May 25, 2008

Matter, Sign

Filed under: Derrida, Philosophy, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 2:08 pm

Deconstruction, or Derrida’s work, begins in phenomenology. Derrida starts his dismantling or unravelling of the metaphysical tradition by unravelling Husserl. And Derrida’s work will be marked from first to last by this engagement. In a work as late as ‘Specters of Marx’ we find Derrida reading Marx through the prism of phenomenology. I’ve said it before, but I think it’s important – everything that’s wrong with Derrida’s take on use value, and the relation between use value and exchange value, comes from his determination to see Marx in terms derived from phenomenology. The book’s last chapter, containing Derrida’s discussion of commodity fetishism, is subtitled “The phenomenological ‘conjuring trick’.” And here’s a key passage, in which Derrida discusses the transformation of the table’s wood into a commodity:

“Whoever understands Greek and philosophy could say of this genealogy, which transfigures the ligneous into the non-ligneous, that it also gives a tableau of the becoming-immaterial of matter. As one knows, hule, matter, is first of all wood.” [What is the relation of this ‘first of all’ to the ‘first’ that Derrida finds and criticises in Marx?] “And since this becoming-immaterial of matter seems to take no time and to operate its transmutation in the magic of an instant, in a single glance, through the omnipotence of a thought, we might also be tempted to describe it as the projection of an animism or a spiritism.” (‘Specters’, p. 191)

These last references to animism and spiritism aren’t unimportant; but to an extent they’re decoys. The really important phrase here is “the omnipotence of a thought”. Derrida sees exchange value as performing a phenomenological reduction on use value. And this is the basis of Derrida’s critique of Marx. Derrida believes that there is a pre-critical and a post-critical thought – a short-of and a beyond of transcendental criticism. He believes that any ‘materialism’ – like Marx’s – that has failed to traverse a Kantian or Husserlian transcendental space, will collapse into a naïve ontologising metaphysics. And so – with considerable textual violence – Derrida wrestles Marx into this phenomenological space, in order then to move beyond this (supposedly) naïve materialism.

What violence is involved here? In the first place, an understanding of exchange value in terms of “the omnipotence of thought”. Marx isn’t really discussing thought in the fetishism passage –commodity fetishism is not a form of ideology. Fetishism, rather, arises from “the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them” – not ideas, beliefs, or intentions.

But the focus of this post isn’t Marx but Derrida: the relation of deconstruction to materialism. [NB: I noticed, once I’d written this, that The Accursed Share’s latest post also covers this ground.]


Let my try to summarise my understanding of Husserl. [This is sure to be embarrassing… 😉 ] Phenomenology begins, if I have things right, with the phenomenological reduction. Husserl ‘brackets’ the world as it actually is, in order to focus on phenomena: our experience of the world, or, better, our experience full stop. This isn’t a form of doubt or scepticism; it’s a philosophical strategy. Nonetheless, one of the distinctive features of Husserl’s account (a feature that, as I understand it, further distinguishes the phenomenological reduction from Descartes’ radical doubt) is Husserl’s use of the concept of intentionality. Thought, for Husserl, is inherently other-directed. [I should stress that I’m going on secondary literature here; and on my own sweet nothing hunches.] We know that thought is about something beyond itself, because this is simply part of the essence of thought. And [this, it seems to me, is the weird, key move] simply focussing on thought (or experience) itself, turns out to already give us the world, already give us everything we originally bracketed, because the thought that there is something beyond thought, something we began by bracketing, is part of thought – all thought – as such.

The manoeuvre’s strange (if I understand it). Husserl starts by saying – let’s bracket the actual world, and focus purely on our own consciousness. Then this bracketing turns out to be entirely contentless, entirely meaningless, because everything we seem to have bracketed is already there within consciousness. As consciousness’s other-directedness, its intentionality.

It is, I guess (?), a little like Kant’s move to the transcendental perspective, except without the residual transcendental realism of the thing-in-itself. For Husserl, Kant’s transcendental idealism and empirical realism entirely collapse into one another – because the noumenal world, awareness of which serves to distinguish Kant’s transcendental perspective from his empirical one, has been abolished.

Okay. Now on my read of Derrida, Derrida entirely endorses this manoeuvre. Derrida’s critique of Husserl only gets started once he’s followed him thus far.

Because Husserl has collapsed the common-sensical or philosophically naïve distinction between a transcendentally real, material world ‘out there’, and the world-for-us, in thought (collapsed this distinction in part by means of his idea of intentionality) Husserl is able to entirely assimilate form and matter. Or, rather, assimilate form and matter in a new and interesting way. For a thing X to actually exist, for Husserl, is nothing more than for our consciousness of thing X to behave in a certain way. For object X to subsist, materially, is for the intentional thought directed-toward-X to behave, within our consciousness, according to certain rules. And these are rules governed by the principle of iterability. The naïve transcendental realist says – X subsists, in the real world, and causes our experience of X also to persist, to be repeated, with certain more or less determinate differences, as X impinges on our consciousness. Phenomenology says: the iteration-with-differences of an intentional thought directed-toward-X entirely exhausts any philosophical understanding of the existence of X.

More or less. I stress that I really don’t know Husserl. I’m hoping the general shape of this gloss is close enough that it’ll allow me to make the point I want to about Derrida.

