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The Spectral Metaphor

Also by Esther Peeren


POPULAR GHOSTS: The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture (co-edited with María
del Pilar Blanco)
REPRESENTATION MATTERS: (Re)Articulating Collective Identities in a
Postcolonial World (co-edited with Anette Hoffmann)
THE SHOCK OF THE OTHER: Situating Alterities (co-edited with Silke Horstkotte)
THE SPECTRALITIES READER: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural
Theory (co-edited with María del Pilar Blanco)
The Spectral Metaphor
Living Ghosts and the Agency
of Invisibility

Esther Peeren
Department of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
© Esther Peeren 2014
Softcover reprint of the hardcover 1st edition 2014 978-1-137-37584-1
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in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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To my brother Jeroen – for knowing how to live to the end
This page intentionally left blank

List of Figures viii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 1

1 Forms of Invisibility: Undocumented Migrant Workers

as Living Ghosts in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things and
Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts 33

2 Spectral Servants and Haunting Hospitalities: Upstairs,

Downstairs, Gosford Park and Babel 76

3 Spooky Mediums and the Redistribution of the Sensible:

Sarah Waters’s Affinity and Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black 110

4 Ghosts of the Missing: Multidirectional Haunting

and Self-Spectralization in Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time
and Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park 144

Afterword: How to Survive as a Living Ghost? 180

Notes 185

Bibliography 198

Index 208


1.1 Stephen Frears, Dirty Pretty Things (2002), screenshot

(cropped) 38
1.2 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot 54
1.3 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot 56
1.4 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot 57
1.5 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot 58
1.6 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot 58
1.7 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot 59
1.8 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot 64
2.1 Alejandro González Iñárritu, Babel (2006): Amelia and
Mike in the desert 106
2.2 Alejandro González Iñárritu, Babel (2006): Long shot of
Amelia (top left) lost in the desert 106


This book is inhabited by many absent presences, as citations and

footnotes are by no means adequate to trace all of the influences that
factored in its completion.
My thoughts on the spectral metaphor were focused and sharpened
in the context of a series of thought-provoking ghostly gatherings:
the Ghosts, Gender, History panel at the 2006 American Compara-
tive Literature Association conference in Princeton, convened by Sladja
Blazan; the 2006 Space, Haunting, Discourse conference in Karlstad,
organized by Maria Holmgren Troy and Elisabeth Wennö; the 2007
Postcolonial Ghosts conference in Montpellier, organized by Judith
Misrahi-Barak; the 2009 Specters, Haunting and Archive graduate con-
ference at the University of Amsterdam, organized by Anthie Argyriou,
Tanja Baudoin, Moosje Goosen, Patricia de Vries and Arnisa Zeqo;
the Uncanny Cosmopolitans panel at the 2009 ACLA conference in
Cambridge, MA, convened by Roy Kamada and Erica Johnson; the 2012
Ghosts workshop in Bern, organized by Virginia Richter and Marijke
Denger-Kähler; and the 2013 Representations of Ghosts in Media and
Popular Culture panel at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies con-
ference in Chicago, convened by Murray Leeder and Simone Natale.
I am also indebted to all the students who participated in my courses
on Re-Reading the Ghost and Death and Mourning as well as the
Spectralities tutorial for stimulating discussions and thought-provoking
Mieke Bal kept reminding me that this book needed to be written
and provided essential comments on the manuscript, greatly enhancing
its coherence and clarity. María del Pilar Blanco, my fellow traveler in
all matters spectral, helped me think through many of the central ideas
and prevented the final chapter from veering off course. Murat Aydemir,
Marie-Aude Baronian, Stephan Besser, Carolyn Birdsall, Joost de Bloois,
Laura Copier, Rudolph Glitz, Cornelia Gräbner, Peter Hitchcock, Anette
Hoffmann, Silke Horstkotte, David James, Jeroen de Kloet, Christoph
Lindner, Mireille Rosello, Eliza Steinbock, Hanneke Stuit and Astrid Van
Weyenberg provided valuable advice and support, in different forms, all
much appreciated.

x Acknowledgments

At the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Amsterdam, the

departments of Literary Studies and Media Studies, the Amsterdam
School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) – in particular its luminous man-
agerial team: Eloe Kingma and Jantine van Gogh – and the Amsterdam
Centre for Globalisation Studies (ACGS) continue to provide, against the
odds, an unparalleled environment in which research and teaching can
be productively integrated. Without this environment and the unfailing
efficiency of Felicity Plester and Chris Penfold at Palgrave Macmillan,
this book would not have seen the light of day.
Finally, I am deeply grateful to my husband Naj for always being
there for me, especially over the last year. The completion of this book
coincided with the illness and untimely death of my brother Jeroen, to
whom I dedicate it, in sadness and admiration.

∗ ∗ ∗

Part of Chapter 3 appeared as ‘Other Senses: The Politics of Mediumship’

in The Ashgate Research Companion to Paranormal Cultures, ed. Olu
Jensen and Sally R. Munt (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 203–14. Part
of Chapter 4 appeared as ‘Ghostly Generation Games: Multidirectional
Haunting and Self-Spectralization in Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park’ in
Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 53.4 (2012): 305–21.
Introduction: The Spectral

At the start of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’ (1887), the titular
specter is firmly in charge. Lord Canterville tells Mr Hiram B. Otis, an
American minister who wants to buy the ancestral home, that his fam-
ily has not been able to live there ‘since my grandaunt, the Dowager
Duchess of Bolton, was frightened into a fit, from which she never really
recovered, by two skeleton hands being placed on her shoulders as she
was dressing for dinner’ (191). Later on, the reader learns of the many
other triumphal appearances of the ghost, Simon de Canterville, who
murdered his wife and was killed by her brothers in revenge in 1584.
He revels in taking on different spectral guises – Gaunt Gideon, the
Bloodsucker of Bexley Moor; Dumb Daniel, or the Suicide’s Skeleton;
Reckless Rupert, or the Headless Earl – in order to frighten Canterville
Chase’s inhabitants and visitors, sometimes to death. Mr Otis, how-
ever, is not at all disturbed by the revelation that his new home is
haunted. He asserts that he is from ‘a modern country, where we can
buy everything that money can buy’, so that if ghosts did exist, they
would long ago have been acquired for an American museum or road
show (191). His faith in the substantiating power of capitalism and the
laws of nature is tested when a blood stain is found on the library floor
that, despite vigorous treatment with Pinkerton’s Stain Remover and
Paragon Detergent, keeps reappearing. Then, one night, the ghost itself
materializes before Mr Otis with the classic accoutrements of red eyes,
ragged clothes and clanging chains. Far from reacting with horror and
fear, Mr Otis calmly insists that the ghost must in future oil its man-
acles with Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to keep him from waking
anyone, and afterwards his twin sons pelt the apparition with pillows.
This pragmatic and playful response, considered a gross insult by the
ghost, initiates a power shift: soon, it is no longer Simon de Canterville

2 The Spectral Metaphor

who haunts the living, but the living who pester him, while parrying
his continued attempts to frighten them with sang-froid and practi-
cal advice. The role reversal is completed when the twins confront him
with a homemade ‘horrible spectre’ consisting of ‘a white dimity bed-
curtain, with a sweeping-brush, a kitchen cleaver, and a hollow turnip’,
causing him to flee in panic, ‘never having seen a ghost before’ (199).
In Simon de Canterville’s eyes, the new situation is wholly unnatural
and, in rendering him unable to haunt, removes his ‘only reason for
existing’ (204). He falls ill and takes to creeping through the house hop-
ing to go unnoticed. Eventually, Mr Otis’s daughter Virginia takes pity
on him and helps him move on to the Garden of Death.
By disturbing the expected division of roles, Wilde’s parody, aptly
described by Maureen O’Connor as ‘an uneven and disorienting admix-
ture of comedy and gothic melodrama’, all the more clearly brings out
the conventions of the ghost story genre (330). Ghosts are expected to
act as powerful figures of disturbance whose appearance causes may-
hem: in most ghost stories, unsettling questions are raised about the
status of ‘reality’ and the border between life and death, secrets from the
past are revealed, revenge is exacted, bloodlines and inheritances put in
question, and only decisive action on the part of the living can exor-
cize the apparition. Ghosts tend to function as unwelcome reminders
of past transgressions, causing personal or historical traumas to rise to
the surface and pursuing those they hold responsible. This turns them
into existential threats, to be greeted with a mixture of shock and fear,
not the equanimity shown in ‘The Canterville Ghost’. At the same time,
ghosts are the object of intense fascination: any inkling of a haunting
presence is followed by an overwhelming desire to locate it, a frenzied
insistence that it show itself again. In contrast to the indifference and
mockery of the Otis family, the ghost is habitually conjured, chased and
obsessively documented in an attempt to gain access to its secrets, in
particular its knowledge of the realm of the dead. It is the ghost’s dual
association with fear and fascination that makes it so powerful, since the
haunted do not just run from it, but simultaneously seek it out. More-
over, although the notion that the living will find some way to control
or placate the ghost is a staple of supernatural lore, many ghost stories
emphasize that conjuration and exorcism are not guaranteed to be effec-
tive: the ghost can refuse to appear, the one that appears may not be the
one that was summoned and the vanquished ghost might return after
all, as in the familiar horror movie plot. Even in ‘The Canterville Ghost’
it could be said that Simon de Canterville reinstates his dominance in
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 3

the end, as the concluding page hints that accompanying him on his
journey to a final death left Virginia a virgin no more.1
At the same time, Wilde’s story shows how the ghost’s almost
sovereign power – deriving from its ability to ignore material and meta-
physical boundaries, its capacity to ‘possess’ the living and its penchant
for revealing secrets and settling old scores – is counterbalanced by vul-
nerabilities. The ghost’s incomplete and intermittent embodiment not
only makes it ungraspable, but often leaves it unable to affect the phys-
ical world directly or effectively. Its power is mostly exercised through
the imagination. Thus, although the Canterville ghost is ascribed an
independent existence and physical presence, he can only conquer
his victims by frightening them into either insanity or a coronary.
Consequently, a change in mind-set on the part of the haunted – a deter-
mination not to show fear or an attempt to understand the ghost and
find out what it wants – often suffices to lessen its disturbing force. The
level of power ascribed to the ghost is, moreover, culturally and histori-
cally specific; some eras and societies are more ghost-ridden than others
and attitudes towards spectral appearances vary widely, as in this case
between the petrified English and the pragmatic, dismissive Americans.
Finally, the susceptibility of ghosts to being involuntarily conjured and
exorcized emphasizes that they are not always autonomous. Simon de
Canterville is turned into the persecuted party by the Otis twins and can-
not extricate himself from the situation without Virginia’s help. What
Wilde’s tale reveals, then, is the ambiguity of the ghost’s relationship to
power: it may appear as a dominant, even sovereign being, but can also
manifest as a figure of compromised agency.

Ghostly figures

Questioning how powerful ghosts are, what exactly they can and cannot
do – to the haunted, but also for themselves – and on which character-
istics and contextual factors their (in)ability to act depends, is not only
important when reading stories like ‘The Canterville Ghost’ that fea-
ture ‘literal’ ghosts, but also when exploring the ghost in a metaphorical
sense, as I will do here. Literal ghosts may be defined as the dead reap-
pearing in some sort of perceptible form to the living. Calling this type
of ghost ‘literal’ does not imply a belief that such reappearances actu-
ally occur; it merely indicates that this meaning of the word is generally
accepted as the most common or straightforward one, forming the basis
for any figurative usage.2
4 The Spectral Metaphor

A search of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) reveals that ‘ghost’ has
accrued many figurative meanings that relate to its literal incarnation
in various ways. In optics, the term refers to Ramsden’s microscopic
eyepiece, which creates its image beyond both lenses instead of in
between them; to secondary telescopic images caused by a lens defect;
to photographic flares; and to spurious spectrographical lines. In cinema
projection, technical flaws may cause the appearance of filmic ghosts,
manifesting as streaks or image extensions. These uses are all concerned
with the physical manifestation of things that, like literal ghosts, should
not be there or are somehow out of place. In biology, a ‘ghost’ is a red
blood corpuscle’s cell wall or cell membrane that has lost its protoplas-
mic contents; in other words, something physically impoverished or
without content: an empty shell. In metallurgy, the segregation of cer-
tain constituents of steel can cause faint bands or ‘ghosts’ to appear on
its surface. This usage singles out the element of translucency, the way
the ghost tends to be only partially visible. The more familiar televisual
‘ghost’ is a displaced, repeated image caused by a duplicate signal trav-
eling by a different path. It brings together multiple qualities ascribed
to the ghost: repetition, displacement and duplication.3 Radar ghosts,
spurious signals for which no source can be located, invoke the air of
mystery and intangibility that surrounds the literal ghost, while the lat-
ter’s association with death and a certain inadequacy (unable to truly
die, it is also not fully alive anymore) underlies its use as a term for a
piece of ‘dead coal’, which instead of burning appears as a white lump
in the fire. Finally, there is the metaphorical use of the ghost in the ghost
writer, who, more or less furtively, writes texts for which someone else
takes credit. Here, carried over from the literal ghost is its ephemeral
nature, its tendency to never fully materialize.
The position of the ghost writer as someone conceived as ghostly
without having died evokes the central question of this book: what
does it mean to live as a ghost, especially when this spectral metaphor
designates a state of dispossession? I will focus on how, in the late
twentieth- and early twenty-first-century British and American cultural
imagination, certain marginalized groups of people are, for various rea-
sons, perceived and/or perceive themselves as in some way ghostly,
spectral, phantasmatic or spooky. Since part of my aim is to counter-
act generalizing uses of the spectral metaphor that assume all ghosts
are alike, these terms will be taken as closely related but not iden-
tical in meaning and figurative force. ‘Specter’, for example, strongly
invokes something visible, even spectacular, through its etymology
(from Latin specere, ‘to look, see’) and tends, in everyday speech, to refer
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 5

to something terrifying and horrific, while ‘phantom’ is primarily asso-

ciated with the illusionary and ineffectual, and ‘spook’ seems archaic
and rather innocuous when used as a noun to describe literal ghosts,
but, as an adjective, conjures discomfort and fear. These terms and the
associations of each that are mobilized when they are applied to par-
ticular groups of people need to be carefully disaggregated. However,
with ‘ghost’ being both the most common and most figuratively fruitful
term, I have chosen to designate the subjects of my research, in general,
as living ghosts. The specific living ghosts analyzed are undocumented
migrants, servants or domestic workers, mediums and missing persons.
These groups were chosen because all are frequently – sometimes to the
point of cliché – likened to ghosts or related figures, on the basis of their
lack of social visibility, unobtrusiveness, enigmatic abilities or uncertain
status between life and death. While there are similarities between them
in terms of their marginalized social position and shared association
with that which escapes or exceeds the visible, they are not all ghostly
in exactly the same manner or degree. My primary aim, therefore, is to
explore the highly specific way the spectral metaphor operates in each
case. I ask how and why each group is associated with the ghost, what
type of ghost is invoked, what characteristics motivate the comparison
and, most importantly, what its effects are. What does their status as
living ghosts do for or to these people, generally considered to occupy
marginal, contentious social positions? What kind(s) of agency does
their ghostliness generate or prohibit? And, finally, how does concep-
tualizing these groups as ghosts compare to other ways in which they
have been or could be approached?
This last question touches on the ethical and political responsibilities
involved in figuring people. Unlike objects, which presumably have no
investment in whether or how they are discursively constituted, human
beings cannot but be interested in what or whom they are compared to,
and the modes of subjectivity this opens up or forecloses. If repeated and
conventionalized, metaphors can define certain individuals or groups as
superior and dispossess others by establishing or reinforcing negative
stereotypes. Besides their cognitive and aesthetic functions, metaphors,
Ted Cohen asserts, produce intimacy and, consequently, community:
‘there is a unique way in which the maker and the appreciator of a
metaphor are drawn closer to each other’ (6). Such intimacy may be
exclusive as well as inclusive, since ‘the sense of close community results
not only from the shared awareness that a special invitation has been
given and accepted, but also from the awareness that not everyone could
make that offer or take it up’ (7). Moreover, it can take the hostile form
6 The Spectral Metaphor

of seeking to expose the receiver’s social ignorance: ‘do not [ . . . ] suppose

that [ . . . ] metaphors are always for communal insight. Some of the most
instructive examples will be ones in which intimacy is sought as a means
to a lethal and one-sided effect’ (10). Situations in which metaphors are
not just exchanged between people but themselves pertain to particu-
lar subjects add an extra complication; intimacy, implying two people
interacting on the same level, becomes objectification as the user of the
metaphor claims the right to define or frame the other. It is necessary,
therefore, to ask how figurative language is to be used responsibly, with-
out victimizing either the receiver or the one figured, and how hostile
uses may be contested.
As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue in their seminal study,
metaphors are ‘not just a matter of language’ but something ‘we live
by’ that shapes people’s reality (6). In the cases discussed here, the ghost
is a metaphor certain people (are made to) live as, the conceptual and
cognitive framework through which they are made sense of and come
to make sense of themselves. While such living as a ghost can be dispos-
sessing, the ghost is far from a dead metaphor in which the figurative
dimension has been naturalized to the point of becoming invisible.
Instead, the ghostly metaphor’s continuing liveliness – its apposite pro-
clivity to keep coming back to life – is ensured by its invocation of a vast
realm of sometimes contradictory associations, as well as by its many
In Flesh of My Flesh, Kaja Silverman seeks to revaluate similarity, resem-
blance and relationality – seen to bring together and equalize people –
over alterity and difference – seen to polarize them – by appealing to
the figure of analogy. For Silverman, analogy, especially when it takes
the form of corporeal or fleshly links that reinforce a sense of ‘onto-
logical kinship’ and shared ‘finitude’ (as opposed to wholeness), has
the potential to become a vehicle of social transformation (4). Anal-
ogy is privileged over metaphor because it ‘brings two or more things
together on the basis of their lesser or greater resemblance’ and is there-
fore neither a question of identity nor of antithesis (173). In contrast, ‘a
metaphor entails the substitution of one thing for another. This is a pro-
foundly undemocratic relationship, because the former is a temporary
stand-in for the latter and because it has only a provisional reality’ (173).
The ‘provisional reality’ of the substitution – the fact that the substitut-
ing thing never actually is or becomes the substituted thing – marks the
metaphorical relation as phantasmatic, as not really a relation at all: in
the end, the two things remain separate. At the same time, the metaphor
renders the thing substituted unrepresented, invisible, occluded: two
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 7

things are reduced to one. For there to be a productive, democratic rela-

tionality, Silverman suggests, both things need to remain present, beside
each other, as in analogy or simile.
This reading of metaphor is rather reductive. Since the substituted
thing, which is compared to something else, is indexically pointed out
by the metaphor – it is that which is now called something different
from its usual designation – it is in fact present, represented and made
relational. Moreover, as theorists of metaphor, including Paul Ricoeur
and Max Black, have pointed out, its logic does not have to be seen as
one of replacement, but might also be conceived in terms of comparison
(as the presentation of an underlying analogy or simile) or interaction.
The latter envisions an active interplay between two terms, one named
and one implied, based on multiple, shifting relations of similarity and
dissimilarity rather than a pre-conceived identity. In this interaction,
which is guided but not determined by the metaphor’s user, the mean-
ing of both terms can be extended. In Of What One Cannot Speak, Mieke
Bal coins the verb to metaphor to highlight this active, processual dimen-
sion and stresses how, by refusing to ‘stay put’, the metaphor orients
meaning instead of fixing it in place (37).
All metaphors thus possess a certain potential for semantic flexibil-
ity, which is enhanced in the case of polysemic concepts like the ghost.
When something or someone is called a ghost, even an awareness of the
‘system of associated commonplaces’ this notion calls up in a specific
cultural-historical context does not always produce immediate certainty
as to the parts of this potentially extensive system that are being mobi-
lized (Black 40). Moreover, accepted commonplaces may themselves be
questioned or denied, generating ‘an effect of paradox and provok[ing]
a demand for justification’ (40). According to Black, the interaction view
exposes how metaphors can unravel, shift, deviate or ‘be made to mea-
sure’ (43). While he assigns the ability to manipulate metaphors to the
one who metaphors, there is no reason to preclude shifts prompted by
those who receive the metaphor or are designated by it. It is possible,
though not always easy, to deliberately or accidentally misunderstand
the metaphor and arrive at an alternative signification. Such misunder-
standings become ethico-political strategies when the metaphor, which
registers similarities but may also create or reinforce them, is felt to be
inappropriate, offensive or oppressive.
In theory, therefore, subjects designated as ghostly in the dispossess-
ing sense of being considered invisible and expendable are not restricted
to the option of rejecting the association outright by insisting on their
full visible materiality and social significance. They may also work with
8 The Spectral Metaphor

the metaphor, reshaping it to activate other, more empowering associa-

tions of the ghost in order to go from being overlooked to demanding
attention by coming to haunt. Just as the Otis family disturbs the
Canterville ghost’s act and reverses the established and expected power
relation by approaching him in an unconventional, irreverent manner,
living ghosts might be able to manipulate the way they are metaphored,
turning the figure to their advantage. In the four chapters that fol-
low, I explore how feasible and effective efforts to re-orient the spectral
metaphor are by performing close readings of portrayals of living ghosts
in a selection of British and American novels, films and television
My choice to focus on the way living ghosts appear in these prod-
ucts of the cultural imagination is motivated, first of all, by the fact that
it is often here that new metaphors are initiated or conventionalized
metaphors from the social realm consolidated, critiqued or reconfig-
ured. Research showing that people notice the use of metaphors more in
literature than in everyday life suggests that literary and other represen-
tations can raise awareness of the way metaphors are not just rhetorical
ornaments but may be used to oppress and stereotype (Semino and
Steen 243). I take the relationship between the cultural imagination and
the social realm as one of refraction rather than reflection, mirroring or
mimesis. The term ‘refraction’ is borrowed from Mikhail Bakhtin, who
uses it to designate the process of ‘artistic reworking’ that occurs when
social heteroglossia enters the novel (‘Discourse’ 300). Artistic works
deflect discourses taken from the social realm at particular angles, as
does, in turn, the social realm with artistic content. Through this mutual
feedback loop, cultural representations become part of ongoing social
discussions and may function as a testing ground to imagine and work
through their possible permutations and solutions. Significantly, sev-
eral of the representations examined here do not just portray the way
certain groups are made sense of through the ghostly metaphor and
how they deal with this, but are themselves, as cultural products, aimed
at challenging or shifting the way this figuration operates socially and
politically. That brings me to my second motivation for turning to the
cultural imagination: whereas the ghost as a figuration of marginality
tends to point to a lack of visibility and impact in the social realm
that, within this realm, can only receive negative expression as lack
or absence, the cultural imagination can render such social invisibil-
ity and impotence tangible through narrative and visual techniques.
It is, furthermore, in the cultural imagination that the literal ghost
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 9

traditionally finds the most expansive home. With the use of the spec-
tral metaphor grounded in ghost stories told in different imaginative
media, it is there that the most creative scenarios for its re-orientation
from dispossession to empowerment are likely to be found. Scrutinizing
portrayals of living ghosts in novels, films and television series, then,
can suggest new responses to the practices of marginalization arising
in a globalized context increasingly dominated by neoliberal thought,
which, in postulating a universal ability to act autonomously, ignores
the constraints placed on agency, particularly for subjects considered
Having outlined the parameters of my investigation into the spectral
metaphor, the remainder of this introduction situates it in the wider
field of spectral studies. This field was established when the ghost, in
the 1990s, evolved from a supernatural phenomenon (fictional or other-
wise) and a specialized, mainly technological metaphor into a concept –
spectrality – adopted as an analytical tool throughout the humanities and
social sciences. I argue for a broad notion of spectrality that enables it to
encompass not only the ghosts of the past (the way history haunts the
present or childhood traumas the subject), but the possible and impos-
sible hauntings of those living ghosts produced in and by the present.
In addition, I elaborate a notion of spectral agency and point to the need
for a re-focalization of the ghost, which has, both in popular culture and
in scholarly considerations of spectrality, predominantly been looked at
from the perspective of the haunted.

Present ghosts

Any contemporary project dealing with ghosts, especially figurative

ones, has to situate itself in relation to the so-called spectral turn,
which, from the early 1990s, has marked the transformation of the
ghost and its capacity to haunt from a genre convention or plot device
in ghost stories, Gothic fiction and horror into a theoretical ‘idiom’
(Gunn, ‘Review’ 78).4 As María del Pilar Blanco and I outline in our
introduction to The Spectralities Reader, the spectral turn should be con-
sidered less a programmatic movement than a loose convergence of
interest in the conceptual force of ghosts and haunting. Taking up
ghosts and haunting as analytical instruments has produced greater
insight into the historical, social and cultural functions of phenom-
ena and notions already closely associated with the literal ghost and
the supernatural, such as spiritualism, telepathy, the Gothic and the
10 The Spectral Metaphor

uncanny.5 In addition, it has opened up new perspectives on more

disparate processes, practices and disciplines, including history and her-
itage, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, literature, technology and new
media, nationalism, sociology, architecture, the postcolonial, material-
ism, (cultural) memory and the archive, trauma, sexuality, race, space
and geography.6
Although these elaborations of spectrality are methodologically dis-
tinct and vary in the characteristics, functions and effects they assign to
the central concept, they do share certain interrelated emphases. First,
there is the invocation of the ghost as a figure of return, capable of
expressing the persistence of the past in the present and the general
workings of repetition as inevitably combining sameness and difference;
the ghost, after all, is never identical to who it was when still alive.
Second, there is the appeal to the ghost as a present absence: despite
being ephemeral, something is there that matters and has to be taken
into account. This makes it possible to consider the social, political,
ethical, psychic and affective impacts of ‘reknowing’ or ‘unforgetting’
phenomena previously overlooked or unprocessed, ranging from the
empty spaces in buildings to personal or national traumas (Rayner xviii).
Approached through the concept of spectrality, these phenomena are
not made present in a straightforward manner, but manifest in and as
their absence, so that their escaping notice remains part of their signifi-
cation. A third focus within the spectral turn is on examining the ghost’s
potency as a critique of the ‘un-mixed’, of ‘what is somehow pure and
self-sufficient or autonomous, what is able to be disengaged from the
general mess of mixed, hybrid phenomena all around it and named
with the satisfaction of a single conceptual proper name’ (Jameson
44–5). The specter stands for that which never simply is and thus escapes
the totalizing logic of conventional cognitive and hermeneutic oper-
ations. It cannot be reduced to a straightforward genesis, chronology
or finitude and insists on blurring multiple borders, between visibil-
ity and invisibility, past and present, materiality and immateriality,
science and pseudo-science, religion and superstition, life and death,
presence and absence, reality and imagination. As such, spectrality is
associated not only with challenging forms of authority that display
‘a longing for primary realities, original simplicities, full presences and
self-sufficient phenomena cleansed of the extraneous or the residual’,
but with an acceptance of risk, uncertainty and doubt, both in the
phenomena analyzed and in the process of analysis (Jameson 45).
The term ‘spectral turn’ was introduced in 2002 by Roger Luckhurst,
who considers Derrida’s 1993 Spectres de Marx (translated as Specters of
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 11

Marx) its catalyst. In this text, Derrida does not profess a belief in the
actual return of the dead, but spins a reading of the literal ghost of the
king in Hamlet and a discussion of the complex, multiple legacy of Karl
Marx into a conceptual meditation on spectrality as a deconstructive
force that disturbs traditional notions of temporality and history – by
collapsing the borders between past, present and future: ‘Time is out of
joint’ – and that transforms ontology into hauntology.7 This neologism
indicates a Being that is never unambiguously or wholly present to itself
and that has a heterogeneous and therefore unlocatable point of origin:
it is ‘the more than one/no more one [le plus d’un]’ (Derrida, Specters xx).
In addition, the specter emerges as a figure of radical alterity, concretized
as the guest, foreigner or immigrant, underpinning an ethics of inter-
subjectivity in which the self, rather than negating or assimilating the
other, is asked to adopt an attitude of open expectancy striving for the
ideal of absolute hospitality, which welcomes without imposing condi-
tions. This ethics is presented by Derrida as the path to ‘learn[ing] to live
finally’ in a more just and responsible manner, in relation to oneself and
one’s own inevitable death as well as to the other (xvii).8
According to Luckhurst, Derrida’s text, to which I will return through-
out this book, transformed the specter into a ‘master trope’ (‘Contempo-
rary’ 527). While the glut of spectral investigations that followed Specters
of Marx seemed to confirm the concept’s critical fecundity, Luckhurst
argues that the ever-widening scope of its application marks its lim-
its. For him, the figure of the ghost loses explanatory value when it
becomes part of a ‘generalized economy of haunting’ that eschews
historical, geographical and methodological specificity (534). Bown,
Burdett and Thurschwell, in The Victorian Supernatural, similarly argue
that metaphorical invocations of the ghost work to ‘unify and flatten
out the supernatural’ by ignoring ‘the ways in which the supernatural
signifies differently at different historical moments’ (12).
Derrida’s hauntology, which, as an alternative ontology, renders all
being and meaning ghostly, and whose function and effects are dif-
ficult to distinguish from those of other deconstructive notions such
as différance, trace and hymen, indeed tends to the general and even
universal, as does his suggestion that

the figure of the ghost is not just one figure among others. It is per-
haps the hidden figure of all figures. For this reason, it would perhaps
no longer figure as one tropological weapon among others. There
would be no meta-rhetoric of the ghost.
(Specters 120)
12 The Spectral Metaphor

I do not want to privilege and hypostatize the spectral metaphor to

this extent. As Wilde’s story shows, not everything is ghostly and not
all ghosts are the same. Ghosts, literal or metaphorical, can have vari-
ous functions, meanings, powers and effects, depending on their precise
characteristics, context and name – as indicated, ‘specter’ itself already
refers to a specific type of ghost. This multiplicity challenges Peter
Fenves’s assertion that ghosts, in contradistinction to angels,

are distinguished, if they can be distinguished at all, solo numero.

That’s why there are so many of them: their being, if they can be
said to be at all, lies in being many, returning to one, returning as the
same one, again and again. If each night a different ghost haunted a
house, that house would not be haunted.
(258, emphasis in text)

Ghosts, as figures of return, are indeed multiple, but they can be specific
at the same time. Hamlet is not haunted by just any ghost, but by the
ghost of his father and this identification, albeit never definitive, secures
the force of the apparition’s injunction. The way popular culture often
pitches ghost against ghost, moreover, shows that such apparitions are
not necessarily reducible to one, especially in places where multiple con-
tested histories converge. Consequently, even a house visited by a new
ghost each night could still be experienced as haunted. This is confirmed
by the way Fenves’s phrase ‘if each night a different ghost haunted a
house’, designed to describe the impossible, nevertheless makes perfect
Rather than rejecting the metaphor of the ghost as overly general or
necessarily separate from individuality, invocations of spectrality should
include a motivation of how and why this figure is employed and what
is gained or lost in its use. A conceptual metaphor can easily be over-
stretched, especially when it becomes part of an academic trend. Yet the
fact that some of its appropriations and applications have been less con-
vincing or productive than others does not mean that spectrality should
be abandoned altogether or that its abundant presence in late twentieth-
century and early twenty-first-century cultural theory is not, in itself, of
As Bal notes in Travelling Concepts in the Humanities, ‘concepts are nei-
ther fixed nor unambiguous’ (23). This is doubly true of the specter,
which possesses an inherent indistinctness and ambivalence that forms
the core of its conceptual appeal and scope. Concepts ‘travel – between
disciplines, between individual scholars, between historical periods,
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 13

and between geographically dispersed academic communities’ (24).

Unlike the frequently untraceable movements of ghosts, such concep-
tual journeys can be mapped: shifts in emphasis and function can
be traced, explained and assessed. This not only prevents a dilution
into meaninglessness, but ensures that the concept does not become
dogmatic and rigid. The specter’s speedy trek across disciplines in the
1990s and 2000s may not always have avoided the danger of dif-
fusion, but in general it has managed to display the ‘foundational
capacity’ that ‘comes with a new articulation, entailing new emphases
and a new ordering of the phenomena within the complex objects
constituting the cultural field’ (33).9 Spectrality-centered research has
effected such a reordering by prompting a concern, across cultural criti-
cism, with challenging seemingly incontestable oppositions – life/death,
science/superstition, presence/absence, past/present, visible/invisible –
and with drawing attention to what exists in the shadows and is
usually ignored. If ‘the role of concepts is to focus interest’, noth-
ing does so quite like the appearance of a ghost (31).10 Thus, while
heeding Luckhurst’s warning that, in some cases, ghosts and haunt-
ing have been granted too broad an explanatory force, I propose
that there are still productive new roads to explore and old ones to
Whereas Luckhurst is concerned with reigning in the excesses of the
spectral turn through an effort of localization and historicization, Jeffrey
Weinstock’s Spectral America probes the reasons for the specter’s sud-
den popularity. Weinstock traces the spectral turn further back than
Luckhurst, to the late 1980s, and sees it occurring under the influ-
ence of ‘a general postmodern suspicion of meta-narratives accentuated
by millennial anxiety’ (5). Conjuring the ghosts of the past coun-
ters meta-narratives by bringing forward non-authorized perspectives
that lead to revisions and multiplications of historical accounts, and
assuages millennial angst by distracting attention from concerns about
the unknown future. Some of the reasons Weinstock gives for the pop-
ularity of the spectral are contentious; surely not all ghosts, even in the
American context, ‘represent our desires for truth and justice (not to
mention the American way)’ or ‘validate religious faith and the ideas
of heaven and hell’ (6). Yet his claim that ‘without ghosts to point
to things that have been lost and overlooked, things may disappear
forever’ identifies what I, too, consider a vital conceptual function of
spectrality: to call attention to and assign responsibility for social prac-
tices of marginalization and erasure, and for cultural and historical blind
spots (6).
14 The Spectral Metaphor

Weinstock’s reference to ‘things that have been lost and overlooked’

characterizes the spectral turn as a turn towards the past. Ghosts
originate in a before, revealing ‘the extent to which the past governs the
present and opens or forecloses possibilities for the future’ (8). While
resurrecting the forgotten, ignored or repressed parts of history and
showing how this past is still at work in the present is important, I want
to draw attention to what is disregarded when the specter is read only in
a retrospective manner: those things or persons that are being lost and
overlooked in the present.
In Specters of Marx, Derrida attributes a futural dimension to
spectrality, which he sees as pertaining not only to ‘those others who
are no longer’, but also to ‘those others who are not yet there’ (xix,
emphasis in text). The specter is both revenant, that which returns from
the past, and arrivant, that which is to come, ‘the future that cannot
be anticipated’ (168). For Derrida, a ghost’s first appearance is already
a return – of the one who passed away – while the nature of haunt-
ing also invokes future reappearances: the ghost will be back. By thus
bringing the past and the future into the present, the specter reveals
the ‘non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present’ (xix, emphasis
in text).
But where does this leave the living? Are they only ever the ones
haunted by the ghost? This would make sense if the ghost were strictly
thought of as no longer (or not yet) alive in the biological sense, but not if
its figurative potential is taken seriously. For it is this potential that pro-
duces the living ghosts I am concerned with: those people who, already
in their lifetime, resemble dispossessed ghosts in that they are ignored
and considered expendable, or, sometimes at the same time, become
objects of intense fear and violent attempts at extermination. Recogniz-
ing and taking responsibility for the way these ghosts of the present
are created, perceived and treated is as important as dealing with the
intrusions of past and future ghosts in the present.
Justice, Derrida asserts, should go beyond a commitment to ‘the life
of a living being’ to include the living-on or sur-vie of the specter, the
‘survival whose possibility in advance comes to disjoin or dis-adjust the
identity to itself of the living present as well as of any effectivity’ (Specters
xx). This leaves aside how the identity to itself of the living present is not
only disjointed by the appearance of past and future specters, but also
by the way not everyone alive in the present is automatically included
in its sense of ‘living’ or ‘present’. If living-on is possible only for those
perceived as living, present beings in the first place, the ghostliness pro-
duced by the exclusions that occur within the realm of life, among the
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 15

living, can be seen to pre-empt haunting instead of facilitating it. This

type of ghost, lacking the specter’s association with seeing and being
seen, cannot disturb because its very existence is put into question, eras-
ing it from view; rather than putting the present time out of joint, such
ghosts are themselves disjointed as the present spectralizes them.
How can this effacement be approached and countered? In my
chapters, I will show how the work of Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler
and Achille Mbembe, yielding such spectralized figures of the present
as the homo sacer, the ungrievable and the living dead, provides useful
ethico-political frameworks for understanding how and why contempo-
rary societies generate living ghosts and what the effects of this status
are for the subjects affected. What I want to add is, first of all, a greater
degree of specificity; not all living ghosts are dispossessed in the same
manner or to the same degree, nor is it helpful to universalize the con-
dition of spectralization.11 The differential incarnations of the spectral
metaphor need to be acknowledged. Second, I focus on the issue of
agency, understood as the ability to act on one’s own initiative and to
have this acting taken seriously by others as something meaningful that
merits a response, whether affirmative or not. As such, agency poten-
tially enables one to renegotiate one’s social position and identity, with
the latter seen as non-foundational, multiple and inherently relational
or intersubjective.12 Following Butler, agency is not taken as entailing
autonomy, since all behavior, including the ability to act and speak as
a subject, is at once made possible and restricted by social norms and
power relations:

Because the agency of the subject is not a property of the subject,

an inherent will or freedom, but an effect of power, it is constrained
but not determined in advance. If the subject is produced in speech
through a set of foreclosures, then this founding and formative lim-
itation sets the scene for the agency of the subject. Agency becomes
possible on the condition of such a foreclosure. This is not the agency
of the sovereign subject, one who only and always exercises power
instrumentally on another. As the agency of a post-sovereign sub-
ject, its discursive operation is delimited in advance but also open to
further and unexpected delimitation.
(Excitable 139)

Agency, then, does not imply sovereign control over one’s actions and
their consequences. This does not, however, diminish the importance of
being able to act with a sense of purpose and of being seen to be of consequence.
16 The Spectral Metaphor

A primary precondition for a livable life is the ability to impact, in

however constrained a manner, on the world and one’s own position in
it. The mere fact of having one’s position as a subject capable of acting
acknowledged, before any actual taking action, already signifies a form
of agency, as agency also includes the ability to be seen not to act. In
contrast, portrayals of ghosts that are unable to affect the world in which
they (re-)appear and thus remain unseen and unsensed – as is the case,
for example, with Patrick Swayze’s deceased character in Jerry Zucker’s
film Ghost (1990), who cannot make his presence or intentions known
to the living until he enlists a medium – emphasize the frustration of
being denied agency.
After establishing how undocumented migrants, servants or domes-
tic workers, mediums and missing persons manifest, in the literary
texts, films and television series analyzed, as living ghosts associated
with different aspects of the spectral metaphor and suffering varying
degrees of dispossession, I explore whether and how these groups can
find ways, individually or collectively, to acquire (a greater measure of)
agency, so that they, too, may live on. The ability to act and be seen
to act, I argue, is not necessarily derived from a renunciation of one’s
ghostliness – an insistence on one’s full material presence and visibil-
ity, on not being ghost-like – but may be found in the exploitation of
the spectral metaphor and its manifold associations. Under certain cir-
cumstances, ghosts that come close to not registering at all can become
specters that haunt actively and efficiently; to understand this distinc-
tion, it is vital to remember that haunting, like the notion of agency
outlined above, is conditional upon being noticed. What I want to make
clear in the next section of this introduction is that, rather than either
living as a ghost or having agency, the two can come together in the
notion of spectral agency.

Spectral agency

Derrida acknowledges that the present conjures its own ghosts when
he refers to ‘the new structure of the event and of its spectrality that
[techno-tele-media apparatuses] produce [ . . . ]: it is the relation of the
concept of production to the ghost that is in question here’ (Specters 79,
emphasis in text). One type of apparition produced by the spectraliz-
ing new media are politicians turned into ‘mere silhouettes’. Having
lost ‘the essential part of the power and even of the competence that
they were granted before by the structures of parliamentary representa-
tion, by the party apparatuses that were linked to it’, these politicians
are no longer ‘actors of politics’, but ‘TV actors’. The media is seen to
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 17

produce them as empty, ghostly shells that can be manipulated like

‘marionettes’ (80). Here, the ghost signifies a lack of agency, although
it could be argued that politicians have found ways to turn their sta-
tus as media silhouettes to their advantage, since it enables them to get
away with superficiality, removes accountability and engenders a sense
of invulnerability. Another type of ghost in the present is produced
by liberal-democrat capitalism, which is seen, by Derrida, to render
the unemployed, the homeless, exiles and migrants obscure in their
growing segregation from everyday life. The spectral metaphor marks
these groups as vulnerable and marginalized. For Derrida, unemploy-
ment and the exclusion of those considered expendable constitute two
of the ten plagues of the new world order that ought to be contested.
The others are: the uncritical adoption of free market ideology, foreign
debt, the arms industry and trade, nuclear weapons, inter-ethnic wars,
the phantom-States of mafia and drug cartels and the limits of inter-
national law. This list demonstrates how Derrida associates spectrality
both with powerful systemic forces (the media, mafia, drug cartels and
liberal-democrat capitalism) that partake of the ghost’s ungraspability
and its power to disturb and disjoint, and with the dispossessed sub-
jects these systems produce (the exploited, extorted, disappeared and
addicted). The first are untouchable in the sense of being near invulner-
able and able to avoid accountability, while the latter are untouchable
in the sense of being seen and treated as society’s detritus, to be avoided,
exploited and abjected.
This duality is operative throughout Specters of Marx and renders the
specter, in Richard Halpern’s words, ‘at once Lacanian and Levinasian –
brutal, implacable superego and fragile neighbor for whom we are pri-
mordially responsible’ (41). Derrida begins by considering the ghost as a
sovereign force, ‘as powerful as it is unreal’ (Specters 13). The model here
is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, ‘who sees us, and who makes the law,
who delivers the injunction’ (7). This is emphatically a haunting ghost
capable of a recognized acting on and in the world. Even the spectral
King Hamlet’s masterfulness, however, is diluted by Derrida’s insistence
that although to inherit is unavoidable (we cannot not receive from the
past), the heterogeneity of what is passed on means the legacy can never
be read as a straightforward order:

An inheritance is never gathered together, it is never one with itself.

Its presumed unity, if there is one, can consist only in the injunc-
tion to reaffirm by choosing. ‘One must’ means one must filter, sift,
criticize, one must sort out several different possibles that inhabit the
same injunction. And inhabit it in a contradictory fashion around a
18 The Spectral Metaphor

secret. If the readability of a legacy were given, natural, transparent,

univocal, if it did not call for and at the same time defy interpreta-
tion, we would never have anything to inherit from it. We would be
affected by it as by a cause – natural or genetic. One always inher-
its from a secret – which says ‘read me, will you ever be able to do
so?’ (16)

On the one hand, this means that the ghostly ancestor cannot predeter-
mine what will become of his command, as the ending of Hamlet makes
abundantly clear. On the other hand, the fact that ‘one always inherits
from a secret’ indicates that there can be no proprietary relationship to
the ghost. No single descendant can claim ownership of a unified ‘true’
legacy, for no one could ever completely comprehend it.
If it is impossible to fully receive the inheritance, yet equally impos-
sible to avoid it, what, then, is the proper response to the ghost that
lays down the law? According to Derrida, a legacy that presents itself
as commanding and incontrovertible may rightfully be questioned and
challenged. Marx’s ‘burst of laughter [ . . . ] in the face of the capital or
paternal ghost, the Hauptgespenst that is the general essence of Man’,
for example, is considered ‘alive, healthy, critical, and still necessary’
(174, emphasis in text). The same could be said of the Otis boys’ mock-
ing of Simon de Canterville. At the same time, Derrida berates Marx
for having ‘chased away so many ghosts so quickly’ (174). While some
ghosts should be defied, others, which enable the recognition that the
self and the present are beholden to and disjointed by other selves and
other times, should be heeded and respected. The past must never sim-
ply be buried (erased, forgotten, left to the dead) and the other, instead
of being negated or assimilated, ought to be welcomed as other. This is
why there is also something distasteful about the way the Americans in
Wilde’s story treat the Canterville ghost; their dismissal of history and
tradition is too cavalier, too disdainful, too indiscriminate.
Faced with the specter as a figure of vulnerability – one of ‘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’ (Derrida,
Specters xix) – the responsible reaction is to welcome it unconditionally:

hospitality without reserve, welcoming salutation accorded in

advance to the absolute surprise of the arrivant from whom or from
which one will not ask anything in return and who or which will
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 19

not be asked to commit to the domestic contracts of any welcoming

power (family, State, nation, territory, native soil or blood, language,
culture in general, even humanity), just opening which renounces
any right to property, any right in general, messianic opening to what
is coming, that is, to the event that cannot be awaited as such, or rec-
ognized in advance therefore, to the event as the foreigner itself, to
her or to him for whom one must leave an empty place, always, in
memory of the hope – and this is the very place of spectrality.
(65, emphasis in text)

A reception this open and expectant is, of course, unlikely to occur in

practice; the idea, rather, is to arrive at a recognition and questioning of
the conditions that are imposed in real-life encounters, especially with
vulnerable subjects, and to hold up hospitality without reserve as an
ethical potentiality. As Jameson notes, Derrida’s insistence on invoking
the absolute form of processes like hospitality, gifting and forgiveness
‘turn[s] on the necessity and the urgency of keeping the impossible
alive, keeping faith with it, making it continue to be somehow possible
in its very impossibility’ (59). Still, it is important to contemplate the
desirability of absolute hospitality if it were practicable, since it could
be seen to culminate in an avoidance of interaction as non-imposition
and ‘just opening’ (if read apart from the implied reference to justice)
shade into indifference. Welcoming without making demands avoids
dominating the foreigner, but can also be a way of refusing to truly
engage with him or her and thus of the inhospitable (this, perhaps,
was the problem with certain forms of multiculturalism).13 In relation
to vulnerable ghosts, absolute hospitality might therefore constitute an
abdication of responsibility, an injustice. At the same time, in the face of
a ‘capital or paternal ghost’, it could lead to the annihilation of the host.
When the ‘absolute surprise’ turns out to be that the visitation seeks to
oppress or destroy, ‘hospitality without reserve’ takes the renunciation
of rights to an extreme that still leaves one party with all or most of the
power instead of proposing a more equitable distribution or ongoing
negotiation of mutual rights and responsibilities.
Derrida sees Marx as himself a vulnerable ghost, a ‘clandestine immi-
grant’ belonging ‘to a time of disjunction, to that “time out of joint” in
which is inaugurated, laboriously, painfully, tragically, a new thinking
of borders, a new experience of the house, the home, and the economy’
(Specters 174). Associated with disjunction rather than injunction, the
vulnerable ghost is put upon, its existence precarious. Nevertheless, it is
capable of producing something new. Not by renouncing its spectral
20 The Spectral Metaphor

nature and asserting an unambiguous materiality or by claiming the

power to lay down an authoritative inheritance – Derrida notes that
Marx is one of the few thinkers who has ‘called for the transformation to
come of his own theses’ (13, emphasis in text) – but by brandishing the
ambivalent, impersonal power of the es spukt or ‘it haunts’:

the absolute proximity of a stranger whose power is singular and

anonymous (es spukt), an unnameable and neutral power, that is,
undecidable, neither active nor passive, an an-identity that, without
doing anything, invisibly occupies places belonging finally neither to
us nor to it.
(172, emphasis in text)

This haunting force is effective precisely because of its undecidable

nature and origin, its blurring of the active–passive dichotomy. It
promises an agency separate from acting out (‘without doing anything’)
that still has a profound impact. While Derrida’s association of abso-
lute hospitality with an ‘awaiting without horizon of the wait’ and a
‘messianism without content’ may be seen to advocate inertia, in ‘Marx
& Sons’ he clarifies that it should be seen as an ‘active preparation’, an
‘exposure to the event, which can either come to pass or not (condi-
tion of absolute otherness), [that] is inseparable from a promise and an
injunction that call for commitment without delay [sans attendre], and,
in truth, rule out abstention’ (249, emphasis in text).14
The ambivalent force of the es spukt, invisible yet not beyond being
perceived and recognized, potentially allows the vulnerable ghost to
struggle against the spectralizing systems by which it is produced as
invisible and irrelevant. The idea is for the ghost to come to haunt
or possess (in the sense of inhabiting and disintegrating) its conjurer.
Hence, this is a logic of ‘counter-conjuration’ (Derrida, Specters 86).
In relation to the ten plagues of the new world order, it takes the
form – or, better, anti-form – of the New International, a ‘link of affinity,
suffering, and hope’ that is ‘without status, without title, and with-
out name, barely public even if it is not clandestine, without contract,
“out of joint,” without coordination, without party, without country,
without national community (International before, across, and beyond
any national determination), without co-citizenship, without common
belonging to a class’ (85). Many critics, especially materialists, have cen-
sured the New International’s lack of specificity, arguing that it is as
ungraspable and indefinable as the plagues it purports to fight.15 But this
appears to be precisely Derrida’s point: as Simon de Canterville’s shock
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 21

at his encounter with the specter fabricated by the Otis twins indicates,
the most effective way to battle a ghost is to appropriate its haunting
force and turn that force against it.
In a response to Specters of Marx entitled ‘The Specter’s Smile’, Antonio
Negri suggests that Marx situated the ghost firmly in the world of the
living by showing how the ‘abstraction of value’ in capitalist produc-
tion ‘vampirizes all of the worker’s labor and, transforming itself into
surplus-value, becomes capital’ (7). Marx saw this ‘spectral movement’,
which renders capital metaphysical and autonomous, as countered by
the ‘non-spectrality of the productive subject’; the undeniable materi-
ality or ‘realness’ of the workers allowed for them to be demystified,
for the magical spell to be undone and the reality of exploitation to
be revealed (Negri 7, emphasis in text). Negri argues that this move
of exorcism is unavailable in the new labor paradigm, where ‘the law
of value has been thrown “out of joint” due to the fact that time
is no longer a measuring gauge of value, nor use-value its real refer-
ent’ (8). The vampire metaphor, however, suggests that the workers’
materiality did not remain intact in nineteenth-century industrialism
either. Vampire attacks, even when said to proceed in a ‘bloodless
movement’, are invasive and take something away from their victims,
leaving them impoverished, weakened, changed (7). The ghostly system
of capitalist production not only renders labor and its value invisi-
ble, but makes workers converge with their labor, so that they can no
longer claim a separate existence, just like a person bitten by a vam-
pire is no longer him- or herself. Thus, the specter – defined by Negri
as ‘the movement of an abstraction that is materialized and becomes
powerful’ – simultaneously produces its inverse, a form of dematerializa-
tion and disempowerment that complicates any appeal to the workers’
solid humanity and stable subjectivity as conduits for demystification
(6–7).16 In addition, it should be taken into account that vampires may
also infect or ‘turn’ their victims, transferring power to them and thus
enabling them to become potential threats; popular culture teaches
that a vampire can kill another vampire much more easily than a
human can.
Yet Negri follows Marx in insisting on the actual as the singular force
able to counteract the ghost. His problem with Derrida’s theory and with
the ‘new spectrality’ of postindustrial labor is that it renders spectrality
so pervasive nothing solid can be set against it:

The new spectrality is here – and we’re entirely within this real illu-
sion [ . . . ] There’s no longer an outside, neither a nostalgic one, nor
22 The Spectral Metaphor

a mythic one, nor any urgency or reason to disengage us from the

spectrality of the real [ . . . ] The subject is therefore unlocatable in a
world that has lost all measure, because in this spectral reality no
measure is perceived or perceptible. (9)

The subject has become ‘unlocatable’ – invisible, unidentifiable – in a

spectral or simulacral world of indeterminate dimensions and invisible
contents. For Negri, the fact that spectrality now also encompasses the
worker removes any capacity to act: if the subject cannot even be located
and is of the same ephemeral quality as the oppressing system, how
can it do anything to challenge it? He links the inability to act with
spectrality itself (rendering one imperceptible, it removes all agency),
even as he describes the spectral movement of the capitalist system as
highly powerful and effective in its establishment of a ‘ghostly domin-
ion’ (10). If there is a spectrality that signifies agency, dominion even,
then if the subjected partake of this same spectrality, might they not be
able to conjure against the conjuration, as Derrida proposes? In postin-
dustrial capitalism, where the ‘real’ bodies of the workers can no longer
be taken for granted as anchors for a non-spectral unobstructed vision of
the world (if they ever could), their very ghostliness – the fact that they
are to some extent ‘unlocatable’ yet still necessary – could provide a way
to disturb the spectralizing system. Spectrality’s ephemeral, incomplete
and ambiguous nature invests both worker and system with a degree of
vulnerability and a form of agency that does not accord with a notion
of straightforward, deliberate intervention. Action can be taken in the
realm of the spectral, but it has to be taken from within its logic as
a strategic exploitation of the characteristics of spectrality itself: ghost
against ghost. Significantly, Slavoj Žižek associates the specter and its
haunting force not with existence or nonexistence but with insistence,
an insidious form of agency available even to the unactualized:

that which does not exist, continues to insist, striving towards exis-
tence [ . . . ] When I miss a crucial ethical opportunity, and fail to make
a move that would ‘change everything’, the very nonexistence of
what I should have done will haunt me for ever: although what I did
not do does not exist, its spectre continues to insist.
(Welcome 22, emphasis in text)

For Negri, the laborer is captured by spectrality, ‘prisoner of a world

of ghosts producing wealth and power for some, misery and disci-
pline for the masses’ (11). Yet toward the end of his text, he begins
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 23

to recuperate the spectral as a possible way to combat the ghosting

effects of late capitalism. First, in the form of the ‘spectral quality’
of Spinoza’s pathema, ‘a dual state of mind, which is between passiv-
ity and activity and lives in the present though it is prefabricated in
memory, enduring the past while turned towards action’ (Negri 11).
Here, ‘between passivity and activity’ recalls the ‘neither passive nor
active’ of Derrida’s es spukt, while the pathema, which Spinoza called
‘a confused idea’, equally challenges the unmixed (qtd. in Negri 11).
Second, Negri posits the exploited worker as ‘a flux, a mobile and flex-
ible reality, a hybrid potential that traverses the spectral movement of
production and, in so doing, continually reconstitutes itself anew’ (12).
This flexible, self-reconstituting worker exists as a ‘reality’ that is decid-
edly spectral, without this spectrality prohibiting it from being seen to
act. Moreover, Negri’s repetition of the term ‘hybrid’ on the next page,
when referring to ‘the spectral and hybrid figures which today, in the age
of postindustrial capitalism, produce wealth and reality’, unites system
and worker as both spectral and both capable of producing something
(13). Further allusions to ‘new forms of spectral being’, a ‘specter of
communism’ and the ‘specter of liberation’ that appears in the smile
of a young waitress in the Tocqueville household as her masters lis-
ten to the sounds of the 1848 workers’ rebellion, envision the living
specters of the present – exploited workers, put-upon servants – turning
the spectralizing system of capitalism against itself (14–15).
Staying within the logic of spectrality avoids relying on notions of
demystification or exorcism in which the ‘real’ can be fully freed of
what haunts it; instead, a more complex and uncertain struggle is pro-
posed that might manifest in a form difficult to recognize as struggle
or resistance. That such spectral agency comes with risks is illustrated
by Negri’s wry note that Tocqueville’s servant was ‘immediately fired’
for her smile (15). While important differences remain between Negri’s
ontological spectrality (a ghostliness that is in a determinate way and
has identifiable origins) and Derrida’s deconstructivist hauntology (with
no unequivocal presence or singular, recoverable genesis), they both
suggest that exploiting one’s ghostly status might be more productive
than trying to deny or overcome it. As Jameson notes, ‘the attempt
to conquer and achieve concreteness via the expulsion of the spectres
only leads to the construction of an even more imaginary entity, which
I think of as my “self”: the existential path thereby leads, not into reality,
but into an even more intricate unreality’ (57).
In other words, trying to manifest as a different kind of ghost may
trump giving up the ghost. After all, Simon de Canterville’s ultimate
24 The Spectral Metaphor

victory, his possession of Virginia, is achieved when he appeals not to

her fear but to her sympathy. The plea still relies on his status as a ghost,
but is grounded in a different aspect of spectrality – the idea that ghosts
need help to ‘move on’ to the next world. Instead of trying to scare
the living, he takes the ostensibly more passive position of throwing
himself at their mercy. What emerges from this passivity, however, is
a spectral agency that allows him to reinstate himself as the dominant
party: besides deflowering Virginia, he turns her into his heiress by leav-
ing her a casket of jewels. This form of haunting, though less spectacular
than Simon’s earlier attempts, is more effective, finally forcing Mr Otis to
take the ghost seriously as he tries, unsuccessfully, to return the jewels to
the Cantervilles in order to re-inscribe his daughter in her proper lineage
(his own). An effective form of agency, therefore, can be found within or
through spectrality, even as the ghost ostensibly surrenders. This is pos-
sible because so many of the characteristics associated with the literal
ghost and the spectral metaphor are ambivalent. Which interpretation
a particular characteristic is given – and what force it carries – depends
not only on the situation, but also on the perspective from which the
ghost or ghostly subject is seen: its focalization.

