Derrida’s Spectres of Marx is a frustrating book. For someone capable of such careful readings, Derrida’s references to Marx are remarkably sloppy, and, as with a lot of his later work, the obsessively spiraling style appears hollow rather than beguiling (it’s not as bad as The Politics of Friendship, but what is). But the central theme of the text is undeniably interesting. Derrida identifies in Marx an uneasiness with his (Marx’s) own analysis, with Marx constantly discovering the spectral nature of capitalism, which he continuously seeks to deny or deflect with a focus on life as a material positivity.
It would be pointless to deny that Marx is sometimes vitalist, although this is not a simple organicist praise of life as vital spirit. Rather, Marx connects life with productive potential, first of all in the figure of “living labor,” but in more depth in Marx’s description of the fundamentally excessive nature of the proletariat, the surplus population necessarily produced by capitalism. In Capital, the descriptions of overpopulation evoke compression and pressure, a pressure that the capitalist authorities quoted inevitably figure in terms of a danger that is equally biological, moral, and political.
However, although Marx does, as Derrida writes, sometimes oppose and seek to exorcise the spectral, he doesn’t do so in the name of this vitalism. On the contrary, Marx rejects spectrality because the specter is too alive, a remnant of life that remains after material death. Marx’s rejection of spectrality occurs in the context of a more general rejection of this vitalism, direct or deferred, and an embrace of a certain sort of unlife, an anti-organicism. Derrida almost sees this in his discussion of commodity fetishism which “is the contradiction of automatic autonomy, mechanical freedom, technical life.” (153) Derrida, however, doesn’t pursue this theme of automaticity, but instead immediately proceeds to assimilate the commodity to the specter, not without some difficulty, because the commodity is the opposite of the specter – not dead matter inhabited by an ineffable remnant of life, spirit or pneuma, but dead matter animated by an eerily unliving automaticity: not a specter, that is, but a zombie.
While Marx’s famous distinction between living labor (the proletariat) and dead labor (commodities) suggests that this zombie character of the commodity is in opposition to the revolutionary character of the proletariat, the difference is not so clear, because the proletariat’s particular role in capitalism comes from the fact that labour-power is a commodity. Benjamin develops in some detail the revolutionary possibilities that might follow from the proletariat sharing this inorganic, unliving, zombie quality with the commodity. In the Arcades, Benjamin traces the founding of the revolutionary Internationals to the world exhibitions, where “the masses, barred from consuming, learned empathy with exchange value,” by realizing that they, like the commodities they produce, are infinitely exchangible and communicable.
Benjamin locates this revolutionary communicability in the catacombs of Paris (used by the revolutionaries of the Commune), the city of the dead that overdetermines the city of those who are supposedly living. That the city is always the city of the dead is, Benjamin writes, “an essential moment in the image of modernity,” because modern capitalism, rather than containing and constraining life as it appeared to in Marx’s image of overpopulation, recreates life as unlife. Marx describes this process in his discussion of factory labor (as opposed to small-scale manufacture) in Capital, but Benjamin goes on to connect this process to advertising and fashion, both of which construct an inorganic body for the proletariat. This inorganic body is what allows the proletariat to engage in political struggle, as with the example Benjamin gives of the anonymous horde of pamphleteer during the 1848, who were referred to as “Monsieur Everyone.”
Monsieur Everyone is a swarm of artificial, unliving commodity-proletarians—a zombie horde, in other words.
This post was inspired in part by Resident Evil: Extinction and Lady GaGa’s video for “Bad Romance.”