What Haunts Us I: A Legacy Is a Trail of Ghosts, Research Time, 06/11/2015

I mentioned a few days ago that I’d finished reading Spectres of Marx. Whenever I discussed this book, I risked sounding like a crazy person because I suggested that its writer, Jacques Derrida, was actually pretty easy to follow here.

Reading Derrida can be unbelievably intense. Not
Spectres of Marx, though.
Derrida has a reputation as a purposefully obscurantist writer. Someone whose experiments with the format of writing philosophy lead him into impossible corners where people can’t follow him simply because it’s tough to know what he’s talking about. I understand where they’re coming from. I’ve looked through his The Post Card. It’s fucked.

Absolutely fucked. Just fucked. Fucked.

I’m also an experimental writer in philosophy, but my current projects are about how to make conceptually intense philosophy more accessible. Derrida in the 1970s, not so much.

Derrida in the 1980s, however, was much more direct. Especially in Spectres of Marx, a book which had the benefit of beginning its life as a public lecture series. 

The last chapter of the book still revolves around a difficult concept, though. He investigates a chain of hauntings in Karl Marx’s own heritage. The first chapter laid out the problem of how Marx haunts us today: there are many different visions of Marx, Marxisms, ways for Marx to have influenced us. 

He was a writer and activist who contained multitudes. No, that’s not quite right. He and his heritage in politics, philosophy, and social science has given birth to countless multitudes that are still multiplying. 

Being dead, Marx can no longer explain to us what he means when he writes. We can only take his writings into new contexts and modern challenges, whether as an inspiration or an enemy. Either way, we can’t dismiss his relevance. That inability to leave him behind is how Marx haunts us, his ghost or spectre.

And Marx had his own spectres. One of them, the subject of the last chapter of Spectres of Marx, was Max Stirner.* Stirner was a radical egoist, probably the most radical of them all. His central work, The Ego and His Own, is on my list to read, so I can see how Stirner’s ideas bounce with modern libertarianism to create any illuminating insights.

No, not this kind of haunting. Though I am looking
forward to the new movie.
* Stirner’s real name was Johann Kaspar Schmidt. Max Stirner was a pen name, based on a German idiom so that his name would translate, roughly, to Max Power. Yes, that does mean I can no longer take him seriously. Stirner is retroactively haunted by Homer Simpson.

Derrida makes some serious hay about how much Max Stirner haunts Marx. Stirner was ridiculously influential in German culture during Marx’s day. So The German Ideology contains a sustained critique of Stirner, essentially that Stirner’s philosophy erases the world and society in favour of a radical subjectivity, and that just won’t work for humans. 

I’m not sure how this angle will ultimately pan out. So far, I’ve only read Spectres of Marx on the idea. I haven’t yet gotten to reading The German Ideology or The Ego and His Own with this in mind.

But it got me thinking a lot about how haunting works in writing. Every writer has her bugbears, the topics to which she returns, about which he’s never quite finished. Every writer has something in his past which calls to her, compelling her like a hypnotized person or an obsessive to find new angles and perspectives to explore it.

To be haunted is to have a personal demon, a mystery to which you keep returning because you can never solve it or bring yourself to walk away.

I’ve identified two ghosts in my own writing and thinking. One of those is libertarianism, an ideology that holds freedom paramount but refuses to acknowledge so many vectors that limit real human freedom. 

The other is anti-feminism, for much more personal reasons, reasons that can motivate a terrible shame in me. Ghosts that I try to exorcise, like a Scientologist driving his thetans away. But they’ll always come back.

More on these next week.

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