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climate spectre Arrow vol 7 no 1 contents
About borderlands volume 7 number 1, 2008


‘There is a Spectre Haunting . . .’: Ghosts, Their Bodies,
Some Philosophers, a Novel and the Cultural Politics of Climate Change

Nick Mansfield
Macquarie University


How will our current conceptions of cultural politics adapt to the challenges of climate change? Will current influential accounts of social identity based on otherness need to be replaced by new models of social interaction? Will current re-conceptions of historical time be radical enough to cope with the political challenges climate change is already proposing? The deconstruction of conventional historical time argues for a radical pluralisation of history as a response to the marginalisation of others. According to this account, the other exceeds the dialectical production of self-identity of Hegelian historicism. But has this deconstruction of history resulted in a new historicism that is plural and discontinuous, but still fundamentally transparent? This paper argues that climate change will require a re-thinking of historical time that is neither dialectic and continuous, nor deconstructive and radically plural. Derrida’s re-thinking of historical time in terms of ‘hauntology,’ provides an alternative way of considering historical time in terms of the unpredictability of future events. The ghost, Derrida argues, is a remnant from the past, unresolved and unassimilable, coming to us from the future. I use this trope to describe firstly, the material consequences of past ecological exploitation, as well as the inevitable de-stabilisation of global politics caused by the unequal impact that these consequences will have on different societies and groups. Using Tom Cohen’s distinction between the cultural politics of ‘the otherness of the other’ and the ‘Absolute Other,’ and through a reading of Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Dead Europe, I argue that the Absolute Other of climate change will lead to a new material politics in which otherness in general will be re-configured.


Climate change, Cultural politics, Derrida, Otherness, Deconstruction, Bataille



1. The ghost descends on us from the spirit-world, half pagan animus, half Christian soul, it threatens us with the meaning that exceeds us, or what exceeds meaning, the meaning that exceeds meaning, the unknowable, that which has crossed over to the other unknowable side, and then come back. It means something more than us and more than we can understand. Locked as we are in the bodily world, our horizons limited by the degradation of flesh, the spirit terrifies us with things we have forgotten, crimes we have forgotten or suppressed, but that the all-seeing eye of death has always registered, un-erasable, unforgettable and unforgiven, over there. … Apparently.

2. The ghost is offered to us but slightly with-held, available to us if only ever just that little bit out of reach, like death itself, for our bodies but not of them, slightly ahead of them, when they pass over to become, when they connect with, when in fact they release something else. Ghosts fascinated Marx, we are told by Derrida, the spectre that is haunting Europe in the opening words of The Communist manifesto, for example, but also in his favourite play Hamlet, a text governed by a ghost, a dead father tormented in Purgatory by penance for un-expunged sins, and calling on a lackadaisical self-indulgent son to for pity’s sake do something, kill someone, make a ghost or two of his own and then die. And ghosts fascinate Derrida too, two philosophers, one the most nagging and persistent thinker of the material; the other, the most adventurous thinker of the forever-beyond that is with us now, the Other, the difference within, the stranger in the house, the different in the same, the other in the self and so on forever without rest.

3. Yet, the orthodox idea of the ghost as that abstract thing that exceeds the bodily has not been uncontested. For Freud in ‘The uncanny,’ the spirit-world of the soul is not something alien to the body, but a double of it, an insistence on its continuity despite death. The spirit-world is not abstract, but a version of the material, a projection of our very physical bodies, our fantasy refusal of bodily mortality, and thus an assertion of our belief in our continued material being (Freud, 1985: 356).

4. How does this questioning of the polarity between the abstraction and the materiality of the ghost help us with Marx and Derrida? What can we find out here about ghosts and their relationship to the bodily from the two philosophers who either wouldn’t care for the ideal as a key to the material, or who would mock the difference between them? I want to approach the question of the relationship between the body and the ghost through Derrida’s reading of Bataille’s reading of Marx’s own haunting father-figure Hegel, and then to turn briefly to Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Dead Europe, to argue that there is nothing as bodily as a ghost, ghosts are bodies, the body, and the one that is with us now, coming from the past but through the future to throw everything up for grabs, what Tom Cohen calls, not quite following Derrida again, and Derrida’s not quite following of Levinas, the wholly other (Cohen, 2006: 12).

