Where Were You Before ’92?

Hauntology — a portmanteau and pun combining haunting and ontology — was first introduced to the world by Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx.

Is it a positive or a negative concept?

On the one hand, we might say it speaks to the strength of our ideas, that stagger on undead, despite being vanquished by capitalism. For Derrida, this applies to communism most specifically and Marxism more generally. Despite capitalism’s global success, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the “spectre of a world that could be free” lingers on. Capitalism may have “won”, monopolising our desires, but it has nonetheless failed to exorcise our desire for alternatives.

The same was true for Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher following the death of rave. The many attempts made by the political establishment to legislate it out of existence were, for all intents and purposes, successful. But the ideas that grounded that movement were not eradicated. They persist, unalive, through the music still produced, even if the scene is a shadow of its former self.

On the other hand, rather than constituting the strength of our countercultural ideals, perhaps hauntology speaks more to a fortunate weakness within capitalism. There is little glory in winning a one-horse race, and so capitalism must continue to prop up and sustain its own enemies to preserve the illusion of its own progress. The spectres that haunt us are now weaponised to keep us hopeful and, most importantly of all, compliant. (Cue accelerationism.)

The familiar and twisted shape of an ouroboros comes into view. Which is it? Is hauntology a product of capitalism or is it a critique of capitalism? If capitalism must produce its own critiques, is it both?

This tension has to remain central to any understanding of the term “hauntology”, in my view. Applied to any other context, the tension slackens. This is most obvious, I think, when things prior to 1991 are described as “hauntological”. (An increasingly frequent occurrence.)

Hauntology mourns the ascendency of capitalist universality. To transform hauntology into a term for ubiquitous spookiness defangs the critique at its heart, and simultaneously does capitalism’s work for it.

Surely this is obvious when we consider the ways that capitalism’s reification of history is achieved through a series of sociocultural retcons. Capitalism makes it known that it has always been here. It emerged, fully formed, out of feudalism and the path that led to now was inevitable. Retconning “hauntology” to refer to the cultural products of other times does something similar. But, in doing so, it forgets the concept’s specificity — that is, its signalling to a fact that things were not always like this.

The 1970s, for instance, were not hauntological as such. Those years are hauntological because their potentials and their now-novel perspectives haunt us in the here and now.

The dilution of hauntology’s temporal critique is a symptom of the process it sought to describe. It is a postmodern concept that attempts to skewer the uncanny tension of the “post-“. To infect it with the “pre-” is to misunderstand the power of its Nineties foundation, following the end of history.

It is history that haunts us, but we undo that active relation when we make “hauntology” itself historical.

As a reminder, I’ll be talking a bit about this and how it relates to accelerationism and “salvagepunk” tomorrow, in a talk to be given at the Association of the Design of History, live on YouTube at 21:00 UTC+1.

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