Writing between presence and absence
  • Christina Lee, Wayne Price and Rachel Robertson

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock writes, ‘Our contemporary moment is a haunted one’ (2013: 61). Weinstock attributes the ‘spectral turn’ in contemporary cinema, television, literature and academic inquiry to a ‘general postmodern suspicion of meta-narratives accentuated by millennial anxiety’ (ibid.: 62, 63). While the fascination for hauntings is nothing new—ghost stories have never gone out of fashion—the proliferation of spectral presences speaks to a pervasive need to be able to comprehend and express human experiences in ways that are non-linear and non-binary. In a post-9/11 era punctuated by unimaginable occurrences on a massive scale—environmental disasters, refugee crises, terrorist attacks, state-sanctioned violence against not only the Other but also its own citizens—how does one make sense of that which is irrational, if not in ways that challenge the limits of what ‘rational thinking’ (and being rational) is?

To be haunted is to occupy a precarious position because it requires us to set aside, even if momentarily, what we think and feel to be rational. It is to approach a border only to realise that its capacity to precisely demarcate becomes increasingly uncertain the closer we get. We are, of course, here referring to the notion of liminality and the murky threshold, the limen. Anthropologist Victor Turner describes liminality as a ‘state and process of mid-transition’ evading ‘ordinary cognitive classification [for it is] neither-this-nor-that, here-nor-there, one-thing-not-the-other’ (1977: 37). The destabilising affects of liminal spaces are the effects of slippages between past, present and future; life and death; perceived and imagined; self and other. Spatial and temporal states of in-between-ness are unsettling because they threaten to unravel the narratives and categorisations that are the dominant organising principles by which we know the world and our place in it.

Engaging with spectres may be risky business, but it is also necessary business. In his seminal text Specters of Marx (1994), Jacques Derrida makes the emphatic argument that there is an ethical and political responsibility in doing so. When one speaks ‘about ghosts, inheritance, and generations, generations of ghosts, which is to say about certain others who are not present, nor presently living, either to us, in us, or outside us, it is in the name of justice’ (Derrida 1994: xviii). Ghostly encounters signal that there is still work to be done, that things cannot be laid to rest yet. For some this translates into a mission to piece together a coherent personal history from fragments of memories and ancestral artefacts. In other instances, it is seeking recognition of past events, especially those that are the root cause of intergenerational hauntings, as a precondition to reconciliation and healing. The spectre is a reminder that ‘moving on’ is not possible until the injustices and unfinished business that it stands for have been addressed.

Hauntings manifest in time, places, bodies, objects, language and rituals. They can transpire in the most mundane of situations, such as the half-forgotten memory conjured when we chance upon an old family portrait, or performing a routine or walking a familiar route that puts our bodies into the flow of the past (Edensor 2005: 840). They can also irrupt violently as in the case of the belated experience of a trauma. While the aforementioned instances would appear to emphasise loss, and looking backwards, they, too, can signal ‘a tentative hopefulness for future resolutions’, a ‘future-oriented action’ (del Pilar Blanco & Peeren 2013: 16; Landsberg 2017: 152). This future compulsion implies that the past is not inert but continues to impress upon us in the present. Its generative power can be felt in the sensation of déjà vu, in the uncanny over-presences and echoes in a landscape, in the didacticism of a commemorative landmark obliging us to remember ‘lest we forget’. As Avery Gordon writes, a ghostly confrontation ‘requires (or produces) a fundamental change in the way we know and make knowledge, in our mode of production’ (2008: 7). However dramatic or minor, we are moved. After all, ‘to come in contact with the ghost is to cross a threshold (past-present-future, here-there, absent-present) and undergo a transition; it is to open yourself up to other possibilities of being and existing in the world’ (Lee 2017: 5).

The articles and creative works gathered here are explorations of and the result of crossing thresholds—geographical, as well as intellectual and emotional. Researchers from Curtin University in Western Australia travelled to north-eastern Scotland for a symposium at the University of Aberdeen in June 2017, part of an ongoing alliance between the two universities. Uncanny Powers is the (haunted) outcome of the collaboration between researchers and writers in the literary, cultural studies and creative writing areas of each institution. Recognising that themes and troubled questions of cultural cost, ethical responsibility and creative possibility have become vital stimuli to both creative practitioners and academic thinkers in relation to our fraught experiences of space, place, community and history, the symposium aimed to bring together new creative practice and critical thought from Western Australia and north-east Scotland. Although geographically distant, these regions are haunted by many shared intellectual, cultural and aesthetic intersections.

Appropriately, then, the scholarly articles in this issue range across time and place. Anna Haebich explores the various strategies used to generate a sense of the uncanny and unsettledness in Jimmy Chi’s musical Corrugation Road, and how Aboriginal cultural healing and the sea emerge as central themes in the musical’s narrative of return and redemption. Shane Alcobia-Murphy examines the representation of spectrality in post-conflict cities such as Belfast and Derry, focusing on the haunted spaces depicted in works by Willie Doherty, and the formal techniques used by the artist to mark and represent the traumatic afterlife of conflict. Joanna Vadenbring explores the works of Elif Shafak from Turkey and Grazia Deledda from Italy to discover the distinctive hauntings that apply to Istanbul and Rome, two cities of particular complexity and historical depth. Adam Kealley’s paper considers the implications of the spectre as metaphor for the postmodern adolescent in the young adult novels of Vikki Wakefield, while Daniel Juckes presents a reading of familiar places by way of Albert Einstein and W.G. Sebald to ask how life writing represents the past. Marie O’Rourke also explores life writing, creating a conversation between her creative practice and cognitive neuroscience to argue that the body is a spectral space which can best be intimated through fractured, unstable and self-referential modes of writing.

