Anti-Hauntology:
Further Notes on Temporal Specificities

Matt Bluemink has written a further response to the anti-hauntology debate that he inaugurated last week, which is, in part, a response to my last post here.

I have a few points of contention here. First, Bluemink writes in favour of a real hauntology. “There are significant differences between Derrida’s and Fisher’s utilisation of the term … and I should first clarify that anti-hauntology is a response to Fisher and not to Derrida.” It is precisely their disarticulation that I disagree with. There are differences between them but I think Fisher’s use of the term is a translation of Derrida’s argument from politics to culture. It is a way to reintroduce the political stakes of Derrida’s point into an apparent cultural stagnation, rather than the vague appropriation it is said to be. Fisher’s hauntology, then, leads to Derrida’s, in much the same way that Simon Reynolds’ writings led young music fans to Nietzsche and Deleuze. Together, Fisher and Reynolds, in their use of hauntology, constructed a gateway to thinking about questions of the new, informed by the philosophies of the 1990s. That is an important foundation to consider going forwards.

For Bluemink, the problem with hauntology — and I’d argue this applies to both its Derridean and Fisherian sense — is that “we are always left discussing the present as a reference or footnote to a specific place in space and time, i.e. the loss of the communist horizon.” Again, this is the point of affirming accelerationism as a discussion that was explicitly constructed in response to the original hauntology debate. When we debate the continued relevance of Fisher’s hauntological writings, we end up shadowboxing a position that he further developed and, in some respects, moved on from. This isn’t to say we should disregard his old thoughts, but we should at the very least consider them in the context of the thoughts that followed, especially when they differ so much from the clichéd appraisal of his thinking.

This is my primary contention with the debate so far. There is a lot of noise here, a lot of feedback, and if this is a debate worth having — and I think it is — I think we need to clean up a lot of that noise. That requires we get a better sense of the timeline we’re contributing to, or else we risk short-circuiting and undermining the debate being had.

As an example, I feel this noise is exacerbated when Bluemink writes something like:

In order to truly break free of the constraints of hauntology we must look at SOPHIE as changing the rules of the game from within. If it hadn’t been for her tragic death who is to say that she may not have become the next Madonna? Or rather something else entirely: a totally new kind of pop culture icon?

I pointed this out before but, again, this is a passage of two halves. On the one hand, we’re affirming SOPHIE as a sort of revolutionary and, on the other, mourning her lost future. With this kind of slippage in mind, the argument of my last post is that hauntology and accelerationism (or anti-hauntology or popular modernism) clearly do not cancel each other out.

What we have on display here is a cognitive dissonance. The question becomes: Is it a dissonance that matters? I don’t think so — which is to say, I don’t think we need to ultimately exorcise it — but we should be more aware of it. When we begin a debate by affirming one side only to repeatedly slide back into the position we’re supposedly opposing, we have to ask deeper questions regarding what is at stake and what is at play here.

This is why I think that, if we are going to engage in a periodisation of recent pop cultural innovations contra Fisher, we should be more attentive to the nonlinear periodisation of Fisher’s work as well. Each one of this books is, effectively, the product of a process of salvage from his own blogging activity. Capitalism Realism (2009), Ghosts of my Life (2014) and The Weird and the Eerie (2017) are all heavily based on blogposts and articles written in the 2000s. The chronology of their publication does not necessarily reflect the progression of Fisher’s thought over time, so much as these books are instead products of an organisational process — his organisation of his thinking — which otherwise happens in real time on his blog and in his essays elsewhere. (This is not a process special to Fisher, it must be said. I think it is how most people write books, honestly.)

So, when we talk about a pessimism that is prevalent in Fisher’s work — and it is something that he is very much known for — we are only really talking about an attitude he explored in depth in the first decade of this century. His writing in the 2010s — and, indeed, a lot of the 2000s texts he reworked in the next decade — are of a very different tone, shaped by the reinvigorating events of 2008, and it is from that time on that he is aiming towards a very different kind of project. My request, then, is that if we’re going to claim to update or respond to Fisher’s hauntological thought, understanding how he himself developed these arguments is surely the first thing we should be doing.

This isn’t simply a point of academic hair-splitting. It raises serious questions around how Fisher’s hauntological thinking continued to influence his work. The Weird and the Eerie is, I think, a prime example. Whilst it revisits decade-old k-punk posts, such as his series on the “pulp modernism” of the Fall from 2006, it highlights how modernism was always spectral and prefigures far more explicitly the “acid communism” that was to come, which was not a nostalgic reappraisal of the 1970s but rather an attempt to consider how the new — in the radical sense he was more familiar with — could still be produced under the conditions of the present and, notably, without melancholy. (Bluemink goes onto reference Wendy Brown and we should note that her critique of left melancholy is one Fisher took on absolutely in the 2010s, even to his own detriment.) As far as The Weird and the Eerie in concerned — any consideration of acid communism is, of course, unavoidably speculative — whilst the Fall played with the ghoulish and the grotesque, they weren’t haunted. Their pulp modernism was projective, speculative and dealing with the horrific immanence of now.

