The Haunting West: The American West and the Global Imagination

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev

This lecture is much more than about critical regionalism, but it is always ‘shadowed’ by it. The haunting I discuss here is the presence of the ‘critical’ within ‘regionalism’.



‘To write stories concerning exclusions and invisibilities is to write ghost stories’  (Gordon 197:17)

‘nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history’ (Benjamin 1992:246)

PART 1: Spook Country

Three Ghostly Preambles: ‘the road of bones’


Preamble 1: The Personal

As Jacques Derrida writes, ‘it begins by coming back’. (SoM, 11)

SLIDE Imagining 1962 1

This lecture is an opportunity to return in a number of ways. Initially, and briefly, autobiographically: to the ways in which the West has haunted me for as long as I can remember. The haunting began in the 1950s and 1960s with television and later film. Some of my earliest memories, growing up in suburban badlands of Welwyn Garden City, were of the torrent of television shows that dominated the schedules in those years; Rawhide, Bronco Lane, The Lone Ranger, Maverick, Wells Fargo, Laramie, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza, all infusing our boyhood games. SLIDE Imagining 1962 2

For me a box of cowboy clothes and pretend six-shooters kept in the kitchen cupboard and endless performances of saloon brawls and make-believe gunfights with willing or unwilling neighbourhood friends were the mainstay of my childhood. I came very late to reading – perhaps 14 – and even later to studying reading, but I do recall reading paperback adaptations of films like The Wild Bunch and For a Few Dollars More. Early memories of film watching include James Stewart in Anthony Mann’s Winchester 73 or Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, and later John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, John Ford’s The Searchers, and Sergio Leone’s magnificent Once Upon a Time in the West.

Much later I would read a book by Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy – published the year I was born, 1957 – in which he famously explained both the attractions and dangers in 1950s Britain of American popular culture on working class youth.  Its ‘shiny barbarism’ and alluring ‘mythworld’ offered unwholesome crime and sex to a grey post-war culture of rationing and recovery.  Looking back, this was true still in the 1960s and 1970s as I surreptitiously read Philip Roth or Hubert Selby, listened to Chick Corea and Bruce Springsteen and watched Coogan’s Bluff and Dallas.

The ghosts of the West remained stubbornly inside me, re-surfacing in my MA when I turned again to the West and to the novels of little-known writer William Eastlake whose stories of the American Southwest once again offered me something no other writing did.  However, my PhD shifted me elsewhere and away from these western lands.  It was only much later when I came to think about writing for publication that I returned again to the West and to Cormac McCarthy’s extraordinary novel Blood Meridian – eventually publishing an article on it in 1997 in Critique. There is still something about the opening of that wonderful novel, which is both ghostly and haunting, that reminds me of where this lecture is going and from where it has come:

See the child.  He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.  He stokes the scullery fire.  Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor a few last wolves … (3).

Preamble 2: Phantom architecture   (SLIDE)

As I have said, this is an opportunity to return; to glance back over travelled roads and survey what appears now as a strangely haunted landscape, both geographical and psychological, public and personal, like the ‘road of bones’ described in Larry McMurtry’s great novel Lonesome Dove, made up of the ‘crazed remnants’ of what had once lived and yet, as he describes it, NOT a terminal point, but rather a ‘moment between’ what ‘had been’ and what ‘would be’ (428).  A moment of liminality between the past and the future, the bones of the dead and the destinations of the living who have passed and would pass along its charnel path. In a similar way, this is what I hope this lecture is too, a moment between different, interconnected paths of research; an uncanny looking back as well as forward, like all good hauntings surely must be, as they drift the spook country.

