Home » Critical Theory » Jesus’ Ghost – Derrida, Christianity, and “Hauntology” – Part 1

Hamlet's ghostJesus, who was concerned till manhood with his own personal development, was free from the contagious sickness of his age and his people; free from the inhibited inertia which expends its one activity on the common needs and conveniences of life; free too from the ambition and other desires whose satisfaction, once craved, would have compelled him to make terms with prejudice and vice.

–G.W.F. Hegel, The Positivity of the Christian Religion

The longing to make the spook comprehensible, or to realize non-sense, has brought about a corporeal ghost, a ghost or spirit with a real body, an embodied ghost. How the strongest and most talented Christians have tortured themselves to get a conception of this ghostly apparition! But there always remained the contradiction of two natures, the

divine and human, i.e. the ghostly and sensual; there remained the most wondrous spook, a thing that was not a thing. Never yet was a ghost more soul-torturing, and no shaman, who pricks himself to raving fury and nerve-lacerating cramps to conjure a ghost, can endure such soul-torment as Christians suffered from that most incomprehensible ghost.

–Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own

Derrida, as we see from the Specters epigraph, presents Jesus as the “greatest” and “most incomprehensible of ghosts.” His unusual, hyperbolic conclusion finds support from Hegel and Stirner insofar as they also see Jesus as having spectral and life-exceeding attributes. It is from  within Derridean “absolute spectrality,” as a direct effect of the work of hauntology, that “absolute emergence” comes to underwrite the general problem of subject modelization and formation, a specific and “spooky” process in which the construction of subjects takes place within certain “heritages,” heterogeneous cultural, philosophical, political, and religious frameworks with the power to shape identity.

This “absolute emergence” tied to “absolute spectrality” is the reason why Derrida views Jesus as a uniquely ghostly figure, “the most spectral of specters.” Continuing from the argument concerning hauntology that was presented in the previous chapter, I would like to further extend this discussion of subject modelization to more precisely include the significance of a uniquely Derridean “spectral heritage” and a no less related Derridean “spectral subjectivity,” especially as they are simultaneously developed in Specters of Marx. More specifically, this discussion of “heritage” and “subjectivity” will focus on Derrida’s observations in “Apparition of the

“Inapparent: The Phenomenological ‘Conjuring Trick.” In this crucial chapter, Derrida begins his discussion of spectrality by first addressing a difference between “spirit (Geist)” and “specter (Gespenst)” for the purpose of showing that the ‘specter is of the spirit, it participates in the latter and stems from it even as it follows it as its ghostly double.”1

In his examination of the “phenomenological ‘conjuring trick,’” Derrida continues this distinction by adding that “the difference between the two is precisely what tends to disappear in the ghost effect, just as the concept of such a difference or the argumentative movement that puts it to work in the rhetoric tends to vanish.”2   In distinguishing between the two “spiritual modes,” Derrida is drawing attention to the ways in which the specter does not function as a pure dialectical figuration of spirit; in other words, the specter is troubled by the trace of its unseen capacities (aporias), while the ghost purports to or is assumed to have no such trace (aporia). It is the tension between these two spectral points that is critical to understanding subject modelization within a heritage, any heritage

In this particular distinction, which I would argue frames Derrida’s analysis throughout the work, the actual “impure dialectical” or aporetic status of the spectral-figure is consistently overlooked in the history of modern philosophy from Hegel onwards. It, the spectral-figure, therefore, is allowed to exist as if it were a persistent “inapparent” ghostly “presence”— a complete presence, with no trace or aporetic condition. In Marx’s criticism of Stirner’s “Gespenst,” for example, we see a similar tension between specter and ghost developing in the context of an attempted de- spiritualization of materiality.

Put more simply, Marx’s criticism of Stirner is that his (Stirner’s) “Gespenst” leaves open the possibility of an “unaccounted for” ghost of a ghost, an unacknowledged spirit double or trace that exists beyond the first supposed dialectical abstraction in the form of an “inapparent apparition.” In other words, Stirner’s attempted “exorcism” of the “ghost,” which relies upon a full dialectical closure or full dialectical completion, according to Marx, does not succeed.

