What about Ghosts? Towards a Sociolinguistics of the Spectre

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Ana Deumert

Why write and think about a sociolinguistics of the spectre? Looking over my shoulder as I write this column stands an older me. In 2003, fresh out of my PhD dissertation, I wrote an article titled Bringing Speakers Back In. Influenced by the agentive turn in the social sciences, I reviewed the widespread tendency in historical linguistics to describe language change in systemic terms, thus ignoring the bodies, actions, emotions, and ideologies of speakers as living human beings.

A decade-and-a-half later the agentive turn appears almost quaint as we are engaging with yet another turn: posthumanism (or transhumanism). But somewhere in-between there was a turn that seems to have by-passed sociolinguistic theory: the spectral turn.

Towards the spectral turn?

Like posthumanism, the spectral turn moves beyond the rational enlightenment subject, and encourages us to explore what is, largely, invisible and inaudible, yet nevertheless has transformative force, framing and shaping social practices. 

Among those who have drawn on spectral metaphors in formulating theories of social life are Karl Marx and Jacques Derrida, as well as Sigmund Freud whose ideas of repression and the uncanny are embedded in a language of the fantastic.

Consider Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In Chapter One, Marx writes about human agency and constraint:

‘people make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’

The idea of spectres, zombies, phantoms and ghosts radicalizes Bakhtinian ideas of multivocality and heteroglossia

This line is well-known. Less well-known is how Marx continues: ‘The tradition from all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’

Marx’s thinking about the past was taken up by Jacques Derrida. In Spectres of Marx (first published 1993), Derrida takes his cue from the Communist Manifesto: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism’.

Spectres articulate those voices and meanings that history has tried to repress, tried to render inaudible.

In this case, what has been repressed is the promise of equality and social justice. Yet, like any ghost, it will not go away; it haunts our neoliberal present, and is there, even when we do not hear it, even in the corridors of Wall Street. ‘Haunting’, writes Derrida, ‘belongs to the structure of every hegemony’.

Spectral thinking

Spectres in Derrida’s poststructuralist reading are absent-presences: invisible, but still there. The complex temporality of the spectre is captured by Derrida’s neologism ‘hauntology’. Derrida argues that our being-in-the-world – our ontology – is not simply given and present, but located in time; it is shaped by what is no longer (the past), and by what is not yet (the future).

Thus, while the actions people engage in occur in the present, they are shaped by the ghosts and spectres of the past – Gespenst in German – and are oriented towards a future whose spirit – Geist in German – is imagined in the process.

Recognizing the complex temporalities of social life – the way in which any action, any speech act – is positioned simultaneously in past-present-future, would be at the core of a sociolinguistics of the spectre.

Spectral thinking is a response to what has been called ‘the crisis of the natural’ – articulating a view that goes beyond conventional empiricism and materialism. In other words, not everything that matters is in plain sight, can be turned into data and measured. The spectre and the ghost remind us that behind what we can see, hear and sense, there are always other stories and other voices. What is hidden from our senses is just as important as what is visible.

And just in case that I am accused of scholarly vanguardism, of articulating an arcane poststructural position that is far removed from the idioms of the everyday, let me note that ghosts, phantoms, zombies and spectres – to name the most familiar categories of this world – are well-established thinking tools in folk and vernacular theories, from Caribbean spirituality to popular American culture, from Poltergeist to Sixth Sense and the X-Files.

Why the spectral turn in sociolinguistics?

The ‘spectral turn’ in the social sciences is relevant for sociolinguistics. The idea of spectres, zombies, phantoms and ghosts radicalizes Bakhtinian ideas of multivocality and heteroglossia by encouraging us to listen not only to the multitude of – loud and soft – audible voices, but to pay close attention to those voices that have been silenced, repressed and forgotten. Spectral thinking can help us to develop new ways of listening to the margins of the world, the margins of experience, the margins of what is ‘speakable’ (and ‘hearable’).

The spectral contributes to our understanding of what Caroline Kerfoot and Kenneth Hyltenstam call ‘orders of visibility’ (Entangled Discourses: South-North Orders of Visibility, 2017). This is, the observation that some aspects of social life are visible, or even hyper-visible and spectacular; others are less visible or marginally visible; and finally there are those aspects of social life that aren’t really visible to us at all, but that nevertheless matter.

Ghostly voices surface especially in fragments; that is, in incomplete texts and utterances, in verbal ruins and rubble, debris and scatterings.

From a spectral perspective we can understand visibility and voice – and here I follow the sociologist Avery Gordon (Ghostly Matters – Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 1997) – as a complex, historically grounded ‘system of permissions and prohibitions, of presence and absence’. She continues:

It is punctuated variably by apparitions – the ghosts that haunt it – and hysterical blindness … from a certain standpoint, the dialectics of visibility and invisibility involve a constant negotiation of what can be seen and what is in the shadows’.

Vincent Meessen’s documentary Vita Nova (2009) is an exploration of hauntings and spectres (as argued by T.J. Demos in his book Return to the Postcolony: Spectres of Colonialism in Contemporary Art, 2013).

Towards a sociolinguistics of the spectre

In the documentary Meessen looks at Roland Barthes’ silence about his family history; namely that his grandfather, Louis-Gustave Binger, claimed Côte d’Ivoire for the French empire and was appointed its governor. There is even a city in Côte d’Ivoire that is named after him: Bingerville. Barthes’ silence of his own history is notable if one considers that he published an analysis of colonial ideologies and domination in Mythologies (1957). Yet, he never mentions his own entanglement with the history of French colonialism. Did he forget, repress, disavow or silence the memory?

Barthes starts his critique in Mythologies by looking at the frontpage of the magazine Paris Match. The cover showed a young African cadet saluting the French flag. Meessen tried to find the young cadet, Diouf Birane. He didn’t find Briane, who had died in Senegal in 1980, but he found his friend, Issa Kaboré, who too had served in the French colonial army.

At the beginning of Meessen’s film, Kaboré, now an old man, stands in front of a microphone, trying to remember the French national anthem, a song he must have sung daily as a young cadet.

Kaboré struggles, first there is a long silence, then he remembers bits of the melody, he hums softly and starts to sing. Yet, what he sings is not the text of the French anthem, of the children of the fatherland, les enfants de la patrie, and their fight against tyranny. Instead he sings of the children of the tyranny, les enfants de la tyrannie. It is haunting, a halting performance that surfaces – intentional or not – the spectre of colonialism: patrie-tyrannie, a slip of the tongue, a subversive voice from the postcolony, a ghost that haunts.

Ghostly voices surface especially in fragments; that is, in incomplete texts and utterances, in verbal ruins and rubble, debris and scatterings. Fragments – complete, yet incomplete – are permeated by absent presences. They force our imagination to begin the productive work of interpretation.

A sociolinguistics of the spectre would foreground precisely such fragments, rather than large systematically collected corpora of so-called ordinary language. Ghosts are not ordinary, and we never know when their voices might surface. All we can do is to learn to listen carefully so that we don’t miss them.