In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe.
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978)
In his novel Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino imagines a series of fifty-five strange cities told through the framework of a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Marco Polo describes the cities in his travels to the Khan, telling of the urban oddities throughout the empire that the emperor himself has never seen. Fedora is one of the cities. It is made entirely of gray stone and, in the center of the city, there is a tall metal building filled with glass globes. Inside each of the glass globes, there is another version of Fedora. Each version of Fedora inside of the glass globes is a different, possible future of the city that had been imagined and each room of the metal building contains all of the different forms that the city could have taken but have instead become only toys. The metal building containing the toy glass globes was turned into a museum. The people of Fedora come to the center of the city to look at the glass globes in the building and contemplate all of the possible futures that Fedora has had in the past and present. In describing the city, Marco Polo says to the emperor: “On the map of your empire, O Great Khan, there must be room both for the big, stone Fedora and the little Fedoras in glass globes. Not because they are all equally real, but because all are only assumptions. The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer.”1
Marco Polo is here making an argument to the Khan, not only that all of the possibilities of the city of Fedora are real and should be on the map, but also the reverse, that all of the versions of Fedora, including the one made of stone, are unreal. A similar discussion seems to have taken place between Karl Marx, Francis Fukuyama and Jacques Derrida — or rather, a similar conversation could have taken place in a novel about the rise and fall of imaginary cities in the age late capitalism. ‘A specter is haunting Europe,’ wrote Marx and Engels in the first line of The Communist Manifesto in 1848, and later, ‘The specters of Marxism are haunting the globe,’ said Jacques Derrida, in so many words, in 1993. Derrida’s original text, Specters of Marx (Éditions Galileé, 1993), was written after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Eastern European communism, specifically in response to Francis Fukuyama’s argument that liberal democracy, or capitalism, had triumphed, indicating the ‘end of history’ or the end of ideological struggles of history (the Cold War), since liberal democracy would now, according to Fukuyama, be the last form of human government onwards.2 In this sense, Fukuyama’s argument revolves around the assumption that there would be only glass globe alternatives created in the future and that the gray, stone city as designed through capitalism would continue on forever.
Derrida, on the other hand, saw the rise of a spectral form of Marxism as presenting another ordering, a ghostly reassertion of socialism. For Derrida, it is the metal tower of specters, such as the one in the center of Fedora, and not liberal democracy or capitalism, that will come to rule the city. The tower of ghosts in the center, the toys in glass globes — will haunt everything and everyone. The notion of the specter in Derrida’s hauntological logic thus challenges teleological thinking (the ‘end’ of history’) as the specter gives a method for thinking another way, of thinking a way other than linearity, by remaining both present and absent in history. In other words, if history has run out, then the present will only be viewed through the lens of the past — and culturally, we will forever return to forms of the past, re-running them. We would have no choice but to turn to look back to ideas and aesthetics that are ‘“rustic” or “old-timey”, to obsolete technologies and old photographs. Derrida thus predicted that the ‘end of history’ would be flimsy and stagnant, like an Instagram filter.
While there are many discursive branches stemming from the logic of Derrida’s hauntology, in recent years, the term has also resurfaced in critical discourse around the aesthetics of the new world order. In 2006 on his k-punk blog, Mark Fisher called hauntology “the closest thing we have to a movement, a Zeitgeist” for the post-millennial era.3 Fisher’s statement does not focus on the ontological status of the ghost as much as on aesthetic trends of the last decade as marked by the ethos of being haunted. While a specter may haunt us, a haunting does not necessarily require such a figure. We may also be haunted by memories, by guilt, by our losses, irrational phobias, former diseases, by what was stolen from us or by our failures, to name a few. Such a notion can be seen throughout Derrida’s work also, poignantly in his frequent quoting of Hamlet – ‘the time is out-of-joint.’ The ghost of Hamlet’s father does not simply appear to say hello, but appears throughout to remind Hamlet that they have been thwarted. In other words, while ghosts or traces may occur for many reasons, we are haunted specifically by something when a thwarting, a failure, a betrayal or a dispossession has occurred – whether by our own hands or by the hands of others. Of course, Derrida’s hauntology also implies that ‘to be’ is ‘to be haunted.’4
The hauntological trend of recent years is therefore tied to this notion: we have been thwarted, we have been dispossessed. While Derrida’s original text said as much in relation to Marxism – that Marxism will haunt the newly rising global economy because we will become thwarted by capitalism – aesthetic trends deemed the ‘hauntological’ focus not on the appearance of Marxism’s ghosts, but on the hauntings of our dispossessions — or that which was taken from us. It is an art that looks at a future that we lost, or looks back to the future that was promised to us that was never brought into fruition. While punk and cyberpunk aesthetics may be precursors, there is a distinct figuration of lamentation in the hauntological.
