Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Of Ghosts, Commodities, and Women: Irigaray and Derrida

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Of Ghosts, Commodities, and Women: Irigaray and Derrida

Article excerpt

At the beginning of Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida states the following: "to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship. . . . To live otherwise and better. No, not better, but more justly. But with them."1 If we learn how to live with ghosts, we are promised not only a better but a more just life. Our first task in order to cope with this challenge is to figure out who or what those ghosts are. In pursuing this question, Derrida offers two paradigms of ghosts, which are represented, on the one hand, through the ghost of Hamlet's father, and on the other hand, through Marx's notion of the thing as commodity. While the ghost of Hamlet's father is an immaterial body, pure apparition, the spirit incarnating itself in the specter, the thing as commodity retains its materiality but can function within the capitalist market only due to a spectral abstraction that relates it to other things, thus constituting its possible exchange. In this view, Derrida offers us two types of ghosts: one an immaterial bodily apparition, the other a material object for which value and meaning are determined through an immaterial, abstract system of exchange. Accordingly, in order to fully understand Derrida's promise of a "better," "more just life," his account ofthe thing as commodity has to be considered as well.2

Woman as Commodity

In the following, I want to contrast Derrida's notion of commodities, as developed in Specters of Marx with Luce Irigaray's account of woman as commodity. In her text "Women on the Market," she offers a reading of Marx. For Irigaray, the predominant form of the commodity are women whose exchange on the male market is at the center of a patriarchal-capitalist system of production. "The society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women. Without the exchange of women, we are told, we would fall back into the anarchy (?) of the natural world, the randomness (?) of the animal kingdom."3 This introductory statement indicates already what is lost due to this exchange-economy, namely "the natural world." And anybody even slightly familiar with Irigaray, knows the metonymical chain associated with this term: nature, earth, (mother)body, matter. Within Western patriarchal culture, all these elements have been used and exploited for the establishing of the binary systems of symbolic representation, for the order of the one. In these systems, woman as the other can exist only by providing a negative counterpart, an invisible mirror or projection screen for the visibility and unity of the one male sex. Subsequently, nature, earth, (mother)body, matter are lost, forgotten, and repressed within the current representational economy. The (mother)body as original nourishing ground had to be sacrificed at the altar of symbolic systems, intelligible forms, philosophical categories. "The problem is that . . . the Father, according to our culture, superimposes upon the archaic world of the flesh a universe of language [langue] and symbol which cannot take root in it. . . . The fertility of the earth is sacrificed to delineate the cultural horizon of the father tongue [langue]."4

Accordingly, as in Marx's analysis of the table as commodity, the individuality of the acteal female body has to disappear for the abstraction of the exchange procedures to take place. Irigaray states that "when women are exchanged, woman's body must be treated as an abstraction" (Sex, 175). But while, at least in Derrida's reading of Marx, the materiality of the thing is the carrier for its spectral dimension, in Irigaray's view, the female body seems to disappear: "The value of a woman always escapes: black continent, hole in the symbolic, breach in discourse. . . . Woman thus has value only in that she can be exchanged" (Sex, 176).

The functioning of this exchange on the market presupposes woman as product of male labor whereby these woman-commodities do have value only because men created the common denominators according to which women are exchanged. …

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