Did you just ghost me?
I just read Catie Disabato’s U Up?, a strange little mystery novel set in contemporary L.A.
Eve is a researcher for an app called LA By Foot which offers “definitive walking guides to the secret history, hidden paths, pedestrian staircases, and beautiful architecture of Los Angeles”. A historian at UCLA highlights notable locations in the city, then Eve visits them, photographs them, and writes the copy.
“I could do it all myself,” Eve explains, “research the history of Los Angeles by reading any or all of the many books James Danielson has published, but he has something I don’t have: the social power that comes from having a masculine name that starts with a J.”
So Eve walks the city, through hangovers and simmering California heat, all the while keeping another secret: on her iPhone, she texts her friend Miguel, who died by suicide a year before. And Miguel’s ghost texts back.
The novel follows the events around the first anniversary of Miguel’s death, when Ezra, who was Miguel’s friend and Eve’s, goes suddenly missing. As she tries to discover whether Ezra is merely avoiding her or something more sinister has happened, Eve is forced to confront what is going on within and between their circle of friends.
Disabato’s book addresses different kinds of spectrality with delicacy and deftness. In this world, there’s little difference between a supernatural revenant like Miguel’s ghost and a living friend who Eve is messaging, “trapped inside my useless idiotic lump of an iPhone.”
As a ghostwriter for the history-of-LA app, Eve is a gig worker, summoned like a spirit into service by two San Francisco tech billionaires who run it as a side project, supported by an equally anonymous engineer. In Eve’s social life, too, the smartphone mediates absence: even a perfectly posed Instagram shot of friends by a pool is haunted by the offscreen figure who took the picture.
LA’s historic culture of the body beautiful is magnified by the power of apps like Insta: when the opportunity to cultivate and disseminate a pose is readily on hand, people try to avoid the reality of the flesh. Eve describes trying “not to catch sight of my own reflection in my peripherals. Nothing is as unsexy to me as seeing your own body contorted awkwardly during sex.”
Disabato writes about the ghosts we make of other people, thinking we know what is going on in their heads. Even as they try to form new relationships and fresh connections, the ghosts of her characters’ pasts endure. When Eve hooks up with someone, the new partner repeats the moves that had worked on her ex: “She didn’t try to pleasure me, she tried to pleasure the girl who had left her.”
Ghosts like Miguel’s are real in the world of this novel, and Eve deploys finely ground eggshell – “cascarilla” – as a charm to keep them at bay: “it protects spaces and cuts off communication with spirits”. In addition to spreading the stuff across windowsills and doorways, Eve has begun snorting it to fully block out ghostly visions: “Cascarilla doesn’t make me high of course, but for a few hours after that kind of mistake, I couldn’t see a ghost if I wanted to.” Gradually, cascarilla and coke entwine as ways of self-medicating which allow Eve to avoid introspection.
Over the course of three hundred pages, Disabtato’s drowsy, dreamy California mystery gradually comes into perfect focus. Ultimately, it’s a book about intimacy, relationships, and the ways in which our friends can become the place where you store “all the pleasures and sufferings of your adult life”, “some amalgamated mess of one personality and one desire spread over [multiple] bodies”.
Coincidentally, alongside Disabato’s novel, I picked up Esther Peeren’s book The Spectral Metaphor. A professor of cultural analysis at the University of Amsterdam, Peeren explores ghostly figures of various kinds which populate our societies: the dispossessed, overlooked, and marginalized. These range from undocumented migrants and missing persons to servants and domestic figures, “likened to ghosts or related figures, on the basis of their lack of social visibility, unobtrusiveness, enigmatic abilities, or uncertain status between life and death.”
She investigates the ways in which each group are compared to ghosts, what motivates the comparisons, and what effects these comparisons cause. What is permitted to the figures that haunt our society? What is denied? How else could they be seen or approached? And, for those of us who come to be designated in this way, there is a question: not just “how to conquer the ghost or how to take responsibility for it”, but “how to survive as a ghost?”
Peeren’s book was published in 2014 but seems more timely than ever in the age of COVID’s ghosts: from unseen deaths in care homes to the delivery workers who made groceries and essential goods “magically” appear on doorsteps throughout lockdown as if they were spirits bound in service, or the migrants who were banished from public view during severe restrictions in Singapore and Melbourne. As death tolls soared in countries like the UK, an entire legion of the dead was formed, nameless, faceless, beyond any individual experience of grief.
