One of the most terrifying ghost stories the U.S. has is incarceration. The prison is a haunted grotto. Prisons and prisoners are haunted by traumas caused by white supremacy. People admitted to these spectral spaces are part of its phenomenological architecture. When prisoners leave they are forever escorted by phantasmal histories. Most tangibly they will be cursed by restrictions like probation, employment and housing discrimination, voter suppression; the philosophical underpinnings of the prison itself are part of this ghost story. Prisoners, then, become ghosts themselves, observing society without a place in it, destined to float around disembodied until something sets them free from this realm. Ghost stories like this one are not just science fiction and I’m not the first to work in the tradition of the postmodern gothic, the supernatural, and the uncanny to perform a reading of white supremacist machinations in texts and culture. Jacques Derrida defines hauntology ala Spectres of Marx (“the time is out of joint”), Toni Morrison prolifically discusses gothic and spectral phenomenon in American history and literature– namely in her literary text Beloved in tandem with her theoretical texts Playing in the Dark and The Origin of Others, and Richard Dyer smoothly examines the spooky spectacle of Night of the Living Dead with the reverberating assertion:
All the dead in Night are whites. In a number of places, the film shows that living whites are like, or can be mistaken for, the dead. The radio states that the zombies are ordinary looking people, and the first one we see in the film does look in the distance like some ordinary old white guy wandering about in the cemetery, somehow menacing, yet not obviously abnormal. (835)
White supremacy is a violent othering technology which was cultivated at the time this country was established. Under the umbrella of whiteness and anti-Black racism we can understand all other violent forms of othering bodies for biopolitical power. For our purposes it’d be more reasonable to instead site Achille Mbembe’s necropolitical power, “the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die,” as the dominant ideology which helps us understand how various forms of divergence are policed (11). Dyer argues in an offhand way that, “If blacks have more ‘life’ than whites, then it must follow that whites have more ‘death’ than blacks”(834). Where carceral logics are concerned, we need to question, “The romance of sovereignty,” which “rests on the belief that the subject is the master and the controlling author of his or her own meaning. Sovereignty is therefore defined as a twofold process of self-institution and self-limitation (fixing one’s own limits for oneself)”(13). Incarceration, in addition to holding ancestral reverberations, has an optics of identity position sequestering those who threaten exposing the privilege of some. A sovereign person is someone who is not targeted for institutionalization by virtue of their identity markers or inability to conform to a white supremacist society. In Gothic-Postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity, Maria Beville cites Derrida’s “gothic vocabulary” where he critiques “Marx’s ontology of commodity value” and “picks up on the power of the metaphor of the spectre as ‘indispensable,’ bodiless body’ which haunts the Thing from both inside and out to the point where it becomes a ‘dead-living Thing’”(18). She continues to draw comparison to literature noting, “This would, arguably, mimic such Gothic literary creations such as Frankenstein’s creature and the many ghosts of similar fictions which haunt the present in search of ‘presence’ and symbolic value”(Beville 18-19).
White supremacy is not merely the attachment to the idea of “race” as a social division, but includes many harmful folkloric residuums: meritocracy, the cult of true womanhood, the politics of respectability, heterotopia, privileged constructions of debtor culture (and other capitalist ideas of value), reason versus feeling binary, and other traditions which, of course, contribute to a punitive, incarceration culture. There is no bodily sovereignty for subjects under these conditions the further they deviate from them. Mbembe discusses the conflation of war and politics, and the U.S. government has declared a “War on Black People,” as articulated by The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). M4BL advances solutions to end this war which include: “end to the criminalization and dehumanization of Black youth; end to capital punishment; end to money bail, end to the use of past criminal history; end to the war on Black immigrants; end to the war on Black trans, queer and gender nonconforming people; end to the mass surveillance of Black communities; demilitarization of law enforcement; immediate end to the privatization of police; an end to all jails, detention centers, youth facilities and prisons as we know them”(“End the War on Black People”). In other words, M4BL is imagining futures without white supremacy.
