Ghostly

auteur: André Lepecki

adressed to its dedicated readers;
preceded by three necessary warnings
and two preliminary definitions, followed by a discussion on the social aspects of the ghostly, its politics, an unexpected diversion, and concluding with some remarks on the ghostly in dance.

A.
Three necessary warnings
Some warnings are in order, dear Reader, so we may begin. The first warning is that I will be writing here about the ghost and the ghostly (and rest assured that I will be defining these terms in a moment) thanks to three main sources of inspiration. Source 1 is my involvement with dance theory and history by the way of certain philosophies, not always compatible, not always in direct agreement with each other, but that I happen to like thanks to their common interest in creating a critique of presence (a project quite pertinent to dancers and ghosts): the philosophies of Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Bergson, and Merleau-Ponty, appearing here and there throughout this text in a camouflaged way. Source 2 derives from my fascination with Arbeau’s 1589 dance manual Orchésographie, where the project of choreography is so explicitly presented as a melancholic project of dancing with the dead. As you remember, Arbeau needs to invent choreography in order to dance with his departed “companions of youth,” with those no longer there (I’ll come back to this in the last part of this text). Source 3 (the trickiest one): certain personal “ghost experiences” that need not be made public at all, but that fall within the popular understanding of what a “ghost experience” might be: encounters, visions, apparitions, a strong feeling of someone absent being-there, the sensation of a presence where none should be. I find that such experiences have nothing extraordinary about them; indeed they are rather quite common. I understand that they are part of the reason I was asked to write this text for you, and thus I am revealing this little bit. But that’s it. Hope that you understand my discretion and reserve.

The second warning is of particular importance to the contextualization of this text. I would like to emphasize that it should not be taken lightly that, despite being interested in the ghost and the ghostly for a while, I am finally writing explicitly on them thanks to an invitation coming from a choreographer. That a choreographer invites to write on the ghost indicates the persistent force of the spectral and the moving force generated by the dead in what Laurence Louppe called the circuitous temporality of the Western choreographic project.

The third warning I take from Roger Caillois. I feel obliged to reiterate here, before we begin dear Reader, the opening line of his 1935 essay on animal mimicry, where Caillois proposes a biological-affective etiology of schizophrenia (what he called, after Pierre Janet, legendary psychastenia) as an unavoidable desire found in any organism whatsoever to become space. (By the way, in the case of animal mimicry, we can say that such desire takes the animal towards a becoming imperceptible — curiously, the last step in the “creative involution” of becomings outlined by Deleuze and Guattari. Isn’t this mode of becoming already ghostly, already creating a system of presence at the threshold of the perceptible and the imperceptible?) But what matters, and what I want to report here before we begin, is that Caillois opens his essay with a strong warning to his readers, which I will translate and reproduce right below as a final cautionary note to us all — but particularly to all dancers and performers…

“BEWARE: BY PLAYING GHOST, YOU’LL BECOME ONE.”

B.
A few necessary definitions
Reader: I am using the word ghost to describe a particular, even peculiar, system of presence, constituted by a set of characteristics, which I will define in a moment. And I am using the adjective ghostly to name all sorts of manifestations produced by or derived from such a system of presence.

C.
System composition, mechanics and optics
What composes such a system? First, let’s remember that the ghost tends to be described as a phenomenon of “apparition” — but certainly, it is not because something appears that it is ghostly. Rather, the ghostly mode of appearing must surprise or enchant or unnerve the perceiver — affects accompanying the ghost’s apparition and that are derived from the particular physical and temporal qualities of the ghostly. Physically, the ghost surprises because it invariably brings with it an atmosphere totally different from the one prevalent at the place of its apparition. The ghost quickly introduces and spreads its atmosphere into the surrounding environment — almost as when we say that a change of climate has taken place. When a ghost appears, an air, a temperature, a light, a sensation emerge to establish a zone of influence clearly demarcated from the “normal” environment. We could even say that whenever an unexplained sensation of atmospheric irruption occurs, there we find a ghost.

