The Exorcism of Exorcism

—The Enchantment of Materiality in Derrida and Marx



Nicole Pepperell




Written in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, in a period of the apparently unchallenged ascendance of liberal market ideals and institutions, Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1994) questions the triumphalist declaration that Marx’s ideas are dead, and insists that the spectre of communism, and the spirit of Marx, continue to haunt a present that remains out of joint. The recent (if not ongoing) global financial crisis has cast into stark relief the prescience of Derrida’s claim. It has also underscored the importance of the question that informs Specters: how are we to inherit Marx today?


Derrida asks whether a certain spirit of Marx might be summoned to challenge the dominance of market liberalism without encouraging dogmatic and totalitarian impulses. He then effects such a summons through a curious material transformation of Marx’s text: he excises a single sentence from the pivotal passage in which Marx christens the commodity fetish. This excision subtly transforms the meaning of Marx’s text—and positions the act of interpretation as an active, transformative, selective appropriation of the past, rather than as a passive reception of materials inexorably transmitted from history.


Here I explore the way in which Derrida foreshadows and then effects this excision from Marx’s text. In doing so, I both highlight the distinctive understanding of transformative inheritance at the heart of Derrida’s work and also pose the question of why Derrida should effect this particular transformation when he searches for nondogmatic impulses in Marx’s critique. After examining Derrida’s transformation of Marx’s text, I explore an alternative interpretation of the same passages from Capital, focusing on what I characterise as the book’s unusual narrative strategy, in which the various ontological claims put forward overtly in the text—including many that Derrida attributes to Marx—can instead be read as performances enacted by characters in a text that is constructed as a play. Each character performs one or more stances that Marx associates with common forms of political economic or philosophical discourse while the dramatic structure of the text itself is set up not to endorse those positions, but rather to destabilise and ultimately to relativise the ontological claims with which the text appears to open, revealing them to have been the targets of the critique all along. This unusual presentational strategy means that Capital can be read productively as a self-deconstructing work, such that Marx—as much as Derrida—can be seen to distrust claims founded on the notion of a disenchanted, secular ‘material’ world. It may be easier than Specters suggests, in other words, to inherit a certain deconstructive spirit of Marx.



Impure Inheritances

Derrida’s reading of the commodity fetishism passage hinges on the interpretation that Marx aims to decontaminate material reproduction. Derrida sees Capital as motivated by the desire to free the objective, intrinsic, material elements of material production—use value, labour, technology (in orthodox Marxist vocabulary, the forces of production)—from the spectralising and contingent social contagions of money and exchange (the productive relations). Derrida thus positions Marx as grounding his critique in a particular kind of ontology, in which privileged access to a supposedly pure ‘material world’ provides a standpoint from which to evaluate ‘merely social’ phenomena.


While reading Marx in this way, Derrida attempts to open the possibility to inherit him otherwise. In Derrida’s account, what we inherit from our time is not fully determined by the weight of history bearing down upon us. Inheritance does not take the form of a passive, faithful reception of contents transmitted in pure and undistorted form—nor is faithful inheritance some sort of regulative ideal to which we should aspire. Inheritance is instead an active, performative event (Specters, 54-5). We—the heirs—initiate it; we select those aspects of the past that shall remain relevant to our time. In selecting, we form a specific constellation with one among many possible pasts: we determine, retroactively, which elements of our potential pasts will have been determining upon us, precisely by enacting those elements of the past as our own ongoing concern.1


This performative act need not be undertaken consciously or with deliberation. Nevertheless, the possibility—the inevitability—of such a selective inheritance shatters any notion of history as a progression of modalised presents that lead inexorably from one to the next: no potential future ‘realises’ the pure essence of the past better or more faithfully than any other; the dead cannot bury their own dead—it is up to us, the heirs, to decide when and how their remains shall be interred (113-15). Our present is haunted precisely because we face a choice among multiple pasts we could inherit, precisely because we sit at the nexus of many futures we might create. What comes next is not predetermined by the present time; the future we create will, in turn, open potentials and possibilities we cannot currently foresee.


In the final chapter of Specters, Derrida applies this concept of selective inheritance in a particularly literal way to the pivotal passage in which Marx christens the commodity fetish, by excising a single sentence from Marx’s original text. This excision is heavily foreshadowed in earlier chapters of Derrida’s work, most directly in a discussion of a passage from Valéry in which Hamlet examines illustrious skulls and finds, in the skull of Kant, a line of inheritance that runs from Kant to Hegel, and then from Hegel to Marx. Derrida notes that Valéry quotes this same passage in a later work, reproducing it in its original form—except for a single line. Derrida lingers over this point, drawing the reader’s attention to the omission, noting:


At this point, Valéry quotes himself. He reproduces the page of ‘the European Hamlet’, the one we have just cited. Curiously, with the errant but infallible assurance of a sleepwalker, he then omits from it only one sentence, just one, without even signaling the omission by an ellipsis: the one that names Marx, in the very skull of Kant. (5)


In a subsequent discussion of Blanchot’s ‘Marx’s Three Voices’, Derrida draws attention once more to the figure of the ellipsis, characterising Blanchot’s work in terms of a ‘very powerful ellipsis’ that amounts to an ‘almost tacit declaration’ (35). Ellipses—marked and tacit—are therefore foregrounded in the early chapters of Specters as significant features of texts and traditions. The chapter in which Derrida effects the excision of Marx’s sentence is then titled, ‘Apparition of the Inapparent’—subtitled ‘The phenomenological “conjuring trick”’ (125). The text thus prepares the reader for the appearance of an absence: it warns us of the ellipsis to come.


Leading into his discussion of commodity fetishism, Derrida presents a detailed analysis of Marx’s critique of Stirner in The German Ideology. Derrida characterises this work as a ‘whirling dance of ghosts’ in which both Stirner and Marx share a common wish ‘to have done with the revenant’ through a ‘reappropriation of life in a body proper’ (129). Marx and Stirner thus share the goal, Derrida argues, of exorcising the ghost. Where they differ is simply over the means through which this exorcism must be performed: Stirner seeks an immediate reappropriation of the spectral into an egological body; Marx declares Stirner’s concept of an egological body itself to be a ghost. This stance does not render Marx any more friendly to spirits. Marx’s objection is, instead, that Stirner obscures the means to achieve a true exorcism, in the form of a reappropriation of the spectral that must take place—not immediately, as in Stirner’s egological reappropriation—but rather through the mediation of work, through a labour of thought and practice that takes into account all the social mediations constitutive of the spectres that throw the time out of joint, and that therefore must be exorcised (129-31). In Derrida’s account, Stirner thus stands criticised for attempting to destroy, in thought alone, a spectrality that, because it does not originate in thought, could never be abolished there. Instead, the exorcism can be effected only in practice:


Marx denounces a surplus of hallucination and a capitalization of the ghost: what is really (wirklich) destroyed are merely the representations in their form as representation (Vorstellung). The youth may indeed destroy his hallucinations or the phantomatic appearance of the bodies—of the Emperor, the State, the Fatherland. He does not actually (wirklich) destroy them. And if he stops relating to these realities through the prostheses of his representation and the ‘spectacles of his fantasy [durch die Brille seiner Phantasie]’, if he stops transforming these realities into objects, objects of theoretical intuition, that is, into a spectacle, then he will have to take into account the ‘practical structure’ of the world: Work, production, actualization, techniques. Only this practicality, only this actuality (work, the Wirken or the Wirkung of this Wirklicheit) can get to the bottom of a purely imaginary or spectral flesh (phantastiche... gespenstige Leibhaftigheit). (130)


As Derrida sees this argument, then, Marx seeks, like Stirner, to abolish spectrality. Marx believes, however, that this abolition can be achieved only through a process that transforms the ‘practical structure of the world’, a transformation effected specifically, in Derrida’s reading, through the mediation of labour (130-1). On this reading, labour figures as a despectralising form of action—and production, actualisation and technique are positioned as forms of practice that can effect an exorcism, abolish the ghost that renders the time out of joint, and set the time right, once and for all, by constituting a self-identical present moment that is rationally and transparently in control of its own emancipatory possibilities (ibid.).