Focalizing ghosts

In ‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’, Jameson sees the specter, in its critique of

the unmixed, offering a possible resolution to ‘the false problem of the
antithesis between humanism (respect for the past) and nihilism (end of
history, disappearance of the past)’ and suggests appealing to a certain
formalism in order ‘to adjust the lens of thought in such a way that sud-
denly we find ourselves focusing, not on the presumed content of the
opposition, but rather on the wellnigh material grain of its arguments,
an optical adjustment that leads us in new and wholly unexpected direc-
tions’ (40–1). The visual vocabulary employed here is significant in that
it indicates the importance of thinking about how a particular problem
is customarily looked at and considering the illuminations other per-
spectives might offer. I want to propose my own ‘optical adjustment’
in relation to the specter by appealing to the narratological concept of
focalization. In order to determine how the living ghosts of the present
can manipulate their ghostly status to develop a form of spectral agency
capable of challenging the mechanisms that produced them as ghosted,
it is crucial to first explore how exactly they are seen. After all, it is
through structures of (in)visibility that they are conceived as ghosts in
the first place.
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 25

Bal defines focalization as ‘the relationship between the elements

presented – that which is “seen” or perceived – and the vision through
which they are seen or presented’ (‘Dispersing’ 43). She developed the
concept to counter Gérard Genette’s idea that narratives can be neutral.
I want to supplement her work by arguing that concepts themselves
are not neutral either, but focalized in particular ways. Not only are
they developed from a specific critical standpoint that often remains
unacknowledged, but they may also be presented with a perspectival
slant. Just as a narrator can tell specific parts of the story through the
eyes of certain characters, a scholar can flesh out a concept by show-
ing it through a particular vision or visions, which determine its shape
and influence what can (and cannot) be seen of it. Especially when the
concept in question contains an element of intersubjectivity, implying
multiple sets of eyes capable of looking at each other, the way in which
it is focalized has important consequences for its interpretation and use.
In the exordium to Specters of Marx, Derrida sets the stage for his con-
ceptualization of the specter: ‘Someone, you or me, comes forward and
says: I would like to learn to live finally’ (xvii, emphasis in text). A few sen-
tences below, he asks: ‘Who would learn? From whom? To teach to live,
but to whom? Will we ever learn? Will we ever know how to live and
first of all what “to learn to live” means?’ The multiple pronouns and the
questioning as to who does what to whom draw attention to the focal-
ization of the concept, which is itself still to come (as is the habit of the
ghost). First, the ‘someone’ who could be anyone (represent any perspec-
tive, any set of eyes) is specified as a ‘you or me’ capable of saying ‘I’. The
use of the first and second person indicates a reversible relation between
self and other: both ‘you’ and ‘me’ can take on the position of the one
who says ‘I’, from whose perspective we are then shown the desire to
learn to live. The focalization remains open in the ensuing queries as to
who learns, who from, who teaches, and who is taught, with the ques-
tion form emphasizing the interchangeability of the available roles. The
abrupt switch to ‘we’ that follows, however, restricts focalization to a
particular collective, which could be read as humanity as a whole, but
also in a more limited sense as comprising Derrida, the educated audi-
ence of his lectures at the University of California, Riverside (given in
1991 as part of a colloquium entitled ‘Whither Marxism?’), and perhaps
the wider – still mostly academic – readership of the book. With regard
to the use of ‘we’, Bal writes that ‘the rhetoric of that pronoun requires
caution and revision’, since its ‘unreflected endorsement’ can lead to
a ‘false sense of community’ (Travelling 324–5). Although Derrida’s use
in this passage can be traced, through the ‘Note on the Text’, to the
26 The Spectral Metaphor

definite community of the colloquium, the lectures have also appar-

ently been ‘augmented’ and ‘clarified’, so that the precise content of
the ‘we’ remains elusive. With the persistent use of ‘we’ not reflected
upon in the text itself, it can, already in this first instance, be seen to
establish a focalization that no longer accommodates the possibility of
a change in perspectives: the initial ‘you or me’ is not mirrored by a
‘you (plural) or we’, but collapsed into a singular, undifferentiated ‘we’
that henceforth oversees the account. Thus, Derrida’s inquiries regard-
ing who acts (or sees) and who is acted upon (or seen) perform a denial
of the division of labor that is being put in place. Because it is impossi-
ble to learn to live ‘from oneself and by oneself, all alone’, ‘we’ must learn
(from) specters (xviii, emphasis in text). But this ‘we’ is never explored
as ‘subject to doubt, suspicion, seduction, and lure’, while specters are
apprehended exclusively through ‘our’ eyes in a one-sided focalization
that surely impacts on what can be learned (Bal, Travelling 325).17
On the next page, Derrida specifies the notion of learning to live as

to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the com-
pany, or the companionship, the commerce without commerce of
ghosts. To live otherwise, and better. No, not better, but more justly.
But with them. No being-with the other, no socius without this with
that makes being-with in general more enigmatic than ever for us.
(xviii, emphasis in text)

The concern is with finding a different, better, way to relate to the other.
Instead of assimilating otherness or exorcizing it, the idea is to live with
it, that is, to allow it to persist as an enigma and, crucially, a poten-
tial threat. In terms of focalization, however, the ‘for us’ that closes the
quote is revealing: the ghostly other is to be looked at in a new way, but
looked at nevertheless.
This indicates that self and other, in Specters of Marx, are not shifters –
in the sense that I can be a self or an other (an ‘I’, a ‘you’ or a ‘she’)
depending on the situation – but are assigned a determined content.
The text’s ‘we’ is always the self and always the one who looks. The line
of sight invariably points from the text’s ‘we’ to ‘certain others who are
not present, not presently living, either to us, in us, or outside us’ (xix,
emphasis in text). ‘We’ are always the haunted ones trying to capture
the ghost’s ephemeral materiality in ‘our’ vision. The assumption that
‘we’ are not, and cannot be, specters in someone else’s eyes complicates
the proposed scenario of being with the ghost. A true being with would
surely entail a certain reciprocity, an attempt to acknowledge the ghost’s
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 27

own vision, a willingness to look at the world, and at oneself, through

its eyes.
Bakhtin’s notion of ‘excess of seeing’, for example, posits that, in order
to gain a coherent image of one’s own self, one needs to have access
to others’ visions of one’s exterior, and vice versa. This does not entail
becoming the other or doing away with its otherness (the fear of this
might explain Derrida’s reluctance to look through the specter’s eyes),
because after looking through the other’s eyes, one always returns to
one’s own center of vision. Excess of seeing, moreover, explicitly posi-
tions self and other as shifters, since the self sees the other at the same
time the other, as a self, sees the self, as other.18 In cases where the ghost
is literal or stands for an absent ancestor, it may be true that ‘I can’t
see the eye of the other as viewing and visible at the same time’, as
Derrida argues in ‘Spectrographies’, but if the ghost is a concrete other
of the present who can be looked in the eye, such simultaneous seeing of
the other’s visibility and perception does take place (122). For Derrida,
the perspective of the ghost, its status as ‘the source of a possible view’,
of ‘another world, another source of phenomenality, another degree
zero of appearing’, represents that of a general alterity to which the sub-
ject is always already indebted, as to the Lacanian gaze (‘Spectrographies’
122–3). For Bakhtin, the other’s point of view is that of another pair of
eyes open to dialogic negotiation and active understanding. Since I am
concerned with living ghosts, who are materially present and open to
exchange, attempting to see from their perspective – without appro-
priating it or expecting full disclosure – is an ethical imperative. Not
giving the specter the opportunity to occupy the position of a self robs
it of agency and exempts it from the task of taking responsibility for
its other(s). In Derrida’s work, the specter is made to signify either an
‘unconditional authority’ or a disempowerment for which the focalizing
‘we’ of the text is asked to be answerable (‘Spectrographies’ 124). What
is obscured is the possibility that one may be the ghost one moment
and ghosted or haunted the next – or both at the same time.
The objection may be raised that Derrida shifts the focalization of
the concept from those looking at the ghost to the ghost itself in his
discussion of the visor effect. There, he speaks of a ‘spectral asymmetry’
caused by the fact that the specter can see ‘us’ even when ‘we’ cannot
see it (6). Once more, however, this aspect is predominantly ‘looked at’
from the perspective of the haunted ‘we’:

This spectral someone other looks at us, we feel ourselves being looked
at by it, outside of any synchrony, even before and beyond any look
28 The Spectral Metaphor

on our part, according to an absolute anteriority [ . . . ] and asymmetry,

according to an absolutely unmasterable disproportion.
(7, emphasis in text)

Although the passage starts by invoking a ‘someone’ that ‘looks at us’,

we do not ‘see’ this looking through its eyes; instead, the specter’s look is
immediately drawn onto and then focalized by ‘us’. This focalization is
paradoxical, as it takes place ‘before and beyond any look on our part’;
it is an unseeing focalization that proceeds not through the eyes but
through other senses, haptically, hauntingly: ‘we feel ourselves being
looked at by it’. The ghost’s look may be unmasterable, leading ‘us’ to
‘an essentially blind submission to his secret’, but it only shows through
‘our’ blindness (7).
Thus, even when discussing the ghost’s superior visionary power,
Derrida declines to look through its eyes, to truly surrender control to
its ‘right of absolute inspection’ (‘Spectrographies’ 121). What could his
reasons be for focalizing the specter in this way, if it is indeed a con-
scious choice? First, asking a haunted, western ‘us’ to be more aware of
and take responsibility for past, present and future others that either
remain unacknowledged or are actively repudiated is vitally important
in an era of heightened xenophobia. Second, the choice to focalize the
ghost from ‘our’ perspective fits with Derrida’s emphasis on the impor-
tance of respecting the ghost’s otherness by leaving its secrets intact.
And third, the chosen focalization prompts an awareness that the par-
ticular ‘we’ conjured by the text is in all probability unlikely to have
to occupy the position of ghostly other in any sustained manner. Yet,
as noted, Derrida’s refusal to look through the ghost’s eyes does raise
the question whether living with the ghost would not require a greater
degree of mutual interaction. Besides focusing on what it is like to be
haunted, should there not also be a focus on what it is like to be (seen
as) a ghost, especially a disempowered one?
Crucially, such a focus is rarely achieved even in portrayals of literal
ghosts. Part of what makes ‘The Canterville Ghost’ so memorable is that
it is one of the few ghost stories to present part of the narrative through
the ghost’s eyes. That focalizing ghosts are invariably considered sur-
prising and unusual indicates that the norm is to look at the specter
from the outside. Depictions of ‘unaware’ ghosts in films like Alejandro
Amenábar’s The Others (2001) and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense
(1999) confirm this. The ghosts in these films are unable to recognize
that they are ghosts precisely because the specter is supposed to be the
other, not the self.19 Likewise, the films’ conceit of keeping the identities
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 29

of the ghosts hidden from the audience depends on the uncommonness

of looking with the ghost.
The way the specter is predominantly focalized from the perspective
of a haunted self means that only relatively powerful ghosts capa-
ble of haunting are recognized, while the truly dispossessed – those
overlooked because they are considered expendable and irrelevant –
remain invisible. Moreover, this focalization fixes self and other as
non-interchangeable positions with rigidly assigned values in terms of
global and social hierarchies. The haunted self tends to be western
and privileged, the ghostly other non-western or otherwise marginal-
ized. In this scenario, notwithstanding the visor effect, it is always the
self that surveys, and thereby gives form to, the scene of encounter.
This perspectival bias not only occurs in considerations of the specter,
but also, for example, in the related concept of hospitality, where the
dominant focalization through the host as (western, white) self has
important consequences for the way in which the politics and ethics of
migration are theorized. In fact, many poststructuralist and postcolonial
contemplations of intersubjectivity, including those most committed to
recognizing otherness on its own terms, are haunted by a fundamen-
tal inability to consider the self as a potential other. Not just a stranger
to oneself, as Julia Kristeva has it in another example of ‘self-centered’
focalization, but an actual other in the eyes of other selves. The reluc-
tance to look through the other’s eyes and the attendant tendency to
assign the other’s perspective to an absolute alterity that exceeds what
can be apprehended or understood cement self and other into place, pre-
serving the distance between them as a space of exclusion rather than
one of dialogic interaction. In the case of the ghost, such an attitude
results in the apparition either being overlooked or targeted for exor-
cism. What I seek to achieve in the following chapters through close
analyses of literary, filmic and televisual portrayals of specific types of
living ghosts is a re-focalization that looks with rather than at the specter
and recognizes that this specter is always also a self as I am always also
an other.
My first chapter is concerned with the way undocumented migrant
workers are portrayed as living ghosts in two British films: Stephen
Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (2006).
The characters are considered – and consider themselves – ghost-like
because they appear as absent presences, albeit with a twist. Whereas
ghosts are usually perceived, felt to haunt, even when invisible, the
depicted undocumented migrants remain unseen despite being physi-
cally present and fully available to ocular perception. This prompts a
30 The Spectral Metaphor

discussion of different forms of invisibility and their divergent effects

on individual and collective agency. Departing from the rhetoric of rev-
elation that characterizes the films’ participation in the genre of social
realism, I ask whether the insistent ghosting of the characters by their
surroundings can be contested only by an insistence on their concrete
materiality (on not being ghosts) or whether a spectral agency may
be developed through the mobilization of their overlooked status. The
films’ foregrounding of the ghost as a figure of exploitation is addressed
through Achille Mbembe’s notion of ghostly violence producing liv-
ing dead bodies subject to compulsive wandering and dismemberment.
I end with a consideration of Giorgio Agamben’s ‘politics of the refugee’,
which provides an alternative way to metaphor the dispossessed. While
Agamben’s figuration depends on generalizing and instrumentalizing
the experiences of actual refugees and on focalizing their situation from
an outside perspective, I argue that my use of the spectral metaphor,
as predicated on a being that is generally considered non-actual and
emphatically capable of looking back, avoids such drawbacks.
In the second chapter, I examine the spectralization of servants and
domestic workers. Through close readings of the British television series
Upstairs, Downstairs (1971–1975) and Robert Altman’s 2001 film Gosford
Park, I show how the almost stereotypical figuration of servants as ghosts
is based not on being completely overlooked, but on a combination of
translucency and conjuration. Servants are there to be seen, but without
becoming obtrusive; they are expected to materialize fully on command
to receive and carry out orders. Consequently, servants resemble a spe-
cific spectral figure, the genie-in-a-bottle or djinn, which, as re-conceived
by the western imagination, is both subservient and powerful in that
it can grant wishes. Since it is characterized by close physical contact
and mutual dependency, the master–servant relationship yields more
concrete possibilities for agency than the dispossessing spectralization
of undocumented migrant workers; after all, the genie cannot be com-
pletely confined to its bottle or made to execute its conjurer’s assign-
ments without (deliberate) misinterpretation. The television series and
film suggest that a particularly effective way for servants to shift the
terms and boundaries of their position within the household is to take
on a different social role. Specifically, they foreground the intersection
of service and hospitality, where servants, by becoming guests or hosts,
can claim care, attention and control. While Upstairs, Downstairs and
Gosford Park focus on servants in aristocratic British households of the
first half of the twentieth century, the last part of the chapter highlights
the resurgence of servants as domestic workers in the present global era.
Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor 31

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel features an American fam-

ily with a Mexican nanny and presents domestic work as an integral part
of globalized capitalism. The new class of what I call globalized servants
is mainly composed of (documented and undocumented) migrants and
comes closer to Mbembe’s living dead than the genie in terms of their
potential for developing agency. Thus, the chapter demonstrates how an
ostensibly continuous use of the spectral metaphor to designate a par-
ticular group of subjects may conceal important cultural and historical
shifts in meaning and impact.
The third chapter focuses on the association of female mediums with
a ghostliness defined as spooky, based on the medium’s propensity to
simultaneously fascinate and frighten. By comparing the portrayal of a
nineteenth-century spirit-medium in Sarah Waters’s neo-Victorian novel
Affinity (1999) and a twenty-first-century psychic in Hilary Mantel’s
Beyond Black (2005), I chart how this spectral figure has changed from
being closely associated with mainstream scientific and religious dis-
courses to embodying fringe entertainment. What is retained, I argue,
is the medium’s prospective power to offer up an alternative vision of
the world capable of illuminating, more than any supernatural realm,
the socially invisible, that which is manifestly there but remains unrec-
ognized. This ability is theorized through Norman Bryson’s distinction
between the gaze and the glance, and Jacques Rancière’s notion of pol-
itics as engaged in the redistribution of the sensible. Read together,
the novels suggest that the medium, in addition to shifting the border
between the visible and the invisible, may question this very opposi-
tion and challenge the way Rancière, too, maintains the association
between, on the one hand, the sensible (as perceptible and intelligi-
ble) and the visible, and, on the other, the non-sensible (or nonsensical)
and the invisible. Affinity, moreover, by bringing together the spooky
medium, the apparitional lesbian and the spectral servant, shows how
spectral agency can manifest or be lost at the intersection of different
types of ghostliness as the spectral metaphor is simultaneously activated
in multiple ways.
The focus of the final chapter is on the missing and shows lit-
eral disappearance, as unexplained vanishing, to be one of the most
effective modes of producing living ghosts in which the ‘living’ part
is effectively crossed out and the spectral metaphor is motivated by
the aspects of absent presence and unknowability. I draw attention
to the way these living ghosts disrupt mourning and inheritance, as
well as to their gendered and racialized hierarchization. The inser-
tion of a missing daughter and a missing son into multi-generational
32 The Spectral Metaphor

systems of spectrality in Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987) and

Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park (2005) is seen to challenge the effec-
tively unidirectional and dominantly masculine economy of haunting
in Specters of Marx and Freudian accounts of mourning as a finite pro-
cess of substitution. In addition, my analysis of these novels invokes
Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s psychoanalytical concepts of the
crypt and the phantom to theorize the intergenerational reproduction
of oppressive, traumatizing familial and social structures, and points to
self-spectralization as a form of spectral agency that radically re-orients
the ghostly metaphor to make it possible to absent oneself from these
structures and establish, through a managed transitional invisibility,
more livable alternatives.
The afterword, which invokes the hapless ghosts of Tim Burton’s 1988
film Beetlejuice and their initial inability to haunt, draws together the
strands of my argument to insist that the ethical and political implica-
tions of the spectral metaphor’s constitution of living ghosts, whether
this occurs in the social realm, the cultural imagination or their intersec-
tion, cannot be captured by a generalized theory of spectrality that only
considers it from the perspective of the haunted. Rather, these implica-
tions are dependent on the precise selection made from the vast field of
associations conjured by the figure of the ghost. This means that each
use of the spectral metaphor should be carefully specified and contextu-
alized, and that it is imperative to learn to look through the eyes of the
ghost as well as the haunted. At the same time, the fact that the associ-
ation is metaphorical, and therefore subject to re-orientation, indicates
how, in cases where it works to disable, strategies may be devised to
mobilize different aspects of the ghost in order to come to haunt or find
agency in invisibility.
Forms of Invisibility:
Undocumented Migrant Workers
as Living Ghosts in Stephen Frears’s
Dirty Pretty Things and Nick
Broomfield’s Ghosts

The undocumented migrant workers at the center of the two British

films analyzed in this chapter, Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
and Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (2006), are physically present and visible,
yet remain unseen. They may thus be said to appear as living ghosts,
with the comparison grounded primarily in the aspect of transitional
invisibility, the way ghosts are not fully or consistently apprehensible.
In this case, however, the lack of full visibility translates not into the
desirable ability to see without being seen of Derrida’s visor effect, but
into an extreme form of vulnerability. What is at stake is the disempow-
erment of being considered insignificant and expendable, and therefore
overlooked. My analysis of the films focuses on the precise forms of
invisibility this disempowerment evokes, its effects, and on the question
of whether it can yield possibilities for agency, and if so, how this comes
about. Is the solution to somehow assert one’s concrete presence and
materiality or can one’s remaining unseen also be tactically employed
to turn a disappearing, dispossessed ghost into an active haunting force,
a site of spectral agency? In addition to discussing the diegetic repre-
sentation of living ghosts, I consider the way the films themselves, as
visual narratives participating in the genre of social realism, appeal to
a rhetoric of revelation in their attempt to address the absenting of
undocumented workers from British society.
My primary aim is to explore the use of the ghost as a figure of
exploitation, singled out by Negri, in his response to Specters of Marx,
as ‘a word that rarely appears in Derrida’s book’ (10). Exploitation,

34 The Spectral Metaphor

in contrast, is central to the work of the Cameroonian political theo-

rist Achille Mbembe, which focuses on the way autocratic postcolonial
regimes in Africa produce death-worlds full of living-dead subjects
explicitly designated as ghostly. Even though Britain constitutes a
markedly different political and cultural context, Mbembe’s theory of
necropolitics and his notion of the wandering subject will be shown to
resonate strongly with the portrayal of undocumented migrant workers
in Frears’s and Broomfield’s films.
Secondly, the chapter concentrates on spectral agency by tracing the
opportunities even the living dead have for acting up and beginning
to haunt. These opportunities are never straightforward and are occa-
sionally perverse: far from radically transforming what Mbembe calls
necropower, the most common outcome is mere survival, the ability to
avoid one’s always looming death. Nonetheless, for subjects as dispos-
sessed as the undocumented migrants in Dirty Pretty Things and Ghosts,
surviving in itself can constitute a challenge to their social construction
as ‘nothing’. Since Mbembe’s work draws heavily on Michel Foucault’s
biopolitics and Giorgio Agamben’s theorization of bare life, I conclude
with a discussion of the latter’s politics of the refugee, an instance of
metaphoring that takes the experiences of a concrete category of people
as the basis for a new, generalized politics. Dirty Pretty Things and Ghosts
are taken as skeptical responses to this form of human figuration, which
is also questioned in terms of its focalization.

Forms of invisibility

At the end of Dirty Pretty Things, an illegally harvested kidney in a

Styrofoam container unceremoniously changes hands in a hotel park-
ing garage. The buyer checks the kidney and places it carefully on the
backseat of his car, covering it with a blanket. As he hands over a stack
of cash, he inquires: ‘How come I haven’t seen you people before?’ This
is an understandable question, since his normal contact, Señor Juan, is
lying anaesthetized in a hotel room, having been tricked into donating a
kidney rather than taking one. In the context of the film as a cinematic
object, however, the question takes on a larger meaning in the way it
characterizes the man’s three interlocutors – Okwe, the Nigerian night
receptionist; Senay, the Turkish maid; and Juliette, a black prostitute – as
‘you people’. It is important to be specific in describing these characters:
although linked by the illegality of their labor, they are not in the exact
same situation: Juliette is a British citizen whose profession constitutes a
crime and confers a social stigma; Senay is an asylum seeker allowed to
Forms of Invisibility 35

reside in Britain but not permitted to work or receive rent while her case
is under review; and Okwe is an undocumented migrant not entitled to
be in the country or to work.1 From the perspective of the organ trader,
the three are simply strangers, as he knows nothing of their legal status
or occupation and does not suspect that one of them, Senay, was sup-
posed to be the kidney donor. His remark, though, as one of the only
lines in the film spoken by a white non-migrant character, positions
them, in a more radical manner, as distinctly ‘other’ to an implied ‘we’.
As such, his contemptuous look may be taken as representative of the
larger cultural gaze of white British society.2 It is this cultural gaze and
its refusal to acknowledge or ‘light up’ certain lives that is addressed and
challenged by the alternative ‘we’ construed in Okwe’s defiant response:
‘We are the people that you don’t see. We are the ones that drive your
cabs, we clean your rooms and suck your cocks.’3
Although here Okwe speaks back, in most of the film, as ‘people that
you don’t see’, the three characters take on the status of what I have
called living ghosts. In this case, the quality that dominantly motivates
the figuration is a specific form of absent presence or invisibility. In The
Gift of Death, Derrida distinguishes between two orders of the invisible:
first, there is the visible in-visible, ‘an invisible of the order of the visi-
ble that I can keep in secret by keeping it out of sight’ (90). The visible
in-visible is something that would be visible if it were out in the open,
but that remains unseen because it is physically concealed. Derrida
names the internal organs as part of this order, since they can be brought
to the surface through an operation or accident.4 Notably, he describes
the visible in-visible as something hidden and potentially exposed by
an ‘I’, a subject able to choose what (not) to reveal. The visible in-visible
itself, on the other hand, is objectified and does not seem to possess
any agency of its own. Second, there is absolute invisibility, which ‘falls
outside the register of sight’ (90). This order of the non-visual com-
prises the musical, the tactile, desire, but also the ‘seeing in secret’ of
the paternal or divine gaze that prefigures the specter’s visor effect: ‘God
sees me, he looks at me in secret, but I don’t see him, I don’t see him
looking at me, even though he looks at me while facing me’ (91). Here,
invisibility is either surmounted because the phenomenon can be appre-
hended through other senses or it becomes an asset to be exploited,
a site of domination. The two forms of invisibility come together in
Specters of Marx, where Derrida describes the transitional invisibility
of the specter as ‘a supernatural and paradoxical phenomenality, the
furtive and ungraspable visibility of the invisible, or an invisibility of a
visible X’ (7). The specter’s – apparently voluntary – oscillation between
36 The Spectral Metaphor

visibility and invisibility (between remaining hidden and appearing)

renders it indeterminate, capable of confounding and escaping knowl-
edge, and associates it, like the absolute invisible, with the power to look
without being seen.
Akira Lippit’s Atomic Light (Shadow Optics) adds the ‘specific mode of
impossible, unimaginable visuality’ that is the avisual:

Presented to vision, there to be seen, the avisual image remains, in

a profoundly irreducible manner, unseen. Or rather, it determines an
experience of seeing, a sense of the visual, without ever offering an
image. A visuality without images, an unimaginable visuality, and
images without visuality, avisuality. All signs lead to a view, but at
its destination, nothing is seen. What is seen is this absence, the
materiality of an avisual form or body. (32)

The avisual is associated with a ‘phantom temporality’, a vanishing

scene that continues to haunt but that can never achieve full visibility
(82).5 Lippit invokes Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man as revealing
‘the paradox of avisuality’: what causes the avisual to be disavowed is
its excessive visibility, an overwhelming or threatening materiality that
the eyes cannot or do not want to take in, a blinding sight. In Ellison, it
is the conspicuousness of the black man that causes those around him
to unsee his form: ‘the invisible man is constituted visually as invisi-
ble; he lives in the visual world as invisible’ (Lippit 98). Such living in
the visual world as invisible has, in the social sciences, also been des-
ignated as social invisibility and pertains to subjects who are materially
present and can be physiologically perceived but nevertheless remain
In one respect, the main characters of Dirty Pretty Things are visible
in-visible, since they have to remain hidden from the authorities and
are subject to a constant threat of unwanted exposure. At the same
time, however, they are avisual, because most of the time they are in
plain sight, yet not apprehended. This is particularly the case when
they work, as Okwe’s above-cited statement indicates. Manifestly there
driving the taxi, cleaning the hotel rooms or having sex, they are nev-
ertheless un-imaged, un-imagined and considered un-imagining. Their
avisuality, moreover, prevents them from participating in the absolute
invisible because they are not considered to have a dimension that
exceeds the visible, the material; their desires are considered irrelevant,
their secrets uninteresting, their looks unpenetrating. Bodies are all they
Forms of Invisibility 37

are: bodies to either be set to work or cut open to uncover the more
valuable visible in-visible parts inside.7
Like Ellison’s invisible man, Okwe and Senay are reduced to the mate-
rial to the extent that they become hypervisible. What can be most
straightforwardly seen of them is all there is thought to be and, simul-
taneously, all there ought to be, for when their bodies do materialize
outside their labor, they are seen to be demanding that which does
not belong to them: housing, benefits, medical care. This hypervisibility
translates into, on the one hand, a continual danger of capture and, on
the other, utter indifference, since that which is fully exposed to the eye
readily comes to be seen as lacking an interior dimension and therefore
as banal, uninteresting. Thus, when the cleaners working for the Baltic
Hotel present their faces to the surveillance camera for identification
upon arrival, they are not recognized as individuals, but only counted
as generic working bodies. As avisual phantoms, rather than wielding
a visor effect, they are obsessively surveilled. And even when they do
see what others want to keep hidden, their visions do not pose a threat
because they are unable to expose them for fear of drawing attention to
The undocumented workers’ ghostliness thus arises from their legal
precariousness, which excludes them from society and prevents them
from showing themselves, and from their participation in globally
undervalued forms of labor, which causes them to be ignored even when
physically present. Sarah Gibson aptly calls undocumented migrant
workers ‘the ghosts of Britain and its economy’ (‘Border’ 700) and
Rebecca Saunders uses the term ‘global foreigners’ to refer to migrant
workers who appear as ‘spectral presences that haunt the circumstances
and discourses customarily gathered beneath the name of globalization’
(88, emphasis in text). Like Freud’s uncanny, the global foreigner func-
tions as a sign of the unconscious that harbors everything that is home
to globalization but that it does not want to recognize as such. Truly see-
ing these ghosts or specters and allowing them to haunt would mean
having to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about the role of clan-
destine labor in sustaining the British economy and the exploitative
treatment of undocumented migrants, who are here asked to literally
dismember themselves in pursuit of a (forged) passport. Okwe, Senay
and Juliette may be seen to embody the ethical imperative to wel-
come without posing conditions that Derrida sees proceeding from the
specter, yet in the film this imperative is not heeded. Instead, as figures
of alterity (racially, nationally, linguistically or religiously other to the
38 The Spectral Metaphor

normative British self) they are disavowed and persecuted, in line with
the panic, fear and xenophobia that governs the immigration debate in
Britain and other Western European countries.
The term ‘ghost’ itself is only used once in Dirty Pretty Things – by
Okwe’s friend Guo Yi, a hospital porter who allows Okwe to stay in
the hospital morgue and who tells him to come there after five o’clock
when there are ‘only ghosts left’. This half-joking reference to the lit-
eral ghosts of the dead metonymically includes Okwe, since he ends
up sharing their space. Okwe’s fondness for spending time in a church-
yard contemplating his dead wife confirms his representational status as
closer to the dead than the living. Visually, his association with a ghostly
translucency is evoked in his almost imperceptible presence as the Baltic
Hotel’s night receptionist, where his uniform makes him fade into the
lobby’s red décor. The film’s opening credits reinforce the association
with ghostly dispossession. White letters with red shadowing materi-
alize on a black screen in a distinctly spectral manner, first gradually
becoming clearer and then fading away again. The letters themselves
are never stable on the screen and instead of being fully formed they
feature small cracks or tears, suggesting fragmentation, brittleness and
vulnerability (Figure 1.1). The addition of red shadowing prefigures the
scene in which Okwe recovers a human heart – a remnant of a botched
organ extraction – from a toilet in one of the hotel rooms, the clear
water gradually staining with blood.
In Dirty Pretty Things, the ghost is evoked not only as invisible or
translucent, but also in terms of what Derrida calls its ‘paradoxical
incorporation, the becoming-body, a certain phenomenal and carnal
form of the spirit’ (Specters 6, emphasis added). Carnality is central to
the narrative, in which living ghosts are not ethereal beings but bod-
ies constantly at work – either laboring or providing spare body parts
for others. This materiality does not, however, ensure notice, let alone
recognition. Derrida’s remark that ‘it is flesh and phenomenality that
give to the spirit its spectral apparition, but which disappear right away
in the apparition’ finds new application here: the immigrant workers’

Figure 1.1 Stephen Frears, Dirty Pretty Things (2002), screenshot (cropped)
Forms of Invisibility 39

manifestation in the form of blood, sweat and tears leaves no lasting

trace as theirs, but vanishes immediately both because of the repetitive
nature of the work they undertake and because this work is taken for
granted. With these living ghosts, therefore, it is not so much that ‘one
does not know if precisely [the specter] is, if it exists, if it responds to
a name and corresponds to an essence’, but rather that one knows that
the immigrant worker is, but chooses not to know and has no interest
in finding out whether he or she possesses a name or essence (Derrida,
Specters 6). The fascination and curiosity usually associated with the
ghost are elided.
The living ghosts of Dirty Pretty Things do, however, possess some
narrative agency, as manifested in the organ hand-over scene. Okwe’s
statement that ‘we are the people that you don’t see’ is directed at the
camera and therefore at the film’s viewers. It positions the audience as a
‘you’ shamed as unperceptive and exploitative by a normally excluded
and occluded ‘we’ that now stakes a claim to community as well as
access to visibility and acknowledgement. Crucially, the undocumented
migrant workers are seen to act themselves rather than having some-
one act on their behalf: it is through their combined efforts that Senay
does not lose her kidney (although she is raped) and it is Okwe who
holds the audience accountable for their everyday practices of social
exclusion. The film, as Emily S. Davis writes, is notable for ‘shifting the
narrative perspective from that of Westerners anxious about Western
bodies being invaded by globalization’s Others to that of migrant labor-
ers themselves’ (48). With the action consistently shown through the
eyes of the ghosted characters, the haunted ‘we’ that forms the center
of attention in Derrida’s text is excluded from the action until Okwe’s
address conjures them, crucially, as the answerable other, the ‘you’
rather than the ‘I’.
But how far does this re-focalization of the ghost go and what does it
achieve? Gibson notes that Dirty Pretty Things is concerned with ‘mak-
ing visible’ those normally marginalized and that ‘by placing the figures
of an asylum seeker and an illegal immigrant at the center of the narra-
tive, Frears humanizes these figures (these “dirty pretty things”) that are
negatively represented in the British media’ (‘Border’ 698). Is ‘making
visible’ and ‘placing at the center of the narrative’ enough to ‘humanize’
the undocumented workers and change their social position, especially
when these actions are undertaken by someone else – the director – in a
product of the cultural imagination? Despite shifting the point of view
within the diegesis, Dirty Pretty Things presupposes and privileges a non-
marginal ‘us’ looking at the visualized living ghosts, being asked to act
40 The Spectral Metaphor

on their behalf. Mireille Rosello’s analysis of the film is highly sensitive

to the issue of focalization, particularly in relation to hospitality. She
argues that, while in general ‘it is hard not to privilege the point of view
of the “host” who encounters the migrant on his or her soil’, Dirty Pretty
Things ‘adapts the point of view of those people [Frears] calls “invisi-
ble” ’, thus offering ‘a different vantage point’ (‘Wanted’ 25). However,
in noting that ‘his intervention makes it impossible for us not to see
them’ (25, emphasis added), agency is ascribed to Frears rather than to
the characters, and the privileged point of view is still that of the host
(or, in the vocabulary of the ghost, the haunted). This may to some
extent be unavoidable, as both invisibility and becoming visible are
in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, it is worth inquiring whether
Dirty Pretty Things envisions ways for living ghosts to develop their own
agency, a question equally relevant with regard to Broomfield’s Ghosts.
Like Dirty Pretty Things, Ghosts deals with undocumented migrant
workers and their invisible, unacknowledged role in the global econ-
omy. The film’s intention to reveal something that ordinarily remains
hidden is clear from the caption shown immediately after the open-
ing titles stating that ‘The 3 million migrant workers in the UK are the
backbone of the food supply system, the construction, hospitality and
health industries.’ The narrative is based on a real-life tragedy that saw
23 Chinese victims of human trafficking drown while working as cockle
pickers in the coastal town of Morecambe Bay in 2004.8 This grisly sub-
ject matter easily leads the viewer to conclude that the ghosts of the title
must be the dead Chinese, intent, as in so many traditional ghost stories,
on telling their story and demanding justice or revenge. Yet in the film’s
first scene, which shows a group of Chinese workers in a van at night on
their way to the cockle fields, the stormy weather leads one of them to
remark, in Chinese: ‘Ghosts won’t come out when it’s like this.’ In the
DVD extra ‘Shooting Ghosts: The Making of Ghosts’, directed by Marc
Hoeferlin, a voice-over explains that ‘the term ghosts is the Chinese
word used to describe white westerners’. The unexpected (at least to
non-Chinese viewers) attribution of the term enforces an awareness that
the ghost is a multi-faceted metaphor that may find its ground in dif-
ferent characteristics, in this case a supposed correspondence between
white people’s skin color – or perceived absence of skin color – and the
conventional paleness of ghosts. But Broomfield’s film does not restrict
the signification of ‘ghosts’ to its usage in Chinese; a double identifica-
tion is established with white westerners and undocumented workers,
exploiting the term’s polysemy.
Forms of Invisibility 41

The way the Chinese characters employ the term ‘ghost’ is two-sided.
On the one hand, it conveys a sense of xenophobia and ridicule. When
a white British man passes the Chinese workers on the street and spits
at them, the gangmaster, Mr Lin, says with contempt: ‘This Ghost is so
stupid. If we were in China, I’d beat him to death.’ On the other hand,
the westerners in the film are clearly the most powerful: the Chinese
characters depend on them for work and shelter, and have to evade the
gaze of the British authorities. Thus, the gangmaster continues by say-
ing: ‘but he is the type to call the police. Don’t provoke him. Let’s go in.’
The westerner-as-Ghost is akin to Derrida’s sovereign specter, a figure
of domination to whom the Chinese workers are subjected: the peo-
ple at the employment agency have to be bribed with ‘Ghost food’ to
provide jobs and profiting most from the Chinese workers’ labor is not
Mr Lin (who often works alongside them), but the white British land-
lord Robert, who crams as many people as possible into a small terraced
house, and the various British employers, who mostly remain off-screen.
The Chinese workers themselves are portrayed as ghostly in the same
dispossessed sense as the characters in Dirty Pretty Things, only to a more
extreme degree. They cannot show themselves because they are undoc-
umented, a status that is more disabling for them than for the characters
in Frears’s film since they do not speak much English and are heavily in
debt to human traffickers who garnish their wages. They are also invis-
ible in a more literal sense because they live in almost total isolation
on a suburban estate in the provincial town of Thetford (rather than
in a vibrant immigrant London neighborhood like Okwe and Senay)
and work long hours, often at night, in low-paid and low-skilled jobs
that do not involve contact with customers: meat processing, harvest-
ing, cockle picking. Whereas the hotel guests, taxi customers and tricks
of Dirty Pretty Things saw but ignored those providing these services,
the people consuming the goods that go through the Chinese workers’
hands do not have to face them at all. It is, in other words, not just the
worker who is overlooked (made into a non-person), but the work itself
that remains invisible.
In Imaginary States, Peter Hitchcock refers to this repression or dis-
avowal of workers from the production process as aphanisis, from the
Greek aphanes for invisible. His discussion of the transnational pro-
duction of Nike running shoes exposes ‘the contemporary processes
(psychic, social, economic, political) by which workers must be ren-
dered a convenient abstraction – the shoe for the flesh’ (126). The
worker disappears into the product, lingering only metonymically in
42 The Spectral Metaphor

the label announcing the low-wage country where the shoes were made.
The Chinese workers in Ghosts lack even such a tangential connec-
tion, as the products they process will be labeled ‘local’, effectively
erasing the impact of global labor migration. Nor do they have any
way of rematerializing their labor without exposing themselves to the
The one form of agency the Chinese workers do possess is their col-
lective power to haunt British society. First of all, this enables them to
act, not so much during their lives as through their shocking deaths,
as a ‘return of the repressed’, revealing the extent to which everyday
British life is underpinned by exploitation.9 While the notion that labor
conditions in distant low-wage countries can be abysmal is generally
acknowledged, what made the Morecambe Bay deaths so disturbing was
that it placed human trafficking and the related dehumanizing living
and labor conditions inside Britain, not just in the big cities but all over
the country. Still, while profound shock was expressed at the deaths and
the tragedy resulted in the Gangmasters Licensing Act, which imposes
stricter regulations for agency work in agriculture, shellfish collecting
and packing, undocumented workers remain vulnerable to exploitation:
penalties for human trafficking are relatively low, it is usually only mid-
dlemen who are convicted while the criminal organizations involved
remain operational and the lack of opportunities in certain parts of the
world ensures a steady supply of people willing to be trafficked.
Second, the visibility of the Morecambe Bay deaths in the British
media calls up the specter of immigration itself, associated with a para-
noid fear of being overrun by parasitic others that looms ever larger
across Western Europe. Visibility in this register, Arjun Appadurai warns,
can culminate in ethnocide:

In one way or the other, we need the ‘minor’ groups in our national
spaces – if nothing else to clean our latrines and fight our wars. But
they are surely so unwelcome because of their anomalous identities
and attachments [ . . . ] globalization, being a force without a face,
cannot be the object of ethnocide. But minorities can.
(Fear 44)

Here, becoming or being made visible does not produce agency but
manifests as yet another mode of oppression: ‘it is through specific
choices and strategies, often of state elites or political leaders, that
particular groups, who have stayed invisible, are rendered visible as
minorities against whom campaigns of calumny can be unleashed’ (45).
Forms of Invisibility 43

Appadurai’s comments suggest that, in some situations, emerging from

the visible in-visible can produce further disempowerment, especially
when this emergence is enforced rather than chosen, taking the form of
exposure or conjuration rather than manifestation or apparition. A sim-
ilar qualification is made by Susan Leigh Star and Anselm Strauss, who
point out that making invisible work (in which either or both work
and worker are overlooked and taken for granted) visible is not nec-
essarily positive, but can ‘create reification of work, opportunities for
surveillance, or come to increase group communication and process
burdens’ (10).
As in Dirty Pretty Things, Broomfield’s main strategy to counter the
migrant workers’ spectralizing erasure is to turn them into focalizers.
The story is consistently told from their (mainly Ai Qin’s) perspective,
in Chinese with subtitles. But is this re-focalization enough to allow the
living ghosts to constitute themselves not just as subjects with a point of
view, but also with the capacity to (be seen to) act in meaningful ways?
Since the form of invisibility that motivates the comparison of these
marginalized characters to ghosts is a disavowed factual visibility, it is
pertinent to ask what ‘becoming visible’ would entail in this situation
and how effective it would be when emerging from the shadows could
lead to deportation or xenophobic violence.

Social realism and the rhetoric of revelation

Making the ordinarily overlooked visible is inherent to the genre of

social realism, in which both films partake. In an article about contem-
porary social realist film-making in Britain, Samantha Lay quotes Hallam
and Marshment’s definition of social realism as ‘a discursive term used
to describe films that aim to show the effects of environmental factors
on the development of character through depictions that emphasize the
relationship between location and identity’ (231). Lay adds that social
realism is associated with directors working outside the mainstream,
that ‘film-makers’ politics tend to influence their practice’ and that it
is a ‘somewhat marginal, sometimes oppositional mode of expression’
(233). In Britain, the focus of social realist cinema has shifted, since the
1980s, from revealing the lives of white working-class men and women
to ethnic groups and marginalized ‘others’ such as asylum seekers and
migrants. Of the two films under discussion, Ghosts fits the social realist
mold more snugly than Dirty Pretty Things. The latter, although based on
the premise of revealing those parts of society that normally remain out-
side filmic representation, also incorporates elements from non-realist
44 The Spectral Metaphor

genres such as the romance and the thriller, displays high production
values and features relatively well-known mainstream actors.
Lay mentions how Ghosts is designed to ‘change viewer percep-
tions’ (239). It seeks to do this by basing its story on both the actual
tragedy at Morecambe Bay and the undercover investigative journalism
of Guardian reporter Hsiau-Hung Pai, author of Chinese Whispers: The
True Story behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour (2008). As such, the
film may be categorized as belonging to the ‘cinema of the affected’,
also known as ‘cinema of duty’. This type of cinema, Angelica Fenner
notes, addresses ‘a hegemonic viewership by evoking the viewers’ pity
and sympathy, emotions which essentially affirm and perpetuate the
static Manichean configuration of oppressor and oppressed’ (qtd. in
Bardan 49). The marginalized are put on display and portrayed as ‘vic-
tims who lack individual autonomy’ (Bardan 49). While the lack of
autonomy may, in certain cases, be an accurate representation, putting
the oppressed on display threatens to transform seeing as recognizing,
acknowledging and validating into looking at as voyeurism, spectacle
and entertainment. In my view, Ghosts and Dirty Pretty Things avoid
looking at suffering instead of seeing it by largely excluding the hege-
monic (white British) perspective from their narratives. Thus, no overt
point of identification is offered up that would serve to objectify the
undocumented workers. In an interview, Frears stated that he ‘went
through a lot of trouble to ethnically cleanse my film of all white people’
(Applebaum). Being forced to align their looks with the marginalized
characters or with a camera that is clearly looking with rather than at
these characters makes it harder for audiences to approach these films
in a voyeuristic mode. In addition, viewers are given a (fleeting) sense
of what it means not to be represented, to remain unseen. Nonethe-
less, it has been suggested that Dirty Pretty Things’ focus on minorities
exploiting other minorities ‘exculpates whiteness’: because they are not
explicitly shown as involved, white audiences do not have to take
responsibility for the dispossession depicted on-screen (Aguiar 75). This
charge ignores the fact that the extracted kidney – the central symbol of
exploitation in the film – is sold to a white man, who, along with the
audience, is explicitly interpellated by Okwe as culpable for consigning
him and his friends to the avisual.
A different problem is that, despite the growing realization that ‘real-
ism’ is itself a construct, a particular narrative and visual mode with its
own discursive precepts, social realism remains attached to a question-
able notion of authenticity as genuineness or even truth and to a direct
equation between seeing, experiencing and knowing.10 Consequently,
Forms of Invisibility 45

discussions of social realist films often degenerate into complaints about

which elements are not ‘realistic’ enough. Bardan, for example, calls it
‘ultimately unpersuasive’ that the main characters in Dirty Pretty Things
are played by actors of different nationalities and races (53). In addi-
tion, she invokes the notion that only someone with direct experience
of a particular situation can represent it by quoting Polish-born, Britain-
based filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski’s remark that ‘I wouldn’t dream of
making a film about the Arab, Iranian or Chinese experience. I have
no idea how the world looks from their perspective’ (57). Ghost sto-
ries like ‘The Canterville Ghost’ emphasize how no point of view – not
even that of a supernatural being – is beyond a certain comprehension.
While it is neither feasible nor desirable to completely merge with some-
one else’s perspective on the world, it is by no means impossible to
acquire, through an active understanding or living into, some sense of
what the world would look like from another’s point of view. As Bakhtin
has argued, this must include remembering that this point of view is
precisely not one’s own and that one has to take responsibility for the
distance between self and other.11 It is such a process of active empathiz-
ing at a distance that films like Ghosts and Dirty Pretty Things, made by
non-migrant directors, seek to encourage.
As becomes clear from ‘Shooting Ghosts’, however, Broomfield is not
immune to the association of social realism with authenticity-as-truth:
instead of professional actors, he cast non-actors with a personal history
of migration, who, during filming, were required to perform the jobs
portrayed and to live together in the Thetford house. In Morecambe
Bay, a van was driven into the sea for ‘authenticity purposes’ and left
there when it broke down. The DVD booklet further notes that the final
scene was ‘not dramatized’ but featured the actual reunion between Ai
Qin Lin (the woman playing Ai Qin, who came to Britain as an undocu-
mented worker but was not involved in the Morecambe Bay tragedy)
and her son, who had not seen her for five years. Of course, such
attempts to replicate ‘reality’ are never completely successful and end
up underscoring the mediated, constructed nature of social realism and
‘reality’ itself. So why is it thought essential for social realism to exclude
or at least severely limit fictionalization? Underpinning social realist art
is a classical Marxist notion of consciousness-raising: removing layers
of ideological obfuscation in order to reveal the underlying material
truth. The perception of this truth, it is thought, will be enough to
incite political mobilization and action. Broomfield’s main aim in mak-
ing Ghosts was the mobilization of the cinema audience on behalf of the
Morecambe Bay victims and their families. To this end, he launched a
46 The Spectral Metaphor

fundraising effort on the film’s website and organized campaigns against

exploitative working conditions.12 In the DVD booklet, he adds: ‘I also
hope that [Ghosts] stimulates discussion about legislation to restrict the
supermarkets and the way in which they pursue their profits, and that
it provokes the consumer to ask a few more questions about how, in
this global economy, what they are buying is produced.’ The underlying
premise is that, first, once a particular situation has been made visible,
it can no longer be ignored (in the same way that the visible in-visible
cannot be hidden again once it has been revealed), and second, that
exposing the ‘truth’ to people will automatically mobilize them to act
not just on their own behalf but also for others.
The first premise is countered by the avisual, which makes clear that
the mere fact that something is physiologically visible and unhidden
does not guarantee its apprehension. While the re-focalization under-
taken by Ghosts and Dirty Pretty Things ensures that for the duration of
the film the audience can no longer ignore the existence of undocu-
mented workers, this enhanced perception does not necessarily remain
activated outside the cinema, when confronted with the task of ‘lighting
up’ undocumented migrants that do not come in the attractive shape of
movie stars.13 With regard to the second premise, Jacques Rancière has
posited that, while there can be committed artists, there is no such thing
as committed art, since ‘[c]ommitment is not a category of art’ (‘Politics’
60). Because aesthetics has its own politics, there is no direct, assured
relation between portraying, for example, the dispossession of undocu-
mented migrant workers in a film and addressing, let alone changing,
their position in society. While I would not state categorically that ‘polit-
ical art cannot work in the simple form of a meaningful spectacle that
would lead to an “awareness” of the state of the world’ (63), I agree
that such awareness cannot be presumed to occur. While some viewers
of Ghosts may be prompted to donate money or campaign for changes
in labor regulation, others may interpret the film as a confirmation of
their fears about jobs being taken by migrants or not assign it a political
meaning at all. There is no singular truth to be made visible, art cannot
‘do’ politics through mere revelation, and the spectator is not a passive
recipient of a pre-ordained message:

Emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between

viewing and acting; when we understand that the self-evident facts
that structure the relations between saying, seeing and doing them-
selves belong to the structure of domination and subjection. It begins
Forms of Invisibility 47

when we understand that viewing is also an action that confirms or

transforms this distribution of positions. The spectator also acts, like
the pupil or scholar. She observes, selects, compares, interprets.
(Rancière, ‘Emancipated’ 13)

Rancière does not say that art can never have political implications, but
that such implications are not guaranteed by the logic of uncovering the
visible in-visible espoused by social realism. Rather, he writes,

an aesthetic politics always defines itself by a certain recasting of the

distribution of the sensible, a reconfiguration of the given percep-
tual forms. The notion of ‘heterology’ refers to the way in which the
meaningful fabric of the sensible is disturbed: a spectacle does not
fit within the sensible framework defined by a network of meanings,
an expression does not find its place in the system of visible coordi-
nates where it appears. The dream of a suitable political work of art is
in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible,
the sayable, and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a
message as a vehicle.
(‘Politics’ 63)

The Ghosts website refers to the film as a ‘disturbing portrayal of a

secret world that is all around us’ and multiple critics have remarked
on the way Dirty Pretty Things uncovers London’s underground econ-
omy. However, the films’ political potency may lie less in their rather
overt messages about the evils of human trafficking and exploitative
labor than in their engagement with the ‘system of visible coordinates’
that disavows and disappears undocumented workers. What the films
challenge most insistently is the deceptive and disempowering nature
of a system of perception in which perfectly visible practices and sub-
jects are relegated to the ‘secret’ or ‘underground’. It is the distribution
of visibility and invisibility, and the notion of hiding and revealing as
clearly distinguishable states and activities, that are put into question
and it is this that causes the ‘meaningful fabric of the sensible’ to be
disturbed. Therefore, the films, as cultural objects, do harbor a certain
political agency. But what about the disempowered characters portrayed
in them? Are they also able to assert themselves in a different, more
enabling manner by manifesting outside the parameters of the ‘sensible
framework’ in which they live? To answer this, it is necessary to further
specify their position as living ghosts.
48 The Spectral Metaphor

Living dead

As noted in my introduction, Derrida acknowledges that the ghost can

be both a figure of sovereignty and one of disempowerment. These
two incarnations cannot strictly be separated, as the sovereign ghost
can never fully control its legacy and the marginalized ghost is poten-
tially able to effect a counter-conjuration. Nonetheless, while Derrida
devotes considerable attention to the sovereign ghost and its powers
of injunction, he only obliquely addresses the challenges the marginal-
ized ghost faces. This oversight is linked to his disregard for spectral
specificity. Although hauntology is conceived as a challenge to the ‘onto-
theo-archeo-teleology’ that ‘locks up, neutralizes, and finally cancels
historicity’, the ghost is itself largely treated as an a-historic, univer-
salized figure (Specters 74). This ignores the fact that the main literal
ghost Derrida invokes, that of Hamlet’s father, is not just any ghost but
part of a distinctly western, Judeo–Christian tradition, as are Derrida’s
notions of inheritance, mourning and the messianic. Moreover, by
lumping together ‘victims of war, 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’ as marginalized ghosts haunting the ‘we’ of the text,
important distinctions between the ways in which each of these groups
is disempowered disappear from view (Specters xix).
The work of Achille Mbembe forms an important counterpoint to
Derrida’s elaboration of spectrality. First of all, it draws attention to cul-
tural diversity by invoking African traditions of the literal ghost much
less reliant on a strict separation between the world of the living and
that of the dead. On the Postcolony lists Derrida as one of those who
critique modernity from a western perspective wrongly presented as a
‘universal grammar’ and therefore incapable of explicating the specific
conditions and histories of non-western societies, which are character-
ized by a radical otherness (11). In his most ghost-ridden text, ‘Life,
Sovereignty, and Terror in the Fiction of Amos Tutuola’, Mbembe pits
his own theory of ghostly power and violence against western modes
of thought that rely on valuated dualisms and dichotomies, thereby
excluding ‘the world of instincts and animality’ (2).
Superficially, Mbembe’s rejection of western philosophy for proclaim-
ing ‘the impossibility for a single and same thing, or a single and same
being, to have several different origins or to exist simultaneously in dif-
ferent places and under different signs’ resembles Derrida’s campaign to
replace ontology with the hauntological plus d’un of the specter (‘Life’ 3).
Forms of Invisibility 49

Mbembe, moreover, does not shy away from western theory altogether.
His analysis of ghostly power and violence, for example, is supported
by references to Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of schizophrenia. Cru-
cially, however, this theory is read against the grain. While Deleuze
and Guattari posit schizophrenia as a potentially constructive agency
capable of constant rearrangement and of ‘scrambling’ all established
codes, Mbembe frames it more pessimistically as intimating that ‘life,
just as sovereignty in the framework at hand, is but a long series of acci-
dents and incidents, events that could have happened but do not occur,
while other that were not supposed to happen do, in effect, take place’
(‘Life’ 23). Deleuze and Guattari’s active formulations – faire entrer, don-
nant, invoquant, enregistrant, acceptant, re-bourrer – are rendered passive
so that the subject cannot use the accidental quality of life to his or
her advantage, but has to suffer it without being able to influence it to
any significant degree. The implication is that while psychoanalysis and
poststructuralism have indeed challenged ingrained western notions of
reason, self-possession and identity as selfsameness, they have inter-
preted the alternatives to these notions in an overly enabling manner.
The positive charge of Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenia and
Derrida’s spectrality derives, I want to suggest, from the sense of priv-
ilege and control retained by the western perspective even after the
death of the subject. The possibility to disjoint time and space; merge
past, present and future; select one’s inheritance; and offer absolute
hospitality to an unknown other envisioned by the focalizing ‘we’ of
Specters of Marx may be risky, but it is an exciting, exhilarating risk
that appears manageable to those unlikely to suffer the worst effects
of these dissolutions. Consequently, it never escalates into a danger of
annihilation. Perceived from a different, less existentially secure point of
view, the same characteristics acquire a different meaning. For Mbembe,
the ghost’s power of transformation does not hold out performative
promise but the threat of violence and death, while abandoning the
notion of a stable center of self invokes the potential eradication of life
in death rather than a path to a more just intersubjective ethics. As such,
Mbembe’s work suggests that Derrida and other poststructuralist and
postmodern theorists, because of their focalization ‘through western
eyes’, are too quick to embrace indeterminacy as an improvement on
ontological fixity, when in certain contexts and from some points of
view indeterminacy is the only certainty, acting as a certain means of
For the undocumented migrants of Dirty Pretty Things and Ghosts, life
is indeed a ‘long series of accidents and incidents’ over which they have
50 The Spectral Metaphor

little control. Rearrangement is not a choice but a process they undergo,

as when the Chinese workers docilely follow Mr Lin to Morecambe Bay,
even though they have no idea of the danger cockle picking entails.
And ‘scrambling’, from their point of view, implies not a defiant hack-
ing of the system, but a constant effort of fleeing and hiding. As Senay
says to Okwe at the end of Dirty Pretty Things, when they are saying
goodbye at the airport as she is about to go through customs with her
newly obtained forged EU passport: ‘always we must hide.’ Far from
constituting a chosen, liberating escape from the dominant political
and economic system, their hiding – in and as the visible in-visible – is
imposed by this system and signals its almost absolute power over them.
In the ghost-governed worlds of Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of
Ghosts and The Palm-Wine Drinkard, instead of reason, self-possession
and identity, the ruling concepts are emotion, capture and metamor-
phosis. As interpreted by Mbembe, the predominant emotion referenced
is fear, metamorphosis is seen as agonizing and terrifying, and capture
is always a being captured and never a capturing. Thus, the ghost is
not so much an avenue to justice, liberation or resistance as a mark of
inescapable oppression. Mbembe’s focus on ghostly exploitation consti-
tutes a second corrective to Derrida’s work that sheds a different light
on the issue of spectral agency. Mbembe sees the African postcolony,
haunted by the legacies of colonialism, as a system of ghostly power
that produces ‘death-worlds’ populated by subjects who persist as ‘living
dead’. The intersection of an autochthonous system of representation
based on simultaneous multiplicities with the dehumanizing structures
of colonialism produced the African postcolony as a carnivorous realm
in which

to think about the end of being and existence [ . . . ] is to be interested

in what lies this side of the lifeless material thing – not necessarily to
establish the status of the dead person or the survivor, but to see how,
in Africa after colonization, it is possible to delegate one’s death while
simultaneously and already experiencing death at the very heart of
one’s own existence. In other words, how is it possible to live while
going to death, while being somehow already dead? And how can
one live in death, be already dead, while being-there – while having
not necessarily left the world or being part of the spectre – and when
the shadow that overhangs existence has not disappeared, but on the
contrary weighs ever more heavily?
(Postcolony 201–2, emphasis in text)
Forms of Invisibility 51

The principle of simultaneous multiplicities is based on relations of sim-

ilarity that do not rely on notions of copy or model, but on links that
both unite and distinguish different worlds or concepts:

the invisible was not only the other side of the visible, its mask or
its substitute. The invisible was in the visible, and vice versa, not
as a matter of artifice, but as one and the same and as external reality
simultaneously – as the image of the thing and the imagined thing, at
the same time. In other words, the reverse of the world (the invisible)
was supposed to be part and parcel of its obverse (the visible), and
vice versa.
(145, emphasis in text)

Already hauntological in its dissolution of distinctions, this system

clearly constitutes a fundamentally different departure point than the
western philosophical notion of ontology that Derrida is seeking to dis-
place through the specter. But what exactly does this living in death entail
and to what degree does it correlate with the ghostly lives depicted in
Dirty Pretty Things and Ghosts? After all, these films are set in Britain
and only Okwe has a possible connection to the specific folk traditions
evoked by Tutuola and Mbembe.15
Mbembe links the state of living in death to the exercise of a
Foucauldian sovereignty predicated on full control over mortality, the
ability to decide who lives and who dies: ‘My concern is those forms of
sovereignty whose central project is not the struggle for autonomy but
the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the mate-
rial destruction of human bodies and populations’ (‘Necropolitics’ 14).
It is the state or autocrat who employs ghostly terror and violence to
subjugate and exploit the population. Thus, the adjective ‘ghostly’ refers
to an ungraspable and incontestable power that visits terror and vio-
lence upon passive, even complicit subjects. These subjects are reduced
to threshold or specular experiences, defined as ‘extreme forms of human
life, death-worlds, forms of social existence in which vast populations are
subjected to conditions of life that confer upon them the status of liv-
ing dead (ghosts)’ (‘Life’ 1, emphasis in text). Ghostly power produces
yet more ghosts, only on this side of the power divide the ghost is a
figure of impotence and insubstantiality. Mbembe refers to ‘subjects au
travail’: subjects in the making (being worked at) that are also working
subjects, working for life. Here, work becomes ‘a permanent activity’
and the body ‘signifies nothing in itself except something that can be
52 The Spectral Metaphor

hired out’ (‘Life’ 16). Another term used is ‘wandering subjects’. Rather
than referring to the fluid identities western theorists have hyped in
the figures of the nomad, the migrant or Derrida’s specter, the wan-
dering subject is forced into constant flight and desperation by forms
of violence and terror that produce murder, capture, noise, caprice,
dismemberment, subterfuge and ‘the negation of all essential singular-
ity’ (‘Life’ 14). Some of these consequences – caprice, subterfuge, the
negation of the ‘one’ – could be given a positive charge, but not from
Mbembe’s perspective. His likely response to Derrida’s admonition ‘to
learn to live with ghosts’ would be to ask whether it is not more impor-
tant to inquire how those subjects who are produced as living dead can
stop living as ghosts (Specters xviii, emphasis in text).
Yet Mbembe has his own blind spots. Several critics have remarked
on the lack of opportunities for resistance in his model of postcolonial
power. According to Jeremy Weate, On the Postcolony imparts a ‘nega-
tivist and thanatographic’ theory of power (36), while Mikael Karlström
argues that it presents Africans as ‘either dupes of the state episteme or
strategic actors seeking to get what they can from the state’ (63). Because
Mbembe sees the relationship between the autocrat and his subjects not
as oppositional but as convivial, the only strategy envisioned to counter
the unassailable power of the state is a masochistic one, ‘to will one’s
pain and to accept it as a form of enjoyment’ (Weate 34).16 Accord-
ingly, Tutuola is seen to portray a death-world in which ‘[g]hostly power
harasses the subject, screams, beats him mercilessly, starves him for an
instant, and then in the next instant forces him to eat exactly as one
feeds an animal, and makes him drink his own urine’ (‘Life’ 15). The
ghosted subject is left without recourse in the face of ghostly power.
Mbembe’s reading, however, is selective. Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of
Ghosts, narrated by a boy who accidentally enters the Bush of Ghosts
as he is chased by slave traders, also features benign ghosts that offer
the boy hospitality, friendship, love, marriage (twice) and a son. Thus,
while the boy experiences all the acts of violence Mbembe lists, there
is another side to the story, as he repeatedly escapes those trying to
capture and kill him by using their own ghostly techniques – shape-
shifting, mesmerizing, trickery – against them, and comes to consider
himself one of the ghosts: ‘nobody could identify me again that I am
not a ghost, because I was then nearly become a full ghost and was
doing everything that ghosts are doing and also speaking the language
of ghosts fluently as if I was born in the Bush of Ghosts’ (Tutuola 136).
He is eventually made head of the ghostly court system, and when he
finally finds his way home to his mother and brother, he tells them
Forms of Invisibility 53

that he would like to attend the ‘SECRET-SOCIETY OF GHOSTS’ in order to

‘bring some of its news to them and other people’ (174). This, there-
fore, is not a story of full conviviality with power or of masochistic
As I suggested in my discussion of Negri’s critique of Specters of Marx,
the ghost, as an inherently ambiguous figure dwelling in the liminal
spaces between life and death, human and non-human, visibility and
invisibility, materiality and immateriality, indicates the entanglement
of power and disempowerment, oppression and opposition, agency and
subjection, exposing the way they share certain characteristics that
makes each liable to turn into the other. The seemingly untouchable
autocrat can come within reach and the spectral subject’s impotence
can be transformed into potency.18 In other words, ghostly power and
its ghosted subjects may haunt each other. It is, therefore, not a case of
identifying a purely oppressive system or untainted acts of subversion,
but of pinpointing the moments of spectral agency – inherently incom-
plete and impure – that emerge from the interplay between ghostly
power and spectralizing dispossession at the level of everyday life. Both
films analyzed in this chapter can be seen to propose that a living
dead existence and acts of spectral agency are not mutually exclusive,
but interrelated possibilities thrown up by the inherent ambiguity and
instability of the spectral metaphor.