As for temporal qualities, we can say that all that is ghostly occurs extemporaneously. Which means that in terms of temporality, the ghost is simultaneously slightly ahead and slightly behind the now that receives its appearing. The present time of the ghost has nothing to do with the self-contemporaneity of the “now.” Rather, the ghost’s present follows a mode of presence that is both belated and in advance. Thus, it pulls us apart into other possibilities of timing, taking us into a dizzying spell of living the present moment as a series of anterior futures.

The ghost appears. It appears in order to challenge the order of appearances. While being-there, the ghost may opt to stay planted on the same place; yet, its immobility will be generating all sorts of movements. In a literal sense, the movements generated by the ghost can be manifested, for instance, by the phenomena of dancing chairs, flying cups, or slamming doors that so impressed Alain Kardec. In an affective sense, the generated movement can be manifested by uncontrollable eruptions of deep buried memories, the sudden onset of panic attacks, unrestrained laughter, convulsions, ticks, or involuntary slumber, motions and actions that modernity took care of including within the clinical history of madness.

While being-there in the not quite self-synchronous timing of its appearing, the ghost may flutter as translucent aura; yet still transmitting an incredible sense of density and consistency. And, as I wrote earlier, while being-there, its fluid consistency will act like an atmospheric charge; one that will completely (if subtly) change the affective quality of the place it appears. Just like in a sudden change of weather, the ghost’s atmosphere will sometimes cause the chills (the physiological response to its being-there), but often it will recompose warm relations among all its atmosphere encompasses (the affective response).

If the ghost happens to appear fully bodied — for instance as a young lady from another era discreetly standing by the foot of our bed, staring straight at us, not saying a word — then we can identify quite clearly an important function of all that is ghostly: to interpellate, that is: to hail us and trap us within the field of its being-there. This is why we attribute to all that is ghostly a set of eyes, activating a subtle field of the gaze. Even as mist, we sense the ghost looking. It is a blunt addressing, without mediation. Looking without the film of the cornea, without the refraction of tears, without the image inversion of the lens, the ghost stares directly into the perceiver’s soul. The ghost appears in order to establish with its gaze other modes of including ourselves into, and excluding ourselves away from, the visual.

D.
Ghost as critical presence; perhaps even a ghostly politics
A system of presence then, operating as a connective tissue, an all-enveloping fluid; but always at a distance, that is to say, critically. The distance effect of the ghostly is its critical power, disrupting the proper order of the present, often impertinently, sometimes violently.

The capacity of the ghost to establish and to disrupt through its disturbing apparitions modes of connectivity between the solidity of the proper subject (fully bodied, reliant on assurances of full presence, of unwavering identity, of unquestionable being-there, assuredly placed in time and space, confidently in position, in control, at least in control of distinctions between being and not-being, then and now, presence and absence, visible and invisible) and the fluidity of otherwise unperceived temporalities and materialities: this is precisely what gives all ghostly matter its critical power.

Sociologist Avery Gordon, in her extraordinary book Ghostly Matters, makes precisely such a claim. She proposes how the spectral, the ghostly, anything that haunts, operates socially. That is why, for her, ghostly matters must start to be addressed outside the psychoanalytic notion of the phantasm and the psychiatric definitions of hallucination.

Gordon argues that the ghost must be allowed to leave the realm of the psychic symptom, of the fantastical fable, or of the social myth, and to be taken in as a material, historical, and sociological force. Not the idea of the ghost, not the belief in ghosts — but the ghost itself.

To acknowledge materiality in the ghostly is to activate within the sociological imagination a system of presence that would continuously implicate the “theorist” and “his or her subject” within a refigured plane of subjectivity: one receptive to otherwise invisible social and affective powers, to atmospheres, to subtle sounds, to what she calls “social and historical effects” of the ghost. (Think of the implications of such mode of implying the theorist — ie, the one who sees at a distance — with the visible if transposed to the theatrical context: how would an audience then relate to the performance’s apparition?).

