What is going on here is a way of not wanting to know what everyone alive knows without learning and without knowing, namely, that the dead can often be more powerful than the living.” –Jacques Derrida
Stories of ghosts are not just the stuff of thrill-seeking children or the memories of overly-church-camped adults. Ghosts also haunt those thinkers who have constructed influential theories of how the world works (and, perhaps, subsequently should and should not work). It seems some of the most persistent materialists and ardent disavowers of the supernatural, thinkers like Marx and Freud, could not escape a nagging sense of ghostly presence—although they tried with all the power of modern advances to chase them away. Avery Gordon argues, “[t]he ghost is not simply a dead or missing person, but a social figure.” And it is this social figure, something more weighty and beyond a childhood memory or pernicious psychosis, that weighed-in on the thinking of such intellectual giants.
Derrida explores the idea of ghosts or specters in his book Specters of Marx; however, he is not simply fascinated by the adrenaline-inducing thrill of a good ghost story of the Goosebumps variety. There is something else going on in his work: something political, something material, something drawing him into the ethical. He writes of “being-with specters” as a type of “politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.” He insists,
“No justice…seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism.”
The ghosts that emerge as social figures, haunting and real, from the ruins of failed social projects disrupt the spaces of conversation that those living use to ignore the possibilities of disjointed time implicating the now and not-yet.
For those disillusioned by the preformed shape of ethics grounded in a transcendent, totalizing structure of ordering the world, ghosts as social figures offer a way into the conversation that avoids the trappings of God-shaped world. But the conversation of ghosts also serves those not fooled by the deftly disguised totalizing longing of immanence as a counter narrative to transcendence and other inflexible knowledge producing modalities and philosophies. Ghosts disrupt the dominant, and to a degree determinative, discourses managing society in a way that demand attention, lift subaltern knowledge to the surface, question stale and power-serving historical reconstructions, complicate the boundaries of subjectivity and the social, and resist the colonization of cultural memories that perpetuate oppressive regimes. Interpreting Derrida’s work on specters, John Caputo offers a compelling summary of the role of ghosts in ethical work: “The schema of the specter is a postcritical, postsecular, post-Enlightenment, postphenomenological paradigm of life/death, of sur-vivance, which means, at one and the same time, of a life that is haunted by death: bygone spirits and spirits yet to come; as also of a death that continues to live: of the power of the non-living to live on, which frames the question of tradition and heritage—and all this precisely in the name of justice.”
I propose that an exploration of and reflection on ghosts and their hauntings opens up to the conversation of ethics and subsequently uncovers a way for me to walk towards the way of Jesus. The space in social connections, the unseen space between the interactive engagements of bodies (with histories and intersecting subjectivities) that comprise world, the gaps between that link “us,” provide a theoretical context for perceiving ethically orienting forces, presences of a spectral nature that arise from the dislocations of shifted world. Hauntings weigh-in for the shaping of world.
Reckoning with Ghosts
There is then some spirits. Spirits. And one must reckon with them. One cannot not have to, one must not not be able to reckon with them…
Avery F. Gordon claims, “To study social life one must confront the ghostly aspect of it. This confrontation requires (or produces) a fundamental change in the way we know and make knowledge, in our mode of production.” Gordon is a sociologist who examines and embraces the place of ghosts in complex networks of the social world. Despite the restrictive nature of sociology as a discipline championing the “bloodless categories, narrow notions of the visible and the empirical, professional standards of indifference, institutional rules of distance and control,” Gordon boldly welcomes a “different way of knowing and writing about the social world.” Thus she calls attention to the societal impact and ethic-informing power of ghosts. Sasha Roseneil echoes the importance of Gordon’s research. Through psycho-social analysis, she uncovered strong ghostly presences and social influences on a middle-aged man who she considered a strong case of individualization. During the study she found that the specter of his father trumped his individualization, leading her to theorize that “[o]ver time the traces of encounters and relationships with others are left within us, and we come to contain ghosts.” Ghosts matter.
