Digitally Mediated Intimacies: An Interview with Molly Hales

Image by Robyn Holly Taylor-Neu.

This post builds on the research article “Animating Relations: Digitally Mediated Intimacies between the Living and the Dead” by Molly Hales, which was published in the May 2019 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Robyn Taylor-Neu: You outline in your article how you’re departing from detachment models and how these models seemingly haunt the discourse, so I’m interested in hearing more from you about how you see your work in relation to detachment models.

Molly Hales: What I was interested in doing with grief was really two-fold. The first, which I think comes through more in the article, was to depart from a detachment model of grief that has proven to be very sticky, even though anthropologists have described many ways that the social lives of the dead are perpetuated and relations with the deceased continue. I trace the detachment model back to Sigmund Freud’s (1957 [1917]) essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” where he talks about how detachment from the lost object is necessary for psychic healing. If it doesn’t take place, then there’s a pathological process of melancholia that is similar in description to what we might label as clinical depression today and can culminate in suicide.

Freud’s work gets taken up in the mid-twentieth century by psychiatrists and psychologists who are developing theories about attachment in this new field of child development (Bowlby 1961). How does a baby become attached to their mother (because it was still always about the mother at that point)? Then on the flip side, what happens when that other person, that attachment figure, is absent? John Bowlby (1980) thought that people create internal mental images or representations of others that they carry around with them. Interestingly he believed that after the other person died or was lost then they were psychically relocated outside the self. Bowlby also described four phases that young children go through during a prolonged separation from their mothers, which he thought might serve as a kind of blueprint for mourning in adults. The last of Bowlby’s four phases involves the child redirecting their attachment from the mother to another person who is still alive, still present. This idea that grief proceeds through a series of stages that culminates in some version of “moving on” still undergirds a lot of what we see in popular culture about grief, and I would argue it still informs medical understandings of grief as well. I remember going over Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief during my first year of medical school.

Interestingly, in the last twenty years or so there has been something of a break from these detachment models, and the psychological writing on grief has been much more interested in thinking about how long-term relationships with the dead can be quite normal. It’s interesting to speculate on how and why these changes have coincided with the rapid expansion of digital media, which arguably offers various avenues for animating the dead.

In doing a deep dive into this particular genealogy of grief, I was especially interested in the question of where the dead were being located by these various writings. In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud is very explicit that if the lost object is brought inside of the self, it is tremendously damaging. But as we move through these later psychologists and psychiatrists there’s a shift from internalization being seen as pathological to internalization being an appropriate way for mourning to take place. The idea is that after someone dies, they change from being an embodied material person who is thinking, feeling, moving, and living in the world, to becoming an idealized representation of who they were before, which continues to “live on” in those who knew and loved them. So there has arguably been a shift toward the internalization of the dead being the desired outcome of mourning, whereas before it was exactly the thing that had to be avoided.

I found this shift to be relevant to my own work. It seemed to me that the relationships that people were maintaining with the dead on digital media were so much richer and more reciprocal than even the continuing bonds models of grief seem to allow for. But I also was really interested in this double movement that’s happening through these digital practices, this simultaneous internalization and externalization of the dead. I really try to stay away from ever saying, “this is what digital media does and this is what analog media does,” because I definitely don’t see there as being some kind of fundamental break between analog and digital forms. But it was striking to me that people seemed to seek out these digital spaces in order to create a place outside of themselves where their loved one could continue to dwell, and yet at the same time they talked about how these media and their media practices were really about creating a kind of meditation space for doing the inner work of keeping these relationships with the dead alive. So I continue to be very interested in this question of where the dead reside and how digital spaces can mediate that movement within and without.

RTN: Yeah, that’s super interesting—I have a million questions. So I was thinking about the way in which the dead are internalized in this kind of Freudian model [that you describe] and then the way that’s taken up by your interlocutors. Is the representation internalized as an image? I know that toward the end of your piece, you talk about Lacan a little bit—there’s the mirror stage, and a kind of visual representation is privileged in that sense, presumably. But it seems to me that, in what you write about, there isn’t the same privileging of image or voice or any specific mode of representation.

