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Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International Paperback – May 1 2006
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From Library Journal
Linking Hamlet's ghost with the opening of the Communist Manifesto, the noted French philosopher (Aporias, LJ 2/15/94) meditates on the state and future of Marxism since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Developing two highly expanded lectures, Derrida notes that the current talk of the "new world order" and "the end of history" is the recurrence of a old debate, an attempt to exorcise the "spirit" represented by Marxism, just as Marx was concerned with the "ghosts" and "conjuring" of capitalism. Derrida argues that the deconstructive doctrine of "differance" and Marxism as an act posit many Marxisms. It is therefore the interpreter's duty to preserve the spirit of Marxism by pursuing the ghosts and laying bare the conjurings. This is Derrida's first major statement on Marx; an important book for academic collections.
T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong State Coll., Savannah, Ga.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
"Its importance within the Derridean canon cannot be overemphasized ... The text that scholars turn to ... to understand the politics of deconstruction." – Southern Humanities Review
"One of Derrida's best books." – New Statesman and SocietySee all Product Description
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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.
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 moulded 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. 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).
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.
With that being said, this is not even really a work on Marxism, historical materialism, or even "social" movements, per se. I read this work as affirming the undying desire for emancipation and uncovering the limits of the Marxist/leftist movements and how they are treated within academia. Marx is used as one example among many possible, just as he uses Fukuyama. I would also disagree with the previous reviewer and say that the more I read it, the more elucidating, exciting, and emancipatory this text became. This text is about infinite responsibility, inheritance, and creating "a new opening of event-ness."
I'll close with a quote from Jean Birmbaum who writes, "It is here that we find again the theme of transmission, of legacy, the 'politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations' that is sought in Derrida's Specters of Marx, on the horizon of an obligation to justice and an endless responsibility before 'the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead.'"
Importantly, the book begins with a scene from Hamlet. The old king is giving an injunction to do responsibility to his memory. Importantly, Hamlet has the pivotal line, "Time is out of joint." Precisely. We have a responsibility to READ Marx, not X, Y, or Z's interpretation of Marx. What does Marx say? We must clear the debris of both scholars and killers from his name and work. What did Marx have to do with the Gulag, the Soviet Union in any way what so ever? Nothing, of course. Nonetheless, Whether from the right or the left his name has been associated with so much perversity or promise during the 20th Cenhttp://www.amazon.com/review/create-review/ref=cm_cr_dp_wr_but_right?ie=UTF8&nodeID=283155&asin=0415389577&store=books tury that we can see him only as a ghostly demarcation, and it is certainly no wonder that his message is not a kingly imperative.
Part of the debt of mourning we owe to those who bequeathed us their ideas is to take the responsibility to rediscover their works, the material that can be held in one's hand, precisely as their works. And make no mistake, this is a sacred responsibility. One to be upheld, in part at least, to combat the sort of bombastic "The King is dead. Long live the King!" shouting represented by, say, Francis Fukuyama's stunning book, The End of History and the Last Man. This vision--Hegel in triumph having been turned back upright to see the Reign of the Spirit of Capitalism and Christianity--would be the title's "New International." Fukahaha had no doubt that History has finally culminated in the victory and immanent universalization of the free-market economy lead by it's Christian soldiers. (For the sake of fairness, Fukuyama had the intellectual integrity to repudiate most of this earlier work in a critique of his fellow Neo-Cons and their continued certainties, which one may lead right into Iraq 2003). Derrida, generally mild even in the process of eviscerating a particular point of view, took off the gloves here. He knocked Fukuyama on his ass in 1993. I have noted that he had the guts and integrity to stand back up 10 years later, in the midst of what else but the global catastrophe wrought by...guess. Yes, the very free market cum New International, which had crowed far before the dawn of a catastrophe the longest shadows of which we more than likely still await.
Specters of Marx is one of Derrida's more broadly important texts and deserves as what it is, not as what many who have reviewed it here thus far think it ought to be. Indeed, Derrida had now joined those intellectual forefathers to whom we owe so much. If he is read responsibly, and if he has taught us to read others with a sense of the honor due their legacy, then, love him or hate him, one must admire the way in which he improves our own work, our own time.
