempts I’ve made to communicate similar points. And then suddenly, in the midst of worrying over all this, the frame suddenly shifted, and I realised that I wasn’t looking at a section of my thesis: I was looking at my thesis. Anything else I want to say (and from the pile of papers around me, it would seem there is plenty else I want to say… ;-P), can get said somewhere else. This particular piece is fine as it stands – in many ways better, on a narrative level, than the monster I had been attempting to draft.

Of course, I’m exaggerating to say it’s finished. I’m just now completing another stylistic edit of the whole thing – ironing out terminological inconsistencies and generally trying to make sure that everything flows well and I’ve supported the argument as well as I know how. I need a new introduction, since the work has miraculously become much more focussed since the last time I wrote one… ;-P And I need to write the conclusion. And there is one indispensable bit from the original thesis that I now need to interpolate back into one of the existing chapters, since it relates to a major potential objection to my argument, and the chapter where I had planned to take up this objection, now won’t be included in what I submit. And there is all sorts of other minor bits of cleanup to do.

But basically – in terms of hard yards work: done.

Of course, now all the paranoia sets in over whether it’s substantive enough, whether it’s too obvious, whether it’s nonsense: you all know the drill… I’m burying those anxious thoughts in lots of editing busywork, so hopefully they won’t get too much in the way before it formally goes in.

Soon I’ll toss the chapter drafts up for anyone who wants to have a look (when the thesis is properly finished, I’ll put up a PDF of the whole thing, so folks might want to wait for that version, unless they particularly enjoy reading drafts…). I haven’t quite decided how to get the chapters up without suddenly flooding everyone’s readers with a mass of new posts… But I’ll work that out. For the moment, just popping by to half-celebrate…

More soon…

One Step Forward…

I was looking this evening through the footnotes for Roman Rosdolsky’s The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’. Among the gems Rosdolsky quotes is this exchange, written by Marx to Engels in April 1851 (ftnt. 11, p. 3):

I am so far advanced that I shall be finished with the whole of the economic shit in five weeks. And when that’s done I’ll draft the economics at home and throw myself into another science in the Museum. It’s beginning to bore me. At bottom this science has made no progress since A. Smith and D. Ricardo, however much may have happened in investigations into particular topics, which are often of extreme intricacy.

This must make Marx something like the patron saint of workload misestimation…

Trying to avoid the need for such a saint’s intercession, I have (obviously) been neglecting the blog these past few weeks. I’ve been ill – and working… a lot… And getting things done – but much more slowly than I would have liked, and so, in order not to have things drag on, the blog has been left idle… I hope to have something to write for public view again soon…

Which reminds me of another lovely little bit quoted in Rosdolsky – from the main text this time (p. 5) – Engels writing to Marx, who was under pressure to change the order in which he had proposed to write a three-volume series. Engels reassures Marx in this letter that the change in order, while not ideal, would have its compensations:

After this would come the socialists as the third volume, and as the fourth – (the Critique), that is what would remain from the whole – the renowned “positive”, what you “really” want. The matter does have problems in this form, but it has the advantage that the much sought after secret is not revealed until the end, only after the curiosity of the citizen has been pent up for three volumes, thus revealing to him that one is not dealing in patent medicines.

Yes. Precisely. Discipline that reader for three volumes first. (There’s something delightful in this, in terms of the faith it locates in the prospective reader – a reader who would react to three volumes of economics with… suspense, anticipation, and longing for more.)

A Draft Life

I’m still assembling material for the undergraduate social science research methods course L Magee and I will be coordinating this term. I stumbled across this lovely story in one of the works I was reading:

As we were preparing this second edition, Booth got a call from a former student who, as had all of his students, been directed again and again by Booth to revise his work. Now a professional in his mid-forties, he called to tell Booth about a dream he had had the night before:

You were standing before Saint Peter at the Pearly Gate, hoping for admission. He looked at you, hesitant and dubious, then finally said, ‘Sorry, Booth, we need another draft.’

