Between the Living and the Dead
Introduction: Being With Ghosts, Becoming Mediums
When people die, I don’t ever want to talk about it. At funerals language leaves me, though not feeling. I come to resent the people who do want to talk about it, or them, the dead, I want to say, how can you be so selfish, talking about her while your breath is still hot in your gut. I think it’s because talking about the dead feels like such an overt gesture demarcating their absence in contrast to the embodied, earthly presence of the person doing the speaking. The dead person can’t talk, can’t come to the party, can’t drive a car or take the train, they can’t remember themselves, their power over their stories finally terminated. That’s the worst part to me, you die, and you’re just left to other people, they get to define the limits of your meaning now. The great Los Angeles writer Eve Babitz explains, “Death, to me, has always been the last word in people having fun without you” (123), an observation that is as far from flippant as it is from inaccuracy. Babitz explains that that’s how cultures end up with a heaven to believe in, a place where the dead are having the most fun of all, telling more stories and sharing more cake than the people at everyone’s future funerals. The only way to tolerate missing a party is by planning a better one, to which no one who previously excluded you is invited. Losing a loved one is hell, but for me the idea of losing all control, all agency, even where that control and agency was only ever imagined, has kept me up at night, thinking about the dead, their silenced voices, their erased secrets and hopes and plans. With or without the comfort of heaven, the only thing the dead can do in this world is haunt, and that’s one reason I wanted to take hauntings more seriously. For the dead, haunting can be the most direct challenge to the living’s fun without you.
Because I know how it might sound, sometimes I start by saying I know how it sounds. In the park one day I’m asked by a relative what I’m working on, and I say doing better by the dead, being more serious about my responsibility to the nonliving and the nonhuman. They humored me and nodded, but I could tell they thought I was speaking metaphorically, not realizing that I hate metaphors. Towards the end of this writing, I times I sat outside in California and read Samantha Hunt’s 2016 Mr. Splitfoot, and I saw myself reflected in the novel’s mysterious motel attendant, Sheresa, as she explains when questioned by a guest about her studies:
“You’re speaking metaphorically, right?”
“Oh, sure. Of course. Metaphorically. Transubstantially. Cryogenically. Whatever you need. Whatever gets you through the night.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. “How’d you end up here?”
“I’ll tell you.” She runs her tongue hard against her front teeth. “I’ll tell you. It’s like this. In college, everyone chose a nice, a microscopic subset of the human race they wanted to fight for, lay down on the tracks for… but it started to seem like so much rooting for the home team, and the home team only. I didn’t want to choose one small group. I wanted to understand real diversity, so I turned my scholarly attentions to the greatest population.”
“Not even close. Dead people.”
“A totally underrepresented population. The people underground. No one’s looking out for dead people’s rights. Right?” She slams her fist on the counter. “No one’s making sure dead people are invited to speak at conferences on semiotics or the effect of polar vortexes on the Gulf of Mexico. I became a ghost activist. I’d start arguments with my classmates and professors as to why they always privilege being over non-being. Why they behave as if the only words people hear are spoken ones. Makes my blood boil. What about the unsaid? Right? What about the dead?” (224)
Sheresa’s critique of neoliberal humanism’s superficial calls for forms of aid that in no way disrupt the status quo and its violent categories is enlivening, as is the true challenge she offers to those categories. Even imagining a conference like Sheresa imagines, where the dead come to share their expertise on polar vortexes and signs and symbols offers something just as rich and strange as a gathering of the living organized around expertise. Even imagining that some words, some messages, though unspoken, are already waiting to be received, or have been received already, but await translation, await response invites me to think differently about communication, meaning-making, understanding and perception. As Sheresa argues for the needs and desires and value of non-being, or non-beings, the reader is invited to ask what it means to think of being latent in non-being, of the non-beings constituting the beings? Her argument is not against the importance of any “one small group,” of any one living being, but against those simplistic and normative divisions, and instead for the expansive possibility created by sincere inquiry into the ways and needs of the dead and the more-than-human world.
