Saturday, October 21, 2006


I am not well acquainted with the concept of "hauntology". But after reading the many posts on the topic by Mark at k-punk, I feel I have glimpse into the nature of the idea. Mark's brilliant most recent post opens it up even further for me:
It is this sense of temporal disjuncture that is crucial to hauntology. Hauntology isn't about the return of the past, but about the fact that the origin was already spectral. We live in a time when the past is present, and the present is saturated with the past. Hauntology emerges as a crucial - cultural and political - alternative both to linear history and to postmodernism's permanent revival.

Ten years ago, we would have looked to SF and cyberpunk for this alternative. But hauntology and cyberpunk can now emerge as twins; travelling back in time in Butler's Kindred is the complement of the violent irruption of the past in Morrison's Beloved. It's no accident that hauntology begins in the Black Atlantic, with dub and hip-hop. Time being out of joint is the defining feature of the black Atlantean experience. As Mark Sinker wrote, the 'central fact in Black Science Fiction - self-consciously so named or not - is an acknowledgement that Apocalypse already happened: that (in [Public Enemy's] phrase) Armageddon been in effect.' In this disjunctive time, it makes perfect sense for Terminator X to juxtapose samples of helicopters with discussions about the slave trade, as he does on Apocalypse...91. There is no way in which a trauma on the scale of slavery - 'the holocaust that's still going on' as Chuck D had it - can be incorporated into history, American or otherwise. * It must remain a series of gaps, lost names, screen memories, a hauntology. X marks the spot... The deep, unbearable ache in Kindred arises from the horrible realisation that, for contemporary black America, to wish for the erasure of slavery is to call for the erasure of itself. What to do if the precondition for your being is the abduction, murder and rape of your ancestors?
This last specifically reminds me of a professor of Russian history I had back in college. One day, while railing that Russians, in the approaching dissolution of the Soviet Union, had nothing to learn from "Jeffersonian nonsense about natural law", he said something to the effect that, as horrible as what happened to the Native Americans was, he was nevertheless happy it had happened. To wish otherwise was to wish away his own existence.

Before getting to the end of Mark's post, I was also immediately reminded of Greil Marcus and his thesis of the "Old Weird America"--a much derided idea now, I suppose, but one which made some sort of sense to me. When I read Invisible Republic, I was bored by the chapters specifically about Dylan and the Band and the recording of the The Basement Tapes--I love Dylan, but I'm no Dylanologist, I was then discovering. But the stuff on the old folk songs, on Dock Boggs, on "The Coo-Coo Bird"--this stuff fascinated me. It seemed to speak to a history of America beneath the surface, away from the standard narrative we've had forced down our throats, to acknowledge the strange religious practices, the violent upheavals, the anxiety about technological change... At the time I also listened to an interview with Marcus in support of his book. When he wasn't droning on about who played what on The Basement Tapes, but was talking about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clarence Ashley, and Dylan's songs that seemed repond to other currents in pop culture (like Dylan's take on the teenage murder song), I felt that I was on the cusp of understanding something, something that tied in with Faulkner's imagined South, and Cormac McCarthy's highly stylized violence of the Old West in Blood Meridian, and this something was just beyond my reach, something I could not articulate intelligibly.

Mark does mention Marcus, in a footnote. He notes that Marcus invariably avoids talking about production techniques and that, indeed, in his discussion of the Sex Pistols, for example, Marcus talks about their live performance... Mark admits: "I haven't read any of Marcus' Old Weird America material, so correct me if I'm wrong - isn't it about Dylan? - but couldn't all this return to field recordings be fitted, all-too-comfortably, into a quest for presence?" Yes, yes it could. Also, it strikes me that, in his recent work, Marcus appears to be positing something essential about America, locating some kind of authenticity in the musicians and writers he chooses to focus on, in the particular narrative strain he choses to highlight. His focus on David Thomas, for instance, is interesting in this regard, given how inauthentic Thomas' musical persona is. In his music, in and out of Pere Ubu, Thomas is saying something about America, too. As if there is something authentic in the very inauthenticity of the projected persona, in the music, and as if this reveals something essential about America.

One of the important things to remember about the Anthology of American Folk Music, emphasized by Harry Smith but often overlooked, is that these were intended to be commercial recordings. The musicians may have been playing songs that had been around seemingly forever, but these were not field recordings, these were performances recorded for release by record labels. That it's been well over 50 years since the Anthology first appeared, and another 20-30 years since the recordings first appeared, means it's easy to listen to these songs as if they are ancient, but the recordings have locked in place a certain time, and the technological artifice of the records--their scratchiness equals for us "old-time"--allows us to continue to believe in the illusion of folk tradition transmitted via the recordings. Not that there is no folk tradition, but that the tradition we think we know about is necessarily altered by the technological artifact.

I'm just sort of riffing here, but I'm interested in pursuing this line of thought further. I look forward to reading Simon Reynolds' piece (referenced by k-punk) in the new issue of The Wire, which I haven't received yet, among other things....

1 comment:

Mike said...

I was at a conference at NYU a few weekends ago and heard Simon talk about the David Byrne and Brian Eno record, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," from 1981. Interesting stuff, and he applied Derrida's concept of hauntology to the self-conscious disjunctures of the album. I tried to synthesize some of the online discussion of "sonic hauntology" on my blog (, and point out some of the problems with the way the concept is being used, as I see them. Anyway, it 'll be interesting to see if music critics can appropriate Derrida's concept without losing it's precision.