Reading with Derrida: Spectres of Marx – Chapter 1: Injunctions of Marx (p. 3-6)

(Mis)Reading in Translation Series: Derrida

November 27, 2018


>>> [Read Notes on Dedication and Exordium (pp. xv – xx) HERE!]<<<


After months of hiatus in this blog, I want re-open again this space of writing with some notes on Derrida’s Spectres of Marx. You can read my previous notes on  the book’s Dedication and Exordium (pp. xv – xx) HERE! The full title of the book is Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International – three separable but connected conditions that particularly refers to the remnants of Marx’s elegiac traverse in history.

As one reads ahead, Derrida pursues new relation to these remnants by making them encounter their own unmaking and posturing as a presences. Derrida subjects every moment of imposition in the book into a sort of temporal inquiry, insisting not on the presencing of this and that concept, but on its provisionary concentration as a concept for a particular context.

Chapter 1: Injunctions of Marx (p. 3-6)


During Labor Day Rally @ Mediola, Manila. Source: Tonyo Cruz

Maintaining now the specters of Marx. (But maintaining now [maintenant] without conjuncture. A disjointed or disadjusted now, “out of joint,” a disajointed now that always risks maintaining nothing together in the assured conjunction of some context whose border would still be determinable.) (Derrida, 1994, p. 3)

For example, in the first paragraph of the first chapter, Derrida temporalizes the idea of the specters of Marx. He begins by making it a provisionary concept – maintaining, for now, its idea. The parenthetical commentary adds to this temporalizing gesture as Derrida clarifies the notion of ‘now,’ which is disjointed or disadjusted now and, this ‘now’ exist without an assured conjecture or a stable state of affairs. This is Derrida’s way of saying that the idea of spectres of Marx cannot be fulfilled under a single agreeable conjecture or context among sentient beings, or a certain customs, but rather, a context ‘whose border would still be determined.’ This is actually what makes Derrida’s book difficult to read as it approaches each conceptual notion as a deferral and defiance from its conventional meaning. Derrida insists on this methodological deferral as a means of opening the field from various multiple contextualizations of the issue.

Indeed, given this process of unclosing ‘presences’, which is, of course, a laborious process for Derrida, we can now see why Derrida’s philosophy must also be viewed as a metaphysical system. It seems to dwell on a certain conceptual anxiety and remains there as an operation of concept against itself, abstraction against abstraction. The final modality is expressed only as a form of linguistic hesitation, which can be summarized in the phrase: the negation of presence.

The specters of Marx. Why this plural? Would there be more than one of them? Plus d’un [More than one/No more one]: this can mean a crowd, if not masses, the horde, or society, or else some population of ghosts with or without a people, some community with or without a leader-but also the less than one of pure and simple dispersion. Without any possible gathering together. Then, if the specter is always animated by a spirit, one wonders who would dare to speak of a spirit of Marx, or more serious still, of a spirit of Marxism. Not only in order to predict a future for them today, but to appeal even to their multiplicity, or more serious still, to their heterogeneity.  (Derrida, 1994, pp. 3–4)

Aside from subjecting concepts to temporalization, one of Derrida’s method is circumvention. For example, in the second paragraph of Spectres of Marx above, Derrida does not go directly to the deliberate explanation of the concept. He circumvents this by focusing on a small linguistic remark: plurality. ‘Specters of Marx’ is a plural concept and, for Derrida, this implies a community (a crowd, a horde, society), but since specters implies ghosts, it means this plurality may not involve people. Plurality might also refer to a dispersed group of no collective subjectivity.

In the middle of the paragraph, Derrida shifts the focus: from his discussion of plurality, he then shifts to a supposition: ‘Then, if the spectre is always animated by a spirit…’ Spirit is used as qualifier of the spectre, of the haunting. An animation of spirit results to the movement of spectre as such. Derrida then integrates this to a question of ‘speaking of’ on behalf or for a certain group or plurality. In this sense, it becomes a question of plurality of spectres, that the ghost of Marx is not a singularity but a dispersed plurality.

