Image courtesy of the author

I never thought much about ghosts until my cat Hoppy died.

Like most cats, Hoppy always loved to stick her paw in my water glass and then knock it over. She also loved to topple vases so she could eat the flowers. A little over a year ago, I came home with a small bunch of flowers, which I put in a water glass and left on my bedside table. A few hours later, as I was sitting in my living room, I heard a noise. I went to investigate. The water glass had been knocked over and flowers were strewn on the floor. Hoppy was nowhere to be found, but it was clearly her doing.

Hoppy was nowhere to be found because she was dead. Four days earlier, she had lain in my lap in that same apartment for the last time. I had seen her eyes go dull as her life, which in those few seconds seemed almost tangible, left her body. I had bought the flowers as an offering to some vague notion of her spirit. But, much to my surprise, and despite being dead, there she was again, in immaterial and invisible form, overturning a water glass to claim her flowers.

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This essay is an attempt to think through that moment when multiple things I knew to be true—it’s Hoppy; but she’s dead. It’s her ghost; but ghosts aren’t real—collided. In that moment, my own secular-rational sensibilities were confronted with the question: Is this all there is? Is what I have taken for granted as reality all there is? And that, in turn, led me to thinking more broadly about the nature of the real in a secular age.

Dipesh Chakrabarty has aptly noted that the secular social sciences have “problems in handling practices in which gods, spirits, or the supernatural have agency in the world.” This is in large part because we remain tethered to the notion that humans are the only agents, even if we define agency in multiple ways, a position Charles Taylor in A Secular Age called exclusive humanism and identified as a crucial component for the emergence of secularity. Exclusive humanism itself was made possible, Taylor wrote, by “a new sense of the self and its place in the cosmos: not open and porous and vulnerable to a world of spirits and powers, but what I want to call ‘buffered.’” Secularity is thus anchored by an exclusive focus on human flourishing, where the human is understood as bounded or buffered, unlike the porous self of the previous “enchanted world” that was open to “extra-human agencies.”

The new political and scholarly focus on the Anthropocene seems to be destabilizing exclusive humanism and its bounded human, making us aware of what Amitav Ghosh calls “the urgent proximity of nonhuman presences.” A plethora of recent posthumanist scholarship—nonrepresentational theory, the ontological turn, new animism studies, indigenous studies, animal studies, new ecologies, and certain trends in science and technology studies (STS)—has sought to present humans as always already in relation to nonhumans, to recognize the agency of nonhumans and things, and to conceive of human flourishing as deeply entangled in the flourishing of nonhuman worlds. In re-emphasizing the porosity of human subjects and their vulnerability to and dependence on nonhuman actors (or agents), posthumanism might, then, be understood as a postsecular project, an attempt to undo the human-centric foundations of secularity.

In recent work on mountains in the Andes that are also “earth beings,” for instance, anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena wants “to take seriously (perhaps literally) the presence in politics of those actors which, being other than human, the dominant disciplines assigned to the sphere of nature (where they were to be known by science) or to the metaphysical and symbolic fields of knowledge.” De la Cadena wants to move beyond a secular age in which human agency hinges on “the separation between ‘Nature’ and ‘Humanity.’” But this and other attempts to re-entangle the human and the nonhuman and to recognize the agency of nonhumans, while disrupting certain key elements of our secular age, tend to privilege others. De la Cadena gestures to, but does not pursue, the way that nonhumans were divided between two spheres, Nature and something else she does not name but that would go under the sign of the “Supernatural.” In other words, the modern conception of humanity was based on a distinction not only with the natural (the realm of scientific fact) but with the supernatural too (understood as metaphysical or symbolic phenomena). Secular-modern Man emerged as Man by freeing himself from entanglements with both natural and supernatural worlds. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, Man cannot make covenant—cannot make the social and political order—with either brute beasts or God.

Yet recent attempts to make covenant with other-than-humans and to re-entangle Man as a being always in relation seem to welcome the presence of the “natural” and to falter at the presence of the “supernatural.” Scholars seem much more open to accepting mountains, mosquitos, and mollusks as actually existing beings and agential actors than we are ghosts, jinn, and other spirits. Anthropologist Tim Ingold writes easily of clouds, birds, rodents, fungi, animals, plants, humans, and stones as “gathering together the threads of life.” But the “supernatural” seems more difficult to include in expanded notions of life, personhood, and the more-than- or other-than-human. I am not sure I could write a feline parallel to Donna Haraway’s dog manifesto, in which species companionship engaged not just my living cat but my dead one too, and remain intelligible to my peers. Why this is so, I want to hazard, has something to do with secular-modern attachments to the material and the visible as the site of the real, attachments that continue to underpin the posthumanist turn. Read generously against the grain, however, posthumanism can offer, I also want to hazard, onto-epistemic horizons beyond the material.

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In her meditation on human-dog relations, Haraway writes that there are “no pre-constituted subjects and objects.” Rather, “there are only ‘contingent foundations’; bodies that matter are the result.” Dogs, she continues, “are about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships—co-constitutive relationships in which none of the partners pre-exist the relating.” How are we to read Haraway’s reference to matter? Can bodies matter in immaterial ways? Can immaterial beings also matter? The significance of Haraway’s argument seems to be the relating, where the materiality of dog is merely contingent, as contingent as the contingency of relating itself. But is this the case? Or does her argument assume material existence as the precondition for relating?

Feminist science studies scholar Karen Barad is useful to think with here. In Meeting the Universe Halfway, she proposes that rather than taking our primary ontological units as “independent objects with independently determinate boundaries and properties,” we think in terms of what Niels Bohr calls “phenomena,” which “are the ontological inseparability of agentially intra-acting components.” In contrast to interaction, “which assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction,” Barad proposes the notion of intra-action, which “recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through intra-action.”