So as I cast my eye over my ‘road of bones’ I survey a cultural landscape best described by an outsider (as so often they seem to be – one thinks, for example, of Robert Frank’s photographs, Wim Wenders’ films, or W.G. Sebald’s magisterial book The Rings of Saturn); here though, I am drawing on an outsider to America, to the West, and to its traditions – the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, whose wonderful 1978 book Delirious New York examined the ‘mythical island’ of Manhattan, much like, I felt one ought to study the mythical American West and the grids of meaning that constructed its ‘ideological uniformity’ and ‘national [identity] conceit’ (see Vizenor FP, 97). In fact, Koolhaas did see a metaphorical link relevant to my own approach, defining New York as ‘a man-made Wild West, a frontier in the sky’ (87).  He became, as he put it, the city’s ‘ghostwriter’, seeing what others failed to see and daring to draw these themes into a theory – Manhattanism.  But central to my fascination with Koolhaas’s project were the ways it threw light on the West’s controlled, ‘archived’ sense of history by re-imagining it as a haunted landscape brimming with contested stories and awkward, irreconcilable fragments – or in his words, a space where ‘each block is covered with several layers of phantom architecture in the form of past occupancies, aborted projects and popular fantasies …’ (my emphasis – 9).

Just like Koolhaas’s Manhattan, the American West had been defined by its gridded geometry of control and land distribution, and yet, as his interrogation of grid theory suggested, within this strict ‘two dimensional discipline’ there were opportunities for ‘undreamt of freedom’ and ‘three dimensional anarchy’ (20). Likewise, within the mythic grid of Western Studies, there existed ‘spectral alternatives’ over-looked and ignored by the standard conventions of criticism and by what one critic terms ‘archives of dominance’ (Vizenor, FP, 145). Working through the complex palimpsest of half-erased layers and traces of histories and images seemed to me apposite for my own re-definition of Western Studies as expanded critical regionalism.

Two brief examples of this are (SLIDE) firstly Robert Frank’s iconic ‘Hoover Dam’ photograph of 1955 with its layered collage of images forbidding any single, fixed vision of the West; and secondly in Michael Ormerod’s 1980s photograph of an Albuquerque, New Mexico architectural planning board (SLIDE – of more later) where an expanded grid, with no single, ‘readable’ text, only a multiplicity of layers intersecting and overlapping suggests the West as a series of constructions, another collage from which we create meaning: fragmented ‘voices’ – words and images, photographs and drawings, plans and geological sketches, unfinished, spilling out rhizomatically in all directions without conclusion. Indicating, as Koolhaas’ work does in architectural terms, and perhaps more accurately than any conventional map or text, the complex nature of the West as consumed and produced, real and imagined, and yet always a layered and haunted space.

Preamble 3: the work of mourning   (SLIDE)

In examining this ‘phantom architecture’ in Western Studies one is constantly reckoning with ghosts, with the ‘aftermath of loss’ (Tatum), and the voices of the past echoing through the texts one studies. Amid the layers of western landscape, along its ‘road of bones’, one encounters the consequences of accelerated expansion, cultural denial, and mythology.

In thinking about this I am drawn to what Jacques Derrida calls ‘the work of mourning’ as a way to both look back to the dead and simultaneously incorporate what they teach into the present and future, to give possibility to new life, to a ‘living on’ or ‘survivance’ (see Derrida and Vizenor on this). So mourning is not idealization or nostalgia but a means of acknowledging the debt the living pay to those who are both gone and not gone – to the voices, words, and images through whose influence and provocation one’s life is shaped in agreement or in dispute. (Derrida Memoires, 22).

