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DOI: 10.1177/1532708609359510
2010 10: 243 originally published online 26 January 2010 Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies
Justin Armstrong
On the Possibility of Spectral Ethnography

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Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies
10(3) 243 250
2010 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
DOI: 10.1177/153270860359510
On the Possibility of Spectral Ethnography
Justin Armstrong
This article reflects on the possibility of engaging in a kind of ethnography of absence, an anthropology of people, and places
and things that have been removed, deleted, and abandoned to the flows of time and space. Here, the author suggests a
mode of ethnographic inquiry that performs an archaeology of the emptied present and of the vacant spaces of culture.
Using recent ethnographic fieldwork in the North American High Plains as the basis of his analysis, the author seeks to
reimagine his own ethnographic practices in the context of these hollowed-out and spectrally resonant spaces of culture.
What significance can be drawn from the multiple layers of time and materiality that have accumulated in these places and
what type of haunted narratives can emerge from the discarded remnants of human occupation? How can ethnography
excavate the lives-once-lived from the space of abandonment?
spectrality, ethnography, methodology, haunting, narrative
Why shouldnt a human being who lives with special
intensity imprint himself on places he frequents, and
be visible later to someone on the right wavelength?
(Anna Kavan, 1975)
The only sounds out here are of dried grass moving against
my jeans and the constant rush of the prairie wind in my ears.
There are no human sounds, only the noises of an uninhab-
ited place, noises that take over abandoned spaces just like
the grasses that have colonized and cracked the sidewalks
and streets of an emptied town, a town of specters. I look
back at my rented Suzuki Swift as it sits quietly along this
stretch of disused highway in southern Saskatchewan. The
car is a blue fleck of paint on a grey and brown landscape.
This grassland is a space that is always already distant, where
the fields of wheat seem to roll off into forever.
Orkney, Saskatchewanabout 250 miles southwest of
Reginahas a population of maybe four, maybe less, a
local farmer tells me when he stops to ask if I need help
with my car. Perhaps he wonders why anyone would stop
herein the middle of this apparent emptinessif there
was nothing wrong with their vehicle. I wonder this myself.
I tell him that the car is running fine, but that Im glad to
talk with him if he can spare a few minutes. I havent spoken
to anyone all day. Used to be a couple hundred, now most
people have moved off. Nobody left in these small towns
anymore, he tells me from underneath the brim of a faded
corduroy cap with a red pom-pom sprouting from its peak.
He tells me about how there were people and children and
animals in the town, how there were houses on every
street, and how his father was killed by stampeding horses
near the border with Montana, just south of here. His his-
tory is written in the land and in the remnants of this town
where he once lived. Once he has died, this town will move
a little closer to complete abandonment and to being absorbed
by the endless grass and wind of Saskatchewan.
The farmer and his truck continue down the highway to
Shaunavon in search of a tractor tire, and I walk back into
the school yard-cum-field to shoot a few more pictures of
the abandoned school-cum-curling rink that rests, almost
questioningly, out in a lake of yellow-brown grass. Looking
at this building, I ask myself what happened to this place,
why there are no children left in its two classrooms, and why
there is a railroad tie wedged tightly against the front door.
There is something strange and sad about a school with a
padlock on its door handles and a faded NO TRESSPASS-
ING sign that hangs, slightly askew, in one of its broken
I head back out onto the cracked and patched asphalt,
walking down the middle of Highway 18, toward what was
once Orkneys business district, and Im wandering down the
road as if there were nobody else left in the world. For many
years now, Main Street has been inhabited only by broken
McMaster University
Corresponding Author:
Justin Armstrong, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University,
1280 Main Street West, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, L8S 4L9
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244 Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies 10(3)
store fronts and a couple of red Canada Post mailboxes where
local farmers come to collect their Canadian Tire flyers and
bank statements. There is not a person to be seen at 3 oclock
on this Saturday afternoon in early November. I stop to
look, through dusty and cracked glass, into the old general
store with its overturned display cases and fallen ceiling
an empty reminder of a time when people moved and talked
in this space. In this buildings hollow shell, I can almost
hear the conversations that I remember from my childhood
in Saskatchewan. Spectral fragments of past conversations
flutter around the room like moths at night, their wings speak
of hail damage, rain, combines, dugouts, and grain prices. In
Orkney there are streets but no cars, windows but no glass,
houses but no homes; it is a personless place, and as I move
along its overgrown sidewalks, I start to sense the echoes of
the everyday lives once lived on this little shard of prairie
dreaming. Peoples lives reverberate back to me through time,
bouncing off of unclipped hedges and hopeless kitchens.
