Toni Morrison’s work – both literary and critical – is very much concerned with tracing specter(s) of racism in order to destabilize historically established systems of discourse which exclude the non-white as an abject other. By employing postmodern narrative techniques and influences from the Gothic tradition, Morrison's texts deal with racism as a form of "cultural haunting" 2, a phenomenon which can be described as a “reevaluation of historical methodology, ..., of what can be identified as history ('fact') versus story ('fiction')”, which can “profoundly change our understanding of how the past is translated and how ethnicity is constructed.” 3 Morrison's interest in haunting as a way of dealing with the past as part of an African-American as well as feminist political agenda has been established by a number of critics. 4 Based on these assumptions, I would like to take the argument one step further and suggest that Morrision's critical as well as her narratological concept of haunting can be traced back to Jacques Derrida's concept of hauntology. Like ontology – the French homonym from which the term is derived – hauntology is also concerned with questions of being in the world, replacing, however, the predominant categories of 'being' and 'presence' with the figure of the ghost as something which is neither dead nor alive, neither absent, nor present.
The ghost is a "social figure" 5 in Morrison's work, an historical anachronism, as well as an interpretive stumbling block. It draws the readers' attention "to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life." 6 It is precisely at this crucible of hegemonic historical discourse and individual experience that Morrison's novels uncover mechanisms of exclusion and discrimination and attempt a "recovery of history" 7 to include otherwise omitted African-American perspectives and experiences. In her project of exploring the ways in which racist discourse shapes our cultural reality, race is, sometimes paradoxically, constructed as an absence, an obvious, thought-provoking blank. Morrison’s novel Paradise (1997), for example, opens with a highly consequential sentence: "They shoot the white girl first." 8 The categorization, presented from the perspective of a prejudiced black community, evokes a whole set of racial and gendered stereotypes, which are left unfulfilled for lack of further references to the ethnicity of the protagonists. The impact of this sentence becomes only gradually clearer as the story unfolds: for the small utopian community of women at the centre of the text skin color is not an issue and although the reader learns much about each of them, there are no further indicators of race in their biographical tales. Evoked by the first sentence, the absence of ethnic markers haunts the text, effectively confronting the reader with his or her own stereotypes. The ghost of racial prejudice hovers at the margins of the text as a meaningful absence, impossible to miss, yet impossible to pin down.
Morrison’s texts are informed by a keen interest in the complex interplay of presences and absences, which could be described as ‘hauntologies of race’. This form of haunting as a cultural phenomenon can certainly be traced back to the founding texts of the Gothic tradition, which frequently explored the ghostly reverberations of "the sins of fathers" 9. However, Morrison's texts go beyond the Gothic's obsession with ancient family curses to explore the political dimensions of haunting. Morrison's concern about the ways in which African Americans are constructed as a cultural absence by US-American culture becomes clear in her critical work, for example, in Playing in the Dark (1992): "There seems to be a more or less tacit agreement among literary scholars that, because American literature has been clearly the preserve of white male views, genius, and power, those views, genius, and power are without relationship to and removed from the overwhelming presence of black people in the United States." 10 As Morrison argues, racism can manifest itself as a form of deliberate exclusion from mainstream culture by means of a hegemonic discourse, which circulates certain assumptions as established knowledge: "This knowledge holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans, and then African-Americans in the United States." 11 In Playing in the Dark Morrison traces the constant involvement of the white American literary canon with a shadowy Africanist ‘other’ – a counterpart against which the white literary imagination defined itself by rejection and exclusion: "The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination." 12 Morrison shows that African Americans are never actually absent from the texts – they are constantly reinvoked as a ‘dark presence’, 13 a shadowy other, which constitutes a defining counterpart in a system of radical binaries. By tracing a shadowy Africanist presence in mainstream American literature (and culture), Morrison draws the readers' attention to the ways in which both narrative and language can be haunted by a suppressed or unacknowledged presence – the ghost of an 'other'. This ghostly other is neither completely present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive, and to trace its workings inside a text has a deconstructive effect on established readings. The complex interplay of presence and absence surrounding the ghostly other can, in Derrida's terminology, be described as a 'spectrality effect', which, he suggests, may "consist in undoing this opposition, or even this dialectic, between actual, effective presence and its other." 14 The very liminality of the specter, its position ‘between’ categories 15, not only helps to destabilize and deconstruct fixed assumptions and systems of knowledge – it can also help to create new meaning by drawing the focus of interpretation to a meaningful cultural absences.
