Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmission
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Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmission

Psychoanalysis as a Ghostly System

The trope of haunting is becoming increasingly familiar. Its fullest exploration in the recent academic literature is that by Avery Gordon (1997), who has a clear idea that haunting is a social phenomenon, an index of oppression. She writes, “I used the term haunting to describe those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view. Haunting raises specters, and it alters the experience of being in time, the way we separate the past, the present, and the future” (p. xvi). One of Gordon’s base disciplines for her exploration is psychoanalysis, even though she is also critical of it. She credits psychoanalysis with being “the only human science that has taken haunting seriously as an object of analysis”; but, she writes, “psychoanalysis does not know as much about haunting as it might seem” (p. 27). This is because it (or at least Freud, with whom she deals) tries to reduce haunting to what comes from the unconscious and so is an affair based on repression, which means that it can be exorcised through the usual process of “identifying the visible and disquieting symptoms of repression and bringing their origins and nature to light” (p. 53). For Gordon, Freud’s troubled awareness that there might be something real about ghosts, in the sense that one is haunted by things that actually exist, has been occluded here. This is what we have to get back to, she suggests: “The ‘reality-testing’ that we might want to perform in the face of hauntings must first of all admit those hauntings as real” (p. 53). [End Page 241]

Psychoanalysis itself is haunted by its overdetermined set of origins. These include the specific context of Jewish emancipation into which Freud was born; then-contemporary ideas on thought transmission and telepathy; and images of civilisation, scientific progress and primitivity. As a set of hauntings these origins produce something ghostly and melancholic in psychoanalysis. Spectrally troubled in this way, as several commentators have suggested, psychoanalysis draws into twenty-first century culture material that is ‘unworked through’ yet still lively in its impact.

But psychoanalysis is also an active process of using the mechanisms of haunting. Much of this has to do with what is communicated at a spatial or temporal distance, whether between people who have no obvious physical connection to one another, or across generations. From past to future, from subject to other, psychoanalysis practices a disturbance of rational communication. The dimensions here are both ‘vertical’ (time) and ‘horizontal’ (space). The vertical refers to what gets transmitted from one time period to another, from one generation to another, so that those who have no direct experience of an event may nevertheless be affected by it. Much of the scholarship and clinical writing that has attended to this vertical dimension of haunting has been concerned with the intergenerational transmission of trauma, and this of course is vital work. But it has other elements too, to which Freud was attuned, notably questions of the generational continuity of ethnic and religious identity. In more contemporary language, it is also what underpins much postcolonial critique: how the societies of today carry with them the active ghosts of previous times. How does this happen, how is something not-known-about nevertheless passed on, sometimes to the extent that it is obviously re-enacted? More mysteriously still, is there something in the ‘it is’ of the present that is already reaching forward to the ‘it will be’ to come?

The horizontal dimension refers to what passes between people whether or not they are in active conscious communication with one another. Psychoanalysis is the science of this, dealing with the permeability of personal boundaries in the face of unconscious events. It may appear to seek clarity, as the [End Page 242] analyst reflects on the patient’s speech and tries to return it in a more rational, bounded form; but it is mired in an unconscious presence. Something moves across space from person...