What did you find across the different people you talked to—what were the kind of differences in that? For instance, in terms of the sensoria, like different sensorial modes by which people would be representing, or be engaging with the dead? For me that also raises questions around the digital and its capacity for recombination and configuration—“the digital” and the database seem to afford different kinds of possibilities for change or permutation. Maybe I’m just thinking about algorithms, kind of. There’s a strange animacy that comes out of that perpetual recombination, so I’m wondering about the medium specificity of all this.

MH: Lots of really interesting thoughts to respond to there! I think the first thing you brought up is this question of the image and its relation to the sensorium of digital medium, or at least the digital media that my interlocutors used. There’s a lot that’s been written about the photograph as a visual representation or depiction of the dead, and the relationship that photographs forge between the living and the dead, or at least between the living and the image of the dead. There’s also some really interesting work on phonographs, the recorded voices of the dead. This is perhaps where the medium specificity comes in for me. The ways that people were using digital media felt distinct, in that the photograph or the phonograph is often taken to be a kind of representation or approximation of the dead, preserving them, in a sense.

RTN: Well, it fixes in a way. Like a phonograph or photograph—“-graphy” as a kind of mode of inscription, right?

MH: Yeah, that’s the key to it, I think. The way that those media fix something that has happened in the past, or are at least seem to do so. And once that fixation occurs then the moment is available to you as a snapshot of a moment that has already passed. Again, I don’t want to claim that there’s something essential about these media that limits how they can be used, but rather to question how they’re being used and how they’re being understood by the people who use them. Almost all of my ethnographic subjects who are using digital media in these interesting and unexpected ways also had photographs and voice recordings of their dead loved ones, but they did not see them as at all equivalent.

RTN: That seems to speak to the difference between archive and database, in a sense. Because you do bring up the archive and Derrida, it would be interesting to think about that relation.

MH: Yes! I was really struck by how differently my ethnographic subjects were using their digital databases compared to the more conventional kinds of archives they possessed. So to give an example, one woman who I worked with extensively had lost someone that she had known entirely online. They had gotten very close mostly through chatting, sending instant messages back and forth for hours on end, from which they developed a very deep and intimate relationship. One of the women was in her forties and the other was a teenage girl at the time, and the teenager was saving every one of their instant message exchanges onto her hard drive. When the older woman died of breast cancer, this young woman was left with an archive of basically every single conversation they had ever had with each other. It’s very important to her. She’s printed it out and bound it, and she keeps the book in her bedroom. At the same time, she also has this online memorial that she’s built, with a photograph of her friend and a digital candle, where she continues to post messages to her. Even though both were very important to her, she really never opens that book of conversations. Its whole job is to sit on the shelf. Whereas she went to the online memorial quite often to have this experience of communion and connection in the present. The online memorial didn’t preserve her friend as a snapshot from the past but seemed to be this evolving form, this evolving entity, that grounded an evolving relationship.

At the same time, my thinking about the database is very much influenced by an essay by Jacques Derrida (1995), “Archive Fever.” In that essay he’s thinking about the archive as a capacious corpus that is constantly changing. Every time someone enters the archive and engages with it they inscribe themselves within that archive. As a result it keeps getting bigger and bigger, extending into the present while growing and changing in ways that we can’t predict. Derrida offers some parallels between the archive and the unconscious in that essay; it has a kind of personhood, a social and perhaps psychic life.

Breanna Escamilla: To extend from that articulation, I think it leads us into this question where there’s the kind of potentialities or possibilities that grief and melancholia allow for the reconfiguration of digital media as it exists as a space people produce across time. I think my question kind of leans into wanting to hear more from you as an author about how possibilities are crafted through space and across time and across definitions of what databases as a conceptual tool—and also as it links to what a corpus can be and is—for your participants. I’m also interested in hearing more about how you parse through and refuse, in a sense, the static-ness and the fixing of the dead to particular containers, right? To get back to this question of locating where the dead exist in models of grief that you’re thinking with.

