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.]


May 11, 2008


Filed under: Derrida, Marx — duncan @ 6:59 pm

This is really just me going over ground that’s already been comprehensively covered by N Pepperell’s posts on the early chapters of ‘Capital’ (to which it’s just totally indebted, to the point of outright theft). It was all meant to be part of a longer post on ‘Specters’, which recently collapsed under its own weight, onto its shaky foundations. There’s something I’m not happy with in the below – something that doesn’t seem right. But I can’t figure out what it is – so I’m ignoring it. Perhaps sometime eventually we’ll get to temporality in Derrida.


When the commodity comes on stage, in ‘Capital’, according to Derrida, it comes on stage first of all as a ‘Thing’. “To say that the same thing, the wooden table for example, comes on stage as a commodity after having been but an ordinary thing in its use-value is to grant an origin to the ghostly moment. Its use-value, Marx seems to imply, was intact. It was what it was, use-value, identical to itself. The phantasmagoria, like capital, would begin with exchange-value and the commodity form. It is only then that the ghost “comes on stage.” Before this, according to Marx, it was not there. Not even in order to haunt use-value. But whence comes the certainty concerning the previous phase, that of this supposed use-value, precisely, a use-value purified of everything that makes for exchange-value and the commodity form? What secures this distinction for us?”

Yes, what? Derrida insistently reads Marx in terms of a before and after – a before of pure presence; an after of spectral capital. First use-value; then exchange value.

But this reading requires a somewhat doubtful interpretation of Marx’s text. For when the commodity first “comes on stage”, in ‘Capital’ – in the book’s first sentence – it comes on stage not as a simple Thing, but already as a commodity.

“The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’ [Marx citing his own earlier ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy]; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. Our investigation therefore begins with the analysis of the commodity.”

Marx begins with the commodity; he then disassembles the commodity into what “appear” to be its component parts: use-value, and exchange-value. And once Marx begins this disassembly, he does indeed “appear” to give temporal priority to use-value.

“The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its properties satisfies human needs of whatever kind.” [my emphases]

First of all an external object – a thing. What could be clearer? But it is perhaps worth emphasising: this “thing” is not in itself a use-value, not as such. Rather, use-value is the product of the ability of external objects to satisfy human needs – and it is only this relation that makes an object into a use-value. “The usefulness of a thing makes it a use-value.” Thus an external object ”is” a use-value, but it is a use-value (of course) only through its involvement in human society. Use-value is socially conditioned, or produced.

“Every useful thing, for example, iron, paper, etc., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. [And these “two points of view” may “appear” to map on to the use-value / exchange-value distinction…. (“As use-values, commodities differ above all in quality, while as exchange-values they can differ only in quantity…”)… but this parallel will be complicated as ‘Capital’ advances.] Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of things is the work of history.”

Marx is enough of a Hegelian that we should prick up our ears when he mentions “the work of history”. And there is a footnote appended to this phrase:

“’Things have an intrinsick vertue’ (this is Barbon’s special term for use-value) ‘which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron.’ (op., cit., p. 6).” And then Marx adds: “The magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had lead to the discovery of magnetic polarity.”

This comment disrupts the associations that the concept of “intrinisck vertue” may seem to carry. (It is, perhaps, moments like this that lead Engels to insist, in his Preface to the third edition, that Marx should not be read as endorsing the theoretical views of the economists he quotes.) For on the one hand, the property of attracting iron is intrinsic, is a material property; on the other hand it is a use-value… thus use-value is material. But, of course, since a use-value is only made into a use-value by its social and historical position, in another sense this “intrinsick” virtue is far from intrinsic at all. “[G]eometrical, physical, chemical or other natural… properties of commodities come into consideration… to the extent that they make the commodities useful, .i.e. turn them into use-values.” Commodities, as Marx here says, have to be turned into use-values – just as they have to be turned into exchange values – and this transformation, this ‘turning’ (like the table-turning that Derrida later discusses) is “the work of history”.