A NOTE ON POSSIBILITY / SOME OF OUR GUIDES
And so sometimes I hear myself sounding like the eccentric innkeeper in a ghost story, which feels like a sort of accomplishment. Often when I explain that, in my desire to participate in the creation of a better future and a more just world, I don’t want to think only about the future and those to come, but about the past and those who have come before but are not gone, have not left—remembering Walter Benjamin’s warning in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren” (quoted in Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, 19)—or when I argue that to have a more just world, we need to care better not only for the world as we perceive it around us, but also for the imperceptible, the dead, the nonhuman and nonliving beings, their mysterious presence that surrounds and constitutes us, we need to care so much better for that too, I get some quizzical looks. It doesn’t necessarily help that I’m not speaking metaphorically, that when I say “haunt” or “ghost” I mean what I say. If we are going to have a more just world we are going to need a much more active imagination when we think about what is possible, who we are, when and where we are, and who and what is here with us. As Avery Gordon writes in Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, “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), or as Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands / La Frontera, her classic 1987 book combining autobiography, poetry, history, and theory to challenge the ontological primacy of all binaries, all borders, and proposing to replace such strict divisions with the realm of “Borderlands,” a space in-between, a space of possibility, “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in our heads” (109). “Imaginary” doesn’t have to be an insult or a limitation. There is so much potential in what we might imagine.
Sources of power that cannot be controlled—the sensual, the spiritual, the supernatural—are often devalued and trivialized as impractical, impossible, and irrational, through the gendered and racialized frameworks that value only liberal humanist knowledge creation. Audre Lorde’s explanation of the erotic can be one guide for us as we strive to know in other ways. In “The Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde describes the erotic as that deepest source of knowledge that comes through embodiment, connection, joy, and satisfaction, and acts as a bridge between the spiritual and the political. Lorde explains that it is through erotic knowledge that we might imagine the world truly different and find the power and strength and “energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama” (59). Erotic or sensuous knowledge could lead to true transformation, new characters in a new story. Gloria Anzaldúa is another powerful guide as we assume our responsibility as mediums. In Borderlands / La Frontera, she writes:
Like many Indians and Mexicans, I did not see my psychic experiences as real. I denied their occurrences and let my inner senses atrophy. I allowed white rationality to tell me that the existence of the ‘other world’ was mere pagan superstition. I accepted their reality, the ‘official’ reality of the rational, reasoning mode which is connected with external reality, the upper world, and is considered the most developed consciousness — the consciousness of duality.
The other mode of consciousness facilitates images from the soul and the unconscious through dreams and the imagination. Its work is labeled ‘fiction,’ make-believe, wish-fulfillment. White anthropologists claim that Indians have ‘primitive’ and therefore deficient minds, that we cannot think in the higher mode of consciousness — rationality. They are fascinated by what they call the ‘magical’ mind, the ‘savage’ mind, the participation mystique of the mind that says the world of the imagination — the world of the soul — and of the spirit is just as real as physical reality. In trying to become ‘objective,’ Western culture made ‘objects’ of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing ‘touch’ with them. This dichotomy is the root of all violence. (58)
This Borderland, another world, another mode of consciousness, Anzaldúa describes is certainly a place where the living might be able to get “in touch with” ghosts. Through staying close to the Borderland, I am also reminded again and again that it is not only the dead and buried who are erased, treated as if already long gone, but also all the living who are transformed into the nonliving or half-dead, objectified, as Anzaldúa describes, those who are not “fully human” according to a white supremacist capitalist colonial heteropatriarchal logic. Making a world hospitable for the dead means, crucially, making a world hospitable for all the living too. What transformation might be possible if we believe Anzaldúa that this dichotomy—between the human and nonhuman, the living and nonliving—is the root of all violence, and so we reject it, choose to find a way in the space between? What more living would be made possible, what other world?
