By the Hawthorn Where the Haunted Huddle

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 25.08.2020

About the American Sociologist, Avery Gordon

It’s well worth knowing something about two of Avery Gordon’s books:   Ghostly Matters. Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (1997) and The Hawthorn Archive. Letters from the Utopian Margins (2017). In the first, she, like many radical thinkers, first of all questions the methodological limitations of her discipline, introducing the concept of “haunting”. Here the themes of obsession, persecution and ghosts can be easily discerned and closely linked to the notion of a “utopian margins”, an area she will use widely in her future work. (Her online presentation for the RIBOCA2 Public Program will focus on both concepts.)

Being haunted is a reality of life. The presence of the ghosts of memory and the past is often not simply one of the components in the construction of reality, but often the main one that determines it in both private and collective life practices. The same ghosts are also utopian notions of the possibility of a future or a different life. They are the longing and lust that always haunts us, which directly affects the way life is now. “We’re haunted by historic alternatives that could have been and by the peculiar temporality of the shadowing of the lost and better futures that insinuates itself in the something to be done, sometimes as nostalgia, sometimes as regret, sometimes as a kind of critical urgency. When the something to be done becomes urgent, it feels as if it has already been needed or wanted before, perhaps forever, certainly for a long time. When something to be done becomes urgent, we feel as if we can’t wait any longer for things to change, the fierce now, but, of course, one does wait, sometimes patiently, sometimes not.”[1]

At the same time, the methods by which the relationship between knowledge, experience and power are studied today, largely ignore this territory. Gordon therefore offers an alternative way of illuminating this ghost obsessed past and future, and therefore the screamingly urgent present, which goes unnoticed in conventional discourses. “Everyone has to live in the gap between theory and practice, between the ideas we have and what we are able to make of them as an embodied life. Everybody lives and works in the gap. The question is what you’re doing there.”[2]

This is roughly an illustration of the difficult-to-describe concept of the 'utopian margins' that Gordon borrowed from the texts of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch – an avoidance based fugitive mode of living the “what if” as if it were reality. It is being in a permanent transition between life "as it was dreamed" and life "as it should be".

Ghostly Matters resonated widely in the humanities field, and had many reprints and revised editions. Gordon however, continued to explore the topic in a project that has lasted for more than 20 years, the so-called Hawthorn Archive, a small part of which is the second and no less influential book, mentioned above, . (The spiky hawthorn is a tree wrapped in myths; it is associated with "witchcraft practices" or folk medicine and in many European cultures, it protects the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead.)  “The Archive, although it is not really a library, houses an incomplete and disorganized intellectual history of a somewhat but not entirely random selection of radicals, fugitives, runaways, deserters, abolitionists, heretics, dreamers and in-differents who at some point stopped doing what they were told they had to do, stopped thinking what they were told they had to think, and stopped being available for things they had no design in making or controlling.”

Such a collection of arbitrary and unconventional life practices, consisting of private letters, notes, stories, conversations, reports, testimonies, various images and other reflexes, clearly didn’t conform to rigorous scientific research methods but rather to an experimental form of material processing used in research based art practices. Such were not unfamiliar to Gordon, as she was aware of the heavy bureaucratic formalism of universities and their rapid commercialization from early on, and consequently "fled" from it, s a practitioner of various other forms of “interdisciplinarity” and a popular speaker and participant in many art forums and biennial projects. The search for a new language that takes into account both the "in-differents" themselves and the standards of communication in the intellectual and academic environment about their experiences, is the "gap" in reality in which Gordon's texts live. In the introduction to the archive book, she says that in terms of academic research, this project is a fail (although the great response it has earned from her colleagues indicates that failure would have been guaranteed in the opposite case – if it had adhered to strict scientific literature norms).

There are some commentators who see similarities in Gordon's work to the works of Italo Calvino and Walter Benjamin, partly because of their fictional, partly philosophically applied and documentary style. Others pay attention to her poetic language and the illustration of her personal obsessions that appear in artistic expression like frequent choruses and repetitions, and the poetic qualities that she gives to long lists.  (Hopefully this is also evident in the quotes chosen for this article, and I was delighted that there are also others, who, when referring to the Hawthorn Archive, have noticed the signs of poetry and literary experimentation in traditional book formalities such as the list of contents, the footnotes and the bibliography. None of it is random or accidental.

In the act of arranging the archives as required by the book format, Gordon deliberately allowed for inaccuracies, ambiguities, and contradictions, which science always resists, but which have a place in the arbitrariness of life. And art. “Everything in it is true, she says with a smile you cannot see.”)

As Gordon says herself: “the Hawthorn Archive is a hospitable environment for thought, conversation, writing, invention, friendship and political conspiracy.

Throughout the more than twenty years she has devoted to the creation, collection and storage of the archives, Gordon also hosted the weekly radio program No Alibis on her university radio station, thereby providing another opportunity to hear all the rebels, persecuted, imprisoned and expelled who have been forced to withdraw or be arbitrarily withdrawn from the current normative system, which she, contrary to the official terminology of sociology, calls not the fourth industrial revolution, but the fourth world war against humanity.

Avery Gordon's lecture “Haunted Futures: the Utopian Margins” took place on August 27, 2020 as part of a series of online lectures and talks organized by RIBOCA2.

RIBOCA2 website

[1] From the Exile of Our Longing essay in the book The Hawthorn Archive.

[2] Ibid.

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