Transgender Ghosts

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

— Charles Dickens

Last Christmas I had a premonition. I was suddenly obsessed with A Christmas Carol, I reread it, I watched two different versions of it. My partner thought I was mad — and she’s British and a literature teacher. I had gone back to Canada, something I rarely do, and I was surrounded by family. Even though my medical transition is now approaching four years, they rarely get to see me. To add to this sense of absence, I’ve been living abroad for almost ten years. I felt I was in a ghostly, yet festive, landscape. I didn’t know how to write about it at the time from a trans perspective. So, I shelved it. One year later, I’ve completed — mostly — a dissertation on transgender spectres. So here we go, a redux, of a blog post that was haunted by my future.

Ghosts are real. They are not supernatural phantasms, but rather absences which haunt us. They are the appearance of the disappeared and departed. Ghosts are “attached to the events, things, and places that produced them in the first place; by nature, they are haunting reminders of lingering trouble” (Gordon 2008, xix). The ghost, or spectre, is a current turn in cultural studies. Its origins can be seen in Freud and his contemporaries, but they shied away from the phantasm, as they feared it conjured too much foolishness, too coarse and unserious for their emerging science. Thus, Freud gave us the unheimlich, or the uncanny. However, Derrida, in the 90s, writing about Marx, resurrected the concept of hauntings, embracing their lack of substantiation. Haunting, or hauntology, is itself hauntological, a deconstructive term that reveals how speech and writing are entangled inexorably in each other. “Hauntology,” in French, is spoken the same as “ontology.” Ghosts are about being and being’s absence — in the way that speech and writing are hopelessly wrapped in each other — one cannot be present without the absence of the other being noticed, and therefore present. In this way, Derrida complicates binaries. All binaries become non-binary through deconstruction.

Trans people are haunted in a variety of ways. We are haunted by the absence and appearance of our multi-gendered histories. The ghosts of our past appear and time breaks down when we are misgendered or dead named. We regress in a moment. We are haunted by the spectral future of our trans becoming — the gendered body we aspire towards. We are also haunted by less affective means; we are visited by ghostly traces of our past through old driver’s licenses and disjunctive state recording systems. Our records are necessarily out of joint, hauntological. In order to transition, we must submit to disciplining regimes of state surveillance. These systems are designed to hide our transgender history, while simultaneously forcing us to record our gendered discrepancies. When we transit institutional spaces, we are confronted by our ghosts, as their absences are forced to appear through state gender registration practices.

As Shakespeare writes (and Derrida quotes), “the time is out of joint.” The ghost of Hamlet’s father is not only a signal of the breaking down of order — here primogeniture — it is also a breaking down of time. The flow of the past into the future is disrupted, just as the trans person is thrown back by a documentational incongruence, or tossed forward by a clinical system which dictates we look forward, to becoming. Transitioning, like the neoliberal system which enables it, is teleological, it looks to ends, not beginnings or middles. But transgender experience exceeds this normative mandate. We are haunted, but we also in turn haunt. We are the foil of normative bodies and time.



I am a trans doing her PhD in gender/critical theory.

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