Reading with Derrida: Specters of Marx (pp. xv – xx)

(Mis)Reading in Translation Series: Derrida

June 3, 2018


A screen capture from the film Ghost Dance (Ken McMullen / USA / 1983)

Jacques Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence is perhaps one of the most enigmatic and problematic, and also one of the most original philosophical assertions I have read in years. There is no direct way to learn about Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence and deconstruction without falling into the abyss of circuitous language and playful questioning that demand from the reader to question oneself in process and in relation to the question-at-hand.

978-0-226-14326-2-frontcoverIn my years of philosophical research, Derrida’s essays proved to be a linguistic roadblock in my goal to fully understand his idea of time. I have tried reading his essay Ousia and Gramme: Note on a Note from Being and Time from the book Margins of Philosophy where he first inscribed his idea of the critique of metaphysics of presence, yet I found myself thrown in a world of mixed neologisms and circuitous questioning that opened more questions resulting to a feeling of dread, alienation and incomprehension that I happily coined as theoretical shock. In the middle of the essay, there was no other way to go but to course through the text, without full comprehension.

In reading Of Grammatology, one also experiences a similar dread. Spivak made it sound urgent when she wrote the Preface. She laid out the political compass of the work. But when one gets into the main text, one 419Rmj1OdyL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_suddenly feels lost in abstruse language. One has to make a choice: either to quit reading and recover by reading a secondary text instead, or to plow through the dense passages that seemingly mocks the reader for having known so little. Differance is another essay that confuses me. It seems as though, to read Derrida, one has to read what he had read. All the magisterial and authoritative texts he particularly reference to in his texts are part of the labor of reading Derrida. This creates more complication because of the voluminous contextual layers and relations that exist between Derrida’s texts and the magisterial and authoritative text he cite and attribute. The reader of Derrida would have to choose whether to navigate his text alone or explore the complex web of relations and expanded politics of Derrida’s texts and his subjects.

In this series, I will attempt to read Derrida’s Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and the New International (1994) page-by-page in order to extract a productive relation between Marx and Derrida and to flesh out one of the key concepts I want to develop in my thesis, the notion of aporetic limits that undermines both the metaphysics of presence and metaphysics of long duration.

Introduction. What is Specters of Marx?  


The book Spectres of Marx was given as a two-part plenary speech in a multinational multidisciplinary conference titled “Whither Marxism? Global Crises in International Perspective” conducted in April 22-24, 1993 at the University of California, Riverside. The conference was organized by Bernd Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg, both UC Riverside professors of philosophy. The paper delivered by Derrida were re-edited, translated and repackaged and published in book form as a cultural product.

The book is also Derrida’s first sustained engagement with Marx and Marxism. It is also about ghosts, spectres and the untimely. It is also about justice and responsibility, of the future-to-come, and of the irretrievable past. My reading is not an attempt at mastering the text, but a matter of coursing through, a visitation to the text from the outside, for the spaces of its inscription. “What is Spectres of Marx?” is a also a question posted too soon, that this paragraph lends itself to its own deconstitution.

Part 1. A Dedication to a South African Communist



Chris Hani. Image Source

Bibliographic Note: Derrida, J. (1994). Dedication. In P. Kamuf (Trans.), Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (pp. xv–xvi). New York and London: Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.


One name for another, a part for the whole: the historic violence of the Apartheid can be treated as a metonymy’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xv). This is first line you will read in the book when you open Specters of Marx at its ‘Dedication’ page . Let me repeat again, ‘one name for another, a part for the whole’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xv). Have you notice Derrida’s mode of qualification? There is a particular element of measuring and partitioning (‘a part for the whole’), of substitution (‘one name for another’) and of putting something into order: to substitute and yet to put into order as if nothing has happened. The second phrase goes: ‘[the historical violence of the Apartheid can be treated as a metonymy’(Derrida, 1994, p. xv).  At its full stop, this phrase completes the sentence. We have a full picture of what Derrida is talking about.

