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The limits of hauntology

Spectres of Derrida
The limits of hauntology


hosts are not renowned for their sense of humour. As Charles Lamb (he of the
undeconstructed tales from Shakespeare) put it; ‘Can a ghost laugh, or shake his gaunt
sides, when you are pleasant with him?’ But the ghost ofthe theorist of farcical returns

might well be something of an exception. At any rate, one can’t help thinking that, were the
personal spirit of Marx to be in any position to take note of his conjurings in the pages of Specters
of Marx, it might be a little tickled in its gaunt ribs, inclined even to give vent to some hollowsounding cries of mirth. For there is surely an element of irony about this supposedly overdue
encounter between Derrida and Marx: namely, that it may be the cause – and this conference is
itself confirming of the suspicion – of a certain rehabilitation of Marx.

I say ‘certain’ because we must add ‘in the academy’, or ‘in philosophy’. The rehabilitation
may prove some-what local and limited, but nonetheless its peculiarity should not pass entirely
without comment. That the deconstructive turn in philosophy
In the wake of 1989, Derrida’s Spectres de
which looked to be exorcizing Marx, and which was certainly
Marx (1993) has created unusual interest on
interpreted by many as wanting to do so, may be that which
the Left and produced a wide range of
conjures him forth again and puts him back into philosophical
differing reactions, both theoretical and
vogue; that it may only be through the authorization of Derrida
political. The pieces we publish below were
that Marx may return from the shadowy wings of the academy
presented as talks to the Radical
to centre stage and even be allowed a speaking part: this is an
Conference, ‘Spectres of Derrida’,
odd turnabout, maybe even a bit spooky, certainly a funny
held at Birkbeck College, London, on 6 May
business. Derrida is right that there are several spirits of Marx,
1995. They have been revised slightly for
including some we may want finally to put to rest. But one
publication, but traces of their spoken form
which we should surely continue to summon is that which
have been retained. Page references to Jacques
invites philosophy to be sensitive to its context and effects,
Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the
and to see the humour in some of its own inversions.

Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New
Regrettably, Derrida’s return to Marx is too little haunted by
International (trans. Peggy Kamuf, Routledge,
this spirit of self-appraisal.

York and London, 1994) appear in
But how far, in any case, is this coming back to Marx a
brackets within the texts which follow.

genuinely new event, how far a revenant of Derrida’ s earlier
deferrings of the engagement with the ethical and the political
– which have always taken the form, in fact, not so much of a postponement or a confident ‘don’t
call me, I’ll call you’, but of what one might call a politely tentative gesturing towards a possible
handshake with the nettle.

Three aspects of Specters of Marx seem noteworthy here. In the first place, it offers a definite
statement of political affiliation. Derrida makes plain his distance from the celebrants of the
demise of Marxism and from all those who would echo Fukuyama’s triumphalist prophecies
about the ‘end of history’ . He is very ready to acknowledge that if we measure the out-of-jointness
of our times by the degree of human misery already occurred or in the offing, then our times are
indeed askew. In his ten indictments of global capitalism, he also makes it very clear that he
subscribes to a broadly Marxist view of the sources of the disorder.


Radical Philosophy 75 (JanlFeb


Second, Derrida engages at some length with Marx’ s
writing and offers a number of pertinent readings in the
process. He is right to point to the deficiencies of Marx’s
realist account of ideology in The German Ideology; right
to suggest that Marx was too quick to suppose that we
could dispense with the ghost, whether in the sense of
arriving at a time unhaunted by the revenants of the past,
or in the sense of there being an actuality unvisited by the
spectres of its own making – an actuality that could be
liveable or knowable independently of all religion,
ideology or fetishism. And even as he applauds Marx’ s
critical laughter at the idea of the general essence of Man,
he is surely right to point to the risks – and the damage
done in history – of supposing that we can altogether
have done with this ‘arch ghost’ in history. This is not to
say that much of this message has not been registered by
other commentators on Marx, albeit in less rhetorically
embroidered form: to the point, in fact, where we might
well ask of some of it whether we needed the spectral
logic of deconstruction to come from the grave to tell us

Finally, Derrida acknowledges that, if deconstruction
is to be associated with an ethics and a politics, then it is
itself reliant in its argument on an element which is
irreducible and resistant to deconstruction. It must in
some sense be value-grounded. Or, as Derrida himself
puts it, a certain messianism, a certain idea of justice and
democracy, is essential to an emancipatory politics.