Once your mind is on a topic, you start seeing it everywhere. Reading Peeren reminded me that I’d been meaning to watch Azor, last year’s eerie thriller about Argentina’s elite in the time of the dictatorship.
In the film, a suave Swiss banker visits clients insulated from the regime by their wealth, but imperfectly: among the disappeared of the Argentine junta’s “dirty war” is a client’s daughter, and the banker’s colleague, too, has unaccountably gone missing. The characters of Azor are ghosts of a kind, too: in the world but not quite of it, co-existing with the junta and translucent to it so long as they are not a threat. These ghosts are beginning to fear that they are not, however, untouchable.
At the other end of the pop-cultural spectrum, I was invited to talk recently with the Irish-Australian critic Emmet O’Cuana about Marvel’s Immortal Hulk horror comic on the Deconstructing Comics podcast.
In that series, a journalist is granted the ability to perceive spectral entities. The world around her is suddenly filled with ghastly supernatural creatures. It’s reminiscent of the ‘Tillinghast Resonator’, an electronic gizmo invented by H.P. Lovecraft for his short story ‘From Beyond’, which allows people to perceive previously unknown planes of existence. However, the device’s effect cuts both ways, and now the creatures from beyond can not only perceive humans, but cross over and act on our world. (The story received a spectacularly lurid, pulpy movie adaptation in 1986).
Without venturing into the realm of mad science, all of this resonates with the work we’ve been doing on the future of European inequality at IMAJINE. The scenarios we’ve been building with researchers, experts, and policymakers across Europe are not predictions, nor expressions of preferred futures, but attempts to usefully challenge expectations and assumptions about what awaits. By manufacturing alternative plausible futures, we create vantage points from which we can look back on the present from a fresh perspective, highlighting things which we previously beyond our field of vision: this is the “strategic reframing” described by Rafael Ramírez and Angela Wilkinson.
Such work can help to reveal spectral figures of the kind identified by Esther Peeren: those who are vulnerable yet marginalized, obscured, rendered hard to perceive or even less than human through the lenses our society uses today. One of IMAJINE’s respondents, exploring the future of healthcare, encouraged us to ask: Who is vulnerable in each of these future Europes? How might we identify their precursors, and act today to mitigate against emergent vulnerability, or avoid it entirely?
One of the valuable things about scenario work is that it allows us to investigate issues which are hard to define, let alone quantify: all that is ghostly and evanescent. IMAJINE is concerned with issues of spatial justice: what will it mean for Europe’s regions to be treated fairly in times to come? As we’ve argued elsewhere, you can’t simply run the numbers when it comes to deciding what is right and fair, any more than a court uses mathematics to decide a case “on the balance of probability”.
This kind of scenario work, by rejecting normative visions, also avoids excessively utopian thinking. A recent IMAJINE response by Professor Robert Barrington of the Centre for the Study of Corruption allowed us to consider what new abuses of power might emerge in each future, so that we might avoid the hubris of thinking ourselves to be the infallible architects of a bright European tomorrow.
As Henry Mintzberg wrote, strategy is a craft, comparable to pottery: “What springs to mind is not so much thinking and reason as involvement, a feeling of intimacy and harmony with the materials at hand, developed through long experience and commitment. Formulation and implementation merge into a fluid process of learning through which creative strategies evolve.”
Scenarios allow us to work with times to come in much the same way, drawing on material from the “ghostly” substance of the imagined future as well as past and present experience – working with the imperfections as well as the elements that perfectly meet our specifications – perhaps as a potter might work with clay.
The Haunted Strategist
Late last year, I became the Ghost of Christmas Future. It wasn’t quite like Dickens: working on a project in late December, I became acutely conscious of the large decorated Christmas tree which was behind me, dominating the background of my Zoom call.
