Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and the New International

That is the full title of the work: I'm only really going to deal with the main title, each of the subtitles are exteremely important for a full understanding of the book, be forewarned.

Disclaimer: I really hate summarizing complicated things, but sometimes it is a good way to either get people interested in an unfamiliar topic, or to give the already-interested at least a conversational knowledge of the topic. But, those advantages aside, take any "summaries" of Jacques Derrida's work (especially) with a grain of salt.

Specters of Marx is a book by French philosopher/literary theorist Jacques Derrida. It is, in the most simplest and reductive of words, a prolonged attempt to make Marx's work relevant in the wake of recent historical events like the failure of the May 1968 student revolt (a pivotal moment in France, especially academic France) and the demise of Soviet style communism. Derrida is reacting to a trend, most evident in Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History and the last Man, that sees the 'revolution' and Marxist thought more generally, entirely irrelevant and surpassed. The 'revolution' has already happened for this trend: it took place with the rise, and subsequent dominance of liberal democracy and capitalism. So, Derrida thinks, this 'trend' ignores several aspects of Marx's thought that let us see past the supposed comforts of the current political situation and "resurrect" the specters of Marx.

Of course the argument is much more complicated than that, and even the above "summary" misses key aspects of it. Derrida gets involved first with a detailed re-reading (and maybe even a re-writing) of Shakespeare's Hamlet in order to begin his foucs on ghosts and specters (quite literally!). He slowly begins to weave a reading that figures Marx as someone intensely interested in spirits and the spectral (he also attempts to show that this spectrality is not directly incommensurable with Marx's devout materialism).

Unsurprisingly, I’m not entirely clear about what ‘precisely’ Derrida is trying to tell us (or get us to do)in Specters of Marx. I think that might be because his intention is not, at least here, precision. Rather, he seems interested in circling around a question endlessly in order to illuminate it and avoid strictly limiting its scope, or providing it with a center. As such, it’s rather difficult to separate one theme or motif of the work and respond to it in a few paragraphs, or even pages. That is what I’ll attempt to do, however.

What I find most troubling about Derrida here is the question: “and now what?” That is: Derrida leads us to a conception of the spectral and the ‘hauntological’ that forbids us to simply forget or glaze over remnants, revenants and ghosts. We can no longer live as if the past has no hold or sway in the present/future; we can’t live any more in the shadow of the death of the revolution (for example). An interesting argument, of course, with important and interesting metaphysical consequences (i.e. where is the subject in this new ontology, how do we organize our relation to Being, etc.) but what does it mean politically? It does seem that Derrida has something to say here of the political: of the legacy of Marx’s heirs and the (political) use of Marx’s work in general.

Derrida frames much of this work within the questions of justice and responsibility. His argument goes something like this: in recognizing the spectral as a legitimate hauntological order we are forced to accept ‘things’ (ghosts, Gespenst, etc.) that have been covered over and forgotten as phenomena that continue to act in the ‘present’. Thus, while we may believe we have sufficiently mourned the loss of the communist revolution (after 1989) Derrida would argue that this revolution, and its loss, still weigh heavily on our ‘present’ actions. The spectral remains. By recognizing this fact (by ‘speaking to it’ as Horatio does) we are necessarily taking responsibility for a past that has been ignored or actively forgotten. Thus, by remembering the spectral, we won’t simply give up the communist state, or the Marxist revolution as spoiled, ‘complete’ goals. Rather, thinks Derrida, through an insistent remembering, or engagement, we are more inclined to revisit or reformulate the spectral. This means that the spectral allows, or even forces, us to resist the totalizing closure of a sort of Hegelian logic of history. The past is always-already ‘present’ or incompletely absent. Marx’s legacy (one of them anyway) is, for Derrida, a constant reevaluation of the givens of Marxism and a reformulation of the Marxist project with respect to the spectral.

If, indeed, I understand Derrida’s text here, I am skeptical of the political potential of this reformulated “hauntology”. It seems unclear precisely how we are to speak to the spectral if specters must, inevitably, remain neither absent nor present: never lost nor quite here. It seems to me that we can’t help but to reformulate the spectral in terms of a half-presence. We can’t really do the spectral justice precisely (justement) because we can’t really act as if the spectral isn’t “here” or “now”. Remembering seems, to me, to be a making-present. Given Derrida’s discussion of Marx, and the necessity to neither put the Marx purely in the future or purely in the past, the ‘spectral’ does seem desirable. I’m just unsure of how we might do it. Does it always entail a book-length deconstruction? Can we act, other than academically, as if the past/present/future can co-exist in (or co-inhabit) the same space? I’m not sure, and I’m not entirely sure that Derrida is sure (I’m sure the uncertainty of the project is part of its appeal for Derrida though, no matter how troubling I find it). Rather than being certain of what it is we're doing, politically and otherwise, I think Derrida would argue that we should accept our uncertainty in order to better navigate the pitfalls of our position. A dangerous position, yes, but one that (often) seems necessary.

The full reference for the book is:
  • Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf (Routledge, London, 1994).