More than a year ago, I had chosen to name the “specters” by their name starting with the title of this opening lecture. “Specters of Marx, the common noun and the proper name had thus been printed, they were already on the poster when, very recently, I reread The Manifesto of the Communist Party. I confess it to my shame: I had not done so for decades-and that must tell one something. I knew very well there was a ghost waiting there, and from the opening, from the raising of the curtain. Now, of course, I have just discovered, in truth I have just remembered what must have been haunting my memory: the first noun of the Manifesto, and this time in the Singular, is “specter” “A specter is haunting Europe–the specter of communism. (Derrida, 1994, p. 4)

In the next paragraph above, the origin of the inscription of spectre is traced which is also an explication of order of events: Derrida read Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto just in time when the plan of his talk was crystallized. Derrida is also haunted by his apologetics for forgetfulness (having not re-read book for decades) and his stunted response to a memory of reading the first noun of the book ‘spectre’ in Singular: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.’ Derrida, in this instance, encounters the untimely. Indeed, the co-incidence is enough to disrupt the whole purpose of the book – to unravel the meaning of spectres of Marx in general. This, too, is Derrida’s temporalization of the concept using the untimely.

Exordium or incipit: this first noun opens, then, the first scene of the first act: “Ein Gespenst geht urn in Europa-das Gespenst des Kommunismus.” As in Hamlet, the Prince of a rotten State, everything begins by the apparition of a specter. More precisely by the waiting for this apparition. The anticipation is at once impatient, anxious, and fascinated: this, the thing (“this thing”) will end up coming. The revenant is going to come. l It won’t be long. But how long it is taking. Still more precisely, everything begins in the imminence of a re-apparition, but a reapparition of the specter as apparition for the first time in the play. The spirit of the father is going to come back and will soon say to him “I am thy Fathers Spirit” (I, iv), but here, at the beginning of the play, he comes back, so to speak, for the first time. It is a first, the first time on stage. (Derrida, 1994, p. 4)

What follows is a paragraph (see above) of comparative circumvention. Earlier in the introductory pages, we have seen numerous references to Hamlet. Spectres of Marx is really an encounter between two writers: Karl Marx and William Shakespeare, in particular, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which a ghost also appears in the first scene and first act. Derrida finds this similarity untimely, and it is the conceptual source of Derrida’s trope. In this paragraph, we can see how Derrida unshackles the relation as alongside. Though Derrida is primarily talking about Hamlet, in his words ‘the anticipation is at once impatient, anxious and fascinated…’, Derrida is doubly referring to Marx’s spectre: ‘The revenant is going to come… The spirit of the father is going to come back and will soon say to him…’ as if spoken as a prophecy.

Derrida’s method is always ridden with temporal elements. In this case, he was specific to point out that the appearance of revenant in Hamlet is a reapparition of the ghost, but due to the reordering of the events, it appears for the first time on stage. Derrida then withholds his inquiry and proceed into one of his long parenthetical remarks.


[First suggestion: haunting is historical, to be sure, but it is not dated, it is never docilely given a date in the chain of presents, day after day, according to the instituted order of a calendar. Untimely, it does not come to, it does not happen to, it does not befall, one day, Europe, as if the latter, at a certain moment of its history, had begun to suffer from a certain evil, to let itself be inhabited in its inside, that is, haunted by a foreign guest. Not that that guest is any less a stranger for having always occupied the domesticity of Europe. But there was no inside, there was nothing inside before it. The ghostly would displace itself like the movement of this history Haunting would mark the very existence of Europe. It would open the space and the relation to self of what is called by this name, at least since the Middle Ages. The experience of the specter, that is how Marx, along with Engels, will have also thought, described, or diagnosed a certain dramaturgy of modern Europe, notably that of its great unifying projects. One would even have to say that he represented it or staged it. In the shadow of a filial memory, Shakespeare will have often inspired this Marxian theatricalization. Later, closer to us but according to the same genealogy, in the nocturnal noise of its concatenation, the rumbling sound of ghosts chained to ghosts, another descendant would be Valery. Shakespeare qui genuit Marx qui genuit Valery (and a few others). (Derrida, 1994, pp. 4–5)

Derrida’s parenthetical remarks are long. In the book, this is the first long or major parenthetical remark. And this parenthetical remark is in the form of a suggestion, a clarificatory suggestion. In this suggestion, Derrida is hesitant to announce the closure of the idea that ‘haunting is historical’.  He insists on the dialectical relation of haunting and history.

