The first question has to be: do they exist? Of course they do, if only with certainty in their most reduced form, as words, as characters in narratives, as allegories and meta phors. The word “ghost” possesses a staggering range of syn on yms, all pointing to different characteristics, or specifying what the ghost actually represents or is made of: spirit, sprite, spectre, revenant, poltergeist, visitant, phantom, phan tasm, spook, shade, doppelgänger, wraith and so on. But the most common understanding of the term “ghost” is that of a revenant, somebody coming back after death, or rather the return of a living element of this person that appears deliberately, at a particular location and possibly with a purpose. All of these ideas are informed by a belief that there is something of intellectual or personal significance surviving the demise of the human body.

In accounts of meetings with ghosts in literature, film, and especially on the worldwide web, one comes across a great variety of different ghost descriptions. The most remarkable thing about these accounts is that they are probably best described as manipulative, written in a pseudo-matter-of-fact style, in an effort to evoke images of appealing vividness and trigger the imagination of the reader. Another characteristic of these texts is their vagueness, which is often paired with a suggestive and downright speculative language that appears to be borrowed, forcing the reader to add from his own know ledge to the lack of description, thereby making him an accomplice in supporting the content.

In popular culture ghosts are nearly always scary. But shouldn’t the return of family members or lost lovers be regarded as something positive, as great news? There is something strikingly similar about the images and the language employed to describe them in ghost documentations and in Roland Barthes’s description of photography in his essay Operator, Spectrum and Spectator: “The person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which I should like to call the Spectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to “spectacle” and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.” (Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, Vintage, London, 1993, p.9)

The Greek term eidolon that Barthes uses is, of course, nothing but another ghost. It refers to an insubstantial image, the rendering of an ideal, but also to a spectre or phantom. This citation sounds like a literal description of the “spirit photography” phenomenon that began in the second half of the nineteenth century, which attempted to capture on film images of souls or spirits of the departed. Naturally, or arguably supernaturally, the evolution of “spirit photography” was closely linked with the development of photography as such. It is probably not by accident that this phenomenon of spirits captured on film emerged with the increased simplification, and consequently improved capacities for manipulation, of the processing of photographic images. Yet the renderings of spirits and ghosts in these photographs reflect rather precisely the facets of the word ghost, by taking on a range of different forms, from wafting mist, spheres of light, transparent faces or bodies to more or less anthropomorphic structures, usually suspended in mid-air, hovering next to some prominent reference, a close relative, for example. One could argue that from a fundamentally Christian point of view these pictures turn the concept of photography, which thus far had only been able to record the past, into a tool to render a future reunification of the living with the deceased: a small glimpse of heaven.

Of course without knowing, it is difficult to differentiate between intentional spirit photographs, the early artistic multiple exposure experiments undertaken for example by Edvard Munch, accidental multiple exposures, or other photographic errors. It is a DIY thing: according to ghost-hunter websites ghosts appear mainly as “ecto-mist”, “orbs” and “vortices”, and much more rarely as “apparitions”, more or less luminescent or transparent moving images of people. Ecto-mists usually appear in photographs as a light fog, resembling white swirls of smoke or vapour, supposedly caused by orbs in motion that have come to rest or are in a state of dissolution. Sometimes ectoplasmic mist contains orb swirls, but these can easily be mistaken for out-of-focus cigarette smoke. A vortex appears as a tubular funnel in photographs and is often mistaken for a camera strap. Orbs are spheres of light, and are often mistaken for particles of dust or reflections of the sun in the camera lense. Sometimes ghosts appear as solid “Ectoplasm”, a mysterious substance, produced by a medium during séances straight from the atmosphere or by emanation from the participants. Often emanating from the medium’s mouth, this substance, which in photographs looks like rubber or gum, is capable of forming anthropomorphic structures by mere materialisation. Bearing a resemblance to a dead person or a ghost, these apparitions sometimes move and even talk, they are visible to all participants and can be touched and photographed, but they do not last long and only exist for the duration of the séance.

Even if one tends to doubt the scientific foundations of these explanations and rather considers them as spoofs or silly excuses for inadequate photography, it should be noted that the very notion of ghosts does achieve one thing—it challenges the very foundations of materialism, a concept that is basically at work at the heart of the main contemporary ideologies, from Marxism and Post-Marxism to Capitalism and so on. The most basic understanding of materialism is probably best described as the view that everything that exists is material, in the sense of being present physically. As for the human being, this suggests that mental states and processes exist as, or are generated by bodily functions. The German baroque philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was probably one of the most historically influential and eccentric opponents of materialism. As a mathematician he was the inventor of the binary system on which all computing is based today, making him one of the forefathers of the digital revolution, the Internet, and virtual reality. His philosophy is based on an understanding of the world that is not divided into the mental and the physical, as suggested by Descartes and his supporters, but consists of substances only, thinking substance and extended substance. This idea links thought and matter directly to one another.

In his Monadology (1721) he makes his case against materialism by homing in on the thesis that perception and consciousness can be given physical (“mechanical”) explanations. From his point of view there cannot be a mechanical explanation of perception and consciousness, therefore these processes must be beyond the physical. Right from the start he writes: “One
is obliged to admit that perception and what depends upon it is inexplicable on mechanical principles, that is, by figures and motions. In imag i ning that there is a machine whose construction would enable it to think, to sense, and to have perception, one could conceive it enlarged while retaining the same proportions, so that one could enter into it, just like into a windmill. Supposing this, one should, when visiting within it, find only parts pushing one another, and never anything by which to explain a perception. Thus it is in the simple substance, and not in the composite or in the machine, that one must look for perception.”

