REFLECTIONS & ANALYSIS
Dr Geoff Bright, Principal Investigator on ‘Working with Social Haunting’, ‘Opening the “Unclosed Space”’ and ‘Song Lines to Impact and Legacy’ projects
As Principal Investigator of the three related Social Haunting projects, if I had to pull out a few key reflections on the work overall, they’d probably be as follows. First, a very general consideration: there is a powerful tension between the broad accessibility of the idea of a social haunting, on the one hand, and its theoretical difficulty, on the other. At first, I thought that was a problem. I worried that we might oversimplify. On the ground in communities folk would invariably respond immediately to the phrase ‘a social haunting’ with “Oh, I get that”. It was all too easy, somehow. Alternatively, I thought we’d overcomplicate, as any further explanation of the idea inevitably generated a challenging theoretical vocabulary around ideas of time, materiality, utopia, “the cusp of semantic availability” (ahem!) and such like. And I was fearful that we’d lose people at that point. Now, I see this tension as an asset. As the work has developed, it has forced us to think really hard and very, very often about how to simplify complex ideas without trivialising them. I hope (and, as it happens, quite firmly believe) that we’ve managed to achieve that.
Second, if our work can claim any lasting originality, I think it is in developing the laboratory space of the ‘Ghost Lab’. Basically, the Ghost Lab is an open-ended participatory process space; a community/activist/arts ‘event space’ (in Brian Massumi’s term). It’s not about a curriculum or outcomes, and anything can happen in the Labs. Whatever does happen (if handled in a certain way) allows difficult feelings to be gently re-articulated out of the blind field of contested pasts. In that moment, ghosts are transformed “from the apparitional” and hauntings – so spectrally unsettling – are made material and benignly domesticated as what Kathleen Stewart calls ‘ordinary affects’. Feelings (or ‘affects’), held privately for so long, are thus made available for collective re-appropriation and ownership. Once made common, they can be held again in common, as a renewed collective bond – a ‘resource of hope’, as Raymond Williams put it, and as part of a distinctive, self-determined, set of what Beverley Skeggs has called “autonomous working class value practices”.
Third, and related, I think the reason why this has worked and participants have taken such personal risks in their own ghost narratives is a combination of the core ethic adopted in the Labs, and the playful nature of the arts-devices used to facilitate them along. The core ethic – enacted at all times by a co-production team wholly committed to it – is one of each of us being alongside, and part of, us all in sharing, affirmation and celebration. The co-produced repertoire of playfully informal arts devices such as “community Tarot readings’; ‘haunted objects’; ‘ghost hunting’ walks; ‘instant playback theatre’, ‘co-operative poetry’, and comic strip illustration helps establish and reinforce that ethic. In the safe haven of their harbour, those devices allow the Labs to indirectly approach hidden materials that it would be impossible to approach directly in traumatically de-industrialised working class communities. There is a displacement of the narrative voice to the ghost somehow: “It’s the cards that are speaking, not me!” as it were. I think this is a very important feature of the approach we’ve developed.
Prof. Avery Gordon of the University of California, Santa Barbara developed the concept of ‘social haunting’ that our projects have sought to operationalise and creatively explore, in a UK context. Prof. Gordon has been in touch with the project since its beginning.
“When Dr. Bright contacted me in late 2013 in the run-up to his first successful AHRC funded project on social haunting, I did not forsee the rather extraordinary uses to which he put an idea I developed in a book entitled Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. 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.”
Andrew McMillan was a Co-Investigator on all three projects and provided writing activities and faciliation for the variety of Ghost Labs.
“I do believe the space of the Ghost Lab needs to be a semi-improvised space; […] something which I can direct if need be with exercises or prompts but something which is really in the hands of the participants. So many of the areas we work in have been extracted from; there’s a model where someone turns up, takes what ‘research’ they want from a group and then leaves. Our work on the Social Haunting projects are an antidote to that and that’s why participants’ own voices and stories are key. So we’ve used the ‘tarot card’ images and words to start off a discussion; again the cards either ‘magically’ find their way to the right person or the person, desperate to give voice to their story, finds a way of fitting it to the card they are given. Either way, they are a conduit to the necessary narrativising of what has happened.”
“I think mainly I am just once again overwhelmed by the capacity of people, to endure, to survive, to speak and to create.”
“I maintain my belief that this is vital work, though not always easy work and it’s been great to expand the reach and focus of the ghost labs [in the ‘Song Lines’ project], working with communities who are new to this country, or perhaps bring their own ghosts, speaking different languages, into the room where we all meet, and that has been a fascinating process of remembrance, validation, and dreaming as well.”
Prof. Kate Pahl is the Head of the Education and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University and a supporter of the work from its inception.
"The Social Haunting project has been a deep engagement with theory and practice that has created spaces for new kinds of emergent recognitions in the most profound sense. Watching Steve Pool's film about the project gave me a sense of the sadness but also the deep importance of this work. It provides a touchstone and a recognition of the experiences of so many communities who were utterly betrayed in the Thatcher years but continue to bear the brunt of late capitalism with little recognition of that suffering."
Mark James was Co-Investigator on the ‘Song Lines’ project from Unite Community, our trade union partner. Mark reflects on how the Social Haunting work might complicate but enhance the union’s activism.
