Spectral Criticism Literary Theory

It would be difficult to claim that there is such a thing as a ‘school’ or even emerging tradition of ‘spectral criticism’. Rather, what use of the term might seek to bring together would be a series of images and tendencies which have arisen within critical thinking over the last twenty or so years, from a diversity of sources, and which seem set to continue to exercise an appropriately ghostly influence over the critical activities of the next decades. If one were to go further back, the concerns of Maurice Blanchot with deaths and dubious returns of the literary voice, and with the ambiguous, liberating yet also menacing `spaces’ of literature, might figure as an (already inevitably occluded) ‘originary’ point.

We might think, for example, of Blanchot writing in 1955 about the act of reading and its inevitable encounter with what is dead, with what is not yet dead, and with what ineffably fails to declare its status in relation to death, resurrection and the phantom:

What makes the `miracle’ of reading more singular still, and has perhaps something to say for the significance of magic in general, is that here the rock and the tomb, besides containing the corpse-like void that has to be revived, represent the presence, albeit a hidden presence, of what will be revealed. To roll away the rock, to dynamite it, is indeed a miraculous undertaking; but it is one we are constantly performing in everyday conversation; at every hour of the day we converse with this Lazarus – dead for three days, or since the beginning of time – who, under his finely woven winding cloth and sustained by the most refined conventions, answers us and talks to us in the privacy of our hearts. (Blanchot, 1982a, 253)

What Blanchot therefore points us to is, first, the unavoidability of considering reading under the heading of a dialogue with the dead; and second, the quotidian reality of this inscription of a phantomatic reality atop the bizarre illusion of normalcy which might otherwise attend the act of reading itself, epitomized as it might be in the construction and interpretation of the epitaph, the memorial to the dead. The figure of Lazarus here invoked will-perhaps inevitably – crop up again below.

This increasing realization that the act of reading is of an uncanny nature, that in it the type of `converse’ we practise is necessarily also `perverse’, that it cuts across while it supposes itself to succour any `normal’ rule of `conversation’, can be seen as one of the roots of the growing insistence on spectrality in criticism, a sense that any involvement with or in literature is inseparable from the phantom, the ghost, that the continuing survival and material reality of the book is itself the possible subject of scrutiny, anxiety, even fear. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, writing in 1999 in the second edition of their Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, propose `ghosts’ (although they did not do so in the first, 1995 edition) as an essential topos of the critical:

Ghosts are paradoxical since they are both fundamental to the human, fundamentally human, and a denial or disturbance of the human, the very being of the inhuman. We propose to devote this chapter, to dedicate it, to the living-dead, to the ghost(s) of literature. And we propose that this scandal of the ghost, its paradoxy, is embedded in the very thing that we call literature, endlessly inscribed in multiple and haunting ways, in novels, poems and plays. (Bennett and Royle, 1999)

This mention of the `inhuman’ perhaps serves to connect the possibility of a spectral criticism with other, better-known critical practices that seek to displace the overweening human subject; the word `devote’, however, with its associations of madness and obsession, indicates the mass of difficulty and resistance to interpretation that would need to be encountered in the process of practising a truly spectral criticism, the impossibility, as it were, of such a criticism ever emerging fully into the light of day. Spectral criticism, then, denotes not a programme or task to be fulfilled but rather a substrate of all dealings with text, an undecidable ground on which our reading occurs, a reinvocation of a terrorizing but desired communion with the dead.

In what ways, some would ask, could this address the concerns of a more ‘materialistic’ tendency in criticism? The answer might, perhaps, not be as simple as it appears. While the ghost, the phantom, might appear to be the most insubstantial of apparitions, one might also say that in this way it uncannily redoubles the mode of appearance of textuality itself, that it is ‘materialistic criticism’ which deals only in metaphor – for, after all, materialistic criticism is rarely concerned with the materials themselves, with the parchment, papyrus, paper that might be all that is left after the word has been erased, whereas these emptied substances, always awaiting the reality of their inscription, are precisely the substance of the spectral, which is never confident of the actuality it appears to perceive.