So use-value is both social and historicised. And in the next sentence, Marx draws out the parallel between historicised use-value and historicised exchange-value.

“Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of these things is the work of history. So also is the invention of socially recognised standards of measurement for the quantities of these useful objects.” [my emphasis.]

The historical and social processes that give a material thing its exchange-value also give it its use-value; and use-value is not assumed to exist prior to this general social entanglement.

All this is, perhaps, tediously obvious. Of course in some sense use-value is already social, or relational – whoever thought to deny that? But I think it’s important to emphasise this stuff if we’re to discuss Derrida’s reading of ‘Capital’.

Here’s a famous passage, from the start of Marx’s discussion of commodity-fetishism, that is one of the key moments Derrida uses to convict Marx of a metaphysical privileging of the purity of use-value.

”A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it [and this is the position Derrida emphasises in his reading – an apparent treatment of use-value as non-mysterious, as escaping the mysteriousness of fetishism, and therefore as the locus of the metaphysical idea of purity that fetishism contaminates], whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour [my emphasis]. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.”

There seems to be a movement here from ‘ordinary’ use-value to the ‘metaphysical’ subtlety of exchange-value, or of commodification. But it should be emphasised that (as Marx says quite plainly) the “ordinary, sensuous thing” that is an object in its use-value, only becomes a use-value through the same social processes that make it into a commodity, and thus make it “transcend” sensuousness. “[I]t first takes on these properties as the product of human labour”. Ordinary sensuousness is not, in itself, enough to make the table a use-value – even though the use-value is that ordinary sensuousness.

The relevant distinction here, I think, is not between materiality as use-value, on the one-hand, and exchange-value or commodification, on the other – but rather between materiality as such, independent of human needs, and materiality as use-value. Derrida seems to assimilate use-value to materiality in general, in his reading of Marx – which is why he calls Marx’s idea of use-value ‘ontological’. And this has some justification – because a commodity’s use-value is its materiality; Marx says this very plainly. But this is a materiality – an ordinary sensuousness – that is not use-value in itself, but that has to be made into use-value, through labour (which is the basic institution of capitalism), and through the social and historical production or invention of the needs use-values satisfy. Use-value, like exchange-value, is an outcome of the general social system Marx analyses.

Is this belabouring the obvious? Maybe. But I think Derrida neglects this aspect of Marx. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about that some other time.

April 28, 2008

Metaphor of Equivalence

Filed under: Derrida, Economics, Philosophy — duncan @ 3:44 pm

Borges’ story ‘The Zahir’ ends with his narrator’s thoughts entirely occupied by the image of a coin – and with the ambition to “wear it away”, through thought. This obsession is a metaphor, arguably, for our obsession with money. But a coin seems to give itself better than the other figures of the Zahir to the total domination of consciousness. “The thought struck me that there is no coin that is not the symbol of all the coins that shine endlessly down throughout history and fable… any coin… is, in all truth, a panoply of possible futures.” The function of a coin derives from its power of symbolism, circulation, and equivalence – because, in the system of circulation and equivalence that is a capitalist economy, a coin can in principle be substituted for or symbolise anything that falls within that economy. Thus a coin seems uniquely well placed to usurp consciousness – provided we understand consciousness as the ability to represent the world.

The coin as infinitely applicable, infinitely substitutable, infinitely exchangeable symbol; the coin as the material instantiation of an abstract power of equivalence. The coin is a material object that functions like thought. And thus the coin can take the place of thought – or, rather, the coin can make thought subordinate to it. “It is not as though the Zahir were made of glass, since one side is not superimposed upon the other” – the coin is not a medium through which the objects of possible substitution are perceived – “rather, it is though the vision were itself spherical, with the Zahir rampant at the center.” Once a concrete instantiation of absolute substitutability has been established, this instantiation becomes the still centre to which all else must be referred. It is the transcendental, empirical, final referent – because it can in turn refer to anything at all.

