In Ken McMullen’s 1983 film Ghost Dance, Jacques Derrida, improvising the role of a professor, is asked by Pascale Ogier, improvising the role of a student, whether he believes in ghosts. Derrida answers:

That’s a difficult question. Firstly, you’re asking a ghost whether he believes in ghosts. Here, the ghost is me, since I’ve been asked to play myself in a film which is more or less improvised, I feel as if I’m letting a ghost speak for me. […] The cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms […] It’s the art of allowing the ghosts to come back. […] I believe that ghosts are part of the future and that the modern technology of images like cinematography enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us. In fact, it’s because I wished to tempt the ghosts out that I agreed to appear in a film. It could perhaps offer both us and them the chance to evoke the ghosts: the ghost of Marx, the ghost of Freud, the ghost of Kafka […] even yours! I only met you this morning but to me you’re already permeated by all sorts of phantom figures. Whether I believe in ghosts or not, I say “Long live the ghosts”. (1)

Replaying the exchange today, one remembers that both Derrida and Ogier are no longer alive, so they appear to us as ghosts in the most mundane and conventional sense, lending a prescience to Derrida’s assertion of the relationship between moving image technology and the spectral. Moving image technologies conjure up apparitions, spectral images, as might any medium. Guglielmo Marconi, Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird were each interested in spiritualism and attended séances, and their inventions became mediums that channeled spectral images of the living and the dead. Contemporary media platforms like YouTube make it possible to summon the dead at will, as indeed I did to access the Ghost Dance extract cited above.

Derrida’s interests in the spectral didn’t rest with Ghost Dance, and his invocation of Marx therein signals ghosts to come. Ten years after McMullen’s film, and four years after the Berlin Wall was dismantled, Derrida delivered his lecture Specters of Marx (1993; published later that year) as his plenary address at a conference which asked the question “Whither Marxism?”, and interrogated the relationship between state communism and Marxism’s influence on Western thought in the aftermath of Soviet totalitarianism. Derrida finds spectres everywhere, haunting and re-haunting thought. He draws on Shakespeare’s Hamlet where “the time is out of joint”; Marx via Paul Valery grappling with multiple ghosts; and, of course, Marx and Engels, where from the very beginning of The Manifesto of the Communist Party “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism” (2).

Specters of Marx is also well-known for introducing Derrida’s francophone homophonic punning concept of “hauntology”.

To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology. Ontology opposes it only in a movement of exorcism. Ontology is a conjuration. (3)

“Hauntology” is a concept that has travelled some distance over the 20 years since the publication of Specters of Marx; developed by cultural critics such as Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds to become associated primarily with musical forms of the contemporary representation of the past (4).

D'Est

As well as being the year in which Specters of Marx was delivered and published, 1993 is also the year in which Chantal Akerman made D’Est, a film that presents its own spectres as a (coincidental) parallel enquiry to Derrida’s interest in the immediate aftermath of Soviet communism. Akerman started her journey in East Germany arriving eventually in Moscow; it was “a voyage Chantal Akerman wanted to make shortly after the collapse of the Soviet bloc ‘before it was too late’” (5). Akerman recognised that something would soon pass and from her travels made an elegiac impressionistic documentary around this transitional moment. From images of peasants planting crops, driving through flat agrarian lands, tracking around snowy streets, we see large groups of people standing, apparently waiting. Maybe they await a new life, perhaps a loaf of bread, perhaps what was to come after perestroika – the deconstruction, as Derrida might have it (6) – in the wake of the glasnost, the newly decreed openness, the brave new socio-political condition they were supposed to live in? The grandeur of railway stations and restaurants become settings for an apparently displaced population, we see tableaux filmed in people’s homes, in their kitchens, as they prepare food, and play sentimental music redolent with nostalgia… for what? For the communism just past, or for an absent partner or child? We will never know as life seems weirdly both quotidian and in suspension, time seems out of joint.

Akerman makes no commentary; she allows the scenes to speak, or perhaps to not speak, for themselves; lack of contextual information coupled with the individuals’ inscrutability gives little away in this slow, measured flow of impressions.

Akerman claims that her approach was to shoot what she saw, ostensibly without an agenda, using the slow steady camera tracking or the static shot as the circumstance demanded, as the generous duration of the film might allow its context to emerge. “‘In my films I follow an opposite trajectory to that of the makers of political films,’ she once said. ‘They have a skeleton, an idea and then they put on flesh: I have in the first place the flesh, the skeleton appears later.’” (7) This corporeal metaphor again suggests a formulation of hauntology, Derrida’s “movement of exorcism” or ontology as “conjuration”. But what actually is conjured in D’Est? Is there an essence here receded from view that is never fully appreciated from appearances, a cause never fully deduced from the effect and its apparition?