Which is:

Derrida sees Husserl as being motivated by an ideal of pure presence: pure consciousness present to itself, identical with itself, filled with the clear light of its own plenitude, and so on. Derrida’s critique of Husserl is based on developing Husserl’s own logic of iterability, in order to suggest that the telos or rational centre of thought that Husserl wants to imagine is undermined by the arguments Husserl uses to establish it. Because iterability necessarily implies limitless different contexts, and because any intentional thought depends on iterability for its very existence as thought, no thought or meaning can be fully present or accessible to consciousness.

And Derrida connects this to death. In a very substantial departure from ordinary usage [assuming there is such a thing – but I hardly think the phrase ‘ordinary usage’ has lost all cogency] Derrida sees empirical death as a particular instance of death-in-general: the non-presence of consciousness to itself. Iterability brings death, in this sense, into the soul of existence, and ruins Husserl’s attempt to imagine a purely living thought.

But all this is based on a prior following of Husserl down the path of the phenomenological reduction. And – my argument goes – this path is itself an attempt to escape death, in Derrida’s sense, and in the ordinary sense too.


By the end of his career, Husserl had decided that death was impossible. The soul is immortal, consciousness can’t die, because the world itself must be exhaustively understood, by philosophy, in terms of intentional thought, i.e. consciousness.

(I’m sitting here with a book (David Carr; “The Paradox of Subjectivity: The Self in the Transcendental Tradition.” [Have I read it? Of course I haven’t read it!]) that begins by saying philosophers “like Foucault and Derrida” have “mounted a forceful attack on the concept of the subject or, more broadly, on what is characterised as the ‘metaphysics of the subject’.” I can see where this read is coming from – Derrida does, of course, attack a certain concept of the subject. But I don’t see how Derrida is anything other than fully committed to the ‘metaphysics of the subject’, in most important senses.)

I.e. Philosophy begins with the omnipotence of thought, which can be contrasted with the supposedly naïve metaphysics of Marx’s ‘ontologising’ materialism.

When Derrida criticises Marx’s (supposed) nostalgia for the purity of use-value, of hule, of matter, and claims that Marx has failed to understand that exchange-value is always already present, always already haunts use-value – and thus that capital is inescapable – when Derrida performs this analysis of Marx, he is very closely recapitulating his engagement with Husserl. Again, the reference to “[w]hoever understands Greek” is sort of a red herring – because the real relevance of “hule”, in this passage, isn’t the Greek word in its Greek usage, but rather its adoption by Husserl as his term for the Given. Husserl tells us that hule is the Given; and then tells us that we are mistaken to believe that there is a noumenal world from which this Given derives. For Husserl the concept of intentionality can do all the work we need in terms of the other-directedness of thought.

And, again, intentionality must be understood in terms of iterability – which is to say, exchange.


Now let’s very quickly return to Derrida’s engagement with speech-act theory – his essay on Austin and polemic with John Searle.

In the original essay, of course, ‘Signature Event Context’, Derrida attacked a certain philosophical understanding of communication, by laying stress, as usual, on the contamination of pure presence by iterability. Searle, in a polemical reply, ‘Reiterating the Differences’, levelled any number of accusations at Derrida, most of them stupid. (Searle doesn’t seem to have read much Derrida, at least at the time he wrote that essay). One of Searle’s remarks, however, entirely hits home, IMO. Searle says Derrida confuses permanence and iterability.

Now, as I say, Derrida does not confuse permanence and iterability. He assimilates permanence to iterability, for phenomenological reasons. But Searle is (I think) absolutely right to draw attention to this, and point out how weird it is. What kind of whacked-up philosophical idealist do you have to be to assimilate permanence to iterability?

In his interminable polemical reply, Derrida has fun with Searle’s misreadings and blunders. But there’s sort of an air of hysteria about Derrida’s performance – if Searle’s such an idiot, why this incredible demolition job? (A question that Derrida will later ask about Marx’s take on Stirner). One reason, I think, is that Derrida doesn’t have a good response to this central accusation. Derrida has to place iterability at the centre of philosophy for his critique to get off the ground. But only certain philosophical systems provide Derrida with the resources that enable him to mount this internal critique. And Austin’s doesn’t – because Austin isn’t an idealist.

Which brings us to a passage in Limited Inc’s ‘Afterword’. Derrida is about to ridicule Searle’s book on ‘intentionality’. He prefaces his ridicule by emphasising the profundity of his own engagement with the question of intentionality – and “clarifying” the idea of iterabilty:

“[I]f the law of iterability, with all its associated laws, exceeds the intentional structure that it renders possible and whose teleo-archaeology it limits, if it is the law not merely of intentionality (nor for that matter merely of the language or the writing of man), then the question of the specificity of intentionality in this field without limit remains open: what is intentionality? What does ‘intention’ properly mean as the particular or original work (mise en oeuvre) of iterability? I admit that this enigma grows increasingly obscure for me. It communicates with the greatest questions of being, of meaning and of the phenomenon, of consciousness, of the relation to the object in general, of transcendence and of appearing as such, etc. My frequenting of philosophies and phenomenologies of intentionality, beginning with that of Husserl, has only caused my uncertainty to increase, as well as my distrust of this word or of this figure, I hardly dare to say ‘concept’.” (‘Limited Inc’, p. 130).

“what is intentionality?” Derrida rarely asks philosophical question so straightforwardly – “when the question is not yet determined enough for the hypocrisy of an answer to have already initiated itself beneath the mask of the question”. (‘Writing and Difference’, p. 98). This is, indeed, a question that baffles Derrida, or baffles deconstruction… because it is, IMO, a question that deconstruction is constitutionally incapable of answering. And this question is very closely connected to the always-deferred project I mentioned in my last long post on Derrida – the project Derrida announces in ‘Speech and Phenomena’; then re-announces (without having moved any closer to it) in ‘Glas’: “the very concept of constitution itself must be deconstructed.” Here, at these crucial moments in his work, when Derrida takes us to an enigma or question he can only pose, and never answer, Derrida touches on the limits of his project.

