The Deconstructive Universal, Part 4

  • 2.4

That’s one way in which Derrida’s handling of universals is distinctive. The second way is this:

Derrida is content to call his universalism “impossible” and thus to give up on the hard work of making it real in this-worldly practices and institutions. This is the big lesson of Derrida’s Marx book—that Marx was too materialist, that we have to learn to talk again about specters, spectrality, ghosts, Geist, the disembodied, the appearance of the non-material. This last might sound like a return to Hegel—less matter, more Geist—and it’s true that Derrida turns out to be in most respects a more loyal Hegelian than he ever was a Heideggerian (and certainly more of a Hegelian than a Marxist). But then if we keep reading in Specters of Marx, it will turn out that Hegel himself was too materialist for Derrida’s purposes, for the simple reason that dialectical philosophy expects concepts to actualize themselves in the world. The Hegelians are endlessly interested in the simple fact that whoever first thought up the idea of the basket also took the trouble to weave one—that baskets did not remain notional or imagined. The very first philosophers did not require us to maintain our unskilled orientation to the basket, declaring our listless fidelity to the basket-yet-to-come. But in Specters, Derrida is attacking the very idea of reality—the idea, I mean, that we should give priority to the really existing, to the real versions of things rather than to their ideational forms. He gives a couple of different reasons for this.

First, concepts names things in their perfect, utopian, and impossible forms. The democracy-to-come is an impossible democracy, and we should probably take his use of the word “impossible” at face value. We can approximate the impossible concept, but we shouldn’t expect ever to match it, and in that case, the philosopher remains the guardian of the idea in its rigor and its purity—the friend and lover of the concept that is too beautiful to live in this world. One wonders at this point how many practicing Derrideans know themselves to be neo-Platonists, which is as good a shorthand as any for philosophers who go in for otherworldly claims of this kind. Neo-Platonism, after all, lives in the to-come: democracy-to-come (which will never come), justice-to-come (which will never come, which cannot abide in this world, to which we are committed, but only as a super-egoized impossibility, a perpetual, shame-inducing summons to do what you cannot do). Reading Derrida in sequence, you get to watch his anti-philosophical, anti-Platonic writing-beyond-the-father turn into a Platonic bad conscience, and not by shedding its former self, but by learning to function as both at the same time: as anti-Oedipal superego and antinomian nomos, emptying out any given philosophical norm, but only so that it can function as sheer, maddening, exorbitant norm—pure evacuated normativity—without the content that would in fact limit it.

Second, any version of reality comes at the expense of the possible. Anything you build is the negation of the many other things you could have built but didn’t. Unlike actuality, differance and dissemination are committed to keeping the possibilities alive, letting them run riot, not establishing monopolies on the future. Once we’ve learned to reject the textual tyranny of the authoritative interpretation, we have to radicalize that program, take it outside the text (I know, I know), and reject the tyranny of actuality itself. Any institution in which you attempted to make the concept real would block out other possible instantiations of the concept. This democracy turns its back on all the other hypothetical democracies. I drain the concept in the very process of giving it body and strength. The only way to keep the concept going—to keep it mobile and flexible and vital—is to let it remain disembodied, so that it can always insinuate new possibilities. Any particular way of loving is a betrayal of all the other different ways one might have loved; it forsakes the entire set minus itself. But the concept of love, precisely because an abstraction, is always beyond the way you are currently loving. Indeed, it is beyond all the ways people currently love. It brings with it the invitation to innovate or to mutate or to leap. The concept is always the plus-one—but only to the extent that it refuses to be actualized.

Here, then, is an especially telling passage from Specters:

If we have been insisting so much since the beginning on the logic of the ghost, it is because it points toward a thinking of the event that necessarily exceeds a binary or dialectical logic, the logic that distinguishes or opposes … actuality … and ideality (regulating or absolute non-presence). This logic of … actuality seems to be of limited pertinence….[i]

I take this to mean that Hegel is doing us a disservice in forcing us to distinguish between the real and the merely theoretical, between the actualized and the un-actualized or the not-yet actualized. Hegel thinks, of course, that he is being dialectical. The concept-made-real is a fused category; it is the union of mind and the world, the mind-world. Derrida won’t accept this solution, because its dissolved binary requires that we keep a second binary intact, the antithesis of the actual vs. the merely possible. And so what Derrida is trying to imagine is an additional Aufhebung or alternatively fused term: whatever is at once actual and potential, something that doesn’t force us to choose between the actualized and the non-actualized, even something like an actualized non-actuality.

A plainer version: Derrida’s recommendation is that we learn how to build institutions (and devise practices) that don’t set out to exhaust potentiality, that don’t establish a monopoly on (or of) the real—something on the order of a building that doesn’t insist on being one way rather than another. This would be a ghost building, since the ghost is, among other things, Derrida’s term for whatever splits the difference between the real and the ideational. This is the moment where I need to say that Derrida’s anti-Marxism, if that’s what this is, isn’t glib or stupid. He thinks that genuine freedom and justice would require spectral non-institutions of this kind: virtual institutions. If we are committed to freedom then we will be committed to not making the world one way rather than another, and Derrida thinks that this last is what Marxists and Hegelians have never understood. The question of course is whether we could build such buildings. How? And could we build ghost institutions? Real-but-not-real institutions? Real-but-not-real colleges? Real-but-not-real economies? Real-but-not real governments? How do you build something without building Some Thing?

[i] Specters, pp. 78-9.

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