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Gordon, Avery

Page history last edited by Rachel Schiff 15 years, 5 months ago

Avery Gordon was born in 1958 and is currently a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is not only a social theorist but a writer, social critic, and even art critic. She holds degrees in history, women's studies, and has a Ph.D. in sociology. She has written two books, in addition to co-hosting a weekly public affairs radio show out of Santa Barbara, California. Her latest book, published in 2004, Keeping Good Time, explores what it truly means to be a scholar and political activist during troubled times of war and globalization. Gordon is most well-known for her first book, written in 1997, entitled, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. In this book Gordon takes on the concept of societal ghosts which frame our ways of thinking and acting. 


In a selection from Gordon's book, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, found in Charles Lemert's social theory anthology, she writes not only about societal ghosts, but also about the ideas of complex relationships and complex personhood.


She begins with the "folk theoretical statement" that life is complicated.  This statement has two dimensions.  First, the power relations that move any society are never as simple or clear as the names we give them suggest.  Although theorists are forced to name these forces in order to describe them (patriarchy, nepotism, etc) these names are too limited to express the power that permeates every relationship and too broad to express the unique ways in which power moves in particular relationships. Like Foucault, Avery argues that power is not merely an institution or a structure or an ideology, but a force present in every interaction in society. It is dynamic, ever-changing, productive and inhibiting. Gordon writes that power can "reach you by the baton of the police" and "speak the language of your thoughts and desires."  Power is not exclusively systematic or patricularistic; it can be either or both at the same time. (Lemmert, 2004: 635). 


As part of her discussion of the complexity of power relationships, Gordon borrows the phrase "furniture without memories" from Toni Morrison.  "Furniture without memories can be imagined as power structures whose existence we navigate daily without questioning it.  The chair we sit in, that shapes our posture, whose structure guides what we see and how comfortable we feel. This metaphor can be extended to various power structures.  Every Sunday, Catholics wait in line to accept a wafer and sip of wine from their priest to symbolize the acceptance of Christ.  However, it is not questioned why the congregants wait in line and take it from an authority, rather than taking the wafer and wine from a table themselves or doing the process at a family meal.  Instead, we simply accept the church's patriarchal structure like "furniture without memories," sets of rituals, structures and organizations that shape our behaviors but are so ingrained that we do not ask for their history or their purpose.  Why do we take communion from the priest? Because we always have.  Why do sit in the sunken cushion on the green couch? Because we always have.


The second part of Gordon's theory that life is complicated is complex personhood. Complex personhood is indeed complex. However, what Gordon is getting at by this term is the idea that people are shaped by multiple histories and personal agency,which is affected by the interaction of their multiple histories. Thus, the way in which people describe and tell stories about their lives and society at large is entangled in past personal history, experience, imagination, and cultural tales. In this Gordon is suggesting that our lives are not as straightforward as they seem, to ourselves and to others observing our lives. Gordon writes of this in order to get at the bigger theoretical discussion of societal ghosts and the ghost stories which haunt us on a personal level, as well as societal level. Gordon writes, "Complex personhood means that even those who haunt our dominant institutions and their systems of value are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not" (Lemert, 2004: 636).


It is hard to concretely define exactly what Gordon means by the term ghosts, but essentially she believes ghosts to be, personal figures, social figures, and institutions (shaped by history) that reproduce power relations and structures of inequality. An obvious example of a ghost in American society is racism. A  haunting, as defined by Gordon, is the constant reappearance of the ghost. Thus, the manifestation of racism in our society is a haunting by a ghost. Gordon also discusses the appearance of ghost stories in society, which are the tales that make ghosts visible. Gordon sites the example of Ralph Ellison's, Invisible Man, as a ghost story. Invisible Man is considered by Gordon to be a ghost story because it tells the tale of the personal and societal effects of the ghost of racism.  Ghosts do not simply occur on the societal level, but also at the personal. The ghost of a relationship with a demanding father could haunt the son throughout his life in the form of subordinate behavior. In this case, psychoanalysis could be the telling of a ghost story.


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