Many other schools of criticism have looked at issues of tradition and influence, of authorization and paternity/maternity, of intertextuality and inheritance, spectral criticism finds itself instead seeing texts as paradoxical in their relation to the past, fundamentally unparented and `unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled‘, to quote Hamlet; they speak to us indeed all the time of the past, but the voice they use is not authoritative, it is instead monitory, omenistic, it warns of dooms past and to come and above all it reiterates our own complaint of being not at home in the world, of being adrift, lost in a prior space that can never be re-created by any rolling away of the stone.

The most familiar pathway for these concerns – which are, at the end of the day, also political and social concerns – in the 1980s and 1990s was the rise of Gothic criticism, that is to say, the change in the fortunes of Gothic writing that accompanied the emergence of a criticism that looked at it with some seriousness but thus inevitably, some would say, became involved, infected with the multiple anomalies of the supernatural. Although to begin with one might say that such criticism involved a `recapitulation’, an attempted recovery of meaning from various textualities over the last two hundred years, one can also sense the emergence of a double problem that in the end led to a series of doubts about the very status of criticism. First, there is the vexed question of where, or indeed whether, `Gothic’ could be said to have `begun’, shading off as it always does into an imagined `prior’ that proves increasingly impossible of recapitulation. Second, there is an increasing recognition that the `supernatural’ material with which Gothic claims to deal itself comes to constitute an `excess’ around the space of criticism, an ongoing challenge to criticism itself as a branch of enlightenment.

Gothic persists in eluding this notion of `rule’. What haunts Gothic . . . is Gothic: a ghost haunted by another ghost, almost as eighteenth-century Gothic was haunted by Jacobean tragedy, and Jacobean tragedy by the horrors of Greek drama; and as all these textual manifestations are themselves further haunted by a world which comes prior to text yet which we can know only in and through text, a world of oral tradition, of more primal hauntings by word of mouth. (Punter, 1998, 14)

According to this vision of – or from – the Gothic, there would be no possibility for criticism to isolate a single text, a non-duplicitous textual act; instead criticism would only be able to realize itself by entering into the `hall of absence’, the clinic for chronic originary doubt. Like a ghost tied to, and doomed to return to, an already inscribed location, criticism itself would be doomed to haunt a site which can never be fully recaptured.

The way in which this `re-vision’ of the Gothic has been taken into a wider field of critical speculation is well exemplified in the recent collection of essays, Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History, edited by Peter Buse and Andrew Stott. This volume, Buse and Stott claim, argues `that modern theory owes a debt to ghosts’ (1999, 6), even if that debt is often unacknowledged. The word `debt’, reminding us as it does of work on Freud done by Samuel Weber and others, is significant in this context; but equally significant is the tripartite scheme into which the editors divide their chapters: ‘Spectrality and Theory’, `Uncanny Fictions’ and `Spectral Culture’. All of these categories are susceptible of further development: the second of them, as envisaged in this volume, is solidly on the terrain of the Gothic, with chapters on, for example, ”Spectres of Marx, Derrida and Gothic Fiction’, the `Mysteries and Domesticities of Udolpho’ and `The Postcolonial Ghost Story’.

Among the echoes called to mind here are those of the spectre and the uncanny, and these inevitably draw us close to the concerns of deconstruction and psychoanalysis respectively. There is, for example, an overarching question about the ambiguities of deconstruction, and especially about deconstruction’s workings between textuality and politics. The emblematic text here is Derrida‘s Specters of Marx, which essays a `different’ version of history: not as linear development, but as the site of multiple hauntings. Speaking with the ghost of Hamlet’s father in mind, Derrida suggests that

…everything begins by the apparition of a specter. More precisely by the waiting for this apparition. The anticipation is at once impatient, anxious, and fascinated: this, the thing (`this thing’) will end up coming. The revenant is going to come. (Derrida, 1994, 4)

