- Ghosts of the FutureMarxism, Deconstruction, and the Afterlife of Utopia1
"The future can only be for ghosts".- Jacques Derrida
The Apparitional Unconscious
Near the end of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) — one of the nineteenth century's bestsellers and, arguably, its most politically influential Utopian novel — Julian West undergoes a harrowing experience. Having woken into the year 2000 and lived in it long enough to discover that the advent of state socialism is the true path to collective and individual happiness, he is returned, as he realizes in dread, back to 1887 and to the abject realities of US monopoly capitalism. While wandering the streets of fin-de-siècle Boston, he finds himself in the misery of an urban tenement, overwhelmed by the "woeful" inferno of human suffering that unfolds before his eyes. Beneath the skin of that no doubt baleful picture, however, there lurk still more disturbing revelations:
Presently, too, as I observed the wretched beings around me more closely, I perceived that they were all quite dead. Their bodies were so many living sepulchers. On each brutal brow was plainly written the hic jacet of a dead soul within.
As I looked, horrorstruck, from one death's head to another, I was affected by a singular hallucination. Like a wavering translucent spirit face superimposed on each of these brutish masks, I saw the ideal, the possible face that would have been the actual if mind and soul had lived. It was not till I was aware of these ghostly faces, and of the reproach that could not be gainsaid which was in their eyes, that the full piteousness of the ruin that had been wrought was revealed to me. I was moved with contrition as with a strong agony, for I had been one of those who had endured that these things should be. … Therefore now I found upon my garments the blood of this great multitude of strangled souls of my brothers. The voice of their blood cried out against me from the ground.2
If I pause over this uncharacteristically intense moment in Bellamy's otherwise unremarkable prose, it is not because I intend to pursue the question of "what is living and what is dead" in his now largely forgettable novel. It is rather because what grasps the attention of the retrospective gaze Bellamy's text both narratively thematizes and solicits, what seems to break through to a future Bellamy's brand of authoritarian socialism otherwise forecloses, is nothing else than a dramatic unsettling of the very opposition between "what is living" and "what is dead".3 To begin with, the apparition of the tenement proletariat as so many dead minds and souls works to at once spiritualize and literalize Marx's famous concept of "dead labor", labor value extracted from living bodies and congealed in the parasitically animated body of capital.4 In this specifically Marxian sense, the spectral is nothing but the product of "the abstraction of value which, in a bloodless movement, vampirizes all of the worker's labor and, transforming itself into surplus-value, becomes capital".5 Yet Bellamy's mise-en-scene is a good deal more ambiguous and complicated than that. For it is not merely that one is not sure whether it is Marx or the New England reformist and sermonizer who controls the tenor of the visual metaphor; it is also that its counterpart — Bellamy's version of living, non-alienated labor — is disturbingly similar to what it would be expected to ontologically oppose. Impelled "by a singular hallucination", Julian perceives the face that "could have been" as another, redemptively inflected specter, "a wavering translucent spirit" that is "superimposed" on the death mask of "each brutal brow." If, as Antonio Negri puts it, Marx was likely to oppose "the non-spectrality of the productive subject" to "capital's spectrality", Bellamy's late Victorian bathos seems paradoxically more capable of resonating with a postmodern "spectral materialism", one which registers "a certain real whose status is, paradoxically, virtual".6 Within such a framework, the Marxian "ontologization of exploitation" has come to appear superannuated, and the spectralization of labor is no longer to...