Phenomena is an interesting term, since it does not necessarily exclude nonmaterial beings who, through their intra-action with other material and nonmaterial beings, constitute both themselves and an entangled set of agencies. Phenomena would not need to take material form to be phenomena in Bohr’s own terms. But for Barad, materiality—the importance of matter as the ground of her claims—is simply assumed. She writes, “Phenomena do not require cognizing minds for their existence…. Phenomena are real material beings.” To think of existence beyond human representation and cognition remains anchored, it seems, to a materialist epistemology.

At the same time, Barad offers another way to think about materiality through a seeming slippage between phenomena as material beings and phenomena as having material effects. She follows her claim that phenomena are real material beings by noting: “What is made manifest through technoscientific practices is an expression of the objective existence of particular material phenomena…. Objectivity is a matter of accountability for what materializes, what comes to be.” What scientific practice does, Barad argues, is give expression to the objective existence of phenomena by attending to what materializes. But are material effects—“what materializes”—necessarily coextensive with material beings? One could argue that a cat-ghost—the phenomenon of Hoppy-as-ghost—in knocking over a water glass produces a material effect (spilled water), and the spilled water—“what materializes”—objectively constitutes evidence for the phenomenon of a cat-ghost. This interpretive framework offers us the possibility of remaining within a materialist evidentiary regime without necessarily demanding that we remain tied to a materialist ontology.

Barad ends her book with the brittlestar, an echinoderm closely related to the starfish. The brittlestar has bioluminescent arms that continue to move and emit light after breaking off from its main body, often distracting predators to allow for its escape. In a beautiful discussion of the brittlestar as both metaphor for and embodiment of how we might think about entanglement and intra-action, Barad writes:

Is this jettisoned limb simply a piece of an organic-inorganic structure shuttering with remnant reflex energy or a companion species helping out? …At what point does the “disconnected” limb belong to the ‘environment’ rather than the “brittlestar”? Is contiguity of body parts required in the specification of a single organism? Can we trust visual delineations to define bodily boundaries? Can we trust our eyes?

“Connectivity,” Barad concludes, “does not require physical contiguity.”

This passage helps me think in new ways about a world of spirits and ghosts and other immaterial beings. Does my cat continue to exist after her body has been cast off and incinerated? Does she remain in-relation, a companion species in death as much as in life? Can we draw on Barad and other posthumanist scholars for inspiration in thinking about the intra-action constitutive of nonhuman spirits and humans, even as we ask why it seems so difficult, even counterintuitive, to do so?

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Barad’s reference to trusting our eyes is telling, gesturing to the modernist reorganization of the senses and the hegemony of the eye as the primary organ of perceiving and knowing—what Charles Hirschkind has called “a modernist occularcentric epistemology.” But surely human perception cannot define the bounds of the universe (or multiverse). Indeed, wouldn’t a true posthumanism entail the possibility of modes of existence that we humans simply cannot know because they remain inaccessible to our common sensory perception, as well as the possibility of mutual multispecies entanglements and shared worlds that do not include—and are hidden—to us humans? It turns out, for example, that cats, like many nonhuman animals, can see in ultraviolet, a light spectrum invisible to humans (so “a house cat’s bizarre antics may be more than just feline folly. The kitty may be seeing things that the human eyes can’t”). And in a description of jinn, which he describes as “sentient organisms of so fine a nature and of a physiological composition so different from our own that they are not normally accessible to our sense-perception,” the late Islamic scholar Muhammad Asad writes,

if we assume, as we must, that there are living organisms whose biological premises are entirely different from our own, it is only logical to assume that our physical senses can establish contact with them only under very exceptional circumstances; hence the description of them as “invisible beings.”

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The Golden Snail Opera is a “multispecies choreography” in which, through video and text, various beings on a rice field on Taiwan’s Lanyang Plain “offer their enactments of living in common.” The speaking characters in the opera are the Farmer (who has taken up farming practices friendly to other species), the Pedant (who explains the story in rational-scientific terms), and the Wanderer, “a roaming ghost” whose living life was ended by American bombs during World War II. The accompanying film features video from the perspectives of a snail, a dog, and various humans. In the performance on stage, the roaming ghost intrudes on the humans, standing in front of them and nudging them, but the Pedant sees and hears nothing, and the Farmer only feels its presence as cold air on the back of her neck.

The opera raises a number of questions for me: Can the dog and the snails know—“see” —the ghost in ways humans cannot? Could we retrain our modernist sensory capacities to perceive the ghost, drawing on existing traditions that discipline the body/mind to embrace porosity (I am thinking of Islamic sciences of the unseen and of opening oneself to dreams from the divine; there are, of course, others)? And do some of those capacities endure unbeknownst to us, sparked momentarily—but then quickly reburied—by the appearance of cat-ghosts and the like? “It seems difficult,” the Golden Snail Opera concludes, “to ban ghosts from the annals of those doing natural history, as well as of those being observed… This, of course, messes with European Enlightenment notions of nature, but isn’t that part of the point?” Indeed. And might the work of undoing the distinction between nature and culture, of messing with modernist notions of nature to think in terms of nature-culture, help us to do the same with supernature? Might natureculture be better termed supernatureculture? 

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I end with a coda to the story of my cat with which I began. I have told that story in public twice. The first time, the presenter before me fainted at the podium. The second time, preparing for my presentation, I got myself a glass of water, set it on the table, and sat down to adjust my microphone. Before I could begin, my glass overturned, spilling water everywhere. My opening anecdote, then, about the ghost of my dead cat overturning a water glass was immediately preceded by an overturned water glass. Make of that story what you will.