Everyone loves ghosts

Linda Stupart

Everyone loves ghosts, by everyone I mean Marx ostensibly, but also affect theorists and historians. Ghosts and hauntings work because they’re on the border of being bodies and not being bodies and because they’re impressions of the past that can and do real damage.

I also liked that The Ghost is always covered in a sheet, but somehow that sheet is always pure white or new or it is a fake sheet cut up into a costume – a not-sheet or an image of a sheet. I wanted the sheet to be a sheet that linked back to the bedroom, to domesticity and femininity and also to sex.

Death is always capitalised and so is a singular person and that person always has a scythe (my scythe is made of a broom, which is also from inside the home or my home particularly) and a black cloak with many folds and no face. The folds of Death’s cloak feel quite similar to the folds in a ghost costume, especially when lit dramatically for a performance.

Death comes to the realm of the living and draws a bright ontological line between subject (alive) and object (Death’s realm) – death is the technology whereby the subject becomes object (corpse)1 via movement and aid. Death beckons, Death leads, Death holds your hand.

Survival (the living) has it’s advantages of course, but I think I’d rather side with the other side, or, the non-side, the in-between, the abject.

The survivor is anti-death, and breeds normativity.

No one brings up my own objection to the term [‘survivor’]: that the mindless triumphalism of ‘survivorhood’ denigrates the dead and the dying. Did we who live ‘fight’ harder than those who have died? Can we claim to be ‘braver,’ better people than the dead?2

In speaking about trauma, Homi K. Bhaba writes that ‘survival demands a bridging, a negotiation, an articulation of the moments “before” and “after” without necessarily assuming a historical or temporal continuity between them’,3 suggesting that to move through trauma – to survive, as opposed to necessarily postulating the self as a survivor – is also to move through a glitch, a break in the subject, to return from the dead.

She who survives is post-trauma and post-corpse, undead, a spectre.

A ghost is an abstraction and does not have a name, or rather has infinite names, as many names as there are dead people: a projection. Ghosts multiply at the moment of death. Ghosts refuse death, but they also hate life: A haunting is a reoccurrence of death within life – like trauma is.

For half a century at least, male homosexual life in the United States has been a culture of death.4

This assertion comes from an article about Andrew Cunanan, written in 1997. Cunanan was an American gay club kid serial killer of gay men. The writer, Peter A. Jay, a regular writer for the Baltimore Sun, writes: ‘For half a century at least, male homosexual life in the United States has been a culture of death […] Sooner or later, a product of that culture was going to take violence on the road […] There will be other young men who have come face to face with the knowledge that their own lives are blighted and doomed […] and now want to experience the rush of killing in more traditional ways’.5 Jay’s assertion is that sex between men is akin to murder, albeit of an untraditional, perhaps contemporary nature.

Death and queers are very familiar, they have a large community overlap. If we think of history as something malleable, present, queer; ghosts do too. Ghosts are unruly archives, histories, affects. Death and ghosts are very different (one does death, and one is dead, for example), but the overlap also suggests a productive violability; a transgression of boundaries.

What is it about ‘gay sex’ (which surely here means anal sex in accordance with heterosexist panic) that makes Jay assign these acts to the realm of death, to murderer and corpse? Certainly it is not the obvious analogies between penetrator, wound, and ejaculation – leaving the mess and the body behind – since this is the exact activity described via straight sex and the active/passive phallocentric heterosexual division of labour. As well as gay sex’s failure in terms of reproductive economies, Jay might well be referring to HIV and AIDS, the risk of corporeal (as well as social) death as embedded and defining risk of ‘gay sex’.

