Ghosts--in theory--in theater.
Somewhat appropriately, after theory's only seeming death, ghosts (as objects or actors) and haunting (as a system of relations) have gained a curious currency in and beyond a strictly theoretical discourse. To begin the 2013 Specialities Reader, Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren argue that ghosts have become "conceptual metaphors permeating global (popular) culture and academia alike" (1). But with their proliferation and diffusion, ghosts have lost their functional coherence and agency as ghosts; Blanco and Peeren passingly acknowledge the possibility of haunting becoming "overstretched" (15). In this essay I heed and extend their warning to show how haunting indeed has been overstretched with ghosts becoming part of a troublingly imprecise vocabulary that serves to disembody and disengage theory. I then proceed to propose that theater studies--conspicuously absent from the Blanco and Peeren collection and the critical conversation more broadly--provides a productive framework to recover and to better understand the ghost's powerful and crucially unstable position in contemporary thought.
A language of ghosts, specters, and apparitions--and the variations are telling--has come to summarize and symptomatize the big questions that high theory seeks to address. (2) Theater critic Alice Rayner describes some of these stakes: "Ghosts animate our connections to the dead, producing a visible, material, and affective relationship to the abstract terms of time and repetition, sameness and difference, absence and presence" (xiii). Rayner names but a few of the aporetic pairings that haunting has been invoked to describe, animate, or mediate. Elsewhere, ghosts have been summoned to speak to any number of other topics of theoretical concern: speech and writing, fact and fiction, mind and body, archive and repertoire. But with critics deploying ghosts as heuristic for such a wide set of objects and inquiries, ghosts quite simply have ceased to be ghosts. Standing in for other questions, ghosts begin to lose both their identity and their difference, their uncertain substance and their certain agency. Subsumed into a semiotic economy, the ghost becomes a sign without a referent, and haunting a metaphysical exercise rather than a transformative encounter between the living and the dead.
With special guidance from how the ghost has been thought in theater--and particularly in Hamlet--this essay follows the ghost through the death of theory, as the death of theory, and instead of the death of theory. My interest is in maintaining the ghost's alterity, its resistance, and its agency, as a figure of life-and-death that resists and renews thought. (3) The ghost's stubborn obscurity and its resistance to reading make us read ourselves--and our position in reading--differently. If and when a ghost appears on stage, in and among the materials of the world, it tests credibility and it induces doubt and wonder, and that does something--or at least it seems to. Theater and theory, through what follows, share a persistent curiosity about and a commitment to what seems.
I begin by acknowledging the ghost's role as a figure--"It is perhaps the hidden figure of all figures"--in philosophical thought and I then describe its recent, disengaged invocations (Derrida, Specters of Marx 150). Along this trajectory, a note in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's 1944 The Dialectic of Enlightenment provides a first attempt to establish the ghost as a distinct object of theory. Horkheimer and Adorno's "On the Theory of Ghosts" then returns in sociologist Avery Gordon's work in the milieu of theory's seeming death, and I read her 1997 Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination as the touchstone for the recent trends. Her text provides the most sustained, if still incomplete, account of what we may mean when we speak of ghosts. Gordon expands on Horkheimer and Adorno's fragment and develops haunting as part of a methodology that challenges its readers to "imagine otherwise." While Gordon's work offers flexible tactics for making the world "less damaging," her project's aspiration for a "grounded theory" is inhibited by ghosts' strange, effective absence from the text.
To think through and to reframe this absence, I turn to the ghost as it has long been thought, invoked, and embodied in theater, to offer a grounded theory equipped to "imagine otherwise." Following the work of Alice Rayner and Herbert Blau in particular, theater becomes thought--rather than an object of it--and in this terrain, the ghost assumes a body and an effective relation to the material conditions of the world. While theater's ghost maintains both its difference and indifference on the borders of life-and-death and fact-and-fiction, it remains capable of producing material effects where and when it does appear. Despite its uncertain residence and its free movement in time, the ghost is substantial and effective in its untimely performance. In theater's seeming, the ghost becomes an unpredictable figure of resistance and interruption, and a reminder of theory's persistent activity.
While the ghost has been invoked to describe any number of phenomena, it is powerful precisely because of its resistance to signification and to discipline. Ghosts are better understood, I argue, as productive provocations that elude our critical grasp. They remain in the space of the question, near the "Who's there?" that famously opens Hamlet. Ghosts' power resides in the shocks they provide, their disruptions to time and space, their uncanny and unexpected guidance, and how they move us--quite literally. While reckoning with ghosts as figures of experience as well as signification, this essay will also illuminate some of theater and theory's shared epistemological conditions, their principled uncertainty on the borders of life-and-death.
Jacques Derrida, after death, indicates this essay's stakes as well as their deferral in time: "everything begins by the apparition of a specter. More precisely by the waiting for this specter" (Specters of Marx 2).