Everything, then, begins in – and perhaps continues to reside in – an absence, a premonition of arrival which will never be fully removed or replaced. Thus – and here as the spur to an account of recent European history and the fate of communism – Derrida engages with the looping circularity of history, whereby there is, as in the Gothic, never an origin, or a never-origin, a state whereby the past refuses to be entirely occluded but remains to haunt the apparent site of enlightened new beginnings: in the beginning – apparently – is the apparition. History therefore cannot be written without ghosts, but the point goes further than this: the narratives of history must necessarily include ghosts – indeed they can include little else – but they will also be written by ghosts. History is a series of accounts of the dead, but it is also a series of accounts by the dead; the voices we overhear in our dealings with history are spectral without exception, they spectralize the possibility of knowledge.

This inevitably connects, through the notion of the uncanny, through the conflation of the homely and the unhomely, the familiar and the unfamiliar, with the older tradition of `Freudian history’, from which, as from the unconscious, nothing ever goes away. We need to have in mind, for example, the vision Freud offers of Rome in Civilisation and its Discontents; he offers it to us as a city which, as he remarks in a resonant phrase, is now ‘taken by ruins’. But `now’ – perhaps, therefore in a different but equally problematic ‘present’ moment –

…let us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past – an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one. (Freud, XXI, 7)

According to this vision – although we might equally refer to it as a hallucination – `in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine’, `the castle of S. Angelo would still be carrying on its battlements the beautiful statues which graced it until the siege by the Goths’, and so forth. In other words, according to a Freudian historiography, a history of the unconscious, nothing would ever have gone away. Clearly the mention of the Goths – as the ineffectual erasers of a prior memory that will never go away, as the sign of the hovering and recurring possibility symbolized by the `dark ages’ – is not accidental here; but neither is the tense of the verb, that repeating `would’ that characterizes spectral criticism, that comes helplessly to replace the `is’ that can no longer stand in the light of the endless returns of history: the rule, we might say, of the phantomatic hypothesis.

According to the development of this new historiography – which is at the same time a recrudescence of the concept of the `ancient’ – social life and its cultural textualities, however material they may appear, are constituted as much by absence as by presence, and the past takes the form of a series of apparitions that can be neither addressed nor banished. This, of course, has been the `lesson’ of psychoanalysis right from its own – deeply contested – origins; what, after all, was the status of linear history under the conditions of hypnosis and somnambulism within which psychoanalysis emerged? What, however, has been distinctive within the last two decades has been the insistence with which psychoanalysis has associated itself with the (Gothic) language of the crypt and the phantom. Emblematic here has been the work of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, first in The Wolf Man’s Magic Word and later in the essays collected in The Shell and the Kernel.

What this work principally points to is a psychic space different from the unconscious, a location that is not a location but whose existence is felt only as an insistent pressure from an otherwise absent or unattributable source. This `crypt’, according to Abraham and Torok, is the repository of the secrets of the past, it is the place where the memories of our parents and grandparents are buried, the site on which are stored all the stories which have been too painful, too embarrassing, too revealing to tell; it is in the crypt that the secrets of our own genesis may be buried, but we are ourselves unaware not only of its contents but of its existence or whereabouts, and even psychoanalysis, according to this theory, can exert only a limited influence over the crypt’s role in psychic life, however much the psychoanalytic encounter seeks to replicate the conditions of an underlying dialogue with the dead.

This in turn, we might say, suggests new approaches to textuality, approaches based on a notion of the `text instead’, ways of reading `through’ the material text to a `different absence’. The whole tenor of The Wolf Man’s Magic Word is geared towards the exposure of a `text that lies beneath the text’ which haunts all words with its insistent pressure; Abraham and Torok‘s final reckoning with the Wolf Man – a reckoning which is itself, of course, really an engagement with the phantoms of Freud and of the Wolf Man himself – results in the excavation of a single word, but a word which, because of its `magic’ proclivities, takes on a phantomatic status, as though it has secretly controlled the Wolf Man’s whole life from, as it were, behind his back.