In his discussion of hauntological aesthetics, Adam Harper points out that there are two layers – one that is lo-fi (or that signifies the past) coupled with a layer that is newer or ‘high-fi’ (that signifies the present). Some themes we therefore see repeated are: the failure of technologies of the past, where imperfect capture is highlighted as a failure of modernity, such as Luc Tuyman’s paintings of unfortunate camera flashes that mask important features (figs. 1 and 2); the practice of sampling older media such as old recordings of educational programming mixed together with new songs; and the theme of mixing childhood dreams (past hope) with adult nightmares (current reality). As Harper points out, an intersection of all of the above is apparent in the music of the band Boards of Canada in their album Music Has the Right to Children (1998). Their songs often sample audio from educational television programming, such as the children’s show Sesame Street, and mix it with contemporary techno sounds of synth-electronica. In doing so, the sampled layer from Sesame Street is deconstructed and lamented as “a faded modernism arising from mid-twentieth-century television.”5 What makes hauntological art different than merely nostalgic aesthetics is that “while the first layer might express hope and confidence, the hauntological layer contradicts and undoes this by expressing a satirical doubt and disillusionment ... It’s the key role played by this hauntological layer that distinguishes hauntological art from art that’s simply retro.”6 The aesthetic is an evocation of the things that never happened, the things that failed, the moment of a ghostly loss of something never obtained.
|figures 1 & 2
As Fisher describes of the hauntological aesthetic, there is a “peculiar aching quality of these songs that are melancholy even at their most ostensibly joyful, forever condemned to stand in for states that they can evoke but never instantiate. Not a past that belongs to an actual time of history, but a fantasmatic past, a Time that can only ever be retrospectively – retrospectrally – posited.”7 The hauntological laments not what is contained in the image of the past, but the past’s failureto produce the promises of so-called progress. The hauntological gives a picture, not of history, but of pure ghostness.
Looking to Detroit and the conversation of possible futures and former ones, it seems all too fitting to look at specters and dispossession. While on the one hand, it is indeed fitting and necessary to talk about the social and economic thwarting of particular histories in terms of the legacy of racism and the economy, on the other hand, we can too easily see how speaking of ghosts enables the tendency to look simply at the specters of former industries, where focus turns on the ghostliness of abandoned properties, or only the low-fi side of things, ignoring the present community. However, it is important to maintain not only a distinction between dispossession and abandonment, but to also simultaneously draw their connection together.
Political geographer David Harvey puts forth in his work, The New Imperialism (Oxford University Press, 2005), an analysis of neoliberal capitalist ‘accumulation by dispossession.’ In it, he explains that what were once the out-in-the-open violent acts of colonialism — the exploitation of peoples, and the stealing of lands and resources through outright force — has now been replaced by the design of capitalist markets to dispossess property and resources. Thus, what looks like abandonment and divestment (low-fi) is only one side of the coin, as it is part of a larger neoliberal capitalist process of accumulation by dispossession (hi-fi). As Harvey explains, when capital “move[s] out, it leaves behind a trail of devastation (the de-industrialization experienced in the 1970s and 1980s in the heartlands of capitalism, like Pittsburgh and Sheffield, as well as many other parts of the world, such as Bombay),” and while abandoning one site, capital simultaneously “pursues geographical expansions and temporal displacements as solutions ... sent elsewhere to find fresh terrain.”8 An abandoned factory in Pittsburgh or in Detroit not only represents local capital abandonment, but also the neo-colonialism of the hi-fi current capitalist market taking advantage of local populations elsewhere (and locally in other ways), only to return to the abandonment in order to re-accumulate (another hi-fi process). Ultimately, for Harvey, gentrification is therefore merely one of the parts of accumulation by dispossession, as he states that a “process of displacement and . . . ‘accumulation by dispossession’ lie at the core of urbanization under capitalism.”9 Thus abandonment, dispossession and gentrification are tied together as parts of the neoliberal ordering and contain both low-fi elements (the abandoned buildings of industry) and high-fi elements (the engineering of global market economies and the manipulative transfer of assets). Or to think of it in another way, processes of accumulation of capital, like ghosts, can be both present and absent at the same time in multiple layers. If the hauntological, as stated before, is tied to the notion of having been dispossessed, or having been thwarted, then neoliberal urbanization, gentrification and the hauntological fittingly go together.