Derrida finds a similar logic in Marx’s argument about commodity fetishism (148). His representation of the commodity fetishism passage both accentuates the sense that the argument re-enacts Marx’s critique of Stirner, and also prepares to interrupt this re-enactment, to prevent it from being performed again in the same way.


Noting that the commodity fetishism passage is so familiar to us that it is difficult to interpret, Derrida sets himself the goal of carrying out an ‘ingenuous reading’ (149)—a goal that, Derrida notes, the text itself immediately begins to undermine. Marx warns us, from the first, that we cannot take the commodity at first sight (ibid.). Derrida reads this warning as a statement that performatively institutes a distinction between what Derrida calls the ‘phenomenological good sense of the thing itself’ and the ‘metaphysical’ and ‘theological’ dimensions of the commodity (150). This distinction is at the core of what troubles Derrida about the passage—and is therefore one of the things he seeks to subvert.


Derrida interprets ‘phenomenological good sense’ as adequate, in Marx’s account, for the interpretation of use-value, whose qualities might be perceptible ‘at first sight’ (ibid.). He argues that Marx associates this phenomenological good sense—and use-value—with an Enlightened perception, citing Marx’s comment that ‘use-value has nothing at all “mysterious” about it’ (ibid.). Derrida takes use-value, then, as the standpoint from which Marx hopes to pierce various forms of mystification, by holding them up against an ideal of what is ‘proper to man, to the properties of man’—what is naturally mete for human needs (ibid.).


The naturalness of use-value operates, in Derrida’s reading, to secure use-value as a kind of firm ontological anchor for Marx’s critical ideals. Significantly, Derrida contrasts the category of use-value to the category of the commodity—thus positioning use-value as an external standpoint from which Marx effects his critique of the commodity-form. This firm ontological anchor is then haunted by something spectral—by the commodity, a super-sensible social thing that has been only contingently grafted on to its natural base.


Derrida draws attention here to Marx’s theatrical language, and analyses in evocative detail the ‘Table-Thing’ with which Marx introduces the commodity fetishism section, finding in this image a horror of prosthesis, of artificial life, of mechanical autonomy (150-4). In Derrida’s reading, Marx locates the spectral qualities of the commodity firmly in the market—outside of use-value, outside of the material, outside of hul? (155). This attempt to locate—to ontologise—the spectre allows Marx to open up the possibility for its exorcism—for the abolition of the fetish. For Derrida, such an exorcism is predicated on the notion that spectrality is contingent and dispensable—that spectrality interrupts the coming to presence of essence, which would otherwise enable some underlying material reality to express itself, openly, in human history. This underlying material reality, Derrida argues, is labour—the truth of the social character of labour, disguised by the artifice of market exchange (156-7).


Without flagging his strategy directly, Derrida begins here to sunder the presentational structure of the passage in which Marx christens the fetish—separating the elements of Marx’s original presentation in time and place, overtly amending the passages—and then eventually excising a sentence. A brief digression into Marx’s original passage will help cast into relief how Derrida actively modifies the original text.



Social Objectivity

Before introducing the term ‘fetishism’, Marx leads the reader through two analogies, representing two different sorts of relationships—one, a physical relationship between physical things, and the second, an intersubjective relationship among persons.2 He contrasts both of these sorts of relationship with the peculiar relationship he is trying to grasp through the concept of commodity fetishism, which he introduces in the following way:


The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time supra-sensible or social. (Capital, 164-5)


To begin to clarify how this happens, Marx then introduces his first analogy—an optical analogy—which describes the physical relation between an object and the eye: ‘In the same way, the impression made by a thing on the optic nerve is perceived not as a subjective excitation of that nerve but as the objective form of a thing outside the eye’ (165). Marx argues here that a relation in which the object and the eye are both active participants, is interpreted in perception as though the eye is just a passive entity, receiving impressions that originate in the external object alone. Implicitly, Marx treats the process of perception as one that is best grasped as actively constituted by all elements involved in the interaction, rather than as a purely objective or purely subjective phenomenon.


This optical analogy is then distinguished from the phenomenon Marx is trying to grasp, on the grounds that the relation between the eye and the objects it perceives is a purely physical one:


In the act of seeing, of course, light is really transmitted from one thing, the external object, to another thing, the eye. It is a physical relation between physical things. As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. (Ibid.)


It is at this point that Marx introduces his second, religious analogy—specifically in order to pick out the social character of the commodity fetish:


In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. (Ibid.)


While the relations constituted by religious practice and belief are social—arising solely from human interaction and therefore historically contingent—these relations arise, in Marx’s formulation, in ‘the human brain’. In more contemporary language, these relations are inter-subjective, relying on shared beliefs and frameworks of meaning. By contrast, Marx does not believe commodity fetishism arises from shared inter-subjective frameworks—commodity fetishism is not, in other words, an ideology or a mere false belief. As a consequence, he distinguishes religion from the phenomenon that interests him here by saying: ‘So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands’ (ibid.).


‘So it is’ that the products of human practice appear autonomous from the humans who create them—but with the important exception that, with commodity fetishism, it is not inter-subjective relations that generate this apparently objective phenomenon, but rather a peculiar historical form of interaction between humans and their physical world.


It is at this point, having thus carefully distinguished this phenomenon from two apparently similar sorts of relations, that Marx finally christens the commodity fetish: ‘I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities’ (ibid.). Neither an objective physical relation, nor an inter-subjective one, commodity fetishism instead arises through historically specific and transformable sorts of interactions between humans and other objects. The analysis of commodity fetishism is therefore a critique of a noninter-subjective, but social, environment that strikes the social actors who create it as an autonomous material world.


I will explore in further detail below how Marx develops this analysis into a critique of a peculiar social form of materiality that is mistakenly interpreted as a secular, disenchanted, ‘objective’ material realm. First, however, it is important to capture how Derrida hears this passage, and thereby to understand why Derrida might conclude that a specific material transformation of the text would be required to inherit Marx’s theory in a deconstructive form.




Derrida subtly disturbs the order of Marx’s discussion of the fetish—separating in time and space his discussion of different moments of this passage, in a way that both privileges the textual importance of the religious analogy, and also obscures how the two analogies work together to clarify the concept of commodity fetishism in the text. To do this, he staggers his presentation of the passage in question. He discusses the ‘optical analogy’ in isolation (Specters, 156), and only returns to the religious analogy some nine pages later (165). This sundering of Marx’s original passage suggests a much more proximate relationship between the religious analogy and Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, than it does between the optical analogy and the commodity fetishism argument. It thereby implies that commodity fetishism should be understood as an ideology or false belief, and thus suggests a strong link between the commodity fetishism argument and the critique of religion Derrida had earlier discussed in relation to The German Ideology.


