Thursday, March 20, 2014

Derrida and Eagleton on Spectres of Marx

Cover image; from Amazon.
In 1993, Derrida published Spectres of Marx. Six years later, a companion piece came out, containing nine more or less critical essays by a number of authors, and with a final response by Derrida himself.

The most disturbing and notable interaction in this book is Terry Eagleton's criticism of Derrida and Derrida's furious response.

Eagleton accuses Derrida of being politically banal underneath the flamboyant prose. Derrida in turn accuses Eagleton of having learned nothing, not done his homework, and failed to properly read his book. The whole discussion pretty much melts down into vitriol and anger, with the reader being left as the big loser.

Eagleton on Derrida

Eagleton quotes Derrida as claiming that deconstruction secretly was a super-radical form of Marxism all along:
For Specters of Marx doesn't just want to catch up with Marxism; it wants to outleft it by claiming that deconstruction was all along a radicalized version of the creed. 'Deconstruction,' Derrida remarks, 'has never had any sense or interest, in my view at least, except as a radicalization, which is to say also in the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism'. (p. 84)
But this, Eagleton asserts, is just "a handy piece of historical revisionism" without any support in the work of Derrida or his followers:
Whatever Derrida may now like to think, deconstruction – he must surely know it – has in truth operated as nothing in the least like a radicalized Marxism, but rather as an ersatz form of textual politics […] which seemed to offer the twin benefits of at once outflanking Marxism in its audacious avant-gardism, and generating a sceptical sensibility which pulled the rug out from under anything as drearily undeconstructed as solidarity, organization or calculated political action. (p. 84)
Thus, only by oscillating back and forth between extravagant philosophy and pedestrian social democratic politics such works can seem both excitingly radical and politically attractive. The consequence is a reluctance to touch anything that might crystallize as a mass movement:
And what does Derrida counterpose […]? A 'New International', one 'without status, without title, and without name … without party, without country, without national community …' And, of course, as one gathers elsewhere in the book, without organization, without ontology, without method, without apparatus. […] Spectres of Marxism indeed. (p. 87)
Without any of these commitments, such a political project remains hollow:
What he wants, in effect, is a Marxism without Marxism […]. 'We would be tempted to distinguish this spirit of Marxist critique … at once from Marxism as ontology, philosophical or metephysical system, as "dialectical materialism", from Marxism as historical materialism or method, and from Marxism incorporated in the apparatuses of party, State, or workers' International.' It would not be difficult to translate this into the tones of a (suitably charicatured) liberal Anglicanism: we must distinguish the spirit of Christianity from such metaphysical baggage as the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, organized religion, the doctrine of the resurrection, the superstition of the Eucharist and the rest. (p. 86)
Such a thoroughly academic form of politics would indeed by quite ridiculous. The question is whether it is fair to characterize Derrida's work this way, or whether it has political potentials that have gone under the Eagleton's radar.

Derrida on Eagleton

So we might hope that Derrida had responded directly to Eagleton's critique. Unfortunately, however, his response is too vitriolic to really get into any of the substance of the argument.

Derrida opens his essay by humbly noting that it will be "inadequate" (p. 213), and that
It would be presumptuous of me, arriving after everyone else, in a position at once panoramic and central, to claim the right to the last word […] (p. 214)
But after this little rite, he is done with the formalities. He can then move on to scold "the patented Marxists still prepared to dispense lessons from on high" (p. 221), including, as you might have guessed, Terry Eagleton:
Terry Eagleton is, fortunately, the only (and nearly the last) 'Marxist' of this stripe. He is the only one […] to maintain that imperturbably triumphal tone. One can only rub one's eyes in disbelief and wonder where he finds the inspiration, the haughtiness, the right. Has he learned nothing at all? (p. 221–22)
Yes, where in the world could he have found the inspiration for such an arrogant tone? In a footnote, Derrida also submits that Eagelton is guilty of
the facile, demagogic, grave error of confusing my work (or even 'deconstruction' in general) with postmodernism [and this error] is indicative […] of a massive failure to read or analyze. This rudimentary misunderstanding might by itself warrant my breaking off all further dialogue until certain 'homework' was done. (pp. 263–64)
So it appears, after all, that some people do have property rights over texts after all.

Another footnote almost threatens to boil over with malice and spite:
Eagleton is undoubtedly convinced that, with the finesse, grace and elegance he is universally acknowledged to possess, he has hit upon a title ('Marxism without Marxism') which is a flash of wit, an ironic dart, a witheringly sarcastic critique […] (p. 265)
But the dart missed the mark, Derrida contends:
Every 'good Marxist' knows, however, that nothing is closer to Marx, more faithful to Marx, more, 'Marx', than a 'Marxism without Marxism'. Need we recall here that this Marxism without Marxism was, to begin with, the Marxism of Marx himself, if that name still means anything? (p. 265)
Having thus spent his limited space defending his abstract right to have an opinion, Derrida never gets into the subject of whether that opinion translates into a political project. I would have liked to hear him elaborate on that, though.

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