"Haints": American Ghosts, Ethnic Memory, and Contemporary Fiction

Article excerpt

What ghosts can say-

Even the ghosts of fathers--comes obscurely.

What if the terror stays without the meaning?

--Adrienne Rich, "What Ghosts Can Say"

No justice [...] seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism. Without this non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present, without that which secretly unhinges it, without this responsibility and this respect for justice concerning those who are not there, of those who are no longer or who are not yet present and living; what sense would there be to ask the question "where?" "where tomorrow?" "whither?"

--Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx

In 1944, the last year, no doubt, in which it still might have been possible to speak of American "innocence," Fei Xiaotang, a Chinese anthropologist and sociologist on a visit to the United States, observed that America is a land without ghosts: American children bear no stories about ghosts. They spend a dime at the drugstore to buy a Superman comic book. [...] Superman represents actual capabilities or future potential, while ghosts symbolize belief in and reverence for the accumulated past. [...] How could ghosts gain a foothold in American cities? People move about like the tide, unable to form permanent ties with places, still less with other people. [...] In a world without ghosts, life is free and easy. American eyes can gaze straight ahead. But I still think they lack something and I do not envy their life.

(qtd. in Arkush and Lee 179-181)

By way of opening, I would like to sketch in some aspects of this perceived "lack" in American culture, frame it, perhaps, complicate it, and try to suggest what has driven me to consider it, what makes a dialogue with ghosts, for me, compulsory. I wish to examine some of the tenuous footholds ghosts have gained in the United States over the course of the last half century. My project is taken up at the instigation of Avery F. Gordon, who in her pathbreaking 1997 study, Ghostly Matters, asserts that "haunting rather than history (or historicism) best captures the constellation of connections that charges any 'time of the now' with the debts of the past and the expense of the present" (142). "How do we reckon with what modern history has rendered ghostly?" (18), asks Gordon, a question I am pursuing with respect to the ghostly within American culture at the present juncture, a present, as Derrida would say, peculiarly unhinged and haunted. My theme assumes the centrality of enactments of memory as popular loci of struggle over meaning within consumer culture and targets our peculiar obsession at the millennium's turn with the painful burdens of American history. I am interested in how cultural practices articulate individual or collective subjective sensibilities by excavating alternative histories, or "ghost" stories, by imaginatively summoning into presence those voices and beings that have been sacrificed to the march of progress and the consolidation of American literary and cultural traditions. Among other things, I want to examine the resonance of a haunted past within the context of a "multicultural" society by considering a complex of mnemonic struggles, with specific reference to the project of contemporary ethnic literature.

Much of my argument is adumbrated in Kathleen Brogan's very fine recent book, Cultural Haunting, wherein she posits an entire new genre of ethnic ghost stories, dedicated to the project of "cultural mourning," which might be defined as the imaginative work that communities are compelled to do wherever they are savaged by a history that both shapes and dismisses them: "haunted tales [. …