Haunted by the Future

In the first of a 7 part series on the future, James Birdle talks about Hauntology:

Hauntology, already old, is about six months away from becoming the title of a column in a Sunday supplement magazine; of going the way of psychogeography.[1] The two have much in common: one concerns expeditions in space, the other in time. (“Kant thought that space was the form of our outer experience, and time the form of our inner experience”—Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia.)

Both are also easily misunderstood, oversimplified, and recuperated. Before that happens, we might as well attempt to wring something useful out of it. It’s been knocking around the music/philosophy blogs for a while, so it’s probably time to think about it in the literature space.

Hauntology in one sense is a term for a certain strand of music, characterized by the sampling or emulation of old times and old effects: childrens’ TV themes and the BBC radiophonic workshop, Oliver Postgate and 90s rave. That glib recitation is another waymark on the road to recuperation, but. Read more, and more widely.

Hauntology is also a network effect engendered by the increasing apparent* flattening of history and time. The network, fragmented and unevenly distributed, induces a growing sense that alternative worlds are very close indeed.

He goes on to wonder about a literature of Hauntology and cites Borges as a natural starting point. But one measures a circle beginning anywhere.[2] I would suggest the work of Edward Gorey serves equally well as a starting point.

Gorey’s work is typified by a nameless dread that purses his characters through a landscape composed of artifacts from a time and place long past, now bereft of any intrinsic meaning (if they ever had any meaning to begin with). What is a fantod? Whatever it may have been at one time, it no longer is. The landscape of a Gorey tale is decorated entirely with such fantods.The dread that haunts the characters is the knowledge that these nameless, meaningless objects are the only tools with which they have to construct a future, a life, a meaning.

Gorey’s work insinuates this knowledge to us. We know now that the future will not be made of something we do not yet have but of that which is at hand now. This realization leaves us feeling empty, because on a level either conscious or subconscious, we are comparing this new realization against the “Hackneyed futurism” that we were promised by the culture at large.

In fact, I would say that Hauntology exists in contrast to the Futurism of the culture at large. For the last ten years we’ve been too busy looking for our jet packs and robot servants to do any of the hard mental lifting required to make the 21st century something better, unique and different. Instead we’ve just stretched the late 20th century out, diddling with our childhood memories of the future, or what it could have been. This isn’t healthy, as it leads to a recursive loop of nostalgia, which is stagnating. Futurism was supposed to be a study of the things to come but instead lost credibility. The future our culture proposed turned out to be a mirage and our lack of realization of that future became an ontological burden. We sought escape into a retro world of what could have been. Futurism became became retro. Retro-futurism: the nostalgia for a future that never was.

Hauntology becomes one method for exploring that gulf between the expectation of the future and realization of the now. A literature of Hauntology then would be one that explores that gap between wanting and having, longing for a thing that never will be and building something else in its place. It doesn’t propose what that future will be, only shows us one way to dig ourselves out of the malaise created by the cultural expectation that the future would be intrinsically different than the past, rather than a slow unfolding of an alternative, based on the present.

Right now, Hauntology wears the rags of the dystopia. Because the Now we have to work with is not exactly uplifting. Earthquakes, tsunamis, global warming, war and the unraveling of a social order we thought stable provides us with ill-fitting tools with which to construct a future that lives up to 1st world expectations of a better world. You can’t build shiny robots when you’re being devoured by zombies.

But those were all escapist fantasies anyway. That the only way to make the future better was to leave the past behind entirely, achieve escape velocity form history and find a new future in Outer Space. Of course, that was just as eschetological as any primitive religious idea of a life after death. Outer Space is just another name for heaven. And it’s just as sterile and hostile to life.[2]

So, through Hauntology, we can achieve a different future than the one we can imagine. It will share continuity form the past because it will be made from that which survives long enough to gain cultural momentum. Ironically, some of those cultural artifacts with momentum will have the same aesthetic as retro-futurism. Because the future that never was is now part of the genuine past.

I’m going to stop now before I give myself a headache.


1. I disagree with this thesis but it’s beside the point. I don’t think hauntology or psychogeography have enough cultural cache to be co-opted that quickly. There’s simply not enough sex appeal. His essay on *punk however is spot on.

2. Charles Fort gives us another hauntological angle to explore: what are all those weird phenomena that fall under the umbrella of Forteana if not a phenomenological manifestation of alternatives that were not quite realized? Forteana becomes a hauntological archeology: uncovering the buried false starts and rough drafts of alternatives and possibilities that were stillborn.

3.The Forever of Heaven posits a future with no change whatsoever. All is stagnation. Does this make Religion the reverence of Entropy? The death-cult aspects of Christianity certainly suggest this but that’s a topic for another time.

