Note: This is the first part of what will become my “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”
There is a word that I encountered during my graduate studies that I quickly latched onto as one of my favorite words: liminal. Not only did I love the sound of it (limm-ma-null), but I also loved what it meant: the in-between state, intermediate phase, being in transition. Liminality is what I feel like my entire life has been, constantly caught between two things: I am a cusp baby by way of astrological signs (Leo-Virgo), I am in that weird middle ground between Gen X and the Millennials, and for the better part of 5 years, from 2013 until 2018, I was in a constant liminal state of temporary work between finishing my PhD and landing a tenure track position at the University of Memphis.
I have lived most of my life in a constant state of feeling adrift; not unlike Gustav Mahler’s famous sentiment of being “thrice homeless.”
The first four years of that liminal state of employment was spent in Colorado, where I had done my PhD work, first plying my musicological trade as an adjunct professor at two local universities, and then three years as a special collections instruction librarian in a succession of temporary contracts with varying term lengths. I never felt settled, always worrying if this would be the time that my contract wasn’t renewed. It was disheartening, seeing as I left the adjunct professor life because it was too unstable. As an adjunct, I was never guaranteed the same number of classes from semester to semester, not to mention having to teach to the lowest common denominator just to keep up with the class prep and grading. However, my work as an instruction librarian inspired the career change that eventually led to ending that perpetual liminal state, though it also led to more school and more instability.
I eventually left the relative job security of rolling temp contracts in Colorado for a one-year visiting gig with no chance of renewal in Virginia, and my only hope of remaining on was in successfully interviewing for the permanent position version of my visiting job. Needless to say, that interview did not go well, though the cover letter refinements and interview prep skills that I had been building did finally bear fruit with my current job.
Before that happened, though, indeed before even beginning the interview cycle for any jobs in Virginia, I began conceiving of and writing a series reflecting on my personal history with some films that held deep meaning to me. My first six months in Virginia were filled with a lengthy, depressive episode, and I had begun to reflect on my past, and times in my life when I was strangely moved by a film or other piece of media. It was part reflection, part scraping at the wounds of my past to illicit an emotional response while in a rather numb emotional state, and part just trying to figure out what was going on in my life.
I had yet to recognize how both Virginia and my final years in Colorado could be seen as a liminal state, that I was in the process of becoming something—someone—new, though with the clarity of hindsight I see that that is exactly what it was. Going through the rite of passage from student to “adult”—though I wish I had a better word for this final form. The other thing that I realize now with the benefit of time and distance is that I really did need to leave the warm embrace of Colorado if I was to ever grow into that person I hoped (needed) to become.
For as much growth as I did during my decade long Rocky Mountain sojourn, everybody there saw me as a student first, and it forever colored our interactions—to say nothing of how I viewed myself. Still a student, not an expert, or, more pointedly, a professional. If I wanted to grow past that student state, I had to leave. Despite having my PhD and nearing completion of my library degree (I was in my final semester when I moved from Colorado), if I was ever to be anything other than Michael W. Harris, perpetual student, and become Michael W. Harris, professional librarian, I needed to move somewhere with none of that background and baggage.
It would not be easy, though. In those five years post-graduation, I had built the most robust circle of friends I will ever know, developed deep intellectual curiosities that I hope to cultivate for years to come, and finally found what I hoped was the path for my life and career. I was comfortable and loathed to change that, but I also knew that it was the thing I needed the most. Despite the relative comfort of Boulder, I had begun to be plagued by a sense of feeling unmoored. Untethered from so many in my peer group. I was in my mid-thirties, unmarried, deep in student loan debt, constantly living paycheck-to-paycheck, and with no end in sight to my life on “the temp track.” (While the name of my blog came years earlier when I was still in grad school, it seemingly took on new meaning in the years that followed.)
Admiral James Stockdale famously asked during the 1992 Vice Presidential debate, “Who am I? Why am I here?” For him, it was a rhetorical question, meant to allow him a chance to properly introduce himself to an American audience who had never heard of the decorated naval officer. For me, the question was one I was constantly asking myself as a credentialed musicologist finding himself working in a special collections library and becoming more engrossed in the history of print and information.