MH: Yeah, some really interesting provocations around space and corpus there. In terms of thinking about, as you put it, containers for the dead, when I first imagined the project, I envisioned it as a study of digital homes for the dead, and of the people who create and maintain them. For many of the people that I spoke to, part of the draw of digital media was the fact that you can create a place for the dead and for relationships with the dead where it might otherwise be difficult, particularly in the case of nontraditional relationships, like the women I described to you who were separated across continents, across time, across place, across age. The younger woman told me that when her friend died she didn’t have, as she put it, a place to go with her grief, and so she created this online space. But while the project is in a sense about these digital homes, I also wanted to resist this notion that the dead are, or can be, neatly contained in particular objects or places. I wanted to leave room for these ghosts, these deathly characters, to be unruly. I wanted to show their excess.

So from this tension I came to the concept of extimacy, which comes out of the lectures of the psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan. With extimacy there’s this idea that at the core, the most intimate part of the self, one finds a kernel of radical otherness. I was drawn to the notion that one’s most intimate self is not found within you, but outside of you. So you are always having to look to others and to your relationships, be they with other people or with more symbolic or institutional structures, to discover yourself outside of yourself. I will say that for Lacan that other seems to be a symbolic Other of Law and Language, but others like Zizek and Mazzarella use extimacy to think about social relations. Building on these layers of interpretation, I was interested in asking: What if the otherness at one’s core can become a place for the dead other to reside, and take form, and dwell? What if the radical otherness within the self is the dead loved one? If that were true then in a sense you yourself would be the home for the dead, and the digital site would be the mediator while you were the medium, channeling the dead.

I found extimacy to be an interesting way to think about how people are using this media and how the resulting relationships are taking form, where the intimacy with the dead is not an intimacy where the dead continue to live on as another person outside the self that you relate to, but are deeply held within. And at the same time that you kind of discover yourself in the dead other and your relationship with the dead other. Kind of a back and forth movement that certain digital media practices seem to be facilitating.

RTN: When you speak to that kind of reciprocity, that back and forth, you do so via the ambiguity of the concept of animation, right? Is the concept of hospitality similarly reciprocal in this case? Is the mourner offering up a kind of hospitality? Or is there a way in which the dead are also becoming hospitable? I was just thinking about the examples you discuss: the candle, the online altar—I’m wondering about the ways in which, although your interlocutor made that space, I wonder if there’s a way in which the person she’s mourning is also becoming hospitable.

MH: Yes exactly, she creates a home for her and then she herself is invited into that home. I wanted to make that notion of hospitality reciprocal. It’s hard to do. I reach the limits of my own imagination when I try to think about who exactly we are for the dead. But I try in my work to maintain the possibility of a radical reciprocity, following my interlocutors and their demands of me.

This brings me back to something that you brought up in the first question that I didn’t quite respond to, which is this question: Why are these models of grief so sticky? Why is it that even when psychology and grief therapy is moving in the direction of embracing long-term relationships with the dead, it’s still so difficult to acknowledge that such relationships might be reciprocal? There’s so much that’s been written in anthropology about the ways that people maintain relationships with the dead in other cultures, or in other historical times, from ancestor worship to potlatches. I learn a ton from that work, and I find it incredibly fascinating and valuable. Still, I worry that when we always look elsewhere to discover methods of relating to the dead, it corroborates this sense of a modern/premodern or us/them dichotomy around death and death practices, this idea that “we” are rational modern subjects and “we” understand that death is the breakdown of the body and the end of the psyche, versus these other social worlds where spirits live among people. I will say, this is something that my mentor Ian Whitmarsh and I continue to argue over, and he makes the very valid point that the fact that anthropologists tend to look elsewhere for their objects of study doesn’t mean that they are always claiming to find their opposite. Regardless, part of what I was interested in doing was showing how these hypermodern, technologically advanced, English-speaking worlds are the very space of possibility for intimate reciprocal relationships where the dead are animated.