This dialogue means everything, and it is a dialogue always already with ghosts. As critic Stephen Greenblatt wrote of his own scholarship, ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead … for the dead have contrived to leave textual traces of themselves, and those traces make themselves heard in the voices of the living’. (1988:1)  Of course, every text is also ghostly in the sense that it is always ‘yet to come’ since it emerges and haunts as it shifts from ‘death’ to ‘life’; from the dead word on the white page or the framed image outwards into speech, action, thought, or performance – it ‘lives on’. (Castricano, 46)

Thus what I will term the ‘friendships’ in this paper are some of these ‘voices’, the ghosts I have learned to live with; influences that ‘live on’ posthumously, after their conversations, images, thoughts, and writings.  In writing this lecture I have returned and looked again at some of those ‘friendships’, those artists, writers, and critics whose work has shaped my writing, ideas and teaching.  So like all mourning, it is always also a positive action, an affirmation, a responsibility, a ‘coming to terms with’ and ‘carrying on’, an act of translation or incorporation, turning that which has been, to the living matter of the present and towards formations of the future. As Derrida put it in his Specters of Marx, we must ‘learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts.  To live otherwise and better … more justly.  But with them.’

My return – (and ghost stories always begin with a return as I have said) – is to certain influential living and dead ‘friends’ throughout this paper; my version of this ‘conversation’; my ‘being with spectres’, moving tentatively towards what Derrida calls ‘a politics of memory, inheritance, and of generations’ (SoM xviii).

This lecture is a, therefore, a dual hauntology: the autobiographical conversation with ghosts and through them an examination of a region itself haunted by its past, layered with memory and forgetting, a work of mourning for the storied region of the American West and its powerfully orchestrated mythologies of discovery, heroism, frontier, expansion and conquest; for a ‘real-and-imagined’ space which for many is now distant, blurred, perhaps lost  – even long ‘dead’ and much forgotten.

But the West, in all its manifestations, is not ‘dead’, for ‘nothing is absolutely dead’, since we now live in a ‘post-Western’ era; a time coming after and going beyond such legendary paradigms where the maps have been re-drawn, histories revised, and stories un-learned and re-written. A time when the ‘post’ in post-Western also signifies the posthumous or that which lives on beyond its apparent death, re-inforcing a sense of its re-inventive and regenerative capacity – since, as Derrida says, ‘the posthumous is already here … [it] inhabits the work’ and the role of the critic is, as I have said, to follow its traces and to learn, so as to live better, more critically, and one hopes, more justly.[1]

Part 2: The Spectral West

Writing in 1995, in an essay called ‘Haunted America’, Patricia Nelson Limerick, one of the founders of the so-called ‘New Western History’ that sought to revise the ways the region had been traditionally represented, commented that ‘We live on haunted land, on land that is layers deep in human passion and memory’.  In the earlier work of New Western History there had been some reluctance to accept that imaginative and creative works might contribute to a fuller sense of the region, whereas here she recognised the importance of passion and memory as relevant to the process, seeing it buried deep in place itself. (Limerick 2000:73) In understanding what constitutes this layered, spectral West, with its ‘exclusions and invisibilities’, Limerick prefigures its next phase, what I would term the post-Western phase of Western Studies — a critical territory defined succinctly by Jeffrey Weinstock:

The ghost is that which interrupts the presentness of the present, and its haunting indicates that, beneath the surface of received history, there lurks another narrative, an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorized version of events. (Weinstock 2004:5)

The American West is haunted by its past, its ‘legacy of conquest’ as Limerick famously termed it, both denying it and dialoguing with it, often ‘finding the shape described by … absence … tracking through time and across all those forces that makes its mark by being there and not being there at the same time’. Thus to understand the conditions of the contemporary West one has to look closely at texts that come ‘after’ [posterior] the comforting patterns of its mythologies no matter how ‘painful, difficult, and unsettling’ they might appear (Gordon, 6, 23). ‘Ghostly matters’, writes Avery Gordon, ‘are part of social life’; treated seriously they allow us to see the complex relations of the past being played out in the present.

In Western terms, this has been best expressed by my good friend Stephen Tatum of the University of Utah who has written that

any emergent “postregional” western American culture ought to be thought of as a spectral, a deterritorialized space imaginatively located – like all ghosts – somewhere “in between” a specific geographic reality, the residual traces of the visual images and written narratives associated with the mythic Wild West, the emergent regional imaginaries associated with both the new “wired”, technocultural West and that of “Greater Mexico” (Tatum in Kollin 2007:16).

