Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Spectres of Messianic Justice (Derrida's SOM part 2!)

It has been months since I wrote the auspiciously subtitled Part 1 of my reflections on Jacques Derrida's Spectres of Marx. When I first bought the book I thought I knew what the spectres of Marx would turn out to be, but of course, first I had to finish the whole book1 and ascertain to what degree Derrida and I were on the same track. This, some of you familiar with Derrida's work will understand, took some time. And then other urgencies intervened, and vacillation began its orbits.
The spectres of Marx appear for Derrida in the first sentence of the Communist manifesto. “A spectre is haunting Europe, it is the spectre of Communism”.2
Derrida asks about this spectrality, right at the outset of one of the most influential documents of the 19th & 20th centuries. Are these spectres the spectral beings traversing Marx and his oeuvre, or, are they the spectral legacy of Marx and his oeuvre, the legacy of a certain manifestation of the worker which built for us this technological age?
Derrida explores both of these interpretations, spending much more time on the Messianic implications of transcendental haunting invoked by Marx's use of the word spectre. “Can one conceive of an atheological heritage of the messianic?” (p.211). The atheological messianic notion of a justice to come “beyond right and law”(p.220), central to this book, remains so through his subsequent writings, which he comes to call Messianicity.3
Thus Derrida likes one French translation of spectre: 'revenant' (the returning/returner), and works at length to articulate how the inexorable revenant may lose its ominousness and become more of a companion, eventually pleading with Marcellus in the first act of Hamlet “thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio.”
The inevitable revolutionary rhythmicity of the revenant builds up resonance, a murmuring echo in the psyche of the subject. It is not memory of lived experience, it is an experience which transcends our time and is not totally 'of it'. As implied, the revenant is returning for justice. Can we say that, upon its visitation, we, who cannot provide such justice feel guilty? Is it possible to describe a haunting which traumatizes all people, and is it possible to speak to this?
“if right or law stems from vengeance, as Hamlet seems to complain that it does – before Nietzsche, before Heidegger, before Benjamin – can one not yearn for a justice that one day, a day belonging no longer to history, a quasi-messianic day, would finally be removed from the fatality of vengeance?”(p.25)
Are Derrida's revenants the resonance of things we have actually encountered, i.e. there was a time then the revenant was not merely returning (echoing) but actually together, gathering us, 'with us' in time and space? Ensemble, French for together, has the root for resemble, semblable, similar. Can we say that the revenant is like us living today, that it was once an actual person who lived? Is the spectral here the combined resonances of people's lives lived in the world?
What is the notion of justice but that of the wronged revenant?
The ineluctable spectral resonance builds up an awful, stultifying wallah which threatens even the Marxist ego. Derrida dedicates the last chapter to Marx's (and comparing Stirner's) efforts to expunge the ghosts haunting them. Marx's unwillingness to cohabit with the spectral may explain why he so categorically denied any sort of meaning an industrialized worker may have in his work.
"Labour to earn a living involves: 1) estrangement and fortuitous connection between labour and the subject who labours; 2) estrangement and fortuitous connection between labour and the object of labour; 3) that the worker's role is determined by social needs which, however, are alien to him and a compulsion to which he submits out of egoistic need and necessity, and which have for him only the significance of a means of satisfying his dire need, just as for them he exists only as a slave of their needs; 4) that to the worker the maintenance of his individual existence appears to be the purpose of his activity and what he actually does is regarded by him only as a means; that he carries on his life's activity in order to earn means of subsistence." - Karl Marx 1844 Comments on James Mill, Éléments D’économie Politique
Marx is himself too haunted, has not learned how to speak to the ghost which coalesces before his criticism. Perhaps most frightening is that these ghosts may be perceived lacking the very thing which made them useful (to Marx, and to Capitalism) in the first place, their bodies.
Everyone knows there is nothing so terrifying as a nobody, but it is precisely this persistence of the spectral body of the worker, individual and inexorably part of the revenant, which resonated most strongly in the capitalism. Capitalism, Marx is rightly canonized for being the first to painstakingly and incontrovertibly point out, accumulates wealth by institutionally alienating workers from the value they create. But this notion of alienation is merely economic and, unacknowledged by Marx, the worker cannot help but invest, even if only slightly, with human sensibility and care, in the actual carrying out of his work.
The body experience of the worker is recorded in the object of his labour, and this object will continues to serve as a resonance of the worker who made it's spectrality as long as it exists. If, conversely, technology is the skills and knowledge necessary to produce the technological object then, technology is also stored in the worker's body.
Marx takes the Cartesian (after de la Mettrie) man-is-a-machine hyperbole and hyper-industrializes it. But if we extrapolate from Chomsky's principle of the innate faculty of language and turn the man-machine hyperbole around, we can say that a machine always has something human-like about it and that this humanity in the machine is in part a residue of the body labour and body knowledge that went into producing it, and not just ideas and instructions.
If we can see the industrialized world, not only as dominated by alienating principles and processes but rather as persistently inhabited by sentient bodies, we will begin to recognize another spectrality, that of the physical body resonance of past generations which bequeathed to us the surfaces of modernity. When we thus return to the spectral its acoustic dimension, we may begin to consider the problem not to be that the ghosts appear, but that they leave too quickly before we can echo them detectably.
Disconcerting is not that we, in industrialized convenience, traverse (and are traversed by) a realm of discorporate human spectrality, but rather that the spectres we come across retain their individual integrity with faces and bodies. This is the experience of modernity as a traversal of myriad minute instances of integral, resonant, individual spectral remains, swirling around us like innumerable snowflakes in the shapes of human beings, each an autonomous revenant.
But here, Zizek would allow, Derrida and I are both mis-appropriating Marx, and Engels, for they spoke not of spectrality or of spectres but of THE spectre of Communism.
In English, this spectre is a looming thing, like the "spectre of unemployment". In current usage, the spectre is usually a bogey man summoned when fear is required. In that it is destined always to return again, it is a Derridian messianistic revenant, yet this spectre's return is always invoked, it returns on call and retires until called again.
This means the spectre of communism is always immanent, and, as Marx and Engels affirm, the revenant will soon be here to stay. But we have seen that even Marx and (real existing) Communism are haunted by spectres, “untimely spectres that one must not chase away, but sort out, critique, keep close by and allow to come back” (p.109)

