Haunting the Web

I appreciated Chris Land’s response to my post on Currency and Incompletion, not only because it raises several interesting questions about writing on the web, which it does, but also because I am glad to have his measured and reflective voice among those contributing to the discussion. I am hopeful that he will agree to contribute on a more regular basis and in a more formal role.

Chris’s comments are particularly relevant to what I have been thinking myself since I met with Don Moore on Wednesday for our weekly discussion of Jacques Derrida’s Echographies of Television. Our Wednesday conversations seem only to perch on the text for brief moments between long migrations elsewhere, so I never had the opportunity to ask Don about a section of the text that relates to his recently completed thesis. Don’s thesis, which explores some of the ethical issues surrounding the rhetoric of 9/11, employs the idea of hauntology that Derrida introduces in Spectres of Marx (London: Routledge, 1994). I am by no means confident in writing about this text or about the idea of hauntology, but I was interested, given my conversations with Don, to see that Derrida employs a similar language of ghosts and haunting in his analysis of the media.

In Echographies of Television, Derrida talks about how the “live” image is actually not living at all but a dead image that nevertheless lives on, appearing like a ghost or an apparition, like a spectre that can be summoned, that can be made to appear with the proper incantations. This “simulacrum of life”, as he calls it, is captured by machines that function like “a kind of undertaker”, dividing the present between “its life and its afterlife,” producing images of images that are like spectres, phantasms, and ghosts. While Derrida makes these remarks primarily in regard to visual media, and while he utters them at a time when the internet was little more than an afterthought to media like television, radio, and film, he does assert that this structure of haunting has always accompanied any technical means of inscription, which is to say every means of inscription, including even the most traditional modes of writing. The implication, then, is clearly that the kinds of inscriptions enabled by the internet will be productive of ghosts and spectres also.

For this reason, it was particularly interesting to me when Chris’s comment included a similar concern with issues of media spectrality when he says that he “cannot escape the haunting feeling that there are ghosts encircling our little chat; people whose faces I cannot see, and whose presence I may never truly acknowledge.” Here, Chris seems to be recognizing a kind of ghostliness, not in the dead but still living inscriptions of our conversation, but in the possibility that there are others who do not inscribe themselves but only read anonymously, ghosts who cannot or will not be summoned. This recognition interests me, because it makes explicit a preference for the ghosts who can be summoned, who can be made to speak in one way or another, who can speak for themselves or, perhaps, somehow, for those living ones whose ghosts they are. The preference is for those who are willing to write themselves, despite the spectrality that this involves, rather than for those who are willing to be readers only. The concern is that the ghosts who will not be summoned, who will not speak for themselves, who will not be writers but readers only, may in fact be malevolent, may be haunting us.

I would like to suggest that Chris’s discomfort is not with ghostliness per se, but with something different enough to need a distinct term of reference, something that I might call monstrosity, the possibility that the ghosts who hover invisibly about us as we converse might be monstrous. This rhetoric of monstrosity, of course, already circulates frequently in relation to the internet, found in the fear that the ones I encounter there may be other than what they appear to be, may be pedophiles or terrorists or something worse and always unnameable. This risk of monstrosity is always operative, of course, even when the invisible ghosts allow themselves to be summoned and interrogated, but it is infinitely intensified when they refuse to appear, refuse to speak for themselves.

In these ideas of the ghostly and the monstrous are perhaps also contained the possibilities and risks of the internet more generally. In a sense, my willingness to inscribe myself spectrally in the medium is an invocation, a summoning that calls for the ghosts who circle about me to come forth, to consent to appear and speak to me. This is the fundamental hospitality of the internet, the willingness to summon whomever will come, whomever will consent to come. Even so, in every case, this openness is also an openness to the possibility that this coming will be the coming of the monstrous. My every inscription is a hospitality that risks the possibility that the ghosts it summons may appear as monsters.

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