A reading of Barbara Johnson’s translator’s introduction to Jacques Derrida’s Dissemination
When Derrida writes of différance, he is attempting to uncover the lack or lag inherent to understanding and the (de)construction of meaning. Embedded within a logocentric Western discourse, wherein “unity, identity, immediacy, and temporal and spatial presentness” are privileged “over distance, difference, dissimulation, and deferment,” he argues that, contrary to how they are otherwise presented to us, each binary is in fact trapped in an unequal relation. As Barbara Johnson writes:
good vs. evil, being vs. nothingness, presence vs. absence, truth vs. error, identity vs. difference, mind vs. matter, man vs. woman, soul vs. body, life vs. death, nature vs. culture, speech vs. writing [are not] independent and equal entities. The second term in each pair is considered the negative, corrupt, undesirable version of the first, a fall away from it.
Against this more nuanced position, Derrida’s “deconstructionist” project is often poorly but popularly interpreted as a poststructuralist suspension of all meaning, of Truth as such. What is always missed from this reduction, however, is the broader function of his attempts to put these opposites on an actually equal footing, or even suspending the (quintessentially capitalist) logic of equivalence as such. We might argue, then, that Derrida seeks to recover the meaningful lacunae glossed over by common sense.
Derrida focuses in particular on the uneven dichotomy of speech and writing, with speech historically being preferred by many for its present immediacy, contrary to writing’s distance from both the subject who is speaking and the subject who is being spoken to. But Derrida argues that the two are hardly dissimilar, since language, irrespective of its mode of presentation, is always split and “divided into a phonic signifier and a mental signified“.
Meaning is thus always “already constituted by the very distances and differences it seeks to overcome.” Johnson adds: “To mean, in other words, is automatically not to be.” Meaning is a tenuous bridge to be constructed (or deconstructed when it is arrived at all too readily, all too thoughtlessly, by logocentric presuppositions). “As soon as there is meaning, there is difference”, she concludes, and it is through a more thorough appreciation of this difference (as différance) that meaning can be deconstructed or reconstructed anew.
Derrida’s différance thus becomes a term for the lag produced in the movement from signifier and signified; the process by which the two are connected, often instantaneously, but which we should take more care with, slowing down or even halting the leap from one to the other, finding the alternative pathways between the two, illuminating all the paths less travelled, lingering in that space where meaning is still to be determined, where poesy is sparked.
It is from here that Johnson summarises Derrida’s earlier works most succinctly:
Derrida’s project in his early writings is to elaborate a science of writing called grammatology: a science that would study the effects of this différance which Western metaphysics has systematically repressed in its search for self-present Truth. But, as Derrida himself admits, the very notion of a perfectly adequate science or -ology belongs to the logocentric discourse which the science of writing would try, precisely, to put in question. Derrida thus finds himself in the uncomfortable position of attempting to account for an error by means of tools derived from that very error. For it is not possible to show that belief in truth is an error without implicitly believing in the notion of Truth. By the same token, to show that the binary oppositions of metaphysics are illusions is also, and perhaps most importantly, to show that such illusions cannot simply be opposed without repeating the very same illusion. The task of undoing the history of logocentrism to disinter différance would thus appear to be a doubly impossible one: on the one hand, it can only be conducted by means of notions of revelation, representation, and rectification, which are the logocentric notions par excellence, and, on the other hand, it can only dig up something that is really nothing — a difference, a gap, an internal, a trace. How, then, can such a task be undertaken?
When Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher popularised Derrida’s term “hauntology”, this fundamental tension often felt missed by others in the aftermath. The Mark Fisher memes shared by hauntological teens were generally reduced to sarcastic representations of an underexplored and under-conceptualised “eeriness”.
But we must remember that hauntology is a play on “ontology”, as a science of being, a meta-physics, that places haunting absences back inside the presentness of being itself. It is a provocative entanglement of life and death, presence and absence, interrupting the uneven binaries of a logocentric thinking. Online, however, hauntology — which we might now understand as a post-historical materialism — is not so much put in question as it is left by the wayside. Hauntology is reduced from a provocative intervention between presence and absence to quasi-absence/presence alone as an under-investigated affect, as the vaguest of vibes, as a dissemblance acknowledged but left unprobed.