It comes as no surprise when world-changing power is mocked by those in power that do not want the world to change. As Anzaldúa embraces her facultad to perceive more, as Lorde embraces the erotic to know and feel more, they guide us to challenge what is possible, and what is meaningful and believable, so that we might do more for both the living and the dead for whom we must hold ourselves accountable. It is our urgent responsibility to follow them there, to, as Avery Gordon invites “follow the ghost” (22).
Living in a time of dying, which I don’t mean to suggest is a circumstance unique to this particular historical location, but certainly is a defining element of this shared context, as we watch species and habitable land disappear more and more quickly, we all have a responsibility to learn to mourn together, not only with other human animals, but with other species and with the land, and not only to mourn, but to try our hand at mediumship, to feel the proximity always of those taken from us through unjust systems of valuing some life and devaluing the rest, to feel the strength of those marked as powerless ever close at hand. We must repeat the names of the dead not only to recall them, but to announce them, their presence, their power.
To get comfortable with the dead, we’ll need to think about the dead differently, and so life and death differently, and so time differently. We’ll need to get familiar with the dead, without ever thinking that we know them, while still valuing their mysterious and strange possibility. The feeling of mystery and uncertainty matters, as it guides us to another world, but so does the feeling of familiarity, because it guides us into a relation with the dead that can be informed not only by distance or difference, but by care and responsibility, or response-ability to follow Donna Haraway. Speaking with the dead, or telling a story about a ghost to a member of the living, is a way of entering into a conversation not just about presence and absence, but with presence and absence, not just about time and location, but with time and location, with both the particular (this lake, this house) and the infinite, the uncontained.
This relation cannot occur in a progressive, linear time, where the past is lost, the future waiting to be unfolded, and the crucial present our only home. It can occur in what I think of as ghost time. More than a romantic thought or spooky premise, ghost time, this making time for ghosts and telling stories about them, has profound consequences for understanding our location in a world so damaged through human animal’s long misunderstanding of both our location and our role in it, and the violent, colonial projects that misunderstanding has justified. If we open ourselves up to what ghosts could teach us about the world, about living and being in the world, it would change our way of remembering, our way of imagining, and our way of storytelling. As Gordon writes, “Following the ghosts is about making a contact that changes you and refashions the social relations in which you are located. It is about putting life back in where only a vague memory or a bare trace was visible to those who bothered to look. It is sometimes about writing ghost stories, stories that not only repair representational mistakes, but also strive to understand the conditions under which a memory was produced in the first place, toward a countermemory, for the future” (22). For the future, if all this could change, then our understanding of what it means to be ourselves, to be human would change, and with that our capacity to live in a world without harming the world and all the other human, non-human, and more-than-human life and death in and of it. If we followed the ghosts, if we went to the Borderland, we might then more clearly see our interconnection with all living and nonliving, and then we might, as Derrida proposes in Specters of Marx, “finally learn to live” (xvii).
A NOTE ON GHOSTS
Can anyone see a ghost? Can anyone be a ghost? Is just anywhere haunted? One way to think of ghosts is as ruptures in the seamless flowing of time and power, suggestions of something beyond or below the obviously present, the unquestioned explanations or justifications for the world being as it is. I see them as reminders of something lost, but more than that as reminders that the divide between the lost and the maintained is not so simple, that one predicates the other in a complex web, and that what is lost is never so far, although we may not always notice if we do not make an effort to feel, imagine, and remember. In the introduction to their deeply helpful book, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt explain why they turned to ghosts to discuss life and death on a planet in peril, writing, “Our ghosts are the traces of more-than-human histories through which ecologies are made and unmade… We call this return to multiple pasts, human and not human, ‘ghosts.’ “Every landscape is haunted by past ways of life” (1). For them, the ghostly manifests in lichen, in wild flowers—both the presently growing kind and the imagined/remembered kind—in mud volcanoes and stones, in extinct species as well as the invasive species that lead to their extinction. Ghosts of this sort are traces or reminders of what has been, what could have been, and what might yet be, or become otherwise. These ghosts, while never denying the history of destruction, nevertheless challenge the idea of what is “lost,” raising questions about what “recovery” might look like. Ghosts such as these can appear in plain sight, or make no appearance at all, and either way they blur the difference between the two, the visible and invisible. Like any good ghost, they make those they visit question the efficient-functioning of their senses to ask what’s out there, what am I perceiving, what am I not perceiving. Or, as Karen Barad explains in their essay in the collection, “No Small Matter: Mushroom Clouds, Ecologies of Nothingness, and Strange Topologies of Spacetimemattering,” “Loss is not absence but a marked presence, or rather a marking that troubles the divide between absence and presence” (106). What does it mean to trouble that divide? To be here, but not only here, more-than-here, to be now, but not only now, more-than-now?