Why? Because, for Derrida, iterability is the transcendental condition of intentionality: iterability constitutes intentionality. And iterability is also the mechanism by which all deconstruction operates – deconstruction locates iterability within the heart of ‘presence’. But as the transcendental condition of presence and of intentionality, iterability itself cannot be deconstructed. And, crucially, the philosophical resources Derrida requires in order to give iterability this transcendental status are themselves based on the prior deployment of the “‘concept’” ‘intentionality’. Thus: everything begins in “the omnipotence of a thought”; in a phenomenological reduction. And this reduction is both constituted and constituting. No matter how far deconstruction travels from classical metaphysics, it must always retain its link to this conceptual sovereignty.


There are two deaths.

On the one hand there is the internal death of the sign – the death that is thought’s non-presence to itself.

On the other hand there is the death that is the absence of the sign.

Notoriously, Derrida’s work denies the second kind of death. According to Derrida, there is nothing outside the text, and the thing itself is a sign.

But it is possible, I believe, to perform a quasi-deconstructive analysis of Derrida’s texts, which would argue that the ‘second death’ is both effaced and required by Derrida’s treatment of the first.

To be sure, Derrida himself at times moves toward such an argument. I think particularly of his great middle period works, surrounding ‘Glas’. And right from the start Derrida says that to think “I am” is also to think “I am mortal” – and therefore, at the limit, “I am dead”. The question is what Derrida means by this “dead”; what Derrida wants to mean by it; and what vicissitudes of meaning are at work within this word, which the consciousness behind or within the deconstructuve text cannot fully control.

“I am dead, Horatio. Wretched Queen, adieu!
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time – as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest – O, I could tell you –
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead.”


  1. that’s convincing.

    “iterability constitutes intentionality….deconstruction locates iterability within the heart of ‘presence’” etc…is that the “absolutised authority” of fictitious capital, romanticised? futures? something of this sort?

    Comment by chabert — May 27, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

  2. Hey Chabert. Sorry I haven’t responded to your earlier comments (& that I’m about to not respond to this one… 😦 ) I’m a bit exhausted; plus I’m in a fog about all this suff anyway. (Plus I’m running to catch up with Marx). In a word: Yes, I think… maybe. I very much agree with what you say about ‘capitalisation’… this is a brilliant critique. And in a way the problem’s made worse by other aspects of ‘Specters’ that we (or rather I) may find more admirable. As if, for instance, only capital can mourn – or mourning can only take place once we’ve accepted capital. That said, I’m aware of stuff in Derrida that powerfully counteracts this tendency. I don’t have anything cogent to say at present. But the brain churns, and may eventually spit out a response.

    [Thank you, by the way, for the LaCapra reference. [I might as well say that here]. I haven’t read it, and will try to.]

    Comment by praxisblog — May 27, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

  3. “is that the “absolutised authority” of fictitious capital, romanticised?”

    This isn’t what you’re getting at, but in terms of the location of the subject in capitalism, this weird stuff about the ‘visor effect’ in the early pages of ‘Specters’ totally says that the spectre, the spectral, is the real subject that underlies all other subjectivities. The spectre sees but cannot be seen. I don’t have ‘Capital’ with me, but Marx (sardonically) says that (in capitalism’s own self-understanding) capital is real subject, absolute subject, Hegelian subject (right?). Some connection to made there, probably…

    Comment by praxisblog — May 27, 2008 @ 9:58 pm

  4. [Although I guess there’s an issue over just how sardonic Marx is being here, as always. Ach – I must stop commenting on Marx until I’ve got a proper read…] Anyway.

    Comment by praxisblog — May 27, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

  5. you say a lot in these reflections, and there would be a lot to comment on. at least in the first quotes from derrida, the comparison is not to husserl or phenomenology, but to athenian philosophy, and in particular to aristotle’s wood fetish; aristotle says hule where his scholastic readers, and we, say materia. it may well be that derrida reduces marx, but here he is suggesting, i think, a difficulty in conceiving a clear distinction between matter and spirit in order to begin a critique. matter is preanimated, or deanimated, killed, and then imagined to need reunification with spirit…

    Comment by pluto harn — June 5, 2008 @ 12:58 am

  6. Thank you – marvellous. I’m going to reply properly – but that’ll take some time. This is just a stop-gap to let you know I’m not ignoring the comment :-). Love what you say on your blog about the ‘real’…

    Comment by praxisblog — June 5, 2008 @ 10:34 pm

  7. Right – sorry it’s taken me so long to respond; and I’m really not going to be able to respond adequately (an adequate response would, I think, require a romp through Aristotle that I’ve got neither the time nor the knowledge to attempt). Incredibly telegraphically, though:

    Yes, for sure, Derrida’s main referent is Greek philosophy – and in particular Aristotle – not Husserl. And I think a similar argument to the one Derrida makes in relation to Husserl could be made in relation to Aristotle: matter (hule) is worked over by form (eidos) to produce substance (ousia). Right? The problem is that since form is the principle of intelligibility, matter ‘itself’ drops out; matter is unthinkable, in this framework. So just as for Husserl you’re left with intentional consciousness, with no ‘substance’ to speak of (or, rather, substance is reimagined entirely in terms of intentional consciousness), so, for Aristotle, you ostensibly have a ‘materialism’, but the only aspect of substance that’s actually accessible to consciousness is form; and so it’s impossible for Aristotle to (coherently) differentiate form from substance. (In this respect, Aristotle’s ‘realism’ collapses back into Plato’s ‘idealism’). Okay?

