Decoding GhostsMolly Hastings (BFA SC 2019)
In October 2016, I finished making my first Extremely Low Frequency (E.L.F.) receiver. It was a simple contraption made up of two wooden boards and one roll of thin copper wire, which would take in low-frequency electromagnetic waves and output them in the audible sound range. Both ends of the wire were soldered to an ⅛-inch audio jack cut from a pair of headphones, which went into a tape player lent to me by a friend. The tape player was later stolen from my studio, but the tapes I had recorded onto were left behind. They play a strong static that’s clearly not a malfunction but some kind of message—or more accurately, the absence of a message, the kind of message/non-message hybrid where you don’t actually know if there could be an original sender, and you’re not quite sure if you were meant to receive it. There is a kind of animacy to the sound that tells you it is coming from something, somewhere.
Portable broadcaster for the post-biotic.
It’s like this: At first, you wait for the code. Then, you decode for a message. But what happens if there is no confirmation of a code, or a message, in the first place? What if there is nothing, no signal, just static? Can you wrap yourself in the static and become the code? Can you find joy in the un-coded, or in the code that you can feel and touch but cannot comprehend?
Waiting for a signal in the Rhode Island Desert.
In The Body in Pain (1985), Elaine Scarry argues that pain can unmake the world. Pain pushes all things aside, and when one is in pain, pain is the only thing one can see. It unmakes language too—while the English language is extremely object-oriented, pain has no object to it. Scarry states that “we do not simply ‘have feelings’ but have feelings for something or somebody, that love is love of x, fear is fear of y.” But pain, unlike other “emotional, perceptual, and somatic states,” has no referential content. You can only liken it to something else. As in, “It feels like my arm is on fire! As if I’m burning alive! It feels like ah!! ah!!!” This inability to describe pain directly means that unless it is visible in the form of blood, bones, or otherwise, a person who is merely a witness to pain can fundamentally disbelieve the pain of another. When speaking about one’s own pain to another, Scarry observes, “two wholly distinct events occur.” For the person whose pain it is, it is “effortlessly grasped,” but for the witness, listener, doctor, friend, “what is effortless is not grasping it.”
This disconnect creates political complications, alongside personal ones. These complications turn back in on each other until they are no longer separable. Scarry, again, asks a baseline question: “How is it that one person can be in the presence of another person in pain and not know it—to the point where [they themselves] inflict it and go on inflicting it?” This tumbles into the next dilemma, that “the relative ease or difficulty with which any given phenomenon can be verbally represented also influences the ease or difficulty with which that phenomenon comes to be politically represented.”
Language itself is a code, and this formalization of language is a continuing political project, though I do not claim or believe this project to be the be-all-end-all of language. This language/code project is supposed to allow us to communicate all things and thus assumes that all things which exist should be communicable. Language is the medium through which we construct our thoughts, language is a border-boundary of logic, language is a baseline for reality. Like, if you can’t think it, is it real? Can you, should you, express the inexpressible? Recommended reading here: Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logicus (just the first and last seven pages, do not waste your time on the rest).
Whenever a border is created, it can and will and should be transgressed. (Please note the use of border and not boundary. A boundary is mutually agreed upon, created on a case by case basis, and can be porous and rigid and healthy. A border is made to protect capital and trap bodies). This goes the same for language construction as for regimes, nation-states, lines drawn to trap or exclude. Language exists to pin something down (as well as many other reasons). But does it not seem like a convenient feature of capitalism that pain is linguistically marginalized? If pain is particularly inexpressible, then it becomes easier to ignore those attempting to express it.
In “Sick Woman Theory,” artist Johanna Hedva tracks the connections between pain, gender, and privilege:
The Sick Woman is an identity and body that can belong to anyone denied the privileged existence—or the cruelly optimistic promise of such an existence—of the white, straight, healthy, neurotypical, upper and middle-class, cis- and able-bodied man who makes his home in a wealthy country, has never not had health insurance, and whose importance to society is everywhere recognized and made explicit by that society; whose importance and care dominates that society, at the expense of everyone else. And, crucially: The Sick Woman is who capitalism needs to perpetuate itself. Why? Because to stay alive, capitalism cannot be responsible for our care—its logic of exploitation requires that some of us die.
Capitalism may not have created the problems of pain and expressibility, but it leans into them, perpetuating and re-territorializing until the pain is unrecognizable, foreign, a state you are only able to exit if you’re Good and Lucky and White.
In 2017, I began researching ghosts. I had a theory that ghosts were actually moments where your body could not hold what happened in a coherent way, and so released it as a ghost, to haunt you. I then added a second theory, that perhaps those ghosts lived in the electromagnetic spectrum. It would explain common ghost sightings. People have different sensory experiences depending on whether the body absorbs the frequencies or allows them to pass. Sometimes they are heard, sometimes seen, sometimes felt. The electromagnetic spectrum seemed as good a site as any for ghosts to live, considering their tendency to return.
As it turns out, in constructing these ideas, I came fairly close to how some theorists understand trauma, memory, and flashbacks. Cathy Caruth, a trauma theorist and researcher, describes in Recapturing the Past the way personal trauma forms as a temporal paradox. Although traumatic memory returns as a memory that is present, vivid, and precise, it is “accompanied by an amnesia for the past,” a loss of “the very continuity of conscious thought.” This is often seen in the form of a flashback. “While the traumatized are called upon to see and to relive the insistent reality of the past, they recover a past that encounters consciousness only through the very denial of active recollection.” This denial is the body’s refusal to give you the memory you are looking to properly remember. A compulsive return as temporal paradox! Caruth continues, “The literal registration of an event—the capacity to continually, in the flashback, reproduce it in exact detail—appears to be connected, in traumatic experience, precisely with the way it escapes full consciousness as it occurs. Traumatic memory has never, from the beginning, been fully integrated into understanding. And therefore that history has no place, neither in the past, in which it was not fully experience, nor in the present, in which its precise images and enactments are not fully understood.” It is incomprehensible.
So I built a machine that would send messages on bluetooth frequencies to my “ghost,” which I had hubristically decided I was ready to integrate. I ended up abandoning the project once I finished the machine, because (surprise!) I wasn’t ready to integrate that ghost. Carruth touches on this in her book, acknowledging that “trauma seems to evoke the difficult truth of history that is constituted by the very incomprehensibility of its occurrence. Does trauma require integration—for testimony and cure? But integration means the loss of the event’s initial incomprehensibility, the force of its affront to understanding. It is this dilemma that underlies many survivors’ reluctance to translate their experience into speech.”
I thought I could logic my way through my feelings, empirically consider them, and my careful logic would lead me to total happiness and complete recovery. All things would be reconciled and ordered, finally! The realization that there is a space in between integration and denial ripped a hole in my language-reality-construct. In that hole I can let myself circle and dig and listen, without naming. For me, the act of rendering traumatic memories legible has actually resulted in further traumatization through "rational thinking” masquerading as processing. Accepting incoherency has, alongside years of therapy, pushed me to look outside words and objects and capitalist structures. Through attempting and failing to picture the rational dimensionality that one assigns to a Wi-Fi signal, I was able to register the incoherence and continue on.
Molly Hastings is trying to commune with the MEGASOUL.