Wandering subjects and strategized invisibility

Although in Dirty Pretty Things and Ghosts we are not dealing with
the precise forms of sovereignty and autocracy Mbembe analyzes, the
conditions under which the undocumented immigrants live have a
similar capacity to turn them into wandering subjects. First of all, they
wander in a literal sense, constantly on the move between countries
and workplaces. Rosello refers to the characters of Dirty Pretty Things
as ‘transients’, arguing that they exemplify a ‘diasporic consciousness’
that can no longer be thought in terms of a homeland and a singular
point of destination (‘Wanted’ 19). Transients ‘have no pre-established
maps’ and they suffer a ‘lasting temporariness’ that knows no definitive
arrivals, only stops along an indeterminate flow whose direction and
speed often lie beyond their control (20). Sometimes transients choose
to go, but more often they are forced to move on when something hap-
pens to make staying where they are legally, economically or socially
impossible. As a concept, transience aptly conveys the multiple disloca-
tions, uncertain vectors and unexpected interruptions of contemporary
54 The Spectral Metaphor

global patterns of displacement, both between countries and within

them. The aim of transients may be, in Rosello’s words, ‘freedom of
movement’, but what makes people transient is precisely the fact that
such freedom is not available to them: emphatically not cosmopolitans
or adventurers, transients are more like ghosts condemned to restless
wandering (23).19
That transients do not engage in movement for movement’s sake and
are hardly figures of freedom is stressed in Ghosts, which traces Ai Qin’s
arduous six-month journey from China to Britain. By superimposing
the image of a map highlighting her route onto scenes of being driven
through China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, walking across the Russia–
Ukrainian border, being transferred to a truck in Belgrade, and being
locked in a small, suffocating secret compartment inside a lorry in Calais
for the passage to Dover, a parallel with travelogues is evoked only to be
dismissed (Figure 1.2). Ai Qin has not planned the route nor does she
have any control over where she is taken: rather than traveling, she is
transported, like a package.
This pattern continues after her arrival in Britain. She is taken to live
in an overcrowded house by Mr Lin, ferried by van to various jobs, and
cannot contemplate settling anywhere independently or returning to
China until her debts have been paid off. Consequently, Ai Qin’s situ-
ation demands a different response than the one proposed by Rosello:
‘For “transients”, the main hospitable gesture is not to welcome them
into “our” house, metaphorical or literal, but to make sure that we do

Figure 1.2 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot

Forms of Invisibility 55

not put obstacles in their course, to let the flow circulate’ (20). What
is required is an acknowledgement of ‘our’ participation as consum-
ing citizens of developed countries in the global economic system that
encourages human trafficking, as well as a commitment to challenging
the unequal distribution of wealth around the world and within individ-
ual countries. This may entail, in some cases, halting the flow of bodies,
since such a flow, even if desired, does not always signify freedom or
At first sight, Mbembe’s description of the wandering subject appears
to reinscribe the sense of volition that also inhabits Rosello’s notion
of transience: ‘The wandering subject moves from one place to another.
Journey as such does not need a precise destination: the wanderer can
go about as he pleases. There can be predetermined stages for the jour-
ney’ (‘Life’ 17). Although he adds the qualification that ‘the path does
not always lead to the desired destination’ and points to the vital impor-
tance of ‘the unexpected and the unforeseen’, these possible diversions
appear minor, even exhilarating (17). A few pages on, though, the anal-
ogy between the wandering subject and the ghost takes center stage:
‘The wandering subject has neither a unique form nor a content that has
been shaped definitively. Form and content change constantly, depend-
ing on life’s events’ (23). Here, Mbembe conjures a shape-shifter no
longer able to go as she pleases, but thrown into continuous disarray
by ‘life’s events’. The full erosion of the wandering subject’s agency is
signaled when he writes:

With life’s contours barely sketched out, the wandering subject must
escape from himself each time and allow himself to be carried
away by the flux of time and accidents. He produces himself in the
unknown, by means of a chain of effects that have been calculated
beforehand, but never materialize exactly in the terms foreseen. It is
thus in the unexpected and radical instability that he creates and
invents himself. There is thus no sovereignty of the subject or life as
such. (23)

Far from choosing to move on, the wandering subject ‘must escape’, not
just from others but even from herself. She is not an active agent going
with the flow, but must allow herself ‘to be carried away by the flux
of time and accidents’.20 And while the wandering subject can make
calculations, what materializes will only be a ghost of what was envi-
sioned. Although, as noted earlier, nobody has full control over what
they say or do, the enforced transformations and lack of definition
56 The Spectral Metaphor

Mbembe’s wandering subject has to suffer mark her as exceptionally

disempowered, ghosted.21
In Ghosts, Ai Qin displays all the characteristics of a wandering
subject: after leaving China, her entire being becomes indistinct and
insecure. She is faced with the task of having to produce herself in the
unknown, but, alone in a strange country, cannot find any ground to
base her reinvention of herself on. The film depicts her escape from her-
self (which, for the wandering subject, is really a loss of self) in terms of a
radical spatial and visual constriction. Still in China, she is shown nego-
tiating her environs in a confident manner: taking her son to school
on a bicycle, working in the fields and having dinner with her fam-
ily. In the cycling scene, the camera zooms out from a close-up of Ai
Qin to include her son and then, in a long shot, the surrounding town
(Figure 1.3). The use of long and medium-long shots ensures that Ai Qin
is framed not as an individual but as part of a community, and the way
she freely moves in and out of the frame signals her ability to act of her
own accord. While this signals how much she is ‘at home’ in this con-
text, she feels unable to stay because her earnings from working the field
are insufficient to support herself and her child. Ai Qin ‘calculates’ her
future on the basis of misleading information provided by a snakehead,
who charges her $25,000 – $5,000 up front and the rest as a loan – to
take her to Britain.
The first indication that her departure inaugurates a process of dispos-
session occurs when, being driven away from her family in a crowded,

Figure 1.3 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot

Forms of Invisibility 57

beat-up van, she tries desperately to open its dirty window to take one
more look at her son. But the window will not open; she can barely
see through it and the dirt also distorts her own reflection. The cam-
era now frames her in extreme close-up, enclosing her face in its frame
(Figure 1.4). Although there are other people in the van, the camera
only shows Ai Qin staring out of the window at the landscape racing
by. Her inability to get a clear view of the world and herself signifies a
loss of agency: instead of moving of her own accord through a fairly
open space in which she felt a sense of belonging, she is now conveyed
through spaces separate from her yet also confining her.
Ai Qin can observe these places or move through them, but cannot
participate in them as ‘simply a place’: ‘the one occupied by the indige-
nous inhabitants who live in it, cultivate it, defend it, mark its strong
points and keep its frontiers under surveillance, but who also detect in
it the traces of chthonian or celestial powers, ancestors or spirits which
populate and animate its private geography’ (Augé 42). Instead of in a
place comfortingly populated by one’s ancestors – in accordance with
Michel de Certeau’s conviction that ‘haunted places are the only places
people can live in’ (108) – she finds herself confronted with places in
which she has no place, places she cannot occupy or haunt and whose
ghosts she does not recognize. All she can do is disappear, become a
ghost herself.22 Thus, a scene showing Ai Qin and some other undocu-
mented migrants traversing a desolate landscape on foot has a heavy
fog almost completely obscuring them from view, emphasizing their

Figure 1.4 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot

58 The Spectral Metaphor

lack of contours (Figure 1.5). The theme of Ai Qin’s growing spatial

confinement and her impeded vision – her inability to create a visual
connection to the world around her and to her own image, which would
allow her to reinvent herself – is continued in later shots, which show
her washing her face in front of a steamed-up mirror in the shared bath-
room, and staring out of an upstairs window, writing her son’s name
(curiously, in English) in the steam created by her own breath because
the vista offers no ‘place’ for her (Figures 1.6 and 1.7).

Figure 1.5 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot

Figure 1.6 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot

Forms of Invisibility 59

Figure 1.7 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot

Mbembe discusses the metaphor of the mirror as that which ‘allows us

to envisage ghostly power and sovereignty as aspects of the real integral
to a world of life and terror rather than tied to a world of appearances’
(‘Life’ 1). For Lacan, the mirror connects the self to its image. On the one
hand, this image is spectral – ‘the correspondences that unite the I to the
image are projected as ghosts, in a completely ambiguous relationship
of the subject with the world of its fabrication’ – but on the other hand
it multiplies presence by creating a likeness, a double (Mbembe, ‘Life’ 4).
Thus, it makes the subject both less and more material, empowering and
disempowering at the same time. From Lacan’s essay on the mirror stage,
Mbembe extrapolates three equally ambivalent properties. First, the mar-
velous, referring to the way the mirror allows an image to be created and
discovered. This conveys a power of reflection: ‘The self that views itself
has a sharp awareness of the fact that what it sees beyond the material
screen is indeed itself or, in any case, a reflection of itself [ . . . ] The same
self can, after the act of looking at itself, remember more or less clearly
its own reflection or shadow’ (4). Becoming aware of one’s image and
being able to retain it appears to mark the power of reflection as a form
of agency. But for Mbembe, the aspect of control that the marvelous
conveys is tempered by a destabilizing evanescence: ‘in the mirror, being
and identity are fugitive, intangible, but visible’ (4). Second, the power of
terror: ‘This power is born of the disquieting reality brought into being
by this place that is not a place for it does not rest upon any terrain’ (5).
Perceiving such an ungrounded image can suggest that one has the abil-
ity to gain access to the psyche. But it can also intimate ‘the unsettling
60 The Spectral Metaphor

possibility of an emancipation of the fictive double’ (5). Third, the power

of fantasy and imagination, made possible by ‘the constitution of a gap
between the self and its representation, a space of breaking and entering
and of dissonance between the self and its fictive double.’ This creates
room for ‘dissemblance and duplicity’ in the relationship of the self to
itself (5).
In Ai Qin’s case, once she leaves China, only the disempowering
aspects of these properties are activated. Her image is indeed projected
in the indistinct, ghostly manner of the marvelous, but because it no
longer yields a likeness, the power of reflection is rendered inoperative.
She can neither create nor discover an image of herself, and her being
and identity have become so fugitive, also in the legal sense, that
their visibility is compromised. At the same time, the power of terror is
intensified: both her image and self are without place, ungrounded –
a situation literalized by the way the incoming tide takes away the
ground under the workers’ feet in the drowning scene. The threat in
this case is not that the fictive double might emancipate – become
real – but that the actual person in front of the mirror will disap-
pear. Finally, the power of fantasy and imagination cannot be activated,
since for the gap between the self and its representation to be exploited
through dissemblance and duplicity there first has to be a coherent self
and a perceptible image. Even surviving Morecambe Bay and returning
home to China will not fully rematerialize Ai Qin’s self and image, as
her homecoming turns into a poignant scene of non-recognition: her
young son has no idea who she is and has to be prompted to ‘Call me
While in Ai Qin’s case, no agency appears possible as even her visibil-
ity to herself is undermined by her status as an undocumented migrant
worker, Dirty Pretty Things suggests that being unseen may provide a
means of asserting oneself. What Sarah Sharma refers to as Okwe’s
‘strategizing of invisibility’ occurs when he twice utilizes his tendency
to go unnoticed to move around a hospital in order to steal medica-
tions and supplies for the organ extraction (142). The first time, Okwe
poses as a cleaner: after obtaining a uniform and cleaning equipment,
he is let into a secure area by a white female doctor who hardly notices
him. The lowly status of the job, combined with his race (cleaners
are expected to be non-white), allows him to become, this time by
choice, avisual. The second time, Guo Yi gives Okwe the ID of a black
hospital worker, noting that ‘black is black’. In both cases, aspects of
the cultural gaze that normally exclude and erase cleaners and render
non-whites indistinguishable in a disempowering manner now enable
Forms of Invisibility 61

Okwe to take on the power of the ghost to haunt – a haunting that,

because of its association with the perspectival dissymmetry and abso-
lute invisibility of Derrida’s visor effect signifies agency: he can see,
and take, without being seen, and he sees and exploits his own not
being seen.
A less effective appropriation of ghostly invisibility, perhaps because
it is taken too literally, occurs when Senay, before being raped by
Señor Juan, tells him: ‘You do not see me, you just do, take it or
leave it.’ She then turns off the lights and he sodomizes her. Emily
S. Davis argues that Senay’s ‘refusal of visibility’ opens up a fragile,
restricted space of negotiation within a situation of supreme oppres-
sion: the rape occurs, but Senay ‘asserts her identity as in part beyond
the terms of her commodification’ (56). Convincing herself that she is
able to withhold something significant mobilizes a ‘power of fantasy’
that enables Senay to salvage a sense of agency (57). Of course, in the
context of a rape scene, this agency has to be recognized as highly
Manipulating one’s (in)visibility under the spectralizing system of
global capital and its intersection with racism and sexism is not enough
to overthrow the system, but can create some opportunities for maneu-
vering within its constraints, for mounting a defense against its worst
excesses. The ability to evade perception, to stay under the radar, can
convey a certain power to disturb: ‘because [undocumented migrants]
have no official location, they cannot be tracked down. If they do not
exist, how can you be sure that you know who they are? And if you
do not know who they are, how can you predict what they are capable
of?’ (E. Davis 57). The combination of social invisibility with the capac-
ity to wander – more pronounced in Dirty Pretty Things than in Ghosts,
where the Chinese workers are kept confined – enhances this unpre-
dictability. When invisibility, in the mode of the avisual, is recoded in
this manner as (also) a resource, particularly when disavowed subjects
act together, an alternative appears to the most obvious way of counter-
ing one’s status as a living ghost by insisting on one’s materiality and
visibility. In a situation where such insistence dovetails with official and
populist policies of exposure, confinement and deportation (the latter
effectively equivalent to an exorcism), and in which becoming visible as
an undocumented worker constitutes a crime and can invite violence,
it is opportune to look for ways to mobilize one’s avisuality, to trans-
form not being seen and imaged into ‘a spectacle of invisibility, shining,
shown’, a spectacle most insistently lived out by literal ghosts (Lippit
53, emphasis added).
62 The Spectral Metaphor

The song of remembrance, dismemberment

and taking the place of

So far, my analysis of Dirty Pretty Things and Ghosts has focused on the
disempowerment produced by the undocumented workers’ status as liv-
ing ghosts or wandering subjects, but this does not mean no agency
is available to these characters. Even Mbembe’s work envisions some
opportunities for those dispossessed by ghostly terror and violence to
(re)act. In ‘African Modes of Self-Writing’ he refers to the practice of styl-
ization as an African mode of self-definition that avoids the pitfalls of
both Marxist-nationalist paradigms and Nativism or Afrocentrism. Such
stylization consists of gathering together ‘disparate signs’ not to create
a social utopia, but a series of ‘paradoxes and lines of escape’ (‘Ways’
11). In other words, it refers to ambivalent and avowedly poststructural-
ist avenues of resistance in the mode of Foucault’s ‘techniques of the
self’ and Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘line of flight’; never guaranteed to suc-
ceed, but also extremely difficult to police. Yet another form of agency
appears in ‘On the Power of the False’, where Mbembe analyzes the way
Christianity has been transformed into an oppositional force in Africa
through its selective, stylized and syncretic adaptation. In calling this
the ‘heretical spirit’, Mbembe creates an image of spectral agency that
brings together the Christian sense of spirit with its role as a synonym
for the ghost (639). It is important that these forms of agency do not
constitute complete departures from the status quo. In fact, such com-
plete departures are coded as undesirable, as when Mbembe notes that
if the heretical spirit is taken too far it will result in a disabling lack of
stability (639). Stylization and syncretism are based on reworking what
is already there, on taking parts of the oppressive system and recom-
bining them with elements normally excluded.23 In terms of spectral
agency, this would entail shifting the terms of the spectral metaphor
to re-orient it. Thus, in Dirty Pretty Things invisibility-as-negation is
transformed into invisibility-as-subterfuge, enabling Okwe to appropri-
ate Señor Juan’s moniker ‘Mr Sneaky’. Does this work only in relation to
invisibility or can other associated commonplaces of the ghost also be
rearticulated in this manner?
In his reading of Tutuola, Mbembe detects one moment of resistance
to the wandering subject’s lack of sovereignty, when the boy-narrator of
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts yields to the song of remembrance:

Quite often, this song is buried under the rubble of sorrow and
thus prevented from investing existence with a mark of ecstasy
Forms of Invisibility 63

and eternity. But liberated through tobacco, the wandering subject

suddenly does away with everything limiting his horizon. He can
henceforth project himself into the infinite sea of light that makes it
possible to forget sorrow. (23)

For most of Ghosts, the soundtrack features extra-diegetic Chinese

music. This music is in sync with the images of Ai Qin in China, but
begins to sound dissonant as soon as she leaves home. Over the scenes
of her strenuous journey, the music conveys not so much a nostalgic
link to home as a sense of profound displacement and disconnection.
In Britain, as Mr Lin drives Ai Qin to Thetford, this dissonance is made
explicit when the Chinese music on the soundtrack is interrupted by the
siren of a passing police car and the ringing of Mr Lin’s mobile phone.
A later scene, however, shows Ai Qin and her fellow workers sitting in
a park singing a Chinese song that reflects directly on their experience
of homesickness. Ai Qin takes the main voice and the others, including
Mr Lin, provide back-up vocals. The translated lyrics read:

A person wandering away from home is missing you, dear mum.

The steps of the traveler on the other side of the world, without a
The winter snow, with the snow flakes, soften my tears.
Walking on and on.
Walking across many strange places.
For many years.

In singing this song, the migrant workers create a recognizable image

of themselves as wandering subjects, potentially gaining access to the
more active and enabling properties of the mirror. Moreover, although
the lyric I is a solitary traveler, the fact that the workers sing together
in harmony indicates that they have forged a community among them-
selves. This community is uneasy (because of its enforced nature and
the complex position of Mr Lin) and fragile (a few scenes later half of
the workers are arrested in a police raid of the house). Still, it offers
a way to conjure a shared song of remembrance through which the
migrant workers can temporarily escape their circumstances. The result-
ing opening of their horizon is indicated by the closing shot, which
shows a close-up of Ai Qin’s face in profile, looking up at the expansive
blue sky (Figure 1.8). Of course, as Mbembe stresses, in the precarious
life of the wandering subject, the song of remembrance is most often
stifled. Not coincidentally, Broomfield follows this peaceful, almost
64 The Spectral Metaphor

Figure 1.8 Nick Broomfield, Ghosts (2006), screenshot

happy moment up with a scene in which the workers are told by the
employment agency that no more jobs are available and Mr Lin, for the
second time, tries to convince Ai Qin to work as a masseuse (code for
In contrast to Ghosts, Dirty Pretty Things has been seen as a film that
empowers undocumented migrants, not just by telling the story from
their perspective, but by envisioning concrete acts of resistance like
the cunning switch between Senay’s kidney and that of Señor Juan.
Frears’s portrayal of undocumented immigrants as sources for black
market organs invokes Mbembe’s association of ghostly violence with
‘generalized dismemberment’. In Tutuola’s work, many of the ghosts
are deformed. Instead of lessening their power, the fact that they have
eyes in the back of their heads or extra limbs that enable them to move
faster, actually increases it. And they use this power to mutilate their
victims in turn: ‘Where ghostly power undertakes to model its victim’s
bodies in its own image, terror can easily be transformed into demiur-
gic surgery – crippled bodies, lost parts, scattered fragments, misshaping
and wounds’ (Mbembe, ‘Life’ 10). Here, the mutilation does not add but
takes away, disables. In Dirty Pretty Things, the illegal organ trade dis-
tributes dismemberment in much the same unequal manner: both the
organ recipients and the organ providers are cut into and have some-
thing removed. The first, however, lose a defective organ and receive a
substitute that, if all goes well, will prolong their life, while the second
lose a working part of themselves, potentially weakening or even killing
Forms of Invisibility 65

them. The organ receiver’s body consumes, while the organ provider’s
body is commodified. Fittingly, Mbembe warns that ‘the work for life also
consists in sparing the body from degeneration into absolute thing-ness’
(‘Life’ 17). Okwe, too, points to the perversity of treating human bod-
ies like objects. Of a Somali man who had his kidney removed in the
hotel, he says: ‘He swapped his insides for a passport.’ And when Senay
contemplates selling a kidney, he angrily tells her: ‘Because you’re poor
you will be gutted like an animal.’ Thus, the film not only critiques the
way in which the organs are harvested, coded by the disposed-of heart
as ‘heartless’, but the very idea of being able to sell parts of oneself.
For Mbembe, though, the way work for life reduces the body to ‘an
assemblage of organs’ yields a twisted form of agency: being forced to
consider one’s body as a product with exchange value that cannot be
claimed as private property allows the subject to hire out parts of its
body to stay alive:

The body resides in the potentialities of its organs taken as a whole

or separately, in the reversibility and interchangeability of its pieces,
their mortgaging, and their restitution by payment. In the ghostly
economy, the body is alive to the extent that its organs can be instru-
mentalized in a process of exchange with death. It is the deployment
of the organs, their malleability and their more or less autonomous
power that renders the body alive.
(‘Life’ 17)

In Tutuola’s fictional universe such rented-out body parts can generally

be recovered and reattached. With no such restitution possible for the
organ providers in Dirty Pretty Things, the diegesis refrains from endors-
ing the selling of one’s organs as a resistive tactic. As Budiani-Saberi
and Delmonico outline, organ trafficking and transplant tourism rely
on the desperation of the poor, sometimes bypassing donor permission
altogether by using organs from executed prisoners; show little regard
for the long-term health of donors; and tend not to produce economic
advancement but regret and social ostracism. Chris Ewart dismisses the
neoliberalist notion that selling one’s organs ought to be permitted as
part of an enabling ‘free market’ by pointing out that ‘Dirty Pretty Things
model of capital creation limits choices so that the idea of selling an
organ seems plausible. If there are no jobs available, if fair and humane
compensation for labour is non-existent or living conditions necessitate
evacuation, then people will use the physical material of their bodies to
live – through any available “modes of application” ’ (5).
66 The Spectral Metaphor

Nonetheless, there is something paradoxical in Okwe’s insistence on

guarding the physical integrity of an immigrant body that is already
being torn apart – persecuted and worked beyond exhaustion or, as
in Ghosts, to death. If performed safely with decent aftercare, a remu-
nerated organ extraction may be less disabling than the forms of
exploitation the undocumented workers already undergo, especially
Senay, who suffers repeated sexual assaults. When Okwe tries to dis-
suade her from selling a kidney by offering her the platitudinal advice
to ‘keep New York in your heart and work hard’, Senay’s bitter retort –
‘You know what work I do?’ – reveals her awareness that she is already
subject to dismemberment. Her body is not just a working body, but
a worked body, instrumentalized and invaded by others, often without
receiving anything in return. The organ trade, Ewart points out, may
be seen as ‘a contemporary metonym for Marx’s “crippled” worker’ (6).
As such, it should perhaps not be considered as something in excess of
ordinary commodification that is infinitely more disturbing, but rather
as making tangible the physical and mental dismemberment systemic to
capitalism. The film’s tendency towards sensationalism, most obvious
in the discovery of the heart in the toilet, leads the viewer to con-
centrate on the horror of the organ extractions at the expense of the
other forms of exploitation depicted. The scene in which Señor Juan
rapes Senay, for example, becomes a mere prelude to the triumphant
switch on the operating table, even though it is conceivable that losing
her virginity, which holds great cultural and religious value for Senay,
is a greater infraction than giving up a kidney would have been. This
perspective – and the way some characters consider commodifying their
organs a viable and even dignified way to regain control of their already
infringed upon lives – remains submerged because the story is mainly
focalized by Okwe. His resistance to organ-selling is partly due to his
medical training but also to his faith in the notion that as long as a body
remains physically intact, it can somehow separate itself from the condi-
tions in which it exists. His conception of intactness excludes the hymen
and forms of infringement that do not leave visible traces. Against this,
Mbembe stresses how, in a situation of biopolitics, one’s body is always
already included in one’s exploitation: the ‘subject’ and its ‘wandering’
are inevitably entangled, in and through the body, just like labor cannot
be spectralized apart from and outside of the worker’s self.24
Dirty Pretty Things points to this unavoidable implication of the body –
on the part of the exploited as well as those who exploit – in its almost
gleeful endorsement of vengeful appropriations of the strategy of dis-
memberment, most notably Senay’s biting down on the sweatshop
Forms of Invisibility 67

owner’s penis when forced to perform fellatio and Señor Juan being cut
open instead of her. The latter substitution is by far the most forceful
instance in the film of what I have called spectral agency and involves
what Mbembe calls ‘taking the place of ’ (‘Life’ 20). In Tutuola, the boy-
narrator, at one point, is forced to take the place of a corpse, resulting in
the dissolution of his identity: ‘The impassible demon of death has in
essence taken possession of him while he is still alive. Having been made
to pass for the dead, he now finds himself in two different subject posi-
tions at the same time’ (Mbembe, ‘Life’ 20). In Dirty Pretty Things, the
one supposed to take the position of the corpse (in the sense of being
the anaesthetized body on the operating table giving up part of one’s
body to revivify a person who might otherwise die) turns the tables to
have her exploiter take her place.
Several critics consider the resolution of Dirty Pretty Things excessive
in terms of the agency it confers upon the undocumented workers.
Rosello refers to a ‘perhaps all too neat denouement’ (‘Wanted’ 29) and
Benjamin Noys faults the film for ‘construct[ing] a vision of solidarity
amongst its characters and offer[ing] us a relatively “happy” ending’.
He adds that ‘the vision of a community of refugees that [the film]
constructs seems sentimental, and the “resistance” of the refugees lacks
some credibility’ (141). I want to suggest that, far from being founded
solely upon a feeling of solidarity, the community forged in Dirty Pretty
Things is fraught by tension – visible, for example, in Okwe’s disapproval
of Juliette’s profession – and pervaded by mechanisms of exchange.
Almost every relationship is underpinned by financial transactions:
Okwe pays Senay rent to stay at her apartment, Ivan pays Juliette for sex-
ual services and both Ivan and Juliette receive a cut of the proceeds from
the organ sale. Specific circumstances and a momentary convergence of
interests bring the characters together to pull off a single resistive act,
but the community is instantly disbanded when Senay and Okwe leave.
As such, the film hardly suggests that living ghosts will automatically
unite on the basis of a ‘common sense of exploitation and invisibility’
(Noys 141). In fact, little solidarity exists among the sweatshop workers
or the hotel cleaners, and the exploited are also shown to take advantage
of each other – as when the owner of the minicab firm forces Okwe to
diagnose STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) and procure medications.
The experiences of the different characters, moreover, are not portrayed
as identical: gender and the complications of being undocumented are
seen to affect one’s degree of disempowerment.
I would also contend that the film’s ending is neither neat nor par-
ticularly happy. While Señor Juan receives his comeuppance, the organ
68 The Spectral Metaphor

trade itself is not exposed. More importantly, the expected resolution

of the ‘will they or won’t they?’ relationship between Okwe and Senay
never arrives. In the final scene, Senay tentatively offers to come with
Okwe – ‘Tell me about Lagos. Do they have hotels that need maids?’ –
but he deflects her by launching into a validation of the New York fan-
tasy she had revealed earlier: ‘When you arrive at the airport you will see
a whole line of yellow cabs. The car will take you across a bridge. When
you have crossed the river you will see lights in the trees, policemen on
white horses.’ She interrupts to say ‘I know it won’t be like that’ and after
hugging him and giving him the address of the New York café where
she expects to work, proceeds through customs. This does not support
Wills’s reading, which has Frears ‘somewhat optimistically guid[ing] the
viewer to understand that Senay, with her family in New York, will
maintain a cultural identity [ . . . ], not as a superficial and essentialized
performance, but rather as the substance and identity beneath her dis-
guise’ (122). Rather, the scene suggests that, because of the characters’
status as wandering subjects having to work for life, an integrated identity
will remain out of reach.
The characters’ lives and identities are schizophrenic in Mbembe’s
sense of appearing as a ‘series of [ . . . ] events that could have hap-
pened but do not occur, while other that were not supposed to happen
do, in effect, take place’ (‘Life’ 23). Okwe and Senay’s love could have
blossomed but does not, while Senay’s rape, which was not supposed
to occur, does. There is, furthermore, no reason to suspect that their
lives will be any less schizophrenic after their departure from Britain.
In Nigeria, Okwe is a fugitive, wanted for the murder of his wife, so his
return will likely inaugurate further transience. Similarly, as Senay real-
izes, her romantic image of New York will not stand up to reality, while
her new Italian passport restricts her to a three-month tourist visa. In all
probability, she will again end up an undocumented worker hiding from
the authorities.
The film’s ending powerfully conveys the complexity of the charac-
ters’ position as living ghosts, the uncertainty of their futures and the
limits to their agency. While envisioning more opportunities for resis-
tance than Ghosts, Dirty Pretty Things stresses that these opportunities
are not available to all: it is, for example, largely because he is a male,
western-educated doctor that Okwe is able to trick Señor Juan into tak-
ing Senay’s place. Whereas Luis Aguiar sees the way ‘Okwe (male) is
constructed as an agent of his experiences in London, whereas Senay
(female) is not’ as representing a ‘re-enforcement of patriarchal rela-
tions’, the film’s emphasis on the compounded disempowerment of
Forms of Invisibility 69

female and uneducated undocumented workers can also be seen to

expose and critique the nexus of race, gender and class that refracts
spectral agency (75).
The film, moreover, circumscribes the efficacy of resistive acts, which
are seen to reverberate only in the underground world where everyone
is to some extent marginalized. Señor Juan and the sweatshop owner
may not be undocumented, but they are still foreigners. For Aguiar,
‘the narrative exculpates whiteness and the state by focusing the abuse
on the exploitation of one visible minority against one another’ (75).
Again, I read this differently: by showing that western citizens prof-
iting from the exploitation of undocumented workers (as consumers
or producers) tend not to come face to face with these workers, Dirty
Pretty Things, like Ghosts, invokes a responsibility that exceeds direct
culpability. Both films encourage audience members to look under the
surface, to momentarily take the place of the undocumented migrants
and, after returning to their own position, to become answerable for
the way their consumptive behavior fuels the production of these living
ghosts. Instead of being exculpated, the audience is explicitly inter-
pellated and held accountable by each narrative: in Dirty Pretty Things
through Okwe’s abovementioned address (‘we are the people you don’t
see’) and in Ghosts through a scene set in a supermarket, where Ai Qin
remarks on the discrepancy between the price of spring onions and the
dismal wage she was paid for harvesting them.

The politics of the refugee

Noys considers Dirty Pretty Things an example of the ‘risk of the refugee’,
a concretization of Giorgio Agamben’s proposed politics of the refugee
that ends up sentimentalizing the refugee’s experience. This politics
of the refugee is closely related to Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics,
which refers to the way particular forms of sovereign power define cer-
tain subjects as disposable. These subjects are concentrated in tightly
controlled spaces of exclusion in which their lives are definitively sub-
jugated to the power of death and their existence is characterized by
terror, constant uncertainty and unfreedom. In their utter vulnerabil-
ity and exposedness, they suffer ‘social death (expulsion from humanity
altogether)’ (‘Necropolitics’ 21). Mbembe distinguishes different histori-
cal examples of such disposable subjects: the slave whose life is ‘a form of
death-in-life’, the colonized ‘savage’ who can be killed without guilt, the
Palestinian subjected to ‘infrastructural warfare’, and those who become
‘collateral damage’ in contemporary armed conflicts (21–9). Each case
70 The Spectral Metaphor

exhibits a particular nexus of sovereignty, discipline and biopolitics,

which Mbembe sees becoming more and more extreme as ‘technolo-
gies of destruction have become more tactile, more anatomical and
sensorial, in a context in which the choice is between life and death’
(34). Still, disposable subjects can fight back, in limited ways. In rela-
tion to the occupation of Palestine, for example, the suicide bomber
is seen to operate according to the ‘logic of martyrdom’, which, by
turning the body into a weapon, brings together resistance and self-
destruction (27). By taking control of its own death and inscribing that
death into the order of the sacrificial, the disposable body challenges
its unimportance and impotence, while guaranteeing an afterlife: ‘The
besieged body becomes a piece of metal whose function is, through sac-
rifice, to bring eternal life into being. The body duplicates itself and, in
death, literally and metaphorically, escapes the state of siege and occu-
pation’ (37). Terror, death, freedom, resistance, sacrifice and redemption
become intertwined in this highly ambiguous form of agency that plays
a trick on necropower by making the death of the disposable subject
meaningful and threatening.
Mbembe’s disposable subjects insistently invoke Agamben’s homo
sacer: the one who, according to ancient Roman law, could be killed
with impunity, but not sacrificed; the one who, excluded from human
and divine law, was reduced to bare or naked life. According to Agamben,
bare life is a life fully exposed to sovereign power and therefore, despite
its exclusion, also included. It is, in fact, the basis of sovereign power,
since this power consists exactly of the ability to decide, at any point, to
declare a state of exception in which particular subjects may be reduced
to bare life. Since modern power is based on the politicization of natural-
biological life (zoë), which is no longer separated from (social) ways of
living (bios), a zone of indistinction has been created:

Once zoë is politicized by declarations of rights, the distinctions and

thresholds that make it possible to isolate a sacred life must be newly
defined. And when natural life is wholly included in the polis – and
this much has, by now, already happened – these thresholds pass, as
we will see, beyond the dark boundaries separating life from death in
order to identify a new living dead man, a new sacred man.
(Homo 131)

While Agamben presents Auschwitz as creating the most extreme, abso-

lute form of this new sacred man, he also argues that the politicization
of biological life affects everyone: ‘Bare life is no longer confined to
Forms of Invisibility 71

a particular place or a definite category. It now dwells in the biologi-

cal body of every living being’ (140). Everyone is, at least potentially,
homo sacer and the camp has become ‘the hidden matrix and nomos of
the political space in which we are still living’ (166). Sites for keeping
refugees (including those set up by humanitarian organizations), zones
d’attente in airports, extra-territorial prisons like Guantanamo and even
‘certain outskirts of our cities’ all produce bare life (175).
For Agamben, bare life cannot be countered by escaping it, because
‘[i]t is in the experience of being bare life, in this radical experience of
exposure, that we find our “humanity” ’ (Noys 136). Instead, bare life
needs to be taken up in a different manner, as an integral part of a ‘form
of life’ which ‘takes up the remnant of bare life as the place of a new
politics of this remnant itself’ (136–7). It is the position of the refugee
that offers the ground for such a politics: ‘the refugee, formerly regarded
as a marginal figure, [ . . . ] has become now the decisive factor of the
modern nation-state by breaking the nexus between human being and
citizen’ (Agamben, Means n. pag.). Following Hannah Arendt’s notion
that the disempowerment of refugees simultaneously allows them a
unique recognition of the mechanics of history and politics, Agamben
posits that, because the ‘by now unstoppable decline of the nation-state
and the general corrosion of traditional political-juridical categories’
puts everyone at risk of becoming a refugee, this position may reveal ‘the
forms and limits of a coming political community’ (Means 16). Since the
refugee shows human rights to be tied not to the biological category of
homo sapiens, but to citizenship, it disturbs the order of the nation-state
and the workings of sovereignty. This turns the refugee into a ‘limit-
concept’ capable of revealing that the political system is grounded in a
system of exception, where certain groups may at any time be declared
to fall outside the category of citizen and/or human.
The politics of the refugee, then, is not a politics of or for refugees,
but one in which the position of the refugee serves to create aware-
ness in the citizen that he or she is also potentially abandoned. Hence,
Agamben’s discussion of the expulsion of 425 Palestinians from Israel
in Means without End does not focus on the effects of this event on
the Palestinians themselves, but on what their expulsion means for the
state: ‘the no-man’s-land in which they are refugees has already started
from this very moment to act back onto the territory of the state of
Israel’ (25). The formulation here removes all agency from the refugees,
since it is not they who act back (an acting that is itself more a react-
ing), but the no-man’s-land in which they find themselves. In general,
the question of agency on the part of those reduced to bare life is not
72 The Spectral Metaphor

broached by Agamben, who seems to consider them beyond any capac-

ity to act. This is especially clear in his description of the Muselmann,
who embodies the impossibility to see, know or act, even when it
came to dying: ‘In Auschwitz, people did not die; rather, corpses were
produced’ (Remnants 72).
Although Agamben’s point that the state of exception and a
biopolitics-turned-thanatopolitics form the basis of modern (demo-
cratic) state power has validity, I am uncomfortable with the way
his focus on the disquieting effect of the abstracted position of the
refugee instrumentalizes the suffering of actual refugees by making it
the necessary precondition for a new politics. While Agamben does
not exactly romanticize the refugee (as has happened, for example,
with the migrant),25 he does generalize: no distinctions are made
between different groups of refugees, between refugees and migrants
or between actually being a refugee and only potentially being one.26
Thus, whereas Anthony Downey follows Agamben in arguing that ‘the
stateless refugee, the political prisoner, the disappeared, the victim of
torture, all are without community and yet symptomatic of a “com-
ing community” – a community of the rightless to which anyone of us
could one day belong’ (123), Sarah Sharma points to ‘the improbabil-
ity that all populations are insecure in the same way’: certain bodies are
far more likely to be reduced to bare life than others. Consequently, she
proposes a ‘differential theory of biopolitics’ able to distinguish between
the different forms that bare life (and the camp) takes (138–9, emphasis
in text). The fate of being exposed to death is not nearly as imma-
nent or universal as Agamben holds: the nation-state appears resurgent
rather than disappearing and so far most citizens of wealthy western
states have only faced being reduced to extreme forms of bare life in
theory. In practice, such citizens are singled out to be protected from
this fate. Thus, when popular rebellions against several North-African
autocratic regimes broke out in 2011, western nationals were quickly
evacuated from danger zones by their governments, so that they would
not become refugees.
A related problem is that Agamben does not address the situation of
actual refugees or show any interest in their perspective. In essence,
Agamben focalizes his discussion through the eyes of a ‘we’ at whose
service the refugee is then put. This move is replicated by Noys when he
concludes that

[i]t may well be that the importance of the refugee is how this figure
challenges our fundamental political concepts and exposes how all
Forms of Invisibility 73

our political identities are founded on bare life. The refugee is the
figure of the remnant of bare life that cannot be eliminated, but
always remains. It is this ‘position’ of the refugee that demands that
we invent a new politics. This politics must be realised as both practi-
cal and communal. If we are to deal with our fate as bare life, our fate
as exposed to death, then we must create a new politics beginning
from the remnant, from the refugee.
(142, emphasis added)

In a formulation that, in Mbembe’s terms, could be called dismem-

bering, something must be created from the refugee, with the refugee
providing the raw materials and their living dead bodies sacrificed to
‘our’ awareness. The refugee herself does nothing and must do nothing
except remain a remnant for ‘us’ to take up in order to invent a new
politics concerned not with her immediate fate, but with ‘our’ future.
As Imogen Tyler warns in her critique of Agamben’s ‘fetishisation of the
refugee’, mobilizing the refugee as ‘our own’ may ‘offer “us” resources
with which to imagine how “we”, the already included, might reimagine
“ourselves” ’ (qtd. in Bardan 56).
Approaching marginalized subjects through the metaphor of the
ghost is designed to avoid such fetishization. Unlike the fetish, which
either, in the Marxian interpretation, occludes something or, in Freud,
substitutes for that which is lacking, metaphors, if conceived as inter-
actional, are based on an overt relation of similarity only: there is no
pretense of a truth to be revealed or fantasy of interchangeability. More-
over, where the fetish invariably covers up, metaphors are designed
to clarify, to illuminate, and to do so flexibly by relying on a transfer
of meaning subject to constant renegotiation. While this transfer may
become stilted, as with dead metaphors, that very term indicates that
this is not the ordinary state of metaphor. The use of one thing to elu-
cidate another can lead to the impoverishment of the former: since a
metaphor is always a selective comparison, its widespread use may cause
the meaning of the vehicle to be restricted to those characteristics that
form the basis for the comparison. Such semantic limitation is particu-
larly problematic when what is used as the vehicle (the comparing term)
is a group of people whose signification is reduced to a single, negative
trait. By choosing, in the ghost, a figure generally considered not ‘real’,
I seek to avoid appropriating, abstracting or universalizing the experi-
ences of actual people. The ghost, furthermore, is not easily reduced to
a single (stereo) type. As noted in the introduction, there are many kinds
of ghosts, and my use of the spectral metaphor is guided by an emphasis
74 The Spectral Metaphor

on specificity, on asking, in each case, what traits motivate the discur-

sive interaction. Whereas Specters of Marx comes close to generalizing
the ghost as Agamben does the refugee, my attempt to re-focalize this
figure aims to bring out, retain and benefit from its polysemy.
Mbembe, too, takes recourse to a metaphor when he describes the
logic of conviviality characterizing the African postcolony as resulting
in a process of ‘mutual “zombification” ’ where ‘each has robbed the
other of vitality and left both impotent (impouvoir)’ (Postcolony 104).
Choosing figures that are, in and of themselves, separated from the
‘real’ highlights the status of the metaphor as based not on equivalence
but on a constructed similarity open to reconfiguration. Moreover, by
putting the actual people in the position of tenor rather than vehicle,
they become what is illuminated, rather than what is used to illumi-
nate. Throughout his discussion of bare life and the politics of the
refugee, Agamben elides the difference between the literal and the fig-
urative. The actual camp (as a location of physical confinement and
annihilation) and the metaphorical camp (as a biopolitical concept) are
made to appear equivalent as the metaphoricity of their relationship,
which insists on an always incomplete similarity, disappears from view.
In contrast, Mbembe, by working with broad figurative concepts not
predicated on specific historical experiences – the zombie, the living
dead – keeps the process of metaphoring out in the open.
Films like Dirty Pretty Things and Ghosts, which reveal disjunctions of
disempowerment even within the category of undocumented workers,
question whether the realization that everyone is theoretically vulnera-
ble is a sound basis for a new politics. There is something selfish in only
acting on others’ behalf out of fear of becoming like them, as when
Downey states that ‘to be indifferent to their plight is to be indifferent
to our own plight’ (123). Additionally, it seems perverse to overstate the
vulnerability of privileged subjects while building a political platform
on the continued exposure of the most disempowered.27 Ultimately,
any politics based on configuring relationality as identity or equiva-
lence is questionable. It would be more ethical and more effective to
conceive relationality as based on a similarity that always also implies
difference and distance. While remaining sensitive to the disempower-
ing mechanisms inherent to nation-state and sovereign politics, such
a politics would involve acknowledging and taking responsibility for
the specificities and hierarchies of the way a shared abstract vulnerabil-
ity is distributed in practice. Thus, instead of obfuscating the difference
between the notion that everyone could be a refugee and that everyone
will be, it should be acknowledged that, as a white, western, educated,
Forms of Invisibility 75

upper middle-class woman, I, for example, am unlikely to ever end up in

that position. I can then approach those who are already refugees or far
closer than I am to becoming one, and take responsibility for my posi-
tion in relation to them. From this perspective, well-meaning actions
like brandishing the slogan ‘We are all Egyptians’ on Facebook and other
social media during the 2011 revolt against the Mubarak regime consti-
tute an appropriative move of false identity, a denial of the operation of
metaphor, which indicates difference as well as similarity. Such obfusca-
tion is resisted by the ‘Not In Our Name’ protests in Britain at the time of
the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Not so much because these protests indicated
a ‘rejection of political identity itself’, as Noys asserts (142), but because
the protesters placed themselves in a specific position outside Iraq and
called to account a political system in which they are (or ought to be)
This chapter has shown that, on the one hand, the existence of undoc-
umented migrants as living ghosts is predicated on dispossession, with
the spectral metaphor standing for social invisibility (in the mode of the
avisual), expendability and an almost complete lack of agency. This side
of the spectral metaphor remains implicit in Derrida’s Specters of Marx,
but can be apprehended through Mbembe’s work. On the other hand,
some unstable and unequally distributed opportunities to develop forms
of spectral agency, predicated on the undocumented workers’ ghosted
status, can be discerned in the analyzed films, most significantly the
strategizing of invisibility. Besides elaborating on the ambiguous way
the spectral metaphor operates in relation to undocumented migrants,
I have sought to make a more general point with respect to its applica-
tion to living subjects. Unlike the metaphor of the refugee, predicated
on the generalization and appropriation of an actually existing cate-
gory of experience, the spectral metaphor, in its fundamental unreality,
avoids turning certain people’s lives into a mere figure and contains
a greater degree of creative potential, enabling it to accommodate
more radical extensions and shifts of meaning. The next chapter will
explore this potential with regard to the servant or domestic worker’s
spectralized status.
Spectral Servants and Haunting
Hospitalities: Upstairs, Downstairs,
Gosford Park and Babel

In the two films discussed in Chapter 1, the status of the undocumented

workers as living ghosts is predominantly a consequence of their legal
position, yet it is aided by the lack of social capital associated with
the jobs they perform. Jenny Wills even argues that, in Dirty Pretty
Things, Senay is ‘objectified by [ . . . ] the dehumanizing nature of her
employment’ (117, emphasis added). The problem, however, is not that
cleaning, sewing, driving taxis, packing meat or harvesting in them-
selves reduce people to living ghosts. This is achieved, rather, by the
prevalent perception of these tasks as low-skilled, undignified and unim-
portant. Aguiar’s insightful analysis of the representation of cleaners in
popular culture reveals how cleaning is either invoked as something to
be left behind in American Dream-like tales of self-advancement or aes-
theticized into a general symbol of marginalization. Both possibilities
deny the importance of cleaning services, refuse to constitute cleaners
as knowable subjects with a valid perspective on the world, ignore the
actual issues cleaners face on the job, including an ever-increasing work
tempo, constant surveillance and a lack of stability, and disavow any
sense of the cleaner as part of a work community. While Ghosts coun-
ters this trend by critiquing the working conditions and paltry wages
undocumented migrants receive, and depicting the jobs themselves as
worthy and involving skill, Dirty Pretty Things conveys a sense that Okwe
and Senay are somehow ‘too good’ for the work they do. The hospital
scene that has Okwe impersonating a cleaner, moreover, relies on the
notion that cleaners are isolated individuals who not only go unrec-
ognized by other staff but also by their fellow cleaners, and ignores the
fact that cleaning staff, in the neoliberal workplace, are obsessively mon-
itored. As Aguiar concludes, popular culture displays ‘a gaze framing the
cleaner as lowly and pitiful in the social structure’ and ‘there remains

Spectral Servants 77

an unwillingness to construct cleaners as made up of complex iden-

tities and as agents in their lives’ (71). This chapter, concerned with
servants or domestic workers as living ghosts, asks what subjects in pro-
fessions socially constructed as inferior and dehumanizing can do to
challenge this evaluation and assert themselves as subjects entitled to
respect, attention and care. In order to do this, it looks at two influen-
tial portrayals of domestic service. First, Upstairs, Downstairs, a television
period drama broadcast by London Weekend Television (1970–1975)
and recently given two sequels by the BBC (2010–2012). Second, the
2001 film Gosford Park, directed by Robert Altman and written by Julian
Fellowes, who recently created the television series Downton Abbey (its
fourth season was broadcast on ITV in 2013).
In the very first episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, the original seasons of
which span the period from 1903 to 1930, a newly arrived servant girl
in the London household of Tory MP Richard Bellamy is instructed by
another servant in her duties. She is told to ‘keep out of Mr Bellamy’s
way, whatever you do.’ When she asks why, she is not given a reason,
but dismissed with the order: ‘Just pretend you’re not there, especially in
the mornings.’ The next day, the new girl is sitting on the staircase clean-
ing the banister as Mr Bellamy descends to leave for work, accompanied
by the butler, Mr Hudson, who curtly remarks: ‘The new under-house
parlourmaid, sir.’ Mr Bellamy responds: ‘I see.’ He speaks without look-
ing at the girl or acknowledging her presence, never breaking his stride,
so that the real portent of his remark is that he does not see, that she
does not really exist for him. Gosford Park, set in 1932 at a large English
country estate during a weekend hunting party, contains a similar scene
showing the daughter of the host and one of the guests having a private
conversation at the top of the staircase when they notice the head foot-
man listening in. The daughter falls silent, but her companion sneers:
‘Hey, don’t worry, he’s nobody.’ In both the television series and the
film, then, servants are seen to attend to their masters (and their guests)
without their presence being thought relevant: they witness dinner con-
versations, marital fights, illicit sexual encounters and disputes about
money, yet are mostly treated as functional tools without feelings or
opinions. Furthermore, when not serving, they are expected to retire to
their part of the house, the carefully segregated ‘downstairs’ where they
remain out of sight yet ready to be conjured instantly by a ringing bell,
like genies in a bottle.
The portrayal of servants as ghostly – in the sense of invisible, unre-
markable and inconsequential – is common, even stereotypical. It is
repeatedly conveyed in the existing literature about (real and fictional)
78 The Spectral Metaphor

servants through designations like ‘vanished bodies’ (Robbins ix), ‘spec-

tral presences’ (Blackford 237) and ‘spectral spirit[s]’ (Lynch 67). Service
itself has been designated ‘almost a ghost [ . . . ] in the study of (the)
household’ (Harris qtd. in Kent 111). Yet, in most cases, the analogy is
not explicitly motivated, leaving its precise force, nuances and implica-
tions unclear. Throughout this book, my aim is to specify the spectral
metaphor so that it is no longer a question of generalizing the ghost but
of carefully parsing each use in order to assess its implications for the
ghosted lives in question. This chapter, therefore, will provide a detailed
analysis of the role of servants in Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park
in order to expose in what sense these servants are ghost-like, how
their spectralization takes effect and what it means for them in terms of
agency. While Mr Bellamy’s refusal to see the new maid and the Gosford
Park character’s dismissal of the footman as ‘nobody’ ostensibly echo
the social invisibility suffered by Okwe, Senay, Ai Qin and the other
undocumented workers discussed in the previous chapter, I argue that
the position of the early twentieth-century servants portrayed in the
two period dramas is in fact significantly different. These servants can
indeed be seen as spectral, but their spectrality is grounded in a partic-
ular ghost-like figure, the aforementioned genie, which yields different
possibilities for agency. Of course, the position of the servant is itself
not homogeneous: the period dramas concentrate exclusively on upper-
class households and the conditions portrayed are historically specific.1
Since the early twentieth century, service jobs in private households
have declined and resurged again as dual-earner families multiplied.
I will invoke Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel, featuring an
American family with a Mexican nanny, as providing a contemporary
perspective that presents domestic service as an integral part of global-
ized capitalism. The new class of what I call globalized servants is mainly
composed of (documented and undocumented) migrants and, conse-
quently, their situation in terms of spectrality and agency comes closer
to that of the characters portrayed in Dirty Pretty Things and Ghosts.
My analysis will show that the agency available to spectral servants
cannot be grasped entirely in terms of the Freudian uncanny or the
Derridean specter. Uncanny servants, by being made to stand for their
masters’ repressed desires, are robbed of their individual and class iden-
tities, while reading servants through Derrida’s notions of paradoxical
incorporation and the visor effect downplays the master–servant power
differential, which is central to the narratives of Upstairs, Downstairs,
Gosford Park and Babel. What these products of the cultural imagination
suggest is that servants may derive an ambiguous form of agency from
Spectral Servants 79

either taking their assigned role to the extreme – as when Babel’s nanny
literalizes the notion that she is ‘in charge’ of the family’s children by
taking them to her son’s wedding in Mexico – or by stepping outside
the service scenario and asserting themselves in a different capacity.
In this regard, Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park suggest taking up
Derrida’s connection between the guest and the ghost, spectrality and
hospitality. Unlike the negative effect that the hospitality metaphor has
had on the immigration debate,2 invoking its discourse and practices
in the context of domestic service draws attention to and displaces
the meaning of the servants’ intermediate position in the home, as
both members of the household and outsiders, as hosts-by-proxy and
pseudo-guests, and as oscillating between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’.
While the boundaries between these two realms are supposed to be
stable, only to be crossed in specific circumstances, in practice masters
and servants repeatedly stray into each other’s territories in unexpected
ways. When the master–servant relation intersects with a situation of
hospitality – when servants become guests or guests become servants –
an opportunity is created to shift the spatial, social and psychological
boundaries of the service relationship. Such shifts enable servants to
achieve a more insistent, individualizing materiality: instead of indis-
tinguishable genies-in-a-bottle lingering obediently in the background
until summoned, they (momentarily) appear as discrete subjects with
bodies, voices and names of their own, entitled to recognition and

The servant as genie

In Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park the ability to be present while

seeming absent is the main characteristic that marks the servants’ lives
as ghostly. They are, however, not avisual but translucent; simultane-
ously noticeable and unobtrusive, they are seen through rather than
overlooked. In fact, because their presence and skill act as important
status markers for their employers, they are not supposed to go entirely
unnoticed. As Thorstein Veblen notes in The Theory of the Leisure Class,
trained servants constitute a form of conspicuous consumption that
solidifies the social dominance of their master:

Special training in personal service costs time and effort, and where
it is obviously present in a high degree, it argues that the servant
who possesses it neither is nor has been habitually engaged in any
productive occupation. It is prima facie evidence of a vicarious leisure
80 The Spectral Metaphor

extending far into the past. So that trained service has utility, not
only as gratifying the master’s instinctive liking for good and skillful
workmanship and his propensity for conspicuous dominance over
those whose lives are subservient to his own, but it has utility also
as putting in evidence a much larger consumption of human ser-
vice than would be shown by the mere present conspicuous leisure
performed by an untrained person.
(46, emphasis in text)

Upstairs, Downstairs, Gosford Park and especially Downton Abbey (por-

traying the lives of masters and servants on an English country estate
in the 1910s and 1920s) frequently depict servants in a conspicuous
mode, appearing neatly uniformed and lined up in the hall or in front
of the country house to welcome guests, or forming a theatrical pro-
cession when serving dinner. Instead of being hidden in the mode of
the visible in-visible or not ascending to the status of image at all,
as in the avisual, these servants are shown off and their number and
quality seen to reflect the social position and wealth of their employ-
ers. The quality of a servant is determined precisely by their ability not
to show up unless required to perform a service; they must blend into
the background, maintaining a semi-presence that reassures rather than
haunts, while materializing fully only at the behest of their master or
mistress. The latter act, as it were, as conjurers and exorcists, control-
ling the spectral servant’s appearances and disappearances. Thus, while
servants, like undocumented migrants, suffer exploitation, disempower-
ment and loss of self, their tendency to go unnoticed is not exclusively
a marker of social denigration and disavowal, but also an asset, a partic-
ular skill in great demand that could be a source of pride for the servants
The service relationship codes the ghost’s ability to move instantly
between the material and the immaterial as a positive, desirable trait.
Therefore, servants should perhaps not be associated with the tradi-
tional ghosts of western literature and film, which appear either as
haunting figures of fright and horror or impotent, ignored shadows.
Rather, what the servant, at least from the employer’s perspective,
resembles most is the genie or djinn, that spectral figure from Arabic
folklore that, in western popular culture, became associated with a readi-
ness and desire to serve.4 Although different from the figure of the ghost
in that the genie is a supernatural being that was never human, it has
many spectral qualities: A. S. Tritton describes the djinn as ‘of airy nature
[ . . . ] created from flame or smoke’; like Derrida’s specter, it has a certain
Spectral Servants 81

substance: ‘they were not pure spirit, they are joined with men as “the
two having weight” ’; and it is sometimes said to be invisible because
of its colorlessness (716). Most significantly, like ghosts, djinn operate in
an apparitional mode – ‘it seems that they were naturally invisible but
could allow themselves to be seen if they so wished’ – and are thought
capable of possessing humans (718).
René A. Bravmann notes that in the popular Arabic imagination, the
djinn can ‘come under the control of an individual, in which case it
becomes his or her guiding principle, enabling the person to achieve
new heights of success in both his secular and religious lives’ (46). This
notion of the djinn as companion or guide was, by way of the story
of Aladdin in Arabian Nights, taken up by western popular culture, most
notably in the American television series I Dream of Jeannie (1965–1970).
According to this reinterpretation, the genie does not decide by itself
when to become visible, but is made to appear, usually by rubbing a
bottle. And it no longer acts as a guide, but as a slave, compelled to
grant its master’s wishes without question. In between manifestations,
it stays out of sight in its bottle. This incarnation of the genie encap-
sulates what is expected of the ideal servant, who has no (perceptible)
personal life and is able and willing – happy even – to comply with the
master’s bidding. It is this image of the ideal servant that the period dra-
mas both conjure and contest. On the one hand, Upstairs, Downstairs
and Gosford Park paint a rather romanticized picture of the loyal ser-
vant, who is treated like (but always only like) a family member and
who takes great pride in being able to serve properly, knowing his or her
place and following the rules. On the other hand, they reveal how the
fulfillment of this ideal requires a complete erasure of the servant’s per-
sonality, desires and perspective. Again, this fits with the genie, which
does not have a view on the world while ensconced in the bottle and is
supposed to focus fully on the master’s wishes when summoned.
But the genie does not always act as expected. It is a Janus-faced
figure associated with servility and trickery, wish-fulfillment and curses.
Tritton explains that ‘sometimes djinn are little more than puckish, but
often they are malevolent and hostile to men’ (723), while according
to Bravmann ‘djinn in particular are described as capricious, taunting
and confusing one moment, then mysteriously altering their charac-
ters to help, guide, and teach’ (46). Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park
show that servants, too, are not always reliable; they may manifest as
‘slippery people’ capable of turning against their masters (Weil qtd. in
Richardson 101). This possibility is enhanced by the extreme proxim-
ity and interdependency of servant and master.5 While live-in servants
82 The Spectral Metaphor

could be tightly controlled while in the house, they led their own lives
on days off and, unlike the isolated genie-in-a-bottle, formed part of a
‘downstairs’ community and wider servant class that gradually become
more insistent on improving its working conditions. The spectral smile
on the face of the waitress in Negri’s anecdote about the Toqueville fam-
ily, cited in my introduction, is considered disturbing and unacceptable
precisely because it indicates her class-based solidarity with the rioting
workers, bringing their revolution into the bourgeois home. A possibil-
ity for agency thus emerges when the docile genie-in-a-bottle turns into
the confusing and capricious djinn, which, Tritton notes, was considered
a member of a society of spirits rather than a singular entity: ‘They were
organized in tribes under chiefs and princes, but single members had
little or no individuality [ . . . ] one of them was dangerous because the
power of his tribe was behind him and would avenge him if need was’
(717). Before discussing further how the genie may escape the bottle, it
is necessary to outline the marginalization of servants’ activities and sto-
ries that the period dramas try to counter, as well as the way the servant
and the ghost have been related.