5. Cohen aims to mark a shift in the emphasis of cultural studies from its traditional domain: its ‘20th century project exploring the construction of social identity within shifting contexts of power and positioning . . . accounting for the “otherness of the other,” of the human other—to what we can call the “wholly other”’ (12), which he links with the consequences of climate change. This wholly other comes from a ‘sort of “outside” to the narratives that preoccupy humanistic studies’ (12), and foreshadows ‘coming wars over the re-inscription of the earth itself’ (15).

6. My aim will be then to argue that we are haunted now by a very material ghost, the Absolute Other of climate change, and that the politics that the encounter with this Absolute Other will force upon us will be one for which our deconstruction of self-identity and Hegelian time has not prepared us. As Cohen argues, our politics of open-ness to the other—of the political and cultural enfranchisement of the other—will be radically re-made, even subsumed into the coming/returning cultural politics of the Absolute Other. The traditions of political thinking that we have inherited rely either on an image of a purposeful collective human self-making, or the radical possibilities made available by the undoing of this sense of uniform purpose. Neither of these is adequate to deal with the limit we must now confront. In turn, this limit cannot be understood as simply natural, requiring the resurrection of even older models of political logic, in which the Other was figured as God or Nature. What returns from the past is what we have made, and must be confronted as a humanisation made radically strange and confronting. It is by way of refusing the reduction of the excess of the Absolute Other, and how we remain defined in relation to it, that we can begin to discuss this new way of thinking.


7. In orthodox post-structuralism, the Absolute Other has come to function as the abstraction and generalisation—the perpetual opening to the ever renewable possibility—of particular others. Its excessiveness has been imagined as its inevitable non-contemporaneity, the fact that it will never be exhausted. Yet the excessiveness of the Absolute Other wrecks more than it allows, and this wrecking is not merely the loosening of systems, but the likelihood of an immolation, even if it is one we might possibly survive. This Absolute Other exceeds the various logics of otherness with which we are familiar. The Hegelian other is subtended by identity in order to be resumed meaningfully at a later date, in the resolution of a recognition. In the Levinasian deconstruction of this cyclic otherness, as practised by Derrida, the Other is seen to be somehow radically indigestible, persisting in its otherness beyond the assimilating logic of systematicity, demanding that its irreducible strangeness be acknowledged, experienced outside of the homogenisation of Hegelian recognition. This necessarily leaves logic itself threatened because of what it is inevitably insensible to, and cannot accommodate. What this unsettling of system would seem to offer is the insistence that every identity is interminable, endlessly open and thus promising something other, something or other.

8. The risk here, of course, is that this new albeit modernistic narrative becomes itself programmatic, and too easily becomes a politics for which there is an established and thus confined space. Identity is queered, but queer then becomes an identity. The challenge of excess ceases to be political and becomes purely rhetorical, that which gives the unsettling of systems a certain expletive force. The excessiveness of excess is tamed, and we remain fundamentally within the parameters Hegelianism defined for us, an open un-Hegelianism, rather than a closed orthodox one, but reducing Otherness nonetheless to the logic of the hypothetical only. Will the other be part of the ongoing sweep of history, or the thing that merely makes that history non-teleological? These become the only alternatives. In sum, there is a way of interpreting the deconstruction of Hegelian history that leaves that history inverted but curiously undisturbed, re-invented as an anti-humanism no less coherent and accommodating of disruption. Instead of the other being rescued for history, history is re-worked around the other, even a plural, multiple history, but the violence of excess remains dis-allowed, imagined perhaps as the guarantee of the disruption of the other, but not really lived.