‘What remains irreducible to any deconstruction,’ he
writes, ‘what remains as undeconstructible as the
possibility itself of deconstruction is, perhaps, a certain
experience of the emancipatory promise; it is perhaps
even the formality of a structural messianism, a
messianism without religion, even a messianic without
messianism, an idea of justice … ‘ (p. 59). We might
question the ‘perhaps’ here (does Derrida really wish us
to understand that he has yet to make his mind up on the
point?); and, of course, Derrida is quick to assure us that
this is no common-or-garden idea of justice, but ajustice
to be distinguished from any of its current concepts and
determined predicates. Nonetheless, Derrida here
explicitly recognizes the necessity of adopting a certain
prescriptive stance – and this is an important concession
to those who have for some time been pointing out that
there is an inconsistency between the ethical
indecisionism of deconstruction and its deployment in
support of an emancipatory political agenda.

Having said that, however, one would also have to
say that where the argument of Specters ofMarx remains
more predictable, less than novel, is in the still purely
formal quality of this recognition. Ready though he may
be to accept tbat a deconstructive critique only makes

sense against the background, or within the context, of a
certain ethical commitment, Derrida still seems very
loath to endow it with any content. For when it comes
down to it, the prevailing message is still to the effect
that we must never ontologize, must remain no more than
haunted by the spirit of an emancipatory politics, must
never seek to incarnate it in any set of goods, institutions
or strategies, since to do so – it is implied – is inevitably
to betray the spirit itself.

Clean hands
What Marx shared with the opponents of communism,
so Derrida argues, was a fear of its spectre – a fear
antithetical to theirs, since it was not an alarm that it
might take on flesh and become an embodied presence,
but rather an alarm that it might not – that it might remain
merely spectral – yet a common fear of spectrality itself
all the same. Whereas, according to Derrida, what we
should be more afraid of, most wary of, is the exorcizing
impulse itself – the urge to render the spirit in flesh, to
concretize our messianic yearnings. We should love the
ghost, embrace the spectre – think and act always within
the space between the absolutely formal and contentless
regulative ideal and its embodiment or representation in
any ‘full’ presence. Spectral logic requires us, as it were,
to accept that the only site of political virtue is virtuality

We must conduct an ongoing immanent.critique

the failure of actuality to live up to its own ideals of
justice and democracy; but at the same time we should
critique those ideals themselves in the light of a justice
which is not that of law and right, a democracy which is
not to be confounded with any of its present concepts – a
justice and democracy which we should not expect any
putative alternative reality ever to realize or represent as
actualizable. Rather, we should proceed within the spirit
of an indefinitely deferred justice: a justice of the gift,
which neither expects nor requires any return from the
other; in the spirit of an indefinitely deferred democracy
whose ‘yes to the stranger’ ethic is that of an absolute
hospitality which sets no conditions on welcome; an ethic
which refrains from all representations of identity, and
makes no demands on the other to conform to any
existing system of rights or legality, to any pregiven code
of honour or justice.

Several points can be made about this deconstructive
reworking of the Marxist emancipatory promise. In the
first place, we can surely ask in what sense, if any, it
could be said to be Marxist, even in spirit. One takes
Derrida’s own point (it is hardly a controversial one for
Marxists to accept since it has been made by most of
them themselves) that a Marxism adequate to our times


is a reformed, even radically revised Marxism. But one
may still argue that to think in the spirit of Marx is to do
more than condemn the actual in the light of the
impossible. Or, to come at the point from a slightly
different angle, we might ask whether there really is such
a thing as the spirit of Marx once all his letters – his
letters about economic determination, about base and
superstructure, about class antagonism and class
struggle, about ideology, about materiality, about the
‘real men and their circumstances’, about, in short, the
ontology of the capitalist mode of production and the
means and direction of its transformation – have been
obscured or spectralized, either denounced as no longer
relevant to our times or denied their literal meaning?

