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Against all ends: Hauntology, aesthetics, ontology

By Liam Sprod.

Although it is already old, considering hauntology as either genre, aesthetic or zeitgeist is problematic; and is so for precisely all of the reasons that it claims to be each of these things. As nostalgia for lost futures or mourning for utopia, it falls into for the exact problems of utopianism that lead to its initial loss. It is also these problems that hauntology was developed to overcome, so its reduction precisely to them is somewhat ironic, if not cause for yet another mourning. Thus through exploring the way in which hauntology has been co-opted by the over-theoretisation of music, and indeed art more generally, in such a way that repeats these problems, I will also show the way for a return to hauntology as a solution to these problems and the affirmation of a more radical thinking for the future.

This path will also necessitate a return to the origin of the word hauntology in the work of Jacques Derrida; an origin that has often been maligned and marginalised in the subsequent use of the term — a parricide that foreshadows the return of the betrayed father. The necessary key to approaching Derrida and the nature of hauntology can be found in Simon Critchley’s observation that “Derrida will tirelessly insist, the closure is not the end and he persistently places himself against any and all apocalyptic discourses on the end (whether the end of man, the end of philosophy, or the end of history)” (1). It is in light of this opposition to all ends that hauntology should be considered. Included amongst the ends Derrida opposes is the very idea of utopia or any utopianism. Indeed, in thinking the closure without end, Derrida is also thinking of a new image of the future, one that is not watched over by the idea of utopia. Utopias are always destined to fail, as their name suggests they are literally no-places, which can never be. This is the problem with the future in general, if it is always considered as some specific thing that will arrive at some point in the future then it is never possible; these futures always collapse into the now and the to come always remains out of reach, always lost in advance.

Hauntology as aesthetics is firmly rooted in the idea of nostalgia as a disruption of time. The lines from Derrida that are quoted to support this interpretation of hauntology are Hamlet’s “the time is out of joint,” which serves as a refrain throughout Specters of Marx, and, rather curiously, the only mention of nostalgia in the whole book: “The spectral rumor now resonates, it invades everything: the spirit of the ‘sublime’ and the spirit of ‘nostalgia’ cross all borders” (2). Mark Fisher identifies the dyschronia of the time out of joint as the crucial feature of hauntology (3). Through this, the past invades, or haunts, the present with its return and in this disjuncture makes possible a new aesthetic that is hauntology. The form that this takes is nostalgia, not as repetition of forms of the past, but instead a return of the ideas, images and ideals of a past age, which now grate and creak against the joints of the present.

Unsurprisingly, the main features of this aesthetic are sampling in music and appropriation in the visual arts. By emphasizing the anachronisms of these samples and appropriations, mainly through the maintenance of the distance from their origin and the decay that occupies that distance: as crackles and scratches, or faded colours and images that become almost literally ghostly. Instead of mere repetition, this distance provides a sense of loss and mourning, making the present the future of that past, and in turn providing the possibility of another future for the present, a new utopia. This is why past images of the future, such as the fetishisation of the BBCs Radiophonic workshop, become so prevalent in this form of hauntology. Taken out of their original historical context these images become ideals, which in turn once again grate against their contemporary settings, which is where the supposed haunting of hauntology appears, and revitalizes the potential for a utopianism for the present age. As Adam Harper concludes his discussion of hauntology: “Hauntological art is a present-day construction that illustrates the present’s problems as it approaches the future” (4).

Hauntology as Derrida defines it, is also obsessed with the remains of both the past and the future, but as they remain, or, as they maintain themselves now (maintenant in French is literally ‘now’), neither as something lost nor as something to come. But this also reveals the problem with hauntology defined as either nostalgia for the future or a lost utopianism. The definite future of utopianism already in advance hides behind the past and opens itself up to the possibility of nostalgia. This is as the grammatical form of the future anterior, where the future is considered as something already complete, that can now be looked back upon and referred to; and thus operates in the same mode as the past. Remembered in advance and fully accounted for, always to only ever slip away as it slides backwards into the future.

Derrida’s hauntology is forged in his opposition to ends, specifically to the end of history declared in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism and the supposed triumph of ‘liberal democracy,’ or as it is better known, capitalism. A cultural dead end, where all that is possible is “the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history” (5). This is the double-edged sword that gives rise to both nostalgia as pastiche and retrospection, and also the musicological definition of hauntology as nostalgia for the lost future. Rather than dealing with the fundamental problems raised by the end of history, the musicological sense of hauntology merely pushes any possible confrontation to yet another new end deferred once again into another future. In doing so it also falls prey to the problems that both support and motivate the end of history. By repeating these problems it will now be possible to see Derrida’s conception of hauntology as a solution to these very problems.

To frame this debate, let us commence by repeating the end of history. Not the one which took place in 1989, but nearly two centuries before in 1806: as Napoleon rode through the streets of Jena following his famous victory, and Hegel, the great thinker of historicity, looked out his window and saw in Napoleon, as he wrote to a friend “the spirit of the world,” or, another triumph of freedom and another end of history. If we read this moment with Maurice Blanchot in it we find “Lie and truth: for as Hegel wrote to another friend, the French pillaged and ransacked his home. But Hegel knew how to distinguish the empirical and the essential” (6). Here, Blanchot reveals the stakes for both the end of history and the hauntology that Derrida will later develop: the empirical and the essential.