This sort of atemporal haunting within class struggle — i.e. it is the proletariat that spooks the bourgeoisie, rather than simply haunting them (which transforms theirs into an active relation rather than a simply reactive one) — is prevalent in many proto-accelerationist writings. Consider, for instance, Herbert Marcuse’s famous line about “the spectre of a world that could be free”. Marcuse isn’t talking about a lost future but a future that “haunts” us precisely because we lack it. This is relevant to Bluemink’s mention of “the disappearance of the communist horizon”. We can say that, whether the horizon is in view or not, it’s still over there. It’s still a lack; something we don’t possess — and we should never hope to possess it. The shifting nature of a horizon is how progress is made. But the point is rather that horizons can be both positively and negatively perceived, depending on the direction of travel. This is how hauntology and accelerationism remain in dialogue with one another. One looks forwards, the other looks back — but they’re both still looking at horizons.

When we consider horizons in this way, we see how we are enveloped by them. Together, they can frame a given moment’s Overton window. And so Bluemink is correct, then, when he says that hauntology “is the cultural result of a world that has reticently accepted the fundamental tenets of capitalist realism; a world in which popular modernism had become a nostalgic trace of times gone by.” But, again, we find ourselves slipping around Fisherian chronologies here.

Fisher’s writings on hauntology roughly precede his coining of the phrase “capitalist realism”. This is important to note. For what it’s worth, Capitalist Realism still reads to me like Fisher’s most recent book. It is an immediate work, informed by the moment of its publication and his prior decade of writing. Whilst it would be an exaggeration to say he went through some sort of intellectual “break” after it, we should nonetheless note that, after Capitalist Realism, his writing became increasingly reflective of an explicit sense of joy and optimism (even if his books did not).

All of this is important — to me at least, but I am a pedant — because when Bluemink says that “it’s important to note the temporal distinctions implied in coining a term specifically after hauntology”, it seems we are failing to grasp the wealth of terms already coined in that same moment — a moment which is, by this point, quite expansive and even a little stagnant in itself. As such, it seems to me that Bluemink is appealing to temporal distinctions whilst broadly ignoring all the distinctions that actually exist and complicate his argument.

This is to say that, whilst I can agree that what it is important to have a word other than popular modernism that resonates more explicitly with the conditions of the present, when we ignore the use of “capitalism realism” and “accelerationism” to do precisely that, we precisely lose the temporal distinctions already in play. What Bluemink sees as a new injunction, I see as already aged. We come back around to my initial issue with Bluemink’s first essay: “There’s a paradox at work in critiques of hauntology when defenses of musical futurism, no matter how valid, end up echoing debates had 15 years ago.”

Similarly, when Bluemink goes on to say that accelerationism may be relevant but he is less willing to accept it with all its present baggage — a fair comment — it is precisely because accelerationism was disarticulated from its specific temporal moment and made Landian again rather than — as Williams explicitly defined it — “post-Landian”, that these sorts of issues have dogged it in recent years. Suffice it to say, these points around temporal specificity are very important and, if that’s a point of agreement, I am trying to emphasise that we should put the work in rather than simply appeal to it vaguely.

This is particularly apparent when Bluemink discusses Stiegler — a detour in his essay that, I must say, I really enjoyed. Without recanting the argument fully, I would like to focus on the concluding instance when Bluemink writes, “Whereas Land is nihilistic in his assessment of this automated technical system, Stiegler is hopeful.” All the more reason, I think, to affirm the post-Landian valence of accelerationism in 2008, when it was first named as such. Land was effectively retconned as an accelerationist — made its father rather than its foundation; or rather, made its progenitor rather than the ground on which later arguments were built, often contrary to his own positions. If Land is the primal father of accelerationism, the accelerationists did all they could to kill him. (Questions regarding how and why they failed are important to consider, broadly speaking, but they are irrelevant here.) Point being, the sorts of discussion that brought the term “accelerationism” into wider usage are very much aligned with Bluemink’s appraisal of Stiegler (who was, of course, a very important figure for many of the writers who emerged out of that accelerationist moment, directly and indirectly — Yuk Hui and Reza Negarestani are the first to come to mind.)

But we must go a step further than simply acknowledging such arguments and counter-histories exist. If we’re talking about temporal developments of thought and culture, I think it is necessary we put everything in its right place.

