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Contemporary Ghosts in Recording Machines – Steve Barfield responds to Rorschach Audio

June 1, 2012

Steven Barfield is a researcher with major interests in the work of Samuel Beckett (especially as regards intersections between Beckett’s work and psychoanalysis, philosophy and performance theory), as well as in postcolonial literature, in fantasy literature and in contemporary British theatre. Steve is editor (with Matthew Feldman and Philip Tew) of “Beckett and Death” (Continuum 2011) and author of “Beckett and Heidegger: A Critical Survey” in Richard Lane (editor) “Beckett and Philosophy” (Palgrave 2002).

As the “Rorschach Audio” book suggests, the search for evidence of the soul’s immortality beyond death, and even more importantly, some scientifically credible evidence of this, is almost inseparable from the development of the modern technologies of recording physical ‘reality’. Ghosts, in such a view, can be found within the world of the material, even if technically they exist beyond, they have substance and reality of sorts that is in the final analysis not just a matter of non-rational faith in the invisible. Banks’ own sterling account – in “Rorschach Audio” – focuses on the field of sound recording, but others have focused on the similar situation of ghosts and photography – for example, Martyn Jolly’s “Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography” (2006) or the exhaustive documentation of such material undertaken by Clement Cheroux and others in “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult” (2005).

It is above all at the level of the form of such events a question of the relationship between technology and reproducibility, because reproducibility is not just a quality intrinsic to any idea of representation, but a representation of scientific experimental method itself: what matters to science is that experiments can be reproduced through repetition so as to substantiate the hypothesis of the experimenter and their experiment. If the experimental results cannot be reproduced by repetition then the experiment cannot be considered to have succeeded and proven the hypothesis, and as “Rorschach Audio” suggests, it is less the individual recordings that matter, as the very determined attempt to create an evolving scientific method of how such audio recordings of ghosts should be made and evaluated.

In one sense, it seems nothing has changed in the present day, despite the debunking and the failure of earlier technological audio and photographic recording methods to demonstrate the existence of ghosts, when one thinks about modern reality television programmes purporting to investigate the paranormal world of ghosts with ever more complex forms of technology. Such successful television shows include Britain’s own (ironically named?) Living TV channel’s “Most Haunted” presented by Yvette Fielding (2002-2010) and the even more successful American TV series “Ghost Hunters” (2004 to present). This series runs on the Syfy Channel and features TAPS [1] – the self-styled Atlanta Paranormal Society, investigating the spirit world through infrared, thermal and digital video cameras, EMF (electromagnetic field) detectors, digital thermometers and a growing plethora of new technological exotica. As technology becomes ever more advanced and ungraspable by the non-scientific public, the possibilities for demonstrating ghostliness perhaps become even more plausible. What exactly does an EMF detector actually purport to show in relationship to ghosts? In terms of the teleology of technology in hunting ghosts perhaps the next new technological advance will finally offer us that elusive proof of their existence? “Ghost Hunters” is very popular and has even spawned a computer game, unlike most reality TV shows, and in some programmes fans can audition to join the friendly crew by showing off their ghost-hunting talents on screen and being judged by the regulars. It will probably not be long before we have a TV reality show in which celebrities meet ghosts of their famous/notorious ancestors, as long of course, as the encounter can be recorded technologically after some fashion or the other.

What all of this suggests is the premise that science of a kind (even if it is ‘pseudo-science’), which attempts to prove the existence of ghosts, however barely convincing it may seem, nonetheless continues to be the big draw for audiences as long as new technology is involved. The presumed validity and strength of this relationship between scientific technology and ghosts is so vital in our culture that it exists even within the film “Ghostbusters” (1984), a famous parody of the genre of parapsychological investigation. Here the ghost-buster of the title, based in an old New York firestation, possess a baffling array of comic scientific and mock technological equipment to carry out their tasks. A failure of technology in the present does not necessarily mean a future technology will not be able to do the job of successfully proving that the paranormal exists, which is why technology is so important to these ghost-hunting programmes. The fundamentally interesting question though is why the issue of whether the existence of ghosts can be scientifically proven still occurs today.

It is certainly true that there has been a strong and growing move towards religious identities in the contemporary period even in western society, as evidenced whenever one looks at the newspapers or the television news and this in turn is largely fostered by the strong return of religious fundamentalisms. But is this the cause of the need to use science to prove the existence of ghosts and life after death? This is less convincing an argument than it might at first seem, because generally fundamentalist religious tendencies do not need the proof of science when their belief is already written down in unassailable religious books (see Scott, 2009). Creationists whose view is typically a literalist one based on holy books, after all, more often than not simply ignore or attack the work of Darwin rather than trying to make the theory of evolution fit a religious model; even though this later position isn’t necessarily impossible, as has been shown by arguments from Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture (Irvine, 2009) and by the philosopher Michael Ruse (2000).

