Hauntology And The Problem Of Defining A Ghost

Gina Nordini
Gina Nordini

Ghosts serve as links to the past — that which was once alive is now dead, yet still present. The once-living being can still be interacted with through their spectral representative. A look at the interaction between a ghost and its witness reveals not only truths about the past, but important details about the witnesses interaction with the past. Because the past that comes back to haunt is frequently a painful or traumatic one, a look into trauma theory helps inform the development of ghosts in creative narratives. In this article, I will be looking at three typical responses to the appearance of a ghost, and how those responses speak to the effect, traumatic memory has upon the trauma survivor. The witness to a ghost within a work of fiction has the choice to respond with fear, with desire, or in rarer cases, with a neutral, non-emotive reaction — three concepts I will soon address.

When approaching the topic of ghosts for academic study, the first challenge is how to define a ghost. Recognized as a supernatural, fictional creation, there is not much concrete evidence to prove their existence. Without undeniable scientific proof of their existence, we must turn to other sources to determine a ghost’s qualities. We must turn to anecdotal evidence and cultural representations — folklore, literature, art, and film.

Unsurprisingly, relying on such sources can quickly become problematic. In the traditional academic study, anecdotes do not stand up to the same tests of credibility as scientific research and findings. While cultural representations carry credibility in such fields as anthropology, history, and cultural studies, they are no less problematic. Natural, cultural differences result in varied understandings and representations of “the ghost.” Even within cultures (or perhaps as a result of cross-cultural interactions), ghosts do not manifest in the same way or carry the same purpose. Artistic choice further diversifies — and further problematizes — what a ghost is.

In the 1990s, French philosopher Jacques Derrida brought academic weight to the study of ghosts and their multitudinous manifestations with his work, ‘Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International.’ His coining of the term “hauntology” opened up exploration of the ways in which traditional understanding of the present are complicated by the liminal figures that “mediate the sensuous and the non-sensuous, visibility and invisibility, presence and absence, reality and not-yet-reality, being and non-being” — in other words, the ghostly. Hauntology, while rarely focusing on explicit ghosts, has since been used to explore hauntings within a variety of cultural and academic fields.

Haunting becomes a particularly rich topic of study when looking at processes of grief, memory, and cultural identity. In their 2014 article ‘Toward a Critical Hauntology: Bare Afterlife and the Ghosts of Ba Chúc,’ Martha Lincoln and Bruce Lincoln look at both the development of hauntology and its practical application to sites of haunting and collective trauma in Vietnam. They examine two proximal memorials — one a government-constructed mass grave that violates local customs on the treatment of the dead, the other a banyan tree that is said to contain the souls of those who were tortured and murdered at its base, and which continues to capture souls in its annual causation of severe traffic accidents. Martha Lincoln and Bruce Lincoln emphasise the importance of ghosts and their various manifestations in forcing us to acknowledge, revisit, mourn, and commemorate episodes of violence, death, and injustice. The hauntings that result from these same episodes speak powerfully to the role of traumatic memory.

While Martha Lincoln and Bruce Lincoln use the historical example of the Vietnam War, they allow that “contemporary hauntologists have primarily concerned themselves with literary representation and figures of the imaginary.” In making this allowance, they open their own theory and analysis to application to characters within novels of the ghostly, as these characters are frequently (if not always) informed by “real humans who suffered pain and injustice, died in terrible circumstances, and were consigned to oblivion, but somehow lingered in memory, scandal, and rumor… [who] come to light, first in the experience, research, and imagination of authors, then on the pages those authors write.” The characters we encounter in fiction reflect real experiences of trauma. Whether directly linked to the author’s own trauma, or secondarily brought to light through research and imagination, these characters do have their roots in the real. The ways in which their trauma manifests, and in which they respond to it, is not disconnected from the experience of trauma in real life.

The ability of ghosts to force revisiting and acknowledgement of troubled history is a well-documented one within the scope of hauntology. Claudia Ruitenberg explores the spectres left by memory and past, specifically the haunting presences from her own childhood in the Netherlands. In ‘Education as Séance: Specters, Spirits, and the Expansion of Memory,’ she works her way through the various unavoidable histories that “will not settle down until we receive them.” For examples, we might look at existing institutions, linguistic histories, and cultures. Academic institutions are invariably haunted by histories of oppression of their own students — from women to people of colour. Language is constructed from terms whose meanings change over time, but never shed their etymological basis. Claudia Ruttenberg’s own childhood was one informed by a culture with a history of religious and intellectual persecution. These haunting histories and ghosts (both real and implied) form a “critical inheritance” which must be engaged with. Claudia Ruitenberg advocates for a relationship with this critical inheritance. I too will advocate for active engagement with the ghost as a basis for an analysis of a haunting presence.

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