Show Hide image

The ghosts of our lives

From communism to dubstep, our politics and culture have been haunted by the spectres of futures that never came to pass 

Everything, it seems, is going badly. We are living through an age that has had its promise suffocated by austerity, that has exhausted us through precarity; an age where our leaders have weaponised hatred of immigrants to manufacture a constitutional crisis that no one seems able to solve or stop; where climate disaster is scoffed at by some as the selfish concern of the politically correct and middle class.

What should we think about such an age? What intellectual resources can we use to help us understand it? Here’s one candidate: hauntology, perhaps the most important, political-philosophical concept we have right now.

“Hauntology” is one of those difficult but trendy philosophy words that seems designed to exist on the margins of our consciousness. Even those who use it often seem to have a pretty shaky grasp of how exactly it ought to be defined. The term originates in the work of the notorious (and notoriously difficult) Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and is first mentioned in his book Specters of Marx, which was originally delivered as a series of lectures at the University of California in 1993.

The word “hauntology” only appears three times in Specters, but it’s central to what Derrida was trying to articulate. Derrida wrote and gave his lectures following the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the wake of the “death” (as was then declared) of communism and the end of the Cold War. Liberal capitalism, having seemingly triumphed, could now – according to the understanding of events championed by the Anglo-American political and media establishment – get on with the business of spreading peace, prosperity, free markets and democracy to every remaining corner of the globe. In the words of Francis Fukuyama, we were at the “end of history”.

But Derrida did not see things that way, and was determined to rub against the grain of the widely accepted view of the collapse of communism. For many on the intellectual left, as Derrida pointed out, the promise of “really existing” communism did not die in 1991 but in 1956, with the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. Moreover, the demise of the Soviet state, he argued, would by no means cause the demands for justice associated with emancipatory politics simply to go away. At one stage, Derrida lists all the various horrors of the world as it was in the early Nineties, from mass unemployment to homelessness to inter-ethnic conflicts, all of which would be exacerbated – not relieved – after the collapse of the USSR.

“If I am getting ready to speak at length about ghosts,” Derrida wrote at the start of his work:

It is in the name of justice. Of justice where it is not yet, not yet there, where it is no longer, let us understand where it is no longer present, and where it will never be, no more than the law, reducible to laws or rights… No justice – let us not say no law… seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism.

****

To get a basic sense of what exactly “hauntology” is supposed to mean, imagine the much more common philosophical term “ontology” – the study of “being”, of what is or what exists. Now imagine someone saying the word “ontology” in a sort of hoity-toity French accent: ’auntology. Hauntology is sometimes referred to as a “puncept” – if ontology is the study of what is, then its punning cousin is the study of what is not.

But how can we have a study of the non-existent? As Derrida points out, what is not can nevertheless have very real effects: a “presence”, though “virtual” and “insubstantial”. “The logic of haunting,” as Derrida claimed, is “larger and more powerful than an ontology or a thinking of Being.” It harbours within itself “teleology” – the doctrine of design or purpose – and “eschatology”, which is the study of the end times.

One example Derrida gives is Marx and Engels’s assertion at the start of The Communist Manifesto that “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.” Communism, in 1848, when Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, did not yet exist but its threat, its promise of social liberation, its possibility of overthrowing the existing political orders, was causing “all the powers of old Europe” to enter into “a holy alliance to exorcise” it: “Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radical and German police spies.” And this process was repeated with still greater intensity throughout the course of the 20th century: all anyone need do is look at how the English media covers Jeremy Corbyn and his programme of mild parliamentary social democracy to see how the spectre of progressive politics remains with us (and haunts the establishment) today.

Back to the future: Mark Fisher noted that since the 1990s “cultural time has folded back in on itself”. Pal Hansen/Contour by Getty Images

Spectres such as that of communism are a sign that – as Derrida put it, quoting Hamlet – “the time is out of joint”; or rather, the present is “non-contemporaneous” with itself. Ethical demands, from the past or from the future, call on us to change things so that a given society, culture, or legal system is no longer gamed to the advantage of the people in power. But this, of course, is why so many people have wanted to “conjure away” a spectre like that of Marx: why, in the broken, crisis-stricken world that Derrida saw all around him, the political and media establishment were ecstatically intoning news of Marx’s death as if it were a “new gospel”, “manic, jubilatory, and incantatory”,  attempting to force a communism from the “not yet” to the “can never be”.

In Derrida, the concept of hauntology is very much a political one. But it is not, strictly speaking, associated with any sort of positive political programme: Derrida was no orthodox Marxist, and later on in the book he turned his hauntological gaze on Marx himself. Rather, hauntology is used primarily as a critical tool: a way of exposing the intellectual shallowness and indeed the liberal triumphalism of the age.

****

The cultural critic and blogger Mark Fisher, who took his own life in 2017, has posthumously assumed the sort of legendary status reserved for thinkers considered to be among the most important or insightful of their time. He associated the early Nineties “end of history” with what he called “capitalist realism” – the belief that there is no alternative to capitalism.