Derrida then interpolates, between these two analogies, an extended reflection on what he takes to be a paradox in Marx’s account: Capital’s constant tendency to reiterate, on the one hand, that commodities are passive, inert, material things, that must be commanded by human will; and, on the other hand, gestures which seem to undermine these claims—by, for example, speculating about what commodities might say or do, if only they could speak or did possess will (Specters, 157-8). Derrida finds these recurrent counterfactuals peculiar, and notes a number of examples, including the passage in which Marx quite literally places words in commodities’ mouths, making them actors—citing Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to underscore the theatrical resonance (Specters, 158):


This rhetorical artifice is abyssal. Marx is going to claim right away that the economist naively reflects or reproduces this fictive or spectral speech of the commodity and lets himself be in some way ventriloquized by it: he ‘speaks’ from the depths of the soul of the commodities (aus den Warenseele heraus). But in saying ‘if commodities could speak’ (Könnten die Waren sprechen), Marx implies that they cannot speak. (157)


Derrida draws similar attention to the ambivalence of the claim that commodities have no will. In Derrida’s (somewhat exasperated) words:


Since commodities do not walk in order to take themselves willingly, spontaneously, to market, their ‘guardians’ and ‘possessors’ pretend to inhabit these things. Their ‘will’ begins to ‘inhabit’ (hausen) commodities. The difference between inhabit and haunt becomes here more ungraspable than ever. (158)


Once again, the order in which Derrida introduces these textual dilemmas breaks with Marx’s own presentation: the passage in which Marx discusses what commodities would say if they could speak, is the culminating passage of the first chapter of Capital—it takes place well after the presentation of both the optical and religious analogies, rather than interposing itself between the two; the passage in which Marx discusses the commodities’ lack of will opens the second chapter of Capital, and therefore follows a considerable distance after the analysis of the fetish.3


By not flagging the broken order of presentation, Derrida subtly transforms our sense of how the original text operates. This strategy is of course fully consistent with Derrida’s notion of selective inheritance. Derrida’s transformation of the text should be understood as a demonstration and illustration of concepts he has outlined previously, rather than as an attempt to distort our understanding of Marx: by choosing to attend to certain elements in the text, we can bring certain potentials of the argument more clearly into view and render these potentials more accessible. But what potentials is Derrida attempting to grasp?


Derrida unspools these potentials over the next several pages, developing his argument that Capital presents use-value as an originary, untainted, self-identical ontological state, which comes to be contaminated and haunted by an external and more contingent social process. In Derrida’s reading, Marx presents the ghost—the haunting, mysterious qualities of the commodity—as something that ‘comes on stage’—something that is introduced at some point after the presence of the secure, objective materiality that is use-value (159). For Derrida, this is reminiscent of strategies Marx criticised in Stirner, and Derrida asks whether Marx, like Stirner, was ‘a man who became frightened of his own ghost, a constitutive fear of the concept that he formed of himself, and thus of his whole history as a man?’ (ibid.) Here Derrida begins to deploy his critique. In what sense, he asks, can we presuppose some pure materiality? Where is this untainted starting point, such that the contamination of exchange can take place only somewhere downstream? (159-60)


Derrida argues that use-value can operate only as a kind of limit-concept—a concept that makes sense only in contradistinction to its other, and therefore a concept that is always already contaminated by its other. Use-value therefore cannot precede the coming-on-stage of the commodity. Rather, it is the commodity that provides the condition of possibility for use-value as a limit concept. The ghost of the commodity—like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, whom Derrida has analysed earlier in the text—returns only at the moment where it seems to arrive on stage for the first time. Its coming is already anticipated by the category of use-value itself—a category that would make no sense without the bifurcation introduced by the spectrality of the haunting (160-1). It is with the first introduction of use-value—rather than with the introduction of commodity fetishism—that the haunting properly begins.


Derrida expands on this discussion—which by itself could be taken as an analysis of the concept of use-value, rather than as an analysis of use-value ‘itself’—to discuss how the practices associated with material reproduction are implicated in the constitution of iterability, exchange, and prosthesis (162). The phenomena traditionally lined up with the ‘forces of production’ in orthodox Marxism cannot be seen as self-identical or untainted. Already within these processes are all of the potentials for temporal disjoint that Derrida believes Marx attempts to locate exclusively in the social process of exchange.


In these passages, Derrida worries about Marx’s claim that the spectrality of commodity fetishism could be abolished:


Let us not forget that everything we have just read there was Marx’s point of view on a finite delirium. It was his discourse on a madness destined, according to him, to come to an end, on a general incorporation of abstract human labor that is still translated, but for a finite time, into the language of madness, into a delirium (Verrückheit) of expression. We will have to, Marx declares, and we will be able to, we will have to be able to put an end to what appears in ‘this absurd form’ (in dieser verrückten Form). We will see (translate: we will see come) the end of this delirium and of these ghosts, Marx obviously thinks. (163-4)


Derrida then gives voice to his driving fear—that it is spectrality as such that Marx seeks to abolish: ‘“This madness here?” he asks, “Those ghosts there? Or spectrality in general?”’ (164).


Interpreting Marx as a theorist whose critique is grounded in a privileged access to an objective material reality, it is difficult for Derrida not to conclude that Marx seeks to abolish spectrality in general. This Marx, Derrida fears, is what has been inherited by oppressive parties and totalitarian states. This Marx must be shown not to be an intrinsic, ‘essential’ Marx whom loyal heirs must faithfully inherit. To inherit Marx in some other way, Derrida returns to the commodity fetishism passage—seeking, in the most literal sense, to rewrite history.


Derrida introduces the passage in which Marx christens the commodity fetish by revisiting the concepts of exorcism and conjuration (164-5). Thinking, Derrida suggests, relies on conjuration. The question is therefore not how we shall abolish conjuration, but rather: what kind of conjuration shall we perform? Derrida has just presented Marx as someone who wants to conjure away spectrality. He has also refused to exempt himself from the dynamic of conjuration. We can therefore expect what follows to be a conjuration of its own, an exorcism in its own right. We are forewarned, then, on a number of explicit and tacit levels, to expect prestidigitation in the pages that follow—enjoined to pay attention to the absence of what will be conjured away.


Derrida now finally introduces the religious analogy, telling us that it is only through this analogy that one can explain the autonomy of the ideological—a claim that is more persuasive precisely because the structure of Marx’s argument has been broken apart in Derrida’s re-presentation. Continuing to equate the argument about commodity fetishism with an argument about ‘ideology’, Derrida stresses the uniqueness of the links Marx makes with religion: ‘only the reference to the religious world’, ‘only the religious analogy’, ‘the only analogy possible’ (165). Derrida repeats these phrases as if they were an incantation—just after drawing attention to the mantra-like ‘ritual, obsessional’ ‘formulas’ involved in conjuration (ibid.).


It is at this point that Derrida quotes the passage from Capital that seems to secure this interpretation:


There [in the religious world] the products of the human brain [of the head, once again, of men: des menschlischen Kopfes, analogous to the wooden head of the table capable of engendering chimera—in its head, outside of its head—once, that is, as soon as, its form can become commodity-form] appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race.... I call this the fetishism which attaches itself [anklebt] to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.


As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them (Capital, ctd in Specters, 166).