We may choose to take issue with the simple act of banishment which concludes, but at the same time undercuts, the subtleties of Abraham and Torok‘s dealings with the subterranean and the absent, but it nonetheless follows from this that no word can be understood in terms of its own claim to status, its own referent; often the words we use, the words we read, can only be paradoxically understood as responses to prior signals, more originary forms, forms that remain incomprehensible in themselves. Within all of us, Abraham and Torok suggest, such a crypt exists, and we place over it a guard, emblem of the strength of our resistance to the arrival of the apparition, to the return of the undead, a `cemetery guard’. Nevertheless:

. . . sometimes in the dead of night, when libidinal fulfilments have their way, the ghost of the crypt comes back to haunt the cemetery guard, giving him strange and incomprehensible signals, making him perform bizarre acts, or subjecting him to unexpected sensations. (Abraham and Torok, 1994, 130)

A battle, then, between two phantomatic figures, one who seeks to remind and one who seeks the prevention of such dangerous rememoration; this is perhaps an encounter reminiscent of similar battles on the terrain of trauma. In so far as this might be so, it would therefore have to be realized that the critical act of isolating and interpreting takes place only within an encircling horizon of mistranslation, of uninterpretability: the words we read, like the words we utter, are themselves always responses, they are answers to questions we cannot perceive, they are attempts to solve problems we cannot imagine, they are mere residues of an entirely different, spectral struggle. What we experience of the dialogue presupposes a phantom `on the other side’, a side of the dialogue to which we can never gain access but which nevertheless ineluctably reconstructs itself within the very harmonics of the voice we think we hear.

We are here on a terrain of compulsion, much like the Gothic’s compulsive, obsessive return to a prior terrain; we are in the place which is haunted, where we know a ghost to `exist’ but can nevertheless offer no explanation for the bizarre recurrences and effects of its apparition:

The phantom’s periodic and compulsive return lies beyond the scope of symptom-formation in the sense of a return of the repressed; it works like a ventriloquist, like a stranger within the subject’s own mental topography. The imaginings issuing from the presence of a stranger have nothing to do with fantasy strictly speaking. They neither preserve a topographical status nor announce a shift in it. (Abraham and Torok, 1994, 173)

Like a stranger, like a `foreign body’ within the self, like a ventriloquist, calling into question the `authenticity’ of the words we speak even as we speak them, reminding us that `our’ words are always simultaneously the residues, the traces, of the words of others.

It would therefore follow that the ghost  in the text cannot be experienced either as conserving the past or as ridding us of the past’s hold: to suppose either would be to attempt to categorize the phantom within Enlightenment norms, to `subject’ the ghost to a logic that cannot recognize its existence (and thus remains inexplicably haunted by its own other). This would be the logic also explored by Julia Kristeva in her Strangers to Ourselves, where she explores the notion of foreignness in relation both to the external other and also to the other within ourselves; it would also lead us to a more extensive encounter with the `foreign body’, with the other within ourselves, always again implicit within Freudian theory but emerging with particular force in the criticism – and also in the literature – of the last two decades.

However, before proceeding down this line one would also want to consider the recent work of Jean Laplanche on otherness and its potential implications for textual study. Laplanche‘s main argument in his Essays on Otherness is against Jacques Lacan‘s famous – or notorious – claim that the unconscious is structured like a language, with the concomitant implication that the unconscious can be in some sense deconstructed according to a certain set of rules – the issues of metaphor and metonymy, condensation and displacement are central here – so as to yield meaning. The unconscious, according to Laplanche, is quite different from this, and this `difference’ is to be grasped only in terms of the `message’ and the enigma.