Gordon's 1997 Ghostly Matters sketches the parameters for the recent turn to ghosts, for something like a "spectral turn" at the end of a century. Jeffrey Weinstock explicitly names this turn, opening his 2004 Spectral America, "Our contemporary moment is a haunted one" (3). Gordon engages this apparent Zeitgeist to show how haunting will provide a methodological means to cross disciplinary boundaries, to recuperate underrepresented subjects, and to interpret the world differently. To properly recognize ghosts in the world, Gordon excavates a genealogy in which ghosts have been taken seriously as objects or figures of thought. As Derrida would stress in what Gordon calls his own "theory of the specter," "an inheritance is never a given, it is always a task" (Gordon 210; Derrida, Specters of Marx 67). Gordon produces her inheritance by locating the ghost in two strands of theory: first, as a figure of historical mediation for Marxism, and secondly as a symptom of ancestral anxiety in Freudian psychoanalysis. Derrida pursues similar lines with the same tasking (with Shakespeare as a supplement): "the singular ghost, ... the arch-specter, is a father or else it is capital" (Specters of Marx 173). He fractures this gathering with the compossible or; the ghost, it seems, can be two things or in two places at once.
Gordon is a sociologist and her appeals to the ghostly, the latent, and the liminal seem digressive from if not transgressive to the study of human society; Gordon's invocations in this way remark the ghost's anti-disciplinary mobility. She seizes on the Marxist term "mediation" to conjoin haunting to her field of sociology. After a nod to Raymond Williams, she defers to the Frankfurt School, and particularly to Horkheimer and Adorno's The Dialectic of Enlightenment (and Horkheimer and Adorno will in turn turn to Freud, to whom Gordon herself will later turn). (4) Horkheimer and Adorno's two-page note, "On the Theory of Ghosts," provides the first self-conscious theory of ghosts, but it is provocatively incomplete.
The ghost appears theoretically for the first time in the back matter of The Dialectic of Enlightenment. While ghosts always have served dramatic, conceptual, and rhetorical roles in philosophy--perhaps most notably in G. W. F. Hegel's expansive and varied usage of Geist--Horkheimer and Adorno move to produce an unprecedented theory on or of ghosts. Their "On the Theory of Ghosts" ("Zur Theorie der Gespenster") lies outside the proper work, amidst the nearly sixty pages gathered as "Notes and Sketches." (5) This note itself is divided in two, with an internal "Post-script" articulating another break or deferral. The Dialectic of Enlightenment is composed of what its authors call "fragments united," and the "Notes and Sketches" is a gathering of pertinent materials just beyond the scope of the primary work's unifying principles.
"On the Theory of Ghosts" begins with Horkheimer and Adorno paraphrasing Freud's discussion of the dead from Totem and Taboo. The authors summarize Freud's position and offer their critique within a single sentence: "Freud's theory that the belief in ghosts comes from the evil thoughts of the living about the dead, from the memory of old death wishes, is too narrow" (178). In Horkheimer and Adorno's summary, Freud not uncharacteristically conceives of the ghost as a psychological conflict with the past, a conflict that typically finds Oedipal form; the arch-specter here is a father. Horkheimer and Adorno intervene to suggest that this too-narrow ghost is only a symptom of the broader and important relationship between the living and the dead, a relationship that becomes manifest--psychologically, historically, rhetorically--with the appearance of a ghost.
Strangely, in this first theory of ghosts, the ghost is largely absent. The ghost operates as a provocation, an indication of thoughts on the border of life and death. As in the ghost theories that will follow, Horkheimer and Adorno's does not find or define a ghost; it is tellingly an encounter that leads elsewhere, to another scene. Their shifting object echoes Hamlet's first movements when he sees a ghost, "It waves me forth again: I'll follow it ... Whither wilt thou lead me? Speak, I'll go no further," and Scene 4 seamlessly has become Scene 5 (1.4.68, 1.5.1). Horkheimer and Adorno's ghost--here Gespenster--appears in the title of the note, but never again, as such. It recurs with a difference in their reference to Freud, as Gespensterglaube or belief-in-ghosts, which in the spirit of German nouns joins belief and ghost together. The final time the ghost surfaces it is invoked rhetorically, when the authors describe cults of the dead, and here the ghost shifts shape; it is now a Spuk. (6) And Horkheimer and Adorno only name this bygone Spuk to indicate the ghost's historical obsolescence. Spurred by Freud's account of Gespensterglaube, Horkheimer and Adorno's attention strays from their title to the broader, related question of the present's relation to the past, the living's to the dead. The two-page note addresses death and the dead much more than ghosts: forms of Tod and Toten appear a dozen times, and the note ends with this statement: "The living vent on the dead their despair that they no longer give thought to themselves" (179). The missing ghost, hailed in the title, works here only as a kind of invitation, a point of departure, and perhaps a felt absence.
In this back-matter note, Horkheimer and Adorno propose a new, "proper relationship" to the dead that reflects the historiography of The Dialectic of Enlightenment more generally. In the introduction Horkheimer and Adorno describe a recuperation of the past's hopes, suggesting a project of dead redemption: "What is at stake is not conservation of the past but the fulfillment of past hopes" (xvii). It is in the spirit of past hopes that the authors propose a "proper relationship" with the dead. The living must listen to ghosts to forge (or recall) kinship with the dead, because "we, like them, are the victims of the same condition and the same disappointed hope" (178). The ghost, in this theory, becomes a figure of mediation between the particular conditions of modernity and our disappointed hopes, but the authors give little indication of what or where these ghosts are.
