A Real Spectre IV: Justice That Isn’t Revenge But Utopia, Research Time, 11/09/2015

Continued from last post . . . So after all this preamble and pre-ambling,* it’s time I finally said something about the idea of justice in Jacques Derrida’s late-period work, and why I find it so interesting for the Utopias manuscript, and in general. 

* Hyphenated word Derrida joke.

What fascinates Derrida throughout his career – and the main concept that the people who he’s influenced in cultural studies – is the slippage between our ideas and reality.** Most of the time, this slippage destabilizes a common-sense presumption, leaves us adrift. This supplies the punk, aggressive energy of Derrida’s 1960s-70s period.

We can still achieve justice for those who live. Part of
this comes through simply doing what we physically
can. It includes running a festival of Syria-related film
and contributing to refugee charities.
** Notice that I didn’t say différance. This is a technical term that you’ll understand if you read his stuff from the 1960s and 70s attentively. But if you read those books explicitly trying to figure out what différance means, it’ll only confuse you, because you’ll miss the forest examining a single tree. 

But by the 1980s, Derrida focussed on the same slippage between concept and reality in ethics and justice. We relate to other people all the time in daily life. We try to do right by them, and fairly serve our moral and social obligations. 

That’s the intuitive conception of justice – do right by people, and give them what they deserve. If someone does something good, return the favour. If someone does evil, wrong, or harm, then punish them. This is retributive justice. 

I’ve written before about why I think retributive justice is inadequate to a lot of political problems. Any fundamentally systematic injustice, really. Because members of an oppressor / privileged group can be implicated in a systematic injustice without intentionally doing any single wrong action. 

Having not done an intentional wrong action as an individual, it’s perverse to punish someone. So if you think the only kind of justice is retributive, you’ll fear that you’ll be punished for a systematic harm that you didn’t personally do. 

I think this lies behind a lot of the white fear of Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and similar groups. White people who personally have nothing to do with police violence or systematic oppression will believe that the minority movement wants to harm them in return. So you need a restorative or reparative approach to systematic justice.

He was always a man who liked to challenge people.
Derrida goes beyond even this, saying that true justice is impossible. Not impossible in the sense that we should give up on it, but in the sense that justice will always call to us. I haven’t come close to finishing the book yet, but essentially, this is about the ghost, the spectre.

The image that Spectres of Marx refers to, again and again, is from literature. Hamlet sees the ghost of his murdered father, and that encounter is a call for him to repair his society and family, returning a broken system to a more just path. And, whether he does or not, he can.

We can too. We can see, for example, the millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian war and welcome them to our countries, setting them up as citizens to begin new lives here. Their social energy will energize our own societies and economies, becoming a new force of labour, business, and people power. 

Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, and Libyan refugees in Europe, America, and Canada can lead a new wave of work and dedication that will make our countries great. My grandparents’ generation did the same when they fled the wars and mass poverty of Europe for North America.

But there will always be a break, a slippage, a schiz between our idea of justice and what reality can accomplish. The Kurdi family, and countless others, are still dead on the beaches and bottom of the Mediterranean. Countless more died in the war itself, blown apart by rockets and barrel bombs. Countless more will die in slavery. 

For Derrida himself, the French-Algerian Jew, there were the countless ashen dead throughout Poland, Russia, and Romania. No matter what systematic repair has been made to the relationship of European Gentile and Jew, ghosts still scream from the railways.

The idea – the ideal – of justice is that all these are saved. The reality is that our powers are limited. The ones that are impossible to save are the ghosts that always make true justice impossible. 

From the gap between the ideal and the real comes a howl.

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