We are now used to thinking the necessary materiality of thought. Since Derrida – and Wittgenstein – we know that the ideality of thought always depends on the materiality of the signs and symbols that enable thought. Nonetheless – this materiality has more often than not been understood as the materiality of language – the materiality of words, of text; perhaps, for Wittgenstein, of social practices. But not the materiality of a coin, not “a common twenty-centavo coin into which a razor or letter opener has scratched the letters N T and the number 2…”

At crucial moments in Derrida’s work (I’m focussing on Derrida; we’ll get to Wittgenstein, perhaps, eventually, at which point everything, I hope, will change) the coin looms large; the coin (the infinite substitutions of capitalist economies) seems to dominate the language with which Derrida articulates his thought of infinite substitutability as language.

Near the start of ‘White Mythologies’, his essay on metaphor, Derrida quotes from Anatole France’s ‘The Garden of Epicurus’. “Polyphilos:… I was thinking how the Metaphysicians, when they make a language for themselves, are like… knife-grinders, who instead of knives and scissors, should put medals and coins to the grindstone to efface the exergue, the value and the head. When they have worked away till nothing is visible in their crown-pieces, neither King Edward, the Emperor William, nor the Republic, they say: ‘These pieces have nothing either English, German or French about them; we have freed them from all limits of time and space; they are not worth five shillings any more; they are of an inestimable value, and their exchange value is extended indefinitely.’ They are right in speaking thus. By this needy knife-grinder’s activity words are changed from a physical to a metaphysical acceptation. It is obvious what they lose in the process; what they gain by it is not so immediately apparent.” (quoted in ‘Margins of Philosophy’, p. 210)

Coin as metaphor for language. Coin as metaphor for metaphor. The sensuous meaning of language is rubbed away, to produce abstraction –abstraction conceals a hidden sensuousness.

But it seems strange of France’s Polyphilos to use this metaphor for metaphor. The coin is (of course) already an abstraction, a materially instantiated abstraction – a ‘sensuous non-sensuous’, to use the language of ‘Capital’ (or of Hegel; or, I’m told, of Goethe’s Mephistopheles). To rub away at the coin to make it abstract – to efface the head – is to remove its connection to the abstract (to the head). A coin without inscription loses its value as a coin. And so Polyphilos’s satire, that ridicules metaphysicians for effacing the real meaning of the words they use – a real meaning that is sensual, tangible, non-abstract, metaphoric; this ridicule is rerouted by the metaphor Polyphilos uses to describe metaphor – this metaphor makes metaphor already abstract, makes sensuousness already abstract. And it does so through the power of the coin.

Derrida of course critiques Polyphilos (or Anatole France) in ‘White Mythology’. But he does so while also deploying a metaphorics of the coin – of capital and surplus value.

“In signifying the metaphorical process, the paradigms of coin, of metal, silver and gold, have imposed themselves with remarkable insistence… Inscription on coinage is most often the intersection, the scene of the exchange between the linguistic and the economic. The two types of signifier supplement each other in the problematic of fetishism…” (p. 216). But this “supplement”, which imposes itself upon us, also disrupts the metaphorical strategy of Derrida’s work. For though Derrida is not a ‘linguistic philosopher’, his deconstructions of the philosophical canon focus on the treatment of the sign; and to extend the features of the sign to all aspects of the world is one of the basic manoeuvres by which Derrida aims to undermine philosophies of presence, or of ‘the proper’.

Yet this extension of the philosophy of the sign to the whole of life is also the question of the relation between philosophy and non-philosophy. And, as Derrida tells us in the passage I’ve just quoted, “the analogy within language finds itself represented by an analogy between language and something other than itself… [T]hat which seems to ‘represent’, to figure, is also that which opens the wider space of a discourse on figuration…” If it is “the paradigms of coin” that have “imposed themselves with remarkable insistence” when treating this analogy between language and non-language, might this not tell us something about the sources of Derrida’s own work – and about his strategy of extending or totalising the linguistic? For the metaphor of metaphor, the literary or philosophical space that precedes and makes possible any discourse on equivalence of non-equivalents, here seems to be the coin – or, more generally, the economic.