RTN: I see a parallel between what William Mazzarella (2017) is doing in The Mana of Mass Society, in thinking about the way in which the mana concept—perhaps for you, the animism concept—how the mana concept reaches its full realization within the contemporary, perhaps hypermodern, media landscape. That’s obviously not explicitly what you’re doing with animism, but there’s a way in which you’re recuperating something that in early anthropological work had been cordoned off or displaced onto the non-Western or various kinds of Others. So I think it’s a really cool move to recuperate that, and relocate it specifically in a realm that has been framed as hypermodern or hyperrational, a realm that’s seen as the kind of culmination of some kind of disenchanted modernity.

MH: Mazzarella’s work has been tremendously influential for me. In The Mana of Mass Society (Mazzarella 2017) he uses extimacy to think about that effervescence, the way that it seems to come simultaneously from without and within. I had already written the manuscript when his book came out, and I was excited to see that he had also arrived at extimacy as a way of thinking about contemporary media and media relations. It made me feel like I was on the right track! He’s not explicitly looking at digital media when he talks about extimacy, but he is similarly thinking about extimacy as a form of relation that also perhaps has this epochal dimension, and linking it to certain kinds of mediated experiences.

RTN: Yeah, maybe this is also just my personal bias because I’m trying to write dissertation fieldwork grants about puppetry and different modes of re-enchantment in a certain sense, too. It involves a kind of blurring of boundaries, a disruption of the boundaries we draw—there’s this kind of reanimation or re-enchanting. Speaking of troubled boundaries: it’s interesting that extimacy has come up in relation to this kind of epoch of media.

MH: Along those lines, Teri Silvio (2010, 2019) thinks about puppets and characters through Winnicott’s notion of the transitional object. Winnicott was literally describing the objects that babies and young children carry around and become very attached to—for my two kids it’s their blankies, but often it’s a stuffed animal. He was trying to understand how people come to develop a sense of themselves as bounded entities, and others as separate bounded entities, and that brings a huge amount of separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is not just, “Oh, this person that I’m used to having around is gone,” but is also a deep anxiety about the fact that the infant is a separate person from the one who has left. The transitional object is sort of halfway between being a distinct entity and being the infant themself, a middle ground between self and non-self. So Silvio suggests that puppets and other animated figures—what I call characters in the article—might occupy this ambiguous zone between us and them, psychically as well as socially.

Art by Robyn Holly Taylor-Neu.

I have two questions that I’ve been trying to coalesce during this conversation. The first one is something you don’t necessarily touch upon in the article but you mentioned now, and it’s the terming of the queer relationalities across times and space and age, so I was wondering for you, how does queerness as a framework or methods that people are employing through digital mediums, how is that being conceptualized? Are some of the aspects of the project queer because it is a non-normative way of mourning and expressing grief in animating the dead, or is it queer because it cuts across time and space and age? I’m just interested in hearing more from you about how queer relationality takes place and marks the relationships that form between the living and the dead for your interlocutors.

MH: Oh definitely. That’s my dream for the next article, to think queer bodies in relation to avatars and virtual bodies of the dead. In terms of your question about how queerness is raised by my work, I think there’s a relatively straightforward way in which these online spaces are hospitable to relationships that fall outside of the conventional norms of kinship or intimacy, and become even more inscrutable to others after a death. Certainly many of the people that I worked with were mourning spouses or siblings or parents, in some cases even children. But many others were mourning for relationships that didn’t fit classic kinship models. The relationship between Corey and Marty that I talked about earlier is certainly an example of this, involving two women with a significant age difference who were communicating exclusively online. The lack of understanding and acknowledgment of the extent of her loss left a real void for this young woman, Corey, at a time when she was trying to come to terms with Marty’s death and what it meant for the relationship she still had with this woman.

