The Spirit Politic

“All the buildings are saying the same things. The foundation runs below them all, fractured and made from the dead, and it is saying the same things.

–we are hungry. we are alone. we are hot. we are full but hungry

–you built us, and you built on us, and below us is only sand” — China Mieville, “Foundation”

The past several years have seen a sharp rise in our culture’s interest in the undead. Zombies and vampires are unavoidable on television, film and popular literature. There’s naturally been no shortage of of social commentary ascribed to this revival, and plenty of thinkers and critics — including radicals — willing to hold forth on what lies beneath this trend. If, per the quote misattributed to Fredric Jameson, it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” then there’s little wonder why the living dead have provided such a source of fascination.

By comparison, ghosts may seem mundane, prosaic even. And yet through the annals of capitalism there is no more ubiquitous supernatural being. For all of Karl Marx’s fantastical imagery, it was the ghost — not the shuffling flesh-eater or bloodsucker — that he and collaborator Friedrich Engels chose to open their most important document: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.”

Almost 150 years later, Jacques Derrida published his Specters of Marx. There is plenty to take issue with in Derrida’s historical formulations (particularly for critics of post-structuralism), but the primary argument in the book — that the “end of history” would shove capital into a cultural dead end preoccupied with the old-timey, rustic “ghosts of the past” — is one that certainly rings true.

Specters is auspicious for another reason: its coining of the term “hauntological.” Its meaning is fairly self-explanatory: an ontology of that which haunts, which has experienced death but refuses to die. It is, according to Lisa Gye, “the paradoxical state of the spectre, which is neither being nor non-being.”

Derrida was writing at a time when — much like Marx’s own epoch, much like our own — the upheavals of the moment were hitting the reset button on the dream of a radically different world. The collapse of “really existing socialism” that influenced Specters of Marx had also spurred hope — both in Derrida and in a great many others more squarely in the tradition of classical Marxism — that perhaps the lane had been cleared for an interest in a more genuinely liberatory socialism. That has been borne out to some degree, but so too have the fruits of the arrogant free-market triumphalism unleashed by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unable to dream forward, our culture nostalgically pines for a past that never really existed in the hopes that the apparitions of a simpler, less turbulent time might somehow take on real substance. At the same time, a certain youthful demographic feted on the American dreams of education and an honest day’s work find themselves in limbo where those dreams cannot be fulfilled: “neither being nor non-being.” Perhaps then, if the zombie and vampire are stand-ins for the physical vicissitudes and parasitic hunger of post-Great Recession America, the ghost might be an avatar for what this age is doing to our very souls — or, in Marxian lingo, our “species-being.”

Categorically, it would seem the parallel is sound. Strictly speaking, ghosts are not “undead.” One might even say that they are antithesis of undead. The zombie usually has no memory of its living life; for most ghosts it’s all they have — usually accompanying a sorrow or anger so overwhelming that it bleeds into the physical realm. If a zombie or vampire are what might become of our physical selves if we have our humanity stripped of us, the ghost is the humanity itself extracted from any physical power to achieve self-realization. In fact this may get to the crux of what scares us about ghosts: It isn’t the loss of humanity as with our fear of the undead, but that our humanity — or at least some vestige of it — remains, what’s more that it remains in a state perhaps even more alienated, unfulfilled, unable to reach out and touch something that might confirm its existence. A quick glance through, folklore, contemporary and modern tales will yield that this is the common theme: The spirit of a person killed tragically or wronged so gravely in life that they are stuck in the same place to remind us of the injustice.

There is a strong sense of Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history here: the notion of an unredeemed past that weighs on the present. Psychology is correct in understanding fear as an anticipation of some future “dreaded unknown,” but what ghosts uniquely represent is the return of the past to haunt us in the future, a chronological straddle between a traumatic “what was” and a potentially devastating “what will be,” the embodiment of history’s wrath and revenge.