In this sense, hearing voices, sensing a presence when there seems to be nothing there, seeing what has no appearance, would not indicate a pathological condition, nor a flight of the imagination, but a particular sensorial predisposition, a highly receptive state, where aesthetics, perception, memory and care would initiate a whole new epistemology and a radical politics of experiencing. The latter does have important consequences for the aesthetic experience, moving away from notions of plot and meaning, and into modes of experiencing sensations and atmospheres. Gordon is emphasizing how the ghostly operates as a social agent siding with minoritarian positions: those subjects or objects deemed insignificant, invisible, unimportant, never perceived (phenomenologically, ontologically, politically) as being-there. Such capacity to experience what should not belong to experience proper should not be confused with any sort of hysteria or histrionics. It is just a mode of composing perception initiated by the ghostly.

E.
An unforeseen anecdote, the lost connection, getting towards the end
Regarding connectivity, its implementation, and its critique by the ghost, an anecdote is in order. One that makes us consider the correlation between the modern demise of the ghost and the replacement of its function by technology. The anecdote is narrated by Avital Ronell, in her amazing The Telephone Book. Perhaps you’ve read this somewhere before, so my apologies if I’m being repetitious. But it seems that behind the hyper-telephonic world we live in — where all seems to be about communicating ever more efficiently through technological prostheses with those who are-not-quite-there — was the desire of a man to hear the voice of a ghost. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, or to say it better, the one who won the race for patenting the telephone’s invention, was apparently driven (so tell us Ronell) to his enterprise by the desire to hear his dead brother’s voice. Clueless on physics and inapt on engineering, Bell reportedly was very attuned to the question of hearing and voicing, being the son of a deaf mother and the husband of a deaf wife. After his brother died, Bell started to experiment on how to capture his lost loved one’s voice from the depths of the ether. Reportedly, Bell was so serious about his project, that he requested a friend, a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, to send him a severed ear from a corpse. For a while, Bell would carry this severed ear in his breast pocket everywhere he would go. Apparently he would talk to it, to observe the effects of sound vibrations on its flesh. From talking to this organ without a body to the invention and spreading of the telephonic civilization was just a matter of taming electricity. And the rest is history; a history powered not so much by the force of the ghostly, but by a generalized loss of a capacity to communicate directly and without guilt with ghosts.

Interesting in this bizarre tale of dead men, severed ears, and the advent of tele-communication, is Bell’s desire to create an electric technology to talk with ghosts — rather than rely on the many psycho-physiological techniques available to anyone interested in ghost-talking in the 19th century. Bell’s deafness to ghosts’ voices, his lack of capacity to experience them directly, and his desire to supplement his perceptual handicap via electric amplification, gains an even more profound meaning once we remember how psychoanalyst Victor Tausk, in the early 20th century, defined schizophrenia as a disease where the patient sees him or herself as the center of a vast telecommunicational network, constantly traversed by influencing voices with no apparent physical producer being-there.

It’s almost as if the schizophrenic, by playing ghost — i.e., by becoming a conduit for fluid communication with the invisible, does indeed become one, as Caillois warned. But this becoming is immediately blocked by technological imperative and medical ideology, peremptorily denying access to the free network of transcendental communication. To see apparitions, to hear voices, or to talk to those who are not-quite-there become then symptoms of deep pathology. In the telephonic civilization, only electric-electronic technologies of tele-presencing can provide such access.

F.
Concluding remarks on dance
How can such an insight on the politics of the ghostly as material presence and as historical and social force make us rethink dance’s relationship to the effect of those who are not quite-there? This is the hypothesis: that choreography is the pre-technological invention allowing a subject to be there with ghosts.