9. The excessiveness of Otherness does not only offer something that makes history dissociative, but can and is wrecking it. The canonical account of modernism and postmodernism is that where the modern had been the human achievement of the neutralisation of Nature, the postmodern had resulted in the humanisation of that ‘other’ nature, subjectivity, especially the unconscious. Politics would seem to become available as the insistence on the ways in which this humanisation is not itself an homogenisation, or is not completely achievable. Yet this is only an image of excess: what we are faced with now is the complete wreck of this logic, the logic shared by both the modern and the postmodern, and our othernesses are not enough to deal with it. The history we have defended or deconstructed is ceasing to be available to us anymore, because its allegiances as well as its temporality, its un-meaning as well as its meaning are not simply coming undone—that’s the logic we have become too comfortable with—but are about to hit a wall, and the name of that wall, what I have called, adapting Cohen, the Absolute Other, the other that cannot be made friendly, is climate change, or more specifically the political consequences of climate change, because now politics and climate cannot be thought separately from one another. This threatens us from a position radically outside the making and unmaking of meaningful historical time. What we must think then is not the other other who unsettles and pluralises, but the Absolute Other who abolishes and does not make new. It is in returning to the logic of the true excess of excess that this other may be met.


10. In Derrida’s reading of Bataille in ‘From restricted to general economy: a Hegelianism without reserve,’ Derrida contrasts Hegel’s model of the relationship between lord and bondsman, master and slave, with Bataille’s thinking of sovereignty. In Hegel, the original social bond develops from the competition between two subjects for ascendancy. What emerges from this competition is a hierarchical relationship in which one subject dominates the other, gaining the other’s recognition, servitude and allegiance. The thing that has determined this rivalry is that, in the struggle, one of the subjects has risked more than the other, risked death in fact, has been willing to stare down death. This willingness to risk death has caused the rival to blink and turn away, and thus to submit. What separates the master from the slave therefore is the recognition offered to the master by the slave, because of the former’s display of superiority in the willingness to risk death.

11. Through his reading of Bataille, Derrida raises a problem with Hegel’s model of the foundation of society. The master may show a willingness to risk death in order to attain social meaning—the meaning that is the social—but this meaning could not arise if the master were to really perish in the struggle. In other words, for the struggle to deliver meaning, the master must risk death, but must never be in a position actually to die. The death that the master risks therefore is only a semantic death, not a bodily material one, an abstract death, a meaningful but not literal physical death.

12. In Bataille, however, the ‘sovereign,’ who is Bataille’s adaptation of Hegel’s master, is defined by an open-ness onto real death, not semantic death as the lodestone and resting-point of social meaning, but death in its literal physicality. It is not the idea of death that counts in Bataille, nor is it the meaning that death might offer. It is the excess over meaning. In other words, it is that which is irrecuperable to meaning. It cannot thus be meaningless-ness, as this is an image of totality and completion, of meaning totally exhausted or evacuated. Bataille’s sovereign figure does not see death as a kind of philosophical resource, from which either meaning or meaninglessness can be derived, but as the liberating and ineluctable point where both discourses of meaning and their inverse perish. To Derrida, the literal physical death in Bataille mocks and ruins the semantic abstract death of Hegel, making the death the master risks a mere simulacrum, a representation of death, nothing more.

13. Derrida’s career has been given over to revealing how irrepressible différance is in the formation of every identity. In his reading of Marx, différance emerges as a certain spectrality, the spectre that is haunting Europe, for example, the spectre of communism. Interestingly in Marx, the spectre is the coming apotheosis of material politics. However, to Derrida, material politics should not be seen as an inevitable and knowable extension or fulfilment of fixed historical patterns, a great grinding machine called time, engineering a future that does not recognise contingency. The material is always in excess of meaning, in the way literal bodily death is in excess of Hegel’s idea of the constitution of society. The material may come from the past, indeed. But its re-emergence in the future is not the confirmation of absolute predictability, rather the catastrophic disruption of time. It is from our past, but not part of its patient unfolding. It comes suddenly and unpredictably into the future always to be experienced as a great interruption. That which is coming back to us through the future (from the past) is thus both familiar and terribly strange, forgotten but recognisable, ignored but definitive. This figure of impossibility—that Marx understood as a spectre, without knowing quite what the term might imply—deconstructs the temporality of historical continuity. From Specters of Marx (published in French 1993) onwards, Derrida used the figure of the ghost as a tantalising and irrepressible image of différance. The spectre is that which has gone from the past only in order to re-emerge in the future. It captures what Derrida calls ‘the non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present’ (Derrida, 1994: xix), the fact that what is to come is not the radically new, but the unburied and unburiable matter of the past. It is the material body that haunts us then. Derrida writes: ‘the spectre is a paradoxical incorporation, the becoming-body, a certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit’ (6).