This brings us to Bluemink’s consideration of the references I previously highlighted, and he does acknowledge that his argument shares many similarities with the writings of Alex Williams or Robin Mackay. He writes that, perhaps like accelerationism before it, “anti-hauntology” is

a term intended to provoke and ‘ruffle feathers’; intended to put a positive spin on a theory that in my view had become too pessimistic. The fact that it highlights aspects of the discussion which were brought to the table almost 20 years ago can only be a positive thing. I may be in broad agreement with someone like Alex Williams on this matter, but that doesn’t mean that a new engagement with a similar critique from totally different period in time, especially a period where artists like SOPHIE have infiltrated the mainstream in a way that certainly wasn’t imaginable in 2008, isn’t a valuable one.

I agree with this closing point, but I don’t agree that this resonance can only be a good thing. In saying that, we once again undermine the very stakes of the argument at hand. Again, if we’re going to make appeals to temporal specificity, then we cannot have it both ways. This is why the argument raises a red flag for me, and perhaps captures my frustration. That Bluemink’s appraisals of Arca and SOPHIE are resonant with essays and articles written before either of them was on the scene does suggest something of a cultural lag here. It further undermines the claim made regarding their own newness. But my point is that that’s our problem, not theirs. I do think SOPHIE and Arca (among others) have changed our sense of how things are and how they should be. But that we end up echoing arguments had over a decade ago in our appraisals of them clearly suggests an unavoidable level of dissonance here. This is part of the issue with Bluemink’s use of Stiegler. Dissonance and resonance are not a bad/good tautology, but temporally speaking (whether we’re attuned to long- or short-circuits, to use Stiegler’s terms) their presence matters. Long-circuit dissonance is perhaps a sign of “the new”, whereas short-circuit dissonance is a cause for concern. To put it another way: the fact that there is a lot of resonance with past arguments only produces more dissonance regarding our claims that SOPHIE and Arca represent something new.

This seems readily apparent when, in his conclusion, Bluemink suggests that “I think that we could argue that the concept of anti-hauntology arose out of the ruins of accelerationism”. This, to me, feels a bit like Jodi Dean’s comment that what we’re seeing now is a kind of “neofeudalism”. I understand and appreciate the argument, and the problem of templexity is laid bare here. “Neofeudalism” makes late capitalism sound like neo-precapitalism. As far as Dean’s argument goes, it works, because there is some truth in it. And highlighting that truth is part of the critique. But when Bluemink suggests that “anti-hauntology” can emerge from the ruins of accelerationism, which was already an attempt at a clean break from hauntology’s dead-end, we end up reinserting into the debate the very associations that the 2008 accelerationists (as anti-hauntologists) were trying to get away from. It is, then, by definition, an example of how these debates have been short-circuited, in precisely the way Bluemink uses Stiegler to describe. In ignoring, sidestepping or otherwise remaining ignorant to the discussions had under the “accelerationism” name, because we have broadly misunderstood its claims beyond a retconned Landianism, we disindividuate and, consequently, desublimate “the new” as it was being described at the end of the 2000s, and therefore destroy the libidinal energy that accelerationism remained attuned to as recently as 2018. (Let us not forget — again, if we’re talking about temporal specificity — that accelerationism only fell into disrepute in 2019, with the decade of debate had before that year continuing to remain maligned unnecessarily.)

This is, of course, all by-the-by. But it aligns with my general point of disagreement here. So, if I might haul this argument back on track, when talking about SOPHIE, Arca and co., and saying that I think the problem is us and not them, what I mean to say is that we drag these artists down and diminish their potential when our discussions of their work are so temporally unclear. How can we possibly comment on the temporal injunction made by a certain kind of music if our own sense of the temporality of the debate we’re engaging in is so confused? Worse than that, we take far less responsibility for our own contributions to cultural discourse when we assume that, because their music is new, our discussions of said music will be new as well. My issue is that the music is new, the debate is not. Therefore, we do the music — even in defending it — a disservice. They were storming ahead into the future. We run the risk of causing drag on it from behind.

So, my question is: What is it about this debate in the present that is infecting it with such a glaring amnesia? I think the problem is a broader structural issue related to the music industrial-complex — not just artists but the music press, festivals, and all the rest of it.

This is the point of emphasising Fisher’s critique of the very loose knot currently linking the popular, the experimental and the avant-garde, which I pointed to last time and which Bluemink says “summarises my exact criticism of him”. The problem, for me, is that it is not a criticism I think Bluemink has even attempted to address. Fisher writes:

I think what’s also missing is this circuit between the experimental, the avant garde and the popular. It’s that circuit that’s disappeared. Instead what we have is Experimental™, which is actually well established genres with their own niche markets which have no relation to a mainstream.