Derrida refers himself, and wants to refer us, to Marx,
but, given that this is a Marx whom he deems presentable
(presentable to himself, to us, for our times) only if we
suspend our credit in his literal meaning, a Marx who in
a sense is not only ‘not a Marxist’ but not Marx either,
we might ask why – why Marx? When, in short, does
working merely in the spirit of Marx cease to be Marxist
and become, say, left liberalism, or the ‘radical
democracy’ of Emesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who
make no bones about describing themselves as ‘postMarxist’, but with whose argument Derrida’s deontologized version of Marxism would seem to have
more affinity than with t~actual works of Marx himself?

Or, to give a more directly political- if impolite – cast to
the question, could we not ask (as my friend Steve Kupfer
put it to me) whether this spectral Marx doesn’t stand to
Marx himself rather as Tony Blair’ s reworking of Clause
IV stands to its original? And if there is anything in the
analogy, what does that imply for the Derridean version:

that it is to be defended as more attuned than the original
to the political realities of our times, or rejected as an
evasion or fudging of the profound sources of their ‘out
of jointness’?

Just as I do not view these questions as purely
rhetorical, so I am not prejudging the answers to them.

But there are a number of implications of Derrida’s
advice which I think are relevant to their consideration,
and which I do want to dispute – for instance, why should
we abide by a logic, all of whose emphasis might seem to
fall on the compromised nature of any active, hands-on
politics, rather than on the gains it can achieve; which
might seem to imply that we can be properly politically
sensitive only in thought, in philosophy, and never in our
actual practice? Derrida does not give sufficient due to
the ‘to be or not to be’ quality of a great deal of political
activity on the Left: its active and concrete pursuit of a
‘third way’ through the ontologies of the Cold War, for
example; its insistence on being for justice, equality,


democracy, but not for the justice, equality and
democracy of either Soviet communism or liberal
capitalism; its commitment to a variety of betwixt or
between agendas: between Marxism and existentialism,
between Promethean and irrationalist responses to
ecological crisis, between class politics, on the one hand,
and an ‘anything goes’ postmodemism, on the other. The
point is not that the specific representations of these
political positions are invulnerable to a deconstructive
critique, but that this critique is too assimilative. By
inviting us to view all praxis as damned in advance by its
failure to instantiate a true or authentic democracy, it
offers no gauge or criterion for adjudicating between the
more or less progressive character of different acts,
practices and institutional forms. Derrida takes too little
notice of the ways in which left-wing practice might be
said to have actualized ‘spectrality’, to have proceeded
in the spirit of some of its disciples. That Derrida
envelops his precautions against theological Marxism in
a new rhetoric should not blind us to the fact that the
general spirit in which they are moved is one that has
frequently been registered within the Marxist and
socialist camp, and has at times been instantiated in some
relatively clean-handed forms of praxis.

But if the logic of the spectre invites us to collapse
distinctions within the actualized politics of the Left, it is
also, and conversely, mistaken in implying that there
could be any such politics that did not involve ~ome
choice, some decision about how and when to act, and
some representation of the other as the condition of that
action. If that is dirtyhandedness, then, yes, there is no
politics without it. We cannot change the world, however
minimally, if we stay obedient to the injunction not to
ontologize. Nor can there be any extension of empathy
or solidarity with the victims of oppression that is not
‘guilty’ – if that is the word – of reading or representing
their plight in the light of our own identity; in the light,
that is, of a conception of how it would be for us were we
to be in their condition, of what we would feel were we
to suffer their fate. Messianic opening or hospitality to
the other is all very well if it is simply thrown out as a
caution against over-hasty political assimilations – or as
a challenge, for example, to current governmental
policies on immigration; but if Derrida means that we
are culpable of some disrespect for the absolute othemess
of others in any and every representation of the other as
like the self, then this seems a recommendation not for
justice or democracy but for political quietism. We
would, strictly speaking, be doing an injury in the very
presumption of the other’s agony or humiliation at the
hands of the torturer or oppressor, and might therefore
do better not to intervene. Amnesty take note.