Exposures and vanishings

Underlying Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park is an effort of expo-

sure similar to the social realist impulse found in Dirty Pretty Things and
Ghosts. Both period dramas seek to make visible that which normally
remains unseen. Whereas the successful 1967 BBC adaptation of John
Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga concentrated on life above stairs, with
only occasional glimpses of the servants who enabled the lavish lifestyle
on display, the creators of Upstairs, Downstairs, Jean Marsh and Eileen
Atkins, were determined to highlight the downstairs realm – the original
title for the series was Behind the Green Baize Door.6 What made Upstairs,
Downstairs so successful at exposing this realm – and the servant’s posi-
tion as genie-in-a-bottle that it facilitated – is first of all its status as a
televisual text. The servants’ adeptness at blending into the background
and appearing instantly when needed, and the master’s tendency to look
through them, are difficult to convey in literary texts, since any men-
tion of a servant’s presence entails a marking of that servant which is
precisely absent in the narrated situation. Also, as Julie Nash notes, the
boring, repetitive routines of servants’ work do not lend themselves to
narrativization: ‘the one thing you don’t catch most literary servants
doing is working’ (131). Visual media are more suited to representing the
servant’s anonymous toil in the background, where even the viewer may
Spectral Servants 83

overlook them. Moreover, as a television series comprising 68 episodes,

Upstairs Downstairs is uniquely able to convey the repetitive, unyielding
nature of servants’ work. This is also highlighted in Downton Abbey by
its opening sequence, an extreme long take following servants around
the house as they perform various tasks. Finally, the historical span of
Upstairs, Downstairs, whose narrative covers almost 30 years, captures
the way servants (especially lower-ranked ones) are considered inter-
changeable: throughout the series, new kitchen maids, parlor maids and
footmen appear and disappear, often without fuss or explanation.
Much like Dirty Pretty Things and Ghosts, Upstairs, Downstairs is sen-
sitive to the way subjects who are not ‘lighted up’ by the cultural gaze
need to be given the opportunity to tell their stories and present their
view of the world. While the series does not exclusively focalize its nar-
rative through the eyes of the servants, their perspective is dominant,
especially in the early episodes, giving a strong sense of what it is like
to perform a supporting role or lead what one of the characters calls
a ‘second-hand life’. Putting servants’ stories center stage constitutes a
departure from the long literary tradition, charted by Bruce Robbins,
in which ‘servants filled the margins of texts devoted to their superi-
ors’ (x). This is not to say that servants’ stories were never included.
As George Watson notes, the idea that servants were inevitably silent
and wholly servile is challenged by ‘the abundant evidence of classic
European literature that servants could be a lively, cheeky lot’ (481).7
For Mikhail Bakhtin, the very idea of a literature of private life is
unthinkable without the figure of the servant, who acts as

the eternal ‘third man’ in the private life of his lords. Servants are the
most privileged witnesses to private life. People are as little embar-
rassed in a servant’s presence as they are in the presence of an ass,
and at the same time the servant is called upon to participate in all
intimate aspects of personal life.
(‘Forms’ 124–5)

Being in a unique position to unobtrusively observe the happenings

in their households and conventionally serving as conduits for (secret)
messages, servants have long been called upon to reveal their knowl-
edge. In Gosford Park, the value of servants’ chat is enthusiastically
endorsed by Lady Trentham, who repeatedly asks her maid Mary about
the talk in the servants’ hall. Naturally, the only information she is
interested in concerns the servants’ masters. In fact, when servants tell
stories, they are expected to erase themselves from the account as much
84 The Spectral Metaphor

as possible, since the specificity of their perspective is thought to be

of no interest; hence their frequent appearance in literature as gener-
alized, unnamed types: ‘the maid’, ‘the butler’, ‘the cook’. Servants are
not so much omniscient narrators representing authority and control,
or first-person narrators providing their own perspective on the action,
as secondary ghostwriters. A good example is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering
Heights, where Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, is prompted by Lockwood,
the main narrator, to reveal the tragic story of Catherine and Heathcliff.
When at first she hesitates, he notes: ‘She was not a gossip, I feared;
unless about her own affairs, and those could hardly interest me’ (42).
Although Nelly is the source for most of the story, Brontë’s readers,
like Lockwood, are not supposed to have much interest in her life and
Another characteristic of servants’ stories is that they frequently
require outside authorization or validation. Brontë does not make Nelly
the main narrator of the novel, but entrusts that task to Lockwood, who
conveys Nelly’s story but also adjudicates and interferes with it: ‘I have
now heard all my neighbour’s history, at different sittings, as the house-
keeper could spare time from more important occupations. I’ll continue
it in her own words, only a little condensed. She is, on the whole, a
very fair narrator, and I don’t think I could improve her style’ (139).
While validating Nelly as a narrator, Lockwood simultaneously indicates
a need to edit her account, as well as taking for granted his right to req-
uisition the little time she has left after completing her duties. Another
notorious case of a servant’s story needing external support in order
to be taken seriously occurs in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw; its
elaborate authorizing frame, like that in Wuthering Heights, is emphati-
cally male and upper-class. The effect is to designate the servant’s story
as spurious and unreliable. Thus, just as Kaja Silverman argues in The
Acoustic Mirror that the female voice in classic Hollywood cinema is
marginalized by being rigidly confined to the interior of the diegesis,
becoming a text-in-a-text, the servant’s story is commonly enfolded
inside that of another, more trustworthy narrator.8 Gosford Park and
Upstairs, Downstairs eschew this tradition by making the servants inde-
pendent focalizers with their own stories to tell. As noted, Upstairs,
Downstairs privileges the downstairs perspective and although Gosford
Park depicts quite a few above-stairs intrigues, the murder mystery is
ultimately solved by a servant and explained by the housekeeper’s life
story, in defiance of the pedantic police inspector’s assumption that the
servants are above suspicion because they lack ‘a real connection with
the dead man’.9
Spectral Servants 85

In The Turn of the Screw, the need for an expository, authorizing

frame is heightened by the fact that the story the governess tells is
concerned with ghosts. If servants in general are considered unreliable
storytellers, this is doubly the case for servants who speak of ghosts.
Eve M. Lynch notes that ‘Victorian ghost stories frequently turned their
horror on the perceived proximity of servants to supernatural phe-
nomena, arcane folk beliefs, intuitive and irrational knowledge and
the uncanny’ (67). While on account of this affinity servants are often
the first to see ghosts, their visions are seldom taken seriously, neither
within the narrative nor by the reader. Accordingly, in The Turn of the
Screw the governess’s anxiety and insistence that the children confirm
the ghosts’ presence stems partly from her realization that as long as
she is the only one seeing them, she will not be taken seriously. In
Gosford Park no literal ghosts appear, but in the first episode of Upstairs,
Downstairs the new servant girl’s professed ability to read palms and
tell the future from tea leaves marks the only time the lady of the
house takes notice and interacts with her, not because she takes her
claims seriously, but because she views them as an entertaining curios-
ity. A later episode entitled ‘The Glorious Dead’ (Season 4, Episode 8)
sees Rose, the parlor maid, visiting a séance after her fiancé is killed
in the First World War. Having been told by the housekeeper that the
medium can receive messages from the other side and is visited by ‘titled
ladies’, Rose attends a session in which a woman’s dead son ostensibly
materializes to tell her he is ‘very happy’ in the afterlife. Finding the
prospect of hearing from her fiancé too upsetting, Rose leaves. When
she tells her mistress where she has been, Mrs Bellamy characterizes
spiritualism as ‘wicked’ and encourages Rose to find solace in prayer
instead. Rose seems comforted by Mrs Bellamy’s words, promises to
‘try and do what you said’ and spiritualism is not mentioned again.
Although this episode invokes the traditional association between ser-
vants and superstition, and portrays the séance as probably fraudulent,
it also points out that spiritualism, especially during the First World
War, gained adherents of all classes. Mrs Bellamy’s attempt to ‘enlighten’
Rose is not fully validated either; she comes across as patronizing and
Rose challenges her professed understanding by pointing out that she
has not merely lost her fiancé but, in him, her only chance of a
life outside service. In the end, the séance and the maid’s attempted
palm-reading suggest that an appeal to supernatural powers provided
a rare opportunity for lower-class people and servants to become vis-
ible to their so-called betters and to expose (and create) their own
86 The Spectral Metaphor

Yet most of the time, such exposure is actively repudiated. As noted,

the ideal servant is supposed to appear genie-like, materializing instantly
at the ringing of a bell but otherwise remaining invisible, secluded in
the servants’ quarters, which act as the equivalent of the genie’s bottle.
‘Being seen too often by a member of the family or a guest’, Nash writes,
‘was a sign of inefficiency’ (130). Gosford Park and Upstairs, Downstairs
emphasize that servants are made to fade into the background through
a performative process of inculcation whereby their subjectivities are,
as it were, erased. Servants are like actors asked to play a role they can
never slip out of. In Erving Goffman’s terms, they are reduced to non-
persons, ‘those who [ . . . ] are present during the interaction but in some
respects do not take the role either of performer or audience’ (qtd. in
Coser 34). The dispossessing effect of depersonalization is highlighted in
both period dramas. When the servants of the house guests arrive at the
country mansion in Gosford Park, the housekeeper, Mrs Wilson, assigns
them the names of their masters, because ‘we stick to the old ways
here; it saves confusion.’ Thus, Lady Trentham’s maid Mary becomes
Miss Trentham and Lord Stockbridge’s valet, Mr Parks, is addressed as
Mr Stockbridge. Although here it is the housekeeper who insists on the
renaming and the practice is confined to the ‘downstairs’ domain, what
Jane L. Hegstrom calls ‘name-taking’ was and is commonly practiced by
employers (28). Name-taking avoids having to deal with difficult names
(Lady Trentham calls her maid Mary, even though a ladies’ maid is sup-
posed to be addressed by her surname, because she cannot pronounce
Maceaghran), shared names between servants or, worse, between a ser-
vant and a family member. Sometimes, matters are simplified further by
calling all those consecutively occupying the same position by the same
name. For the servant, the effect is one of de-individualization and of
being cut off from one’s personal history.
The first episode of Upstairs, Downstairs features name-taking as a
dominant element in the rigorous process of de-subjectification the new
servant girl undergoes at the hands of both Lady Bellamy and the other
servants. Having had the audacity to ring the bell to the front door,
she is first literally stared ‘down’ by the butler, Mr Hudson, as he word-
lessly refers her to the basement servants’ entrance. Once inside, she
announces that she has come to apply for the position of under-house
parlormaid and introduces herself as Clémence. The other servants react
with shock to this fancy, foreign name and after the girl has been taken
to see Lady Marjorie Bellamy, who is skeptical about her story of hav-
ing worked at a French chateau but nevertheless decides to take her on,
the butler inquires: ‘and the young person’s name, milady?’ In answer,
Spectral Servants 87

Lady Marjorie states: ‘Sarah’, adding, when the girl protests: ‘Clémence
is not a servant’s name.’ From then on, the girl is known as Sarah, both
upstairs and downstairs, and she quickly learns to respond to it – the
name even sticks with her when she leaves service and reappears in the
spin-off television series Thomas & Sarah (1979).
The fact that the name ‘Clémence’ turns out to be made up only serves
to underline the dispossession effected by one’s entry into service.11
Mr Hudson cruelly exposes Sarah’s story of being the daughter of a gypsy
princess and a French count thrown out of the house after her mother
died and her father remarried as a fiction. After he figures out that she
cannot read, he forces her to admit that she is from a poor family and
was taken out of school to take care of her siblings after her mother’s
death. The other servants have clearly internalized the notion that ser-
vants are supposed to ‘have no life’, as Mrs Wilson in Gosford Park puts
it, to the degree that they deny one of their own the comfort of a make-
belief history, intended, according to Sarah, to make herself a bit more
interesting, to get her noticed. At the end of the episode, Mr Hudson
tells Sarah that ‘you are what you are. There’s no escape. Not for you or
me’, while Rose, the parlormaid, insists that service is safe and the out-
side world ‘dangerous’. Thus, the situation in which servants can only
exist as spectralized non-subjects with unremarkable names and stan-
dard histories, at the beck and call of their masters, is presented as fixed
and unchallengeable.
However, while servants are dependent on their masters, the reverse
is also true: masters need their servants both for assistance with prac-
tical everyday matters and to maintain their social status. Thus, when
Mr Bellamy and Lady Marjorie, at the end of the first episode of Upstairs,
Downstairs, find themselves alone in the drawing room late at night,
she expresses a profound discomfort about the servants’ invisible effi-
ciency, noting that it is not her but they who run the house and that
‘a lot goes on that I don’t know about’. What scares her even more
is the thought of doing without servants, since this would reveal the
full extent of their dependency. When Mr Bellamy wants to summon
someone to bring them some hot milk, she tells him: ‘I don’t like bells
ringing late in dark corridors.’ Her concern is not so much with dis-
turbing the servants’ rare private time as with the idea that they might
fail to respond: ‘One day, you know, if things go on as they have been,
you might ring and ring and no one would ever come . . . There’d be
nobody there.’ Here, the usually desirable image of the servant as genie
translates into the frightening specter of their complete vanishing, a
prospect directly linked to the fate of the aristocracy itself, which, at the
88 The Spectral Metaphor

beginning of the twentieth century (and even more so from the vantage
point of the 1970s television audience), appeared highly precarious.12
Besides evoking ghostly apparitions and vanishing acts in their nar-
ratives, Gosford Park and Upstairs, Downstairs themselves may be seen as
spectral cultural products mobilizing the anachronistic quality of the
ghost, its appearance as a trace of the past in the present. The lat-
ter series, Carl Freedman argues, invokes the past through a ‘reification
of history’ that expresses ‘intense English nostalgia’ for an age predat-
ing the decline of the British Empire, idealized as socially harmonious
(93, 81). Its

brilliantly finished positivistic naturalism both enables and camou-

flages the elision, minimization, or domestication – in sum, the
containment – of those real historical forces, intrinsic to capitalism
and imperialism, which, if squarely recognized, would mandate not
an idealizing eulogy for liberal England but a radical critique of it.
(Freedman 93, emphasis in text)

While I am in broad agreement with this assessment, Freedman’s the-

ory of containment leads him to downplay the many instances of social
strife portrayed, including the rise of the suffragette movement and the
1926 general strike. Moreover, the series does not just glorify the aristo-
cratic lifestyle; it also critiques its insulation by repeatedly pointing to
the way the Bellamys and their servants remain blind to or distance
themselves from broader social problems. If the series is read less in
terms of its wistful reception in the 1970s and more in terms of its diege-
sis, the nostalgia aspect is displaced onto the characters themselves, who
are facing the dramatic increase in uncertainty – about Empire, the class
system, gender relations and the merits of domestic service – that char-
acterized the 1903–1930 period in comparison to the Victorian age. For
the characters, then, the period they are living through is not at all one
of a ‘powerful and self-confident Britain’, but rather one in which the
British way of life is subject to radical change (Freedman 82). A similar
divergence characterizes Gosford Park. From the perspective of viewers in
the new millennium it may offer the ‘guilt-free nostalgia’ of a spectacu-
lar view of British life in the late 1930s, where class relations are largely
harmonious and race virtually invisible (Magee 484). Yet the characters
are facing the imminent end of the opulent country house lifestyle, the
vanishing of the servant class (with better working conditions, more
freedom and higher wages available outside service, it was becoming
difficult to find experienced, trustworthy staff) and increasing American
cultural dominance (Cooper 15). As Gayle Sherwood Magee points out,
Spectral Servants 89

the film’s use of diegetic songs, performed by the Ivor Novello character,
with titles like ‘The Land of Might-Have-Been’ codes the characters
not as objects of nostalgia, but as nostalgic subjects. Their longing for
the past, moreover, is not uncritically validated but thematized and,
through the plot developments, exposed as deceptive and unproductive.
Far from being a realm of safety and stability, the past turns out to con-
tain the germ for the present disorder. Considered from an intra-diegetic
perspective, therefore, these period dramas are far from comforting, but
expose a number of frightening specters, including that of nostalgia

Uncanny servants and servile specters

The ghostliness of the servant is often theorized in terms of the Freudian

uncanny. Holly Blackford’s article ‘Haunted Housekeeping’ argues that
certain literary servants can be described as uncanny because they sym-
bolize the hidden desires and dangers associated with possessing or
belonging to a house, particularly for young wives. Focusing on the
shared disempowerment of wives and female servants in the patriar-
chal household, Blackford contends that some Gothic texts portray the
servants as possessing more agency than their mistresses, since they
can penetrate parts of the house prohibited to the latter (such as the
master’s study) and may have longer tenure in the house. This enables
these servants, especially if they are higher up the servant hierarchy,
to exercise an effective haunting of the mistress, occasionally from
beyond the grave, to the point of usurping her role or driving her
While Blackford invokes the uncanny predominantly to make the
rather general point that ‘mistresses and domestics haunt one another’
(236), Brian McCuskey provides a more detailed discussion of the rela-
tionship between servants and the uncanny. In a comparative reading
of Henry James’s story ‘The Jolly Corner’ and Freud’s 1919 essay on the
uncanny, he suggests that the very concept finds its roots in ‘bourgeois
anxiety about servants’ (423). Whereas the turn of the century saw many
servants included as participants in séances, as part of the transgres-
sion of class and gender boundaries associated with spiritualism, Freud’s
uncanny harbors a profound desire to keep servants in their place.
McCuskey points out how one of the dictionary definitions of heimlich
cited by Freud is that of Hausgenossen, designating members of a house-
hold outside the family and thus referring primarily to servants. This
means that ‘servants haunt the forgotten origins of the word [uncanny]
itself’ (425). In addition, he draws attention to the way Freud initially
90 The Spectral Metaphor

blames the nurse in Hoffmann’s story ‘The Sandman’ for Nathaniel’s

fear of Coppelius, but then represses her role in favor of the castra-
tion complex, which comes from within. The idea of giving servants –
as underclass outsiders – the power to affect the minds of bourgeois
children is simply too disturbing. Moreover, associating servants with
the archaic superstitions that the person susceptible to the uncanny –
itself portrayed as a rather exquisite, subtle sensibility – is supposed to
have overcome, binds the uncanny to social and intellectual superiority.
McCuskey concludes that for Freud and James, ‘the uncanny belongs
properly to masters rather than servants’, even though its roots lie in
the class-based discomfort produced by the servant as the foreign inside
the familiar (433).
The uncanny is a productive concept to analyze the feelings of anx-
iety produced by servants in their masters as a result of the servant’s
in-between position as both a member of the household and an out-
sider. Yet, as McCuskey shows, it remains a figure resolutely defined from
the perspective of the master. In Blackford’s analysis, too, the uncanny
female servant is made to incarnate her mistress’s repressed fears. Assign-
ing importance to servants only as signs or symptoms of their masters’
or mistresses’ unconscious, the uncanny once more condemns them
to serve others rather than acting of their own accord. Because the
Freudian model of the uncanny is not truly intersubjective, as it really
only involves a single subject and his or her infantile repressions, there
is no possibility of a dialogic scenario, in Bakhtin’s sense, that would
turn the servant into more than a genie-like screen for desires and pro-
jections, and that would enable masters and servants to negotiate the
tensions and anxieties arising on both sides of the relationship.
As detailed in my introduction, Derrida uses the specter to develop
an ethics of intersubjectivity explicitly concerned with doing justice to
those we normally cannot see or choose to overlook. For him, the ghost
is not a remnant of a primitive worldview or a sign of repressed child-
hood trauma, but stands for the inevitable, disrupting appearance of
alterity. Dealing justly with such alterity cannot take the form of an
exorcism: instead of putting the ghost to rest, its continued haunting
should be welcomed. In relation to servants, who invariably mark alter-
ity in relation to their masters, this would entail acknowledging their
presence even when this presence ought not to be noted and interact-
ing with them as more than a pair of disembodied, mechanical hands.
It would mean taking responsibility for the master–servant relationship
without turning this responsibility into another moment of erasure,
oppression or condescension, as with noblesse oblige or maternalism.14
Spectral Servants 91

Living with spectral servants in Derrida’s sense requires accepting that

they have the power to disturb, that their presence in the home involves
risk – of theft, betrayal, neglect, abuse, dependency – as well as com-
fort and prestige. While this seems to offer a viable, if complex road
towards reconfiguring the master–servant relationship, it is important
to remember Derrida’s one-sided focalization of spectrality and his focus
on the sovereign ghost. If the responsibility to effectuate a living with
servants is not to be left exclusively to the masters, what opportunities
do servants themselves have within the spectral scenario to enforce a dif-
ferent relationship? Can the servant class activate the disruptive powers
Specters of Marx assigns to the ghost?
For Derrida, its paradoxical incorporation gives the ghost the abil-
ity to act on the world while at the same time escaping definition,
capture and exorcism: ‘One does not know: not out of ignorance, but
because this non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of
an absent or departed one no longer belongs to knowledge’ (Specters 6).
While the domestic servant is translucent, this translucency is produced
by the gaze of the employer and therefore fully cognizable. In fact,
like the bodies of the undocumented migrants in Dirty Pretty Things
and Ghosts, the servant’s body is excessively materialized to the extent
that it is considered nothing but a body. Of the maid in Mary Elizabeth
Braddon’s story ‘The Shadow in the Corner’, Lynch notes that ‘her body
is all that is required of her – her mind is best left empty. Reduced to
a corporal mechanism, emptied of human agency and motivation, the
working woman becomes a mere automaton’ (82). The servant’s body
here is reminiscent of Jentsch’s uncanny, which refers to intellectual
uncertainty about ‘whether an apparently animate being is really alive;
or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not in fact be animate’
(qtd. in Freud 201). Only in this case the reduction of a living being
to an automaton is not considered disturbing or worthy of intellectual
speculation at all. Indeed, the ideal servant, as embodied in the endur-
ing fantasy of a robot-housekeeper, would be a machine able to serve
without seeing and hearing, devoid of human feelings or foibles. Not
coincidentally, its non-human status is also one of the main attractions
of the genie-in-the-bottle, which is supposed to fulfill human desires
and needs without displaying any of its own. To make flesh-and-blood
servants approximate these fantasies, their bodies are instrumentalized
and reified, reduced to those parts needed for physical labor or the sex-
ual exploitation that often accompanies it.15 Any parts of their bodies
or psyches that mark them out as equally human to their masters are
92 The Spectral Metaphor

The servant’s body becomes disturbing when it makes itself known as

more than an automaton. This occurs, for example, when a female ser-
vant falls pregnant or when servants are unable to work due to illness.
In Upstairs, Downstairs, the Bellamy household is thrown into disarray
when the cook, Mrs Bridges, suffers a mental breakdown (Season 1,
Episode 9) and when Mr Hudson has a heart attack (Season 5, Episode
10). Like household appliances, servants are not supposed to break down
and when they do, it is considered highly inconvenient – and not only
because it leaves work undone. Since the quality of the servants reflects
the social status of the master, it is unthinkable to put on show a defec-
tive exemplar.16 Most vexingly, a sick servant draws attention to the
fact that he or she is fully human and, in requiring care and attention,
threatens to force the employers into a servant-like role. For this reason,
incapacitated servants are usually let go or sent away to recover else-
where. The latter is what happens to both Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges,
who are only allowed to return to the house when they can take up
their usual tasks. Of course, the decision to send them away is couched
in terms of concern and charity, but the underlying discomfort the
Bellamys feel about having to deal with their servants as human and
needy is palpable. Unlike Derrida’s specter, therefore, servants are most
disturbing when they manage to fully incarnate as human beings with
flesh-and-blood bodies, belying their perception as machines or genies.
Still, because it is the employer who has to sanction their continued
presence in the house, such incarnated servants are also easily controlled
and neutralized.
Another difference that prevents domestic servants from mobilizing
the disruptive force of their paradoxical incorporation is that they are
outside knowledge not because of any enigmatic quality, but because
their masters assume there is nothing to know: ‘It was the essence of
mastery that the lives of subordinates did not matter, that their con-
cerns were, on the whole, of no interest or importance and were even
faintly ridiculous’ (Davidoff 419). Whereas Derrida’s specters inevitably
fascinate, when subjects are conceived as translucent as a result of
being considered expendable, interchangeable and uninteresting, the
most common reaction is indifference. Consequently, drawing the mas-
ter’s attention by becoming fully visible does not necessarily lead to
validation. The scene in Gosford Park where Elsie, one of the maids,
forces everyone to notice her by intervening in a discussion between
Sir William and his wife during dinner seems highly subversive: her
addressing of Sir William as ‘Billy’, which discloses that she has been
having an intimate relationship with him, causes great shock at the
Spectral Servants 93

table. The way the story unfolds, however, emphasizes that she was
never more than a replaceable body to Sir William and that her speak-
ing out did not change this. Much like the Toqueville family’s smiling
maid referenced by Negri, Elsie is quickly fired with no intervention by
Sir William, while her revelation is neutralized by Lady McCordle’s asser-
tion: ‘It’s not as if I didn’t know.’ Drawing attention to herself when she
is supposed to remain unseen and exposing how she has been providing
sexual services causes a momentary disturbance, yet in the end Elsie’s
irrelevance as a person in excess of her body, with genuine feelings for
Sir William, is underlined.
Derrida’s visor effect, which ‘looks at us and sees us not see it even
when it is there’ seems an apt description of the servant’s ability to
observe without being noticed and it is indeed a common fear among
employers that their servants will tell what they witnessed (Specters 6).
Despite live-in servants being largely confined to the residence, they
could not be kept from all interaction with the outside and ‘servant gos-
sip always threatened to pull the tops off houses’ (Lynch 69). Gosford
Park’s Lady Trentham is careful to stipulate that ‘if there’s one thing
I don’t look for in a maid it’s discretion. Except with my own secrets of
course’ and breathes a sigh of relief when Mary proves trustworthy by
refusing to reveal her financial troubles under police questioning. While
their unobtrusive presence at intimate moments certainly gives servants
a measure of power, using it entails risks: the servant can be dismissed
without a reference (as happens to Elsie) or not believed, since servants
are assumed to tell tales. Whereas Derrida associates the visor effect with
sovereignty – ‘To feel ourselves seen by a look which it will always be
impossible to cross, that is the visor effect on the basis of which we
inherit from the law’ (Specters 7) – servants’ looks are never ‘impos-
sible to cross’ and those in service do not lay down the law, but are
often excluded from it. Domestic work is a sector notoriously difficult
to legislate since it involves private households, a problem that is com-
pounded in the present age when domestic work dominantly involves
international migrants, documented and undocumented.17
It is not so much the servant as the master who ‘sees us, and who
makes the law, who delivers the injunction’ and who demands ‘an essen-
tially blind submission to his secret’ (Derrida, Specters 7). Servants are
explicitly, sometimes contractually, forbidden from revealing secrets,
while the master possesses the right of surveillance, which he may
exercise in person or through more sophisticated technologies such as
the so-called nanny cam.18 The master (if not always the mistress, as
Blackford points out) can enter any part of the house at any time,
94 The Spectral Metaphor

while servants have only limited and regimented access. Even in the
congenial Bellamy household, servants are denied privacy in their own
bedrooms, as becomes clear when Mrs Bridges, suffering a mental break-
down after the suicide of her kitchen maid, kidnaps a baby in the street
and takes it to her room (Season 1, Episode 9). The episode is, quite
tellingly, titled ‘Why Is Her Door Locked?’ and Lady Marjorie considers
this locked door and the fact that Mrs Bridges will be unable to cook
for an important dinner party much graver crimes than the kidnapping
of a child. Furthermore, while the Bellamys are generally reluctant to
enter the ‘downstairs’ domain and profusely apologize for their inter-
ruptions, they cannot be turned away. When, in ‘Joke Over’ (Season 5,
Episode 13), Georgina, Lord Bellamy’s young ward, raucously invades
the kitchen with her friends as part of a scavenger hunt, the staff can
only stand by helplessly until they leave and clean up after them. It thus
appears that, rather than being a general attribute of any spectral appear-
ance, the visor effect is unevenly distributed and, in its most powerful
form, intimately linked to a dominant social position.
While most of the disturbing powers Derrida ascribes to the specter
are foreclosed to servants, they can derive some agency from exploit-
ing the combination of their unobtrusive presence and their masters’
indifference to it. What this amounts to is what, in the previous
chapter, appeared as ‘strategizing invisibility’. Precisely because their
masters consider them indistinguishable and uninteresting nobodies
(or, rather, all-bodies), servants may move through the house unno-
ticed and use their unsuspected intellect to advance their own agendas.
In Upstairs, Downstairs, servants sell provisions, harbor a fugitive, steal
small objects, and use their insight into the Bellamys’ secrets to extort
money. In Gosford Park, Mrs Wilson and Robert Parks get away with
murder because the police detective cannot fathom servants having the
motive or the wits to commit such a crime. However, because this strat-
egy relies upon exploiting the existing relationship to the employer, it
does not cause the employer to see the servant and his or her servility

From genie to guest

While casting doubt on the viability of servants accessing the powers

Derrida assigns to the sovereign specter, Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford
Park suggest that their reduction to genies-in-a-bottle might be coun-
tered through recourse to hospitality, a practice that, for Derrida, is
intimately connected to spectrality. In Specters of Marx, he associates
Spectral Servants 95

the specter with absolute or unconditional hospitality, which refers to the

attitude we ought ideally to adopt when confronted with the ghost
as the absolute other: a welcoming without reserve, asking no ques-
tions and imposing no rules, an ‘opening which renounces any right
to property, any right in general’ (65). As noted in my introduction,
Derrida admits that fully inhabiting this ethical ideal is impossible, but
argues that aspiring to it enables us to perceive, critique and potentially
transform the conditions imposed in actual situations of hospitality.
While the economic relation that pertains between master and servant
may appear to exclude them from any scenario of hospitality, I sug-
gest that the fact that this relation unfolds within the home and, in
the case of live-in servants, includes housing the worker as its main
remuneration, makes the concept relevant. What Upstairs, Downstairs
and Gosford Park indicate is that, under certain circumstances, it is
possible to expand the category of who can be considered a guest.
In addition, rather than seeking to remove all conditions from hospi-
tality, they portray situations that revolve around exploiting the rule
that mandates a considerate treatment of the guest, since such treat-
ment runs counter to the way servants are customarily approached.
In Goffman’s terms, it is a question of breaking frame, of creating a bewil-
dering situation in which a hospitality scenario impinges on the service
Hospitality, I suggest, provides an alternative frame within which the
servant can become more than a servile genie. Crucially, hospitality and
service are linked by a similar logic: just as the servant is supposed to
serve his master, the host is supposed to serve the guest. In hospital-
ity, however, this logic is enacted in a more equitable manner as it
temporarily brackets social hierarchies and operates according to sym-
metrical rules (whereas service has asymmetrical ones).20 As Rosello asks
in Postcolonial Hospitality, ‘[i]sn’t a guest always implicitly an equal, who
could, presumably, reciprocate at a later date, in a different space, at a
different time?’ (9). In addition to this assumption of reciprocity, the
hospitality scenario features a more ambivalent power distribution, as
the host is forced to accommodate, while the guest can be seen to
possess a haunting force. Derrida speaks of a

domestic hospitality that welcomes without welcoming the stranger,

but a stranger who is already found within (das Heimliche-
Unheimliche), more intimate with one than one is oneself, the abso-
lute proximity of a stranger whose power is singular and anonymous
(es spukt), an unnameable and neutral power, that is, undecidable,
96 The Spectral Metaphor

neither active nor passive, an an-identity that, without doing anything,

invisibly occupies places belonging finally neither to us nor to it.
(Specters 172, emphasis in text)

This passage can be seen to invoke the servant as the ‘stranger who is
already found within’, who is ‘more intimate with one than one is one-
self’ and who ‘invisibly occupies places belonging finally neither to us
nor to it.’ Furthermore, it invokes the uncanny or the ‘es spukt’ not as
properly belonging to the master, as in Freud, but as a force wielded by
this stranger. Such force is not associated with sovereignty or even activ-
ity but appears as ‘undecidable’ and subverts the notion of property that
domestic hospitality simultaneously depends on and puts at risk.
Indeed, the narratives of Gosford Park and Upstairs, Downstairs revolve
around questions of place and property: what are the proper places for
servants and masters to occupy? What happens when they are somehow
out of place? And to what extent do servants belong to their masters and
to the master’s house? While within the service scenario these questions
appear settled, with each party confined to architecturally demarcated
areas and masters taking an openly proprietary stance, the hospitality
frame introduces an alternative distribution of power.
Since servants are often the ones who make it possible to provide
hospitality and who receive and serve the guests, hospitality frequently
intersects with service. Rosello describes the effects of inserting a servant
into the scenario of hospitality. Whereas normally the host, in order to
be considered hospitable, has to serve the guest, when this host has
servants (or a wife) this humbling part of the task can be delegated:
‘the presence of guests creates work that the master of the house is not
prepared to do, but the work still has to be done by a subaltern, who
finds herself transformed into an excluded third by the hospitable pact’
(Postcolonial 123). While the master is able to avoid the most democra-
tizing aspect of hospitality, the servant never truly usurps his place; he
or she enters the hospitality frame as facilitator rather than participant.
But is a pseudo-host all a servant can be?
This question is especially pertinent in relation to servants whose
employer’s home is also theirs and who occupy a separate ‘downstairs’
domain. Both Gosford Park and Upstairs, Downstairs feature large houses
with a trade entrance over which servants have some independent con-
trol. Guests are allowed into the servants’ quarters at their discretion,
although the sanction of the highest-ranking servant (butler, cook or
housekeeper) is required and it is assumed that the master has the last
word about who can and who cannot enter the house. Live-in servants
Spectral Servants 97

in large households are thus able to take on the role of host in a more
meaningful manner, at least with respect to ‘their’ part of the house.
This, however, does not include the servants’ bedrooms, where a strict
no-visitor policy is enforced; in Gosford Park male and female servants
are even segregated on different floors. As noted before, the masters’
acceptance that the downstairs space to some degree ‘belongs’ to the
servants leads them to fall into a guest-like role when they venture
‘downstairs’. Nevertheless, they can at any moment decide to assert
their authority as masters of the house and when they do, the hospi-
tality frame is broken. Even in a house that is also theirs, therefore, the
servant can only be a temporary host or host-by-proxy, fulfilling the
function of gatekeeper without full control of the threshold and exe-
cuting the servile aspect of hosting without the attendant prestige. The
only prestige to be had is a second-hand one, when the master’s prop-
erty offers reflected status. In that case, the convention where ‘the live-in
maid is literally (con)fused with the house she occupies’ may become a
source of some agency, if only in relation to other servants and members
of the lower classes (Rosello, Postcolonial 128).
According to Rosello, the servant is equally incapable of being a guest,
since the service relation is one of employment: ‘although servants share
with guests the right to enter the master’s house, they are precisely not
placed in the position of guests’ (Postcolonial 123). Gosford Park and
Upstairs, Downstairs qualify this by pointing to specific situations in
which the servant does (threaten to) take on the role of guest. One such
situation is the aforementioned one of the indisposed servant, where
the master tries to avoid being turned into a servile host by sending
the servant away to recover. Because servants reclassified as guests are
due precisely the attention, consideration and respect they are normally
deprived of, such reclassifications tend to be actively resisted, explaining
why retired servants were not supposed to remain in the house.
Another instance in which servants become guests is when they
join their master or mistress to stay at another house. In Gosford Park
frequent cross-cuts between similar scenes unfolding upstairs and down-
stairs underline the way in which the hospitality the McCordles show
their guests is paralleled, albeit in noticeably drabber surroundings, by
the hospitality Mrs Wilson shows the visiting servants. The fact that
some of the upstairs guests feel they have to ‘work’ (entertain, dress up,
be polite) to legitimize their stay, and the financial dependency that
characterizes most of the relations between Sir William and his guests,
make clear that we are not dealing with anything close to absolute hos-
pitality and that the hospitality relationship may closely approximate
98 The Spectral Metaphor

the master–servant one, without the safeguards of an employment con-

tract. In Rosello’s words, ‘confusing the guest and the employee risks
depriving the so-called guest of the type of contract that exists in a
businesslike relationship’ (Postcolonial 9). While the degree to which
domestic service can be considered ‘businesslike’ is debatable, as it tends
to be under-regulated and patterned on familial ties, the intersection of
hospitality and servitude in Gosford Park does expose the vulnerability
of the hospitality frame to certain constrictions and power differentials
threatening to turn the guest into another genie-like figure.21
In Upstairs, Downstairs, the master–servant relationship is most
severely tested when servants reappear in the Bellamy house as guests.
In Season 4, Episode 9, the footman Edward, after having enlisted and
fighting at the western front, returns on leave because he is engaged to
one of the maids. When Mr Bellamy finds him crying on the staircase,
he is received in the morning room, where he is asked to sit down and
fixed a drink by Mr Bellamy, who takes on the role of host and indi-
cates that Edward should consider them on equal footing: ‘We can have
a quiet drink together, eh, man to man.’ It is Edward’s in-between status
that forces a shift in the master–servant relationship: although he will
return to work for the Bellamys after the war, he is not considered their
servant while enlisted, yet precisely because of his previous service he
still holds a claim to the family’s attention and care; the other reason he
is received with so much regard is that he is able to provide information
on Mr Bellamy’s son James, who is also fighting at the front, as an offi-
cer. Edward – who, incidentally, resembles a literal ghost in this scene:
thin, pale and with sunken eyes – momentarily transcends his normal
unobtrusiveness to become an actual person with a story to tell. How-
ever, with this story being one of shell-shock, the transformative effect
of his guest-status is limited and the situation soon reverts to patron-
age when Mr Bellamy first uses his influence to have Edward medically
discharged and later saves him from being charged with desertion.
Sarah, whose arrival at the Bellamy house I discussed earlier in this
chapter, causes a more enduring disturbance when she manages to take
on the role of guest several times over. After having left the Bellamy
house once, returning destitute and demoted to kitchen maid, and then
being fired for theft, she reappears in the final episode of the first season
when the Bellamy daughter, Elizabeth, is getting married. Sarah’s many
unexpected and unsanctioned departures and returns transform her
from a genie-in-the-bottle into a pestering ghost. In the church scene,
Sarah causes a disturbance by showing up and asserting, loudly and in
a lower-class accent, ‘I am one of the family.’ Lady Marjorie (sitting in
Spectral Servants 99

the front pew) and the servants (placed apart on a side balcony) are all
appalled when they realize that it is Sarah and that James, with whom
she has been having a relationship, has invited her. Although James
eventually seats her at the back of the church, showing that she is not
quite part of the family, Sarah’s position as a legitimate wedding guest
prompts Mr Hudson, back at the house, to address her as ‘Miss Delice’
(she has started a music hall career under this name) and to allow her to
call him ‘Hudson’. Crucially, Sarah does not fully break with the service
frame: rather than allowing the others to gloss over her former status as a
servant, she deliberately invokes it by coming down to the servants’ hall
and asking James to join her there. The discomfort is enhanced by her
insistence on bringing the roles of servant and guest together, putting
into question their mutual exclusivity.
Sarah’s second appearance as a guest in the Bellamy house (Season 2,
Episode 2) is even more awkward, as she is now pregnant by James.
Since it is unthinkable that Sarah would truly become ‘one of the fam-
ily’, the Bellamys decide to send her to their country estate to have the
baby (she later returns to the Bellamy house, where the baby dies soon
after being born) and to exile James to an army post in India. Although
the episode sees Sarah firmly put in her place (she is plainly told that
being an actress does not make her respectable and that she will never
be allowed to marry James), she is nevertheless treated differently than
when she was a servant. When Mr Hudson takes her to the morning
room, she tells him that she wants to be announced not as ‘Sarah’ – ‘It’s
not my name, it was forced on me and I don’t like it’ – but as ‘Clémence
Delice’. Hudson offers to call her ‘Miss Moffat’ but refuses to announce
‘a former servant of this house by a fancy French name’. In the end, he
simply announces her as ‘Sarah’. However, the fact that her name is now
open to negotiation, that she is asked to sit down in the morning room,
and that the Bellamys acknowledge certain obligations to her indicates
that she is no longer an irrelevant presence. And once again, it is her
dual invocation of both her servant past, by addressing Lady Marjorie
as ‘milady’, and her present status as a guest with a claim on the family,
by referring to James as ‘Jimmy’, that makes her such a disconcerting
The master–servant relationship is put under further strain when
Sarah, after her baby dies, is hired as a nanny for Elizabeth’s daugh-
ter. Not only does this require more interaction with the family, but
her involvement with the baby hauntingly recalls her own lost child
and her improper connection to James. Later in Season 2, Sarah gets
pregnant again. This time, the father is the chauffeur, Thomas Watson,
100 The Spectral Metaphor

but Sarah refuses to give up the father’s name, hinting at another scan-
dalous involvement with an upper-class man. Thomas, fully aware he is
the father, puts himself forward as savior of the family’s honor with an
offer of marriage and, by making use of Lady Marjorie’s refusal to allow
married servants in her house and hinting that he may reveal some
of the improprieties he has witnessed, manages to get the Bellamys to
give them a 500 pound ‘engagement present’ so they can set up their
own business. While Sarah acts as a force of disturbance by oscillat-
ing between servant and guest, so that she can no longer be ignored,
Thomas plays the role of the trustworthy, genie-like servant to per-
fection, all the while using the family’s disregard for his movements
to gather the information that will enable him to become his own
Sarah and Thomas’s final appearance (Season 2, Episode 13) shows
them claiming the position of guests to confirm that being a ser-
vant is not an unchangeable essence. As the household celebrates Lady
Marjorie’s birthday (the family upstairs with friends and James’s fiancée,
whom he has brought back from India; the servants downstairs), the
doorbell rings and Rose is shocked to see Sarah and Thomas, asking to be
announced to the family. Their arrival through the front door, the con-
fident manner in which Thomas hands Rose his cane and hat, and the
way they leave her stunned as they ascend the stairs, all indicate their
determination to claim hospitality rather than patronage. Lady Marjorie
is shocked when they enter the room, but remains polite, explaining to
the others that ‘Watkins and Sarah were with us here for a while.’ Her
use of Sarah’s first name and Thomas’s last name without ‘Mr’ reveals
that they were servants, and Sarah confirms this by addressing her as
‘milady’. Soon, a scandalized Mr Hudson bursts in, having told Rose:
‘whether they’re actually in service or not is purely academic . . . They
are of the servant class and as such have got no right to go barging into
the drawing room.’ He defines being a servant as something permanent,
a social framing one can never escape, at least not in relation to one’s
(former) masters. However, the more flexible and temporary scenario
of hospitality, which demands that any visitor be treated with respect,
undercuts this notion. Because Thomas and Sarah are already in the
drawing room and have been introduced to the other guests, they have
escaped Mr Hudson’s authority. He can only suggest, haltingly: ‘I simply
wanted to say that if Mr and Mrs Watkins would care to, [awkward pause]
some of the staff downstairs [awkward pause] would very much like to see
you.’ His use of a respectful mode of address confirms their frame switch
Spectral Servants 101

and Lady Marjorie, too, adheres to the conventions of hospitality by

graciously accepting Sarah’s gift of a scarf. The scarf signals an impor-
tant change in the power dynamics since the master–servant situation
is usually characterized by ‘one-way gifting’, from master to servant only
(Hegstrom 26–8). The bringing of a gift by a guest, on the contrary,
underlines the reciprocity inherent to conditional hospitality.
The scene comes to a climax when Sarah deigns to sit down with-
out being invited to do so, a transgression in both the hospitality and
the service frame. Lady Marjorie reacts by suggesting that they might
want to go downstairs to ‘see the others’, a comment designed to put
Thomas and Sarah back in their ‘proper’ place as other to both the fam-
ily and their legitimate guests. Although Thomas and Sarah do leave,
Sarah cleverly reframes their departure as her own desire by excusing
herself rather than letting herself be dismissed. While the power shift
that occurs in this scene may appear marginal, the near-apoplectic state
of Mr Hudson and the fact that Lord Bellamy calls the visit ‘extraordi-
nary’ signals how unsettling it is for both parties in the master–servant
relationship to see the lines blurred. The episode closes with the death of
King Edward VII and the family’s musings about the end of an era apply
as much to his demise as to the shocking fact that servants are no longer
so for life and may reappear in different roles. Season 3 of Upstairs, Down-
stairs replays the scenario of upward social mobility with Lord Bellamy’s
typist Hazel, who first becomes a guest (when James invites her to have
lunch with him in the dining room, to Mr Hudson’s dismay) and finally
marries James to become mistress of the house. Much is made of the
hostile treatment Hazel receives from the servants and James’s friends,
but her middle-class status and the continuing decline of the aristocracy
ensure she succeeds where Sarah could not. Since it would be consid-
ered inhospitable to ignore guests the way servants are disregarded,
making the transition from servant to guest is an effective strategy to
enforce being seen and to become a haunting specter that throws into
doubt established categories and raises the possibility of a new ethics of
intersubjectivity based on respect rather than disavowal.
A differently oriented intersection of servitude and hospitality occurs
in Gosford Park, where one of the guests, American actor Henry Denton,
pretends to be a valet in order to research a part in an upcoming
film. While playing the valet, he questions the other servants about
their backgrounds, tries to seduce Mary and Elsie, and manages to bed
Lady McCordle. After the murder, Denton reveals his real identity and
spends the rest of the weekend as an upstairs guest. The servants resent
102 The Spectral Metaphor

him for invading their territory and spying on them. They consider it
their prerogative to spy on their masters and feel that the one advan-
tage of not being acknowledged as significant is that they can easily
keep secrets about themselves. The servants take revenge on Denton by
leaving him without a valet and spilling coffee in his lap. Denton’s play-
acting is equally resented upstairs, particularly by Lady McCordle, who
now rejects him. The problem is not only that Denton has breached
the sacred boundary between upstairs and downstairs – a maid tells him
‘you can’t be on both teams at once, sir’ – but that he has revealed
that being a servant (and, by implication, being a master) is a role one
can play rather than a fixed, immediately recognizable state of being.
If the positions of master and servant are indeed as interchangeable as
those of host and guest, both the masters’ entitlement and the servants’
subservience cease to be self-evident.
Situations in which the master–servant relationship and the hos-
pitality scenario intersect thus offer opportunities to destabilize the
master–servant relationship. The servant, as guest, is allowed to be more
than a genie and the master, as host, is obliged to provide (some) ser-
vice and care. Servants, however, are not often enabled to become guests
and mostly do so on a temporary basis. Moreover, as shown in Downton
Abbey, where the master’s daughter eventually marries the chauffeur,
who, after her death in childbirth, is allowed to remain as a perma-
nent upstairs guest, individual breaks with the frame do not necessarily
destroy it; rather than fundamentally changing relations between the
Grantham family and their servants, the chauffeur merely becomes one
of the masters, assimilating their role without transforming it. In the
end, it was not individual or even collective action but a number of
broader social developments that caused the servant-supported lifestyle
of the British aristocracy to become untenable for all but a few and
domestic work to be reconceived in terms of assistance rather than ser-
vice: at the same time that the aristocracy dwindled in number and
estate tax and the costs of maintaining large properties rose, live-in ser-
vice became a less attractive employment option (especially for women,
who now had access to many other careers offering better pay and
more freedom) and the rise of the middle class and the development
of machines that made housework much less strenuous meant more
women were able to stay at home and take care of their own chores.
Does this mean that the effort to manifest as more than a genie-in-a-
bottle in order to lay claim to care, attention and recognition of one’s
experience is exclusive to the early twentieth-century servants portrayed
in Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park?
Spectral Servants 103

Globalized servants

In the 1970s, Lewis Coser confidently entitled an article about servants

‘The Obsolescence of an Occupational Role’. Of course, this verdict only
ever applied to the western world, where domestic service has since
experienced a resurgence as many middle-class families hire cleaners,
gardeners, nannies and au pairs to take care of tasks they do not want
or cannot find time to do themselves. Those hired – now generally
designated ‘domestic workers’ (a term perceived as less pejorative than
‘servants’) – can still be characterized as living ghosts, yet their ghost-
liness takes different shapes from that of their early twentieth-century
counterparts. The western nuclear family’s increasing desire for privacy
and the prevalence of dual earners both working away from home mean
that domestic workers, often employed on an hourly basis, labor in an
even more unseen manner. Many employers no longer desire a genie
appearing on command, but someone whose presence in or around
the home is completely unnoticed and with whom any (pretense of)
intimacy can be avoided.
Cases of live-in domestic work predominantly involve migrants, docu-
mented and undocumented, who often speak a different language than
their employer and are of another race or ethnicity. Already in 1973,
Coser remarked how, in America, white women refuse to go into ser-
vice, since it no longer offers employment security or the expectation of
being cared for by one’s masters; their places are taken by ‘a pool of oth-
erwise “undesirable” foreigners’ (39). Increased global migrant streams
have enhanced the degree of alterity the domestic worker embodies.
In Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park, although masters and servants
are considered fundamentally different in a number of respects, they
are nevertheless seen to participate in a shared social system and com-
mon culture and language. Any ‘foreignness’ on the part of the servants
remains confined to Scotland, Wales and Ireland, while much is made
of masters and servants coming together at moments of national cri-
sis or triumph. Servants may have been ghostly, but they were, by and
large, familiar ghosts, easily understood and, consequently, easily made
to blend into the background.
The globalization of domestic service, exceeding the bounds of
colonial ties, has maximized difference, with even basic communica-
tion sometimes impossible. Strategizing invisibility and frame breaking
become less likely as the lack of a shared language and culture leads
to the intensification of what Pei-Chia Lan calls ‘boundary work’.22
Such work is designed to keep employer and employee apart and make
104 The Spectral Metaphor

each appear ghostly to the other: the employee as expendable and

insignificant, the employer as unknowable and untouchable. In addi-
tion, the fact that many domestic workers emigrate for extended periods
of time renders them ghostly from the perspective of their home culture.
Vicente L. Rafael writes of overseas Filipinos:

Neither inside nor wholly outside the nation-state, they hover on

the edges of its consciousness, rendering its boundaries porous with
their dollar-driven comings and goings. In this sense, they take on the
semblance of spectral presences whose labor takes place somewhere
else but whose effects command, by their association with money, a
place in the nation-state. (269)

Here, a certain spectral agency is discerned on the part of domestic

workers in relation to their home countries, where they can exert influ-
ence through the money they send and may achieve upward mobility
for themselves or their relatives. In their places of work, furthermore,
migrant domestic workers often seek each other out and congregate,
exchanging information and coping mechanisms: nannies meet in play-
grounds and, especially in Asia, public spaces are claimed as meeting
grounds for foreign domestic workers on their days off (Lan 528). Still,
the fact that so many different nationalities are involved has made it
difficult to establish formal networks and a ‘servant class’ no longer
exists, also because of the sometimes stark contrast between the circum-
stances of a migrant domestic worker at home and in the country of
The complex spectralized position of migrant domestic workers is
reflected on in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Babel, featuring four
interconnected narratives unfolding in different parts of the world, one
of which concerns Amelia, the Mexican nanny of Richard and Susan, an
American couple on holiday in Morocco. Amelia has stayed in South-
ern California with the children, Mike and Debbie, and is supposed to
attend her son’s wedding in Mexico after the parents return. However,
when Susan is accidentally shot by a local peasant boy, they are forced
to stay longer. Richard calls Amelia to tell her that Susan’s sister will
find someone to take care of the children so she can go to the wed-
ding, but it later turns out nobody suitable was found. Richard then
tells Amelia to cancel the wedding: ‘I’ll pay for another one, I’ll pay for
a better one. I need you to do this, Amelia.’ Clearly, he expects Amelia
to subordinate her needs to his. His offer to pay for a ‘better’ wedding
Spectral Servants 105

not only implies that the planned wedding (which she probably helped
pay for) is somehow not good enough, but can also be seen to appeal
to her assumed willingness to put economic gain before her duties as a
mother; after all, she did leave her children in Mexico to take care of his.
Although Richard apologizes for putting her in a difficult situation, he
refuses to listen to Amelia’s objections or to take responsibility for his
inability to find a family member or friend willing to take care of the
children for a single day.
When Amelia cannot convince her fellow nannies to take Mike and
Debbie (it would be too difficult to explain to their employers), she
brings them with her to Mexico. Everything goes well until they try
to cross back into the United States: Amelia’s nephew, who is driving
the car and appears querulous and drunk, causes the customs official to
become suspicious, as does Amelia’s claim to be ‘in charge’ of two white
children. The nephew panics, runs the barrier and drops Amelia, Mike
and Debbie off in the desert, promising to pick them up later. Walk-
ing through the desert, they get lost and eventually Amelia decides
to leave the exhausted, dehydrated children under a tree while she
looks for help. She waves down a border patrol and, after convincing
the officer that two white American children are in danger of dying,
Mike and Debbie are recovered. Amelia is detained for working in the
United States illegally and convinced to accept voluntary deportation to
Mexico. When she asks how the children are, she is told it is ‘none of
your business’ and although Richard does not press charges against her,
it seems she will never see the children again.
Like the servants in Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park, Amelia is
not supposed to have a personal life that interferes with her duties as
a domestic worker. She is expected to put Mike and Debbie’s welfare
above that of herself and her own children, and is required to take full
responsibility for them, as if they were her own. Yet the ‘as if’ is cru-
cial, for when she takes the notion of ‘being in charge’ literally, her
actions are considered transgressive. Had they returned safely, it is still
unlikely that Richard and Susan would have approved of her taking the
children to Mexico, a country Susan has told Mike is ‘dangerous’. From
her employers’ perspective, Amelia’s disobedience transforms her from
dependable, self-effacing genie-in-a-bottle into malignant djinn. Accord-
ingly, the camera’s highlighting of her smeared make-up and blood-red
dress gives her an ominous, almost devilish appearance in the desert
scenes, especially when shooting her as seen by Mike, who accuses her
of being ‘bad’ (Figure 2.1). Yet the film, which, according to the director,
106 The Spectral Metaphor

Figure 2.1 Alejandro González Iñárritu, Babel (2006): Amelia and Mike in the

was designed as ‘a prism that allows us to see the same reality from dif-
ferent angles’ (Iñárritu 7), also underscores, through wobbly, unfocussed
point-of-view shots from Amelia’s perspective and distant long shots,
her extreme vulnerability, disorientation and desperation to save the
children (Figure 2.2).