This deconstructive idea of taking a closer look at what is not there (at least on the surface), or rather, that which does not seem to be there, can be traced throughout Morrison's critical work. Her use of ghosts and haunting as a critical as well as a narratological concept could, consequently, be described as 'Spectral Criticism': "a reinvocation of a terrorizing but desired communion with the dead" 16, as David Punter has put it. In their reassessment of history from a black feminist perspective, Morrison's texts inevitably 'raise' the dead as meaningful ghosts or representatives of what would otherwise be too traumatic, too monstrous to tell, but needs to be retold as part of a process of recovering history. In Derrida's terminology, this project of negotiating with one's ghosts can be described as an 'exorcism' – a recalling of one's ghosts as part of a process of justice: "To exorcise not in order to chase away the ghosts, but this time to grant them the right, if it means making them come back alive as revenants who would no longer be revenants, but as other arrivants to whom a hospitable memory or promise must offer welcome – without certainty, ever, that they present themselves as such. Not in order to grant them the right in this sense but out of a concern for justice." 17 It is very tempting to read this quotation as a literary recipe for the basic structure of Beloved, but that would probably be too narrow an interpretation. However, revenants (who are sometimes no longer individual revenants but manifestations of a broader process of cultural haunting) abound in Morrison's novels, which are very much about offering those revenants a 'hospitable memory' in a process of historical reevaluation. From the bones of the past which Pilate carries around in Song of Solomon (1977) to the haunting presence of the dead patriarch in Love (2003), Morrison’s novels present haunting as a central, highly influential concept and show how the ghosts of past traumas can create meaning in the present. More specifically, the various instances of cultural haunting in Morrison's novels draw attention to the lasting impact of racism and the othering of African Americans in US-American history.
As Andrew Smith points out, "[t]he spectre is an absent presence, a liminal being that inhabits and gives shape to many of the figurations of trauma that characterise the Gothic. The spectre is also a strangely historical entity that is haunted by the culture which produced it." 18 It is in this sense that Beloved (1987), Morrison’s most widely acclaimed ghost story, reassembles a spectral body from the individual, sometimes fragmentary tales of suffering which haunt the protagonists as well as the black community. The text (re-)constructs the ghost as an embodiment of the collective trauma of slavery. It does so, however, first of all, by creating the ghost as a narrative blank, an absence, which has to be filled with meaning by the individual perspectives of the protagonists rather than Beloved's own tale.
By drawing on a variety of individual perspectives, relying on oral narrative and personal experience rather than the written word, the novel constructs an unauthoritative counter-narrative, an alternative mode to hegemonic historical discourse. As David Punter points out in Postcolonial Imaginings, we can "think of the literary as the uncanny, as the haunting and the haunted; as that which resists pinning down, that which will always squirm away and produce 'other', 'unauthorised' meanings; as that which conjures phantoms, which banishes phantoms, and which always leaves us uncertain whether or not we are alone; […] as infected at the heart with an ineradicable absence; […] as a phenomenon of lies and truth, of narratives that wind and twist and go nowhere, of history and trauma endlessly and impossibly rewriting each other;" 19. It is in this sense of the literary as a spectral mode, as a collection of individual narratives, various perspectives and ambiguous positions, that Morrison’s black feminist rewritings of history recreate a counter-history of haunting and exorcism in their strong female characters. Instead of insisting on a parallel, equally authoritative perspective, Morrison's novels focus on the power of first-hand experience, individual memories, and an oral tradition which has its roots in the forcedly illiterate culture of slavery, as well as in fragments of tales remembered from various African cultures. This view of history as a pluralistic collection of voices and narratives, rather than a universal truth, can again be traced back to Derrida's concept of hauntology and, indeed, deconstruction as an interpretive mode: "If the readability of a legacy were given, natural, transparent, univocal, if it did not call for and at the same time defy interpretation, we would never have anything to inherit from it." 20
As part of a postmodern, theory-conscious narrative tradition, Morrison's texts employ subversive strategies and counter-perspectives, which approach the historical moment from the individual perspectives of those involved 21, rather than the hegemonic point of view of a ruling (and thus history-writing) class. At the same time, the clear political agenda of Morrison's novels undermines the impression of ambiguity achieved by their postmodern narrative mode 22 to underline the effect of being marginalized, as well as the perspective of the individual. Neglected, abandoned, hushed-up and left behind by the dominant white culture’s historical discourse, the women in Morrison's novels represent histories (or rather ‘her stories’) in their most individual form by resisting the rationalist categorizations of written history. The women are not so much written history as lived history because writing itself, writing about them, would be treacherous, fixing them in narrow, discriminating categories. In one of the most crucial scenes in Beloved, Sethe overhears how Schoolteacher (her new master and a follower of strict rational utilitarianism in his attitude towards the slaves) encourages his nephews to make a list of her human and animal characteristics. The text makes it absolutely clear that Sethe would rather see her children dead than categorized in this way, because this categorization denies them the right to their own bodies as well as their own minds: "And no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter's characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh no. … Sethe had refused -- and refused still." 23 The refusal to be categorized according to the coldly rational, inhumane system of slavery and racism, moreover, to see one's children categorized in this way, lies at the heart of the novel. The multiple perspectives of the text offer various, highly ambiguous readings of Sethe's love for her children, leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions on the dehumanizing consequences of the system of slavery. By contrasting Sethe's individual guilt – the unspeakable horror of a mother killing her own child – with the multiple horrors of the system of slavery – the sixty million and more evoked in the dedication of the novel – the text offers a reassessment of history based on a variety of individual perspectives and traumas.