My instinct is that in general, the environment for scenario work – including the persona of the consultant helping with the scenarios – should be like that of the therapist, cultivated not to unduly impose preconceptions on the client, instead helping their own thoughts to emerge and arise. How we dress, how we speak, and, yes, what we have in the background of our Zoom calls might all have an impact on the quality of conversation. As Lori Gottlieb puts it when she describes the need for public self-restraint among therapists, “If you’re in a rush on your way into the office, you can’t honk at the slow car blocking the entrance to the parking garage in case your patient sees (or because the person you’re honking at might be your patient).”
And yet: there is also power in bringing one’s own authentic self to the therapeutic encounter, when done strategically – and even sometimes when done inadvertently. Jeffrey Kottler, in his excellent book on change, describes asking a patient with whom he’d made spectacular progress what had caused such improvement:
She simply pointed to a hole in my shoe, claiming that she would stare at it session after session since I would sit with my legs crossed. These were my favourite shoes, so I did wear them frequently (but had no idea the sole was damaged). Anyway, to make an uncomfortable story as brief as possible, she disclosed that she found me to be an arrogant know-it-all and yet took comfort from the fact that I wasn’t nearly as well put together as I imagined. “Somehow,” she said, “it made my problems not seem like such a big deal to know that you also have problems that you don’t even know about.”
You don’t have to get too Dickensian to see that Peeren’s spectral metaphor has a range of other implications for the work of scenario practitioners.
To what extent is the scenario planner or consultant themselves a spectral figure – one who is careful about when and where they or their work are seen, who can be summoned through certain rituals for specific strategic purposes? Oxford’s Rafael Ramírez, interviewed with Trudi Lang in the European Court of Auditors Journal, noted that “Most often a lot of very successful scenario planning remains secret or confidential”; in both the public and private sectors, institutions may “not even say that they do scenario planning so that their competitors do not understand that that is the way they are thinking about strategy.’
As a result, even researching how much scenario planning is actually being done is challenging: “The answer is: nobody knows because a lot of it is confidential. I can only answer about things that are in the public domain. And some of the most successful scenario planning we have heard about is not in the public domain.”
This also affects discussion of perceptible impact, something which is wrestled with in the scholarly literature on scenarios’ effectiveness. Scenario planners sometimes talk about leaving “fingerprints” on subsequent strategic decisions – ghostly traces of the conversations which shaped a choice, or the framing of an issue.
Within the world of scenario planning, as in any discipline or industry, there are also many influential figures who are no longer with us, yet whose names are invoked almost daily. These are shades we must reckon with, from prominent names like the Cold War scenario maven Herman Kahn or Pierre Wack, the storied Shell oil executive, to others who are less famed, but still significant. Some of these spirits and their influences are easier to perceive than others.
Kees Van der Heijden, author of Scenarios: the art of strategic conversation, could feel like one of those much-cited ghosts, but is still with us. A recent retrospective of Van der Heiijden’s work cited George Cairns’s argument that “The principles of scenario thinking should be imbued in all education processes, practised by all governmental, non-governmental and profit-oriented organizations, and the outputs of scenario analysis programs made public for all to see and to consider their implications for the future.”
Yet, evidently, not all strategy or foresight work is best done in public. One of the challenges for us at the IMAJINE project was deciding how much material to publicise and disseminate. Given that our ultimate goal was to broaden and deepen the conversation around “spatial justice” – what is fairness or equity when it comes to the differences between regions? – we opted to share draft materials as well as the finished document and summary videos, to publish widely in a range of non-academic platforms, and to extend the conversation with a wide range of public respondents, whose commentaries on various aspects of each scenario appear on the IMAJINE website.
Let’s stretch this spectral metaphor yet further. Together with IMAJINE’s Marie Mahon, I recently wrote a piece on scenarios as Gothic narratives. Our argument was that scenarios can enable users to perceive issues which lie beyond, and threaten to overwhelm, their previous frame of reference, in much the same way that Gothic narratives offer literary encounters with the sublime. The “strategic sublime” of scenarios is not about the dark or malevolent influences of Gothic literature, but rather forces which may be too much for us to process within our habitual decision-making frame.
Our Gothic piece arose from a paper I had presented at a conference on “dark economies” called “Anxious Futures, Fearful Pasts”. This paper explored not just the Gothic aspect of scenario work, but also the supposedly “dark” origins of the scenario approach in Cold War planning and the mid-20th century oil industry.