The text that is omitted here—only a single sentence, marked by an ellipsis—is where Marx distinguishes commodity fetishism from religion. The excised sentence is the one where Marx declares: ‘So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands’ (Capital, 165).


As Derrida has invited us to ask, by asking the same of Valéry: ‘Why this omission, the only one?’ (Specters, 5).


Derrida presents Marx as a theorist whose stance is grounded in the forces of production—in use-values as a potential objective ‘outside’ from the standpoint of which the merely contingent social relations of market exchange can be criticised. He has voiced the fear that Marx is undertaking the critique not of some specific dimension of social experience, but of spectrality as such. In Derrida’s reading, the commodity fetishism argument operates as a kind of unveiling—a piercing of an ideological illusion, to reveal the material reality occluded underneath—a hidden material reality whose revelation would tell us how we ‘ought’ to live, finally, in order for social life to become self-identical and fully transparent. In Derrida’s reading, the desire to make this move is tantamount to the desire to abolish the conditions of possibility for any future non-identity of the present with itself. This desire, for Derrida, has manifested itself in the spirit of Marx that has been inherited in dogmatic and totalitarian forms.


At this point, Derrida attempts an exorcism. He edits out the moment where, in his reading, Marx whisks away the veil and reveals a ‘materialist’ principle as the secret truth that lies behind the spectral illusion. In Derrida’s transformative citation of Marx’s text, the moment of revelation never comes—the illusion is never pierced—the standpoint of objective reality is never seized—the spectre is left to haunt. What Derrida attempts to exorcise in this passage is exorcism itself: he seeks to banish the moment in which Marx seems to tear aside the curtain separating us from a privileged material standpoint that will abolish spectrality and inaugurate a society that has become self-identical and fully present to itself.


This potential—of a Marxism that does not ground itself in its privileged access to a transparent materiality—is a spirit of Marx that Derrida puts forward as compatible with a certain spirit of deconstruction. Imagine what it would have been like—Derrida invites us to conjure—if Marx had not understood critique as the abolition of all spectrality? We, as Marx’s heirs, have the power to make it so.



Putting Capital into Play

Is Derrida’s intervention, however, the only means to wield this kind of power? Here I want to explore a different path to summoning a certain deconstructive spirit in Marx’s work. In this interpretation I join a small number of others who have argued that understanding the substantive claims in Capital requires keeping track of a range of literary devices that the text itself deploys—in particular, devices related to irony, satire, and the sarcastic performative enactment of the positions being criticised (Hyman, Tangled; Keenan, Fables; LaCapra, Rethinking; Seery, Political Returns; Sutherland, ‘Marx’; Sypher, Aesthetic; Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital; Wilson, Finland Station; Wolff, Moneybags). This body of scholarship strongly suggests that many previous interpretations of Marx have suffered from an over-literal reading strategy, which has ignored ‘literary’ features of the text such as voice and tone, character, dramatic structure and plot. By failing to attend to such literary strategies, many interpretations of Capital have missed the ironic, satirical character of the text, and thereby failed to capture how Capital undermines and destabilises claims that it originally puts forward.


To give a sense of the sorts of readings that become possible once Capital’s literary structure is brought into view, let me turn briefly to two works written prior to Specters: John Seery’s Political Returns (1990) and Dominick LaCapra’s Rethinking Intellectual History (1983). Both of these works effectively highlight the ironic and satirical character of Marx’s work in a way that frames the interpretation of Capital’s opening chapter I present in the sections to come.


Seery focuses on the earliest stages of Marx’s work, examining the foreword for Marx’s doctoral dissertation addressing the problem of how philosophy is possible after Hegel (Political Returns, 243). According to Seery, Marx argues that philosophy is possible after Hegel—but only if it assumes an ironic form (244-45). Seery traces the way in which this theme plays itself out in subterranean form in Marx’s doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the difference between Democritus’ deterministic materialism and Epicurus’ materialism—the latter of which Marx sees as accommodating the potential for a ‘swerve’ that deviates from strict determination (245-49). Seery then argues:


The foreword begins with the question of how it is at all possible to philosophize after Hegel’s total triumph, how, as it were, one can ‘swerve’ from Hegelianism. Traditionally, scholars have interpreted the young Marx as still enraptured at this time with Hegel and Hegelianism…. I suggest, however, that a careful reading of the foreword along with the dissertation reveals that Marx is thoroughly distancing himself from Hegel while at the same time he is informing us that his alternative stance will nonetheless resemble Hegelianism in outward form…. (250)


In Seery’s interpretation, the parallels between Marx’s method and Hegel’s must be understood in a deeply ironic light—as a citation of the forms of Hegel’s work in order to effect a fundamental internal transformation of Hegel’s system. Seery argues that Marx’s embrace of irony is a specific response to the question of how we can escape from totalising philosophies:


In particular, Marx wishes to show why, in the wake of totalizing philosophies, it is necessary for the subjective form of philosophy to wear ‘disguises’ and ‘character masks’…. and why, by extension, Marx will apparently embrace Hegelianism….


In order to philosophize after Hegel … to ‘live at all after a total philosophy’, Marx is saying that we need ‘ironists,’ or those who are able to break with totalizing views of reality, and then can act on their own, like the self-initiating motion of Epicurus’ swerving atom. But because Hegel’s triumph is so encompassing, according to Marx, post-Hegelian ironists will need to couch their subjective philosophies in Hegelian terminology, nonetheless. (250-1)


Seery thus finds in Marx an anti-totalising impulse, ironically expressed in the rhetoric of a totalising philosophy. I would suggest that a very similar impulse informs Marx’s later social-theoretical work. If the early Marx was striving to break away from the dominance of a seemingly omnipresent totalising philosophical discourse, the later Marx confronts a social system that, seen from certain angles, can seem totalising not just in discourse, but in reality. In both cases, I suggest, Marx opts for irony as his critical tool of choice, as the technique by which he expresses the possibility for the ‘swerve’ that will burst apart the totality from within.


As a presentational strategy, however, irony can have strange effects on the reader’s experience of the text—particularly when, as is the case in Capital, the technique is not explicitly announced in advance. As Seery notes: ‘compounding the problem of discovering Marx’s “ironic” outlook is that Marx would be, according to his dissertation, an ironist on the sly, a writer who conceals his ironic view of things. Is all hope lost of pinning Marx down?’ (Political Returns, 253). Seery recommends specific reading strategies to overcome this problem: ‘I suggest that we can discern Marx’s “irony” by indirection, by disclosing its deep presence through elimination, by smoking it out of hiding’ (ibid.).