It, in fact, does not go far enough or, perhaps, cannot go far enough in ridding the “material” world of Idealist ghostliness—it, the “exorcism,” contrary to Stirner’s analysis, actually deposits “remains” or a remainder. This subsequently leaves in place a supposedly hidden and “inapparent” ghostly, metaphysical presence, which is assumed to reside finally and unproblematically in the center of the subject, the “I” (without a not-I). Metaphysical completion, then, becomes the endpoint upon which “ghosting” presumably would come to an “Absolute” or unconditioned, synthetic end in history and in subjectivity.  If Stirner’s particular, Idealist, dialectical “exorcism” fails by Marx’s materialist account, then so, too, according to Derrida, does Marx’s own materialist-dialectical effort at “ghost chasing.”

We see developed in the chapter the idea that every attempt to rid the world of ghosts that requires a dialectical synthesis of “spirit and specter” (with no remainder or trace) inevitably leaves behind ghostly remains—Idealist or Materialist. For Stirner, as a case in point, it is the “inapparent” ghostly dimension/reserve of remainder within the human “interior” that presumably encloses the “I,” the unconditioned subject —the “absolute self” brought into ontological alignment with itself, subsequently ignoring the fundamental, vanishing “trace” of its ineluctable paradoxical (aporetic) status that is in its own “head.” For Marx, however, as Derrida understands him, it is the wider historical but no less ghostly materialist-dialectical dynamic of “use/exchange-value” within the horizon of “absolute” Capitalism that returns as a hauntological (spectral) moment—the remainder/trace of an incomplete materialist-dialectical synthesis. These two examples point to attempts, failed attempts according to Derrida, to complete an incompleteable dialectical process, Idealist and historico-materialist, respectively.

The lesson from Derrida’s analysis of Stirner and Marx’s failed dialectic is that one can only partially exorcise a particular “Gespenst,” but “Geist” apparently remains “uncaptured” by or irreducible to the haunting figure—it “sees,” but is unseen and it persists in its hauntological condition across a spectrum of ghostly appearances that falsely claim completion and “autonomy”—“I am thy father’s spirit” or the “visor effect” would be an example of this incomplete dialectical specter/spirit relationship, with the specter functioning as the persistent remainder of the “spirit,” the aporetic figure that interjects traces into the alleged culmination of difference into identity, Idealist and historical-material.

The concept of the “visor effect,” which is crucial to understanding Derrida’s distinction of specter and spirit, is further developed as a critical element when Derrida writes in Echographies of Television that “there is a moment where Hamlet is very anxious to know whether the witness who saw his father . . . saw his eyes. Was his visor up? The answer is: ‘Yes, he wore his visor up’, but it doesn’t matter, he could have worn it down.”3

What will not matter for Derrida is the fact that even with the visor “up” the ghost of King Hamlet will not comply with Horatio’s demand—the ghost sees without fully being seen. “The fact that there is a visor symbolizes,” Derrida writes, “the situation in which I can’t see who is looking at me, I can’t meet the gaze of the other, whereas I am in his sight.”4   The ghost effect, or visor effect, creates a condition that situates the subject as one who is seen but does not entirely see—the gap between seeing and being seen is never closed. This is critical insofar as the supposed spectacle of the “source” remains virtually invisible to the subject, always remains unseen to the subject even as it sees, albeit partially.

The question, then, is what does one do with that which appears “inapparent”? In a manner of speaker, the heritage or law that comes from the partially viewed ghost necessitates the subject’s “blindness,” a blindness, for Derrida, that must be acknowledged in relation to the condition of the “inapparent” itself: “The specter is not simply this visible invisible that I can see, it is someone who watches or concerns me without any possible reciprocity, and who makes the law when I am blind, blind by the situation. He is the right of inspection itself.”5   Derrida continues his explanation by pointing out that as one occupies the position of an “inheritor” the “other comes before me.”6   This becomes the law of the genealogy of heritage—the occupation of time by the demands of an other who always comes before me and in coming before me writes the law. . . from beneath a visor . . . for “me”. . . who has the power to amend it as a heritage.