In returning to these ghosts some fifty years later, Gordon seeks to define a different relationship to the past, to rediscover the past's hopes and to negotiate their recovery. Haunting provides a "particular mediation" that "describes the process that links an institution and an individual, a social structure and a subject, and history and a biography" (19). Haunting for Gordon becomes a wide theory of relations and, despite its purported particularity, it stands in for many of the sociohistorical dynamics that theory, and particularly Marxist theory, seeks to address. After theory's only proverbial death--one kind of disappointed hope--haunting recuperates theory's relevance and dreams of a fresh beginning, built on the past's ideals rather than the impasses of the present. But in this broad conceptual sweep, haunting also risks generalizing and obscuring theory's history of discoveries and disagreements; it risks becoming a new form of "forgetting rationalized as tact" (Horkheimer and Adorno 178).
In the critical discourse in Gordon's wake, haunting has indeed become a progressively imprecise vocabulary. "Ghosts" or "Haunting" have become convenient framing devices in the humanities and social sciences, a shorthand for acknowledging--but limiting our engagement with--the big questions of theory, whether life and death, self and other, world and text. Ghosts and haunting, and their many symptoms and synonyms, have become a standard and under-interrogated vocabulary with which to address history, influence, inheritance, movement, diaspora. On library shelves are gathered scores of these recent deferrals, across many disciplines: Emerson's Ghosts (2007), Durkeims Ghosts (2006), and Ghosts of Spain (2007) sit beside The Spectre of Promiscuity (2007), Apparitions of Asia (2008), and Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity (2010). Without specific reference to a body or an appearance, "haunting" articulates something relational: Haunting Capital (2006), Haunting the Korean Diaspora (2008), and Haunted Images (2008). While each of these works comes to terms with what haunting means to its specific context, the varied usage lacks a coherent ground for what we actually mean when we speak of ghosts. A ghost may be a nod to sinister influences, to meaningful absences, to memory, or to geography's uneven contours.
Among this recent gathering of ghostly publications, Gordon's Ghostly Matters has served as a crucial point of return and a kind of note on method. Gordon herself both owns and shrugs off the boldness of her proposed methodology: "The method here is everything and nothing much really" (24). Across the book-length study, she proposes haunting as a way to "imagine otherwise," a phrase that becomes both an analytical tool and a utopian call. Gordon interpolates imagining-otherwise in the interval between Marx's interpreting the world and changing it: "We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there" (5). With the mobility of this metaphorical home, there also lies a distinct Adorno echo. In Minima Moralia, Adorno relates Nietzsche's self-proclaimed "good fortune" in not owning a home, adding: "Today ... it is part of morality not to be at home in one's home" (39). Whether from pragmatism, pessimism, or both, Adorno extends the sweep of Gordon's call to live elsewhere: Part of morality for Adorno is in recognizing the insufficiency of the aspiration. He proposes instead that one reside in the moving tension, in the elsewhere-that-is-here, Unheimlichkeit as permanent crisis--the concept with which Gordon will begin her second chapter.
Gordon's method, which is everything and nothing, has gained wide currency across disciplines, with the work's popularity leading to a second edition in 2008.7 But that methodology was unsettling when the book first appeared and particularly within sociology. In 1999 Dorothy E. Smith reviewed Ghostly Matters for the American Sociology Association's Contemporary Sociology. Smith's review is unconventional, and her expression of "disquiet" aptly illuminates her object's provocations. Smith begins by appealing to her personal reaction: "I am not at home with this book and had difficulty writing a review ... I've written this to discover and explicate the sources of my discomfort" (120). Smith's not-at-home-ness rings with the book's own exploration of Unheimlichkeit, and she views the act of review-writing as a means to discover her discomfort's latent causes, a kind of writing cure. Smith identifies two sources of her disquiet: Gordon's reading of literary texts and her "political desperation," what Smith dubs "impotent" Marxist dogma. Published in 1999, the review illuminates an anxiety regarding disciplinary boundaries as well as that historical moment's cynicism towards something like bygone theory. Gordon's work importantly recognizes this theoretical twilight but rather than dismissing the past, she strives to reinvigorate our relationship to it.
In the "Introduction to the New Edition," Gordon reflects on the conceptual development of haunting in the original. Her remarks reveal the concept's discursive productivity and the avenues it has opened for other scholars as well as the difficulty it poses for definition. On a single page, Gordon suggests that haunting is: a "language," an "experiential modality," a "way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known," an "animated state," that which "raises specters," a "frightened experience," "precisely the domain of turmoil and trouble," and "that moment ... when things are not in their assigned places" (xvi). Amidst these definitions and associations, haunting becomes an extremely supple logic with which to connect disparate ideas and to express complex relationships.