While Seery limits his discussion to Marx’s early works, LaCapra suggests that these same reading strategies are required for Capital—a point he attempts to demonstrate through what he calls a ‘fictionalized reconstruction of the “phenomenology” of reading Capital’ (Rethinking, 332). In this reconstruction, LaCapra notes that the way readers approach Capital’s opening passages generally determines how they understand the claims made in the rest of the text. When these passages are read as straightforward definitional claims, readers tend to fall into overly literal interpretations of the opening passages. As LaCapra puts it:


Reading these opening sections for the first time, one is struck by the seemingly abstract delineation of concepts to analyze the commodity form (use value, exchange value, abstract labour power, and so on). Marx seems to conform to the image of the pure scientist, indeed the theorist who, in the afterword to the second German edition, seems to invert Hegel by collapsing positivism and the dialectic into a purely objectivist notion of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy. A positivistic dialectic appears to be revealed as ‘the rational kernel within the mystical shell’. The first three sections of the principal text also seem to fall neatly within this ‘problematic’. (333)


LaCapra suggests, however, that as the text progresses it calls into question this first impression—starting, in LaCapra’s reading, with the section on the fetish character of the commodity, which ‘causes a rupture in the text and disorients one’s expectations about it. One is led to reread the earlier sections in its light and to notice the evidence of “double-voicing” or of “internal dialogization” operating to disfigure their seemingly placid positivistic façade’ (333). LaCapra’s ‘heuristic’ observations on the experience of reading the text come very close to characterising the interpretative approach I would also recommend: reading Capital requires an interpretative strategy that involves the constant re-evaluation of earlier claims in light of new perspectives introduced later in the text. This process helps bring into view what LaCapra calls double-voicing, sensitising us to the presence of internal dialogues as a way of making sense of the complex presentational strategy playing out in the main text. In the process, it becomes easier to see how apparently firm ontological distinctions that are introduced in the opening passages of Capital are progressively destabilised as the text moves forward. In the coming sections, I will put this sort of reading strategy into play in order to re-interpret the opening chapter of Capital.



Marx’s Three Voices

In the opening sentence of Capital, Marx quotes himself, referencing his own earlier work: ‘The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails,’ he tells us, ‘appears as “an immense accumulation of commodities”’ (Capital, 125, citing Contribution, 27). This gesture is peculiar. Having opened the text and set about reading, we would generally assume that we are immediately engaging with Marx’s argument about capital. Only a handful of words in, however, we are confronted with a curious problem: if we are already reading Marx, then why does the text need to quote him? Has he not been speaking all along? Keenan captures the effect well:


The immediate question is, Why? Why the gesture of quoting oneself, from an earlier and suppressed draft, for two words, with the apparatus of quotation marks, footnotes, etc.? The question itself functions as a monster or a ghost, an uncanny visitor accumulated from another text. (Fables, 105-6)


Marx’s self-quotation suggests a distance between the voice expressed in the text and his own citable positions. It hints that the voice speaking to us in the opening sentence of Capital is somehow not fully identical to Marx’s voice, such that the intrusion of Marx himself into the text must be explicitly marked in the form of a quotation. Somehow the argument being made in the opening sentence references Marx. It positions Marx within the opening declarations about how the wealth of capitalist society ‘appears’—but, at the same time, the very act of quotation seems to suggest the main text is somehow disjointed from Marx’s position. What the distinction might be between the Marx who is quoted, and the voice otherwise speaking in the main text, remains at this point quite unclear. How should we make sense of this bifurcation, this play within a play or Marx within a Marx, in the opening sentence of Capital?


A few sentences later, we stumble across another peculiar gesture. In the main body of the text, we are told, ‘The discovery ... of the manifold uses of things is the work of history’ (Capital, 125). The language implies a passive, contemplative relationship between humans and material objects: humans discover material properties that have always been inherent to particular objects; at the point of their discovery, these material properties shift from being latent to being manifest in human history. A footnote provides a citation to Barbon—a quotation that seems to support the claim being made in the main text: ‘things have an intrinsick vertue’, Marx quotes, ‘which in all places have the same vertue; as the loadstone to attract iron’ (125, n3). Marx appears to disagree, however, with the link Barbon draws between use-value and intrinsic properties, dryly observing that ‘the magnet’s property of attracting iron only became useful once it had led to the discovery of magnetic polarity’ (ibid.). For Marx, then, use-value would seem to have a more troubled relation to intrinsic material properties than Barbon’s quotation—and by extension the main text—suggests.


Yet what is the nature of Marx’s objection? Even more perplexing, why whisper the objection in a footnote, while placing a contrary position in a much more eye-catching location in the main text? Why does Marx appear marginalised and bracketed—footnoted and quoted, but nevertheless strangely distanced from the main body of his own text?


This problem only deepens as we move forward. The opening paragraphs tell us that ‘first of all’ the commodity is an ‘external object’ that satisfies our changeable needs through its own intrinsic material properties:


The commodity is, first of all, an external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind…. Every useful thing is a whole composed of many properties; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of things is the work of history. (125)


We discover material properties—given time and effort—but these properties themselves subsist outside us: they are objects of our contemplation. Use-value, bound as it is to material properties, is also in some sense essential: the text describes it as a transhistorical substance of wealth, as contrasted with the more transient and socially specific form of wealth, which in capitalism happens to be exchange-value. ‘They [use-values] constitute the material content of wealth, whatever its social form may be. In the form of society to be considered here they are also the material bearers [Träger] of … exchange-value’ (126). Exchange-value is then itself described as a purely relative form—as an expression of the ways in which quantities of commodities may be equated to one another—without a substantive content specific or intrinsic to itself:


Exchange-value appears first of all as the quantitative relation…. This relation changes constantly with time and place. Hence exchange-value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrinsic value, i.e., an exchange-value that is inseparably connected with the commodity, inherent in it, seems a contradiction in terms. (ibid.)


Much of this passage seems consonant with Derrida’s interpretation: use-value seems plausibly associated with what Derrida calls ‘phenomenological good sense’; the term is directly associated in the text with a context-transcendent materiality; and exchange-value appears to be a contingent social phenomenon. If we disregard the puzzling marginal notes and self-references—whose meaning is, at any rate, difficult to discern at this point—little in the first pages of Capital seems to trouble Derrida’s reading. Moreover, if we were to stop reading at this point, we might be justified in thinking that we know what the commodity is: it is an external object, a unity of sensible properties that include both intrinsic material qualities and socially conventional rates of exchange.


Just as we seem to have all this settled, a second character intrudes, contesting whether this conception of the commodity is adequate to grasp the wealth of capitalist societies (126-131).4 This new character tells us that a commodity’s characteristics are not exhausted by reference to its sensible properties alone. Commodities are exchanged in a process that treats them as equivalent to one another. In order for this to happen, however, they must share some property in common:


A given commodity, a quarter of wheat for example, is exchanged for x boot-polish, y silk or z gold, etc. In short, it is exchanged for other commodities in the most diverse proportions…. x boot polish, y silk or z gold, etc., must, as exchange-values, be mutually replaceable or of identical magnitude. It follows from this that, firstly, the valid exchange-values of a particular commodity express something equal, and secondly, exchange-value cannot be anything other than a mode of expression, the ‘form of appearance’, of a content distinguishable from it. (127)


This common property, however, cannot be anything in the commodity’s sensible form, because sensible properties vary from one commodity to the next. It must therefore be something that transcends sensuousness entirely—a supersensible property whose existence can be intuited by reason, but to which our sensory perception remains sadly blind.


To get us to this point, the second character engages in a virtuoso demonstration of its deductive acumen, dazzling us with a bit of geometry (127), and then walking us through a sort of transcendental deduction of the existence of the supersensible category of value. It derives the determination of value by labour time, and then argues that the labour whose expenditure is measured is some strange entity the text calls ‘human labour in the abstract’ (127-31). The supersensible categories of value and abstract labour are presented as something like transcendental conditions of possibility for commodity exchange. Such transcendental conditions were invisible from the perspective of the opening ‘empiricist’ character, which doggedly held fast to what could be perceived directly by the senses, and therefore overlooked the intangible properties of the commodity.


