Since the initial article on SOPHIE last week the idea of anti-hauntology has gained a significant amount traction across various internet platforms producing a variety of responses, both positive and negative. In some regards, the concept itself was inherently provocative in that it directly criticised the work of Mark Fisher who has rightly become a beloved cultural icon of the left in the years since his tragic passing in 2017. Nonetheless, there have been also been a fair number of misrepresentations of the concept I was trying to develop so I feel it’s necessary to lay out a more sustained argument as to exactly what anti-hauntology is and what it isn’t.
I think part of the confusion here comes from the various incarnations of hauntology. There are significant differences between Derrida’s and Fisher’s utilisation of the term, for starters, and I should first clarify that anti-hauntology is a response to Fisher and not to Derrida. The specific Derridean aspects are far more wide ranging than Fisher’s reconceptualisation of the term and would require further engagement that would reach beyond my own interpretation of the term itself. However, as Matt Colquhoun (Xenogothic) notes:
It is important to consider that hauntology is borrowed from Derrida, for example, and precisely because of the term’s political context/content. Following the defeat of communism, the very idea that there could still be alternatives to our capitalist understanding of how society functions has been denied us. Fisher’s argument was similar, following the death of rave, and he was interested in how these two “endings” were sociopolitically related — the end of history and an intensified predilection for auditory ghosts.
Here I think we can see the usefulness of hauntology, but we can also begin to see its limitations. Fisher’s analysis here is apt and useful in many respects. However, 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. The spectre of communism may still linger throughout our politics and our culture but if we are stuck constantly referring everything to that lost future we get lost in a kind of banal historicism; a boring dystopia. SOPHIE’s journey through the hyper-commodification of PC music and into the realms of the public consciousness is precisely why she emboides the kind of spirit which acts as a counterweight hauntology. As Colquhoun states:
This is to say that I’d rather SOPHIE hadn’t produced a song for Madonna. I’d rather she was Madonna — a Madonna for now. A proper immaterial girl, rather than the old girl’s secret weapon. Not a pop cultural footnote, a production credit for a legend past their peak, but a transwoman on Top of the Pops shopping her face to school kids on a Friday night, bringing futureshock to living rooms, not just the hip and well-informed few.
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?
There has also been some confusion as to whether hauntology itself is just a repetition of past forms, or whether it’s something more specific. My anti-hauntology articles are directly responding specifically to the pessimism about lost futures that Fisher describes in much of his work. Take the disappearance of popular modernism for example. Fisher states:
What’s at stake in 21st century hauntology is not the disappearance of a particular object. What has vanished is a tendency, a virtual trajectory. One name for this tendency is popular modernism. The cultural ecology that I referred to above – the music press and the more challenging parts of public service broadcasting – were part of a UK popular modernism, as were postpunk, brutalist architecture, Penguin paperbacks and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In popular modernism, the elitist project of modernism was retrospectively vindicated. At the same time, popular culture definitively established that it did not have to be populist. Particular modernist techniques were not only disseminated but collectively reworked and extended, just as the modernist task of producing forms which were adequate to the present moment was taken up and renewed. Which is to say that, although of course I didn’t realise it at the time, the culture which shaped most of my early expectations was essentially popular modernist, and the writing that has been collected in Ghosts Of My Life is about coming to terms with the disappearance of the conditions which allowed it to exist.
To my mind the artists I mention in the previous articles are bringing back some of the positive elements of popular modernism precisely by “reconnecting disparate aesthetic elements together in creative new ways that escape the kind of hauntological spectres of the past that Fisher was wary of”. They bring the creative, novel and avant-garde into the popular consciousness again, which is something that Fisher would certainly advocate, but this reconnection can only be understood as breaking away from hauntology itself. It’s this revitalised sense of hope for new possibilities that anti-hauntology tries to capture.
On this note, we must also remember that Mark saw hauntology as a necessarily melancholic concept. It invokes the melancholic sense of loss for what could have been. Let’s consider these two quotes from Fisher:
One way of thinking about hauntology is that its lost futures do not force such false choices; instead, what haunts is the spectre of a world in which all the marvels of communicative technology could be combined with a sense of solidarity much stronger than anything social democracy could muster
What is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but the resumption of the processes of democratisation and pluralism … What should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised. These spectres –the spectres of lost futures – reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist world
Hauntology then 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. That’s not to say Fisher did not see any potential redeeming qualities in contemporary society, but that hauntology, as described in Ghosts of My Life, had lost any of the potential vigour that would have broken it free of its ghostly constraints.