This postregional, post-frontier notion of ‘westness’ recognises the shifting borders of the contemporary West as porous with labour and communications moving between and across previously established and policed boundaries and then circulating even further outward into global marketplaces and imaginations.  The traffic of labour is mirrored in the traffic of images and narratives that Tatum sees as intrinsic to a re-definition of the postregional, interstitial West of the twenty-first century.  In this sense, the West was always-already a ‘spectral’ landscape of shifting lines, voices, practices, economics, and cultures that is, if you like, doubly-haunted, as I have argued, by both its complex relationship to the past (‘living in aftermath of loss’) and to the multiple stories that construct its present layered, cultural architecture.

At the heart of this vision, however, is this ‘palpable absence and sense of loss’, of a negated promise contained in what another friend Zeese Papanikolas has called ‘American Silence’:

a kind of longing, a sense of something lost, lost perhaps even at the moment of gaining it, and possibly irretrievable … a silence as compelling as all of the myths of success you grew up with and believed, and perhaps inseparable from them (2007:19).

(SLIDE – Bingham )

Thus the nineteenth century frontier dream of Manifest Destiny envisioned in the glorious paintings of (SLIDES – Bierstadt, Church, Gast) Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Edwin Church, now seem as mourning texts of post-memory for the last, great chance of a new beginning, of a peculiar failure ‘that inevitably accompanies that dream of conquest’. As Papanikolas understands, this ‘feeling of melancholy’ is ‘of white’ people expecting success, their slice of the great dream, and yet falling short with the harrowing ‘sense of the utopian possibility that we just missed’ (20, 22) – a sardonic re-imagining of John Gast’s famous American Progress image.

Perhaps, after all, this is what William Carlos Williams understood in his 1925 book In the American Grain:

History, history!  We fools, what do we know or care?  History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery … the ghost of the land moves in the blood, moves the blood.[2]

The ‘silence’ of Western American history is inescapable, a cultural haunting at the heart of the nation, the ghost of the land that moves in the blood and moves the blood, a relatively recent memory of the ‘just missed’ world that slipped through their fingers. It is the past so often overlooked or mythologised but which refuses to be forgotten, re-surfacing endlessly in its mourning texts.

Thus the blood red sky of Bierstadt’s Oregon Trail becomes a sinister reminder of the violence and loss that produced this history and these people – the visual equivalent of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (1989). An ancient reminder – in both – of the West’s association with loss and death – as Erich Neumann has written, ‘the western hole into which the sun descends is the archetypal womb of death destroying that which has been born …’. But we are still fascinated by ‘the aftermath of loss’ and the possibility of redemption, for as Michel De Certeau understood:  ‘There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can “invoke” or not.  Haunted places are the only ones people can live in …’ (De Certeau, 108)

In what follows, I wish to use two specific examples to explore this spectral landscape of the American West in more detail.

Part 3: The Haunting West


First Haunting – Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero (1985)

When De Certeau claimed that ‘we never write on a blank page, but always on one that has already been written on’, he could have had in mind Ellis’s first novel Less Than Zero in which contemporary Los Angeles becomes an uncanny palimpsest of western history. (De C 43) The novel follows the ghostly-white Clay, coming home from college in New Hampshire for Christmas to the rich suburbs, nightclubs and drug-fuelled netherworld of L.A. In one respect, it is the classic westward journey of so many Americans, here represented as a shadowy re-working of this Manifest Destiny into the neon West with its scattered remains of once-cherished dreams, now represented by fake tans, dysfunctional families, and duplicitous identities. Clay’s return is, however, more that geographical and historical, it is the spectral return of the revenant, a journey into his own psychic landscape of memory and doubt, and a subtle commentary on what Ellis’s mentor Joan Didion called the Golden Dream.  Indeed the novel’s epigraph is from Led Zeppelin: ‘There’s a feeling I get when I look to the West …’ and it is this confrontation with what the ‘West’ might mean today that structures so much of the book.

