Hauntology and Technology
by Begüm GÜVEN
I like drinking coffee. More than that, I like gazing over the half finished coffee sitting in my cup getting colder as I leave it on my desk for the rest of the day. Getting in and out of my library, I stare at my cup with dried stains on its surface. It is a remembrance, a gift sent to me from my peaceful morning. The inexplicable desire I had for a hot beverage just a couple of hours ago now hangs on to my cup. Now the day starts to get hot itself, and my energy drains parallel with me stepping into my responsibilities. The cup stands as a statue, since statues often remind us of our past. Our individual belongings and nation-wide effigies, remembrances and memories, all those phenomenons are visitors from the dimension of phantoms.
You would imagine that the scientific era would consist less of phantoms and ghosts, and that we would not be haunted anymore by our past. But according to Jacques Derrida, modern technology only increased the power of ghosts on us: “instead of diminishing the age of phantoms as a certain prenatal age, modern technology of images enhances the power of ghosts.” Ghosts can be anything that belongs to the past (or the future) but still affects our present. Ontology is the study of being; yet there are things that are very real, but not actual or materialized. Thus accordingly, Derrida coined the term “hauntology”. (1)
What is hauntology?
Hauntology “refers to the persistence of elements from the past, in the manner of ghosts.” It is a pun which combines haunting with ontology. The best way to understand it is the concept of ideas. Some ideas just appear in our world, and even if they don’t gain dominance or power in political or artistic spheres, they still hang on. Communism can be an example of this. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels state that the spectre of communism is haunting Europe. It means that communism at that time is there as an idea, which affects the actions of people, but is not the dominant form. On a related note, Francis Fukuyama later claims that future is dead. Now that neoliberal capitalism is everywhere and Soviet Union is dissolved, we cannot imagine an alternative. Because of that, the present does not pass and the future cannot form. We also see this in the slogans of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that tell us “there is no alternative.” (2)
The concept of hauntology is derived from Derrida’s deconstruction method, “in which any attempt to locate the origin of identity or history must inevitably find itself dependent on an always already existing set of linguistic conditions.” (1) What we conceive of as future or past is very much influenced by our understanding of them in the present. This is why the image of stains helps me understand hauntology. Stains are made by an act that took place in the past, but they themselves persist on to the present. If we think of our present as the layers of an onion, we can see that there is no pure origin of the events but rather the echoes of past as waves, similar to the depiction of time by Virginia Woolf.
In Specters of Marx, Derrida writes that “Haunting is historical but it is not dated.”
Sense of time is not completed, it is broken. Derrida quotes Hamlet and says that “time is out of joint.” Ghosts cannot be fully present, but instead they return. It can be the return of primal impulses as in Freud. When he says that the death instinct pushes us to move forward, it can be interpreted as these instincts return, and allow us to cultivate the knowledge in the future. If we think of it, neither the death instinct nor development is present. Instead they elude the present time, but they still affect it. As ghosts, these phenomenons are in a paradoxical state. “What is not can have very real effects, a presence though virtual and insubstantial.”says Derrida. It is indeed related to virtuality; both in the way we understand the word and in its philosophical use.
Future belongs to ghosts
Mark Fisher, in his paper “What is Hauntology” (2012) points to the two possible directions hauntology can take: one foot being in the present while the other is in the future or the past. Things may pass but be still effective “as a virtuality, like the traumatic compulsion to repeat.” Or things do not yet come but respectively are still effective in the virtual as “an attractor, an anticipator shaping current behavior, an idea.” (3) This is more prevalent today as we can multiply the platforms of virtuality with new media. And according to Friedrich Kittler, the media always gives way to ghost phenomena since the events presented do not succeed one another in a traditional fashion. (4) We distribute ourselves and can be in all places at all times via recording devices. We can pivot certain events and shape how we remember our past, thus shaping our individual history and identity alongside. We also make contributions to cultural memory by leaving our traces at the places we visit, in the forms of photos and comments, from which future visitors create an idea about those locations. While highlighting some parts of our lives, some get missed by. For example, we cannot imagine how it was to sustain a relationship before and after the marriage by looking at someone’s wedding photos in their Facebook timeline. These things still elude such representation.
Ghosts use electronics to spread out. According to Fisher, “To be haunted by a ghost is to remember something you have never lived. For memory is the past that has never taken the form of the present.” If we think about it, what is the act of watching a movie anyway, if it isn’t taking hostage someone else’s fake memories? We are the agent of the act of watching; but according to the virtual world we are watching, we are only an observer. The film was made with the consideration of such observers but it was not specifically us that the film was intended to. We only exist as an idea, the idea of an observer and thus are stuck between the being and non-being.
