Ghosts

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology at Middlesex University in London. His latest book Penal Abolitionism: A Celebration is published by Oxford University Press.

Breathing drama into a simple table

When utopias decline, spectres step in. In the dual reality of unprecedented wealth and pleasures on the one hand, and misery, squalor and death on the other, utopias become frivolous and irrelevant. As Fredric Jameson argues, today the word utopia is most often used by political figures as an insulting slur on their enemies. Concrete programmes, practical demands and focused policies are supposedly what's required in critical historical periods. Yet it is exactly in such periods that social and political change, at least of a radical type, is difficult to imagine without some form of alternate thought aimed at eliminating the "root of all evil". This is also when radical philosophers and political scientists distance themselves from institutional politics and engage in an endless play of fantasy around how things can be altered. In doing so, some may well pursue a Franciscan utopia, namely the spectre of scarcity and collapse, mobilizing the threat that if the current trend of "development" continues, the planet will be less and less able to support life. This threat may appear dystopian, as it depicts the cataclysm our societies face, but it is at the same time utopian, as it also incorporates radical views of alternative paths to follow. An outstanding example of this is provided in Jacques Derrida's Spectres of Marx, which sets the scene for an intriguing ghostly dance.

The title is an obvious allusion to the statement at the beginning of the Communist Manifesto that a revolutionary "spectre is haunting Europe". For Derrida, the spirit of revolutionary change became even more relevant after the fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of the Soviet bloc. However, it is not communism that Derrida inherited from Marx, but a philosophy of responsibility and a spirited radical critique which led him to deride the hubris of those who proclaimed the end of history and the death of ideologies. Derrida attacked the insolence of those who evangelized the "ideal" of liberal democracy, remarking that "never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity". Derrida's utopia, in other words, did not take the form of spectres haunting the elite, but of the ghosts of the time, namely the ideas and practices of those who believed that utopia had already been realized. His analysis of consumerism and, in general, commodities, leaves no doubt in this respect.

The mystical character of commodities is ghostly. It frightens and strikes the imagination more than the ghosts of revolutionary change. Take for example a table that has been set aside, over-exploited, no longer in use, but is now on display in an antique shop or auction room. One no longer knows what this assemblage of wood is good for or what it is worth. There it stands on its paws as an apparition: a trivial solid object which nevertheless possesses some invisible characteristics. As a commodity, this simple piece of furniture becomes blurred, tangled, paralysing. "It is so disconcerting, this commodity-thing, that one has to approach it with 'metaphysical' subtlety and 'theological' niceties." If we limit ourselves to using a table, its properties remain very human and, at bottom, reassuring because it responds to our needs. Things are different when the table comes on stage and becomes a commodity: when the curtain goes up on the market and the table puts itself forward as a market value. "Coup de théâtre: the ordinary, sensuous thing is transfigured, it becomes someone, it assumes a figure. This woody and headstrong denseness is metamorphosed into a supernatural thing."

The commodity invades the stage with its spectral moves. The table has feet, a head, its body comes alive, it stands up and addresses others, first of all other commodities, its ghostly fellows, to challenge or oppose them. For the spectre is social, it is engaged in competition or in war as soon as it makes its first apparition. "Facing up to the others, before the others, its fellows, here then is the apparition of a strange creature: at the same time Life, Thing, Beast, Object, Commodity, Automaton – in a word, spectre." The wood comes alive and is peopled with spirits; it appears to put itself spontaneously into motion, but it also puts others into motion, in a macabre dance of ghosts.

Derrida's discursive strategy is clear: amid celebratory euphoria, we should never neglect obvious macroscopic fact. This is why he lists a number of plagues of the global system against which he calls people to fight. These plagues include underemployment, separation barriers, economic war, military invasion, arms production, infinite growth. What is also clear in Derrida's analysis is his plea for a "reverse hauntology" rather than the usually carefully separated and compartmentalized socialist ontology. In other words, it is no longer a select vanguard of radicals "haunting" the system, but the system itself, with its dancing ghosts, revealing its own spectral nature. Surely no utopia could be juxtaposed to the ghosts surrounding us, unless rival ghosts could be put into motion to join the dance. What is unclear is Derrida's refusal to find inspiration in alternative systems of thought, which in the past had challenged market economies and liberal democracies. The reason why is for us to speculate. I would suggest that nineteenth-century utopias shared with the system they fought an image of Man as Faustian Man, in the words of Terry Eagleton, "too voraciously ambitious for his own well-being, perpetually driven beyond his own limits by the lure of the infinite." Those utopias were as enthusiastic about progress and economic development as the targets of their revolutionary musings. Replacing utopias with spectres, in this sense, may be a step towards change.

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