Keeping Up with Hauntology (Part 2)

An interesting comment from Padraig on the recent hauntology post:

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.

I certainly see the point being made here but, then again, I’m not sure I agree with the overall argument, particularly regarding photography. Mark’s argument, too, has a ring of truth, but I think it underestimates just how bad things have always been with photographic technologies. Whether we are talking about the daguerreotype process or contemporary holography, the argument that “FX have replaced history” is applicable throughout.


Photography has always been a reactionary medium. As paradoxical as this statement seems, as a technological innovation it led to far more experimentation elsewhere (e.g., within painting) than it occasioned for itself. In fact, despite being a technological innovation in itself, aesthetic attitudes towards photography throughout the twentieth-century (and particularly in the west) have always been very conservative.

There’s a strange tension in photography in this regard. It is arguably an innately capitalist enterprise. It was not invented as an artistic medium or scientific instrument but as a way to make money. Whilst there were some initial inventors, tinkering with different chemical processes, who saw the merits of its aesthetic qualities, the name-checked inventors of the medium (most of whom were French) were essentially the winners of an arms race for government funding who pitched their competing processes as new businesses catching the wave of an emergent post-painting trend among the bourgeoisie.

From there on out, most technological innovations in the field were driven either by the military or advertising companies. (The latter is something I have long found particularly interested: aesthetically speaking, photography created for fashion or advertising has long been more aesthetically adventurous and experimental than self-described “artistic” photography — you just have to compare your average issue of Vogue to the portraits found in The Wire to see the bizarre disparity in that regard.)

Gradually, respect for photography as an artform has grown, but it was nonetheless — and largely remains — a creative industry that likes to clutch at its pearls. Colour photography, for instance, was for magazines and family albums — it was commercial; this is why black and white photography remained associated with “fine art photography” until around the 1970s (when William Eggleston came along) — and, even then, not without continued resistance. The snobbish bourgeois art crowd has always been precious about its classical and oddly painterly aesthetics.

It is worth noting that colour photography, despite being looked down upon, wasn’t widely accessible at that time. The recent rise of popular and affordable access to photographic equipment is relatively new. We forget, now that we all carry cameras in our pockets, how much of a specialist hobby it once was, and we also forget the issues of class attached to it.

Many have written on the revolution photography instigated within the realm of subjectivity — myself included. We might even argue that it was one of the central technological innovations that made neoliberalism possible. Photography, it has been said, allowed the middle class to properly look at themselves for the first time. It also established what Mark once called elsewhere “an implied bourgeois gaze” — beyond the few rags-to-riches stories, images of twentieth-century working-class life were voyeuristic visions curated by middle class photographers for the Sunday Times. Even when taken by working class lads who’d somehow gained access to a camera — here’s looking at you, Don McCullin — they were instruments of social mobility more than the social realism they were otherwise championed as being by the middle classes who predominantly viewed them.

In this sense, I agree with the quote from the k-punk blog, but I’d also want to draw attention to the following passage, in which Mark writes:

In his classic analysis, Jameson identified a waning of the historical sense as a defining characteristic of the postmodern. The ‘nostalgia mode’ is evident, not so much in films whose content is backward-looking, but whose form belongs to the past.

By form, Fisher is referring to genre tropes, but I’d argue this is innately true of photography as an artform as well. It is not only a postmodern medium but prefigures postmodernity as such.

This is to say that I think the argument that the waning of photography’s historical sense (and, by proxy, that of all the mediums it has given rise to) is not a recent development at all. Paradoxically, the history of photography itself shows us quite clearly that history became SFX at the moment of its creation, particularly in that history’s often limited scope — writing metahistory about the things we use to record history is something a lot ofacademics still struggle to navigate. (John Tagg’s The Burden of Representation is the classic text on this maybe, and it was only published in 1993.)

This paradox is epitomised by the strange lag that occurred between photography’s invention and our popular understanding of how photographic cameras function. For example — and with Fisher’s comment on history-as-theme-park in mind — we might consider the development of cinematography shortly after photography’s ascendency. The medium was primarily presented to the public at fairs for the most part; it was literally a sideshow attraction at travelling fairs and theme parks. Most famously, this included the Lumière brothers’ film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.

The film is often cited when discussing contemporary reactions to early photography because it supposedly caused great panic when it was screened before unsuspecting audiences. This story is, today, often disputed. Indeed, it seems a bit rich that nineteenth-century fairgoers would be that frightened by a moving image. If by anything, this terror was likely instigated by their failure to realise the images they were seeing were in the past rather than representative of the unfolding present.

Wikipedia notes (although without a citation) that Benjamin Bratton has speculated on this before, arguing that this terror was itself linked to technological expectations. When seeing a projection of a train, many would likely assume it was produced by a camera obscura — a well-established piece of technology at that time; handhelds camera obscuras were invented in the 1600s but there is documentation of the effect these cameras harness going back to the 4th century BC. If this were the case, of course, then the train arriving at the station would actually still have been approaching them. They were used to seeing projections and technologically produced images but it was the idea that these images could be retained, that the past could be recorded, that took some getting used to.

