Dr Geoff Bright, Principal Investigator on ‘Working with Social Haunting’, ‘Opening the “Unclosed Space”’ and ‘Song Lines to Impact and Legacy’ projects

For a minute or two, captured by the powerful conventions of still dominant discourses of how ‘research’ should be framed and conducted, we imagined that this ‘theoretical influences’ section should neatly and systematically outline the proper breadth and necessary depth of our theoretical influences, thus establishing our credentials, making it clear that we know what we’re talking about, that we can cut the intellectual mustard…and so on

A moment’s reflection, however, brought us back to how we actually start from elsewhere, from a recognition that the ‘shoulds’ here are power shoulds. They discipline the living knowledge in which we’re interested: stop up its flows, hide its contestations and injure its heart. Living knowledge(s) are multiple, organic, unwilling to be confined within disciplinary boundaries. They are sensual, affective, second-sighted, excessive, dissident, situated, vernacular. Living knowledges always connect and join, refusing privatisation and fragmentation. They are in league with Foucault’s wonderful exhortation never to become “enamoured with power”. Indeed, in one way, we can think of a social haunting quite simply as what happens when the pathways and capillaries of living knowledge have been hurt, bruised, and deeply damaged by the social violences of those who are enamoured with power and, unfortunately, are still in possession of it.

The living body of inquiry brought together here ‘began’ its formal life in a doctoral dissertation. That thesis tried to understand why a whole group of young people from coal-mining families who were born during or soon after the 1984-85 strike were being excluded from school 15 years later for ‘behavioural difficulties’, and why none of them – in a culture that had always passed on its living knowledge of precarity, hardship and resistance – knew nothing about the shocks of their own bitterly contested history. But, of course, the work didn’t begin there really. It began much earlier in my own living connections into that living knowledge that I came to know before I ever set foot in a school, mainly from my firebrand mother and (less so, oddly) from my coal-mining father – and from their direct connections in to that living knowledge through their mothers and fathers, grandparents, siblings, relatives, neighbours. A living knowledge of strikes, lock outs, black-listings, soup kitchens, disasters, evictions, migrations, hunger, injury, deaths, disease and astonishingly – in the face of all these multiple forces of dislocation and division – of mutuality and solidarity. That’s my living knowledge. But it’s not everybody’s. Not everyone involved in the social haunting work carries the same living stream into the project, and what flows in combines and flows out as always changed somehow and to some extent. Living knowledge lives, after all. But if we lay careful pathways, my and your living knowledge becomes our living knowledge.    

The distinctive scholarly threads that run into this work are part of that living collective, too. So, we do need to name them. Essentially, our work operationalises the insights of Avery Gordon’s remarkable Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, but with a more emphatically class approach to what Beverley Skeggs has called “person value and autonomist working-class value practices”.[1] That skew noted, our debt to Avery Gordon is nevertheless fundamental.

We are grateful, too, to those who have probed similar territory to us in the overlap between memory studies’ focus on collective/social memory[2] and emotional geographies of place and culture.[3] Some of the most recent research has focused, as have we, on the Left,[4] and on activism,[5] as well as on specifically post coal-mining settings.[6] So, the idea that the past acts in the present through historical geographies of gender, class and race is reasonably well developed, and there are pointers for us in all of this material.

In terms of the Ghost Labs, their design owes a lot to years of experience in adult and community education and therefore to Freire, to critical pedagogy more widely, and to ‘process’ notions of education as co-production. Much more recent, and somewhat differently rooted work, has also been illuminating. A Ghost Lab is essentially a participatory process space: a semi-improvised, community/activist/arts ‘event space’ in Massumi’s term.[7] It is a laboratory space in that the process it sets up is experimentally productive rather than pedagogic or organisational. The fundamental working hunch is that whatever happens will allow atomised feelings/imaginings to be re-articulated out of the blind field of a haunting and into the range of a collective, agentic re-imagination in common. It is a site, therefore, that is at least proto-political and, at best, one where ‘commonwealth’, in Hardt and Negri’s use of the term, can be actively created.[8] So, there’s a deep, if quiet, stream flowing in from way back in Spinoza and through Spinozist readings of Marx.