    The reason I say that Derrida’s gesturing principally to Husserl, not to Aristotle in this passage is:
    1) The reference to the ‘omnipotence of a thought’, which idea doesn’t play much of a role in Aristotle as far as I know.
    2) The various scattered references to phenomenology and the phenomenology of perception in this chapter, including in its subtitle. (This is perhaps weak evidence, but counts for something, I think.)
    3) Most importantly: in my opinion Derrida in general reads Aristotle – as he reads all philosophy – through the prism of phenomenology. [And this is a claim, I guess, not just about what Derrida ‘intends’ to refer to here, but what his text ‘actually’ refers to, when here as elsewhere he talks about metaphysics…]
    This last is a stupidly general claim, and I overstress it in the post. Certainly Derrida doesn’t simply or crudely reduce all philosophies back to phenomenology. (In ‘The Supplement of Copula’, if I remember right, Derrida talks about metaphysics in general bearing the “decisive mark” of Aristotelianism; Aristotle conditioning phenomenology as much as phenomenology conditions Derrida’s read of Aristotle.) But I think Derrida sees Husserl’s work as sort of the realisation or culmination of the metaphysical tradition. His critique of Husserl, then, is also a critique of philosophy in general, because Derrida seems to more or less accept Husserl’s claim to have brought out the latent foundations of all prior philosophising. Wacky idea, IMO. But I think Derrida believes something like it, at least at many important moments of his text. (This is why, for instance, he insists in Limited Inc that Austin is very close to the continental tradition represented by Husserl, even though that’s prima facie sort of implausible.)

    So, yeah – Derrida’s certainly referring to Aristotle’s wood fetish, when he talks about ‘hule’ – but
    1) Derrida’s understanding of Aristotle’s wood fetish is conditioned and mediated by his preoccupation with phenomenology.
    2) Derrida is explicitly playing around with phenomenology in the passages surrounding this one – so I think it’s reasonable to see the reference to hule here as a somewhat sly reference to Husserl, not just or even principally to Aristotle. I think Husserl is the figure doing most of the work here. (Though of course Marx refers to Aristotle in this first chapter of ‘Capital’ – as he regularly does elsewhere – and so Derrida probably also has this in mind when he decides to bring in hule.)

    Now, the following has no bearing on your comment – but Marx’s references to Aristotle tell a story in themselves, as regards the possibility of deconstructing ‘Capital’. Here’s the Aristotle quote Marx loves:

    “Of everything which we possess there are two uses: …one is the proper, and the other the improper or secondary use of it. For example, a shoe is used for wear, and is used for exchange; both are uses of the shoe. He who gives a shoe in exchange for money or food to him who wants one, does indeed use the shoe as a shoe, but this is not its proper or primary purpose, for a shoe is not made to be an object of barter. The same may be said of all possessions…”

    Marx quotes this all over the place – and the question is: what’s his attitude toward it? Obviously the quote is deconstructionist gold: the distinction between the proper and the improper; the primary and the secondary. Derrida’s deconstruction of Marx, in the last chapter of ‘Specters’, could really be a deconstruction of this quote. The ‘proper’ use – the use represented, in political economy, by use-value – is supposed to be separable from the ‘improper’ use of exchange. But (as any deconstructionist would say) the proper use is always already contaminated by the improper.

    Thing is – Marx believes this too. This is why, when he starts talking about exchange value, and the production of commodities purely for the purpose of exchange, in the M-C-M circulation of capital (rather than in the ‘proper’ C-M-C), Marx uses the example of the sandal: he’s implicitly referring back to Aristotle’s shoe. Clearly, Marx believes that under capitalism, use-value is always already contaminated by exchange-value. Use value is an expression of exchange value; it is (in a sense) a ‘symbol’ of it. (The ‘language of commodities’ speaks through use value.)

    Question is: does Marx want to rescue an ‘ontological’ use value that escapes this circulation? Is such a use value part of the ground of his critique of capitalism? It’s complicated: there’s the issue that a use value separable from exchange need not be an ‘ontologised’ use value, of the sort that Derrida critiques. And there’s also, perhaps more importantly, the fact that the category of ‘use value’ which we encounter in a commodity, is a product of the commodity-form. ‘Use value’ is a category of political economy, and must not be conflated with the ordinary language use of ‘use’. (Or with Aristotle’s ‘proper use’, for instance.) My feeling, I guess, is that Marx uses these words in different ways, and that there may be nothing problematic about these different uses (although there may be; I’m not sure.) At any rate, it’s pretty clear, I think, that when Marx uses the phrase ‘use value’ in Chapter One, he’s not referring to a transhistorical ontologised thing – hule, matter, the given, whatever – but to an aspect of the historically contingent commodity form, using historically contingent conceptual categories. So I don’t think Derrida’s bringing on of hule has anything like the bite Derrida thinks it does.

    Anyway, all that last stuff has no connection to your comment at all. It was just swirling round in the brain cell. Thanks again for you comment. And sorry it took me so long to respond.

