Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Liberal Studies


Jean Halley

Subject Categories

American Film Studies | American Literature | American Popular Culture | Fiction | Literature in English, North America | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Poetry


Ghosts, storytelling, memory, justice, mourning


Throughout my studies at the Graduate Center, I have attempted to deepen my understanding of how some people, such as myself and my family, came to be white, and what that means, and how it can be undone. This question of whiteness has pushed me further back ontologically, or deeper down, to include how some people came to be human, and then even further, how some matter came to be living. In my thesis project I attempt to participate in dismantling one of the most fundamental binaries in binary thinking — the strict and uncomplicated division between the living and the dead. I attempt to imagine what it means to speak with the dead, to live in relation with not only the non-human and more-than-human, but also the non-living, and how this might open other ways of thinking about responsibility (particularly in Donna Haraway’s sense of response-ability) across boundaries of time and nation and category of being. How might troubling the divide between the living and the dead show us other ways of valuing life? What alternate temporalities might it open up, against a linear, progressive model of time that marches ever forward out of a completed past? How might remembering differently create different possibilities for the future? How might thinking about the complications that are hidden in the strict division between the living and the dead allow us to question fundamental constraints around all that is considered possible and impossible, knowable and unknowable, present and absent? Exploring the porousness, the borderland, between life and death has perhaps a distinct urgency from the particular location of 2018, as I hope in my writing to respond to the lessons in the politics of mourning and remembering offered up by scholars and activists focusing on living and dying in the anthropocene, decolonization efforts, and the Movement for Black Lives. How best can we care for and respond to our ghosts? How might we push against the limits containing the dead and other non-living in a way that resists and rejects the devaluing of the vast expanse of precarious life on the planet today? How can we slow and stop the production of more devalued dead? Although truly a matter of life and death, these questions can feel at times impractical in their abstraction, and so I want to foreground lived experience in my writing, to approach these questions through both philosophical reflection as well as discussion of a broad range of examples from literature, art, movies, and music that explore the boundary between the living and the dead, the forgotten and remembered, the possible and impossible, the now and the never.

In my thesis I write about The Winchester Mystery House in California, Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 Ceremony, Octavia Butler’s 1979 Kindred, Ari Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary, Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out, David Lynch’s 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, two works by the Queens-based novelist Eugene Lim, Frank Ocean’s 2016 song “White Ferrari,” Alice Notley’s 1987 poem “At Night The States,” Tina Takemoto’s 2011 short film Looking for Jiro, Vince Staples’ 2017 song “745,” and close with a ghost story from my own neighborhood in Brooklyn. From a philosophical and theoretical perspective, I engage with Avery Gordon, Gloria Anzaldúa, Karen Barad, Denise Ferreira Da Silva, Lisa Marie Cacho, Audre Lorde, Colin Dayan, bell hooks, Kim TallBear, and others. As I thought about whiteness and who qualifies as a living human, I attempted to never separate these questions from the history of violence and oppression and injustice in the United States. I tried to remember and examine that history as something urgent and never over, as I remembered the dead and remember with the dead, who are neither gone nor silent, planning for and working towards justice that is still possible and yet to come.

I was guided both conceptually and formally by Gloria Anzaldúa’s borderland theory, writing a series of relatively short, interconnected essays. I was similarly inspired by both the form and content of Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On The Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, wherein she explains her decision to write “a riot of short chapters” as a way to “build an open-ended assemblage, not a logical machine; [to] gesture to the so-much-more out there” (vii). I am a poet as well as a scholar, and it remained important to me that this work includes honest self-disclosure and transparency. As I attempted to explore a space of imaginative possibility, I also endeavored to create such a space with my prose.