Figure 2.2 Alejandro González Iñárritu, Babel (2006): Long shot of Amelia (top
left) lost in the desert
Spectral Servants 107

Many critics have read Babel as a film about commonality. Bert

Olivier and Todd McGowan each analyze the film from a Lacanian
perspective, arguing it offers an encounter with the impossible Real,
which appears in the form of radical contingencies, most importantly
the shooting of Susan. The encounter with the Real is then seen to
‘clear the way for renewed rapprochement between previously alien-
ated people’ (Olivier 2), making Babel ‘a film about connection rather
than separation’ (McGowan 408). Another critic similarly concludes
that ‘the characters in Iñárritu’s story serve to illustrate the deep-
level connections which supersede all other discontinuities. This is
a film about human solidarity, the power of love and the necessity
of family as the bedrock of human civilization’ (DeLashmutt 494–5).
The latter interpretation is problematic on multiple levels, but one
aspect it glaringly glosses over is the lack of connection that charac-
terizes the relationship between Amelia and her employers. Despite
the fact that she has worked in the family home for many years,
their interaction is marked by a naturalized, cultivated disconnection
that is, crucially, not seen as in need of improvement. In readings
of the film that privilege the rapprochement that undeniably occurs
between Richard and Susan (and between Chieko and her father in
the Japanese storyline), Babel’s critical assessment of Amelia’s limi-
nal, ghostly position in relation to both the family that employs her
and her own – and the disjointed notion of ‘family’ itself – is left
Harmonious reconnection occurs only for the characters from the
developed world and only among themselves, within the traditional
nuclear family. In contrast, the intercultural bonding between Richard
and the Moroccan guide, as well as that between Susan and the guide’s
grandmother, is fleeting and superficial. Moreover, the Moroccan peas-
ant boy who shot Susan loses his brother and is arrested, while Amelia
loses her livelihood and is separated from the children she cared for.
One reason for this stark discrepancy in outcomes is that the contin-
gency of the American and Japanese characters is of a different order.
Instead of by structural social, economic and political inequalities, it
is shaped by essentially private traumas: the death of their infant son
and the shooting for Richard and Susan, the suicide of her mother for
Chieko. Consequently, their reduction to the status of living ghosts is
temporally and spatially bounded, and they are able to lay claim to a
haunting force. Susan’s accident, for example, makes the global news
as a possible terrorist attack and she is airlifted to a hospital after the
American embassy intervenes. The ghostliness of the characters from the
108 The Spectral Metaphor

developing world is sustained and without force. While the particular

events of the film enhance their spectrality by actively putting their
lives in danger, they were already living ghosts before – dispossessed
and overlooked at multiple levels – and will continue to live as ghosts
Thus, far from portraying ‘the realisation of a common humanity’
(Olivier 11) or asserting the strength of ‘familial unity’ against the illu-
sionary community of globalization (DeLashmutt 496), Babel is more
aptly read as unveiling the unequal distribution of contingency and
spectralization. The fact that Olivier and McGowan largely elide Amelia
from their interpretations of the film, with the former going so far as
to reduce her to ‘an emblem for the ineffable “real” ’ (13), reinforces
how subjects like her remain largely imperceptible on the global stage
when it is surveyed from the perspective of a western, privileged ‘us’.
As in the accounts cited earlier describing the servant in terms of the
uncanny, Amelia is made to stand for something else, rendering her own
situated experience as a ghostly migrant domestic worker straddling the
border between Mexico and the United States invisible against the film’s
attempt to highlight it.
Clearly, Amelia’s situation in Babel differs considerably from that of
the servants portrayed in Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park, who
were able, under some circumstances, to exceed their function as servile,
translucent bodies or mere ‘hands’ and take on other, more forceful roles
as full subjects. In terms of her status as a living ghost, Amelia is, in fact,
closer to the undocumented migrants discussed in Chapter 1. While able
to ignore Richard’s wishes and attend the wedding, her agency is radi-
cally circumscribed by her legal precariousness and low social status.
Appearing as less of a genie than a ‘wandering subject’ in Mbembe’s
sense, she works for life in a situation where that life can always come
under threat and is considered interchangeable. Richard and Susan will
simply hire another nanny, just like Okwe, Senay and Ai Qin will be
replaced by other undocumented workers. With regard to my earlier
question, then, it may be concluded that the spectral metaphor remains
relevant for specifying the social position of domestic workers under the
conditions of globalization, but that its associations and effects have
shifted. This exposes even ostensibly similar invocations of the figure of
the ghost as historically and culturally variant. What is more, the shift in
question occurred as the position of the servant and that of the migrant
began to intersect more prevalently, suggesting that different uses of the
spectral metaphor, when they converge, may inflect and re-orient each
Spectral Servants 109

other. My next chapter, although invoking, in relation to the medium,

a very different type of spectrality – predicated on mystery and fasci-
nation rather than on the indifference that characterizes (to various
degrees) the living-dead undocumented migrant worker and the ser-
vant as genie – further explores how spectral agency may be won or
lost when the spectral metaphor is simultaneously activated in multiple
Spooky Mediums and the
Redistribution of the Sensible:
Sarah Waters’s Affinity and Hilary
Mantel’s Beyond Black

The following conversation between a prison matron and Margaret

Prior, a Lady Visitor to the women’s wing of Millbank penitentiary,
unfolds in Sarah Waters’s 1999 neo-Victorian novel Affinity, set in 1870s

‘This is a place for “palling up”, as the creatures call it; yet no-one
has made a pal of her. I believe they are leery of her. Someone got her
story from the newspapers, and passed it on – stories will get passed
on, you see, for all our pains! And then, the wards at night – the
women fancy all kinds of nonsense. Someone gives a shriek, says she
has heard queer sounds from Dawes’s cell –’
Sounds . . .?
‘Spooks, miss! The girl is a – a spirit-medium they call them, don’t
they?’ (43)

The spirit-medium referred to is Selina Dawes, who has been incarcer-

ated for fraud and assault. Despite the court’s ruling that her spiritualist
powers were a ruse, her claimed association with the supernatural still
leads the other prisoners to treat her with caution and ascribe any
unexpected sounds from her cell to ‘spooks’, which are clearly to be
feared. The same term features in the reassuring phrases spoken, in
Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black (2005), by twenty-first-century medium
Alison Hart to her audience at the start of a performance in a rundown
venue on the outskirts of London: ‘Put on your happy faces – you’re
not going to see anything that will frighten you. I won’t be going into
a trance, and you won’t be seeing spooks, or hearing spirit music’ (15).
Although Alison insists that no ‘spooks’ will appear, the fact that she

Spooky Mediums 111

feels compelled to say so indicates a persistent link between the medium

and this particular designation for ghosts.
In accordance with my aim to differentiate the various uses of the
spectral metaphor, this chapter begins by examining the consequences
of the way female mediums are associated with a ghostliness defined as
spooky, seen to signify empowerment rather than dispossession. The
precise impact of this spookiness varies, however, as the novels’ dis-
tinct historical settings emphasize the medium’s transformation from
being closely associated with mainstream scientific, religious and politi-
cal discourses to being considered little more than fringe entertainment.
My close readings of Affinity and Beyond Black concentrate on the con-
sequences of this transformation for the medium’s ability to consolidate
or improve her own social position and manipulate others by conjur-
ing alternative visions of and on the world. What these alternative
visions are seen to illuminate in the novels, more than any supernat-
ural realm, is the socially invisible as that which is manifestly there yet
remains unrecognized. I approach the spooky medium’s power of expo-
sure through Norman Bryson’s distinction between the gaze and the
glance, as well as Jacques Rancière’s definition of politics as the redis-
tribution of the sensible, of what can and cannot be perceived (sensed)
and what is and is not intelligible (makes sense) in a particular commu-
nity. Both novels, I contend, suggest that the medium, besides shifting
the border between the visible and the invisible, may also question
this very opposition and challenge the association Rancière maintains
between, on the one hand, the sensible and the visible, and, on the
other, the non-sensible (or nonsensical) and the invisible. Finally, in
addition to a quintessentially spooky medium, Waters’s novel features
(sometimes in a single character) other types of living ghosts, most
notably apparitional lesbians, ghosted spinsters and spectral servants.
By showing how spectral agency arises or is lost at the intersection
of these different activations of the spectral metaphor, Affinity once
more highlights its complexity and the need to carefully disaggregate
its different uses and meanings.

Spooky ghosts

Etymologically, ‘spook’ and ‘spooky’ are derived from the Dutch word
for ghost, spook. In English, its meaning is less general. According to
the OED, the noun functions as a colloquial or jocular term for specter,
apparition or ghost. Its irreverent tone is highlighted in the cited con-
versation between Margaret and the matron, who clearly mocks the
112 The Spectral Metaphor

prisoners’ fanciful susceptibility to the supernatural. Affinity, more-

over, overtly associates the term with class, as the mostly working-class
prisoners and matrons speak of ‘spooks’, while Margaret and her upper-
middle-class family refer to ‘ghosts’. Beyond Black similarly places the
idiom in the mouths of lower-class characters like Alison and her spirit
guide Morris, who was a petty criminal when still alive. While the use of
‘spook’ for ghost is likely to strike most contemporary readers as rather
quaint, the adjective is more current. In American English it can refer
to someone skittish or easily scared – prone to being ‘spooked’ – but it
is predominantly used to designate something frightening or eerie, as
when one of the prisoners calls Selina ‘the spooky girl’ (Waters 109).1
In contrast to the construction of the undocumented migrant as dis-
avowed ghost or the servant as obliging genie, the association between
the female medium and the spooky-as-scary appears empowering.2
A spooky ghost – that staple of horror films and Gothic fiction – is not
conjured but emerges unexpectedly and resists exorcism. It has a pro-
foundly disturbing effect that is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore.
Acting as an unrelenting haunting force that escapes knowledge but also
captivates, the spooky ghost resembles Derrida’s sovereign specter. Like
the ghost of Hamlet’s father or Simon de Canterville before the arrival of
the Otis family, it dominates those it haunts by inspiring a combination
of fear and fascination.
It is easy to see why the medium is associated with this type of
ghost, not just literally, as the one who may conjure the dead, but
also metaphorically. Though not technically a ghost herself, the line
between the medium and the spectral manifestations she facilitates is
often difficult to draw, as they may possess her body and speak or act
through her. Moreover, the degree to which female mediums contribute
to what appears remains unclear. Sometimes seen as passive reposito-
ries or vessels, ‘bearers of the spiritual message and channels for Divine
communication’, in line with Victorian norms of femininity, they may
also take on a more active role or be suspected of engineering everything
(Owen 10). Like the spooky ghost, whose provenance and aims are, at
least initially, obscure to the haunted, the medium poses a compounded
mystery: is she a fraud, deluded or are her powers genuine? If not, how
are the generated messages and manifestations to be explained? And if
so, who or what is it that appears or communicates through her? The
enigmatic quality of the medium’s powers and the ambiguous emo-
tions called up by her promise to facilitate communication with the
dead enables her to simultaneously compel and repel. Thus, in the hey-
days of spiritualism, ‘the supernatural was both fearful and terrible and
Spooky Mediums 113

ardently desired; it was a spooky sense that there was more to the world
than the everyday, and an intimation that reality might be transfigured
by something above and beyond’ (Bown, Burdett and Thurschwell 1).
In Affinity, Selina cleverly separates out these components, using the
fearful side of the supernatural to make the other inmates leave her
alone, while mobilizing its desirability to draw Margaret Prior and the
kindly matron Mrs Jelf to her in order to have them facilitate her escape
from prison. Through a series of clever manipulations staged with the
help of her secret lover Ruth Vigers, who is also Margaret’s maid and
conveys messages and items to and from Millbank, Mrs Jelf is con-
vinced Selina will materialize her dead son, while Margaret is seduced
into believing that she and Selina share a special affinity capable of gen-
erating sufficient supernatural energy to spirit Selina from the prison
to Margaret’s bedroom. Having obtained money, passports and clothes
for the life abroad Selina has promised her, Margaret finds that instead
of traveling through thin air, Selina escaped through entirely mundane
means (assisted by Mrs Jelf and disguised as a matron) to run off with
Ruth, taking everything with them. In Beyond Black, as noted, Alison
tries to play down the frightening side of her gift, which the novel por-
trays as genuine, but ultimately cannot contain her powers within the
framework of a non-spooky entertainment business. Not only does she
have to contend with the uncouth and unpredictable Morris as her spirit
guide, but fiends from her traumatic childhood persistently haunt her.
After these fiends show up to disturb a group performance, shocking
one of Alison’s fellow mediums into the hospital, Alison finally tells
the audience to ‘expect the unexpected’: ‘When we work with spirit
we are in the presence of something powerful, something we don’t
completely understand, and we need to remember it’ (370–1). Of what
exactly does this incompletely understood ‘something powerful’ con-
sist and how can it be harnessed by the medium as a spooky form of
Significantly, the term ‘spooks’ is also used to refer to spies, presum-
ably because, like ghosts, they are able to see without being seen.3 The
medium is spy-like in that she, too, is thought to possess superior – and,
crucially, clandestine – powers of perception. Purportedly, the medium
can see that which remains inaccessible to the ordinary eye, including
the realm of the dead. Although the medium’s eyes are usually visible
while this special seeing is in process, the exact manner in which her
advanced visions emerge (or whether they exist at all) cannot be deter-
mined as it is not possible to see what she is looking at by following
her line of sight. Thus, the medium requires no visor to create ‘spectral
114 The Spectral Metaphor

asymmetry’ or the impression of a look not open to being returned

(Derrida, Specters 6).
Victorian séances generated a fundamental ambivalence about what
was being seen, who was doing the seeing and what seeing entailed.
In materialization sessions, the medium was kept out of sight, ostensi-
bly unaware of what went on during her trance. According to Selina,
such ‘dark circles’ require her to sit, bound, behind a curtain ‘to pro-
tect me from the emanations that come from ordinary eyes’ (261).
Here, the medium’s special visionary gift, which takes in what others
cannot see, is contrasted with the ordinary eye’s mundane projective
secretions, from which it must be protected. This appeal to vulnerabil-
ity assuages the sense of spectral asymmetry and, conveniently, wards
off scrutiny. In this manner, the medium can orchestrate and manipu-
late the distribution of visionary power without asserting an ‘absolutely
unmasterable disproportion’ that might cause alarm (Derrida, Specters 7).
While mediums require others to believe that they can see more and in a
different way, their visions still need to remain open to being shared and
examined. The séance participants’ ability to verify has to be confirmed
as much as the medium’s exalted, alternative sight.
Whereas the living ghosts discussed in previous chapters partook of
the ghost’s susceptibility to being ignored or exorcized, the spooky
medium mobilizes its apparitionality, the ability to materialize and
dematerialize at will. An active seer, the medium is called upon to show
herself – even to put herself on show – and use her spectral powers to
reveal the imperceptible. There is, of course, a degree of predictability
to what she makes appear, yet she can also surprise, since the ‘other
world’ she senses is expected to be different and wondrous. This cre-
ates opportunities to show not only what others cannot see, but also
what they do not want to see. Mediums may subvert societal norms
by manifesting, ostensibly without meaning to, the prohibited and the
disavowed, conjuring that which is not supposed to exist or manifest.
In the nineteenth century, for example, the séance ‘became a place for
transgressive cross-class/cross-gender contact’ (Thurschwell 8) as ‘female
mediums, with the approval of those present, often assumed a male role
and sometimes also a trance persona which was totally at odds with the
Victorian idea of respectable womanhood’ (Owen 11). Affinity shows
such transgression in action when Selina materializes her spirit guide
Peter Quick (Ruth in disguise), who, according to a witness,

was ‘always one for kissing ladies or bringing them gifts, or teasing
them’. The gentlemen he never cared for. She had known him pinch
Spooky Mediums 115

a gentleman, or pull his beard. She once saw him strike a man upon
the nose – so hard, the nose was bloodied. (152)

Both here and in Beyond Black, such ‘striking back’ at authority

figures under the guise of supernatural manifestation (a true counter-
conjuration) is motivated by inequalities of gender and class, as Ruth is
a servant and Selina and Alison come from impoverished backgrounds.4
The spooky medium’s transgressive power derives from her simulta-
neously feared and admired ability to mobilize the apparitional to shift
the border between the socially visible and socially invisible. In other
words, her claim to an alternative vision can amount to a political act in
Rancière’s sense, capable of interrupting and supplementing the exist-
ing distribution of the sensible. Not only does the medium potentially
materialize an additional constituency – the spirits of the dead – but
mediumship itself permitted women (and men) of different classes to
take part in the social realm in new ways. Notably, Thurschwell asso-
ciates spiritualism with the ‘disruption’ of ‘sense boundaries’ and with
social redistribution:

spiritualism, with its quest to form communities between the liv-

ing and the dead, was an interest often shared by those who were
committed to other radical reforms that aimed to stretch the bound-
aries, and assert the rights of other, unrepresented communities
such as women, the working class, and, through vegetarianism and
anti-vivisectionism, animals. (2, 17)

The gripping mystery of mediumistic feats compels a powerful effort to

make sense of what does not make sense that puts into question the sense
of sense itself. Mediums, therefore, can be seen as particularly suited
to ‘inventing new subjects’ and establishing ‘new forms of collective
enunciation’ (Rancière, Dissensus 139).
Because of this inventive potential and the persisting skepticism sur-
rounding their abilities, mediums are subject to severe scrutiny and
surveillance, in particular by scientists, religious authorities, physicians
and the law.5 When the medium’s impact shifts from the frightening
and fascinating to disavowal and ridicule as she is exposed as fraud-
ulent, dismissed as insane or becomes a figure of pure entertainment,
her agency is compromised, her social position becomes precarious and
she is either assigned to the nonsensical (that which has no part) or
finds herself immersed in what Rancière calls consensus: ‘the matching
of sense with sense: the accord made between a sensory regime of the
116 The Spectral Metaphor

presentation of things and a mode of interpretation of their meaning

[ . . . ] It claims to observe merely that which we can all see’ (Chronicles
viii). The dispossessing consequences of mediumship’s detachment from
the spooky (as ambiguous and beyond understanding) are emphasized
both in Affinity, where Selina is jailed after one of her materialization
sessions ends in the death of her patroness, Mrs Brink, and the sex-
ual assault of a young girl, and in Beyond Black, where Alison finds
that the post-millennial popularity of mediumship as televised specta-
cle has changed the distribution of power between the medium and her

The punters all think they are talented now, gifted. They’ve been
told so often that everyone has dormant psychic powers that they’re
only waiting for the opportunity for theirs to wake up, preferably in
public. So you have to suppress them. The less they get to say, the
better. Besides, the psychics need to avoid any charge of complicity,
of soliciting information. Times have changed and the punters are
aggressive. Once they shrank from the psychics, but now the psychics
shrink from them. (362)

In response to the changed dynamics, Alison attempts to restrict her

mediumship to the commonsensical, in accordance with Rancière’s con-
viction that the current era is characterized by the exorcism of ‘all these
supplements, all these phantoms’ and a sense that ‘what is, is all there is’
(Chronicles viii).6 Selina, however, manages to retain her spooky agency
even within the prison confines by exploiting the way she, Margaret and
Ruth are positioned at a number of ghostly intersections, where different
uses of the spectral metaphor and their attendant forms of invisibility
come together to inflect each other: the apparitional lesbian and the
spooky medium, the apparitional lesbian and the ghosted spinster, and
the spectral servant and the spooky medium.

The apparitional lesbian and the spooky medium

The apparitional lesbian is Terry Castle’s term for the way lesbians have
been ‘ghosted’ or ‘made to seem invisible’ by patriarchal culture, which
persistently disavows their presence, disturbed by their circumvention
of the need for men and the aim of procreation prescribed by norma-
tive heterosexuality (4). Even when the lesbian is manifestly there, she
is ‘elusive, vaporous, difficult to spot’, and if she is seen, her sexual-
ity is often reduced to a non-carnal, unthreatening closeness (2). Castle
Spooky Mediums 117

shows how literature, from the eighteenth century onwards, has worked
as a ‘derealization machine’ by approaching lesbianism through spectral
metaphors and narratives involving literal ghosts, thus facilitating their
exorcism and preventing the physical consummation of their desires
(6). Her aim is to bring the apparitional lesbian ‘back into focus [ . . . ]
in all her worldliness, comedy, and humanity’ (3). Significantly, this
refocusing proceeds through the spectral metaphor itself. Its inher-
ent multiplicity is mobilized to make the lesbian re-appear: ‘Take the
metaphor far enough and the invisible will rematerialize, the spirit will
become flesh’ (8). The attempt to obscure lesbianism by rendering it
apparitional backfires because the ghost, by definition, marks a pres-
ence that is not unobtrusive but ‘demanding, importuning’ and, I would
add, enthralling (63). It is impossible to conjure the ghost as a vanishing
entity without also calling up its assertive, material insistence, to recall
Žižek’s term.
Various critics have linked Affinity to Castle’s theory, arguing that it
invokes and amends the ghosting of Victorian lesbians. Rosario Doblas
calls it a ‘spectral novel’ that provides a ‘textual space for imagin-
ing what is absent, or spectralised from historical record’ (103), while
Sarah Parker sees Waters ‘writ[ing] the lesbian back into tangible exis-
tence’ (4). According to Parker, while Margaret remains stuck in ‘lesbian
panic’, unwilling to acknowledge her feelings, Selina and Ruth exploit
the apparitional space of the spiritualist séance to materialize lesbian
sexuality (17).7 However, what Margaret refrains from is not so much
recognizing her feelings as displaying them. And although Selina and
Ruth do consummate their relationship, they never actually appear –
come into public focus – as a couple. As Selina’s final diary entry prolep-
tically suggests, even after their escape from England they will continue
to act as medium and maid in order to defraud wealthy women and sat-
isfy Ruth’s sexual appetites. This raises the question whether, to ensure
full social recognition, as perception and respect, it suffices to become
For Ruth and Selina, the continued satisfaction of their sexual, social
and economic desires is dependent on keeping their relationship hid-
den from others. If they are to move in refined circles and have access to
attractive wealthy girls, their status as lovers cannot be recognized and
the erotic acts performed during the séances have to occur under spir-
itualist and heterosexual cover. As suggested by the first diary entry of
the novel, which recounts the fateful night leading to Selina’s imprison-
ment, ‘coming into focus’ is to be avoided. When Mrs Brink, alerted by
the screams of the girl accosted by Peter Quick, enters the room holding
118 The Spectral Metaphor

a lamp, Selina warns that the light will hurt Peter. When Mrs Brink nev-
ertheless moves closer, Peter, holding his hands before his face, exclaims:
‘Take the light away!’ Whereas in the texts analyzed by Castle, the
putting up of hands indicates carnal lesbianism’s obliteration, refusal
and blockage, here it is designed to protect. What follows is the dreaded
moment of identification: ‘But his gown was open & his white legs
showed, & Mrs Brink would not take the lamp away until at last it began
to shake. Then she cried “O!” & she looked at me again’ (2). Mrs Brink’s
death from shock prevents the truth she has gleaned from being articu-
lated, enabling Selina and Ruth to remain in the shadows. For them, this
is not only the space of negation to which they are culturally confined,
but a space that, by appealing to spiritualist discourse and its association
with ‘shades of attachment’ exceeding the heterosexual matrix, may be
turned into a spooky realm under their control (Luckhurst, Invention
225). By remaining in the apparitional mode – but as active, spooky
ghosts rather than vanishing forms – they can continue to satisfy their
desires while avoiding social disapproval and social regulation.8
Affinity thus questions Castle’s rigid association between apparitional-
ity and disempowerment, and her unequivocal validation of becoming
visible. While exposing the lesbian in all her worldliness can be liberat-
ing, the novel shows it may also foreclose pleasures and powers derived
from escaping definition. Whereas Castle neglects the potentialities of
reading lesbianism as a flickering or shimmering state capable of tak-
ing many forms, not all immediately recognizable or readable, Affinity,
far from extracting lesbianism from the ghostly, gives their connection
an enabling twist.9 The intersection of the apparitional lesbian and the
spooky medium asserts spectrality as a site of possibility and agency that
also preserves the right to keep secrets. In an eloquent reading of Affinity
that makes a similar point, Rachel Carroll argues that Waters ‘refuses to
satisfy the desire of the contemporary reader for the retrospective mate-
rialisation into late Victorian existence of lesbian identity’ (par. 1).10 I
want to propose that the novel not only refuses to satisfy this desire, but
also formulates a critique of it that emerges in the reading process. The
novel’s ability to pull off the plot-twist of Selina and Ruth’s conspiracy
relies on the reader’s familiarity with and investment in the trajectory
towards visibility validated by Castle and coming-out narratives in gen-
eral. This trajectory is conjured in the novel through oblique references,
such as the repeated use of the word ‘queer’, that are fleshed out as the
reader learns of Margaret’s past erotic intimacy with Helen (now married
to her brother) and becomes emotionally invested in Margaret’s ostensi-
bly blossoming affair with Selina. Readers are prompted to look for and
Spooky Mediums 119

find the ghosted lesbian they have been led to expect in the Victorian
context and Waters’s work in particular. Relishing the chance to partici-
pate in the noble, and titillating, task of restoring the hidden lesbian to
visibility and carnality, they are made to feel in possession of their own
superior form of perception (a literary ‘gaydar’, if you will) until the
novel’s resolution exposes a fatal blind spot. Much like Margaret, read-
ers find themselves duped – by the retrospective unreliability of Selina’s
account, overinvestment in Margaret as the main narrator and focal-
izer, and preconceptions about lesbian fiction – into overlooking Ruth,
the real apparitional lesbian of the story. Through its deceptive narra-
tive structure, the novel undermines the idea that full visibility is the
only viable way to counteract social disavowal and that lesbians of all
eras are easily recognized from the vantage point of the enlightened
The notion of visibility itself also needs to be problematized, as Joan
W. Scott so convincingly shows in ‘The Evidence of Experience’. She
starts by looking at a passage from Samuel Delany’s The Motion of Light
in Water, which, in establishing a direct link between seeing naked male
bodies in a bathhouse and the emergence of a politicized gay iden-
tity, proposes a ‘metaphor of visibility as literal transparency’ (775).
According to this metaphor, ‘seeing is the origin of knowing. Writing is
reproduction, transmission – the communication of knowledge gained
through (visual, visceral) experience’ (776). In Affinity, Margaret’s habit
of noting in her diary what she has seen at Millbank, confident that
she is accurately transcribing her experience, appeals to this same idea.
Taking the evidence of experience as self-evident leaves aside ‘ques-
tions about the constructed nature of experience, about how subjects
are constituted as different in the first place, about how one’s vision
is structured – about language (or discourse) and history’ (Scott 777).
As Margaret belatedly discovers, her experience was mediated not only
through Ruth and Selina’s machinations, but also through the struc-
turing of her vision by her social class (which causes her to disregard
the movements of her maid) and literary education (leading her to cast
herself as Aurora and Selina as Marian Erle in reference to Elizabeth
Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh). Scott’s argument that experience is
constructed rather than foundational also contests the idea that an
authentic, stable form of lesbianism can be rescued from its patriarchal
derealization, since this relies on a refusal to historicize erotic experience
and the notion of sexuality itself.
Affinity emphasizes how the materialization of the apparitional
lesbian in a framework of visibility-as-transparency-and-recognition
120 The Spectral Metaphor

ignores diachronic and synchronic differences to establish a norma-

tive image of lesbianism. The narrative highlights Margaret’s – and
the reader’s – proclivity to identify only certain subjects and scenar-
ios as lesbian. The budding relationship between Margaret and Selina
is framed in terms of ‘affinity’, a doctrine of disembodied, telepathic
intimacy associated with spiritualism that also invokes the assumption
of instantaneous recognition and solidarity among non-heterosexuals.
When Selina’s betrayal is discovered, the relationship that seemed so
intuitive is exposed as a fake. As Lucie Armitt and Sarah Gamble
note, ‘ “immediate recognition” is actually a hindrance to perception
here’ (154). What appears from behind the eye-catching, normative
same-sex romance is a different relationship that escapes categoriza-
tion and does not offer itself up for easy consumption or affirmation.
While the text lingers on every look and touch between Selina and
Margaret, the actual couple’s physical relationship is only readable
between the lines of Selina’s cryptic account and when Margaret over-
hears ‘the floorboards creak beneath [Ruth’s] shifting bed’ the night
she awaits Selina’s appearance in her room (317). Because their rela-
tionship remains apparitional – shifting, shimmering, there but not
fully graspable – it is impossible to define: is Selina being controlled
and possibly abused by Ruth, as implied by the novel’s final words –
‘ “Remember,” Ruth is saying, “whose girl you are” ’ – or is she her
willing accomplice and S/M partner (352)?
Selina and Ruth escape identification and determination not because
it is assumed that there is nothing to know about them, as with the liv-
ing ghosts discussed previously, but because they actively conjure and
preserve, though the discourse of spiritualism, an association with the
mysterious, the secret, the spooky. On the one hand, this allows them
to keep their relationship private, while on the other it enables them to
enthrall the women they target for sexual pleasure and money. ‘Empow-
ered by invisibility’, they are able to confound not just sexual norms
but class divisions, the penal system and the conventions of lesbian
(neo-Victorian) fiction (Brindle 83n13).

The apparitional lesbian and the ghosted spinster

While Selina and Ruth find a spooky agency at the nexus of spooky
mediumship and apparitional lesbianism, Margaret is doubly dispos-
sessed, rendered inconsequential by patriarchal culture because her
feelings for other women and her status as a spinster place her outside
heteronormativity’s reproductive imperative: ‘As a spinster, Margaret is
Spooky Mediums 121

essentially a ghost in society [ . . . ] and this ghostliness functions as its

own form of punishment’ (Llewellyn 211). The way ‘ladies like me [ . . . ]
throw the system out, make it stagger’ leads the system to refuse to
acknowledge Margaret, other than to pathologize her unmarried sta-
tus (Waters 209). As noted in Chapter 1, while the visible in-visible, as
something hidden or secret, incites curiosity and a desire to uncover,
the unseen or avisual is ignored or suppressed as irrelevant, uninterest-
ing or potentially threatening. Since Margaret’s twofold spectralization
is singularly associated with what can or must not be seen, it has a pro-
foundly disabling effect: in addition to being overlooked, Margaret is
also surveilled to ensure she does not exhibit that which is not sup-
posed to appear. Her mother is constantly on the look-out for signs of
aberrance and even at Millbank her movements and growing closeness
to Selina are reported to the head matron.
Only when a third form of ghostliness enters the picture, in the form
of spiritualism, does Margaret come to perceive a positive side to her
insubstantiality. At first, ghosts and haunting are mere metaphors to
her: she notes how the prisoners, whose approach can be heard long
before it is seen, ‘might be ghosts!’ and proclaims herself ‘haunted [ . . . ]
by the ordinariness of [Millbank]’ (20, 32, emphasis in text). When one of
the family’s servants gives notice, proclaiming to have been frightened
to death by the way the house has ‘turned peculiar’, Margaret makes
light of her fears (57). But after meeting Selina and observing several
objects inexplicably appear or disappear, she remarks: ‘How my mind
runs to ghosts, these days!’ (126). Shortly after, she visits the British
National Association of Spiritualists Reading Room. Although reading
accounts of Selina’s trial leads her to conclude that mediumship is no
more than ‘a career spent lurching from one dreary district to the next,
performing garish tricks for petty payments, like a music-hall turn’, she
is profoundly spooked by a wax mold of Peter Quick’s materialized hand
in a display cabinet: ‘This made me almost tremble, I cannot say why’
(136, 130). Here, she encounters the spooky ghost’s ability to simulta-
neously attract (she cannot stop looking at the hand) and repel, but it
remains an external force acting upon her.
Gradually, however, Margaret comes to identify with spectrality as
an empowering attribute to be harnessed. In a crucial scene, she shows
Helen the Crivelli print of which Selina reminded her the first time she
saw her. Helen complains that she cannot make out the girl because
‘her face, poor thing, seems to have been rubbed quite from the paper’
(289). This leads Margaret, who has come to appreciate the indistinct as
rich with potential, to conclude that the lines in the picture are simply
122 The Spectral Metaphor

‘too subtle for her’ (289). She then proceeds to align herself with this

I, also, am growing subtle, insubstantial. I am evolving. They do not

notice it. They look at me and see me flushed and smiling – Mother
says that I am thickening at the waist! They do not know that, when
I sit with them, I keep myself amongst them through the sheer force
of my will. It is very tiring. When I am alone, as I am now, it is quite
different. Then – now – I gaze at my own flesh and see the bones show
pale beneath it. They grow paler each day. My flesh is streaming from
me. I am becoming my own ghost! I think I will haunt this room,
when I have started my new life. (289)

Here, insubstantiality becomes a sign of evolution, valued over the

straightforwardly visible because it offers an escape from scrutiny.
Because ‘they’ are not aware of all that is there, Margaret can
escape notice and dissimulate. While maintaining her visible material
presence – and the illusion of health and contentedness she needs to
project as someone who tried to take her own life – requires great exer-
tion, her becoming ghostly is effortless. Her bones grow pale and her
flesh streams away from her in an organic process not imposed on but
enacted by Margaret: ‘I am becoming my own ghost!’ Here, she identifies
herself as instigator and proprietor of her ghostliness, with the excla-
mation mark expressing excitement and self-confidence. Similarly, her
determination to ‘haunt this room’ indicates a taking control, through
the active, disruptive agency of haunting, of the space that sought to
render her invisible-as-inconsequential. This passage, therefore, shows
her assuming a forceful spectrality capable of disjointing time and space:
‘then’ and ‘now’ are put in conjunction and Margaret envisions being
in two places at the same time: abroad with Selina, yet also haunting
her mother’s drawing room.
Margaret’s ghostly self can evade detection by her family, the prison-
ers and the matrons, but materializes before the eyes of her (presumed)
lover: ‘I was not a ghost, of course, to Selina’ (308). Reinforced by
the supernatural, this strategic apparitionality is thought capable of
transporting Selina from prison unseen. However, although it promises
liberation – literally, for Selina, and metaphorically, for Margaret’s
feelings – it also induces fear. During her final visit to Selina, Margaret
feels a ‘terror of terror itself, which would tax and weary her, perhaps
harm her, perhaps keep her from me’ (308). She realizes how dependent
she has become on Selina and her spirit-friends: ‘I seemed suddenly to
Spooky Mediums 123

see myself as she had made me, I saw what I have become – I saw it,
with a kind of horror’ (309). It is the literalization of the ghost that
induces this dread, since Margaret is no longer evolving, of her own
accord, into a sly, specter-like creature but dependent on the actual exis-
tence of supernatural entities that might turn treacherous. Literalizing
the spectral metaphor in this way also means that any agency associ-
ated with it dissipates as soon as it becomes clear that Selina escaped
Millbank by entirely earthly means.
In the end, it is Margaret’s own perception that lacks subtlety. By
following the spiritualists, who ‘worked from commonsense criteria in
which the facts were deemed to be self-evident. Seeing was believing’
(Owen), and placing her trust in what she perceives as supernatural
without exploring other possible explanations, Margaret opens her-
self up to manipulation. Also factoring into her blindness to Ruth
and Selina’s scheme, I suggest in the next section, is her faith in her
own position as an all-seeing narrator and focalizer aligned with the
panoptical regime of the penitentiary.

Refocalizing the panopticon

Affinity has two narrators, Margaret and Selina, each presenting their
account in diary form. Because Selina’s entries are not synchronous with
Margaret’s but predate them, and because they are shorter and more
fragmentary, the reader is led to privilege Margaret’s account and ignore
the warnings against the logic of seeing is believing that can be read
between the lines of Selina’s text. Her entry for 18 October 1872, for
example, tellingly juxtaposes earnest passages from Common Questions
and their Answers on the Matter of the Spheres by The Spirit-Medium’s
Friend with tips ‘To keep a flower from fading’ or ‘To make an object
luminous’ (72–4). Selina’s diary, moreover, counters the conventions
of the genre by including few personal observations or straightforward
narrativized passages and by breaking with the assumption that it is
written for the author’s eyes only. In the final entry, Selina recounts:
‘[Ruth] is saying “Why are you writing?” & I tell her I am writing for
my Guardian’s eyes, as I do everything. “Him” she says, & now she is
laughing’ (352). This conjures a divine form of the visor effect whose
elevated position, however, is quickly appropriated and brought down
to earth as Ruth’s mockery makes clear that she is the true intended
Ruth turns out to be the one who ‘operates from the central tower of
the panoptic mechanism that fixes in so completely’ (Brindle 71). Since
124 The Spectral Metaphor

only she has access to both journals (except for the final pages written by
Margaret after her departure), she may be considered the secret focalizer
of the text, the one through whose eyes the reader has been look-
ing without realizing it. As a retrospectively inscribed character-bound
focalizer, her encompassing and controlling vision remains narratively
unmarked until the novel’s end, when Margaret tries to reread her diary,
but ‘seemed to see the smears of Vigers’ gaze upon the pages, sticky
and white’ (348). Crucially, Ruth’s gaze remains ungraspable even at
this point. It can be partially reconstructed by linking her actions to
her familiarity, as maid and lover, with Margaret’s and Selina’s writings,
yet it is never directly exposed. ‘Sticky and white’, her gaze appears as
an ectoplasmic trace, a smeared textual haunting that cannot be fully
captured, responded to or held accountable.
Much as the reader does not recognize Ruth’s true narrative function,
Margaret assumes she is the sole focalizer of her story: ‘I said that that
book was like my dearest friend. I told it all my closest thoughts, and
it kept them secret’ (111, emphasis in text). In addition, she believes
what she writes to be an objective account of the events she has wit-
nessed. It never occurs to her that she might be overlooking certain
aspects because of the way her vision has been structured by her class
and gender or by the reigning distribution of the sensible. On her diary’s
opening page, she goes from noting her father’s conviction that ‘any
piece of history might be made into a tale’, to wondering how to start
‘the story I have embarked on to-day’ to deciding to ‘begin my record
here’, at Millbank’s gate (7). This movement from ‘history’ to ‘tale’ to
‘story’ to ‘record’ exposes the difficulty of categorizing the evidence of
experience. Yet, instead of engaging this difficulty, Margaret glosses over
it in order to maintain her confidence in the accuracy and transparency
of her experience and its transcription. She is an unreliable narrator
oblivious to her own unreliability.
Margaret’s diary is less a record than a re-presentation. Taking to
heart the warden’s insistence that her visits will refine the prisoners –
‘Those poor unguarded hearts, [ . . . ] they were impressible, they wanted
only a finer mould, to shape them’ (12) – she considers herself able
and entitled to (re)form them, in person and in writing. Setting out
to document the prisoners’ accounts of their crimes and their feelings
about their incarceration, she soon grows tired of trying to look through
their eyes and begins appropriating their stories for her own purposes:
‘Margaret assumes paternalistic authorship of the other’s “real” story’
(Kohlke 160). This is facilitated by her tacit reaffirmation of authoritative
Spooky Mediums 125

historiography and her unconscious alliance with Millbank’s panop-

ticism or, in Derrida’s terms, its possession of the visor effect. While
Margaret considers herself in opposition to Millbank’s disciplinary visual
regime and relates it to the social surveillance enacted on her by family
members and friends with regard to her status as spinster and mental
patient, her look is in fact dependent on it, as one of the matrons indi-
cates when she bluntly tells Margaret, after Selina’s escape: ‘You didn’t
think our locks so hard – nor our matrons, perhaps – when they kept
her neat and close, for you to gaze at!’ (327).
Margaret fails to realize she is not an invisible supervisor ensconced
in a central watchtower, but, as a wanderer of the wards, subject to
visual inspection by the matrons and the prisoners. The latter are closely
surveilled, especially in the yards, which are laid out to be overseen. Nev-
ertheless, they can and do look back whenever a matron or Lady Visitor
comes down to the cells, which are not overseen but accessible only at
eye-level through a slit in the door. Millbank, like most actual prisons,
is not the perfect panopticon for which

Bentham envisioned not only venetian blinds on the windows of the

central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected
the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the
other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam
of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence
of the guardian.
(Foucault 201)

Footsteps can be heard approaching from afar and matrons often

enter the prisoners’ cells, enabling a leveled, reciprocal look. Affin-
ity thus exposes the panopticon as ‘an optical illusion’, a fantasy of
total control undermined by the necessities of daily prison life, which
requires physical contacts that go beyond scopic surveillance (Armitt
and Gamble 148).
Convinced that she possesses full visual and narrative control,
Margaret cannot see that she is in fact being ‘framed’ in the double sense
of being delineated and set up (Bal, Travelling 133–73). This is already
suggested in the description of her first encounter with Selina, who
engages in a staging or mise-en-scène of herself not as one of Foucault’s
docile bodies but as a theatrical tableau, a spooky spectacle designed
to provoke suspense. When Margaret approaches Selina’s cell, ‘a marvel-
lous stillness’ appears to emanate from it, contrasting markedly with the
126 The Spectral Metaphor

‘Millbank hush’ (26). This silence is broken by a sigh – ‘a perfect sigh, like
a sigh in a story’ (26, emphasis in text) – which interpellates Margaret as
an inveterate reader and seems to accord perfectly with her own pensive
mood. Margaret feels the sigh working upon her ‘rather strangely’ and,
as if compelled, puts her eye to the inspection slit, forgetting the story
she was told of a matron blinded by a spoon stuck through the hole
(26). While Margaret clearly relishes her ability to gaze at Selina unob-
served and is confident that she can ‘call her to me and have her story
from her’, the text suggests a blinding is indeed taking place, as it is
in fact Selina who organizes the encounter (27). Against the dictates of
the panopticon, Selina takes control by using ‘spiritualism’s penchant
for theatricality’ (Walkowitz 9) to engage in ‘an artistic organization of
the space in which the play is set; an arranging of a limited and delim-
ited section of real time and space’ (Bal, Travelling 97). This literalizes
Foucault’s description of the panopticon’s cells as ‘so many small the-
atres’ and turns the prisoner from actor playing to an imposed script
into director (200). Selina orchestrates the dramatic sequence of silence
and sigh to draw Margaret’s eye and strikes an attractive, devotional pose
reminiscent of ‘a saint or an angel in a painting of Crivelli’s’ to keep her
attention. When it occurs to Margaret that Selina might actually be pray-
ing, a ‘sudden shame’ almost causes her to turn away, but Selina holds
her eye by opening her hands to reveal a delicate flower (27).
This performance destabilizes the panopticon not only because it
causes Margaret to momentarily question her right to observe, but also
because fascination or curiosity is an illicit motivation for looking in
this disciplinary structure. Foucault’s statement that ‘it does not matter
what motive animates [the supervisor]: the curiosity of the indiscreet,
the malice of a child, the thirst for knowledge of a philosopher who
wishes to visit this museum of human nature, or the perversity of those
who take pleasure in spying and punishing’ is valid only as long as
this person remains, invisible, in the central tower (202). As soon as
the observer appears at the prisoner’s level and gazes at him or her
for a non-disciplinary purpose that betrays need, desire or inquisitive-
ness, the prisoner may manipulate the encounter to evolve, against
Bentham’s dictates, from ‘object of information’ to ‘subject of commu-
nication’ (Foucault 200). For Rancière, notably, the affects of curiosity
and attention work to ‘blur the false obviousness of strategic schemata;
they are dispositions of the body and the mind where the eye does not
know in advance what it sees and thought does not know what it should
make of it’ (Emancipated 104–5). Curiosity and attention thus introduce
ambivalence into a system in which the supervisory eye is supposed to
Spooky Mediums 127

be a stabilizing point. Such ambivalence infects Margaret’s look when,

fascinated by the scene Selina has staged for her benefit, she decides
not to tell the matron about the forbidden flower and leaves the ward
with ‘a curious feeling – half satisfaction, half sharp regret’ (28, empha-
sis added). This dual sensation, uniting the inquisitive with the strange,
loosens her affiliation with the panopticon and unsettles its distribution
of the sensible, as neither Margaret nor Selina sticks to her assigned part.
Selina’s next move is to turn herself into a subject to be spoken with
rather than to or about. During Margaret’s next visit, when they first
meet in person and it emerges that Selina is a spirit-medium, Selina ref-
erences her assigned position of visual objectification: ‘all the world may
look at me, it is part of my punishment’ (47). At the same time, she
refutes it by looking back at Margaret and making sure the latter only
sees what she wants her to see. Thus, when Margaret asks Selina to talk
to her because she ‘might find it a comfort’, Selina defiantly claims to
have ‘her own comforts’ in the form of her spirit-friends (45–6). In a
system designed to produce ‘a collection of separated individualities’,
the notion that a prisoner has company in her cell, however doubt-
ful its reality, constitutes an infringement (Foucault 201). By oscillating
between challenging Margaret’s gaze and playing up her vulnerability,
Selina takes the lead without seeming to do so, as when pretending to
be a medium under the ‘control’ of Peter Quick.11 By making the gaze
reciprocal and creating the illusion that she is capable of exceeding the
panopticon’s ability to ‘see constantly and to recognize immediately’,
Selina prepares her physical escape (Foucault 200).
At the same time, she appeals to a tactical invisibility by exploiting
the remaining spots of darkness in the panopticon’s imperfect incarna-
tion. Instead of exposing Ruth’s letters to the matrons’ eyes, for example,
she has Mrs Jelf bring them to her, unopened, under cover of their
routine interactions. And when she is threatened with removal to a
different prison, she attacks the chaplain’s clerk to land herself in the so-
called ‘darks’ where ‘the darkness is the punishment’ (182). This gloomy
realm seems the counterpoint to the panopticon’s total exposure, but
resembles it in preventing the prisoner from seeing. Darkness, however,
also provides a place to hide: ‘full lighting and the eye of a supervi-
sor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility
is a trap’ (Foucault 200). It is to avoid the trap of visibility without
visual reciprocity that Selina seeks out the shadows, comparing her-
self to a chameleon, ‘those creatures, that don’t care to be seen, and
change their skins to suit their settings’ (87). Instead of standing out
against the panoptical backlight, Selina removes herself from visibility
128 The Spectral Metaphor

by blending into her surroundings and eventually ‘disappearing’. Even

Margaret remarks on her mysterious power of transformation:

she has a way about her – I have noticed it, before to-day – a way of
shifting mood, of changing tone, and pose. She does it very subtly –
not as an actress might, with a gesture that must be seen across a
dark and crowded theatre; she does it as a piece of quiet music does
it, when it falls or rises into a slightly different signature. (86)

These subtly enacted changes in appearance – which Margaret erro-

neously dissociates from theatricality – render Selina ungraspable to the
panoptic gaze and capable of redirecting Margaret’s authorial eye. She
can only do this effectively, though, in concert with Ruth playing the
quintessential spectral servant whom Margaret cannot but overlook.

The spectral servant and the spooky medium

Whereas Selina carefully observes other people to exploit their feelings

and desires, Margaret projects hers onto others. Her own overwhelming
affection leads her to imagine Selina without her as ‘lost, blind, and
searching’ (328) and she perceives Ruth, when she perceives her at all,
as fully under her influence:

She has a very plain smile, and yet her eyes are almost handsome.
She does not trouble me. I have seen her looking curiously at the lock
upon the velvet collar, when she thinks my eyes are turned away [ . . . ]
Sometimes I think my passion must infect her. Sometimes my dreams
come so fiercely, I am sure she must catch the shape and colour of
them in her own slumbers. (305)

Here, Ruth’s inquisitive look is dismissed as inconsequential and safely

encapsulated by Margaret’s own. The maid, known to Margaret only by
her surname, ‘Vigers’, is reduced to a projection screen for her mistress’s
supposedly stronger and superior feelings. Later, as Margaret waits anx-
iously for Selina to materialize, she notes: ‘it seemed to me I shocked the
house, so that even Vigers felt me. I heard the floorboards creak beneath
her shifting bed, I heard her turning in her dream – she seemed to turn,
as the collar on my throat seemed to grow tighter’ (317). In an elitist ren-
dering of what Thurschwell calls the ‘telepathic imaginary’, Margaret
envisions her emotions reverberating in Ruth, when, in reality, Selina
and Ruth’s passion makes the floorboards creak (29).12 Only after this
is revealed does Margaret recognize how fatally she has over-privileged
Spooky Mediums 129

her own perspective: ‘There was only my longing – and hers, which so
resembled it, it seemed my own’ (348).
In relation to Chapter 2’s consideration of the spectral servant, Affin-
ity highlights the perils of ignoring the ability of domestic staff to move
around without being noticed, all the while observing the minutiae of
their masters’ lives. Much like the novel draws its readers’ attention to
two apparitional lesbians only to reveal they should have been looking
for a third, it leads them to identify the servant as a familiarly inconse-
quential figure without letting on that Ruth’s role far exceeds this cliché.
Ruth is first likened to a ghost by Selina:

there was a woman standing looking at me! And I saw her, & my heart
went into my mouth – But it was only Mrs Brink’s maid, Ruth. She
had come quietly, not like Betty used to come but like a real lady’s
maid, like a ghost.
(119, emphasis in text)

This passage invokes the cliché by emphasizing – and praising – Ruth’s

ability to move around unnoticed. At the same time, it already hints at
Ruth’s visual agency, foreshadowing the crucial function of her ‘looking’
in the rest of the novel. Selina’s diary entries gradually reveal Ruth’s
involvement in the séances as Peter Quick, but the full extent of their
relationship is obfuscated.
In Margaret’s diary, Ruth’s appearance as ‘Vigers’ not only prevents
readers from realizing the two are the same, but puts the practice of
name-taking discussed in Chapter 2 at the center of the narrative. The
fact that Margaret shows no interest in the first names of her servants
and only contemplates their surnames in terms of whether she enjoys
pronouncing them or not is contrasted with her reluctance to call Selina
‘Dawes, [ . . . ] like a servant’, as is common in prison, and with her will-
ingness to let Selina call her by the ‘secret name’ Aurora, given to her by
Helen (112–14). In accordance with the notion of the servant as genie,
Margaret renders Vigers invisible and inconsequential except when she
is needed to perform a domestic task. Not only is it difficult for her to
distinguish her new maid from her predecessor – ‘I have had Boyd in
here, only – no, not Boyd, Boyd has gone, it was Vigers, the new one –
bringing me water for a bath’ (89) – but even after discovering Selina
and Ruth’s betrayal she cannot conjure an image of her:

Vigers. What was she, to me? I could not even recall the details of her
face, her look, her manners. I could not say, cannot say now, what
130 The Spectral Metaphor

shade her hair is, what colour her eye, how her lip curves – I know
she is plain, plainer even than I.
(340, emphasis in text)

In accordance with this plainness, Ruth’s room is discovered to be

completely unremarkable: ‘a room that held nothing, like the cells at
Millbank, a room that had made nothing a substance, a texture, or a
scent’ (341). Making ‘nothing a substance’ is precisely what Ruth has
achieved; rather than drawing attention to herself, she has carefully
strategized her invisibility, her nothingness, into material gain and a
future with Selina, both of which come at Margaret’s expense.
Ruth not only dispossesses Margaret, but reduces those who would be
her masters to servants by transposing servitude to the spiritualist realm
and ennobling it: medium and sitters alike are supposed to happily take
on a waiting (expectant and servile) role in relation to the spirits of the
dead. Far from being ‘emancipated spectators’, they are made to submit
to a passive attendance in which ‘viewing is the opposite of knowing:
the spectator is held before an appearance in a state of ignorance about
the process of production of this appearance and about the reality it
conceals’ (Rancière, Emancipated 2). Substituting ‘an appearance’ with
‘an apparition’ reveals the aptness of this description to the séance sit-
uation. Within the reigning regime of the sensible, Ruth’s status as a
servant assigns her an ‘inability to take charge of what is common to
the community’, but in the other world of spiritualism she can claim a
prominent share and assign servitude to others, albeit only clandestinely
(Rancière, Politics 12). As Peter Quick, she tells a young lady during a
private session:

You believe that to be a medium you must hold your spirit aside to let
another spirit come. That however, is not how it is. You must rather
be a servant for the spirits, you must become a plastic instrument for
the spirits’ own hands. You must let your spirit be used, your prayer
must be always May I be used.
(261, emphasis in text)

A medium must not simply vacate her body to allow the spirit to pos-
sess her; she must actively let herself be molded the way servants are
supposed to. Ruth’s delight in making upper-class spiritualists take on
this vulnerable role is evident: not only does she ‘use’ the women to get
her sexual kicks (as many masters used their servants), but she willfully
destroys one gentleman’s hat and humiliates another by tipping a live
Spooky Mediums 131

crab in his lap. Thus, the séances become sites of an imperceptible (to all
but Ruth and Selina) yet consequential redistribution of the sensible.
Where Rancière’s examples of such a redistribution, like Castle’s mate-
rializing of the apparitional lesbian, consist in ‘making what was unseen
visible’ (Dissensus 38), Affinity suggests it can also take the form of mark-
ing the invisible as sensible or using its assumed nonsensicality as a
cover for making (another) sense. What Ruth and Selina enable is not
just a different ‘parcelling out of the visible and the invisible’, but a
more radical undermining of the fixed association of the visible with
the sensible and the invisible with the insensible (Rancière, Politics 19).
Again, however, their clandestine redistribution is made possible only
by the conjunction of their different types of ghostliness. Joining a tac-
tical invisibility and a theatrical visibility – the spectral servant’s knack
for moving through private and public space unapprehended and the
spooky medium’s ability to bind (and blind) people by inspiring a mix
of fear and fascination – enables them to produce an apparitional realm
that invests them with spectral agency. This apparitional realm, more-
over, is specific to the novel’s Victorian setting. As I suggest in the next
section, contemporary mediumship, as portrayed in Beyond Black, has a
more tenuous connection to the spooky.

Sideways glances

As shown above, in Margaret’s diary, the eye is considered infallible.

The same goes for certain visual media, especially photography, which
tends to be assigned a documentary role even in relation to the most
elusive of phenomena, such as ghostly apparitions. Thus, in the cata-
logue for the 2010 Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance
exhibition at the Guggenheim New York, curators Jennifer Blessing and
Nat Trotman conceive of the photograph as ‘a literal document of the
past that bears witness and thereby substantiates the very existence of
experiences otherwise only fleetingly and troublingly maintained as elu-
sive memories’ (11). Here, the photographic image is seen to arrest the
ghost and transform its unstable apparitionality into a fixed presence.
That which haunts is materialized, brought into focus, and as such
becomes (re)cognizable, challenging Derrida’s assertion that the specter
‘no longer belongs to knowledge’ (Specters 6). The catalogue attests a
notion of ‘spectral evidence’, which Ulrich Baer, in the book bearing
this title, has revealed to be paradoxical at best.13 In fact, already in
the nineteenth century there was a keen awareness of the flaws of the
photographic process and the possibility of tampering with it, so that
132 The Spectral Metaphor

spirit photographs, for example, were regarded skeptically and led to

fraud prosecutions (Gunning 62). As Gillian Beer shows, moreover, from
the 1850s onward, the experiments of, among others, physician and
physicist Hermann von Heimheltz put into question the ‘authenticity
of the eye’s insight’ (85). Far from a faultless organ capable of chal-
lenging Darwin’s model of evolution, it turned out to be imperfectly
centered and consequently open to misperceptions. As the eye was being
‘downgraded’, new discoveries like X-rays, the telegraph and telephone,
subsonic sound and subatomic particles brought to the fore a secularized
invisible and inaudible realm that was thought to be in constant flux.
This realm did not appear as simply hidden from the human senses,
ready to be unveiled, but as possibly exceeding these senses altogether:
thus, the invisible was re-imagined as ‘not the dissective opening up of
that which is enclosed but rather a permeating and propulsive energy,
at once powerful and wasting’, which might be ‘a condition of our
existence, not a new country to be colonized’ (Beer 86–8).14 In other
words, the invisible became sensible (perceptible and intelligible) in its
very invisibility, shifting the assignation of capacities from that which
could be seen to that which could not.
The spiritualists formed one (not always united) party in the ‘tussles’
that ‘developed for the control of meaning relating to that which is
invisible’ (Beer 85). Physical mediums, yielding observable phenomena,
provided an opportunity to domesticate this invisible realm by materi-
alizing it as part of the sensible-as-visible. Yet the fleeting and frequently
unclear nature of the phenomena produced simultaneously under-
scored how the invisible continued to confound the senses. Instead
of assimilating the spirits in the consensual or commonsensical, as
had happened with the new communications technologies and their
imperceptible machinations, these spirits kept manifesting as heterolo-
gies, uncanny disturbances that occur when ‘a spectacle does not fit
within the sensible framework defined by a network of meanings, an
expression does not find its place in the system of visible coordinates
where it appears’ (Rancière, Politics 63). Mental mediums, performing
feats of thought transference or telepathy, appeared to validate the
invisible as a realm that may escape the recognized five senses but
is not necessarily without meaning, as recognized in the later terms
‘extrasensory perception’ and ‘sixth sense’. It is the undecidable status of
psychic visions and mediumistic materializations – promising ultimate
sense (knowledge, control, security), yet at the same time marking that
promise as uncertain and possibly fraudulent – that gives them their
Spooky Mediums 133

redistributive force. By making people wonder what is and what is not

actually there, and what ‘seeing’ or ‘sensing’ actually entails, mediums
may challenge not merely the way visibility and invisibility are dis-
tributed, but the meaning or sense of these very categories and their
binary opposition.
To what extent is this disruptive potential retained by the nineteenth-
and early twentieth-century medium’s present-day successors? Mantel’s
Beyond Black places the medium in twenty-first-century Britain, where
claims to be able to perceive or communicate with literal ghosts no
longer form part of mainstream scientific or religious discourses.15 While
Victorian spiritualism involved all classes, was a matter of widespread
public debate and was closely affiliated to scientific practice, psychic
phenomena are now predominantly a skeptically regarded form of
entertainment related to magic shows and illusionists – engaged in
showing that which is not really there. While people who genuinely
believe in ghosts, academic departments of parapsychology and even
the Society for Psychical Research persist, Mantel’s novel emphatically
positions its medium not as surrounded by a community of believ-
ers willing to serve the spirits, but as assailed by a public demanding
to be entertained and have the spirits serve them. Alison, obese and
unglamorous, plies her trade at psychic conventions, in suburban com-
munity centers and even at hen parties. Although mediumship was
always a business, providing one of the first respectable forms of well-
paid employment for women, in the age of spiritualism it was rarely
considered pure amusement.
Beyond Black’s present-day setting changes the rationale for asking the
medium to look into the afterworld from scientific investigation, reli-
gious devotion or social utopianism to sensationalism (the death of
Princess Diana causes a feeding frenzy of people eager to access her
spirit) and self-centered pettiness (most clients are more interested in
learning about their own futures than in messages from dead relatives
whose names they often cannot even remember). Messages from the
dead are welcome when they pertain to or are useful to the living, but
the spirits are to remain in their own realm and not materialize in the
here and now. As Alison’s reassuring words before her performance,
cited at the beginning of this chapter, indicate, instead of seeking to
inspire fear and fascination, the emphasis is on providing unthreaten-
ing amusement. What potentially renders Alison spooky nonetheless is
not so much her insight into the world of the dead (which she sanitizes)
as her eerie ability to draw attention to the ‘other world’ contained by
134 The Spectral Metaphor

everyday British reality, its disavowed underside. On the first page of

the novel, she focalizes the dismal landscape traversed en route to a
performance as follows:

This is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadles [sic] tyres in

ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping
the mud. It is a landscape running with outcasts and escapees, with
Afghans, Turks and Kurds: with scapegoats, scarred with bottle and
burn marks, limping from the cities with broken ribs. The life forms
here are rejects, or anomalies: the cats tipped from speeding cars, and
the Heathrow sheep, their fleece dotted with the stench of aviation
fuel. (1)

This vision, which illuminates what is usually left in the dark, finds a
parallel in Rancière’s Short Voyages to the Land of the People, where he
describes how ‘just across the straits, away from the river, off the beaten
path, at the end of the subway line, there lives another people (unless
it is, quite simply, the people)’ (1). For Rancière, by traveling and visit-
ing as foreigners, ‘we’ are offered ‘the unexpected spectacle of another
humanity in its many figures: the return to origins, the descent to the
netherworld, the arrival in the promised land’ (1). This ‘other humanity’
consists of the people, those ‘political subjects of democracy that supple-
ment the police account of the population and displace the established
categories of identification. They are the unaccounted for within the
police order, the political subjects that disclose a wrong and demand
a redistribution of the sensible order’ (Politics 88). Crucially, Alison is
not a foreigner visiting or stumbling upon this realm, but part of it –
and it part of her. Her affinity, even identification, with this marginal
land is immediately indicated: ‘the space the road encloses is the space
inside her: the arena of combat, the wasteland, the place of civil strife
behind her ribs’ (2). The spectral (unseen, unaccounted for) netherworld
of British life, portrayed as harboring ‘outcasts and escapees’ and as a
site of ‘combat’ and ‘strife’, is visible to Alison and internalized by her
because it is where she is from and what she can never leave behind
completely, not even by moving to a new-built middle-class suburban
Alison’s mediumship should enable her to convey this obscured real-
ity to others and thus to effect a redistribution of the sensible. However,
because she is regarded as a figure of entertainment who, in order to
maintain her livelihood, should refrain from spooking her public, she
feels able to expose only what people want to see, what already makes
Spooky Mediums 135

sense to them, both of this world and the next. Everything disturbing
she keeps to herself, at great personal cost. What this draws attention
to is the difficulty of claiming a part for those who have no part. The
reigning regime of the sensible, far from being indifferent to being
redistributed, actively discourages attempts to do so. Even for subjects
able to see what is left out of the picture, it is generally easier and
more profitable, in social and monetary terms, to stick to one’s assigned
Alison proves highly susceptible to the social imperative that what is
supplemental ought to remain unseen. While possessing perfectly clear
visions of the afterlife (no paradise, but a gloomy realm much like the
world of the living), she does not reveal these to her clients, in order not
to disturb them. If she told the truth, she asserts, ‘They’d run a mile’ (32).
Instead, she offers pacifying words that explicitly deny the possibility of
any shifts in the borders between the visible and invisible or the audible
and inaudible:

‘Put on your happy faces – you’re not going to see anything that will
frighten you. I won’t be going into a trance, and you won’t be seeing
spooks, or hearing spirit music.’ She looked around, smiling, taking
in the rows. ‘So why don’t you all sit back and enjoy the evening? All
I do is, I just tune in, I just have to listen hard and decide who’s out
there.’ (15)

Unlike the Victorian séance sitters, who demanded to see with their own
eyes and touch the apparitions, Alison’s audience will not have to expe-
rience anything unsettling. Only an indirect auditory contact with the
beyond is evoked and brought completely under Alison’s control; con-
tact with the dead is like a radio you can ‘tune in’ to and also turn off.
The medium presents herself not as a servant to the spirits, but as the
one who decides who is there.
Although describing her powers to her audience in terms of manage-
able everyday audio technologies – asking them to imagine her as an
‘answering machine’ (26) – when talking to Colette, her assistant, Alison
reveals what and how she actually sees: ‘Al said there was a knack to see-
ing a spirit. It was to do with glancing sideways, not turning your head:
extending, Al said, your field of peripheral vision’ (36). To see beyond
what is conventionally visible, it is imperative to catch what is in the
margins, what exists on the edges of visibility and is accessible only
to the extraordinary (inner) eye of the medium. Art historian Norman
Bryson has defined the glance as ‘a furtive or sideways look whose
136 The Spectral Metaphor

attention is always elsewhere, which shifts to conceal its own existence,

and which is able to carry unofficial, sub rosa messages of hostility,
collusion, rebellion, and lust’ (94, emphasis in text). He opposes the frag-
mentary glance to the gaze, or the masterful, unitary and disembodied
vision associated with realism. In Beyond Black, the gaze is represented by
Colette, who ‘kept her eyes fixed in front of her; sometimes, the rigidity
she imposed seemed to make them ache in their sockets’ (36). Although
interested in the spiritual and repeatedly described as incorporeal or
ghostly, Colette does not want the supernatural to truly differ from
what she already sees and knows. Her priority is to domesticate Alison’s
gift and turn it into just another business venture run according to the
principles of rationality and efficiency. In contrast to the disciplining
and disciplined gaze, the glance is ‘hidden’, ‘profane’ or even a ‘partial
blindness’ (Bryson 121, 122, 131). As such, it has a subversive power,
taking on ‘the role of saboteur, trickster’ and potentially dispersing the
gaze to reveal other sides or aspects to the image that surpass the real-
ist impulse to assign one ‘true’ interpretation (121).16 In Beyond Black,
the literal ghosts that appear to Alison fit this description, particularly
her spirit guide Morris, who is filthy, ill-mannered, lustful, criminally
inclined and far from omniscient.
While Alison is clearly able to glance beyond what is given to vis-
ibility by the gaze, her attempts to expose what she sees meet with
resistance. When Colette asks her to write an autobiography detailing
the emergence of her ‘gift’, for example, the tape recorder refuses to
work: ‘when they played the tapes back, they found that, just as Al had
foreseen, other items had intruded’ (96). Although the image of super-
natural powers interfering with technology is something of a cliché, the
scrambling of Alison’s testimony underscores its status as a transgres-
sion: what Alison has seen cannot be recorded since it reveals something
that is not supposed to be heard. The story of her abilities, which can
be traced to a violent childhood – growing up in abject poverty in
Aldershot with a prostitute mother who forced her to earn her keep
from a very young age, and an endless stream of dodgy men, Morris
among them, engaged in crimes from dog fighting to murder – exceeds
the parameters of the sensible. Consequently, the main trauma Alison
lived through – being raped and, in an act of revenge, cutting off the
man’s testicles and feeding them to the dogs – can only be recorded as
‘inchoate noise’ (Rancière, Dissensus 7). Like the female mediums of the
nineteenth century, who were considered a threat to the social order less
because of their supposed contact with the dead than because of the way
Spooky Mediums 137

their social mobility and financial independence challenged patriarchal

rule and stereotypes of femininity, Alison ends up a social outcast,
driven from her new-built home because she keeps blurring binaries like
visible/invisible, sound/noise, real/unreal and victim/perpetrator. Her
audiences expect her to function as a kind of ‘muckraker’ or ‘sewage
worker’ (183), dealing with the unpalatable parts of their lives without
bringing them into the open, and although Alison tries hard to oblige,
in the end she cannot contain all that is not supposed to be seen. It is at
this point that a potential politics emerges.