    Comment by praxisblog — June 10, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

  8. “here he is suggesting, I think, a difficulty in conceiving a clear distinction between matter and spirit in order to begin a critique. matter is preanimated, or deanimated, killed, and then imagined to need reunification with spirit…”

    Yes – this is marvellous. But the thing is – what use of the word or concept ‘matter’ is deployed in imagining matter to be ‘deanimated’ – in Marx, or in other materialisms? Is this, for instance, Marx’s use? Or is it a use (a use of ‘use’) that has been imported into Marx’s text in order to be deconstructed? Marx’s materialism, in its canonical formulas, emphasises, after all, not matter per se, but rather society, social relations, modes of production. “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Point is ‘social existence’ not ‘materiality’. Marx says “mode of production of material life” – but a mode of production is already animated, already socialised, already partaking, in some sense, of ‘animal spirits’ (though not of any Hegelian Geist…)

    I agree with what you say about the general move – sorry to bang on about Marx (he’s just on the brain at present). But while there’s a strong tendency in many materialisms to, as it were, hypostatise materiality – and thereby make materiality idealised, idealised as non-idealised – there’s also a tendency in critiques of materialism to see all materialisms as in principle compromised by such a move. Which my wager is: not so much.

    Anyway, I’ll stop wittering now. Sorry all this is so beside the point.

    Comment by praxisblog — June 10, 2008 @ 10:50 pm

  9. […] Specters of Marx.  Others around the place have been doing this (notably Rough Theory and Praxis), and I certainly don’t expect to reach the complexity or length of their posts.  […]

    Pingback by The time of the ghost « Contaminations — June 19, 2008 @ 7:37 am

  10. Apologies for commenting in the absence of any formal introductions. I’ve found my way over here via NP’s blog and I’ve enjoyed reading your remarks on Derrida and on Specters in particular. I hope you don’t mind if I ask a few questions in response to this post…

    Is this, for instance, Marx’s use? Or is it a use (a use of ‘use’) that has been imported into Marx’s text in order to be deconstructed?

    Isn’t this precisely the question that Derrida puts to us as unresolvable? Doesn’t the decision either way depend on an attempted exorcism of the ghost and the denial of spectrality? Yet, how could one not choose? Or, again, is there a way of choosing that could nevertheless affirm the inevitable revanant of the ghost (e.g. by way of thematising precisely that inevitability)?

    I’ve never understood Husserl and doubt I ever will. I’ve read all manner of overviews of his work which make it sound nothing like the kind of work that could spur Heidegger’s Being and Time or anything by Derrida. The only primary text I’ve ever managed to make it all the way through was the Crisis and I didn’t understand a word of it.

    Having said that, your take on the outcome of the phenomenological reduction — “everything we seem to have bracketed is already there within consciousness. As consciousness’s other-directedness, its intentionality” — sounds very Hegelian. Hegel’s and Husserl’s methods are different, to be sure, but your characterisation of the outcome of the phenomenological reduction sounds to me very much like Hegel in the Preface (or is it Introduction?) to the Phenomenology, and I just don’t know that that’s quite what’s going on in Husserl. But then again, I’ve never understood Husserl and I probably never will.

    Similarly, I’m not convinced that Derrida simply “endorses this manoeuvre”. He exploits it certainly, but only (I think) to demonstrate its impossibility and to point to an irreducible excess (irreducible both to thought and to the bracketed world) that is produced (constituted?) by the reduction. But then again, I don’t have my Derrida books to hand at the moment, so I can’t confirm anything, and, besides, my understanding of Derrida on Husserl is only marginally better than my understanding of Husserl (which, again, is non-existent).

    At any rate, if you’re right about Husserl and about Derrida’s endorsement of Husserl, then perhaps it’s just as well I don’t really understand either, since my reading of the “law” or “condition” of iterability deviates from the transcendentalist accounts of that figure that you’ve given. My immediate response to your characterisation is to ask, for instance, what kind of a law exactly could the “law” of iterability be? It seems to me that it could not simply be a transcendental law, because such a law, for it to be transcendental, would itself have to evade iterability, but if it were to evade iterability it could not properly be called transcendental. And if it’s not properly transcendental, then to what extent does deconstruction always proceed by way of that law? and to what extent, then, must its operations (so to speak) “always retain this link to conceptual sovereignty?

    Questions might also be asked of the visor effect: what kind of a subject could the specter be? Maybe if I understood Husserl and recognised Derrida’s endorsement of Husserl’s abolition of the noumenal world, I would learn not to ask such questions…

    I’m not trying to be disingenuous here. Obviously I take issue with your account of Derrida, but I think the more productive question, which is perhaps most productive when left as a question, is this: Is this affirmation of Husserl’s move Derrida’s affirmation? Or is it an affirmation that has been imported into Derrida’s text in order to be critiqued?

    Comment by rob — June 26, 2008 @ 1:45 am

  11. Rob – thanks (No need for formal introductions! 🙂 ). Before I respond, though, I need to ‘fess up. Having banged on and on about the phrase “the omnipotence of a thought”, above – having insisted on the link with phenomenology – I realised yesterday what I should have realised quite some time ago: it’s a bloody citation of Freud. Specifically, Totem & Taboo.

    I know there’s loads of Freud in ‘Specters’ – but I thought it was mostly coming from his essay on the uncanny. I’ve not gone back to figure out what’s going on T&T-wise. Now I don’t think this renders my argument… uh… scrap-metal. As NP says in the latest Rough Theory post… ‘Specters’ is a dreamtext, in some senses, filled with the residue of the day – also filled with ciphers, and with latent & manifest content. It’s a very fun game, if it’s the game Derrida is playing: to make the great theorist of the unconscious the manifest content; and the great theorist of wakeful intentional phenomenological consciousness the latent content.