These ghosts, however, are not what ignites the popular infatuation with paranormal activity and ought not be confused with “pre-modern superstition nor individual psychosis.” Instead, Gordon argues that ghosts and hauntings are social phenomena, which produce material effects and affects that ripple throughout the social. In the forward to Ghostly Matters, Janice Radway raves about Gordon’s insightful social theory of ghosts and her skilled use of literature (like Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved) as resources for her complex theorization. Radway’s comments are worth quoting at length:
“Although Gordon suggests that they are the sources of the ‘theory of memory as haunting’ that she develops in Ghostly Matters, I think the situation is actually more complicated. It seems that Gordon herself brings this theory into material being by reading the things behind the things of the novels themselves. That is to say, she actively articulates exactly what these novels unconsciously know by rendering with a certain systematicity the particular way of knowing the world that produces the characters, objects, and events that inhabit their fictional space. Gordon is able to do this precisely because she reads as if that historical divide between two cultures, one enabled by abstraction and the other grounded in the imaginary and the concrete, never happened. In effect, she restores to social theory that attentiveness to the textures and meanings of experience that was bracketed off at the moment the sciences embraced the quantitative and conceded the province of the qualitative and the imaginary to literature and the arts.”
Through a social theorization of ghosts, Gordon pinpoints as places of focus the interstices of subjects and the social, institutions and the individual, the visible and the invisible. She spotlights the materially affective impulses that manifest in these gaps to complicate, disrupt, and footnote the narrative structures that presume to tell the story of what is really going on. Points, disruptions, resources missed too often by those uninterested and unwilling to think beyond what is easily accessible and observable.
What Gordon conveys is that refusing to open up to ghosts, to avoid encountering their hauntings, forecloses access to an effective alternative for “knowledge production.” Ghosts—granted one is brave enough to listen to their side of the story—can assist with interrogating networks of power and the social suffering often presupposed by such networks. Ghosts enact their haunting as real, demanding presences, as frustrated memories of pain, of terror, of horror, that makes themselves known, effectively, tangibly, unwilling to shut-up, interrupting with a twist to the story being told. They are haunting apparitions that force themselves to the surface of the social consciousness, the refusing-to-be-forgotten ones, emerging in spite of having been consigned to concentrated spaces, the occluded voids to which few pay attention, sites of oppression circumscribed and manufactured by the unjust, imbalanced, and twisted relational intersections of power and meaning that seek to order a world for the few deemed worthy of life. It is these “seething presences,” as Gordon refers to them, these heralds of subjugated knowledge that register the easily overlooked and conveniently forgotten, that signal the wreckage wrought by abuses of power and colonizing forces, and that confront those who happen to be paying attention with a “something-to-be-done.”
This “something-to-be-done” demanded by ghosts insists on an ontological porosity, a radically hospitable epistemology, which embraces “a reckoning with ghosts” as socio-cultural phenomena capable of contributing to those conversations that matter in shaping a world where ghosts do not need to exist. The process for understanding what is going on in the world, perhaps better phrased as a navigation between the disconnect of what appears to be going on in the world and what one suspects is really going on behind what is easily assumed to be going on, for Gordon, “involves producing case studies of haunting and adjudicating their consequences.” She continues: “What kind of case is a case of a ghost? It is a case of haunting, a story about what happens when we admit the ghost—that special instance of merging of the visible and the invisible, the dead and the living, the past and the present—into the making of worldly relations and into the making of our accounts of the world.” The story of Beloved is such a case.
The Case of Beloved: Nothing Ever Dies
Denver picked at her fingernails. “If it’s still there, waiting, that must mean that nothing ever dies.”
Sethe looked right in Denver’s face. “Nothing ever does,” she said.
Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize winning novel, Beloved, stirs the imagination in ways that bring to life a ghost who corrects, shapes, prevents, reminds, warns. Referencing the novel’s main character, a ghost named Beloved, Avery Gordon comments, “The ghost enters, all fleshy and real, with wants, and a fierce hunger, and she speaks, barely, of course, and in pictures and a coded language. This ghost, Beloved, forces a reckoning: she makes those who have contact with her, who love and need her, confront an event in their past that loiters in the present.” Having examined the work of Avery Gordon and her theorization that blurs the real and fiction, it is necessary to (un)know the conventional wisdom relegating fictional characters to a place of fantasy not related to the social sciences and prepare to encounter a ghost with something to say about the way humans can (and should not) live together, make world. Through an interpretive posture of (un)knowing one develops a sense, some room, for knowing what needs known in that moment, shaped and informed by a phenomenological expectation of the unknown and unseen, the dislocation of time that fractures the memories of a linear hegemony. Beloved will have her reckoning. Nothing ever dies.