According to Laplanche, Lacan‘s account of the unconscious is hostage to an unexamined assumption of the primacy of language; thus anything he has to say is vitiated by his very act of saying it, his blindness to the possibility of alternative primacies, other origins, that might relegate the verbal – and thus the textual – to a different role in development, and one that is inevitably haunted by that which preceded it. This then would be the essence of haunting, that the very words in which we try to describe our experience come only as replacements, as – as we have already suggested – a `text instead’.

The messages which are the object of the first translations are not essentially verbal, nor are they `intellectual’. They include in large part signifiers of affect, which can be either translated or repressed: a smile (in Leonardo), an angry gesture, a grimace of disgust, etc. These signifiers, if  they are repressed, will be designified, in the same way as are more `intellectual’ signifiers. The `exclusion’ of affect here is nothing but a general consequence of the exclusion of the signified. (Laplanche, 1999, 108)

All communication, according to Laplanche, is predicated on a radical incompleteness: the gesture, the represented affect, that the child perceives is not only incomprehensible to the child but, more importantly, it is incomprehensible to and unperceived by the parent, and can therefore only be transmitted as an enigma. The enigma is not at all the same as a problem, for a problem may have a solution; the enigma, as Laplanche sees it, is incapable of solution, for it is inexplicable even to its own apparent originator; it is a ghostly message which might appear in the form of a conundrum but which comes with no key with which to unlock the `apparent secret’ (a paradox, of course, in itself). Thus, if we were to extend Laplanchean theory, we might say that all communication (and thus all textuality) is accompanied by a different communication, one that mysteriously takes place between crypts, one in which the word has no part to play except as a covering over a `different’ scenario. As we talk, ghosts behind our backs gesticulate and murmur to each other; as we turn to observe them, they vanish. What we think we understand is putatively rescued from the enigma; but in the beginning, as it were, is the sphinx. On this reading, the Oedipal myth would not have much to do with sexuality; it would hinge rather on the shared triumphalist myth that the sphinx‘s words can somehow be recapitulated, understood; it would be this logocentric error that sealed Oedipus’ fate, his assumption – shared with the entire city of Thebes – that the existence of a riddle presupposes the existence of a solution.

Ghosts obey no such logic, and this in turn links with developments on the interface between the literary and the theological, where an emblematic text would be the proceedings, edited by Philippa Berry and Andrew Wernick under the title The Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion, of a conference held in Cambridge in 1990 whose themes underlined the phantomatic status of text itself, the inevitable (at least within the western Christian tradition) pressure of `spirit’ (however that term may be conceived) upon materiality. `[A] darker, more obscure way of seeing and thinking – a perspective which is perhaps more appropriate to the twilight regions where philosophy now finds itself – appears gradually to be replacing our long-established visual drive to power and truth’, Berry suggests in her introduction to the volume, thereby situating the concept of the shadow within the very `oculocentric’ rhetoric of enlightenment. She refers also to an `in-between and shadowy intellectual region which we have inherited from Nietzsche and others’, to the possibility expressed by Emmanuel Levinas of thinking the gods and the divine `otherwise’, to the `nonabsent absence of the holy’ (Berry and Wernick, 1992, 2, 4).

In these formulations – and in many others in the various essays in the volume – one cannot but hear the ambiguous presence of the spectral. Although Berry and the other contributors wisely avoid essaying a definition of what the relation might be between the postmodern and this haunted condition, we may nonetheless extrapolate that the icy and knowing fracturings of the postmodern need also to be seen as a `new’ set of defences – defences which, as is always the way of defences, call our attention to precisely the material that they are apparently designed to repel. An important question might then be put: when we ask what the postmodern is doing, we need to break this question down and to look at it under two different (although inseparable) headings. First we need to ask what the postmodern is trying to protect us from; but second, what is it calling into being, `calling up’, invoking in its gestural la guage, under the guise of its status as `cemetery guard’?