Throughout its italicised sections scattered regularly throughout the novel, Clay recollects memories from his recent past, staying out in the desert at Palm Springs with his grandparents, a ghostly landscape of palm trees, dusty winds, and strange uncanny happenings: mysterious strangers, break-ins, mutilated dogs, screams in the night, ‘werewolves’, rattlesnakes in the swimming pool, and finally death. Echoed in his watching of The Twilight Zone on TV, Clay is haunted by this ‘eerie’ space and by what it might mean to him at a time when everything else in his present life appears meaningless and broken. He is haunted from the beginning of his return by inter-relating refrains: ‘People are afraid to merge on the freeway’, ‘Disappear Here’, and ‘Is he for sale?’  Each tells an LA story of disconnection, inhumanity, and hyper-commercialization. For all the fakery and capitalist glitz of LA, these desert recollections provide uncanny reminders of another West intruding deeper into the novel, shifting from Clay’s italicised memories into the present, so that even his estranged father, by the end of the novel, ‘started wearing a cowboy hat’ (144). This reminds me of Papanikolas’s ‘kind of longing, a sense of something lost’ no longer accessible to Clay’s generation except as ghostly and spectral memories. This culminates in a scene where driving into the LA hills, Blair, Clay’s ex girlfriend, hits a coyote (with all is rich mythic significance) on the highway and they watch its crushed body convulse and bleed to death beneath the Californian sun.  The modern urban West and its cryptic past collide in this scene.

Later, as if to amplify this dramatic collision, in the first of a series of stunning motifs that conclude Less Than Zero, Ellis writes of ‘a street called Sierra Bonita in Hollywood’ where

people saw ghosts; appari­tions of the Wild West … Indians dressed in nothing but loincloths and on horseback were spotted, and that one man had a tomahawk which disappeared seconds later, thrown through his open window. One elderly couple said that an Indian appeared in their living room … moaning incantations.  A man had crashed into a palm tree because he had seen a covered wagon in his path and it forced him to swerve. (206)

In L.A.’s new urban frontier, history has been overwritten in the headlong rush into the techno future, where environmental destruction and genocide are simply the price paid for the careless life enjoyed by the book’s young characters.  Yet the past will not ‘disappear here’ (a recurring slogan in the novel), for it returns, haunting the mind of Clay, as it does the streets of Los Angeles, like these ghostly Indians, or the ‘covered wagon’ that caused a man to crash his car into a palm tree. The West’s past, in all its real and imagined pervasiveness cannot be repressed, here translated as the Indian and covered wagon intervening into the glossy grid-like order of suburban streets and lives, returning as De Certeau might put it, like ‘the presences of diverse absences’.

The turmoil of Ellis’s West, as in so much Western representation (such as the extended oeuvre of Mike Davis, from City of Quartz, The Ecology of Fear, to Dead Cities), is reflected in the landscape, torn between past, present, and future, intruding into the fragile human environment, like a sinister reminder of that haunted past, of ‘houses falling, slipping down the hills in the middle of the night’, of ‘little girls’ singing of destruction, ‘Smack, smack, I fell in a crack … Now, I’m part of the debris’, and all mirrored in the novel’s atmosphere of careless, vampiric, human brutality, ‘of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children’. The apocalyptic present and the repressed past erupt into the novel as a wake-up call to those, like Clay, living within the contradictory, simulated spaces of this New West where feelings have been replaced by advertisements and where, as the novel famously puts it ‘people are afraid to merge’. This is, what Mike Davis calls the ‘junkyard of dreams’ – another version of Papanikolas’s great lost West.  At one point Clay’s contained, troubled self is likened to ‘this glass paperweight with a small fish trapped in it, its eyes staring out helplessly, almost as if it was begging to be freed, and I start to wonder, if the fish is already dead, does it even matter?’ [3] In a sense, what the haunting scenes of the book show us is that the dead do matter, like the memories of the past rekindled by Clay throughout the novel and which, gradually affect him enough so he can live on – ‘A coyote howled.  Tents flapped in the warm wind.  It was time to go back’, he writes. Significantly, at a telling moment in the novel itself, as if commenting on the haunted landscapes reckoned with throughout, one character says (when actually describing another character), ‘Dead is always around’.