It was this realisation that led to photography being associated with mourning. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, after all, is seemingly named after this same process of realisation. When he considers the famously unseen Winter Garden Photograph of his mother, his grief is manifest in the realisation that this is a moment past and not a projection. A camera lucida is what he wants; a photograph is what he has. It is the same terror, the same cognitive dissonance, echoing down the years — and this is precisely why innovations in holography are driven by our desire to resurrect the dead. As such, I don’t think our contemporary reactions to these images are all that different to the viewers of early photography — in fact, I think they are woefully predictable given how we have always approached and thought about this kind of mournful medium.

It is for all of these reasons that I think the class antagonism baked within the hologram of Robert Kardashian is central. It is, once again, the rich who find a new technology providing them with an opportunity to see themselves in a new light. It echoes the popularity of spiritualism amongst the rich and famous in the nineteenth century, driven by fraudsters who’d figured out how to do double exposures. More broadly, our tendency to associate the lingering past with grand estates and the landed gentry is no coincidence. We’re less easily tricked now, apparently, but we are nonetheless possessed by those same desires, and it is these desires that will drive the market for holograms in future.

Echoing the development of photography in the first instance, I can personally imagine a time when this novelty and its popularity amongst an upper class drives a democratisation of access to and, later, the affordability of holographic relatives when the reproductive technology for producing such images catches up and it comes to mass market.

This isn’t to dispute the ways in which holograms do epitomise the cultural logic of late capitalism but, in this instance, these are not new desires hollowed out, but old desires better fulfilled. Put another way, they are bourgeois temporal anxieties — regarding the future as well as the past — made all the more enchanting and (im)material.

Holograms, then, are the endgame for a innately — at least within its proper social context — reactionary medium. They re-establish the class antagonism innate to mourning but also haunting. Ghost stories, after all, are often cynically described as expressions of our complicated feelings about real estate, and it is typically the upper classes, the property-owning classes, who find themselves and their grand mansions haunted, either by their own bloodlines or their curse-casting serfs.

The Kardashian dynasty invoking its own spirits is nothing new in this regard; the technology has just caught up with their desires — desires the rest of us will accumulate through the cultural trickledown, and I think it is pretty predictable where this trickle takes us.

1 Comment

  1. Matt, thanks for you excellent and extended response to my earlier very brief remarks about your post on holography and its related issues, and please forgive me for my somewhat lengthy response below, something I had not at all originally planned, but which fervently developed out of an underlying long-standing desire to “cognitively map” some of the issues raised both by technology & hauntology, and their connection with Mark’s ideas, as well as with the philosophical sciences, the natural sciences, political aesthetics and psychoanalysis.

    As we’re discussing the hauntological dimension of recordings (even if they are just amounting to digital re-animations, re-creations, or simulations, whether visual or aural) by reference to one of its more recent technical manifestations – holograms & holography – it might be beneficial to reconsider recorded artefacts here – whether in the visual realm of photography, film, video, 3D, holography, as well as the fine arts, or the aural media of recorded sound, from speech to music – in terms of their spectrality and their relation to postmodernity and late capitalism.

    The first issue to address is whether we’re to treat holography, in its current instantiations, as exclusively postmodern or whether it has a hauntological dimension. Recall, firstly, Mark’s contention that hauntology (derived from his readings of Marx, Derrida, Freud, and Lacan, as well as from such popular-cultural works as The Shining, Sapphire & Steel, The Caretaker, Burial etc) is postmodernism’s doppleganger, that is to say, is its repressed underside, is that on which late capitalism forecloses. Instead of hauntology – of the in-becomings of past modernisms, movements, forms, relics, of their never-realised anticipations, their ‘lost futures’ – postmodernism instead just resurrects and simulates the dead forms of the past (“the nostalgic mode”), perpetuates them in their very deadness, persisting as dead, as the living dead, as an undead zombie culture in continuous decay, such archaic-dead cultural simulations serving as an extra-ideological or fetishistic support for late capitalism, as its “cultural logic”. Far from such living-dead simulations being an escape from quotidian reality, much less a challenge to it, they were what further enabled it, reproduced it, and perpetuated it (“capitalist realism”: Mark renamed Jameson’s late capitalist postmodernism as capitalist realism because it had now become so ubiquitous, hegemonic, full-spectrum dominant – retro culture and business ontology were now pervasive and largely unconscious, with the archaic presented as “new and innovative” everywhere while the genuinely innovative and challenging was paranoiacally dismissed, censored, aggressively disgarded as passe and “old-fashioned”, still continuing).

