Tag Archives: Specters of Marx

Like last year, in a team of five, we ‘deliver’ a philosophy course for a large group of governance and management students, called ‘philosophy of management and organisation’. Its main subjects – freedom and responsibility in organizations – are reflected upon by reading texts from thinkers such as Arendt, Weber and Berlin, which offer ample opportunity for discussion. The other day we (the team) were discussing¬†a session on Panopticism by Foucault, a chapter from his famous book Discipline and Punish – the Birth of the Prison. This book does provide a historical analysis of how the modern penitentiary system has arisen – in its earliest forms in the eighteenth century, but this seems just a pretext for proposing to search for the anonymous techniques of power that are at work in typically modern societies. While they are democratic, promote free trade, and garuantee personal liberties, below the surface there are ‘invisible’ networks of power. Networks, or systems, that streamline the energies that arise from the growing masses of people in modern societies. The explosively multiplied members of the human species are suppressed, led and dominated in modern times not like their premodern counterparts by visible and violent force, represented in the body of the king, but by ever so many subtle signposts that direct their lives.

The development of modern power systems can thus be seen to endanger politics as such, as the free public exchange of views and ideologies. Power systems proliferate on their own, so to speak, and gobble up what Arendt has called action: free dialogue to make decisions about shared life. Two main principles are at work in the modern power systems, we read in the Panopticum chapter: discipline and exclusion. In other metaphors: training and purification. What has to be prevented are uncontrollable situations that result from the pure fact that numbers of people are growing, and that they tend to live in ever closer contact in large agglomorations. Foucault points to the historical fact that the large and deadly epidemics that plagued Europe gave rise to the first attempts to purify and train societies in systematic ways, introducing the idea of quarantaine, of regulating movement, hygienic procedures, etcetera:

“Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.” (p. 198)

This sentence now struck me, and reminded me of another sentence, in Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and produced the following train of thought. Specters of Marx speaks, among so many other things, about ‘clandestine’ immigration – describing the undocumented as part of the – anonymous – ‘new international’: those who, across borders, crossing borders, undermine the powers that be. In Derrida’s sentence, we can recognize the same double strategy of normalization:

“One should not rush to make of the clandestine immigrant an illegal alien or, what always risks coming down to the same thing, to domesticate him.” (p. 219)

Making illegal, excluding, ‘purifying’ society of him, or domesticating, training or disciplining him. And these ‘run the risk’ of coming down to the same, says Derrida: both becoming mechanisms to stop the fear of the stranger, who is understood to ‘contaminate’ and ‘undermine’ the modern power systems. Systems that regulate modern mass societies. What modern citizens of the earth fear in the ‘people who appear and disappear’, without stamp of approval, without passport, health insurance or work permit – those who even ‘live and die in disorder’ – is the breakdown of orderly society – where we, inhabitants of the panopticum, content prisoners of modernity so to speak, are barred in by the securities we know. Those who do not live in them, but use them, who transgress their rules by their very living, making their living from those systems while disrespecting and disregarding them – they create the chaos that modernity fears and always again tries to supress.

Foucault and Derrida are often characterized as ‘postmodern’ thinkers. This means no more or less than that they seem to have been able to look beyond the boundaries of the modernist panopticum – describing what is at work in it. They were not utopians, sketching a new vision for societies, for utopias only make sense in the modernist belief in designed societies. So what have they done in their works? They have, to my view, tried to open the eyes of ‘the Romans’ that their world is coming to an end, so that they may be prepared for something else. What kind of something else? Disorganization and disease? Rebellion and violence? Not necessarily. Perhaps something that is modest and immodest at the same time: the coming of a public space, a space of action, of politics in the true sense of the word: exchanging views and… perhaps not ideologies, but rather experiences. Next to the violence and loud language of today I see people working to repair and transform spaces meant for dialogue and connection, recreate them from the waste of crumbling power systems so to speak. An uncertain undertaking, as the future is, as always, open.

