The Specters of Marx

To wander freely does not mean being without direction. That would be erring around. A free wanderer however has no predetermined goal, but rather lets himself be guided by the quality he encounters on his journey. Quality being of course a relation between the traveller and his surroundings, a relation which is not free from the things one loves. One person might descry an attractive turn, which another would have passed by indifferently. So it goes in research: one does not know exactly what one is looking for (although funding institutions wrongly suppose that one does), but having come at a crossing, or seeing a dark alley on the side you decide to continue or to venture into a new direction.

It was thus, wandering, that I came to read Derrida’s Specters of Marx. In the course of collecting material for a reader on ‘knowledge and imagination’, in search for views that challenge mainstream ‘Western’ epistemology, I encountered Derrida in the introduction into African philosophy, Mazungumzo, by German-Dutch philosopher Heinz Kimmerle. Actually the book is an intercultural introduction – which means it confronts, as in a dialogue, texts from Western philosophers with texts or ideas from Africa and from African philosophers. In the chapter on spirit belief Derrida’s book featured – so, a few years later, when I had the time I started to read it. And was captivated.

Reading the book itself is like wandering, but then in a space that has been put there by the philosopher Jacques Derrida. As the great reader he is, Derrida takes you through literature which he thinks is necessary to understand the meaning of Marx, and why his specters will haunt us again after communism has been exorcised in the late eighties and early nineties of the twentieth century. As such it is a very interesting cultural history of the modern view of human society. Its political and anthropological preconditions. And its spectral ones. Larger than life looms the figure of Hamlet, who by the encounter of the specter of his father has been called to see justice and its violation. Who stands before the impossible question to risk his life or be silent, and thus, in both cases, risk his sanity.

Derrida calls into remembrance the words of Marcellus, who, frightened upon encounter of the ghost, speaks to his partner: ‘Thou art a Scholler – speake to it, Horatio’. Words that could be understood as the appeal the book does to the potential reader: scholars should address the specters of their times – those without rights, the invisible people, hungering, working as modern slaves in faraway places, out of sight of the consumers of their produce, the ones without identity (sans papiers), or those who are there, visibly, with papers and rights, but who through some magical trick are treated as second class citizens. Starting off with the most prominent specter of Marx, the one of the Communist Manifesto, Derrida finds with joyful expectation: ‘here is someone mad enough to hope to unlock the possibility of such an address.’

The surprise for me was, that while wanting to investigate alternative epistemologies, I had returned myself to that author whose books I had long sold, because I thought I would never read them again (this goes for more authors, as I don’t like watching ‘dead’ backs on my bookshelves – that are those books who do not invite anymore, who don’t promise possibilities of new readings). Derrida is strict on this point: ‘It will always be a fault not to read and reread and discuss Marx […], it will be more and more a fault, a failing of theoretical, philosophical, political responsibility.’ More and more now that the dogma machines of the communist states have (to a great extent, that is) disappeared, says Derrida. For now we cannot use it as an excuse any more that one would not want to discuss texts that are used (wrongfully) to support those injust regimes. And it put the question about alternative epistemologies in another light, the light of the (repressive) politics that decides on what we are allowed to know or not, and the (liberative) politics that aims to lift just such a – philosophically unforgivable – unfreedom.

I cited from Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, 1994 (original French edition 1993).

Heinz Kimmerle has put many of his texts online:

  1. Angela, may I freely take the liberty by adding some remarks to your interesting and convincing intervention?

    It is Interesting that you met the book by wandering. I do not know whether I understand your distinction wandering-erring around. So, I let myself be provoked by your preference for the word wandering, which you associate with quality. Another meaning that you make resonate in your distinction is ‘direction’. If someone wanders, he is not without direction.

    Could we for instance say that Marx is the director of social history? That he is a guide who could lead us through the difficult time we experience? That Marx is not erring at all?

    These are not your prepositions. They do not seem to me adequate, either. Marx was erring in many respects, for instance in his theoreme of the withering away of the state, and his view on Verelendung. Meeting Marx again is meeting again not only with his qualitative insights, but also with his kitsch, his errors and his fascination for specters.

    Could it be that much of Derrida’s book contains irony? That the man who polemicized with Stirner in fact himself believed in the ghosts that he tried to conjure? In my eyes the most important question that Derrida raises is: how can we invent an ontology that does justice to the ‘moral phenomena’ such as you describe? If you skip that question, Marx becomes again just another moral critic who sings a wellknown song, but without consequences. In short: how can we rework ontology as a ‘hantology’? Derrida, and your appraisal of his book, how important it may be, are perhaps still to ‘ontologic’.

    In a way, we must allow Marx his being dead, so that he can do his work, so that his work can have its modest effects. And, whether or not we read Marx, economy as a science is further than ever away from ontology. Reading Marx becomes almost superfluous in our present society. One should perhaps say: the books Das Kapital and Spectres de Marx have itself become spectres, dead backs on your bookshelves. There is no obligation at all to reread them, least of all the ‘authoritative’ voice of Derrida himself. Each moral appeal is a spectre, it is betrayed if one translates it into a master’s instruction. A better translation would perhaps be: do not read Spectres de Marx!

    Derrida, in a way, offerd a good example, by not reading Marx until Fukuyama, by waiting until Marx became obsolete…

  2. Thanks a lot, Anton, for your critical reply! I think I elaborated the ontological question, the need for ‘hauntology’ in my book on ghosts/spirits (link in the side bar). Indeed I left it out in this piece.

    About your remarks on Derrida and Marx as obsolete authorities I must reflect… did you think I would take Derrida as my authority? Or use him to seduce my readers to do so? Could the moral appeal not be a specter at the same time?

    Just one point I do not agree with in your comment: I would not want to identify Marx with “Capital”. There is so much more he wrote, and a lot of it more interesting for philosophers.

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