Yesterday's Tomorrow: Why Are We and Will Always Be 'Obsessed' by the Past? On Hauntology

A sponsored link popped up in Facebook homepage during my daily morning routine– scrolling down any available timelines from my social media accounts with the sheer hope to discover something new for my brain to digest. It was a link to an annual infographic created by Shutterstock on major and rising design trends in 2019– something that grasps my attention rather quickly (as one of my obligations is to be vigilant of trends within the pop culture). The page suggests the data was collected based on ‘billions of image, video, and music searches and downloads from Shutterstock customers’. Fair enough.

The bursting colours and immersion through moving pictures and clickable visual elements drew me more into the infographic. Moreover, the moment I reach the end of the infographic, I can absolutely confirm this as a perfect example–an epitome, of our obsessiveness with the fragments of the past and our tendencies of pastiche. We are indeed, and will always be, retromania[1].

Witness Shutterstock’s infographic yourself here.

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The major three design trends on 2019 revolve around one thing: history repeating itself through visual elements. Name Yesterday’s Tomorrow, signified by the revisitation of synth-wave (homage to the early tech of the late 80s and early 90s) and duotone. The other two feature the idea of the abandonment of digitalism. Why do these said circumstances keep on happening, where retro aesthetics are recycled abundantly and there seems to be this notion that we can’t escape our obsession with the old social forms?

To understand these phenomena, we’re digging deeper into a concept called hauntology, which named as a portmanteau of ‘haunting’ and ‘ontology’.[2]

Francis Fukuyama in ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ (1992) argued that the worldwide establishment of liberal democracies and free-market capitalism may signal the end point of humanity’s socio-cultural evolution. [3] A year later, French philosopher Jacques Derrida published ‘Spectres of Marx’ (1993) which against a philosophical backdrop suggested by critics of the capitalist, post-modern society that explore the conception of history reaching an ‘impasse as a means of explaining perceived cultural stagnation’. The monopoly of neo-liberalism has brought an era of political sterility where agents of dissent are reduced to making a series of hysterical demands, resulting in an endless craving for revivalism.

The title ‘Spectre of Marx’ is a reference to a statement written at the beginning of the Manifesto of the Communist party in 1848: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre” [4]

‘Spectres of Marx’ was highly critical of Fukuyama’s End of History, in which Derrida argued that as history represents a relationship between a present and its past, this linear hierarchy can be deconstructed by the concept of ‘haunting’. He predicted that the West will continue to be haunted by Marx’s spirit of radical critique as an antidote to the apparent ‘death of ideology’. It was within this context that he proposed the philosophical concept of ‘hauntology’;

To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we should be calling here a hauntology.

Derrida illustrates this theory with a scene of a spirit of the dead King featured in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The expected return of this revenant, this non-object, this non-present present, cannot be controlled because it begins by coming back.[5] Like history, it is doomed to repeat itself again and again. Derrida accentuated the notion of a haunting occur when a spirit visits the present from the past, usually with the warning about the future. This space disruption of by a time that is out-of-joint is referred to as dyschronia.

Today’s cultural obsession with revivalism represents a denial of the future in favour of the comforting reassurance offered by the ‘ghost’ of the past. Mark Fisher in ‘Ghost of My Life’ (2014) describes this apparent denial of the future as; “Amnesia of the present, is the complement to hauntology’s nostalgia for the future”. Hauntology proposes a positive alternative to post-modernity’s ‘nostalgia mode’. The future can only be for ghosts.

The present can only be viewed through the lens of the past, with occasional glances into the future.

 If history has run out, hauntology only grows more relevant as years go on. Indeed, hauntology may be the closest thing we have to a zeitgeist.

Footnotes

[1] Simon Reynolds in Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (2011) defines retro as:

  • […] always about the relatively immediate past, about stuff that happened in living memory.

  • […] an element of exact recall: the ready avail­ability of archived documentation (photographic, video, music recordings, the Internet) allows for precision replication of the old style, whether it's a period genre of music, graphics or fashion. As a result, the scope for imaginative misrecognition of the past– the distortions and mutations that characterised earlier cults of antiquity like the Gothic Revival, for instance - is reduced.

  • […] generally involves the artifacts of popular cul­ture. This differentiates it from earlier revivals, which, as the historian Raphael Samuel points out, were based around high culture and originated from the higher echelons of society - aristocratic aesthetes and antiquarians with a rarified taste for exquisite collectables. […]

  • […] tends neither to idealise nor sentimentalise the past, but seeks to be amused and charmed by it. By and large, the approach is not scholarly and purist but ironic and eclectic. […]

[2] The term refers to the situation of temporal, historical, and ontological disjunction in which the apparent presence of being is replaced by a deferred non-origin, represented by "the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive." (Gallix, 2011)

[3] Fukuyama’s argument on the end of evolution referenced Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) who defined history as 'the progress of man to higher levels of rationality and freedom and that this process had a logical terminal point.

[4] Read (Marx, Engels and Toews, 1848)

[5] See (Cixous, 2012)

References

Cixous, H. (2012). Shakespeare Ghosting Derrida. Oxford Literary Review, 34(1), pp.1-24.

Fukuyama, F. (1992) The end of history and the last man. London. Penguin Books.

Gallix, A. (2011). Hauntology: A not-so-new critical manifestation. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/jun/17/hauntology-critical [Accessed 29 Jan. 2019].

Marx, K., Engels, F. and Toews, J. (1848). The Communist Manifesto.

Reynolds, S. (2011). Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. New York: Faber and Faber, p.xxx-xxxi.

Bibliography

Cixous, H. (2012). Shakespeare Ghosting Derrida. Oxford Literary Review, 34(1), pp.1-24.

Derrida, J. (1993) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International. Paris: Éditions Galilée

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist realism. London: Zero Books

Fisher, M. (2013). The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology. Dancecult, 5(2), pp.42-55.

Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. London: Zero Books.

Fukuyama, F. (1992) The end of history and the last man. London. Penguin Books.

Gallix, A. (2011). Hauntology: A not-so-new critical manifestation. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/jun/17/hauntology-critical [Accessed 29 Jan. 2019].

Reynolds, S. (2011). Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. New York: Faber and Faber