Derrida remains, in many ways, a transcendental philosopher, searching for the conditions of any discourse of empiricism. Yet if Derrida’s search for quasi-transcendentals leads him again and again into the realm of economic language (as I think it does), is it not legitimate to search in turn for the empirical conditions – the empirical sources – of the figures he deploys. How can coin, usury, capital be any kind of quasi-transcendental? Are these not in the first place material and social phenomena of our real world, our world of capitalist exchange and exploitation? To place Derrida’s discourse on the sign within a discourse on the economy; and then to place that in turn within the changes and self-understandings of capitalist society – this would be to historicise deconstruction to a degree that Derrida himself doesn’t seem to envisage.

And let me point you all again to Le Colonel Chabert, who seems to be doing that very thing as we speak…

More on Derrida and Marx

Filed under: Blogroll, Derrida, Economics, Marx, Philosophy, Politics — duncan @ 1:42 pm

I’m a little bit tired at the moment, so no proper post just yet. But for anyone interested in Derrida and Marx, let me put up a pointer to Le Colonel Chabert, who has recently started a Marx-oriented critique of Derrida.

From the conclusion of the outstanding first post:

“It is against the project (of explanation, critique and action) expressed and referred to here in the Grundrisse that Derrida’s intellectual product most consistently militated, undertaking a defence of liberalism’s doctrine of sacred property in the most mystical and mystifying possible manner, discovering private property, and indeed, eventually, capital specifically, to be not only the natural law of human relations but the the very primal matter-energy of which the phenomenal world is made, the force that is found spectrally filling the void from which being and presence have always already absconded (to be forever pursued, their imaginary loss forever mourned), the foundation of the universe itself, the creator and all creatures, eternal, indestructible.”

But read the post in full.

April 17, 2008

If. Derrida.

Filed under: Derrida, Philosophy, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 3:42 pm

It’s pretty clear that you can’t get any kind of a grasp of economics without understanding probability – the theory & philosophy of probability. I don’t. This post is just a place marker; a note to self that’ll shame me if I don’t spend time on probability.

Initial thoughts: Derridean that I am, I’m interested in the function of signs. Derrida sees (IMO) the quest of philosophy as the quest to abolish the sign – or, rather, the quest to abolish the distance between a sign and its object. This is also, of course, the quest to abolish uncertainty – because uncertainty is the difference between our representations of the world and the world itself.

Epistemology, then, is the attempt to understand the connection between signs and their objects; and, it’s often thought, a successful epistemology is one that guarantees a certain form of connection. Derrida works at undermining such guarantees – or at undermining the guarantees’ unassailability. This is what leads to the view of Derrida as a sceptic – a philosopher who also undermines any connection between our view of the world and the world as it really is.

This view of Derrida is based, however, on a vision of epistemology that Derrida’s thought also works to undermine. For seeing epistemology as an attempt to understand the link between representations and things in themselves presupposes an unmediated, guaranteed relationship between the subject of knowledge and the subject’s representations. This is the familiar flaw of much epistemology – at least the kind I was taught when learning analytic philosophy. It produces such wacky ideas as ‘qualia’. And an infinite regress always opens up: aren’t representations themselves a certain kind of thing-in-itself? The project of much phenomenological empiricism seems to be to create a new, subjective object of knowledge, that isn’t separated from us by a dark glass; an object we can possess as absolutely our own.

But, of course, a ‘subjective’ object is vulnerable to the same sceptical arguments as an ‘objective’ object. What is the subject’s relation to qualia? And if this is a relation of any kind, can’t that relation in principle also be broken, just as the relation between qualia and the world they potentially represent can be broken?

