Jacques Derrida was obsessed with the dead, especially in regards to how their symbolic value was affected by the living. Throughout his exploration of ‘hauntology,’ which was basically a fascination with the idea of the ghost as something being both existent and nonexistent. This is mostly related to history, where the past is what we use to define the present, which is conditional upon the existence of the past. Connecting this idea of hauntology to deconstruction, hauntology then becomes a tool of deconstruction – a specific lens you can use to break down the ideas of Western thinking. Culturally, the idea of ghosts and death is related to these ideas of deconstruction, absence and the past, to the point where works about ghosts can be broken down to be not just about the fear of ghosts, but the fear of our past and its potential to become our future.
As with everything, there is a highly political component to hauntology, which relates usually to the Marxist lens through which Derrida usually looks at works. Derrida claims that “deconstruction was all along a radicalization of Marx’s legacy” (Davis 8). Essentially, hauntology comes from the continued ‘ghost’ of Marxism being an increased presence in world affairs and culture even after the end of the Cold War, essentially staying that communism’s ghost will rise up after capitalism and the West continue to ignore the plight of the poor. When related to deconstruction, “The attraction of hauntology for deconstructive-minded critics arises from the link between a theme (haunting, ghosts, the supernatural) and the processes of literature and textuality in general” (Davis 11). Derrida “calls on us to attend to ghosts, to unlearn what we thought we knew for certain in order to learn what we still cannot formulate or imagine” (Davis 19). In doing so, we can more easily understand how to read and deconstruct images of ghosts and specters in media, such as film or literature.
Spectres, by definition, are dead, in the literal sense that they are not living. However, Derrida believes that they are still somehow alive, in that they continue to haunt us and impose meaning on our lives and the texts we consume. Whenever the Other dies, the self dies too, and changes the world around us – those possibilities of future days and the impact on your life is now gone, which means the end of your world as you know it. Each time this happens, we are reminded of our own eventual death: “The subject is a fragile, shattered survivor of total, irrevocable destructions; its own death is in temporary abeyance though already at work within it, foreshadowed in the multiple losses occasioned by the death of others” (Davis 129). By understanding this concept and how it affects people, hauntology is being deconstructed.
In order to deconstruct death itself as a component of hauntology, it is necessary to understand all aspects of the death and what it does to someone or a text itself. The text itself, in its form and function, is an inherent part of its message, and so its form must also be mournful if its contents are equally mournful. This also has to do with a sense of absence – the primary effect of a dead person on a living person is the change their absence has on the ordinary lives of those who miss them. In this way, the dead are still alive because of the maintenance of their ‘absence’ – they don’t just stop influencing the lives around them, they just stop being active agents in that influence.
A ghost or spectre is, in and of itself, a sign, and the way the sign is structured is very important to understand how to deconstruct it. Basically, when we see a ghost in a piece of art, that ghost represents something else, which we then impose meaning on in order to figure out what it is. A ghost of a dead lover may mean that they truly love us. Or we may think that the ghost is a different path in our lives that we could have taken, or something else. Either way, the sign itself is something we impose that meaning on, which always changes depending on who is ‘reading’ the sign. However, it can be reasonably said that these readings will follow the tenets of hauntology, where the ghost represents something from our past that is still existent or influential in our future.
The idea of melancholia, as it relates to Derrida’s sense of hauntology, indicates a sense of grief, sadness or melancholy that is related to death, specters or the idea of the past. That sadness occurs when Derrida implies that he does not remember things correctly anymore, and puts memory into question, not to mention the very nature of death. As Davis notes, death becomes less special when the idea that ‘unique’ people are gone takes away from the idea that we all equally die? “We may be devastated utterly by one loss, but can we really carry on repeating the experience and be equally utterly devastated with each successive loss?” (Davis 130-131). Derrida himself describes himself as “melancholic,” or “in mourning,” and Davis notes that this declaration of oneself as those things carries with it a lot of meaning from a deconstructionist perspective (131). By saying this, Derrida is not simply starting to feel sad and full of loss, but is actually in a constant state of melancholia that has never not been the case.
Ambivalence is just as much a part of melancholia as outright depression, as the melancholic person will lie to themselves about what is really going on, using the sadness as a deflection from confronting her own real issues by turning them on themselves. Instead of the ghost dying, the melancholic is simply “a character who masks, distorts, tells part of the truth in order to keep the truth hidden, a haunted subject” (Davis 133). Melancholia is an integral part of hauntology, as melancholics both suffer the weight of the dead and are dead themselves in many ways – they cut themselves off from their true selves in order to perform psychological deflection.
Davis, Colin. Haunted Subjects. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.