Within the book itself, however, Gordon's haunting maintains a much clearer conceptual coherence, and perhaps the new edition's call for summary yielded more effusion than precision. As she puts it in the first chapter, Gordon's haunting provides "a different way of seeing, one that is less mechanical, more willing to be surprised, to link imagination and critique, one that is more attuned to the task of conjur[ing] up the appearances of something that is absent'" (24). (8) Gordon aims to supplement positivistic modes of knowledge production, hoping that "the result will not be a more tidy world, but one that might be less damaging" (19). Her approach strives to expand her disciplinary purview, to fight against what she perceives to be conservative sociology's reductive descriptions of the world. Imagining a world at once less tidy and less damaging, she appeals to the fictional and the artful, in a field in which such maneuvers are not always routine.
In the midst of this proposed methodology, however, ghosts themselves are again strangely absent, as they were in Horkheimer and Adorno. (9) In the second chapter, "distractions," Gordon is inspired by Sabina Spielrein's absence from a photograph at the Weimar Psychoanalytic Congress in 1911. Spielrein had intended to attend this meeting, and her absence is translated into the figurative "ghost" that Gordons research follows. Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Gordon recognizes Freud (or his milieu) as a crucial ancestor, but the ghosts remain absent. In recovering Spielrein's place in psychoanalysis--Gordon argues that Spielrein developed the death drive a decade before Freud--she describes Freud and Spielrein writing about parallel "haunting" experiences. These moments are instances of the optical uncanny, the Unheimlich; they involve seeing otherwise, but they do not involve seeing the dead as perceivably present. Gordon selects excerpts from Spielrein's journal and Freud's "The Uncanny" to relay moments when they both misrecognize themselves in reflections: In distress, Spielrein sees herself as a wolf in a mirror and Freud sees his estranged double in a train compartment's window.
The ghostly then becomes an exegetical device, a conjuration that belies the "grounded theory" to which Gordon aspires (8). Throughout the text, the ghost neither appears nor acts like it might on stage. It is invoked by Gordon to describe a felt disturbance, an absence cause, a subjective disquiet. In the chapter on Luisa Valenzuela He Who Searches, Gordon writes that seeing a ghost is the occasion at which "All of a sudden your thinking is stopped, shocked, as it were, into a configuration or conjuncture that crystallizes the social gist of a dramatic or mundane event" (65). But the cause-she is responding to Walter Benjamin on materialist history--is not a ghost. The ghost, the spirit, and the dead are absent from the dramatic scene: ghosts are heuristic for, among other things, the critic's work, the transformation of the social into gist, the transubstantiation of the world into meaning.
The concept of haunting, in the sociological imagination, is productive in its call to imagine the relations among knowledge, power, and experience differently. But Gordon's proposed method, in others' hands, slips into cruder conjurations. When she suggests that "we will have to talk to and listen to ghosts," the syntax reveals the danger: that we may speak before we listen, that we invent before we read (23). Conjuring shifts the posture of hauntology's waiting; it actively seeks, it induces and invents, it already decides among compossible pasts. With Gordon's suggestion that "we have to learn how to conjure in an evocative and compelling way," conjuration actually produces something other than haunting (22).
These mechanics of ghostly matters welcome generalization and distortion. Gordon's ghost becomes a flexible figure without grounding, an actor subject to a critic's direction or to a conjurer's hand. The critic remains in a position to produce the world in his image or according to her desire. As Alice Rayner puts it, "Under scholarly scrutiny, in other words, ghosts tend to become safely domesticated by our turning them into significance rather than experience" (xxii). As Rayner will argue in Ghosts, theater in theory or as theory maintains the conditions of experience against signifying labor, while still abiding that tension. (10) Theater is "where appearance and disappearance reproduce the relations between the living and the dead, not as a form of representation, but as a form of consciousness that has moved beyond dualities and problems of representation without disregarding them" (xvi).
The ghost, in theory, is productive because of its alterity from and deceptive similarity to lived experience, its sense of surprise. It is a thing that resists reading and makes us read ourselves differently. Theory and theater's ghosts not only are something, but they do something--or at least they seem to. Rayner, who also defers to Gordon in her introduction, describes these ghostly matters for the theater: "Theater is where ghosts best make their appearances and let communities and individuals know that we live amid secrets that are hiding in plain sight" (xxxv). Like her precedents, Rayner defers to psychoanalysis--dramatically--with the echo of the purloined letter.
The language of haunting surfaces throughout work on, of, and for the theater, often as a means to discuss theater's peculiar phenomenological character, its here-and-there, its now-and-then. Theater, like theory, had long corresponded with the ghost and recent studies have accounted for patterns previously hidden in plain sight. Prior to Rayner's 2006 Ghosts: Death's Double and the Phenomena of Theater, Marvin Carlson's 2003 The Haunted Stage: Theater as Memory Machine synthesized many of theater's ghostly elements. In addition to identifying theater's intrinsically haunted features, Carlson persuasively suggests that many of the influential terms in theater studies have been attempts to describe something like haunting, whether Richard Schechner's "restored behavior" or Joseph Roach's "surrogation" (1-2).
