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Deconstruction and the Political, University of Essex, 27-28 October 1994

Deconstruction and the Political
(or how not to speak, while still speaking,
of deconstruction and politics)
More than two decades ago, in one of Jacques Derrida’s first

Derrida’s concepts of hegemony. Aletta Norval investigated

interviews, Jean-Louis Houdebine advanced the ‘first sketch

the ‘hybridity’ of subjective identity in relation to post-

of a question: what relationship do you think is developing

colonial discourses. Focusing on Homi Bhabha’s ambiguous,

between [the] economy of a dialectical materialist logic and

albeit ground-breaking, use of the term, Norval articulated

the economy that you have based on a problematic of

her own position, linked to Laclau and Mouffe’s theories: ‘to

writing?’ This two-day conference at the University of Essex

think of hybridity as an experience of thinking the in-

(27-28 October 1994) set itself the task of treating the issue

between, the borderline itself’. Jelica Sumic-Rihajuxtaposed

anew, especially now that Derrida’s long-awaited Spectres

modernist and post-modernist theories of justice. Rawls’

of Marx has appeared. In his opening remarks, Ernesto Laclau

Theory of Justice was sized up against Lyotard’s Differend,

implicitly recast and generalized Houdebine’ s question to

but the comparison was heavily weighted in Lyotard’s

Derrida by asking: ‘What does it mean to take a decision in

favour, as Sumic-Riha opted to portray the relation between

an undecidable terrain?’ The conference took the form of

the two in Lyotardian terms, as a differend.

three panels, each dedicated to a different facet of the theme:

Laclau’s own contribution proved more daring, as he

‘Spectres of Marx’, ‘Deconstruction and Hegemony’, and

outlined a ‘new step’ in a deconstructive approach to political

‘Deconstruction, Politics, and Ethics’.

decisions which expands ‘the logic of undecidability to wider

Richard Beardsworth opened the first session by

and wider fields, and consequently to the terrain in which a

declaring that we are already in the twenty-first century,

decision has to be taken and a political, hegemonic, moment

faced with new and pervasive technologies that put at risk

has to intervene’ .

our understanding of time and temporalisation. While

The third and final panel seemed rather arbitrarily put

accepting much of Derrida’s argument in Spectres on a

together. Hent de Vriess’ paper was based on a close reading

strategic level, Beardsworth nevertheless wished tentatively

of Derrida’s essay ‘Donner la mort’. It displayed great skill

to criticize it for failing to re-articulate Marxian ontology in

in delineating the issues of ethics and messianicity, but failed

terms of a genealogy of the relation between humanity and

to draw them together to form any satisfying conclusions.

technology’. Simon Critchley raised similar questions,

Rodolphe Gasche unassumingly but perspicaciously

concentrating on the concepts of the messianic, the political,

proposed that Derrida reinterprets the categorical imperative

and the ‘New International’ at work in Spectres. According

through ‘invention’, whereby ‘thinking must invent the

to Critchley, while Derrida sketches ‘the preconditions for a

universal law’ in the singular event of a response to the

new socialist hegemonic articulation’ , he fails to explain how

aporia. The final paper, ‘Virtual Derrida’, was, alas, a brief

the New International might actually be hegemonized.

and baffling attempt to reflect on a word – ‘necessity’ –

Samuel Weber’s contribution was more optimistic in tone.

whose nature, it was claimed, has been lost to us, by

‘Piece-work’ detailed the possibilities of a deconstructive

analyzing it along the ‘virtual axes’ of ghosts and promises.

approach to the political by way of comparison with Marx

One might suspect that there was a certain madness at

and Carl Schmitt. It concluded that the spectral and the

work over the course of these two days, for it was not politics

messianic provide ‘a way of thinking the relationship of past,

of which the participants spoke, but ‘messianicity’, ‘aporia’,

present, and future that might not be based on the ontological

‘the promise’, and ‘the spectral’. But at its best, and given

priority of the present, of sameness over alterity’.

the limitations of the day, such discussion conceals

The second session concentrated largely on Ernesto

something within its own admittedly inadequate gestures,

Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s work on hegemony, to which

something that (as Polonius remarks of Hamlet) ‘madness

Derrida refers in Spectres. Taking Derrida’s book as his

often hits on, which reason and sanity could not so

starting point, Egidius Berns tirelessly catalogued a wide

prosperously be deliver’d of’.

range of similarities and differences between Laclau’ sand


Ra die a I Ph it 0 sop h y 70 (M arc h / A p r it 1995)

lain Macdonald

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