Second Haunting – Michael Ormerod’s Photography

As if to echo Ellis, Roland Barthes famously wrote of ‘that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead’ (CL, 9).  My second example, allows me to explore this sentiment in a number of disturbing ways through the photography of Englishman Michael Ormerod (with his strong Derby connections) – a man haunted, like me, by the American West and a man who died in 1991 whilst completing a collection of images, published posthumously by his friend Geoff Weston. Ormerod’s photographic ‘routes’ through the West are both geographical and intertextual, drawing into his work a complex, but often playful, layering of imagery acting as an arena for ghostly dialogues wherein the viewer engages with the work’s many inflections and lines of flight.  Like Robert Frank, Ormerod’s Western images make the established visual language of myth and nation ‘stammer’, as Gilles Deleuze puts it, providing the ‘bilingual even in a single language’ or ‘speaking in one’s own language like a foreigner’ so that what is known and ‘taken for granted’ is re-examined and, perhaps, renewed.[4]

Ormerod wanted to photograph this ‘dreamy myth-world’ of the West, as others had, but now overwritten by the global spectre of Americanisation best described as I pointed out earlier in Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy as both threat and thrill. In the cinematic Western landscape where, as Baudrillard says, everything already existed in forms of representation, Ormerod’s work charts a multiple mapping of place, with layered images (like the Albuquerque planning board we saw earlier), creating a complex, evocative, intertextual, and playful visualization of westness always familiar and iconic, whilst jarring us into a second or third look, a re-vision emerging between and within the image’s apparent surface. Looking through and across the stratified, detailed layers of an Ormerod photograph is to understand something of what De Certeau means when he writes that ‘epochs all survive in the same place, intact and mutually interacting’.  Referring once again to the traced themes of this lecture, what De Certeau announces and Ormerod captures on film is a stratified, spectral landscape where, ‘place is a palimpsest’, where

beneath the fabricating and universal writing of technology, opaque and stubborn places remain.  The revolutions of history, economic mutations, demographic mixtures lie in layers within it, and remain there, hidden in customs, rites, and spatial practices. The legible discourses that formerly articulated them have disappeared, or left only fragments in language.  This place, on its surface, seems to be a collage… A piling up of heterogeneous places.  Each one, like a deteriorating page of a book … The whole made up of pieces that are not contemporary and still linked to the totalities that have fallen into ruins …[5]

In the light of these comments, let us consider his image ‘Frontier – rarin to go’, (SLIDE 1) in which we are invited to ‘read’ its stratified space like an archaeological process, puzzling over the mix of elements within its frame ‘like a deteriorating page of a book’ of Western history. Ormerod suggests how the sign’s meaning has changed with time and space, and now seems to sprout surreally from a bush. The dynamic history of this space as a roadside attraction is explicit here, embedded in its remnants and ‘ruins’; a closed-up brick building, a shed, some abandoned machinery, the debris of memory, and the sign itself, whose slogan reminds us of the spirit of the frontier and the desire for progressive westward motion. Yet the layers of the image suggest something beyond these readings in which the sign has a strange new meaning and one not necessarily ironic at all.  Surrounded by the natural growth of trees, a blue sky and crop fields beyond, and shot in sharp daylight colours, irony is tempered by the indomitable human spirit that still moves on, is still ‘rarin’ to go’, up the road to the new silos one can see in the distant corner of Ormerod’s image. The ‘collagist’ intertext suggests the discontinuities of history, its comings and goings, booms and busts, leaving its bizarre traces of older dialogues on the land itself, gradually becoming themselves decayed and reclaimed by the trees and grasses growing all around. The human and nonhuman worlds are engaged through time and space and their individual elements perpetually bound together in a series of relationships that are often uneasy and destructive, as well as joyous and productive.