Carlson summarizes the pattern: "one of the universals of performance, both East and West, is its ghostliness, its sense of return, the uncanny but inescapable impression imposed upon its spectators that 'we are seeing what we saw before'" (1). In attempting to define this "universal" feature, Carlson's stammering is telling: "ghostliness" does not suffice, it needs modification or supplement. He too turns to psychoanalysis for the uncanny, before following the ghost to another scene, to a citation from Herbert Blau. In theater studies, Blau's work functions comparably to Horkheimer and Adorno's, as a provisional origin for an articulated theory of ghosts. In Blau's 1982 Take Up the Bodies, he describes his theater company KRAKEN's method as ghosting: "The process of ghosting became our process. The circuitry of thought is mirrored in the muscles. The very body of thought is a deciphering" (95). Avoiding conjuration, Blau recognizes how ghosting became their process, and he maintains its autonomous character. Its movements are mirrored in the body, but the circuitry of thought remains itself, outside. The ghost interfaces with the body, is reflected in it, but it keeps moving and remains distinct.
Carlson's project records how many of the elements from theater's past return in its present: actors, roles, scripts, and props. His work offers a kind of taxonomy while Rayner's interrogates the different elements' interrelation, the trickier play of haunting. Writing after Carlson she explains her work's divergence, particularly in regards to the question of return. Rayner characterizes Carlsons approach to return as "recycling," as the appearance of the identical in different contexts, while her own diction, "repetition," is "less a matter of sameness than of difference within the same" (xix). Rayner situates her own work in a philosophical tradition that includes Freud, but also Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Deleuze. Theatrical repetition, in this light, asks how it is possible to see what we saw before differently.
Despite his preference for "recycling," Carlson's citation of Blau still implicitly opens up to questions of emergence, appearance, and being; the italics, like those of stage directions, indicate that something else is happening. In the source essay, "Universals of Performance; or, Amortizing Play," Blau traces his own inheritance to another of Freud's texts, to the famous scene in Beyond the Pleasure Principle: A child plays a game with a spool to simulate (and exert some control over) the disappearance and reappearance of his mother, fort/da. This episode, which leads to Freud's--Spielrein is conspicuously absent--explication of the death drive, is not only about coping with loss, but about staging it, repeating it, and re-playing it. This game returns to the "amortizing" death drive in Blau's title which--across a semi-colon and an or--seems to be a "universal" of performance.
This same quality of repetition finds simpler phrasing in Derrida's 1993 Specters of Marx. For Derrida, the event, the appearance of the ghost, is "Repetition and first time" (10). We see what we saw before but also for the first time. Appearance is multiple and again we are directed by the italics. Theatrical appearance rhymes with the ghost's, with the fragile force of a joined life-and-death. Derrida's articulations of the impossible and the aporetic become theatrical in that they not only indicate "the difficult or the impracticable" as Derrida writes elsewhere, but they cast thinking as (resisted) physical movement, "the refused, denied, or prohibited passage" (Aporias 8). It is against this sort of (meta)physical limit that theory comes to return, theatrically, as if for the first time.
Across the seeming barriers between then-and-now, performer-and-spectator, life-and-death, theater's ghost comes and goes. With our own passages and prohibitions, ghostly matters preclude a stable point of epistemological perspective, echoing Adorno's anti-residential morality; Derrida proposes another variation of ethical homelessness in Aporias, "There is no longer a home [chez-soi] and a not home [chez l'autre]" (20). When a ghost appears, we lose our bearings, we forget where we were. Between home and not-home, while waiting for appearances, theater and ghosts and psychoanalysis all then call for a kind of principled uncertainty one perhaps incongruent with Gordon's sociology.
Rayner acknowledges this consequence of deferring to ghosts: "Making full use of the terms ghost and haunting involves, it seems to me, their remaining in the realm of uncertainty" (xxiii). This remaining--in a realm that is neither home nor not-home--is guided by the seeming in Rayner's embedded clause. Theater both is and it seems, and crucially this becomes a motor for what Gordon might call imagining otherwise. Theater is built from the materials and conditions of the world we live in and, with appeal to the powers of the false, it may produce the one in which we want to live. It may become--revising Carlson's "memory machine"--a machine for imagining otherwise. As Michal Kobialka writes of Tadeusz Kantor's work, theater is "an answer to, rather than the representation or affirmation of, reality or life" (198). To imagine otherwise is to answer otherwise, which requires a return to the theatrical space of the question.
Carlson and Rayner account for the long history of theater's ghosts, tracking their appearances from Aeschylus and Zeami all the way to the present. In modern European drama--that is, closer to Freud--there is a renewed obsession with the presence of the dead, especially in the works of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Maurice Maeterlinck. Now the conventions of theatrical ghosts are so well established that they invite self-aware exaggeration. In Rajiv Joseph's 2009 Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, for example, during the play nearly every character becomes a ghost and one of them covers his eyes and says: "Too many ghosts. Ghosts everywhere" (240). This line--a response to recent history in Iraq--often receives laughter in performance.