    Is, then, holography to be treated as just more vacuous postmodern kitsch – as “special effects” or (potentially) as a hauntological spectre that touches the unconscious real? Certainly its applications and instantiations to date seem affectless, deflationary, and banal, as they seem to reside in an atemporal, non-spacial, decontextualised, dehistoricised, empty-iconic realm of pervasive, flattened-out CGI, devoid of even the uncanny, as well as of the eerie or the weird. There’s a Hollywood-Disney comical-cartoonishness about CGI holograms precisely because, like cartoons, they are in infantile denial of death and sexuality. Like the Death Drive itself, everything is eternal in cartoons, their supernaturalist denial of mortality and finitude being their primary appeal. It is perhaps too early to say, but I don’t think we can dismiss all of photography and film as just bland “special effects” irrespective of the class structures and public-state/private-corporate alignments and bourgeois interests from which their various inventions emerged.

    For some of the most moving and numinously sublime haeccieties are to be found in photography and film/cinema: see Mark’s post on John Foxx’s Tiny Colout Movies (‘old sunlight from other times and other lives’: John Foxx’s Tiny Colour Movies: June 19, 2006. This is easily one of Mark’s most insightful posts) for more on this and on the precise contexts in which visual recordings and artefacts can have the most profound affects eg Mark’s judgement on the famous slow-lingering tracking shot and sequence in Tarkovsky’s Stalker as “the most moving scene in all of cinema”:

    “This is not an inner but an Outer calm; not a discovery of a cheap New Age ‘real’ Self , but a positive alienation, in which the cold pastoral freezing into a tableau is experienced as a release from identity. Dun Scotus’ concept of the haecceity – the ‘here and now’ – seems particularly aposite here. Deleuze and Guattari seize upon this in A Thousand Plateaus as a depersonalized mode of individuation in which everything – the breath of the wind, the quality of the light – plays a part. A certain use of film – think, particularly, of the aching stillness in Kubrick and Tarkovsky – seems especially set up to attune us to hacceity; as does the polaroid, a capturing of a haecceity which is itself a haecceity.”

    “To leaf through other people’s family photos, to see moments that were of intense emotional significance for them but which mean nothing to you, is, necessarily, to reflect on the times of high drama in your own life, and to achieve a kind of distance that is at once dispassionate and powerfully affecting. That is why the – beautifully, painfully – dilated moment in Tarkovsky’s Stalker where the camera lingers over talismanic objects that were once saturated with meaning, but are now saturated only with water is for me the most moving scene in cinema. It is as if we are seeing the urgencies of our lives through the eyes of an Alien-God.”

    “But, contrary to today’s dominant Ego Psychology, which hectors us into reinforcing our sense of self (all the better to ‘sell ourselves’), the awareness of our own Nothingness is of course a pre-requisite for a feeling of grace. There is a melancholy dimension to this grace precisely because it involves a radical distanciation from what is ordinarily most important to us.”

    There is a sense in which – one core aspect of – much of the entire Renaissance project, from early to late, from Da Vinci to Vermeer, was photography’s futur anterieur. The entire theoretical framework, methodology, and materiality of many Renaissance painters already entailed most all the elements, the components of what would later emerge as the photo camera, all elements bar one – the recording surface itself, the photo-sensitive chemicals on a glass plate, the eventual analogue-celluloid film strip. These artists drew on the Theory of Optics and used the Camera Obscura, mirrors, lenses, vanishing point, one-point perspective, chiarascuro, in preparing for, framing, and designing their paintings. If anything, photography was the end result of the late Renaissance/late Baroque/Rococo/neo-Classical eras, with its growing preoccupations with realism and empiricism and ‘natural philosophy’.

    The beginnings of Modernism – at least in the fine arts – were therefore a dialectical response to and engagement with the invention of photo-realism via photography, for the early modernisms in the 19th century, such as the Impressionists and the Pre-Raphaelites, did, of course, move in a very different direction to photo-realism, of a move away from a suddenly excessively present empiricism, simultaneously banal and overpowering, to both the symbolic and the fantasmatic-real, to the radically external real that the immediate-empirical excludes (hinting at a world beyond the Reality Principle, of contingency and possibility), and while some of it can be rightfully rejected as smug escapism and mysticism by the then-emerging bourgeois leisure classes, it nevertheless also reflected the latest developments in Optics Theory and the Colour Field, such as the central role of Colour Complementarity (the three doubly intense and ultra contrasting pairs of primary additive and primary subtractive colours: Red and Cyan, Green and Magenta, and Blue and Yellow/Orange), its insights informing also the post-impressionists, the early expressionists and proto-surrealists, the Fauvists, the Pointillists, from Monet to Van Gogh, and on into the 20th Century modernisms of Dadaism, Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, and Abstraction. All of that was occurring against the ‘realist’ backdrop of an increasingly dominant and mass marketed photography as well as the growth of what was suddenly termed “Science”, a term that only gained acceptance in the 19th century, replacing – after about two millenia – Natural Philosophy.

    Painting and photography/film have themselves a spectral relation, much like the reversing ontological relation between sculpture and architecture (eg sculpture as a materialisation of the enclosed spaces, the voids, of architecture, of inhabited buildings). Take a film like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, with its meticulously precise dynamic-filmic recreations of 18th Century Rococo paintings, where the formerly easy distinctions between painting and film/cinematography start to disintegrate, while still creating an intense and desubjectified vision of an imagined past that is a symptom, that bears witness to our own present.

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