Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review: Ghostly Matters

[Avery F. Gordon. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. New edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008 (1997).]

This is mostly a book about how we know things -- about epistemology. It is, in particular, about how we know the social world. Despite its spectral title, it is committed to materialism, but "a different kind of materialism" (69), one that attempts to give us insight into aspects of experience and the social world that more conventional materialisms are usually content to erase and ignore.

It begins from Patricia Williams' observation (made in one of the first books of politicized scholarly analysis I ever read, of which I probably understood only a small fraction at the time): "That life is complicated is a fact of great analytic importance." For instance, many of the tools we have for understanding the social world tend to depend on the use of categories that are useful and that reflect real things and can do important political work, but that are also reifications and that erase and simplify and in some contexts contribute to oppressive knowledge and practices and relations. On the other hand, lived experience is often messy and complicated and doesn't fit as neatly into such categories as most conventional uses of said categories expect. Similarly, any time you have a set approach to producing knowledge, whether that is a formal method in a scholarly sense or a set of stable de facto practices shaped by personal history and prejudice and culture and various material constraints, there will be aspects of the social that become unknowable, unsayable, erased. And given that knowledge is socially organized and socially produced, and that social organization is productive and reflective of differences in power, what ends up unknowable and unsayable often has a lot to do with power as well.

The book does not attempt to tackle the full scope of what is really an immense and diverse set of interlocking but non-identical epistemological challenges, and focuses on what Gordon has come to call "haunting." For Gordon, haunting is the way in which those social realities and histories that are erased, unseen, unknown impinge upon present-day lived experience -- they are the traces of what is supposed to be over or absent but that is nonetheless central to what is. Haunting is also how she talks about related ways of knowing these aspects of the social: moments in which such traces take on configurations that we perceive, often in very unsettling ways. This is not an intellectualized knowing but an embodied, affective knowledge that cannot be refused and is often tied to a compulsion to act. She links it to Marx's understanding of "sensuous knowledge," to Adorno's descriptions of "profane illumination" (205), to Raymond Williams' work on "structure of feeling" (198), and to Walter Benjamin's approach to "materialist historiography" (65).

The three central chapters of the book develop these ideas through three detailed examples. The first focuses on the author's (text-mediated) encounter with Sabina Spielrein, an intimate of both Carl Jung and Sigmung Freud and a key figure in the early development of psychoanalysis whose role has frequently been erased (including by Jung and Freud). This provides both an interesting example of haunting and allows Gordon a chance to explore psychoanalysis, one of the few modern, Western disciplines to centre that which is absent, in the form of the unconscious. Gordon concludes, however, that psychoanalysis is lacking as a tool for what she wants to do because Freud ended up making the unconscious a privatized essence rather than, as it seemed to be at least part of the time in his earlier work, a repository of the social. She argues instead for a more social understanding of the unconscious. (In one of the subsequent chapters she also acknowledges Marxism's interest in that which cannot be seen, and points towards thus-far unsuccessful but to her mind essential efforts to bring together the legacies of Freud and Marx in ways that are willing to transform them both rather than just attempt to add them together.)

The other two central chapters are focused on detailed readings of novels that interweave with analyses of the social of the times and places in which the two novels are set, with all kinds of complex and important insights both about those specific pieces of history and about what this encounter among different ways of knowing the world can tell us about the very act of producing knowledge. One is focused on Luisa Valenzuela's novel Como en la Guerra (published in English as He Who Searches) and the era of state-sponsored terror and disappearance in Argentina. The other is focused on Toni Morrison's Beloved and slavery in the United States.

I began reading this book with very high hopes. Thinking about how we know the social world is almost always lurking at the back of my mind, whatever I'm working on, and my pre-reading impression of what this book was about struck me as relevant both to longstanding interests and to new projects. Once I actually got into it, though, I was a bit disappointed -- it didn't seem to come together in the way that I (in some sense I couldn't quite articulate) had hoped, and it seemed too much on the other side of the divide that often separates interesting and radical(ish) scholarly analysis of the world from engaged doing and knowing of the world in non-academic contexts. Thankfully, that disappointment ebbed and I gained a deeper appreciation for the book as I slowly went over it again and reflected on it for the purposes of writing this review.

So. I'm not without flickers of conventional materialist misgivings about the (perceived) loss of certainty and communicability that might come with such attention to traces and how they seize people in very specific, embodied moments -- what if people just make stuff up, and such. While I can't banish that, I do recognize that it is mostly based on a misreading of what Gordon is doing, and most of the key elements of her approach -- complexity, embodied knowing, the problem of scale, anti-reification, an orientation towards struggle -- are already things that I would rate as important in my own sensibility about such things, even if my success in trying to incorporate some of them is sometimes uneven.

I also had moments of ambivalence about the heavy focus on fiction. She accounts for it well, in terms of her analysis of the social organization of knowledge and how unthinking adherence to certain boundaries limits what we can know, and how engagement with fiction can produce certain kinds of understanding that are materialist and useful and beyond what bland sociological or historical non-fiction can accomplish. And she makes excellent use of the novels, particularly the interweaving of her analysis of fiction with other kinds of social/historical knowledge from other kinds of sources, and in so doing is able not only to say lots that otherwise could not be said about the specific examples in question but also to draw insights into epistemology from the novelists' own practices of knowing the world.

So I think it is a useful book, and I remain convinced that trying to understand how that which is (or appears to be) absent can be profoundly shaping that which is (obviously) present is of vital importance. I also think that her general insights into this and the specifics of hautning as she describes them -- particularly as they relate to the kind of embodied encounter leading to embodied knowing that is often necessary to unsettle those of us who benefit from oppressive aspects of social relations and actually get us acting on what we know to be true -- are important and useful. But I remain uncertain about how exactly to apply it all, both in ways that are relevant to my writing and in the course of non-writerly practices of learning about and acting in the world. Better answers to that than I currently possess are possible, I think -- how to reach them is not obvious, but it seems important enough to be worth the ongoing effort, so I will try to hold on to both the answers and questions raised for me by this book as I move forward.

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