Postmodern Encounters – Derrida and the End of History

By Stuart Sim


QUESTIONING HISTORY ------------------------


If history is defined as humankind’s memory, how can its being over be a source of anything but horror?


 “As a man without memory and self-knowledge is a man adrift, so a society without memory (or more correctly, without recollection) and self-knowledge would be a society adrift.”  Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History, London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1970, p. 13.


Derrida asked in Specters of Marx, “How can one be late to the end of history?  A question for today.”  In this book Derrida tries to resurrect the reputation of Karl Marx.  This is in the face of the collapse of the competing ideology. 


One way he does this is by pointing out that there is more than one Marx.  This pisses off classical Marxists. 


The book is a response to Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992).


He says that “This triumph has never been so critical, fragile, threatened, even in certain regards catastrophic, and in sum bereaved?”


It is a confidence trick.


But Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard have also contributed to a debate that entails more that goes under the name of “endism”.  It is one of the distinguishing features of the postmodern culture. 



Purposely obscure and often accused of pessimism.  Famously argues the counter intuitive idea that writing precedes speech.


ENDISM -------------------------

‘Endism’ is a catchy name for a wide range of positions and thinkers whose common element is that they are announcing ‘the end’ of something or other – history, humanism, ideology, modernity, philosophy, Marxism, the author, ‘man’, and the world.

The new millennium has given it momentum.  Derrida has said that the change in centuries has contributed to the apocalyptic tone in philosophy. 

Many of these ends are connected.  When ideology ends, so does history; when modernity ends, so do humanism and Marxism; when our current concept of ‘man’ ends, so does humanism again.  Environmentalists talk of the end of civilization.  Lyotard is worried about the burning out of the sun in 4.5 billion years. 

Endism fits in well with the post modern’s end of man / the subject idea as professed by Foucault meaning the death of the humanist version of man in which he is the measure of all things and can constantly improve himself.  

Man is a recent invention.


Claude Levi Strauss, the anthropologist downplayed the significance of the individual.   And Lyotard in the Post Modern Condition (1979) said we should doubt meta-narratives (such as those that have individuals in the middle).


FUKUYAMA AND THE END OF HISTORY-------------------------------


Fukuyama said we’ve reached an end point in mankind’s ideological evolution.  This had appeal after the fall of communism.  Hereditary monarchy, fascism and communism were done for.   Liberal democratic capitalism may be the final form of government.  Anyone who deviates from this is either misguided or an enemy of mankind.

This was an extension of the ‘end of ideology’ debate put forward by Daniel Bell in the 1950s and 1960s.  But either you mean that your opponent has an ideology and you don’t, or you mean that you just want an end to their ideology and not yours.    

            Fukuyama did take pains to point out that he only meant the end of history “. . . as a single, coherent, evolutionary process”.  It is the end of the grand struggles of Hegel and Marx.  Hegel saw the end at the Prussian state and Marx at communism, but they were wrong.  Capitalism is the winner.

            Also, cultural relativism will die as there will be a continuing convergence into the institutions governing the most advanced societies.  The only cloud is Nietzsche’s last man.  Our dissatisfaction with peace will lead us back into history with all its wars, injustice and revolution.


            BAUDRILLARD AND THE END OF HISTORY-----------------------


            Science is the post modern path into the unknown and tradition can offer little help in such inquiries (grand narratives are of no help here).  Baudrillard says that history is the source of humankind’s problems, rather than the site of them.  “It is precisely I history that we are alienated,  and if we leave history we also leave alienation (not without nostalgia, it must be said, for that good old drama of subject and object).”

            His critics say that leaves him accepting the status quo politically.  Baudrillard recommends dropping out of political affairs.  He and Fukuyama would make ruling easier.


            LYOTARD AND THE END OF HISTORY----------------------------------


            Technoscience will struggle to get life past our universe, it will not, however be that of man.  Bodies are to be regarded as a liability.  You have software that is only concerned with efficiency taking over. 

            There is no history here either.  But it is dark.  Do computers have history?  Do things happen to them?  Alienation disappears in an endless present.  Computers go along their tasks, hyper-efficiently and bodiless, minus ‘the contingency and freedom proper to the human project”.  We have a duty to oppose this but will probably lose. 


            CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE END OF HISTORY---------------------


            We may be an intermediate step in the development of consciousness in the universe.  We’re only a few billion years after the creation and may be able to stop the demise of the universe.  We may survive without giving it all to unconscious computers. 

            This is the vision of Paul Davies.  Positive but speculative. 




1-     Language is marked by instability and indeterminacy of meaning;

2-     That given such, no method of analysis can have special claim to authority in regards to text interpretations;

3-     So interpretation is more like game-playing than we think.


It is a thoroughgoing form of skepticism, but Derrida’s criticism of the End of History is a positive assertion.  Derrida says deconstruction has no concepts, nevertheless he has terms that function like concepts in discourse. 

“differance” crosses difference and deferral.  This shows the slipperiness of speech.  He deconstructs more from the inside and I more from the outside.