Still, there remains a seemingly singular arch-specter for theater's theory. In the wide ghostly canon Hamlet retains remarkable prominence: Hamlet's father is Derrida's primary reference in Specters of Marx and Carlson writes without equivocation that Hamlet is "the most haunted of all Western dramas" (4). The play begins with the appearance of a ghost, but first the characters question the very nature of their own appearances: Barnardo asks Francisco, "Who's there?" Hamlet soon speaks to a ghost but first to theater's seeming when he appears, again, for the first time. He protests to his mother, "Seems madam! nay it is, I know not 'seems'" (1.2.76). In his mourning and distress, Hamlet strives for epistemological certitude, hoping to maintain the distinction between facts and fiction, experience and significance. But he has yet to see a ghost. In Hamlet and in theater, the seemingness is all: "Any point at which dualistic, oppositional thought is invoked but then breaks down might be said to be theatrical" (Rayner xii). It might, or so it seems. Blau concludes the preface to his Take Up the Bodies--which seems to be about ghosting--with the observation, "Not even theater is finally about theater, though it seems to be" (xxii).
It is the issue of seeming that associates the ghost more intensely with "theater" than with "drama" or "performance." Drama, in its first senses, pertains to a literary genre, and the study of performance has "moved away from theater to focus on the material reality of the event rather than illusionistic staging" (Rayner xxvi). Theater maintains the tension of a middle term, between drama and performance, fictions and facts, questions and answers. It is made of "sensory but doubtful visibility, doubling and disappearance, matter, memory, action, and speech." Theater invites the tensions of doubt, and unlike the related terms it also designates the physical space that its practice needs and creates. The theater forges a place from space, and makes houses that can be shared by the living and the dead. The Abbey Theatre, for example, where W. B. Yeats (re)produced Noh drama's ghosts to forge Irish history, was built on the same site as the old Dublin morgue (Kearney 83). As Rayner writes, "theater itself is a ghostly place in which the living and the dead come together in a productive encounter" (xii). And uncertain of home, we must begin somewhere.
In this place and in this practice, theater and theory begin to appear alike, deceptively similar and infinitely foreign. Ghosts begin to resonate. Blau claims in Take Up the Bodies that "Theater is theory, or a shadow of it" (1). He defers to origin stories and the fables of translation, the Greek etymology from which both words spring: "theasthai, meaning to watch, contemplate, look at." In the shadow of Blau's initial staging, theory and theater's equivalence is both named and doubted. Theory and theater seem to proffer what Gordon calls "a different way of seeing, one that is less mechanical, more willing to be surprised, to link imagination and critique" (24). But theater's ghosting is a peculiar means of seeing otherwise in which the observer cannot feel at home, out of place and out of time.
The ghost's appearance--or the waiting for its appearance--fractures the ground upon and the moment from which one may otherwise conjure. Derrida writes of the ghost's interruptions to both certitude and the sensorimotor schema: "A spectral asymmetry interrupts here all specularity. It de-synchronizes, it recalls us to anachrony" (Specters of Marx 6). Derrida, like Blau, traces the spectral and specular divergences from shared etymological roots to show the relation between ghosting and seeing. The ghostly takes us here, to interrupt seeing, to recall us to anachrony as if it were home. But this interruption proposes a grounded (if disoriented) theory: even in anachrony, the process names its own shifting ground, the "here" of its performance, to which it recalls us--to know the place for the first time.
Theater like theory becomes productive as a practice in a time out of joint, along a moving horizon. Theater functions not as an object of thought, but as thought itself, of a particularly material and historical kind. Blau clarifies this theater-thought: "I am speaking of theater not only as an instrument of thought, but as thought, an activity becoming what it thinks of" (Take Up the Bodies 9). Theater becomes what it thinks, a motor of grounded theory. And in this process, the ghost becomes the absent center to which the method returns: "We are always returning to the Ghost" (28).
The ghost is the decentered center, appearance and disappearance at once, the "vanishing point." For Blau's "ghosting," the diction is crucial. The body of the ghost-as-actor remains central--unlike in "haunting"--but the gerund suggests at once verb and noun, naming and engaging the activity it describes. Ghosting becomes the method, the "circuitry of thought mirrored in the muscles," the "uncentering dilemma into the methodology at the heart of the story" (Take Up the Bodies 95,283). As the center vanishes, the heart remains. Like in Hamlet, the ghosting transports us to other spaces, "The recessions of the Ghost are infinite. No matter. We pursue them relentlessly in the ghosting" (213). In this space where thought is blooded, ghosts need bodies and they assume effective agency in producing thought. The ghosts take the form and the appearance of the living, taking up their bodies, in a sense.