This reassessment of history can also be traced in Morrison's
concept of 'rememory', an active, almost menacing, form of cultural
memory. As Sethe explains to her surviving daughter Denver: "The
picture is still there and what's more, if you go there – you
who never was there – if you go there and stand in the place where
it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for
you." 24 The events she remembers –
all linked to the misnamed farm Sweet Home where she was kept as a slave
– linger in the present, haunting the site of the farm and, even
more importantly, the people who lived there, as well as their children.
Sethe's ghosts, the dead and mutilated bodies of her former husband
and the other 'Sweet Home men' are passed on in the form of fragmented
narrative, as neither Sethe nor Paul D., the only survivors, have the
whole tale. Drawing on multiple perspectives, the function of rememory
can, thus, be read as the representation of a collective cultural subconscious,
a way in which the past returns unexpectedly to haunt the living.
Beloved's claims, that she spent a long time "on the bridge" 27, that she came "out of blue water" 28 and her insistence that she is "not dead" 29 establish her firmly in the realm of the spectral. Neither alive nor dead and existing almost exclusively within the perceptions and narratives of the other protagonists, Beloved haunts the text as an embodiment of past catastrophe. Her spectral, fragmented body structures the narrative, while defying any definite readings. Beloved is both fleshly revenant and haunting ghost; both nurturing, pregnant woman and energy-consuming vampire. The appearance of the spectral figure shows a fissure, a rip in what we perceive as the continuum of time and space, of linear history, as well as rational language. The narrative moves in circles around one central point in time, the moment in which Sethe decided to kill her daughter rather than hand her over to the slave owners, and the impossibility to grasp this memory and retell this tale. As the text repeatedly claims, “[t]his is not a story to pass on” 30, and Andrew Smith draws attention to the double meaning of this sentence 31: This is not a story to be passed on to future generations but it is also not a story which can be passed on – in the sense of avoiding it altogether. Beloved's haunting presence triggers a reconstruction of memories which – impossible as this may seem – can only be exorcised by reinvoking them.
In this context, the spectral can also be read as a form of critical metacommentary, a structuring principle. Morrison's novels are essentially postmodern in their fragmentation, multi-perspectivity and the use of numerous, constantly repeated images, thus echoing another dimension of hauntology – that of the text itself. Beloved is not only structured by the appearances of the ghost – the three parts of the novel beginning with a description of the haunted house each – the spectral also haunts the very narrative structure of Beloved's tale. In a seemingly unstructured, unpunctuated stream of consciousness Beloved recalls not only her individual past – her feeling of abandonment at the loss of her mother and her wish to reunite with her – Beloved's tale is also interspersed with memories of the Middle Passage, of death and suffering under the horrible conditions on a slave ship. Full of structural repetitions and marked with the self-centeredness and lack of interpretational distance of a very young child's mind, the fragmented narrative recreates a ghostly return of the past without offering rational explanations – thus reflecting a cultural subconscious which effectively haunts the reader.
Haunting takes on a strangely material quality in Morrison’s novels, when the past is embodied in the form of ghosts in the flesh, which wander far from the flighty, purely spectral quality of traditional depictions of ghosts. However, this material quality is not only rooted in the Gothic tradition (with its giant suits of armor and shape-shifting revenants) – the ghost in the flesh also takes on a haunting quality in itself. When the past comes back in the form of embodied revenants, rather than ethereal ghosts, it strikes the reader as an anachronism in itself. As Derrida points out: "This non-presence of the specter demands that one take its times and its history into consideration, the singularity of its temporality and its historicity." 32 Stemming from another (historical) time period, the spectral revenant is a presence that does not belong, something in between categories: neither dead nor alive, and both present and absent at the same time.
To restrict the haunting quality of Morrison's novels to the presence of embodied ghosts or revenants would, however, mean to overlook other, less literal dimensions of the concept. As Morrison demonstrates in her most recent novel, A Mercy (2008), there are absences which can be just as haunting as any ghostly presence. This is not to say that there are no ghosts in the text – on the contrary. Considering them in the framework of the novel as a whole, I would, however, suggest reading them as signs of a blatant absence of historical meaning. The novel's central characters seem uprooted, lost without the binding elements of a common culture. One could, in Northrop Frye’s terminology, argue that, confronted with a lack of communal history in their new environment, the protagonists are "haunted by a lack of ghosts"33.
