Sitting on a bench at the Cloisters with my sister one fall afternoon years ago, I felt something grab the toe of my shoe, lift my foot off the ground, hold it outstretched before me for a moment, and then gently place it back on the ground. I remember I was reading Don Quixote at the time, and didn’t look up until I finished my sentence, assuming it was just my sister, moving my leg to make more space on the bench, or just to bother me, as sisters sometimes do. When I did look up, I saw my leg stretched out in front of me, suspended in the air, dappled by shadows, and still felt the tight squeeze on my toe, but nothing was visibly holding it, or perhaps I should nothing visible was holding it. Bewildered, I watched my foot slowly lower to the ground, not as if with a new will of its own, but certainly not as if by my own will either. I know bodies are strange and liable to do as they want sometimes, and this may have been some odd muscle spasm, or a particular somatic response to Cervantes, but my inclination tends to a more supernatural explanation. I think it was a ghost, maybe the ghost of a monk who disliked (or liked) my choice of comic novels that day, or my shoes, or who felt compelled to seek my attention for reasons I’ll never know.
That, though neither the most exciting nor the most eerie, is my ghost story — the story of the sunny afternoon in October when the ghost of a monk toyed with me. I hold onto it because two of the things I find the most intriguing in this life are the promise of stories and the presence of ghosts. And I hold onto it because everyone has a ghost story, and I want to be included in this ongoing narrative that begins, “the time I interacted with the dead we…”
Henry David Thoreau had a more interesting ghost story. Or two stories, really, if not more, one can imagine the ghosts at Walden Pond were/are not few in number. I’ll let him tell them in his own words:
I have occasional visits in the long winter evenings, when the snow falls fast and the wind howls in the wood, from an old settler and original proprietor, who is reported to have dug Walden Pond, and stoned it, and fringed it with pine woods; who tells me stories of old time and of new eternity; and between use we manage to pass a cheerful evening with social mirth and pleasant views of things, even without apples or cider — a most wise and humorous friend, whom I love much, who keeps himself more secret than ever did Goffe or Whalley; and though he is thought to be dead, none can show where he is buried. An elderly dame, too, dwells in my neighborhood, invisible to most persons, in whose odorous herb garden I love to stroll sometimes, gathering simples and listening to her fables; for she has a genius of unequaled fertility, and her memory runs back farther than mythology, and she can tell me the original of every fable, and on what fact every one is founded, for the incidents occurred when she was young. A ruddy and lusty old dame, who delights in all weathers and seasons, and is likely to outlive all her children yet. (388)
These stories, delivered with no more excitement or spectacle than that provided for any other visitor in the “Solitude” chapter of Walden, feel all the more mysterious and remarkable for being presented as if unmysterious, unremarkable. But I think that tension between the mystery and the familiarity is highly purposeful, and makes an argument I want to enter into, and explore more deeply. The feeling of mystery matters, as does the feeling of familiarity, because they guide us into a relation with the dead that can be informed not by distance or difference, but by care and responsibility, or response-ability in Donna Haraway’s terms. Speaking with the dead, or telling a story about a ghost to a member of the living, is a way of entering into a conversation not just about presence and absence, but with presence and absence, not just about time and location, but with time and location, with both the particular (this lake, this house) and the infinite, the uncontained. Or in the words of Thoreau’s ghostly companion “of old time and of new eternity.”
This relation cannot occur in a progressive, linear time, where the past is lost, the future to be unfolded, and crucial present our only home. It can occur in what I think of as ghost time. More than a romantic thought or a spooky premise, this ghost time, this making time for ghosts and telling stories about them, has profound consequences for understanding our location in a world we have damaged through our long misunderstanding of our location in the world, and the violent, colonial actions and behaviors that misunderstanding has justified. If we open ourselves up to what ghosts could teach us about the world, about living and being in the world, it would change our way of remembering, our way of imagining, and our way of storytelling. And if all that could change, then our understanding of what it means to be ourselves, to be human would change, and with that our capacity to live in a world without harming the world and all the other human, non-human, and more-than-human life and death in and of it.
