Addressing Some Basic Misconceptions About Derrida’s Work

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.

A review of Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning & the New International,  Routledge, 2006.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam

Originally published in French as: Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx : L’Etat de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale, Editions Galilée, 2006.

Reading this book will help dispel (or at least nuance) two criticisms that are often addressed to Jacques Derrida’s work. The first is that the brand of philosophy that he promotes under the name of deconstruction is irretrievably obscure and that it constitutes a refutation of the notion of objective truth as well as an attack on the Western canon of literary works. The second is that Derrida cultivates a radical posture that is detached from the realities of the day and unashamedly leftist, as the reference to an outmoded Marx would suggest.

Let us first address the accusation of obscurity. Nobody expects philosophy to be easy, and readers who have no experience of reading theoretical texts may have difficulties with this one. I must confess that there are times when I could not follow the author’s line of reasoning, and I may have skipped a few paragraphs here and there, but on the whole I did not find this book unduly abstruse or recondite–and I consider myself an average reader, with only a distant background in modern philosophy. I will leave to the reader to judge for himself whether the puns and neologisms that are introduced in the book (hauntology, spectropolitics) or taken up from previous works (differance) are just pedantic wordplays or if on the contrary they do add value and enrich meaning. But at least one should give them a chance to speak for themselves, and place them in their own discursive context.

Deconstructing deconstruction

People often identify deconstruction with an attack on past scholarly traditions or a dismantling of literary texts–in other words, a rejection of the works of « dead white males ». This is certainly not the case with Jacques Derrida. He is a scholar molded in the classical tradition and whose commerce with the canon of Western philosophy and classic literature is steeped with respect and familiarity.

His reference to Shakespeare throughout this essay about Marx’s legacy easily proves this point. Bringing together these two authors is not totally out of place: Marx evokes the Bard more than once in his work, in particular in The German Ideology. More to the point, the playwright and the revolutionary share a common interest for ghosts, allowing Derrida to explore this theme by finding echoes between Hamlet and the Communist Manifesto. In both cases everything begins with a ghost, from expecting an apparition. « A specter is haunting Europe: the specter of Communism »: thus begins Marx’s Manifesto. According to Derrida, this metaphor is not fortuitous: « Marx, writes Derrida, lived more than others in the frequentation of specters… He loved the figure of the ghost, he detested it, he called it to witness his contestation, he was haunted by it, harassed, besieged, obsessed by it. »

Shakespeare, for one, knew how to handle ghosts. He understood that it took a scholar to bring a spirit to the stage and to extract knowledge from a ghost. « Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio, » admonishes Marcellus in the first scene of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. This is the sentence by which Derrida choses to close his essay, having recalled that « they are always there, specters, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet. They give us to rethink the ‘there’ as soon as we open our mouths, even at a colloquium and especially when one speaks there in a foreign language. »

Both the book’s explicit and incipit deal with the issue of translation, a subject that Derrida revisits time and again in his work. As he notes, the epigraph from Hamlet that opens this essay, « the time is out of joint, » has been rendered in various ways by French translators, referring to a time or a world that is all at once disjointed, disadjusted, disharmonic, discorded or dishonored and unjust. « This is the stroke of genius, the insignia trait of spirit, the signature of the thing ‘Shakespeare’: to authorize each one of the translations, to make them possible and intelligible without ever being reductible to them. » According to Derrida, translation is not something that is added to a text afterwards and from the outside. A text bears within itself its own translation, it is open to layers upon layers of interpretation and its limits, where it starts and where it ends, cannot therefore be determined unequivocally.

Likewise, Derrida uses the polyphony of the word spirit, which can also mean « specter » (as do the words « Geist » in German or « esprit » in French) to construct a phenomenology of the ghost, what he calls an « hauntology » or a reflection on how the spirit makes its apparition as a phenomenon. Among other words that are drawn in for their multiplicity of meanings are the French noun « le revenant » (the one who comes back, the ghost), the German expression « es spukt » (it spooks, there are specters around) or the English verb « to conjure » (to beseech, to conspire, to raise a spirit). As Derrida demonstrates, this constellation of meaning around the word « spirit » finds echoes in the authors that Marx criticizes (Hegel, Max Stirner), the ones who criticizes Marx (Valery, Blanchot) or, surprisingly, those who don’t (Freud, who also had his ghosts).

The specter of Communism

What about the accusation of radicalism and aloofness? Derrida certainly gives ammunition to those conservatives critics who consider deconstruction as being equivalent to Marxism. As he acknowledges, « deconstruction would have been impossible and unthinkable in a pre-Marxist space. » For him, Marx is to be ranked among the great classics of modern thinking, perhaps alongside Nietzsche and Freud: « Upon rereading the Manifesto and a few other great works of Marx, I said to myself that I know of few texts in the philosophical tradition, perhaps none, whose lessons seemed more urgent today… It will always be a fault not to read and reread and discuss Marx. We no longer have any excuse, only alibis, for turning away from this responsibility. »

Upon closer scrutiny, however, Derrida takes some distances with the Marxist dogma, pointing out that Marx himself resented being called a Marxist. He doesn’t fully subscribe to « the concept of social class by means of which Marx so often determined the forces that are fighting for control of the hegemony. » As he points out, Communist regimes drew the political consequences of Marx « at the cost of millions and millions of supplementary ghosts who will keep on protesting in us. » He could have gone further along that line. But even though he shies away from addressing the issue squarely, Derrida reminds us that the specter of Communism indeed turned half of Europe into a world of wraith, of chimeras and hallucinations. The Communist specter made all reality ghostly. Marx’s obsession with ghosts turned out to be prophetic, and Derrida’s book allows us to reread him from that angle.

Catégories : Book reviews