Spectral Geographies and Crafting a Form of Experimental Historiography

“Spectrality effects in place, and differentially in different placings, an unsettling complication of the linear sequence of past, present and future. For Derrida we lack a nuanced sense of history and memory ‘as long as [we rely] on a general temporality or an historical temporality made up of successive linking of presents identical to themselves and contemporary with themselves’ (Derrida 1994: 70). However ‘if there is something like spectrality, there are reasons to doubt this reassuring order of presents’ (Ibid 39). The spectral not only displaces place and self through the freight of ghostly memories; it works to displace the present from itself. As ‘that which secretly unhinges it’, spectrality ensures the ‘non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present’ (Ibid: xix). Pasts and futures, even if they are no longer; even if they are not yet, still haunt the present, and are, in a supplemental relationship to it, always coming back.” (John Wylie 2007: 172)

Derrida’s spectro-politics, as John Wylie points out above, challenges any conception of temporal linearity because a spectral logic presents spaces and times as folded, allowing distant presences, events, people and things to become rather more intimate.

Derrida has argued that such a ‘deconstructive understanding of history’ can be accomplished by the radical work of returning to ‘the repressed, rejected, and expelled elements of historical memory and recycling these lingering voices, genres, and histories’ (Derrida 1989: 821)

While an engagement with spectral matters is yet in its infancy within cultural geography, those geographers attempting to mobalise Derrida’s spectro-politcs through their work (John Wylie, Steve Pile, Tim Edensor, and Cheryl McEwan) can be read as attempting to engage with ‘kaleidoscopic modes of experiencing uncanny agencies, unforeseen events and a morphology of almost there-ness’ (Maddren and Adey 2008: 293).

Through my PhD research I developed an experimental historiography that drew creative resource from the purposeful assemblage and rehabilitation of diffuse historical fragments to form unorthodox archives. My adoption of a form of historical ‘assemblage method’ (Law 2004) is to be read as a challenge the historian’s fidelity to conventional empirical and archival evidence, in that I attempted to make the materials I assembled count precisely by not forcing them to fit within a pre-determined narrative, recognising instead that materials themselves can create knowledge, or at least encourage open and imaginative thought.

In this way I sought to craft a form of historiography that is alive to the ultimate alterity of past lives (human or otherwise), events, and places, recognising that what remains of them is always going to partial, provisional, incomplete and therefore what is being presented is always already, to invoke Derrida, “sous rature” – under erasure.

I am now attempting to develop my form of experimental historiography into a form of curatorial presentation. For the forthcoming exhibition that I am co-curating – Fashioning Feathers: Women, Craft and the Plumage Trade – I have unearthed  some archival photographs showing women working in plumage sweatshops in New York in the 1920’s that I am experiementing with the presentation of.

The photographs are taken from Lewis W. Hine’s photographic series documenting working conditions in New York, 1905-1939. Hine was an American sociologist and photographer who used his camera as a tool for social reform. His photographs, highlighting the plight of children and immigrants working in Now York sweatshops, were instrumental in changing the child labor laws in the United States.

Rather than present the photographs as static frames in the exhibition I have been experimenting with showing them as a moving ‘slideshow’ that will be projected onto one of the gallery walls. It’s still a ‘work-in-progress’ but here is what I have come up with so far:

Here is an extended version I have just finished working on:

Any comments or feedback would be much appreciated.

This entry was posted in Cultural Cartography, Curation as Spatial Practice, Experimental Geographies, Experimental Historiography, Geographer-artists, Spatial Theory, Spectral Geographies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Spectral Geographies and Crafting a Form of Experimental Historiography

  1. Adeola says:

    Hey Merle,

    This is a great project! I am getting chills because I´ve just been reading about ghosts for the past couple of days. Have you read David Toop´s new book ¨Sinister Resonance¨? Here´s a quote:

    “Sinister Resonance begins with the premise that sound is haunting, a ghost, a presence whose location in space is ambiguous and whose existence in time is transitory. The intangibility of sound is uncanny–a phenomenal presence both in the head, at its point of source and all around–so never entirely distinct from auditory hallucinations. The close listener is like a medium who draws out substance from that which is not entirely there. Listening, after all, is always a form of eavesdropping.”

    Love it!! (Planning a review of this book for my site, so look out for more on it coming soon).

    In your last post you mention that you are currently researching sound mapping for an upcoming project of yours. Is it this ghostly one? If not, then I think you should seriously consider adding sound as an important element of your ritual to contact the dead, or cross the line between the world of the living and the world of spirits. Sound is a link to the extra-human.

    I like Toop´s idea of the listener as medium. (From my post on tarot, you know I´m into mediumship as a form of research and knowing about experience http://archivingthecity.com/2010/11/10/tarot-as-research-method/).

    So if you´re interested in turning the gallery into a space for a kind of seance, then think about the hallucinatory quality of sound, the haunting intagibility of rhythm, and maybe find a way to include these sounds in the experience of the exhibition.


  2. Brian Rosa says:

    Yeah, definitely looks interesting. On a somewhat (but not entirely) related note, I think the project has some sort of resonances with a project that Julia Sherman did recently for Triple Canopy: http://canopycanopycanopy.com/10/she_goes_covered


  3. Merle says:

    Hi you two,

    thanks for your comments!

    David Troop’s new book looks very interesting and love the quote.

    In the spirit of exchange here are some quotes for you Adeola:

    “When the workplace, the loom, the cloth itself
    Have all evaporated
    We ought to discover footprints in the damp earth’‘
    (from Things Seen, Philippe Jaccottet 1994[1983]: 49).

    On valuing the unmarked:

    ‘…it requires a consideration of the politics of what Peggy Phelan (1993) calls the ‘unmarked’, that, is, an attempt to find, value, and retain what is not marked as ‘here’, yet palpably still reverberates; invisible dust still singing, still dancing’. (Nigel Thrift 2000: 214)

    As for sound I am going to be creating ‘isolated zones’ of sound using parabolic speakers in the gallery space – that means I can have different audio to correspond with different sections of the exhibition. For example we will be showing prepared birds of paradise bodies that would have been attached to hats with audio of birds of paradise calling in their natural environment. Then we will have sound to accompany an video work by Andrea Roe which depicts a taxidermist at work.

    Not sure about sound to accompany the plumage sweatshop images – what would you suggest music? a recording of women working and chattering in a workroom (but I feel that would be too obvious) – in some ways silence might be more affective… what do you think??

    Brian – thanks for the link to the triple canopy article – the hair-trade like a present-day version of the plumage trade.

    Again any suggestions on sound would be much appreciated.



  4. nickwardscenarios says:

    On Spectral Geography

  5. Pingback: Great Day! « suzyohara

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