Specters of Marx

I finally read a book I should have read long ago, Derrida’s Specters of Marx. I found it strangely disappointing. I’m not even sure the book is worth discussing at any length; it is only about 14 years old, but it seems to belong to a long-vanished era of critical discourse. It seems like a fossil, in comparison to the more relevant discussions of Marxist theory, and of what Marxism might mean in our postmodern, post-everything age, by the likes of Hardt and Negri, Zizek, Badiou, etc. (not to mention the continuing far greater relevance of Deleuze and Guattari’s attempts to renew Marxism). Nonetheless, I will work through my response to the book here, if only because the phenomenon of its obsolescence, its loss of relevance, is itself something that the book itself discusses (in relation to the claims, rejected by Derrida, that Marx himself is obsolete and no longer relevant in the post-Communist era).

Derrida basically argues — quite elegantly, of course — that Marx, like every other thinker in the long history of Western metaphysics, falls victim to an ontology of absolute presence, and strives unsuccessfully to abolish the uncanny otherness, the trace of non-presence, the non-literal or irreducibly metaphorical, the differance, that nonetheless continues to insinuate itself within his texts. At the same time, Derrida — writing in the early 1990s, after the “fall of Communism,” and in the first flush of neoliberal triumphalism — proclaims his fidelity to a certain spirit of Marxism, insofar as it maintains a call for justice beyond market values. He associates Marxism, therefore, with a certain religious impulse, what Walter Benjamin calls a “weak messianic force,” a hope against hope or beyond hope that a better time is possible, and must come. What draws these two strands — the deconstruction of Marx’s metaphysics, and the welcoming nonetheless of a Marxist inheritance — together is the figure of the specter, or ghost: a figure that Derrida traces throughout Marx’s texts and many others (most notably Hamlet). The specter is something that is not present, not real, not there, but that nonetheless enters into (and disrupts the closure and self-presence of) whatever is present, real, and there. The ghost addresses us, interrogates us with its voice and its gaze; it’s a call from Otherness to which we must respond, even though we are unable to adequately respond. Derrida argues that, in works like The German Ideology and Capital, Marx endeavors — unsuccessfully, of course — to exorcise the specter of impropriety or non-identity; that he struggles, for instance, to get rid of exchange-value and return us to the simple utility and presence of use-value (a reading of Marx that I have specifically argued against here; though Derrida’s formulation of the argument is far more circumspect than those of Lyotard or Baudrillard). At the same time, Derrida presents the “specter of Communism” that haunts Europe in the Communist Manifesto as a “spirit” that neoliberalism similarly cannot exorcise, and that renders impossible the “end of history,” or the definitive triumph of the market.

I must confess that I am unable to greet this argument with more than a shrug of the shoulders, and a weary “so what?” It’s scarcely news that Marx’s texts can be deconstructed, just as Plato’s and Kant’s and Hegel’s can be. As is so often the case with Derrida, I am more or less persuaded by his argument — I mean, by his close reading — without necessarily finding his claims or discoveries to be of any particular interest or importance. Now, of course the question of which parts of Marx are alive and which parts dead, or which parts are useful and interesting, and which parts are not, is itself an extremely important one. And Derrida, as always, warns us (rightly) that this is a difficult question precisely because we cannot ever simply separate the relevant from the irrelevant, or the “living” from the “dead.” The uncanny apparition of the specter forbids us to make so neat a separation. We are always haunted by ghosts, and we cannot freely choose what we will be haunted by. We have, as Derrida continually reminds us, the responsibility of making such a separation, without the ability neatly and definitively to do so.