Metonymy is an idiomatic expression operating by means of substitution: suits instead of business executives, pen instead of the written word, being a helping hand instead of being a helper. One word, replaced for another in a seemingly disproportionate operation of substitution and replacement. We glide further into the text only to reveal, in the process, that the metonymy Derrida wants us to understand is the on-going and countless crises in the world after the dissolution of socialists states in Soviet Union and other parts of the world, and the coming of the Gulf War in the Middle East. For Derrida, the crisis and historic violence of the Apartheid stands for all of the atrocities of happening in the world when Derrida was delivering this paper in April 22nd of 1993. Today, one could easily think of the violent Gaza protests in the Palestinian-Israeli border as a metonymy of the violent times. Derrida puts it in most urgent form, bearing a battle cry: ‘At once part, cause, effect, example, what is happening there translates what takes place here, always here, wherever one is and wherever one looks, closest to home. Infinite responsibility, therefore, no rest allowed for any form of good conscience’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xv). For Derrida, the metonymy is now a causal translational relation wherein what is substituted is now more or less felt, seen, re-experienced across different milieus. With this ontological reality unfolding, the stakes are higher, and therefore one must be vigilant at all times.

The Assassination of a Man, a Communist: Chris Hani


Protester during the death of Chris Hani. source

Derrida proceeds: ‘But one should never speak of the assassination of a man as a figure, not even an exemplary figure in the logic of an emblem, a rhetoric of a the flag of martyrdom’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xv). In this paragraph, Derrida first laid out his thesis of what a man’s worth is. He find it unpleasant to figure a man who has just been assassinated as an emblem, a hero. Derrida felt this is something impermissible in the face of justice.

Derrida’s thesis: ‘A man’s life, as unique as his death, will always be more than a paradigm and something other than a symbol. And this is precisely what a proper name should always name’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xv) presents a glaring warning to those who have always put forward the emblematic image of a man who has just died.

Afterwards, Derrida narrates a story from memory: ‘I recall that it is a communist as such, a communist as communist, whom a Police emigrant and his accomplices, all the assassins of Chris Hani, put to death a few days ago.’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xvi) Notice how he places Chris Hani in the middle of the sentence not as the main subject (‘a communist as such, a communist as communist’) but part of the clause supporting another object. In this instance, there is an attempt at redrawing the line of naming. Derrida was careful not to put Chris Hani’s proper name in vain, not to commemorate a figure, or constitute a paradigm on behalf of his life or death, but to name him in passing. In Derrida’s process of reaffirming an ethical way of naming, he is also, in relation to Marx, reconstituting the subjectivity of communism, the party (‘a minority Communist Party riddled with contradictions’ [Derrida, 1994, p. xvi]), and its othering during the democratization process of post-Apartheid Africa via Chris Hani’s reversal from a heroic figure to a figure of dissent, ‘dangerous and seemingly intolerable,’ which caused Chris Hani his own life.

Spectres of Marx pays tribute to Chris Hani, his memory, his ghost and the ghosts of other Marxists, Communists, of Marx, of communism, reaffirming again, yet indirectly, Marx’s untimely relevance not as a figure, or an emblem, but a specter.


Part 2. An Exordium on the Untimeliness of Justice


Bibliographic Note: Derrida, J. (1994). Exordium. In P. Kamuf (Trans.), Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (pp. xvii–xx). New York and London: Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.

An exordium follows the dedication, as if, in the beginning, Derrida subjects us, the readers, to a complete rupture, showing us the real ethical stakes of the book, the people who died, assassinated, in the name of an ideological belief. He announces this before going in, before coming to terms with the complexity of the issue. Between the book’s exordium and its dedication page is a bridge of knowledge that one has to cross. There is a necessary adjustment, a necessary step-back, which can be both rattling and unsettling. From dedication to exordium, one leaps from reality to philosophy.

The word exordium is a lesser known term for introduction or opening chapter. It somehow positioned as an outside text, serving as both a preface and an introduction.

01-Specters of Marx-Marginal Notes-Adrian Mendizabal

My annotations on Specters of Marx (p. xvii)

Derrida’s exordium in Spectres of Marx is essentially an introduction to the untimeliness of justice. However, like most of his writings, he starts from the most unlikely beginnings, a question about living: ‘Someone, you or me, comes forward and says: I would like to learn to live finally. Finally but why?’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xvii). There is a seemingly vast distance between the idea of justice and the idea of living, but for Derrida there is a strange connection between the two.

Derrida further interrogates the question he posted:

‘To learn to live: a strange watchword. Who would learn? From whom? To teach to live, but to whom? Will we ever know? Will ever know how to live and first of all what “to learn to live” means? And why “finally”?’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xvii).

