Keeping Up with Hauntology

Kanye West got Kim Kardashian a hologram of her dead dad for her birthday but what weirded me out more than that gesture in itself were the replies directly below her tweet.

Many of them — far too many of them — argued that this was callous and insensitive to people who have recently lost loved ones to Covid and couldn’t say goodbye. Taking a video of your dead dad’s hologram is just failing to check your privilege. It doesn’t matter if he’s been dead seventeen years. You shouldn’t flex like that when not everyone has that sort of opportunity.

This is a cursed response that nonetheless feels hard-baked into the Kardashians’ whole USP. They’re people to keep up with — through their reality show, but also materially as well. Just like the Joneses, they’re America’s #1 family to aspire to know and aspire to be. If Kim’s got a dead dad hologram, you should get one too.

Immediately, in complaining about that image being shared, we enter a new world where the concept of having a dead dad hologram has become normalised. It, too, becomes another aspirational luxury.

The darkly humorous angle to take here is wondering, if this kind of thing was readily available, who would you bring back from beyond the grave? Is this even possible if you’re not already a celebrity? Who do you know who is dead that you have a sufficient amount of visual data on that you could realistically turn into a hologram? This brings about the somewhat bleak realisation that I’ve known quite a few people in my life who have died but the majority were before the advent (or at least the ascendency) of social media. I have friends who live on in my memories but who never had any sort of substantial social media presence.

That isn’t all that extraordinary, but it does hit different when you realise there is a generation alive right now that doesn’t know the poverty of that kind of internal memorial to their peers.

Anyway, if I did have the opportunity to bring back a dead relative, the only person to come to mind is my great-nana Cowie — my dad’s grandmother; mother to the grandmother I am currently radicalising through my own paper output. I only met her a handful of times but she made an incredible impression.

My main memory of her is in an old folks’ home, chain-smoking in front of the TV, getting a bit rowdy watching Wrestlemania, sometime in the mid-Nineties. A hologram of her would be priceless, although if it was constructed solely from my interactions with her it would no doubt be a horrifyingly glitched-out caricature.

This is to say that, whilst we can somewhat innocuously aspire to one day have holograms of all our dead friends and family members, what is required on our part to make that possible isn’t just wealth but fame. Kanye can produce an apparently realistic likeness of someone who died seventeen years ago because Robert Kardashian was probably one of the most photographed people in the Nineties due to his role in the OJ Simpson trial.

This is similarly how certain companies were able to make holograms of 2Pac and Michael Jackson. There is ample footage of both these men performing; all you really need to do is rotoscope that footage. In this sense, the real innovation back in 2012 was the projection technology rather than the reproduction of their likenesses. Now we have deep fakes and whatever else, things get a bit — or maybe a lot — more uncanny.

Of course, prior to Robert Kardashian’s resurrection, we already reached the lowest low in digital necromancy when the parents of Joaquin Oliver, who died in the Parkland school shooting of 2018, repurposed their son’s image in aid of a voter drive.

Nevertheless, in each instance, there is a lively political undercurrent to each holographic instance that retains some sense of the uncanny.

These instances have never had the desired effect on the viewer, which is typically one of mournful affiliation rather than abject revulsion. They raise questions about everything but their intended provocation. In the case of 2Pac, I’m reminded of Toby Heys’ essay for Unsound:Undead on “rapparitions”, in which performers appearing from beyond the grave raise more questions about the value of culturally significant black lives than was perhaps intended.

But an undead Robert Kardashian does something different. This isn’t a political statement or an attempt to cash in on his likeness but a husband’s extravagant birthday gift to his wife. As such, the conversation is different. Below the generalised revulsion towards the uncanny, digital immortality becomes a luxury to be desired for perhaps the first time.

There is an important point to be made here about hauntology. Despite what most meme groups will tell you, hauntology isn’t just a pretentious word for “nostalgia” — well, it is for some, but let’s not go there… The whole point of the word is the fact it is a pun on “ontology”. This pun isn’t just for the lulz; it is a neologism that highlights a particular relation between our experiences of the past and the future. In essence, then, hauntology is a name for that peculiar cultural by-product of nostalgia. It is what is ontologically produced by the past’s influence on the future, not just in terms of cultural artefacts but attitudes and social norms.

At the risk of jumping the gun, we can see a shift in social norms happening live here today on our Twitter feeds — if not with the general public, at least a large number of those people who aspire towards keeping up with the Kardashians. They don’t call them “influencers” for nothing…

But this sets an unnerving and fatally Oedipal precedent.