Derrida’s sceptical arguments are not directed at the ‘objective’ world, but at the ‘subjective objective’ of phenomenology. He does not argue that the link between signs and objects is always already broken – he has no interest in this question. Derrida argues that the sign itself is always already broken; that no sign can be fully apprehended or possessed. It is only the belief in an unmediated relationship between subject and sign – which is contrasted to a relationship between subject and object mediated by the sign – that allows scepticism, in its normal philosophical sense, to get started. Derrida’s arguments about signs are therefore profoundly anti-sceptical, on my read; but they also have a great deal to say about traditional epistemology, and the themes of certainty and uncertainty it meditates upon.

All this is clearly connected to Time, in a way that I don’t have much of a handle on. The locus of a guaranteed relation between subject and sign is the present; it is only present experience that possesses this quality of absolute belonging. And thus the claim that there is no such thing as the present – as it has been traditionally understood by philosophy – is at the heart of Derrida’s work.

I think that all this is probably very relevant to probability theory. But I don’t know how: it’s just a hunch. What I want to do, then, is try to get to grips with probability. For instance – it’s interesting to me that Keynes’s first major work (which he spent something like ten years writing) is a treatise on probability. From what I’ve gathered (from, like, paragraph-length summaries) Keynes’s thesis is that relationships of probability are logical in the same way as relationships of necessity. It’s interesting to me that Keynes developed this thesis in an intellectual environment (early 20th century Cambridge) that was also giving birth to analytic philosophy. Keynes’s philosophical mentor was G.E. Moore – and Keynes has remarked that Moore was just as important, for his intellectual development, as his economic mentor Marshall. I’d be interested to try to understand the connections between Keynes’s treatise and modal logic, as it subsequently developed in analytic philosophy. (I’ve never studied modal logic). And I’m also interested in Quine’s attempt to demolish modal logic – an attempt that, as I understand it, relies heavily on Quine’s belief that the ‘opacity’ of signs must be eradicated from logical analysis. This Quinian argument, it seems to me, is staggeringly vulnerable to Derridean critique.

But all this, as I say, is just a quick jotting down of ambitions and connections. As if this blog wasn’t already ambitious enough.

March 24, 2008

In passing…

Filed under: Derrida, Marx, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:48 pm

I seriously need to get myself an internets connection – I can’t respond to comments properly today – sorry!  But anyone interested in ‘Specters of Marx’, which has been in the news here recently, needs to run, not walk, over to Rough Theory, where N. Pepperell has a fabulous post up about Derrida’s selective interpretation of ‘Capital’ – and Derrida’s own exorcism of Marx’s more threatening specters.  I’d been green with envy if I wasn’t so delighted.

March 16, 2008

Derrida’s Two Alterities

Filed under: Derrida, Philosophy — duncan @ 5:24 pm

For some reason I’ve not felt like posting anything these last ten days. I’ve been happily – albeit slowly – reading away. (Perhaps I’ve got enough of the obvious objections to simplistic economic orthodoxy out of my system; I can read without feeling the need to complain. And reading, rather than whinging, perhaps seems a more productive use of limited time.) But I thought I’d put up a few thoughts on my favourite subject: Derrida. This stuff is way simplistic, to the point of being totally wrong. But hey ho, never mind.


Derrida is obviously a big fan of Levinas. One of the main goals of his work is to open up philosophy’s totalising ambitions to ‘alterity’ or ‘the other’. Derrida is certainly sceptical, in some ways, about Levinas’s ethics of alterity. For Levinas philosophy is egology; it is, in some sense, narcissistic. But Derrida insists (following a certain strand of Freud) that there is no such thing as non-narcissism – there are only more or less open or hospitable narcissisms. So Derrida is sceptical about the valorisation of alterity that seems prominent in Levinas’s, and in a lot of post-Levinasian, thought. But Derrida is still on side with the project. He still values some intellectual endeavours more than others because of their openness to ‘the other’ – whatever ‘the other’ might mean.

