Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”
Hauntology is a seemingly straightforward concept, yet it can be fraught with complexity and misunderstanding. As mentioned previously, French philosopher and deconstructinist Jacques Derrida first coined the term in relation to the fall of Communism in the early 1990s. In a piece for The Guardian, Andrew Gallix wrote that, “Derrida argued that Marxism would haunt Western society from beyond the grave.” The word itself is a play on the word ontology, which is simply the philosophical study of being and existence, and Colin Davis argues that, “[h]auntology supplants [ontology by]…replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.” Hauntology is literally that: the haunting of our present by that which came before, the past lingering on after it has passed. A ghostly apparition right behind us, in the corner of our mind’s eye.
While I generally hate the word nostalgia, especially in our current cultural age wherein I feel it is overused in reference to our wave of ‘80s themed/tinged shows, I think my favorite brief definition of hauntology, also coming from the Gallix piece, is that it is a “nostalgia for all our lost futures.” To me, this nicely sums up how hauntology works for me on both a personal and global level. When I reflect on the past, on choices, forks in the road, and what I had hoped my life to be and what I wished for the future of our world, my haunted sense comes from those “lost futures.”
For me, a haunted film might make me reflect on my own possible lost futures, or maybe those of humanity, much like my reaction to The Tree of Life I described in part one of this chapter. It came as I was deep in my PhD work and questioning and comparing myself to my grandfather. Would I ever start a family, or does my personality preclude that in an age so obsessed with outward performances of self. Regardless of the film, something about it rips me out of the moment and thrusts me into a ghostly otherworld of the specters of the past and future, like some sort of trippy Christmas Carol.
* * *
There is something about our ability to immediately access the works and stories of the twentieth century that has heightened and accelerated the sense of being haunted by the past in our current historical moment. For most of human history, the past was not a “foreign country,” as David Lowenthal once put it, that could be visited in any meaningful sense. The past animated the present as much as it was and could be remembered, but there was not the feverish need to preserve and document it. There was not a demarcation between the past and present. No sense of a “past” like we think about it today. Time was just a continuum in which we existed, not something to be dissected into finer and finer temporal slices for study (see: microhistory).
However, in the nineteenth century this began to change. How we interacted with, learned about, and preserved the past changed. History as a modern discipline truly started and we began to look to “the past,” often times imagined or romanticized, with a longing that stemmed from a dissatisfaction with our present. Later on, we began to see speculative fiction, a looking towards the future with hopes and dreams of escape from the industrialized and dirty present, especially that of Industrial Revolution era England. This was the cultural moment in which “the past” became a foreign place, one that we visit when leaving our current time. The past was a place where they did “things differently,” as also put by David Lowenthal in The Past is a Foreign Country.
That turn of the century England and Europe also birthed the modern fields of Archives as well—making it a scientific and systemic approach to preserving the past with the aim of guarding it for future generations of academics, students, and writers—is not surprising. When we began to actively project ourselves into the future, we had to consider how our descendants might perceive our actions and archivists became the supposedly neutral gatekeeps to preserve and protect an accurate and complete record. However, our technology quickly outpaced our ability to preserve records and there was an explosion of, at first, paper records, and then digital records.
The crushing weight of not only our duty to our posterity but also the amount of records has caused numerous crises within the archives field, and also society at large. We are now faced with the possibility of a lost generation of records, a “digital black hole,” that could occur because of the fragile nature of the digital record of our lives. The early 2000s revival of hauntology as a feeling coincided with the first wave of social media, blogs, and the early stirrings of a mass migration towards documenting our lives digitally. The very real question of “How do we preserve the Internet?” is a difficult one, and one that has been mused upon since the ‘90s with no practical solutions in sight. It is entirely possible that our futures could be haunted by a lost generation of records.
* * *
Our current digital society is at a tipping point in temporality. We have an entire century of progress for us to examine digitized and on demand. We can even get ready access to it from a device that fits in our pocket and is more powerful than those that helped send humanity to the Moon. Yet despite the amazing progress we have made on technological gadgets, there is a sense among some, including myself, that we have grown stagnant. That innovations no longer occur in leaps, but rather in small steps. We have lost our quest for truly innovative exploration of our world and universe, the drive that pushed us to innovate and explore.
For so long, the Age of Exploration pushed the boundaries of our world and our technology outward. First to the “New World,” then to circumnavigate the globe, then across the poles, into the sky, and finally to the moon. Always driven by the twin pillars of scientific curiosity and sheer greed, and later on the jingoistic zeal to beat the Russians. Even then, when manned exploration was no longer viable, NASA dreamed up its most audacious mission to date: Voyager. But now we are living after the future, after the end of history. After socialism. Living within the shadows of Marx.