For some who are not familiar with Derrida’s writing, this linguistic convolutions are taxing, if not frustrating. Question after question, the reader and the author are engaged in an internal debate, that neither of them are willing to surmount. The purpose of Derrida’s circuitous questioning is actually simple. He posted a statement, not coming from him directly, but from ‘someone’ in order not to presuppose his subject. In asking questions, he does not foreclose the argument. A period closure would render an argument open to essentialist attack, and Derrida, being so careful, being true to the deconstructive forces already at work in the text, being so ethically conscious, opens the argument into an active site of questioning. A statement, a strange watchword ‘to learn to live’ is now being interrogated in several facets: the subject (‘who would learn?’), the origin of knowledge (‘from whom?’), the recipient of knowledge (‘to whom?’), an assurance of knowledge transfer (‘will we ever know how to live… what “learn to live” means’), and an element of time (‘why “finally”?’).

All these are further qualified in different scenarios in the course of the text. By paragraph, Derrida reifies different locutions of the watchword ‘to learn to live.’


First Qualification: ‘To learn to live’ Without Context

01A-Specters of Marx-Marginal Notes-Adrian Mendizabal

First qualification of ‘to learn to live’

In this passage, Derrida presented the nil condition of the watchword ‘to learn to live,’ that is, to view it without context, by itself, as self-positing. The watchword is more or less empty if viewed without context, or if viewed out of context. We are already hinted that this particular detour to context is entirely referenced to his old essay Signature Event Context: ‘a context, always, remains open, thus fallible and insufficient’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xvii). It goes without saying that context is insufficient in clarifying the meaning of ‘to learn to live’. Hence, this requires Derrida to move further, by placing the watchword beyond context and writing.

Second Qualification: ‘To Learn to Live’ from a Position of Authority

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Second Qualification of ‘to learn to live’

If uttered from the lips of the master, meaning from a position of authority, it becomes an asymmetrical address. It can only matter if uttered from a dominant perspective (a father, a teacher, a master) addressed to a point of subjugation (a son to a father, a student to a teacher, a slave to master). Derrida considers this relation as a form of violence. It comes in three forms: learning as imparting the logics of experience, learning as a form of education, or a learning as a form of taming or training. Derrida now qualifies to learn to live within the logistics of power, answering three of his questions: the subject, the origin of knowledge and recipient of knowledge. But this is not the final configuration that Derrida wants to bring to us.

Third Qualification: ‘To learn to live’ as a Border between Life and Death

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Third Qualification of ‘to learn to live’

Derrida further draws us to his circuitous method of investigating a phrasal remark, the watchword ‘to learn to live,’ to partially bring us to a definitive clarity. In this section, Derrida positions his qualificatory investigation, first, in terms knowing if one can learn to live ‘from oneself and by oneself’. The question of living by oneself sparks the Marxist idea of the importance of social relations in one’s life. Indeed, Derrida stresses: ‘To live, by definition, is not something one learns. Not from oneself, it is not learned from life, taught by life. Only from the other and by death.’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xviii). Marx initially noted that human essence is not an abstraction, but rather ‘it is an ensemble of social relations’ (Marx, 2002, para. 10). Derrida is partially hinting on Marx’s notion of the necessity of social relations (‘only from the other’) in a Levinisian sense (‘the other’), before reinscribing the notion of ‘death,’ which is by part influenced by Heidegger.

Fourth Qualification: ‘To learn to live’ as a Category of Justice

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Fourth Qualification of ‘To learn to live’

This is where Derrida reorients the inquiry of ‘to learn to live’ within the category of justice. Derrida arrives at this momentous idea of justice from a series of paradoxical remarks. Earlier in the text, Derrida arrives at a point that ‘to live’ means one cannot learn it from oneself but only from other and by death. Now, Derrida points us to a paradoxical fact that ‘one does anything else but learn to live, alone, from oneself, by oneself’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xviii). However, Derrida put this in a way that returns to the necessity for a just society to live for each other: that one can be alive for oneself in a just way ‘unless it comes to terms with death. Mine as (well as) that of the other’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xviii). This is how Derrida sees justice: as an ethics in relation to censure of life, or death. Only in the absence of life can one think of justice.