When these supersensible properties are brought into view, the apparently arbitrary and contingent appearance of exchange-value is dispelled. Exchange-value, it turns out, does have an intrinsic content—an essence—albeit an intangible essence that cannot be directly perceived by the senses: value (129-31). Moreover, the proportions in which commodities exchange no longer appear purely arbitrary and conventional, but rather exhibit law-like properties: the determination of value by socially necessary labour-time emerges as an immanent order behind the apparently random motion of goods that we can immediately perceive.


This second voice is the one Derrida seems to associate with exchange-value—and therefore with the commodity proper. Yet the category of the commodity has already been introduced—in the very first sentence of Capital. Both use-value and exchange-value are introduced as moments of the commodity—and yet both are also introduced prior to this discussion of the supersensible dimension of the commodity-form. Derrida wants to identify this supersensible dimension with exchange, and thus to convict Marx of asserting that ‘phenomenological good sense’ is adequate for grasping use-value alone. The text, however, introduces both use-value and exchange-value as sensuous phenomena, before it brings on stage the notion of supersensible properties. These supersensible properties are not identified with exchange-value, but are instead presented as residing behind it. But if this move to the supersensible is not a movement from use-value to exchange-value, how should we understand it? Was the first, empiricist character something like a straw man that Marx has defeated through his logical acumen? Is this second, ‘transcendental’ character Marx’s proper entry onto the main stage of Capital?


The transition to the third section of the chapter strongly suggests that this is not the case. In this transition, Marx begins explicitly to portray both the empiricist and the transcendental character as actors in a farce. He invokes the image of Dame Quickly, tacitly impugning the analytical virility of the political economists by suggesting that they do not know how to bed down their categories:


The objectivity of commodities as values differs from Dame Quickly in the sense that ‘a man knows not where to have it’. Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects. We may twist and turn a single commodity as we wish; it remains impossible to grasp it as a thing possessing value. (138)


At this point, the text introduces a third character, which enters the stage speaking in a ‘dialectical’ voice. This character argues that commodities cannot be understood fully through either empiricist or transcendental analysis, but must be grasped through a dialectical analysis of their social interactions:


However, let us remember that commodities possess an objective character as values only in so far as they are all expressions of an identical social substance, human labour, that their objective character as values is therefore purely social. From this it follows self-evidently that it can only appear in the social relation between commodity and commodity. (139)


This dialectical analysis, we are told, follows ‘self-evidently’ from the nature of commodity exchange. This character sounds confident of its results. Its predecessors, however, were equally self-assured: the opening ‘empiricist’ character launched boldly into its series of descriptive definitions, telling us what the commodity is ‘first of all’ (25). Its argument sounded persuasive until we reached the following page where the text advised that we ‘consider the matter more closely’ (126), and then broke into the presentation of the ‘transcendental’ character that claimed to illustrate its points with logical deductions, equations and ‘simple’ examples (127). What is the purpose of these performances? Why does Capital stage multiple interpretations of the wealth of capitalist societies?



The Phenomenology of Capital

Here, I suggest, it helps to know that Hegel has staged something like this play before. A comparison of the opening chapter of Capital with the early chapters of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) suggests that Marx is adapting an earlier work—appropriating and turning to his own ends a narrative arc that structures Hegel’s chapters on ‘Perception’ and ‘Force & Understanding’.


When these sections of the Phenomenology are read against the opening sections of the first chapter of Capital, a number of striking parallels leap out. In these early chapters, Hegel follows consciousness as it assumes a series of shapes in its search for certain knowledge of its object. Hegel traces a shape of consciousness—he calls it Perception—that in one of its configurations takes its object to be an external thing that is a collection of sensible properties. Consciousness takes this thing to be more essential than itself, and adopts a contemplative stance toward it (Phenomenology, 64-6).


In Hegel’s account, Perception fails to achieve the certainty consciousness seeks, and consciousness finds itself driven toward a new shape, which Hegel calls Understanding. Understanding attempts to reach beyond Perception, by taking its object to be supersensible universals. It therefore searches for certain knowledge that transcends the sensible realm but can be intuited by reason (72, 74, 90). For Hegel, Understanding opens up the law-like regularities that lie behind the apparent randomness of what can be perceived by the senses. It falls into the error, however, of presupposing that these laws subsist in some separate substance or world that lies behind the flux perceptible to the senses, thus replicating in a new form the separation of consciousness from its object that has plagued Perception. This new shape of consciousness is therefore also unstable, leading in Hegel’s narrative to a restless oscillation through which it finally confronts what Hegel calls an ‘inverted world’ (90-1).


Within the Phenomenology, consciousness’s confrontation with the inverted world provides one of the major dramatic pivots of the text. Through this confrontation, consciousness realises that what it had taken to be a realm of flux and appearance is generative of law-like regularity, and what it had taken to be a realm of law and timeless essence is generative of flux. In the process, consciousness comes face to face with the instability of the ontological divisions and hierarchies into which it had previously attempted to carve its world. What consciousness had taken to be separate substances or worlds now come, through the confrontation with the inverted world, to be grasped instead as mutually implicated and interpenetrating moments of the very same dynamic relation. This relation, moreover, implicates consciousness as one of its moments, such that consciousness comes to realise that it can no longer position itself as external to its object, but finally grasps that it has been its own object all along. At this point in Hegel’s drama, consciousness achieves Self-consciousness (96).


This dramatic arc in Hegel’s narrative, in which consciousness moves from Perception, through Understanding, to Self-Consciousness, is subtly spoofed by the characters introduced in Capital’s opening chapter. The first, empiricist, character expresses the sensibilities Hegel associates with Perception. The transcendental character aligns with Hegel’s Understanding. The dialectical character strides onto the stage, I would suggest, as a parallel to Hegel himself. The text in Capital’s third section explicitly runs through what are called a set of dialectical ‘inversions’—after which Marx opens the section titled ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and Its Secret’ (Capital, 138-63). The narrative arc of the first chapter of Capital thus inserts the commodity fetishism discussion at the point where Hegel’s Phenomenology draws aside the curtain that has been separating consciousness from its object, to reveal that consciousness has been its own object all along.


Like Hegel’s grand drama of how consciousness struggles to attain certainty of its object, in the process gradually transforming its conception of its object, and thereby itself, the first chapter of Capital also stages a struggle over ‘where to have’ an object (138). In the case of Capital, however, this elusive object is the commodity, and the production takes the form not of a grand metaphysical construction, but of a burlesque squabble over how to grasp the wealth of capitalist society.


Marx is suggesting, through the very structure of the chapter, that the ‘metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ that emerge in Hegel’s narrative, already arise in a much more everyday and indeed crass context: in the course of commodity production and exchange. The most basic, most common, most apparently self-evident object of our economic experience—the commodity—has in this chapter been shown capable of generating great ontological confusion. What is a commodity, this chapter asks? A collection of sensible properties? A transcendental unity that lies behind sensible experience? A dynamic relation with mutually implicated parts? All of these positions, unfolded originally in the course of Hegel’s high metaphysical drama, re-emerge here in Capital in a sort of debauched parody of Hegel’s work.


This parody, I suggest, involves a form of selective inheritance very similar to the one Derrida endorses in Specters. In my reading, many claims that Derrida attributes to Marx can be read more productively as claims put forward originally by political economy. Capital re-enacts such claims in a farcical form, repositioning them as set pieces in a drama that seeks to undermine the ontological basis of these claims from within. In this way, the text attempts to show that there is no ontological impediment to making history in ways that would seem to be barred by the forms of empiricism, transcendental thought, or dialectical analysis initially put forward in the text.