There was a time in which writing was a new experience. Plato argued in those times that writing destroys memory because humans don’t contain the experiences or ideas within the limits of their brain, but transfer them to a piece of paper. Yet Derrida argues that memory has always been writing; and through that written and technical memory, we constitute the living memory. Teche means the thing that makes life, it is what makes things appear. It is also what made possible the invention of man. Thought “becomes possible with the assemblage of hand, tool, language, speech.” This is why our individual memory follows that of the technical. Through creation we also invent who we are. (5)
Memory is associated with the transmission of knowledge through time, escaping its historical boundedness. Bernard Stiegler theorizes that “digital, social and spatial media as techniques that externalize knowledge such that it can be transmitted across time and space. Writing a letter, drawing, tweeting or sharing a photo through Instagram are all techniques that connect our knowledge and action in the present moment to knowledge and possible action in a future moment and open the possibility of collective uptake of individual memory.” (6)
History is made up of contingencies and ruptures, a pool of possibilities from which individuals or groups choose. A story usually takes these singular events and composes them into a linearity. Those who don’t get to be picked are lost in time and space. Or are they? There were lots of depictions of the future, diverging from one another in the 20th century. Even though most of them failed in accurately predicting the future, they did not just die out. Instead they are nowadays consumed as fiction in novels and movies; or are taken as forms and structures which lead to a whole different aesthetics and music production. They were brought back into the circulation of content. (Fisher,2012)
We can see the best examples within the internet. Most of the content and artistic structures that were found and became popular in the late twentieth century are still present today. Some critics even argue that culture cannot keep up with the acceleration of technology nowadays. It is said that in the past, technology allowed new cultural forms. But according to Frederick Jameson, 80’s revivalism is in high demand now. Thus, retrofuturism and pastiche find a place for themselves in today's cultural atmosphere.
Music and Cinema
What would it be like to not have most of the genres we have today in the music industry? What would it feel like to be surprised by a combination of notes, or some melody that you have never heard before, because of the fact that it did not exist? According to Mark Fisher, that was the situation of the West in the 60s and onwards. Especially the 60s and 70s were “the age of popular modernism” and “made it feel as if newness was infinitely available.”
Mark Fisher states that “by 2005 or so, it was becoming clear that electronic music could no longer deliver sounds that were futuristic.”(Fisher, pg16) We can talk about vaporwave in that regard which is a type of music that is heavily reliant on the music that has already been created. Vaporwave takes individual pre-existing pieces of music and slows them down or mixes them up with other compositions and presents itself as a new piece. Burial for example, searches youtube and collects covers of pop songs, and some inserts of other music; and then forms his own music on this basis. Vaporwave not only uses the music from these preceding periods (mostly 80s and 90s), but also the cultural artifacts these periods came up with. Palm trees followed by a sunset, Roman architecture and especially statues, outrun games and glitches, fonts and certain colors are all part of the creation process. We can arguably say that this music is kneaded with melancholy and “preoccupied with the way in which technology materialised memory.” Mark Fisher continues his argument by saying that while the 20th century made us feel like newness was infinite, when it came to the 21st century we were basically exhausted. The sense of finitude dominated within capitalist realism which meant that we couldn’t imagine any other way of life except the one we were in. Even the escapes were commodified. So new things are produced now only through imitation and pastiche of old forms. (7) (8)
The other side of this is the groups which are new in existence but old in form. Contrary to what’s vaporwave doing and acknowledging the old eras as “old” by mashing them in new forms, some artists sound exactly like they could belong to those eras. According to Fisher, Arctic Monkeys, Adele and Lana Del Rey are some examples of this. What is even surprising is that they are not even marketed as retro groups but are positioned as if they truly belong to our generation.
Even though sleek designs and professional video quality seem tempting, there is a part of us that wants to feel our media to be lived in. Because of the mass production and its way of crushing the sense of individuality and temporality, we want to be able to situate a given product or media in a specific place and time. At least some of us do. We can see the effects of this want via new videos and films recorded as if they were “home movies.” There is a beauty in degraded media just as there is beauty in overused objects of ours. Scratches and glitches, black and white televisions, vinyl records, 35 mm camera lenses etc. remind of us the imperfectness of human lives. Apart from the aesthetics of the past, there are new tv series that are positioned in the past such as Stranger Things or Twin Peaks. It may be important to highlight that, most of what we consider as past that is worth repeating is the periods in which technology and the internet existed, but was new and exciting. It might be this feeling that we are after and to which we want to be closer to. (9)
As we can expect, some game companies use brand recognition in order to profit from the games they produce, thus repeating themselves while hardly bringing any innovation to the table. However, as I researched for this section of this article, I realized that video games are in a special place with the recombination of different media platforms unto themselves and also with the layered nature of game-player interaction.