Having evacuated any pretense of an -ology, I’ve previously argued that a popularised hauntological sensibility has since been reduced to a kind of “hauntography”. I remember enjoying the wordplay at the time, but now I feel differently, as “hauntography” is hardly an apposite name for hauntology’s online reduction. In fact, perhaps this word can be understood less disparagingly. Perhaps, as in Derrida’s own writings, it is wrong to think of one as the fallen version of the other and instead understand how the two exist in a more fundamental relation.
Indeed, if hauntology is the study of the political absences present the end of history, perhaps hauntography can be understood as the writing of new presences in those same apparent absences.
Mark Fisher’s work engages with both of these processes too, we could argue. Alongside his interest in the weird and the eerie, and the present-absences / absent-presences that haunt us in the here and now, he had intended, in the unfinished Acid Communism, to also rewrite the history of that which haunts us, showing how such absences have been declared all too readily.
It is this very writing process that we might term “hauntography”. Indeed, Fisher had a talent for both reading absences and writing presences. His work is constituted by the recording of ghosts in this regard, as a kind of science akin to that of the science-fiction writer Nigel Kneale, who offered up “a scientific remotivation of the supernatural.” This was not, as Fisher argued on the k-punk blog, “a reduction of the supernatural to the scientific”, but an acknowledgement of the ways that “science since the enlightenment has maintained there is no supplementary spiritual substance,” instead understanding how “the material world in which we live is more profoundly alien and strange than we have ever imagined.” A Gothic Marxism; a materialist hauntology par excellence.
But this making-present of absence (and the making-absent of presupposed presences) might also be seen as a recapitulation to logocentrism, of course. That is often how a more Fisherian hauntology is often elucidated — that is, logocentrically, wherein the weird and the eerie are recognised but ultimately left alone, provoking simply a “lol” or a “huh” rather than leading to any deeper politicisation. But Fisher’s project is far more Derridean than the seemingly casual appropriation of the term “hauntology” often leads many to assume (since many have previously disparaged how, beyond this terminological borrowing, Fisher and Reynolds’ “hauntology” was far more under-developed than Derrida’s own).
But by retaining a sense of Derrida’s grammatology and the writing of différance / the différance of writing, in our readings of Fisher’s work especially, we can (and must) arrest, further problematise and eventually resituate — as Deleuze often sought to do — the becoming within being, such that meaning (of any kind) is not arrived at too rashly, according to the presuppositions of common sense. This is particularly useful as a challenge to the false truths, the fictions, of capitalist realism.
This appears to be part of the critique later developed by Derrida in Spectres of Marx, from which the concept of “hauntology” was taken. In that book, capitalism and communism likewise function as another logocentric binary that we struggle to think evenly. Depending on where you stand, one is understood as the fallen version of the other. Of course, when Derrida first wrote that text, following the “end of history”, it seemed clear — and may remain “clear” to some — that capitalism was seen as the Truth to communism’s error. But again, nothing is so simple.
If we call ourselves communists today, we may find ourselves in a familiarly impossible position — albeit in a more Blanchotian or Bataillean sense, perhaps — in that we must necessarily contend with “the uncomfortable position of attempting to account for an error by means of tools derived from that very error.”
In his initial critiques of hauntology, Alex Williams shone a light on this position explicitly. He framed hauntology as a negative and mournful project that is fixated (even if only subconsciously) on communism’s errors absolutely — that is, on its ultimate failure — such that hauntology is impotently haunted by communism’s party-political failure and cannot move on from it. Accelerationism thus becomes a counterpoint to hauntology, but one which is hardly immune to this same problematic position, which it arguably mirrors.
In this sense, accelerationism is a more “capitalistic” political position — vulgarly so in the work of Nick Land, of course — that hopes to more “positively” exacerbate the errors of capitalism to move beyond it, not necessarily towards communism any longer, but into an indecisively postcapitalist space (for better or for worse, since the aims of accelerationism are still so hotly contested).
Understood in this way, we might frame hauntology and accelerationism as being a more positive binary that orbits a shared space of contemporary indeterminacy. One reads past and present lacks, whilst the other writes a future new, all whilst sharing the flawed perspective of an inertial present. (Perhaps it makes further sense, in this regard, that many, and Fisher especially, continued to advance both positions. As I’ve repeatedly argued, it is this understanding that makes The Weird and the Eerie and the unfinished Acid Communism mirror images of a now familiar quasi-Derridean project.)
