Last week the music community lost one of the most innovative artists and producers of the twenty-first century. Sophie, who sadly passed away following a sudden accident at her home in Athens, was at the forefront of a new style of avant-garde pop music which blended elements of art-pop, glitch, and a variety of other styles. Sophie’s music was something truly unique. Her interplay of abrasive sounds and textures with pop style vocals and melodies was a sonic combination that seemed to be pushing the boundaries of what pop music was capable of.
As The Guardian wrote in regard to Sophie’s 2018 debut album: “Sophie has crafted a genuinely original sound and uses it to visit extremes of terror, sadness and pleasure.” Similarly, in his review youtube music critic Anthony Fantano claimed that the record was “every bit as mind expanding and soul igniting as I hoped it would be.” Following up with an exasperated: “Who is making music like this? Who!?” This question highlights the importance of Sophie and other artists who have taken music production in a completely new direction over the last few years, but it also raises an interesting philosophical question regarding the creative potential of contemporary music. Here it will be useful to discuss Mark Fisher’s concept of hauntology and how Sophie and other artists seem to have created a platform which has moved beyond it; moved towards what I will dub anti-hauntology.
Cancelling the Future?
Perhaps one of the most influential cultural critics of recent years, Mark Fisher, spent much of his work bemoaning the state of late capitalism and it’s insidious effect on contemporary culture. To Fisher this had culminated in what he called a ‘cancellation of the future’. Capitalism, and the culture industries had re-used and re-branded cultural elements of the past to such an extent that they had started to make the creation of something truly new feel almost impossible. In his 2014 book, Ghosts of My Life, Fisher wrote: “It is the contention of this book that 21st-century culture is marked by … anachronism and inertia … But this 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 is no longer even noticed.”
To highlight this point, Fisher gives a variety of examples from popular music in the years leading up the the publication of Ghosts of My Life. He reminds us how The Artic Monkeys’ first single ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor’ looks and sounds as if it was a throwback to the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, haircuts, fashion and all; how when he first heard Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson’s reworking of The Zutons’ ‘Valerie’ he temporarily thought that the Zutons original indie anthem must have been a cover of this apparently ‘older’ 60s soul track. Fisher goes on to claim that the reworking of older styles with modern techniques and technologies gives the records an almost unsettling feeling to those who lived through the time these sounds were first produced:
Discrepancies in texture – the results of modern studio and recording techniques – mean that they belong neither to the present nor to the past but to some implied ‘timeless’ era, an eternal 1960s or an eternal 80s. The ‘classic’ sound, its elements now serenely liberated from the pressures of historical becoming, can now be periodically buffed up by new technology.
However, this may apply to a lot of the music that was popular in the charts in Mark’s recent memory at the time he was writing, but what about music that was making an effort to try and innovate and produce something new? What happened to the music of the future?
Later in the essay Fisher considers the concept of ‘futuristic music’ itself. He writes that “The ‘futuristic’ in music has long since ceased to refer to any future that we expect to be different; it has become an established style … Where’s the 21st-century equivalent of Kraftwerk?” To my mind, this is exactly where artists like Sophie come in. Fisher picked examples of popular music that fit his narrative about the cancellation of the future, an idea that was formulated in an intellectual environment which developed out of the frenzied excitement of 90s digital culture. Fisher and his colleagues at the CCRU were fascinated with the potential for new digital technologies to transform the old, stale forms of cultural discourse that had preceded them. The 90s was a time where the technological futures of cyberpunk were becoming reality in parts of the world, but as the new millennium rolled around this had begun to change. Fisher’s narrative had been based on a future that never arrived. Instead he was bombarded with echoes of the past.
Nevertheless, this shift towards an idolisation of past cultural forms was nothing new. The fact that certain aspects of culture are cyclical is evident in almost all music genres, as well is in fashion art, and cinema. Here Fisher recognises the familiar criticism that might be levelled at him:
The immediate temptation here is to fit what I’m saying into a wearily familiar narrative: it is a matter of the old failing to come to terms with the new, saying it was better in their day. Yet it is just this picture – with its assumption that the young are automatically at the leading edge of cultural change – that is now out of date.