It will be said that Derrida recognizes the

impossibility of what he is advocating, which in a sense
is true. Thus, of messianic opening, he wrote that ‘It
would be easy, too easy, to show that such a hospitality
without reserve, which is nevertheless the condition of
the event and thus of history … is the impossible itself,
and this condition of possibility of the event is also its
condition of impossibility.’ Yet the acknowledgement is
made only in the context of an argument to the effect
that, without this experience of the impossible, one might
as well give up on any justice, and on any pretensions to
a politics in ‘good conscience’. ‘One might as well’, so
Derrida claims, ‘confess the economic calculation and
declare all the checkpoints that ethics, hospitality, or the
various messianisms would still install at the borders of
the event in order to screen the arrivant … ‘ (p. 66). Ajust
politics is presented as both impossible and essential.

Yet one can also claim that the condition of any
politics in ‘good conscience’ is the refusal of this very
dichotomy. For as soon as we ask why it is that this socalled democracy of unlimited hospitality is
‘impossible’, then we confront the fact that the idea of
the ‘impossible’ is here obscuring a failure of politicoethical engagement. It is impossible because there can be
no saying ‘no’ to the other’s suffering if saying ‘yes’ to
the stranger means refraining from any and every
preconception of how they are to live. It is impossible
because respecting the absolute difference of the other imposing no conditions on hospitality – would logically
deprive the other of any grounds for contesting even the

most inhospitable forms of reception, and would require
any and every ‘host’ to accept all those strangers whose
strangeness consisted in their radical incapacity to accept
or understand the very principles of hospitality,
democracy or justice. It is impossible because justice is
not a matter of generosity or charity, but a relationship of
reciprocity which by its nature can only exist in a context
of mutual obligations and responsibilities.

One can understand Derrida’ s reluctance to recognize
these conditions on the possibility of democracy and
justice in the light of the inequalities and disparities of
distribution perpetrated in the name of their existing
concepts and determinate forms; but the very critique of
these disparities within the global economy only makes
sense if it is rooted in an idea of justice as sharing – as
involving a commitment to a fair distribution of goods
and resources. I do not see how it would be just to
transcend such a conception of justice, and I certainly
think that the rhetoric of ‘justice of the gift’ is unfortunate
if it were to imply that certain forms of unconditional
‘givings’ through which such justice might be better
realized – cancellation of Third World debt, for example
– were ‘givings’ or ‘gifts’ rather than restitutions for
previous takings, thefts and dispossessions. Derrida’s
refusal to ontologize – his resistance to speculating upon
the political forms and institutions which might realize
his transcendent concept of democracy and justice leaves him open to the charge that he is not really
engaging with the ethics of justice and democracy at alleven open to cynical claims that a ‘justice of the gift’ is


what we have had far too much of already, most of it in
favour of the more affluent and privileged communities
of the globe. There is a limit to the degree to which we
can accept that Derrida’s recommendations for
sustaining a politics ‘in good conscience’ are in good
conscience in the absence of any blueprinting of their
conditions of possibility, or any engagement with the
ethical conflicts to which unreserved hospitality offers
indefinite welcome.