Hauntology is about the failure of the present as the futures of the past. As M. Asli Dukan describes in her documentary on afrofuturist tradition, Invisible Universe, “In the past, we dreamed of this future…In the future, we dreamed of this past…” Futures are always being created by what we can imagine for ourselves right now and were created by what we imagined in the past. Hauntology is a discussion and a conversation with ghosts. Mark Fisher explains in his essay “What is Hauntology,”:
Provisionally, then, we can distinguish two directions in hauntology. The first refers to that which is (in actuality is) no longer, but which is still effective as a virtuality (the traumatic ‘‘compulsion to repeat,’’ a structure that repeats, a fatal pattern). The second refers to that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual (an attractor, an anticipation shaping current behavior). (19)
To be more specific he notes, “One of the futures that haunts those who count themselves as progressive, then, is the possibility of a culture that could continue what had begun in postwar social democracy, but that could leave behind the sexism, racism, and homophobia which were so much a feature of the actual postwar period”(18). The problems of Fisher’s hauntology (and by virtue Derrida’s) is that the phantasmagoria of white supremacist machinations were always designed to maintain subjugation for a class of people who they projected their fears onto.
In The Meritocracy Myth, Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller Jr. succinctly dispel one of the legends of white supremacy: the idea that if people do not get “ahead” in American society it is strictly based on the “merit” of their work. They argue that “most success stories are not those of merit alone but a combination of merit and non-merit factors”(McNamee and Miller 18). Mainly, the success of people in America have to do with their overall access to social and cultural capital which is contingent on a variety of both inherited and manipulable life circumstance factors. Social capital is the networking which is already done for you by virtue of your proxy to a connected family, cultural capital is your other identity factors: race, class, gender, sexuality. To clarify: I can chose to become educated at college, but I cannot pick the family I was born into, how much social and cultural capital they have including their economic status and connections to industry and key people for my success. This assertion takes a lot for granted as well assuming my life situation has at all prepared me for college and I have not been exposed to any particular traumas which would impact my ability to perform there. Importantly, they sift through all the ideals which lead to people’s conception of the American Dream, for instance entrepreneurship, with their eyes on statistics and what they concretely say, which is the discussion on “freelancing” is often incomplete with women and older Americans, many times displaced or laid off workers, who make up this labor pool, and who (pertinent to the statistics of prisons) participate in alternate, often illegal, economies (McNamee and Miller 19). Not that this last item is completely problematic, but it will likely lead to roads of incarceration at the same time it provides a road to the wealth aspect of the American Dream. McNamee and Miller refer to Americans’ obsession with the “self-made man” trope, which you can see on any cover of Forbes magazine, for example, where an uncritical eye might catch the headline “Kylie Jenner: America’s Youngest Self-made Billionaire” and forget the amount of social and cultural capital she has as a rich white woman who grew up documented on a popular reality television show which was orchestrated by her wealthy mother, sisters, and Olympic athlete father.
The “Cult of True Womanhood” is the problematic construction of women as having the luxuries of upper-middle class stability, strict standards of white beauty, “purity,” “piety,” “domesticity,” and “submissiveness.” To historicize this concept we can see for women of color in particular, “purity” was not a choice when white men felt entitled to their bodies and they were put in situations where part of their labor included meeting the sexual needs of their employer or master without consent or as a form of survival. Many activists and descendants of those exploited for not fitting this standard are writing their way towards reparation, a seminal text in this vein is This Bridge Called My Back which exposes the impact of white supremacy on women. Identity markers can cause dissonance and trauma as much as physical violence–instead it is psychic violence people experience. In her essay “Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster: Reflections of an Asian American Woman,” Mitsuye Yamada explicates the feelings microaggressions can cause, “I had supposed that I was practicing passive resistance while being stereotyped, but it was so passive no one noticed I was resisting it; it was so much my expected role that it ultimately rendered me invisible”(31). Yamada details the intersections of race and gender here when she refers to her invisible feeling. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua’s “Entering the Lives of Others” is merely one page, yet it captures what otherness means and works in a tradition of difference, which they call “theory in the flesh”(19). This theory posits, “the physical realities of our lives–our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings–all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity,” they go on to say, “There is nothing easy about a collective cultural history…:the forced encampment of Indigenous people on government reservations, the forced encampment of Japanese American people during WWII, the forced encampment of our mothers as laborers in factories/in fields/in our own and other people’s homes as paid or unpaid slaves”(19). In Anzaldua’s own text, Borderlands, she shares her vision for a borderless society which is anti-essentialist and based on the idea of fluid identity markers necessary to see the possibilities of identity shifts and transformations in individuals and cultures. She says, “the future depends on straddling of two or more cultures” and suggests “creating a new mythos–that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the ways we see ourselves, and the way we behave”(80).
