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Seeing and Speaking to Ghosts: Hauntology’s Limits for Understanding Ghosts as Beings

Phenomenology and Existentialism
jhiblog
2022-09-12
https://jhiblog.org/2022/09/12/seeing-and-speaking-to-ghosts-hauntologys-limits-for-understanding-ghosts-as-beings/

By Kit Bauserman

The academy is haunted. In the 1990s, literary and cultural criticism took a “spectral turn,” a term coined by literary scholar Roger Luckhurt to describe his field’s increasing obsession with “ghosts” and “haunting.” This pre-occupation with the spectral grew to such an extent that by the mid-2000s it became a field in its own right, termed “spectrality studies” by gothic scholar Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. This field draws its name from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, which explains hauntology, a “haunted ontology” that describes a culture’s inability to escape its past, much like the West fails to escape the specter of Marx. Though “spectrality studies” is an interdisciplinary field that has seen much success, it has its limits. To most spectral scholars, a ghost is a metaphor or an analytic frame. As such, “spectrality” and “hauntology” have little use in the fields of anthropology and ethnography. However, reconsidering the “ghost,” and encountering it as an actual ghost or as a being, provides scholars more significant insight into social, cultural, and political structures that the “spectral” cannot hope to uncover.

Spectrality studies’ history makes clear how the use of ghosts as a metaphor became widespread. The Spectralities Reader, a spectral studies anthology edited by Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, chronicles the field’s development. It likely received its name from Bernard Steigler’s 1993 interview with fellow philosopher Derrida, titled “Spectrographies.” The interview, included in Ecographies of Television, clarifies the difference between the “ghost” and the “specter.” The “ghost” is a revenant, a past that keeps returning to the present reality. It is undead. The “specter” is somewhat different. It is of the “invisible visible.” It is much like a missing puzzle piece, its conspicuous absence defining its presence. The “specter” is also a figure that observes and makes an individual feel observed. To illustrate the concept, Derrida recalled an incident where he saw the face of actress Pascale Ogier on film following her death. Her specter repeatedly returned to him, observed him, and never left him alone. Derrida likens his experience to an individual who “observes and respects the law.” The relationship between a man and the law, like the specter, concerns only the individual, and not the law itself. It is wholly one-sided.

            The response to Derrida’s work was the “spectral turn” mentioned above. The phrase first appeared in “The Contemporary London Gothic and the Limits of the ‘Spectral Turn,’” a 2002 article by Luckhurst. He critiques spectral scholarship’s inability to accomplish anything beyond pointing out cultural cycles. To him, scholars fail to engage with the ghost’s concerns. For example, in the London Gothic, ghosts signpost cultural traumas unique to the city. Only addressing those London-specific grievances halt their return. Unlike Luckhurst, Weinstock does not conceive of ghosts as limited literary figures used to critique the past. Instead, he sees them as an avenue for writers to ask questions about what futures might result from avoiding past misdeeds. Weinstock explains the “spectral turn” as an expression of various anxieties surrounding the start of the new millennium, directly contradicting Luckhurst’s idea of ghosts as distinctly localized. Weinstock’s ghost stays closer to Derrida’s, questioning our very constructions of history and time. They are confusingly atemporal, serving to correct the future by warning of past transgressions within the present.

            As Luckhurst previously established, the gothic mode and Derrida’s hauntology have a special relationship. The gothic mode, according to literary scholar Caitlyn Duffy,  is “a broad literary method that can be located through its repeated motifs, language, settings, and figures, as well as its common affects, terror and horror.” The ghosts occupying the gothic are slightly more real than in Derrida’s hauntology, where they are purely metaphors. They are characters that serve as signs out of time, warnings from the past that reflect contemporary cultural anxieties. Though to Luckhurst, ghosts’ function in the London Gothic may be limited, they have an important role in the American Gothic. The United States as a nation has a unique temporality, one Martin Procházka calls a “quasi-eternity.” It is a nation out of time, chosen by God, an empire, and a city on a hill that will never fall. Ideologically speaking, it is a nation without a past, present, or future, ever-present and timeless. This standard is impossible to reach. This impossibility, however, gives ghosts an additional function, one of social critique. Their temporality is not only used to harken to the bloody American past but to address the issues of the present and anxieties about the nation’s racial, gendered, and economic future(s). In this sense, ghosts are a vessel for the writer and the scholar to affect societal change.

