Hauntology; experienced through Burial’s ‘Untrue’

A sense of loss for a future that never was

Lately I’ve been revisiting some musical projects I enjoy and discovered that they fit into the genre of ‘hauntological music’. I’d previously been aware of hauntology existing as a cultural idea, but hadn’t thought about applying it to music, which is a bit remiss of me as music is the perfect conduit for hauntological experience.

The concept of hauntology was originally coined by the philosopher Jacques Derrida in his Spectres de Marx (1993) to reference the way in which the western world is haunted by the spectre of a post-communist existence where the possible promise of a future of equality, justice and fairness has been lost to neo-liberal capitalism and unfettered growth.

Derrida imbues our world with phantoms that shift in and out of our field of vision, making us aware of other possible futures and pasts. They exist within our emotional being rather than our intellectual mind and if you wanted to get very cliched about it then maybe these phantoms could be described as a kind of melancholy nostalgia.

“Derrida’s rehabilitation of ghosts as a respectable subject of enquiry has proved to be extraordinarily fertile. Hauntology supplants it’s near-homonym ontology, replacing the idea of being a presence with the figure of the ghost, as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.
Davis, C. (2005) État Présent; Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms, Oxford University Press Society for French Studies. (bolding my own)

The screenshots below are from a little BBC documentary on hauntology.  Apart from the content of the text, what I really like about the image is the spirograph set.

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 4.24.57 PM

Growing up in the UK in the 70s/early 80s I had a spirograph set and seeing those objects gives a huge sense of strangeness. It’s a little tug on my brain that makes me feel sad and out of place even though it shouldn’t.

In an article for Film Quarterly (2012) What is Hauntology? Mark Fisher discusses the direction of electronic music and the impasse reached in the mid 2000s where music was no longer able to sound ‘futuristic’ without sounding anachronistic. The whole idea of futuristic music was now defined by a set of concepts, affects and associations formulated pre-2005, that could not be progressed beyond. Any purely electronic music with the usual ‘futuristic’ cues just sounded stale, so what comes next? It was the same for many creative pursuits, as if we had entered a situation where culture would not change but just continue on in much the same way, with much the same capitalist system and no vision for a future except for a haunting spectre of what might have been.

The particular album that I was listening to when I started looking into hauntology was Burial’s 2007 album “Untrue”.

‘Untrue’ sounds like cities late at night in the shifting time between sleep and waking where experience slows through syrup and you become enveloped in that ‘eternal moment’ that I’m so obsessed with through my own practice. Untrue is deeply moving; sorrowful, lost, smudged, echoing. The music itself has a thick, warm bass layered with clacky, staccato clicks and taps with flickering static like radios drifting between stations and giving time itself an audible presence.

There is such a depth of emotion to this album that is only enhanced by it’s cold emptiness. This might seem like a contradiction, but the more you immerse yourself in the music, the more the artist’s interests are slowly revealed. I’m captivated by the way he takes clips from schmaltzy RnB greats, then pitch-shifts them to unrecognisably deep sorrow. In the short documentary I have posted below, the narrator reveals that Burial created many of the percussive sounds using samples from the game ‘Metal Gear Solid’, including shell casings falling from the titular character’s gun. How many hours must he have spent playing late into the night, immersed in the echoes of the game?

Of Burial’s influences;
“The short-lived spate of interviews he did around Untrue teem with references to uncanny presences, subliminal hums, moments when you glance at the face of a friend or family member and catch something alien in their expression. Burial even enthused about his childhood love of the ghost stories of M.R. James, one of those gentlemen occultist writers who are touchstones for the UK hauntologists.”

…”Interviewed by the late British critic Mark Fisher, Burial spoke of creepy epiphanies he’d experienced walking through deserted night-time areas of London: “Sometimes you get that feeling like a ghost touched your heart, like someone walks with you.” Song titles like “Archangel” and “Feral Witchchild” suggest superstitious thinking, or at least an openness to the idea that there are supernatural dimensions, other realms that leak through into our reality in the form of visions or unsettling sensations.”
Link to article

Burial has talked about the importance of titles in instrumental electronic music to lead the listener through the abstract forms and emotional pathways. This reminds me so much of the joy of a well conceived title to really enhance an artwork. I know there is a place for ‘Untitled’ in leaving things open to the viewer, but an erudite title goes a long way. Burial has some truly inspired titles that give the listener a new layer of understanding of the work – Rival Dealer, South London Boroughs, Subtemple, Dog Shelter – these names conjure up emotions and situations that contextualise the soundscapes. If only I could be so poetic with my naming!

There is a track on Untrue called ‘In McDonalds’ which is particularly interesting to me. The music itself is fragile – not what you would at first associate with a fast food restaurant, although perhaps in the liminal hours when the other patrons have all gone home? Anthropologist Marc Augé coined the concept “non-place” for those spaces that have lost their identity in time and space; airports, international chain stores, data centres, any temple of capitalist globalisation. James Bridle also examines these spaces in his ‘New Dark Age’, which I wrote about previously, and it was he that initially made me aware of them. MacDonalds is, of course, the ultimate example of a non-place. Sitting in MacDonalds you could be at any time of day, in any country in the last 20-30 years; you are out of space and time being haunted by the potentiality of belonging

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