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.