In Is the Rectum a Grave Leo Bersani famously claims that it is precisely this location of gay sex (in the realm and the Real of the dead), which means it should be celebrated because in death (the move from subject to object) gay sex challenges the value of selfhood, of proper subjectivity and citizenship, which is ‘a practical convenience; promoted to the status of an ethical ideal, it is a sanction for violence’.6 ‘Male homosexuality,’ Bersani continues, ‘advertises the risk of the sexual itself as the risk of self-dismissal, of losing sight of the self, and in so doing it proposes and dangerously represents jouissance as a mode of ascesis.’7 Bersani writes that the promiscuous, public gay sex practice should be continued in a brazen embodied resistance to heteronormativitiy, in particular heterosexual divisions of labour, and the reproduction of capitalism (having any sex in the world is having to have sex with capitalism)8 straight sex entails.

Tumours, constructed of tourmaline, mirrors, and tennis balls cut through the sheet’s surface or skin. I am under the sheet or my body, or the perpetually constituted via speech acts “I”. That I is also leaking. Tourmaline and mirrors also repel negative energy and these tumours were made for a window frame or hymen, to keep death, or trauma, out.

Butler argues that it is precisely the subject’s impossibility of knowing itself, an impossibility of an I that is self grounding or complete, that allows for responsibility to others, in giving an account of itself that is necessarily incomplete: ‘it is precisely by virtue of the subject's opacity to itself that it sustains some of its most important ethical bonds.’9 That is, the I of an incoherent, vulnerable, and malleable identity allows for recognition of an other (or another object), which is also necessarily incomplete and which effects and affects the I apprehending it. Instead of the singular phallic I subject who is always certain of his fixed and authoritative position outside and impermeable to the object, Butler proposes the ‘post-subject’ position as one that has a real capacity for recognising the other, as I and other (object) participate in each other’s identity matrices.

The folds in Death’s hood and the folds of the sheet and the folds of the tumour are also the folds of our bodies and fingers and sex. Drapery has always been linked to mastery in the world of images, but only with domesticity and anti intellectualism and wifeliness in the realm of the real.

  1. Kristeva, J., Powers of Horror; An Essay on Abjection, Roudiez, L. S. (trans), New York: Columbia University Press, 1982 (1980). 

  2. Barbara Ehrenreich, ‘The cult of the pink ribbon’, The Times, December 8, 2001, p. 1. 

  3. Homi K. Bhabha, ‘Dance this Diss Around’, Artforum, April 1995, 19-20, p. 19. 

  4. Peter A. Jay, ‘After the holocaust, still playing with fire’, The Baltimore Sun, July 20, 1997. Available Online: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1997-07-20/news/1997201023_1_cunanan-culture-of-death-grace (last accessed 10/4/2016) cited in Lee Edelman, No Future, London: Duke University Press, 2004, p. 39. + Begins direct citation from: Bruce LaBruce, ‘Otto; or, Up With Dead People (a screenplay)’, Incognitum Hactenus. Vol 3: Living On: Zombies, pp. 60 – 123, p. 86. ++ Ends Citation. 

  5. Peter A. Jay, ‘After the holocaust, still playing with fire’, The Baltimore Sun, July 20, 1997. Available Online: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1997-07-20/news/1997201023_1_cunanan-culture-of-death-grace (last accessed 10/4/2016) cited in Lee Edelman, No Future, London: Duke University Press, p. 39. 

  6. Leo Bersani, ‘Is the Rectum a Grave’, October, Vol. 43, AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, Winter, 1987, 197-222, p. 33 

  7. Ibid. p. 221. 

  8. Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School, New York: Grove Press, 1984, p. 135. 

  9. Judith Butler, ‘Giving an Account of Oneself’, Diacritics, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 2001, 22 – 40, p 22. 

Linda Stupart is an artist, writer, and educator from Cape Town, South Africa. They completed their PhD at Goldsmiths in 2016, with a project engaged in new considerations of objectification and abjection. Their current work consists predominately of writing, performance, film, and sculpture, and engages with queer theory, science fiction, environmental crises, magic, language, desire, and revenge. They are also a lecturer at Birmingham City University, in the School of Art.