In her translator’s introduction to Derrida’s 1972 work, Dissemination, Johnson argues that “Any attempt to disentangle the weave of différance from the logocentric blanket can obviously not remain on the level of abstraction and generality”, and so she moves to a more particular and productive part of Derrida’s philosophy — the entangled relationship of reading and writing.
“Derrida is, first and foremost, a reader“, she says; “a reader who consistently reflects on and transforms the very nature of the act of reading” — through writing? She draws on Derrida’s discussion of Rousseau, with Rousseau privileging speech over writing as a matter of principle, like so many others, but only because Rosseau wishes he could speak as well as he writes. (A familiar neurosis to many a writer, no doubt.) Rousseau writes:
I would love society like others, if I were not sure of showing myself not only at a disadvantage, but as completely different from what I am. The part that I have taken of writing and hiding myself is precisely the one that suits me. If I were present, one would never know what I was worth.
“It is thus absence that assures the presentation of truth,” Johnson adds, “and presence that entails its distortion.” For Derrida himself, Rosseau thus “rehabilitates [writing] to the extent that it promises the reappropriation of that of which speech allowed itself to be dispossessed.” Johnson concludes: “Speech itself springs out of an alienation or difference that has the very structure of writing.”
Might we think the strange dichotomy of capitalism and communism in the same way? Does accelerationism, in particular, in its fraught relationship with both, not also rehabilitate communism to the extent that it promises the reappropriation of that of which capitalism allowed itself to be dispossessed? Does communism itself spring out from an alienation or difference that has the very structure of capitalism?
This seems to be close to Derrida’s argument in Spectres of Marx, such that, if we are to once again bastardize Johnson, “it is precisely through this assumption of the necessity of [an absent communism] that [we] ultimately [succeed] in reappropriating [its] lost presence.” But this is what may lead us to mourning, and the reaffirmation of “a classical structure [of] Western metaphysics” and its uneven binaries.
It is here that différance must reassert itself. Derrida writes: “Without the possibility of differance, the desire of presence as such would not find its breathing-space. That means by the same token that this desire carries in itself the destiny of its nonsatisfaction.” (Laying this over the tension between capitalism and communism, we might hear the proto-accelerationist critiques of Marxism proffered by Lyotard in his Libidinal Economy.) “Differance produces what it forbids, making possible the very thing that is makes impossible.”
Derrida’s text becomes all the more Lyotardian, in this regard — or vice versa, since Derrida’s text came first, published two years before Libidinal Economy — when he couples writing with masturbation. “Masturbation is both a symbolic form of ideal union, since in it the subject and object are truly one, and a radical alienation of the self from any contact with an other.”
Lyotard writes of masturbation as well, when discussing Marx’s inability to complete his own critique; his failure to reach a revolutionary-communist climax. As Fisher himself says in his final Postcapitalist Desire lecture on Lyotard, this is what constitutes the masturbatory edging of Marx’s ultimately unfinished critique of political economy:
The Little Girl Marx is kind of naive. The Little Girl Marx just doesn’t like capitalism and wants it to be over with. Whereas the Old Man Marx is making the case against capitalism, and together they should have this child which should be the revolutionary subject of the proletariat. But this child never comes, because the Old Man Marx is never done with the prosecution of the case against capital.
This thing about deferring. Don’t come yet. Never come. The case is never finalised.
Throughout this final lecture, Fisher and his students wrestle with the strangeness of Lyotard’s critique and interpretation of Marx, which nonetheless disavows both critique and interpretation in the process. But the function of this indeterminacy feels clearer in Johnson’s reading of Derrida: “The union that would perfectly fulfill desire would also perfectly exclude the space of its very possibility.” This is the very structure of desire itself, Johnson adds. Desire is fuelled less by lack than by difference. And this is also what is particularly pernicious about any form of postcapitalist desire.
Rousseau’s most uncomfortable masturbatory confession is directed towards his mother, but the example is nonetheless telling. “I only felt the full strength of my attachment to her when she was out of my sight”, he writes, before adding: “If I had ever in my life tasted the delights” of this incestuous love, “I do not imagine that my frail existence would have been sufficient … I would have been dead in the act.”
Rousseau’s desire, then, is predicated on a lack, we might argue, or perhaps an unconscious awareness of the difference between fantasy and its fulfillment. We might even say it is predicated, and made all the more desirable, on the acknowledged danger of its fulfillment. Presence itself becomes “an ambiguous, even dangerous, ideal.” But all the better to affirm the differance uncovered between presence and absence.