But of course, before we go to far, a crucial question — what is a ghost? Can anyone see one? Can anyone be one? Is just anywhere haunted? I think of ghosts as ruptures in the seamless flowing of time and power, suggestions of something beyond or below the obviously present, the unquestioned explanations or justifications for the world being as it is. I see them as reminders of something lost, but more than that, as reminders that the divide between the lost and the maintained is not so simple, that they predicate each other in a complex web, and that what is lost is never so far, although we may fail to notice if we do not make an effort to feel, imagine, and remember. In the introduction to their deeply helpful book, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt explain why they turned to ghosts to discuss life and death on a planet in peril, writing “Our ghosts are the traces of more-than-human histories through which ecologies are made and unmade… We call this return to multiple pasts, human and not human, ‘ghosts.’ Every landscape is haunted by past ways of life” (1). For them, the ghostly manifests in lichen, in wild flowers, both the currently growing kind and the imagined, in mud volcanoes and stones, in extinct species as well as the invasive species that lead to their extinction. Ghosts can appear in plain sight, or make no appearance at all, and either way they blur the difference between the two, the visible and invisible. Like any good ghost, they make those they visit question the efficient-functioning of their senses to ask what’s out there, what am I perceiving, what am I not perceiving. Or, as Karen Barad explains in her essay in the collection, “No Small Matter: Mushroom Clouds, Ecologies of Nothingness, and Strange Topologies of Spacetimemattering,” “Loss is not absence but a marked presence, or rather a marking that troubles the divide between absence and presence” (106).
What does it mean to trouble that divide? To be here, but not only here, more-than-here, to be now, but not only now, more-than-now. This returns us to questions of memory, imagination, and storytelling, or, questions of time and its movement.
First, memory. Memory matters. What we remember matters, and what we can expand our memories to incorporate matters. Remembering is a powerful act of making and becoming together. What we can remember, we can mourn, and we can enter into relation with, we can protect from erasure. As Tsing, Swanson, Gan, and Bubandt write:
As humans reshape the landscape, we forget what was there before. Ecologists call this forgetting the ‘shifting baseline syndrome.’ Our newly shaped and ruined landscapes become the new reality. Admiring one landscape and its biological entanglements often entails forgetting many others. Forgetting, in itself, remakes landscapes, as we privilege some assemblages over others. Yet ghosts remind us. Ghosts point to our forgetting, showing us how living landscapes are imbued with earlier tracks and traces. (6)
To refuse to forget is to refuse a new normal that disappears what came before, that moves as if trapped in the linear progress narrative of time. Memory alone cannot erase the fact of harm done and its consequences, but it does refuse hiding and disguising of that harm, the way it is represented as inevitable and permanently foreclosed upon. And memory connects us to the land of what is lost, against the human exceptionalism that keeps us apart from the more-than-human world.
Thom van Dooren explores what it means to remember and to mourn, how it brings us into relation with not only what we mourn but also who and what we mourn with. In his essay, “Mourning crows: grief and extinction in a shared world,” he hears and watches crows mourn the gradual disappearance of their species in Hawaii, a state whose long history of colonialism gives it the dubious distinction of being the endangered species capital of the world. Without anthropomorphizing — which is to say, with respect to the unique way of being of crows that is not the same as the way of being of human animals — what would it be like to stand in mourning at a crow’s funeral? How might such a funeral teach us to think our location in the web that is the world? Van Dooren writes:
It is only inside these particular biosocial configurations that the passing of another out of the world can be experienced and felt as genuine loss. But loss is not experienced in the face of all change or even death. It is not enough for two such beings to have lived alongside each other, in proximity to one another; rather, they must also in some way have become at stake in each other, bound up with what matters to each other. In other words, they must in some sense, more or less consciously, have come to inhabit a meaningfully shared world. (281)
To remember is to share, to relate, to connect and reconnect, and to reject the hierarchy that places humans beyond the emotional lives of crows and other nonhuman animals, and so untouched by their deaths. In this way, the world is not something owned, but something shared, across species and across time. To mourn with crows is to understand our entanglement with crows, and more. We are not alone in the world, we are not alone in ourselves. We understand ourselves ontologically wrong when we understand in that way, in this isolated and self-contained, unimplicated in the world way. We are of the world, we are constituted by our relations across the world and being. As Karen Barad explains, “Hauntings, then, are not mere rememberings of a past (assumed to be) left behind (in actuality) but rather the dynamism of ontological indeterminacy of time-being/being-time in its materiality” (113) and more “Re-membering, then, is not merely subjective, a fleeting flash of a past event in the inner workings of an individual human brain; rather, it is a constitutive part of the field of spacetimemattering” (113).