1Slavoj Zizek nimbly danced around a tricky question at his recent lecture in Helsinki “What does it mean to be a Communist Today” when asked how familiar he really was with das Kapital. His response was. “ To really believe ideology you shouldn't know too much about it.”, giving examples such as Stalin, who certainly hardly read and never read Lenin or Marx, or Marx himself who misunderstood Hegel, who in, turn misinterpreted large parts of Kant. Zizek's disconcerting response shows that misappropriation, purposeful or otherwise may be far more politically effective (and interesting) than strict knowledge of and adherence to a text, if indeed this is even possible.

2 In German it isEin Gespenst geht um in Europadas Gespenst des Kommunismus“. The word Gespenst has a wonderful craftsman-related connotation from its root in the verb 'to span' as in to span cloth over a hoarding. It harks back(or forward) nicely to Marx's famous 'length of cloth' example in Capital. So we have a spectrality which spans Europe goes through it an also goes around it, defining it.
3 an interesting article which integrates some thorough exploration of Derrida's notion of the messianic is in Prof. Dr. Lieven De Cauters The Tyrant as Messiah

For further Reference: (for those who speak French or Italian, unless someone wants to prevail upon me to translate this) Here is an interview of Derrida by Enrico Ghezzi in which he elaborates on the various notions of spectrality in his book 'Spectres of Marx'.


  1. indubitably, a future increasingly foreclosed by our imaginations, it appears...