In his talks on ‘psychological gentrification,’ George N’Namdi, art dealer, educator and founder of G.R. N'Namdi Gallery in Detroit, speaks of a sort of psychological specter haunting us in a future time to say it could have been otherwise. In an interview in the Metro Times, he explains:
I just started thinking about all the things that are happening in the city and how a lot of people are talking about gentrification. It’s not like your traditional gentrification, where you’re physically uprooting people, because we have so much vacant property here and we’re happy to have people occupy the property. What’s more important, though, is what’s happening with psychological gentrification. It’s in the media, but it’s also in the programming and how things are planned. Part of Detroit is having this urban soul, and a lot of times it’s like throwing out the baby with the wash, in a way. By losing that energy, you lose your sense of having input into the environment. Right now, Detroiters take a lot of responsibility in their environment. We don’t want it to change where they begin to feel like it’s not their city. That’s what I mean by psychological gentrification.10
When he speaks of psychological gentrification, N’Namdi is envisioning the future and what might be lost. On the level of community, what N’Namdi means is that residents may lose their sense of agency, to effect change in their neighborhood and control how their community matures and develops, a loss of cultural voice in a sea of new voices. Psychological gentrification is the feeling of a loss of agency; it is like a current resident's idea of his or her future city taken away and placed in a glass globe. In the way that N’Namdi speaks of it, however, it is in the future-tense, still preventable. He envisions it in the near-future, indicating its current forming in certain parts of the city. In this way, what N’Namdi speaks of is not only on the level of community and its agency in the future, but also its current feeling — the psychological groundwork in terms of aesthetics. Aesthetics here are not simply of those things that appear in the art galleries or museums or on the buildings, but the cultural affects which spread out from within a place that is not necessarily locatable, not necessarily solid. When speaking of aesthetics, I borrow from the line of thinking of affect theory, not formalism, where affect is “extra-discursive and extra-textual. Affects are moments of intensity, a reaction in/on the body at the level of matter. We might even say that affects are immanent to matter. They are certainly immanent to experience.”11 N’Namdi speaks of the urban soul that may be dispossessed of its body, a sort of bodiless affect which may come to haunt us in the future if steps are not taken now. Psychological gentrification is, therefore, a future-oriented hauntology, a vision (nightmare) of a bodiless city. It asks us in the present, what will haunt us in the future? He says that through gentrification Detroit might lose its soul, and if it does, it will be Detroit itself that will haunt us then. A gentrified Detroit in the future might become — not a ghost town — but the opposite, a ghost literally, a bodiless affect. Therefore, it is not only a physical displacement or loss of agency, not yet, not at first, but an affective shift, which then leads to something more tangible — dispossession.
And yet, aesthetics might give us a different kind of ghost that can be made purposefully, an art-body that moves in and out of glass globes. Art may allow for the creation of different ghosts. As Steven Shaviro has pointed out, “[i]f aesthetics doesn’t reduce to political economy, but instead subsists in a curious way alongside it, this is because there is something spectral, and curiously insubstantial, about aesthetics.”12 In this way, similar to the way that Derrida’s specters of Marx operates, art can work in a different way than gentrification, as operating on a different timeline or creating a different body (as Afro-futurism has done as well, before hauntology).13 If not against the neoliberal economic structuring and restructuring of everything, then, at least, perhaps, art can work to create a parallel universe that possesses, instead of dispossesses.
Can the role of art therefore be to turn ‘psychological gentrification’ into an opposite process - hauntification as an aesthetic mode, the creation of a surplus of affects set loose to work upon the psychological gentrifiers? Can artists become like ghosts to haunt gentrification? Would such a process not be simply a haunting, but a possessing? Although there are likely many ways to interpret it, I take the use of databending and the use of glitch as an instrument by which an aesthetic ghost surfaces to possess. For example, in the videos of hip hop recording artist and Detroit native Danny Brown (fig. 5), such as in Monopoly (2011) (fig. 3), the glitch is no longer the layer which deconstructs the old, or the low-fi, by showing a failure through the hi-fi. Instead, the glitch, the hi-fi, becomes taken over as a possessed body itself.
In Monopoly, for example, Brown drives an old-timey truck while wearing a retro varsity jacket, as the background behind him turns into fuzzy, white noise like a TV screen, which bends and swirls around him. Nonetheless, he navigates the glitches and simply drives on through them. It is as if the glitches are his home, his backdrop, instead of interference. Instead of the glitch as a failure of technology that laments the failure of a past time, or the failure of modernity, Brown seems to reverse the relationship. The technology glitches seemingly follow him, or flow out from him. They take on a shape according to his presence in the moment. In the scenes where he sits behind a desk in a wood paneled room, for example, the ghostly glitch RGB image of Brown appears superimposed over him. However, the glitch is not a failure of the technology that produces a moment of loss, obscuring him from our view, but, instead, Brown fully embodies the glitch as if he is astral-projecting through the technology’s failure.