Under capitalist realism, we are experiencing what Fisher, quoting Franco “Bifo” Berardi, called in his book Ghosts of My Life “the slow cancellation of the future”. In both culture and politics we seem stuck in the same loop, Fisher said. Since the Nineties, the advent of the internet and mobile communication technologies have in many ways “altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition”. But at the same time, despite – or perhaps because of – these developments, “cultural time has folded back in on itself”.

Popular culture in the 20th century was, Fisher wrote, seized by a “recombinational delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available”. Just look at the trajectory of popular music, from Elvis to the Beatles to punk to hip hop to jungle. “Play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989,” Fisher said, “and it would have sounded like something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be.”

This spirit of innovation, crucially, was not confined solely to a small group of experts or enthusiasts: public service broadcasting allowed the work of television auteurs such as Dennis Potter to be beamed directly into working-class households; the arthouse films shown late at night on Channel 4 provided their own, freely available and popularly accessible, cultural education. Even municipal buildings, designed in brutalist style, seemed like heralds of a new, better world. Fisher called this cultural moment – which reached its peak in the late Sixties and Seventies before gradually being rolled back as Thatcher dismantled the institutions of social democracy – the age of “popular modernism”.

By contrast, “the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion”. In Fisher’s view, the current cultural moment is “in the grip of a formal nostalgia”, in which ostensibly “new” things are produced only through the imitation and pastiche of old forms (consider the example of a musician such as Adele, whose work seems situated in some non-specific “classic” era).

Fisher relates first seeing the video for “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” by the Arctic Monkeys: “I genuinely believed,” he said at the time, “that it was some lost artefact from circa 1980. Everything in the video – the lighting, the haircuts, the clothes – had been assembled to give the impression that this was a performance on… The Old Grey Whistle Test. Furthermore, there was no discordance between the look and the sound.”

This would have been fine, Fisher implied, if the Arctic Monkeys had been explicitly positioned as a “retro” group – but they were not. “By 2005,” when their single came out, “there was no ‘now’ with which to contrast their retrospection.”

It was originally as a way of understanding the “loss of the future” that Fisher – in correspondence with the music critic Simon Reynolds – began to invoke the concept of hauntology; and it is because of Fisher and Reynolds, far more than Derrida, that hauntology has gained what currency it has today.

Initially, the term was applied to a loose collection of artists that Fisher and Reynolds came to see as “the hauntologists”. These were for the most part electronic musicians – the likes of William Basinski, the Caretaker, the Focus Group and the dubstep artist Burial – whose work, Fisher writes, was “suffused with an overwhelming melancholy” and who were “preoccupied with the way in which technology materialised memory – hence a fascination with television, vinyl records, audio tape, and with the sounds of these technologies breaking down”.

The “principal sonic signature of hauntology” was the use of crackle, the surface noise made by a needle on vinyl. Crackle is inherently hauntological because – here Fisher followed Derrida quite faithfully – it “makes us aware that we are listening to a time that is out of joint”; it refuses to grant us the illusion that we are listening to anything other than a recording.

Simon Reynolds, for his part, distinguishes between separate manifestations of hauntology on either side of the Atlantic. UK hauntology “explore[s] a zone of British nostalgia linked to television programming of the Sixties and Seventies”; Fisher names the “cultural ecology” of “brutalist architecture, Penguin paperbacks and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop”, all of which recall the “popular modernism” of Sixties and Seventies social democracy.

A perhaps more familiar precursor to many of the “hauntological” artists would be Boards of Canada, whose classic 1998 album Music Has the Right to Children employed samples from children’s television shows such as Sesame Street, as well as analogue synth tones which, as Reynolds points out, deliberately recalled “the incidental music in Seventies wildlife documentaries or the perky-yet-poignant interludes between mid-morning TV for schools”. Such hauntological music has its counterpart in the “weirding” of Seventies broadcasting, art and design familiar from the mid-2000s comedy series Look Around You, as well as Richard Littler’s satirical “Scarfolk Council” blog, which presents what is ostensibly the cultural detritus of a fictional town in north-west England that “did not progress beyond 1979”.

American hauntology, by contrast, is defined by “vaporwave” artists such as James Ferraro, Daniel Lopatin (under the alias of “Chuck Person”), Saint Pepsi and Vektroid aka Macintosh Plus, whose work is rooted in the sounds and feel of late Eighties and early Nineties Americana: cheesy mall muzak and “yacht rock” like Hall & Oates, computer and video game start-up sounds, and snatches of fast food ads. A lot of this music has found a wider audience by being paired with footage from The Simpsons.

Mark Fisher doesn’t write so much about this music – perhaps because the politics it might lend itself to would be much less obviously progressive (what manner of leftist would want to find a way back to Reagan’s America?). But the difference between its British and American manifestations nevertheless helps us see that hauntology need not only be about the Seventies: there are all sorts of pasts, both good and bad, that we can be haunted by.