Set in a post-Civil War era, the ghost named Beloved haunts the reconstructed memories of a lingering white supremacy and the perpetual Jim Crow re-manifestations of current culture. Morrison has conjured a ghost whose pain, whose message, whose tragic story weighs in, emerges from the unseen, with ethical and social-shaping force. Elisabeth M. Loevlie expresses, “By giving literary voice to the dead, Morrison releases literature’s hauntology to express the horror that history books cannot convey, and that our memory struggles to contain.” Although, “[f]or Morrison…” writes Gordon, “social memory is not just history, but haunting; not just context, but animated worldliness; not just the hard ground of infrastructural matters, but the shadowy grip of ghostly matters. It is not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world, right in the place where it happened.” She continues, “The picture of the place is not personal memory as we conventionally understand it, private, interior, mine to hoard or share, remember or forget…It is still out there because social relations as such are not ours for the owning. They are prepared in advance and they linger well beyond our individual time, creating that shadowy basis for the production of material life.” Nothing ever dies.
“You know as well as I do that people who die bad don’t stay in the ground.” Ghosts arise from the mass graves of those who died badly, those lives ended by lynching and systematic enforcement into sites of social death. Graves below. Ghosts arise from a culture of death inhabited by those persons Abdul JanMohamed calls “‘the death-bound subject,’ that is,… the subject who is formed, from infancy on, by the immanent and ubiquitous threat of death.” Graves above. Yet the dead return. They come with their stories. They come in memory. Harboring fears. Bitter anger. Views of world, tainted by the violent infusion of their experiences. Images and perceptions of the places that housed the atrocities done to them.
And these stories, those memories, the images, their pictures hang there, in air, intersecting social relations, affecting the way interactions happen and how the links in the social web are interpreted and how the gaps, the spaces between are filled; and these stories, those memories, the images, they seep into the everyday things and stuff that other people will encounter. Sethe, the novel’s haunted mother and one availed to the dislocation of time, explains in her own way the materiality of other people’s memories: “Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else.” Nothing ever dies.
These memories, those images, this stuff that never dies, like stones thrown into a stagnant pond, they plunge into the social arrangements and their symbolic expressions that move history and create world. Their affects trickle down, ripple out and fill the gaps, the in-between spaces that connect us. Haunting occurs when someone, unaware and living as if things always die, is “grasped and hurtled into the maelstrom of the powerful and material forces that lay claim to [them] whether [they] claim them as [theirs] or not.” What is it about the dilapidated tobacco barns my brother and I would come upon in the woods of North Carolina? I remember sensing the stories I never knew before. Or do I? Did I bump into rememories? Did I, even as a young child, intuit something not dead looking to haunt me, to inform me? Or was it the prior crisscrossing of school lessons, local myth, history, family stories converging into that space, in that moment that produced a ghost?
Perhaps it is possible that the social complexities comprising the history of those sites attached themselves to the symbolic force of those broken down barns and met me in that moment. Or are they only now figuring as ghosts, haunting me, while knowing that I only played in those woods because of what was not there? What is not there? Oh. To begin answering that question substantiates the force of haunting, bringing all the weight of the material force of memory, “the living effects, seething and lingering, of what seems over and done with, the endings that are not over,” pressing down, suggesting, quite strongly, that I look closely at what was there in the nothing before me. An absence, a damn persistent absence. A haunting absence. The blaring sound of silence. A no-thing, that is a some-thing demanding something to be done. Nothing ever dies.
Living With Ghosts
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from me in limp
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into my raw flesh,
and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a baptism of
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water,
boiling my limbs.
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot sides of
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in yellow
surprise at the sun…
The questions I used to explore the experiences of the North Carolina woods along with the warping of time in my reflection to confuse the past and present help frame a sense of living with ghosts. How does one bump into a rememory, really? And how does this jive with a material outlook? Ghosts, the unseen, but real? It is common to talk about the “invisible hands” of the market or the power of momentum in sporting events. And, of course, one might offer the “Holy Ghost” as a paradigmatic option for understanding the phenomena explored thus far, an unseen agent of effect; however, that veers too far into the transcendent, the outside, a force not emerging within the framework of world, wherein one can sense “the tracings of areality along which we are exposed together, in other words, neither presupposed in some other Subject, nor post-posed in some particular and/or universal end. But exposed, body to body, edge to edge, touched and spaced, near in no longer having a common assumption, but having only the between us of our tracings. Living with ghosts, then, is about a sense of “the haunting way systematic compulsions work on and through people in everyday life… [the sense to] comprehend the elusive concreteness of ghostly matter.” Living with ghosts is an embrace of the awareness that I am picking up on something, a some-thing bothering me, disturbing me, a cause of trembling that roots deeply in a “materiality of social relations, especially their dangers, ‘out there’ in those rememories that [I] can bump into, even if they did not happen to [me] personally.”