But there is a further aspect of Derrida’ s ‘yes to the
stranger’ ethic, of which I think we should be wary. This
is its invitation to erode or collapse conceptual distinctions between the ‘human’ and the ‘animal’; or, to put it
more accurately, his invitation to us to treat all our
intuitive demarcations between human and nonhuman
‘others’ as a form of unwarranted conceptual policing. In
the interview translated in RP 68, for example, he
recommends that the ‘someone’ addressed in messianic
opening is a someone whom we cannot and must not
define in advance – ‘not as subject, self-consciousness,
not even as animal, God, person, man or woman, living
or dead’ (RP 68, p. 32). There are a number of claims
made to similar effect in Specters of Marx. But would we
even determine what was or wasn’t a ‘someone’ if we
were to be obedient to this injunction: what would it be
to be a someone in the absence of any definition or
determination? Is this a coherent injunction? Even if it
were, could it be ethical, could such indiscriminacy be
the basis of a just polity?

I find it puzzling that Derrida should be advocating an
ethical perspective that appears at face value to be so
ready to abstract from those differences – of language
use, or our insertion within a symbolic order – which
distinguish us from other creatures, and which have been
such a focus of structuralist and post-structuralist
attention. Is he not arguing here in ways that might align
a deconstructive ethic with some of the more simplistic
and reductivist forms of naturalism: with those, for
example, who have argued for the extension of the moral
community to include nonhuman primates, or with the
biocentric opponents of ‘anthropocentricity’ who have
rejected any privileging of humanity over other life

Clearly there is a debate to be had around these issues,
and a spectrum of positions which one may adopt in
regard to them. My complaint is that Derrida gestures at
these conceptual erosions of the human-animal
distinction without any consideration of their
counterfactual difficulties, and in complete abstraction
from the important and intense discussions that have
been taking place around these issues in environmental


Ontological voids
It is one thing to claim, as Derrida does, that ‘there is no

future without Marx’, and another to suppose that we
shall ever see a popular mandate for socialism in the
future; one thing to advise that the foreign debt must be
treated in the spirit of Marxist critique (whatever that
means exactly), another to suppose that it will ever be
dealt with through a dismantling of global capitalism. If
the question whether Marx will come again is interpreted
as a question about the return of any commanding
support for a socialist programme, there may well be a
future without Marx, at least for a good while to come.

Never, in fact, has the spectre of communism looked less
like haunting Europe than at the present time. But if
anything remotely resembling this ghost is to be kept in
the offing as a potential vote-winner in the future, then I
suspect it will require all those who are committed to its
spirit to rebel against the Derridean veto: to put some
flesh on this alternative to the actual, to think through the
institutional forms that might realize that will-o’ -thewisp called democratic socialism.

It seems to me that the capitalist order is sustained
less by any widespread faith in its capacity to secure the
good life or to ward off the major crises of our times,
than by a deep, and in many ways justifiable, scepticism
about the practical viability of any alternative to it. In
this sense, one may argue that the problem for the Left
has not been too much blueprinting, but too little o! it -:too much readiness to invoke an ‘authentic socialism’ as
a way of dissociating from what has been done in the
name of Marxism; too little attention paid to the concrete
forms in which such an ideal might be implemented. If
we do indeed wish to pre-empt the events of ever more
terrible forms of misery, of genocide, of ecological
barbarism, of terminal warfare (as Derrida implies we
do), then all the more practical engagements of Left
theory – the work on market socialism and alternative
economic policies, on new concepts of citizenship and
forms of democratic empowerment, on the liberation
from work, on the institutions of a new cosmopolitanism
– seem much more helpful than the continuous warnings
against pre-empting the forms in which the future will

In this connection, one can’t help noting how
paradoxical it is that Derrida should be recommending a
spectral Marx, given how loath Marx himself was to do
more than conjure the spirit of communism – given, that
is, his resistance to specifying the political institutions
which might realize those famous abstract desiderata: a
society of abundance, a future unmeasured by any
existing moral yardstick, distribution according to needs,
a rich and all-round development of the individual.