Hauntology can be a sense that, in Mark Fisher’s words, “[t]here [is] no leading edge of innovation any more. In music, as elsewhere in culture, we were living, in Franco Berardi’s suggestive phrase, after the future” (16). The future promised in our media or speculative fiction, in the narrative of endless books and films, or in news media trumpeting the progress of mankind, has finally arrived. Yet it is not the utopia of gleaming towers and regular flights to space. We have still not sent man to Mars, even though we have the technology to do it (or at least establish a permanent forward base of operations on the Moon for such a mission). As a people, we are still bogged down by our petty squabbles and social problems: endless war, disease, poverty, and starvation.
For me, this lost future is one of my greatest disappointments of modern society. As I said before, I grew up on Star Trek and similar visions of the future. When I was but a toddler and child forming my first memories in the 1980s, there was still the wonder of spaceflight, not to mention the stunning photographs coming in from the Voyager probes’ “grand tour” of the outer planets of the solar system.
And in the years since, probably the greatest sense of achievement for humanity that I have comes from the fact that we are still in contact with the Voyager probes and can even send commands to them. Yet, despite this stunning testament to the quality of the NASA engineers who built the probes and the teams still manning the computers at JPL, it also makes me sad. The Voyager missions launched 40 years ago, and NASA has had many other missions to the outer planets since then along with the various Mars rovers, all of which are fantastic and have expanded our knowledge of the solar system. However, our drive for human exploration has ceased. The drive to fling humanity itself out amongst the stars ground to a halt after the last of the Apollo missions.
“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer,” misquoted Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Yet, it seems apropos to the end of the Cold War and the loss of our competitive drive. Except that there are entire worlds left to conquer, or at least explore. NASA has confirmed over 3,000 exoplanets, yet we seem to have little will to try and go see what’s there them. Since it is not achievable within our own lifetime, we don’t care. We can’t see beyond our own lifespan. The Age of Exploration, of seeing something larger than ourselves, is truly over. Today, we have a hard time seeing the future beyond the “black mirror” of our mobile phones and tablets.
We have been sold a bill of goods, and, as the Sex Pistols sang, there is “no future for you.”
* * *
Despite everything, though, I still remain hopeful, or at least try to convince myself to be. There are still dreamers out there with their eyes set firmly towards a better future for our species and planet. But whereas we once put that hope in our governments and human institutions such as NASA (who is still doing amazing work despite have a puny budget, especially when it is compared to our bloated national defense budget), now we are forced to pin those dreams for the future on the capitalists and hope that the “invisible hand” of the market actually works. That Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and the other technological industrialists are as forward thinking and benevolent as they try to appear.
This might be the ultimate expression of hauntology: the promise of socialism to gather up the mighty resources of a nation towards a greater societal good has now been taken up by industrialists. But if the history of the Industrial Revolution has taught us, haunted us, with anything, it is a distrust of these type of people. The specter of the Robber Barons, the polluters and plunderers of nature, and those who made their millions by increasing income inequality, are scarily close to our economic present. Closer now than they were even ten or fifteen years ago when the term hauntology was first in vogue.
Perhaps this is why, post 2001, the ghostly presence of hauntology has been creeping closer to us, to me, year-by-year. I also feel like it is also bound up in my coming-of-age in a post-9/11 world. Born in 1980, growing up as the digital world grew up, turning 21 just over two weeks before the towers fell, returning to grad school as the economy collapsed in 2007, every promise made to me by society broken, and every vision of a better future seemingly further off.
Jaded and cynical are the easy words to describe my affect, but haunted is a better term. Haunted by the past, by the culture I grew up on. Not nostalgic, though. While others might have their nostalgia for the past reflected in current media like Stranger Things or Ready Player One, my reaction is not that of nostalgia. It is a haunting. A creeping unease of the ghostly presence of the future promised in my early days.
* * *
In the coming weeks and months, I will explore the films that haunt me. Mostly one-by-one, though there will be a few pairings, I will go through them and do a deep dive into my own past and explore why the film has lingered on in my mind. I will ask myself what it is about the moment in time when I saw it, what was going on in my life, and in the world around me, that might have been at play in leading to such a reaction to the film.
These posts will also take the form of loose groupings that will center around some sort of theme, setting, or something else at play in the films. My mind is one that looks for patterns in everything. Part OCD, part librarian, part finding comfort in structure…all part and parcel to that liminal space between personality and mental health I discussed in the prologue. As such, once I began writing down the list of media to examine, they fell naturally into the following groups, or broad topics really: “The Other,” “The Future,” and “The Soul.”
See you back here soon for our first encounter with The Other.
~end part ii~