Toni Morrison offers another way to think of ghosts in her novel Beloved, perhaps the greatest ghost story ever written. Ghosts in the book appear as voices, as sounds, as light, and as flesh-and-blood people. They want revenge, they want to help, they want so many things. In Beloved, ghosts also appear as “rememory,” a complex concept which Sethe describes to Denver in a conversation about Sweet Home:
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 someone else. Where I was before I came here, that place is real. Even if the whole farm — every tree and grass blade of it dies. The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there — you who never was there — if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. (44)
We can think of ghosts as rememory, the way a past event or place or person lingers and is passed between members of the living, building our world together. Ghosts like this shape not only our imagination, our consciousness, but also the physical, material world, even our bodies. Traces of past violence and destruction can be read on the land, traces of past injustice on our health, our socioeconomic status, traces of past trauma on our DNA. Everything is haunted by something or someone. Ghosts constitute the world alongside us, the living, ghosts are all around us, and also within us, and also ahead of us. Ghosts are what we will all become. Ghosts are waiting for us.
TO ANOTHER WORLD / SOME MORE OF OUR GUIDES
As I think about the dead and the living and our bond, remembering what we learn in the Borderland, it is foundational to understand that not all living and breathing human bodies are equally valued against or considered distinct from the dead in the first place, that life itself is used as a measure of whiteness, or whiteness as a measure of aliveness. To think against the unbridgeable divide between the living and the dead is to think against all-consuming, all-powerful whiteness and its systems of control contingent upon strict binary boundaries—one nation against another, the interior individual against the external world, the valuable living against the expendable semi-living semi-human, the living against the dead.
Thinking of ghosts and ghost stories in this way will help us tell more truthful, useful stories about who we are and how we got here, stories that don’t erase colonial and white supremacist violence and destruction. One place to begin is in the retelling of a story much beloved by whiteness in the United States—the story of the vanishing race. Telling instead a story of ongoingness, of what Gerald Vizenor calls survivance, is one thing that could change everything. As the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate scholar Kim TallBear writes in her essay “Beyond the Life/Not-Life Binary: A Feminist-Indigenous Reading of Cryopreservation, Interspecies Thinking, and the New Materialisms:”
Indigenous people, our movements and our voices are the others it seems the new materialists — indeed most of Western thought — cannot fully comprehend as living. They may hear us like ghosts go bump in the night. Once forced to see us, they may be terrified of the claims we make on their house. The invisibility of our ontologies, the very few references to them in their writing, and reference to indigenous thought by other theoretical traditions as ‘beliefs’ or artifacts of a waning time to be studied but not interacted with as truths above a living world — all of this is to deny our vibrancy. It is a denial of ongoing intimate relations between indigenous peoples as well as between us and nonhumans in these lands. We are the living that the new materialists, like so many Western thinkers before them and beside them, refuse to see… Seeing us as fully alive is key to seeing the aliveness of the decimated lands, waters, and other nonhuman communities on these continents. (198)
TallBear shows us plainly and powerfully that power structures treat some living as ghosts already, and that they do this to deny the living their power, because that power is enough to end this world and bring about another.