Yet all that said, and even recalling that all such separations will be provisional ones — Derrida introduces, into nearly every sentence, clauses about how provisional and subject to revision all his claims and distinctions are; he so overdoes this that the effect is unintentionally comic — nonetheless, I still believe that there are much more interesting and useful ways to distinguish between what’s valuable and what’s not in Marx’s writing, and in subsequent Marxist writing, than the particular distinctions that Derrida makes. For Derrida, it’s a matter of deconstructing, and thereby dismissing, all of Marx’s positive claims about history, about capitalism, etc., and only adhering to a sort of vague and general sense of dissatisfaction with the world as it is. Which is why Derrida ultimately rescues from Marx and Marxism only its ostensibly religious core, its messianic dimension, its utopian (though Derrida scrupulously avoids this word) promise of a better world — together, however, with the proviso that no such better world can actually arrive, because this would undo the dimension of hope, expectation, and openness to the future and to the Other that is, for Derrida, the essence of the religious or messianic.

For instance, after reading Marx in Capital on commodity fetishism, Derrida writes that “as soon as there is production, there is fetishism: idealization, autonomization and automatization, dematerialization and spectral incorporation, mourning work coextensive with all work, and so forth. Marx believes he must limit this co-extensivity to commodity production. In our view, this is a gesture of exorcism, which we spoke of earlier and regarding which we leave here once again our question suspended” (166). Derrida is too careful and sensitive a thinker to come right out and say that the processes he associates with fetishism (a list I won’t take the time to comment on here) must occur in connection with all production, not just commodity production. This is why he leaves the “question suspended.” Nonetheless, the evident deconstructionist implication of Derrida’s reading indeed is that it’s naive (to use the word that was — and probably still is — the favorite of all the deconstructionists I used to know in grad school) not to realize that all and any production (rather than just commodity production) is compromised by fetishism and its accompanying spectrality, which Marx makes the metaphysical error of thinking that he can “exorcise” or otherwise get rid of. So Marx, like every other metaphysician from Plato onward, is guilty of trying to hypostasize absolute presence and preserve it from differance, to pretend that alienation and otherness can be overcome when in fact they cannot.

Well, perhaps this is true. But to push the question to this level of metaphysical generality is to ignore the particular ways that Marx’s formulations work. Derrida convinces me that, yes, there is a logic of spectrality at work in Marx’s discussion of exchange-value and commodity fetishism; but to say this is not to exhaust the implications of Marx’s theory. Marx says that, but he also says a lot more. And that more is where Marx specifically addresses the particular implications of capitalism and commodity production. A different mode of production would involve different specters, different forms of “spectral incorporation,” different implications for human life and society, a difference in the extent of human suffering. Indeed, Derrida keeps on reminding us that the underlying problem is the one of which specters we are dealing with; but at the end of his analysis he ignores his own warning, in favor of just saying that Marx is trying to exorcise ghosts, and that he can never really accomplish this, and that therefore all his concepts (use- and exchange-value, commodity and surplus value) are compromised and should not be retained. It’s a lame and weak conclusion, after so much textual and conceptual exegesis.

What I’d rather see, what I’d find much more interesting, useful, and relevant, would be an approach that considered the already-deconstructive implications of Marx’s own categories. That looked, for instance, at how the logic of the supplement (or Bataille’s logic of “general economy”) is already at work in Marx’s notion of surplus-value (which is not simply an empirical quantity in the sense that profit is, for it implies a radical incommensurability at the heart of the process of buying and selling labor as a commodity); or at how the spectrality that Derrida exhumes at such great length is coextensive with — how it haunts — the regime of money as “universal equivalent.” But Derrida has too much invested in arguing that deconstruction goes beyond mere critique to be willing to see such deconstructionist virtues as already operating within Marx’s form of critique. (I myself would want to argue that deconstruction is indeed different from Hegelian critique, but that it falls entirely within the purview of Kantian critique. But that is a subject for other posts).