There is a concern which has arisen in some corners of futures studies that scenarios in some way “captured” corporate planning during the mid-twentieth century and thereby hampered the capacity of people and institutions to engage more richly with the future. The association of scenario planning with the Cold War – Herman Kahn was supposed to have been one of the models for Doctor Strangelove – and with Royal Dutch Shell can trouble people, and may lead them to repudiate the approach. I grew up, for example, at a time which means that the first word-associations I would make to Shell Oil are “Brent Spar” and “Ken Saro-Wiwa”.
Scenarios are not obscure or esoteric, yet perceiving them as a sometimes “dark art” allows us to reflect on their history, even as we continue to practise the approach. It is a commonplace of supernatural literature that well-intentioned magicians may have to traffic with powerful forces of dark origins to accomplish worthy goals. Inevitably, in the Internet age, we are all entangled with these questions; as R. David Lankes puts it, much of the information infrastructure on which today’s world operates was “forged in war”. Knowing how to acknowledge our history in all its perceived light and darkness, to reckon with it, and find ways forward, is part of the work.
And the ways we move might not just be forward into the future, or back into the history of our practice, or upward to new heights and innovations; we must move further into the depths too.
In Nigel Kneale’s television play The Stone Tape, a corporate research team experimenting with new kinds of recording equipment encounter ghosts within their headquarters, a renovated Victorian mansion.
They come to hypothesise that the house itself has recorded tragic and traumatic events from the past – serving as a kind of “stone tape” which does not project sound or light, but acts directly on the senses so that we perceive, once more, past moments of extreme emotion. As the characters investigate the hauntings, they find that the “stone tape” has recorded not just events from the mansion’s Victorian heyday, but from before the house even stood, with the final recorded presence dating back thousands of years.
This notion of deep history, and of what lingers in the land on which we live and work – including traumatic experiences which are sometimes obscured or occluded by the passage of time and the desire to avoid reckoning – takes me back to my time living and working in Australia, and my continuing concern with who gets to practice the kind of strategy I’ve been describing, and to use these future-facing tools.
I used to live in Brisbane, where European colonisers were taken for ghosts by Indigenous people in the early years following their arrival. Acccording to a history of the suburb of Kelvin Grove, now the site of Queensland University of Technology, Indigenous people on that land initially thought the white-skinned, strangely clothed new arrivals might be spirits from the world of the dead who had taken a human form. They were thought to be ethereal beings – pai-abun, or a dream that was bringing them a message and a warning. Within two decades, the colonisers had so severely and violently encroached on the life of the Turrbal people that they came to be known as muthar, meaning murderers or spiders.
Today, the settler state permeates every part of the Australian landmass, and the work of recognition, restitution, and building a better future with the traditional custodians of the land is ongoing. Many of the assumptions of colonisation now haunt Australia in the same way that Jacques Derrida described capitalism, the media, cartels, and other powerful systemic forces as spectral.
For those of us who work on strategy and foresight, understanding the ways in which our approaches are caught up in these questions of power and privilege, rights and responsibility, ownership, authorship, and historic injustices which are sometimes not even acknowledged, let alone addressed, is also vital.
Ten years ago this summer, I saw a live performance by the brilliant but short-lived American band Friends.
It was a life-changing day, and the songs have stayed with me for years, even though the band itself broke up after just one album and now merely haunts the internet. Having such a basic name, which also belongs to an obscenely popular 90s sitcom, has only helped them to fade into the ether.
There’s no punchline to this; when I hear singer Samantha Urbani proclaim “I don’t know how to be a ghost”, I can take that line and braid many thoughts around it: the ways our personal lives haunt our professional work; Esther Peeren’s question of what it means to designate others as ghostly or be cast as ghosts ourselves; Catie Disabato’s drifting, wounded hipsters who could easily find themselves listening to Friends’ “Ideas on Ghosts” in one of their barroom haunts. The connections I perceive are provisional, insubstantial, sometimes personal; questions that float alongside my thinking, troubling it with their company, rather than directing it. The journey may not lead to conclusions, but perhaps still reveals other ways of seeing, making something that was present but previously invisible now perceptible – even if it is still only translucent.
Here are some ideas on ghosts.