The decision between theism and antitheism is not a matter of fact but of what it is possible to believe. Quentin Meillassoux introduces the “spectral dilemma” as an aporia which renders the matter undecidable. Meillassoux characterises theism and antitheism as defenses against a despair which would dissolve the very capacity for belief. This despair emanates from the “odious deaths” of those who have met their end prematurely, whose death is not the proper conclusion of a life but its violent curtailment. The “odious” death leaves a part of life unlived, a part which separates itself from the dead and visits itself upon the living as a spectre. Meillassoux calls “spectral mourning” the unlife of the spectre, which consumes the living and afflicts them with despair (odium).
Spectral mourning is mourning which cannot accomplish the task of mourning, which is to separate what can be incorporated from what must be buried. The theist demands that there exist a God in whom the unlived life of the dead can be lived: a God who can transcendently incorporate the spectre, removing the burden of impossible incorporation from the living. But for the antitheist, belief in such a God is more horrifying even than unbelief, since the odium of violent death is thereby sacralised: God not only passively permits suffering but in incorporating the spectre is wholly perverted by it, becoming an evil deity who feasts on death. Anonymous extinction is a better fate than the “spiritual death” of being worshipfully absorbed in the presence of such a deity, who insists that the evils of mortal existence be finally understood as tokens of his love.
Both the theist and the antitheist seek to remove the spectre from the domain of the living, to assign the unlived life of the dead either to transcendent incorporation in the divine or to the permanent oblivion of extinction. The hope of each is the despair of the other. The resolution proposed by Meillassoux is, in brief, that a divinity should come to exist that could accomplish the restitution desired by the theist while remaining innocent of the violence and suffering that necessitated it. The unlived life of the dead would, by a causeless stroke of contingency, be lived by them in the eternal presence of this new divinity, without entailing the prior supposition of a divine purpose necessitating their odious deaths.
A premise of Marxist economic theory, in particular of the Labour Theory of Value, is that exploitation is odious: the “surplus value” extracted from workers is a part of their life (that is, of their labour) which is taken from them and not returned. Not only is the working life of the worker actively curtailed by exhaustion and immiseration, but even the life he has left is not lived to the full inasmuch as he never enjoys the full fruits of his labours. Labour, in this account, is an aspect of the worker’s life, of his vital essence qua worker. Alienated labour is thus a form of unlived life, of life stolen from the living: this is the odium of capital, that the very “value” it creates and circulates testifies to the curtailment, the diminishment of human vital capacity.
The spectral appears as such only when life is able to be separated from the living: when the living are compelled to live less than the whole of the life that is properly theirs. In cultural terms, for example, “hauntology” denotes a staging of the spectral return of concepts and figures that are thought to have died before their time. The implicit model is one of cultural life as something separable from the actual appearance and disappearance (according to fashion and ideological expediency) of the concepts and figures that bear it. The hauntological artifact performs a role analogous to that of Meillassoux’s inexistent divinity: arising out of the intrinsic non-necessity of the symbolic order (the impasses of its attempts to naturalise or ontologically stabilize itself), it produces a new figure of the old - an apparition, a revenant - within which the unlived life of the cultural spectre can be incorporated.
Hauntology can thus be distinguished from nostalgia, which like the antitheist’s evil deity entreats us to love precisely that which, in the present moment, is most responsible for the destruction of that which it commemorates (the implicit message of the now familiar nostalgia TV shows is always that we have “moved on”, and that our enjoyment of the past is predicated upon our having arrived at a superior vantage point from which to survey it). But this distinction rests on the extent to which the hauntological revenant resists naturalization, resists representing its own appearance as necessary and thereby retroactively justifying the destruction of what went before. Hauntology certainly cannot be a “cultural logic”, or a programme for the revitalization of culture.
Perhaps the more serious problem is the extent to which, at least in the account I have given of it, hauntology remains tied to a vitalist schema: the spectral as “unlived life” can only exist to the extent that “life” is separable from the actual process of living. One retort to Meillassoux’s spectral mourner might be that no death is truly “odious” in the manner she laments: living organisms die when they die, and while their suffering is regrettable it leaves no surplus of unexpressed vital potential, no immaterial substance out of which the body of a spectre might be formed. Likewise to the Marxist: while it is unjust if the worker does not receive all to which his labours entitle him, all this talk of “alienation” amounts to treating labour power as a kind of phlogiston, expended in the process of manufacturing and somehow adhering to its products. (There is a rhetoric along these lines organized around the vital essence concentrated in the sweat of workers’ brows). Why, in short, should we hope for something for the dead other than their deaths? What more could possibly be done for them?
We could give a weak answer to these questions, to the effect that we would wish to conserve the moral force of spectral mourning - which at least has the virtue of recognizing that immiseration, exploitation and premature death are truly terrible things with an enduring claim on our ethical awareness. But it is not clear that the vitalist schema that sustains the spectral apparition does not, finally, lead to a misrecognition of just what it is about these things that is so terrible. Is it altogether certain that the best thing in life is to live life more “fully”, to live for longer and thus realize more of one’s vital potential? Is life a good in itself, such that its restraint, diminution or curtailment is necessarily evil? Vitalism goes hand in hand with affirmationism, with the assumption that more is, in and of itself, better. But if I were to make a complaint about my own life as it is lived at present, and is likely to be lived for the remainder of its duration, it would not be that I am not living as fully as I might wish, but rather that too much of my life is spent in the service of goods and too little in the service of the Good. And by “the Good” I do not mean my own impeccably virtuous vital inner flame.
Perhaps there is another basis on which we can identify the odiousness of a life that at no point coincides with the Good, that is dominated and snuffed out by callousness, greed and violence. Rather than a part of life unlived, the figure of our mourning would represent a non-vital (or vitally-indifferent) Good unattested to in a life cruelly reduced to bare survival. No longer a figure of life-death, but a figure of indifference to vitality: not crossing the boundary between the dead and the living, but undecidable in terms of the categories of life and death. Every true Good entails indifference to death, being a process in which the fallen and the unfallen are equally - indifferently - incorporated. What we should seek to recover from the political and cultural projects of the past is not their squandered vitality, but their abandoned fidelity.