    But I’m now reading so much into this sentence that it’s sort of crazy… and I haven’t even gotten to the animism stuff. (Freud again). So I just wanted to flag up the inadequacy of the “omnipotence of a thought” remarks above, before I move on to respond to what you actually, you know, say.

    So. First – thanks. Second – you sod. 🙂 Third: this is going to have to be a monster… I may split it into several comments. Also, I’ll intersperse my responses with yours…
    “Is this, for instance, Marx’s use? Or is it a use (a use of ‘use’) that has been imported into Marx’s text in order to be deconstructed?
    Isn’t this precisely the question that Derrida puts to us as unresolvable?”

    Well… in a way…

    “Doesn’t the decision either way depend on an attempted exorcism of the ghost and the denial of spectrality?”

    See below.

    “Yet, how could one not choose?”


    “Or, again, is there a way of choosing that could nevertheless affirm the inevitable revanant of the ghost (e.g. by way of thematising precisely that inevitability)?”

    I’m going to bracket off what you say about the ghost here – just temporarily – I don’t think you particularly need the metaphorics of spectrality to make the Derridean point you’re making – though I’ll return to spooking later, obviously.

    So this is the good old issue of ‘proper’ meaning. You’re reacting here against what you take to be my attempt to distinguish between the proper original meaning of a text, and the transformation, permutation, deformation, perversion of that meaning in citation – in use or in mention… It’s fun that the word mentioned is ‘use’, of course… though I’m going to try not to get Wittgensteinian on you ass. The word ‘imported’ speaks of boundaries… speaks of limits of sovereignty, across which goods can be transported… across which they can be ‘communicated’, as Derrida says at the beginning of ‘Signature Event Context’. And: can such a boundary ever be clearly drawn? Can such goods ever be univocal, singular, self-identical… and so on and on.

    Maybe not. Fine. But this really doesn’t stop us from attributing particular meanings to particular words in particular contexts. Derrida is and always has been very clear – there are two aspects to a deconstructive reading. Before one can engage in active deconstruction, one must have a patient, careful, generous and rigorous understanding of the text one wishes to deconstruct. I’ll see if I can dig out a quote… okay I can’t… sorry… I’m not going to spend all afternoon looking back through Derrida… but you agree that Derrida insists on this, surely… [And – sure – one can ask – how separable are these two ‘aspects’ of deconstructive reading. But once you’ve done all that – it’s still true. :-)]

    The problem with ‘Specters’ is just that Derrida fails this initial ‘test’. Not all the time – he’s fucking good, of course. It’s always a pleasure to read him – he’s so smart & so attentive. [Of course, as if it needs to be said, again: this is all very presumptuous of me; I don’t have the Marx knowledge to adequately judge Marx interpretations. & there’s lots of terrific stuff in ‘Specters’ that isn’t made problematic by what I see as misreadings… Nonetheless:]

    The fact is – Derrida gets Marx wrong. [That’s basically the entire content of Spivak’s gloriously impatient response to ‘Specters’…] Arguably Derrida gets Marx a lot less wrong than most people. That’s a different issue. Point is: Marx does not ontologise use value. He just doesn’t! He certainly doesn’t in the way Derrida argues. [I say last this in order to leave generously open the possibility that some more sophisticated argument than Derrida’s could come along and justify Derrida’s conclusions by some other complicated method. But I really really don’t think Marx ontologises use value.]

    Now, the irony, IMO, is that Derrida is I think right to take issue with this kind of thing in Marx – certainly in Marxism. There’s sort of a displacement at work… what’s really pissing Derrida off, I think, is the stuff about ‘transparency’ and ‘lifting the veil’ and so on a few pages after the fetish passage. And other similar passages. At least, that’s the sort of thing that’s pissing him off. But Derrida thinks he can get Marx at the ‘core’ of his (Marx’s) argument – in the discussion of fetishism. And he can’t. So Derrida’s useful and legitimate critique of ontologisation misses its target in Derrida’s actual reading of Marx.

    [Very quickly – it’s sort of more complicated than that; because Derrida does acknowledge certain moments in Marx’s text which, if taken seriously, would undermine the account of Marx he’s giving… Derrida then basically, says, ‘this doesn’t help’. This move is, in general, legitimate, I think… a text can of course ‘speak’ in ways that conflict with the stated communicative intention… the fact that Marx doesn’t think he’s ontologising use value doesn’t mean anything in itself.]

    So – to get back to your original question(s). Of course we can choose between Marx’s use of ‘use’ and Derrida’s interpretation of that use. It’s not undeconstructivist to say “this is a misreading”. Now the last of your questions I quoted is I think the one you regard as most important: “is there a way of choosing that could nevertheless affirm the inevitable revanant of the ghost (e.g. by way of thematising precisely that inevitability)?” As I say, I’m not sure the thematics of haunting is necessarily the best way to talk about this – but if I continue to bracket off the ghost, my answer is ‘yes’. We can, and should, say “Derrida gets Marx wrong; Marx means [X Y Z], not [A B C]”… while still affirming all the Derridean stuff about transformative context and the ultimate non-self-identity of objects and intentions, etc. etc. etc. I don’t think what I say in my post is closing down any Derridean ‘moves’. I think most of them are pretty much taken for granted.

    Now. Moving on to your next comments. (I warned you this would be a monster… sorry…)

    If you’ve read the ‘Crisis’ you’ve read more Husserl than me… so again, all apologies. Let me start with this:

    “Similarly, I’m not convinced that Derrida simply “endorses this manoeuvre”. He exploits it certainly, but only (I think) to demonstrate its impossibility and to point to an irreducible excess (irreducible both to thought and to the bracketed world) that is produced (constituted?) by the reduction.”

