Hauntology: Part 2, What the Spectre Articulates

“To haunt does not mean to be present…”.
Derrida, J. (1994) Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, P161

I have a selection of quotes and thoughts around hauntology that didn’t quite fit in with the musical theme of my last post but which interest me in terms of my art practice. They examine the nature of the haunting; of the spectre; and what this means in a cultural, art or literature context.

In relation to ‘the spectre’, it is irrelevant whether one believes in ghosts or not:
“Spectrality does not involve the conviction that ghosts exist or that the past (and maybe even the future they offer to prophesy) is still very much alive and at work, within the living present: all it says, if it can be thought to speak, is that the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on it’s density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us.”
‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’ in Ghostly Demarcations, p39

I found this quote useful in how it undermines the solidity and the very ‘realness’ of our present experience. Our belief in what is around us is unnecessary to the experience of that thing. What does it matter whether one believes in ‘ghosts’? A spectre still haunts us and affects our present. It’s very much inline with human experience of the ‘otherworldly’ – whatever that might be – in that it does not require fixed belief or rational processing for it to impact on the experiencer.

“Derrida’s spectre is a deconstructive figure hovering between life and death, presence and absence, and making established certainties vacillate. It does not belong in the order of knowledge…
Derrida calls on us to endeavour to speak and listen to the spectre, despite the reluctance inherited from our intellectual traditions and because of the challenge it make pose to them…
Conversing with spectres is not undertaken in the expectation that they will reveal some secret, shameful or otherwise. Rather it may open us up to the experience of secrecy as such an essential unknowing which underlies and may undermine what we think we know.”
Davis, C. (2005) État Présent Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms, Oxford University Press, P4-5

I very much enjoy this concept of the spectre opening up an experience of unknowing which tugs unsettling on the frame work of what we think we know. The following quote expands upon that further by suggesting that the unknowing is only such because we are unable to articulate it using our current frameworks and language. This pushes experiencers to expand and explore the nature of articulating meaning – I love that idea.

“Abraham and Torok seek to return the ghost to the order of knowledge; Derrida wants to avoid any such restoration and to encounter what is strange, unheard, other, about the ghost. For Derrida, the ghost’s secret is not a puzzle to be solved; it is the structural openness or address directed towards the living by the voices of the past or the not yet formulated possibilities of the future. The secret is not unspeakable because it is taboo, but because it cannot (yet) be articulated in the languages available to us. The ghost pushes at the boundaries of language and thought.”
Davis, C. (2005) État Présent Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms, Oxford University Press, P7

This haunting seems to me a phantasm of our potential or lost selves rather than a manifestation of anything even vaguely supernatural. Although that is not to say it is not ‘otherworldly,’ as the haunting itself is the product of another world that we expected, that we might long for but that has never come to pass. Linking in to my exploration of the ‘eternal moment’ I can see that the haunting is akin to a stuck record, endlessly repeating, measuring time in the static of it’s wear.

(Image, still from Bladerunner)

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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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