But I would also say that in some sense, as you alluded to, all of these relationships that I describe, these intimate relationships rooted in digital practices, in a sense they are all queer relationships. If you buy my argument that the model of grief today is basically a model of severance, then the idea that relationships [with the dead] can be deep and relational and reciprocal is to some degree foreclosed by these models. These intimate relationships with the dead exist outside of a framework for thinking about intimacy and relation that’s about gender and sexuality, but perhaps also about liveness, and liveliness, and bodily capacity.

I’m thinking about these questions in relation to a collection of queer theorists who have explored how the body figures into relationships, specifically intimate relationships. So we have people like Nayan Shah (2011) and Tim Dean (2009) who are writing about forms of bodily intimacy that take place in public spaces, these moments when the public/private distinction that undergirds so much of how we think about gender and sexuality is perverted, and in the process maybe comes undone a bit. Tim Dean (2009) writes about men who have sex with men without condoms, anonymous sex that’s often in public places, and while a lot of his work is about risk, it also raises these fascinating and important questions about what the foundation of intimacy really is, about what is necessary for intimacy. Then you also have this wonderful work on virtual bodies from people like Tom Boellstorff (2015 [2008]), who was writing early on about how physical and sexual relationships take place in Second Life, including among people whose offline physical abilities might make certain kinds of intimacies thornier. So building on these lines of thinking, I’m very interested in contributing to this question about to what extent and in what ways the body is necessary to an experience of intimacy, and what kinds of bodies or corpuses might ground experiences of intimacy.

BE: In thinking about the radical potentialities that these relationships allow for, there’s a way that in your article liveness is always already a coming into being for the dead and the living. I’m interested in hearing from you in that regard and about how other emotions figure themselves into this articulation of intimacy and animation.

MH: I would certainly agree there is a kind of becoming, and that it’s a reciprocal becoming. It’s not that the living are living and the dead are dead but that both are in the process of becoming animated, and they’re in the process of becoming animated through these practices that take place in relation to each other. So animation, or animacy, is not a given, but something we must always elicit from others. The dead require it, but the living require it as well. In terms of other emotions or other affects that are engendered in the process, one of the things that seems unsettling to people about some of these digital practices is that the affects are not always those that are considered “appropriate” for relating to the dead, like sadness, or wistfulness, or fond reminiscence. When I tell people about my work, they often tell me about how disturbed they are when they see people posting to the dead on Facebook, especially when those posts seem very lighthearted, just updates from the person’s life, “Oh my god just saw so-and-so yesterday!” or something of that sort. It seems to them to be too frivolous for anything having to do with death or the dead. The other response I often get is people asking me if I’ve seen the Black Mirror episode about death and social media (“Be Right Back,” Brooker and Harris 2013). And I actually think that episode is an amazing touchstone for both the optimism and anxiety around digital media and death. In the episode there’s a young woman whose fiancé dies, and she signs up for a service where she can chat with him online. It’s an AI version of him that’s been constructed from all his social media posts. There’s a scene toward the beginning where she’s in bed chatting with him, and she’s laughing and almost giddy, re-falling in love with her fiancé through this chat bot, and it’s this uncanny scene that seems deliberately designed to make the viewer uncomfortable. Then she signs up for the next step of the service where they send her an embodied version, a kind of android of him. It’s just not quite right, it’s too perfect and she doesn’t trust it, and the show becomes very dystopic. She ends up locking him in the attic. So you can see that on the one hand, there’s this optimistic idea that we’re all generating so much data, and technology is progressing so quickly, that we’ll be able to create these quite realistic and interactive embodiments of the dead in the near future. Yet that optimism is paired with an anxiety, almost a terror, that these versions of the dead will be inauthentic and yet we won’t be able to be rid of them, they will haunt us like this android ghost in the attic.

RTN: Well, it gets back to the anxieties around doubles and the doppelganger. There’s always that sense of the uncanny, that there’s something off or something more other about this other. Even though it’s always already an other.