Let me now explore how this reading transforms what we can inherit in Marx's commodity fetishism passage.



Turning the Tables

Marx begins his discussion of commodity fetishism with the line that Derrida interprets as a declaration about the accessibility of use-value to ‘phenomenological good sense’: ‘a commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing’ (Capital, 163). This sentence, I suggest, is intended to refer back to the chapter’s first paragraphs, in which the opening, empiricist character literally takes the commodity ‘at first sight’, equates the commodity with its empirically sensible properties, and therefore views the commodity as ‘an extremely obvious, trivial thing’. The text does not speak nostalgically about this kind of empiricism—it does not, as Derrida fears, seek to return to some self-evident, transparent materiality. Instead, it marks out this form of empiricism as one of the targets of its critique, quickly dismisses it, and moves on.


In the next line, Marx encompasses the perspectives opened up by the transcendental and dialectical interpretations: ‘but its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ (ibid.). At this point, as Keenan argues, it becomes clear that ‘the phantasmagorische Form of fetishism is an exact description of the story we have just been reading’ (Fables, 128). Marx here explicitly tips his hand and reveals the satirical nature of the previous sections of the chapter.


Derrida worries that Marx’s concern with the ‘metaphysical’ and ‘theological’ properties of the commodity might reflect a nostalgic desire for a self-identical present in which all objects would be transparently whatever they are. I would suggest, instead, that Marx’s concern is a more straightforwardly deflationary one: for Marx, it is the political economists who are confident that they know the intrinsic properties of the material world; Marx’s analysis seeks to show that what the political economists take to be ‘objective’ ‘material’ qualities, can instead be shown to be produced—contingently, and only in very specific circumstances. The purpose of this kind of critique is not to search for an even purer, more objective vision of materiality, but rather to demonstrate the potential for a more selective inheritance of our historical experience than political economy’s ontology would allow.


The passage on the dancing table underscores this point. Having revealed that the kinds of analysis performed in the earlier sections are, in some unspecified sense, the targets of his critique, Marx introduces this evocative image:


So far as it is use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it…. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.


The mystical character of the commodity therefore does not derive from its use-value. (Capital, 163-4)


The point of this passage would seem to be very clear: use-value, Marx tells us, has nothing to do with what he will call the fetish character of the commodity. We have been told earlier that the commodity is a unity of use-value and exchange-value. This leads Derrida to decide that, if the use-value dimension of the commodity does not account for the fetish, then the other dimension of the commodity—the exchange-value dimension—must account for the phenomenon. The next line from Capital, however, undermines this conclusion. In an exact parallel to the preceding discussion of use-value, Capital claims: ‘just as little does it [the fetish character of the commodity] proceed from the nature of the determinants of value’ (164).


What is Marx saying here? The fetish character of the commodity does not arise from the determining factors of use-value—that much is clear. But apparently this character also does not arise from the determining factors of value. None of the component moments of the commodity would appear, on this analysis, to account for its fetish character. If none of the components of the commodity explains the fetish, then what else remains? Marx asks the same question—and gives a particularly cryptic answer:


Whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of a commodity? Clearly, it arises from this form itself. (Ibid.)


But what does it mean to say that the ‘form’ of the commodity explains its fetish character, while also insisting that the component parts within that form, taken by themselves, do not?


What Marx is trying to express, I suggest, is that the fetish character of the commodity is an emergent phenomenon. He is arguing that the component parts of the commodity are currently arrayed in an overarching assemblage that generates a distinctive consequence—the fetish character of the commodity—that would not be produced by any of those parts, taken in isolation or assembled into other wholes. Marx claims here that, if you could abstract use-value from the commodity relation, nothing about its components would generate consequences that would render ‘socially valid’ the sorts of ‘metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ expressed in the interpretations Marx has brought on stage earlier in this chapter. If you could abstract the determinants of value from the commodity relation, those parts would not generate such consequences either. Only the aggregate effect of combining these parts, into this historically and socially specific whole, accounts for the fetish character of the commodity.


Marx provides further textual evidence for this interpretation towards the end of the chapter, where he runs through a quick series of examples. Each example, I suggest, reassembles the various parts that are also found in the commodity-form, in order to demonstrate that the same emergent effects do not arise when these parts are assembled into a different configuration. He begins by exploring the hypothetical example of Robinson Crusoe on his island, arguing that the relations between Crusoe and the wealth he creates are ‘simple and transparent’ even though ‘those relations contain all the essential determinants of value’ (170). No fetish character arises in this example, because the ‘essential determinants of value’ are not able—due to Crusoe’s social isolation—to operate in tandem with other sorts of social phenomena. These determinants therefore do not generate any sort of indirect, emergent effect, and so their consequences can be derived from the direct observation of each determinant by itself. As a result, the relations between Crusoe and the wealth he produces are, in Marx’s terms, ‘simple and transparent’—a phrase that, in this context, does not imply a nostalgia for self-identity, but simply picks out that these relations generate no emergent effects, and therefore possess no fetish character.


Marx immediately extends this same form of analysis into properly social examples, examining a form of feudal production in medieval Europe, a patriarchal peasant family, and ‘for a change’ an association of labourers working freely together and owning the means of production in common (170-2). In each case, Marx reassembles some of the raw materials also found in the commodity-form, placing these materials into new configurations in order to show that the fetish character does not arise—the emergent effects are not generated. Significantly, not all of the scenarios are ‘good’, and even the example of labourers working in common is chosen ‘for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities’ (172). The point of these demonstrations is not to recommend some specific alternative form of production, but instead to illustrate an analytical strategy—involving both historical research and speculative extrapolation—for assessing the likely consequences of extracting specific parts of the assemblage that currently reproduces capital, and reassembling these parts into some very different whole.


In the section on the fetish character of the commodity, Marx begins to hint, very subtly, that the strange, layered, conflictual presentation of his text is meant to express the actual characteristics of our social world, which is characterised by many different layers of practical experience, each generating divergent potentials for the future development of capitalist societies. Specific potentials can be selectively inherited by disaggregating the complex whole, adapting some of the practices that currently contribute to the reproduction of capital into new forms. Capital’s presentational strategy performatively demonstrates this potential for creative appropriation and selective inheritance, by deconstructing the various practices and discourses associated with the reproduction of capital.



Socialising the Material

Right after telling us that the metaphysical and theological character of the commodity derives, not from its parts, but from the relation into which those parts are suspended, Marx moves into a dense series of paragraphs that culminate in the naming of the fetish. First, he argues:


The equality of the kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the products of labour as values; the measure of the expenditure of human labour-power by its duration, takes on the form of the magnitude of the value of the products of labour; and finally the relationships between the producers, within which the social characteristics of their labours are manifested, take on the form of a social relation between the products of labour. (164)


These sentences are very compressed and difficult to unpack. What Marx wants to analyse is a peculiar social process by which certain characteristics are conferred on human labour. Generally, he suggests, social characteristics are enacted through some sort of intersubjectively meaningful process, such as a long-standing cultural tradition, custom, or explicit legal act. If the social characteristics listed above were to be conferred on human labour through such an intersubjective means, this might take the form, for example, of an intersubjectively-meaningful custom of treating all different forms of human labour as equal, or a law that dictates that the expenditure of labour-power must be measured by the socially-average duration that would be required under normal conditions of production.