And as I travel the abandoned streets of Orkney, Saskatchewan,
the stories that are written in space and in things quietly make
themselves known to me through images and atmospheres
that I can only begin to capture with my camera. I do my best,
but photographs cannot sense this place, nor can they hear the
wind that reminds me of the emptiness that I have stumbled
into. I read the texts as I see them and catalog the constellations
of sense in this place. I add another volume to my growing
library of resonances and emptiness.
In attempting to outline the practice of what I have called
spectral ethnography, I begin by suggesting a subtle rethink-
ing of ethnographic spacethat fluid and transient expanse
in which cultural analysis takes placeas a possible location
for the study of the accumulation of cultural time (collective
memory, regional imaginaries, state, and popular histories)
and space in the wake of human occupation. In this form of
ethnographic inquiry, the traces, artifacts, and other reso-
nances that people leave behind act as the focal point of an
investigation of spectral ethnographic space. Within this
context, I am specifically interested in examining abandoned
(no inhabitants) and isolated (few inhabitants living far from
major population centers) places and their associated mate-
rial, environmental, and visual culture. I believe that these
spaces are ethnographically significant because cultural res-
onance emerges more clearly in the absence of the continual
relayering of new and conflicting narratives that often occurs
in inhabited spaces. Abandoned, isolated, and sparsely pop-
ulated spaces offer a unique opportunity for the practice of
an ethnography of visual and material culture that remains
largely unimpeded by the continual and rapid accumulation
of new and competing images, artifacts, and interpretations,
a condition that is virtually unavoidable in more heavily
populated spaces. With few, if any, people occupying these
locations, the spaces and their cultural accumulations and
resonances (both visible and invisible) are left to speak for
themselves (Shelton, 2007). The locations that I visited during
my research throughout the North American High Plains
appeared as fragments of time at a momentary standstill, a
snapshot of humanness etched on the landscape and as an
accumulation of time outside the realm of human influence.
Sites where spectral significancea term that I define
here as the embedded textual meaning that can be drawn from
subjective and reflexive interactions with abandoned spaces
and artifactsaccumulates have been described by novelist
Steven Hall (2007) as un-space and as non-place by anthro-
pologist Marc Aug (1995): These imagined locations exist
on the periphery of inhabited space; they are the margins of
the passage of human occupation in space, slivers of life
lived at the edges of the everyday. Aug sees nonspaces as
locations of transit, the spaces that people move through but
rarely engage with: airports, subway platforms, highways,
ghost towns seen from car windows. Orkney, Saskatchewan,
and the other locations that I explored thro ughout the prai-
ries have, in many ways, become nonplaces: a darkened
blur seen at 70 miles per hour, a collection of dead build-
ings, of static time. Typical interactions with these spaces do
not encourage slowness, reflection, or stationary occupa-
tion because, on the surface, they appear empty, lifeless,
and silent. In the practice of spectral ethnography it is nec-
essary to embrace and cultivate the slowness and reflexivity
of these spaces in order to effectively experience the accu-
mulated material culture and multilayered resonances of
spectral space. And while cultural and spectral significances
accumulate thickly in these locations, they are often
ignored, bypassed, and discounted as people and time move
through, around and between them. For many people, these
spaces are nothing more than empty passages of grass and
flatness that must be endured en route to some other, more
desirable destination. The spectral ethnographer, on the other
hand, sees these spaces as repositories for collective memory
and embedded ethnographic texts. To my eyes, these spaces
are anything but empty; rather, they are brimming with
signs and meanings that write themselves directly into my
movements and reflections.
For Hall (2007), un-spaces are the abandoned and unseen
locations that exist at the edges of everyday life and experi-
ence: store rooms, abandoned factories, disused libraries.
They are the hollowed-out spaces that are left to their own
devices and have been allowed to accumulate layers of sig-
nificance on their own terms; as they decay, they release
their resonances and collect new ones, all the while fading
slowly and quietly from collective memory, abandoned to
the expanse accumulated time, buried under waves of his-
tory and unremembering.
Orkneys general store and hockey rink are un-spaces,
shadows of former places cast aside in the drifting of time.