That’s what I want to focus on in this quick post: what Derrida means by ‘the other’, by ‘alterity’. I want to suggest that there are two concepts or directions of alterity at work in Derrida’s thought. I want to call them, simplistically, the materialist and the messianic concepts of alterity. I think that w/r/t the former Derrida can be seen as taking his bearings from Bataille, w/r/t the latter, from Benjamin. And I think that the changing emphases of Derrida’s work can be connected, to a large extent, to the changing weight he places on these two concepts of alterity.

Let’s say that we take Derrida’s project (again far too simplistically) as oriented towards a critique of the classical philosophical concept of being as form, where form is what guarantees being’s self-identity, and thus intelligibility. The materialist concept of alterity would then open an implicitly idealist concept of being to the non-idealist ‘formlessness’ of matter. It would take its bearings from a passage like this one. (Bataille, ‘Formless’, in ‘Visions of Excess’, p. 31).

“A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.”

I think this is the direction we see Derrida pursuing most consistently in his great middle-period works, particularly ‘Glas’ and the remarkable essay ‘Economimesis’. Derrida’s project here, I think, is to reroute the manoeuvres of transcendental philosophy – manoeuvres motivated, at base, by the need to see supposedly formless matter as always subject to the form-giving powers of a consciousness that transcends and remains untouched by formlessness… Derrida wants to reroute these manoeuvres into a thoroughly non-transcendental philosophy, by claiming that the ‘formless’ corporeal is always a (quasi-) transcendental condition of transcendental thought. This leads him to place great weight on what one could call a Bataillean ‘virulent materialism’; it leads him to use Genet’s profane blasphemy as a counterweight to Hegel’s idealist totalisations; and it leads him to write about how vomit, and how that which makes us vomit, is the (quasi- or, better, non-) transcendental condition of Kant’s entire philosophical project.

But Derrida finds himself unable to pursue this direction, for reasons I’ll hopefully get to in a minute. And in the later work we see a decisive shift away from materialism – virulent or otherwise – in favour of a Benjaminian emphasis on the other as messiah (albeit without messianicity). Here Derrida takes his bearings from passages like this one. (Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in ‘Illuminations’, p. 255).

“We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogenous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”

Here Derrida is pushing not at the philosophical connection between being and form, but at the philosophical connection between being and time – and the inclination to see time as a totalising medium of intelligibility. This fundamental connection between form and time – the fact that both are used to produce an ontology of being as self-identity – is, I think, what Derrida means by the metaphysics of presence. In his later work Derrida wants to open homogenous time to the other in the shape of a messiah, or a messianism, that can divide every second of time against itself. And this opening of time is of a piece with the parallel opening of form. Derrida pursues this messianic project most forcefully in his later writings on religion – and in ‘Spectres of Marx’, where it is linked to the concept of ‘hauntology’.

Derrida is completely consistent in opposing what he sees as ontology in general: the understand of being as form as self-identity as presence. But the non-ontology which Derrida aspires to create by emphasising the non-self-identity of being has a very different character at different locations in Derrida’s work. A profane materialism on the one hand; a quasi-religious messianism on the other. And, to get to the point concerning me personally – I am considerably more in sympathy with the former than with the latter. When I deploy Derridean arguments in this blog, it’s the ‘materialist’ Derrida I want to emphasise. I want to push this Derrida’s arguments as far as I can, and counter the arguments of the second, messianic Derrida where possible. Specifically (and to bring things back to economics; which is, after all, the ostensible subject of the blog): I think a ‘Derridean’ reading of Marx would be possible that is radically different from the reading Derrida actually proposes in ‘Spectres’ – because in ‘Spectres’ Derrida is at his most ‘messianic’; whereas a discussion of Marx is precisely where, in my opinion, Derrida should be at his most ‘materialist’.

Now, any deconstructionist worth their salt is going to be deeply suspicious, not to say laughing out loud, at my attempt to isolate two distinct and self-contained ‘Derridas’. Have we learned nothing?! Doesn’t it seem more than likely that the ‘materialist’ and the ‘messianic’ already contain and constitute each other? (And that they and philosophy in general are also open to countless other forms of ‘alterity’ – to countless other others?) Didn’t Bataille describe himself as one of the mystics of the ages? And isn’t Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ precisely an attempt to articulate a form of ‘historical materialism’? Well sure. But I’m going to run with this for a while, I think.