MH: Yeah, I think that undergirds a lot of the anxiety around digital data in relation to the dead. Whereas I wanted to go even deeper with it, in a sense. It’s not that there’s a double only in the digital realm, it’s that there are myriad doubles or versions. We can see that for Erin. She keeps coming across her mother in these very rich, sensual ways in different places, in objects, in conversations, in other people, in herself. Each time a really intense, partial evocation of her mother flashes up and the relationship is reactivated.

RTN: That makes me wonder how different it is for people who aren’t dead but who are just distant. I was thinking about that, and about the anxiety that we ourselves are fragmented and exist in all these different traces out there in the world, that we don’t have control over. I feel like there’s a lot of anxiety about that as well. Even in the way we started this conversation, discussing it being recorded—where will my voice and image go? There’s a way in which recognizing the character and the database-like quality of the dead makes us then also go back and think, “Wait, I’m also appearing in this way without even being dead”—insofar as our images and voices are scattered across various media.

MH: Exactly, and I think that’s how the dead are animated because that’s how the living are [animated] as well. We exist as multiple versions and many sketches and evocations. We are different things to different people, and we are collections of those relationships and are therefore distributed over many bodies. Perhaps that is part of how and why these relationships with the dead can persist and can be reciprocal. It also makes me wonder how Erin’s mom encounters Erin. I wonder what traces Erin has left behind that her mother comes upon.

RTN: Or how many traces Erin comes upon that are already—because that relationship was already imprinted in a certain sense. Erin’s mother, as Erin remembers her or encounters her, was already imprinted by that relation. There’s a continual reciprocal imprinting.

MH: I like the idea of imprinting. I like that juxtaposition between imprinting and inscription.

RTN: Yeah, totally. I like that.

MH: And coming back to this idea of the promise and pitfalls of digital media specifically, there’s this idea that a person’s digital footprint might be complete enough and might offer enough fidelity that the digital data can approximate the living person. So the idea that when it comes to the dead, we will one day be able to build something like a chat bot from the database of online communications, social media posts, etc., that people leave behind when they die. This is what the Black Mirror episode is based on, but there are also start-ups that have gotten a lot of media attention for trying to do something similar or proposing that they will be able to do so in the near future. Part of what I found really fascinating during my research was that, whatever the capacities of the media, people were using these digital media not as a means of preserving their loved one or a way of creating a full representation of them. It was about engaging with these very partial versions. It does something different with the archive, I think. The digital database that we leave behind when we die becomes a space of possibility, but what it makes possible isn’t resurrection, it’s animation.

RTN: When we were talking about queer relations, I was thinking about the literature on queer archives, and the way that people have tried to “queer the archive” by making it messy or more fragmented or maybe more about imprinting (instead of inscription).

MH: Totally. And it also raises questions about the relationship of kinship to new technology. Both anthropologists and queer theorists have done a lot of great writing on how kinship bonds are formed and interpreted as new technologies come along. So classically, things like in vitro fertilization or surrogacy where the actual parentage of someone doesn’t fit with our kinship models. As you might expect, I found that these digital practices were also a way that people were forging kinship and remaking kinship relationships. For example, with the virtual reality experience between the young man and his father that I very briefly described in the article, the game developer who created the avatar of his best friend’s father told me that he used his friend as a model for his father. He based the avatar on his friend. He wanted to heighten the physical resemblances between them. It felt like he was creating or re-creating this almost biological kinship relationship between the two of them, in virtual reality.

RTN: That’s amazing—that’s so interesting. I feel like you should definitely write this article.

MH: It’s super interesting, and also gets me thinking about race and racialization.

RTN: It’s interesting how one goes back to the biological as a ground for kinship even in these digital spaces.