The concepts of nonplace and un-space reflect ideas of spaces
that remain peripheral and generally disengaged; they are
haunted by their departed human agentsthe people who
brought these nonplaces and un-spaces into being and have
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Armstrong 245
now abandoned them, leaving only imprints on the space and
its associated material culture (DeSilvey, 2007). These spaces
and the objects contained within them continue to reflect,
and are reflected in, contemporary everyday life and culture;
they are vessels for memories, imaginations, and histories.
These sidelong spaces of culture form narratives of move-
ment for their former inhabitants through stories, photos,
and memories, but I doubt if the cherished recollections and
pictures of Orkneys past reflect its current state. There are
two Orkneys: the one that I stand in, shooting pictures of an
abandoned storefront, and the one that rests quietly and sunny in
the corner of some aging farmers mind somewhere in a nurs-
ing home up in Swift Current. In un-space and nonplace
accumulations of time and things recall fragments of the past
lives of the living and of the dead; they reverberate out into the
future along the lines of an anthropologists imagination and
across the stories told to him by an old man in a blue pickup.
Up on a small rise, not far from Orkney, the husk of a
two-and-a-half-story farmhouse rests quietly in the afternoon
sun. In many ways, it looks like the place where my family
used to live, near Moose Jaw, and in its appearance along
the shore of Highway 18, it recalls another, older piece of my
own life in Saskatchewan. Ten years ago, I visited our old
house in Caronport, Saskatchewan; it was January, and I had
to wade through 3 feet of snow to get to the front door. There
was snow in the living room, and the walls had been turned
a yellow brown by the rainwater that had leaked in through
the roof. There was grey mildew accumulating in the unwatched
corners of the space that we used to call the sitting room.
I crawled up the steepness of the back staircase to my old
bedroom with its Muppet wallpaper and slanted walls, and
I saw a ghost of myself at 4 years old. The house maintains
its memories even though we are gone; they are written in
the structure and in its decay. On my last trip to Saskatche-
wan, I tried to find the house again, but it was goneeaten
up by the prairie. My grandfather and I spent the better part
of a day driving back and forth across the super grid (a col-
loquial term for the network of dirt roads that cross much of
rural Saskatchewan) looking for the house that Id visited a
decade earlier. Eventually we just stopped in the middle of
the road beside a few grain bins. There isnt anywhere else
it could have been. Thats where you used to live, my
grandfather says as he points out into the sweeping fields of
wheat. My ghost is homeless now. I dont even think that I
have a photograph of that house. The two of us sit there in
silence for a few moments, each collecting the scattered
memories of the house into tiny narratives and pictures in
our minds. Cmon, your grandmothers cooking dinner for
us, and we better not be late. And with that were off, in a
cloud of dust, as the prairie memories slowly pool in the back
alleys of our memories.
Spectral imprints on time and space are both visible (arti-
facts, ecofacts) and invisible (resonances, memories); in
emptied spaces, there are presences of people and objects
even when they have left. The study of these spaces and their
accumulated presences is the essence of spectral ethnogra-
phy. This form of ethnography is a practice that examines
spaces and objects as collections of accumulated and lay-
ered cultural texts (Aug, 1995) that have developed over
time (Shelton, 2007). This type of ethnographic inquiry
views locations and objects as being occupied by multiple
embedded narratives (time, memory, space/place) that emerge
in the spaces left vacant by their authors. These traces and
stories collect in the built environment, in artifacts and in
landscapes. The fragments of human occupation and/or
movement through a space act like letters, words, and sen-
tences that can be pieced together to draw out an understanding
of place and space. Much like an archeologist might reas-
semble the shards of a clay pot to form the whole, a spectral
ethnographer assembles stories of human-lives-once-lived
through the fragments and resonances that are left behind.
Sometimes it is the separation of authors (human agents)
and texts (material and haunted resonances) that allows the
most deeply embedded accumulations of time and space to
rise to the surface (Barthes, 1967); here, the processes and
results of abandonment can begin to speak for themselves,
but only if we, as ethnographers, are willing to listen. These
accumulations in emptied space act like a history that has
been scrubbed bare, distilled to only what has been left behind,
to what is immovable, unwanted. In the practice of spectral
ethnography, that which remains is equally significant as
that which has been taken away.