On these bases we might now move to formulate some hypotheses about spectral criticism. It depends, as we have seen, upon the `law of the orphan’, the assertion that no attempt to assert textual parentage can properly `take’, that neither paternity nor maternity can be known and that the provenance of the text will immediately take us into a shadowy realm that lies behind the word – and even behind the imagistic realm of the womb, gestation, the creative matrix. Its model would be the Gothic, the apparent return of a transmuted past – a past which, to be sure, we know full well to have little historical accuracy but which continues to inflect our dealings with that past and which will, in the end, grow monstrously so as to occlude the possibility of accuracy altogether, as memory itself selects its own moments, unconsciously and frequently with trauma as its only guide, to represent but simultaneously to defeat a past that cannot be rendered wholesale. Its fundamental trope would be the uncanny, the impossibility of discerning a clear disjunction between what is known and what is not known – we would be here on the terrain of what Christopher Bollas (1987) has memorably referred to as the `unthought known’, that body of `knowledge’ that is incapable of conscious recapitulation yet which forms the ground of our every action. Its characteristic form would not be language but the enigmatic `message’, the message seen as always shadowed by the incomprehensible, always containing within itself the enigmatic possibility that we are, as it were, looking at the wrong side of the paper (or at the paper before, or after, it has been temporarily inscribed). The text, therefore, would always be open to construal as the `text instead’, the wrong text, a ghostly alteration of a prior state of material being which is unsusceptible of recapture.

Interestingly, we can see a convergent development in theology itself with books such as Reading Bibles,  Writing Bodies: Identity and the Book, edited by Timothy K. Beal and David M. Gunn (1997), which seek to recast the `spiritual’ concerns of the Bible in terms of the materiality of the word (the Word). Here a new field shows signs of coming into being, a field in which the term `spirit’ itself, with its phantomatic associations, becomes the heart of the problem. This western, Christian constellation itself, however, has been recently further offset or `ghosted’ by other concurrent developments in criticism. The most important instance here would be that of postcolonial criticism, which has repeatedly called attention to the spectral presence in postcolonial texts of past histories of violence, imperialism and exploitation as the principal ground on which a postcolonial writing must be constructed. According to these ideas, history is again conceived as a matter of ghosts, phantoms, haunted sites; thus, for example, terms like `primitivism’ and `superstition’ can be subjected to a reversal and seen less as `natural’ features of specific colonized cultures than as the outcroppings of primal encounters between cultures, encounters which have been repressed beneath the rewritings – or reroutings – of history but which nevertheless remain in the explosive crypts of defeated nations. An example here would be Michael Taussig‘s (1993) work on South American shamanism, which sets out to show that the powers of healing ascribed to the `native’ were effects more of the desire of the western invader to be `healed’ than of anything ‘pre-existent’ in a native culture itself; according to studies such as this, which turn the entire concept of `anthropology’ on its head, what is revealed by the western `invasion’ of other realms is a refracted, distorted image of the invader himself, a ghostly representation in which the will to dominate is shown in its true colours but where simultaneously the essential weakness, the terror that accompanies violence, stares back at us from the mirror, robed in death.

The most important provocation here would be towards a re-examination of the ways in which deconstruction and postcolonial criticism themselves relate as mutual phantoms. One way of approaching this terrain would be through a consideration of the `foreign body’. According to Royle, the term “foreign body” would name that which makes every identity, all language, perception and experience different from itself . . . there is a certain foreign body which works over our language, over what we say and read and write, and which corresponds . . . to a notion of what Derrida refers to as “the `other of language” ‘; the other “which is beyond language and which summons language” ‘ (Royle, 1995, 146). This, it seems to me, is approximately in accord with a general dialectic of the spectral. What one might, however, reply – or at least propose as a `supplement’ – in the postcolonial moment to such assertions might hinge on the conception of the `foreign’, on how such a category comes to be constituted, on what imagistic models one might be unconsciously relying on to provide an image of radical alterity.