D'Est

Akerman’s plan to make the film “before it was too late” begs the question: too late for what exactly? Perhaps before the society formed under Soviet communism disappears. In this sense the people in this film may have already been spectral presences, always already ghosts conjured from a past time, and now, 20 years after the event, even more so. We see them only ever in passing, without the agency of a voice to speak for themselves, and if they do it is in Russian, untranslated. And, as the title with its cardinal directional specificity would seem to assume a Western audience, like the spectre they withdraw from contact with their intended audience.

The haunting doubles. There is the spectre of Soviet communist society, but are its people or the ghosts of its people the ghosts of communism? Perhaps. Marx’s core materialist conception is that social being determines social consciousness, and in terms of historical materialism a society “does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand” (8). In D’Est we are seeing a society in the form of relations with a crumbling state apparatus, and in the 20 years since the film was made Russia has become a major global capitalist economic force. Marxism and radical leftism however maintain their influence on Western thought. Slavoj Žižek, for example, perhaps one of the most public of contemporary philosophers, has expressed his commitment to communist ideals, while acknowledging that the analysis of communism must always focus on its failure (9). But Derrida already suggested in 1993 that the “failure” of communism is not fatal:

Capitalist societies can always heave a sigh of relief and say to themselves: communism is finished since the collapse of the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century and not only is it finished, but it did not take place, it was only a ghost. They do no more than disavow the undeniable itself: a ghost never dies, it remains always to come and to come-back. (10)

And so now, 20 years after it was made, D’Est returns the Soviet Union to us, the ghosts come back not just as a memory of Soviet communism after communism, its subjects, and the places they inhabited, but also as revenant political formulation. The film’s refusal of explicit commentary, its remove from its subject, its even pace, could now be considered not so much an elegy, as I suggested above, but producing time for speculative reflection on that what haunts the 21st century is perhaps the possibility of what communism might have been, and what it could still be.

Endnotes

  1. “‘The Science of Ghosts’ – Derrida in ‘Ghost Dance’”, as the extract from Ghost Dance is titled on YouTube: http://youtu.be/0nmu3uwqzbI.
  2. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm.
  3. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, New York, p. 202.
  4. From 2006 Fisher developed his commentary through his k-punk blog (http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/), while Reynolds considers the phenomenon in writings such as “Ghosts of Futures Past: Sampling, Hauntology and Mash-ups”, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, Faber and Faber, London, 2011, pp. 311-61. As Reynolds’ book title suggests the practice is largely based in music production and design, and is closely identified with projects associated with Julian House and Jim Jupp’s Ghost Box record label.
  5. “From the East: D’Est”, Icarus Films: http://icarusfilms.com/new2003/from.html.
  6. After outlining the Marxist roots of deconstruction, Derrida reveals that “Certain Soviet philosophers told me in Moscow a few years ago: the best translation of perestroika was still ‘deconstruction’”. Derrida, p. 202.
  7. Akerman quoted in David Schwartz, “Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s Journeys Through Time, Space, and History”, Moving Image Source, July 2008: http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/bordering-on-fiction-20080702.
  8. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973.
  9. “I still consider myself, I’m sorry to tell you, a Marxist and a Communist, but I couldn’t help noticing how all the best Marxist analyses are always analyses of a failure. They have this incredible – like, why did Paris Commune go wrong? Trotskyites. Why did the October Revolution go wrong? And so on. You know, this deep satisfaction – OK, we screwed it up, but we can give the best theory why it had to happen.” Slavoj Žižek interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, 2008: http://www.democracynow.org/2008/3/11/everybody_in_the_world_except_us
  10. Derrida, 1993, p. 123.

D’Est/From the East (1993 Belgium/France/Portugal 107 mins)

Prod Co: La Sept-Arte/Lieurac Productions/Paradise Films/RTBF/RTP Prod: François Le Bayon Dir, Scr: Chantal Akerman Phot: Raymond Fromont, Bernard Delville Ed: Claire Atherton, Agnès Bruckert

About The Author

Steven Ball is an artist working across audio-visual media and performance. He is Research Fellow at Central Saint Martins in London, where he was instrumental in developing the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection