Derrida's Specters of Marx and The Recognition of Pointless Identity

 by Marcus Verhaegh 



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(c) Sic et Non - Forum for Philosophy and Culture (2003) -

            Why ghosts?  And what do they have to do with Marx?  These general questions will be among the first which arise in any reading of Derrida’s Specters of Marx.  But “ghosts,” “specters,” “haunting” and all the attendant terms are charged with the myriad of contexts within which they have fallen, and Derrida makes no efforts to entangle them from these.  Derrida admires the productive enmeshment of the texts with each other, and the thick, heterogeneous nature of the writing in SOM bears this out particularly well.  It is therefore necessary here to choose, to select which of the links and foldings of textual space created by SOM to explore.

            As such, I propose a constraining interpretative framework in which to read SOM.  It is one which has cycled through the “hermeneutic circle” a few times, from the initial “pre-judices” of my own particular interests and ignorance, to a framework which reveals significant aspects of SOM.  In other words, I offer something in-between an assumption and a conclusion....  I offer a hypothesis, and “evidence” in its support, concerning what SOM is “about”—a hypothesis whose selection of course warps what the text becomes.

            A central tenet of this “hypothesis” is that SOM is an exemplary work of mediation, showing a desire for a kind “loose unity” of conflicting elements in a way atypical of Derrida’s earlier writings.  This is not to dismiss the just-mentioned and in many ways quite imposing heterogeneity of the work.  It is suggest that within this heterogeneity, there are recurring attempts at mediation, at bringing together into a more orderly whole, conflicting elements.  I do not claim that SOM does this for all the elements which constitute the work’s heterogeneity, but only that it certainly does so for a few quite interesting ones.  

             I argue that SOM bears the traces of the conflicting pressures of, on the one hand, the materialist “meta-narrative” of orthodox Marxist thought, and, on the other, “postmodern” concern with “cultural” or “super-structural”  issues of recognition of difference and diversity in, for example, discourses, narratives, “language-games,” writing, the subject’s constitution of “the present,” valid interpretations, self-identity, etc.  I argue as well that SOM, just as importantly, bears the traces of a desire to mediate the conflicting elements of: 1)  a certain “messianism” and, 2)  more ghostly concerns with the “buried-over” past that typify much Romantic thought.  Indeed one might conflate these two claims, and see Derrida as attempting to mediate the messianism of Marxism with the “Romantic postmodern.” (1)

            I interpret Derrida’s writing on ghosts as providing a means of mediating “Marxist” or “messianic” discourse with the concern for heterogeneity and singularity found in postmodern and Romantic discourse, where ghosts are taken to be in some way identified with or symbolic of this second, postmodern or Romantic concern.  The concern with particularity of the “Romantic postmodern” is one which is intimately tied-up with quests for cultural survival, with the preservation of the singularities of a culture’s past into the future.  It is this concern with such highly “superstructural” matters that Derrida attempt to mediate with concerns about the justice owed real, preset living beings—that justice owed, one might say, in the face of the Other.

            Derrida writes in SOM:


To whom, finally, would an obligation of justice ever entail a commitment, one will say, and even be it beyond law and beyond the norm, to whom and to what if not the life of a living being?  Is there ever any justice, commitment of justice, or responsibility in general which has to answer for itself (for the living self) before anything other, in the last resort, than the life of a living being, whether one means by that natural life or the life of the spirit?  Indeed.  The objection seems irrefutable.  But the irrefutable itself supposes that this justice carries life beyond present life or its actual being-there, its empirical or ontological actuality:  not toward death but toward a living-on­ [sur-vie], namely, a trace of which life and death would be themselves but traces and traces of traces, a survival whose possibility in advance comes to disjoin or dis-adjust the identity to itself of the living present as well as of any effectivity. (2)


This passage brings two important aspects of Derrida’s position to light.  First of all, we see that Derrida is reacting “in advance” to those who might see in his work a sacrificing of ethical responsibility to the dispossessed—that is, the living, breathing, human dispossessed—in favor of the more ethereal, possibly even largely aesthetic concerns of the Romantic postmodern.  Secondly, we see that Derrida, rather than arguing for the importance or priority of non-being or the non-present, instead argues for a re-thinking of the distinction which supports our privileging of being and presence over whatever excluded Otherness one sees as opposed to these.

            One possible-critic whose concerns Derrida likely has in mind is Levinas, whose work insists that we place the gaze of the Other before the workings of any philosophy.  The objection Derrida responds to is one which Levinas would want to make.  For to argue for a justice owed to something other than a “presently” living being might seem to privilege an abstraction over the gaze of the Other, much as Heidegger places the “neutral” of Being before ethics and the Other.