Another guide in our journey to relate to the dead and end of the world is the ethicist Denise Ferreira da Silva, who turns to the oppositionality of blackness to counter the consuming time and universal reason of the colonial, patriarchal order. In her essay “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World,” da Silva writes, “Ending the grip of Time restores the World anew, from the position Blackness registers—that is, the halted temporality that preempts recognition and opens the World as Plenum, becomes a Canvas Infinita, where the Subject figures without Time, stuck in the endless play of expression, with the rest of us” (90). Here, if “here” would still apply, in the endless play of expression:
… what exists becomes only and always a rendering of possibilities, which remain exposed in the horizon of Becoming… A Black Feminist Poethics become here in a World imaged as endless Poethics: that is, existence toward the beyond of Space-time, where The Thing resists dissolving any attempt to reduce what exists — anyone and everything — to the register of the object, the other, and the commodity. (91)
In this world, a world that demands the end of this current one, not in the impending apocalyptic sense of climate change, but in the sense of a rebirth, perhaps, or return, or a recognition of the truth of the world we already inhabit, we are bound to each other not by the coincidence of a shared indexical “now,” nor by a shared relationship of identity to a particular category of being or life, because in this world, the categories that afforded some humanity and to all others nonhuman, less-than-human, commodity no longer figure, and time no longer marches ever onward, unmovable and unmoved. In this world, instead we are bound to each other because we constitute each other, and because we share a responsibility of care, to care, for each other. We share a responsibility to care for the precarious living and the dead, to care for the future, not in terms of an unfolding progressive linear narrative, but nevertheless a future for which we are responsible. A future which is a becoming-together, which is not an absence, but a marked presence, like an apparition, a shimmering, a beloved ghost. An imagined future, one that does not ask us to do unjust harm to bring it into being, a remembered future from a story reclaimed, a future where time is not a limit, and our selves are not a living tomb. We walk amongst ghosts, we speak to ghosts, we are with them already in the future. As Karen Barad asks in “On Touching—The Inhuman That Therefore I Am,” “… what would it mean to acknowledge that responsibility extends to the insensible as well as the sensible, and that we are always already opened up to the other from the ‘inside’ as well as the ‘outside’?” (217) and then proposes “ it may well be the inhuman, the insensible, the irrational, the unfathomable, and the incalculable that will help us face the depths of what responsibility entails\” (218, emphasis in original).
This turn to the inhuman, insensible, irrational, unfathomable, and incalculable already within us, already who we are, is not a matter of abstraction or fantasy, it is a project for justice. As Lisa Yoneyama writes in Cold War Ruins: Transpacific Critique of American Justice and Japanese War Crimes, a book about what justice is possible:
The task of carrying the pursuit of justice forward and mourning for the dead, then, requires not so much authentic restitution of the original, or uncritical identification with and empathy for the ultimate victims, as the contagious acknowledgment of and indignation toward the violence perpetrated by colonialism on the wholeness of life, language, body, and name… The community, moreover, consists not only of the living, here and now, but also of the dead out there — those unnameable and innumerable multitudes of beings and nonbeings. (168)
When we are responsible for the dead, we feel their presence and remain indignant at their devaluing, their unjust loss, and so we demand more for them, and with them for us, for without them we are nothing. To turn to the dead is not to turn away from material change for the living, it is not to turn from the world as limited by daily human perception, it is not to pause in demanding freedom for the fullness of life. It is, however, to say that change to the functioning of existing systems is not enough, as it has never been enough. The world as it is must end, not only be reformed or refined in a way that makes more insidious the functioning of colonial, heteropatriarchal, white supremacist control. To push against the limits of what we can perceive with our logic and our senses as we have come to understand, to push against the limits of what we can speak with our language as we have come to use it, can be very frustrating. It feels like reaching the limit of all possibility, beyond which there is nothing more. That is the moment when we can end this world and move outside it, together with the dead forgotten, the dead misremembered, the dead recovered, for justice and with care.
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Copyright © 2020 Laura Henriksen