In Specters of Marx, Derrida closes in on what he will call hauntology (page 202). If we are haunted (possessed) by some commodity conception of the object (e.g. a wooden table as a séance table) it is not within the present moment that such is to find it’s logic, but in that which precedes it. The séance table (as commodity or exchange value) is preceded by a wooden table (or use value). But in the wooden table is also, not just its use value, but it’s capacity to function as a séance table (as a commodity or exchange value). It contains within itself, this future potential.
In such a conception of commodity logic we can see something of Derrida’s other hand: messianism. In the spirit of Marx, Derrida will resituate the future-to-be as that which is to remain as such (as never to arrive). A tomorrow-never-comes methodology. A wooden table (use value), while capable of becoming a séance table (exchange value), is denied this transformation. In such a re-conception of the future (despite obvious misinterpretations), it is not hope that is being denied. Hope is always in advance of that which is hoped. Hope precedes it’s object, and more importantly does not depend on whether the hoped is dashed or fulfilled. The real future (the one always in the future) is maintained by hope. Not by the hoped.
Where the destiny of a wooden table otherwise succeeds (as a séance table) it is not in the future, nor in the present, but in the past. The séance table, in the past, was already a séance table (i.e. capable of such). Otherwise it would have remained a wooden table. If this is at odds with Marx (as a critical angle on Derrida might fantasise), it is not at odds with the spirit of Marx (as the possessed Derrida will channel). The spirit of Marx (haunting Derrida) understands that commodity logic is not to be vanquished in the present. That it is more complicated than that.
Commodity logic occupies an interval, which is why any momentary, or subjective reorientation of commodity logic has no effect. It is akin to changing a single note in an otherwise lengthy music composition. The altered note becomes subsumed as noise.
The only way to defeat commodity logic is from outside of the present – in terms of the past (history) by one method, and in terms of the future by another.
The past is to be understood in terms of ghosts – not the past as one might imagine it had been, in itself, (the past as something frozen in time, or worse: as lost) but in terms of that aspect of the past that remains entirely capable of projecting and enacting itself at any time and indeed all the time. The way in which the past haunts the present.
On the other side of hauntology is messianism, which haunts us in the reverse direction. What is a threat (for example, of annihilation by nuclear war, or global warming) if not the way in which the future haunts us. The threat operates by the same logic as hope.
Now it’s not the ghosts (be they of the past or of the future) that need to be vanquished, for they are already dead or unborn. Or to put it another way, they are invincible. But the ghosts are not the enemy in the first place. They operate on a different tangent to the notion of inevitability (fatalism or destiny) or original cause.
If they take the form of a commodity it is not because the ghosts themselves are commodities. We achieve nothing by treating the commodity as a ghost. Or attempting to do so. Exorcism doesn’t work. On the contrary Derrida selects communication with ghosts. While the séance table is a commodity, the ghosts we can invoke with such, are not. To enact a séance.
To speak with the past and the future.
Firstly as a correct understanding of the past and the future (that such is accessible) and secondly as the means by which the past and the future has something else to say – i.e. something other than their mere form – be that form a commodity or some other form.
Deconstruction is that which is able to rework the hidden layers in any text or object. To catalyse such hidden layers. These hidden layers are not be found in the material structure of the text or object (the immediately visible). But nor are these hidden layers invisible. For they are hidden in plain sight.
They constitute a phantasmagorical structure – the very thing which commodity logic exploits: in the image (the ghostly or apparitional aspect) rather than the classical physics of such.
“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” – Walter Benjamin
Benjamin’s angel shares some characteristics with the angels in Wim Wender’s “Wings of Desire”, where the angels (normally) do not play any direct part in our world. They are affected by us (weep on our behalf) but have no affect on us (we do not weep on their behalf). They are invisible to us in the same way that a cinema audience are invisible to the characters within a film. Or the way detectives, on the other side a mirror, are invisible to the suspect being questioned.