To explain why I think this is the case, bear with me as I go on something of a (nonetheless Hallowe’en-themed) detour…

Boards of Canada’s classic slab of hauntological pondering is called Music Has the Right to Children for good reason — it is an inspired and somewhat twisted statement on the future of music made through the regurgitation of PSAs and, notably, children’s voices. [1]

Children are eerie and quite explicitly hauntological in a very important way. They’re like little clones of ourselves that we make in order to — in a classically conservative sense — retain a certain longevity for our genes and our surnames and whatever else, but they also have lives and agency of their own. They can be very unpredictable and, whilst we might help them to grow, they are innately chaotic entities.

There are so many classic horror films about this, especially those that are centred on orphaned children who are literally displaced from their familial lineages…

But what these stories about demon children cast into stark relief is the Oedipal nature of our society. These children are little creeps not just in their own chaotic nature but because they are separated from literal fathers and, most importantly, the Father; the Holy Spirit. Damien from The Omen is understood to be the Antichrist, after all — and just as Jesus Christ was the child of God, the Antichrist must be a child as well.

And yet, here is the catch-22 we find Boards of Canada falling productively in-between. Their album is an affirmation of this creepiness. Despite itself, it insists upon music’s right to children and the (witch)craft of (re)production. BOC do not, despite their plunderphonic MO, insist on music’s right to immortal father figures. They affirm the chaotic maternal lineage that is devoid of God-like paternal influence.

I think this speaks to how important but also unstable acts of creation are in relation to worlding. On the surface, that is an obvious point, but creation is always a tightrope pulled taut between past, present and future; it is often a kind of double articulation, tangled up in maternal and paternal politics (symbolically, if not literally). It is always this complex balancing act between preservation, experimentation, and innovation. An album like Music Has The Right To Children is fascinating, I think, because it captures that tension pretty masterfully. Still, to this day, I listen to that album and feel in the presence of a deep engagement with the past that is nonetheless geared towards the future.

When I see the hologram of Robert Kardashian, all too aware of Kanye West’s own sense of himself as a visionary, I do not see a finely-tuned balance between conservation and innovation. I see patriarch reproducing patriarch to enchant the mother of his children.

Maybe that’s a stretch. Perhaps this is just a personal thing that is not worth being so concerned about. After all, it is perfectly understandable that the Kardashian sisters would have a tremendous amount of feeling attached to the image of their dead dad… But when they export that image to the world as something to aspire to, by their very nature as influencers, it is nonetheless horrifying to see the inadvertent retrenchment of digital patriarchy and Oedipal attachments that comes with it.

Happy birthday, Kim Kardashian… Happy Hallowe’en, everyone else…

[1] I’ve written about this before, in an essay that I wish had a wider reach because the conversation around hauntology hasn’t improved much since, although perhaps that’s because it’s already died a death of its own. My critical interventions might be nothing other than holograms of my own.


  1. Though it is worthwhile pointing out, I’m not so sure that the central issue here is just that of the class envy & resentment of the negatively disavowing, of the reductively class unconscious, but you are certainly right to draw attention once again to the hegemonic appeal of the revenant of patriarchy in a post-patriarchal culture (most Hollywood movies are fundamentally fantasies of patriarchal restoration, from all of Spielberg’s movies to Nolan films – even a film that Mark positively reviewed, Nolan’s Batman Begins, was a disturbingly reactionary fantasy of a return to an impossible patriarchal capitalism).

    Rather, it is that the current fetishisation of holography (which has been around since the 1970s, just as 3D film has been around since the early 1950s) is another instance of Jameson’s cultural logic of late capitalism, of the obliteration of all sense of history, the fact that such holograms (even if they are a spectral trace of a departed relative) are now just vacuous ‘special effects’. Indeed, Mark wrote about this in a blog post when he was critiquing Jackson’s execrable, instantly forgettable remake of King Kong (

    “In King Kong, FX have replaced history. Or rather, ‘history’ – now flattened out into a series of period signifiers – has itself become a kind of special effect. (Technology substitutes not only for history but for culture, too; in 2005, technological progress is the only faith that remains to us.) Even if the simulation were note-perfect accurate, History, in the Marxist sense of struggle, antagonism and contingency, would still be photoshopped out. The Depression is a stage-set, an inexplicable backdrop. This a museum without History, the Past as Experience, Theme Park…”

    Put another way, back in the 19th century, during the very early years/decades of photography (when most people had yet to even see or snap a photograph), someone seeing ANY photo, much less a haunting photo as a ghostly trace of a departed relative, would have responded in a radically different way to a contemporary pomo subject.

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