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  • Guides to the Electropolis: Toward a Spectral Critique of the Media
  • Allen Meek

One of the most compelling sites in which the methodologies of psychoanalysis and marxian cultural theory intersect in contemporary critical writing is in the figure of the ghost. The political significance recently ascribed to this figure suggests a paradigmatic shift in cultural studies taking place where the poststructuralist death of the subject encounters both the collapse of Soviet communism and the “revolution” in global telecommunications. The historical situation in which Western critical theory finds itself at this moment has called for a renewed engagement with psychoanalysis, attentive to questions of mourning and collective memory. As particular examples of this project I will cite Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (1994), Margaret Cohen’s use of the term “Gothic Marxism,” and Ned Lukacher’s notion of a “phantom politics,” all of which work in the intertexts of psychoanalysis and politics, history and literature, but none of which are focused explicitly on what Derrida has called the “spectral effects” (Derrida, 54) produced by electronic media.

While Derrida’s reading of Marx “conjures” (Derrida characteristically enumerates the various meanings of this word) the specters of Marx, taking care to reveal Marx’s commitment to and ambivalence toward this figure, Cohen shows how the question of the spectral in Marx’s text has developed in those who have followed him and inherited from him, particularly André Breton and Walter Benjamin. Derrida interrogates the figure of the specter at the “frontier between the public and the private” that is “constantly being displaced” (Derrida, 50) by technology. Cohen’s genealogy of Gothic Marxism reminds us that this frontier has long been the subject of research at the experimental front of Marxian cultural theory. Between Cohen’s and Derrida’s respective discussions lie also the legacies of psychoanalysis, including Freud’s primal scene reconstructed by Lukacher as a methodological invention of continuing historiographical and political significance. It is in the psychoanalytic notion of “working over” that a spectral critique of the media comes into focus.

In the face of the multinational corporate media’s claim to transmit all significant “world events,” a spectral critique would seek to confront those ghosts who call into question the legitimacy of this representational system and its ideologies. The globalization of electro-tele-presences seeks to usurp the place of, as it carries with it the traces of, a more general phantasmatic economy. Flows of electronic images and information allow for the proliferation of what Marx called the “phantasmagoria” of commodity capitalism, amidst which the conjunction of spectral imagery I am pursuing here begins to accumulate another kind of value and currency. In Specters of Marx Derrida pursues a “politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations” (xix) arising out of a sense of responsibility toward the ghosts of our collective histories: the victims of war, imperialism, totalitarianism, and political, social, and psychological oppression in all of its forms. For Derrida it is this sense of responsibility that we inherit from Marx that will help us “to think and to treat” (54) the spectral presences made available by global telecommunications. So for those who today wish to be rid of Marx and Marxism once and for all (the particular example of this position under investigation by Derrida is Francis Fukuyama), his and its ghosts always threaten to return. It is a condition of the so-called “End of History” and the ends of Marxism that they will never have arrived—and this is also the condition of their messianic promise and of the ethico-political imperatives that they precipitate: “Not only must one not renounce the emancipatory desire, it is necessary to insist on it more than ever” (75).

The emancipatory impulse that should guide cultural critique is called forth in the form of a ghost: one who will challenge the hegemonic claims of the corporate media and unsettle the world order it seeks to impose. The ghost recalls those forgotten or repressed histories that compose the collective unconscious of our mass mediated society. Cohen’s reading of Breton and Benjamin conjures the ghosts of revolutionary...

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