These sorts of intersubjective processes, Marx argues, are not involved in the constitution of the social characteristics of commodity-producing labour (164-5). Instead, the social characteristics of commodity-producing labour arise unintentionally and also indirectly, as implications of what Marx calls a ‘social relation between the products of labour’. Thus the equality of various kinds of human labour is constituted implicitly by a process that seems asocial, because it manifests itself only in relations between the goods this labour produces. Similarly, the measure of human labour-power by its duration is implicitly generated by a process that is more directly manifest in the relationships among material goods.


Translating these claims back into the vocabulary of emergence: the ‘social characteristics’ of labour should be understood as emergent effects—patterns of social behaviour that arise as unintentional consequences of aggregate social practices. An emergent pattern of social behaviour manifests itself as a trend that plays out, over time, in and through the flux of ordinary social practices. Marx describes the operation of one such trend with a typically vivid image a bit later in this chapter:


in the midst of the accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour-time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulative law of nature. In the same way, the law of gravity asserts itself when a person’s home collapses on top of him. The determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time is therefore a secret hidden under the apparent movements in the relative values of commodities. (168)


This emergent pattern is ‘supersensible’ because it cannot be immediately observed by examining the individual social practices that produce it, or even the aggregate state of all social practices at any given moment in time. It therefore cannot be sensed directly, but can only be deduced, by intuiting the existence of non-random trends that emerge in and through the apparently random movements of material goods. The pattern appears ‘objective’ because social actors do not deliberately create it, and nothing about their practices suggests the possibility to generate this sort of emergent result. Since the result has no immediately obvious social origin, and is originally discovered as a pattern flowing through the apparently random flux of the movements of material goods, the pattern plausibly appears to arise spontaneously due to the inherent characteristics of this material realm.


It is at this point that Marx runs through the two analogies—one to optics, and one to religion—whose relation Derrida sunders. Marx uses these analogies to pick out more clearly the peculiar character of the social phenomenon he is trying to analyse, by distinguishing it from two apparently similar phenomena: physical relations that arise from interactions between humans and natural phenomena; and intersubjectively-shared beliefs that arise from interactions between humans and their own ideational creations. The phenomenon that interests Marx, by contrast, is neither genuinely asocial, nor is it intersubjective in its origins: it is instead a phenomenon that contingently arises from human practice, and is therefore social; at the same time, it is a very peculiar sort of social phenomenon, because it is disembedded from intersubjective frameworks, and therefore confronts the social actors who create it as though it were a sui generis phenomenon. It is at this moment, having run through these analogies and distinguished the phenomenon that interests him from both, that Marx finally christens the fetish:


I call this the fetishism of commodities which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (165)


Derrida rightly senses that this christening is also an exorcism. What is being exorcised, however, is not spectrality, but the myth of Enlightenment: the belief that we can look out onto the material world with a fully disenchanted gaze. The distinctive fetish of capitalist society is the belief that we can look out onto material nature without anthropomorphic projection. It is precisely this belief in disenchantment, Marx suggests, that is the anthropomorphism of our time—one that wears the perfect asocial disguise.


A certain spirit of deconstruction can make it easier to recognise the satirical form of Marx’s critique of political economy, and the burlesque character of his analysis of the fetish character of the commodity. This deconstructive spirit, however, is partially abridged in Derrida’s reading—thus driving him to summon, by means of an exorcism, a relation to spectrality that was already haunting Marx’s text without this intervention. To preserve the spectral in Marx’s text, to allow non-identity to continue to haunt the present time, what is required is not the excision of parts of Marx’s argument. Instead, what is required is an ability to cite that argument in more of its moments, reviving a much more multifaceted and layered understanding of the operation of Marx’s text. By recognising the self-deconstructive presentational strategy through which the text gradually destabilises and relativises its opening positions, we can recapture what Derrida hoped to create: a Marxist critique of ahistorical materialisms that attempt to assert a transparent and unproblematic access to a disenchanted material world.




I would like to thank Duncan Law, who collaborated on the earlier conference presentation on Specters of Marx from which this paper grew (Pepperell & Law 2008). I would also like to thank Robert Briggs, who has been involved with this paper from its first origins in an online academic discussion, and who has encouraged me to develop the argument in full. Earlier versions of portions of the analysis presented here have been published in Derrida Today (Pepperell, ‘Handling Value’) and in The Devil’s Party (Pepperell, ‘When Is It Safe?’).


1. Derrida distinguishes his concept of the messianic from Benjamin’s (Specters, 180-1, n2), but the argument about selective inheritance holds an affinity with Benjamin’s notions of the ways in which the present forms non-deterministic ‘constellations’ with particular pasts in which the present recognises its own concerns (Benjamin, Illuminations, 247). #back


2. Although I am using ‘fetishism’ here for consistency with Derrida’s interpretation of the passage in terms of ideology critique, Marx’s term is actually ‘fetish character’. The original term makes it clearer that Marx is trying to pick out not a subjective process or something ideologically projected onto the commodity, but rather a distinctive character that the commodity actually possesses. For a good discussion of the important difference between ‘fetishism’ and ‘fetish character’ as ways of rendering the rhetorical sense of Marx’s passage, see Sutherland, ‘Jargon’. #back


3. Derrida seems to miss the sarcastic tone of these claims that commodities cannot speak, walk, exercise will, etc., and therefore takes the passages as unintentionally paradoxical or contradictory. The opening chapters of Capital, however, are oriented to deriving the category of labour-power: a commodity that is intrinsically attached to its subject. The perspectives being voiced in the early chapters of Capital are intended as ironic enactments of political economic perspectives whose definitions act as though labour-power does not exist: these positions are the targets of Marx’s critique, not positions that he advocates. Hammacher (1999) follows Derrida in making this mistake. See Wheen (1999) and LaCapra (1983) for interpretations of Capital’s literary structure that recognise the ironic character of such passages. #back


4. See Keenan’s comments on the way the text seems to ‘backtrack’, covering the same ground several times in the course of the chapter, leading to an ironic framing of the earlier sections in the commodity fetishism passage (Fables, 113, 117-18, 121, 128 and 133). #back




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Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.


Derrida, Jacques. ‘Marx & Sons’, in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, ed. Michael Sprinker. London & New York: Verso, 2008, pp. 213-69.


Hammacher, Werner. ‘Lingua Amissa: The Messianism of Commodity-Language and Derrida’s Specters of Marx’, in Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, ed. Michael Sprinker. London & New York: Verso, 2008, pp. 168-212.


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Pepperell, Nicole. ‘Handling Value: Notes on Derrida’s Inheritance of Marx'. Derrida Today, 2, 2 (2009): 222-33.


Pepperell, Nicole. ‘When Is It Safe to Go on Reading Capital?’ in The Devil’s Party: Marx, Theory and Philosophy, ed. Tom Bunyard. London: Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths University of London, 2009, pp. 11-21.


Pepperell, Nicole and Duncan Law. ‘Handling Value: Grasping the Fetish in Marx’s Capital’. Derrida Today International Conference. Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, 2008.


Seery, John Evan. Political Returns: Irony in Politics and Theory, from Plato to the Antinuclear Movement. Boulder: Westview Press, 1990.


Sutherland, Keston. ‘Marx in Jargon'. World Picture, 1 (2008).


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Wilson, Edmund. To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History. London: Macmillan, 1972.


Wolff, Robert Paul. Moneybags Must be so Lucky: On the Literary Structure of Capital. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.




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