Where Marx is closest to the spirit of deconstruction is,
arguably, in these formulaic gestures towards a society
that had so far transcended existing actuality that its
conditions of realization could no longer be conceptualized. Marx is spectral Marx in his refusal to envision
communism in his envisaging of it, in his anti-utopian

Now, I am not deploring this vision. A world that no
longer aspires to any such political sublime is an
impoverished world. What I am saying, however, is that
ontological voids can offer themselves as hostages to
fortune; that Marx’ s refusal to think through the politics
of communism created a number of such voids; and that
in so far as these came to be filled by ‘actual existing
socialism’ they have played a role in the demise of
Marxism itself. Or, to put it otherwise: one doesn’t

necessarily avoid the horrors of a messianic
totalitarianism by refusing to ontologize. One might even
be leaving more space for them. Certainly we should be
very wary of all those who know how to change the
world, and how it ought to look when they have done so.

But, since the world will change anyway, there are also
dangers in too narrowly confining oneself to the task of
‘critical criticism’: to a perpetual critique of the out-ofjointness of all times, of the eternal failure of the actual
to measure up to a rationality that will never arrive.

Derrida abhors the politics of the ‘full presence’ , whether
it takes the form of a celebration of the end of history or
an absolute knowledge of how it should end. I agree. But
it is not, I think, by leaving ontological vacuums that we
best guard against these types of plenitude.

Kate Soper

Marx the uncanny?

Ghosts and their relation to the mode of production
I want to pose some of the problems that are raised by
Derrida’s postponed and long-awaited encounter with
what in an interview of 1971 he calls ‘the Marxist text’ .1
I will do this by setting up a different, but for Derrida
equally postponed, encounter, that with Freud’s essay
‘The Uncanny’ (1919). This will lead me to consider the
place of Shakespeare’ s Hamlet in Derrida’ s argument as
a kind of un-text of the spectral and his privileging of it
as a way in to Marx’ s texts with their ghosts and spectres.

Freud’s paradox of the heimlichlunheimlich is
invoked and alluded to in Derrida’s writings over the
years, often in passing and with a claim for its crucial
importance, followed by a disclaimer of any intention to
undertake the necessary and, we are given to understand,
necessarily lengthy, deconstructive reading that its
importance would call for. 2 Mark Wigley observes of
Derrida’s relation to the uncanny:

Like the figure of the house to which it is bound, it
is a theme that can be traced throughout Derrida’s
work without it ever becoming a discrete subject,
as if it is itself repressed, returning only
occasionally to surface in very isolated and what
seem, at first, to be very minor points. But precisely
for this reason it can be argued that its effects
actually pervade all the texts that are unable or
unwilling to speak about it. 3
The uncanny in Derrida’s texts seems to play the role of
a nagging but deferred element, one that is welcomed as

congenial but never integrated into the texts that cite it,
something that remains beckoning but peripheral to the
trajectory of the argument. The page or two it gets in
Specters ofMarx is the fullest attention Derrida
. has

it so far. Significantly, I will argue, of the two points
from it that Derrida focuses on, he gets one wrong, which
he gives a partial reading of the other, in which a key
element of Freud’s concept is lost.

The occasion of Derrida’s citation of the uncanny is
the repetition in Freud’s essay of a German idiom that
appears in Marx’s interminable critique of Max Stirner
in The German Ideology, and which also resonates for
Derrida in his equally repetitive and seemingly
interminable paraphrase and commentary on Marx’ s
obsessive battling and entanglement with Stirner. The
German idiom in question is es spukt: it spooks. The
phrase is, Derrida notes, translated into English and
French in such a way as to lose its force. In Freud’s essay,
es spukt appears when Freud comments on the lack in
other languages of a word that has the same connotations
as the German unheimlich. Freud says, in the English of
Strachey’s Standard Edition, ‘Some languages in use
today can only render the German expression “an
unheimlich house” as “a haunted house”.’ The French
translation of the equivalent is une maison hantee. What
these translations lose is Freud’s German idiom, when
he says in Derrida’s translation: ‘Some languages in use
today can only render the German expression ein
heimliches Haus [an uncanny house] by a house in which

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