            Another such critic would be one drawing from the Marxist tradition to insist on changes in the real, present “base”—i.e., the real conditions of economic production—so as to bring economic equality.  This would be a critic highly suspicious of claims that justice is in anyway owed to more than real, living human beings.  I.e., many drawing from Marxist thought are highly suspicious of “postmodernism” and the emphasis on difference tied-up with it, which they see as damaging to the modernist, Marxist project. (3)

            Such suspicions are raised when it argued that


no justice.... seems possible with out the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoin the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead.... (4)           


To bring “ghosts” into the equation—particularly ghosts of those “who are already dead”—would at the least seem to lead considerations of justice away from the central concern of economic equality, toward the conservative and reactionary social concerns of thinkers as Nietzsche and Eliot, and of racialist or nationalistic groups such as the British Conservative Party, Le Pen’s Front National, and the Nation of Islam—to  name a few rather disparate ones.... (5) This is because the claim that we must have responsibility before the ghosts of the dead could help justify, depending on how this claim is understood, the placing of efforts to preserve or rejuvenate a people’s past on an equal footing with—or even before—efforts to grant economic equality to the present dispossessed of a society.

            And so when Derrida assures us that justice is, in a sense, founded in “responsibility... before ghosts of those not yet born or who are already dead,” and in the fact that justice “carries life beyond the living present... toward a living-on,” it the necessity of this beyond-the-present quality of justice he is emphasizing.  Raising this necessity responds the objection of the “Marxist critic” that what is politically most crucial is being de-prioritized.  It acknowledges her fears, but argues that the ghosts of the dead and the yet-to-be-born simply must be taken into consideration when one considers any kind of justice. 

            We see Derrida implicitly responding to a similar, if more basic, concern as that raised by the “Marxist critic” when he writes that, “If I am getting ready to speak at length about ghosts, inheritance, and generations, generations of ghosts... it is in the name of justice.” (6) For it is of course not immediately obvious that writing on ghosts, inheritance, and generations would be something done in the name of justice.  More to the point, to write on such issues would, again, seem to bring the “conversation” of philosophy away from concerns such as those about economic equality, and toward concerns that would seem to have little to do with justice, as this is traditionally conceived.

              For example, such writings bring to the fore a whole constellation of discourse that postulates an array of base values, of things valued “for their own sake,” rather than holding justice as the supreme value.  Derrida himself writes that the justice he proposes, a justice extending beyond the living present in general, “resembles an axiom... concerning some supposedly un-demonstrable, obvious fact with regard to whatever has worth, value, quality (axia).” (7)      

Consider for instance the preserving values of the environmental movement, their “axioms” concerning worth.  Environmentalism might be thought of as extending justice to the non-human;  but it can also be thought of as arguing that “nature,” both living and non-living, must be preserved for its own sake, that it is of a value irreducible to some other value.  One might see movements toward cultural “preservation” as working from a similar rationale:  as pitting the value of preserving past patterns of life, ways of thinking, forms, etc., against the value of justly meeting the real, present need of individuals for adequate food, housing, etc.

              Derrida is aware of the way discourse that de-prioritizes concerns with “justice” is tied-up with writing on ghosts, generations, and inheritance, and the way it is brought toward the fore by arguments for the need to “speak with ghosts.”  He sees this linkage as important, and in need of being, at the least, mentioned....  The question which remains, of course, is whether Derrida’s “reactions in advance” adequately either 1)  meet the critiques of his writing which could be made from a Levinasian or “modernist Marxist” position, or 2)  deflect the appropriations which might be made of his work from a “Romantic postmodern” or culturally-“conservative” position.

            Habermas writes of Derrida:


             [What] preserves Derrida, so to speak, from the political-moral insensitivity and the aesthetic tastelessness of a New Paganism spiced up with Hoelderlin... [is] [t]he remembrance of the messianism of Jewish mysticism and of the abandoned but well circumscribed place once assumed by the God of the Old Testament.... (8)


One might question the ascription of a “Jewish” mysticism as motivational for Derrida; but one might also question whether Derrida is indeed, as Habermas assures us, “preserved” from such a neo-Romanticism.

            I elsewhere attempt to show how Derrida’s arguments in Specters of Marx ultimately move away from and beyond any kind of neo-Romanticism.  I leave it, however, an open question as to whether aspects of Derrida’s arguments might not inspire or otherwise be put the use of politically “conservative” positions—“conservative” being in this case a very appropriate one.  Likewise open, is the question the congeniality of Derrida’s arguments for neo-Romantic positions.  These “open question” are very interesting in and of themselves.  But what is more valuable about the “openness” of these question for the purposes of this essay, is the way they reflect on and reveal the mediations occurring in SOM:  most importantly, the mediations between the messianic which Marxism marks, and the themes of cultural singularity, preservation, inheritance, and loss tied-up with the concerns of the “Romantic postmodern.”