It is worth noting in the context of the “visor effect”—the always before— that the seeming incorrigibility of “Geist” (that which inevitably creates the ghost effect) relates not only to material history, as in the case of Marx, but directly to the “time” of history as well. That is to say, ghosts become specters when the temporal incompleteness of their capacities are revealed or become aporetic. There is, for instance, the “time” of specters—the spectrum of history— and there is “spectral time”—the “trace” of the future or the trace of the capacities of the future alongside the “spectrum of history,” which, for Derrida, is to come . . . not subject to the precise dialectical movement of history. . . the “out of jointness” of time.

David Applebaum in Jacques Derrida’s Ghost: A Conjuration describes a similar spectral effect within time: “When ghost time is plugged in, asynchronous time grows disjointed or ‘out of joint disperses or disseminates them. When the ghost infiltrates living time, cleaving it from itself, dissociating ipseity, the voice reading resembles the voice on mute, with the volume up.”7   In this arrangement, “spectral time” is not reducible to the “spectrum of history;” the relationship maintains a gap and this gap only can be expressed as a “double-bind” or as the problem of the other that comes before me (Derrida earlier in “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority” addresses the doubleness or paregon of justice—justice and the “possibility” of justice or justice to come, which is separate from law). Again, time, for Derrida, becomes the site for something akin to “spectral aporetology,” a temporal splitting or impassibility of time’s futures and pasts.

As a further development of this concept of aporetic doubleness, John D. Caputo, in a sub- chapter from The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion entitled “Derrida’s Séance: ‘Es spukt,’”describes this “double binding” operation (whether it is use/exchange or history/spirit) as an ineluctable problem of the continuing temporal persistence of the hauntological “trace” or remainder in the following way:

Marx is both for and against ghosts. He both exorcises them and believes in them—since an exorcist is someone who believes in ghosts, who takes them seriously—but without quite being able to monitor these operations. Marx is in a double bind. On the one hand, he exorcises the ghost of the commodity, the spectral table that stands up on its feet and discourses with other commodities. He reduces that specter back to the artifactual, technical body that is constituted by labor. But, on the other hand, he founds this exorcism of the ghost on a pre-deconstructive “critique,” on an “ontology” of thepresence of what is really real that aims at dissipating this phantom into thin air, conjuring it away inasmuch as the real forces of production have no more to do with these fantastic beings than a railway does with Hegelian philosophy.8

Derrida’s deconstructive account reveals that Marx’s historico-materialist analysis, ironically, “duplicates” or, unwittingly, reproduces the “ghosting” operation of Stirner, the figure with whom Marx thought himself to be in direct opposition. In both instances (Marx and Stirner), a similar “double bind” is identified by Derrida as being present; and, it is this common operation, noted by Caputo, of an incomplete dialectical “exorcism” that conspicuously and ironically leaves behind a more primary ghost-effect in the effort to rid a system of all ghosts.

Specifically in the case of Marx, he shows through his own “materialist” “exorcism” that the so- called “real-life” of commodities can be found in the material conditions of labor that produced them—the ghost-effect in the form of “materiality” returns as the spirit of history as class struggle. That is, the “ontological” (the fundamental real of commodities) is presumed to be specifically located in the modes and means of production as they exist and as they will exist as the on-going antagonism of classes within a “heritage” of labor. However, in returning the commodity to the “real” of production—in the history of human labor—Marx actually accomplishes the opposite, according to Derrida; he inadvertently “spiritualizes” the materiality of the object, making it the unquestioned ghostly (dialectical and metaphysical) space grounding not only of the object-commodity (use value), but of the entire system within which it continually circulates (exchange value).

Applebaum, in a related context, describes the return of the ghost as a repeating “repetition” that haunts the living: “A forbidden, the revenant enters the scene again and returns to where it was before forbidden to repeat repetition per se: a circumstance that closes on itself, and in closure, closes the crypt of meaning.”9   Although not specific to Derrida’s reading of Marx, Applebaum’s description of a ghostly return, in general, captures the process by which ghosts are presumably “busted” and then inconspicuously return in another form as an attempt to close down any and all inquiry regarding the work of spectrality, which takes shape around the heterogeneous unfolding of capacities, past, present, and future.