For all this great power of memory, however, it must at times be supplemented. When I’m walking to work, for example, I cannot hope to remember what New York was like before settlers stole the land. When I go to visit my family, and drive down Highway 1, I cannot remember what the hills of California looked like before the transformations of industry and agriculture. For that, I need imagination.
Imagination can extend my mind, my consciousness, beyond what is not immediately before me, beyond what I cannot know in the way that I’m accustomed to knowing what I know, and thinking what I think. It can help me escape the limitations of my training and complacency into new ways of being and doing. As Donna Haraway writes in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties” (12). Imagination allows me to tie other ties, and think other thoughts. What I mean is it can free me from myself, my limited sense-perceptions, my limiting training.
Haraway turns to Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem to describe what can happen without imagination, writing:
Arendt witnessed in Eichmann not an incomprehensible monster, but something much more terrifying — she saw commonplace thoughtlessness. That is, here was a human being unable to make present to himself what was absent, what was not himself, what the world in its sheer not-one-selfness is and what claims-to-be inhere in not-oneself. Here was someone who could not be a wayfarer, could not entangle, could not track the lines of living and dying, could not cultivate response-ability, could not make present to itself what it is doing, could not live in consequences or with consequence, could not compost. (36)
Without imagination, without the ability to make present beyond and outside oneself, thoughtlessness becomes carelessness, which becomes unbelievable violence and degradation, creating the ghosts of bad death, the angry ghosts of the erased, the forgotten. Without imagination we are trapped within ourselves, and yet unable to know ourselves as we truly are — entangled creatures in a vast, constitutive web of being-and-becoming-together. We must remember what is lost, we must feel and sense what of it remains, we must mourn the dead as we speak with the dead, and speak for the dead when we must, and we must imagine what we cannot know, we must imagine more. Only when we fail in our remembering and in our imagining do we begin to lose what must not be lost. Only then does time trap us in the limited now, in our limited selves. As Haraway writes, “Without sustained remembrance, we cannot learn to live with ghosts and so cannot think” (39).
And so we return to storytelling, to the long appeal of the ghost story, to living with ghosts. Stories bring us into conversation and relation with the dead. Through stories we imagine a past that is not lost and a future of possibility. Stories, like ghosts, let us picture what might have been and what might yet be, what might be all around us but beyond our perception, our limited ways of knowing and being. As van Dooren explains, “… as they travel, stories breathe new life into the dead, keeping them moving and enabling them to ‘haunt’ our lives and future possibilities… This is the kind of mourning that asks us — that perhaps demands of us, individually and collectively — that we face up to the dead and to our role in the coming into being of a world of escalating suffering, loss, and extinction” (283).