MH: It also plays with ideas of reproduction, because they involve intimate relationships that cannot produce a biological child. I think it further challenges ideas of “natural” detachment, where the endpoint also implicitly involves forming an attachment with a living person with whom one could share a bed, and eventually share progeny, in this heteronormative regime of life and death. Yet when we think of reproduction more capaciously, there is so much that these digitally mediated relationships produce and reproduce. There’s a kind of coupling, and that coupling creates something new that’s neither fully alive nor fully dead but is something in between, a progeny in the form of the relation.

RTN: In this case, with the young man’s father being modeled on him, there’s an interesting version of that.

BE: Molly, if you have questions I want to give you the space to ask them as the author.

MH: I’m working on a talk that explores the figure of the ghost in relation to digital media and animation, drawing from some of the literature on specters and spectrality. Derrida (1994) introduces the notion of hauntology in Specters of Marx, calling on us to pay attention to the ghost and to extend our hospitality to the ghost. I use Derrida to propose hospitality as a kind of ethical mode of relation between the living and the dead. In some of the literature that follows Specters of Marx, the ways that hauntology is taken up, the ghost becomes something to be banished or exorcised. The ghost signals trauma, and when it appears it signals a breakdown of the social. There’s this lingering sense that if we can improve our relationship to history and correct the many traumas that we have inflicted on others, then we can exorcise the ghost. Whereas I’m interested in going back to that Derridian idea of the specter as something that should be invited in, something that you learn to live alongside rather than exorcise.

Which is all to say that I’ve been thinking about whether and in what ways the digital forms that my interlocutors engage might be ghostly. Is the specter an appropriate figure here? In proposing the character as an alternative to the specter, then what precisely are the points of distinction?

For me there’s something about the materiality—or perhaps the immateriality—of the ghost doesn’t quite fit. The ghost does have a body, but what makes it spectral is that the body is immaterial. It’s an immaterial materiality.

RTN: There’s also the sense that the ghostly body takes energy from the living. Aren’t ghosts supposed to make the air around them colder? There’s this notion that if one senses the ghost, it’s through their borrowing from the living.

BE: I think part of how you can begin to think about it is, part of it hearkens back to our earlier conversation, is that there are these multiplicities of selves that exist in the multiplicities of digital spaces. So there’s a way that the figure in the singular isn’t enough in the ways that the body isn’t almost enough in the ways that flesh is not enough to contain the dead—which leads to the part of this conversation of how you can think about the way the specter and how they are carried like the technologies that hold them or carry them in a way. I’m just thinking about what it is, to return to your article, to carry around your dead mother. Like Erin, for example, who has that spreadsheet, which I assume is very accessible through your phone or your laptop. So, in a way, she carries her dead mother around all the time, but she also sees her. So in a way, there’s a multiplicity of the ghost. But I like your invocation of how you are inviting us to dwell with, to be with, to sit with, and to attune ourselves to feel, and see, and be in other ways.

RTN: The relation between the specter and the multiplicity of manifestations that the database makes possible is interesting. One of the things that struck me was that across all of these manifestations there’s a notion of unity. Which I think gets back to something one’s tempted to call soul. The idea of a unified essence of the person somehow. That’s not unchanging, that’s actually always changing, that manifests across these different forms but somehow holds together, right? That’s also remarkable in a certain sense, and I raise this in relation to the specter because the entity—as a spirit or as a soul or an environmental effect—is always encountered through a multiplicity of manifestations because it’s not contained in one body. So there’s an interesting parallel between how we think of the ghost and the soul in the way in which these digital . . . it’s like the ghost in/and the machine kind of thing again.

BE: I think to get back to these processes—Erin sees her mother in the water bottle and in the tree and she exist in the app, but what she’s maybe really in is the process of using that application and creating that technology. It’s a practice, it’s a process, it isn’t a thing. It’s actually a process of coming into being.

MH: Yeah, I like the idea that her mother is in the water bottle, in the app, but she’s also in the process of using the app, of creating the technology and engaging with it. That willingness to continually reactivate that relationship is really where you find the essence of the relationship, the animation by another.

RTN: The ghost is both figure or form—and content in a weird way, too. There’s this way in which content then fills these figures or forms.