While they may move freely in time--in the anachrony to which we are recalled-- ghosts are effective in performance and uniquely positioned to return and to act, unexpectedly. They appear corporeally but are other than they seem; they make us look away. Derrida describes the spectral/specular asymmetry as the "visor effect," in which we see our own being-seen, the ghost's armor blinding us with its glance: "we do not see who looks at us ... we feel ourselves being looked at by it, outside of any synchrony" (6). Blau reflects on where the ghost makes us look in his rehearsals of Elsinore: "'Who's there?' Always: otherness, doubleness, strangeness, rue. The watching are being watched" (The Dubious Spectacle 72). The ghost, as Gordon puts it, is the sign that a haunting is taking place, but it is also the look of the other, the illegible disruption of our scopic and temporal bearings.
The ghost returns again, here-and-there: a particular ghost, an arch-specter. It seems to be Hamlet's, and it keeps us looking and moving. Blau follows that ghost relentlessly, with Hamlet, Freud, Derrida, actors, directors, and scholars. Marcellus hails Horatio (and others) to speak to the ghost, "Thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio" (1.1.42). Marjorie Garber qualifies the play's remarkable prominence, its strangely persistent surfacing, its continuous invitations to scholarly speech. She calls Hamlet the "origin-- or the marker of the unknowability of origins," like the navel of a dream (158). The actual role of the ghost in the Shakespeare play may be, as Blau suggests, "unplayable, this absence, as a character. He is only good for an acting process, a way of thinking through the theater" (Take Up the Bodies 213). The part becomes a thought-path and a traversal that produces a space out of joint.
Blau names ghosting's topography in Hamlet as "the intersection of ramparts and cellarage in the closet of Elsinore, the shifting habitation of a ghost ... Elsinore is the mythic name for the common origin" (Take Up the Bodies xviii). Just as Gilies Deleuze's time-image places us in (at least) two times at once, ghosting proposes something of a space-image: Ramparts and cellarage--and other places--intersect in the closet. Elsinore, in italics, refers to Blau's production with his company KRAKEN, but when the word repeats with a typographical difference it dilates to the closet-cellarage-ramparts, to a place at which Hamlet and Elsinore and the dream's navel converge. (11)
The ghost, who enters, who sees, who commands us to follow, makes time out of joint and disjoints space. Hamlet follows the ghost, and that produces a new scene: The fourth becomes the fifth. In the closet the ghost returns, as if for the first time, and the room becomes a trompe l'oeil: Hamlet and Gertrude see the ghost as present-and-absent, and the audience sees along with one of them--depending on production choices--but not both. The space's scopic geometry is fractured, while the actor-playing-Polonius's-corpse still breathes on the floor. Hamlet leaves the scene, the closet, and Denmark, and sails to England, a journey that is also a death sentence. He escapes it--by killing two old friends--and when he returns home, he immediately climbs into a grave-in-progress, the habitation of the dead (Rayner 27).
The play, with the ghost at its absent center, "demonstrates that you can't go home again. Why? Because you are home--and home is not what you have always and belatedly (from unhome) fantasized it to be" (Garber 159). The home to which you return is someone else's grave; the ghost is also a father and it shares your name. Garber concludes, in the theatrical spirit where oppositional thought is invoked and broken down: "But/and it is the play of the uncanny, the play in which the Heimlich and the Unheimlich are opposite and identical." Theater in general and Hamlet's ghost in particular allow for the collapse of oppositional thought, but/and for one to be within both/neither of the collapsing positions. These traversals take time and space to make sense of, time and space which theater and theory both seem to offer.
The end and the dead are near. The play had opened with, "Who's there?" The question-- fort/da--is repeated differently throughout the play: Hamlet asks it of the corpse behind the arras, "Is it the king?" Gertrude asks to what absence her son speaks, "To whom do you speak this?" Hamlet asks to whom a skull belonged, "Whose was it?" And Fortinbras, strangely misplaced, asks the living about the dead in the room, "Where is this sight?" (3.4.26, 3.4.131, 5.1.175, 5.2.362). Fortinbras then commands them, rhyming with Blau out of time, to "Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this / Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss" (5.2.401-402). The sight of the dead among the living, a ghostly vision, reveals the amiss to be here, in a home that is no longer home.
The ghost is that which produces questions and presents the materials with which to think their answers, as movements in time and space. It shifts the ground to signal that the only "grounded theory" is a theory mindful of its flux and its "resistance," in de Man's formulation. The ghost recasts life-and-death as relay-poles in the circuitry of thought that comes to be mirrored in our muscles. In theater as in theory the questions keep us moving, looking elsewhere.
To return then, to the life of theory: In "The Laugh of Michel Foucault" Michel de Certeau tells a story with a variation on the question "Who's there?" Foucault was on a speaking tour in Brazil and at a particular engagement he was asked to identify himself. Foucault writes back to this question, later, "'No, no, I'm not where you are lying in wait for me, but over here, laughing at you'" (de Certeau 193-194). With a laugh, he shifts the question's ground, exchanges the there for a here, and proceeds more gravely: "'Do not ask me who I am and don't ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.'" Being fixed as a thinker, Foucault continues, is "'the very figure of death.'"