Leibniz's argument is this: a visitor to the “windmill” would perceive nothing but the parts and their functionality in relation to one another. But this construction would never, however complicated it may be, allow for a deduction of the concept of perception or consciousness. Even if we transport this model into the present day, and consider travelling on the level of electronic impulses through the Pentium or G5 chips in our computers, no matter how elaborate and gigantic these things may be—and they will probably look more like cityscapes than windmills—there is nothing but the endless chain of cause and effect of a machine. However complex this machine may be, there is nothing in this image that could disclose the latent mechanism of a conscious being. There is no chance that the purely mechanical principles of materialism can account for the undoubtedly present phenomena of consciousness, so there must be something beyond, something of true unity that allows for perception and consciousness. Whatever the subject of perception and consciousness may be, it must be truly one, a single “I”, one conscious being, a subject of unified mental life. And as all material is infinitely divisible, matter as such cannot produce true unity, and therefore can never account for perception and consciousness.
Leibniz solved the dilemma in a refreshingly idiosyncratic way, by inventing the Monad, “the real atom”, the smallest pos sible and as such indivisible particle that carries the soul, and reflects directly not only the macrocosm, but the whole order of the world. God consists solely of Monad material, human beings still carry some Monads around with them, animals fewer, and objects are without soul and therefore without
Monads. So are ghosts pure Monad material?

In the form of the ghost, the human being is reduced to complete helplessness. With the power of the body diminished to a mere presence of limited intensity, the ghost appears in order to set the record straight, but this it cannot accomplish. This is probably the really horrifying quality of the ghost story, the spirit at eternal unrest, the loss of
Leibniz’s true unity.
According to the French psychoanalyst and student of Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, the other half of the self is the corpse, “the ultimate abject”, from which the “I” has been expelled. And as much as a corpse confirms the viewer in his still being alive, it is a thing that also challenges his very self. But the truly shocking encounter would be for the viewer to meet an “I” after death, the expelled spirit, the ghost, the impossible “thing”, as an extreme manifestation of the “thing”, in relation to which the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his Seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1960) defines art itself. He writes that art as such is always organized around the central void of the real, yet impossible and unmentionable thing. The image he employs to represent this concept is that of the vase, with the void, the “thing”, at its centre, and the clay taking up the form of the space around the thing, much like the comic book ghost that is covered by a bed sheet, or the invisible man who hides behind bandages the contours of his void, which is his core and ultimately his real self.
The finer the tissue of the artist’s material and the better his tools, the more closely the fabric traces the curves and the more clearly the silhouette of the thing will be rendered. In Simone Decker’s work the impossible thing that cannot be touched by language is omnipresent, even if it takes the form of ghosts.
What nonetheless redeems the sculptural materialism is the direct physical impact of the texture of Simone Decker’s sculptures: the bandages obscure the details of the original sculptures, and transform them to monsters in a patched-up uniform of the bandage. Here a sense of enjoyment of the occupation of space breaks through, suspending the immediate urgency of interpretation. What pervades these ghosts is a heavy sense of gravity, of volume, that seems to exert its force on space itself, generating an effect that expands the continuum of site and space well beyond what we perceive to be justified by the requirements of narrative or history. This real space not only has qualities that are symbolic of narrative space and the real time of our, the spectators’, viewing, but also an intermediate domain whose visual equivalent is determined by the ambiguous glow-in-the-dark-cheapness. This uncanny "massiveness" relates neither to the materiality of the wrap structure nor to the materiality of the depicted figures—it dwells in a kind of intermediate spectral domain, in the cloud-like, quasi-angelic hovering of spiritual corporeality.

For this spiritual corporeality to emerge and to come across, specific circumstances are required: a certain amount of light or darkness, a specific point of view, a particular piece of information. Therefore photographic documentation is crucial in order to reveal comparative qualities like scale or the full force of the image in a particular context, and to provide the viewer with the history he for some reason cannot know. But in her photographs Simone Decker pushes the activity of viewing from the obvious coordinates of content and meaning to another unexpected level on which meaning and subjectivity collide, and steers us into a wonderful crash. In this clash of perception and assumed history, traces of the impossible thing appear to bulge from the photograph, it brings out the unconscious as a representation of the unconscious, and at the same time, like any photograph, denies all these relations of meaning by pretending to be factual proof. These photographs create the conditions for a profound shift of meaning whereby references are removed, although we still understand what we see, creating an immediate awareness of the void, a sense of vertigo at the hinting of the thing, and of sublime pleasure at the exhilarating experience, which is disguised as an excellent deception, a trick of the trade, or a photographic ghost in the machine.

What can ghosts really do? The malevolent poltergeist may
rattle and knock things over, but any other phenomenon may just be plain scary.
Why do ghosts wear clothes? According to the ghost hunters of the Internet, ghosts may be mere residues of former existences, like imprints from a different time still reverberating today in specific places, just about discernible in their atmosphere, just as in an old film loop, a scene or just an image is played over and over again through the years. Many ghost sightings in these places have in common that all the ghosts are wearing clothing. Ghosts that take the form of apparitions have been reported to appear in period costumes, military uniforms, robes or a plain suit. Most of them are fully dressed, transparent or not, but all of them appear to be human and are recognizable as people. So probably ghosts want to be recognized. If ghosts have any control over their appearance at all, then they would like to present themselves in such a way that the viewer will perceive the ghost as it sees itself, or as it wants to be seen. If something of a personality really does remain, the spirit would visualize itself as it was when alive, looking like a living person and wearing clothing. Or, more probably, the ghost would prefer to appear in some very cool clothes, and in splendid shape. At least, that’s what I would do.

October 2004

Simone Decker
Home / Writings / Ghosts, by Angela Rosenberg