Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Derrida avec Lenin

This from Jason Smith's excellent chapter 'Jacques Derrida, 'Crypto-Communist'?' (in this profoundly expensive book).

In 1968 I had the impression that the action of the students (which was not that of the workers) to provoke a revolution was unrealistic, and that it could have dangerous consequences. . . . What really bothered me was . . . the spontaneist eloquence, the call for transparency, for communication without relay or delay. . . . The mistrust with regard to all those things that I witnessed in 1968 corresponded not only to a philosophical-political position, but also what was already, for me, a kind of crypto-communist inheritance, namely the condemnation of ‘spontaneism’ in Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? In rereading Lenin’s texts recently, in an altogether
different context, I rediscovered this critique of spontaneism.
Derrida, A Taste for the Secret

At issue is ‘spontaneity’ or rather, ‘spontaneist eloquence’ and the denunciation of institutions (like the Party or unions). It is the rhetoric of spontaneity that Derrida dislikes most. Rhetoric: the elevation of spontaneity to the status of a value, an operation that conceals the divisions, stratifications, ‘delays’ and mediations at the heart of an immediate relation to self. For spontaneity is another name for the immediate presence to self of a subjectivity in actu, coinciding with itself in the vitality of its upsurge or its insurrection. It is another name for what Husserl called the ‘living Present’ of temporalisation, the ‘absolute beginning’ that – this is from Husserl’s The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness – ‘does not come into existence as that which is generated but through genesis spontanea’. To this spontaneity Derrida opposes the notion of the institution. From his earliest work on Husserl, beginning in the early 1950s, institution’ (or, in the language of Husserl and Heidegger, Stiftung) has signified nothing less than memory, relation, trace in general, the very possibility of history itself. It will be necessary to denounce, critique, deconstruct even this or that given institution in the name, always, of an institution ‘to come’ – not in the name of an absence of mediation or representation, or in the name of ‘direct’ democracy.
Smith, p.628


Savonarola said...

I'm not sure what the genealogies and short-circuits are here, but the fifties was also the period of Merleau-Ponty's use of the concept of institution as a lever against Sartre's decisionist "ultra-Bolshevism" in Adventures of the Dialectic (1955), where the supporting cast includes Lukács, Weber and Husserl himself. in 1953, Deleuze had published, in a series run by Canguilhem, a little anthology called Instincts et Institutions, and also tackles that notion in his Hume of the same year (I remember this being stressed in Hardt's Deleuze book). Whether this was just l'air du temps or what, I don't know, but it's intriguing how the notion of institution can serve as a byword for militant organisation and discipline but also as a cipher for social order or mediation - as well as the more literal question of how one can make emancipatory use of already-existing institutions (the university) or generate new ones in the interstices of the power-structure.

Benjamin said...

I hadn't recalled the Sartre / M-P debate - although it's odd as Satrean ultra-bolshevism runs to support for the PCF...
There is obviously a genealogy of the institution to be written - which you could also run via Guattari / La Borde and institutional analysis (relying on memory).
I think Smith's Leninist point on 'institution' was useful to me because in relation to Derrida I almost always think of GREPH and the College ... not 'deconstructive Leninism'. It's also interesting how the Derridean stress on delay / mediation is usually (including by me) taken as anti-Leninist, ie preventing political partisanship. Thinking on Smith's article I thought you could rewrite Spectres as Derrida's adieu to Marxism / Leninism rather than his return to it...

Savonarola said...

There's some intriguing material on Guattari and institutions in general in Bourg's book on '68, which I did otherwise find rather irritating in its condescending anti-communism.

Yes, I suppose there was nothing quite so mediated as the PCF! My problem as far as JD is concerned is not so much the anti-Leninism - after all Vlad doesn't have the monopoly on partisanship - but the apolitical generality and vagueness of claims about delay, iterability, etc. I think this tendency is certainly exacerbated with Specters, one of whose more peculiar aspects is the combination of the hyper-transcendental with the totally common-sense liberal-left sentiment (dark side of globalisation, etc.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Benjamin--
A few quick, some disordered notes on all of this. It is important to stress that the interview I cite is from 1994, just after Specters. What interests me is less the flatfooted and rote critique of spontaneity--or the "rhetoric" of spontaneity--but the invocation, in 1994, of the Lenin of What is to be done? as a kind of authorization of his own reticence with regard to the student revolt. I think I mention at some point that Althusser himself, in the "Glossary" to the Brewster translation of For Marx, distinguishes Lenin's high regard for "real spontaneity" from his condemnation of the "ideology of spontaneity."

This is further complicated if you take seriously my hypothesis, which is that Specters is less a return to Marx than a very tricky placement of the final nail in the Marxist coffin. JD is always writing with two hands, and here it is no different.
As far as the question of the "institution" is concerned, again, there are several folds. [It's possible to hear the word Stiftung every time the word institution is used in JD]. There's a well-known passage from Grammatology that describes the sign as an "instituted trace," and one gesture of Specters is to distinguish the Marxist trace--its force of rupture--from its sign, that is, the institution of Marxist-Leninism in the broadest sense.
I can agree Savonarola gripe, that the hypertranscendental motif in JD can snugly cohabitate with the most depressing social democratic politics. But it is not simply a question of "delay" or mediation or temporalization. There is also the messianic thread to consider here, with its temporality of urgency, rather than delay. Fine. Nevertheless, it is possible to argue that the messianic dimension here--a kind of ultra-"leftist" deviation?--is what opens the space for, and authorizes, the social democratic side, the work on reforming and perfecting institutions (of international law, for example). Either messianic interruption of history or the patient perfecting of the juridical apparatus, rather than an analysis of the overdetermined relations of force in a localized conjuncture, etc. The messianic is a "weak" force, after all, that is, what suspends all relations of force, violence. JD always says there is an economy of the messianic, that it never appears as such, or only appears as an appeal to justice and so on, but I wonder how this shakes out.