There is a danger that all this might be seen as simply nostalgic – that all hauntology does is look back on and attempt to replicate a lost past, just as, say, the music of the Arctic Monkeys can be heard as an attempt to replicate post-punk. But what is being mourned in hauntological music, according to Fisher, is not “a particular period” but rather the possibilities that certain bygone eras were felt to contain.

Brand new but retro: the Arctic Monkeys, 2006. Andy Willsher/Getty Images 

In Ghosts of My Life, Fisher says that “What should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy [for example], but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect but which never materialised. These spectres – the spectres of lost futures – reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist world.”

They show us, despite everything, that we don’t have to live as we presently do: that there could have been and thus could still be another way of organising things. In Derridean parlance, they help make the present non-contemporaneous with itself.

Hauntology is not, therefore, primarily about nostalgia: it is about imagination. Any progressive politics worthy of the name is founded on our ability to imagine a world better than the one we presently have. If capitalist realism represents the attempt to take our political imagination away from us, then hauntology can do the work to get it back.

****

Towards the end of his life, Mark Fisher was working on a book to be entitled “Acid Communism”, the (unfinished) introduction to which was included in last year’s collection of his writings, k-punk (named after his blog). Acid Communism, Fisher tells us, is the name he has given to “the spectre of a world which could be free”.

This spectre was felt most clearly in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when in addition to popular modernism and social democracy in the UK, experiments in the counterculture and democratic socialism – from the US to Chile to Italy – raised the possibility that humanity might do away not only with capitalist exploitation, but also with Stalinist authoritarianism. These experiments in governance and living made it seem possible to grasp, Fisher wrote, “what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy… the production of common wealth”.

Examples Fisher cites include the “mass avant-garde” of artists and activists squatting in Bologna; the “industrial Woodstock” at the striking Lordstown Assembly General Motors plant in Ohio; and the University of Essex’s Colchester Campus, which striking miners used as a base in 1972. These were moments of resistance, but also of shared public joy, of plenty and pleasure across race or class, blurring the lines between workers, artists and intelligentsia.

The premise of Fisher’s book on Acid Communism would have been that the past 40 years have been about exorcising this spectre – through “the project that has been called neoliberalism”.

More than anything else, Fisher’s notion of Acid Communism might be considered an experiment in applied hauntology. This allowed Fisher to do two things. First, he was able to develop a theory of how and why our world became what it did: what “spectral” forces were animating neoliberal hegemony. Second, he was able to identify some of the resources the left can draw upon if it wants to defeat neoliberalism: the possibilities inherent in the world just prior to the neoliberal turn. Acid Communism represents hauntology’s final transformation: from a critical academic tool to a category of political aesthetics, and lastly into the key that might unlock the future.

Already there has been a fair amount of public engagement with Acid Communism, some of which has explicitly linked it with the policies being pursued by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn – an event on “Acid Corbynism” at the Labour conference fringe event The World Transformed in 2017 raised a few eyebrows among pundits who didn’t seem to quite get the reference. And with the success of the k-punk collection having exposed Mark Fisher’s last writings to a much larger audience, the scale of this engagement is perhaps only likely to intensify in years to come.

****

But this is not the only way that hauntology can help us. When confronted with any political problem, a hauntological approach might prove useful. Hauntology can understand Brexit, for example, as an attempt to conjure away the spectre of “unchecked” immigration, which itself is one of the many spectres associated with climate change; it can understand the inability of Theresa May’s government to collapse in the wake of its failure to manage Brexit as an attempt to resist the spectre of Corbynism, prior to (the Tories must hope) an exorcism.

Likewise, we can find the remedy to these problems by, for instance, tracing Brexit back to its source – considering what could have been if, instead of continually pandering to Nigel Farage and the Eurosceptic right, the political and media class had made clear that the problems Farage and others were highlighting were almost entirely a function of austerity and used this as an excuse to advocate for a more redistributive economic programme (all this might be right or not – this is only an example of the sort of thing one might do using applied hauntology). Acid Communism itself can suggest a way of thinking about how we might mitigate the worst effects of climate change, by thinking back to how things might have been handled in the Seventies had the counterculture prevailed. Imagine if the “oil shocks” of that decade had provided the occasion for governments to switch entirely to renewables, causing global CO2 emissions to drop, as opposed to increase by around 90 per cent between 1970 and 2011. Would we have become so terrified of the future then?

All this is rather sketchy and programmatic, but by imaginatively projecting ourselves into the past and dwelling on its possibilities, we can learn from the people who populated it, making them into our exemplars. And progressive politics is founded on the power of imagination.

To understand why our politics have become so bad, we must confront the spectres of what caused things to turn out this way. To devise an approach to the present, we must find our way back to the possibilities inherent in the world at the lost moment, when it looked like there might be a chance for things to turn out for the better. That is both the relevance and the promise of hauntology.

Tom Whyman has taught philosophy at the University of Warwick and the University of Essex.  Mark Fisher’s most recent book, “K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher”, is published by Repeater

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special