Let’s return to Source number 2, to the historical moment I described briefly in the second page of this text, when the word choreography is coined by the priest Arbeau (who is also a judge and a dance master) in order to answer the plea of his dance student Capriol (who is also a lawyer) who laments the fact one can no longer dance with those “departed companions of youth.” Here, let me quote now from my book, Exhausting Dance, chapter 2, page 27:

Thanks to the choreographic book, a student will dance with his master’s ghost in the seclusion of an otherwise empty chamber. Thanks to the choreographic, a lawyer will wholeheartedly offer his body for a becoming spectral. Moreover, through this becoming, Capriol may channel his master’s melancholic affect – all he needs to do is to grant his master one more dance as he becomes, through the effect of solitary reading-dancing, one of his master’s long departed companions of youth. While dance is a technique for socializing, while dance is in itself a socialization, choreography appears as a solipsistic technology for socializing with the spectral, making present the force of the absent in the field of masculine desire. The choreographic effect can now be clarified as the spectral effect of writing in the field of masculine desire.

In Orchésographie, writing becomes a technology of transportation, more precisely of tele-transportation. The dancing lawyer and the dancing priest anticipate Derrida’s description of the type of telecommunicational effect writing produces. In Signature Event Context, Derrida identified a “kind of machine” operating at the core of writing that he associated with the technology of telecommunication.

This is choreography’s addressing the effect of ghosts in the field of movement. But there are other ways to think the ghostly in dance. Ways that are related less to choreographic modes of creation and telecommunication and more to questions brought by the psychosomatic composition of the body.

Consider, for instance, the medical term “phantom,” akin to ghost. This term names the manifestation of a vivid sensation of presence and movement of organs or body parts that are no longer there. Psychologist Paul Schilder wrote on the phantom in the following terms, in his classic book The Image and Appearance of the Human Body, page 67:

We are accustomed to have a complete body. The phantom of an amputated person is therefore the reactivation of a given perceptive pattern by emotional forces. The great variety in phantoms is only to be understood when we consider the emotional reactions of individuals towards their own body.

But we have several questions for Schilder. Can we say for sure that we always have in place a complete body — specially if Schilder himself stipulated that the limits of our bodies are determined by the limits of its outmost physical and affective extensions: “the voice, the breath, the odour, faces, menstrual blood, urine, semen, are still parts of the body-image even when they are separated in space from the body” (Schilder, 215). Isn’t the body of the dancer “completed” also by the introjection and incorporation of the bodies of all of her teachers, partners, and choreographers with whom she danced and who danced through her? And, if that is so, if there is already a ghostly constitution in the physicality and self-experiencing of one’s own body, how to distinguish that system of presence we have been calling “the ghost,” from the system of presence of “the living”? A hard task, even for psychologists. Schilder, page 66:

Any attempt on the part of a normal subject to imagine one of his own limbs moving when it is at rest may lead to phenomena that are in many respects similar to phantoms. Nevertheless, phantoms have another basis.

A question of basis then. Otherwise, the similarity is striking. Besides this “basis,” the distinction is so vague that when playing ghost one incurs the danger of indeed becoming one, or activating one. So, what is this basis, this ground that distinguishes the system of presence of the ghost from the living?

This basis is the source of movement. Immanent or transcendent, from within or from without, voluntary or involuntary, with a visible or accountable physical origin or with unaccountable origin. But here, we are back to the same dilemma once again: if the body is constitutively fluid, its insides and outsides precariously defined and always interchangeable, then how to map with certainty what comes from within the body and what comes from its outside? How to be certain one is moving because one wants to or because one is made to move by the ghost?

Thus, we get to the end of this story: the ghost is the name of any active threshold where a system of presence is transformed or becomes another by the means of a persistent movement whose origin must remain indeterminate, but that nevertheless be manifested. This threshold is announced by a localized and affective change in atmosphere, always elusive aura, creating a connective-critical affect at the moment of its manifestation, a persistent sensation of something being-there, of pure being-there, of an interpellative field being constituted and manifested through profoundly kinetic effects.

This threshold is always there. Meaning here. Constitutively with and around us.