Ozymandius Jr.

Is this our future?:

Dubai has been built very fast. The plan was money. The architect was money. The designer was money and the builder was money. And if you ever wondered what money would look like if it were left to its own devices, it’s Dubai.

My driver gets lost more than once. He’s lived here all his life. He says he always gets lost. The roads keep changing. It’s a confusion of orange traffic cones and interlocking barriers; access roads peter out into long drops to rubble and dust. Nothing actually goes anywhere. The wide lanes loop around endlessly, and then there’s no place to go. No plaza or square, no center. Nowhere to hang out, nowhere to walk. Why would you walk? In this heat? You pull over and throw your keys to a valet, and get indoors as quickly as possible, generally in one of the countless shopping centers that look like the airports of lesser nations or Egyptian tombs. They echo with the slow footfalls of the security guards. In the boutiques, the glossy assistants stare at mannequins with a mutual mime of cashmere-folding despair. Dubai has been mugged by its own greed. Its consumer economy is being maintained by oil-rich families to whom depressions, booms, lottery wins, and recessions mean little. Riches and wealth are relative terms. But not ones we’re related to. There is an indoor ski mountain, probably the biggest indoor ski mountain in a desert, where the Arab boys queue for suits and boots and skis. The smarter locals arrive in their own designer après-ski gear, with fur and moon boots. You walk through the doors and it’s like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—the land of permanent winter. The fat boys push past carrying their snowboards toward the Tyrolean chocolate shop and Swiss fir trees and slide down the hill with a practiced arrogance. The girls slither, splay-legged, hijabs fluttering, in the manufactured snow.

When the Republican greed-heads finally knock down the unions and kill the New Deal with a thousand paper cuts, is this what America will become? I sometimes think so. What’s the end game of unregulated greed? There’s only so much money/wealth./capitol/stuff to go around. When you have all of it, built around you in a giant tower of nothing, sinking into the sand, what then?

I blame Republicans but that’s just a convenient handle, a metaphor for the empty, soulless gnawing nihilism that has replaced the heart of America. Like Dick Cheney’s pulse-less body, still walking around like Frankenstein’s monster, this is what we’ve become. We’d like to think we’ll be the villagers with pitchforks, the victim’s who have finally gotten angry enough to act but really, we’re all Igor. We helped build this monster. We let them do it, thinking that if we capitulate to their sociopathic desires, the table scraps they fed us would be enough to build a future on, without having to do the hard work of working hard.

Reading about Dubai is like reading a Ballard novel.* You recognize yourself in that warped mirror world and you’re shocked and titillated. Because there’s something sexy about the destruction. To be precise, there’s something seductive about the slow heat-death destruction represented by Dubai and the crumbling American dream. The quick and nasty destruction that hit Japan last week is something else. It’s the brutish act of animal fucking magnified to a global scale. But Dubai? America? That’s the slow hand, baby. That shit takes finesse. Wine and sweet nothings and violin music. Sure, it’s Nero’s fiddle, but you can’t see that in the dark. Or from the top of the Burj Khalifa. From up there, it looks like a long way down and anyway, it won’t be you who does the falling. Some poor sucker not cunning like you. You’ll find away to that penthouse in the sky, that’s why you threw in with the devils in their expensive suits and billion dollar grins.You fluff them up, vote for them, give them power and glory and maybe when the world ends, they’ll think kindly about you as they slip off into the void in their luxury space yacht. It could happen.

* “The American Dream has run out of gas. The car has stopped. It no longer supplies the world with its images, its dreams, its fantasies. No more. It’s over. It supplies the world with its nightmares now: the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, Vietnam.” — J. G. Ballard

You know Who Else Made the Trains Run on Time?

Over at Slate,  David Weigel wants to know what Conservatives have against trains:

In the movie version of Atlas Shrugged, there is a scene in which Ayn Rand’s libertarian heroes defy all odds, deploy some untold amount of private funding, and launch the fastest high-speed train in history over rails of experimental metal. “The run of the John Galt Line is thrilling,” wrote the libertarian federal judge Alex Kozinski. “When it crossed the bridge made of Rearden Metal, I wanted to stand up and cheer.”

That’s in the fantasy world. In the real world, libertarians aren’t cheering for high speed rail but rather trying to stop it from being built. They are succeeding. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich campaigned against a high-speed rail line funded by the stimulus, got elected, and turned down the funding. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker did the same thing, only more so—his anti-train campaign even had its own Web site. In Florida, the state Supreme Court has just approved Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to reject $2.4 billion of federal funds to build a Tampa-Orlando rail line; the state was being asked to contribute only $280 million to finish it off. The funding was originally agreed to by Charlie Crist, one of the Tea Party’s archenemies, so Scott’s victory could hardly be any sweeter.