MH: I don’t know if I necessarily agree that the character has a unity. It’s more about a form of recognition that is exchanged. It’s not that the water bottle is her mother, it’s that she recognizes her as such, and the act of recognition is what holds the many versions of her mother together. Particularly when it comes to relations with the dead, and characters of the dead, where there’s an aspect of productive melancholia involved. If there’s a unity to the dead, to the dead-as-character, instead of wholeness at the center that holds the different versions together, it would be more like the absence that is outlined by the different manifestations and versions. I sometimes imagine that in relation to those digital practices if you remove a person you’re aware of their absence as the space that’s outlined by these relationships, these networks of relations.

RTN: I think that totally makes sense, even just thinking through social networks and the way they shift in response to an absence. And so, there’s a way in which the dynamic quality of a relationship is not just between, for example, Erin and her mother, but involves this larger network that is also kind of shifting.

MH: Yeah, exactly—the water bottle that is her mom, and the café that reminds her of her mom, and the sweater she puts on that reminds her of her mom, and her friend that she has the conversation with, and even myself, the anthropologist, bringing her mother continually up in conversation—each time as these nodes and versions.

BE: I think that for me it brings in this question I had earlier about the tension of the digital and the physical where there’s this collapse or there’s a refusal in your work. There’s a way that there’s a negotiation of secrecy and the public aspect of mourning. For example, when Erin finally shows you her own database and says that she’s never looked at it fully fleshed out like that and there is the publicly posting on people’s walls. There is this negation of secrecy and publicness of where and when they mourn and the way they mourn. Like when you look at the young man with his father in the privacy of his own home, but Erin goes to the café and that’s where her mother becomes animate. How does that play into the tensions of public and private?

MH: Some of the queer theorists that I’ve mentioned like Tim Dean are working to break down this idea that the appropriate place for intimacy is in a private, walled off structure. For many of the people that I worked with, the spaces of their intimacy with the dead were open to others—Facebook pages, online forums. Many had quite meaningful attachments to the Facebook profile page of a dead loved one, in part routed through the semi-public comments that others were leaving on their loved one’s page.

There’s a tendency in the nascent literature on grieving online to call this private grieving in a public space, and I found that characterization to be far too thin. For example, in thinking about Facebook, it’s not straightforwardly a “public” space. In particular, deceased people’s profile pages and memorial groups have privacy settings that set boundaries that are sometimes guarded quite carefully. The media platform helped create these sanctioned boundaries, establishing who was allowed within and who could or could not have an enduring relationship with the dead via this particular media.

So I want to be very careful, to give great care to characterizing the relative openness of the digital spaces in which these relationships with the dead were able to deepen, to do justice to their intricacies and to the differences among them, which was also an ongoing process of negotiation for my ethnographic subjects—figuring out how and to what degree to draw others into their relations with the dead, which could invigorate the relation but also threaten it.

BE: Yeah, it’s interesting: This attending to these rationalities with care. Care as an affective and embodied practice on the behalf of both parties—the dead and the living. You are articulating that, you are also in a way trying to extend that—attending to something with care is an extension for you in your methods as an ethnographer and as a writer in how you to attend to your “data” with care. Care manifests itself in the ethics and with respect to the radical possibilities that these people are enacting and that you are attempting as an anthropologist to attend to the communities that we work with with care.

MH: I love that. I think care is a great concept too because it carries with it overtones of responsibility and demand, as well as an underlying aggression. The dead place a demand on us, and there is a degree of ambivalence that comes with our responsibility to care for the dead.

My ethnographic subjects felt a degree of guilt or responsibility toward the spaces or homes that were mediating their relationships with the dead. Perhaps there is some ambivalence, too, in the dead’s responsibilities toward us.

I certainly hope to treat my ethnographic subjects with the same degree of care that they showed toward each other. I’m haunted by them in ways that place a demand on me and are sometimes more intrusive that I might desire.

BE: Different ways of haunting, I suppose.


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