14. The ghost that threatens and promises, confuses while it reveals, terrifies us with what we are or will become, this ghost is bodily. But following Bataille, the ghost is bodily, but not ‘the Body.’ It is not the generalised body, identified, made meaningful and subsumed into the empire of philosophical meaning nor into the radical democracy open to otherness. It is the accidental, unearthed, unearthing particular bodies that emerge incidentally in the unexpected ‘coming of the event’ (23). This materiality arrives from a past, but one that cannot be made meaningful. Its violence, in other words, cannot be programmatic, and cannot be used to confirm even a deconstructive logic. Nothing exceeds like excess, and the disjunction such sudden returns will cause must always outrun and threaten us, in what Derrida sees as an ‘incalculability . . . the excessive or exceeded relation to the other’ (23). It will exceed the cycles of historical predictability and social improvement. The bodiliness of death restores to otherness the flash of the unaccountable absolute, of which no-one can take advantage, that residue of otherness that is irreducible to historical or political valuation. With climate change, the material violence of the past emerges, reincarnate, re-fleshed, in our future, and in a politics, for which our last centuries of politics cannot prepare or even forewarn us.


15. The irreducible excess of the Absolute Other will ruin our different logics of historical time, but the wreckage produced will be experienced in the suffering of individual bodies and lives. What will select these bodies and lives will not be random. It will be the activation of a politics that already divides the human population between the prioritised and the expendable. In other words, the superannuation of both continuous historical temporality and its deconstruction will separate us into those who will have their security and continuity assured and those who will be ignored. I want now to turn to a novel that links the dissociation of historical time we have discussed in terms of spectrality with the suffering and neglect of de-valued floating micro-populations. It is this combination, of failed historicity and ignored horror, that provides some image of a possible political future under the regimes of a climate change world.

16. Dead Europe is a book about hospitality, sex and family, about photography, Australia and Europe, about anti-Semitism and ghosts. The young Greek-Australian photographer Isaac travels to Europe for the opening of an exhibition of his work in Athens, to re-visit places important in his family story, and to repeat a previous journey of his own. Inter-cut with this narrative is the re-telling of key events in the earlier story of his family, especially those surrounding their harbouring and subsequent betrayal and death of a young Jewish boy fleeing Nazi persecution. Coming from across the mountains, the boy had been sheltered in the crypt of an abandoned church, where isolated and neglected he descended into a state of abjection and filth. Desperate for a child, Isaac’s grandmother Lucia had sex with the boy and became pregnant. She later goaded her husband, Michaelis, into murdering the Jewish boy, and her child from the incident, Christos, was murdered by Michaelis’s mother.

17. Later, the ghost of the murdered child both persecutes and protects Isaac’s family, murdering those who threaten his mother Lucia. When Lucia is hounded as a ‘dirty wog girl’ by schoolkids in Melbourne, the ghost strikes the children dead by spreading an epidemic. The ghost intervenes lethally in the material, killing and biting its enemies and those that threaten. Yet, in its most insistent form, it returns in the guise of a series of young boys, real and possible sex partners for Isaac, and even as Isaac himself, who crosses over to the ghost-world becoming desperate to ingest blood.

18. Yet, the ghost appears most crucially as a figure of the guest, the troublesome person to whom hospitality must be shown but who is betrayed. The murdered Jewish boy whose son haunts the family is merely one of a number of betrayed refugees in the novel. In Athens, Isaac follows a young boy to a dilapidated flat where he is sheltering with his state-less family. On a return visit, he discovers that the family has simply evaporated, and is un-remembered. In Paris, he visits his father’s friend Gerry who runs an underground escape road for refugees, only to discover later that Gerry had committed suicide in Australia many years earlier. Ghosts here mark out failures of hospitality. They are not the eternal dimension of a physicality that has dropped away, but the persistence of a physical presence that has not been dealt with ethically. The ghost is not the meaning recovered from a brute and meaningless materiality. It is the trace of that materiality that cannot be coped with. In ‘Violence and metaphysics,’ Derrida says of Levinas’s trope of the face, that aspect of the Other that penetrates to us in its most insistent and irresistible form, that it is irreducibly bodily (Derrida, 1978: 115). The face is not the figure of the absent and hypothetical Other, but the mark of its most inevitable physicality.