    Yes. This is right (IMO). I don’t disagree with it. (I think it’s an excellent summary of what Derrida’s up to.) But: Derridean that I am, I see double-movement everywhere… and I also believe that texts can do radically conflicting things. [That a text’s coherence is in some ways ‘produced’ by these conflicts…] Plainly, in the post above, I’m drawing out what I regard as a particular ‘moment’ of Derrida’s work. I don’t believe that this ‘moment’ renders the stuff you’re talking about in Derrida null and void – not at all. Both are ‘present’, both operate in and through each other. It’s like the pharmakon, or the supplement, or whatever. Derrida is both a transcendental philosopher and a non- or anti-transcendental philosopher. He endorses or exploits Husserl – endorses and exploits him… but Derrida himself, while doing this, while leaving his track in the text of Husserl, privileges or emphasises certain moments of his ‘exploitation’ at the expense of others that are no less ‘essential’ to his argument. As you are doing in your comment. And I’m trying to shift the emphasis, in what I regard as a ‘Derridean’ way.

    This really requires a monograph, I suspect, not a comment-thread comment. I’m going to have to be incredibly telegraphic. But first off let me ping you as regards “endorses” & “exploits”. (This is, I know, unfair – because obviously you’re right to make the important distinction… nonetheless…) At a certain point, an ‘exploitation’ becomes so pervasive that it pretty much = endorsement. When Derrida makes metaphysical moves, he is sometimes given a lot of space, because he’s seen as ‘traversing the text of metaphysics’, rather than just doing metaphysics. It’s appropriate to give him this space – to take seriously his claims that he’s not just doing the same old thing. And I do. But similarly, when certain moves that Derrida himself regards as metaphysical crop up again and again in Derrida’s texts… and are in fact necessary for getting those texts’ arguments off the ground… I think it’s legitimate to suggest that Derrida’s ‘exploitation’ of metaphysics is also a kind of ‘affirmation’. I don’t think Derrida would disagree, exactly. But I think Derrida sees us as more ‘committed’ to certain kinds of metaphysical thought that I’m inclined to… and therefore his own work as a more radical departure from metaphysics than in fact it is. (If we’re all involved in something like phenomenology, then Derrida’s critique is perhaps the most substantial critique there is. If, on the other hand, Derrida’s imagining this involvement… not so much. [I realise this is begging the question, as regards what troubles you in my post; but I hope I’m coming to that.])

    So let me try to actually do some semi-solid work to back up some of this. Here’s a passage from the section of the Grammatology entitled ‘The Outside {Is} The Inside’… (pgs. 60-61):

    [The ‘is’, of course, is written ‘under erasure’. ‘Of Grammatology’ is a very strange book, don’t you think? I hadn’t looked at it again for some time. You can really feel the strain, more than is usual in D’s texts. These crossings-out are surely, quite apart from anything else, an index of anxiety. Derrida is clear: he needs to use these concepts, but he can’t ‘endorse’ them. But he needs to use them. But he doesn’t want to use them. He needs and doesn’t want to need them. That ‘erasure’ is a sort of typographical ‘fort-da’ game, wouldn’t you say?]

    [Derrida is discussing his use of ‘writing’ – “the necessity of the communication between the concept of arche-writing and the vulgar concept of writing submitted to deconstruction by it.” That sentence deserves a monograph of its own… but moving on. Derrida than starts talking about “experience”. [What is the connection between writing and experience? The connection is that Husserl’s theory of signs opens phenomenology – the philosophical study of experience – to deconstruction].]

    “At any rate, we must, according to this sort of contortion and contention which the discourse [of metaphysics, but also of rationality in general, I think] is obliged to undergo, exhaust the resources of the concept of experience before attaining and in order to attain, by deconstruction, its ultimate foundation.”

    Ultimate foundation, for fuck’s sake. Derrida is a lot more careful not to say stuff like this in his later work. But this sort of thing is always in the background, IMO.

    “It is the only way to escape ‘empiricism’ [does Derrida mean empiricist philosophy or… empiricism?] and the ‘naïve’ critiques of experience at the same time.”

    I’m going to skip a couple sentences (we’re on pages 60 to 61 if you want to check I’m not eliding anything that devastates my argument). Here we go; this is the most relevant bit:

    “The parenthesizing of regions of experience or of the totality of natural experience must discover a field of transcendental experience.”

    It’s really important to note that Derrida is not discussing Husserl here. This is not an immanent critique of Husserl. This is simply bringing Husserlian arguments to bear on an non-Husserlian context. (We’re generally in Saussure’s space, at this point… [my ability to adequately separate Saussure from phenomenology patent pending in all countries] ) Notice the phrase “must discover”…

    Derrida then talks about how theorisations that fail to make this parenthesising move are “plagued by a scientificist objectivism, that is to say by another unperceived or unconfessed metaphysics… It is to escape falling back into this naïve objectivism that I refer here to a transcendentality that I elsewhere put into question. It is because I believe that there is a short-of and a beyond of transcendental criticism. To see to it that the beyond does not return to the within is to recognise in the contortion the necessity of a pathway That pathway must leave a track in the text. Without that track, abandoned to the simple content of its conclusions, the ultra-transcendental text will so closely resemble to precritical text as to be indistinguishable from it.”

