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Avery GordonEdit

Ghostly Matters [1997]Edit

the book was written to address 2 problems:

"First was how to understand modern forms of dispossession, exploitation, repression, and their concrete impacts on the people most affected by them and on our shared conditions of living. This meant trying to comprehend the terms of an always already racial capitalism and the determining role of monopolistic and militaristic state violence" (xv). Second was the desire to "find a method of knowledge production and a way of writing that could represent the damage and the haunting of the historical alternatives and thus richly conjure, describe, narrate, and explain the liens, the costs, the forfeits, and the losses of modern systems of abusive power in their immediacy and worldly significance" (xvii).

"haunting is one way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life [...] [it is] an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known, sometimes very directly, sometimes more obliquely" (xvi)

Haunting differs from trauma because it produces "something-to-be-done" (xvi). The "something-to-be-done permits "focusing on the cultural requirements or dimenstions of movement and change--individual, social and political" (xvii).

"I was trying to develop a vocabulary that registered and evoked the lived and living meeting, in their historical time, or the organized forces of order and violence and the aggrieved person when consciousness of that meeting was arising, haunting, forcing a confrontation, forking the future and the past" (xvii).

Haunting is a "sociopolitical-psychological state" in which the edges of perception are not flush--cracks are exposed, things don't add up, and the invisible becomes visible (or vis verca).

Chapter 1Edit

Gordon begins with the notion that the discipline of sociology has yet to grasp the complexity of human experience. Gordon reminds the reader that first, power is never as transparent as we may take it to be, and can indeed be invisible: "power arrives in forms that can range from blatant white supremacy and state terror to 'furniture without memories'" (3). It is not enough, nor self-evident, to operate analysis along the rivets of race-class-gender, but we must rather get at the clumsy and difficult "ensemble of social relations that create inequalities, situated interpretive codes, particular kinds of subjects, and the possible and impossible themselves"--in Toni Morrison's words, "the thing" (4). We must look at both the large, easily named social structures (such as Capitalism) and the softer remnants that aren't so readily available to representational and discursive analysis. Gordon eloquently summarizes this tension:

"It asks us to move analytically between that sad and sunken couch that sags in just that place where an unrememberable past and an unimaginable future force us to sit day after day and the conceptual abstractions because everything of significance happens there among theinert furniture and the monumental social architecture" (4).

Gordon demands that we must strive to offer the subjects of our analysis "complex personhood", to not attribute them with the status of sheer victim nor fully empowered agent. Complex personhood permits individuals to live in contradiction, to move against their interests, to hold space in two seemingly incomensurable positions (here I am reminded of Steedman's reading of John Pearman in the Radical Soldier's Tale). (see pgs. 4-5). Gordon is moved by a strong desire to enable the fullest of humanity's capacity, to "know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there" (5).

Haunting, for Gordon, is one of the ways that life is "complicated": "Haunting is a constituent element of modern social life. It is neither pre-modern superstition nor individual psychosis; it is a generalizable social phenomenon of great import" (7). The human sciences lack methods for understand how "social institutions and people are haunted, for capturing enchantment in a disenchanted world" (8). The ghost functions as the sign, or empirical marker, of a haunting in action (8).

Gordon takes a turn from Laura Kipnis, who describes visibility as "a complex system of permission and prohibition, punctuated alternately by apparitions and hysterical blindness" (17). Thus, "To write stories concerning exclusions and invisibilities is to write ghost stories. To write ghost stories implies that ghosts are real, that is to say, that they produce material effects," which implies that "the dialectics of visibility and invisibility involve a constant negotiation between what can be seen and what is in the shadows" (17). Rather than establishing the laws of haunting, Gordon endeavors toward the structure of feeling (Raymond Williams) "that is something akin to what it feels like to be the object of a social totality vexed by the phantoms of modernity's violence" (19). Studying haunting is the study of a mediation for Gordon, a relationship between the micro and macro, the institution and the individual. As a potential goal, Gordon suggests: "Could it be that analyzing hauntings might lead to a more complex understanding of the generative structures and moving parts of historically embedded social formations in a way that avoids the twin pitfalls of subjectivism and positivism?" (19). As a further potential, "We might expand the domain of the empirical considerably to include not only haunting and ghostly matters but also our own relations to social analysis. We might make common cause with out objects and subjects of analysis" (21). And this goal involves what Michael Taussig calls, "that one has to see oneself and one's shared modes of understanding and communication included in that determining." (21).