So, does this mean that anti-hauntology is a merely synonym for popular modernism? Perhaps in some respects. But I think it’s important to note the temporal distinctions implied in coining a term specifically after hauntology. Anti-hauntology is a response to hauntology, it’s not just a recapturing of the popular modernist spirit, but it embodies aspects of popular modernism in the wake of hauntology.
Futhermore, the prefix ‘anti-‘ does not just mean ‘opposed to’ or ‘against’ but also ‘preventing’ or ‘relieving’. Bernard Stiegler, who was a student of Derrida, argues that all technology, including music technology, must be seen as a pharmakon – it must understood as both the poison which destroys knowledge and limits individuation, and the remedy which can salvage its own destructive tendencies. In this sense, we could see anti-hauntology as a remedy to the negative aspects of hauntology which are outlined above. The two can exist side by side, but just as hauntology was a response to the the failed dreams of popular modernism, anti-hauntology must be understood as a response to the pessimistic melancholy of the hauntological condition.
Anti-hauntology vs. Accelerationism
As I noted in my last article Colquhoun argued that anti-hauntology is essentially another name for accelerationism. Here he quotes an article from Alex Williams who seems to address many of the same points I have been making. Indeed, Williams makes a much more damning critique of hauntology than I would be willing to put forward:
Hauntology is a cowardly move, lusting after utopias that never were, or which are now unreachable, a retreat into childhood/youth, just as trapped in the endless re-iterative mechanistics of the postmodern as the lowest form of retroism, merely in a hyper-self-aware form. In summary, hauntology cedes too much ground to what it attempts to oppose, because of an a priori assumption: that there is nothing else, (at this moment in time at least) that nothing else is possible, and as such we are to make the best of this (and that the best we can do is to hint at the possible which remains forever out of reach — with all the pseudo-messianic dimensions this involves).
Colquhoun goes on to layout examples of how the early accelerationists engaged with the idea of pop music being grounds for a boundary pushing aesthetic visions, or perhaps even drastically new ones. He sees SOPHIE as part of a continuum that ranges from early garage to the PC music scene from which she emerged. On this note he quotes Robin Mackay who claims that even in artists like Britney Spears and Ke$ha we can see something radical and innovative that ‘opens up new kids of sensation’: “There’s this sealed, polished, artificial skin that makes it seem like a simple pop package, but on the micro scale, its construction is incredibly dense and tweaked in every possible way. I’m sure that takes a lot of thought.”
Mackay’s argument is written in a similar vein to my article on Arca. However, I would argue that Arca’s production embodies the positive elements he advocates (those anti-hauntological elements) in a much more complete way than anything that had been in the sphere of pop music in the late 00s. The Kelela track I mentioned in that article utilises a much more creative production style than what the likes of Dr. Luke were doing only a few years before. Even considering the time frame (Dr. Luke was nominated for a ‘producer of the year’ grammy in 2014, the same year Arca worked on FKA Twigs’ LP1) Arca’s ideas were far more innovative in the realm of pop music, and many of her contemporaries have recognised as much.
Later, Colquhoun states that a key issue with my article on SOPHIE is that Fisher himself was alive during SOPHIE’s rise to popularity. To readers unfamiliar with the timeframe, Fisher passed away in January of 2017, whereas SOPHIE’s debut was released in December of the same year. Now, I’ll concede that Fisher was likely aware of the PC music scene that SOPHIE was born out of, but it was only with the release of her debut that she really started to embody anti-hauntology, especially as her work started to permeate through the popular music sphere despite it’s abrasive experimental tendencies. And, to give credit where credits due, Colquhoun does recognise this. However, he also quotes an interview with Fisher which summarises my exact criticism of him:
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.
Anti-hauntology is essentially the recreation of that circuit that Fisher thought had been destroyed by late capitalism. My argument in the last two articles is that experimental music has started to be pushed into the mainstream and in doing so reaches out to the other ‘well established’ experimental genres and invites popular artists to draw on them. This move move essentially means that the experimental, the avant garde, and the popular have developed a new relationship that I think would have been extremely difficult to find 15 or so years ago. Also, Fisher’s use of language here is an interesting one as I would argue that anti-hauntology and hauntology roughly correspond to Stiegler’s definitions of ‘long-circuits (of individuation)’ and ‘short-circuits (of dis-individuation)’.