So I don’t really find Specters of Marx very illuminating on the subject of Marx. I do, however, like the way that Derrida reformulates his (usual deconstructive) logic in terms of spectrality, of ghosts. In his earlier writings Derrida tends to emphasize differance or the trace as a sort of negativity, an infinite mediation disrupting any claim to presence. But in Specters of Marx (as in much of his later work) Derrida (more radically, I think — and in line with Blanchot’s formulations) shifts his emphasis to the way that this trace is a radical non-negativity, a kind of residual, quasi-material insistence, that disrupts and ruins every movement of negation or negativity. That’s what the ghost is, after all: something that is gone, or dead, but that refuses to be altogether absent; something that is not here, not now, but that continues to stain or contaminate or affect or impinge upon the here and now. Hegel, Mallarme, and Lacan all proclaim that the symbol is the death — the murder — of the thing (i.e., that the word “flower” or “tree” necessarily implies the distancing, the negation, the loss, the inaccessibility of the actual Thing that is being called a flower or a tree). But Blanchot responds that this murder is ultimately ineffectual, for the Thing (not the idealized form that we call a tree or a flower, but its creepy, always-decomposing-and-recomposing materiality) returns at the very heart of its supposed absence, like a zombie arising from its grave. The living thing we have murdered is never restored to us, but its death, its having-been-murdered, tracks us relentlessly and will not let us go. This is what Derrida means by specters, ghosts, and haunting. The finest invention in Specters of Marx is Derrida’s neologism hauntology, which he argues is more basic, more (pre)originary, than Being or than ontology. (The pun works better in French, where hantologie and ontologie are almost indistinguishable in pronunciation).

And indeed, it’s been the recent brilliant discussion of hauntology in the blogosphere, by k-punk especially (also here and here), that led me (so belatedly) to read Specters of Marx and to think along these lines. Although I tend to be more interested in how the present is haunted (as it were) by the future, than in how it is haunted by the past (this is one reason for my obsession with science fiction), these two dimensions or directions of time cannot of course be separated, once we have realized that the present is not a “living presence,” but rather that it is riven within itself, traversed by forces that are not contemporary with itself. Shelley’s “gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present” and Poe’s returned cadavers, haunting us with their insistent evidence of their deaths, are two sides of the same coin (a financial metaphor that is therefore particularly appropriate from the perspective of Marxian political economy). I need to think more about k-punk’s comments on “hauntology now,” on how it has become (as he writes with deliberate awareness of the temporal paradoxes involved) a “zeitgeist,” and on its implications for understanding our culture today beyond the already-stale-and-banal formulations of “postmodernism.”

16 Responses to “Specters of Marx”

  1. You handle the Derridean idiom so well that it’s lamentable you find it so tedious. I’ve got several of Ronell’s books that I read just to savor the prose. Didn’t she write a book on haunted writing around the same time that this was published? Or was it earlier? I haven’t read it because a) it’s hard to find and b) it’s in hardback and too darn expensive. Speaking of ghosts, I think I may have corralled a direct line ancestor (1672 – 1752) in a town on the border between Germany and Poland less than five miles from Czecheslovakia. At least that’s where he’s buried. I think he was born close to Leipzig. Sure gave the Brandenburgers a fright when he turned up on their listserve.

  2. alan says:

    Fantastic exegesis of Derrida on Marx & spectres! So much of Derrida I find elicits that “yes, I suppose so, but what else…” response, as opposed to the “wow – yes! with caveats…” from more… exciting types like D&G. I also imagine there could be a more sympathetic reading of his modus operandi as his excuse to write, a raison d’etre, a variant of Beckett’s “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” All those meandering circular trains of thought like baroque whorls and curlicues turning in on themselves endlessly, resisting a final end – of thought/writing/life.

    “deconstruction is indeed different from Hegelian critique, but that it falls entirely within the purview of Kantian critique” – this is too intriguing to let go! Can we expect it to be followed up on soon?

  3. Kirby Olson says:

    Even to read Derrida’s name seems to bring up a familiar ghost although I gave up on him long before I read this text, but I too have always felt that I owe it to myself to go back and read it.

    Where I think there’s almost certainly trouble with his religious perspective is in the sense of hope (Kierkegaard writes about this extensively how hope is the last to go, and at any rate it is important that things not be smooth and perfect since that implies that there is work to do and this actually is the wellspring of hope).

