Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Ghost Theory

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Ghost Theory

Article excerpt

As in Hamlet, the Prince of a rotten State, everything begins by the apparition of a specter. More precisely, by the waiting for this apparition. The anticipation is at once impatient, anxious, and fascinated: this, the thing ("this thing") will end up coming. The revenant is going to come.

--Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx

THERE ARE, OF COURSE, MANY DERRIDAS AND MANY ROMANTICISMS. AND the structure of a legacy, even if it is one among many, is to obviate the many in favor of the one. Exponents of a legacy know the one as the one prior to any identity before contingency. As Gayatri Spivak also reminds us, this is as much an issue about gender and sexuality as it is about ontology, insofar as a legacy is what our father leaves, or should leave, us. (1) Legacies are as well oftentimes mixed up with ghosts; so much so that, inevitably, a legacy is also what a ghost leaves. Derrida explicitly confronts this predicament of ghostly entailment in one work from his voluminous writings, in a way that also allows us to say something about the relation between Derrida and romanticism, and, as is usually the case with Derrida, much more. Derrida's text opens up a way for us to think about what I want to call ghost theory, whose significance lies not least in the redundancy of the term.

The text of Derrida that I refer to is his Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (1994), a work whose reception showed it to be something less and something more than what many had hoped it would be, the definitive negotiation between deconstructive and Marxist thought. One thing that Derrida's book is definitely is literary, and not simply by way of reading Marx; there is also as crucially the contemplation of Shakespeare's tragedy, so dominant in the romantic mind (as well as Marx's own): Hamlet. Playing off Marx's own particular love of Shakespeare, Derrida finds in this basic phoneme of Western culture one of the central tropes of his book: Hamlet's ghostly armored father, embodying what Derrida calls the "visor effect," the prosthetic ability of a ghost to see without quite being seen in any absolute fashion, while giving Hamlet the injunction to correct a primal wrong of family and state (7). The phantasmic as well as indeterminate nature of this injunction (Paternal law? Social justice? Dialectical inevitability?) is the father's legacy to Hamlet, and, according to Derrida, Marx's legacy to us. In both cases the power of the injunction lies not in its certitude but in exactly the opposite, its constative inconstancy, upon which, nevertheless, future action and historical event--revolution--rest.

For Marx, of course, the injunction of his manifesto defines itself against the necessarily incomplete, great bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century, as well as the necessarily uninformed, myriad visions of reform and partial revolution of the nineteenth century. However, in Derrida's reworked version of Marx's legacy, spectralized and thus preemptively autoimmunized from its own phallic authority, the ghostly yet discernible injunction for social transformation need not stay resolutely sequestered on one side of Marx's epochal divide. Indeed, are not such codified but still infinitely charged terms as the "Age of Revolution" and "Marx and Romanticism" already metonyms for this historical problematic? Is not the legacy of Derrida's Specters to romanticism the specter of romanticism itself, the ghost of history as revolution, the fatal intersection between representational knowledge and political action? Are not the spectral poetics that Derrida discovers in Marx prefigured in the phantom periodicity, the trope of exceptionalism, of romanticism itself? Is not the thinking through of the (non-)ontological nature of this situation, along with its ineluctable though by no means simply decipherable political articulation, one of Derrida's legacies to us all, the imperative of ghost theory? …

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