“Erasure” he can use the same term as his opponents and deny it has the same meaning.  All is in quotation marks.  But is this an intellectual form of cheating?

He wants to counteract the metaphysics of presence.  Meaning cannot be passed to paper or to others in speech in a pure form.  This is a Western ideal that founded us – the idea of ‘logocentricity’.  Meaning is rather a process in a constant state of change. 

All discourse is highly rhetorical and involves the play of language.  Philosophy is no more true than literature.   Metaphors about precision not withstanding. 

So the ‘End of History’ is an unclear posit that cannot but be misconstrued.  It seeks to render all other interpretations of the phenomenon invalid and fix it.  All is messier.


THE POLITICS OF DECONSTRUCTION------------------------------------


Derrida salutes Marx though his writing has been said to be bourgeois.  He does so saying that there is more than one Marx.  Marx cannot be gone as he doesn’t believe in ‘epistemological breaks.’

Marx isn’t hermeneutically sealed in something called history.  He is woven into the tapestry of our lives.  He can’t just end.

If you try to edit him out of our cultural heritage, he still sits there like a ghost.  This is an interesting image as the Communist Manifest starts by invoking the image of a ghost: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.’ 

Derrida refers to ‘spectropolitics’ and ‘geneology of ghosts’ (Marx terms) that show his obsession with ghosts. 

Marx will continue to haunt us (‘hauntology’ is Derrida’s term) as history is seamless. 

Besides Marx’s message is very urgent today.  It allows us to resist the end of history and those who would manipulate that concept for their own sociopolitical advantage. 




The Enlightenment project sought to kill the twin evils of socio-political oppression and material want.  The ideologies tussled and liberal democratic capitalism won.  But only the enlightenment project’s view of history died.  History isn’t a clear cut thing.  Marx will haunt. 

We no longer read Marx for “its truth”, says lyotard.  Lyotard wants to keep him for his nuisance value.  And post-modernists often have a ‘who cares?’ attitude.  Derrida says, however, that Marx is a cultural figure of consequence.

Not reading him will be more and more seen as an intellectual fault.  “When the dogma machine and the ‘Marxist’ ideological apparatuses (States, parties, cells, unions, and other places of doctrinal production) are in  the process of disappearing, we no longer have any excuse, only alibis, for turning away from this responsibility.  There will be no future without this.  Not without Marx. . .”

The Marx of his youth had already died.  There is déjà vu around his decline.  The origins of the decline go further back yet.  Not only can one be late for the end of history, one cannot prevent oneself from being late for its beginning either. 

The ghost is just at the beginning.  The vagueness of the previous statement shows that all is fluid.  The meaning of the end will elude us.  To claim otherwise is to be totalitarian.  Fukuyama is, in that sense, like Stalin or Mao.  Derrida is anti – authoritarian.




Derrida also attacks Fukuyama’s book directly.  Accusations range from naivete to bad faith to pseudo-evangelism.  The main one, though, is that he fails to distinguish the real from the ideal.  Fukuyama says that even if some lapse back to other forms of government (theocracy, military dictatorship) the ideal of liberal democracy cannot be improved upon. 

Derrida asks why an ideal is having such a hard time establishing itself.

Fukuyama says it is doe to unequal social development and residual human perversity.

Derrida doesn’t buy it and says the gap between the real and the ideal even shows itself in the oldest, most advanced of liberal democracies.  Fukuyama is misreading the contemporary global political situation.  Liberal democracy is an ideology in a virtual state of siege.  It is an isolated minority form of government in a state of dysfunction. 

Unequal social development and perversity don’t explain that.  Unemployment and homelessness, the arms industry and the manipulation of the UN show it ain’t all its cracked up to be. 

“Never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity.”


We need a new international against justice as spurred by the ‘spirit’, not the letter, of Marx.  Despite American style evangelisms, Marxist cries for equality pervade the earth.


A QUESTION FOR TODAY? -----------------------------------------


Derrida is out to restrain Western triumphalism.  History doesn’t end by fiat of ideologue.  So what lies behind this triumphalism, but intolerance towards ways of life other than one’s own.  What does the end of history exclude?

It excludes dissent.  Dissent kept Western capitalists relatively honest.  Now what? (Asks Zygmunt Bauman).  This is living without an alternative.  Capitalism rampant is dangerous.  Being late to the end of history is what one should to for resistance’s sake.  This is why we must keep alive the spirit of Marx. 

The author would like to point out, however, that this reading implies that liberal democracy and ‘capitalism’ cannot just ‘end’ either.  Communism has reemerged in the old U.S.S.R.  Spectres are a permanent factor in our lives.  Hauntology.  They are even there even if they do not exist, yet.

We have no option but to extend history.  We cannot go forward without ghosts. 

Inequality is not over.

Derrida is not providing triumphalism of the left either.  It is not a mirror image of Fukuyama.  Fukuyama should ask for a reengagement in debate, not an end to it.