Who was I and why was I there?
My life, seemingly, was going nowhere. I was stuck outside the normal flow of life as demonstrated by others my age who were getting jobs, starting families, buying property. Instead, I was sweating my contract every six months or year, having to hustle with extra jobs to help make ends meet in the overpriced Colorado rental market, and spending my entire weekend doing work to earn my library degree that would hopefully get me off the temp track.
My life was, in the words of Philip K. Dick via William Shakespeare, “out of joint.”
* * *
This may sound weird, but I felt validated and understood for the first time in my life by the results section of a personality test. Reading the results for my INTJ personality, taken as part of a department retreat, I felt like whoever wrote them had ripped the words from deep within my mind and emotional core and presented them back to me. But it also made me wonder what the line might be between personality, astrology, traits associated with generations, and actual psychological conditions. Or at the very least if there isn’t a huge gray area of overlap. In my seemingly never-ending quest to better understand “who I am,” I have taken a number of personality tests to learn about those INTJ qualities, read about my astrological weirdness (again, Leo-Virgo cusp) despite not putting any stock in the practice, taken solace in the fact that I have never felt like either a Gen Xers or a Millenial, and wondered for a long time if I wasn’t also somehow autistic—especially given certain traits that my mother, her father, and I share with my nephew who is diagnosed on the spectrum. And while I finally made the call and have talked to a professional and have been diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder, there are some behaviors of mine that make me wonder that there might be more to it.
However, many of the traits that I think about when I imagine how to describe myself—long range planning, global thinking, optimism tinged with cynicism, laser like focus on single topics, finding patterns and significance in historical dates, my natural inclination to want to take over and lead when no one else volunteers or if I think I could do it better, desire to work alone, and lack of outward expression of emotion—all seem to overlap between my astrology, personality, generation, and psychology. It makes me wonder what the line between these things is, especially between personality and psychology. How much of what we see in our Meyers-Briggs results is our personality and how much could be psychological? This is especially apparent in my personality type of INTJ, which sometimes reads like the description of parts of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Maybe my personality and psychology are one of those edge cases, the gray area in-between. A liminal space between the clearly defined spheres of personality, psychology, astrology, and the study of cultural generations.
All these swirling notions came to a head, however, when I left Colorado and fell into my deep Virginia funk (#bandname). I had spent over ten years building the social circle I had in Colorado, and to suddenly be back at square one in a place with no existing connections was unsettling—and it didn’t help that it took a month for my stuff to arrive from the incompetent movers that we hired, or that my grandfather was dying and did pass by the end of that first month. All of these things heightened my sense of feeling adrift and out of step with the rest of the world. And knowing what I know now about my personality and psychology, it is no wonder that it took me over six months to begin to establish any sort of friends in my new job, to only then be ripped apart less than a year after I arrived when I moved to Memphis.
In that funk, though, as I increasingly turned inward to examine myself and why I was feeling the way I did in Virginia—and in the depths of my existential crisis of “who am I, and why am I here?”—I hit upon the idea for this series. It is hard now to resurrect the exact sequence of events that led to it, but I believe it had to do with revisiting Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival and my reaction to my first viewing of it. I reflected more on why my reaction was so different to that of my viewing companions, why I was struck so deeply by the revelations of its time bending plot, and Amy Adam’s character, while they were less…thoughtful. From there, I began thinking more about myself, my reactions to certain films, and then somehow I stumbled upon Mark Fisher’s use of the term hauntology and thus the seed of an idea had been planted.
It was quite natural for me, given my personality and psychology, to make that leap. I latched onto the idea with a fervor that I always have when I discover something new that fascinates me. I quickly began to construct viewing lists, reading lists, and eventually laid out a basic outline of what films I wanted to watch and then even arranged them into thematic groups (which I detail in “chapter_0”). It was my innate abilities being turned upon my innate self in an ouroboros of reflection and academic curiosity.
~end part one~