              The traces of the conflicting pressures I have been exploring, along with the attempted mediation of these conflicting elements, as these are to be found, for instance, in the dialogue of positions Derrida carries out within his “own” discourse, all point to the significance of Specters of Marx to the ethics of cultural “survival” and “living-on.”  It points to what might be described in other words as the ethics of cultural inheritance, understood as most notably involving an the living-on of purely “aesthetic,” seemingly “pointless,” identities, memories, dreams, and meanings.




            Let us read Derrida as saying that justice cannot be an ultimate value, that it must be balanced against other un-found-able values.  What would such a reading entail about his position?  Under such an aspect, would Derrida be preserved from “aesthetic tastelessness,” and the conservative implications of contrasting a concern with the ghosts of the past with a concern for justice? 

              To address such questions, we must first of all establish what these other un-found-able values, to rank with the value of “justice,” might be.  Consider the “the right of ‘living-on,’” [sur-vie], leaving the term undefined, but understanding it to allude to the field of texts within which Derrida inscribes the term “living-on.”  Would not something like “the right of living-on,” be central among the values Derrida would place alongside justice?

            One set of such texts within which “living-on” is inscribed, one set to which it alludes, are those concerned with the French-speaking residents of Quebec quest to ensure “survival” [survivance]—the continuation of a French-speaking culture in Canada over future generations. (9)  The right to survival involves the ability to preserve one’s past into the future, to guarantee cultural survival.

            But what of the right of living-on, be this seen as part of a “system of justice” or not?  Would this right be something different than the right to cultural survival?

            For Derrida, the answer is clearly yes:  for him, it is clear that a right of living-on is not a right which belongs to the haunted, but to the haunters, the ghosts.  Still, are ghosts ever really separate from the particular (groups of) individuals they haunt?  Are they truly something one can separate from the “writings” of memory which sustain them?  Be this as it may, we must consider that what Derrida is saying is that we must not only grant justice to the ghost which is Other, but also to the ghosts of the Other—i.e., the “right of living-on” is one that extends to “all ghosts,” and as such necessarily involves considerations of justice. 

            Of course, Derrida does not explicitly contrast a concern with ghosts with a concern with justice, nor does he write of a “right of living-on.”  Still, this exercise in hypothetical interpretation reveals a good deal about the meanings of Derrida’s writings.  It suggests, first of all, that Derrida might be able to fend off critiques that he is de-prioritizing justice for other values by arguing that any such other “ultimate” values that might be detected in his work themselves involve justice. (10) More importantly, this hypothetical interpretation shows how closely Derrida’s writings lie to discourse on multiculturalism, and the issues of justice involved in multiculturalism.

            We see this proximity to the debate on multiculturalism first of all from the parallel between “survie” and “sur-vie,” between “living” or “survival” on the one hand, and “living on” on the other.  This parallel is of course on one level a graphical one—a parallel not to be ignored given Derrida’s focus on word-games, and the importance of small shifts at the level of the grapheme.  Secondly, there is a more important “conceptual” or “semantic” relation:  that between survie—i.e., survival—understood in the context of the Quebec situation, and sur-vie—i.e., mere “living-on”—understood in the context of Blanchot’s Death Sentence, in the context of Derrida’s essay, “Living On,” and in the context of Specters of Marx itself.  Survival involves drawing from one’s past and writing it into the future, to satisfy and sustain the “ghosts” which, welcomed or un-welcomed, haunt one.  Living-on involves a similar movement of past to future, and a similar sustaining power for ghosts;  but it also has the implication of involving a demi-life, not a “full preservation.”

            Here then we must recognize another crucial difference between the right of survival and any right of living-on.  For if we understand living-on as involving a kind of temporal forward movement of culture, it must be further understood as a ghostly, partial movement, one which perhaps never “makes-present” anything more than the shadow and ashes of the “life of a people.”  A right of living-on would therefore be at odd angle to the rights to cultural “survival,” recognition, and so on, which have had a central place in debate on multiculturalism and the issues it raises for liberal and communitarian theory.

            Awareness of this “odd angle” is crucial.  It is an angle formed by similarities and differences between the discourse of SOM and debate on multiculturalism, and both the similarities and differences are crucial.  Without these differences, SOM would be a rather un-interesting document, constituting, we can imagine, a highly-roundabout and vague discussion of issues which have already been brought into the clear light of day....  And without the similarities, SOM would be lacking a central source of its power; and we would be left robbed of good deal of its edifying effects. 