From: Booth, Colomb & Williams (2003) The Craft of Research, second edition, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, p. xiv

I find myself wondering what it might be like, having what I am now living as, you know, just a draft life… Something I might revise and resubmit after a bit more background in the literature, in-depth research – maybe some experimentation here and there…

The Exorcism of the Exorcism

So, since Praxis and I hatched this scheme of writing a collaborative piece on Derrida’s Specters of Marx, all sorts of fantastic conversations and debates around the work have cropped up around the blogosphere. Unfortunately, I’ve been either been preparing to be away, or actually away, while most of these discussions unfolded, meaning that I’m only very inadequately across the content. These conversations range across much wider territory, and go into much greater depth, than the rather limited scratch across the surface I’m about to post here, so I thought I should send readers on their way to more expansive discussions, while I take this opportunity to talk shop publicly with Praxis, who will hopefully not mind my shouting random draft concepts across the net, now that we can no longer workshop them face-to-face…

The proximate starting point for this collaborative project was my noticing an elision in Derrida’s text. In discussing the passage in which Marx names the fetish, Derrida omits a single sentence, subtly alterring the meaning of Marx’s text. I’ve written about Marx’s fetish discussion somewhat interminably over the past year, so for present purposes I’ll presuppose those discussions and just seize what I need to highlight what Derrida is done (anyone who wants the gory details can find the most recent synoptic version of my argument here).

To summarise – first, from my point of view: In the passage where he builds up to the naming of the fetish, Marx has established that the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity do not derive from the commodity’s “parts”, whether those parts pertain to the commodity’s use value or its value dimension. Instead, Marx has argued, the peculiar qualitative characteristics that seem to inhere in commodities, derive not from the parts, but from the whole – from the relation into which those parts have come to be suspended – from the form of the commodity itself.

Marx is actually quite explicit about the nature of his argument: he runs through the various parts of the commodity relation that relate to the commodity’s use value dimension, and concludes: “The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.” Everyone gets this part of Marx’s argument.

What is more often overlooked is that Marx does exactly the same thing, in the subsequent passage, with reference to the commodity’s value dimension. He prefaces this discussion with the quite explicit claim: “Just as little does it [the mystical character of commodities] proceed from the nature of the determining factors of value.” There is a marked tendency to overlook this sentence, since the assumption is generally that Marx wants to criticise exchange value from the standpoint of use value, and thus to attribute the fetish to the exchange value dimension of the commodity – to the market or the process of exchange. That sort of reading struggles, however, to make sense of where Marx goes next in the text, which is to break the value dimension of the commodity down into its constituent components (as he has just done above with the use value dimension), in order to argue that none of those components, abstracted from the commodity relation, explains the metaphysical properties of the commodity. A similar strategy is in play later on in the same chapter, when Marx will run through a series of historical and speculative examples that reassemble the component parts of the commodity, within the context of very different social relations, in order to argue that, absent the commodity relation, the fetish does not arise.

So. Marx argues, in my reading, that the fetish does not derive from any of the component parts of the commodity – leading to the obvious question of what the fetish derives from instead. Marx’s argument, I suggest, is that the fetish arises, not from the parts of the commodity, but rather from the whole – from the overarching relation into which those parts have been suspended. Marx expresses this point: “Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself.”

Marx then goes on to say a bit about this form (I’ll skip over the details, as I’ve discussed them elsewhere), and then moves into the passage where Derrida makes his selective edit – the passage where Marx christens the “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” of the commodity form with the name of the fetish. In Marx’s version, this christening passage reads:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

Derrida does a couple of interesting things with this passage when he reproduces it. First: Marx’s presentation moves through two analogies – the first, to a physical relation whose origin is genuinely asocial; the second, to a social relation whose origin is intersubjective. He uses these two analogies in tandem, I have argued, to set up a three-way contrast that helps him mark off the most peculiar characteristic of the phenomenon he is trying to pick out: that the fetish arises from a social relation – but a strange sort of social relation that is not intersubjective in its origins. Instead, this peculiar social relation arises as a sort of unintentional consequence of an aggregation of social practices that are not aimed toward bringing a social relation of the kind about. The concept of the fetish captures the qualitative characteristics of this unintentional and accidental social relation – and also aims to explain why it is socially plausible for the social agents who enact this relation, to interpret the qualitative characteristics of the relation as though these characteristics inhere in the various component parts through which the relation is effected.

In Derrida’s re-presentation of this argument, the first analogy – the one that makes reference to “a physical relation between physical things” – is analysed in a separate section of the text, separated by some distance from the passage in which Derrida analyses the remainder of the fetish passage. This enables Derrida to find a much stronger and more exclusive relationship between the analogy Marx draws between the fetish and religion, than the original passage suggests. Derrida’s re-presentation breaks apart Marx’s more complex three-way contrast between physical relations, social relations that are intersubjective, and social relations that are not intersubjective, and implies a much more straightforward equation of the fetish with some sort of “ideology” or mere false belief.

