Derrida begins his text, Specters of Marx, with a brief introduction entitled “Exordium.” This beginning appears to be a thematic proposition to read it a certain way, in a certain light. I wonder whatever could that mean. *winks* Derrida initiates his discourse by teasing his audience directly with a very powerful existential statement: “Someone, you or me, comes forward and says: I would like to learn to live finally” (xvi). I read this direct address and questioning as a subversion of textual authority. It is not just Derrida writing this text, but a participatory act of wills. We are all included—any one of us daring to open this book. For me, this is where Derrida always gets me: right in the beginning. Who wouldn’t want to learn to live, and finally at that? Oh, but this is not just another quirky hook like so many first-year comp students are taught to write. This is Derrida at his sly best (which is usual).
The key to reading Derrida’s sneaky way of getting us into the ghosts of ourselves is by proposing a lack of authority. It is what follows the existential statement that really gets us thinking: “Finally but why?” (xvi). Okay, so Derrida is playing with his own language, and questioning his own authority. We are immediately called into the role of doing the same: questioning him and ourselves. To get even more complex (and we are only two sentences into the text!) we are submissively asked to focus on the notion of “finally.” But why? (hahaha)
It is perhaps best that we go backwards and look at the title of the text: Specters of Marx. Hmm… By looking at the title, we assume Derrida will address Marx. I have no doubt that he will. By looking at the title, we are being led to believe that specters are about. Oh, and they definitely are. But who are the specters? What determines a ghost?
Ah. Derrida is again winking at us.
Let’s return to the first two sentences. Derrida’s whole intent in writing this book is to get us thinking about what it means to live, and what learning to live entails. By including the “you or me” in the first sentence, he is positioning the act of living as interdependent. I use that term over co-dependent because of the very nature of these pronouns are an implied collective. A text’s audience is never one, not even a private journal. The nature of discourse-making is always an interrelated endeavour one has with all the voices surrounding our lives—as us compies know all too well.
What that means, then, to the act (art) of living begets Derrida’s following questions: “Who would learn? From whom? To teach to live, but to whom? Will we ever know? Will we ever know how to live and first of all what ‘to learn to live’ means? And why ‘finally’?” (xvi). All good questions that are getting at a further existential dilemma: the collective life. Derrida pulls the whole “it takes a village” here. Eh, he does much more than that. Derrida asks us to question what it is we are living. Not just life, a life, or a lifetime, but to live together in the ‘whatever this is’. Derrida wants the us in this text to ask what it is we are all doing here, living. And maybe if we are living at all, because finally.
He says, “To live, by definition, is not something one learns. Not from oneself, it is not learned from life, taught by life. Only from the other and by death. In any case from the other at the edge of life. At the internal border or the external border, it is a heterodidactics between life and death” (xvii). Pure blasphemy for those of us religiously oriented in Christianity and other heavily patriarchal denominations. However, Derrida iterates a premise that I touch upon in my notes on his Gift of Death. To live is to be fully aware of the ethics to the other while simultaneously aware of one’s death as an ever-present identity. Ooooo…ghosts. We, as always with a Derridean text, can read this two ways. So I ask:
is it life or death that is the ghost that follows within all of us?
I’ll leave that question to us while we move on through the text. Because Derrida does go on, and I’d like to see what he says. He continues, “Between life and death, then, this is indeed the place of a sententious injunction that always feigns to speak like the just” (xvii). […] Yea, let’s break that up/down a bit. *gets dictionary*
Sententious – (1) expressing much in few words [umm, hi you =) ] (2) full of, or fond of using, maxims, proverbs, etc., esp. in a way that in ponderously trite and moralizing [hahaha].
Injunction – (1) an enjoining; bidding; command (2) something enjoined (3) a write or order from a court prohibiting a person or group from carrying out a given action, or ordering a given action to be done.
Feign – (1) to touch, handle, shape (2) to form (3) to make up; invent; fabricate (4) to make a false show of; pretend; imitate; simulate (5) [archaic] to imagine.
Looking up words when reading Derrida is more than necessary. As you can see, these terms carry several layers—exergue for those of you who haven’t read “White Mythology”. Looking at the sentence, we notice there are several ways to read meaning into it based on these definitions. None are more true than the other, as Derrida’s pitch-perfect idiomatic brilliance always implies multiple, simultaneous readings.
But what does it mean?! Calm down, modernists.
It means that the place-space between birth and death is a metaphoric representation that seeks to define itself through its own means. Derrida is making fun of us—this includes him. Derrida says that life is merely what we try to make words for in order to limit it within those terms so that we understand its meaning. (Derrida, for the lulz) And we do this to rationalize our acts within the limits we’ve created. Think of religions, laws, and acts of normalized, Western “propriety”. All are simply, on the outset, merely attempts at fashioning our human identity.
This reminds me of something intriguing I thought up last night: we are simply trying to escape the very constructions we’ve built into ourselves.