One might also suggest that, although the phantomatic may be a function of language in general, it might also be a function of specific relations between and among languages, so that the issue of the speaking voice would never be reducible to a singularity but would instead be considered in terms of the `foreigning’ of the apparently natural, the inner sense of a language not our own – which again would have general implications in terms of the domination of the linguistic, but would also be brought to a head when considering what languages can be used in postcolonial situations, in situations where a certain violation, an imperialist robbery of authority, has always occurred and where the voices speaking at our shoulder, the ghosts of the past, are all too apparent,  the ‘apparitions’ all too `present’. Do all ghosts, we might ask, speak English?

The colonial and postcolonial scenes are, whatever our reply to that question (and in whatever language), populated by ghosts. Robert J. C. Young develops this point in an essay on – and addressed to – Derrida and in particular to Derrida’s position as Algerian and as Jewish. He quotes Albert Memmi on this `inarticulated’ community:

Their constant and very justifiable ambition is to escape from their colonised condition… To that end, they endeavour to resemble the coloniser in the frank hope that he may cease to consider them different from him. Hence their efforts to forget the past, to change collective habits, and their enthusiastic adoption of Western language, culture and customs. But if the coloniser does not always openly discourage these candidates to develop that resemblance, he never permits them to attain it either. Thus, they live in constant and painful ambiguity. (Young, 2000, 204-5)

One of the (haunting) references here, although it may not be explicit, is nonetheless pressing: it is to the crowd of shades on the banks of the Lethe, who indeed `live in constant and painful ambiguity’, although perhaps `live’ is too unambiguous a word. We might think, in the same vein, of the character in T. S. Eliot‘s Little Gidding who encounters `the eyes of a familiar compound ghost/Both intimate and unidentifiable’. `I was still the same’, he protests in the face of this uncanny revelation:

Knowing myself yet being someone other – And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed To compel the recognition they preceded. And so, compliant to the common wind, Too strange to each other for misunderstanding, In concord at this intersection time Of meeting nowhere, no before and after, We trod the pavement in a dead patrol. (Eliot, 1963, 217)

This, then, would be one image for the condition of the spectral: to recognize and yet not to recognize the other; to recognize a foreign body at the heart of the self; to be aware and yet to be unable fully to articulate the sense that one’s very vocabulary, even perhaps one’s gestures, have been formed by the other. There is, to put it in a different rhetoric, a mutual impossibility of banishment: the colonizer can no more remove his `subject’ from his sight than can the colonized lift the weight of imposition from his heart. Instead, there emerges a spectral logic in which the foreign body is loosed yet simultaneously tied in place, free – like a ghost – to roam the world, yet simultaneously shackled – like a ghost – to a particular place and time, the significance of which may only be revealed on the horizon of an unascertainable future.

This though, spectral criticism will go on to say, is inseparably the condition of both the postcolonial – considered as the defining mark of an age rather than of specific cultures – and the postmodern; for all representation, according to some arguments, now falls under the revealed but occluded sign of the phantom – a sign which now, it would seem, has come to occlude Jean Baudrillard‘s simplistic and commercially problematic late twentieth-century notion of the `simulacrum’. Let us consider another example, another time, another medium. `Early viewers of film’, we are told by one critic, `were amazed and moved by this miraculous gift dispensed by film, that of reanimating what had gone …Like Christ calling Lazarus, film seemed to bring back to life what had been irrevocably lost; it blurred uncannily the distinction between life and death’ (Smith, 2000, 121). Lazarus again, the evidence which defies all evidence, the test of truth and faith which, if accepted, will plunge us into a universe of ghosts. The complete transcript, the irrefutable truth: film appeared to promise – promised like an apparition – the incontrovertible; yet simultaneously, as we are now increasingly seeing in the literally endless lying of videotape, it paved the way for the most powerful of all challenges to the integrity of the past, it allowed for the insertion of a radical, phantomatic doubt about ‘the truth’ which has now come to bear fruit in what we – perhaps temporarily – designate `virtual reality’.

