“Ibi et ubique”:
The Incontinent Plot (‘Hamlet’)
WALTER BENJAMIN’S discussion of the way the German baroque mourning play seeks to “reanimate” theatrically a world whose faith in the narrative of Christian redemption has been badly shaken reminds us of how central the question of life and death have always been to the theatrical medium—and to its repression. That medium has always assumed an equivocal position with respect to life and the living. On the one hand, it has claimed a certain superiority over other mimetic forms of representation precisely insofar as it involves living persons—living “means,” as Benjamin called it. On the other, the very mimetic function of the stage undercuts the claim to reproduce and perhaps redeem the living, a claim that in recent years has been adopted by television (“live programming”). But in the new media, no less than in the old, this emphasis on life only serves to underscore the ghostly nature of the screen as well as the stage: what it brings to life is not simply resurrected, but also embalmed.
It is not the least merit of the writings of Jacques Derrida to have explored, in the most varied configurations, the complicity of spectrality with theatricality. Nowhere is this motif more pronounced than in Specters of Marx. Readers of this text will doubtless remember the insistent and recurrent references to Hamlet as an exemplary instance of the singular relation of “spectrality” to theatricality. Derrida emphasizes repeatedly that spectrality distinguishes itself from spirituality by being inextricably linked to visibility, physicality, and localizability. Such traits distinguish the materiality of ghosts from the ideality of spirits in the sense of the Hegelian, philosophical Geist.
In a word, according to Derrida, what distinguishes the ghost from the Geist, the specter from the spirit, not just in Hamlet but generally,