If it—learning to live—remains to be done, it can happen only between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone. What happens between two, and between all the “two’s” one likes, such as between life and death, can only maintain itself with some ghost, can only talk with or about some ghost [s’entretenir de quelque fantôme]. So it would be necessary to learn spirits. Even and especially if this, the spectral, is not. Even and especially if this, which is neither substance, nor essence, nor existence, is never present as such. The time of the “learning to live,” a time without tutelary present, would amount to this, to which the exordium is leading us: to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts. To live otherwise, and better. No, not better, but more justly. But with them. (Derrida xvii-xviii)
So it is that we see; Derrida points out that it is these constructions of ourselves that become our ghosts. The words and texts we use to define our lives are figments of our imaginations haunting us with their presences. And, yes, they can be frightening. Here some of us hide under our covers from them. But that doesn’t make the ghosts less there. The chains always will rattle—right to our cores. Best we learn to speak with them, yea?
Derrida also plays off the notion of economy with the word “commerce” and discourse with “conversation.” Like Foucault, he is very much aware of our relationship with the texts we’ve made over the years, and our wholly naïve reliance upon them as architectures of truth. They, then, are mere shelters from storm. We are only protected from the weather underneath them; yet the weather persists, and sometimes breaks into our homes despite our best efforts to keep it out.
Because life is still outside.
In the context of this text, Derrida purposes that we take on the texts surrounding us as specters, and up our communication skills. He argues,
It is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it, from the moment that no ethics, no politics, whether revolutionary or not, seems possible and thinkable and just that does not recognize in its principle the respect for those others who are no longer or for those others who are not yet there, presently living, whether they are already dead or not yet born. (xviii)
The purpose for this speaking with our ghosts is like ethics insurance. We must account for the things we’ve done based on the texts we made ourselves become (and often deny) as well as consider how our texts create a future we may not even see. Our relationship to life in living is both an acceptance of an insurmountably embedding within our pasts (we none of us can escape who humanity used to be) and an unflinching awareness that every text we construct now will fashion the living forever thereafter. That is responsibility. Complete responsibility. It also permits an outside to war and revolution. Gasp! How could this revolutionary say such a thing?!
I just did.
If we think about it—and I am always within the realm of possibles, so I think as much as possible—living up to this pure responsibility would create that very utopia so many of us envision. I’m not as idealistic as all that to think that highly of humanity at this moment, but we are moving in possibles now, and thank you Derrida for being man enough to be someone who lived this.
What an oddity to be writing this on a day like today where we increasingly egotistical Americans believe ourselves to be beyond our spectral pasts. We forget the blood underneath our soil. We forget the way we twisted British enlightenment ideologies into our own factionalized fractions to purport our differences (cue laughter) so that we could live “anew”. We forget that the stability of our capitalist government (yup, I said that) relies solely upon massacring people in other countries after we spend years upon years exploiting them into debt. But we light our fireworks and “Oooh” and “Ahh” together. Good for us. Monsanto’s high fructose corn syrup in our soda; radiation from reactors in Japan seeping into our coasts; and thousands of tons of plastic floating in our ocean. Good for us, light up the skies.
For Derrida: “‘Experience’ of the past as to come, the one and the other absolutely absolute, beyond all modification of any present whatever. If it is possible and if one must take it seriously, the possibility of the question, which is perhaps no longer a question and which we are calling here justice, must carry beyond present life, life as my life or our life. (xix)
He is calling to us to think about what it is we are doing when we are living. Many have asked us of this before, though not many have said so as beautifully. The role ghosts play in our lives is critical. However they are entirely dependent upon our seeing them, and our speaking with them, for them, of them. An honor must reside in order to be just. And what is honor?
Derrida kindly nudges us to consider the role we play as the ghosts we will become. Our lives are not eternal (well not in this argument, at least), thus we must come to acknowledge the ghosts we leave to haunt our children.
A young girl approached me last week with a logical attack I can never justify. She told me that it is not fair that she’ll have to pay for all the grownups’ mistakes. No, it will never be fair. Especially considering the depth of destruction our, and the ghosts’, mistakes are causing. [not] Ironically, this girl is in a wealthy family, and she’ll probably never know what it means to live through these mistakes while suffering from poverty and hardship. She’ll grow up with extracurricular activities, loving parents, no suffering of wants, and a college education of her demanded-of choice. And it is here that I think of all the children who will not have those things. Their world, though the same Earth, will not look the same. The disease we and our ghosts have wrought this planet will affect them in ways she’ll never have to know (god-willing).
So what of them? What of all of them in all the different views of this world? What are we doing now that they will suffer?
This is what it means to live with ghosts: to know we will be ghosts. And, with that, we enter into Specters of Marx. I shall do my best to rattle the chains in ways we all can hear as we proceed through Derrida’s chapters. Welcome to the haunt.