Elsewhere, Ormerod’s interrogation of ‘west-ness’ traces how its mythic formations of ‘progress’, ‘freedom’, ‘destiny’ and ‘individualism’ embodied in iconic, desired objects, like the car, the diner, and the road, over time become old, unfashionable, and obsolescent. The photographic gaze falls upon the afterlife of the dead object, as it rusts by the roadside, falls apart in the junkyard, or is simply by-passed; remnants of Main Street, broken commodities, and billboards all implicating the wider system that produced and consumed them before moving relentlessly onto the next ‘new thing’. The tragic reminders of rapidly disappearing worlds, hopes, and dreams that were once, in the past, themselves the cutting edge of fashion and modernity, but now, demonstrate capitalism’s need for constant turnover and perpetual ‘progress’.  What Walter Benjamin recognized in Eugene Atget’s Paris photographs, I see in Ormerod’s West – ‘an index of dream-traces for the contemporary archaeologist excavating the residual ruins of modernity’, as Graeme Gilloch puts it so eloquently.[6]  The ‘dream-traces’ of the West, remind us, however, that cycles of capitalism and mythic versions of history also contain positive, human traits (original dreams, utopianism, pleasure) that if wrenched out from their current use might be reconfigured and transformed into something more meaningful. Photography can create this critical ‘pause’ between life and death, a ‘stammer’, a hesitation within the expected, offering, at best, fleeting moments of hope, realignment, and even redemption.

Ormerod’s Edward Hopper-like image, ‘Steppin In High Fashions’ (SLIDE 2) demonstrates how detail functions in this way, presenting once ‘high fashions’ – the ghostly dresses in the shop window – as poignant reminders of the endless cycles of production and consumption that under-pin capitalism.[7]  Yet within this field of complexity, Ormerod conveys a still beauty and traces of hope in the photograph, with its attention to detail, form, and colour that, like the mannequins in the window, seem to reach out to the viewer from the past, almost making a connection for the future.  The architecture is faded, but grand like the ‘fashions’ (to the left of the image the letters ‘G and’ ironically suggest this trace of remembrance), and the carefully painted fire hydrant suggests care and dedication. This is a lost world, clinging to its former glories, its dream-traces of individual entrepreneurialism as reminders of human resilience, whilst the reality is of the Shopping Mall, the Golden Arches and the sprawling suburbs somewhere just out of shot, with its inexorable pace of change and ‘new’ fashion in the relentlessly New New West.

In J. Brinckerhoff Jackson words, echoing Walter Benjamin, and bringing us back to the themes of this lecture, ‘ruins provide the incentive for restoration … There has to be an interim of death or rejection before there can be renewal and reform.  The old order has to die before there can be a born-again landscape…redeeming what has been neglected’.[8]  Ormerod captures the ‘interim of death or rejection’ in fading western iconographies haunting his photographs, not to dismiss them or nostalgically appropriate them, but to ‘redeem’ them for new and different uses in a renewed landscape beyond the image itself.  (SLIDE 3) Similarly, a golden car in front of a fly-blown Amarillo hotel on the road to somewhere else has within itself all the nihilism and despair of a 1940s film noir and yet simultaneously presents an alternative possibility, of resilience, of a bright, shining ‘everydayness’ that speaks of humanity’s strength and determination to live on in a complex, social landscape.

