Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Conversations with Ghosts

A lot of times, I have imaginary conversations in my head where I have to explain the approach I take with steampunk, because while most people have some sort of fuzzy notion of what it means to think about racial representation in steampunk, it’s rather more difficult to grasp with how it’s done. Among the many different ways to do steampunk is using steampunk—the idea of messing around with history—as a way to engage with the past.

I think Martha Swetzoff put it best when she said, “steampunk is a conversation with the past” because it fits nicely with my favourite notion: when we look to the past for cool stuff to learn about facts, the injection of our imagination, of anachronistic technology and knowledges, forces us to consider how the past would reply back—would it have been acceptable? What would it take for such a modern way of thought to be acceptable? What would have hindered such a trajectory, and how does it differ from how it played out in our history books?
Derrica, in Spectres of Marx, uses the metaphor of the ghost (Hamlet’s father’s ghost, in particular) to demonstrate a kind of engagement with the past. He was talking more generally about Marxist theory and the application thereof in this era, since the ideal Marxist trajectory didn’t come to pass and thus, Whither Marxism? (Aw, poor Marxists.) He begins by explaining what a ghost is, the implications of a ghost’s presence (the haunting), and possible interactions with the ghost (and there is some mucking about with economic materialist theory that is more or less beyond me, but someone else better than me will be able to explain, I’m sure).

You see where I’m going with this: steampunk is a conversation with the past, but the past is what has gone before, yes? Therefore, when we engage with it in steampunk, we are speaking to a ghost—like Derrida’s spectre, the past, even the alternate history, that we speak to in steampunk can only “begin by coming back” (11) through our efforts to bring it back, into our present consciousness. For many of us, this is how we begin doing steampunk.

For some of us, though, the past, like the ghost in Hamlet, has already come back. It keeps on coming back: the patterns of erasure, of discrimination, our histories coming back in the violence revisited over and over. Each new generation gains new ghosts from the different manifestations of past haunting.

This is why knowing history, beyond fact and figures and dates and locations, is so important—it enables us to identity these patterns and realize that for all our ideals of time and progress happening in a single linear trajectory of social evolution (towards something better), we’re not really aligned with it. We imagine the past as a separate, long-gone entity (hence people say “it was in the past! Get over it!”), while the present is here, somehow more palpable, more valid—the future is that which will come, but also a separate entity (that is why fans of distant future scifi will argue, “but race won’t matter anymore in the future! Why is it a big deal that there seems to be mostly white dude in all these stories!”).

The Doctor’s wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff theory makes more sense, but even that needs to be teased apart—imagine, then, that the past bleeds into the present; the past haunts, shall we say. “The time is out of joint!” Hamlet cries—we are out of joint with him. This is where we work in steampunk, because steampunk is purposefully in a time out of joint. Derrida writes, “scholars believe that looking is sufficient. Therefore, they are not always in the most competent position to do what is necessary: speak to the spectre” (11). We must interpellate (the fancy word for "call out to") the spectre, we must apprehend it, we must address the ghost, speak to it, and help it speak.

I wrote the other day about Beth Lameman’s video, and how it is so culturally specific that only people who grew up in Anishinaabe culture and such stories of the Moon People would get what goes on in the video right off the bat. I’m a scary forrenner, so it totally went over my head. Culturally-specific steampunk does a very special kind of work that can only be done by those who belong to those specific cultures: they speak to the ghosts that haunt their presents. They recover the ghosts' stories, re-establish a relationship that has been deemed unnatural.

Some people prone to appropriation may demand the right to interpellate these ghosts of POC, will ask, “why is this only for certain people?” They will hem and haw over “rights” and “just wanting to share” and “how selfish POC are for not being free with their culture.” And we cringe, because we know that there are better ways to apprehend a ghost, to beseech them speak. There are rituals to be observed, offerings to be made, and here we see intruders demand, “I charge thee, speak!”

This is, I think, a symptom of how commodified cultures are, that even our ghosts must be items that can be bought and sold. The way appropriators speak, one would think we aren’t allowed to interpellate and apprehend our own ghosts before ensuring other people have had a chance. And isn’t that the history of so many marginalized peoples? Before we are allowed to inherit our cultures, colonizers inspect them, pull them into pieces, allow their descendents first rights to invade all the secrets that make a culture unique to a people, and sloppily put things back together. Or they simply withhold our cultures in museums, perhaps, or into forced assimilation, where we have to work hard to meet the colonizers’ terms of acceptability before they return that which is ours.