Fifth Qualification: ‘To Learn to Live’ as Spectral Category (Between Life and Death) 

04-Specters of Marx-Marginal Notes-Adrian Mendizabal

Fifth qualification of ‘to learn to live’

We have come to the initial crystallization of Derrida’ notion of justice by coining the idea of the spectre. In this initial remark, Derrida interrogates the notion of learning just living as one that can only be situated between life and death. One must note that ‘to live’ is different from ‘learning to live.’ One is a productive activity, while the other involves a production of knowledge. ‘To live’ in itself is an activity that neither requires justice or ethics. But ‘learning to live’ is not a simple activity. What Derrida wants us to understand is that it is itself a form of ethical question that can only be answered if one comes to terms with death. Hence, Derrida places this ethical question between life and death, not only in terms of life, but of death, and hence, the appearance of the spectre.

The spectre is a powerful figure or metaphor or symbol in the book and has many meanings, many forms, and many temporalities. Its impermanency provides Derrida a pliant trope to reconfigure his arguments with spectrality. More or less we can describe Derrida’s method as one that possesses liquidity: the capacity for each argument to fit in different ‘containers’ or categories.

In this passage alone, spectre is defined and qualified in several ways, that is has (1) no substance, (2) no essence, (3) no existence, (4) is never present as such (Derrida, 1994, p. xviii). If one is wondering about the temporality of our watchword ‘to learn to live,’ Derrida, in this part, has shown us that the question of time, since it bears the spectrality of ghosts, neither living nor dead, is ‘without a tutelary present,’ out of joint (Derrida, 1994, p. xviii).

Derrida leads us further to conclude that ‘to learn to live’ is actually to ‘to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xviii). This is the just way of living: to live with them (ghosts). At this part, Derrida further moves towards an important remark: ‘No being-with the other, no socius without this with that makes being-with in general more enigmatic than ever for us’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xviii). The importance of ‘with’ and ‘with-ness’ or togetherness with the other is always underscored in ‘learning to live.’

Derrida also points out that ‘learning to live’ with spectres also involves ‘a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xix). At the point, Derrida effaces history, which is important to Marx. Is being-with spectres also a coming to terms with the politics of history? Derrida steps back from the position of history to memory, inheritance and generations, as those which concern ethics.

Derrida on the Spectrality of Justice

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Derrida on the spectrality of justice

In this passage, Derrida reaches a culminating remark where he would eventually create a relation between spectres and justice. In some sense, we are also given a new subjectivity of spectres: ‘… certain others who are not present, not presently living, either to us, in us, or outside us…’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xix). The spectres that Derrida particular refer to now are others who are excluded in the metaphysics of presence, meaning, if we are allowed to extend this to the material conditions of society, those people excluded, erased, alienated from the ruling class discourse. In this sense, in a capitalist system, the proletariat is the specters of the ruling class, and they are not ghosts, but people absented from the ruling class discourse, yet they haunt the capitalists’ industrial complex precisely because of their potential to seize the means of production from the bourgeois enterprise.

Derrida also speaks of justice, but instead of coining justice from a definitive stance i.e. from its etymology and historical provenance, he reframes it in the face of its absence: ‘Of justice where it is not yet, not yet there, where it is no longer, let us understand where it is no longer present, and where it will never be, no more than the law, reducible to laws or rights’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xix). Derrida, at this point, insists on speaking about justice in the face of its absence, in the face of something beyond the idea of ‘justice’ enforced by laws and rights. He is spectralizing justice.

He goes further by spectralizing the notion of ‘speaking of ghosts’: to speak of ghosts ‘from the moment that no ethics, no politics…seem possible and thinkable and just that does not recognize in its principle the respect for those other who are no longer or for those who are not yet there, presently living, whether they are already dead or not yet born’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xix). Derrida, at the point, further clarifies the ethical significance of speaking of ghosts (or perhaps the untimely): that it can only be possible to speak of them, if there is a respect for those subjects that are not yet existing or has already ceased to exist.

This somehow points us to the importance of responsibility in relation to justice. Derrida finally culminates with his constitution of his concept of spectral justice:

‘No justice—let us not say no law and once again we are not speaking here of laws—seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism.’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xix)

Derrida’s notion of spectral justice is hinged on the notion of responsibility that goes beyond the constitutional justice enforced by law (‘we are not speaking here of laws’). Derrida therefore expands the idea of justice as encompassing infinitude of responsibility inclusive of those who are not outside the scope of the constitutional legitimacy. What is unique in Derrida’s idea of justice is it contains an untimely temporal signature (‘non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present’), an order of time that seem to disenfranchise the law’s constitutional metaphysics of presence.