Derrida further reinforces this impression by removing a sentence when he quotes the passage in which Marx names the fetish – specifically, the sentence in which (on my reading) Marx actually tries to express that the fetish is an attempt to talk about a non-intersubjective social relation. Derrida’s iteration of the fetish passage goes:

There [in the religious world] the products of the human brain [of the head, once again, of men: des menschlischen Kopfes, analogous to the wooden head of the table capable of engendering chimera – in its head, outside of its head – once, that is, as soon as, its form can become commodity-form] appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race…. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself [anklebt] to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them. (p. 208-209)

The ellipsis in the middle of the quotation removes the sentence where Marx distinguishes fetishism from religion, arguing that, in the commodity relation, social agents somehow posit the existence on intangible entities (value, abstract labour), but not via the sorts of intersubjective processes such as shared beliefs or ritual practices through which they enact the intangible entities that figure in religious practice. Instead, Marx argues:

So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. (emphasis mine)

The non-intersubjective register of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism is therefore elided in Derrida’s selective inheritance or transformative interpretation of Marx. The question is: why?

This was a recurrent touchstone in the discussions Praxis and I held while I was in London. I can point out, as I’ve done above, what aspects of Marx’s argument – from the point of view of my own reading – become obscured by the way in which Derrida alters this passage. I can also say that it’s clear enough that Derrida wants to transform the meaning of this passage – there is some sort of exorcism here that Derrida seeks to perform, in order to carry out his selective inheritance of a certain spirit (but not other spirits) of Marx. The text is structured around a series of reflections on how inheritance is both selective and performative: the dead cannot bury themselves – they least of all are safe from us, their heirs. Derrida’s inheritance will be violent – he warns us. The question is what sort of inheritance he is enacting, and why.

In the dreamwork of a text saturated with references to Freud, Derrida sifts through the residue of the day – the happenstance of Fukuyama’s declaration of the End of History – setting up a narrative criss-crossed with complex parallels between characters, more than one of whom is a cipher of sorts for Derrida. Fukyama’s text resurrects old critiques of communism, Derrida tells us, while reviving a thinned out spirit of a certain Hegel in a drably farcical restaging of Kojève; Derrida chases Fukuyama, in the process counting off ten plagues – setting up a parallel to Marx’s pursuit of Stirner, which also punctuates its argument to the count of ten; all the major figures in the text chase after Hegel – a latent content whose inheritance lurks beneath the much more manifest pursuit of the spirit of Marx.

Derrida foreshadows heavily the coming excision of Marx’s hands – even adding to the text, after the original lectures, an extended reflection on Valéry (3-10) that pivots on a textual elision, priming the reader for the elision to come. Derrida first points out a passage in which Valéry includes Marx within a skull handled by Hamlet:

In “La crise de l’esprit” (“The Crisis of the Spirit” 1919: “As for us, civilizations, we know now we are mortal…”), the name of Marx appears just once. It inscribes itself, here is the name of a skull to come into Hamlet’s hands:

Now, on an immense terrace of Elsinore, which stretches from Basel to Cologne, that touches on the sands of Nieuport, the lowlands of the Somme, the chalky earth of Champagne, the granite earth of Alsace – the European Hamlet looks at thousands of spectres…. If he seizes a skull, it is an illustrious skull – “Whose was it?” – This one was Lionardo. … And this other skull is that of Leibniz who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant qui genuit Hegel, qui genuit Marx, qui genuit. … Hamlet does not know what to do with all these skulls. But if he abandons them! … Will he cease to be himself?

(p. 3-4)

Derrida then finds a later iteration of this same passage, one in which Valéry quotes himself, but omits the sentence that contains Marx’s name, inscribed in the skull of Kant. Derrida asks of Valéry:

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)

What is disappeared or displaced must be re-inscribed, Derrida tells us – and hands – the hands omitted from the fetishism discussion – paw their way around this text – explicitly, in the form of recurrent references to hands and parts of hands – and also more tacitly: the stage setting for this text is the apparent triumph of the market’s invisible hand, over the planned economies that had once proclaimed themselves Marx’s heirs. But this still leaves us with the question – a question Praxis and I did not fully resolve in our discussions – the same question Derrida prompts us to ask of him, by asking it himself of Valéry – by emphasising the need to ask precisely this question, a need felt so urgently as to justify the post facto modification of the original talk in order to set up the parallel with Valéry: Why this omission, the only one? The hands of Marx have disappeared. We have a sense, perhaps, of where they went, of how Derrida has reinscribed them in his text, and of where invisible hands might have been reinscribed in our own times. But why? Why this specific gesture? What sort of transformative inheritance is Derrida hoping to enact, through this selective excision from Marx’s corpus?