But this dividing line between our earthly world and the eternal world of the angels (or the auditorium a film audience inhabits, or the room behind the mirror that detectives inhabit) has a certain ambiguity. During moments of trauma in our world a weak, or even strong connection is made, between our world (that world inhabited by characters in a film, or suspects in an interview room) and the angels, detectives, or the audience on the other side of that dividing line.
But unlike Benjamin’s angel, Wender’s angels have the ability to break the rules – to give up eternity and fall to Earth. To become human. To experience our world first hand rather than from the safety of the transcendental (the cinema, the room behind the mirror).
Benjamin’s angel (but not Klee’s angel) is unable to choose a life in our world. Where our trauma might have created a bond (created our ability to enter the world of the angels as much as their ability to enter ours), there is instead a powerful storm preventing any such possible bridge. The angels are unable to reach us. Unable to fall to Earth. And piling up between us and the angels is the debris of which Benjamin speaks. An impassable barrier.
But this debris does not belong to our world. We can not see it. It is piling up within the world of the angels. Not ours. Within eternity. Within the archive.
It is the angels that are undergoing trauma, in their world.
Benjamin’s debris is the archive. The archive is a graveyard. Tombstones and corpses. That structure which aims to bury the past in labelled boxes. But that which can not be contained by the boundaries of this structure are the ghosts. They overflow such. Escape such. Because the past can not be buried.
But make no mistake here. Ghosts do not belong to the world of the angels. They are born in our world. They belong to our world.
We are ourselves ghosts.
Derrida maintains the concept of hope, ie. in terms of a future to come, but with precognitions that must be at odds with such a future. It is hope for something but without the thing hoped, a signifier without the signified.
It is to take up traditional messianism, but to remove from it the messiah. To maintain the structure of messianism without requiring (or indeed requiring that we deny it) that which is structured by such. It becomes necessary to deconstruct that which is structured by it. To structure without creating the structured.
Benjamin’s messianism does not address this Derridean future, (indeed it remains even more Derridean in that it doesn’t). Rather Benjamin’s messianism is in terms of the relationship between the past and the present, (rather than the future and the present). It is a different form of messianism: that future as the present from the point of view of the past. Is the present the future for which the past was fighting?
Benjamin believes not, because progress (or modernism) feels no debt to the past. Now on the face of it this might not seem at all in sync with Derrida’s take on time. But in fact it is. But it’s not through Derridean messiansim that Derrida inherits Benjamin’s messianism – it is through Derrida’s other hand: hauntology.
The past constitutes a pantheon of ghosts which haunt the present, and this is entirely in keeping with Benjamin’s take. Derrida asks that we to listen to the ghosts – to let them speak. Which is perfectly consistent with Benjamin’s take on the past. That we listen to the past rather than chuck it out.
To Benjamin’s respect for the past Derrida adds respect for the future. That it not be chucked out.
In Luhsun Tan’s work “Cinema Novus“ we can appreciate what is there before us – an apparition which can be described as a shop of some sort, on a street corner, with various signs. On the left is a bicycle. We can see the streets are wet. There is a figure standing in a doorway off to the right
This image (what we see) does not belong to the archive. It is one that escapes the archive (the graveyard). Left behind in the archive are simply it’s bones (it’s photochemical materials). Before us is it’s ghost: the image.
The image possesses us, without which we would not know how to describe it beyond it’s material structure. We would not see the bicycle on the left, nor the figure in the doorway. We would not see the shop signs, nor the wet road.
It is the ghost which guides us, in a reconstruction of the past – not the past in itself (which is a myth) but how the past projects itself, across time, to arrive here in front of us. As a ghost.
It is the ghost which also guides how the material surface might be reconfigured.
Instead of a flat surface, the image will now occupy a depth, or tactile aspect. More importantly this surface will not be an arbitrary one – it will be a specific one, which the ghost (the image) directs. The ghost interferes with the coding system – if only a little, so we might reach into the image as much as it reaches into us.
– Carl Looper, 2015