Whilst Bluemink can argue against it, I don’t think he has really accounted for the critique that Fisher is putting forwards. Indeed, it’s a critique that reemerged very recently, albeit under a different name — what Fisher calls “Experimental™” is very similar to what Simon Reynolds recently called “conceptronica“. It is a sort of experimentalism that is not “experimental” in any actual sense but is instead made to appear so through poorly-applied theory and the sort of language you’d expect to find in a stuffy art gallery. This sort of language is, as Reynolds notes, largely driven by funding bodies. He writes:

Fluent in the critical lingua franca used in art institutions and academia worldwide, conceptronic artists know how to self-curate: They can present projects in terms that translate smoothly into proposals and funding applications. Which is handy, because what sustains these artists is not revenue from record releases but performances on an ever-growing international circuit of experimental music festivals, along with subsidized concerts at museums and universities. Often trained in the visual arts rather than music theory, conceptronica artists increasingly resemble a figure like Matthew Barney, whose work involves multiple media and is staged on a grand scale, more than IDM pioneers like Autechre, whose focus has always been overwhelmingly on sonic experimentation.

(As an aside: perhaps we can note here the recently publicised high-esteem that SOPHIE held Autechre in.)

I think Reynolds’ article was read by many as a critique of the individuals themselves. I don’t think that is the case. Though he may highlight the differences in presentation style utilised by an “anti-intellectual” Aphex Twin and Luke Vibert, compared to Chino Amobi, Lee Gamble and Holly Herndon, it is clear to me that Reynolds is rather highlighting the sorts of “self-curation” artists must undertake in order to survive, rather than highlighting a sort of organic modus operandi adopted by a new generation of their own accord.

What is worthy of note is that all this extra-musical discourse, regarding dialogues with the press and acquiring funding for further musical development, etc. etc., is impacting the kind of music that is produced. The point, then, is not so much about how SOPHIE’s musical development has been curtailed by her death, but how all musical development is being curtailed by para-academic affiliations and the neoliberal framing of cultural value. This is the connection between Fisher’s hauntology and Derrida’s. Aesthetic innovations are irrelevant when the blinkers of capitalism are still installed. That some musical messiahs can occasionaly overcome this is not a point for celebration. We should be asking why there aren’t more of them.

This isn’t simply a matter of education or intellectualising. Aphex Twin and Lee Gamble both have relationships with Urbanomic, for instance, and so they clearly share intergenerational “intellectual” interests. But they both came up in very different worlds. And when we fail to consider that overarching structure at play here, because we’re too busy over-eggoing our own radicality in what constitutes little more than a vague appeal to revolution, we actually stifle the new rather than helping it to proliferate.

It is for this reason that, when Bluemink argues “experimental music has started to be pushed into the mainstream”, I think the (correct) response from Fisher and others would no doubt be: yes, but under what conditions? The popular, the experimental and the avant-garde are in a new moment of relation, but it isn’t necessarily a good one.

This point may take us far from the initial debate regarding how “new” SOPHIE’s music really is, but that was never a debate I had much interest in, precisely because it obscures where the stakes actually lie, which Fisher was more aware of than most. What he went onto challenge is our anemic sense of “the new”, and we will continuously flail around in a chicken-egg argument over aesthetics for as long as we fail to consider how capitalist realism affects the development of even our most future-oriented artists. We need to engage in a kind of speculative aesthetics of our own, and we can only achieve that by imagining the sounds of a world other than this one, just as accelerationist aesthetics tried to do.

It is in this sense that “anti-hauntology”, in its own confused temporality, starts to feel more like a unfortunate symptom of the present rather than a generative response to it.

5 Comments

  1. “Fisher’s writings on hauntology precede his coining of the phrase “capitalist realism”.

    Actually, they both emerged at around the same time in 2004 … and again, writers are continuing to seemingly confuse hauntology with postmodernism itself, rather than it being its spectral doppleganger, whether reactionary or progressive.

  2. Benjamin Noys has recently examined this important connection in Fisher’s work between hauntology and accelerationism:

    “There is a split between the interiority of capital that reaches down into the nervous system and an “outside” that is another, different, form of liberation into the inhuman. The substance of capitalist realism remains split between inside and outside and not articulated. It is in the coordination of the “hauntological” and the “accelerationist” moments of Fisher’s work that an articulation is attempted: reaching back to those moments of haunting that can then be activated and accelerated to realize a “missed” future.24 Yet, this articulation remains often limited and fantasmatic, and here is where the project of the education of desire might have been fleshed out to think a phenomenology of capital that could also trace its fractures without supposing a leap into a great “outside.” The project of a phenomenology of capitalism needs to be supplemented, in the Derridean sense of a necessary addition, with a project of education and reconstruction.”

    https://mediationsjournal.org/articles/breakdown

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