Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures
Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2014
Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx was an attempt to resurrect Marxism. Published in 1993, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe, Specters of Marx was an attempt to disrupt the apparent flow of historical progression and to reject the end of history thesis of Fukuyama which was then popular. Derrida applied a literal spin to the opening words of the Communist Manifesto (“A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of communism.”) and tried to argue that this specter of communism was in some sense an already undead conception, one that could be reread (deconstructed) and reapplied even after it’s apparent death in historical terms.
Derrida’s real aim was to lay the theoretical groundwork for a rehabilitation of Marxist discourse that would be able to step over the inconvenient atrocities of the past. For Derrida, following his own deconstructionist approach, there are multiple specters of Marx and communism, just as there are as many readings of a text as there are readers. It’s a curiously satisfying argument that chimes well with the attitude of contemporary Marxist thinking, simultaneously claiming its lineage within the dialectical progression of inevitable historical unfolding, yet disavowing those elements that now look somewhat embarrassing. It’s an ingenious sort of highfalutin cherry picking.
Derrida referred to his pseudo-mystical method of interrogating specters as “hauntology,” a Francophone pun on ontology. Hauntology signifies the study of both being and (liminal, residual, virtual) non-being. The past might be a foreign country but it is constantly making incursions into, and bargains with, the present (and the future).
It would be wrong to say that Derrida’s book has spawned a hauntological artistic movement but what it has done is allowed otherwise disparate cultural artifacts to be read in terms of their engagement with past forms. Superficially, this often encompasses musicians who sample retro or analogue sounds and, more broadly, artists who attempt to play with concepts of nostalgia, often in ideological terms. In his new book, Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher has curated an assemblage of artists working in music, film, and literature all of whom in one way or another represent an aspect of hauntological praxis.
The first essay, “The Slow Cancellation of the Future,” is an excellent introduction to the subject and should serve as a useful stand in for anyone who doesn’t want to wade through Derrida’s eccentric prose. Fisher demonstrated in his first book, Capitalist Realism, that he is a master at marshaling popular culture to make deeper cultural statements, much like Slavoj Žižek. He continues in similar fashion in Ghosts of My Life by beginning with a discussion of the last episode of the British sci-fi/detective television series Sapphire and Steel:
One aim of Sapphire and Steel was to transpose ghost stories out of the Victorian context and into contemporary places, the still inhabited or the recently abandoned. In the final assignment, Sapphire and Steel arrive at a small service station. Corporate logos – Access, 7 Up, Castrol GTX, LV – are pasted on the windows and the walls of the garage and the adjoining café. This ‘halfway place’ is a prototype version of what the anthropologist Marc Augé will call in a 1995 book of the same title, ‘non-places’ – the generic zones of transit (retail parks, airports) which will come to increasingly dominate the spaces of late capitalism. In truth, the modest service station in Sapphire and Steel is quaintly idiosyncratic compared to the cloned generic monoliths which will proliferate besides motorways over the coming 30 years. (p.5)
This passage captures both the sense that there is a somehow haunted atmosphere to these “non-places,” and also the dizzying process of accelerationism which renders yesterday’s novelties obsolete tomorrow. This latter sense of lost futures is another theme that recurs through Ghosts of My Life. Fisher notes how popular music through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s was defined by a continual progression towards the futuristic, by a series of future shocks. In the 21st century this has been lost, to be replaced with a remixing and plundering of already existing genres. It is not just that there is less futuristic sounding music around today, it is rather that the very possibility of imagining a future has been superseded by existing technologies. This creates a sense of temporal drift rather than progression. It also has the strange consequence that young people are today much more culturally conservative than their parents or grandparents were. Remember the contempt that punks had for hippies, the preceding counter-cultural youth movement of only a few years earlier? Today punk and psychedelia, along with all other genres, are downloaded and consumed without any sense of anachronism. As Fisher puts it, “In 1981, the 1960s seemed much further away than they do today” (p. 9).
Fisher writes well about pop music from the ’70s and ’80s. In a chapter on Joy Division he discusses the instinctual way the band members hit on their distinctive sound, describing them as, “unwitting necromancers who had stumbled on a formula for channeling voices, apprentices without a sorcerer” (p. 53). In a chapter on Japan he writes about the song “Ghosts” (from which the book takes its title), “There is only percussion that sounds like metallic vertebrae being gently struck, and a suite of sounds so austerely synthetic that they could have come from Stockhausen” (p. 35).
Of course, the risk here is to overstate the case, to write prose too purple for its referent, to pretentiously discern deeper meanings that are not really there. In my view, Fisher is too astute to fall for this, and the writing in these extraordinary monographs is well-disciplined. Having said that, the relevance of some of the more contemporary bands discussed here does pass me by. I’ve tried listening to some of the Goldie and Burial tracks cited by Fisher but they don’t excite me at all. I preferred reading about them.
Another of the contemporary artists that Fisher mentions is William Basinski, whose Disintegration Loops I briefly discussed in an earlier article about the composer Giacinto Scelsi. This is an interesting connection because Scelsi is a perfect subject for a hauntological reading. His works that evoke lost cities and forgotten mythologies are genuinely creepy and seem to soundtrack desolate places devoid of humanity but haunted by inhuman revenants. I would nominate him as the Godfather of contemporary hauntological music.