            In contrast to the disciplines above, anthropologists and ethnographers are among the academics who engage with the most “real” ghosts. These ghosts are the monsters that inhabit our media and folklore. However, these academics rarely encounter ghosts personally, such as through seeing an apparition. Instead, for anthropologists and ethnographers, ghosts present themselves in the people who encounter them. Ghostly experiences shape people revealed through their beliefs and memories of those who engage them personally or through cultural channels like folk tales. It is the belief and memories, that the anthropologist and ethnographer study, spectral fingerprints on the human experience. For example, in “A Social Anthropology of Ghosts in Twenty-First-Century America,” Joseph O. Baker and Christopher D. Bader examine influences on paranormal belief, experience, and media consumption. Ethnography, a field that grew out of anthropology, engages with the spectral similarly.  In “Manifesting Spirits: Paranormal Investigation and the Narrative Development of a Haunting,” Marc A. Eaton join the Upper Midwest Paranormal (UMP) team for an investigation at the Highwayman Inn. Through ethnographic practice, he details their narrative-making process whereby different group members leverage their authority to determine the outcome of an investigation. In his article, Eaton dissects a series of debates following an incident where group member Heidi tripped and fell, prompting group leader Matthew to believe paranormal influence was involved. The group jockeyed for an explanation and put out competing narratives that alluded to the (im)possibility of paranormal influence. The group ultimately co-opts Matthew’s interpretation as the official narrative. Here we see the hand of the spectral in shaping human stories, team culture, and conflict, but we do not see the ghost itself. It is suspiciously absent.

As illustrated above, anthropologists and ethnographers come the closest to engaging ghosts as beings. They engage with the ghost’s fingerprints. For literary and cultural critics, it is a fictional vessel that co-opts their social agenda. For philosophers like Derrida and Steigler, “the ghost” is pure metaphor. These approaches to engaging monstrous and metaphorical ghosts remove an important part of the narrative in each field: the specter’s perspective. Academics often fail to engage with the ghost as a formerly human agent with unique concerns and viewpoints. Nicole Anderson, a social anthropologist, discusses such failures in anthropological and ethnographic contexts. In her article, “Monstrous Anthropologies: Is an Ethnography of Monsters Possible?,” she discusses the difficulties of applying anthropological and ethnographic methods to monstrous subjects. Often, for the ethnographer and anthropologist, like the author and cultural critic, the ghost becomes a vessel for the researcher’s ideology. They risk “imposing a rationality” on monstrous subjects through cultural relativism. The ethnographer and anthropologist risk trying to explain the monster, and its existence, as a product of a superstitious culture. This explanation resultant of an academic need for reality to be scientifically measurable.

The problem with engaging with monsters, and especially ghosts, is their immateriality. How do you engage with a subject that rarely appears, and speaks even less? There exist non-academic methods to communicate with the deceased like tarot cards and ouija boards, which have their places in ethnographic and anthropological studies. In other disciplines, using such practices simply does not pass academic scrutiny. This methodological restriction arises from misunderstanding the researcher’s purpose when engaging with monsters and the paranormal. Outside of theology and possibly the hard sciences, scholars do not need to prove the existence of ghosts. Instead, for humanities scholars, their task is to treat the ghost as if it is real to explore the social, cultural, and philosophical significance of such encounters with the spectral (see C.J. Scruton for further discussion on this topic). Academics engaging with ghosts and monsters must adopt a “multinaturalism, as suggested by anthropologists Neil Whitehead and Michael Wesch. Their “multinaturalism” recognizes ghosts might see themselves as humans see themselves, while perhaps seeing humans as we see animals.

Adopting a multi-natural perspective is more easily said than done. Without a definitive method Anderson, Whitehead, and I only charge scholars with a goal and do not provide them the tools to fill it. To this end, I would like to highlight two methods of inquiry that would be beneficial to scholars attempting to engage the spectral as beings. The first, phenomenological inquiry, specifically constitutive phenomenology, is inspired partly by Anderson’s call for an “ontological turn” in anthropology. In constitutive phenomenology, the researcher suspends their pre-conceived ideas about the phenomenon being studied and its status in the natural world to reach an intersubjective understanding of the world. As mentioned above, phenomenology allows the researcher to discard the improper question of if ghosts and monsters are real and instead focus on their being and significance. The second draws from human-animal studies (HAS). As a field, it aims not only to understand what significance animals have in the human world but to understand what animals are when divorced from human meaning, a perspective useful to all scholars engaging the spectral and monstrous. In particular, it aims to remove the ontological border between the categories of “human” and “animal” much as I am trying to with “human” and “monster.” The human, the animal, and the ghost are beings inhabiting the same world, with their own lives, thoughts, and motivations. I must note that HAS is not a perfect tool. HAS’ use of the sciences like neuropsychology and sociobiology, are currently incompatible with the spectral. Scholars must draw more from the humanistic strains of human-animal studies, rather than its scientific ones.

Though Derrida’s use of ghosts has contributed much to academic scholarship in the past thirty years, overreliance on his means of inquiry and understanding of the spectral fundamentally restricts our understanding of ghosts, and in turn, the human. An ontological turn in ethnography and anthropology, driven by contributions from philosophy and human-animal studies, allows us to approach the ghosts as beings and agents, especially formerly human ones. By adopting this new approach, scholars can not only enter new realms of knowledge beyond the human, involving the spectral and the monstrous, but uncover facets of human social, cultural, and political life the Derridean spectral cannot hope to address.


Kit Bauserman is an M.A./Ph.D. student in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. They are interested in the intersections of folklore, the Gothic, and New Media. Particular topics of interest to them include digital folklore, horror podcasts, and the American Gothic as a tool of cultural criticism.

Edited by Grant Wong

Featured Image: A scene from The Screaming Skull, a 1958 film directed by Alex Nicol. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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