Returning to our consideration of the capitalist-communist binary at the end of history, now since revitalised (tentatively) in an ever-growing space of political indeterminacy, it may be best to think of communism, as many already have done, not as an absence to be made present, nor as a desire to be totally fulfilled, but rather as a shifting horizon.
As Jodi Dean writes in her book The Communist Horizon:
I use “horizon” not to recall a forgotten future but to designate a dimension of experience that we can never lose, even if, lost in a fog or focused on our feet, we fail to see it. The horizon is Real in the sense of impossible — we can never reach it — and in the sense of actual (Jacques Lacan’s notion of the Real includes both these senses). The horizon shapes our setting. We can lose our bearings, but the horizon is a necessary dimension of our actuality. Whether the effect of a singularity or the meeting of earth and sky, the horizon is the fundamental division establishing where we are.
It is this same horizon, in all of its orienting significance, that Derrida also seems preoccupied with in his discussion of writing and masturbation. Rather than disparage both — whether as an onanistic exercise detached from a preferential praxis (in the case of writing) or as a wasteful expenditure (in the case of masturbation) — they are instead seen as “supplements” to the activities they are supposedly (and incorrectly) subordinated to — speech and sexual intercourse.
In order to more forcefully uncouple these unequal binaries in thought, Johnson writes that it “is necessary to recapture a presence whose lack has not been preceded by any fullness.” Supplementing is thus a process of adding to a lack, not in order to make it whole, so much as the lack is itself generative of difference. “Thus, writing and masturbation may add to something that is already present, in which case they are superfluous, AND/OR they may replace something that is not present, in which case they are necessary.”
For Johnson, this is
nothing less than a revolution in the very logic of meaning. The logic of the supplement wrenches apart the neatness of the metaphysical binary oppositions. Instead of “A is opposed to B” we have “B is both added to A and replaces A.” A and B and no longer opposed, nor are they equivalent. Indeed, they are no longer even equivalent to themselves. They are their own difference from themselves.
A supplement, then — already an ambiguous term for Derrida, which can mean both “addition” and “substitute” in the French (supplément) — itself creates a productive ambiguity. The same might be said for communism, understood as a postcapitalist desire, which supplements capitalism by moving beyond its errors, therefore adding to and eventually substituting capitalism, without falling into the rigid presence of a reductively actualised ideal (as was arguably the downfall of state-communism in the twentieth century).
This is not to reduce communism absolutely to a political ambiguity but rather to re-enact the Marxist project as one that follows capitalism. Capitalism is a text. (*There is nothing outside of the text.“) But it is a text to be deconstructed — both destroyed, in a sense, but also analysed.
“The deconstruction of a text does not proceed by random doubt or generalized skepticism,” Johnson writes, “but by the careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text itself” — the task of hauntology and accelerationism both. “If something is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not meaning but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another.” To deconstruct capitalism is thus to deconstruct, first and foremost, capitalist realism.
To read capitalism like a text, particularly through the study of its cultural forms, as Fisher was particularly adept at, is thus, in Derrida’s words, to “aim at a relationship, unperceived by the writer” — indeed, by the capitalist — “between what he commands and what he does not command of the patterns of the language he uses.” This makes deconstruction, Johnson adds, a kind of critique. But the key manoeuvre here is not to proceed by way of “an examination of [capitalism’s] flaws and imperfections”, pursued in order “to make the system better.” It is rather “an analysis that focuses on the grounds of that system’s possibility” — the possibility, perhaps, of its becoming something else.
The critique reads backwards from what seems natural, obvious, self-evident, or universal, in order to show that these things have their history, their reasons for being the way they are, their effects on what follows from them, and that the starting point is not a (natural) given but a (cultural) construct, usually blind to itself… It is a deconstruction of the validity of the commonsense perception of the obvious.
Here Johnson turns to Marx explicitly:
In the same way, Marx’s critique of political economy is not an improvement in it but a demonstration that the theory which starts with the commodity as the basic unit of economy is blind to what produces the commodity — namely, labor.
It is in this way that “every critique exposes what that starting point conceals”. It is in this way that hauntology, as the making-present of absences already somehow present, leads necessarily to a supplementary accelerationism. The rewriting of present histories leads necessarily to the writing of new absent futures.
Accelerationism proceeds hauntographically.