We might see this as a shift in the hauntological in the last couple of years, as a move from a lament of being haunted to the act of haunting. Perhaps it is therefore a hauntology with agency, or with the capacity to become-ghost, that is seemingly emerging? A ghostliness that comes from a body (low-fi) that is injected into the high-fi (through the glitch or through the code)? Another example is Simon Stalhag’s sci-fi prints of possessed robots in familiar urban settings, such as ‘Feely Sound in Plastic Shell’ (fig. 4), which gives us a similar aesthetic shift in the hauntological as Brown’s music video images do. The possessed human-like robot holds the old, nostalgic media in his hands, it is secondary to his possession of it. In Stalhag’s images, the hi-fi seems to be deconstructed by the uncanny or possessed quality of the robot, as opposed to the other way. The hi-fi no longer holds an illusion of promise that we must lament: we are over it. Another example can be seen from the Michigan-based music label, Ghostly International, which includes Detroit-based bands, such as Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller’s band ADULT and Ann Arbor/Detroit based Shigeto, among others. The label can be seen as in line with the UK Ghost Box label that Mark Fisher writes about, and also contains a sub-label called ‘Spectral Sound,’ dedicated primarily to dance music. The label represents visual artists who create the cover work for the label’s albums, such as Philistine DSGN (fig. 4). As with Stalhag’s images and Brown’s videos, there seems to be a shift in producing the hauntological from the inside-out. For example, the sub-label category itself ‘Spectral Sound’ focuses on dance music, in which the aesthetic is focused on the body in movement, the body becoming the production of the spectral. With projects such as Bodycode, a dance-floor centric sci-fi group that has a “body-moving aesthetic,”14 it is perhaps not coincidental that Spectral Sound sub-label focuses on bodies. Through bodies, an aesthetic that wants the body to move is an aesthetic by which the ghostly comes into the possession of its surroundings. In this way, the spectral is injected from the body into the code, or into the order of things— the body codes the ghost, the ghost codes the center of town.
Returning to look at Derrida’s original essay on the spectres of Marx more closely, he tells us a key objective in his thinking on the spectre is: “to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts. [That is] to live otherwise, and better. No not better, but more justly . . . And this being-with specters would also be, not only but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.”15
Similar to Derrida’s notion of thinking of specters as a being with ghosts as a step towards living in a just socius, can we not also think of art as a way to make us live with ghosts as a mode that possesses us? Can the proclamation of specters be to own and produce the threads of the socius, so that no other force can dispossess?
1 Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978
2 Francis Fukayama famously argued after the fall of the Berlin Wall that "[w]hat we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
3 Fisher, Mark. "K-punk." Web. http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/
4 As is often stated, ‘hauntology’ and ‘ontology’ in French are nearly the same and are a play on each other, as Colin Davis points out, “Hauntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost.” Davis, Colin. "Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms." French Studies 59.3 (2005): pp. 373-9. Print.
5 Harper, Adam. "Hauntology, the Past Inside the Present." Web blog post. Rouge's Form, (October 2009). Web. http://rougesfoam.blogspot.nl/2009/10/hauntology-past-inside-present.html
7 Fisher, Mark. "K-punk."Web. http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/
8 Harvey, David 1935-. The New Imperialism / David Harvey. Oxford etc.: Oxford etc.: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
9 Harvey, David. “The Right the City”. New Left Review. 53 (Oct 2008). Web. http://newleftreview.org/II/53/david-harvey-the-right-to-the-city
11 O’Sullivan, Simon. “The Aesthetics of Affect”. Angelaki: Journal of Theoretical Humanities. 6:3 (2001): pp. 125-135. http://www.simonosullivan.net/articles/aesthetics-of-affect.pdf
12 Shaviro, Steven. “Accelerationist Aesthetics: Necessary Inefficiency in Times of Real Subsumption”. E-flux Journal. 46 (2013). Web.
13 This is also connected to Afro-futurism, of which Mark Fisher has pointed out, “Afrofuturism and hauntology are two sides of the same double-faced phenomenon. The concept of Afrofuturism has always done double work. First, it liberates futurism from the master narratives of white modernity, which positioned Africa as origin, at the furthest remove” and that, like hauntology, “Afrofuturism unravels any linear model of the future, disrupting the idea that the future will be a simple supersession of the past.” “The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology”. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture. 5.2 (2013): 42-55. Web. https://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/dancecult/article/viewFile/378/391
15 Derrida, Jacques 1930-2004. Specters of Marx : The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International / Jacques Derrida. Transl. from the French by Peggy Kamuf ; with an Introd. by Bernd Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg. New York, N.Y. etc.: New York, N.Y. etc.] : Routledge, 1994.