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Durham University

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Publication details for Professor Cheryl McEwan

McEwan, C. (2008). A very modern ghost: postcolonialism and the politics of enchantment. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26(1): 29-46.

Author(s) from Durham


Ghosts, spectres, and spirits and the stories told about them have long been a source of intellectual inquiry; they appear to be everywhere in scholarly discourse yet are largely absent from many recent debates about enchantment and modernity. This paper speculates on what happens to cultural politics when enchanted modernities are seen to encompass ghosts and ghost stories, and considers the political possibilities of specifically modern enchantments that have the power to enchant and disenchant simultaneously. The paper first examines the ways in which understandings of both enchantment and modernity have changed over time and, in particular, the impact of postcolonial theory on reconceptualising the relationship between the two. It then uses a ghost story encountered in fieldwork in South Africa to illustrate how the figures of ghosts and spirits can cast light on the lived experiences of postcolonial modernities. The paper contends that while ghost stories do not necessarily fit with more optimistic politics of enchantment, in the South African context they can represent active political engagement and produce positive political effect, rather than simply disenchanting those modernities that produce them. The paper concludes that an alternative approach is required to navigate between an overly cynical politics that works to disenchant the world and more optimistic accounts that focus on the ethical possibilities of enchantment. This necessitates a close reading of how modernities are enchanted in particular places and to what political effect.