Essentially what Fisher is trying to say here is tied up in a kind of temporal paradox. He’s arguing that this reinvention of the past has essentially reached it’s apex. We’ve reached a point where the very lack of innovation amongst young creatives, at least in popular culture, has itself become so extreme that the idea of the young looking hopelessly at the old who claim that it was ‘better in their day’ no longer applies. The distinctions between the two have become blurred. Memories of future past have essentially subsumed the future itself. And here we encounter the concept of Hauntology.
Hauntology and the Ghosts of Lost Futures
Hauntology was a term originally coined in Jacques Derrida’s book Spectres of Marx in which Fisher saw a particularly apt concept for the kind of malaise that we has describing. “To Haunt” Derrida described, “does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of the concept.” Here Derrida is playing with puns as a way of highlighting the deconstructability of language (in French hauntology and ontology are pronounced identically). To Derrida, the existence of particular thing, it’s ontological existence, cannot be understood without it’s relationship to, and difference from another thing, or as Fisher puts it: “Everything that exists is possible only on the basis of a whole series of absences, which precede and surround it, allowing it to possess such consistency and intelligibility that it does. In the famous example, any particular linguistic term gains its meaning not from its own positive qualities but from its difference from other terms.”
Fisher sees that this relationship between the real and the virtual (a term he borrows from Deleuze) is at the heart of the capitalist cancellation of the future, and it is central to his critique of contemporary music culture as hauntological. He argues that music in the new millennium has had its cultural elements destroyed and replaced by an infinitely repeatable virtual past which reverberates through every aspect of the music itself. In other words, music in the 21st century is haunted by the spectre of the past, and it is precisely this ghostly image that it cannot seem to move away from:
The destranging of music culture in the 21st century – the ghastly return of industry moguls and boys next door to mainstream pop; the premium put on ‘reality’ in popular entertainment; the increased tendency of those in music culture to dress and look like digitally and surgically enhanced versions of regular folk; the emphasis placed on gymnastic emoting in singing – has played a major role in conditioning us to accept consumer capitalism’s model of ordinariness.
Fisher essentially sees that contemporary music has been trapped in a cycle of repetition which has allowed the capitalist culture industries to trap listeners in a state of suspended animation; a state through which novel and new ideas are not being created or even expected by the listener. Here, in some respects, Fisher is harking back to Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the culture industries and their subsumption of cultural forms into the machine of late capitalism. However, the hopelessness of Fisher’s diagnosis has always seemed to me to be misplaced. Fisher was writing during a transitional period in popular music. There’s no doubt that his diagnosis is apt one for the particular aspects of culture that he describes, but as the twenty-first century has matured, a whole host of new new sounds have started to enter the public consciousness, and these, I would argue, are something completely new.
Anti-Hauntology and Electronic Futurism
The former redoubts of futurism, such as electronic music, no longer offer escape from formal nostalgia.
One of Fisher’s damning critiques of contemporary culture is that even electronic music, once the bastion of the progressive, has gotten lost in a hauntological past. It’s not that Fisher sees nothing exciting in electronic music at all, indeed he claimed in 2006 that Burial’s debut LP was ‘the kind of album I’ve dreamt of for years; literally. It is oneiric dance music’, but the reason why Burial stands up above the rest is because it represents, better than anything that had been released up until that point, how contemporary London feels to Fisher:
listening to Burial as I walk through damp and drizzly South London streets in this abortive Spring, it strikes me that the LP is very London Now – which is to say, it suggests a city haunted not only by the past but by lost futures. It seems to have less to do with a near future than with the tantalising ache of a future just out of reach. Burial is haunted by what once was, what could have been, and – most keeningly – what could still happen.
Although I agree with Fisher’s assessment of Burial and it’s Hauntological implications, I can’t help but wonder: what if Mark had been alive when Sophie was gaining popularity? On this note Fisher raises an interesting point, the conclusions of which inspired me to write this article. He argues that: “faced with 21st-century music, it is the very sense of future shock which has disappeared.” He goes on to lay out a thought experiment:
Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next 17 years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be.