To return, quickly, to the Lenin question, I think one has to consider Derrida's relationship in the late 60s/early 70s with both Althusser and with Tel Quel, who until mid-71 remained allied with the PCF. The break with Tel Quel coincides with their break with the PCF. Subsequently, an issue of PCF-linked Les Lettres Francaises was devoted to him in 73. During the same period, there were a number of seminar sessions devoted to Marxist texts (Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Althusser), and in particular a session each on "On the Materialist Dialectic" and the ISAs essay. These institutional links can be considered anecdotal. What is really intriguing to me is the definition of deconstruction, from around 1968-72, as a strategy of "intervention," a term that echoes, if not borrows, Althusser's second, Leninist definition of philosophy as intervention, prise de position/parti, and the establishment of fronts on the philosophical Kampfplatz, and the inscription of line of demarcations.

Someday, someone will sort this out.

Benjamin said...

Jason, thanks for the clarification. I was a farily paid up Derridean for a long time; my thesis supervisor was Geoffrey Bennington. I still can't say I can really 'refute' Derrida, or offer particularly cogent and convincing criticisms, political or otherwise. This was one of the reasons I just drifted away from the problematic, although I hope retaining some of the virtues of Derrida qua reader.

I agree with you on Spectres (as adieu to Marxism), which was greeted by me (and for different reasons GB) less than enthusiatically. I was always fascinated by the Positions interview and the texts from that period. I also think some of the early texts, especially the text on Artaud collected in Writing and Difference, have fascinating 'tangential' things to say on Marxism. I didn't know about the Irvine texts you mention; it'll be interesting to see them when they come out.

I never felt happy with the messianic, although, like you, I think the qualifier 'weak' is important. In fact I think the weak is what threads the reformist/revolutionary traces together, but as you say that is left frustratingly unclear.

I think a further thinking through the conjunction of Althusser/Derrida around intervention would be fascinating. This is especially true as that phase of Althusser's work often tends to get written off as his own quasi-voluntarist quasi-Maoist adieu to the supposed 'functionalism' and scientism of his earlier formulations. This is of course implied by his own auto-critique...

Anonymous said...

Hi Benjamin,
Not sure if I was paid up but I was at Irvine when Derrida was there. I've drifted too, though am still annoyed when his work is read poorly--often deliberately--by detractors and by disciples. I think his work is actually very strange and still a little illegible, and it will take some time for the received readings to rub off. Not sure if I'll be around for that.

As I understand it, Editions Galilee, then Chicago, will publish the seminars in reverse order, so the sessions from the 1970s won't appear for some time. They are unique in the sense that most of that material was not worked up into publications, unlike most of the seminars from the late 60s on. I believe GB--the best of his commentators, by far--is in some way responsible for this process, but not sure how.

It should be noted, moreover, that the sessions on Althusser's ISAs take place under the sign of the GREPH project.

I would have been curious to know what GB's objections to SM were, it doesn't seem he ever published them [I could be wrong].

Finally, concerning intervention, n the second volume of Althusser's Ecrits philosophiques et politiques there is a text called "Notes sur la philosophie" that represent LA's contribution to a working group--among which, Balibar and Badiou--focused on elaborating a theory of philosophical intervention. The project last from October 66 to February 68, and I am sure that Derrida was very aware of this effort. His use of the term "intervention" dates from 1969 or so, I think? I don't know exactly how this shakes out. A real historian would need to do lots of archival work on it, I suppose.

In any case, thanks for referring to that article, it's a real shame the book is so expensive, there are many brilliant articles--including one on Badiou and Marxism--stashed there.

Benjamin said...

Dear Jason,
On GB - who like you I regard as the best commentator on JD, and I think is also one of his executors of his estate, hence probably the connection to the project - I think he felt some of the section on use/exchange value was repetative of Baudrillard. Other than that it was little more than my feeling that he found the book unsatisfactory. Certainly I don't believe he referred to it much.

It's strange after having completed a chapter of my next book highly critical of Derrida that second thoughts have started again. I really like your point about illegibility; it seems first came the phase of more or less complete perplexity/misunderstanding, then the phase of clarification, led also by people like GB; now I think this 'normalisation' may have reached its limit. We may have a new phase of re-complexification/illegibility.

I still think myself that there is so much in the early texts remaining.

Thanks for the reference on Althusser, unfortunately I'm no historian (to say the least) but the shared project is convincing. It's funny how (from memory) JD doesn't say that much about direct links in his long interview on Althusser published in the Althusserian Legacy.

The book price is terrible, sorry to mention it. I know these are supposed to be reference works, which are always steep, but even so that's a little excessive.

Benjamin said...

I think GB also thought hatcheting Fukuyama was 1. a waste of time, and 2. gave him too much credit, even as 'symptom'