Sociologist Michael M. Bell (1997) has discussed this
idea of accumulated haunting and memory as a phenomenol-
ogy of place, a space where the absence of human physical
presence does not necessarily negate the existence of cer-
tain human resonances, or traces. Here, cultural significance
and the passage of time can be written into a landscape, a
building, or an artifact through the processes of inhabitation,
of leaving, and of being-in-absence. This phenomenology
of place maintains a kind of didactic agency that allows its
embedded meaning to be read and interpreted by whoever
encounters it, providing they are willing to engage with it
and untangle its multiple and fragmented accumulations. And
while these readings are often highly subjective and reflex-
ive, they also offer a unique point of contact with the ephemeral
nature of time and materiality through the lens of personal
experience and collective memory. We are always already
the center of our own memories.
The Practice of Everyday Afterlives
And this being-with spectres would also be, not only
but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of
generations. (Derrida 1994: xviii)
Within the practice of spectral ethnography it is important to
begin by first exploring the presences (temporalities, memories,
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246 Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies 10(3)
imaginations) and traces (discarded artifacts, writings, pat-
terns of use) that are left in the wake of the human occupation
of space and place (Ivy, 1995). To practice ethnography
within this framework of spectral awareness is to examine
people (more specifically, the spectral presences of people)
and place from a point of view that reads the stories written
in space and objects before addressing the cultural-historic
nature of a place as it is (re)presented by its producers and
inhabitants. In this mode of ethnographic analysis, the eth-
nographer should explore and document the spaces and
objects before engaging with the authors (the people who
live, or have lived, in these places) directly to construct a
personal and subjective reading of the space with limited
outside influences. This mode of subjective and reflexive
inquiry is useful because it allows the ethnographer to engage
with a space and its material culture without being affected
by preexisting narratives The presence of these narratives can
sometimes exclude certain cultural elements of the space
from the ethnographers analysis, while, at the same time,
privileging others and thereby direct the ethnographers
focus away from his or her individual readings of the space
and its contents.
During my own fieldwork among the abandoned spaces
of the North American High Plains (Wyoming, South Dakota,
North Dakota, and Saskatchewan) I made a point of docu-
menting and exploring all of the locations thoroughly before
speaking to any remaining residents; much of the time this
was not a concern because many of the places that I visited
were uninhabited. Here, the commentaries and personal his-
tories of those who live(d) in these spaces provided a
compliment (rather than a departure point) to the impres-
sions that I had already established on my own terms.
Dialogues with people like the farmer who I described ear-
lier serve to add color and shading to the atmosphere and
sense of place that I have already developed through my
movement through (and documentation of) a space. Within
the practice of spectral ethnography it is important to allow
these spaces and their associated material cultures to speak
for themselves (Shelton, 2007) through the lens of the eth-
nographers positionality; the resulting ethnography should
reflect a holistic and reflexive exercise in cultural analysis
that can then be complimented by more established approaches
to ethnographic fieldwork, such as face-to-face interviewing
and participant observation.
Building on Derridas (1994) notions of hauntology (here,
I use this term to refer to an ontology of hauntedness, or a
way in which we, as ethnographers, can create knowledges
from ethnographic examinations of hauntedness) and the
specter as the location of the liminal state between being
and nonbeing, it is my goal to illuminate the layers of ghost
texts: the accumulated cultural resonance of human presence
in spaces or objects that inhabit specific cultural locations
and temporalities. In many ways, these ghost texts are of my
own making in that I draw out certain affinities, memories,
and experiences and place them into the context of the spec-
tral spaces that I move through and between. Here, I argue
that this practice is no different than the ways in which tra-
ditional anthropological fieldwork constructs its texts out
of the ethnographers personal experiences, biases, and view-
points. In ethnography all texts are fluid, and they are always
partial truths (Clifford 1986). Perhaps these layers of
texts that I describe are what Derrida (1994) meant when he
described the rumbling sound of ghosts chained to ghosts.
It is important to point out that these presences are not
ghosts as metaphors for fright or warning; they are, more
than anything, the sense of presence of those who are not
physically there (Bell, 1997); they are the resonant frequen-
cies of memory, history, and imagination (Rethmann, 2007).
These presences are not simply the nonphysical aspects of
humanness; they are unique and polyvocal manifestations of
the passage of people through time and space and the accu-
mulation of their cultural leavings.