But it could hardly make less sense to liberals. What, exactly, do Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians have against trains? Seriously, what?

The answer is simple. Unlike in Rand’s wackadoodle fantasy, in the real world, trains are the ultimate symbol of collectivist action. They require vast cooperation to build, as they run across state lines and in crowded locals like Europe, across country boarders. They’re cheep and egalitarian — a first class passenger on a train who shelled out the extra cash for a private sleeper car still has to rub elbows with the proles in order to use the rest room.

Conservatives may gripe about the cost but seriously, you know when a conservative is bullshitting? They start talking about the cost of things. They only care about what some service or enterprise costs when it might enable poor people to gain some upward mobility. That’s why they hate universal healthcare and it’s why they hate trains: it benefits poor people and the middle class. If people started taking trains instead of driving cars and flying, we wouldn’t need as much gas. And as we a ll know, guzzling gas is our patriotic duty. Trains are insufficiently capitlaistic. They remind us that we’re social creatures and are common in places where “Socialism” runs rampant: Europe and Asia. It’s anti-American to conserve resources and work together. We should all drive alone in our cars as individualistic individuals, racing and competing against one another to get nowhere, fast.

Link via Abbas Raza.

Architecture of the Mind

Over at BLDBLOG, Geoff Manaugh interviews China Mieville about the role of architecture and urban space in science fiction and fantasy. I’d quote a bit but there’s so many great ideas being discussed, I’d end up pasting in the whole thing.

More than any other writer that comes to mind, Mieville makes his fantastical urban settings feel like real spaces, not just the cardboard set decorations you find in a lot of urban fantasy and sci-fi.Just from the descriptions in Perdido Street Station, New Crobuzon feels like a real place, even though it’s filled with cactus people and beetle-headed women and flesh robots and dream eating moths. And that’s just one book. His magical London in Krakan makes Harry Potter’s London look like the aforementioned cardboard set decoration. It has alleys and puddles and shadows and light and grime and life, not just a facsimile of doors and windows and bricks given funny names.

Reading Mieville’s work has really opened my eyes to the potential for architecture to play as big a role as any character in a story. Definitely osmethign worth thinking more about.

Talking Heads

I could have a weekly roundup called “what the Rude Pundit said” so yeah, what he said:

If the Rude Pundit were a really, really rich motherfucker, like in the several hundred million and above club, he’d call a meeting of all his fellow really, really rich motherfuckers and he’d tell ’em that we’ve crossed a line, and, unless we want our houses burned down, our assets confiscated, our dogs raped, and our children killed like they were the brood of the Tsar, we better stop acting like such greedy pricks and demand that the people we all own in the government stop licking our taints clean for a little while and start acting like we’re regular Americans, not First Class Black Card Americans.

The really, really rich Rude Pundit would point out that the filthy masses are getting all squirrely about collective bargaining rights and budget cuts on programs for the poor and middle class in order to pay for our tax cuts and the failure to prosecute a single person for shitcanning the economy. He’d then inform everyone that once the income gap gets more fully into the rhetorical mix, well, we really, really rich motherfuckers would be fucked and a half.

You 1%ers may think your hot shit, untouchable, above the law. But so did Louie XVI. He ended up with his head in a basket. And that’s not a euphamism for Marie Antoniette’s crotch. The motherfucking King of France had his head chopped off by Guillotine. It rolled like a bowling ball landing, bloody, in a basket. Why?

He refused to feed poor people. So they killed him.

Not right away of course. No revolution happens overnight. Louie XVI, like many blinkered rich fuckwits, was presented with several opportunities to change his mind and fund popular programs for the poor and middle class. If he had accepted the program of gradual change offered by reformers, giving up a thin slice of money and privilege he’d never even miss, so that the rest of his poeple could have a better life, the revolution could have been averted. But Louie and his supporters heard the reformers asking politely for gradual change and libeled them as radicals. They called them freethinkers and libertines, which was the 18th century equivalent of Socialist and Marxist.

So things got worse. Not for the rich of course. their money and privilege insulates them from the depredations that turn the middle and working classes into disgruntled protesters, and later, if it’s allowed to continue, into revolutionaries shouting for blood and revenge.

By refusing to accept the deal offered by liberals for gradual change, Oligarchs ensure that one day, they’ll have to face the revolutionaries. And not all of them are as peaceful as those in Lybia and Egypt. Just ask the severed head of Louie XVI.