Ormerod’s re-stated West is a space as capable of ending as of beginning, a ‘first sight’ contained in every photograph and yet with a critical, satirical aspect cutting through any sentimentality or nostalgia. In revealing layers to set against the overly simplified, straight, evidential image, Ormerod asks the viewer to plunge below the surface, through the screens of myth and ‘effect’, in order to see ‘the life beneath the ashes or behind the mirrors’, a life brimming full of unresolved histories and contradictory, contested dialogues.[9]


Conclusion: ‘An accumulation of haunting’: Towards an Expanded Critical Regionalism[10]

Through examining the West’s hauntedeness, its complex living and dead layers, and in learning to ‘live with ghosts’ I see emerging new ideas and practices that contribute to what I term ‘expanded critical regionalism’. A deferred sense of place constructed as multiple, transnational spaces and texts, commented upon, performed, and interpreted to challenge any simple gridded notion of traditional regionalism and its inherent ideologies.

This reframed critical regionalism is always already spectral, a transnational mix of voices, ‘border discourses’, multi-layered webs of power, interaction and imagination, articulating the contemporary West as problematic, constantly mobile and dynamic.  This is a re-definition of regionalism that refuses to get to the border (of region or nation) and turn back, to simply close up on itself in some homely and familiar act of territorialization as if protecting itself from the wider world beyond, but one that also ‘deterritorializes’ and directs us simultaneously outside itself to the ‘post-regional’ and the ‘post-western’.

Or perhaps, to truly incorporate the ghosts that move in the land, one must go even further to an expanded critical regionalism closer to Native American writer Gerald Vizenor’s transformative definition that also includes ‘dreams and memories … the stories of reincarnation, out of body travel; the myths and metaphors of flying … memories of migration; the spiritual and herbal powers to heal and locate lost souls’. (FP: 184)

Ultimately, however, the process of all research, of writing, reading, and of teaching is about such dialogues.  Dialogues always already haunted by others’ voices and by our own – the living and the dead coexisting in the ‘moment between’ both (as I argued in my opening remarks); a spectral, multi-layered space of knowing and yearning where the goal is not about ‘synoptic mastery’ through final or total comprehension, but rather about something just out of reach, some supplement outside the frame that keeps us striving and questioning; what Gerald Vizenor might call ‘that mighty curve of the unnameable’ (FP, 55), and which one of his influential ‘ghostwriters’ Jacques Derrida explains as the eternal vitality of the question:-

What we can and must try to do in such a situation is to pay tribute to a work this great and this uncertain by means of a question that it itself raises, by means of a question that it carries within itself, that it keeps in reserve in its unlimited potential, one of the questions that can thus be deciphered within it, a question that keeps it in suspense, holding its breath … and, thus, keeps it alive. (Derrida WoM 88)

Finally it is through questions that we ‘hold the breath’ and so keep ideas ‘living on’.  As Jody Castricano puts it, glossing Derrida: ‘To learn to live with ghosts is to rethink ourselves through the dead or, rather, through the return of the dead (in us) and thus through haunting’. To view the West as haunting is, as I have tried to suggest tonight, in the final analysis, to recognise it as ‘both a legacy and a promise to come’. (Castricano: 9, 134)



[1] J. Derrida, Ernst Behler’s “The Contemporary and the Posthumous”, Roundtable Discussion

[2] William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain, 1925, 55

[3] Ibid.: 114, 207, 168.

[4] G. Deleuze and C.Parnet, Dialogues II, (London: Continuum, 2002), 4-5.

[5] De Certeau, Practice, 201.

[6] G. Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, (Cambridge: Polity 1996), 124.

[7] ‘He was a big fan of Hopper, especially when he moved into colour, and there is a certain stillness and emptiness in some of Michael’s pictures which is what people talk about in relation to Hopper’s paintings, so I think he took something from that …’ (Weston, Personal Interview, 2001).

[8] J.B. Jackson, The Necessity for Ruins (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 102.

[9] Deleuze, Cinema 2, 256.

[10] The phrase is taken from Derrida’s The Truth of Painting in his discussion of the ghostliness of Van Gogh’s work  (374)


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