To Stiegler long-circuits “accumulate libidinal energy by intensifying individuation, and give objects of desire to the individual that infinitize his or her individuation (Simondon shows that individuation is structurally unachievable and in this sense infinite), because these objects can only be given as infinite and incommensurable” (For a New Critique of Political Economy, 42). In other words, long-circuits are the political, social, and technical connections which produce the positive forces of individuation in society – they make the production of the new seem possible once again.
On the other hand, short-circuits “provoke … disindividuation, and consequently desublimation, that is, the commensurable finitization of all things, leading to the destruction of libidinal energy” (ibid.). Short-circuits are the result of short-termist thinking which limits the capacity of individuation to affect society in a positive way. Hauntology isn’t exactly a direct parallel here but it’s a description of the negative results of short-circuits when applied to certain cultural processes.
Here, the discussion of circuits could be argued to echo Nick Land’s description of accelerationism where he claims:
In socio-historical terms, the line of deterritorialization corresponds to uncompensated capitalism. The basic – and, of course, to some real highly consequential degree actually installed – schema is a positive feedback circuit, within which commercialization and industrialization mutually excite each other in a runaway process, from which modernity draws its gradient. Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche were among those to capture important aspects of the trend. As the circuit is incrementally closed, or intensified, it exhibits ever greater autonomy, or automation. It becomes more tightly auto-productive (which is only what ‘positive feedback’ already says). Because it appeals to nothing beyond itself, it is inherently nihilistic. It has no conceivable meaning beside self-amplification. It grows in order to grow. Mankind is its temporary host, not its master. Its only purpose is itself.
Despite the parallels between Stiegler and Land’s thinking there is a fundamental difference which perhaps embodies the difference in attitude towards hauntology between Fisher and I. Whereas Land is nihilistic in his assessment of this automated technical system, Stiegler is hopeful. Despite his damning critique of our technological society and its increasing subsumption by what he calls the ‘hypercapitalist system’, he argues that the pharmacological nature of technology means that the cure to society’s malaise is always contained within the technical process itself. In the same way, anti-hauntology, which exists both against hauntology, and as something which relieves us of hauntology’s pessimism, escapes the nihilism Land describes as the foundation of accelerationism.
Towards the end of his first response Colquhoun accepts the implications of this when he claims: “Anti-hauntology is right — but let’s not forget accelerationism either.” I certainly think that’s a fair statement. However, as we all know, engaging with accelerationism in 2021 has its own issues and its own complications. Sure, it might be productive to be made aware of similar discussions that were happening during the time when Fisher was writing (and thanks to Colquhoun for bringing those to my attention) but to claim that “anti-hauntology’s first name was accelerationism.” Is to lump the concept in with a whole heap of baggage that I’m not ready to claim. Anti-hauntology is something that should stand alone outside of the accelerationist framework. It’s 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.
Building on the Ruins
As the keen eyed reader might have noticed, the title of this essay was a nod to Wendy Brown’s book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism in which she highlights how the current trend of far-right populism is a direct result of the neoliberal hegemony of the last 40 years. She claims neoliberalism was not just an economic system, as if often claimed, but a moral one. It laid the groundwork which allowed for the rise of something other than itself.
In the same way I think that we could argue that the concept of anti-hauntology arose out of the ruins of accelerationism. As Colquhoun rightly notes the discourse around various /acc movements online how almost become a parody of itself, a collection of edgy twitter memes which value the quasi-hauntological post-cyberpunk aesthetic of accelerationism more highly than the ideas themselves. As former arch-accelerationist Reza Negarestani notes: “Style is something that is intrinsic to how one cognizes and re-cognizes the world. It is not, however, a way of peddling ideas or look cutting-edge or scholarly.” It is precisely in this sense that we should develop an anti-hauntology in the wake of both accelerationism and Fisher’s early hauntology. One which cant stand outside of accelerationism whilst also providing that pharmacological cure that Stiegler claims is so necessary to combat the negative effects of capitalist realism.
(Here I only managed to get around to addressing Colquhoun’s first article on anti-hauntolgy. I aimed to try and address both in the same piece but it got far too long so I decided to cut it in half and work on the second one separately. I think I addressed some of the issues he raises there in this piece, but I will try to expand on these ideas in the next piece.)