In her essay “Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex,” Julia Chinyere Oparah discusses women of color’s navigation through the carceral system (inside and outside prison walls) and mentions how second-wave feminists, by explicating sexual and domestic violence as a feminist issue which required intervention without specificity, left them “particularly vulnerable to state cooption, as the state positioned itself as the protector of vulnerable women and partner to anti violence organizations”(39). Though it seems the state has provided interventions for violence, in communities of color the state has tokenized violence against women in order to maintain control over men of color who need access to rehabilitation, counseling, and the ability to understand their sense of powerlessness in external social roles as contributing to their toxic masculinity in the home. Oparah stresses that, “a symbiotic web of corporate and state interests uses mass incarceration as a solution to the complex problems generated by advanced capitalism” which means less funding towards community services keeping people out of prisons like “schools, youth programs, addiction treatment and mental health programs, or job creation and training initiatives”(40). She notes, “By supporting initiatives designed to enforce more stringent policing of violence against women without taking into consideration entrenched racial and economic bias within law enforcement agencies, anti violence activists failed to anticipate their potentially negative impact on women of color”(41). One of the main theories of women of color which scaffolds this understanding is the politics of respectability, the idea that culturally, if a person being assessed in any matter is not upholding the values of whiteness they are deemed “not respectable” and therefore not worthy of humane treatment. Sex workers are an example of this paradox and Nawal El Saadawi explicates this perfectly in her testimonio Woman at Point Zero. Although some of this account is fictionalized, there is no better deploying of the theory than the character of Firdaus who seeks spiritual and financial independence in a brutally patriarchal world where “respectable” jobs earn her no respect or money, but sex work enables her to escape the usual trappings of capitalism while it is an example of entrepreneurship deemed illegal. Firdaus memorably says, “Now I realized the least deluded of all women was the prostitute,” meaning sex workers recognize the value women provide to the private and domestic sphere in terms of affective and immaterial labor without payment, but it is still an industry which is criminalized, enmeshing women in the carceral system if they participate in this alternate form of economy (El Saadawi 94).
To educate and overcome carceral imprints, we have to recognize the conditioning we’ve had in the politics of respectability and host more “open pedagogies” as J. Jack Halberstam calls them in The Queer Art of Failure drawing from both Gramsci and Freire among others (16-17). More simply: what can we learn from people we haven’t listened to or who have been deemed “failures” in the eyes of a capitalist and white supremacist society? Halberstam argues we spend too much time discussing hegemonic literatures in the academy and too little time giving credence toward organic intellectuals in spaces we could apply “problem-solving knowledge or social visions of radical justice”(17).
In terms of upending capitalist thinking as it is now, since capitalism contains with it harmful ideologies like the privileged constructions of debtor culture and white supremacist notions of value, David Graeber traces the concept of debt (as important to reflect on for carceral issues like cash bail and socio-economic circumstances) from an anthropological perspective. Graeber sketches capitalist ideology which contributes to carceral culture, and he argues capitalism is contingent on systems of debt. As he moves to describe The Atlantic Slave Trade, he discusses what he terms “flesh debt”: “On the one hand, human life is the absolute value. There is no possible equivalent. Whether a life is given or taken, the debt is absolute….Slaves, after all, had no parents, or could be treated as if they didn’t; they had been forcibly removed from all those networks of mutual obligation and debt in which ordinary people acquired their outward identities”(Graeber 145). This uncannily mirrors the economy of the prison in the U.S. which breaks family bonds at a young age via the “child welfare” systems in economically depressed communities, continues to break bonds via policing bodies until they are permanently enmeshed with jails, prisons, and probation possible more than with their own families. To compare again, he says later on in his chapter “Age of the Great Capitalist Empires,” “As I’ve described, the Atlantic slave trade can be imagined as a giant chain of debt-obligations….the end product was the same: human beings so entirely ripped from their contexts, and hence so thoroughly dehumanized, that they were placed outside the realm of debt entirely”(347). To read this passage, we can’t help but think of how prisons rip people out of their particular contexts and render them without access to jobs, housing, and, many times, family. To take a more individual approach there is also solitary confinement which rips people away from their facilities of mind and body.