What Raymond Williams’ calls “structure of feeling” identifies a social concept that helps interpret a life with ghosts, understand their demands, and get somewhat of an ideal about how to reckon with them. As a summary for this concept, he writes:
“We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and inter-relating continuity.”
It is important to note the affective elements, those concrete impulses that produce a feeling comprising a sort of felt knowledge: waves, senses of history, social interactions and their affects and effects that materially encounter a person through an admittedly slippery kind of (un)knowing, but a knowing (perhaps, a haunting) all the same.
Tying this notion into haunting, Gordon proposes haunting as “a shared structure of feeling, a shared possession, a specific type of sociality.” She goes on to suggest that “haunting is the most general instance of the clamoring return of the reduced to a delicate social experience struggling, even unaware, with its shadowy but exigent presence…a sociality both tangible and tactile as well as ephemeral and imaginary.” She understands structure of feeling as the way haunting is “transmitted and received.” But none of these notions fit easily or provide a well-defined matrix for a crisp perception of ethics. Wading into this interpretive space requires a suspension of modernity’s default resistance to the unknown, an interpretive posture positioned to (un)know. “It involves,” as Gordon eloquently puts it, “being taken beyond a dull curiosity or a detached know-it-all criticism into the passion of what is at stake.” In what ways do ghosts emerge and touch social arrangements, how do they gesture to produce their haunting work?
Ghostly gestures, which affect through structures of feeling, are comprised by socially encountered objects or experiences animated with a haunting force. Subaltern memories resurfacing, suppressed voices interrupting redacted history through literature, pictures, artifacts, art, poetry open a rupture in the social psychic space allowing foreclosed populations to weigh-in with their side of the story. Following the work of Avery Gordon and Mark L. Taylor, I suggest a few ways in which ghosts manifest to make their impact felt: seething absence and art-force. These ghostly signals produce experiences of “profane illuminations,” which supply a “something-to-be-done” to the gaps connecting the individual and the social; which help people tap into “the sensate quality of a knowledge meaningfully affecting [them].”
A seething absence is a no-thing that is some-thing, a troubling disturbance brought to awareness by a palpable absence. It is deafening silence demanding an audience. It is witnessing the unseen, sensing something absent but not not-there. It seethes. It will not go away and cannot be crammed into the absence it should occupy no matter how much one tries to reduce it to a fiction. And in these moments, a person is changed, gripped by the something-to-be-done articulated by the absence. This absence presses on someone through a recognition of something that was there and is no longer there or by being forced into a vision of something not-there and should be but is not.
A seething absence as something missing, something once there and not, essentially, not-there brings the past screaming into the present. As an example, Gordon explores “those who become desaparecido (disappeared) under the auspices of state-sponsored terror in Argentina…or…those who were lost on their way to North America in the flow of a juridically enforced international trade in human property. The ghost that arises in absence is a “symptom of what is missing.” This understanding, this encounter, moves far beyond a simple remembrance of the past and those that colonial power has made disappear; it is a shocking encounter of felt force, of the pain, strangeness, misery, and injustice materially energized and sent racing into the moment of haunting power where those not not-there make themselves known as some-thing, some-ones, to be reckoned with; life and death, a world of justice is at stake, I am implicated, I am responsible. As Naomi Rand reminds: “Ghosts are reminders of the battle, in effect of the war that has been fought and that is still ongoing between possible and impossible versions of the world.”
The state power of Argentina attempted to use the disappeared to haunt its citizens and utilize this haunting effect to maintain control through fear, conjuring the ghosts of the disappeared for their own agenda of keeping Argentines in check. This approach backfired. Gordon argues, “the ghost cannot be so completely managed. Because making contact with the disappeared means encountering the specter of what the state has tried to repress.” The ghosts have other ideas, they refuse employment by the state and expose the other side of their forced absence—a world not-there but there in one’s longing, a world the state has attempted to push below the hope of attaining, a world to search for, a world that emerges in the presence of seething absences, a world made (un)known through a willingness to live with ghosts and let them live.
Mark L. Taylor writes, “Art, as having force…art-force, is crucial for understanding the notion of ‘seething presence.’ The absent, the dead, the unjustly slain, the living dead—these all seethe in the present through and because of their artful rendering…art has force through its synergy with complexities of the psychic and social life, especially with the liminal realms of social death to which many are expelled.” Art-force, combined with an ability to animate a seething absence, does a haunting work, bringing ghosts to bear on the social. Thinking through the work of Richard Wright’s poetry and the death-bound subject, Taylor notes, “The stony skull in Wright’s poem, a ‘face…staring,’ is the past entering the present and the future, where readers and hearers are confronted with a seething presence from the oft-occluded past.” It is not just a retelling of a gruesome death; rather, it is a festering presence, staring, waiting, wondering, demanding, imposing a “something-to-be-done.”