With an eye on the ‘new material’ turn in arts practice[9] and the growth of affective methodologies,[10] the Ghost Lab design finds inspiration in a promiscuous cohabitation of affect theory[11]; dialogic arts practice[12]; affective histories[13]; ‘redemptive’ memory work[14]; transversal group practice[15] and  autonomist militant research [16].  Ethnography, particularly Kathleen Stewart’s[17] work on ‘ordinary affects’ is fundamental to the approach, as is a base ethic of each being alongside all in affirmation, celebration and a ‘properly political form of love’.[18] The Ghost Lab is intentionally, then, something of a theoretical and practical rag-bag – but a playfully relaxed, benevolently productive and purposefully ‘steely’[19] rag-bag, nonetheless. And certainly in my view, though possibly not in everyone else’s, its natural home is in the growing inter-disciplinary field of Working Class Studies.[20]

[1] Skeggs, B. (2011) ‘Imagining Personhood Differently: Person Value and Autonomist Working-class Value Practices’, The Sociological Review. 59,3, pp. 496-513; and see Bright, N.G. (2016) ‘“The Lady is Not Returning!” Educational Precarity and a Social Haunting in the UK Coalfields’, Ethnography and Education. 11,2, pp. 142-157

[2] Fentress, J. and Wickham, C. (1992) Social Memory, Oxford, Blackwell; Olick, J., Vinitsky-Seroussi, V. and Levy D. (eds) (2011) The Collective Memory Reader, Oxford, OUP.

[3] Smith, M, Davidson, J, Cameron, L & Bondi, L (eds) 2009, Emotion, Place and Culture. Ashgate Publishing, Farnham.

[4] Bonnett, A. (2010) Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia, New York, Continuum.

[5] Brown, G. and Pickerill, J. (2009) ‘Space for Emotion in the Spaces of Activism’, Emotion, Space and Society, 2, pp. 24-35

[6] Perchard, A. (2013) ‘“Broken Men” and “Thatcher’s Children”: Memory and Legacy in Scotland’s Coalfields’, International Labor and Working-Class History, 84.  pp.78-98

[7] Massumi, B. (2015) The Politics of Affect, Cambridge, Polity.

[8] Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2009) Commonwealth, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.

[9] Barrett E. and Bolt B. (eds.) (2013) Carnal Knowledge: Towards a 'New Materialism' through the Arts, London, I.B. Tauris.

[10] Knudsen, B and Stage, C. (eds), (2016) Affective Methodologies: Developing Cultural Research Strategies for the Study of Affect, New York, Springer.

[11] Clough, P.T. (2007) The Affective Turn: Theorising the Social, Durham and London, Duke University Press.

[12] Kester, G. (2004) Dialogic Aesthetics. In Conversation pieces: Community and communication in modern art. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[13] Walkerdine, V. (2016) ‘Affective History, Working Class Communities and Self-Determination’, Sociological Review, 64,4, pp. 699-714.

[14] McLaren, P. and Tadeau da Silva, T. (1993) Decentring pedagogy - critical literacy, resistance and the politics of memory, McLaren, P. and Leonard, P (eds.) Paulo Freire – A Critical Encounter, Routledge, London.

[15] Guattari, F. (2015) ‘Transversality’, Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews 1955-1971, Semiotext(e), MIT Press.

[16] Shukaitis, S. and Graeber, D. (eds.) (2007) Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization, Oakland, AK Press.

[17] Stewart, K. (2010) ‘Worlding Refrains’, Seigworth, G. and Gregg, M (eds) 2010. The Affect Theory Reader, Durham NC and London, Duke University Press. 339-353.

[18] Berlant, L. (2011) ‘A Properly Political Love: Three Approaches in Ten Pages’, Cultural Anthropology, 26,4, pp. 683-691; Hardt, M and Negri, A. (2017) Assembly, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.

[19] Gordon, A. (2008), 2nd Edition, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. 57

[20] Linkon, S.L. and Russo, J. (2016) Twenty Years of Working-Class Studies: Tensions, Values and Core Questions, Journal of Working-Class Studies, 1,1, pp. 4-13; Russo J. and Linkon S. (2005) ‘Introduction: ‘What’s new about New Working-Class Studies?’, J.Russo and S. Linkon (eds) New Working-Class Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University.

With a keen understanding of the core questions and purpose of my work, Bright has developed an original methodology in the Ghost Labs, which have made accessible to ordinary communities sophisticated theoretical and historical knowledge without sacrificing any complexity. The result has been a model of community engaged participatory research.
— Professor Avery Gordon