Redistributing the sensible

Alison becomes political in Rancière’s sense of the term through her

involvement with the homeless boy Mart, whom her ‘sharp eye’ detects
‘lurking’ in the garden shed and whom she had earlier mistaken for
a spirit (292). Mart tells her his story, which involves being neglected,
medicated and forgotten: at one point, he was supposed to be, as he puts
it, ‘in a policy’ but this never happened. The way Mart describes this
policy – ‘A policy, it’s like . . . it’s either like, shutting down, or it’s like,
admissions, or it’s . . . removals. You go to another place. But not with
a removal van. Because you haven’t anything to put in one’ (295) –
indicates that it is aimed at dividing the unwanted from the wanted,
at the ‘clear categorization of every individual, of every “visible” social
unit’ (Žižek, ‘Lesson’ 77). The policy has no concrete purpose – it is not
even clear whether it is an end point or a beginning – other than to
categorize those in it as out of place. By not making it into the policy
and becoming homeless, even though this did not constitute an active
decision on his part, Mart has escaped categorization and has become
the excluded of the political community, a ‘conflictual actor, an actor
who includes himself as a supplementary subject, carrying a right not
yet recognized or witnessing an injustice in the existing state of right’
(Rancière, Dissensus 189). As Mart puts it: ‘You see, I came through the
net . . . I’m an outloop. I’m on a list, but I’m not computerate yet. I think,
the list I was on, I think they lost it’ (299). By insisting that he is ‘on
a list’ that simply has not been processed yet, he does not ask to be
included from the outside, but lays claim to a part that is already his,
a right he already holds as one of the people. By identifying himself
as an ‘outloop’ that ‘came through the net’, Mart pinpoints his posi-
tion as a gap in or supplement to the sensible, to that which can be
138 The Spectral Metaphor

This position should give him the power to disturb, a supposition

supported by the fact that he is repeatedly sought out by Constable
Delingbole, representing the totalizing force of Rancière’s police. How-
ever, Delingbole considers it unnecessary to categorize or apprehend
Mart; when he finds him, he merely asks him to move on and stay
hidden. Because Mart’s part in the social is not linked to any assigned
capacities – unlike workers, who were (only) supposed to work, and
women, who were (only) supposed to keep house and provide spousal
and maternal care – except for the capacity constantly to be on the
move, he is expendable, surplus rather than supplement. The list on
which he featured has been lost without anybody concerned about
recovering it. For Mart, not being assigned any capacity that gives him
a place ultimately becomes unbearable and he is found hanged, hav-
ing killed himself or, the novel hints, having been murdered by Morris.
Here, the realization that, fundamentally, everyone has a part in the
demos turns out not to be enough to survive when someone is not
just unrecognized as a political subject but unrecognized altogether.
This might be where Agamben’s ethical perspective, which encompasses
those disposable subjects who may be killed with impunity, becomes
indispensible, despite Rancière’s reservations about its ontologization of
power (Dissensus 64–7).
It is Alison who tries to take responsibility for Mart and the ethical
imperative he represents by letting him stay in the shed. She expresses
a genuine interest in who he is and what he wants (apart from any
inscribed ‘part’ in the political community) without forcing him to
change his ways, but is herself also in a precarious position, with her
traumatic past creeping up on her and her marginal profession and
excessive flesh marking her as a potential outsider. When bringing Mart
food, she is aware that she is engaging in a clandestine act that has to
be kept hidden from the social gaze: ‘She couldn’t rule out, of course,
being seen by spectators from an upper window. She thought, I’ve a per-
fect right to walk across my own lawn, from my own shed, with a china
mug in my hand. But she found herself scuttling, head down’ (293).
Here, as in the panopticon, visibility emerges as a trap. After feeding
Mart and buying him new trainers, Alison notes that the ‘element of
camouflage’ that had hidden him when he was dirty and hungry has
disappeared: ‘you noticed his feet now, in the big clean navy-and-white
shoes, seeming to come around the corner before him’ (314). Rather
than emancipating him, this newfound conspicuousness marks him out
as a target for removal. When Colette spots him, she instantly orders
him to leave, placing him firmly outside the sensible: ‘Who’d want to
Spooky Mediums 139

listen to you? You’re a vagrant’ (315). From being uncategorized yet

largely left alone, Mart goes to being perceived as an unwanted noise to
be silenced, a stain to be removed. Once perceived, his presence threat-
ens to reveal that there are things that not only refuse to stay in their
assigned place but have no place at all other than displacement. As such,
it ‘confronts the blindness of those who “do not see” that which has no
place to be seen’, but it does so to little effect, since Mart can simply be
made to move on in accordance with his assigned capacity as a vagrant
(Rancière, Dissensus 39).
Only when Mart is found hanged in Alison and Colette’s shed does
he become something people want to see: suddenly, the neighborhood
is overrun with ‘sightseers’, alive and dead (408). The spectacle of his
corpse momentarily defiles the neighborhood, but falls short of redis-
tributing the regime of the sensible in any sustained way, since it is
easily removed. Blamed by the neighbors for letting Mart disrupt their
sanctuary, Alison is taken from her house by the police. She leaves with
a blanket over her head, signaling that she, too, has been excluded from
visibility. Like the female protagonist of Roberto Rossellini’s film Europa
’51, analyzed by Rancière, Alison is punished for giving a ‘scandalous
response’, but whereas the woman’s scandal consists in seeing ‘nothing’
when shown Rorschach figures, Alison’s consists of seeing and exposing
more than ought to be visible (Short 110).
While the police (in both senses of the word) triumphs ‘earthside’,
Beyond Black envisions a vindication of Alison’s alternative vision ‘air-
side’. There, Mart is taken under Morris’s wing and becomes part of
the community of lowly spirits that includes the men who ruined
Alison’s youth. This may be a community of criminals, but by offer-
ing inclusion, acknowledgment and even career prospects (Mart may
eventually become a spirit guide), it finally assigns Mart a perceptible
part. The novel thus allows those excluded from contemporary British
society to inhabit a different regime of the sensible, a literal ‘other
world’. Alison, too, finds redemption there, as the spirits that besieged
her decide that what she did for Mart was a ‘good deed’ and reward
her by cutting her ties to their sordidness (444). When two friendly
old women replace Morris as her spirit guides, it is as if, in return for
her ethical acknowledgment of Mart, Alison has been granted a fresh
For Rancière, ‘the essence of politics is the manifestation of dissensus as
the presence of two worlds in one’, but the problem in Beyond Black is that
the two worlds are not presented ‘in one’ but remain separate (Dissensus
37, emphasis in text). ‘Earthside’, Mart’s political inclusion and Alison’s
140 The Spectral Metaphor

ethical redemption do not translate: Mart is dead, while Alison settles

back into her old, comforting routine. On the final pages of the novel,
she is traveling to another one of her shows. Her childhood memories
are receding and although she still perceives the ‘crumbling defences,
spillage and seepages’ underlying the banal landscape, she does not draw
attention to them or contemplate them at length, preferring to focus on
‘whom fortune favours today’ (447–50). This suggests that her sideways
glance has been replaced by a straight gaze and the threat of dissensus
has dissolved in consensus.
Ultimately, then, Alison’s mediumship does not constitute the
empowering, spooky resource it was for Selina and Ruth in Affinity,
perhaps because, unlike them, she cannot always choose or control
what to sense or manifest. Yet, as I have shown, a potential political
power is nevertheless associated with the unpredictability of Alison’s
‘gift’, even in a supremely skeptical age. Since what mediums actually
perceive cannot be definitively ascertained, their claim to possess supe-
rior senses always threatens (or promises) to reveal not only that which
people already can or wish to apprehend but also the inconceivable.
Mediumistic revelations, moreover, proceed in a manner that escapes
the straightforwardly realistic or representational, being characterized
by the ambivalence and imaginativeness of the apparitional as the not
quite comprehensible.
Significantly, Rancière has proposed an apparitional regime in oppo-
sition to Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulation. In simulation, ‘every-
thing is seen, nothing appears since everything is already there’, so that,
instead of challenging the real and realism, it opposes appearance:

The world of total visibility carves out a real where appearance has no
place to occur or to produce its divisive, fragmenting effects. Appear-
ance, particularly political appearance, does not conceal reality but
in fact splinters it, introduces objects into it, objects whose mode of
presentation is not homogenous with the ordinary mode of existence
of the objects thereby identified.
(Rancière, Dis-agreement 103–4)

Appearance is heterogeneous and enables the ‘political constitution of

nonidentary subjects that upset the homogeneity of the perceptible by
showing separate worlds together, by organizing worlds of litigious com-
munity’ (104). This is precisely what mediums can do: whether their
powers are actual or not, they expose not in the mode of total reve-
lation associated with the gaze, rendering everything instantly visible
Spooky Mediums 141

and recognizable, but through fragmentary glances that produce incom-

plete pictures or stories. Alison’s traumatic past, for example, emerges
not in clear-cut description, but as a hazy picture drawn through a
series of equivocations such as ‘I’m sure I wasn’t seeing’, ‘I wouldn’t
say I saw you’ and ‘I couldn’t have noticed’ (432–3). This is a seeing
that proceeds through non-seeing, but nevertheless becomes sensible.
Whereas many nineteenth-century spiritualists associated the medium
with demystification, with gaining immediate access to a hidden yet
already conceptualized truth (they already knew, for example, what the
spirits would look like, making fake spirit photography and fraudu-
lent materializations a relatively straightforward process), mediums may
operate in more lateral registers. In putting these registers on show,
they can confound expectations and underscore how our perception of
‘reality’ is circumscribed in ways far more serious than not being able
to see into the afterlife, not least in being dominantly equated to the
The mediums portrayed in Affinity and Beyond Black contest this equa-
tion: Selina by exploiting its fallacy (making Margaret think what she
sees must be real) and Alison by insisting on its edited nature (high-
lighting that what we acknowledge as ‘real’ is not all we see). Curiously,
despite presenting the sensible as a construct, Rancière’s work, too, tends
to solidify the link between the visible and the sensible (as perceptible
and intelligible) and the invisible and the insensible (as imperceptible
and nonsensical). While such a link is admittedly operative in western
post-Enlightenment thought and its distribution of the sensible, it is
neither essential nor absolute. As I have shown with regard to both
undocumented migrants and servants, what is physiologically visible
might still be overlooked and even if its presence is acknowledged, it
can still be thought to make no sense, as is the case, for example, with
the surveilled prisoners in Affinity. Conversely, what is physiologically
invisible may still be considered part of the sensible, as is true for many
scientific phenomena (including the elusive higgs boson particle) and
religious or philosophical concepts.
In places, Rancière does suggest that the visible may exceed the visual;
he notes, for example, that ‘there is visibility that does not amount to
an image; there are images which consist wholly in words [ . . . ] The visi-
ble can be arranged in meaningful tropes; words deploy a visibility that
can be blinding’ (Future 7). He also acknowledges that a redistribution
of the sensible could amount to cracking open ‘the obviousness of the
visible’ (Emancipated 49). At the same time, he insistently identifies the
border between the visible and the invisible as a – or even the – central
142 The Spectral Metaphor

mechanism in distributing or dividing the sensible, while defining pol-

itics as beginning when ‘those who were destined to remain in the
domestic and invisible territory of work and reproduction [ . . . ] make
the invisible visible’ (Dissensus 139). This reinforces the idea that the
visibility/invisibility opposition is not itself open to redistribution and
that, as in Castle’s work on the apparitional lesbian, acquiring visibility
is the privileged emancipatory move.
My readings of Affinity and Beyond Black have identified alternative
paths to redistribution that, crucially, proceed through the invisible and
assign it its own sense. Thus, instead of merely seeking to transport
the spirits or themselves from the realm of the invisible/insensible to
that of the visible/sensible, Selina and Alison contest these pairings.
Their different degrees of success – with Selina and Ruth able to forge
their own sense (and sensuality), while Alison rejoins the consensus –
may be attributed to the changed context. Selina, because of the cul-
tural prominence of nineteenth-century spiritualism, can operate fully
in the spooky mode, garnering, without great effort, a heady affective
mix of fear and fascination that enables her to compel, in both senses of
the word. Her spectral agency is further enhanced by the covert mobi-
lization of Ruth’s position as an overlooked servant and the fact that
their status as apparitional lesbians is barely knowable and can thus eas-
ily be kept unseen. Alison, on the contrary, is barely taken seriously
as a medium of the present day, except in an entertaining capacity,
and feels forced to disavow any association with the spooky. At a sub-
merged level, the spooky does operate (most notably in the figures of
Morris and the fiends) and both Alison and Matt take on new parts
‘airside’. ‘Earthside’, however, Alison is made to assume the dispossess-
ing spectrality of social outcast due to her weight, her disparaged craft
and her relationship with Colette, which is mistaken for a lesbian one
(signaling how lesbianism may be more visible now than in Victorian
times without necessarily being considered sensible). This renders her
unable to prevent Matt’s death, to achieve recognition of her traumatic
childhood or to live the suburban life she aspires to. The connection
between the medium as living ghost and the spooky, then, is not always
equally strong and even when the spooky can be harnessed strategically
or politically, the balance between inciting fear and fascination must be
carefully struck.
The next chapter, which concentrates on the missing, shows lit-
eral disappearance, a person’s unexplained vanishing, to be one of
the most effective and horrifying modes of producing living ghosts
Spooky Mediums 143

in which the ‘living’ part is effectively crossed out. At the same time,
the novels I analyze, much like Affinity and Beyond Black, envision a
form of agency arising from the invisible by pointing to the haunt-
ing force the missing exert as missing, as well as to the possibility
of self-spectralization as a radical way of absenting oneself from the
intergenerational reproduction of oppressive social systems.
Ghosts of the Missing:
Multidirectional Haunting
and Self-Spectralization in Ian
McEwan’s The Child in Time
and Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park

Missing persons can exert a powerful haunting force on those searching

for them. Like mediums, they constitute an enigma that inspires a mix-
ture of fascination and fear. Yet with the missing, curiosity about what
could have happened is dominated by the anxiety that the explanation
for their disappearance is unlikely to be innocuous. Instead of producing
a surplus of signification in the manner of the enthralling apparitions
conjured by the medium, missing persons mark a lack of meaning and
knowledge. To refer to them as living ghosts may seem a misnomer,
since it is precisely their being alive that cannot be definitively con-
firmed or denied. At the same time, the elusive fate of the missing, even
when their death is virtually certain, works to preserve and extend their
lives in the minds of those left behind. Caught in a liminal zone, miss-
ing persons can live on while simultaneously becoming frozen in time;
placed outside the everyday, progressive flow of temporality, they for-
ever remain the age they were when they disappeared, growing older
only virtually in mental images or digital composites. Their spectral lives
are survivals characterized not by difference, potentiality and becoming,
but by sameness and preservation. The ghostliness of the missing, then,
is primarily predicated on their absent presence: they cannot be located
and, as such, partake of Derrida’s visible in-visible. While they cannot
be seen, they remain present; those looking for them know that they,
or their remains, must be somewhere. Through their frustrating inac-
cessibility, the missing generate an overwhelming sense of uncertainty
and loss. This loss cannot be mourned, since reality testing, designed

Ghosts of the Missing 145

to confirm ‘that the beloved object no longer exists’, is impossible

(Freud, ‘Mourning’ 204). The opportunity to ontologize the remains,
‘to know whose body it really is and what place it occupies’, is withheld
as ‘confusion and doubt’ cannot be dispelled (Derrida, Specters 9).
To declare someone missing may also be a way of denying death, of
allowing those known to have perished to live on in a ghostly realm of
indeterminacy. In their analysis of the use of missing person posters after
9/11, for example, Jones, Zagacki and Lewis argue that these posters,
by using the subjunctive voice and photographs depicting the missing
actively participating in everyday life, ‘transformed the death of loved
ones from a reality or future certainty into a probability’ (106). By satu-
rating public space with images of the missing, a haunting ‘as if’ realm is
created that circumvents the reality principle and produces an illusion
of ongoing material presence. Missing person posters, while providing
comfort and hope or staving off the mourning process, can come to
haunt in a more malevolent manner. Omnipresent on the streets of
Manhattan, the 9/11 posters turn ‘troublesome [ . . . ] because even in
the best of moments and in the seemingly safest of public places they
underscore[d] the vulnerability of every person to tragedy, to the fact
that everyone can become a victim’ (Jones, Zagacki and Lewis 118).
The association between missing persons and victimhood indicates
the degree to which the missing are deprived of agency. Their vanish-
ing is seen as something that happens or is done to them and, after
disappearing, they can no longer speak for themselves but have to be
spoken for and imagined by others. This passivity is prescriptive as well
as descriptive. In order to garner the attention and sympathy that allows
them to live on, as missing, in the public sphere, the disappeared have
to be seen to comply with a culturally imposed ‘innocence rule’, requir-
ing them to appear as ‘ideal citizens’ who did ‘nothing that might place
them at risk for harm’ (Wanzo 113). Having been taken away, through no
fault of one’s own, by an unknown person or persons to an unchosen, uniden-
tified location is a precondition for being considered genuinely missing.
Those who have ‘merely’ run away are excluded from this particular
category because they threaten to dilute its gravity and complicate its
affective schema. The truly missing need to be lost not only to those left
behind, but also to themselves. In addition, as Rebecca Wanzo indicates,
for their disappearance to reach the status of a public event, the missing
should be actively sought and missed, a demand most readily fulfilled
by white middle-class women and girls able to represent ‘the ideal citi-
zen that the nation’s policies are designed to protect’ (100). Only those
considered of value to others and to society merit a communal search
146 The Spectral Metaphor

and media exposure. In line with this, the 9/11 missing person posters
not only sought to suggest their subjects’ continued presence, but to
code them as innocent victims and upstanding citizens. References to
the missing’s devotion to their family – ‘Loving Father’ – or possession
of desirable character traits – ‘Outgoing, caring person’ – were designed
to elicit affirmative affective responses (Jones, Zagacki and Lewis 111).
The ‘re-emergence of a kind of public sphere’ that the 9/11 missing per-
sons posters were said to promote, then, is predicated on specific criteria
of admittance(117).
Consequently, not all the missing exude an equal (or any) haunting
force. The dominant conjuration of Wanzo’s racialized and class-specific
‘Lost (White) Girl Event’ or 9/11 (itself overdetermined by distinctions
of class, race and religion) leads not merely to the erasure of social harms
more widespread and deadlier than either stranger-abductions or inter-
national terrorism, but, within the class of the missing, to the neglect of
those who happen to be black, lower-class, male, elderly or considered
in breach of the innocence rule. Such missing persons are more quickly
forgotten or never searched for in the first place, pre-empting their living
on as ghosts. For Avery Gordon, who, in Ghostly Matters, insists on the
spectral presence of repressed histories of subjugation,

[a] disappearance is real only when it is apparitional because the

ghost or the apparition is the principal form by which something
lost or invisible or seemingly not there makes itself known or appar-
ent to us. The ghost makes itself known to us through haunting and
pulls us affectively into the structure of feeling as a reality we come to
experience as a recognition.
(63, emphasis added)

Unlike Derrida’s specter, which never assumes a definitive form and

exceeds understanding, Gordon’s ghost ‘makes itself known’ and is
attributed full apparitional and interpretive agency. I would suggest,
however, that most missing persons, including the desaparecidos of
Argentina’s Dirty War she is discussing here, are incapable of engi-
neering their own recognition; they, or, rather, the void left by their
unexplained removal, can be conjured only by others, on their terms,
which must, moreover, make sense in the wider social realm.1
In this chapter I focus on literary representations of missing chil-
dren, a uniquely privileged class of missing capable of being made
to haunt with great prominence and persistence. Margarida Morgado
aptly designates child disappearance ‘a hegemonic social and cultural
Ghosts of the Missing 147

construction of the late twentieth century and a dominant structure

of feeling’, causing ‘things [to be] wrenched out of joint suddenly and
unpredictably’ (244, 253). Both novels discussed here, Ian McEwan’s The
Child in Time (1987) and Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park (2005), explic-
itly conceptualize the missing child in terms of ghosts, haunting and,
in Ellis’s case, the Gothic. As in previous chapters, my primary aim is
to specify how this metaphorical connection is motivated and how it
affects the distribution of agency.
Through the trope of the missing child, the novels are seen to invoke
Derrida’s notion of spectrality as ‘a politics of memory, of inheritance,
and of generations’ (Specters xix, emphasis in text). However, whereas
most ghost stories, including those staged by Derrida, are fundamentally
one-directional, focusing on a present generation haunted by previous
ones, The Child in Time portrays a missing daughter’s lingering, futural
presence in her parents’ lives and has its focalizer (her father, Stephen)
experience a complex numinous event in which he is transported to his
parents’ past, where he and they reciprocally haunt each other. In Lunar
Park, the narrator, a pseudo-autobiographical I named Bret Easton Ellis,
encounters an assembly of ghosts, including his father, his son and
numerous characters from his books. Time’s conventional vector, in
these works, is multiply disjointed as the specter does not stop at invad-
ing the present from the past while threatening to reappear in the future,
but inhabits all these temporalities and the associated generations to
mark multi-generational sites of debt and responsibility.
Another aspect highlighted by McEwan and Ellis is the gendering of
the ghost. As indicated, the category of the missing person is strin-
gently gendered, with (white, middle-class) women presumed to meet
the innocence rule, whereas for (black, lower-class) men this needs to be
proven before they can become legitimate objects of concern. Ghosts,
as portrayed in the cultural imagination, may of course be of any gen-
der (including genderless or versatile), but how they haunt and how
the haunted respond to them is frequently inflected by culturally and
historically specific gender norms.2 The Child in Time and Lunar Park
draw attention to this gendering of the ghost and of the haunted (with
women traditionally considered more susceptible to supernatural vis-
itations) in their reflective use of male focalizers, foregrounding the
fathers who, in real-life child disappearances, tend to be less visible
than the mothers (and often prime suspects). These focalizers, more-
over, see spectrality as highlighting the quandaries of fatherhood and
masculinity, and dismiss, at least initially, alternative perspectives on
the apparitional associated with femininity. A re-gendering occurs as
148 The Spectral Metaphor

the novels’ endings conjure a less solipsistic, more relational notion of

spectrality. In Lunar Park, women are finally included in the paternal
legacy, while the holistic vision closing The Child in Time is predicated
on the validation of (admittedly normative) constructions of woman-
hood. My readings connect this re-gendering to a re-conceptualization
of mourning. Both novels develop a concept of mourning-as-haunting
that allows feelings of loss to productively persist through and in time
rather than seeking to achieve closure through recovery or substitu-
tion. Karen A. Foss and Kathy L. Domenici, who, like Gordon, discuss
Argentina’s desaparecidos in spectral terms, argue that ‘the “betweeness”
of the haunted state [of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo] may keep
transformative rhetorical possibilities from emerging’ (254). While they
associate a continued state of being haunted with non-transformation
and ‘standing still’ (253), Lunar Park and The Child in Time are taken to
propose that such a halting is not necessarily harmful and may in fact
stage, in the form of an active passivity, a pertinent questioning of the
relentless drive to ‘move on’ or ‘put to rest’ that characterizes popular
conceptions of mourning and ghosts alike.
I close the chapter by returning to the question of agency. The Child
in Time exemplifies a situation in which ‘parents claim the absence of
children for themselves’, interpreting child disappearance ‘within the
contexts of their own needs, anxieties, and fears’ (Morgado 248). The
lost daughter is repeatedly conjured (more and less successfully), yet
never acts or appears of her own accord. While such incapacity, as noted
above, is almost unavoidable once someone has gone missing, Lunar
Park stages an imaginative intervention; it challenges the association
between going missing and passive innocence by having the narrator’s
son Robby and his friends conspire to disappear. Robby is not taken but
chooses to go missing in order to extract himself from the oppressive
spectral legacy of paternal failure entangling his father and grandfather,
and to escape what Morgado identifies as ‘the cultural and economic
politics of the East and the West that represent children as an eco-
nomic liability, a burden, voracious and frivolous consumers, and lazy
and greedy offspring’ (246). Yet his disappearance is more than a flight.
In mobilizing the excess of attention and sympathetic affect accompa-
nying the missing child scenario, Robby ensures that his absence will
be meaningful and transformative. What I call self-spectralization – a
deliberate, pre-emptive auto-ghosting – might not always be feasible,
yet within the pages of Lunar Park constitutes a forceful form of spectral
agency, as Robby goes from being largely overlooked, particularly by his
father, to being sought out.
Ghosts of the Missing 149

Re-solutions of mourning

Kate, the missing daughter in McEwan’s The Child in Time, who was
three when she disappeared during a trip to the supermarket with her
father, is never recovered, but lingers as a spectral presence, an ‘invisible
child’ exerting a powerful haunting force on her parents, Stephen and
Julie (2). She always seems on the verge of reappearing and maintains
a ghost-like presence in the bodies of other children. The novel begins
two and a half years after Kate’s disappearance, when, for her father, the
‘obsessive hunt’ to find her has turned into ‘a longing, a dry hunger’
(2). Continuing to place her in time, as growing, becoming and possibly
returning, keeps Stephen from having to fully acknowledge her loss and
allows him to live on: ‘Without the fantasy of her continued existence
he was lost, time would stop’ (2).
One way Stephen keeps time, his daughter and himself evolving is by
celebrating her sixth birthday. The painful act of buying Kate presents
she will never open is intended as ‘an act of faith in his daughter’s
continued existence [ . . . ] an assertion of her previous life and proper
inheritance, of the truth about her birth’ (146). This attempt to recon-
firm her as his legitimate heir is associated with ‘the symbolic and the
numinous’ (147). Hence, it unfolds as a conjuration in the sense of a
‘magical incantation’, described by Derrida as ‘the appeal that causes to
come forth with the voice and thus it makes come, by definition, what
is not there at the present moment of the appeal’ (Specters 41, empha-
sis in text). Having failed to make Kate appear with his own voice,
Stephen seeks to amplify it by selecting, as Kate’s main present, a walkie-
talkie set, a ‘machine to encourage proximity’ (150). The walkie-talkie’s
limited range, however, belies the conjuration’s performative ability to
conquer and condense space and time, to invoke that which is not
present or close-by until the moment of interpellation. In addition, the
use of walkie-talkies is characterized by rule-governed communicative
turn-taking: one is supposed to say ‘over’ when it is the other’s turn
to speak and ‘over and out’ to finish the conversation. This connects
the walkie-talkie to conjuration as conjurement [Beschwörung] or exor-
cism, designed to ascertain that the dead are really dead (Derrida, Specters
47–8). Since no such confirmation is forthcoming about or from Kate,
the walkie-talkie, rather than bringing her closer, only emphasizes her
insusceptibility to either form of conjuration: she is a specter that can-
not be raised or laid to rest at will. Consequently, Stephen’s attempt
to call on Kate as his rightful inheritor is doomed. He ends up singing
‘Happy Birthday’ to her through the walkie-talkie, hearing his own
150 The Spectral Metaphor

distorted voice coming from the other handset as if it were ‘a broad-

cast from the moon’, when, in reality, the transmission cuts out after
only a small distance (150). At this point, Stephen realizes he can no
longer even conjure Kate mentally: her image is ‘fading’ as ‘his useless
love was swelling, encumbering and disfiguring him like a goiter’ (151).
In Freudian terms, Stephen’s quest to re-establish contact with Kate
or at least keep her image alive, can be seen as him ‘holding on to the
object through a hallucinatory wish-psychosis’ (‘Mourning’ 204). Only
here this holding on cannot fully be ascribed to a pathological refusal
of reality, since in the case of a missing child there is no definitive con-
firmation of the loss. What Freud considers ordinary mourning, which
would entail the gradual transfer of Stephen’s now ‘useless love’ to a new
object, is impossible as long as there remains a chance that Kate will
reappear. Instead, Stephen’s situation evokes melancholia, described by
Freud as an ‘open wound’ causing

a profoundly painful depression, a loss of interest in the outside

world, the loss of the ability to love, the inhibition of any kind of
performance and a reduction in the sense of self, expressed in self-
recrimination and self-directed insults, intensifying into the delusory
expectation of punishment. (212, 204)

As the ‘inhibition of any kind of performance’, melancholia enacts

Foss and Domenici’s ‘standing still’. Yet in The Child in Time the fit
to Freud’s definition is imperfect, as Stephen’s ‘unknown loss’ is less a
not-knowing what is lost than a not-knowing whether his daughter is
irretrievably gone (‘Mourning’ 205). His self-recriminations, moreover,
signal not the unconscious displacement of his libido onto his ego, but
derive from his presence at Kate’s disappearance. Finally, rather than a
‘reduction in the sense of self’, Stephen experiences a ‘swelling’ as he
cannot redirect his love to either an alternative external love object or
his own ego. I want to suggest that it is precisely Kate’s spectrality –
marking her as dead and alive, and placing her simultaneously inside
and outside the self – that disturbs the neat separation of mourning
from melancholia and questions Freud’s conviction that, eventually,
both conditions will pass ‘without leaving any broad or demonstrable
changes’ (‘Mourning’ 212).
A key negotiation of the intersection of mourning and melancholia
occurs when Stephen thinks he recognizes Kate in a girl skipping rope
in a school playground:
Ghosts of the Missing 151

The thick bangs bobbed against her white forehead, her chin was
raised, she had a dreamy appearance. He was looking at his daughter
[ . . . ] He had lost sight of Kate, then saw her briefly as she bent to
retrieve something from the ground. (165)

The description of the girl’s ‘dreamy appearance’ and the way she van-
ishes and then reappears, only for a second, immediately marks this
moment of recognition as phantasmatic. Stephen, however, is deter-
mined to deny this. When the girl tells him her name is Ruth, he
smoothes out the ripple by arguing that his daughter is bound to have
changed since he lost her. Just as a ghost is never identical to when it
was still alive, Kate cannot be expected to have remained the same or
to recognize her father. Stephen, however, blurs the distinction between
plausible changes that could have occurred in time and impossible ones:
‘What was most strikingly new was a brown mole high on her right
cheekbone’ (172). Only when confronted up close with the girl in the
headmaster’s office, where it turns out that she is much older than Kate
would be and sports a nose that, in profile, reveals itself as a ‘gross inac-
curacy’, does Stephen realize she is not his daughter (178). He construes
this as a betrayal on the part of a ‘she’ that encompasses both the flesh-
and-blood girl in front of him and Kate: ‘She was going from him, she
was letting him down’ (178). As Ruth refuses to accommodate Kate’s
shape, the latter slips through his fingers. In a final attempt to recover
her, Stephen seeks solace in a spectral fantasy, imagining ‘Kate’s spirit’
soaring in the sky like ‘some kind of brilliantly colored dragonfly’ and
sweeping down to earth to ‘inhabit the body of a young girl, infuse it
with its own particular essence to demonstrate to him its enduring exis-
tence’ (178). This fantasy compellingly keeps intact the ‘essence’ of Kate,
with other girls as momentary mediums facilitating her materialization.
Later, Stephen arrives at a different reading of the event that causes
him to feel ‘purged’ (179). Reconceiving the encounter with Ruth as a
moment of reality testing, he acknowledges Kate is indeed lost to him:

By dementedly living through the very reunion that preoccupied

him constantly, Stephen came to feel that if he had not exorcised
his obsession, he had blunted it. He was beginning to face the diffi-
cult truth that Kate was no longer a living presence, she was not an
invisible girl at his side whom he knew intimately; remembering how
Ruth Lyle did and did not resemble his daughter, he understood how
there were many paths Kate might have gone down, countless ways
152 The Spectral Metaphor

in which she might have changed in two and a half years, and that
he knew nothing about any of them. He had been mad, now he felt
purged. (179)

While this passage speaks of exorcism and seems to disavow the notion
of Kate as a living ghost, the spectral dimension is not fully evacuated
and melancholia not fully abandoned. The ‘if’ puts exorcism’s efficacy
in question and although Kate is now seen as conceivably changed
beyond recognition, her definitive loss remains unconfirmed. What
occurs, then, is not so much the dissipation of the spectral as its transfor-
mation. Stephen realizes that his naïve fantasy of Kate’s spirit persisting
unchanged is as untenable as the notion of a full exorcism that would
allow him to move on and forget. What comes into view instead is the
distance separating the ghost from the living. Ghosts do not cease to
be when not haunting the living, but, as the ghost of Hamlet’s father
indicates, live on in their own space-time, in which the living cannot
take part. The same goes for the missing, who, if still alive, will not
have remained as they were. By admitting that he cannot keep Kate
by his side in the same intimacy they shared when she was physically
present, Stephen’s attachments to her are reconfigured without being
Notably, in ‘Transience’, written during the First World War, Freud
intimates that completing the work of mourning may lead to the
restoration of the lost object(s). Remarking that the war ‘robbed us of
so much that we had loved, and showed us the fragility of much that
we had considered stable’, Freud disagrees with those ‘prepared for last-
ing renunciation’ and posits that they are ‘only in a state of mourning
about their loss’ (199). Mourning, he asserts, will come to an end, leav-
ing the libido free ‘to replace the lost objects with objects that are, where
possible, equally precious, or with still more precious new ones’ (200).
While this formulation again has the new replacing the old, the essay
closes with an image of recovery in which objects devalued during the
war are recreated: ‘Once mourning is overcome, it will be apparent that
the high esteem in which we hold our cultural goods has not suffered
from our experience of their fragility. We will once again build up every-
thing that the war has destroyed, perhaps on firmer foundations and
more lastingly than before’ (200). The work of mourning, therefore,
can also culminate in the re-establishment of the lost object, albeit in
reconstructed (and therefore never identical) form. The specter signifies
precisely this possibility of a return with a twist. What Stephen recog-
nizes after encountering Ruth is that, if he cannot resurrect Kate, he can
Ghosts of the Missing 153

rebuild his relationship to her on new terms, remaining open to her

possible return.
Kate’s mother’s trajectory of mourning-cum-melancholia arrives at
a similar conclusion by a different path. Initially, Stephen and Julie
are in conflict about how to deal with Kate’s disappearance, a conflict
perceived in terms of normative gender schemata, pitching female pas-
sivity against male activity. While Julie sits at home paralyzed by loss,
Stephen goes out every day to look for Kate. He considers his wife’s
passivity an affront – ‘It was the inertia, the collapse of will, the near
ecstatic suffering which disgusted him and threatened to undermine
his efforts’ (23) – and associates her cleaning out of Kate’s room with
‘a female self-destructiveness, a willful defeatism’ (22). Stephen’s focal-
ization consistently marks Julie’s mourning as offensive because of its
perceived gender-specificity, ascribing to her a ‘deep, private grief’ from
which he feels excluded and accusing her of blaming him when she
decides to move to the countryside, ‘her head full of cant about the
proper way to mourn. The proper way! Who was she to lay down rules
about that?’ (22, 157). His resentment is aimed less at the idea of rules
being proposed than at Julie (a mother whose grief is socially privi-
leged over his) being the one proposing them and challenging what
he feels is appropriate. The latter sense of propriety, crucially, is not seen
as gendered, but considered commonsensical, requiring neither justifi-
cation nor articulation.3 Despite, or because of, his position of scopic
authority, Stephen remains blind to how his own mourning (active,
seeking, public) is as influenced by gender norms as Julie’s (passive,
pleading, private). What is threatened and questioned by her inertia is
precisely Stephen’s compulsive performance of hegemonic masculinity,
requiring him to act, to find and to avoid any emasculating fragility:
‘there were other times, when his spirits were low, when he thought
of himself as the innocent victim (he did not like to use the word
weak here)’ (157, emphasis in text). At the level of the reader, who is
encouraged to look at Stephen’s focalization, the gendered structuring
of mourning, which is particularly strong in missing person cases, is
exposed and, eventually, challenged.
Towards the novel’s end, Julie lays out her own mourning process:

I came out here to face up to losing Kate. It was my task, my work,

if you like, more important to me than our marriage, or my music.
[ . . . ] If I didn’t face it, I thought I could go under. [ . . . ] I knew what
I had to do. I had to stop running after her in my mind. I had to
stop aching for her, expecting her at the front door, seeing her in
154 The Spectral Metaphor

the woods or hearing her voice whenever I boiled the kettle. I had to
go on loving her, but I had to stop desiring her [ . . . ] I haven’t been
completely successful . . . [ . . . ] But I’ve made some progress. I tried not
to shy away from the thought of her. I tried to meditate on her, on
the loss, rather than brood on it. After six months I began to take
comfort from the idea of the new baby. (254–5)

Notably, Julie’s mourning ‘work’, which is also the term Freud uses, takes
the form of a cessation of action (‘I had to stop’), ostensibly re-tying her
mourning to a passive register coded as feminine. However, the stopping
is now also a doing, as not doing is what she has to do and stopping is the
active form of not doing. Thus, activity and passivity are no longer clearly
distinguished, nor are success and failure to mourn. While the notion
that the new baby offers ‘comfort’ suggests Freudian substitution, Kate
is not fully abandoned. As in Stephen’s earlier purgation, Julie’s relation-
ship to her missing daughter is reconfigured to create room for other
attachments, new (the baby) and old (Stephen). The baby, then, is less a
substitute than a supplement, loved not instead but as well as, while the
pathology of mourning is located in maintaining not any attachments
but exclusive attachments to the lost. Having both found a way to live
with Kate’s continued presence, Stephen and Julie can finally share their

they began to cry together at last for the lost, irreplaceable child [ . . . ]
They held onto each other, and as it became easier and less bitter,
they started to talk through their crying as best they could, to promise
their love through it, to the baby, to one another, to their parents, to
Thelma. [ . . . ] while they could never redeem the loss of their daugh-
ter, they would love her though the new child, and never close their
minds to the possibility of her return. (256)

Their ability to support each other challenges the solipsism of Freudian

mourning, while the presentation of Kate’s loss as irredeemable coun-
ters his economic theory of the drives, in which there is always only a
fixed amount of energy available and attachments have to be exchanged
against each other like currencies.
Like Ruth, the baby, whose sex crucially remains unrevealed, is not
a seamless replacement or conduit for Kate. During its birth, Stephen
enters ‘dream time’ and experiences ‘a presence, a revelation’ (261). The
baby’s head, which momentarily appears lifeless upon emerging from
the birth canal, articulates an accusation: ‘Had you forgotten me? Did you
Ghosts of the Missing 155

not realize it was me all along? I am here. I am not alive. [ . . . ] This was
my move. Now what is yours?’ (261, emphasis in text). Even if this is
read as Kate’s voice, which it does not have to be, what is expressed
is not closure, but a perpetuation of ghostly ambiguity. The voice claims
to be ‘here’ but at the same time ‘not alive’ and offers not answers or
decrees but questions. Stephen’s interpretation, which does not refer-
ence Kate at all, is that ‘a person [ . . . ] from life itself’ has arrived and
that ‘this increase, this matter of life loving itself’ is all that matters
(261). Individual lives are folded into a comprehensive notion of living,
which becomes the new, reconstructed love object, encompassing both
the new baby and Kate’s lingering, evolving ghostliness.
In this manner, the novel proposes a persistent mourning, painful
yet not pathological, that fits with the revisions proposed to Freudian
psychoanalysis by Jean Laplanche, who, in ‘Time and the Other’, pro-
nounces the division between mourning and melancholia untenable:
‘Where are we to find mourning which would be only conscious, with
no infantile reverberation, no ambivalence and no narcissistic conse-
quences?’ (249). If characteristics ascribed to melancholia always also
inhabit mourning, then mourning is less straightforward than Freud
purports, while melancholia escapes pathology. Calling Freud ‘a real-
ist, for whom the dead are really dead’, Laplanche draws attention to
the spectral dimension of mourning, which renders it intersubjective
(250). Much like Derrida’s appeal for a scholar willing to communicate
with ghosts, Laplanche calls for a psychoanalyst sensitive to the enig-
matic, haunting messages coming to the subject from living and dead
others. These messages can never be fully understood or deciphered,
not even by their own senders, from whose unconscious they spring.
They can, however, be analyzed in a process focused on Lösung (weav-
ing, constructing) rather than Ablösung (the severing of links). The aim
of this process would be re-solution in the double meaning of solving and
dissolving, emphasizing the processual and transformative to suggest
the possibility of multiple, non-definitive outcomes. Aptly, Laplanche’s
argument proceeds by way of a case study involving missing persons.
He merges a patient whose husband could not be located after the
Second World War with Homer’s Penelope waiting for Odysseus’s return.
To stave off the suitors eager to replace her husband, Penelope weaves a
tapestry she undoes every night so that the work the suitors have agreed
to let her finish is unending. Laplanche offers a novel perspective on
this ruse by suggesting: ‘perhaps she only unweaves in order to weave, to
be able to weave a new tapestry’ (251, emphasis in text). Emphasizing
the act of redoing, which provides room for new, potentially different
156 The Spectral Metaphor

creations, Laplanche assigns mourning a non-linear, non-finite tempo-

rality. While ‘a possible end’ is conceivable – ‘One can imagine that one
evening the new cloth, for a while at least, will not be unwoven’ – the
lack of such an ending no longer signifies mourning gone awry (252).
Instead, the conversation with the dead or missing may continue for-
ever, their messages in perpetual translation and their ghosts haunting
in ever-changing ways.
Like Penelope, Stephen and Julie do not preclude Kate’s return. Over
the course of the novel, their attachments to her are not cut but formed
and reformed. It is this effort of ‘disentangling to allow the formation
of new knots’ that eventually makes Kate’s disappearance less incapaci-
tating (Laplanche 254, emphasis in text). In the process of weaving and
unweaving, activity and passivity become entangled as mourning, in its
association with the enigmatic, is at once something to undergo and
something to keep working at. It shares with Derrida’s messianic the
impossibility (and undesirability) of determinate anticipation, without
reducing the haunted subject to pure awaiting. Accordingly, in The Child
in Time, the gendered active–passive dyad that caused Stephen and Julie
to separate is re-solved: Julie’s passivity is reconfigured as an active task –
‘I had to stop aching for her’ (254) – and Stephen is prompted into a
different relationship with Kate’s specter by an experience of extreme
dispossession: ‘He had lost his place. [ . . . ] A gale had torn the instruc-
tions away from him. [ . . . ] He was lost’ (260). Both parents emerge
as active and passive, waiting and weaving in a sustained, endlessly
re-solved mourning, the temporality of which is neither teleological nor
stagnant but spiral, proceeding in the manner of a recurring ghostly
echo that never sounds exactly the same and always remains partially

Multidirectional haunting

The ghosts raised in The Child in Time not only reconfigure mourn-
ing; they also disrupt the familiar chronology of generational politics
as the parents confront the phantom-form of their missing daughter,
while Stephen comes to haunt his own parents in an extraordinary
scene of multidirectional spectrality that complicates the ways in which
the ghost disjoints time and space, and multiplies the sites of debt and
responsibility. In Specters of Marx, perhaps because of its focus on Hamlet
and the legacies of Marx, haunting unfolds in a surprisingly consistent
direction – from past to present – even though Derrida insists that the
spectral logic of inheritance is ‘turned toward the future no less than the
Ghosts of the Missing 157

past’ (181n2). Once taken up, this turn to the future is twofold. First, as
Wendy Brown writes, it involves the living on of the present: ‘justice [ . . . ]
informs not only our obligation to the future but also our responsibility
for our (ghostly) presence in that future’ (147). Second, it involves what
is to come in the future, which the present must not foreclose or precon-
dition, but welcome unconditionally as ‘the “yes” to the arrivant(e), the
“come” to the future that cannot be anticipated’ (Derrida, Specters 168).
On his way to visit Julie in the countryside – the very visit that will
produce the new baby – Stephen comes across a spot that feels famil-
iar even though he has not been there before: ‘One visit in the remote
past would not account for this sense, almost a kind of ache, of famil-
iarity, of coming to a place that knew him too, and seemed, in the
silence that engulfed the passing cars, to expect him’ (60). In a twist
on the uncanny, Stephen is faced with the frightening spectacle of the
unfamiliar become familiar, and, like a warped clairvoyant, is able to
predict what he will see by looking not into the future but the past: ‘the
call of the place, its knowingness, the longing it evinced, the rootless
significance – all this made it seem quite certain, even before he could
tell himself why, that the loudness – this was the word he fixed on – of
this particular location had its origins outside his own existence’ (62).5
As he approaches the window of the pub that has appeared in front of
him, Stephen’s primacy as focalizer is undermined by his subjection to a
version of the visor effect: ‘He stepped to one side of the window, aware
that he was visible to people he could not see’ (64). Upon managing to
gain ‘an oblique view’, he sees a man and a woman who produce ‘not
recognition so much as its shadow, not its familiar sound but a brief res-
onance’ (64). While the reader, because of Kate’s spectral presence and
the conventional focalization of the ghost described in my introduction,
had assumed to be looking with Stephen as the haunted party, it now
becomes clear that he is the one who is potentially visible to the couple
as an apparition:

Had the couple glanced up and to their left, towards the window
by the door, they might have seen a phantom beyond the spotted
glass, immobile with the tension of inarticulated recognition. It was
a face taut with expectation, as though a spirit, suspended between
existence and nothingness, attended a decision, a beckoning or a
dismissal. (64)

The man and woman turn out to be Stephen’s parents, before his birth,
making this ‘phantom’ an arrivant – ‘that which has not yet arrived’ and
158 The Spectral Metaphor

therefore cannot be anticipated or known in the terms of the present

(Derrida, Specters 196n39). Significantly, it is the arrivant that Derrida
associates with the most demanding ethical imperative, since it signifies
absolute otherness; in relation to this ghost, which cannot be anchored
in a known past (and is therefore messianic without being the Messiah),
a waiting and welcoming without reserve, an absolute hospitality, is the
most just response. Whereas Hamlet’s father is identifiable by the mem-
ories of those who knew him, Stephen cannot be recognized as the son
not yet born. In fact, he seems to not register at all, as his mother’s eyes
meet his, but ‘she was looking through him’ (65). This elision from the
field of vision, now structured by his parents’ past looks, causes Stephen
to experience ‘a cold, infant despondency [ . . . ], a bitter sense of exclu-
sion and longing’ (65). Far from a sovereign ghost surveying the scene,
he is dispossessed, suspended in an attitude of expectation and atten-
dance, longing for his parents to beckon him into existence. Even his
own acts become inaccessible to him as conjecture pervades the narra-
tive voice and the idea of seeing-as-knowing is questioned: ‘Perhaps he
was crying as he backed away from the window, perhaps he was wailing
like a baby waking in the night; to an observer he may have appeared
silent and resigned’ (65). All focalizing power is withdrawn – ‘He did
not see himself walk back along the road’ – as Stephen regresses to a
fetal stage of utter helplessness:

His eyes grew large and round and lidless with desperate, protesting
innocence, his knees rose up under him and touched his chin, his
fingers were scaly flippers, gills beat time, urgent, hopeless strokes
through the salty ocean that engulfed the treetops and surged
between their roots; and for all the crying, calling sounds he thought
were his own, he formed a single thought: he had nowhere to go,
no moment that could embody him, he was not expected, no des-
tination or time could be named; [ . . . ] Nothing was his own, not
his strokes or his movement, not the calling sounds, not even the
sadness, nothing was nothing’s own. (66)

This state, which folds Stephen’s prehistory into that of humanity as a

whole, exposes ‘a sadness [ . . . ] centuries, millennia old’, derived from
human subjects’ inherent passivity and dependency when it comes to
their own coming into being (66). Against all fantasies of autonomous
subjectivity, it remains impossible to give birth to oneself.
An explanation for Stephen’s vision is provided when his mother tells
him that the pub visit marked the moment she decided not to abort
Ghosts of the Missing 159

him. His belated, impossible witnessing of this moment, moreover, has

a counterpart; according to his mother, at the time, she saw ‘a face at
the window, the face of a child, sort of floating there’ that she was con-
vinced was her baby (207). Thus, Stephen was, in a way, recognized, his
spectral presence a return as well as a survival. For it is only by appearing
to his mother as a futural projection of her still formless fetus, which he
embodied in his fugue state, that his existence is ensured. The floating
face of the child and the ‘face taut with expectation’ the reader had
assumed was the grown-up Stephen’s are superimposed in a spectral
palimpsest with jumbled layers. It is impossible to determine whether
Stephen traveled back in time to his parents’ past or whether they
were propelled forward into his present. Nor can the roles of ghost and
haunted be unequivocally distributed; in this mutual haunting, ghost
meets ghost in a complex fold of time gathering different instantiations
of past, present and future. What emerges is a multidirectional spectral
Spiel involving Stephen, his parents, the baby he makes with Julie as a
direct result of his ghostly encounter and Kate, whose loss precipitates
his receptiveness to the numinous. Whereas Stephen lets this accretion
of spectralities encompass and destabilize his identity and visual agency,
his mother reads her ghost as an unambiguous materialization of her
unborn child: ‘It was at the window now, a complete self, begging her
for its existence, and it was inside her, unfolding intricately, living off
the pulse of her own blood. It wasn’t a pregnancy they should be dis-
cussing; it was a person’ (207). The ghost, evoking ‘pro-life’ rhetoric,
turns fetus into person, an unformed clump of cells into a live body:
‘The baby, her baby, was suddenly flesh’ (207). However, the narrative
marks this as a conjuration rather than a reliable description. By turning
a ‘floating face’ into a ‘complete self’ and asserting that the apparition
is her baby although no verifiable resemblance can exist between it and
the fetus inside her, Stephen’s mother engages in a similar act of wish-
ful projection to Stephen when he sees Kate in Ruth. Such projection,
insistent on seamless identity and full incorporation, does not take the
specter seriously in its imperfect embodiment and its association with
the enigmatic.
The narrative re-establishes the ghost as an unruly eruption of alterity
by refusing to generate a perfect fit between the two spectral sto-
ries: ‘ “It almost connects up,” she said. “Almost” ’ (209). The mother’s
response, preceded by a dejected ‘Ah well’, expresses disappointment,
but Stephen’s assessment that ‘his experience there had not only been
reciprocal with his parents’, it had been a continuation, a kind of rep-
etition’ recognizes the spectral surplus that leads Derrida to argue that
160 The Spectral Metaphor

ghosts are always plus d’un (more than one/no longer one) and, as such,
resist definitive attribution. Stephen’s sense of his spectral encounter as
more than reciprocal leads to

a premonition, followed instantly by a certainty, borne out by

Thelma’s smile and Edward’s instant understanding of the months,
that all the sorrow, all the empty waiting, had been enclosed within
meaningful time, within the richest unfolding conceivable. Breath-
less as he was, he gave out a whoop of recognition, and ran on up the
rise and along the path that led to Julie’s cottage. (251)

Here, the temporal and epistemological rupture of premonition (which

is never guaranteed) gives way to the certainty of prophecy, culminat-
ing in the triumphant identification of the calculable, linear process of
Julie’s pregnancy. For Marc Delrez, passages like this one signal a con-
ventional, progressive notion of time and history winning out in the
novel; despite its ‘impulse to rehearse new forms and new ontologies’,
The Child in Time remains enclosed in ‘the strait-jacket of realism’ (12).
The ending, in particular, is seen as ‘altogether too glib’ as it pulls all
narrative strands into a ‘satisfying resolution’ (12).
I propose, however, that the hauntological impulse is never fully
expelled. The novel oscillates between the spectral and the realistic,
maintaining a fantastic tension (in Tzvetan Todorov’s sense) that even
the admittedly sugary ending cannot disperse. Not only does Kate’s
ghost remain unexorcized, but the narrative refuses to provide a rational
explanation for Stephen’s and his mother’s mirrored ghostly encounters.
In addition, the ‘meaningful time’ Stephen sees enclosing the spectral
disruptions he has faced is hardly the teleological time of traditional
realism in which everything can be captured in a single omniscient,
rational look. In fact, as David James argues, McEwan refashions real-
ism into ‘something provisional and performative’ through his ‘refusal
to allow the reader recourse to any sort of distanced, metadiegetic voice’
(85, 87). The meaningful time in question, moreover, does not align
with a masterful patriarchal perspective, but is ‘initiated as a result
of Stephen’s acknowledgement of, and guidance by, qualities he gen-
ders as feminine’ (Edwards 47). It is not a time that can be controlled,
surveilled or even comfortably inhabited, but, as Stephen’s dispossess-
ing fetal-regression scene makes clear, a cosmic time of generations that
exceeds and overwhelms individual subjects and even social structures.
This type of time is progressive yet cyclical, reaching simultaneously
into the past and the future. A certain spectral ungraspability takes this
Ghosts of the Missing 161

temporality beyond ontological realism or naturalism ‘to the metaphys-

ical’ (Edwards 54), making the birth of Stephen and Julie’s baby less
a point of narrative (en)closure than a re-solution in the sense out-
lined above by way of Laplanche. What the novel validates, through
its multidirectional, intergenerational haunting, is the pluralized, con-
founding vision of time conveyed to Stephen by his scientist friend
Thelma: ‘whatever time is, the common-sense, everyday version of it
as linear, regular, absolute, marching from left to right, from the past
through the present to the future, is either nonsense or a tiny fraction
of the truth [ . . . ] Time is variable [ . . . ] There’s no absolute, generally
recognizable “now” ’ (135–6).

