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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 124-142

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Saying "Yes" to Africa:
Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx

Christopher Wise

Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (1994) is one of the most important books of cultural theory to appear since the end of the cold war. Its literary virtuosity is as remarkable as its value in suggesting new directions for radical politics in the "post-Marxist" dispensation, especially on an international scale. It would, however, be erroneous to describe Derrida's book in strictly literary terms, or as a masterpiece of print media, rather than an unusual transcription of an important historical event. What must be emphasized is that Specters of Marx functioned in the first instance as a voiced performance at a specific place and time. Not unlike the Platonic dialogues Derrida has famously subverted, Specters of Marx must be construed as a book that seeks to subvert its own status as a merely reified and spatial artifact. Although surprisingly few commentators have remarked upon this book's deconstruction of the book form, 1 it is finally impossible to divorce Specters of Marx from its historical and performative context, or, as Derrida would have it, from its "perverformative" 2 and stubbornly anti-logocentric basis in temporality.

The critical inattention to Specters of Marx's deconstruction of the book may be traced to Derrida's orientation to Marxism as a uniquely African theorist of Sephardic, Maghrebian, and Judaic experience. Unless the reader of Specters of Marx is willing to entertain this possibility, especially by suspending the agendas of race politics as they are defined in the African (but also Judeo-African) diaspora in the US, France, and elsewhere, the edge of Derrida's critique of the latent metaphysics operative within Marxist theory will be blunted, when not altogether misunderstood. In a broader sense, deconstruction may be compatible with political and cultural agendas that are more commonly acknowledged as traditional "African" concerns, including the European stigmatization of illiteracy, the iconoclasticism of Judeo-Muslim hermeneutics, and the orality-aurality of traditional African culture. It goes without saying that the itinerary that I will sketch out in this essay must also and necessarily reveal the limitations of deconstruction in addressing specifically African concerns, especially in building a viable and unified (or "gathered") concept of African identity that does not flounder upon the terrain of absolute ethnic, religious, and "racial" difference. Unexpectedly, Specters of Marx affirms a gathering of sorts, or a "bonding in difference," to quote Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 3 but the "coming-together" that it promotes will no doubt prove too idiosyncratic for many Africans, including fellow Sephardic Jews who are more observant than Derrida. Whatever the limitations of Derrida's deconstruction in this instance, I will nonetheless affirm here the indisputable merits of this inaugural effort, especially as a critique of white European ethnocentrism. [End Page 124]

The published text of Specters of Marx, now a sleek printed book from Routledge Press, includes two lectures given by Derrida at the University of California, Riverside, on 22 and 23 April 1993, at the "Whither Marxism?" conference. The organizers of the conference, Bernd Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg, state in the book's introduction that they had originally sought to bring together Marxist theorists from across the globe to discuss future directions for Marxism, following the demise of the Soviet Union and the so-called "death" of Marxism on a global scale. Magnus and Cullenberg wanted to host a conference that "would not consist of yet another autopsy administered mostly by Anglophone economists and policy analysts who typically were and are very far from the sites of struggle and transformation" (ix). To this end, representative "Marxists" from across the globe were invited to participate and offer their views on the future of Marxism, or to respond to the conference title's question, "Whither Marxism?" It is significant that of those nations listed from which the roster of "distinguished thinkers and participants" were drawn, not a single reference to...


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