19. The ghosts in Dead Europe are the same. They are not the essence of being in its abstract form, but the prosecution of the present by that which it will deny, the literal bodies of those who sought shelter but are ignored or done to death, of the material past easing itself back into and as the future. There is a spectre haunting Europe in Marx, but it is the possibility of material revolution. There is a spectre haunting dead Europe and it is the body of the unremembered but unforgettable victim of the failure of hospitality. The meaning of spectrality to Derrida is differantial: it splits the living present into the site of the coming from the future of that which is undealt with from the past. It is what makes the future possible as the inevitability of the past. ‘[A] spectre is always a revenant,’ Derrida writes. ‘One cannot control its comings and goings, because it begins by coming back’ (Derrida, 1994: 11). Yet it comes to us as a shock for which we are not prepared. In Tsiolkas’s novel, the past comes to Isaac as that which will be him, but is unknown and foreign, produced out of the past for you, as something you must encounter, and that has been caused by what has caused you, but which is strange and unprecedented, impossible to deal with. Isaac is haunted by what has made him, but that is other and strange, and not some easy post-structuralist ‘other within,’ but something horribly, revoltingly other, the refusal of hospitality to the point of death, yet to which your own birth is irredeemably conjoined.

20. Dead Europe is full of others who return and unsettle the narrative of inevitable enlightenment and progress. Asylum seekers neglected to death, of which the Jewish boy is the archetype, are not part of a history that needs to be perpetually revived and witnessed, nor of plural histories directed at an open-ness to the other, but of a physical violence confronting us forever. Otherness is not redeemable, and guilt cannot be made either revelatory or persuasive. The violence of Isaac’s encounters remains irredeemable and cannot be read as simply a way of making political meaning emphatic. Like the ghost, violence remains irreducible and at our hands, close, a form of intimacy, even our own intimacy with ourselves. Gerry, for example, is running an underground railroad for asylum seekers but is himself dead. The various ways in which this narrative could make sense—a psychological and thus symbolic hallucination of Isaac’s, a narrative commemoration of persistent nagging moral meaning, an experimental history in which the logic of dream offers a truth unavailable to simple verisimilitude—these remain finally unassimilable, and the novel itself refuses any anxious attempt to reduce it to related layers of analogical order. Tsiolkas’s disjunctions represent a treatment of otherness that cannot be historicised, that cannot ever reassure, that cannot finally fully resist its own horror, cannot resolutely or finally defend itself against charges of anti-Semitism. It is a novel that remains, therefore, indefensible, because its treatment of otherness reaches towards something outside of our normal patterns of dispute. This is not to say that the novel is anti-Semitic, rather that it does not separate itself from the deep currents of racism and violence from which our traditional patterns of discourse labour endlessly to distance themselves, and believe they can judge meaningfully. This distancing is part of a determination to make meaningful and thus objectify and deny implication in a violence that remains both immeasurable and continuously lived. Tsiolkas immerses us in this chaos of episodes and tendencies, without rendering them sensible, without resolving them into even a deconstructive order, and the narrative and temporal disjunctions of the novel make this shockingly and unsettlingly apparent and endlessly re-apparent. It is here that an otherness beyond the other is perpetually allowed to re-emerge. The horror of dead Europe’s long and disgusting tradition of anti-Semitism remains un-digested by this narrative. It cannot be simply made sense of by the two-step of liberal moralism, or post-humanist open-ness to the other. Like the ghost coming from the past by way of the future, it finds us out in the face of the asylum seeker, over whose shoulder as she runs towards us, we see the de-stabilisation caused by all our new world orders of one species or another, from global debt, through agricultural protectionism to the war on terror.

21. Anti-Semitism, like all atrocities, exceeds history, then. This is not to agree with that tradition that from Adorno on has seen the Holocaust as an example of the sublime, and something beyond the horizon of discourse. The ghost is a figure, not of that which is beyond a limit, but of that which intrudes suddenly and unexpectedly into our midst, in whose house we find we have in fact long been living. In the same way that death exceeds social meaning in its literal physicality, genocidal violence re-discovers us repeatedly as that which we have tried to solve by gestures only, from the brutal ceding of Palestine to the platitudes of endless TV docos. Yet, it too returns in the material form of the expendable non-citizen against whom we set legal and physical barriers.