Sanger, North Dakota, hovers at the edge of the Mis-
souri river in silence. There are no human voices in the
houses, only the sound of the wind in the ash trees; the
general store appears to have collapsed in on itself some
time ago. Route 1806 is made out of hard-packed dirt, and
it leads me to the edge of a field where an overgrown track
that my roadmap calls Sawyer Avenue runs back toward a
small cluster of house skeletons and a few white ghosts of
refrigerators and stoves that gather themselves on a dis-
used front lawn. As I turn right, onto a nameless
once-upon-a-time street, there is a sense of place that takes
hold of my imagination as I see Sangers stories start to
unravel in between the empty living rooms and the rusted-
out cars. There are lives written in this space. Their stories
accumulate and can be read in the things that have been left
and in the open spaces where things have been removed.
One of the houses rests on top of a set of wooden blocks
and beams, a sign that someone thought that they might
take their home with them when they left, or at least that
they might someday return to reclaim it from the prairie.
The raised-up house is written here as a story of last hopes.
In another house, further down the street, there is cracked
yellow paint on the walls of the front room that I read as an
attempt to drive out the dark cold of North Dakota winters.
There are birds nests on the walls, and the wind blows in
through the glassless windows. The presence of these birds
and their homes is the absence of people and of their idea
of home. The front door lies on the linoleum floor, rotten
and off of its hinges. This place has come free of its moor-
ings as well and seems to drift unhinged in time and space,
at the edge of being. Sanger, North Dakota, is always
already a dreamworld (Shelton, 2007), a constellation of
ghostly memories and their faded curtains.
Spectral ethnography is a way of looking at culture as a
network of interconnected resonances, echoes, presences, and
other spectral accumulations that exist outside the domain
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Armstrong 247
of the present and immediately apparent manifestations of
culture. By formulating this approach within the current prac-
tice of ethnography, I am interested in exploring the connection
between the resonances and artifacts that people leave behind
and the qualities that they inject (consciously or unconsci-
ously) into their environment as they inhabit it and move
through its spaces. In a way, this project could be described
as an archeology of hauntedness in that it is essentially the
piecing together of stories about people, places, and objects
from the texts that can be drawn from the resonances of
their movement through cultural space and time. It is a kind
of archeology of the abandoned present, a reconstruction of
the past lives of the living and of their departed cousins. In
this context, it is important to remember that an object, a
person, or a place is rarely one-dimensional, singular, or
monovocal; locations and things are imbued with resonances
(ghosts) that form their character and speak to their cultural
significance in human vacancy. This idea echoes Benjamins
(1986) notion of the aura, a quality that has been described as
the appearance of nearness in the presence of distance. The
aura of a room in an abandoned farmhouse in rural Sas-
katchewan, Canada, emerges from among the decaying
cardboard boxes of oatmeal and soda crackers; it rises up
out of the wooden floors, littered with newspapers and
unopened mail; there is an aura that is written in objects and
their relationship to one another even though their one-time
caretakers have moved on. The untidy lifeworld of this
place lends an appearance of nearness to an embedded dis-
tance, even though it has been decades since there have
been footsteps in this kitchen.
Ghost texts (invisible dialogues between people and their
material and environmental surroundings) are inscribed every-
where; they are written and overwritten, crossed-out and
reframed; they are the palimpsests of culture, written deeply
in the heart of the human vessel and difficult to erase. Through
the lens of spectral ethnography, it is possible to see the ghosts
of culture as accumulations of time and space that work to
influence the ways that people move through their lives and
understand their associated and accumulated spaces, places,
atmospheres, and objects. These collected presences form
the cultural spaces that open up the locations for ghost texts
to emerge and interact with influences, both from within the
human mind and from the outer environment in all of its
psychological and physiological manifestations. These ghost
texts leave their traces everywhere, and as someone who is
interested in reading their stories, it is important for me to
try to work with my own embedded collections of ghosts
to interpret their messages. My accumulated experiences
have created a museum of haunted memories, especially in
Saskatchewan, the province of my birth. My own ghost col-
lection reads these spaces in specific, local, and subjective
ways, writing a story that is unique to my own positionality
and understanding of memory and space. Ghost texts are
simultaneously written and interpreted by each person who
encounters and engages with a certain space. A rooted haunt-
edness whispers the stories of place into my ear as I move
through the prairies in search of other abandonments.
