On (G)hosts

You have obviously never talked with a ghost. Why, you can never get
any clear information from them. It's a to and fro. These ghosts seem
to be in doubt as to their existence even more than we are,
which, considering their frailty, is no wonder.

— Franz Kafka, "Unhappiness"

Writing, understood broadly, can be taken to include photography. Both are archival and used to document or record. The photograph, much like the letter, is an indexical trace of an event that outlives its subject, each maintaining a certain relationship to death and spectrality. Perhaps such a disclaimer is unnecessary here, but my hope was to clarify my thinking on linking the two in light of the seminar subject at hand. Written in response to Avital Ronell’s seminar, “On Haunted Writing: From Jean-Luc Nancy, Freud, and Derrida to the Disinscribed Past,” presented at The European Graduate School in July 2022, the purpose of this essay will explore the relationship between ghosts, hosts, architecture and photography.

Susan Sontag, in her text Regarding the Pain of Others, wrote that since the invention of the camera, “photography has kept company with death.” In the next sentence, she proceeds to reference the photograph as, quite literally, a trace: “a memento of the vanished past and the dear departed.”1 This is perhaps most explicit with regard to forensics: the camera is used to document a crime scene, which is to say, the aftermath of violence, wherein the photograph itself becomes evidential. However, when the camera is present during the violence, the photograph can serve as an objective witness. As evidence or witness to the what-has-been, the photograph haunts. “The gap between before and after images might thus be considered as a reservoir of imagined images and possible histories.”2 Just as photography has kept company with death, it has maintained a close relation with ghosts as well.

Photographs should be read like Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces — as things remembered and forgotten, as holes, traces, or remainders of subjects and photographers; memories ultimately left behind, but that continue to haunt. In psychoanalysis, the gaps in narrative — what gets left out or remains unsaid — is just as important if not more so than the narrative itself. Similarly, with photography, how a photograph is framed is important. As such, we should be just as curious about what is outside the frame: what or who is left out? Derrida is instructive here. As the title of one of his books, he taught us to read at the margins of philosophy, to pay attention to the framing devices, which is to question where a work begins and ends. It is to read with curiosity, to consider the parergon, of what is running parallel to the work in question — the parergonal itself a kind of frame — as that which is typically understood as secondary, the supplement, might instead be a sort of technological or prosthetic extension.3 In his book, The Truth in Painting, Derrida discusses in depth this concept of framing, suggesting also a decisive moment: “What's at stake here is a decision about the frame, about what separates the in­ternal from the external, with a border which is itself double in its trait, and joins together what it splits [emphasis added].”4 The photograph forms and is formed by the frame. Which is to say, the photograph is formed by the parergon, “this supplement outside the work.”5 He continues in speaking to the truth of painting and the use of the frame, no less applicable to the photograph:

One space remains to be broached in order to give place to the truth in painting. Neither inside nor outside, it spaces itself without letting itself be framed but it does not stand outside the frame. It works the frame, makes it work, lets it work, gives it work to do (let, make, and give will be my most misunder­stood words in this book). [...] It is situated. It situates be­tween the visible edging and the phantom in the center, from which we fascinate. [...] Between the outside and the inside, between the ex­ternal and the internal edge-line, the framer and the framed, the figure and the ground, form and content, signifier and signified, and so on for any two-faced opposition. The trait thus divides in this place where it takes place.6

Notable in this excerpt is Derrida’s mention of the phantom in the center of the frame. What place does the frame give to the truth in photography? Perhaps the truth within the frame is that which haunts — the memento mori, as Sontag suggests.7 In Le Petit Soldat (1960), written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, it is said that photography is truth.8 Much later, in his 1985 film Detective, in response to the question of what truth looks like, he writes that it’s between appearing and disappearing.9 Godard’s description of truth certainly appears to echo Derrida’s truth of the phantom in the frame.

Framing is also of key importance in architecture. As the bones of a building, framing is structural, the inside that gives the outside shape and support. Sometimes framing is all that’s left when a building is demolished. And when the demolished previously shared a wall with a neighboring building, remnants are often visible on the side of the building that remains standing. These residues, or silhouettes of ruin, are non-spaces referred to as “Ghost Buildings” in architectural discourse, visible traces left to haunt public spaces. Mark Fisher, taking leap from Derrida’s concept of ‘hauntology,’ describes haunting as that which “happens when a place is stained by time, or when a particular place becomes the site for an encounter with broken time.”10 Fisher’s description of haunting feels particularly relevant with regard to the ghost buildings of architecture. Beyond these ghost buildings as traces of what-once-was, architecture’s relationship to spectrality is extensive. There are ghost towns, which are places — villages, towns, and even entire cities — that have been abandoned, but the architecture and infrastructure remains. On the other side of abandoned and demolished architecture are the “render ghosts” of the architecture to come. The term “render ghosts” was coined by James Bridle in reference to computer-generated visualizations of the human form inserted into architectural renderings for scale, as well as to make the scene appear more real. He writes:

The Render Ghosts are the people who live inside our imaginations, in the liminal space between the present and the future, the real and the virtual, the physical and the digital. A world of architecture, urbanism and the city before it is completed — which is also never. They inhabit a space which exists only in the virtual spaces of 3D computer rendering software, projected onto billboards, left to rot and torn down when the actual future arrives; never quite as glossy or as perfect as our renderings of it would like it to be, or have prepared us for.11

Interestingly, in many instances, these render ghosts are replications of photographs of real people who were photographed and whose images are used without their knowing. Lastly, and perhaps what most often comes to mind when thinking of the relationship between architecture and spectrality: the haunted house. Fredric Jameson writes: “What is anachronistic about the ghost story is its peculiarly contingent and constitutive dependence of physical place and, in particular, on the material house as such.”12 Derrida suggests the same: “haunting implies places, a habitation, and always a haunted house.”13 On this point, we might ask: do architects consider ghosts? That is, beyond the render ghosts used in the architecture to come, are they considered in light of the materiality of the built environment, how they might be housed or expelled in terror?

This ghostly dependence on the material house inevitably leads to questions of hospitality. Jean-Luc Nancy says that ghosts are domestic — extra domestic even; they are part of the household.14 And when Derrida speaks of ghosts, specters, and phantoms, it always becomes a question of radical hospitality: one is truly hospitable only when opening one’s home to any monster that shows up.15 Such a guest is what he calls elsewhere a “figure of visitation without invitation.”16 This could just as well be an apt definition for ‘ghost’ or ‘haunting.’ Further, as Ronell makes clear, housing and hosting a phantom — the dead — is a big question for psychoanalysis as well.17 When, in psychoanalysis, we speak of housing such a figure — the ghost, the untimely and uncanny, that which disturbs or haunts — it is a trauma. And the traumatic is always an intruder. Moreover, in psychoanalysis, the intruder is very often on the inside. Julia Kristeva reminds us that while Freud didn’t speak on the concept of the stranger or foreigner in society, he did teach on the figure of the foreigner within ourselves.18 As Ronell pokes and prods around this subject, she poses a question in true Derridean fashion, “What’s more intimate than one’s ghost? One’s persecutor?”19 We house this traumatic intruder, or perhaps better stated, it gets lodged within us, in both senses of the term: as a host provides lodging but also as that which gets stuck. Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham’s work on cryptonomy becomes useful here, as the crypt is precisely this unassimilable trauma. The crypt is built by violence. It keeps the corpse intact. To be more precise, the inhabitant of the crypt is always the living dead — the ghost — as Derrida makes clear, marked by a refusal or impossible mourning.20 Accordingly, one of the subjects psychoanalysis explores is the same apropos Antigone: namely, the proper place of burial.

To come full circle: there is a sense in which photography is a sort of cryptonomy — as that which makes the unreadable readable — and the photograph itself a sort of crypt. These “ghostly traces,” as Sontag so aptly refers to photographs, stick with us, haunt us, and even outlasts us.21 Derrida, in his meditation on the photographs of Jean-François Bonhomme from the city of Athens (whose ruins remain, sometimes in direct juxtaposition to new architecture), writes: “Whether we are looking at the whole picture or just a detail, never do any of these photographs fail to signify death. Each signifies death without saying it. Each one, in any case, recalls a death that has already occurred, or one that is promised or threatening, a sepulchral monumentality, memory in the figure of ruin.”22 The crypt, like the photograph, is this promise: “catastrophe’s monument.”23

1. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), 24.
2. Ines Weizman and Eyal Weizman, “Before and After” in Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014), 109. 
3. Avital Ronell, “Nietzsche Marx Freud: World-Class Downsizers” (seminar, The European Graduate School, October-November 2021).
4. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987) 331.
5. Derrida, The Truth in Painting, 55.
6. Ibid., 11-12.
7. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 15.
8. Le Petit Soldat, directed by Jean-Luc Godard (1960; France: Les Films Impéria, 1963).
9. Detective, directed by Jean-Luc Godard (1985; Acteurs Auteurs Associés, 1985).
10. Mark Fisher, “What is Hauntology?” Film Quarterly 66, no. 1 (2012): 19. https://doi.org/10.1525/fq.2012.66.1.16.
11. James Bridle, “The Render Ghosts – James Bridle,” Electronic Voice Phenomena (blog), November 14, 2013, http://www.electronicvoicephenomena.net/index.php/the-render-ghosts-james-bridle/.
12. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (New York: Routledge, 1992), 123.
13. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 86.
14. Avital Ronell, “On Haunted Writing: From Jean-Luc Nancy, Freud, & Derrida to the Disinscribed Past,” (seminar, The European Graduate School, July 2022).
15. Ronell, “Nietzsche Marx Freud: World-Class Downsizers.”
16. Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2002), 360.
17. Ronell, “Nietzsche Marx Freud: World-Class Downsizers.”
18. Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 191.
19. Ronell, “On Haunted Writing: From Jean-Luc Nancy, Freud, & Derrida to the Disinscribed Past.”
20. Jacques Derrida, “Fors,” in The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonomy by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, trans. Nicholas Rand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), xxi.
21. Sontag, On Photography, 9.
22. Jacques Derrida, Athens, Still Remains: The Photographs of Jean-François Bonhomme, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 2.
23. Derrida, “Fors,” xxii.