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Prison, Penguin Books, 1977 [French original, 1975]

Jacques Derrida Specters of Marx, The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, 1994 [French original, 1993]

It is hard to find one’s way through the propaganda wars going on now, at this moment, to try to understand the actual wars going on. Is Ukraine ruled by fascists? Is Putin a dictator? Hamas a terrorist organization? Or the state of Israel a cruel occupating power? I just mentioned some of the negative images of parties on some of the different scenes of so many fragmentary wars, and did not mention even so many others, in African countries a.o. going on all at the same time. Derrida – the philosopher who did so much to stimulate reading of events while negotiating between the abstract, universalist language of western modernity, and actual commitments to localized struggles for a place, a place in time of actual groups of people – confronted with the early stages of the conflicts that are dominating the scene now, tried a single denominator for these wars, and subsumed them in the expression “appropriation of Jerusalem”. Can this expression help to analyze what’s going on, or does it make matters worse?

Last year the English translation of a biography of Derrida appeared that tries to explain his developing stance in the post-world-war and postcolonial struggles of the world from his life’s experiences, among which the image his French colonial surroundings in Algeria reflected at him as a child being ‘a little black and very Arab Jew’. The author, Benoit Peeters, as well as the writer of another recent book on Derrida, Africa and the Middle East, Christopher Wise, struggle with the question whether Derrida has shown enough attention for the plight of the Palestinian people, or for islamic (and Christian) experiences, while digging into the interconnectedness of the heritage of the European Enlightenment and the resurging conflicts over religion. I must agree that I did not find any thorough knowledge of islamic sources or traditions in Derrida’s works. In his essay on ‘Faith and Knowledge’, from 1996, one finds a cryptic remark setting Islam apart from the other two ‘monotheisms’ before the question of the local survival of a people attached to God in times of unstoppable globalization (p. 91, in Acts of Religion). Because of remarks like this, and other ones in Specters of Marx, Wise criticized him to represent a soft version of zionism.

I think such criticisms, while focussing on the geo-political aspect of ‘the war for the “appropriation of Jerusalem”‘, leave another aspect of Derrida’s multifaceted analysis in the shadow: that of the interconnectedness of globalization, abstraction, and ‘tele-technology’. As he asks at the beginning of his Capri-lecture on religion (Faith and Knowledge); ‘Should one save oneself by abstraction or save oneself from abstraction?’ He does not choose either of those routes to salvation, but continues to negotiate between them, seeming brave at one moment, and cowardly at another, like his Shakespearian hero Hamlet. Behind the negotiating process lies his assessment that the processes of globalization and technologization do not only physically uproot people from traditional living localities as well as from living local traditions – but unhinge space as such, and make spacialization out of joint. Getting oneself buried on the land of one’s ancestors has become a myth without foundation – which makes the appropriation of a city, a land seem a lost battle, for trying to counter an inescapable current.

So what is to be rescued from the narratives of the so called ‘holy’ city? One could read Derrida thus: nothing but the assessment that human beings, in their longing for some kind of tribal, national, local belonging, actually rise up against the powers of abstraction that they have themselves unleashed. They kill each other out of the impossibility to feel the reality of something like ‘humanity’ apart from an actual place in space. But what is space, which comes before experiencing a place? Space is, according to Derrida, nothing but ‘making place’ – which reveals the higher dreams of humans of ‘hospitality without reserve’ over against someone who comes toward me, a hospitality that does not ask a commitment to ‘family, State, nation, territory, native soil or blood, language, culture in general, even humanity’. Unexpected turns in his texts like this one show a psycho-analytic frame at work: Derrida tries to focus our attention to the fact that all these cruel present wars, in which the warring parties try to surpass each other in atrocities (directing themselves to innocent civilians, mothers, children, unarmed men), can be understood as the frustrated expressions of the existential craving for, actually, a real democracy: for the impossible radical openness towards whoever wants to enter a society.

Missing this openness, which includes non-humans even, we mistake it for being in want of a homeland, a place, a city, where one can welcome the other. In order to heal the present condition of so many wars this one thing is necessary, Derrida seems to suggest: an analysis, a therapy, which makes humans accept the given that their fragile longing for a safe space can only by fulfilled by means of the ‘impossible’ act they should perform without warrant: welcoming aliens in. This can only install the home, the place to be, which can never be attained through war. In the end Derrida is not a revolutionary, nor a traditionalist; neither a coward nor aiming at bravery; he is an ethical thinker – leading his readers to seeing the necessity of making a moral choice. The choice for the only safe or holy city possible: the one which we create ourselves by taking the risk of welcoming the other -appropriation which does not use bombs or rockets but only the psychological mastery of fear.


Jacques Derrida lived from 1930 until 2004. He was born in Algeria, and died in Paris. All works referred to are to be found in the links under their titles in the text.

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: