Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture

Posted by Stuart Lindsay on February 10, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , ,

Maria Del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, Popular Ghosts: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture. Continuum Press, 2010. ISBN: 9781441164018.

Reviewed by Stuart Lindsay, University of Stirling

‘It seems that ghosts are everywhere these days’, Pilar Blanco and Peeren assert in the introduction to this collection of essays on ghosts, ghostings, haunts and hauntings of the everyday. Moving through the development of global culture, this chronology of haunting follows projections of the ghost in the nineteenth century and its present projections back onto the aesthetics of a retrospectively reconstructed nineteenth century, forward into the current technological shift of the ghost towards digital media and the creation of ‘ghost media’, where the ghost and its new haunting grounds are one and the same. Within this outlined timeframe, the editors clearly state what they expect such a collection to reveal about haunting: that the ghost itself is a production of national and socio-political meanings, a series of cultural endeavours and commercial enterprises, and in its global sense a network of communication across time, space and technology.

In introducing such a daunting range of criticism on haunted spaces, from the staging of Samuel Beckett’s plays and Lenin’s entombment to the videogame Shadow of the Colossus and the digitally-produced haunted house, Pilar Blanco and Peeren highlight their awareness of the pre-existing critical theory with which the ghost is already burdened. The ghost, they note,

which itself hovers between different realms and meanings, might be seen as an exemplary cultural concept that we will unpack in a deliberately intersubjective and interdisciplinary manner, tracing its travels…in time and space across various media and theoretical paradigms.’

Each essay deals with a different area of haunting using specific theoretical frameworks: Marxist, Post-Colonial, Gothic; it becomes apparent that the all-pervasive nature of the ghost can only be conjured through all its readings, all at once, as its inter-network of surrounding discourses constantly collapse, overlap and occlude one another. Criticism always haunts itself, as Pilar Blanco and Peeren assert, yet here the ghosts are at times so dependent on this process that they are themselves productions, rather than producers of theoretical hauntings. This manner of raising the dead, then, renders the global nature of the ghost as dislocated from any real geographic or temporal space, but like its theory, as an experience of entropy, ‘…disjointed, simultaneously contracting and expanding under the influence of complex and often contradictory processes of globalisation’. For example, Peter Hitchcock’s insightful essay in the first section, entitled  ‘Uncanny Marxism: Do Androids Dream of Electric Lenin?’ Marxist theories of production and the Gothic performance of the Uncanny combine to create a theoretical Lenin who becomes more a symbolic history of the spectralized Soviet Union than a historical corpse in and of himself. Replacing the body of Lenin, ‘there is an indefatigable spirit in Marxist anti-capitalism that does not need the shell of actual existence for ghostly transubstantiation to occur.’ Both the body of the lived Lenin and the body of lived socialism dissipate in the ghostly ether of their theoretical doubles. The network of critical haunting which contradictorily discards and yet still sustains the ghost is revealed here, where Lenin is haunted by Marx, who is haunted by Derrida, who is haunted by Shakespeare.

The ubiquity of this criticism on ghosts, and of this criticism becoming itself ghostly through haunting its former self, leads to all sorts of insightful analysis on social haunting in national identity around the world. In her essay on national hauntings in twentieth-century Indian film entitled ‘Spectres of Socialism in Shree 420 and Deewar‘, Caroline Herbert posits the notion that Indian nationality is haunted by both its colonial past and its split between socialist community and capitalist individualism in the present. There is also a further conflict inherent within the films themselves, as Herbert notes: that between the real India as depicted on the screen, and the narrative effects used to depict such a reality’s fragmentation under the pressures of competing social forces. This evocative reading of these films reveals both India’s social attempts to exorcise the ghost of colonialism and slavery by moving towards capitalist structures of self-agency through individualism, and how such a dismissal of the past itself produces a spectral scene. In Shree 420, the protagonists Raju and his fiancée Vidya are caught between capital’s financial escape from a government which fails to acknowledge the poor and community’s remit to take control and rebuild the discarded, forgotten India. In a scene where ‘capitalist fetishization of cash renders subjectivity spectral; it is after Raju thrusts fistfuls of rupees towards Vidya, visually placing her within a frame of excessive wealth, that doubles of both characters are introduced.’ Here, the protagonists of Shree 420 and the film’s representation of India are spectralized both socially and diegetically through the narrative effects on-screen. No traditional ghost need appear when the body can be dematerialized and rendered as the moment of a social, political or national rupture of the past into the present.

As Popular Ghosts progresses towards the twenty-first century, the ghost itself becomes increasingly bodiless, a product of an already ethereal society of simulation and virtual reality. This transformation becomes somewhat problematic, as the ghostly appears through such wide-ranging modern mediums as film music, MTV reality television and tattoos; readers may find themselves asking less what is a ghost, and more what isn’t one, or rather, with its engagement with specialized, sub-cultural practices and re-constructions of the past, what isn’t Gothic.

There is always a danger which lurks in Popular Ghosts, of attempting to break Gothic’s perceived domination of the ghost and its theoretical framework. This is a grip which fragments and isolates its subject from any specific historical and national origins, and due to its almost universal popularity, also haunts the ghost through its very absence. However, either to involve or to ignore the Gothic is to invoke it, and Pilar Blanco and Peeren’s collection wisely focuses on the sheer range of social practices, both individual and collective, academic and sub-cultural, that produce, feed and at times, dismiss the ghost. While this approach involves Gothic studies, the chosen essays reflect the editors’ assertion that the ghost’s ‘appearance on the cultural scene far precedes the emergence of the Gothic genre in the eighteenth century’, and that the Gothic itself ‘has been transformed by contemporary culture and its intersections with other literary and social paradigms.’ Pilar Blanco and Peeren never deny the existence of the Gothic, or of any other academic analysis at work in the study of their subject, yet their well-balanced selection demonstrates the way in which the ghost will always retain the power to haunt, amaze and occasionally baffle us.

Their argument is reinforced by the inclusion of their own two essays: the ghost’s appearances as ancestral guide of the family in African literature, and its formation as thought projection in the twentieth-century ‘thoughtographs’ of unproven psychic Ted Serios. In an essay entitled ‘The Haunting of the Everyday’, Pilar Blanco demonstrates how one of Serios’s thoughts, projected onto a blank Polaroid photograph, captures the book’s overall representation of ghosts as a whole. Used as the front cover of Popular Ghosts, the photograph ‘would only have been possible “with a different lens” and “only with some special contrivance for getting the cameraman well into the air”’ where ‘the “real” location of the mind is not necessarily in the body simply because it exists within it’. Here, Serios provides the book with an introductory image of the ghost which is a representation of reality, the combination of imaginative impressionism and technology that allows it to take (literal) flight and present an unfamiliar perspective of the familiar world, one that is simultaneously personal and universal.

Popular Ghosts is a challenging book which may leave behind readers not well-versed in the critical and theoretical terms accompanying the ghost. However, it is a brave, rewarding cross-section of the ghost’s appearances across and between geographical and temporal space, and as an addition to the shared knowledge of scholars and fans of the supernatural, is essential reading.

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