Stories are, of course, not an uncomplicated force for good, for justice. Van Dooren is right that stories can demand of us accountability, an honest reckoning with our role in centuries of violence and suffering. But stories can also be used to rewrite, to whitewash, to deny accountability and shift blame. Stories can be a veil and a sedative. For example, there is a story I’ve been told about the founding of this nation, about an American Dream Experiment, about a city on a hill. There is a story I’ve been told about exceptional humans, marked above all other beings for their unique knowledge of life and death, their capacity for universal reason, their unique access to love and fear and hope, unequaled in other life. We must reckon with the lies of our stories, we must tell new stories, and retell old stories. Everyone has a ghost story, but many of us need new ones, better ones, with a different understanding of living and of agency and of value. In the retelling of one of this nation’s most cherished origin myths, the myth of the Noble Savage and Vanishing Race, in a retelling about the ongoingness of that world, the resurgence of that world, and not its disappearance, we can find a guide for another kind of storytelling. In “An Indigenous Reflection on Working Beyond the Human/Not Human,” the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate scholar Kim TallBear writes:
Our traditional stories… portray nonhuman persons in ways that do not adhere to another meaningful modern category, the ‘animal.’ They feature relationships in which human and nonhuman persons, and nonhuman persons between themselves, harass and trick one another; save one another from injury or death; prey on, kill, and sometimes eat one another; or collaborate with one another. Our stories avoid the hierarchical nature-culture and animal-human split that has enabled domineering human management, naming, controlling, and ‘saving’ of nature. (235)
Not only troubling the divide between human and nonhuman, TallBear explains that, “… for many indigenous peoples, their nonhuman others may not be understood in even critical Western frameworks as living. ‘Objects’ and ‘forces’ such as stones, thunder, or stars are known within our ontologies to be sentient and knowing persons” (234). “Ghost” may significantly be the wrong word to talk about these stories, because the very notion of “life” in these stories is more complex, and more expansive, and so the notion of “dead” is not so accurate, is in a sense not relevant here. If we imagine death — in the sense of a force leading to irreconcilable, permanent loss — as no longer crushingly relevant, as no longer incontestable in its completion, what then, might become relevant in its place? What kind of life, what kind of force might take power, might give us strength? How far might it stretch, what all might it include?
Thinking thoughts with this way of thinking, tying ties with this kind of tie, allows us to see the world and the planet, it’s life and agency, in a different light. In Facing Gaia, Bruno Latour writes, “As soon as we come close to nonhuman beings, we do not find in them the inertia that would allow us, by contrast, to take ourselves to be agents but, on the contrary, we find agencies that are no longer without connection to what we are and what we do” (62), going on to explain:
People who assert that the Earth has not only movement but also a way of being moved that makes it react to what we do to it are not all crazies who have invested in the strange idea of adding a soul to something that has none. The most interesting people, in my eyes, like the scientists who are working on the Earth System, are content simply not to take from it the agency that it has. They do not say necessarily that it is ‘alive’ but only that it is not dead. Or at least that it is not inert in the very strange form of inertia produced by the idea of a “material world” (70).
To say that the Earth reacts is not to succumb to a kind of anthropomorphism that can only understand life and agency insofar as it mirrors human life and agency as such, but instead understands life and agency in its myriad forms and ways and connections. Any good storyteller understands this. This is a state of care, of responsibility and response-ability, that takes us beyond ourselves, our immediate perceptions, chained to a present and a type of subjectivity that forecloses our recognizing the connections that already envelope us. As Karen Barad asks in “On Touching — The Inhuman That Therefore I Am,” “… what would it mean to acknowledge that responsibility extends to the insensible as well as the sensible, and that we are always already opened up to the other from the ‘inside’ as well as the ‘outside’?” (217) and then proposes “it may well be the inhuman, the insensible, the irrational, the unfathomable, and the incalculable that will help us face the depths of what responsibility entails” (218, emphasis in original).
Our connections constitute us, from life to death, human to nonhuman, from matter to the void in both directions, if direction is even an appropriate way to think these thoughts. Our connections must be how we constitute what we remember, what we imagine, what stories we tell our stories with. In order to connect to these connections, we need to find a way outside of time as it is currently constructed, as it currently traps us in what Haraway describes as “A dark bewitched commitment to the lure of Progress (and its polar opposite) [that] lashes us to endless infernal alternatives, as if we had no other ways to reworld, reimagine, relive, and reconnect with each other, in multispecies well-being” (51). I have proposed a ghost time for this, a time of all time in simultaneity, if simultaneity still signifies, which I think finds a home in Haraway’s tentacular Chuthulucene, in Barad’s constitutive void. Another helpful guide in this search is the ethicist Denise Ferreira da Silva, who turns to the oppositionality of Blackness to counter the consuming time and universal reason of the colonial, heteropatriarchal order. In her essay “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World,” da Silva writes, “Ending the grip of Time restores the World anew, from the position Blackness registers — that is, the halted temporality that preempts recognition and opens the World as Plenum, becomes a Canvas Infinita, where the Subject figures without Time, stuck in the endless play of expression, with the rest of us” (90). Here, if “here” would still apply, in the endless play of expression:
… what exists becomes only and always a rendering of possibilities, which remain exposed in the horizon of Becoming… A Black Feminist Poethics become here in a World imaged as endless Poethics: that is, existence toward the beyond of Space-time, where The Thing resists dissolving any attempt to reduce what exists — anyone and everything — to the register of the object, the other, and the commodity. (91)
In this world, a world that demands the end of this current one, not in the impending apocalyptic sense of climate change, but in the sense of a rebirth, perhaps, or return, or a recognition of the truth of the world we already inhabit, we are bound to each other not by the coincidence of a shared indexical now, nor by sharing a relationship of identity to a particular category of being or life, because in this world, the categories that afforded some humanity and to all others nonhuman, less-than-human, commodity no longer figure, and time no longer marches ever onward, unmovable and unmoved.