Acts of spectralization

While Stephen and his mother unexpectedly come to haunt each other,
The Child in Time also features deliberate acts of spectralization designed
to exert control over others or over the self in the storylines involving
Thelma’s husband, Charles Darke, who seeks to re-materialize himself
as a child and the novel’s dystopian society’s treatment of its poor.
McEwan’s novel is set in an indeterminate future Britain governed under
the terms of a ‘post-Thatcher conservative extremism’ that has relegated
large groups of people to a licensed practice of begging (Slay Jr. 207).
The unemployed are given ‘bright badges’ and a ‘regulation black bowl’,
and are assigned sites in public space to request money from passersby
(McEwan 3). Effectively, this replaces the welfare system by a strict
neoliberal prescription of ‘self-sufficiency’ from which even children are
not exempted (40). Stephen rather naively assumes that the authorities
expect people to donate – ‘to give money ensured the success of the
government program’ (3) – when the more likely objective is to mark
the beggars as invisible (or senseless in Rancière’s terms) and wait for
them to succumb to disease, cold or hunger. As opposed to Kate’s indi-
vidual disappearance, which generates public sympathy because she is
a valued child taken from parents able to support her, the beggars will
not be missed. Their badge, bowl and the designated spaces they are
allowed to occupy, in set numbers, make them instantly recognizable
as unworthy of attention, disposable. The only reason they are allowed
to show themselves at all is to warn others of the consequences of not
being self-sufficient.
A way for the beggars to counter this social invisibility is to break
the rules by begging in illicit places or forming a crowd threatening not
to ask for money but to simply take it. Thus, a group of beggars with
162 The Spectral Metaphor

their badges ‘not correctly worn’ immediately strikes Stephen as unruly

(116). Clearly uncomfortable, he looks for a policeman and, with no
authority figure available, tries to move past the beggars without mak-
ing eye contact: ‘He stared ahead, seeing no one’ (116). The beggars
ask for money, jostle him, put on a mock upper-class accent and laugh
at him. This ‘little confrontation’ disturbs Stephen profoundly; feeling
‘guilty of a betrayal’, he realizes that whereas he used to identify with
the underclass – their smell being the smell of his past – he is now safely
ensconced in privilege (116). However, although the beggars, by cross-
ing the lines established by the state, prompt Stephen’s meditation on
his changed morals, they remain invisible to him as people amounting
to more than specimen of poverty. One of the only times a specific beg-
gar strikes Stephen is when he thinks he recognizes someone he used
to know:

He had reached the end of the row of bodies and was looking down at
a familiar face. It was hard, small-boned, for a moment ageless [ . . . ].
The dulled eyes were open and stared past him. It was an old friend,
someone from his student days, Stephen was beginning to think, or
someone from a dream. (227)

Significantly, no contact is established and the recognition remains ten-

tative. The ‘figure’, a classic term of dehumanization, is initially brought
close as a possible ‘old friend’, but almost instantly distanced again
as equally likely ‘someone from a dream’. Here, the way the real and
imagined cannot exclude each other counters the emergence of spectral
agency, as the beggar is both too real (as an anonymous beggar con-
ceived as no more than a body) and not real enough (as the potential
friend) to become a haunting presence.
Right after spotting this man, Stephen sees a beggar girl he had
encountered at the beginning of the narrative and given some money,
only to have ‘Fuck you, mister’ and ‘Rich creep!’ shouted at him (4). Now
lying on a ventilator grill, her face is ‘transformed’ and her ‘mock-
ing liveliness’ lost (228). Stephen decides to give her his coat, but as
he places it over her, he realizes she is dead. Since he has to catch
a train and reporting the corpse would take time, Stephen leaves her.
Barely perceptible in the first place, her remains can be abandoned with-
out qualms about her spectral return. Before leaving, however, Stephen
‘tried to remember how he had seen Kate in this girl’ (228). While this
appears another instance of McEwan neatly aligning his plot, re-reading
the book’s first pages reveals that instead of singling her out because of
Ghosts of the Missing 163

any resemblance to his daughter, Stephen explicitly distinguishes the

girl from Kate as ‘not a five-year-old but a skinny prepubescent’ (3). The
posited resemblance, therefore, is another spectral projection, this time
into the past. Locating a false similarity in a previous time obfuscates
the way the girl actually resembles Kate in the present, as a dead body
unreachable and indifferent to Stephen. Transplanting their relation-
ship to before, when the girl was still alive and lively, prevents Kate
from appearing in and as her corpse and thus constitutes a form of
conjuration-as-exorcism or what Derrida translates, from the German
Beschwörung, as ‘conjurement’ (Specters 47).
Whereas Kate is seen even, or especially, when she is not there, the
state-spectralized beggars cannot make themselves visible in a mode
other than the dispensable, nor can they exploit the fact they go unno-
ticed. By making them dependent on private charity, which requires
visibly standing out as beggars, the state has foreclosed both these
options. When they do manage to haunt in a noticeable manner, they
do so not as themselves but as incarnations of other people’s fear or
guilt, as when Stephen sees in them his old friend or Kate. Except, that
is, at the meta-level of the novel, where their overlookedness is put on
display. Thus, whereas Delrez associates The Child in Time with ‘a form
of political non-intervention’ (13) and Paul Edwards calls the values pro-
moted by the narrative ‘unduly quietistic and apolitical’ (48), the novel’s
chilling exposure of the way the social exclusion of the poor is made to
make sense and therefore goes unchallenged is, in and of itself, capable
of constituting a political intercession or redistribution of the sensible.
The one individual who does appear to wield spectral agency at the
intradiegetic level is Charles Darke, Stephen’s friend and publisher, a
powerful conservative politician and writer of The Authorized Child-Care
Handbook, a government-sponsored tome advocating strict parenting.
He bends the order of the numinous by conjuring not someone else,
but himself as he would like to be. When Stephen visits Charles after
the latter has abruptly withdrawn from politics and moved to the coun-
try, he encounters what he thinks is a boy – ‘this was just the kind of
boy who used to fascinate and terrify him at school. The face was pale
and fringed with sandy hair. The look was far too confident, cocky in
that familiar way. He had an old-fashioned appearance’ (122–3) – but
turns out to be Charles. Having disappeared himself as an adult, who, as
a prominent citizen, is missed and actively looked for, he makes himself
reappear as a child. According to Morgado, child disappearance plots
are often predicated on a nostalgia-inducing sense that childhood, in an
idealized form of the past, is disappearing. Adults, in particular, ‘nurture
164 The Spectral Metaphor

childhood as a dimension of infinite and immutable time, an idea of

innocence, and a locus of affective investment’ (246). In The Child in
Time, childhood is perceived as a time of heightened sensitivity because
it is a time without responsibility, a time of being looked after, even
if this also involves discipline. Charles, desperate to ‘escape from time,
from appointments, schedules, deadlines’, eventually convinces Thelma
to take him to the country and act as his mother (238). The ghostly
apparition he conjures, however, is not that of his actual childhood
(Thelma recalls a photo in which he looks like a miniature version of his
father), but a studied performance of an ideal. ‘It was’, Stephen notes, ‘as
if his friend had combed libraries, diligently consulted the appropriate
authorities to discover just what it was a certain kind of boy was likely to
have in his pockets. It was too correct to be convincing, not quite suffi-
ciently idiosyncratic, perhaps even fraudulent’ (130). In other words, the
self-produced apparition is too realistic to be real; as a carefully scripted
performance that never becomes an inculcated performative, it provokes
pity instead of a sense of the spooky.
The attempted resurrection of a boy-Charles who never was thus con-
stitutes another failed conjuration, further evidence that ghosts cannot
be ‘completely managed’ (Gordon 127). For all of Charles’s privilege and
power, it turns out to be impossible for him to fully convene the body
of a grown man with the ghostly image of the perfect boy or to resist the
continued pull of adult responsibilities and rewards. Unable to give up
his regressive fantasy, Charles finally allows himself to freeze to death in
the woods. The brutal child-rearing techniques advocated in his govern-
ment manual convey his realization that in this particular society, even
on its outskirts in the supposedly idyllic, enchanted countryside, there
is no place for vulnerability, real or spectral. In the ‘harsh world’ of The
Child in Time, self-spectralization as an unproductive child can only be
read, including by Charles, as a failure and an affront to society (263).6
Consequently, it equals self-destruction. In Lunar Park, however, a dif-
ferent spectral vision is conjured, as the Peter Pan motif also implicit
in Charles’s effort to escape the pressures and responsibilities of adult-
hood engenders a more disruptive and empowering auto-ghosting that
is, crucially, collectivized.


The way Lunar Park multiplies the ghostly to include virtually all its
characters invokes Derrida’s insistence that ‘[t]here is then some spirit.
Ghosts of the Missing 165

Spirits. And one must reckon with them. One cannot not have to, one
must not not be able to reckon with them, which are more than one: the
more than one/no more one [le plus d’un]’ (Specters xx, emphasis in text).
The many ghosts that persecute Bret, possibly originating in his own
mind, bring the reality of his fragmented identity home to him, forcing
him to live with the fact that he, too, is ‘no more one’. At the same time,
his compounded haunting points to his cumulative, and so far evaded,
responsibility to and for others, including the fictional characters he
has created. The most insistent specters in the novel are the literal ghost
of Bret’s deceased father, who appears as a classically Gothic, if media-
enhanced, figure of fright, and the metaphorical living ghost that is his
son Robby, who mysteriously disappears in the wake of several other
boys in the neighborhood. Like The Child in Time, therefore, the novel
supplements the expected debt to one’s ancestors with the less obvious
debt to future generations.
When Derrida argues that ‘the being of what we are is first of all inher-
itance, whether we like it or know it or not’, he takes the perspective of
the heir (Specters 54, emphasis in text). What this focalization obscures
is that ‘our’ being also equals legacy, as each person is a potential
ancestor. For Derrida, the inheritance and its reception are necessarily
heterogeneous, involving at once choices – ‘one must filter, sift, criti-
cize, one must sort out several different possibles that inhabit the same
injunction’ – and secrets that defy readability (Specters 16, emphasis in
text). The responsibility this imposes to choose and criticize wisely and
to decide which secrets to pursue and which to leave alone extends
beyond the heir to his or her progeny. In Lunar Park, Bret’s obsessive
focus on his relationship with his father leads him to neglect Robby and
to threaten to pass on his poisonous inheritance intact, as a compul-
sion to repeat instead of a message to be (imperfectly and incompletely)
translated. It is to avoid the injunction to ‘inherit from the law’, identi-
fied by Derrida as that of the father, that Robby disappears (Specters 7). By
absenting himself from his lineage, he performs a counter-conjuration
that confounds not only the particular inheritance in question, but the
patrilineal system underlying it.
Ellis’s preoccupation with issues of paternity and changing notions
of masculinity is well-documented. Mark Storey, for example, traces
Patrick Bateman’s savage killings in American Psycho to a ‘crisis of mas-
culinity’ and ‘pomophobia’. Storey argues that Bateman represents a
satire of ‘masculinity with the volume turned up, an identity created
not from internal, subjective coherence but from an uneasy chorus of
166 The Spectral Metaphor

voices, each one representing elements of a dominant masculinity’ (61).

The narrative’s (fantasy of) violence against women is seen to originate
in a masculinity besieged by the postmodern disruption of identity as
secure and ‘real’. In a similar vein, Carla Freccero has pointed out that
Bateman’s violence in American Psycho, in a notable departure from the
conventional serial killer narrative where the mother is identified as
cause or instigator, is ‘patrilineal, and thus located squarely within the
dominant order itself’ (‘Historical’ 51). Where American Psycho places the
crisis of masculinity and the accompanying legacy of violence primarily
in the context of sexual relations, Lunar Park examines their effect on
authorship and the nuclear family.7
In terms of the gendering of the ghost, Ellis’s novel, in which all
ghosts present as masculine, seems to parallel Derrida’s presentation of
spectrality as a scenario visiting father upon son. In Specters of Marx,
the dead King Hamlet is seen to haunt and taunt his heir, while Marx
and Stirner fight like brothers over the legacy of ‘father Hegel’ (121).
Moreover, Derrida begins his exploration of hauntology by conjuring a
spectral family tree with only male branches:

In the shadow of a filial memory, Shakespeare will have often inspired

this Marxian theatricalization. Later, closer to us but according to the
same genealogy, in the nocturnal noise of its concatenation, the rum-
bling sound of ghosts chained to ghosts, another descendant would
be Valéry. Shakespeare qui genuit Marx qui genuit Valéry (and a few

But what goes on between these generations? An omission, a strange

lapsus. Da, then fort, exit Marx.
(Specters 5, emphases in text)

Here, men generate progeny in a phantasmagorical spectacle that elides

the mother’s reproductive inevitability. This is possible because of the
ghost’s lack of materiality and maturation. Ghosts are after life, do
not age and do not need to be given birth to or nurtured. Accord-
ingly, the popular expression ‘raising ghosts’ refers to their conjuration
out of thin air. Since spectral beings require no gestation, the genie
of motherhood can be kept safely in the bottle. In the above passage,
even Derrida’s questioning of what goes on between the generations
does not reinstate the mother, but represses her further. The ‘omission’
or ‘strange lapsus’ seen to mark Marx’s exit from the world stage is
really a substitution that puts Marx in the place of the mother whose
Ghosts of the Missing 167

movements were the catalyst for the fort-da game invoked by Derrida
and analyzed by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In light of this,
it does not seem unjustified for Gayatri Spivak to call Specters of Marx a
‘how-to-mourn-your-father-book’ (‘Ghostwriting’ 66).
Responding to this critique in ‘Marx & Sons’, Derrida claims Specters
of Marx in fact constitutes an indictment of patrilineal inheritance:

Expressly identifying itself as a book on inheritance, Specters of Marx

also analyzes, questions and [ . . . ] ‘deconstructs’ the law of filiation,
particularly patrimonial filiation, the law of the father-son lineage
[ . . . ]. I have simultaneously marked out the law, effects and ethical-
political risks of this filiation. (231)

Thus, far from positing that spectrality is inherently bound to patrimo-

nial filiation, Specters of Marx supposedly sought to expose that this is
how it appears in Hamlet, Marx and the western philosophical and lit-
erary tradition. In the words of Nancy J. Holland: ‘at the very moment
when Derrida attempts to say something, however partial and atten-
uated, about the ghost, he must at the same time recreate a tradition
in which the Father/Ghost, and all that they represent, speak only to
the Son’ (69, emphasis in text). Derrida sees Specters of Marx moving
beyond ‘recreation’ to ‘deconstruction’ in its support for a different
reading of the ghost that multiplies it so that the notion of legitimate
inheritance is destabilized and daughters as well as sons are written
into the will. The principle of inheritance, he writes, ‘should not be
confined to the “sons of Marx,” ’ since there always exist ‘clandestine
and illegitimate’ heirs and ‘sons – and daughters – who, unbeknownst
to themselves, incarnate or metempsychosize the ventriloquist specters
of their ancestors’ (‘Marx & Sons’ 219, 231, 262). These statements,
however, do not appear to go far enough in assuaging the ‘ethico-
political risks’ of the established model of inheritance, since they assign
daughters – likened to Marranos: converts who no longer know they
are converts – to the realm of the illicit and unconscious, withhold-
ing from them the active choice, criticism and selection associated with
legitimate male heirs. Daughters, moreover, appear as an aside, sepa-
rated from and subordinated to the sons that are the main subject of
the sentence, while mothers remain absent altogether. At best, what
Derrida proposes is a potential inclusion of women in the existing sys-
tem as unknowing and unknown heirs to a law they do not participate
in making. What does not appear, not even in spectral form, is a more
radical deconstruction of the spectral economy of inheritance through
168 The Spectral Metaphor

its re-gendering or queering. Such a deconstruction would seek to break

the link Spivak perceives between legacy and ‘heteronormativity’ and
mark that ambiguous space of potentiality where ‘women may inherit
differently’ or, in a more radical refusal of the structure of patrilin-
eal inheritance, ‘women may not inherit at all’ (Spivak, ‘Forum’ 492).
In Derrida’s work, this is not necessarily an unwanted or unimagined
move, but it remains implicit and deferred; his ghostly generation game
admits mothers and daughters as still to come, but not as already there
to be reckoned with.8
This is confirmed by Werner Hamacher’s reading of Specters of Marx,
which tries to broaden its scope by describing it as a ‘familial phan-
tom story’ involving the mother, as the mother tongue that ‘survives
solely in its limitless disappearance’, and the fraternal spirits of Marx
and Stirner (184). There is, however, no escaping the fact that Derrida’s
spectral scenario remains grounded in paternity: ‘The persécution de
Marx does not cease to be his frèresécution and his mèresécution, for
the very reason that it was, from the very beginning, a pèresécution’
(Hamacher 185). Rather than acknowledging the possibility of differ-
ently or multiply gendered figurations of the specter, Hamacher ends
up conceptualizing it in terms of the messianic, characterized by a
featureless waiting without horizon that is ultimately related to God
and thus to yet another father figure: ‘God himself would be the
promise that the promise is a promise’ (204). The key moment of
deconstruction – which should not merely expose or take apart but also
re-solve, as in Laplanche’s deconstructive psychoanalysis – remains in
Lunar Park initially seems to replicate the privileging of the seem-
ingly inescapable ‘arch-specter’ that is ‘the father’ (Derrida, Specters 139),
but goes on to reveal the dangers of privileging pèresécution over other
forms of haunting. When Bret’s father, with whom he had a highly con-
tentious relationship, dies, it turns out he has named Bret his trustee,
leaving him a large tax debt, two expensive watches and a box of Armani
suits. To this list, Bret adds: ‘My mother and sisters – nothing’ (15).
The ensuing events are linked to this patrilineal system of inheritance,
as Bret insists that his wife Jayne’s decision to name their son Robby,
after his father, ‘is the reason that the following events in Lunar Park
happened’ (16). Jayne’s motivation for placing Robby so deliberately
in a particular male lineage can be found in Bret’s initial contesta-
tion of the boy’s paternity. From the first pages, therefore, ‘who’s the
daddy?’ is the pertinent question, becoming even more central when
Ghosts of the Missing 169

Bret sinks into a depression and ‘saves’ himself by marrying Jayne and
moving to the suburbs with her, Robby and Sarah, Jayne’s daughter by
another man.
While Jayne plays only a bit-part in the narrative’s spectral
shenanigans – the reality of which, according to Bret, she disputes –
six-year-old Sarah is at the heart of them. The first apparently supernat-
ural event occurs during a Halloween party, when Sarah tells Bret that
her electronic Terby toy is mad at him and, later, that it has scratched
her and is flying around her room. When Bret goes upstairs to check,
he hears a ‘guttural squawking’, intimating that what was familiar and
innocuous has become unfamiliar and threatening (51).9 Afterwards,
Sarah draws the Terby ‘swooping down on a house that resembled ours,
angry and in full attack mode’ and reports that ‘he says he knows who
you are’ (151, 163). When Bret receives mysterious email messages from
the bank where he has stored his father’s ashes in a safe-deposit box
and repeatedly spots his father’s cream-colored Mercedes, Sarah reveals
she has spoken to her grandfather and that he ‘isn’t dead’ (109). Bret,
however, does not seem to credit Sarah’s ability to communicate with
the spectral presences and, by implication, his unconscious fears. He
mostly ignores her, except when telling his therapist how disturbing he
finds it that she calls him ‘Daddy’ (86). In Derrida’s terms, it might be
said that Sarah is trying to insert herself into the lineage as a ‘clandes-
tine and illegitimate’ heir, but that her gender and status as a stepchild
lead Bret aggressively and consistently to foreclose this possibility (‘Marx
& Sons’ 231). Crucially, when the assistant of a paranormal researcher
Bret has hired to ‘fumigate’ the house notices a skeletal form coming
out of Sarah’s room, the story is quickly redirected: ‘Actually, the writer
informed me, Sam was wrong. It came from Robby’s room, since Robby
is, in fact, the focal point of the haunting’ (271). The implication is that
for Bret, as for Derrida and Hamacher, the spectral has to remain a form
of commerce between fathers and sons, at least until the novel’s ending,
to which I shall return after discussing Lunar Park’s staging of the ghosts
of the father and the son.

Transgenerational phantoms

As noted above, when Bret’s father dies, he alone is assigned to deal with
his inheritance, which, in an attempt to deny its hold on him, he dis-
misses as ‘worthless’ and ‘invalid’ (15). Rather than fulfilling his debt
to the past by investigating the ‘irregularities’ surrounding his father’s
170 The Spectral Metaphor

death and respecting the latter’s wish to have his ashes scattered at
sea, Bret irreverently locks the ashes in a safe-deposit box ‘in a Bank
of America on Ventura Boulevard next to a dilapidated McDonald’s’
(15). This constitutes an attempt to avoid the ethical encounter with
the ghost by ensuring that the dead stay dead: ‘[The corpse] must stay
in its place. In a safe place [ . . . ] it is necessary (to know – to make certain)
that, in what remains of him, he remain there. Let him stay there and
move no more!’ (Derrida, Specters 9). Or, in Bret’s words: ‘I didn’t want
to keep our father alive’ (278). Throughout the novel, his actions are
geared toward preventing the paternal ghost from haunting by keeping
buried ‘a past I didn’t want to remember’ (170).
In his foreword to Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s The Wolf
Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonomy, Derrida connects the idea that the
deceased ‘must pledge, on his own, warmly, to occupy his place as
dead, not to budge from it’ to their concept of the crypt: ‘The crypt
is perhaps itself that contract with the dead’ (‘Fors’ xxxviii). Bret’s use
of the safe-deposit box literalizes this crypt, which results from the
failed mourning that transpires when the healthy process of introjec-
tions, where the self expands by assimilating (or working through) its
own desires as well as external objects and events, is unsuccessful and
incorporation, where the self takes the object in as a whole and pre-
serves it as a secret never to be revealed, ensues. The ‘secret tomb’
of incorporation, however, is never completely sealed: ‘Sometimes in
the dead of the night, when libidinal fulfillments have their way, the
ghost of the crypt comes back to haunt the cemetery guard, giving
him strange and incomprehensible signals, making him perform bizarre
acts, or subjecting him to unexpected sensations’ (Abraham and Torok,
‘Mourning’ 130).10
In Bret’s case, this haunting takes the shape of an endless, cryp-
tic stream of spectral messages and ghostly appearances. After some
time, he realizes that the mysterious emails from the bank all arrived
at the exact time of his father’s death and that the first one came on
its anniversary; that the film 1941, which keeps playing on the TV
without being scheduled, invokes his father’s year of birth; that the
number of his house, 307, transcribes his own birthday, the seventh
of March; and that the Terby’s name is an anagram of the question
YBRET or ‘Why, Bret?’11 The novel thus enacts the way ‘like a com-
memorative monument, the incorporated object betokens the place,
the date, and the circumstances in which desires were banished from
introjection: they stand like tombs in the life of the ego’ (Torok 114). As
if to reinforce the connection, Bret finds (or hallucinates) a gravestone
Ghosts of the Missing 171

in his backyard inscribed ROBERT MARTIN ELLIS 1941–1992 and a

story he wrote as a 12-year-old out of fear of his father, from which a
monster has now come to life, called ‘The Tomb’. The narrative even
invokes psychoanalysis through the character designated as ‘the writer’,
whose words appear in italics and who, in addressing Bret and encour-
aging him to think through the connections between the different
events, takes on the role of his therapist, seeking ‘to reveal the crypt’s
secret content in order to effect its reintegration into consciousness’
(Rand 22).
When the crypt finally crumbles, what emerges is, unsurprisingly, the
father. The passage in question begins by illustrating the therapeutic
move from denial to acceptance and from fragmentation to coherence:

The denial of everything would pull me gently away from reality, but
only for a moment, because lines started connecting with other lines,
and gradually an entire grid was forming and it became coherent, with a
specific meaning, and finally emerging from the void was an image
of my father: his face was white, and his eyes were closed in repose,
and his mouth was just a line that soon opened up, screaming.
(170, emphasis added)

At the same time, it stresses the fervent resistance of the unconscious to

the emergence of the secret contained in the crypt, which is that Bret has
been re-enacting his father’s life (and, from a different, adult perspective,
his own childhood as a neglected son) by living in a similar-looking
house next-door to neighbors named Allen:

My mind kept whispering to itself, and in my memories it all was

there – the pink stucco house, the green shag carpeting, the bathing
suits from the Mauna Kea, our neighbors Susan and Bill Allen – and
I could see my father’s cream-colored 450 SL as it crossed the lanes of
an interstate lined with citrus trees, racing toward an off-ramp, not
far from here, called Sherman Oaks, and sometimes on the night and
early morning of November fourth I laughed, with disbelief at the
noises roaring in my head and I kept talking to myself, but I was a
man trying to have a rational conversation with someone who was
losing it, and I cried let it go, let it go, but I could no longer avoid
recognizing the fact that I had to accept what was happening: that
my father wanted to give me something. And as I kept repeating his
name I realized what it was. A warning.
(170, emphasis in text)
172 The Spectral Metaphor

The trauma Bret has incorporated, then, is revealed as not only his own
but also his father’s, just as Stephen’s, in The Child in Time, was his and
his mother’s. This brings together the crypt with the related concept of
the phantom, Abraham and Torok’s figure of transgenerational haunting
that designates an ‘undisclosed family secret handed down to an
unwitting descendant’ (Rand 16).
The phantom is the crypt of an ancestor ensconced in our psyche
(‘in my memories it was all there’), affecting our behavior without our
realization and, usually, without being recoverable. Bret, however, rec-
ognizes it when his childhood memories re-emerge and already appears
to make out his father’s phantom when, early in his account, he writes:
‘as much as I wanted to escape his influence, I couldn’t. It had soaked
into me, shaped me into the man I was becoming’ (7, emphasis added).
Specifically, what has soaked into Bret is his father’s sense of inadequate
masculinity. When Bret receives his father’s Armani suits, this phan-
tom materializes as a literal bloodline: ‘I was revolted to discover that
most of the inseams in the crotch of the trousers were stained with
blood, which we later found out was the result of a botched penile
implant he underwent in Minneapolis. My father, in his last years, due
to the toxic mix of diabetes and alcoholism, had become impotent’ (15).
Impotence not only characterized the father’s sex life, but, metaphori-
cally, also his paternity, and it is this inadequacy that lives on in Bret,
who, after his conversion to suburban family life, notes: ‘it’s been really
hard fitting into this whole world, and all these pressures about being
the man of the house or whatever you want to call it are getting to
me’ (86). The difficulty, if not impossibility, of living up to the nor-
mative ideal of the ‘man of the house’, especially when this ideal has
been destabilized by postmodern questionings of identity as a stable,
coherent category, is what his father’s ghost has returned to warn Bret
Against all initial appearances, therefore, what haunts Bret is not
the all-powerful sovereign father of the phallogocentric tradition –
the imposing ghost handing down injunctions – but the dispossessed
specter of failed fatherhood. This specter cannot order Bret to ‘man up’
and avenge him, since it is precisely the definition of manhood that has
come unhinged. The ghost’s carefully guarded secret is that, despite its
ability to inspire fear, as it does in the early stages of Lunar Park, it cannot
command. All the father can do is warn Bret not to repeat his mistakes
with Robby and leave him to choose whether or not to heed this warn-
ing. Inheritance transforms from order to gift: ‘my father wanted to give
Ghosts of the Missing 173

me something.’ What the ghost of the father articulates as it repeatedly

speaks Robby’s name is not a demand to set right the past, but a cau-
tion about the future, about Bret’s own legacy. At first, Bret ignores this
admonition; his obsessive focus on avoiding the paternal inheritance
has blinded him to his responsibility in the present and for the future.
He persists in approaching the ghost as if it can only represent incon-
testable authority and as if it had in fact made a demand to rectify the
past. Only after Robby has gone missing does he recognize his mistake.
Like his father, he has become ‘someone who either didn’t know his son
was lost to him or refused to believe it’ (177). It is at this point that the
phantom is fully brought into the open and a new spectral economy,
involving offerings rather than obligations, validated. Making this pos-
sible is Robby, who emerges as an additional and, importantly, volitional
haunting force by turning himself into a living ghost.


What I conceive of as Robby’s strategic self-spectralization constitutes a

refusal of the crippling inheritance conjured in Lunar Park, which not
only haunts Bret but has established itself as a pervasive social practice.
For this is what Abraham argues becomes of common phantoms not
effectively exorcized: ‘shared or complementary phantoms find a way
to be established as social practices along the lines of staged words’ (176,
emphasis in text). Here, these ‘staged words’ have solidified into what
Judith Butler would call a performative gender norm, that of the ‘man
of the house’. This norm, Bret finds, can neither be fulfilled nor refused.
Having unsuccessfully attempted the latter by denying his paternity,
when Bret is finally ‘thrust into the role of husband and father – of pro-
tector’ 11 years later, he quickly begins to feel that fatherhood requires
of him an impossible, self-effacing aspiration: ‘It was all about what
[Robby] wanted. It was all about what he needed. Everything I desired
was overridden, and I had to accept this. I had to rise up to it’ (60, 28).
With the phantom socially staged and therefore pervasive, it should be
easier to exorcize. However, Lunar Park shows how its status as a social
practice also puts it under shared surveillance, making it more resilient;
an open secret is, after all, in many ways more difficult to expose than a
hidden one.
In the twenty-first-century America of the novel, where 9/11 has been
followed by an unrelenting spate of bombings, generating a pervasive
fear of ‘so many faceless enemies’, the suburban Northeast is a refuge,
174 The Spectral Metaphor

with middle-class life proceeding almost as normal (27). Yet even in this
sheltered context, people are ruled by fear and feelings of inadequacy.
Bret is not the only adult struggling with parenthood, as the mutual
dependency of parents and children is conceived as a crippling burden.
Parents are seen to prevent their children from living their own lives –
Bret says of Robby: ‘his future [is] flattened by my presence’ (116) – while
the adults feel they have invested so much in their offspring that there
should be a payoff: ‘it wasn’t that they weren’t concerned with their
kids, but they wanted something back, they wanted a return on their
investment – this need was almost religious’ (133).12 The parent–child
relationship has become economized, with children treated as specu-
lative commodities. Such commodification, following Derrida’s reading
of Marx’s example of the table in Capital, renders them ghosts of them-
selves: ‘the commodity is a “thing” without phenomenon, a thing in
flight that surpasses the senses (it is invisible, intangible, inaudible,
and odorless)’ (Specters 150). The child disappears in this spectrality-
as-possession, which sees the possessing spirit take center stage as the
possessed struggles to ‘come through’, as horror films put it. Robby
and his friends resist being ghosted in this manner and take recourse
to a different kind of spectrality that reclaims the notion of being ‘in
flight’ not as an upstaging apparitionality but as a deliberate act that
gives notice, rendering visible by calling time on enforced invisibility.
If the intergenerational phantom cannot be exorcized or evaded as long
as the social structures staging it persist, it can, perhaps, be destabi-
lized by withdrawing from these structures and fighting like with like;
ghosts, after all, cannot be haunted or possessed in the same way as the
From the start of the novel, the area where Lunar Park is set is plagued
by a surge in missing children, notably ‘only boys’ (55). They vanish
without a trace and no bodies or suspects are found, but clues to the
fact that these disappearances are chosen and to their motive, abound.
Bret records how ‘Robby seemed lost, as if he didn’t know what to do’,
how ‘his favorite songs had the word flying in the title’ and how ‘no one
was going to take him anywhere (unless he let them, came an unbidden
thought)’ (63, 89, 112). As noted, Bret’s obsessive focus on the pater-
nal specter, which seems to hold a more immediate threat, leaves him
oblivious to the meaning of these observations until after Robby’s disap-
pearance. Only then does he discover the boys were not taken but leave
of their own accord, conspiring by email and sending their belongings
ahead to an unknown place. This place, free of fathers and phan-
toms, they call ‘neverneverland’, redoubling J. M. Barrie’s designation
Ghosts of the Missing 175

for the adult-free realm of unending childhood (209, emphasis in text).

Whereas in McEwan’s novel, Charles Darke’s attempt to retreat to a sim-
ilar realm fails because his escape is to a spectral site of fantasy and he is
unable to fully cut his ties to the rest of the world, Robby and his friends
use double negation to create a more solid refuge. ‘Nevernever’ becomes
‘ever’ and thus a place in time rather than outside it, where they, unlike
the original Lost Boys, can and will grow up, but differently, secreted
from the rest of society, which, without knowing where they are, cannot
reclaim them.
In its exploitation of the way a valued missing child yields one of the
most affecting, haunting images possible – ‘Their photos were flashed
on the Internet and updates were posted on special Web sites devoted
to them, their solemn faces staring out at you, their shadows follow-
ing you everywhere’ (55) – Robby’s vanishing act constitutes more than
a passive abdication of responsibility or naïve escapism. It produces a
tear in the sensible made especially disconcerting by the fact that it is
self-engineered and does not aim at a return home or at regression to
an idealized past. As Morgado notes, while in conventional children’s
fiction, child disappearance ‘seldom separates them for ever from their
familial contexts or familial projects of identity as continuity’, stories
in which the child ‘wants to get rid of the adult constructions imposed
on him/her, through “running away” from the narrative and abandon-
ing the pages of the book’ effect a more radical disturbance of family
and societal structures (255, 258). What the missing boys’ collective self-
spectralization represents is a conjuration as Verschwörung, a secret pact
to struggle against a superior power (Derrida, Specters 41). This pact con-
venes not illegitimate heirs seeking to insert themselves in an existing
lineage, but repudiating heirs challenging the notion of succession itself.
The ‘lost’ boys counter the force of re-appearance enacted by the pater-
nal ghost with that of dis-appearance, prompting a lasting disruption of
established social practice, since, without sons, their fathers will have to
find new heirs. At the same time, the boys’ congregation in nevernev-
erland establishes a new type of sociality that elides the nuclear family
and generational competition. Since there are no missing girls, the boys’
escape could be seen as repeating the male bias of the system it seeks to
displace, but this may also be a necessity. Only by excluding girls is it
ensured that the sons will not (have to) become fathers or ‘men of the
Spectral agency, in the form of choosing to live as a ghost in order to
free oneself of phantoms, does come at a price. Robby and his friends
give up as much as they potentially gain, but by taking responsibility
176 The Spectral Metaphor

for their future (and for their role in the present as the future) they send
a powerful message to those left behind, one that is not immediately
welcomed. After Robby goes missing, Bret notes: ‘I didn’t want expla-
nations, because in those, my failure would take shape (your love was
a mask, the scale of your lies, the irresponsible adult at loose, all those
things you hid, the mindless pull of sex, the father who never paid atten-
tion)’ (298). Still refusing to take responsibility for the ghosts assailing
him from all directions, he cannot recognize Robby’s proposal ‘to live
otherwise, and better’ (Derrida, Specters xviii).
A re-solution arrives when Bret and Robby reunite in the McDonald’s
across from the bank where the father’s ashes were stored. Robby appears
as though ‘something had been solved for him’ and tells his father: ‘I’m
not lost anymore’ (305). Paradoxically, in going missing, he has gone
from being overlooked and commodified to substantiated and cherished
in a non-proprietary mode. Although the past still accompanies him
(Robby drives the same cream-colored Mercedes as Bret’s father), Bret
recognizes it does not possess him: ‘wherever he was going, he was not
afraid’ (306). Instead of promising another repeat of the past, the future
is now unknown and therefore expectant. Bret, too, has changed his life,
leaving suburbia and its imposed heterosexuality behind and supporting
Robby’s return to ‘the land where every boy forced into bravery and
quickness retreats: a new life’ (306).
Lunar Park’s elegiac ending, which has been accused of having ‘noth-
ing in common – tonally, rhythmically – with the rest of the book’
(Mars-Jones) but has also been called a ‘sublime’ illumination (Maslin),
resembles that of The Child in Time in that it, too, unfolds in a com-
prehensive temporality exceeding linearity and realism, and invoking a
sustained yet transformational spectrality. Like Stephen, Julie and the
baby, Bret starts a new life, symbolized by the crypt’s explosion. When,
in a final attempt to placate his father’s ghost, he recovers his ashes from
the bank, ‘the box containing what remained of my father had burst
apart and the ashes now lined the sides of the oblong safe’ (306). Accord-
ing to Abraham and Torok, with the crypt opened and the magic word
revealed, mourning and introjection can finally take place. In Lunar
Park, however, rather than definitively ending the haunting, the magic
word – ‘in the ash someone had written, perhaps with a finger, the same
word my son had written on the moonscape he had left for me’ (306) –
seals a new pact or Verschwörung between Bret, his father and his son
against the oppressive masculine economy of inheritance that induced
the preceding Gothic nightmare.
Ghosts of the Missing 177

When Bret scatters the ashes according to his father’s wishes, this pro-
duces not subservience, placation or exorcism but ‘a phantasmagoria of
love and loss, a fusion of hallucination and wisdom’ (Maslin), enabling
an affirmative reconnection not just to the father but to a wider ances-
try. As in McEwan’s novel, moreover, what ensues is a shared mourning
that emphatically includes women.13 Signaling this new inclusiveness is
a shift in narrative voice from ‘I’ to ‘we’ and ‘you’ (which may be read
as both singular and plural):

In a fishing boat that took us [Bret and his sisters] out beyond
the wave line of the Pacific we finally put my father to rest. As the
ashes rose up into the salted air they opened themselves to the
wind and began moving backwards, falling into the past and coat-
ing the faces that lingered there, dusting everything, and then the
ashes ignited into a prism and began forming patterns and started
reflecting the men and women who had created him and me and
Robby. They drifted over a mother’s smile and shaded a sister’s out-
stretched hand and shifted past all the things you wanted to share
with everyone. (306)

Here the inheritance comes from ‘men and women’ and concerns not
only Bret but his mother and sisters too. The scattered ashes, which
cannot reconstitute the paternal body and are therefore incapable of
handing down authoritative injunctions, form multiple, shifting ‘pat-
terns’, as in Laplanche’s weaving and unweaving. These patterns both
cover the past, easing its burden on the present, and reflect it as that
without which the present would not exist. The expansive vision con-
jured by the ashes – ‘a multitude of images from the past’ (306–7) –
contains revelations and comforts but also obscures through its vast
spatio-temporal scope. Rather than ordering the past or explaining
it in order to ‘move on’, the ashes materialize a continuity that is
simultaneously an initiation:

The ashes were collapsing into everything and following echoes.

They sifted over the graves of his parents and finally entered the cold,
lit world of the dead where they wept across the children standing in
the cemetery and then somewhere out at the end of the Pacific – after
they rustled across the pages of this book, scattering themselves over
words and creating new ones – they began exiting the text, losing
themselves somewhere beyond my reach, and then vanished, and
178 The Spectral Metaphor

the sun shifted its position and the world swayed and then moved
on, and though it was all over, something new was conceived. (308)

With this image of rebirth as renewal rather than resurrection, Lunar

Park counters Foss and Domenici’s association of haunting with stand-
ing still and Abraham and Torok’s insistence on exorcism. The novel
shows how the open crypt may be preserved to house shifting patterns
of memories instead of a sole, immovable corpse. If this crypt can be
re-visited instead of being allowed to occupy, similar to the way Robby
can meet with his father and Kate remains present without monopoliz-
ing her parents’ attention, it will haunt differently, opening up possibil-
ities rather than closing them off. In relation to Derrida’s hauntology,
Robby’s pre-emptive self-spectralization foregrounds its futural, inven-
tive dimension, thereby assuaging some of the dangers discerned by
Hamacher, such as ‘the repetition of the familial, national and religious
myths which it claims to rid itself of’ and the risk of ‘activating the
performative of the promise according to the schema of the jealous per-
secution of the father’ (198). Most importantly, the novel’s inventive
use of the trope of the missing child again codes visibility as a possible
trap. Under certain circumstances and for some subjects, straightforward
ocular availability invites only indifference or exploitation, while invis-
ibility, as a deliberate vanishing act in the mode of the visible in-visible,
emphasizing presence through its occlusion, reconfigures the sensible
and makes possible new, more inclusive relationalities.
In the two novels analyzed in this chapter, multidirectional forms of
haunting and the possibility of self-spectralization herald a new practice
of mourning as well as a new politics of inheritance and of gener-
ations in which agency is more evenly distributed and responsibility
extends to inheritance (received from the past) as well as legacy (given
to the future). The ghost, moreover, is re-focalized by The Child in Time’s
showing of the same spectral encounter from the dual perspectives of
haunting and haunted, as well as by the way Lunar Park has Bret occupy
both positions simultaneously: ‘in the end, Bret – you were the ghost’ (298,
emphasis in text). With regard to the specific spectrality of the miss-
ing and their ability to develop agency, I have emphasized how some
missing persons are able to haunt with great force, while others are
simply ignored. A certain spectral agency can be generated by draw-
ing attention to the latter, who might be called the ‘missing missing’, in
the manner, for example, of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which
may transfer them to the more trenchant category of the ‘missed miss-
ing’. Possessing great affective force and heightened visibility, it is these
Ghosts of the Missing 179

missed missing persons that haunt most powerfully, especially when, as

in the case of Robby and his friends, they are in charge of their own
apparitionality.14 As in previous chapters, then, effective spectral agency,
in particular when predicated on invisibility, is dependent on the par-
ticular shape a subject’s ghostliness takes and the nature and strength of
the affects (fear, anger, frustration, care, curiosity, fascination) he or she
is capable of inducing as a result.
Afterword: How to Survive
as a Living Ghost?

In Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice, Barbara and Adam Maitland, a

young married couple, have a car accident. They find themselves back
home and only realize that they have died when they cannot see them-
selves in the mirror and find a copy of the Handbook for the Recently
Deceased, instructing them that ‘functional perimeters vary from man-
ifestation to manifestation.’ In other words, not all the deceased have
the same capacities. When a family moves into their house and starts
redecorating it in a way they consider tasteless, Barbara is dejected, but
Adam’s spirits are raised when he realizes what they now are: ‘we’re not
completely helpless, Barbara. I’ve been reading that book and there’s
a word for people in our situation [sounds and looks excited]: ghosts!’
Here, identifying as a ghost produces a sense of agency derived from the
ghost’s assumed power to disturb the living. However, when the couple
embraces this newfound status and stages some stereotypical scenes of
haunting, including one where Adam displays his severed head, their
targets turn out not to see them, leading Barbara to exclaim: ‘What’s the
good of being a ghost when you can’t frighten people away?’ When they
turn to their afterlife ‘case worker’ for help, she tells them to consult the
Handbook’s ‘Intermediate Interface Chapter on Haunting’, insists that
‘haunted houses aren’t easy to come by’, and advises them to ‘start sim-
ply. Do what you know. Use your talents. Practice.’ Apparently, much
like Butler sees gender produced over time through repeated performa-
tives, one is not simply a haunting ghost but becomes one by reiterating
what ghosts are supposed to do, the norms of spectrality, if you will.
Haunting, then, is not an inalienable attribute of every ghost, but an
acquired skill.
During their next attempt to scare off the living, for which they have
covered themselves, rather amateurishly, in patterned sheets, Barbara

Afterword: How to Survive as a Living Ghost? 181

and Adam turn out to be visible after all, at least to the new occupants’
daughter, Lydia. Far from being afraid, however, she finds the experience
‘amazing’, while insisting that they will have to hone their haunting
skills if they are to drive away her parents: ‘you’d better get another rou-
tine, because those sheets don’t work.’ When the parents do not take
Lydia’s report of a spectral encounter seriously, Barbara and Adam sum-
mon expert help from the realm of the dead in the shape of Betelgeuse,
a maniacal ‘bio-exorcist’ who targets the living. Through his efforts,
the house finally becomes haunted in the proper, perceptible sense.
Yet, once more, the reactions of the living are not as expected. Lydia’s
parents see an opportunity to make money by exploiting people’s fasci-
nation with the paranormal, while Lydia grows more and more sympa-
thetic to the Maitlands. When Betelgeuse threatens to drag the girl into
the afterlife, Barbara and Adam come to her defense and exorcize the
exorcist. Unusually for a ghost story, the film’s upbeat ending sees the
living and the dead happily sharing the house and co-parenting Lydia.
The poignancy of this film lies in its thematization of the literal
ghost’s differentiated functionality, with its normative haunting incar-
nation depicted as a role that requires practice and does not always
have the same effects. This qualification applies equally to the figura-
tive ghosts I have investigated. By focusing on the living specters that
occupy the present rather than on hypothetical returnees from the dead
or victims of historical injustices and forgetfulness, I have sought, in
excess of Derrida’s emphasis on spectral multiplicity and heterogene-
ity (converging in le plus d’un), to expose the specificity of the spectral
metaphor, the way it takes different shapes (and names), invoking a
range of meanings, capacities and effects. Since even the ghost’s literal
meaning, in its entanglement with the supernatural, is neither stable
nor empirically verifiable, its precise sense and system of associations
cannot definitively or fully be established. This distance from actual
experience, I have argued, makes the spectral metaphor a more responsi-
ble figuration of forms of subjectivity than those grounded in the living
practices of particular groups such as migrants or refugees. Moreover,
much like Beetlejuice, which predominantly takes the Maitlands’ per-
spective, I have focused on understanding what it means to be (seen
as) a ghost, adding to the main questions that have governed the theo-
rization of the spectral encounter – how to conquer the ghost or how to
take responsibility for it? – the query: how to survive as a ghost?
The first part of Beetlejuice suggests the obvious answer: one survives
by coming to haunt. However, while in common parlance, in most ghost
stories and in Specters of Marx it is assumed that the power to disturb
182 The Spectral Metaphor

is an incontrovertible quality of any apparition, this is belied by the

Maitlands, by Simon de Canterville’s mortifying predicament in Wilde’s
story and by the precarious position of some of the living ghosts por-
trayed in the films, television series and novels discussed in my chapters.
Significantly, the OED defines the verb ‘to haunt’, when pertaining to
‘imaginary or spiritual beings, ghosts etc.’ as ‘to visit frequently and
habitually with manifestations of their influence and presence, usu-
ally of a molesting kind.’ A ghost incapable of manifesting influence
and presence or threatening to molest is, thus, still a ghost, but not
a haunting force capable of inducing the strong affects that grant it
power over the living. Haunting, like agency, is not a property one sim-
ply has, but a conditional capability whose strength and (im)possibility
are determined, to a large extent, by contextual factors, both preced-
ing and shaping the situation in question (power structures, established
discourses and so on) and arising from it (the contingency of the event).
For living ghosts wondering how to survive, then, it is essential to
first establish what kind of ghosts they are and to what degree they pos-
sess the power to haunt. Only then can it be decided how this power, if
present, is most effectively and efficiently employed – to improve one’s
social position, to solicit care and attention or simply to be left alone –
and whether it can be used without running unacceptable risks, such
as inciting or reinforcing a drive to exorcism. What needs to be estab-
lished is the specific balance between the spectral metaphor’s powers of
dispossession, which may cause one to be overlooked and considered
expendable, and empowerment, including the ability to see without
being seen and provoke fear and fascination. This balance, as I have
shown, is not equal for undocumented migrants, servants or domestic
workers, mediums and the missing, and may vary even within these
groups, as became clear, for example, with regard to educated versus
uneducated migrants and missing girls versus missing boys. Conse-
quently, the social, political and ethical implications of living as a ghost
cannot be assessed by means of generalizing theories of spectrality that
exclusively take the perspective of the haunted. What is needed is a
careful consideration of each living ghost’s figurative specificity and
a sustained refocalization. Both are facilitated by looking to the cul-
tural imagination, where the literal ghost standing at the basis of its
metaphorical uses finds the most varied expression and where everyday
perspectival hierarchies may be radically reordered.
If a living ghost finds the balance between empowering and dis-
possessing aspects of its incarnation of the spectral metaphor to be
favorable, the assigned ghostly status may be accepted and even
Afterword: How to Survive as a Living Ghost? 183

exploited. Thus, in Affinity, Selina and Ruth turn their spookiness into a
source of strength and profit, financial and erotic. If, conversely, the
balance is found to be skewed to the side of disempowerment, the
fact that the ghost, as shown in Beetlejuice, has no fixed ‘functional
parameters’ and may learn to haunt still provides some potential for
agency. In metaphorical use, requiring a secondary interpretative oper-
ation referring to a vast, heterogeneous set of associations, the ghost’s
susceptibility to transformation is enhanced, while those subject to
exploitation or annihilation may counter their spectralization by insist-
ing on their materiality and visibility, on not being ghost-like. This is
what happens in role changes like the one from servant to guest in
Upstairs, Downstairs or from organ donor to organ trader in Dirty Pretty
Things. Claims to materiality-as-mattering also have the more general
purpose of questioning whether it is ethical to metaphor people, who,
as argued in my introduction, have a stake in how they are conceived.
Alternatively, living ghosts whose spectralization works to disappear
them may devise strategies to appeal to the more empowering aspects
of the ghostly epithet in order to come to haunt or find agency in
While the first response seems more straightforward, in situations of
extreme dispossession, such as the one portrayed in Broomfield’s Ghosts,
it is almost impossible to make one’s presence known. Moreover, claim-
ing visibility and full presence can incur severe losses and dangers. In
Affinity, Ruth and Selina would not be able to maintain their relation-
ship or scam in the light of day, while in Babel Amelia’s self-exposure to
rescue the children in her care results in her deportation. On this basis,
I have argued against the unreflective validation of visibility as equal
to emancipation that haunts Castle’s apparitional lesbian and Rancière’s
politics of aesthetics. Visibility and invisibility do not have a generaliz-
able function or meaning, but need to be assessed in specific forms and
contexts. After all, the lurid spectacle of regulated begging in McEwan’s
The Child in Time shows that even the eminently visible can be divested
of a stake in the common, while that same novel, together with Ellis’s
Lunar Park, suggests some missing people (can be made to) exert an
affective force that affords them, or at least the shadows cast by their
felt absence, great social and political impact.
The second response, while more convoluted, acknowledges both
the strength of the spectral metaphor and the difficulty of escaping
the designations through which one is socially (un)recognized. It pro-
poses developing what I have called spectral agency by asserting one’s
ghostliness. Thus, Ruth exploits the fact that, as a maid, she goes
184 The Spectral Metaphor

unnoticed, to aid Selina, while Okwe, in Dirty Pretty Things, accesses

hospital resources by blending into the background. Lunar Park’s Robby
takes this response to the extreme by engaging in self-spectralization,
embracing the status of ghost as a way of escaping the oppressive norms
of masculinity he is set to inherit. All these acts work with and within the
spectral metaphor to shift its motivation towards its more empowering
associations. The metaphor, taken as a site of dynamic interaction, is
strategized and, in the process, re-oriented. Of course, such strategizing
will not always be successful or yield lasting effects; it is especially diffi-
cult to implement in contexts resembling Mbembe’s bleak, exploitative
It is the very ghostliness of spectral agency that prevents it from hav-
ing a straightforward shape, force and result. Wielding it is always risky,
for the living ghosts in question and for the ones they seek to haunt.
Consequently, another question to be asked by those seeking survival
(or, more than that, livability) is what kind of ghost they want to be.
For Adam and Barbara Maitland, in Beetlejuice, the answer turns out to
be that they do not wish the living to be annihilated. Instead, they find
a way to live with them, not by ceding their claim to the house, but
by negotiating a co-possession. Although this invokes Derrida’s ethical
model of accepting alterity rather than seeking to assimilate or negate
it, the film’s double assignation of otherness, hospitality and spectrality
(it depends on the perspective taken who the unexpected visitations
are) undermines his apparent certainty about who is self and who is
other, who is guest and who is host, who is the ghost and who is
haunted. What I have sought to expose by looking at products of the
cultural imagination is precisely the uncertain, changeable perspective
and positioning that comes with the ghost and the potential of this per-
spectival capriciousness for finding new ways to address the processes of
social marginalization that pervade today’s globalized world. It is imper-
ative to do so in a manner that, instead of reflexively assigning self
and other fixed contents and positions, views them as deictic denom-
inators subject to re-orientation. While the question of how effective
spectral agency, in the forms envisioned here, can be in the social realm
has to remain open, the films, television series and novels I have dis-
cussed offer valuable testing grounds for specifying the oppressions and
exclusions enacted by the spectral metaphor as well as the imaginative
reconfigurations it enables, particularly with respect to the agency of

Introduction: The Spectral Metaphor

1. O’Connor reads Virginia’s sacrifice as turning Wilde’s story into a critique
of the commodification of women by the institution of Victorian bourgeois
2. The OED designates the definition of the ghost as ‘the soul of a deceased
person, spoken of as appearing in a visible form, or otherwise manifesting
its presence, to the living’ the ‘prevailing’ one, with the phrase ‘spoken of’
designed to avoid the question of the appearance’s empirical reality.
3. As Sconce points out in Haunted Media, the televisual ghost was sometimes
mistaken for a ‘literal’ one (2). In general, the line between the literal and fig-
urative meanings of the ghost is blurred by its uncertain ontological status.
The OED definition of ‘phantom’, a synonym of both ‘ghost’ and ‘specter’,
underlines the difficulty of distinguishing literal and figurative meanings
when it comes to this cluster of terms. It designates the phantom as ‘a
thing (usually with human form) that appears to the sight or other sense,
but has no material substance; an apparition, a spectre, a ghost’ and adds
‘Also fig.’. Thus, the literal sense is already without substance and this very
insubstantiality forms the basis for its figurative adaptations.
4. Gunn explains how he uses

the conspicuous term ‘idiom’ to denote that haunting is more than a

vocabulary and cannot be understood in relation to a single concept, e.g.,
the figure of the ghost; rather, as an idiom haunting refers to the way in
which a theoretical perspective is lived and ‘owned,’ which is sometimes
regrettably experienced by the unfamiliar as the ‘jargon’ of a clique.
(‘Review’ 78)
5. On spiritualism, see Oppenheim; Owen; Warner. On telepathy, see Derrida,
‘Telepathy’; Luckhurst, Invention; Royle, Telepathy. On the Gothic, see
Castricano. On the uncanny, see Castle, Female; Masschelein; Royle,
6. See the texts collected and discussed in Blanco and Peeren’s The Spectralities
7. Derrida’s fascination with ghosts did not start with Specters of Marx, but
can be traced to the introductions to the psychoanalytical works of Nicolas
Abraham and Maria Torok written in the 1970s. It also pervades his appear-
ance in Ken McMullen’s 1983 film Ghost Dance, his books Of Spirit (1987),
The Gift of Death (1992) and Archive Fever (1995), and ‘Spectrographies’, an
interview with Bernard Stiegler conducted in 1993. For a more elaborate
consideration of this spectral trajectory, see Blanco and Peeren.
8. In Learning to Live Finally, Derrida distills the ‘concern for legacy and death’
that pervades Specters of Marx to the question ‘When will you become

186 Notes

responsible? How will you answer or finally take responsibility for your life and
for your name?’ On the same page, he asserts that ‘learning to live should
mean learning to die, learning to take into account, so as to accept, absolute
mortality (that is, without salvation, resurrection, or redemption – neither
for oneself nor for the other)’ (24, emphasis in text). This reinforces how he
takes the specter not as a figure transcending death, but as one that confronts
with death and with the compounded responsibility for what one takes from
the past (as heir) and leaves for the future (as ancestor).
9. Bal borrows Stengers’s opposition between diffusion, ‘which dilutes and ends
up neutralizing the phenomena’, and epidemic propagation, ‘where each
new particle becomes an originating agent of a propagation that does not
weaken in the process’ (32–3).
10. Rayner notes how ‘a ghost, particularly in the theater, ought to startle an
audience into attention with a shiver’ (xiii).
11. Specters of Marx does not always carefully separate hauntology as that which
characterizes all Being from the specter as a figure of alterity that can signify
either power or dispossession. The difference between the way we are all
always already ghosts of ourselves, inhabited by our coming death, and the
way particular subjects (and other life forms) are excluded from a livable life
is marked in Learning to Live Finally:

We are all survivors who have been granted a temporary reprieve [en
sursis] (and, from the geopolitical perspective of Specters of Marx, this is
especially true, in a world that is more inegalitarian than ever, for the
millions of living beings – humans or not – who are denied not only
their basic ‘human rights,’ which date back two centuries and are con-
stantly being refined, but first of all the right to a life worthy of being
(24–5, emphasis in text)

This acknowledgment, however, is parenthetical and receives no further

12. See my book Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture for an extensive discussion
of identities-as-intersubjectivities.
13. This objection is addressed by Derrida in a 2005 interview, where his expla-
nation of ‘pure hospitality’ as consisting in ‘welcoming whoever arrives
before imposing any conditions on him, before knowing and asking any-
thing at all, be it a name or an identity “paper” ’ is followed by the
qualification that

it supposes also that one address him, singularly, that he be called there-
fore, and that he be understood to have a proper name: ‘You, what is
your name?’ Hospitality consists in doing everything to address the other,
to accord him, even to ask his name, while keeping this question from
becoming a ‘condition’, a police inquisition, a blacklist or a simple border
(‘Principle’ 7)

14. In her queer reading of spectrality, Freccero similarly stresses that a passive
politics need not be complacent:
Notes 187

the passivity – which is also a form of patience and passion – is not quite
the same as quietism. Rather, it is a suspension, a waiting, an attending
to the world’s arrivals (through, in part, its returns), not as guarantee or
security for action in the present, but as the very force from the past that
moves us, perhaps not into the future, but somewhere else.
(‘Queer’ 207)

15. See, for example, the special issue of Parallax (2001) on the New Interna-
tional, edited by McQuillan, and the contributions by Macherey, Montag,
Eagleton and Ahmad in Sprinker.
16. Žižek notes that ‘the ultimate truth of the capitalist utilitarian despiritualized
universe is the dematerialization of “real life” itself, its reversal into a spec-
tral show’ (Welcome 14). According to Hitchcock, materialism and spectrality
should be thought as implicated in each other. In Oscillate Wildly, he pro-
poses, on the basis of a reading of class in Marx, a ‘spectral empiricism’ that
emphasizes materialism’s status as a theory of becoming rather than being
and the specter’s dissociation from unreality: ‘The reality of class as spec-
tral does not mean it does not exist; it means merely that one grasps the
immaterial as also and already constituent of material reality’ (152, 159).
17. Derrida’s Of Spirit is also based on a lecture (given in 1987 at the Collège
international de philosophie in Paris), but this text seems to cleave closer
to the spoken version and, in places, invokes and questions who it speaks
as/for: ‘I shall hold, in the very dry description of these two paths, only to
what can still say something to us – at least I imagine it can – about our steps,
and about a certain crossing of our paths. About a we which is perhaps not
given’ (107, emphasis in text). In Learning to Live Finally, Derrida, asked about
his reluctance to say ‘we’, answers: ‘I do indeed have a hard time saying
“we,” but there are occasions when I do say it’ (39). He then proceeds to
outline the conditions under which he is able to say ‘we Jews’, ‘we French’
and ‘we Europeans’ (39–42). Derrida’s repeated references to the quandaries
of speaking as or of a ‘we’ make its unreflective use in Specters of Marx, a text
explicitly concerned with intersubjective ethics, more notable.
18. See Bakhtin’s ‘Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity’ and my discussion of
the intersubjective look in Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture (73–82).
19. See also Briefel, who calls this phenomenon ‘spectral incognizance’.