The Inclusive Infinity of Spectral Justice

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Inclusive infinity of justice

In the next passages, Derrida further explores the temporality of this spectral justice. For there to be an inclusive justice, it must be conceived ‘beyond therefore the living present in general… and beyond its simple negative reversal’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xx). The time of justice is therefore a spectral moment, ‘furtive and untimely’, ‘no longer belongs to time’, ‘beyond the living present,’ or from a certain infinity outside of the present.

The Empirical or Ontological Actuality of Justice

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Epistemological or Ontological actuality of justice

In the concluding paragraph, Derrida inscribes his provisional notion of justice. But before that, Derrida asks two clarificatory questions. First concerns the persona who should commit to the obligation of justice. Derrida puts forward a spectral justice that answers to ghosts, but he also asks to whom is the commitment of the obligation of justice due. Derrida also asks in the second clarificatory question is a typological one: a justice that answers for itself other than life.

Derrida resolves these questions by constituting the empirical or ontological actuality of justice:

‘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 themselves be but trace 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 any effectivity.’ (Derrida, 1994, p. xx)

Derrida is now refiguring justice’s empirical or ontological actuality as a trace, a non-presence remainder, a surviving figment that disrupts the identity of the living present. Hence, Derrida insists that the actuality of justice requires one to reckon with the spirits.


Conclusion: Is Spectral Justice Possible in Cinema?


A screen capture from the film Ghost Dance (Ken McMullen / USA / 1983)

We ask therefore: is it spectral justice possible for cinema? If indeed cinema is marked by a ghostly apparition, according to Derrida’s interview with Cahiers du Cinema: 

‘The cinematic experience belongs thoroughly to spectrality, which I link to all that has been said about the specter in psychoanalysis—or to the very nature of the trace. The specter, which is neither living nor dead, is at the center of certain of my writings, and it’s in this connection that, for me, a thinking of cinema would perhaps be possible. What’s more, the links between spectrality and filmmaking occasion numerous reflections today. Cinema can stage phantomality almost head-on, to be sure, as in a tradition of fantasy film, vampire or ghost films, certain works of Hitchcock . . . This must be distinguished from the thoroughly spectral structure of the cinematic image. Every viewer, while watching a film, is in communication with some work of the unconscious that, by definition, can be compared with the work of haunting, according to Freud. He calls this the experience of what is “uncanny” (unheimlich). Psychoanalysis,  psychoanalytic reading, is at home at the movies. First of all, psychoanalysis and filmmaking are really contemporaries; numerous phenomena linked to projection, to spectacle, to the perception of this spectacle, have psychoanalytic equivalents. Walter Benjamin realized this very quickly when he connected almost straightaway the two processes: film analysis and psychoanalysis. Even the seeing and perception of detail in a film are in direct relation with psychoanalytic procedure. Enlargement does not only enlarge; the detail gives access to another scene, a heterogeneous scene. Cinematic perception has no equivalent; it is alone in being able to make one understand through experience what a psychoanalytic practice is: hypnosis, fascination, identification, all these terms and procedures are common to film and to psychoanalysis, and this
is the sign of a “thinking together” that seems primordial to me.’ (de Baecque, Jousse, & Kamuf, 2015, p. 26)

Can cinema allow us to inscribe a justice that particularly deals with ghosts: neither living nor dead, ‘without a tutelary present,’ out of joint (Derrida, 1994, p. xviii)? It seems that, in the purview of our (mis)reading of Derrida’s exordium in Specters of Marx, untimely justice is possible in cinema. It is one of the technological mediums (seance instruments of sorts) that is capable of conceiving representational forms of traces (traces of the past or the future), historical traces, monstrous traces, traces of the future, traces of the past, traces of the untimely, unknown, and most especially, if seized from its capitalist mode of production, cinema can conceive the subjectivity of the proletariat, the most revolutionary of all specters.



de Baecque, A., Jousse, T., & Kamuf, P. (2015). Cinema and Its Ghosts: An Interview with Jacques Derrida. Discourse, 37(1–2), 22.

Derrida, J. (1994). Dedication. In P. Kamuf (Trans.), Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (pp. xv–xvi). New York and London: Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.

Derrida, J. (1994). Exordium. In P. Kamuf (Trans.), Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (pp. xvii–xx). New York and London: Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.

Marx, K. (2002). Theses On Feuerbach. Retrieved June 11, 2018, from



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