Images, poetics, narratives which bring the discarded back to life, old tobacco barns in ruins, the bones of borderlands energize forces that work within the networks of the social, materially substantiating structures of feeling, issuing profane illuminations—ghosts that arise from the gaps between the complexity of social and individual. Again Taylor suggests, “The spectral…which persists and is immanent in public life in spite of erasures and framings that deny it ontological weight, can coalesce for resistance and transformation, being reworked in a spectral practice of artful imaging.” The ghost, through the agency of absence and art, “imports a charged strangeness into the place or sphere it is haunting.” Beloved demands a reckoning. The Argentine disappeared show up. Skulls gaze with warnings. Tattered barns weep over a history forgotten.
To paraphrase Avery Gordon, when you see in a barn, a photograph, an image, a poem, a skull, the hand of the state, the power of foreclosure at work, the behind-it-all, the underbelly of an ordered society, “you have seen the ghostly matter: the lost beloveds and the force that made them disposable.” Lives are at stake and the dead will not let those alive forget it. It is by living with ghosts, coming to reckoning with them that we can exist as bodies to make world, taking up space and making space with others that resist bodies in concentration.
Ghosts haunt through social life, they emit material force, which traverses the power networks and symbolic energy of the social. With a twist of ontological engagement and an openness to a truth that resides within an encompassing perhaps, allowing for an (un)knowing posture to shape an interpretive model for ethics, a person can begin, although with hesitancy, to trace the ethical options afforded by a willingness to live with ghosts and let them live. Avery Gordon comments:
“If we want to study social life well, and if in addition we to [sic] want to contribute, in however small a measure, to changing it, we must learn how to identify hauntings and reckon with ghosts, must learn how to make contact with what is without doubt often painful, difficult, and unsettling.”
I cannot help but shudder at the figure lurking in the shadows of this conversation. That one, that Goddamned one, ghostly and elusive, haunting and imposing, refusing to fade completely into the nothingness of a God-framed world—that one called Jesus.
 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (Routledge Classics) (New York: Routledge, 2006), 60.
 Derrida makes this case for Marx in Specters of Marx; Avery Gordon makes this case for Freud in Ghostly Matters.
 Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters:Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolois: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 8.
 Derrida, Specters of Marx, xviii.
 Derrida, Specters of Marx, xviii.
 John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Relgions (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), 121.
 Derrida, Specters of Marx, xx.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 7.
 Sasha Roseneil, “Haunting in an Age of Individualization: Subjectivity, relationality and the traces of the lives of others,” European Societies 11:3 (2009): 411-430, SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed May 8, 2014).
 Janice Radway, foreword to Ghostly Matters, xi-xii.
 Avery Gordon uses this phrase to capture the ethical dimension, which she understands to undergird and give force to the appearances of ghosts.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 24.
 Elisabeth M. Loevlie, “Faith in the Ghost of Literature: Poetic Hauntology in Derrida, Blanchot and Morrison’s Beloved,” Religions 4 (2013): 336-350, http://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/4/3/336 (accessed May 8, 2013).
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 166. Emphasis hers.
 Morrison, Beloved, 221.
 Morrison, Beloved, 43.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 166.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 195.
 This selection of Richard Wright’s poem, “Between the World and Me,” is taken from Abdul R. JanMohamed, The Death-Bound Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death, 29.
 Nancy, Corpus, 91 (emphasis Nancy’s).
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 197.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 197.
 Raymond Williams quoted in Mark L. Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 81.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 201.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 18.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 203.
 Gordon borrows this term from Walter Benjamin to describe what she understands as ghostly manifestations, Ghostly Matters, 205.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 205.
 Gordon attributes the phrase “not not-there” to Toni Morrison in Ghostly Matters, 17.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 63.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 63.
 Naomi Rand, “Surviving What Haunts You: The Art of Invisibility in Ceremony, The Ghost Writer, and Beloved,” Melus 20:3 (1995): 21-32, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed May 14, 2014).
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 127 (emphasis is Gordon’s).
 Mark L. Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 139.
 Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 124.
 Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 181-182.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 63.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 205.
 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 23.