By Carl Raschke
I have awoken just about every morning for the last six weeks with the sense that this year is going to turn out to be an historically decisive one in terms of world events - like 1968, 1989, or even 2001.
All I can say to justify this "sense" is that I have it. Decisive years are different from specific events that are normally identified, or correlated, with such a time frame. Their "eventfulness" cannot usually be ascribed to one great thing, or event (in the singular), that happened and is remembered - the uprising in Paris, the fall of the Berlin Wall, what we now call "9/11", etc.
Philosophically, I draw my understanding of the event from Alain Badiou, who develops it from Deleuze. "The event is not actually internal to the analytic of the multiple," Badiou writes on p. 178 of Being and Event (trans. Oliver Feltham, Continuum Publishing, 2005), that is, in our case to the sequential generation of the moments of recent history. "Even though it can always be localized within presentation, it is not, as such, presented, nor is it presentable." Badiou distinguishes between a fact (i.e., "of history") and an event.
Unlike the trace, which pertains to the text, or khora, which belongs to the empty spacings of logos in its coursings, spectrality is what stalks history. It is akin to Badiou's "event site." It is not a generatrix (as would khora), but a hidden and persistent parameter of what takes place. Yet it remains clandestine. The "specter" of Marx about which Derrida wrote in the early 1990sis neither "joined to" (gefügt an) to the present nor "available to" (verfügbar) present cognition. Its time dimension is obscure. That is why it remains a specter.
A fact has a simple, or singular, location within history, but no historicity. But the "historicity" of the event, for Badiou is different from Heidegger's historicity. The difference does not merely lie in Badiou's efforts to contextualize the theory of the event in mathematics, in set theory. Events, according to Badiou, are "localizable," yet not "presentable." What does that really mean?
Events are singularities that belong to the "form-multiple of historicity." Events in this way "occur" always within what Badiou terms an "evental site." An evental site "is an entirely abnormal multiple, that is, a multiple such that none of its elements are presented in the situation." Only the site is presented. Badiou gives as an illustration a "case of a concrete family, all of whose members were clandestine or non-declared, and which presents itself (manifests itself publicly) uniquely in the group form of family outings." (p. 175) Badiou may have in mind, of course, the conspiratorial, Maoist cadres to which he once belonged, but that is really beside the point.
The tension is not, as in Heidegger, between the "revealing" and "concealing" of that which is, but between our tendency to demand "empirical" substantiation of what we consider to be the case and our recognition - ever since at least the advent of quantum physics - that what we observe may not be what is there, or was there, because it has now been transformed through observation.
By now one should properly deduce that I am not warming up for one more, tiresome pontification on how significant Obama's presidence supposedly is. Obama's election is only a fact of history - and a significant one, in terms of the order of multiples, to say the least. But there is no "eventfulness" to it. In fact, very little other than the obvious has really happened.
I am saying, boldly, that we are coursing through an "event site" of which the significations have to remain hidden (according to Badiou's theory itself). I've never been able to prove that Badiou all along has been reading Bultmann's theology of several generations ago about the "Christ event" that is historical, though unintelligible to history itself. But these associations are not merely aleatory. It is not accidental that Badiou's well-received book on St. Paul really complements Bultmann, or that Badiou himself is a source of growing fascination among a newer generation of "postmodern" academic theologians (though they all struggle to follow him half the time, as they once did with Derrida). Badiou is probably more instructive for latter day "Bultmannians", since he has unshackled himself from Heidegger, which Bultmann couldn't.
But I digress. What has compelled me to reflect of late along these lines is not a closer reading of Badiou, but a re-reading of the "later" Derrida, in particular his own "eventful" book Specters of Marx. Composed ostensibly in its historical situatedness as a rejoinder to the soaring popularity of Francis Fukayama's dawn chant (in his bestseller The End of History and the Last Man) to the rising sun of neo-liberalism upon the occasion of Communism's worldwide collapse, Specters of Marx of course inaugurates an alternate "messianism" to Fukuyama's. The messianism of the "democracy to come." Now that Fukuyama's world vision has itself gone up in flames, Derrida's naturally seems more prescient, even though few have figured out what the latter was really going after. Derrida's messianism without a messiah is not a readily usable "political" tool of analysis, even among the trendiest genus of current, postmodern "democrats", and the slowly fading glow of messianic Obamaism will not make much difference in the long run either.
After spending the past two weeks in conversations with my students in the advanced Derrida seminar I am currently teaching at the University of Denver, I can only say that Derrida's so-called "political" writings are not about "messianism" so much as it about "specters", as the title of the book makes clear. I would assert boldly that the "three ages", or stages, of Derrida's philosophical development - early, middle, and late, as conventional nomenclature would have it - can be "marked" (deconstructively, to be sure) respectively by each of the following terms - "trace", "khora", and specter."
