"Who owns… a haunted house? Dead objects can circulate in space and change owners. Things that live throughout time cannot, in any unambiguous sense, pass into anyone’s possession. For this reason they must be approached in a different way. Tactically speaking, the one who seeks to appropriate such temporally layered objects with critical intent… must be prepared to relinquish the claim to full possession, loosen the grip on the object and call it forth, invoke it rather than seize it"
Jan Verwoert, Living With Ghosts
(Let's assume that there's no problem with the term 'haunted' - which I'm primarily defining for the purposes of this essay as the following: a place, object or person which is frequented or inhabited by ghosts, as well as considering its other meanings: preoccupied or obsessed; disturbed, distressed or worried. 'Ghost', then, needs some clarification too. For my purposes, it may mean any or all of the following: the intangible remainder of a dead person - sometimes described as their disembodies soul or spirit; a mere shadow or semblance; a trace; or a remote possibility. These terms are used in this essay as devices for thought only - not to support or deny any religious or spiritual hypothesis).
Verwoert's choice of the word 'dead' is an interesting one, implying that some objects are 'living'. Indeed, he describes some objects as living 'throughout time'. I have described my grandmother's journal - source material for Relic (2016) - as a dead document, and I would be inclined to use Verwoert's words to describe it too. It has passed into my possession, and yet it is her life, constructed from her words which are chosen to communicate her remembrances. What I hold is an object, yes, made of paper and ink. But what it contains is something which I cannot own, something which grows inside my imagination as I piece together an identity out of a combination of the person I remember, younger versions of that person which I have seen in images, this information she has chosen to share with me, the stories my grandfather and father tell, and the historical information available about the years in which she lived. It is, like many books, a dialogue between the writer and the reader, conveyed using the arbitrary signs we accept as 'writing'. The word 'dead', then, is accurate only to a point. The paper is old. The entries bear dates which are in the past, and reference past events in present tense. The pages show wear. The sellotape which fixes photos and newspaper clippings to some of the pages is yellow and has lost its stick. The writer is dead. The writing will not be added to (at least not by her). As far as we know, the mind which produced this text has now died, in the sense that she no longer interacts with the world as we perceive it. But the dialogue continues. In the way we are currently able to define the word, I am 'alive' and I still imagine, remember, suppose and enquire about her life. The journal still reveals things to me which seem more contemporary than the date at the top of the page they're written on. In 1993, Jacques Derrida coined the term 'hauntology', referring to a situation of temporal, ontological and historical disjunction, in which the seeming presence of being is superseded by a deferred non-origin. This is represented by "the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive."** He borrows from Shakespeare's Hamlet, "the time is out of joint". It has been written that the concept of hauntology is a close relative of psychogeography*, which also states that any attempt to locate the origin of identity or history is inevitably dependent on an existing set of conditions, thus making "haunting the state proper to being as such,"*** and agreeing with Verwoert that one's grip must be loosened, and the object invoked.
In the 2000s, hauntology was used in reference to paradoxes found in late modernity, particularly contemporary culture's persistent recycling of the 'retro', particularly in aesthetic terms, as well as the incapacity to escape old social forms. Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds have used the term to critique art preoccupied with this temporal disjunction and defined by a "nostalgia for lost futures."*/***
Derrida played a major role in getting the similarly themed, and chronologically earlier, work of psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok to larger audiences. Their work in question concerned transgenerational communication, and in particular the idea that "undisclosed traumas of previous generations might disturb the lives of their descendants even and especially if they know nothing about their distant causes".** In their case, a 'phantom' is "the presence of a dead ancestor in the living Ego, still intent on preventing its traumatic and usually shameful secrets from coming to light".** Unlike a traditional ghost story - in which the phantom might return from the dead in order to reveal something forgotten, or hidden, or to right a wrong, or to deliver a otherwise unheeded message - in Abraham and Torok's scenario the phantom is dishonest; it intends to mislead the haunted subject and to ensure the continued shrouding of its secret. In their case, "phantoms are not the spirits of the dead, but ‘les lacunes laissées en nous par les secrets des autres’."** The effect of this theory about phantoms with regards to ghost stories would have to be that fiction is a medium through which to encrypt the secrets of past generations, rather than simply a way to communicate imagined (or even observed) supernatural phenomena.
So, coming back to Verwoert, we could attempt to expand his view that "the object of appropriation… must today be made to speak not only of its place within the structural order of the present material culture but also of the different times it inhabits and the different historical vectors that cross it"^, in the direction of the psychoanalytical. If we supposed, for example, that his "object of appropriation" was a secret, then we would conclude that this secret must not be considered in isolation, but in terms of all its contexts - temporal, geographical, political, etc - both in the present of the considering, but also in the "historical vectors that cross it". Suppose, for example, that a daughter kept secret her knowledge about a parent's infidelity. It would certainly seem reasonable that she would need to consider this secret in relation to her relationship with that parent now, but also then, at the time of discovery, as well as at certain temporal points between those. Further, it would impact upon her relationship with the parent she had not told, and siblings, and friends, and her perception of herself as, perhaps, 'loyal' or 'deceptive' or 'alibi'; depending on who she was considering herself in relation to, and at what moment of their relationship.
Perhaps now is a good moment to go back to my consideration of furnishings, as written about in a recent post. Perkins Gilman's Yellow Wallpaper, for example, could be considered in Verwoert's terms, I would suggest. Let's take his description of appropriation as having "an intense sense of an interruption of temporal continuity, a black-out of historic time".^ It would certainly be possible to attribute interruption of the continuity of time to Perkins Gilman's narrator, trapped as she is in a space of "perfect rest", and surrounded by the wallpaper she detests so much. Perhaps we can consider not the wallpaper but the narrator herself as the appropriated object, given that she has been forced into a context she does not have prior experience of, and into which she did not choose to go. The manifestation of this non-choice (as well as whatever symptoms she apparently displayed that made others choose this for her) is for the wallpaper to begin to take on "a multitude of competing and overlapping temporalities"^ in the appropriated object's imagination/perception, resulting at least in part from her displacement. She at times seems to be "neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive,"** as Derrida has described, but in a non-temporality in which her previous experiences, observations and imaginative inventions become equally relevant and equally real. Verwoert is, of course, talking about a post-modern object, not a fictional narrator created before the turn of the 20th century. However, it is an interesting challenge to think about her in this way, as an object displaced from her usual context and yet subject to the various overlapping experiences and "multiplicity of spatialized temporalities"^ inherent within her.
* Gallix, A. (2011). Hauntology: A not-so-new critical manifestation.
** Davis, C. (2005) Hauntology, spectres and phantoms
*** Fisher, M. (2014) Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures
^ Verwoert, J. (2007) Living with Ghosts: From Appropriation to Invocation in Contemporary Art
Lisa Stokes, Doll and Shoe Box (1999)