 His first point is haunting is not calendrical – not a string of presences. His second point is outside of the first. Morphing in the sentence, Derrida was thinking through the notion of the untimeliness of haunting in relation to the contextual field of Europe. Haunting does not befall Europe. But Derrida was responsive of how haunting is related to certain historical narrative of Europe, in particular, how Marx and Engels sees their project as a certain ‘dramathurgy of Europe… and its unifying projects.’ Derrida even suggested that Marx was the one who staged it – referring of course to the anti-capitalist movement. Derrida was actually particularly interested at how Marx and Shakespeare share a dual trajectory as in “In the shadow of a filial memory, Shakespeare will have often inspired this Marxian theatricalization.” This is core relation of the book, the in-betweeness of Marx & Shakespeare as Derrida finds both of them at the foot of a spectre. And in the latter half of the paragraph, Derrida observes that there is a genealogy that can traced from Shakespeare to Marx to Valery in relation to ghosts.

But what goes between these generations? An omission, a strange lapsus. Da, then fort, exit Marx. In “La crise de l’ esprit” (“The Crisis of Spirit, 1919: “As for us, civilizations, we know now we are mortal “). the name of Marx appears just once. It inscribes itself, here is the name of a skull to come into Hamlet’s hands:

Now, on an immense terrace of Elsinore, which stretches from Basel to Cologne, that touches on the sands of  Nieuport, the lowlands of the Somme, the chalky earth of Champagne, the granite earth of Alsace-the European Hamlet looks at thousands of specters. But he is an intellectual Hamlet. He meditates on the life and death of truths. His ghosts are all the objects of our controversies; his remorse is all the titles of our glory. Ifhe seizes a skull, it is an illustrious skull-“Whose was it?”-This one was Lionardo. And this other skull is that of Leibniz who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant qui genuit Hegel, qui genuit Marx, qui genuit. Hamlet does not know whatto do with all these skulls. But if he abandons them! Will he cease to be himself?  (Derrida, 1994, p. 5)

Derrida then elaborated how Valery look at the genealogy of these spirits that can be traced between Hamlet and Marx. In this passage, Derrida quotes an alluring passage in Valery’s book The Crisis of Spirit. In the passage, a dramatization of Hamlet holding a skull ensues. Hamlet lifts a skull that belong to Lionardo (a reference to Leonardo da Vinci?) and another skull that belongs to Leibniz, another series of skulls that belong to the great European minds of past millennium: Kant, Hegel, Marx and so on.

In the endnote attached to this long quote, Derrida elaborates the importance of Valery’s book: as a book that seeks to “reintroduce the question of Europe as a question of spirit — which is to say that of the specter” (Derrida, 1994, p. 178). Derrida affirms Valery’s notion of the question of Europe as a question of specter which is also central in Marx’s works, in particular, the specter of communism. In the same endnote, we see Derrida’s statement of objectives: ‘In a more general and more implicit manner, the present essay pursues earlier paths: around the work of mourning that would be coextensive with all work in general… on the problematic border between incorporation and introjection, on the effective but limited pertinence of this conceptual opposition, as well as the one that separates failure from success in the work of mourning, the pathology and the normality of mourning, on the surviving of a survival that is reducible neither to living nor dying, on the economy of debt and gift.” (Derrida, 1994, p. 178). By ‘all work’ here, Derrida refers to all his works that resonate with the project of spectres.

For Derrida, the logic of spectrality is inseparable to the motif of deconstruction, as it often resonates with Derrida’s published essay for the last twenty years (1974 to 1994). The essays are as follows:

  • Glas [Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1986]
  • “Fors,” Preface to The Wolfman’s Magic Word, by N. Abraham and M. Torok [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986]
  • “Shibboleth,” in Midrash and Literature, eds. Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick [New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1986]
  • Cinders [Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1991)
  • Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989]
  • Mémoires, for Paul de Man [New York: Columbia University Press, 1989])
  • “Living On,” in Deconstruction and Criticism, eds. Geoffrey Hartman et al. [New York: Seabury Press, 1979]
  • Given Time [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992

If you are interested in the concept of spectrality, in relation to deconstruction, you may also read these texts. This is to say that the concept of spectrality is not only explored, dealt with, and contextualized in the book Specters of Marx. It is scattered or disseminated across these texts without any context whatsoever.

