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The spectre and the soul: from Derrida to Netflix

 When Derrida wrote Spectres of Marx in the 90s, triumphalist neoliberalism, succeeding the collapse of Communism in the West, was ready to treat Marx and Marxism as an intellectual frolic, of no more importance, now, than Madame Blavatsky. Derrida, to his eternal credit, rediscovered the Gothic vocabulary within which Marx’s rhetoric was immersed, and took the spectre and haunting as ways of mediating a sense that we had somehow missed, as a culture, the alternative future we had worked for and expected. We, so to speak, stood the better angels of our nature up against the wall, executed them, and had the servants drag them away and bury them.

In an essay on the “spectral turn” and “hauntology” (that o so 00s term of art), Kit Bauserman, at the Journal of the History of Ideas site, surveys the way ghosts and spirits have returned in the humanities as “pure metaphors” or social phenomena. The idea that Derrida uses the ghost of the spectre as a “pure metaphor” is at the heart of the essay – and I think it is wronghearted, since it is not at all clear what is meant by the phrase. What is the spectre a metaphor for?
In Bauserman’s essay, the philosophical and literary initiates into the spectral turn are urged to look at anthropology and ethnography, a very good suggestion. However, as is so often the case in disquisitions about hauntology, one word seems exorcized: the word “soul”.
Personally, I think part of what has happened, has been happening for a long time to that Palefaced mook, Western Man, is a de-souling. The soul is no longer serious business. Hauntology, ghosts, horror, the gothic – all of this is dandy, we can study this. But there is no study of the soul and what happened to it.
The soul was a part of the descriptive picture of human life in the cosmos not just for philosophers and preachers and poets, but for every peasant and city slicker. The soul might or might not require the body, it might or might not survive death – hibernating, up in Heaven, down in hell – but it was an invisible but palpable part, or center, of the material self.
Horror, which seems to be the key genre in movies and tv at the moment, keeps the soul around for grins, but has really substituted for it a kind of manic violence, the cosmological coordinate of the dwindling human kindness we all expect from the post-apocalypse.
The soul and its vocabulary has long been a matter of bad taste and sentimentality. Soul speak – usually this is the prelude to some awful downloading of phobias – racial, sexual, classicist, etc. How the soul ended up like this should be, well, entertained by hauntological studies.
The devaluation of the soul is definitely an ongoing event in intellectual culture. It has left a hole. In Baverman’s essay, it is, in this way, like the spectre:
Spectrality studies’ history makes clear how the use of ghosts as a metaphor became widespread. The Spectralities Reader, a spectral studies anthology edited by Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, chronicles the field’s development. It likely received its name from Bernard Steigler’s 1993 interview with fellow philosopher Derrida, titled “Spectrographies.” The interview, included in Ecographies of Television, clarifies the difference between the “ghost” and the “specter.” The “ghost” is a revenant, a past that keeps returning to the present reality. It is undead. The “specter” is somewhat different. It is of the “invisible visible.” It is much like a missing puzzle piece, its conspicuous absence defining its presence.”
I would distinguish, though, between the conspicuous absence of the spectre and my argument about the soul – its absence is inconspicuous. The soul’s abdication is, to my mind, a much bigger deal than the death of God – or perhaps I should say, they are both similar systems for a world historical loneliness. This is why the horror genre is located on one of the great fault lines of our contemporaneity – it recognizes these symptoms.