The bits and pieces of discarded lifeworlds form sen-
tences and paragraphs through my presence and movement
in emptied (and emptying) space and time. What ghosts of
culture still hover around a derelict hockey rink in Orkney,
Saskatchewan? What stories can be read in the patterns of
disuse and leaving that I see written on a nearly deserted
town in Wyomings Green Mountains? Sidewalks that lead
nowhere, and then on into the ever-encroaching sea of grass
and dirt, tattered and fluttering curtains blowing through a
cracked windowpane, the stillness of a playground in the
shadow of a collapsing grain elevatorthese are the texts
that have been written by time, space, and human abandon-
ment; they are the texts of the accumulated presences that
haunt this hollowed-out geography. Here, in depopulated
and abandoned places, ghost texts can provide a way of under-
standing the cultural significance of human movement
through spaces and between objects. By documenting and
cataloguing (through photography, moving images, sound
recording, and writing) these leavings and resonances, it is
possible to see the patterns, connections, and stories that emerge
from the vacant spaces that are being drawn in time and place.
In Jeffrey City, Wyoming, the story of collapse is written
everywhere. The biography of abandonment, and what appears
to me as a billowing sadness, is etched on the surfaces of the
boarded-up apartment blocks and the empty house founda-
tions set adrift on endless waves of short-grass prairie. The
story of hopefulness and once-dreamt prosperity can be read
along a wide street, now strangled by weeds, on the western
edge of town. Here, the shells of a high school, an elemen-
tary school, and an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool
huddle alongside the fissured pavement of what was once
known as Bob Adams Avenue. As I walk the streets of this
empty place, I can see fragments of the dreamworld that
gave rise to these ruins. Like Benjamins image which
flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is
never seen again, I see the sparkling memories flutter past
my eyes before they are gone forever, into the Green Moun-
tains and out of time (1986, p. 255).
Not that long ago, in the early 1980s, Jeffrey City had
several thousand residents and a hearty economic base that
was tied to the uranium mine just outside of town. For a few
years, everything seemed to be going wonderfully, but pros-
perity in Wyomings Great Divide Basin was fleeting, and
by 1982 layoffs had taken the mine from a workforce of 554
down to only 47. Within 3 years of the massive layoffs,
Jeffrey City had lost 95% of its population (Amundson,
1995). And with nobody left to tend to the memories and
houses, the ghosts moved in and took up residence behind
darkened windows and in houseless cinder block founda-
tions. When I visited this town in October 2007 it was like
an exploded arcade, its passages littered with fragments of
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248 Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies 10(3)
dreamworlds that scattered across the plains, a museum of
things gone lonesome (O Neill, 2006).
In many of the abandoned and isolated places that I vis-
ited during my research I was struck by the pervasive sense
of faded hopes and evaporated dreams that hung thickly in
the atmosphere of places like Orkney, Saskatchewan, and
Jeffrey City, Wyoming. It was often in the views of vacant,
heaving sidewalks that I found the greatest resonance of this
ghostly and vanished dreamworld. In my view, the presence
of sidewalks in these towns represents a one-time belief in
permanence, a purposefulness, and a dream of prosperity.
A town with sidewalks imagines itself as a solid fixture on
the landscape, it is a pathway along which people move in
prescribed lines (Ingold, 2007) between houses, shops, and
purposes. Now these sidewalks are traversed only by the
ghosts of Jeffrey City and Orkney who haunt the abandon-
ment of the Great Plains of North America.
Here, in the spaces of abandonment, my ghost memories
are fluid; they move in flows, and they rest in the quiet corners
of forgotten prairie dreaming. In order to study these shift-
ing resonances, the would-be spectral ethnographer should
work to anchor him or herself in the moment as much as
possible and to allow the presence of ghost texts and their
associated stories to emerge from the act of ethnographic
being-in space and time (Rethmann, 2007). Here, the empty
spaces of culture become the primary location of cultural
critique. In this way, the aim of spectral ethnography, as I
imagine it here, is to draw lines (Ingold, 2007) of significance
between the embedded spectrality of culture and the every-
day human experience of moving through cultural spaces.
Reading (and Rereading) Ghost Texts
A ghost text is often intangible and invisible. The meaning
of a particular ghost text is dependant on its viewer or reader,
and it is, in many ways, the very absence of immediately
apparent and quantifiable ethnographic data. How, then, is
it possible to gain empirical knowledge of culture without
the presence of its usual sources (living people, places and
things)? Put simply, it is not empiricism that spectral eth-
nography seeks; rather, it moves toward an understanding
of subjectivity and reflection in ethnographic practice and
presents linkages not in the form of structural connectivity
and explicit patterns of culture, but in spatial, ideological, and
material resonances in the abandoned and isolated spaces of
cultural production. For example, the abandoned town of
Fillmore, North Dakota, with its deserted streets and over-
grown lawns, appeared as a place that was densely populated
with resonances of all kindsfrom the story written in the
receipts for motor oil and milk that lay scattered across the
floor of the caved-in general store, to the town hall with
its small, uncurtained stage, and a half-finished set for a
Christmas pageant that never happenedthe accumulated
presence of stories are written into its existence in time and
space and into its being abandoned. These resonant impres-
sions do not need human agents to make their stories known;
the lives of their authors are inscribed in overgrown base-
ball diamonds and chained-up churches all across the High
Plains. By simply moving throughand being inthis place,
the ghost texts of Fillmore made themselves known to my
ethnographic imagination. Out of prairie atmospheres and
discarded fragments of past living, I construct the my own
idea of Fillmore and its constellations of stories and images.