Creative contributions appear here in a variety of modes: meta- and realist fiction, lyric essay and poetry. It is perhaps a simple truism that all imaginative writing depends for its affective force on varieties of spectrality: silence, deferral, trace, suggestion, echo, erasure, the doubling effects of parody, self-reflexivity and irony are just some of the ways the language and forms of creative exploration are pervasively haunted by the absent presence of possibility, and thereby haunt the reader. In this selection of pieces, though, we find particularly focused, lively synergies of formal effects and deft thematic engagements with this special issue’s concerns.

‘We spend a lot of time / with the dead’ writes Lucy Dougan here, and certainly the many conversations with the dead (or if not conversations, then at least oblique visitations of presence and influence, through place, story, or simply a long-forgotten vinegar bottle at the back of a cupboard) seem almost to coalesce into a striking, and often powerfully moving, quality that resonates through the creative pieces. The textual ghosts of the Brontës, the neglected Frances Towers and Dorothy Whipple, Thomas Browne, Sorley Maclean and John Clare are rich sources of such spectral exchange, but neither the textual whispers and hints, nor the uncannily insistent material encounters (‘this one tree the cockatoos leave last’, John Clare’s name carved into a bridge) are narrowly literary. Familial ghosts, their irruptions disruptive and painful as much as plangent, and the self-hauntedness (the self-exile, we might say) of memory, regret and grief rub shoulders here with wilder, performative spectralities of parody, hoax and ventriloquism. The pantomime effect is a serious one, built as it is on a shadowy unspokenness where questions of gender, power, control and history resonate up through the fun like trouble in the stage basement.

This ghostly but never weightless freight of significance, feeling and subversion is not a surprising quality to find in writing that speaks to the ghostliness of others and itself, of course. Spectral presence is also, and always, a ‘politics of presence’: ‘the ingredients for builds robbed from hills & pits’; a monkey face fashion brand that, almost T.J. Eckleburg-like, looms over the uncanny alienation at the heart of all our exchange and commerce and ‘swallows the day’; ‘the smeared glasses and forks / the table’s mulberry-ringed cloth’; a pocket-sized print of ‘Mafalda’ releasing terrors and repressions both familial and world-historical—a tenuous but strangely binding spectral thread stretching from present day Western Australia, to wartime London, to Buchenwald.

‘My body is still / strange to me’ writes Wayne Price in this issue, echoing the strangeness of the familiar and familiarity of the strange. Any spectral presence is, of course, an invocation of the Other. Switching Turner’s description of liminality as ‘neither-this-nor-that, here-nor-there’ on its head, we might think of spectral encounters as ‘this-and-that’, ‘here-and-there’. The accompanying fear and inexplicable thrill of crossing the threshold may not simply register the trepidation of what we may discover in those in-between spaces, but also what we may discover about ourselves in this transition, and what we might call (again from Price’s work here) ‘the found poetry of our mistakes’.

 

Acknowledgements:

We thank all our contributors for their work; it has been a delight editing the issue. Thank you also to the blind peer reviewers of each article. We particularly wish to recognise and thank Adam Kealley and Marie O’Rourke for their highly professional editorial work on this special issue. We also acknowledge the support of the University of Aberdeen for hosting the initial symposium and Curtin University for travel. Some papers in this issue were supported by Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarships. 

 

Works cited: 

 

del Pilar Blanco, M and E Peeren 2013 ‘Introduction: conceptualizing spectralities’, in M del Pilar Blanco and E Peeren (eds) The spectralities reader: ghosts and haunting in contemporary cultural theory, London: Bloomsbury, 1-27

Derrida, J 1994 Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning and the new international, P Kamuf (trans), New York: Routledge

Edensor, T 2005 ‘The ghosts of industrial ruins: ordering and disordering memory in excessive space’, Environment and planning D: society and space, 23: 6, 829-849

Landsberg, A 2017 ‘Ghosts on screen: the politics of intertemporality’, in C Lee (ed) Spectral spaces and hauntings: the affects of absence, New York: Routledge, 150-164

Lee, C 2017 ‘Introduction: locating spectres’ in C Lee (ed) Spectral spaces and hauntings: the affects of absence, New York: Routledge, 1-15

Turner, V 1977 ‘Variations on a theme of liminality’, in S Moore and B Myerhoff (eds) Secular ritual, Netherlands: Van Gorcum & Comp., 36-52

Weinstock, J 2013 ‘From “Introduction: the spectral turn”’, in M del Pilar Blanco and E Peeren (eds) The spectralities reader: ghosts and haunting in contemporary cultural theory, London: Bloomsbury, 61-68