It is not for nothing that both the popularity of the seance among the well-to-do and the “golden age of the ghost story” — Poe, Hawthorne, Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James — coincided with the break-neck industrialization that definitively placed capitalism at the world’s helm. And while that system mastered both time (see E.P. Thompson on time and work discipline) and space (see Neil Smith, David Harvey and “the enclosure of the commons”), ghosts seemed to be simultaneously stuck in one place and transcending the earthly strictures of the clock, a reminder that the disruption that ripped people from their pre-industrial roles won’t be forgotten.

Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe.

And so we have the tropes we know so well today. The respectable family haunted by the neglected spirits of their well-appointed mansion. The housewife deemed “mad” because she can hear the walls telling her there is something beyond them. The spinning mill worker crushed to death whose essence now walks the halls of the factory. The African slave whose only escape from forced labor is also an escape from the mortal realm.

The dawn of modernism both compressed and accentuated all this. The aftermath of World War One’s carnage and its attendant shunning of capital’s violent brand of rationalism also opened the way for the “weird fiction” of H.P. Lovecraft and his cohorts. It is impossible to deny the kind of heightened existential anxiety of stories like Fritz Leiber’s “Smoke Ghost”:

Have you ever thought what a ghost of our times would look like, Miss Millick? Just picture it. A smoky composite face with the hungry anxiety of the unemployed, the neurotic restlessness of the person without purpose, the high-pressure metropolitan worker, the uneasy resentment of the striker, the callous opportunism of the scab, the aggressive whine of the panhandler, the inhibited terror of the bombed civilian, and a thousand other twisted emotional patterns. Each one overlying and yet blending with the other, like a pile of semi-transparent masks.

It should come as no shock that the ghost has too found its niche in celluloid. What does seem odd is that ghosts and horror generally weren’t generally seen as anything more than schlocky fodder for B-movies up through the 1960’s, when struggles around Vietnam and Black freedom forced America to once again reckon with its unfinished history.

And so, though the insistence that “There Is No Alternative” grew louder even as it became increasingly hollow through the 70’s and 80’s, so did the ghosts of film, television and literature stubbornly embody the abyss of our past the refused to stop staring back. Be it the families of Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror driven from their middle-class aspirations of a quiet suburban life, or the works of Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich, reminding us that centuries later, the crimes of genocide, forced displacement, poverty and chattel slavery continue to haunt.

Today’s neoliberal culture is fully able to live, comfortably even, with its own ubiquitous hauntings. Reality TV shows that purport to deal with “real life” hauntings — Ghost HuntersGhost AdventuresThe Haunted – are as easy to swallow as a prescribed anxiety medication. “Ghost tours” allow us to externalize and distance ourselves from the past, cheapening and commodifying the suffering of slaves, prisoners, victims. All of it designed as readymade history: easy to consume but learn nothing from, the supernatural counterpart to “ruin porn.” Underneath, though, there’s little that should allow us to rest easy.

Around the time that Derrida was finishing Specters of Marx and grappling with what it might mean to put the pieces of a fractured collective psyche back together, an adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” hit screens. We know it today as Candyman, in which the magnificent and angry spirit of a Reconstruction-era Black artist — the son of a slave in fact — haunts a run-down and neglected Chicago housing project.

That same, real life housing project of Cabrini-Green is no longer standing. In 2010 it was torn down. A Target and an Apple Store now stand in its place. The well-to-do condos that surround it leave little reminder that there were once people there struggling to live with dignity inhabiting there. It’s the story of countless neighborhoods being raked under the dirt of progress. Even as the housing bubble’s pop has left so many working and poor unable to make their mortgage or rent, the drive to forget, to turn every street corner into its own Fiddler’s Green, persists even stronger than before.

In light of all this, it seems that the words of the Candyman himself serve as a meta-comment on what it is eke out an existence of “neither being nor non-being” in today’s world:

Why do you want to live? If you would learn just a little from me, you would not beg to live. I am rumor. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people’s dreams, but not to have to be.

Rumors, like memories, can fade. But they are never truly forgotten. The only real question is whether they can be redeemed or whether they are bound to forever haunt us.

Alexander Billet is a writer and arts critic living in Chicago. He is on the editorial board of Red Wedge, and blogs for the site at Atonal Notes. His work has also appeared in Jacobin, New Politics, The Electronic Intifada, The Nation and the International Socialist Review among others.