Why do these ghosts exist? Because they are remnants of our pasts. What are they doing in the present? Derrida writes that the presence of a ghost signals “the persistence of a present past, the return of the dead which the world-wide work of mourning cannot get rid of” (126). To simplify, a wrong was done in the past, and like Hamlet, the heirs must address this wrong and do right by it.

In many Western frameworks I’ve seen dealing with ghosts, the ghost is inevitably a signifier of things that are wrong—a crime, an act of violence, something that the ghost is disturbed by. Not only that, but the ghost also disturbs the living. And for some reason, this haunting is more important—the ghost must be exorcised, for the living’s peace of mind. The ghost is often banished, or the originating crime is found out, and the ghost is laid to rest, neat as a pin, and then all is well.

This is a useful framework up to a certain extent. It’s not so useful when you consider ghosts—when you consider the past—to be part of everyday life. I am sometimes appalled by this attitude of wishing to distance ourselves away in such a fashion. I am also appalled by the methods and intents behind such exorcisms: not all ghosts deserve to be violently thrown out. So just let me add that new angle to the ghost—that which has gone before, which keeps coming back, haunting the present.

(In my world, if a spirit is causing you such pain and distress, nobody is going to be all, okay, let’s get it out, without first asking, wtf did you do wrong? Who did you offended? What resting place did you disturb?)

(So you can imagine my displeasure when I read Jay Lake's story in Weird Tales' May 2010 Steampunk issue, where he mis-uses the Chinese myths of hungry ghosts for a Western story of exorcism. Like, wtf are you doing?? That's not the way to treat a ghost!!!)

For many POC, these ghosts follow us around, these signifiers of our past—ghosts of colonialism, ghosts of racism, ghosts of erasure, all haunt our present. It is impossible to take up our cultures without also encountering these ghosts in some form.

I wonder if stories of easy vengeance, easy exorcisms are a white way of dealing with racialised ghosts. To think that haunting from genocide could be so easily laid to rest calls for a kind of sorcerous obfuscation—a purposeful form of interpreting the ghosts that remain, a charm that is touted and sold as the best cure-all: “get over it!” says one group. “We apologize!” says another. As if ghosts are laid to rest with a mere speech act.

Who, then, apprehends these ghosts? Who interpellates and who attempts to create dialog with these ghosts?

Here lies the importance of POC-specific work that does not translate easily into a more ‘universal’ language. There are rituals and approaches—not all of them can be performed by just anybody. The way I approach a ghost of the Chinese mainland is fraught with mistranslation because I must interpret this ghost differently. Ths does not mean I do not inherit the ghost. It just means that I, the living, must come to my own way of understanding it. The important thing is that I put effort into this task.

(I am allowed to ignore the ghost entirely, but again, that assumes that the present is ahistorical, that I live in the cultureless space where I can sever all ties without consequence. The ghost will only remain.)

But I cannot speak to these ghosts myself; it assumes that I alone know how to speak to them, which is unjust—the assumption of the One Right Way has been the basis for so much violence, the cause of so much haunting, because it denies the heterogeneity of ghosts and their legacies which their presences signify. And there are some ghosts who would defy my attempts at interpreting them. This acceptance of ghostly defiance is a move towards justice, too:
An inheritance is never gathered together, it is never one with itself. Its presumed unity, if there is one, canconsist only in the injunction to reaffirm by choosing. “One must” means one must filter, sift, criticize, one must sort out several different possibles that inhabit the same injunction. [...] If the readability of a legacy were given, natural, transparent, univocal, if it did not call for and at the same time defy interpretation, we would never have anything to inherit from it. (18)
This is why the Eurocentrism of mainstream steampunk fails POC, because it is a language only for a certain kind of ghost, a certain way of interpreting a haunting’s significance. If we tried to speak of Eurocentrism as itself a kind of ghost (because metaphors can inhabit each other), it is the poltergeist that spends so much time rattling things that one is hard-pressed to notice the other ghosts haunting the same house.

We must speak to ghosts, in hopes of a conversation—not to exorcise the ghosts, the past, but to hear them echo and speak back. We hear their voices in the present, because they have already come back, because a ghost always inhabits the now. We live with these ghosts; their haunting signifies something about our present that we must figure out for our future. Is this not what we do in steampunk? Surround ourselves with ghosts that have come back, that we have addressed and interpreted and made part of our lives?

Call out to the ghosts you have inherited, and listen.... what do they say?

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