    Now all this is exactly what I’m talking about. Here’s the story:

    1) Naïve objectivism. (e.g. ontologised use-value.)
    2) Which is an unconfessed metaphysics. (e.g. Marx’s political philosophy caught within the metaphysics of presence.)
    3) In order to escape this unconfessed metaphysics, we must move through or traverse metaphysics proper.
    4) Specifically – we must discover a field of transcendental experience.
    5) So “I refer here to a transcendentality that I elsewhere put into question.”

    Now your point (if I understand you right) is as follows: when I talk about Derrida’s commitment to transcendental thought, I’m ignoring this ‘putting into question’.

    My point is this: Derrida’s ‘putting into question’ – which is real; which does distinguish deconstruction from classical metaphysics; which does give Derrida very substantial ‘non-philosophical’ resources – this ‘putting into question’ nonetheless depends on a prior deployment of the phenomenological reduction. It presupposes the discovery of a field of transcendental experience. And no matter how much this ‘discovery’ is then immanently critiqued, you can’t say that this is simply an exploitation of Husserl, and not an ‘affirmation’ of him, an ‘endorsement’ of these metaphysical moves, in some sense.

    There’s really a whole lot more I should say. But I have a lot of stuff to do – and so I’m going to call a halt here. Perhaps I’ll be able to continue this later. (Sorry not to have returned to spectrality – and not to have addressed many of the points in your comment. I guess this is already long enough…)

    Comment by praxisblog — June 27, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

  12. Hi praxis. Thanks very much for the intriguing comments. If you ever get round to writing the monography, I’d be very interested in reading it.

    I won’t respond in equal detail, but only because you’ve just reported that you’re busy being lazy, and I myself am busy avoiding being busy. Just a few quick points, though:

    1. My Freud and Marx are only marginally better than my Husserl, and so I don’t really lay any claim to understanding either of them well enough to be able to confidently respond to anything you’ve written here. Accordingly, the next point is delivered with a stammer….

    2. I completely appreciate the point about reading carefully, generously, etc., and that your critique emerges from the charge that, in this particular instance, Derrida fails to do so. I guess what I’m asking is whether this can be seen as a deliberate (as it were) or strategic move, i.e. such that what Derrida is critiquing here is (a certain version of) Marxism and not Marx and precisely for its commitment to exorcising the ghost. (But you’re also right that we could just as easily speak, in this instance, of undecidability, say, as spectrality.) The implication of this is that Derrida also gets Marx “wrong” by addressing a certain kind of Marxism by Marx’s name. And there are a couple of ways to read this event.

    (i) This section of Specters does not offer a reading of Marx so much as a negation of a particular way of inheriting Marx (or, simply, a way of reading Marx) with the implication that what this section of the book affirms in Marx is not given a positive identity: what is affirmed is precisely the spectrality (undecidability) of Marx’s work. And this is kind of what i was getting at with my question about choosing, yet affirming the inevitable revanant of the ghost. Derrida chooses a “wrong” version of Marx, misattributes meanings to “Marx”, but in such a way as to affirm its structural wrongness, as it were.

    (ii) The section shows up the difference (or, probably, the differance) between a critical and a deconstructive reading, or perhaps between a deconstructive-as-critical reading and another kind of (deconstructive?) “reading”. It demonstrates the limits to critique insofar as it shows that critique, by reproducing (albeit via negation) the image, object, argument, act or whatever that it criticises, fails to produce anything “new”.

    (iii) By the same token, Derrida’s mistake (read as mistake) simply underscores the importance or returning to Marx, of never presuming to have identified the proper Marx — not even the version generated by “a patient, careful, generous and rigorous” reading, which remains, after all, one way of reading, and a way of reading that isn’t always appropriate and worth affirming in all imaginable contexts.

    None of the above is meant to suggest that Derrida has thought through all these possibilities, etc. I’m simply responding to what the text — and not even the text as such, since none of these thoughts would have occurred to me in the absence of the series of remarks generated by you and NP — gives me to read. In the end, I guess I’m just trying to attend to what might be the strategic nature of Derrida’s use, citation and reading of Marx. in this book.

    3. I think you’re write that the “critique” (not the right word) that you’re pursuing of Derrida regarding his commitment to metaphysics requires a book-length treatment. I think it’s a very interesting topic and one that could, without necessary contradiction, generate a number of more-or-less equally plausible accounts. I’m particularly receptive to what you’re working towards, because I agree that the “first” gesture of deconstruction is an affirmative one. So any path to a “a short-of and a beyond of transcendental criticism”, if there is one (or if, indeed, such a form of criticism were not already utterly mundane) could only be “discovered” via a move through metaphysics.

    Just one question, though, about the following conclusion: “this ‘putting into question’ nonetheless depends on a prior deployment of the phenomenological reduction. It presupposes the discovery of a field of transcendental experience.” Is there perhaps an unjustified (?) leap being made here between two potentially distinct “elements”? While Derrida undoubtedly exploits/affirms the phenomenological reduction, that is, I’m not sure that the deployment of the reduction is utterly bound to a commitment to discovering a field of transcendental experience. I know you’ve cited some passages from the Grammatology which might suggest that Derrida is so committed, but I’m not so sure… I don’t have my copy on me, and at any rate, there’s enough in what you’ve cited to suggest that any such commitment must be seen as provisional and strategic (e.g. “a transcendentality that I elsewhere put into question”; “It is to escape falling back into this naïve objectivism [i.e. for this particular purpose…]”), in which case, I don’t have a problem with it.

    Well, that’s it. So much for brevity. Thanks again for the response, and I hope you enjoy your laziness.


    Comment by rob — June 30, 2008 @ 2:07 am

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