    The Marxist project appears to be the other side of a certain kind of religious project. If you think about the world as it should be as a religious notion, and the world as it is as a materialist notion, and then separate them and putting a figure 8 in as the new diagram with the bottom half as the materialist notion and the top half as the spiritual and with a kind of constantly circulating currency between the two you have the world view of Kant — and the Lutheran view of two kingdoms (it’s vastly more complex than this).

    It seems that Marx wants to foreclose the top part of the sphere. In a sense one could say that Hegel did too although the latter was ostensibly Lutheran (he claimed as much) and Marx was largely raised as a Lutheran and often cites Luther. There is a book coming out from Harvard UP on the connection between the two apparently but it will probably get everything wrong. This was a fascinating review of Derrida’s book.

  4. Carl Freedman says:

    I enjoyed Steve’s reading of Derrida on Marx, and mostly agree with it. Being at the moment too hungover to deal at length with the large conceptual issues, I’ll just correct a mere slip, doubtless inadvertent. Steve writes of “the process of buying and selling labor as a commodity,” but labor for Marx is *never* a commodity. The commodity that the worker sells is labor-power, and the transformation of labor into labor-power is, from the proletarian standpoint, the paradigmatic process of capitalism itself. In the Derridean terms that Steve discusses, I suppose you might say that Marx wishes to exorcise the spectre of labor-power so that labor may truly come into its own–though I think this formulation would be vulnerable to Steve’s general critique of the way that Derrida reads Marx.

  5. Ooops. Carl, you are right of course. I meant –or should have written– “labor power.”

  6. Tim says:


    it seems to me that the existentialists are missing from this conversation. didn’t sartre in “nausea” point out that the subject should be energized by the terror of discovering the distance between subjective and objective reality. in fact sartre suggests that this is the great challenge of life – to “face the music” of the inability of subjective reality to keep up with the crashing waves of objective reality. derrida’s hauntology is a passive construct that does the relationship between the Thing and the Subject a grave disservice. no wonder the “action” orientation of the late sixties student movements finished up in the parlor games of French theory.

  7. Jodi says:

    Interesting–I like very much your contextualiztion and retrospective setting of your reading, particularly the link with early neoliberal triumphalism.

  8. Ken says:

    I am delighted, Steve, to see your interest in “hauntology,” and very much look forward to what is to come on this. You are right about Derrida on Marx, I think; but, as you suggest, the Derridean notions that extend from this critique are very difficult to dismiss. Witness Zizek’s continued efforts to twist free from Levinas/Derrida in The Parallax View.

  9. Hello Steve (and Carl),

    I am presently writing a musical thearte piece that is a re-working of Pinocchio – called Pine Eyes in a barely allowable mis-translation of the Italian. I was searching for some arcane info on the wooden boy when I came across your blog and was instantly transported back to 1979 or so and the old Marxist Literary group. Yikes, what a guilty pleasure for me!

    You might want to listen to my double CD Opere della Musica Povera to see/hear what happened to me since then…

    I send comradely greetings to you both from New Haven,


  10. Sean says:

    It seems to me that the feeling of tiredness, the sense that the world-machine is wearing out, along with the accompanying lament about the “end of history”, is exactly what Derrida is trying to surpass in Specters of Marx. Derrida does read as well as write, at least arguably, and his readings of texts (such as the reading of Hegel in Glas) is not meant to be destructive and anticipates many of the questions in Specters of Marx, such as those dealing with the divide between the political and the theological. What is involved in the “spectral politics” of Specters of Marx is not another analysis of power and its operations (on matter, the “thing”) but a radical rethinking of Western temporality. The tiredness of questions can perhaps be overcome (and something faintly positive affirmed) by returning to the original energy behind events, which as Derrida repeatedly affirms is a play of specters (and he goes back to the “daimon” and “phantasm” to find roots of this within Western metaphysics). This also means addressing the Other or the unknown– there is the injunction “Speak to it, Horatio”; we are entreated to speak to the ghost, no longer sure of presence/absence, or the full/empty status of ourselves and our actions. But we do go on speaking.