22. What haunts, then, is what comes back unsolved from the past, outside of the past’s meanings, in the form of a violent physicality that neither our humanisms nor our anti-humanisms are preparing us to understand. Dealing with this physicality overwhelms not only the logic of modern historical meaning in which the human controls a limited nature, but also the logic of post-modern sociality in which difference exposes continuous and convergent meaning to disjunction and radical pluralisation. In the former of these cultures, material physicality is Nature, something antipathetic to the human and to be conquered by it. Yet the otherness that has been offered as the post-modern critique of liberal universalism remains within the grand narrative of secular sociality, committed to a logic of albeit disjunctive but patient inter-subjective adjustment and modulation, even if it is interminable, and deconstructive of history in that—what is proving to be—minor way. The Other that exceeds both the doing and undoing of historical time is the return from behind the idea of otherness, and from behind the idea of Nature, of a material reality.

23. This material reality is of two kinds. Firstly, it is the physical pressure to be put on us by the material disruptions caused by climate change. It can no longer be summarised or colonised by the term Nature, because it is a materiality emerging from after human intervention. It is a mediated Nature, and thus not Nature at all. It is a thoroughly mediated physicality, yet no longer either under human design nor potentially subject to it. Secondly, it is the material politics of physical violence and dislocation that our encounter with climate change will unleash: drifting populations, economic unpredictability, war and the re-invention of political sovereignty, to be justified, even by those who claim to be liberal democrats, in its almost incontinent rush to mutilate human rights.

24. The physicality of this ghostly un-Nature, returning as the consequences of our ruin of the world combines with the ghosts-to-come of Tsiolkas’s un-welcome others to define our political future. The future politics is a politics of ghosts, a ‘hauntology,’ to use Derrida’s term (Derrida, 1994: 10), because these different ghosts—the savaged body of Nature, and the viciously neglected human other—will form one cruel and novel political complex. Tom Cohen argues that recent cultural criticism has been dominated by thinking of the otherness of the other, the politics of marginalisation and normalcy, the legacies of colonialisms, of biopower’s administrations of subjectivities, of exclusion by truth, of identity and undoing identity. In a politics re-defined in terms of the Absolute Other, these specific othernesses will re-emerge as the differential way in which populations will bear the burden of rapid economic and demographic insecurity. The Absolute Other is an image of a universalised politics, because it will befall the very conditions under which everything must take place. Yet we know from the examples Cohen offers—Hurricane Katrina is one—that the older politics in which specific types of life are disallowed, or deemed ‘life that does not deserve to live,’ to use Agamben’s phrase (Agamben, 1998: 136), will not only endure, but find new inspiration in a new climate in which whole classes of people, and populations of localities will be deemed unworthy of corporate or even state investment up ‘to the point of death,’ as Foucault would put it (Foucault, 1980: 138).

25. The politics of the Absolute Other will not replace but subsume the politics of the otherness of the other then. This latter politics will not go on simply unsettling the idea of continuous and meaningful history, in the hope that a shattering of imperial historical logic will open some freedoms, undefined or otherwise, but will be re-charged in an environment in which the capitalist competition for resources will discover new ways of rationalising the deaths of those either surplus to requirements or whose politics become obstacles to the brutal and unrestrained will-to-winning. The high-handed neglect of the Darfur conflict is an example of the former, and the cynical manipulation of the issue of—the lip-service paid to the idea of—the state-hood of Palestine, an example of the latter. This politics will be a politics of differences, but of de facto autocracies as well, of wars and the annihilation of all rights, and it will fall differentially on human groups, but cataclysmically, perhaps taking capitalism and all its subversive shadows with it, the shadows in which cultural criticism operates. It is unlikely that this brutal material future will allow the coming of communism as the consummation of para-Hegelian historicism. If it brings a new politics, it will be a politics of radical novelty excavating itself from our material past, something made out of what has made our bodies, but not of them, or yet knowable.

