Hauntology (a portmanteau of haunting and ontology) refers to a state of temporal, historical, and ontological disjunction in which the presence of being is replaced by a deferred or absent non-origin, represented by "the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive."[1] The term was coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx. The concept of hauntology is closely related to Derrida's deconstruction of Western philosophy's logocentrism, which results in the claim that any attempt to isolate the origin of identity or history must always find itself dependent on an always-already existing set of linguistic differences, thus making "haunting the state proper to being as such."[2][3][4]

In recent years, the term has been taken up by critics in reference to paradoxes found in postmodern society, particularly contemporary culture's persistent recycling of retro aesthetics and old social forms.[2] Critics such as Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds have utilized the term to describe art preoccupied with exploring this temporal disjunction and defined by a "nostalgia for lost futures."[1]

Origins and definition

The concept has its roots in Derrida's discussion of Karl Marx in Spectres of Marx, specifically Marx's proclamation that "a spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism" in The Communist Manifesto. Derrida also calls on Shakespeare's Hamlet, particularly a phrase spoken by the titular character: "the time is out of joint."[3][4][5] Derrida's prior work in deconstruction, on concepts of trace and différance in particular, serves as the foundation of his formulation of hauntology,[1] fundamentally asserting that there is no temporal point of pure origin but only an "always-already absent present.."[6] The word functions as a deliberate near-homophone to "ontology" in Derrida's native French.[7] Peter Buse and Andrew Scott, discussing Derrida's notion of hauntology, explain:

Ghosts arrive from the past and appear in the present. However, the ghost cannot be properly said to belong to the past. . . . Does then the ‘historical’ person who is identified with the ghost properly belong to the present? Surely not, as the idea of a return from death fractures all traditional conceptions of temporality. The temporality to which the ghost is subject is therefore paradoxical, at once they ‘return’ and make their apparitional debut. Derrida has been pleased to call this dual movement of return and inauguration a ‘hauntology’, a coinage that suggests a spectrally deferred non-origin within grounding metaphysical terms such as history and identity. . . . Such an idea also informs the well-known discussion of the origin of language in Of Grammatology, where . . . any attempt to isolate the origin of language will find its inaugural moment already dependent upon a system of linguistic differences that have been installed prior to the ‘originary’ moment (11).[4]

Critical applications

Derrida's writing in Spectres is marked by a preoccupation with the "death" of communism after the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union, in particular after theorists such as Francis Fukuyama asserted that capitalism had conclusively triumphed over other political-economic systems and reached the "end of history." Taking inspiration from the pervasive ghost imagery in Marx's writing, Spectres has been said to concern itself with the question, "if communism was always spectral, what does it mean to say it is now dead?"[2]

Contemporary writers such as theorist Mark Fisher have specifically utilised the concept of hauntology to describe a sense in which contemporary culture is haunted by the "lost futures" of modernity which were purportedly cancelled in postmodernity and neoliberalism. Hauntology has been described as a "pining for a future that never arrived;"[8] in contrast to the nostalgia and revivalism which dominate postmodernity, hauntological art and culture is typified by a critical foregrounding of the historical and metaphysical disjunctions of contemporary capitalist culture as well as a "refusal to give up on the desire for the future."[3] Fisher and others have drawn attention to the shift into post-Fordist economies in the late 1970s, which Fisher argues has "gradually and systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new."[2] Hauntology has been used as a critical lens in various forms of media and theory, including music, political theory, architecture, Afrofuturism, and psychoanalysis.[1][3][9]

Hauntological music

Critics such as Mark Fisher, Simon Reynolds, and Antonio Ciarletta have applied Derrida's concept of hauntology to a particular segment of 21st-century musicians exploring similar ideas related to temporal disjunction, memory, the malleability of recording media, and esoteric cultural sources from the past.[8][10] Artists associated with hauntology include members of the UK label Ghost Box (such as Belbury Poly, The Focus Group, and the Advisory Circle), London dubstep producer Burial, electronic musicians such as the Caretaker, William Basinski, Philip Jeck, Moon Wiring Club, and Mordant Music, American lo-fi artist Ariel Pink,[11] and the artists of the Italian Occult Psychedelia scene. Common reference points include library music, the soundtracks of old science-fiction and pulp horror films, found sounds, analog electronic music, musique concrète, dub, decaying cassette tapes, English psychedelia, and 1970s public television programs.[12][13][8] A common element is the foregrounding of the recording surface noise, including the crackle and hiss of vinyl and tape, calling attention to the medium itself.[13]

Hauntological music has been particularly tied to British culture,[14] and has been described as an attempt to construct a "lost utopianism" rooted in visions of a benevolent post-welfare state.[13] The style has been described as the British cousin of America's hypnagogic pop music scene,[14] which has also been discussed as engaging with notions of nostalgia and memory.[8] The two styles have been likened to "sonic fictions or intentional forgeries, creating half-baked memories of things that never were—approximating the imprecise nature of memory itself."[8] Early progenitors of the style include Boards of Canada and Position Normal.[13]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 The Guardian
  2. 1 2 3 4 The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology
  3. 1 2 3 4 Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books, May 30, 2014. ISBN 978-1-78099-226-6
  4. 1 2 3 Buse, P. and Scott, A. (ed's). Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History. London: Macmillan, 1999. ISBN 9780333711439.
  5. Specters of Marx, the state of the debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, trans by Peggy Kamuf, Routledge 1994. ISBN 9780415389570.
  6. The Languages of Criticism and The Sciences of Man: the Structuralist Controversy. Ed. by Richard Macsey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore, 1970), p. 254
  7. "Half Lives". Archived from the original on 7 July 2007. Retrieved 2013-08-19.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Stone Blue Editors (Sep 11, 2015). William Basinski: Musician Snapshots. SBE Media. pp. Chapter 3.
  9. k-punk
  10. Mark Fisher - The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology
  11. Fact
  12. "Hauntologists mine the past for music's future". Boing Boing.
  13. 1 2 3 4 Reynolds, Simon. Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. Faber and Faber Ltd, June 2011, ISBN 978-0571232086
  14. 1 2 Bell, David. "Deserter's Songs – Looking Backwards: In Defence of Nostalgia". Ceasefire Mag. Retrieved 17 August 2016.
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