Hauntology, Ghosts of Future Pasts is a book about hauntings, or more precisely the idea of haunting, and why, since the publication in 1848 of Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto, we, meaning modern English society, have been pre-occupied with the supernatural. The term hauntology was first used by the philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1983 and describes, according to Merlin Coverley, “the ways in which the past returns to haunt the present.”
Coverley’s remit for Hauntology is a wide one: ranging from not only Marxism but the ghostly fiction of Charles Dickens, M.R.James and Arthur Machen; the experiments with time conducted by J.W.Dunne spilling over into the screenwriting of Nigel Kneale and the fiction of Alan Garner and J.G.Ballard; concluding with the work of W.G.Sebald and how these ghosts of futures past impacted strongly on the folk horror culture of the 1970’s to shape our view of British capitalism.
Along with Marx comes the shadow of Freud (mostly his essay, The Uncanny) looming over a haunted landscape that predicted our present society stuck in its attempt at liberal social progress. For it’s haunted by images (true or false) of past achievements which now exert a regressive nostalgia. They pull at us because we once embraced an idealistic hope that you could change the world for the better. But this has proved not to be so.
‘The closer the real possibility of liberating the individual from the constraints once justified by scarcity and immaturity, the greater the need for maintaining and streamlining these constraints lest the established order of dominion dissolve. Capitalism has to protect itself against the spectre of a world which could be free.’
That was Herbert Marcuse in 1955 who inspired the radical counter culture of the 1960’s: a movement that changed the cultural surface of the world but failed to remove the political structures of the status quo. So are we now haunted by our failures, near success and achievements? Do we have too much cultural inertia to make positive social change possible? And even if we could is it too late in the day?
"If as a science fiction writer, you ask me to make a prediction about the future, I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring...The future is going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul" J. G. Ballard interview in Extreme Metaphors (1982)
The most compelling sections of Coverley’s Hauntology deal with fictional engagement. Nigel Kneale was one of the few TV/film writers to blend scientific ideas in a supernatural setting. His 1972 BBC play The Stone Tape is an exemplary re-working of the ghost story and the archaeology of ghostly powers.
A ghost from the 1830’s proves to be merely the tip of an iceberg, for it uncovers traumas embedded in a malignant and deeper past. Like Kneale’s Quatermass the conceit of ancient forces is Lovecraftian. Coverley agues that what Kneale, and other writers, introduce us to are fresh concepts of time developed by J. W. Dunne. Other time-haunted writers are Alan Garner and Susan Cooper who are fascinated by inner time, the repetition of our lives and déjà vu (Cooper’s biography of J. B. Priestly is relevantly cited). Maybe its possible to explore the past and act more wisely in the future? However returning to J. G. Ballard we are possibly haunted by the pessimistic thought that we cannot experience anything as truly new again.
‘Everything has been condensed into a kind of high-pressure present where it’s almost impossible to visualise anything new happening; it’s impossible to think in terms of the day after tomorrow’ J.G.Ballard on The Atrocity Exhibition in Extreme Metaphors (1982)
The weakest part of Hauntology is Part 3, 'Ghosts of Future Pasts' with its attempt to provide a political solution to our haunted consciousness. I qualify weakness to infer that there aren’t alternatives only possibilities to consider.
Here Mark Fisher (another hauntologist) discusses how neo-liberalism has been responsible for destroying the spectre contained in Marcuse’s thought of a “world which could be free.” Fisher’s Acid Communism analyses the stasis of our society and how it can be challenged. The time we ought to re-consider (as it presently haunts our popular culture) is Britain in the 1970’s. The media consensus for the seventies is of a negative decade of unemployment, strikes and economic difficulties. However Coverley soberly reminds us that the Measure of Domestic Progress (MDP) calculated that the best year in Britain since 1950 was 1976. (Throughout Hauntology Coverley is scrupulous in providing excellent footnotes and maintains a strong critical position). It’s also a credit to this book that Coverley can draw upon the folk horror culture revival of the 1970’s to bolster his argument to provide a possible way out of our current (not yet post neo-liberal) impasse.
Yet what left me unconvinced, because it’s inadequately explained, is why the term ‘Hauntology’ is only seen as a phenomenon of English society and not other countries? Does our long and continuing sense of loss of Empire, inequality, Brexit et al, make the UK a unique case of a country haunted by other lost possible futures of social betterment?
Still any book that can take in so much eclectic material to explore what might have been and what might still be possible to achieve, given our haunted mental state, has to be applauded. Hauntology, Ghost’s of Futures Past is a distinctive and challenging read. -- Alan Price.