Derrida’s new book is more than an intervention; it wishes to be a provocation, first and foremost of what he calls a new Holy Alliance whose attempt definitively to bury Marx is here answered by a call for a New International.footnote＊ Derrida reminds a younger generation of the complex and constitutive interrelationships between an emergent deconstruction and the Marx-defined debates of the 1950s and 60s in France (he has spoken elsewhere of his personal relationship to Althusserfootnote1): in this he is only one of a number of significant thinkers in so-called poststructuralism to register a concern with the way in which demarxification in France and elsewhere, having placed the reading of Marx and the themes of a properly Marxian problematic beyond the bounds of respectability and academic tolerance, now threatens to vitiate the activity of philosophizing itself, replacing it with a bland Anglo-American anti-speculative positivism, empiricism or pragmatism. The new book will also speak of the relationship of deconstruction to Marx (as well as of its reserves in the face of an implicit or explicit Marxist ‘philosophy’). Derrida here takes the responsibility of speaking of the world situation, whose novel and catastrophic features he enumerates with all the authority of the world’s most eminent living philosopher. He reads Marx’s texts, in particular offering a remarkable new exegesis of passages from The German Ideology. He develops a new concept, that of ‘spectrality’, and does so in a way which also suggests modifications or inflections in the way in which deconstruction handles concepts in general. And he affirms a persistence of that ‘weak messianic power’ which Benjamin called upon us to preserve and sustain during dark eras. It is a wide-ranging performance, and a thrilling one, particularly as it is punctuated by the great shouts and cries of alarm of the opening scenes of Hamlet on the battlements. I want to summarize the book more narrowly and then to comment in an unsystematic and preliminary way on points I find particularly interesting.
The five chapters of Specters of Marx turn variously, as might be expected, around the issue of Marx’s afterlife today. Hamlet, and the ghost of
The question as to whether these are new themes for Derrida ought to involve a rethinking of the notion of the ‘theme’ in philosophical writing fully as much as a story about periodization. Indeed, changes within deconstruction in recent years have seemed to motivate a variety of descriptions. Modifications in the intellectual situation in which deconstruction has had to make its way have obviously played a fundamental role in its style as well as its strategies. As far as Marx is concerned, for example, the sympathies as well as the philosophical reservations with the Marxist problematic were as evident twenty years ago in the dialogues entitled Positions,footnote3 much of which are spent warding off the overenthusiastic embraces of his Leninist interviewers, as they are in the present work; in particular, the endorsement of materialism is a question to which we will want to return here.
Meanwhile, it can be supposed that the academic respectability a now multi-volumed deconstruction has begun to acquire in us philosophy departments (along with the consecration, in France, of the ‘collège de philosophie’ founded by Mitterrand’s socialist government, with Derrida himself as its first head) has inevitably modified the appearance of a corpus long since given over to the care of merely literary intellectuals. On the other hand, you could just as plausibly argue that Derrida has grown
Can a change in tone be detectable, since the waning of the older polemics and the gradual implantation of Derridean strictures on various forms of metaphysical thought (presence, identity, self-consciousness and the like) which from maddening gadfly stings have settled down into the status of doxa in their own right? Heidegger looms ever larger in this work, but is it fair to sense a new complacency in its dealings with this particular ghost, whose hauntings seem particularly inescapable? Is it not rather our own ‘vulgar’ reading of deconstruction as critique (implying that the sequel to the deconstruction of metaphysical concepts will be their replacement by something better, truer, etc.) which is responsible for this or that current astonishment that Heidegger’s work continues to demand such respectful attention (even within the present book, as we shall see)? But as an intellectual operation, it was always a crucial necessity for deconstruction to move Heidegger, and in particular Heidegger’s view of the history of metaphysics, centrally into the canon of philosophical reading, to impose Heidegger’s problematic inescapably within contemporary philosophy: if only in order, in a second movement, to be able to draw back from Heidegger’s own positions and to criticize the essentially metaphysical tendencies at work in them as well. It cannot really be a question of Derrida’s ‘development’ or of the ‘evolution’ of deconstruction where the perpetually shifting emphases of this calculated ambivalence are concerned.
If that particular impression harboured the implied reproach that deconstruction has grown less political—less polemical, more mellow—in recent years, a complementary one could be expressed according to which it has grown more political, in the more conventional sense of the word. Indeed, a series of interventions on South Africafootnote4 (to which we must now add the dedication of the present book to the late Chris Hani) stand side by side with critiques of the new Europe and seem to prepare the ‘committed writing’ of the present text, whose subtitle significantly reads ‘the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the new International’; except that Derrida has always been a political figure, his specific public pronouncements going back at least as far as the controversy over the loi Habib in the 1970s (the Pompidou regime’s attempt to ‘exorcize’ the spirit of May ‘68 by dropping the teaching of philosophy from the programme of the lycées).
Some of the confusion stems from the frame itself in which political interventions are necessarily evaluated and have their effectivity: the earlier occasion was a specifically French one, nor has Derrida often felt able to intervene in a us situation in which he has worked for so many years now. But on the new Europe he has found it important to express himself (see below), while virtually the first and most crucial thing he