My own ghosts interview the ghosts of this place, and I
transcribe their fieldnotes into readings of the time and space
of this forgotten plot of land that lies dreaming and dor-
mant. Out in the grass, Fillmore sleeps in a space at the
side of the road (Stewart, 1996) where it remains largely
unseen and unimagined. This is not to say that human agents
and the authors of these ghost texts are not important to the
practice of spectral ethnography, it is only that I see them more
as offering a secondary compliment to the already existing
significance of nonhuman resonances. For me, ghost texts
are more resonant and reflexive in the absence of people.
Drawing on experiences both in and out of the field, I pro-
vide the following reflection on the ghosts, resonances,
people, places, and objects that haunt the edges of everyday
experience. In reflecting on the spaces and practices of spectral
ethnography, perhaps it is useful to remember that, as ant-
hropologists, we are not the authors of culture; we are the
curators of its museum, and, for this reason, we should act
accordingly by moving through these spaces, not as hunt-
ers, but as collectors. I do not believe that we should attempt
to rewrite culture with our movements but that we should
absorb and redistribute the auras, traces, and atmospheres
that we encounter in ethnographic fields of our own design.
In the practice of ethnography, I argue that the unseen is
often as important as the seen and that emotions and indi-
vidually perceived resonances can act as powerful analytic
agents through their affect on the anthropologist and his or
her movement through ethnographic space. This is not to
say that anthropology should focus all of its attention on the
invisible landscapes of culture or that we should disregard
the many insightful and useful theories and practices that
have preceded us. I do believe, however, that it is important
to consider the accumulated resonances of past and present
people, places, and things as we make our way through cul-
tural time and space in the service of ethnography.
South Dakota, Cowboy Boots
In the spring of 2007 I spent a week driving across Wyoming
and South Dakota. As I moved through the plains at 70 miles
per hour, I felt a strange sense of loneliness inside the seem-
ingly endless expanse of grass and sky. This feeling was not
born from the absence of people, it was the embodiment of
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Armstrong 249
the loneliness of placea hauntedness that is written in the
straightness of the roads and the graying wood on collapsed
homesteads that have been opened up to the wind and the
night. The highway led the car into the light brown and pale
blue, through the little towns of Rockerville, Keystone, and
Wheatland; through Lakota Sioux reservations; and the
Badlands of South Dakota. The ghosts that I imagined here
are drawn from my childhood in Saskatchewan and Northern
Ontario; they are the ghosts of abandoned places hollowed
out by the shift in industry and by migrations of people fol-
lowing jobs into other parts of the country. The ghosts and
their texts lay heavily in the quiet voices of the fields and
in the emptiness of forgotten settlements at the side of the
I pass another broken-down house in the middle of a field,
a newer mobile home looks down from up on a rise in the
prairie flatness; neither structure seems happy, or hopeful
they are simply resigned to their fate, once again adrift on
the oceans of wind and unremembering. I stop the car to
walk out into the field and photograph this faded house. In
the yard-turned-field rests a dead tractor alongside an old
Buick. I imagine how these things were once new, blank pages
waiting to be inscribed by human significance, marked with
a special intensity (Kavan, 1975). Now these objects are
elderly and discarded, but for me they are also full of ghost
texts, embedded stories, and sparkling resonances. Their
stories are written in metal, rubber, wood, and glass; they
are something other than a house, a tractor, and a car; they
are vehicles for presences; and they tell a story that takes
place outside of now and outside of human living.
