"I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night"
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Specters of Technology
Hamlet is a haunted text. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen describes ghosts as intellect without bodies just as zombies are bodies without intellects, as part of his meditations on "Undead" for his talk of that name at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. In a sense, the very sighting of a ghost is problematic. How do we see something without a body? Even if it is a glimmering light, a partially transparent image, or a white bed-sheet, there is still a kind of body that is being imagined or performed. While the ghost in Hamlet appears in Act 1 of the play, setting the dramatic events into motion and being a key motivator for Hamlet, the ghost disappears for the rest of the play.
The revenge which Hamlet supposes, plans, and then executes for the sake of the ghost, is left to stand by itself, because we never discover whether the ghost approves of its conclusion, after the act is carried out. The simultaneous absence of the ghost and its active force, observation, and haunting becomes the real spectrality in the play; which, in Michael Almereyda’s movie adaption of Hamlet, is presented as the liminal station of all voyeurs, including the filmmakers, audiences, and their technology.
A Lacanian Psychoanalytic or a Derridian reading of Hamlet is well known, gesturing to the lack or the defferal of meaning or desire. But can we think of texts as more than subjects or language bound experience, but also as bodies? Are not the various specters with their limits on presence, action, and speech not crip figures that haunt not only Hamlet, but film-making, and our own experiences of them? Ghost's form networks, they need mediums, mediators, and us to act on their behalf, and that is why they haunt us. Haunting becomes, in fact, the indirect act of agency on us by mediated and oblique members of the community. Through haunting, we become ghostly bodies by which the dead can en-able presence, action, and speech in the world.
Ghosts in the Machine are not new concepts and with the rise of computer technologies, the idea of "intellects without bodies" has been on the rise again. The dream of a digital body free from the crippness of flesh seems to be offered in a variety of digital sci-fi/fantasies such as the Matrix, Cowboy Bebop, and Ghost in the Shell (to name a few). But in many ways this idea is not new, as we see in the technology of books, including Shakespeare's sonnets, the dream that through poetry (or film) an artist may live on after death. The technology of prosthetics in general may be said to be a part of the long tradition of connecting to objects to enable our lives to extend beyond the spatial and temporal limits of our bodies through networks. Thus, it may be well worth returning to the concept of techno-spectrality in Hamlet, which is present in certain literary forms in the text and which can be re-imagined on film with the host of technologies which now fill our bodies and lives.
Specters of Desire
Cohen, in his talk on the undead at the 33rd International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, shared a story, in which a ghost's primary act was the communication of a desire: it wanted to be told what it wanted. Hamlet is haunted by desire. It's ghost and those bodies it infects, are left groping for action, knowledge, and presence.
In Act 1, Hamlet encounter’s the ghost and speaks with it, thus propelling his actions towards the multiple deaths at the plays end. The guards are the first to notice the anomaly and report it to Hamlet; he initially receives contact with the ghost obliquely, through an intermediary. Here, Hamlet is shocked but also intrigued. His normal course of actions is halted and diverted towards the ghost without direct experience. Then when he sees the ghost, there is much confusion over what and who it is. The ghost must repeat, in very plain terms, that he is Hamlet’s father and he comes from and lives in an existence after death.
Hamlet’s initial inability to understand the identity and state of the ghost is then repeated in his act of forgetting, apparent in later scenes (particularly the famous “To be or not to be” speech) where he claims that no one returns from death and that death may mean that a personal existence simply ends. Having met a ghost, Hamlet has empirical evidence both of a life after death and of the ability to come back into the world. Finally, when the ghost is most direct, giving clear instructions to Hamlet to kill his uncle, which the code of honor already compels him to seek out to avenge his father’s death, Hamlet does so but only after a long period of uncertainty about his course. Thus we see, that although the ghost continually acts on Hamlet, he does so obliquely; his actions, like his presence, is always somehow difficult to comprehend.
In addition to participating in the events of the play, the ghost is evidently also perpetually watching them unfold, like an audience member. In his speech to Hamlet, the ghost reveals that he is aware of many of the details of his own death, which occurred while he was sleeping, as well as his wife’s marriage to his brother and his ascension to the throne, which all occurred after his death. The ghost then clearly has some form of perception that not only allows him to see into our world, but also to events across different spaces. It may even be appropriate to say he has a kind of super-natural power of observation. After his instruction to Hamlet, he disappears, but there is a sense that the ghost will know if his son is successful in carrying out the command. In that way, the ghost continues to watch the play, along with us, across time and space, and in that way have a haunting presence over it. We may feel, in fact, that as audience members or readers, we become like ghosts ourselves, invisible and non-present presences in the world of the play.
Specters of Need
Hamlet is haunted by needs. As a meditation on the limits of knowledge, the body, and death, the play and its principle characters, including the ghost, are traumatized victims which are attempting to fulfill their needs for livable lives (or after-lives). Technologies and persons become prosthetics, or proxies, for each other in order to enable them to enact their will. The ghost may have a body it seems, and it is a crip body, which needs to enlist the help of young Hamlet to accomplish its task of revenge. It is often said that it "infects" Hamlet or that Hamlet becomes "traumatized" or goes "mad" as a result of this contact. This may be true, but it may be more than a pathologizing of a character, but a cripping of our very bonds of kinship. We need one another. From Kings and their servants, to ghost's and their hauntings, to Princes and their movie cameras, we all need things and need to find out things. Our skeptic or post-modern epistemologies may be yet more signs of our bodily limits and spectral networks of action.
The spectrality of the ghost and the audience is accentuated in Michael Almereyda’s film adaption of Hamlet. In this movie, personal video cameras, security cameras, and still cameras, as well as audio recording devices, are principle actors in the drama, recording for the audience and for the other characters, the other actors in the film. The technology becomes like Fortinbras and Guildenstern, intermediaries that report the events back to us in oblique and possibly deceptive (or deceived) ways; such as Hamlet’s interception of the letter which commands his own death, which he alters to complete the death of his friends turned spies. In this production, Hamlet and Ophelia are filmmakers and photographers respectively, and thus underline the performative, personalized technologies of observation and transmission. While the King watches Hamlet’s play, turned movie for this film, he may be wondering if he can trust what he sees just as Hamlet watches for the King’s reaction and enlists help to confirm his uncertain reading of it.
The King too uses cameras, spies, and audio devices to keep watch over Hamlet. As yet another meta-film-making moment, the primary subjects of Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s art is themselves. As we watch a film about Hamlet, we also see the King filming Hamlet, and Hamlet filming himself. And yet the play remains plagued by uncertainty about what it sees. If we could trust what we observe as truth, then we could confidently act based on that information. Hamlet does not trust what he sees in the ghost, the King, his mother, Ophelia, Denmark, his friends, and perhaps even himself. He sees death and life after death and questions both. Thus while the play enacts a kind of spectral panopticon, it also emphasizes its mediated and oblique qualities, leaving all that we see as epistemological uncertainties; the whole world and ourselves becomes ghostly.
True spectrality may be beyond us who have bodies to experience or imagine, but we may witness its performance in our oblique relationships with actors, observers, and haunting presences. Such specters can be seen in the mediators of Hamlet, particularly in Almereyda’s film adaption, including the ghost, the filmmaker, the audience, and their technologies. The payoff of meditating on ghosts may then be less the discovery of intellects without bodies, but the highly mediated and quasi-subjective qualities of all things.