Ghosts are back

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“It seems that ghosts are everywhere these days. Whether in rock songs, Internet news feeds, or museum exhibits, we appear to have entered an era that has reintroduced the vocabulary of ghosts and haunting into everyday life.” (p.ix)

“If ghosts are old, they are certainly not tired. While Ghost Voices [a British magazine] features articles on what we could call “good, old-fashioned haunting” (haunted houses, mediums, and so on), we can also speak of new etymologies and epistemologies of haunting that are endemic to our global times.” (p.ix) Citing an example of organised identity theft (from Puerto Rican school children) for the purposes of offering US citizenship(s) to Dominicans, Peeren and Blanco explain: “Identity theft is our contemporary crime of “ghosting” others to unblock global passages that would otherwise remain unsurpassable. The idea that one person from a specific nationality can become the operative “ghost” of another (in this case a Puerto Rican child) in order to gain access to a new way of life independent [-p.x] of the “real” identity holder, offers a fascinating prospect of a fluctuating world map where haunting can become a thing of, and for, the living.” (pp.ix-x)

As the ways of becoming a ghost have become so varied, the first thing we must establish is what we understand by that term. What are ghosts? For “ghost,” the Oxford English Dictionary lists a plethora of definitions, the most common of which – the ghost as “the soul of a deceased person, spoken of as appearing in a visible form, or otherwise manifesting its presence, to the living” – dates back to Chaucer. This definition has become prevalent as the non-figurative sense of the word, which in this case does not entail a statement about the ontological status of such beings (for a consideration of their cultural function, it is largely immaterial whether ghosts do or do not exist). In a figurative capacity, “ghost” has acquired many technical meanings as well: in optics, biology, metallurgy, mathematics, theater, and, most prominently, in visual media like cinema, photography, and television, where it refers to the appearance (through various causes) of an unintended, secondary image. Generally, the ghostly can be said to refer to that which is present yet insubstantial (the spirit rather than the body), secondary rather than primary (a faint copy, a trace, a ghost writer), and potentially unreal or deceptive (a spurious radar signal). The axiological quality of the ghost varies: while etymologically the word can be traced to the pre-Teutonic ghoizdo, meaning “fury, anger,” the OED lists both “a good spirit, an angel” and “an evil spirit” as obsolete meanings and its description of the ghost as the return of the dead refrains from assigning a particular purpose or emotion either to the apparition or to the one who witnesses it.

In this collection, we discuss both non-figurative ghosts – those manifestations, in some form or another, of the returning dead, and other ghostly beings or images emanating from realms beyond what is considered the “real” – and figurative ghosts, including marginalized citizens, invisible terror threats, the illusionary presences of computer-generated imagery (CGI), and the intangible, spectral nature of modern media, ostensibly unmoored from distinct locations in time and space. We believe these two types of ghosts do not represent totally distinct cultural phenomena, but constantly feed into each other, so that the increasing ghostliness of new media influences the representation of ghosts in media – think of the use of the video-tape in Hideo Nakata’s film The Ring (1998) – and vice versa, as when, for example, the metaphorical ghostliness of media is negotiated by materializing it in supernatural sightings, like the early 1960s phenomenon of the TV ghost. Similarly, the recent use of the ghost or specter as a designation for social outcasts (illegal immigrants, desaparecidos, the homeless, prisoners) can be seen to impact on the current portrayal of many non-figurative ghosts as impotent and ineffectual victims rather than powerful aggressors. This tendency governs the filmic portrayals of haunting in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999), where the ghosts remain unaware of their own deceased status, and in television series like Medium and Ghost Whisperer, where the dead can only resolve their problems with the help of the living. Such moments of cross-fertilization indicate that non-figurative and figurative ghosts haunt each other, and should therefore be considered in tandem, in this case through a conceptual approach to the ghost.” (p.x)

“Jacques Derrida, whose Specters of Marx (1994) perhaps makes him the most indelible recent theorist of haunting, has argued that each age has its own ghosts. Upon describing the (limited) possibility of demarcating the historical, philosophical, and social “singularity” of haunting, however, he pushes for a near immediate reinsertion of such explorations into what he calls a “much larger spectrological sequence.” This is in part due to Derrida’s insistence on haunting as a temporal, rather than spatial, phenomenon, where the ghost is not tied down to an idea of physical location. Popular Ghosts seeks to redress the balance by situating ghostly appearances in time and space, in line with Roger Luckhurst’s critique of the spectral turn in cultural criticism as “symptomatically blind to its generative loci.”” (p.xi)

We are interested in seeing what the different ghosts of our era look, sound, and feel like, as well as what functions they have in our cultural imagination, without losing sight of the ongoing revisions and revitalizations of previous spectral turns.” (p.xi)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Esther Peeren and María del Pilar Blanco ‘Introduction’ pp.ix-xxiv in Esther Peeren, and María del Pilar Blanco (Eds.). Popular Ghosts : The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 2010.

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