In this world, instead we are bound to each other because we constitute each other, and because we share a responsibility of care, to care. To care for the precarious living and the dead, to care for the future, not in terms of an unfolding progressive linear narrative, but nevertheless a future for which we are responsible. A future which is a becoming-together, which is not an absence, but a marked presence, like an apparition, a shimmering, a beloved ghost. An imagined future, one that does not ask us to do harm to bring it into being, a remembered future from a story reclaimed, a future where time is not a limit, and our selves are not a living tomb. We walk amongst ghosts, we speak with and to ghosts, we are with them already in the future.
To change our relationship to everything by understanding that these relations are everything, the constitutive elements of the entangled web that is all there is, a web of which we are not the center because “central” and “peripheral” are the wrong thoughts to think this thought with; this is how we must respond to the harm we have done or that has been done in our name, those of us who are beneficiaries of a history of white colonial oppression. We can find our guides in the spirits, in nonhuman and human companions. They are already within us, making us what and who we are.
I think of the feeling in the first moments of waking, “just two more minutes,” or in separating from a loved one, “I just need more time.” This is how time traps us, or rather tricks us into feeling trapped, asking for more of something that has nothing more to give. When outside of time, if “when” still applies, we can stay in those moments forever, and not only in our memories in the sense of a scrapbook or graveyard. And we can stay, not just in the joy, but as Donna Haraway asks us to, we can stay with the trouble, we can not turn our backs to our problems and struggles, averting our gaze, because we can come to recognize that back-turning was only ever an false option, because it isn’t possible to turn your back on who you and what you are made of, you can only tell untrue stories and imagine you did. Instead of understanding ourselves and our responsibility with these false narratives, we can choose something other than the isolation of human exceptionalism and linear, progressive time. We can choose to stay, to be here now, with a new understanding of “being” and “here” and “now.” Old time and new eternity, unearthing old stories, loving the land in a new worlding, caring for our companions across space and species and time, who are our selves and more. Everyone has a ghost story as everyone is ghost to another, future of another, entangled in everything at once, in all.
Barad, Karen. “On Touching — The Inhuman That Therefore I Am.” differences, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2012, pp. 206-223.
—. “No Small Matter: Mushroom Clouds, Ecologies of Nothingness, and Strange Topologies of Spacetimemattering.” Tsing, Swanson, Gan, and Bubandt, pp. 103-120.
da Silva, Denise Ferreira. “Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World.” The Black Scholar, Vol. 44, No. 2, 2014, pp. 81-97.
Gan, Elaine, Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, and Nils Bubandt, “Introduction: Haunted Landscapes of the Anthropocene.” Tsing, Swanson, Gan, and Bubandt, pp. 1-14.
Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.
Latour, Bruno. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime. Polity Press, 2017.
Thoreau, Henry David. The Portable Thoreau. Edited by Carl Bode. 1947. Viking Press, 1974.
Tsing, Anna, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, editors. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
van Dooren, Thom. “Mourning crows: grief and extinction in a shared world.” Routledge Handbook of Human-Animal Studies, edited by Garry Marvin and Susan McHugh, Routledge, 2014, pp. 275-289.