Now, on a blog, I will not even attempt some arcane and elaborate justification, with proper proof-texting, of this contention. But I will say that the "evolution" of these terms can be fleshed out with respect to the larger themes, or philosophical issues, that Derrida took up - again respectively - in the unfolding of his prolific writing career. The trace calls our attention to the way in which the singular "presence-ness", the material "haeccity" (as Deleuze would phrase it), of the written inscription resets the entire question of Being, which Heideggerian "fundamental ontology" sought to "overcome." The khora indicates the fertile and "pregnant" space of the mystical moment into which the trace vanishes - hence postmodern "negative theology" and the whole trail of neo-Derridean, "religionless" prayers and tears.
The specter, however, is what "haunts" us at particular time, and will not go away. The specter does not vanish, like the trace, but returns. It is a ghost, a revenant. Yet it is not something, simply like a ghost, that once lived and now cannot be stuffed away in mere historical memory. The Marxian specter, at least so far as Derrida meant it, never really lived to begin with. In that sense it is more closely akin to Badiou's "event site." It is not a generatrix (like khora), but a persistent parameter that remains hidden within the flux of multiples. It is a "secret" of what takes place.
In 1993 Derrida perhaps had an "uncanny" intuition that Fukuyama's realized apocalypse of absolute spirit in the form of global capitalism was a fantasy rather than an affirmation. On the other hand, his sense of the messianic-democratic may also be read in hindsight prove itself to be something of a fantasy as well - a French one, possibly, of which every recherche experience on Bastille day offers some vague inkling. If subsequent history provides guidance, the title of the book could just as well have been Specters of Mohammed.
The "messianic" spectrality of Derrida's political writings is more haunting than politics itself. In 1993 Derrida had not totally recognized, or begun to come to terms with, the "specter" of his own Judaism anyway. Such spectrality draws us closer, I believe, to what Badiou was thinking about events.
The phenomenon of Derrida itself can be seen perhaps as an event-site which remains invisible against the tangible presentation of the intellectual and cultural history of the last thirty years. We have been attentive to something clumsily marked as the "postmodern." but we have been oblivious to what might be spectrally stalking us. Particularly in America, we have reframed rather tired old debates in terms of the alleged influence of this "specter", but we have failed to appreciate its own power as that which is still "to come" (avenir).
In the last decade postmodern thought has largely degenerated, like a CNN or Fox News segment, into a parade before the camera of established "experts", or luminaries, coming from opposite sides on the same-old-same-old and taking strategic shots at each other. The current scholarly celebration of the conversation between Žižek and Milbank in The Monstrosity of Christ is a case in point. I quote from the book blurb by the publisher.
For something like this "conversation" to receive so much attention fifteen years ago would have been unthinkable. I haven't read the book yet, and I'm sure it's illuminating in many ways, but come on! I'm reminded of the BBC debates between Father Copleston and Bertrand Russell in the 1960s. Erudite atheist versus erudite theologue. Only the names and the styles of argument have changed. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Since when was postmodernism about deciding on what "foundation" to rest classical arguments? I thought foundationalism had been left in the dust.
When what was once avante-garde becomes merely a cool kind of retro, you know you're in a rut. But, as Hegel said - actually rather cryptically - about the painting of grays in grays, something may be happening here, but you don't know what it is.
As Derrida points out, specters "appear" through conveyance as much from the future as from the past. This bidirectionality, or bi-vectoring of their appearance, which is key to what Deleuze characterizes as an event in keeping with the "logic of sense", renders any representation of what is actually happening impossible. Specters of something that remains so hidden by what has gone on, even in the now foregone age of Derrida, that people - as Marx said of the regimes of "Old Europe" - try either to ignore it, hunt it down, or stamp it out before it manifests.
Since blogs are supposed to be more chatty and down-to-earth than any philosophical disquisition, if not perhaps running commentary on what is current and "newsworthy", I hope you can please pardon me for refusing to name whatever I sense. I could say I "seem" to sense this or that, but specters are always ambiguous and ambivalent.
This blog was inaugurated last fall, just about the time that the world economy seemed to be careening toward collapse and a new political order seemed to be sweeping in on a heady tide from the future. If what was occuring during that brief time interval could have been "sensed" as a messianic moment (after all, the messianic irruption is always preceded by great tribulation), something else is wafting in on the breeze. I call your attention to the latest editorial in London's Financial Times. The time may be "out of joint", as Shakespeare says and as Derrida cites as the condition for the spectral manifestation of the messianic. But the way things "appear", according to the edtiorial, have become increasingly opaque and unintelligible. The Times writer quotes another famous line of Shakespeare - "a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing."
One is reminded instead of Nietzsche's "specter" at the opening of The Will to Power. "Nihilism stands at the door. Whence comes this strangest of guests", the most unsettling of any revenant?
Not a "democracy to come", but something simultaneously even more glorious and severe. What is "to come" must first overcome. Nietzsche was transfixed with a sense of overcoming of humanity, the "overman." But after a false messianic dawn has passed a new eventfulness is brewing.
What is more glorious than the "specter" Derrida names the "impossible."
Specters of the eschata.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.