1 Forms of Invisibility: Undocumented Migrant Workers

as Living Ghosts in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things
and Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts
1. Throughout this chapter, I avoid the term ‘illegal immigrant’, since I reject
the association of illegality with a person’s entire being rather than specific
actions. At the same time, ‘migrant’ alone avoids the distinction between
documented and undocumented, which both films show to be crucial in
determining the degree of dispossession suffered.
2. Lacan defines the gaze as a form of vision that looks not out of a deter-
minate pair of individual eyes, but from a more abstract, comprehensive
viewpoint resembling an all-seeing eye (72). Representing the idea that the
188 Notes

subject is always already looked at by the impersonal ‘spectacle of the world’,

the gaze is a universal, inescapable phenomenon akin to Derrida’s visor
effect (75). However, because the gaze filters what it sees, or makes visible,
through a screen of normative images, it is also historically and culturally
specific. Hence, Silverman, in The Threshold of the Visible World, speaks of the
cultural gaze.
3. According to Silverman, ‘we can appear, and so Be, only if others “light” us
up’ (World 19).
4. Nancy’s account of his heart transplant makes clear that once the visible
in-visible has been brought to the surface, it cannot be unseen again – the
revelation is permanent: ‘this gaping open [béance] cannot be closed. (Each
x-ray moreover shows this: the sternum is sewn through with twisted pieces
of wire.) I am closed open’ (10).
5. The avisual can also be related to the foreclosed perceptions Freud calls
‘negative hallucinations’ (Silverman, Flesh 103).
6. In child-development expert Clifford’s competency-based definition, social
invisibility occurs when an ‘individual occupies space within the group but
is perceived by others as contributing little other than his own presence’
(800). Clifford examines social invisibility in a small group (a nursery class)
and his findings are based on the questionable assumption that the group’s
perception is based on an accurate recognition of the individual’s skills and
attributes. In contrast, Fullmer, Shenk and Eastland discuss social invisibility
in a wider social setting that emphasizes its stigmatizing effect and the way
perception exceeds mere registration by predetermining what is considered
to be objectively there.
7. Wills, who analyzes Dirty Pretty Things in terms of its fragmentation of female
migrant bodies, uses the term ‘anonymous corporeality’ to refer to the way
refugees tend to be cinematically visualized as nothing but bodies, which
are, moreover, coded as abject (116).
8. See for information on the deaths and the ensuing court
cases. A gangmaster, Lin Liang Ren, was convicted in 2006 of manslaughter
and facilitation (helping others break immigration law). Two of his asso-
ciates, Zhao Xiau Qing and Lin Mu Yang, were also convicted of facilitation.
The owners of the Liverpool Bay Fishing Company, who bought cockles from
Lin Liang Ren, were cleared.
9. The Morecambe Bay tragedy was the second large-scale fatal incident involv-
ing trafficked Chinese immigrants. In 2000, 58 Chinese people died from
lack of air in a sealed lorry container between Zeebrugge and Dover. There
were only two survivors. The Dutch lorry driver was convicted of 58 counts
of manslaughter and given a sentence of 14 years. See McAllister.
10. On the pitfalls of authenticity, see Jay; for a deconstruction of the equation
between experience, seeing and knowing, see Scott. Silverman’s World Specta-
tors also emphasizes that we do not simply perceive what is already there in
front of us, but, through our (imaginative) seeing, actively shape the world.
11. See Poole for a full account of Bakhtin’s theory of empathy and its debt to
12. The website raised £405,928 to pay off the debts the victims’ families’ owed
to the trafficking gangs.
Notes 189

13. Bardan’s reading of Dirty Pretty Things invokes Marciniak’s notion of ‘palat-
able foreignness’ and proposes that especially Senay’s portrayal by Tatou, a
white French actress, ensures that audiences experience ‘a safe encounter
with otherness’ that emphasizes sameness rather than difference (53).
14. See Mbembe’s discussion, in ‘Aesthetics of Superfluidity’, of apartheid-era
Johannesburg as a fragmented city in constant flux where a schizophrenic
provisionality became, for many, the only way of life. He quotes the artist
William Kentridge as saying: ‘I question the cost and pain engendered by
self-multiplicity [ . . . ] There is a kind of madness that arises from living in
two worlds. Life becomes a collection of contradictory elements’ (384n41).
15. Mbembe’s extrapolation from case studies involving Camaroon and Togo
to a general theory of the African postcolony (and, in his book title, the
postcolony) is contentious. In this regard, it is important to note that
Tutuola’s work invokes particular Yoruba folk traditions and that there is
no such thing as a generalized ‘African ghost’.
16. To counter this aspect of Mbembe’s work, Weate, in line with my aims
here, adopts the spectral practice of ‘thinking the invisible’ – ‘excavating the
hidden dynamic within any given situation’ – to unearth a concealed poten-
tial for resistance in On the Postcolony in the notions of play and baroque
practice (36).
17. See my article ‘Everyday Ghosts and the Ghostly Everyday in Amos Tutuola,
Ben Okri, and Achille Mbembe’ for a fuller critique of Mbembe’s reading of
18. Mbembe does discern some limited opportunities for resistance in the simu-
lacral and ‘fundamentally magical’ regime of postcolonial autocracy, which
create ‘potholes of indiscipline on which the commandement may stub its toe’
(Postcolony 111). According to Syrotinski’s deconstructive reading of On the
Postcolony, while absent from Mbembe’s descriptions of specific regimes,
redemptive potential, in the form of a ‘non-utopian future hope’ that has
parallels to Derrida’s messianic, can be located in his dedication to a ‘writing
Africa’ that goes beyond notions of representational adequacy or political
effectiveness (113).
19. Significantly, in ‘Spectral Housing and Ethnic Cleansing,’ Appadurai instates
an opposition between cosmopolitanism and spectrality as dispossession
by showing how Mumbai’s increasing spectralization (through the growth
of the black economy, more and more uncertain housing conditions, the
fetishization of capital and bouts of ethnic violence) is accompanied by its
20. I use ‘she’ to counter Mbembe’s insistent use of ‘he’. While this pronoun
may be justified by the fact that Tutuola’s main character is a boy, Mbembe
has been faulted for his ‘unconscious gender bias’ (Weate 39). According
to Butler, Mbembe ignores ‘the question of specifically gendered mean-
ings’ in his discussion of fetishism and, in general, presupposes a gender-
neutral body (‘Mbembe’s’ 69–70). With both Spivak, in ‘Ghostwriting’, and
Hitchcock, in Imaginary States, pointing to the (subaltern) woman as the
primary exploited party in globalized production, and with women consti-
tuting the majority of refugees, Mbembe’s wandering subject is intersected
by gender in ways that demand acknowledgment.
190 Notes

21. Mbembe connects the two when he writes: ‘This critique rests upon the
notion – developed by Tutuola – of the ghost, or better, of the wandering
subject’ (‘Life’ 1).
22. Augé speculates that ‘perhaps the reason why immigrants worry settled peo-
ple so much (and often so abstractly) is that they expose the relative nature
of certainties inscribed in the soil’ (118–9).
23. In Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture, I theorize ‘versioning’ as a similar
strategy of creative recombination.
24. Waldby supplements the commodity model of (legal) organ and tissue
donation by introducing the notion of intercorporeality. She challenges
the perception of donated organs as ‘detachable things, biological entities
that are severed from social and subjective identity once they are donated
or removed from a particular body’, instead emphasizing the relational-
ity produced by the way the donated organ is seen, by many donors (or
their families) and recipients as ‘retain[ing] some of the values of person-
hood’ (240). For Waldby, the ‘material confusion’ of bodies is not necessarily
(only) exploitative but can re-orient essentialist notions of embodied iden-
tity and establish new forms of social exchange (245). In combination with
Mbembe’s remarks, this opens the way to a consideration of organ-selling
as a practice that is admittedly highly problematic but not without potential
for creating a limited form of agency. If the interior body cannot be protected
from exploitation by keeping its borders intact, as Okwe seems to believe, it
can take on a different function in addition to its role as a commodity when
considered as also a site of social exchange.
25. In ‘Ghostwriting’, Spivak challenges Derrida’s conceptualization of Marx as
a clandestine immigrant, noting that ‘this privileging of the metaphorics
(and axiomatics) of migrancy by well-placed migrants helps to occlude pre-
cisely the struggles of those who are forcibly displaced, or those who slowly
perish in their place as a result of sustained exploitation’ (71). Arguing that
the specter, which in Specters of Marx figures a wide range of phenomena,
including deconstruction itself, is like the migrant means diffusing and
generalizing a highly specific and itself not unitary experience. I prefer to
make the reverse move of metaphoring migrants as specters while carefully
specifying which characteristics they do and do not share.
26. See Malkki on the historical emergence of the refugee as a particular, var-
iegated category in international law and the difference between refugees
and exiles. Distinctions also need to be made between refugees, asylum seek-
ers and migrants, since refugees and asylum seekers tend to be perceived
as victims, while undocumented migrants are often considered parasites.
Significantly, in Dirty Pretty Things both main characters are presented as
‘legitimate’ refugees/asylum seekers rather than as ‘economic migrants’ like
the characters in Ghosts.
27. In Precarious Life, Butler critiques Agamben’s generalizations (68). However,
she, too, proposes a politics based on a common vulnerability, in her case a
shared susceptibility to loss and mourning: ‘Despite our differences in loca-
tion and history, my guess is that it is possible to appeal to a “we”, for all
of us have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody. Loss has made
a tenuous “we” of us all’ (20). While Butler qualifies the ‘we’ she constructs
and devotes considerable attention to the way certain lives are considered
Notes 191

more grievable than others, she glosses over important distinctions between
forms of loss and degrees of vulnerability.

2 Spectral Servants and Haunting Hospitalities: Upstairs,

Downstairs, Gosford Park and Babel
1. The dominant literary and visual representation of servants in wealthy
households is paralleled in historiography, since only the leisured classes
left documentation of their household expenses. In actuality, in the eigh-
teenth century, ‘domestic servants were an integral part of all but the
poorest households’ and the majority of servants were employed by ‘crafts-
men, artisans and retailers’ (Kent 111). On the difficulty of quantifying the
nineteenth-century servant population, see Higgs.
2. Gibson points to the ‘politicization of hospitality’, which separates migrants
into the invited and the uninvited, and increasingly associates those consid-
ered guests with parasitism (‘Accommodating’ 371). She tries to recuperate
the hospitality metaphor by inverting the terms: ‘It is precisely strangers
who “give” to the nation-state its defining difference and its infrastructure
of cheap labor within the service economies. It is therefore the nation-state
who parasites the “guest” or the asylum seeker’ (381). Rosello, on her part,
rejects the continued use of the hospitality metaphor on the basis that ‘the
paradigm of hospitality provides the citizen of European countries with dan-
gerously readymade scripts on how to relate to the migrant. Nor does it
necessarily help the newcomer to negotiate his or her arrival to imagine that
some invitation has been extended’ (‘Wanted’ 15–16).
3. Kent shows how, especially for eighteenth-century single women, service was
an economically lucrative profession that allowed for an independent exis-
tence and valued experience: skilled servants could move up the ranks and
were better remunerated. Davidoff writes that ‘deliberate, narrow identifica-
tion with the place of work, “my kitchen,” pride in the job no matter how
menial, “keeping my brass taps always shiny,” or pride in the status and
possessions of the employing family allowed servants a certain self-respect
without total allegiance to or acceptance of the system’ (414). Research by
Hegstrom, moreover, finds many female ex-servants from the 1920s and
1930s remembering service as a positive experience (18). This attitude may
stem from class and gender socialization, but nevertheless challenges the
disdain for service work displayed in Dirty Pretty Things.
4. Djinn appear in Arabic folklore and the Koran. The djinn of the Koranic
tradition are ‘supra-human beings composed of fire and flames, not perceiv-
able by man, and capable of emerging in a variety of forms. Many regard
them as the nature spirits of the pre-Islamic Arabian world, forces that were
beyond the control of men and at odds with his desires. These spirits were
gradually brought under the control of Allah, the majority of them being
converted to Islam and serving as his companions’ (Bravmann 46). In folk-
lore, djinn is a general name for what in the west would be called spirits.
The term derives from the verb for ‘to cover, to conceal’ and various types
of djinn can be distinguished with different powers and attitudes to humans
(Tritton 715).
192 Notes

5. The perception of danger attached to the close proximity of masters and ser-
vants is especially acute in racialized contexts, as is clear from South Africa’s
1950 Group Areas Act prohibiting black workers from living under one roof
with their white employers (Mbembe, ‘Aesthetics’ 387). In the period dramas
under discussion here, masters and servants share a house, but are separated
by internal architectural boundaries.
6. See the documentary Maid in Britain, broadcast on BBC Four, 28
December 2010.
7. Watson references works by Plautus, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dickens,
Beaumarchais and Wodehouse. In most of these, servants may indeed ‘talk
back, talk more, and talk to better effect,’ but they remain marginal char-
acters (483). It is, moreover, revealing that every speaking servant Watson
discusses is male.
8. See Robbins for an extensive discussion of the servant-narrator in
nineteenth-century literature.
9. Notably, the reprisal of Upstairs, Downstairs favors upstairs events, as does
Downton Abbey.
10. The association between spiritualism and social redistribution is further
explored in Chapter 3.
11. Since Sarah’s real name is never revealed, I will refer to her as Sarah
throughout this chapter.
12. McClintock relates the ‘servant’s labor of invisibility’ to the middle-class
housewife’s own vanishing act, which involved concealing the work it took
to keep the house clean: ‘Her success as a wife depended on her skill in the
art of both working and appearing not to work [ . . . ] idleness was less the
absence of work than a conspicuous labor of leisure’ (162, emphasis in text).
According to McClintock, only a ‘tiny, truly leisured elite’ could escape this
disavowal, yet I would suggest even wealthy mistresses are subject to a cer-
tain erasure of their labor (161). The 2010 episodes of Upstairs Downstairs, for
example, underline the strain it puts on the lady of the house to manage her
staff with seeming effortlessness.
13. Whereas in the texts Blackford discusses it is invariably the servant who
haunts, Gowing provides a fascinating account of a seventeenth-century ser-
vant haunted by her dead mistress, whose husband repeatedly impregnated
the servant. Gowing emphasizes how female servants and their mistresses
were bound together in their responsibility for men’s sexual exploits and as
potential rivals (it was not unusual for servants to become mistresses). Sig-
nificantly, the servant’s account of her ghostly mistress, when related to a
magistrate, becomes an act of agency, serving to stake a claim to the maid’s
role as part of the family and revealing ‘the authority that supernatural forces
could give the powerless to expose secrets and misdeeds’ (198).
14. Arnado defines maternalism as ‘a system of power relations wherein the
maid is under the mistress’ protective custody, control, and authority’,
characterized by mistress benevolence in which ‘false generosity’ and ‘ide-
ological camouflage’ mask the condition of subservience (154). See also
Hegstrom; Lan.
15. Gosford Park’s narrative is driven by Sir William McCordle’s sexual pursuit
of a series of young female employees and his cruelty in dealing with the
unwanted consequences. Upstairs, Downstairs, too, features several storylines
Notes 193

of (forced) sexual relationships between masters and servants, including a

homosexual one.
16. In Downton Abbey, the master’s decision to hire a cripple valet not only raises
questions about the valet’s ability to do his job, but his labored gait is seen
to reflect badly on the family.
17. See Ghosheh for a discussion of the difficulties in providing protection for
international migrant domestic workers through national and international
legislation and regulation.
18. See Star and Strauss on the micromanagement of the ‘invisible work’ of
domestic servants through Foucauldian practices of surveillance.
19. In Frame Analysis, Goffman writes:
Given that the frame applied to an activity is expected to enable us to
come to terms with all the events in that activity (informing and regu-
lating many of them), it is understandable that the unmanageable might
occur, an occurrence which cannot be effectively ignored and to which
the frame cannot be applied, with resulting bewilderment and chagrin
on the part of the participants. (347)
20. Goffman defines a symmetrical rule as ‘one which leads an individual to
have obligations and expectations regarding others that these others have in
regard to him’ and an asymmetrical rule as ‘one that leads others to treat and
be treated by an individual differently from the way he treats and is treated
by them’ (‘Nature’ 476).
21. Light remarks on the late, limited unionization of British domestic work-
ers (251) and Coser writes that it ‘seems characteristic of the servant role,
even when some legal safeguards are being provided, to be patterned on
familial rather than occupational roles’ (33). As much literature on domestic
service points out, viewing servants as almost members of the family does
not change the power relation, since they are most often likened to the
least powerful member of the household (the child) and, in the manner of
Bhabha’s colonial mimicry, are positioned as ‘a subject of a difference that is
almost the same, but not quite’ (122, emphasis in text).
22. Lan describes how Taiwanese employers and Filipino domestic work-
ers ensure the maintenance of socio-categorical boundaries (class, ethnic-
ity/nationality) and socio-spatial boundaries (privacy).

3 Spooky Mediums and the Redistribution of the Sensible:

Sarah Waters’s Affinity and Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black
1. The sense of something eerie is activated in Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a
distance’, also known as ‘quantum surreality’ or the ‘most unnerving idea in
quantum mechanics’ (Seife 1909). Galchen explains it as follows: ‘quantum
mechanics states that particles can be in two places at once, a quality called
superposition; that two particles can be related, or “entangled,” such that
they can instantly coördinate their properties, regardless of their distance in
space and time’; like telepaths or mediums, ‘entangled particles have a kind
of E.S.P.: regardless of distance, they can instantly share information that an
observer cannot even perceive is there’ (35, 39).
194 Notes

2. While male mediums also exist and feature as minor characters in both nov-
els, women, from the inception of spiritualism, were construed ‘naturally’
suited for mediumship (Owen; Luckhurst, Invention 214–51). Moreover, as
Walkowitz writes,
the private, homelike atmosphere of the seance, reinforced by the familial
content of spirit communication with dead relatives, was a comfortable
setting for women. The seance reversed the usual sexual hierarchy of
knowledge and power: it shifted attention away from men and focused it
on the female medium, the center of spiritual knowledge and insight (8).
3. Another use of ‘spook’, in American English, is as a derogatory term for black
people. This meaning famously trips up the main character in Roth’s The
Human Stain (2000).
4. Oppenheim charts how spiritualist membership cut across social classes and
servants were often found to have mediumistic talent. Luckhurst qualifies
this notion of spiritualism as a social leveler somewhat by pointing out
that, in the archives of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), ‘narratives
of dependence on the ability of servants (psychical or not) exist along-
side instances of clairvoyant or premonitory warnings about threats from
nefarious lower-class interlopers’ (Invention 150).
5. On the fraught relation between spiritualism and science, see Luckhurst
(Invention 1–59) and Oppenheim (199–390); on spiritualism as a surro-
gate faith that fell afoul of established religions, see Oppenheim (63–197);
on medicine’s pathologization of especially female mediums, see Owen
(139–67) and Walkowitz.
6. For Rancière, ‘a “common sense” is, in the first instance, a community of sen-
sible data: things whose visibility is supposed to be shareable by all, modes of
perception of these things, and the equally shareable meanings that are con-
ferred on them’ (Emancipated 102). I will explore his equation of the sensible
with the visible later in this chapter.
7. Ruth, in the guise of Peter Quick, selects attractive young girls, who are
invited for private sessions, ostensibly to develop their spiritualist sensibil-
ities, in which they are induced to sexual(ized) contact. This exploits the
way ‘the erotics of the physical séance were centred around the physical
manifestations of bodies which needed to be touched to ensure their materi-
ality’ (Thurschwell 32; see also Oppenheim 21). Since the degree of consent
remains unclear, Parker’s description of these sessions as ‘initiat[ing] several
young women to the delights of the female flesh’ is contentious (10).
8. As Judith Roof notes, ‘that which is capable of being seen is not merely that
which exists but that which is authorised to be read, to be understood, to be
legitimised’ (qtd. in Carroll par. 43).
9. See Steinbock for a pertinent discussion of shimmering as a concept that is
associated with the phantasmatic and exceeds the visual.
10. Carroll’s point that heterosexuality enjoys a ‘normative “invisibility” ’
as ‘supposedly universal and non-problematic’ further undermines crude
notions of visibility as necessarily enabling or invisibility as invariably
dispossessing (par. 34).
11. Whereas Brindle refers to Selina as ‘a shadowy presence in her own text,
which can be read as symptomatic of her powerless role as a pawn for others
Notes 195

to play at will’, I argue that she in fact takes on an active role with regard to
the image she projects, both in her diary and at Millbank (75). The ability to
come across as weak when actually in control of the situation is part of the
spooky agency conferred by her mediumship.
12. Thurschwell describes telepathy as ‘related to love – the desire for complete
sympathetic union with the mind of another’ (14).
13. According to Baer, photography can capture traumatic events through a
certain ‘excess we find within the image’, but this excess is defined as some-
thing that does not show or materialize in any straightforward manner;
as such, it re-enacts precisely the nature of the trauma as unexperienced,
unsubstantiated (11–12).
14. For more on this energy, commonly conceptualized as ‘ether’, see Warner
15. Stewart’s reading of Beyond Black notes how ‘explicit intersections with sci-
ence or religion are often downplayed in contemporary mediumship in favor
of the performative qualities of the practice’ (296). While Stewart interprets
the novel as posing a postmodern challenge to realist narrative aesthetics and
Alison as a ‘conservative figure’ who, like a detective, solves mysteries and
enables the integration of the traumatic past, I suggest Beyond Black disturbs
conventional ways of seeing and making sense by withholding coherent
solutions or seamless integrations (306).
16. For Rancière, too, ‘looking to the side’ is more truly redistributive than the
marxist focus on revealing hidden meanings by looking ‘behind things’
(Short 121).

4 Ghosts of the Missing: Multidirectional Haunting and

Self-Spectralization in Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time
and Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park
1. The desaparecidos, for example, only became truly apparitional as victims
claiming justice through the efforts of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,
who, by circling this prominent public space every Thursday while dis-
playing photographs and other representations of their missing children,
inscribed their absence–presence on the national and, later, global conscious-
ness. Before, the desaparecidos had haunted as malignant specters conjured
by the military regime as a hidden threat to be exorcized (Gordon 125).
The mothers, moreover, were only able to effectively conjure their children
in a different spectral guise by appearing exclusively as mothers and, con-
sequently, situated outside the political. As Foss and Domenici note, the
invocation of marianismo, ‘the cult of feminine spiritual superiority and self-
sacrifice that makes for an ideal wife and mother within the Latin American
tradition’, grounded the protest ‘in family and motherhood as part of a
natural order’, making it difficult for the regime to suppress (240).
2. See my article ‘The Ghost as a Gendered Chronotope’, which explores the
gendering of the ghost in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Fay Weldon’s ‘Angel,
All Innocence’.
3. James notes how ‘across his later oeuvre, McEwan’s exposure of the invisi-
bility through which men’s “behaviour” is naturalized, questions repeatedly
196 Notes

what “masculinity” means to those caught within its social and psychic fab-
ric of dour resistance and recuperation’ (82, emphasis in text). As an instance
of this exposure, which James articulates through the character of Charles
Darke rather than Stephen, The Child in Time is seen to suggest ‘that the task
of revisioning what it means for men to assume, and be compelled to assume
a gender agency that is definably “masculine” should perhaps start with mas-
culinity’s corporeal installation into what Martin Jay describes as the “scopic
regimes” of patriarchal culture itself’ (89–90, emphasis in text).
4. McEwan’s portrayal of women, in The Child in Time and elsewhere, has gen-
erated much criticism. Roger, for example, argues that his work associates
women, in an essentialist manner, with qualities like a capacity for nurtur-
ing, ‘creativity, sensibility, mystery and participation with nature’ (25). She
also insists that ‘McEwan’s women characters are given objective existence in
a man’s world and their characterisation is a male construct of their woman-
hood. Interest in them is essentially in their “otherness” from men, but this
“otherness” is seen from a man’s point of view’ (11). I would argue that the
way McEwan’s narratives make a spectacle of this male focalization of the
female characters (and its assignment of rigid gender characteristics) means
that it does not have to be taken at face value on the level of the reader.
5. Stephen’s description of the ‘call’ and ‘loudness’ of the place can be linked
to Gunn’s distinction between ‘mournful haunting’, bound to notions of
visibility, spectatorship and archive, and ‘melancholic haunting’, which is
sonorous and related to the recycling of a repertoire ‘in a manner that makes
no distinction between the live and the reproduced’ (‘Mourning’ 102). Like
Laplanche’s weaving/reweaving, melancholic haunting, which precludes the
filing or fetishizing of the traumatic event, refuses to lay the ghost to rest.
The idea of a haunting with origins outside the self is explored later in this
chapter through Abraham and Torok’s phantom.
6. One of the passages cited from The Authorized Child-Care Handbook tellingly
it was not always the case that a large minority comprising the weakest
members of society wore special clothes, were freed from the routines of
work and of many constraints on their behavior, and were able to devote
much of their time to play. It should be remembered that childhood is not
a natural occurrence. [ . . . ] Childhood is an invention, a social construct,
made possible by society as it increased in sophistication and resource.
Above all, childhood is a privilege. No child as it grows older should be
allowed to forget that its parents, as embodiments of society, are the ones
who grant this privilege, and do so at their own expense (105).
7. On the sexual violence portrayed in American Psycho, see Caputi, who argues
that Bateman’s behavior is grounded in a virulent anti-feminism not ade-
quately critiqued in the novel. In ‘Historical Violence, Censorship, and the
Serial Killer: The Case of “American Psycho” ’, Freccero eloquently rebuts this
argument by way of Butler’s theory of gender performativity.
8. ‘Marx & Sons’ highlights the implicitness of Derrida’s inclusion of ‘the ques-
tion of woman and sexual difference’ in Specters of Marx by first arguing
that the way it pervades ‘the whole analysis of the paternalistic phallogocen-
trism that marks all scenes of filiation’ can only escape a very naïve reader,
Notes 197

but then adding that noticing it requires following a lengthy path through
his previous work: ‘If one follows this path [ . . . ] then the scene of filiation
and its interpretation, and, especially, the reference to Hamlet, the pater-
nal specter and what I call the “visor effect”, begin to wear a very different
aspect’ (231).
9. The uncanniness that follows Bret’s rebirth as a suburban family man,
a role he clearly associates with a domesticating emasculation, can be
linked in a Freudian manner to the castration complex, while the Terby
invokes Jentsch’s assertion that the uncanny is a result of intellectual
uncertainty, ‘doubts whether an apparently inanimate being is really alive’
(Freud, ‘Uncanny’ 201). Two forms of the uncanny are thus brought into
play, with Bret characteristically privileging the one focused on masculinity
and originating with the father of psychoanalysis.
10. Although Derrida found inspiration in Abraham and Torok’s work, there are
significant differences between their theories. Most significantly, whereas
Derrida sees exorcism as a refusal to interact responsibly with the ghost’s
alterity, Abraham and Torok, from the perspective of clinical practice, seek
to end the haunting by unlocking the crypt and bringing its secret into the
open. For extensive comparative readings, see C. Davis’s ‘État Présent’ and
Royle’s ‘Phantom Review’.
11. The relatively straightforward process of decoding the ghostly messages in
Lunar Park contravenes Abraham and Torok’s emphasis on the complexity
of cryptonomy. In their analysis of the Wolf Man’s crypt, for example, the
word that is its key has to be traced through several languages and multiple
semantic displacements.
12. This accords with research cited by Morgado, including Cunningham’s view
that children have come to be ‘seen essentially as expensive and a cost’,
Winnicott and Sommerville’s designation of children as a ‘burden’, and
Zelizer’s notion that rising emotional investment in fewer children leads to
higher expectations and greater degrees of disillusionment (250).
13. The insertion of women into the spectral scenario is marked as belated by the
narrative’s suggestion that the re-solution would have come sooner had Bret
taken more seriously the attempted interventions of Sarah and a neighbor’s
wife, who warns him early on that the boys are disappearing by themselves.
14. That the deliberate mobilization of the powerful trope of the missing child
is not just a fictional scenario is shown by the purported disappearance,
in 2008, of British 10-year-old Shannon Matthews, found almost a month
later, after an extensive search operation and media campaign, drugged and
restrained in the house of her mother’s boyfriend’s uncle. The three adults
(all convicted) had planned to wait for a reward to be announced and then
‘find’ Shannon to claim it, but the mother was also accused of reveling
in the attention and sympathy not normally bestowed upon a lower-class,
unemployed woman with seven children by five different men (BBC).

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abject, 17, 188n. 7 Augé, Marc, 57, 190n. 22

Abraham, Nicolas, 32, 170, 172, 173, authenticity, 44, 132, 188n. 10
176, 178, 185n. 7, 196n. 5, 197n. -as-truth, 45
10, 197n. 11 autocracy, 34, 51–3, 189n. 18
Affinity (Waters), 31, 110–43, 183 auto-ghosting, 148, 164
Agamben, Giorgio, 15, 30, 34, 69–74, avisual, 36–7, 44, 46, 60, 61, 75, 79,
138, 190n. 27 80, 121, 188n. 5
agency, 3, 5, 9, 15–16, 27, 30, 31, 33,
35, 39, 40, 42, 47, 53, 55, 57, 59, Babel (Iñárritu), 31, 78–9, 104–8, 183
60, 61, 62, 65, 67, 68, 70, 71, 75, Baer, Ulrich, 131, 195n. 13
78, 82, 89, 91, 94, 97, 108, 115, Bakhtin, Mikhail, 8, 27, 45, 83, 90,
118, 122, 129, 145, 146, 147, 148, 187n. 18, 188n. 11
159, 178, 180, 182, 190n. 24, Bal, Mieke, 7, 12, 25–6, 125, 126,
192n. 13, 196n. 3 186n. 9
of invisibility, 32, 143, 183, 184 Bardan, Alice, 44, 45, 189n. 13
spectral, 9, 16–24, 30, 31–2, 33, 34, bare life, 34, 70–4
50, 53, 62, 67, 69, 75, 104, 109, Barrie, J. M., 174
111, 123, 131, 142, 162, 163, Baudrillard, Jean, 140
175, 178–9, 183, 184 Beer, Gillian, 132
spooky, 113, 116, 120, 195n. 11 Beetlejuice (Burton), 32, 180–4
Aguiar, Luis, 44, 68–9, 76 Bentham, Jeremy, 125, 126
Ahmad, Aijaz, 187n. 15 Beyond Black (Mantel), 31, 110–43,
alterity, 6, 11, 27, 37, 90, 103, 159, 195n. 15
184, 186n. 11, 197n. 10 Bhabha, Homi, 193n. 21
absolute, 29 biopolitics, 34, 66, 70, 72, 74
analogy, 6–7 Blackford, Holly, 78, 89–90, 93,
aphanisis, 41 192n. 13
Appadurai, Arjun, 42–3, 189n. 19 Black, Max, 7
apparition, 2, 12, 16, 29, 38, 43, 111, Blanco, María del Pilar, 9, 185n. 6,
146, 157, 164, 182, 185n. 3 185n. 7
apparitionality, 81, 114, 115, 118, 120, Blessing, Jennifer, 131
122, 131, 140, 146, 147, 174, 179, boundary work, 103
195n. 1 Bown, Nicola, 11, 113
see lesbian, apparitional Braddon, Mary Elizabeth, 91
Applebaum, Stephen, 44 Bravmann, René A., 81, 191n. 4
Arendt, Hannah, 71 Briefel, Aviva, 187n. 19
Armitt, Lucie, 120, 125 Brindle, Kym, 120, 123, 194n. 11
Arnado, Janet M., 192n. 14 Brontë, Emily, 84
arrivant, 14, 18, 157–8 Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, 119
asylum seekers, 34, 39, 43, 190n. 26, Brown, Wendy, 157
191n. 2 Bryson, Norman, 31, 111, 135–6
Atkins, Eileen, 82 Budiani-Saberi, D. A., 65

Index 209

Burdett, Carolyn, 11, 113 Delany, Samuel, 119

Butler, Judith, 15, 173, 180, 189n. 20, DeLashmutt, Michael W., 107, 108
190n. 27, 196n. 7 Deleuze, Gilles, 49, 62
Delmonico, F. L., 65
camp, 71–2, 74 Delrez, Marc, 160, 163
Canterville Ghost, The (Wilde), 1–3, 8, Derrida, Jacques, 35, 144, 185n. 7,
18, 20–1, 23–4, 28, 45, 112, 182 185n. 8, 186n. 13, 187n. 17,
capitalism, 1, 17, 18, 21–3, 31, 48, 66, 196n. 8
78, 88, 187n. 16 Specters of Marx, 10–11, 14, 16–23,
Caputi, Jane, 196n. 7 25–8, 33, 35, 38–9, 41, 48–52,
Carroll, Rachel, 118, 194n. 10 61, 75, 78–80, 90–5, 112, 114,
Castle, Terry, 116–18, 131, 142, 183, 125, 131, 145–7, 149, 155–9,
185n. 5 163–9, 170, 174–6, 178, 181,
Castricano, Jodi, 185n. 5 184, 188n. 2, 189n. 18, 190n.
Certeau, Michel de, 57 25, 197n. 10
Child in Time, The (McEwan), 32, desaparecidos, 146, 148, 195n. 1
144–79, 183, 195n. 3, 196n. 4 Dirty Pretty Things (Frears), 29, 33–75,
clairvoyance, 157, 194n. 4 76, 78, 82, 83, 91, 183, 184, 188n.
Clifford, Edward, 188n. 6 7, 189n. 13, 190n. 26, 191n. 3
Cohen, Ted, 5–6 disappearance, 13, 17, 24, 31, 33, 47,
common sense, 194n. 6 57, 72, 80, 83, 128, 142, 144–50,
conjuration, 2, 3, 13, 16, 30, 43, 153, 156, 161, 163, 165, 168,
77, 80, 112, 114, 117, 120, 144, 174–5, 183, 197n. 14
146, 148, 159, 163, 164, 166, dismemberment, 30, 37, 52, 64,
195n. 1 66, 73
as conjurement/exorcism/ djinn, 30, 80–2, 105, 191n. 4
Beschwörung, 149, 163 see also genie
counter–, 20, 22, 48, 115, 165 Doblas, Rosario Arias, 117
as incantation, 149 Domenici, Kathy L., 148, 150, 178,
as Verschwörung, 175 195n. 1
consensus, 115, 140, 142 domestic workers, 5, 16, 30–1, 75, 77,
contingency, 107–8, 182 93, 102, 103–4, 105, 108, 182,
Cooper, Rand Richards, 88 193n. 17, 193n. 21, 193n. 23
Coser, Lewis A., 86, 103, 193n. 21
see also servant
crypt, 32, 170–2, 176, 178, 197n. 10,
Downey, Anthony, 72, 74
197n. 11
Downton Abbey (2010–2013), 77, 80,
curiosity, 39, 121, 126, 144, 179
83, 102, 192n. 9, 193n. 16
Darwin, Charles, 132
Davidoff, Leonore, 92, 191n. 3 Eagleton, Terry, 187n. 15
Davis, Colin, 197n. 10 Eastland, L. J., 188n. 6
Davis, Emily S., 39, 61 Edwards, Paul, 160–1, 163
death, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 13, 34, 49, 53, Einstein, Albert, 193n. 1
65, 67, 70, 72–3, 145, 185n. 8, Ellis, Bret Easton, 32, 144–79, 183
186n. 11 see also Lunar Park
social, 69 Ellison, Ralph, 36–7
death-worlds, 34, 50–2, 184 empathy, 188n. 11
dehumanization, 42, 50, 76, es spukt, 20, 23, 95–6
77, 162 ether, 195n. 14
210 Index

ethics, 5, 10, 19, 27, 29, 32, 37, 95, Freud, Sigmund, 32, 37, 73, 78, 89–91,
138–40, 158, 167, 170, 182, 96, 145, 150, 152, 154–5, 167,
183, 184 188n. 5, 197n. 9
intersubjective, 11, 49, 90, 101, Fullmer, E. M., 188n. 6
187n. 17
ethnocide, 42 Galchen, Rivka, 193n. 1
Ewart, Chris, 65, 66 Galsworthy, John, 82
excess of seeing, 27 Gamble, Sarah, 120, 125
exclusion, 14, 17, 29, 37, 39, 60, gaze, 27, 31, 41, 76, 91, 111, 124,
62, 69, 70, 93, 96, 137, 139, 126–8, 136, 138, 140, 187n. 2
163, 184 cultural, 35, 60, 83, 188n. 2
exiles, 17, 190n. 26 Genette, Gérard, 25
exorcism, 2, 3, 21, 23, 26, 29, 61, 80, genie, 31, 78, 80–1, 86, 87, 90, 92, 95,
90, 91, 112, 114, 116, 117, 149, 98, 100, 102, 103, 108, 109,
151–2, 160, 163, 173, 174, 177, 112, 129
178, 181, 182, 195n. 1, 197n. 10 -in-a-bottle, 30, 77, 79, 82, 91, 94,
expendability, 7, 9, 14, 17, 29, 33, 75, 98, 102, 105
92, 104, 138, 182 see also djinn
exploitation, 17, 21, 23, 30, 33, 37, 42, Ghosheh, Naj, 193n. 17
44, 47, 50–1, 66–7, 69, 80, 91, ghost, passim
178, 184, 189n. 20, 190n. 24, as critique of unmixed, 23, 24
190n. 25 and (dis)empowerment, 8, 9, 27, 28,
of invisibility, 35, 61, 163 33, 48, 53, 56, 59, 62, 111, 112,
of spectrality, 16, 23, 40, 94, 116, 182–3
117, 175, 183, 194n. 7 and dispossession, 4, 9, 38, 53, 75,
exposure, 20, 36, 43, 61, 69, 70–1, 74, 111, 156, 182, 183
82, 111, 127, 140, 195n. 3 and embodiment, 3, 159
to death, 72–3 and fascination, 2, 39, 109, 112,
visual, 37, 86, 118 142, 179, 182
and fear, 2, 3, 5, 14, 50, 112, 131,
142, 172, 179, 182
Fellowes, Julian, 77 figurative meanings of, 4
Fenner, Angelica, 44 as figure of impotence, 51
Fenves, Peter, 12 as figure of return, 10
fetishization, 73, 189n. 19, 189n. 20, gendering of, 147–8, 166, 195n. 2
196n. 5 literal, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 11, 24, 28, 38,
figuration, human, 5–6, 34 48, 61, 85, 98, 117, 133, 136,
focalization, 24–9, 30, 34, 40, 43, 165, 181, 182
49, 66, 72, 83, 84, 91, 119, 123, and marginality, 8, 9, 48, 184
124, 134, 147, 153, 157–8, 165, and power of transformation, 49
196n. 4 as present absence, 10
see also re-focalization; haunting, see also auto-ghosting; ghost stories;
focalization of living ghost
foreigner, 11, 19, 103, 134 Ghost Dance (McMullen), 185n. 7
global, 37 Ghosts (Broomfield), 29, 33–75, 76, 78,
Foss, Karen A., 148, 150, 178, 195n. 1 82, 83, 91, 183, 190n. 26
Foucault, Michel, 34, 62, 125–7 ghost stories, 2, 9, 28, 40, 45, 85,
Freccero, Carla, 166, 186n. 14, 196n. 7 147, 181
Freedman, Carl, 88 Ghost (Zucker), 16
Index 211

Gibson, Sarah, 37, 39, 191n. 2 hauntology, 11, 23, 48, 166, 178,
gifting, one-way, 101 186n. 11
glance, 31, 111, 135–6, 140, 141 Hegstrom, Jane L., 86, 101, 191n. 3
globalization, 9, 30, 31, 37, 39, 40, 42, Heimheltz, Hermann von, 132
46, 54, 55, 61, 78, 103, 108, 184, heir, 149, 165, 166, 186n. 8
189n. 20 illegitimate, 169
Goffman, Erving, 86, 95, 193n. 19, heterology, 47, 132
193n. 20 Higgs, Edward, 191n. 1
Gordon, Avery F., 146, 148, 164, Hitchcock, Peter, 41, 187n. 16,
195n. 1 189n. 20
Gosford Park (Altman), 30, 76–109, Hoffmann, E. T. A., 90
192n. 15 Holland, Nancy J., 167
Gothic, 2, 9, 89, 112, 147, 165, 176, homeless, 17, 137
185n. 5 homo sacer, 15, 70, 71
Gowing, Laura, 192n. 13 horror (genre), 2, 9, 112, 174
Guattari, Félix, 49, 62 hospitality, 19, 29, 30, 40, 79, 94,
guest, 11, 30, 79, 95–102, 183, 184, 95–8, 100–1, 102, 184
191n. 2 absolute/unconditional, 11, 19, 20,
pseudo–, 79 49, 95, 97, 158, 186n. 13
Gunning, Tom, 132 conditional, 101
Gunn, Joshua, 9, 185n. 4, politicization of, 191n. 2
196n. 5 without reserve, 18–19
host, 19, 29, 40, 95–8, 102, 184
-by-proxy, 97
Halpern, Richard, 17 pseudo–, 96
Hamacher, Werner, 168, 169, 178 human trafficking, 40, 42, 47, 55,
Hamlet (Shakespeare), 11, 12, 17–18, 188n. 12
48, 112, 152, 156, 158, 166, 167,
197n. 8 imagination, cultural, 4, 8–9, 32, 39,
haunt, coming to, 8, 32, 34, 156, 78, 147, 182, 184
181, 183 immateriality, 10, 53, 80, 187n. 16
haunting, 2–3, 9, 12–17, 20–4, 33, 36, immigrant, 11, 19, 38–9, 66, 187n. 1,
37, 42, 48, 50, 53, 57, 61, 80, 89, 188n. 9, 190n. 22, 190n. 25
90, 95, 101, 107, 112, 121, 122, undocumented, 53, 64
131, 143, 144, 146–9, 152, 155, see also migrant
156, 162–6, 169–70, 172–6, immigration, specter of, 42
178–83, 185n. 4, 192n. 13, incorporation, 170, 172
195n. 1, 197n. 10 paradoxical, 38, 78, 91, 92
focalization of, 26–9, 32, 39, 40, indeterminacy, 36, 49, 145
178, 182 indistinction, zone of, 70
general economy of, 11 inheritance, 2, 17–18, 20, 31, 48, 49,
idiom of, 9, 185n. 4 147, 149, 156, 165, 167–8, 169,
masculine economy of, 32, 168 172–3, 176, 177, 178
melancholic, 196n. 5 see also legacy
mournful, 196n. 5 insistence, 22, 117
multidirectional, 156–61, 178 introjection, 170, 176
textual, 114 invisibility, 7, 10, 13, 20, 21, 22, 29,
transgenerational, 172 30, 31, 33, 35–6, 38, 40, 41, 42,
see also mourning, -as-haunting 43, 47, 51, 53, 67, 77, 81, 86, 87,
212 Index

invisibility – continued Lippit, Akira, 36, 61

96, 111, 116–17, 120, 122, living-on, 14
126–33, 135, 137, 141–3, 146, living dead, 15, 30, 31, 34, 50–3,
149, 161–2, 174, 178, 179, 195n. 3 70, 74
absolute, 35, 36, 61 living in death, 51
agency of, 32, 183, 184 living ghost, 5, 8–9, 14, 15, 16, 24, 27,
labor of, 192n. 12 29, 31, 32, 33, 35, 38–40, 43, 47,
-as-negation, 62 61, 62, 67, 68, 69, 75, 76–7, 103,
normative, 194n. 10 107–8, 111, 114, 120, 142, 144,
social, 8, 31, 36, 61, 75, 78, 111, 152, 165, 173, 182–4
115, 161, 188n. 6 Llewellyn, Mark, 121
spectacle of, 61 loss, 144, 148–50, 152–4, 177,
strategizing of, 60, 75, 94, 103 190n. 27
-as-subterfuge, 62 of self, 56, 80
transitional, 32, 33, 35 unknown, 150
see also visibility Lost (White) Girl Event, 146
invisible, thinking the, 189n. 16 Luckhurst, Roger, 10–11, 13, 118,
invisible work, 43, 193n. 18 185n. 5, 194n. 2, 194n. 4, 194n. 5
Lunar Park (Ellis), 32, 144–79, 183,
James, David, 160, 195n. 3 184, 197n. 11
James, Henry, 84, 89–90 Lynch, Eve M., 78, 85, 91, 93
Jameson, Fredric, 10, 19, 23, 24
Jay, Martin, 188n. 10, 196n. 3 Macherey, Pierre, 187n. 15
Jentsch, Ernst, 91, 197n. 9 Magee, Gayle Sherwood, 88–9
Johnson, Mark, 6 Malkki, Liisa, 190n. 26
Jones, Kevin T., 145–6 Mantel, Hilary, 31, 110–43
see also Beyond Black
Karlström, Mikael, 52 Marciniak, Katarzyna, 189n. 13
Kent, D. A., 78, 191n. 1, 191n. 3 marginalization, 4, 5, 9, 13, 17, 29, 39,
Kentridge, William, 189n. 14 43–4, 48, 69, 73, 76, 82, 84, 184
Kohlke, M.–L., 124 Marsh, Jean, 82
Kristeva, Julia, 29 Mars-Jones, Adam, 176
marxism, 45, 62, 195n. 16
Lacan, Jacques, 17, 27, 59, 107, Marx, Karl, 11, 18–20, 21, 66, 73, 156,
187n. 2 166–7, 168, 174, 187n. 16,
Lakoff, George, 6 190n. 25
Lan, Pei-Chia, 103, 104, 192n. 14, masculinity, 147, 153, 165–6, 172,
193n. 22 184, 196n. 3, 197n. 9
Laplanche, Jean, 155–6, 161, 168, 177, Maslin, Janet, 176, 177
196n. 5 Masschelein, Anneleen, 185n. 5
Lay, Samantha, 43–4 master-servant relationship, 30, 78–9,
legacy, 17–18, 48, 148, 165, 166, 168, 90–1, 98–9, 101, 102
178, 185n. 8 materialism, 10, 20, 187n. 16
see also inheritance materiality, 7, 10, 20, 21, 26, 30, 33,
lesbian, apparitional, 31, 111, 116–23, 36, 38, 52, 61, 79, 166, 183,
131, 142, 183 194n. 7
Levinas, Emmanuel, 17 -as-mattering, 183
Lewis, Todd V., 145–6 materialization, 4, 21, 30, 37, 55, 80,
Light, Alison, 193n. 21 85, 86, 91, 114–15, 116, 117, 119,
Index 213

121, 122, 128, 131, 132, 133, 141, mirror, metaphor of the, 59–60, 63
151, 159, 177, 195n. 13 missing persons, 5, 16, 144–79
re–, 42, 60, 117, 161 and innocence rule, 145, 146, 147
maternalism, 90, 192n. 14 see also Lost (White) Girl Event
Mbembe, Achille, 15, 30, 31, 34, Montag, Warren, 187n. 15
48–52, 53, 55–6, 62–70, 73–5, 108, Morgado, Margarida, 146, 148, 163,
184, 189n. 14, 189n. 15, 189n. 16, 175, 197n. 12
189n. 17, 189n. 18, 189n. 20, Morrison, Toni, 195n. 2
190n. 21, 190n. 24, 192n. 5 mourning, 31, 32, 48, 144–5, 148,
McAllister, J. F. O., 188n. 9 149–56, 167, 170, 176, 177, 178,
McClintock, Anne, 192n. 12 190n. 27, 196n. 5
McCuskey, Brian, 89–90 -as-haunting, 148
McEwan, Ian, 32, 144–79, 183, 195n.
3, 196n. 4 name-taking, 86, 129
see also Child in Time, The Nancy, Jean-Luc, 188n. 4
McGowan, Todd, 107–8 Nash, Julie, 82, 86
McQuillan, Martin, 187n. 15 necropolitics, 34, 69
medium, 5, 16, 31, 85, 109, 110–43, necropower, 34, 70
144, 151, 182, 193n. 1, 194n. 2, Negri, Antonio, 21–3, 33, 93
194n. 4, 194n. 5, 195n. 11, neoliberalism, 9, 65, 76, 161
195n. 15 New International, 20, 187n. 15
spooky, 111, 115, 116, 118, 120, 131 nostalgia, 21, 63, 88–9, 163
see also psychic Noys, Benjamin, 67, 69, 71, 72, 75
melancholia, 150, 152, 155, 196n. 5
mourning-cum–, 153 O’Connor, Maureen, 2, 185n. 1
messianic, 19, 20, 48, 156, 158, 168, Olivier, Bert, 107, 108
189n. 18 Oppenheim, Janet, 185n. 5, 194n. 4,
metamorphosis, 50 194n. 5, 194n. 7
metaphor, 5–8, 21, 34, 54, 59, 70, 74, organ trade, illegal, 64–6, 67–8,
75, 79, 112, 119, 147, 172, 190n. 190n. 24
25, 191n. 2 Others, The (Amenábar), 28
conceptual, 12–13 Owen, Alex, 112, 114, 123, 185n. 5,
dead, 6, 73 194n. 2, 194n. 5
ghost as, 3–4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 32, 40,
73, 165 Pai, Hsiau-Hung, 44
as interaction, 7, 73, 184 panopticon, 123, 125–8, 138
living as, 6 paranormal, 181
and re-orientation, 8, 32, 62 Parker, Sarah, 117, 194n. 7
and system of associated passivity, active, 148
commonplaces, 7, 62 pathema, 23
see also spectral metaphor phantasmatic, 4, 6, 151, 194n. 9
metaphor, to, 7, 30, 74, 183, 190n. 25 phantom, 5, 36, 37, 116, 156, 157,
migrant, 17, 103, 181, 187n. 1, 188n. 168, 185n. 3
7, 190n. 25, 190n. 26, 191n. 2, as intergenerational haunting, 32,
193n. 17 172–5, 196n. 5
domestic workers, 78, 93, 104, 108 -States, 17
undocumented, 5, 16, 29–30, 31, photography, 131–2, 195n. 13
33–75, 76, 80, 91, 109, 112, spirit, 132, 141
141, 182 plus d’un, le, 11, 48, 160, 165, 181
214 Index

politics, 34, 46, 74, 111, 137, 139, 142, Saunders, Rebecca, 37
148, 186n. 14, 190n. 27 schizophrenia, 49, 68, 189n. 14
of aesthetics, 46–7, 183 Sconce, Jeffrey, 185n. 3
of generations, 147, 156, 178 Scott, Joan W., 119, 188n. 10
of inheritance, 147, 178 séance, 85, 89, 114, 117, 129, 130–1,
of memory, 147 135, 194n. 2, 194n. 7
of the refugee, 30, 34, 69–75 Seife, Charles, 193n. 1
see also biopolitics; necropolitics self-spectralization, 32, 143, 148, 164,
Poole, Brian, 188n. 11 173–9, 184
psychic (powers), 31, 116, 132, 133 see also spectralization
see also medium Semino, Elena, 8
servant, 5, 16, 23, 141, 182, 183,
Rafael, Vicente L., 104 191n. 1, 191n. 3, 192n. 5, 192n.
Rancière, Jacques, 31, 46–7, 111, 7, 192n. 8, 192n. 12, 193n. 15,
115–16, 126, 130–1, 132, 134, 193n. 18, 193n. 21
136–41, 161, 183, 194n. 6, class, 82, 88, 91, 100, 104
195n. 16 as genie, 77, 78, 79–82, 109, 112
Rand, Nicholas T., 171, 172 as ghostly/spectral, 30–1, 75,
Rayner, Alice, 10, 186n. 10 76–109, 111, 115, 116, 128,
realism, 44, 136, 140, 160–1, 176 129–31, 135, 142, 192n. 13,
see also social realism 194n. 4
redistribution of the sensible, 31, 111, globalized, 31, 78, 103–8
131, 134–5, 137–43, 163,
uncanny, 78, 89–94
195n. 16
see also domestic workers
redistribution, social, 115, 192n. 10
service, domestic, 77–80, 85, 87, 88,
re-focalization, 9, 29, 39, 43, 46, 74,
93, 95–103, 191n. 3, 193n. 21
123, 178, 182
Sharma, Sarah, 60, 72
see also focalization
refraction, 8 Shenk, D., 188n. 6
refugee, 30, 67, 181, 188n. 7, 189n. Silverman, Kaja, 6–7, 84, 188n. 2,
20, 190n. 26 188n. 3, 188n. 5, 188n. 10
fetishization of, 73 simile, 7
as limit-concept, 71 simulation, 140
see also politics, of the refugee Sixth Sense, The (Shyamalan), 28
remembrance, song of, 62–4 Slay Jr., Jack, 161
re-solution, 155, 161, 176, 197n. 13 social realism, 30, 33, 43–7
revelation, rhetoric of, 33, 43–7 Society for Psychical Research (SPR),
revenant, 14 133, 194n. 4
Richardson, R. C., 81 sovereignty, 15, 49, 51, 53, 55, 59, 62,
Ricoeur, Paul, 7 69–71, 74, 96
Robbins, Bruce, 78, 83, 192n. 8 of ghost/specter, 3, 17, 41, 48, 91,
Roger, Angela, 196n. 4 93, 94, 112, 158, 172
Roof, Judith, 194n. 8 spectator, emancipated, 130
Rosello, Mireille, 40, 53–4, 55, 67, 95, specter, 4, 10–18, 21, 22, 24–9, 35, 37,
96, 97–8, 191n. 2 39, 41, 48, 51, 52, 78, 80, 87, 89,
Rossellini, Roberto, 139 90, 92, 94, 111, 112, 123, 131,
Roth, Philip, 194n. 3 146, 147, 149, 152, 156, 159, 165,
Royle, Nicholas, 185n. 5, 197n. 10 167, 168, 172, 174, 185n. 3,
Index 215

186n. 8, 186n. 11, 187n. 16, spooky, 4, 31, 111–12, 113, 118, 120,
190n. 25, 195n. 1, 197n. 8 121, 125, 131, 133, 140, 142, 164
arch–, 168 action at a distance, 193n. 1
of immigration, 42 agency, 116, 120, 195n. 11
as master trope, 11 -as-scary, 112
of the present, 23, 181 see also medium, spooky
spectral agency, 9, 16–24, 30, 31, 32, Sprinker, Michael, 187n. 15
33, 34, 50, 53, 62, 67, 69, 75, 104, Star, Susan Leigh, 43, 193n. 18
109, 111, 131, 143, 148, 162, 163, Steen, Gerard, 8
175, 178, 179, 183–4 Steinbock, Eliza, 194n. 9
spectral empiricism, 187n. 16 Stengers, Isabel, 186n. 9
spectral heterogeneity, 181 stereotype, 5, 8, 30, 77, 137, 180
spectrality, 9–24, 32, 48, 49, 78, 79, Stewart, Victoria, 195n. 15
91, 94, 108, 109, 118, 121, 122, Stiegler, Bernard, 185n. 7
142, 147–8, 150, 166, 167, 174, Storey, Mark, 165
176, 178, 180, 182, 184, 186n. 14, Strauss, Anselm, 43, 193n. 18
187n 16, 189n. 19 stylization, 62
multidirectional, 156 subject au travail, 51
non–, 21 supernatural, 1, 9, 11, 31, 35, 45, 80,
85, 110, 111–13, 115, 122–3, 136,
-as-possession, 174
147, 169, 181, 192n. 13
spectralization, 15, 16–17, 20, 22, 23,
superstition, 10, 13, 85, 90
30, 43, 53, 61, 66, 75, 78, 87, 104,
syncretism, 62
108, 121, 161, 163, 183, 189n. 19
Syrotinski, Michael, 189n. 18
see also self-spectralization
spectral metaphor, 4, 5, 9, 12, 15, 16,
taking the place of, 67
17, 24, 30, 31, 32, 53, 73, 75, 78,
telepathy, 9, 120, 128, 132, 185n. 5,
108–9, 111, 116, 117, 123, 181,
193n. 1, 195n. 12
183, 190n. 25
threshold experience, 51
spectral multiplicity, 181
Thurschwell, Pamela, 11, 113, 114,
spectral studies, 9 115, 128, 194n. 7, 195n. 12
spectral turn, 9–10, 13–14 Todorov, Tzvetan, 160
specular experience, 51 Torok, Maria, 32, 170, 172, 176, 178,
Spinoza, Baruch, 23 185n. 7, 196n. 5, 197n. 10,
spinster, ghosted, 111, 116, 120–1, 125 197n. 11
spirit, 38, 57, 62, 78, 81, 82, 115, 117, transience, 53, 55, 68
130, 132, 133, 135, 137, 139, 141, translucency, 4, 30, 38, 79, 91, 92, 108
142, 151, 152, 157, 164–5, 168, trauma, 2, 9, 10, 32, 90, 107, 141, 172,
174, 191n. 4 195n. 13, 195n. 15, 196n. 5
heretical, 62 Tritton, A. S., 80, 81, 82, 191n. 4
see also photography, spirit Trotman, Nat, 131
spiritualism, 9, 85, 89, 110, 112–13, Tutuola, Amos, 48, 50–2, 62, 64, 65,
115, 117–18, 120, 121, 123, 126, 67, 189n. 15, 189n. 17, 189n. 20,
130, 132, 133, 141, 142, 185n. 5, 190n. 21
192n. 10, 194n. 2, 194n. 4, 194n. Tyler, Imogen, 73
5, 194n. 7
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, 167, 168, uncanny, 10, 37, 78, 85, 89–90, 91, 96,
189n. 20, 190n. 25 108, 132, 157, 185n. 5, 197n. 9
spook, 5, 111, 112, 194n. 3 unemployed, 17, 161
216 Index

ungrievable, 15 visor effect, 27, 29, 33, 35, 37, 61, 78,
Upstairs, Downstairs (1971–1975), 30, 93–4, 123, 125, 157, 188n. 2,
76–109, 183, 192n. 15 197n. 8
Upstairs Downstairs (2010–2012), 77, voyeurism, 44
192n. 9
Waldby, Catherine, 190n. 24
Walkowitz, Judith R., 126, 194n. 2,
vampire, 21
194n. 5
Veblen, Thorstein, 79
wandering subject, 34, 52, 53, 55–6,
versioning, 190n. 23
62–3, 68, 108, 189n. 20, 190n. 21
violence, ghostly, 30, 64 Wanzo, Rebecca, 145, 146
visibility, 8, 10, 16, 24, 27, 33, 35, 36, Warner, Marina, 185n. 5, 195n. 14
39, 42, 43, 47, 53, 60, 61, 118, Waters, Sarah, 31, 110–43
119, 131, 133, 135, 136, 139, 140, see also Affinity
141, 142, 178, 183, 194n. 6, 194n. Watson, George, 83, 192n. 7
10, 196n. 5 Weate, Jeremy, 52, 189n. 16, 189n. 20
excessive, 36 Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew, 13–14
hyper–, 37 Weldon, Fay, 195n. 2
refusal of, 61 Wilde, Oscar, 1–3, 12, 18, 182, 185n. 1
social, 5 see also Canterville Ghost, The
-as-transparency-and- Wills, Jenny, 68, 76, 188n. 7
recognition, 119 work for life, 65, 68
as trap, 127, 130, 178
see also invisibility xenophobia, 28, 38, 41, 43
visible in-visible, 35, 36, 37, 43, 46,
47, 50, 80, 121, 144, 178, Zagacki, Kenneth S., 145–6
188n. 4 Žižek, Slavoj, 22, 117, 137, 187n. 16
vision, peripheral, 135 zombification, 74

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