My father, sitting beside me in the passenger seat, once
lived in South Dakota, and he tells me his own stories as we
drive, stories about how things were, even before he was
born. He tells me about the Wounded Knee Massacre and
about how Rapid City never used to extend this far east. He
points out the street where his grandfather owned a liquor
store where he and his brothers would go for pop and candy
once a week, on Sundays. And now I can see another ghost
among the layers of time and space that roll up over the
hood of the Toyota as we leave the city, back into the noth-
ing of the South Dakota night. This landscape is haunted by
two kinds of ghosts: the ghosts of the loneliness of place
and the ghosts of my fathers memory. The ghosts of a col-
lected dreamworld populate this space, and they hang like
smoke signals in the air.
We stop at the side of the road, just past a crossroads, so
that my father can smoke a cigarette. I get out to shoot some
pictures of the immense sky and to stretch my legs. On the
other side of the road I notice a pair of cowboy boots, upt-
urned on fence posts. They are in good condition, and I find
it hard to imagine why someone would abandon them like
this: well worn, without holes or stains, no sign of human
life for miles in any direction. I photograph the boots, and
I try to untangle their significance as I walk back to the car.
I know that there must be some reason behind the place-
ment of these boots, but with nobody there to explain their
meaning, I am left to speculate and narrate my own stories
of their existence. The ghost texts of these boots take shape
in my ethnographic imagination, and I file their story among
the many ghost stories I have told and been told over the
years. In a way, all ethnographies are ghost stories.
In these open and resonant spaces of culture, past lives
are written in layer upon layer of time and space. These
resonances are not distinct or separate, but they overlap and
converge in constellations of beauty, sadness, and memory.
Among these collected traces of humanness, meanings, str-
uctures, and texts are constantly being recorded, erased, and
rewritten, but the fragments of time and space always remain
and never vanish totally from the accumulation of presences
they are the remainders of prairied lives. As my father and
I continue down the highway, we speculate on the meaning
of the cowboy boots, and as we drive, we reimagine the
resonances of this place and of its things.
Our South Dakota crossroad is an intersection of ghosts
and their texts. The traces and lines (Ingold, 2007) that I draw
from this place are crossing paths with the ghosts of a shoe-
less cowboy and an empty strip of asphalt near the Wyoming
border. Neither can speak to me; their voices get swept up
in the unending wind, and they blow away in the dust, down
towards Cheyenne and on into Colorado. In that moment I
become the author of these texts and form my own ethno-
graphic narratives as I drive deeper into the abandoned
afternoon and on to Minnesota.
An Ethnography of Ghosts
I believe that the practice of spectral ethnography is useful
both as a research methodology and as a way of contextu-
alizing and understanding the subjective and nonhuman
presences of culture (what I have called ghost texts). The
basic elements of this kind of practice are already present in
current anthropological discourse. The specters of ethnog-
raphy have yet to be named and presented as viable knowledges.
Naming gives agency to ideas, and it has been my goal, in this
article, to name the resonances that I so often experience in
the open, vacant, and isolated spaces of culture. By naming
these presences, it is possible to gain access to their rich and
polyvocal texts and to work to construct meaningful, engag-
ing ethnographies from the accumulated resonances of cultural
time and space. In this way, spectral ethnography builds mean-
ing out of these resonances and their relationships to one
another through subjective and reflexive ethnographic move-
ment, as well as through the practices of being-in-time and
being-in-space. A spectral ethnography is one that sees beyond
the boundaries of actually spoken language and direct human
contact to the interplay between space, place, objects, and
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250 Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies 10(3)
temporality. When understanding and analyzing the spaces
of culture, it is important to see the layers of ghosts that
accumulate in the paths made by human movement through
time and space. These ghost texts hail us, as inhabitants and
visitors in ethnographic dreamworlds; they lead us quietly
into their haunted landscapes of barely remembered dreams
and endlessly collected presences. As spectral ethnographers,
it is important to heed their calls and to follow them across
collective memory and on into a new way of imagining the
complex and varied spaces of spectrality and culture.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interests with respect
to the authorship and/or publication of this article.
Funding provided by Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council of Canada, McMaster University School of Graduate
Studies and Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition at
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Justin Armstrong is currently completing a doctoral degree in
cultural anthropology at McMaster University in Hamilton,
Canada. He has recently undertaken ethnographic fieldwork in
Maine, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Saskatchewan,
and Newfoundland. During this time he documented aban-
doned and isolated settlements in a search for haunted cultural
resonances while working to develop a practical methodology
of spectral ethnography. His other areas of interest include the
anthropology of street art, experimental ethnographic writing,
cultural geography, visual anthropology, and ethnographic
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