So, let’s put this thought experiment into practice. When we listen to an artist like Sophie, regardless of our personal opinion of her music, it’s hard to imagine that she would fail to induce ‘future shock’ in listeners from 20 years ago. Sophie’s music exists on the boundaries of what could even be considered popular music. We might say that blend of the abrasive and the angelic exists solely to subvert the expectations of the listener. Fisher’s conclusion that a contemporary song wouldn’t produce any ‘jolt’ in an audience of the past seems almost absurd when we consider a track like Faceshopping:
Both the visual and auditory aesthetics of this video have been created to provide a sense of future shock in the listener. These are not cultural forms of the past ominously haunting the present, these are images of a virtual future being rendered into contemporary culture. This is something unlike anything we’ve seen before. This is anti-hauntology.
Fisher also claims looks at the lack of subversion in contemporary culture as a sign of some kind of cultural regression from the decades in which he developed his thoughts. He states that:
Throughout the 20th century, music culture was a probe that played a major role in preparing the population to enjoy a future that was no longer white, male or heterosexual, a future in which the relinquishing of identities that were in any case poor fictions would be a blessed relief. In the 21st century, by contrast – and the fusion of pop with reality TV is absolutely indicative of this – popular music culture has been reduced to being a mirror held up to late capitalist subjectivity.
Again, I feel like this statement has aged poorly given the current landscape of popular music and leftist culture. Sophie herself was a transgender woman who played with and subverted the concepts of identity in her music. Similarly, other artist/producers such as Arca have been pushing the boundaries even since when Fisher was writing. This FKA Twigs track, for example, was co-written and produced with Arca and released in 2013, a year before Ghosts of My Life:
Here once again we see a similar visual aesthetic as the one in Faceshopping; an aesthetic that is about the breaking down of established forms. The desctruction and recreation of the digital images in the videos represent perfectly what producers like Sophie and Arca are trying to do with their music. They represent the infiltration of the new and innovative into the popular consciousness, and as trans-artists they certainly embody ‘a future that was no longer white, male or heterosexual’ in the way Fisher imagined.
Subverting the Zeitgeist
In his recent article following Sophie’s death, Ben Beaumont-Thomas wrote “One of the things that marks Sophie out in the very top rank of contemporary musicians is how genuinely avant garde the work is even when firmly rooted in the pop realm, shaking off both the self-importance of the underground and the conservatism of the overground – a rare and valuable quality.” This aspect of Sophie’s work is perhaps her most unique attribute when considering hantology in general. Despite the clearly subversive elements of her music, Sophie spent much of her career working with artists as mainstream as Madonna and Charlie XCX, meanwhile Arca pioneered a unique sound that was picked up by Kanye West (who asked her to work on his album Yeezus in 2013) along with FKA Twigs, Frank Ocean and others. This is not just avant-garde for the sake of avant-garde, this is a new wave of cultural innovation that has already seen it’s influence in popular music, and that is precisely why I would describe it as anti-hauntological.
When I claim that these artists represent a kind of anti-hauntology, it’s not to say that they do not exist alongside spectres of the past, of course every kind of music is a result of what came before it, but that they do not dwell on the past, they push forward looking for new openings and unusual connections which can bring these spectres together in new creative ways. As Hugh Tomlinson wrote in the forward to Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy: “Active forces, like becoming itself, are deemed superior because they are creative: they produce differences, whereas reactive forces produce nothing. Reactive forces only lead to ressentiment and bad conscience”. If hauntology could be reframed as a reactive force, then anti-hauntology is a purely active one.
In conclusion, to answer Mark Fisher’s question about the 21st century equivalent to Kraftwork, a recent tweet from producer Iglooghost put Sophie’s name in the mix:
The fact that many of her contemporaries have held Sophie’s work in such high esteem is testament to her anti-hauntological tendencies. I think to understand this we need look no further than the final track of Sophie’s debut full length entitled ‘Whole New World/Pretend World’.
The track is a chaotic blend of industrial percussion, abrasive stabbing keyboards, and dystopian pop vocals which slowly fade into a a euphoric wave of ambient synth textures. The title here also seems to reference to the (anti)hauntological elements of her music. Is Sophie creating a whole new world with her music or is she is merely reforming elements of the past in such a way that the world itself is merely pretend? I think that will be up to my readers to decide. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that Sophie’s tragic passing represents a real loss for the progression of popular music as a whole. Whether you enjoy her work or not, it’s difficult to doubt she had begun to take electronic music in novel new directions. Let’s hope that, as the pandemic subsides, and the world tries to reclaim some sense of normalcy, that we can start to reclaim a present free of lost futures.