One suggestion – underdeveloped. This is a work about chasing after ghosts. We chase after ghosts – and we become spooked. We want to control our ghosts by exorcising them – by banishing them – by driving them away. Derrida early characterises these attempted exorcisms as a fort/da game: we chase after ghosts, but not to drive them away, not really, but because secretly we want them, we need them to come back. He further suggests that, uncomfortable with the uncanniness of a haunted, spectral world, we stall in the process of mourning, becoming caught in the effort to ontologise the remains – to identify and localise the spectral, so as to abolish it. Fukuyama does this, Derrida suggests, with the spectre of communism – Soviet communism also tried to control this same spectre, presencing the revenant that initially appears in the Communist Manifesto as an expectation, a threat from the future menacing old Europe, as the spook haunting a time out of joint. Controlled and fixed, localised and ontologised, pinned down into a definite form, this threatening spook comes to be actualised and embodied in a totalitarian shape. Derrida points to Fukuyama’s apologist habit of differentiating a certain ideal of liberal democracy and the free market, from all the various empirical deviations from this ideal: by implication, this same question arises in relation to Marx’s most visible real-world heirs – how comfortably can we carve off a communist ideal from its totalitarian realisation? Is there some other way to inherit Marx?

Derrida pairs this question with the question of our relation to spectrality in a more general sense. Is there some other possible relation we can adopt towards our ghosts, Derrida asks – some gesture that doesn’t simply seek to banish the ghost by locating and its remains, some space between life and death that might step outside the logic that sees the spectre perpetually displaced and reinscribed through repeated, obsessional attempts to eradicate spectrality as such? Derrida, in the figure of Horatio – the scholar enjoined to speak to the spook – attempts to inherit Marx in a way that might effect such an alternative relationship to spectrality.

Derrida reads something of the Soviet inheritance out of Marx, specifically in Marx’s critique of Stirner in the German Ideology, and in Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. Derrida’s concern is that Marx shares with Stirner the desire to exorcise the ghost – the quarrel between the two revolves, on Derrida’s reading, around the most appropriate technique for achieving this common end. In Derrida’s interpretation of the fetish passage, Marx inappropriately attempts to ontologise the spectre – to locate and identify its remains: in exchange value – in something that can be abolished, so that it become possible to overcome the spectre, to send it away: exeunt ghost and Marx. Derrida seems to read Marx’s reference to “the products of men’s hands” as part of an argument that the spectrality that haunts capitalism can be exorcised by rendering explicit what is currently tacit: by explicitly realising the centrality of labour as the structuring principle of social life, through the abolition of the market; by freeing the use value dimension from its spectralising other, exchange value.

Derrida, by contrast, has made gestures throughout the text concerning the spectral character of various technologies – the spectrality, then, of production, rather than exchange – an ineradicableundeconstructible – spectrality grounded in production as such. Derrida’s edit to Marx’s text symbolically keeps labour secret – disappearing from view the products of men’s hands – removing the step by which, in Derrida’s read, Marx attempts to exorcise the spectre by casting off the veil that covers over what Derrida takes Marx to see as true relations of capitalist society: in Derrida’s version of this argument, 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, the spirit of the Communist Manifesto, the spirit of a communism that is threatening, but not presenced, 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 wants us to chase them – as he believes a certain spirit of Marx knew how to do – in order that they may continue to enjoin us to set our time right. This task, for Derrida, is intrinsically bound with the ongoing destabilisation of the present, as a time perpetually out of joint.

Very tired now, and not able either to support these claims (which are in any case provisional readings), or to develop their implications, or to suggest how I would unfold a critique from here – of both Derrida and Marx. Tasks for a later time. Apologies for the impressionistic character of these remarks… So much still to do…

[Is it completely wicked for me now to say: Praxis – over to you 🙂 *runs and hides*]