26. In Hegel, what came from the past to become meaningful in the future was history, a continuation and potential completion. This future confirmed the past as projecting forwards a meaning that we could recognise, even as this meaning emerged out of contradiction. The clash of contradiction was a violence, but a violence teleologically redeemable, a clash of forces that would threaten and even kill, but would end by making sense. In Bataille, the clash of forces eludes meaning by understanding the implicit violence here as real, inherited, perhaps too, in the end, overwhelming, irredeemable, but in its ineluctability and energy, life.

27. There are of course a wide range of theories that understand the relationship between the placid liberal surface of society and its charged and violent substructure. From Althusserian ideology to Agamben’s theory of sovereignty as the state of exception, a superficial democracy conceals or accompanies a violent social administration. Yet, these theories are weakened by the historical continuity of their understanding of social development as, in some cases, a predictable if complex unfolding, and in others, the patient revelation of an essence consistent since at least the Roman Empire. What is required in a time when wars and the undermining of civil rights will occur and recur is a new understanding of the relationship between civil society and violence, sometimes working separately, sometimes together, in terms of the latter’s insurgency, political violence as not a fulfilment and continuity but as an interruption and violent change. This violence will not come from the outside to attack a legitimately peaceful social milieu. It will return from the past, in the way the spectre does, of and from the past but surprisingly, dissociating social arrangements unpredictably and contriving new alliances, new arrangements of all kinds. It is this process of disruption, or the relationship between social violence and social value, not as an expression or dramatisation of continuity, but as an experience of cataclysm that we need to understand. Derrida’s comments on Levinas’s understanding of war, for example, in which the latter emerges both in a milieu defined by peace and in violent disruption of it, would help with the double future we will need to understand. Here, war is neither disguised by peace nor simply supplementary to it. It remains violently disruptive of peace, but somehow impossible without it. War and peace provoke and require, while challenging and ruining one another. This unstable relationship reveals the kind of processes of continuity and disruption we are about to share.

28. Climate change brings to us from the future a spectre of unpredictability, which we will experience politically. It is the endurance of the irrepressible materiality of the material, the scarring of the body of the world that cannot be healed, or simply reduced to meaning. It is the bodiliness of the body of the world in its irrepressible immediacy, not the body of the world made meaningful. As such, it is the limit of a tradition of philosophy epitomised by Hegel where what can be called the natural can be overcome. We are at the end of a history in which, first, culture triumphed over its other, and then according to postmodernist orthodoxy, subsumed it. Now, this other is coming back, in the double form of the damage we have caused that can’t be undone, and of the others who will bear disproportionately the cost of our past luxuries. Yet this bodily spectre of the body improperly dealt with is the spectre that haunts us with a violence the history of political philosophy cannot tend and cannot redeem. In a theoretical culture where meaning promises to accompany us, and a redemptive culture where the future promises apocalypse, where even violence in its most extreme forms is a revelation of truth, this spectre is foreign indeed, even though it is the result of a cause we know and indeed are.

29. What ‘hauntology’ offers is a politics of the event-to-come. It imagines this event as wholly disjunctive, a shock, the radically new, but only as it returns from a known, if unresolved past. Hauntology offers us the logic by which we can re-consider the coincidence of the inevitable unfolding and the unforeseeable interruption, of history as simultaneously fulfilment and shock. I have tried to argue that this spectrality is above all material, the material politics that will mediate climate change. It is clear from the example of New Orleans that the politics of the Absolute Other will subsume, re-invigorate and re-make the politics of difference, the politics of the other of the other. The politics of climate change will be experienced differentially, as determined by race, religion, wealth, nationality and locality. It is being experienced now. The abandoned city. The drowned nation. The unwanted guest. The feared race. The oppressive democracy. The ruthless freedom. The vile law. The risks of justice. The unmanaged change. The unpredicted revolution. The unimaginable end.


Nick Mansfield teaches in the Department of Critical and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University. His books include Masochism: the art of power; Subjectivity: theories of the self from Freud to Haraway and Therising War: From Hobbes to Badiou (forthcoming). He is also co-founding editor of the journal Derrida today. His current research is on sovereignty, war and human rights.


Agamben, G 1998, Homo sacer: sovereign power and bare life, trans. D Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Cohen, T 2006, ‘Minority report on 21st century studies (D)’, International forum of Cultural Studies and modernity: proceedings, Wuhan University, Wuhan, pp. 12-18.

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