“I suppose that it is this commonality of experience that suggests what might be meant by community: a place or a space where our lived experience is entangled in a complex web of ties of kith and kin, where memory and imagination generate subjectivity and what might be called class consciousness. We might not have experienced such privations ourselves but we , in an organisation like Unite Community, are close to those who have or do. So perhaps one of the lessons of the research is the reminder of solidarity.”
“For all the sophisticated data mining of the pundits or even the proclamations of the radical left I feel (and I choose that word carefully) that following Avery Gordon we are missing something. I am not sure that we have the conceptual tools to know what that something is but it may be the concept Affect. I think we in Unite Community should engage in an exploration of Affect because I sense that it is what many of our members are experiencing : an embodied sense that ‘things are not right’ allied with the perception that it is not really clear what those things are.”
“I recognise that we know that there is growing inequality, ecological destruction and a crisis of mental health that impinges particularly upon our membership. The Social Haunting project suggests that we need to move beyond critique to listen to what our Ghosts have to say. The enchantment of the Ghost Labs has been the interplay between magic and humour, rooted in the creative arts practices deployed, that allowed participants not to be represented but to express their subjectivity. If I was to put on my educational hat then I see pedagogical practices that could inform Unites educational programme. I would not claim that we are there yet but it is an area that is worthy of further research.”
Dr Cilla Ross is the Vice-Principle of the Co-operative College, our partner organisation in the North West.
“It has been fantastic being involved in this project for a number of reasons. First, this sort of work was absolutely new to the College and participation in its early phase gave me an opportunity to explore a methodology with new colleagues, people, place. What would I learn about the work and approaches I might take in this new world of the co-operative movement? Second has been the rich experience of participants being exposed to new ways of understanding and interpreting. A poetry workshop was one Ghost lab that remains strongly in my memory but I know there were many other rich events. Finally, engagement in the project for me and the College has helped us to think about co-operation (as a skill, culture and a virtue) differently. It has informed my work and my attitude towards rethinking and remaking understandings of the co-operative movement and its impact, power and potential as radical community empowerment. What we have learnt is that beneath violently disrupted appearances and surfaces, people and place are haunted by (and thus conscious of) notions of collectivity, hope and agency.”
Max Munday is a community broadcaster and activist. He recorded Ghost Labs and public events throughout the three projects and made several radio documentaries.
Not being an academic, I was new to the notion of ‘co-produced research’ in which an imbalance in power and status between the researcher and the ‘researched’ is levelled and knowledge isn’t just the end product of the extraction, of the latter by the former. You can find analysis of the projects on this page and here but from my perspective, thinking about our attempt to enact co-production, I come to a single phrase: we were all there. All, as in everyone was present and taking part as equals; and all, as in bringing the full richness of our experiences, strengths and fragilities as individuals in to the collective, generative space of the ghost labs’ process.
As I have recorded the Ghost Labs across the three projects, I have been listening very closely and deeply - and not just narrowly to produce the radio documentaries, as commissioned. I’ve tried to be with the other Ghost Lab participants, to go wherever their words do and be part of the entanglement of experiences, longings, pain, laughter and hope that define the process. It has been a humbling and invigorating experience.
The impact of this work on me, personally, has been incredibly significant in widening my understanding of the nature of power, of temporality, and of narrative, as well as on the profound question of how we are, and might be, together. Practically and philosophically, for my politics, my involvement in the social haunting work has given license for creativity and accommodating complexity within my activism in sharp contrast to the flattening narratives and formulas I have been used to. That’s not a nicely satisfying end in itself, it stimulates restlessness and more questions, the result of that ‘comfortable discomfort’ of the ghost labs.
Dr Angela Connelly was Co-Investigator on the first project that in its Lancashire side involved participants at the Rochdale Pioneers Museum.
“I trained originally as a building historian and, for me, the concept of social haunting is made real in the bricks and mortar and how this plays against the everyday reality of life in contemporary Rochdale.”
“The concept of social haunting began to raise questions relating to the connections between past, present and future particularly when set in the context of seemingly durable buildings and objects. Meanings change over time, but how on earth could we capture social haunting at work? Here, the Rochdale Ghost Labs began to tease this out. Fundamentally, the use of poetry and graphic art helped to elucidate conversations around how material artefacts (buildings, objects from archives) could stimulate discussion on the role of co-operativism past, present and future.”
Archaeologist Dr Toby Pillatt who ran an exploratory ‘walk-over survey’ round Barnsley in the first project, brought a perspective that draws on heritage studies.
“Perhaps most salient for me, as an archaeologist on the project, was seeing how on a local and regional scale, a singular event – the 1984-5 strike - could have such a pronounced and long term effect on people’s daily lives. On another level, I was intrigued by how mining heritage was and is celebrated and invested with nostalgia, despite having some very clear negative associations (i.e. its safety record). I think this reminds us that no heritage is uncomplicated. The process of making heritage, of placing value on the past, and indeed being haunted by it, is messy and fraught with contradictions, and experienced differently from person to person. We might expect, then, that exorcising the ghost of the past would also be a complex and contested process.”