Trauma takes possession of the sufferer. Both Judith Herman and Joy DeGruy discuss this in different ways but both socioculturally: Herman adding a conventional and clinical feminist analysis of psychological phenomenon and DeGruy providing a critical race and new historicist perspective. DeGruy shares the micro and macroaggressions which contribute to the continuing trauma of people of color, specifically Black Americans, not different from what I’ve noted here, but indispensable for her approach which is that of intergenerational trauma. Herman talks about one-to-one responses of those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post Traumatic Disorder (CPTSD) as a clinical phenomenon represented by,
….terror and rage. These emotions are qualitatively different from ordinary fear and anger. They are outside the range of ordinary emotional experience, and they overwhelm the capacity to bear feelings….the attempt to avoid reliving the trauma too often results in a narrowing of consciousness, a withdrawal from engagement with others, and an impoverished life. (41)
As a spiritual phenomenon, PTSD and CPTSD leave residual effects on families, communities, societies. Literarily, Danez Smith’s poetry, in the collection Don’t Call Us Dead, encapsulates these sentiments with a sense of hopefulness, in particular in his poem “a note on the body”:
your body still your body
your arms still wing
your mouth still a gun
you tragic, misfiring bird
you have all you need to be a hero
don’t save the world, save yourself
you worship too much & you worship too much
when prayer doesn’t work: dance, fly, fire
this is your hardest scene
when you think the whole sad thing might end
but you live oh, you live
everyday you wake you raise the dead
everything you do is a miracle
Gabor Mate’s work deploys similar metaphors to the ones I cite here in The Realm of Hungry Ghosts when he describes his work with drug addicts and offers up their life stories with his clinical perspective that they are all seeking refuge from traumatic events,
My medical work with drug addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has given me a unique opportunity to know human beings who spend almost all their time as hungry ghosts. It’s their attempt, I believe, to escape the Hell Realm of overwhelming fear, rage and despair. The painful longing in their hearts reflects something of the emptiness that may also be experienced by people with apparently happier lives. Those whom we dismiss as “junkies” are not creatures from a different world, only men and women mired at the extreme end of a continuum on which, here or there, all of us might well locate ourselves. (11-12)
With this in mind, it’s important to note: nonviolent drug offenses, courtesy of “The War on Drugs,” make up 45.5% of the federal prison population.
Even Stephen King has recently dabbled in depicting incarceration as the most gothic, eerie, and haunting spectre in U.S. society in his 2018 miniseries Castle Rock. King presents us with one of the features of “worlding”: the ability to imagine alternate futures and timelines within a historical arc, albeit in a chilling way, to imagine possible universes of pain. In one universe there is a young Black child adopted by a white family who is subject to cruel treatment of his mentally ill father who one day confides in his adopted son he will kill his wife (adoptive mother of the boy). As a measure to protect his mother from further violence, he kills the father, but now must face the scrutiny which accompanies him by virtue of the town’s racism instead of receiving the care he deserves as a child and the understanding he used self-defense to protect his mother against violence. King then creates a parallel universe where the same family has a white son and instead the same Black boy in this other universe is a torturee of the father as his mental illness degenerates. In each universe the prison features prominently, but there are unique ways of viewing the stranger, visitor, and the other as navigators of imprisonment.
In The Carter’s music video for “APESHIT,” one of the best representations of historical spectrality is the way they place Black dancers inside one of the biggest “white spaces” in the world: The Louvre in Paris, France. They are sending several messages by doing this. By imagining a Black presence (specifically Black femmes dancing and Black men who are not constrained by social pressure to hide emotions) they are asserting the absence of their labors does not erase their essence from this space and spaces like it. Just the same, Black Americans and marginalized people of color, indigenous people, women, queer and disabled folks built this country from their unpaid labor in all forms: affective, immaterial/affective, domestic, and raw. Locking up those people with these same ancestral ties and identity markers who are looking to finally reclaim a world that has asked them to remain apathetic about their contributions to the success of economies, families, and individuals will always be a sadistic measure of insecurity and fear, will always be an act of terrorism creating psychic imprints for generations to come. “APESHIT” begins with the image of a young Black man with angel wings crouched, overlooking the city, sirens in the distance, with the clock tower striking twelve. Futures require imagination and illustration of invisible phenomenon we all feel in order to create lives worth living for all.
In Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others, she elucidates the diary of a slave owner. In this diary the slave owner mechanically details his day of farming activities, where, among agricultural tasks, he mentions his daily rape schedule. There are no names of women, just mention of raping “his” slaves, matter-a-factly, in a list of daily tasks. Though this was standard fare at the time, we now will comment on the brutality and trauma which still haunts the world stemming from, what we’d now call, this psychopathic disregard for human life. One of the most terrifying aspects of incarceration is the same mechanical reporting of the bodies which are lined up in blocks of concrete on the inside. There is no light of life within, what is quite literally, a numerical system of dehumanization. We should be afraid of prisons and what they say about our society and the state of our own humanity. Every prisoner embodies a life, a community, and our society.
In terms of restoration, there are more “traditional” and “practical” manuals like Gerry Johnstone’s Restorative Justice: Ideas, Values, and Debates detailing what restoration has looked like in the past: community policing and intervention (contributes to demilitarization of police and divesting in state’s law and order programs), victim and offender conferencing, rehabilitation programs. Then there are more literary representations of repair like Adrienne Maree Brown’s work–a space where there is a language which echoes esoteria and femme praxis, incorporating spirituality as much as the practicality of healing justice for communities. In specific if we look at Brown’s chapter on “resilience,” we see her define something activists and communities must possess if we all hope to participate in changing the society: “the way water knows just how to flow, not force itself around a river rock”(105). She asks key questions about “transformative justice”:
Humans have made of ourselves a hierarchy of value in which some people are disposable–can fail at being human, can be killed as punishment, can be collateral damage. Can be wasted. Or tortured. Or locked inside a small box for their whole lives, given no hope of transformation, or a future in society….One place to turn with a transformative justice lens is our shared vision. When we imagine the world we want to shift towards, are we dreaming of being the winners of the future? Or are we dreaming of a world where winning is no longer necessary because there are no enemies? (113)
Though Brown admits she feels complete peace seems naive, she believes in the power of visualization of the world we want (which matches her extended interest in Octavia Butler and the sci-fi genre). Brown suggests, “Transformative justice, in the context of emergent strategy, asks us to consider how to transform toxic energy, hurt, legitimate pain, and conflict into solutions”(116). Micah White would call this visualization a “new unified theory of revolution” incorporating: subjectivism, theurgism, voluntarism, and structuralism. He clarifies these more as: spiritual (supernatural), material (natural), objective (non-human), and subjective (human). All of this means we need to institute philosophies which, “examine the complexity of ideas that exist in both scholarly and everyday life and present those ideas in a way that made them not less powerful or rigorous but accessible” as Patricia Hill Collins reminds in Black Feminist Thought. (vii) The theory lens I propose to listen to stories of carceral machinations is one which seeks to provide a place for terror to be held and believed with the potential of dissolution. It is a non-exclusive, non-elitist practice and can be carried out by anyone with a desire to dismantle the carceral state.
Maria Beville describes the Gothic-Postmodern as a space where assumed social roles are not what they seem in an “assemblage of different stories” as was so “within early Gothic novels, the labyrinthine complexity ultimately delivers its secret and produces the horror that expels the object of fear”(16). This is what we deal with in carceral narratives; they are characterized by “a pervasive cultural concern–that things are not only not what they seem: what they seem is what they are, not a unity of word or image and thing”(Beville 16). While mainstream media may give us a story of law and order agendas, if we listen to the incarcerated, it seems another story emerges of history: white supremacy, and violence directed at othering and projection, a “new darkness of multiple labyrinthine narratives, in which human myths again dissolve, confronted by an uncanny force beyond its control”(Beville 16).
“How do you preserve a memory? You carve it into your flesh. You gouge the old wounds open and you make the blood flow again, because you are the generation removed from violence and remembrance is your duty. (Derrida’s successors write of haunting as a nostalgia for lost futures. That is, possibilities that never were. He doesn’t write about the nostalgia for futures escaped.)” — R.F. Kuang, “How to Talk to Ghosts”
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Mauve Perle Tahat is the executive editor of TERSE.