The inevitable and startling return that is ghostly repetition, we learn from Derrida, reproduces a “visor effect” and makes or posits “materiality,” human labor and the system governing human labor, as the unseen “scene” of foundational reality, i.e. the movement from use to exchange value. Derrida writes, “[i]t is not a matter here of negating a use-value or the necessity of referring to it. But of doubting its strict purity. If this purity is not guaranteed, then one would have to say that the phantasmagoria began before the said exchange-value, at the threshold of the value of the value in general, or that the commodity-form began before the commodity form, itself before itself . . . .”10

Marx, therefore, according to Derrida, inadvertently creates a really real “material” ghostliness as a pure ground (a “before itself”) that comes in advance of a formulation of value “in general,” as an attempt to rid the world of the immaterial.  More simply, Marx ends up creating a particular form of ghostliness (a “visored” ghostliness) when he performs his materialist-exorcism of Stirner’s idealism.

For Derrida, the hauntological moment is startling and invariably changes the “scene” of all heritages, including most immediately the Marxist heritage, in so far as the attempted act of “closing the crypt” ultimately becomes an impossible task, especially if ghosts become specters and always return . . . if only (finally) as aporetic “entities.” Perhaps more precisely, returning and repeating ghosts represent the ongoing failed attempts by a single heritage at finally closing the crypt, a crypt that itself becomes spectralized. Acknowledging the return of ghosts as specters— the event of hauntology— produces, as we have seen, a general problem in the configuration of a univocal heritage, any heritage.

In Marxism, a “spectered/spooked- materialism,” as a heritage, becomes unraveled along its aporetic disclosures. Derrida’s hauntological work in Specters of Marx, therefore, exceeds the specific materialist formulations associated with Marxism and its historical legacy, philosophical and political. Marxism, I will argue, is a more of a “case study” for Derrida, an historico-philosophical legacy, like all legacies, that falls within a hauntological condition.

This “return of ghosts” is what Marx, according to Derrida, simultaneously sees and doesn’t see—the unavoidable spectral, hauntological moment within his own discourse.   Once the Marxist heritage has been spectralized by Derrida, revealed to be part of the wider and deeper hauntological tradition, as I mentioned, the movement of (dis)emergence—the moments when each commodity ladened world arrives with its attending visible and invisible specters—leads to an unrestricted and palintropic hauntology, a condition with a capacity for additions, subtractions, or, simply, instances of change along an aporetic infinite trajectory appearing as the persistent trace of the “inapparent.”

Victor Taylor is chair of the Department of English and Humanities and professor of literature, philosophy, and religious studies at York College of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the center for civic humanities at York. He is the executive editor of The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory and director of academic publishing for Davies Group, Publishers. He is author of Para/Inquiry: Postmodern Religion and Culture (Routledge 2000), The Religious Prayed, The Profane Swear (Pen Mark Press 2002/ Second expanded edition, 2012), and Religion After Postmodernism (The University of Virginia Press 2008). With the late Charles E. Winquist, he co-edited Postmodernism: Critical Concepts (Routledge 1998) and The Routledge Encyclopedia of Postmodernism, (2000: Spanish 2002, Russian 2003). 


1 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Working of Mourning and the

New International (New York, London: Routledge, 1994), 125-126.

2 Derrida, 1994, 126.

3 Jacques Derrida, “Spectographies” in Echographies of Television, Jacques Derrida and

Bernard Stiegler, eds. (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2002), 121.

4 Jacques Derrida, 2002, 121.

5 Jacques Derrida, 2002, 121.

6 Jacques Derrida, 2002, 122.

7 David Applebaum, Jacques Derrida’s Ghost: A Conjuration (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009), 19.

8 John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion

(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 143.

9 David Applebaum, 19.

10 Derrida, 1994, 200.


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"Religious Theory" is a special feature of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory (www.jcrt.org).