He states in an introductory section of this 1994 book, “At the origin of this book was a lecture given in two sessions, April 22 and 23, 1993, at the University of California, Riverside. That lecture opened an international colloquium… under the ambiguous title ‘Whither Marxism?’ in which one may hear beneath the question ‘Where is Marxism going?’ another question: ‘Is Marxism dying?’’
He poses the rhetorical statement, “‘Return to Marx, let’s finally read him as a great philosopher.’ We have heard this and we will hear it again. It is something altogether other that I wish to attempt here… It is ‘something other’ to the point that I will have occasion instead… to do everything we can so as to avoid a neutralizing anesthesia of a new theoreticism, and to prevent a philosophico-philological return to Marx from prevailing.” (Pg. 32)
He calls Francis Fukuyama’s book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ as “a new gospel, the noisiest, the most mediatized, the most ‘successful’… one on the subject of the death of Marxism as the end of history?... It is by design, of course, that we called it a moment ago a ‘gospel’? Why a gospel? Why would the formula here be neo-testamentary? This book claims to bring a ‘positive response’ to a question whose formation and formulation are never interrogated in themselves…” (Pg. 56) Later, he adds, “one should not be unfair to the book. Although such works remain fascinating, their very incoherence and sometimes their distressing primitivity play the role of symptomatic signal which one must account for as well as possible.” (Pg. 69)
He states, “Permit me to recall very briefly that a certain deconstructive procedure, at least the one in which I thought I had to engage, consisted from the outset in putting into question the onto-theo- but also archaeo-teleological concept of history---in Hegel, Marx, or even in the epochal thinking of Heidegger. Not in order to oppose it with and end of history or an anhistoricity, but, on the contrary, in order to show that this onto-theo-archaeo-teleology locks up, neutralizes, and finally cancels historicity… That is why such a deconstruction has never been Marxist, no more than it has ever been non-Marxist, although it has remained faithful to a certain spirit of Marxism, to at least one of its spirits for, and this can never be repeated too often, there is more than one of them and they are heterogeneous.” (Pg. 74, 75)
Finally, he admits, “Here are two different reasons to be faithful to a spirit of Marxism. They must not be added together but intertwined… What is certain is that I am not a Marxist, as someone said a long time ago, let us recall, in a witticism reported by Engels. Must we still cite Marx as an authority in order to say ‘I am not a Marxist’? And who can still say ‘I am a Marxist’?” (Pg. 88)
He continues, “Deconstruction has never had any sense or interest… except as a radicalization, which is to say also in the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism. There has been, then, this attempted radicalization of Marxism called deconstruction … But a radicalization is always indebted to the very thing it radicalizes. That is why I spoke of the Marxist memory and tradition of deconstruction, of its Marxist ‘spirit.’ It is not the only one and it is not just any one of the Marxist spirits, of course.” (Pg. 92-93)
In a footnote, he says about deconstruction being accused of historical “revisionism”: “there are those who are not content to profit from the ghosts that haunt our most painful memory. They also authorize themselves thereby… to MANIPULATE with impunity, without any scruple, the very word ‘revisionism.’ They are prepared to use it to accuse anyone who poses critical, methodological, epistemological, philosophical questions about history, about the way it is thought, written, or established, about the status of truth, and so forth. Whoever calls for vigilance in the reading of history, whoever complicates a little the schemas … or demands a reconsideration of the concepts, procedures, and productions of historical truth or the presuppositions of historiography, and so forth, risks being accused today … of playing into some ‘revisionism.’ … A very disturbing historical situation which risks imposing an a priori censorship on historical research or on historical reflection whenever they touch on sensitive areas of our present experience. It is urgent to point out that entire wings of history… will STILL have to be interrogated and brought to light, radical questions will have to be asked and reformulated without there being anything at all ‘revisionist’ about that.” (Pg. 185-186)
Derrida didn’t write a great deal about political theory (at least when compared to his fellow Frenchmen such as Sartre and Foucault); which makes this volume all the more valuable for anyone studying Derrida and his thought.