In addition, if religion is above all a question of faith rather than science, then even if religious belief is intrinsically irrational and non-scientific then this doesn’t really make a difference to arguments that proceed from such faith. This point was shown vigorously, a long time ago by David Hume in his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion”, where Hume argues convincingly that a scientifically compatible deism, that typical product of the European Enlightenment which sought via reduction to remake religions to reduce conflict between their different traditions, is perhaps a rather pointless exercise (Hume 29-132) [2]. You don’t need natural science or the argument from design (that the world is so well designed that just like a watch does it must have had a purposeful and intelligent creator), to be sure that God and all that goes with it exists, such as the immortality of the soul and life after death exist. Faith is all that is required.

Instead, I would argue that the turn towards a possible technological and therefore scientific proof of the existence of ghosts is less due to a return to religious identities as it is a product created from doubts about the value of faith alone, and doubts about established religious world views. It is instead part (and I would suggest always has been) of a view where the skepticism innate in scientific method – that is to say a hypothesis exists because it can be proven wrong by an experiment or an observation, as Karl Popper (2002) argues it can be ‘falsified’ or ‘refuted’ by experiment or observation and will then lead to another hypothesis – is uncannily twinned with the skepticism about the possible limitations of any scientific materialist view of the world. ‘Falsifiability’ makes every hypothesis one waiting to be disproved. So from this perspective, the fact that an experiment or observation suggesting the existence of an afterlife beyond physical death could be produced through science, necessarily and inevitably propels the phenomenon of the search for evidence of life after death through the evolutions of appropriate technology.

However, this is a technical way of answering my original question and while such phenomena as the audio of the spirit world that “Rorschach Audio” describes continue to be vital for people in the present, in part because this is enabled by the very same science which debunks them, then I would argue there are also a more complex set of social and cultural concerns at stake. What is at stake is not so much evidence of actual paranormal activity and life beyond death, but the way in which such an interest speaks to a contemporary sense of spirituality and the relationship of this to contemporary scientific materialism. Ken McMullen’s experimental film “Ghost Dance” (1984) explores the phantasmal presences within cinema as a method of representation, and the ghost is a figure of the trace of something that is without origin, a memory of something always absent: film as a medium traces an absent and deconstructed presence. Although much can be said about the deconstructive aspects of the film and Derrida’s interest in the idea of ghostliness, what is most important for the present discussion is the implied argument that ghostliness has some kind of value in contemporary culture: it means something and I would argue there is a connection between this and the passion for ghosts apprehended by the processes of technology.

The first is I would argue the revaluation of the spiritual in political / ethical terms, and a good example of this is the work of Philip Pullman in “His Dark Materials”. Pullman’s best-selling and critically esteemed trilogy of novels is known for its fantasy genre critique of Christianity – achieved through a reinterpretation of the myth of the Fall and through an emphasis upon a non-theocentric understanding of the universe – which has sparked critiques from Christians who felt their values were being attacked [3]. Yet it could be noted that despite Pullman’s avowed materialism, in arguing that his idea of ‘a Republic of Heaven’ is where we are now in the world and not elsewhere, nonetheless his books are filled with a pantheist spirituality based upon metaphors and images from modern physics – in the form of the idea of ‘dust’ as the angelic form of an intelligent dark matter. As Katherine Cox (2011) argues in her essay “Imagine Dust with a Capital Letter: Interpreting the Social and Cultural Contexts for Philip Pullman’s Transformation of Dust”, Pullman’s dust is an all empowering metaphor in the trilogy because it shows a creative universe without a God-head but still filled with spiritual values (Cox, 2011, pp.132-133). One could go further than this and argue as J’annine Jobling (2011) does in her essay “East, West and Eclecticism in Philip Pullman’s Religious Vision”, that Pullman’s entire trilogy is informed by a sense of spirituality remade through the use of scientific imagery, that if it is not religious in traditional Western terms, is still deeply animated by spirituality, and would be consistent with a non-Western religion such as Buddhism. She argues that Pullman “Postulates a universe vibrant with love, spirit, meaning and purpose even at the level of the elementary particle. It is material spirituality or a spiritual materialism: the divide between matter and spirituality is not merely bridged but collapsed. It promulgates an ethic of care and responsibility, where the communal good is favoured over individual gratification”. What I would suggest here then is that certain forms of an emphasis on the spiritual within the material world serve the ends of destabilizing growing fundamentalist tendencies in religion, that would return us back to highly prescriptive enforcement of moral codes set by elites within the past, which have little to do with the concerns of human rights. Instead this move creates a middle ground between strictly materialist world views that could seem devoid of any ethical values and those opposing religious perspectives: such are the values of this middle ground that it speaks to a spiritual need in people, but offers a far more democratic and less institutionalized form of spiritual awareness than that of contemporary religion’s turn to past via fundamentalist interpretation of scripture. This in turn helps explain the context of interests in the possibilities of recording ghosts as suggesting attention to something beyond a simply mechanistic view of the universe and of human life and appealing at least in part to a much broader interest in the question of spirituality.