If we want to give some space to this reading of Derrida, we need an account of the relation between the two ‘Derridas’; and we need to explain what logic governs the shifting emphases of materialism and messianism in his (or their) work. And that means going considerably deeper into Derrida’s thought than I think I can – because I haven’t read any Husserl, and I’ve not read nearly enough Heidegger. Husserl and Heidegger are, of course, the two most important objects of and influences on Derrida’s whole method. And without a decent knowledge of the two H’s (which, believe you me, I’m not going to acquire any time soon) I don’t see how I can adequately comment on, or understand, the fundamentals of Derrida’s project.

All the same, I’m going to end with the beginnings of a critique. The following quote is, in my opinion, the most important in Derrida’s corpus. It occurs at least twice: once in a footnote in ‘Speech and Phenomena’; then again, as a self-citation (with all the Derridean ambiguities this implies) in ‘Glas’. And when the sentence is repeated (but, the voice of deconstruction tells us, its repetition or iteration was already part of its original inscription), it describes a project that Derrida still sees as essential, but still feels unable to attempt: a project continually deferred – which is perhaps connected to deconstruction’s constant emphasis on constant deferral. The sentence (or sentence-fragment, really): “the very concept of constitution itself needs to be deconstructed.” (Speech and Phenomena, p. 85 I don’t have ‘Glas’ to hand.)

My overly simplistic claim (perhaps an obvious one) is this: the concept of constitution cannot be deconstructed, because deconstruction presupposes and utterly depends upon the concept of constitution. No doubt this is true of all the metaphysical concepts that Derrida mobilises and transforms, shifting their meanings as he takes his bearings away from the metaphysical projects from which he partially extracts these concepts yet within which his work partly remains. But in my opinion the concept of constitution is different, for deconstruction, from all the other metaphysical concepts Derrida deploys and displaces. Derrida’s critique of transcendental philosophy – and Derrida’s critique of philosophy is based on a prior assimilation of all philosophy to transcendental philosophy… Derrida’s critique of transcendental philosophy always depends on a use of the concept of constitution – a search for conditions of possibility, whether they be ‘transcendental’ conditions in the full sense or not… and so Derrida cannot allow this concept of constitution to be subject to the vicissitudes of meaning-contamination under the pressure of which all the other terms of the metaphysical tradition are made to tremble. The concept of constitution is, in my opinion, the stable centre around which Derrida’s critique of the philosophical search for a stable centre revolves.

Which is far too simplistic. At certain moments in his text – specifically, the ‘materialist’ moments I value – Derrida seems to push his idea of ‘quasi-transcendentals’ to a point at which the whole post-Kantian apparatus of conditions of possibility threatens to collapse. It’s this Derrida – the Derrida who imagines a wholly material transcendental, which can therefore no longer function in any way as transcendental, or as a means of constitution – that I value (and it’s this Derrida, I think, who’s close to Wittgenstein). Yet Derrida repeatedly pulls back from the consequences of his assault on the Kantian problematic; and substitutes for the material ‘transcendental’ a logic of spectrality which is explicitly opposed to ‘ontologising’ materialism. We could see this as a characteristic deconstructionist double-movement, ceaselessly alert to the lures of onto-theology (which can ally itself as powerfully with materialism as with religion). But we can also see it as a flaw in Derrida’s work: a refusal to reject the terms of the Kantian, critical tradition, because this would also mean a rejection of the discursive strategies that Derrida has developed in response to it.

The very concept of constitution itself needs to be deconstructed. But the concept of constitution cannot be deconstructed. Which means, in my opinion, that it simply needs to be rejected. This is, I’m sure, no surprise to anyone. But as I’ve said before, I’m behind the curve, trying to catch up.

Anyway, economics-related service will be resumed in about a year and a half, when I’ve read some books.

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