As we look now, with twentieth-first-century eyes, at these developments then there emerges an obvious connection with alterations in the notion of textuality itself, particularly in so far as it is now mediated through `virtual reality’ – although perhaps we would do better to see this simply as a different type of `virtual reality’, in series with all the other `imaginary truths’ that textuality has promised us down the ages. Examples here might be drawn from critical writing, but they also abound in the various `cyber-genres’, as practised by William GibsonIain Banks and others, with their consequences for the notions of the `endurng word’. The wholesale revision of the time and space of literature thus suggested would produce its own ghosts, the relics of a textuality already on the point of vanishing, beyond recall in the very moment of its emergence as the cyborg exerts a spectral influence over the domain of the literary.

In Gibson‘s emblematic Neuromancer, for example, the logic of the spectral prevails. Regardless of the demands of narrative, we need to negotiate the reality status of passages such as this:

Directly overhead, along the nighted axis, the hologram sky glittered with fanciful constellations suggesting playing cards, the faces of dice, a top hat, a martini glass. The intersection of Desiderata and Jules Verne formed a kind of gulch, the balconied terraces of Freeside cliff dwellers rising gradually to the grassy tablelands of another casino complex. Case watched a drone microlight bank gracefully in an updraft at the green verge of an artificial mesa, lit for seconds by the soft glow of the invisible casino . . . He’d seen a wink of reflected neon off glass, either lenses or theturrets of lasers. (Gibson, 1994, 180)

The question would be, in what sense – or perhaps to what (altered) senses – are these scenes recognizable? But in this specific case, this could also readily resolve itself into a question of perspective: from what position are we looking, through what sorts of eyes – and what then is the self – or not-self – that lies behind these perceptions? The recognizability, such as it is, could lie in the scenario of the very rich, in the possibility that we are here simply looking at wealth and dominance through the eyes of a spectator who is himself – or herself, or itself – a foreign body, and that thus we can `retranslate’ these fragments into a recognizable societal whole. The alternative, however, might be well signalled by the notion of the `intersection of Desiderata and Jules Verne’, the question, as we might say, of the desired object that can nevertheless never be found, the source of the endless journey of Captain Nemo in the shadowy darknesses of the oceans, the suggestion that a ghost’s eyes might be permanently, as it were, under water, open but only to blindness, or dazzled by possibilities that are too numerous, too fast, too instantly self-replicating, to permit any grasp on the `cliff’ of the virtually real.

Such a perception would always be, in some sense, ruined; it would take place only in a realm where the sight and the understanding had already been severed, the optical nerve cut off at the root. Ghosts, we might say, with large eyes, wide shut. And it would be on the note of the term `ruin’ that the notion of spectral criticism both returns us to its own origin in the Gothic ruins of the eighteenth century (and of the Dark Ages, and of Greece and Rome) and simultaneously gestures forward towards further developments: for what is the ruin?

All texts, perhaps, are ruins; that is to say, they are relics of the unrealized projects of their former selves. They have, as it were, already collapsed; none the more so than the literary masterpieces of the canon. When we come to read a text in the half-light of spectrality, we find ourselves approaching a ruin, an object of antiquarian delight and fear, the site of a potential reconstruction whose success will always elude us. Thus, we might say, spectral criticism offers a certain – and deeply uncertain – humility in the face of the text, a necessary opposition to the vaunted possibilities of accurate historical exhumation, a realization of the partiality of all our efforts. In this light, again, we might want to say that our efforts to focus on the text are all but destroyed before they have begun; this is not to say that spectral criticism has no discursive role to play, but rather the reverse: that the role it plays is the only possible one unless we are to succumb to the fantasy identifications that attend on our other attempts to inhabit the house of the dead. Texts, therefore, are not themselves; they are something quite other, and it is only in (or with) this spirit that a text may be approached.

Source: Introducing Criticism at the 21st Century by Julian Wolfreys, Edinburgh University Press, 2002.


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