Claire Cronin’s debut memoir, Blue Light of the Screen (Repeater), has been my quarantine companion. While taking a social media break, instead of doom-scrolling in the middle of the night, I’d open Cronin’s collection of lyric essays and read a passage by the light of my phone. While the collection is intended to be read sequentially, its fragments—each a meditation on a ghost from Cronin’s personal history, a brief analysis of a horror film, a psychoanalytic case study, or a philosophical meditation on hauntology—can be read nomadically, like an aleatory composition.
My own experience of pandemic time has likewise been messy and broken, like a video stutter. My rural internet connection goes out. I’m lethargic, hypervigilant, simultaneously over- and under-stimulated, haunted by the news and by the resentment I feel for what I’d assumed this year would or could have been. I’m also hypervisible to others, who, like me, have segued their activities online, working and projecting their image on social media. At times during the pandemic, I’ve examined my profiles and wondered, Is this me? In the blue light of the screen, the trail of texts I’ve abandoned across platforms feels like a psychic residue, a tombstone rubbing of a person who lived long ago.
Hauntings, as depicted across the wide spectrum of pop culture and philosophy, have explored supernatural phenomena as individual and social experiences. Ghosts rise from the earth and emerge from the walls, bearing messages meant to be shared beyond the haunted individual’s immediate sphere of influence. Ghosts use people as transmitters that, once possessed or convinced, broadcast messages to the masses. While a haunting’s initial phenomena are first interpreted locally, often diagnosed as mental illness, the ghost’s trouble inevitably becomes too real, too embodied, too loud to ignore. Hauntings require collaboration, and ghosts press their haunted subjects into collaboration with family, neighbors, power figures, and spiritual leaders, triggering a collective response where the ghost’s traumas can be witnessed.
Cronin’s debut memoir details the varied history of the ghost, the horror genre, psychoanalytic philosophy, and the author’s reckoning with media and mental health. The elegant collection of lyric essays and illustrations offer a long-playing meditation on our current, haunted moment, lending itself to the itinerant reading style that we engage in as we scroll through social media in the middle of the night.
—Jasmine Dreame Wagner
Jasmine Dreame Wagner Could you talk a bit about the form the book has taken—the lyric essay as an approach to memoir and philosophy?
Claire Cronin Blue Light of the Screen is a book by a poet and songwriter who was learning how to write prose. My way of writing at the beginning of this project was fragmented, imagistic, and lyric. I was still grappling with what sentences could do. I wanted my book to communicate its ideas explicitly, because the material was personal and I felt so much was at stake. That said, sometimes the clearest way to communicate is through fragmentation and image. That’s a power that poetry has.
Philosophically, the lyric essay form of the book also reflects the fragmentation of memory through scenes, pictures, and dialogue. We don’t experience memories in chronological order. When I wrote this manuscript, I let my memories lead me from one place to the next. This created a spiraling, deepening effect, where themes emerged and returned later on. I didn’t set out to prove an argument or tell a story, though there are arguments and stories in the book.
Photo of Claire Cronin by Anne Cronin.
JDW Could you talk about your book’s psychoanalytic approaches to understanding ghosts as methods of righting past wrongs, or soothing individual and collective pain?
CC I’m interested in how the genre of psychoanalytic writing tells what are essentially ghost stories in order to deal with buried trauma. I’m interested in how memoir, a genre that stages a return to the writer’s past, is akin to the ghost story. The psychoanalytic case study, the memoir, and the narrative of a haunting, all look backwards. The past, which overwrites the present, is used to decode current suffering. It is pain that pulls us back and forth in time.
Freudian psychoanalysis is similar to exorcism or ghost-debunking in its aims and methods. The psychoanalyst believes in eerie, unconscious realms, curses that are passed through generations, and haunted domestic spaces. He wants to clear these things and return the mind to a state of normalcy. Freud’s case studies read like gothic literature, which is why I like them. At some level, I just don’t see the difference between the ghost as a psychoanalytic metaphor and the ghost as an actual entity that’s haunting a person. The emotional experience is the same.
JDW What are your thoughts about writing the ghost as a method of writing against literary or philosophical expectations or traditions?
CC In Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, which builds on ideas from Derrida’s Specters of Marx, Gordon wonders about what it would be like to write scholarship as if you were haunted, and to follow a ghost instead of an argument.
One way that I came up against this question was when thinking about how to be a good, respectable scholar. Scholars write about the “hauntedness” of things all the time, but for the most part, this is done in a detached way—emotional detachment is a requirement of academic articles and monographs. There isn’t room for the scholar to talk about what they actually believe regarding death, the afterlife, or the spirit realm. They’re simply trying to defend a position in an agnostic way and to demonstrate their expertise.
I quote Derrida in the book, “a traditional scholar does not believe in ghosts … There has never been a scholar who, as such, does not believe in the sharp distinction between the real and the unreal, the actual and the inactual, the living and the non-living.” I wanted to challenge this idea and try to be this kind of impossible scholar. I wrote Blue Light of the Screen as both a believer and a skeptical researcher. A draft of the manuscript was, after all, my dissertation at the University of Georgia. I felt a great deal of angst trying to hold both positions at once. The lyric essay is a form that allows this kind of tension—even requires it.
An illustration from Blue Light of the Screen by Claire Cronin.
JDW As a California native, what are your thoughts about ghosts rising from future technologies, from Hollywood’s legacy of characters like The Ghost of Christmas Future to Silicon Valley’s emerging AI consciousness, like OpenAI’s GPT-3 machine learning language generator? What do phantasms from the future teach us about ourselves?
CC I’ve been trapped inside for the past four weeks because of the air from the wildfires. Some days I don’t go outside at all. Recently, there was a day when the sun didn’t really rise. The sky was a dark orange haze. I thought about the supernatural fog that traps the family in the horror film The Others. It hovers around their house because they’ve all been dead for years and haven’t realized it.
Since the virus hit, and after months of isolated lockdown, I’ve been less concerned with theoretical ghosts and more concerned with real ones. There’s been so much death, and more predicted by the end of the year. Maybe if you have money and power, like tech billionaires, then you can continue to believe that immortality is within reach. But I’m thinking about real death and ghosts with unfinished business, who return seeking justice, ghosts from the future who warn us about a world we’re already in the process of losing.
I spent a lot of time in the book considering how the digitized ghost differs from earlier, photographic phantoms, and how our ideas of time and mortality change when our technology changes. Our lives are so mediated by digital, virtual realities that we can start to believe we’ve transcended the human body.
This long season of lockdown has often made me feel like we’re all becoming ghosts to each other—physically absent, flickering as faces inside screens. It’s very lonely. But in reality, I’m not dead. The important thing right now is to survive.