In the essay, de Certeau elaborates on what this very figure of death would mean for thought and for theory, how one may resist it, what it means to be other-than-dead. He writes:
Identity freezes the gesture of thinking ... To think, on the contrary, is to pass through; it is to question that order, to marvel that it exists, to wonder what made it possible, to seek, in passing over its landscape, traces of the movement that formed it, to discover in these histories supposedly laid to rest, "how and to what extent it would be possible to think otherwise" (194) (12)
Theory works on the contrary; and we return to thinking otherwise in a translated citation. Theory is a gesture, a passing through and over, a tracing. It invites reading in its writing, movement among its times and spaces, the linking of clauses and fragments in a texture that transports us to other voices. It listens to the dead in its present articulation. When it encounters stillness, complacency, or death, theory moves differently, seeking the solace of something that has been called the ghost. And in this movement, the present space is transformed: One scene becomes another.
I would like to thank the following people for their generous and thoughtful feedback on this essay: John Mowitt, Josephine Lee, Michal Kobialka, Nick Hengen Fox, Eun Joo Kim, and Nichole Neuman.
(1.) This seeming death is typically framed with reference to Terry Eagleton's After Theory (2003), to Jacques Derridas death and the controversial obituaries (2004), or to Critical Inquiry's conference and subsequent issue on the "ends" of theory (2003). The suspicion was voiced beyond the academy itself, with a 2004 New York Times headline reading, for example, "Cultural Theorists, Start Your Epitaphs."
(2.) The language of haunting offers a rich set of near synonyms, with important differences. Among the citations that follow, there is a good deal of variation in the terms, not only in English but in the French and German. This terminological proliferation is an indication of the objects elusiveness: as Alice Rayner writes, "If words are successful in naming the ghost, there is no ghost" (xxiii). In this essay, I rely primarily on "ghost" to point to the embodied return of the dead, and on "haunting" to characterize the relational activity of ghosts.
(3.) I adapt the term of "life-and-death" from Derridas essay, "The Deaths of Roland Barthes." Derrida writes of "Neither life nor death, but the haunting of the one by the other," a productive indeterminacy that "life-and-death" strives to name (41).
(4.) Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren trace a parallel genealogy for The Spectralities Reader, but with different texts: They move from Derrida to Freud and then to Adorno's "Theses against Occultism."
(5.) For my discussion of Horkheimer and Adorno, I primarily rely on the Edmund Jephcott translation, rather than John Cummings older one. Yet for the title of "On the Theory of Ghosts," Jephcott eliminates the "On," which serves to capture the prepositional quality of "Zur." I use Cummings title, as the "On" signals another sense in which this note is not quite the theory itself.
(6.) The ghostly translations within the German echo another appearance of Freuds ghosts. In the footnotes of The Interpretation of Dreams, he offers "A supplementary interpretation" of a dream: "To spit on the stairs, led me to esprit d'escalier' by a free translation, owing to the fact that 'Spucken' (English: spit, and also to act like a spook, to haunt) is an occupation of ghosts" (247). Among English, French, and German, Freud's translations lead to more ghosts.
(7.) Ghostly Matters has been especially influential in the study of diasporic formations and critical race studies. As one indication of its migration to literary studies, it was cited often in PMLA's 2008 issue on "Comparative Racialization" as well as in the 2010 issue on "Literary Criticism for the Twenty-First Century."
(8.) Gordon is here quoting John Bergers Ways of Seeing.
(9.) The character of Beloved in the chapter on Toni Morrison is the one prominent exception.
(10.) Bert O. States captures this tension with his memorable description of our "binocular vision" when watching theater, in which one eye is phenomenal, the other significative. While heuristically efficient, this model remains a bit too narrow to account for the blurring of these (and all of the other) "eyes" when watching performance.
(11.) Blau includes a longer discussion of this production, including fragments of its script, in The Dubious Spectacle.
(12.) The closing quotation is from Foucault's The Use of Pleasure.
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. Trans. E. G. Jephcott. London: Verso, 2005.
Blanco, Maria del Pilar and Esther Peeren, eds. The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Blau, Herbert. The Dubious Spectacle: Extremities of Theater, 1976-2000. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002.
--. Take Up the Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1982.
Carlson, Marvin. The Haunted Stage: Theater as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001.
De Man, Paul. The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.
Derrida, Jacques. Aporias. Trans. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993.
--. "The Deaths of Roland Barthes." The Work of Mourning. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001.
--. Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Avon, 1980. Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality. New York: Routledge, 2010. Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007.
Joseph, Rajiv. Three Plays: Gruesome Playground Injuries, Animals Out of Paper, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Berkeley: Soft Skull P, 2010.
Kearney, Peader. "The Abbey Theatre." The Abbey Theatre: Interviews and Recollections. Ed. E. H. Mikhail. London: Macmillan, 1988.
Kobialka, Michal. Further On, Nothing: Tadeusz Kantor's Theater. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009.
Rayner, Alice. Ghosts: Death's Double and the Phenomena of Theater. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2006.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Smith, Patricia E. Rev. of Ghostly Matters, by Avery Gordon. Contemporary Sociology 28.1 (1999): 120-121.
States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.
Weinstock, Jeffrey, ed. Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2004.
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