  11. […] at The Pinnochio Theory, Steven Shaviro has an outstanding post on Derrida’s ‘Spectres of Marx’. He’s critical of […]

  12. Wai Chew says:

    Derrida accurately calls end-of-history triumphalism by its secret name, “neo-evangelism,” and he suggests that Fukuyama’s beef with Saddam is itself the “megalothymia” that he accuses Saddam of commiting.

    Predicting the second Gulf War ten years ahead of time is itself rather haunting and uncanny.

  13. […] this I talked a bit about Jacques Derrida, two of my favourite works amongst whose writing are his Spectres of Marx (1993, about Marx, Hamlet and spectres) and his Of Spirit (1987, about Hegel, Heidegger, and […]

  14. […] Enough for now – time to get some coffee, and some food (and apologies that I’m in need of both to the degree that I will toss this up without editing – I’ve been doing this rather a lot lately, to the detriment of the flow of the writing and at the risk of foolish and easily corrected analytical errors – apologies – with the formal writing commitments I have on the table right now, this is unfortunately the only way I can steal time to blog)… I should note that other aspects of this text, with assorted tangents on other topics, are also being discussed over at Praxis, and that Praxis helpfully pointed to the far more systematic and thorough review of this text posted by Steven Shaviro. […]

  15. Sorry I’m late.
    Maybe “hauntology” is just escapist flight from actual engagement with the world. Everybody needs a little escape from time to time, and artists provide that. But what, after all, is the root of unjustice and cruelty, and how does one take steps to alleviate it?
    Do we want hauntology in our government bodies and the decision makers in banks? Or do we want personally secure people, not narrowly narcissistic, aware that the good of the one is connected with the good of all?
    I’ve explained in my “Dealing with Derrida” that Jacques was traumatized and dissociated, and so did not trust his body at all. So he recommends all manner of imaginary, escapist practices to solve real-world problems. He gives birth to a cohort of irrelevant dramers.
    However, is justice and such is your concern, then, staying in your body, take actions that help, including, personally that your own situation is to have access to a limited amount of time and then you die. So the recommendation is to stay awake and participate.
    Thanks for the stimulation.

  16. Carl Looper says:

    The ghost is an apparition, not unlike a photographic image, which tries to argue with us, that it is just a representation (of what is gone). But the ghost fails in this argument because it is also present, as an apparition, a reality in it’s own right as much as apparent representation of something no longer here. On the other hand, our hands pass through it. We can not alter or erase this ghost. It does not behave according to the materials with which we are otherwise familiar.

    Any artist who has ever tried to manipulate a photographic image will find themselves having a similar experience, that no matter what you do with the image the ghostly photographic aspect insists on haunting the result, mocking your efforts to alter it or deface it. In desperation you might turn to abstract art or animated cartoons.

    What Derrida suggests remains a good point and not at all dismissive of Marx. The spectral is very powerful. Rather than hoping that commodity fetishism can be imagined away – dismissed as a figment of the imagination (and waiting for Marx’s prediction that it will eventually happen anyway) – is to engage with it now, even if it is just a figment of the imagination.

    And this is where Derrida’s messianism also comes into play. Rather than waiting for a fictional tomorrow (which never comes), do something today, even if there is no guarantee of an effect. While that sounds mad consider this: The political argument against doing something about climate change, being argued by the opposition here in Australia today, is that no matter what you do about it, it will happen anyway. So why bother? It will cost money etc. Derrida’s point is so what? If you do nothing then yes, that argument will be correct. It will be a self fulfilling prophecy. The argument against doing anything is based on the idea that action should have some reward – some payoff, and that if the payoff is not forthcoming that one should not therefore engage in the action. But what Derrida suggests through messianism is that one should not depend on the future taking place to guarantee decisions made in relation to it.

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