October 22, 2010

"Maintaining now the specters of Marx"

After a (long) month of reading Derrida, Specters of Marx emerges as an easy (but actually quite difficult) favourite. It may have something to do with the timeliness of my reading (Halloween is just around the corner), but much my admiration for this text comes form the way in which Derrida uses the opening scenes of Hamlet as entry point for his discussion of ghosts and specters. However, it is in the final chapter (after Derrida has discussed the heterogeneity of Marx's voice and has offered a ruthless critique of Francis Fukuyama), that Derrida stages his critique of Marx.

At a basic level Derrida reads Marx in the same way that Marx reads the German philosopher Max Stirner in The German Ideology: as haunted (and obsessed) by the ghosts of Hegelian-Christian idealism. In their preoccupation with specters, both Marx and Stirner follow what Derrida calls the “[s]pecular circle: one chases after in order to chase away, one pursues, sets off in pursuit of someone to make him flee, but one makes him flee, distances him, expulses him so as to go after him again and remain in pursuit” (175). Here, as Derrida notes, we can see that hospitality and exclusion belong to the same impulse: the specter of communism that Marx would welcome is bound up with the ghosts that Marx would like to exterminate.

In Capital, Marx sets out to conjure away the “representative consciousness of a subject." In his attempt to think otherwise than Plato, not to mention Hegel, Marx privileges that which “survives outside the head.” Stirner has set out to annihilate his “phantomatic projections” of Christian Europe but in so doing, Marx argues, Stirner merely replaces these phantasms with a second ghost of corporeality: the “egological body." Stirner has not touched upon the “actual relations” that constitute the “fatherland." For Marx the phantasm is a product of material conditions; Stirner fails because he believes such ghosts can be defeated on their own terms. But as Marx points out, the ghosts will only finally disappear when social and economic conditions are transformed. Derrida suggests that, in this ontological tradition, Marx is doing precisely what he diagnoses as a “quid pro quo” in Stirner (an exchanging of one thing—one self-presenced origin—for another).

Though disguised as a rhetorical maneuver, Derrida consistently deploys the familiar binary of “on the one hand . . . on the other hand” in this critique. He has done this elsewhere, but in the context of this critique, the figure of the hand at once suggests labour and use-value: an immediate relation between the human subject and its object. But the hand can also be an instrument of deception. In this way, Derrida endeavors to show that within Marx’s writing there is a “sleight of hand” at work, which occurs in the relationship between the “head” (Stirner) and the “hands” (Marx). Both, of course, are still connected to the body.  Derrida’s trope of the hands mirrors Marx’s trope of the head (in his critique of Stirner), thereby disrupting Marx’s privileging of praxis over thought as the means to a world without ghosts. But such a world is pure phantasm.

As Derrida demonstrates throughout Specters of Marx, haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony. Therefore, "if he loves justice at least, the 'scholar' of the future, the 'intellectual' of tomorrow should learn it from the ghost. He should learn to live by learning how to make conversation withthe ghost but how to talk with him, with her, how to let them speak or how to give them back speech . . . they are always there, specters, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet" (221).