Set in the 1690s, A Mercy describes a ramshackle set of protagonists who stumble about in the almost too empty, too paradisical nature of a country that seems all new. However, just as the religious fanaticism of the few dense-knit communities in existence, nature offers no salvation, no deeper meaning to their lives, because most of them have no idea how to interpret it. The central characters' blatant lack of a common culture or history which could bind them together is contrasted with the haunting personal nightmares they bring from their various places of origin (the slums of European cities, a dying tribe, a plantation run on slave labor). It is this lack of meaning which manifests itself as a blatant, almost painful absence haunting the text. It seems more than ironic, almost tragic, that the reader will finally learn what Florens, the central character, craves to hear but will never actually hear her mother say: "There is no protection. To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal." 34 But without this explanation, Florens can never understand or acknowledge her mother's seeming betrayal, which is actually an act of mercy. Her mother gives her away out of love, in order to protect her from her own fate of rape and hard labor as a slave on the plantation, but, misunderstanding her mother's reasons, Florens is driven to violence out of sheer jealousy and impending loss. Having been sent away by her mother, she doesn't want to experience "the dying inside", the sharp pain of loss, ever again. 35
In a society based on slavery and rape, which does not acknowledge paternal ties, the only form of historical continuity rests with the mothers, who will pass on both narratives and the ability to interpret them to their children, and it is precisely this loss of narrative and its ensuing loss of cultural meaning which haunts the text. Consequently, one of the central images of the novel is the interpretation, or rather misinterpretation, of signs. As Florens points out at the beginning of her narrative, "[o]ften there are too many signs, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much…"36. The image of Florens' mother and the bad omen of a dog's head in the steam of the kettle are repeated throughout the novel to underline moments of intense emotion and danger. It is, however, Florens' own body which becomes one of the central images of the text. As a slave she does not own her own body, and as a stranger in the white settler culture, her dark skin marks her as the epitome of otherness. This becomes blatantly obvious when she narrowly escapes a group of demon-hunting villagers who insist on scrutinizing her naked body. Even after she walks away from their village she can still feel their eyes on her body: "I walk alone except for the eyes that join me on my journey. Eyes that do not recognize me, eyes that examine me for a tail, an extra teat, a man's whip between my legs. Wondering eyes that stare and decide if my navel is in the right place if my knees bend backward like the forelegs of a dog. They want to see if my tongue is split like a snake's or if my teeth are filing to points to chew them up. To know if I can spring out of the darkness and bite." 37 In this instance, Florens recognizes her dark skin as a sign that has been misinterpreted by others, an "outside dark" which allows them to consider her "a thing apart'"38, a ghost or a demon, an abject other.
This experience of not owning oneself, of being haunted by racist stereotypes and their devastating historical and personal consequences links A Mercy to Morrison's earlier novels, and especially to Beloved. Both novels are united by their depiction of the dire consequences of treating the black, typically female body as a commodity, not only in the literal sense of slave-ownership but also on the more abstract level of abjection and self-alienation. This is manifested in the figure of Baby Suggs in Beloved. When she is taken across the Ohio river and sets foot on free ground for the first time in her life she suddenly feels that "[t]hese hands belong to me"39 and it is this realization which enables her to preach the love of one's own body and soul to the black community. The mental consequences of not owning oneself are also a central issue for Florens in A Mercy. Feeling abandoned by her mother, she tells her lover, the free blacksmith, "[y]ou alone own me"40 but he rejects her not because she has been traded as a slave, but because she has become one, mentally, and tells her "[o]wn yourself, woman..." 41. Consequently, though Florens is never officially made free, she can become herself in the end and "last"42 as Florens. Both Beloved and A Mercy confront the reader with strong images of the shared African-American experience of not only being categorized as an abject other but also of how the constant cultural reiteration of this categorization creates a form of cultural haunting, which affects not only the marginalized individual or community, but also mainstream culture itself.
Hauntology may be an uncomfortable critical category as it leaves us stranded on a liminal ledge, in the in-between, without offering a definite reading or unambiguous categorization of the specter. However, as a critical concept, it also offers a means to come to terms with what is already in the in-between: the blatant absences which are a significant element not only of postcolonial cultures. Coming to terms with cultural haunting is a critical project we must face more than ever after the collapse of the grand narratives of history, a process which will confront us not only with the specters of Marxism but also with those invoked by essentially capitalist systems like slavery. As David Punter points out, spectral texts "speak to us indeed all the time of the past, but the voice they use is not authoritative, it is instead minority, omenistic, it warns us of dooms past and to come and above all it reiterates our own complaint of being not at home in the world." 43
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