To write from the position of haunting, however, involves its own blindness (Haraway's "Situated Knowledges"). Gordon sutures her work around 3 questions (pgs. 23-4):

  1. What are the alternative stories we ought to and can write about the relationship among power, knowledge, and experience (the distance between analytics of power and knowledge, and its lived effects)
  1. If the ghost's arrival notifies us of a haunting, how does the ghost interrupt or put into crisis the demand for ethnographic authenticity [...] that we expect from those who can legitimately claim to tell the truth?"
  1. How then can our critical language display a reflexive concern not only with the objects of our investigations but also with the ones who investigate?

Gordon does not seek to precribe a method, for that forecloses the imaginative possibilities for negotiating the seen vs. the known. Rather, her method involves "producing case studies of haunting and adjudicating their consequences" (24). Gordon also proposes a boundary negotiation between literature and sociology. Because sociology must advance empirical or factual data, it guards itself against the fictive, yet the fictive is a primary mode for learning "what we need to know but cannot quite get access to" (25). As the disciplinary object of sociology is "social reality", it renders fiction as an error that it must police and expel to its margin. Fiction is sociology, then, is a marginal discourse, threatening the authority of sociology's truth claims.

The Moment of the MethodEdit

Gordon explains that her work was taken up in the context of the reactions between sociology and postmodernism; as of 1992, sociology and other human science disciplines had taken quite a hit with the postmodern critique of empirical grounds of knowing (this had been going on since the early 1980s). Poststructuralism (perhaps the theoretical strongarm of historical postmodernity?) raised old questions for sociology, namely how we turn the experience of "reality" into knowledge about our existence (10). Gordon writes:

"At the core of the postmodern field or scene, then, is a crisis in representation, a fracture in the epistemological regime of modernity, a regime that rested on a faith in the reality in the reality effect of social science. Such a predicament has led to, among other consequences, an understanding that the practices of writing, analysis, and investigation, whether of social of cultural material, constitute less a scientifically positive project than a cultural practice that organizes particular rituals of storytelling told by situated investigators" (10). Furthermore, beyond simply leading away from analysis of the social relations of power, this "postpositivism" heralded a new agenda of asking "how power operates", which could make good on the efforts of Adorno and Horkheimer to "link a thoroughgoing epistemological critique of modernity as what is contemporaneously ours with an insurgent sociological critique of its forms of domination" (10-11). Gordon considers this questioning productive insofar as it allows us to understand sociology as a construction of fictions which we accept as reality when we presume representational transparency between actions, agency and history. However, for Gordon this does not mean giving up sophisticated inquiries into representation and "of how the social world is textually or discursively constructed" as that requires "an engagement with the social structuring practices that have long been the privince of sociological inquiry" (11).

However, many remained ambivalent to postmodern accusations, as they account for "the complicated relationship between reality and its modes of production, a relationship crucial to the primary investigation of exclusions and invisibilities" while failing to provide an alternative method or resolution. Feminists are understood to have a presumed relationship to postmodernity based in "the critique of the transparency of language, objective causality, transnational generalization [...] all of which are part and parcel of the so-called crisis in representation. But the critique of representation does not solve the problem of the continuing crisis of domination--coercive and consensual--unless it is linked to issues of governmentality, broadly understood" (11).

But all of this raises a question regarding what exactly are the social conditions that sociology (and the human sciences generally) should be responding to. Gordon remains ambivalent herself about whether we are truly in the "new" postmodernism, siding with the somewhat safer observation that "the fundamental contradictions at the heart of modernity are more exposed and much is up for grabs in the way we conceive the possibilities for knowledge, for freedom, and for subjecthood in the wake of this exposure" (12). Gordon is quite certain that this postmodern moment (if we are indeed in one) subjugates its ghosts just as suredly as modernity, except in the form of lauded technologies of transparency which certainly hide what they claim to expose: "In a culture seemingly ruled by technologies of hypervisibility, we are led to believe not only that everything can be seen, but also that everything is available and accessible for our consumption [...] we are confronted with the morbidity of existence as a symptom of the inability to confront modernity's phantoms" (16).

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