Hauntology and the ‘Spectre Haunting Europe’
For this final installment of ‘Spooky SZN’, we turn to an unlikely theorist of the occult: the quintessential materialist, Karl Marx. Despite his reputation as such, the infamous first lines of the communist manifesto read like the beginning of a horror story: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies’. The ‘spectre of communism’ haunted Europe before it even got a chance to exist. But that is precisely the point. The ‘spectre’ (or ghost) is that which exists without existing, it is visible despite its invisibility.
The Spectres of Marx — plural — is the title of Jacques Derrida’s 1993 study on the enduring relevance of Marxist critique — despite the recent demise of communism, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. In The Spectres of Marx, Derrida argues that, as the establishment attempts to install ‘its neo-capitalism and neo-liberalism’, ‘no disavowal has managed to rid itself of all of Marx’s ghosts’. Despite the triumphalism of what he calls the ‘new world disorder’ — typified by Francis Fukuyama’s theory of the ‘End of History’ and the ascendancy of liberal democracy — Marx’s spirit of radical critique has, according to Derrida, never been more relevant or necessary: ‘no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, never have so many men, women, and children been subjugated, starved, or exterminated on the earth’.
Evoking Marx and Engel’s ‘spectre of communism’, Derrida creates a clever neologism better suited to the discussion of ghosts: that is, ‘hauntology’ — a deliberate homophone of the term ‘ontology’; i.e. the ‘study of being’. Hauntology, by contrast, is the study of ‘unbeing’; it is, according to Derrida, what makes ontology possible, in that there cannot be being without its opposite.
In Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of my Life, Fisher follows Martin Hägglund’s distinction between the hauntological ‘no longer’ and the ‘not yet’, and provisionally distinguishes ‘two directions in hauntology’:
The first refers to that which is (in actuality is) no longer, but which remains effective as a virtuality (the traumatic ‘compulsion to repeat’, a fatal pattern). The second sense of hauntology refers to that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual (an attractor, an anticipation shaping current behaviour). The ‘spectre of communism’ that Marx and Engels had warned of in the first lines of the Communist Manifesto was just this kind of ghost: a virtuality whose threatened coming was already playing a part in undermining the present state of things
According to Derrida, this temporal characteristic of the spectre and the spectre’s revenant is central: ‘no one can be sure if by returning it testifies to a living past or to a living future’. To illustrate this disjunction, he evokes Hamlet’s famous lamentation after seeing his father’s ghost: ‘The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right’. As Camille Paglia says of this untimely visitation, ‘the ghost makes [Hamlet] a prisoner of the past, a servant of the king’s now cancelled life’.
The problem with ghosts is that they never die. The spectral is that which is ‘always still to come’. In this sense, Derrida defines AEC (actually existing Communism) — and even ‘democracy itself’ — as spectral. True communism, true democracy has never been realised (and may never be) and it is this hauntological unattainability that we must grapple with.
In Ghosts of my Life, Fisher usefully relates the concept of hauntology to modern 21st-century concerns. With reference to Baudrillard’s ‘simulacrum’, he describes hauntology in terms suitable to today’s technological natives; i.e. ‘as the agency of the virtual, with the spectre understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing’. Although ‘neither Baudrillard nor Derrida would live to see the full effects’, the ‘tele-technology’ described by Derrida has, in the first two decades of the 21st century, ‘radically contracted space and time’. One consequence of this contraction is encapsulated in one of Fisher’s favourite quotations: Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s phrase: ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ — which Fisher finds ‘so apt because it captures the gradual yet relentless way in which the future has been eroded over the last 30 years […] It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century’. We are, like Hamlet, ‘prisoners of the past’.
One objection to this claim of ‘anachronism and inertia’ is to point to the current cult of novelty. But as Fisher points out, the ‘stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement. The ‘jumbling up of time’, the montaging of earlier eras, has ceased to be worthy of comment; it is now so prevalent that it is no longer even noticed’. The glaring lack of artistic innovation is the greatest testament to this inertia. Every new film is a remake or a sequel. Every movement is revivalist. Even politically, the right want to ‘make America great again’, and the left are haunted by the spectres of Marx. Everywhere we look, we are surrounded by ghosts. In order to reverse ‘the slow cancellation of the future’, what we need is not a new technology, what we need is an exorcist.