Later, in “La politique de l’ esprit,” Valery has just defined man and politics. Man: “an attempt to create what I will venture to call the spirit of spirit.” As for politics, it always “implies some idea of man.” At this point, Valery quotes himself He reproduces the page of “the European Hamlet, the one we have just cited. Curiously, with the errant but infallible assurance of a sleepwalker, he then omits from it only one sentence, just one, without even signalling the omission by an ellipsis: the one that names Marx, in the very skull of Kant (“And this one was Kant qui genuit Hegel, qui genuit Marx, qui genuit “).5 Why this omission, the only one? The name of Marx has disappeared. Where did it go? Exeunt Ghost and Marx, Shakespeare might have noted. The name of the one who disappeared must have gotten inscribed else. (Derrida, 1994, p. 5)

The next passage dwells primarily on Valery.  Derrida is interested about Valery’s textual elaborations of the concept of man and politics. Valery quotes himself in the passage but omits Marx in the process of writing the elipsis. Derrid is curious: why the omission of Marx in the text on man and politics? Was it an obvert conscious omission? Hence, Derrida postulates that the disappearance of Marx’s name may have imply that it is inscribed elsewhere. But he did not answer where in the next paragraph.

In what he says, as well as in what he forgets to say about the skulls and generations of spirits, Valery reminds us of at least three things. These three things concern precisely this thing that is called spirit. As soon as one no longer distinguishes spirit from specter, the former assumes a body, it incarnates itself, as spirit, in the specter. Or rather, as Marx himself spells out, and we will get to this, the specter is a paradoxical incorporation, the becoming-body, a certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit. It becomes, rather, some “thing” that remains difficult to name: neither soul nor body, and both one and the other. For it is flesh and phenomenality that give to the spirit its spectral apparition, but which disappear right away in the apparition, in the very coming of the revenant or the return of the specter. There is something disappeared, departed in the apparition itself as reapparition of the departed. The spirit, the specter are not the same thing, and we will have to sharpen this difference; but as for what they have in common, one does not know what it is, what it is presently It is something that one does not know, precisely, and one does not know if precisely it is, if it exists, if it responds to a name and corresponds to an essence. One does not know: not out of ignorance, but because this non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one no longer belongs to knowledge. At least no longer to that which one thinks one knows by the name of knowledge. One does not know if it is living or if it is dead. Here is-or rather there is, over there, an unnameable or almost unnameable thing: something, between something and someone, anyone or anything, some thing, “this thing,” but this thing and not any other, this thing that looks at us, that concerns us [qui nous regarde], comes to defy semantics as much as ontology, psychoanalysis as much as philosophy (“Marcellus: What, ha’s this thing appear’d againe tonight? Barnardo: I haue seene nothing”). The Thing is still invisible, it is nothing visible (“I haue seene nothing”) at the moment one speaks of it and in order to ask oneself if it has reappeared. It is still nothing that can be seen when one speaks of it. It is no longer anything that can be seen when Marcellus speaks of it, but it has been seen twice. And it is in order to adjust speech to sight that Horatio the skeptic has been convoked. He will serve as third party and witness (terstis): if againe this Apparition come, He may approue our eyes and speake to it” (I, i). (Derrida, 1994, pp. 5–6)

In this long passage, Derrida explains indirectly why Marx’s name has disappeared in Valery’s text. In a summary passage, Derrida explains Valery’s politics in three things. First thing is when the spirit loses its distinguishable characteristics with the spectre, the spirit assumes a body and incarnates or possesses the spectre. This lead Derrida to conclude that the spectre is the becoming-body of the spirit, becoming some ‘thing’, neither soul nor body, both one and the other.



1 Comment

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One response to “Reading with Derrida: Spectres of Marx – Chapter 1: Injunctions of Marx (p. 3-6)

  1. Pingback: January 2019: Round-Up | OMNITUDO | Interventions in Cinema & Philosophy

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