(1)  I will not define the “Romantic postmodern,” but only sketch out some main branches of the diverse body of thought that is to be shorthanded by the term.  I would point first of all to the thought of Lyotard, with his valuing of “local” narratives over the “meta”-narratives he rejects, and with the incommensurability he sees as existing between a variety of “language-games,” discourses, narratives, etc. [see Lyotard [1984], The Postmodern Condition:  A Report on Knowledge and Lyotard [1986], L’enthousiasme:  La critique kantienne de l’histoire].  Secondly, I would point to the concern with “différance” found in the thought of Derrida himself, and to the concern with the “Infinite” and “the Other” found in Levinas’s thought.  While Levinas and Derrida stress a need to recognize what is singular and different in the Other, and the impossibility of ever fully grasping this, their concern with the “infinite” singularity of the Other dovetails very well with a more general belief in the importance of what is singular, in the value of cultural heterogeneity--i.e., with a philosophy like that put forth by Lyotard.

            I would also point to the whole body of thought found in “identity politics,” much of which involves a concerned with the importance of ethnic identity--e.g., being an “Italian-American,” or an “African-American,” or an “Englishman”--particularly as set against a more encompassing, perhaps more abstract, group identity--e.g., an “American,” a “European,” a “World Citizen.”

            Starting from a less contemporary vantage point, I would point to the general movement in European arts and letters involving a turning away from the Classical, towards national and regional languages, themes, myths, etc..  In particular, I would point to the 18th to 19th century tendency in European literature to return to earlier, non-Classical verse patterns, stories, myths, etc., and to the concern wit “self-expression”--e.g., the concern to express the “true self,” emotions, highly “subjective” viewpoints, etc.--often found in this literature.

            In philosophy and in what we would today call “cultural theory,” of particular note would be the thought of Herder, and of Dilthey (with, for example, his concern with the various Weltanschauungen of cultures).  And, coming back to present, I would point--due to its importance for Derrida, its “closeness” to him--to Heidegger’s concern, tied-up in various ways with his involvement in Nazism, with the uniqueness of the Germans and, most of all, of their language.

            Finally, I would remark that the term “Romantic postmodern” refers to what is common between, on the one hand, postmodern thought, and, on the other hand, earlier Romantic thought.  Within this commonality, there is of course still immense diversity--but there are interesting commonalties nonetheless. (back)

   (2)  Derrida [1994], Specters of Marx:  The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International [hereafter referred to as “SOM”], pp. xix-xx;  Derrida [1993], Spectres de Marx: L’État de la dette, le travail du deuil et le nouvelle Internationale [hereafter refereed to as “SDM”], pp. 17-8. (back)

 (3)  A presentation of such suspicions can be found in Habermas [1987], The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity:  Twelve Lectures. (back)

 (4)  SOM, p. xix;  SDM, p. 16. (back)

 (5)  Nietzsche, while looking forward to what might seem a radically new figure, the “Overman,” nonetheless had some quite reactionary views.  He was for instance extremely contemptuous of democratic and socialist movements, and expected a new era of “world-historical” conflict to come--an era where the aristocratic spirit of the past that he held so dear would once again burn in men. See for instance Nietzsche [1967], On the Genealogy of Morals.

   Eliot was profoundly disturbed by what he saw as the cultural decay around him, presenting, in poems such as The Waste Land, powerful arguments against what he saw as the dominant “liberal ethos” of his age.  See Cooper [1987], T.S. Eliot and the Politics of Voice:  The Argument of The Waste Land and Asher [1995], T.S. Eliot and Ideology. (back)

 (6)  SOM, p. xix;  SDM, p. 15. (back)

 (7)  SOM, p. xx;  SDM, p. 17. (back)

 (8)  “Beyond a Temporalized Philosophy of Origins:  Derrida,” p. 167, Habermas [1987], The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity:  Twelve Lectures. (back)

 (9)  “Politics aimed at survival actively seek to create members of the community, for instance, in their assuring that future generations continue to identify as French-speakers” [Taylor [1992], “The Politics of Recognition,” pp. 58-59, in Gutman [1994], Multiculturalism:  Examining the Politics of Recognition].  See also Section IV, “Survival” in Appiah, “Identity, Authenticity, Survival,” in ibid. (back)

 (10) This exercise does not, however, itself provide any defense against the critique that Derrida is focusing on extraneous issues of justice over the justice concerning the real needs of people.  I.e., it does not address the critique that justice in allowing groups, to put this extremely pejoratively, to maintain the baubles and aesthetic styling of the past is being placed over justice in economic conditions of society. (back)