Some of the other musicians discussed by Fisher are also able to achieve a frisson of haunted emptiness. One of the most interesting, and new to me, is The Caretaker. The name is a reference to Jack Torrance from The Shining and the project consists of looped samples of ’20s and ’30s era big band records, exactly of the sort that play in the Gold Room in the film of The Shining. It’s the sort of idea that is so simple and perfect that it is irresistible. On the album Selected Memories From the Haunted Ballroom, benign pianos play endlessly and echoing crooners sing forever of broken hearts. The effect is simultaneously ambient and intense, a DVD extra of Jack Torrance’s hallucinatory psychosis.
All of this sampling of retro sounds can easily tip over into kitsch plunderphonics, but Fisher is keen to distinguish his chosen coterie of hauntological artists from superficial nostalgia buffs. In a chapter on the Ghost Box record label he writes, “The affect produced by Ghost Box’s releases . . . are the direct inverse of irritating postmodern citation-blitz. The mark of the postmodern is the extirpation of the uncanny, the replacing of the unheimlich tingle of unknowingness with a cocksure knowingness and hyper-awareness.”
Elsewhere, in a chapter on John Foxx’s semi-mystical musique d’ameublement he discusses Rudolf Otto’s book The Idea of the Holy, specifically his notion of the numinous. For Fisher, hauntological art is seeking to recreate or evoke experiences of the numinous by locating a putative sense of meaning just beyond the listener’s grasp.
In contradistinction to overt contemporary culture which endlessly recycles and repeats the past as a commodity for the present, hauntology seeks to reinstate the melancholy fact that the past is lost, and to imbue its unknowableness with a bittersweet taste of mortality. It seems to me that this is a crucial piece of the jigsaw for understanding what is going on in hauntological art.
Fisher sees the spiritual effect of hauntological art as synonymous with the numinous, but he wants to break the numinous away from religion, “perhaps we can rescue the numinous from the religious” (p. 156). Why would it be necessary to split numinous experience from religion?
If we remember that the original intention of hauntology was to resurrect Marx and Marxism it becomes clearer. This aspect of hauntology is really the one big impediment I have to embracing it fully. Most of the artists featured in Ghosts of My Life are either people whose work I already like or am growing to like, but behind it all is the fact that hauntology is a Marxist project. Why could we not have a Right-wing hauntology?
In fact, when you think about it, hauntology is already an implicitly Right-wing exercise in essence. Consider the notion of lost futures mentioned earlier. This sense that culture is drifting without any sense of progression, that the very notion of a possible future is receding, is exactly what you would expect to find at the end of a civilizational cycle.
For Oswald Spengler, the declining years of a civilization give rise to what he termed the “second religiousness.” This is a phase where democratic, money values have become ubiquitous, and there is a general sense of cynicism and boredom, symptomatic of a yearning for more genuine, more numinous forms of expression. However, this is not a time when such forms of expression are readily available; instead there is a return to earlier forms that have the appearance of greater authenticity. Hence the plethora of new age movements and the importing of exotic spiritualities. At the time of the second religiousness, the inner life of the culture has already reached full maturity so it cannot continue to develop in any meaningful sense. Therefore the only available forms of spiritual expression are those forms which were once vital but which now are moribund. Spengler calls materialism shallow and honest, mock-religion shallow and dishonest.
But he goes on to say that the very fact that there is even a longing for pseudo-religions foreshadows a more genuine seeking towards the numinous. And, in this respect, we can interpret the hauntologically-inflected artists under consideration here as seekers of the numinous who happen to be alive at the time of the second religiousness. Fisher locates the “current crisis of cultural temporality” (p. 14) as arising from Post-Fordist economic systems, seeing the simultaneous boredom and overactivity required by such systems as the motor for the lazy yet relentless recycling of retro forms. Such an observation is entirely in accord with Spengler’s view of the time of the second religiousness. The paradox of revolutionary, accelerationist technological developments delivering increasingly conventional and conservative content is simply the unwinding of the Faustian soul. The (digital) flesh is willing but the (numinous) spirit is weak.
Whereas we perennialists might talk of the second religiousness, Marxist scholars will insist on “late capitalism.” They both refer to the same reality, but whereas the Marxists insist that this phase will inevitably be followed by revolutionary communism, Spenglerians recognie that capitalism and communism are both elements of the late phase of a civilization. Our view of history is based on reality rather than wishful thinking.
Given that hauntology is predicated on the notion that the past will continue to intrude into the present, it seems to me to be a perfect mode of analysis for perennialists. The cyclic view of history recognizes that any particular culture must grow and develop according to certain principles, that there is a morphology of history, and also that history is cyclic. When this is realized, it will be seen that the Marxist view of history falls short because it posits a utopian endpoint. And, as Spengler observed, optimism is cowardice. In the perennialist view of history there is an inevitable unfolding, a flowering, but it will always lead to death (and then rebirth). So, just as for an individual, “the child is father to the man,” so for culture, “Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future And time future contained in time past.”
Hauntology is right to suggest that Marx can be resurrected because the past can never be finally laid to rest. But it doesn’t go far enough. The communist phase does return, but it returns at the end of each cycle, again and again. There is no endpoint, just eternal unfolding.
I would recommend Ghosts of My Life for its brilliant writing and analysis. But as you read it be sure to carry out a few little rites of exorcism along the way to rid hauntology of its Marxist ghosts.