Karoline Gritzner (2011) has argued in an essay on the role of the search for spirit in theatre and performance, that much of twentieth century theatre / performance and philosophy has been a search for a way to understand what spirituality means in a form that is non-idealist and grounded within the material, which is an intrinsic feature of theatre and performance. The bodies we see and hear in theatre are physically there but are representing something else. Her article foregrounds this discussion in terms of one of the oldest mediums of reproducibility, which is theatre, earlier perhaps even than writing and certainly pre-dating the development of audio recording and photography. She suggests “As art, spirit is impure, not identical to itself and not to be divorced from that which it conventionally is placed in opposition to. As art, spirit carries within it the trace of its otherness, or, to extend this thought, it may even be considered as the trace of its own otherness”. As she goes on to argue, spirit as category is part of our fundamental aesthetic encounter with the very concrete actuality of performance, which is to say as a reproduction of something which it is non-identical with that original. Her conclusion is that “The spirit in performance is what is left over after the performance has gone, in the same way that spirit or ghost traces the lost or dead human subject – a spirit-subject that was never fully itself nor simply reducible to matter. Spirit resides in the memory of the performance and the performance of memory itself”. Spirit then is something that we recognize uncannily as part of our day-to-day experience of the world, since whatever we do is in itself affected by performance, whether through the structure of reproducibility itself, or our own sense of being present in our own performance of self and there being something in excess of just our physicality, though we are uncertain what this might be. In their quite different ways both Pullman’s trilogy and Gritzner’s discussion of spirit in theatre and performance remind us how essential a sense of spirituality and ghostliness are to contemporary culture, serving as the other, wider ranging side of the more pedestrian activities of ghost-hunters and their technologies with which my discussion began.

NOTES

[1] As it states on the ‘about’ section of the “Ghost Hunters” series web page “Contact between humans and spirits from the afterlife is not as far fetched as is it seems. As plumbers by day and ghost hunters by night, Jason Hawes, Grant Wilson and their team have worked to track down the presence of paranormals across the country. As leaders of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), both Jason and Grant have made it their life’s mission to help anyone with questions pertaining to paranormal phenomena and ghost hunting. TAPS is a group of fairly ordinary people fearlessly working to understand seemingly unexplainable disturbances”.

[2] See Wigelsworth (2009) for a history of British deism and its relation to Enlightenment science, also Saghafi “The Ghost of Jacques Derrida” 2009, pp.65-83

[3] For further discussions of such aspects of Pullman’s argument and design see chapters by Steven Barfield “Dark Materials to Create More Worlds: Pullman and Science Fiction” (pp.57-74) and Elizabeth Eldridge “Construction of the Child, Authority and Authorship: The Reception of C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman” (pp.40-56) among other essays in Barfield and Cox (2011).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anon “About” Ghost Hunters – http://www.syfy.com/ghosthunters/about – accessed March 25th, 2012

Barfield, Steven “Dark Materials to Create More Worlds: Pullman and Science Fiction” in Steven Barfield & Katharine Cox (editors) “Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: Essays on the Novels, The Film and Stage Productions”, McFarland, 2011, pp.57-74

Barfield, Steven & Katharine Cox (editors) “Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: Essays on the Novels, The Film & Stage Productions”, McFarland, 2011

Cheroux, Clement et al “The Perfect Medium: Photography & the Occult” Yale University Press, 2005

Cox, Katherine “Imagine Dust with a Capital Letter: Interpreting the Social & Cultural Contexts for Philip Pullman’s Transformation of Dust” in Steven Barfield & Katharine Cox (editors) “Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: Essays on the Novels, The Film & Stage Productions”, McFarland, 2011, pp.126-142

Eldridge, Elizabeth “Construction of the Child, Authority & Authorship: The Reception of C.S. Lewis & Philip Pullman” in Steven Barfield & Katharine Cox (editors) “Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: Essays on the Novels, The Film & Stage Productions” McFarland, 2011, pp.40-56

Gritzner, Karoline “Spirit to Ashes, Performance to Dust: Derrida, Theatre de Complicite, & the Question of a Holy Theatre” in “Performance & Spirituality” Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 2011, pp.85-110.

Hume, David “Dialogues & Natural History of Religion” Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 1999

Irvine, Chris “The Vatican claims Darwin’s theory of evolution is compatible with Christianity” The Daily Telegraph, 11 Feb 2009

Jobling, J’annine “East, West & Eclecticism in Philip Pullman’s Religious Vision” in Steven Barfield & Katharine Cox (editors) “Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: Essays on the Novels, The Film & Stage Productions” McFarland, 2011, pp.154-171

Jolly, Martyn “Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography” Mark Batty Publisher, 2006

McMullen, Ken (director) “Ghost Dance” Channel 4 Films / Loose Yard Productions, 1984

Popper, Karl “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” Routledge, 2002

Reitman, Ivan “Ghostbusters” Black Rhino Productions / Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1984

Ruse, Michael “Can a Darwinian be a Christian: The Relationship between Science & Religion” Cambridge University Press, 2000

Saghafi, Kas “Apparitions – of Derrida’s Other” Fordham University Press, 2009

Scott, Eugenie “Evolution vs Creationism: An Introduction” University of California Press, 2009

Wigelsworth, Jeffrey “Deism in Enlightenment England: Theology, Politics and Newtonian Public Science” Manchester UP, 2009

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