We can talk about two layers of video games in general: fictional world and game world. The fictional world is the one in which the story is depicted and revealed with the contributions of the player. Characters, objects and places belong to this layer and the storytelling takes place here. We can encounter real ghosts and spectral beings in this stage, from which we can deduce clues and interpret the current events with that of the past of the fictional world. These ghosts become part of the facts and artefacts of the world that belongs to the virtual life. The game then, with these supernatural phenomenons gains a different meaning, and twists the familiar objects and events into something uncanny; to things that require new interpretations. Therefore, the reality of the fiction is in a constant flux: we can rediscover the real reasons behind a murder, or understand certain behaviors of a character in the game etc. Beyond: Two Souls, and Murdered: Soul Suspect are two games in which main heros or central characters are ghosts. Or ghosts can be the way in which the story is transferred: “for example in Oxenfree, ghosts are hiding underneath a noise and glitch aesthetic that is not restricted to a ghostly figure but rather infuses the whole game environment.” Games can also use “haunted media” such as EVP (electronic voice phenomena). (10)
The difference of game platforms from the others come around when the player actively influences the game. “The game world’s past, present and future are produced simultaneously with the entrance of the player to the video game environment.” Some games even allow the previously played versions of the same game to influence the current one the player is playing. Thus the process of creating new meaning and experimenting multiplies, and shows us that “the video game object is not a stable entity with fixed features”. Maybe video games should be a major component of Derrida’s deconstruction project. (10)
If we switch from the fictional world to the game world section, we start to deal with the virtuality of the medium and its digital artifact. After all, video games presuppose that we have at least minimum familiarity with how gaming works, or how we move our character with certain keys etc. These mechanisms, even though change with time, still heavily rely on preceding games. How to play a game at Nintendo, for example, is different from that of an online game and thus forces us to use the mechanisms these certain platforms provide. I think games are more flexible in the ways that they change what gaming means since they possess more layers and dimensions than most of the other platforms. Cave Story for example, bases its mechanics to retro games in Nintendo consoles while managing to come up with new techniques to keep the player engaged with the game. It starts slow and teaches its rules via showing rather than telling and gives room to learning by simply playing. It also handles to keep the player in “flow state” by sustaining a certain level which is not too hard and stressful, or too easy and boring. It also manages to gain popularity while remaining to be considered a part of retrogaming. (10) (11)
Retrogaming has 3 subcategories. The first one is vintage retrogaming which is playing an old game on its original hardware. Second is retrogaming emulation. This is playing a version of an old game on new platforms. Lastly, there is ported retrogaming which allows games to be played on modern hardware via ports or compilations. We can arguably consider some games such as The Legend of Zelda, Soda Dungeon, Hotline Miami and Sonic Mania as retro, though what everyone understands what to be retro changes dramatically. (12)
Arguably, there has always been an anxiety deduced by “new media”, with the excuse of it “threatening to unsettle the ordinary rhythm of life, forcing power structures to adapt.” But what is different of the online medias and related platforms from writing and printing is that, the latter did not carry the act of its own enunciation with it. Writing was between the paper and the author, and the distribution of such writing and the act of reading it required different mechanisms of interaction. Today, we can claim that the way we consume is a part of the remix culture itself, thus the immediate act of deciding what we will do with the information given, changes the future of the information itself. Tweet it, or ignore it? Thus, there is an economy of the phantoms, a war towards winning the libido of consumers:
“If one were to think of desires as existing in a chaosmic state and through the institutions of state, economy, religion and family, these desires get regulated.
But in the relatively democratic platforms, we have new ways to express these desires which goes missing in the traditional regulation process:
“Media technologies’ openness to an anachronous time allows for such desires to be expressed.” (Thirumal, pg50)
Have we lost our hope for the future? We can think so by looking at new series and films such as Black Mirror, Hunger Games and the Divergent, considering that these are intended for young people. Yet in contrast to dystopian images, we have figures like Elon Musk whose efforts towards future smell futurism and optimism. But future, for who? Surely he is not a lone wolf and there is a trend which indicates that the future is making a comeback. But we cannot be sure that this image of the future is for everyone like it had been in the 20th century, and not just for a certain group. (13)
Lastly, I want to mention a way of thinking, helpful towards the concept cultivated in this paper. We can apply hermeneutics of suspicion onto our judgements towards the media: We should keep in mind “the false artifactuality of mediatic experience” but we should not navigate towards abandoning these sources completely. Instead, we should follow it by its counterpart which is hermeneutics of recovery: We shouldn’t over prepare for the deceptions of television or sort and should not exaggerate “the artifactuality of the teletechnologies” and believe that what it is presented is completely a lie. (Thirumal, pg 49)
My suggestion is to accept that we change alongside the media and form assemblages with them thanks to the mutual information exchange. The process of becoming human has always been a process of exteriorization. Even though virtuality has gained a face in the last couple of decades, it is not new that it has existed. We do live among ghosts, or ghosts live through us and repeat themselves. All we can do is the same with what Jacques Derrida did in the film Ghost Dance and say: vive les fantômes.