Hauntology is a concept coined by philospher Jacques Derrida, in his 1993 book Specters of Marx, to describe the way that we all construct the world differently, out of what most haunts each of us from the past.
I became aware of this concept of hauntings, or the ‘hauntological’ nature of things, while immersed in my PhD and teaching counsellors-in-training. I became particularly interested in the emergence of tears in the counselling encounter and started looking at feminist science studies scholar Karen Barad’s descriptions of the hauntological nature of quantum entanglements. My hauntological inquiry into tears took me beyond their visible presence to tracking the ghostly traces of tears and the ghostly entanglements that make such traces visible.
Barad coined the word intra-action, as compared to interaction, to signify the ontological inseparability of things, of matter and meaning, of nature and culture. In her work on hauntology she contends that every concept is haunted by its ‘mutually constituted excluded other’. This concept of hauntology recognises that our transactions and interactions leave bodily traces which become ‘alive’ in ways that may be difficult to see or analyse, but that nevertheless have real, dynamic and ongoing effects. In my work, animating toward tears as ‘ghostly’, as invisible on faces but potently present in mind and bodies, opened up possibilities for exploring powerful forces that often linger in the shadows of the counselling encounter.
Once we recognise tears as ghostly matter, as “not-quite-known or not-here-now” (Tamas), we can sense their presence in ways which demand our attention. Karen Barad’s theory of agential-realism, which draws on the philosophy-physics of quantum entanglement, helped me conceptualise these ghostly tears. I became curious about the intra-active influences that result in tears being perceived as undesirable, problematic and requiring concealment. Drawing also on the work of Professor of Sociology, Avery Gordon, I wanted to know what harm, loss or social violence had been enacted to produce invisible, ineffable tears as a frightening and haunting visceral presence. Gordon speaks of haunting as being “one way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life”.
What are the systems of power which equate tears with falling apart, breaking down and losing control, and which instil in our bodies such a fear of this happening? Unshed tears are like spectres relegated to dark places. They are unseen and underneath, the in-between of pasts and futures. Yet their power to bring other hauntings to light cannot be underestimated. The tendency to resist the appearance of tears is strong in our society. A hauntological approach is a useful way to illuminate this, and to attempt to animate towards that which is typically erased.
In exploring my own responses to the potential emergence of counsellor tears in a counselling relationship, I noted my use of words such as ‘fearful, breakdown, unpredictable, no control, being overtaken’. The words of a research participant, ‘I didn’t want to cry’, and her description of her desire to be able to ‘handle it’, to be ‘okay’ and be seen as ‘holding it together’ all started to point to the potency of this haunting. Tears as a haunting can be produced by, and made potent (more impossible) by, other hauntings.
In the enactment of ghostly tears, fear is a prominent presence: fear of failure, of failing to hold oneself together, of falling apart. How is it that the emergence of tears, in some ways a natural (and cultural) bodily response to a variety of confronting and painful situations, has become indicative of a person’s failure to contain their self, failure to hold together, of failure in multiple ways, and that such a failure is indeed something to be feared? One response, I suggest, can be found in the political project of neoliberalism in its construing of individuals as rational, calculating creatures, its market-driven desires for profit and productivity, and its subsequent ideological uptake in the body. Jean McAvoy (2015) succinctly captures this very process in her discussion of neoliberalism’s effects, in her identification of anxiety-ridden subjects as being always on the boundaries of failure, tears being one example of such an imagined failure.
Dr Shanee Barraclough is Co-ordinator of Counsellor Education at the University of Canterbury. She has previously worked in New Zealand and the United Kingdom as a psychologist and counsellor, primarily with children and families and in the fields of domestic violence and trauma. She remains interested in ghostly matters and their profound effects on daily lives.
- Gordon, A. (2008). Ghostly matters: haunting and the sociological imagination. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
- Blackman, L. (2015). The Haunted Life of Data Introduction: A Case for Small Data. In G. Elmer, G. Langloise, & J. Redden (Eds.), Compromised Data: From Social Media to Big Data (pp. 185–209). London: The Bloomsbury Press.
- McAvoy, J. (2015). From Ideology to Feeling: Discourse, Emotion, and an Analytic Synthesis. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 12(1), 22–33.
- Tamas, S. (2016). Ghost stories. Emotion, Space and Society, 19, 40–44.