Sunday, March 23, 2014

ghosts and nostalgia

I was reading a piece by Janna Jones in Critical Studies (2001) which compared the perceived existence of ghosts with a postmodern need for mystery ('otherness') and an outlet for nostalgia in the age of hyper-visibility - where everything is instantaneously available, where science provides proof and the internet provides a huge source of information (this was my reading of the passage, anyway).

 Jones says that "telling ghost stories should not be confused with nostalgia, because nostalgia claims that the past does not persist in the present, and stories such as these surely suggest that the past and present are forever intermingled". This seems like an odd argument to make, considering that ghosts, by their very nature are less than fully realised. They are the essence of something, without the form. They are the echo of something, without the sound. Nostalgia, although its selective memory can be compared to a story, is also not fully realised. Ghosts are a reflection of the past and nostalgia is a yearning for it. A ghost in the mind as opposed to a ghost in the world.

In this way, ghost stories and nostalgia are almost identical. Their ends are different - one, to scare by reflection, the other to compare and contextualise by reflection. However, their means are the same. They both involve reflection because by their very nature they must be told or recounted in the past tense. Ghost stories work because they are fuelled by the threat that something from the past may still be with us today. This is a thrilling principle precisely because of how nostalgia works; nostalgia is based on something from the past which cannot be with us today. That is its very 'purpose'.

As for the postmodern hyper-visibility claim, it seems feasible because of the conditions under which ghosts appear. They cannot appear through media any more. Photo-editing software has become too adept at fakery for any rational being to believe that a ghost photograph is genuine, no matter how well it has been spoofed.  They can only appear in real life, in front of our very own eyes. Jones says about ghosts that "we may be tempted to lure them into the spotlight so we may relish them. But in the bright light, ghosts disappear, and all that remains are ghost stories".  My reading of the 'bright light' would be the all encompassing mass media which seeks to mystify and demystify ghosts. Ghost stories are all that is left because stories, traditionally are assumed to be fictional. The thrill comes from fiction crossing over into reality, exactly like nostalgia. Jones proves this point when talking about the Picture Palaces of the 1940s. She says:

the screening of a classic film and the theatre's structural design and atmosphere create a "sense of occasion" that encourages contemporary audiences to practice the behaviours of the picture palace patrons of the past [...] the Tampa Theatre audiences want more from the experience than seeing an old film - they want the feeling of being enveloped in a different time period. (Jones, p379)

The legacy of the Picture Palace runs on a 'public memory' which connects place to feeling because of pre-made assumptions about that place. When wrapped up in the experience with hundreds of other patrons, crowd psychology dictates that a nostalgia would come naturally. Ghost stories are, in fact, exactly the same as this. For one, (false) nostalgia is a feeling triggered by something which you have (or have not) experienced in a time which had some sort of essence which can no longer be captured. Nostalgia is a recounting of that essence in a mournful, half-smile of a way. Ghost stories are a definite false nostalgia. They are triggered by something from the past which you have (most likely) not experienced before. They produce a feeling of the essence of the times, the ghost being a culmination of the 'times' (e.g a Victorian ghost - you know exactly what they would be like from your own image of Victorian culture, whether that image is accurate or not, it is all the same to you). And those 'times', as it were, like nostalgia, come back (?) to haunt you and provoke a reaction. The reaction may be different, but there is certainly a thrill from both ghost stories and nostalgia.

Avery Gordon argues that hauntings, or belief in spirits, contests the belief that everything in this postmodern age can be explained as and reduced to a "mere sequence of sequence of instantaneous experiences that leave no trace" (p18). Ghosts are nothing more than a hyper-real manifestation of memory. More real than a memory because it has some earthly form. If people believed that life was just a 'total flow' (as Jameson would call it) of images which left no afterimage, nostalgia and memory would not exist or at least not be recognised to exist. The belief in spirits is an anti-materialist reaction to Nietzsche's God is Dead axiom. Science killed God, but what about memory? Memory still exists and can breach the walls of the mind to re-atomise at the edges of our consciousness in a poorly lit room. Is it our eyes playing tricks on us? If it is, it's only because we want them to, to be able to face up to the existential nihilism of postmodernity.



Jones, J. Consumed with the past: nostalgia, memory, and ghost encounters at the picture palace. Cultural Studies, Critical Methodologies. 2001. 1:369. Sage.