Specters of Marx is Derrida’s deconstruction and critique of the theory of the end of history, specifically in its 1989 guise developed by Francis Fukuyama. Derrida’s attack on Fukuyama is as scathing as it is simple: that through a sleight of hand, Fukuyama willfully confuses the empirical and the essential in order to make his argument work, slipping between the two as required to advance his argument. The end of history is proven by the empirical event of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but this itself is an essential historical truth that cannot be disproved by pointing to the empirical evidence that freedom (be that liberal democracy or the free market) has not yet extended across the entire globe. This is just an empirical accident that will eventually be rectified once the essential truth of the end of history is fully realised.

The ridiculousness of Fukuyama’s argument made readily apparent by this rather simple deconstruction, there is no need for Derrida to develop his logic of hauntology at all in order to confront the end of history. It is somewhat telling then that he does. He writes:

As for this sleight-of-hand trick between history and nature, between historical empiricity and teleological transcendentaility, between the supposed empirical reality of the event and the absolute ideality of the liberal telos, it can only be undone on the basis of a new thinking or a new experience of the event, and of another logic of its relation to the phantomatic (7).

There is something deeper than merely the end of history going on here. Hauntology is part of Derrida’s wider critique of ends in general, the possibilities of the future and the closure of metaphysics. Before delving into this reconfigured futural event and its phantasmatic logic, the question of hauntological aesthetics or genre must be addressed.

What is immediately obvious is that this musicological account of hauntology, as well as repeating the paradoxes of the future it supposedly mourns for, also repeats the same mistake as Fukuyama and fails to remember the difference between the empirical and the essential. Thus reducing hauntology to a set of empirical characteristics of genre or aesthetic and missing its essential rethinking of the very categories of essential, empirical, event, and the future itself. These two failures are most likely connected; for in falling into the trap of repeating an anachronistic desire for a future that is lost, this form of hauntology misses the essential nature of this future as always-already lost.

Doing so demands an entirely new logic, and this is perhaps the only sort of newness that hauntology engages with, not new in the sense of to-come, but a new logic of temporality and futurity. This logic is not specific to hauntology and Derrida has explored it elsewhere under the names of “aporetology or aporetography” (8) and organised around the aporia — the contradiction or puzzle that cannot be moved beyond. Importantly, the aporia rethinks the problematics of before and beyond, as Derrida writes: “the partitioning among multiple figures of the aporia does not oppose figures to each other, but instead installs the haunting of one in the other” (9). This has consequences for the specifically temporal interpretation of hauntology as the “time out of joint” commonly referenced in Specters of Marx.

The out of jointness is not the opposition of the present to either the part or the future of indeed a mere disordering of these temporal modes. Derrida specifically warns against this: “A spectral moment, a moment that no longer belongs to time, if one understands by this word the linking of modalized presents (past present, actual present: ‘now,’ future present) … Furtive and untimely, the apparition of the specter does not belong to that time” (10). As a result, hauntology in its Derridean formulation counters the criticism put forward by James Bridle, that “it deals with the problem of the future by going back to the past” (11) and that it needs to be opposed by the radically new. This reiteration of the standard modal temporalities of past, present and future is both symptomatic of the problems of an aesthetic interpretation of hauntology and at the same time, the very problem that Derrida is confronting with his concept of hauntology.

It is as the rethinking of the new experience of the event that the relation between hauntology and its homophone ontology becomes important. Hauntology rethinks temporality itself, abandoning the progression from the past to the present and the future anterior. The specific end of history is only a manifestation of the deeper problems of ends themselves, temporality and the future, and it is through addressing this essential ontological problem that the path out of the end of history can be found. Along with the necessary rethinking of the sublime and history that this requires (12).

Hauntology as an aesthetic admirably attempts to confront this problem, but as a descriptive mode of critique it unfortunately can never escape the empirical and deal with the essential. Not directly anyway. Heidegger claimed that the danger of technology was not in the machines themselves but the way it mysteriously hides its own essence, and that this hiding makes the question of the essence of technology all the more pertinent (13). Likewise, the reminders of the remains of lost temporalities that scatter the present landscape of the end of history can also begin to ask the question of the temporality of ends that lead to this landscape. The answer lies not in repeating lost gestures, methods and sounds or calling for a failed utopianism, but in rethinking the very possibility of the lostness of that temporality itself. The musical genre of hauntology calls into question the ontological status of time at the end of history, but not by moving beyond that end into a new future, rather through the repetition of the impossibility of such a movement. Hiding the impossibility of the future behind an impossible striving for the future makes its impossibility all the more apparent.


(1) S. Critchley, ‘Derrida: The reader.’ in Cardozo Law Review, Vol 27:2, 2005. p. 557.

(2) J. Derrida, P. Kamuf (trans.), Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (New York: Routledge Classics, 2006). p. 169.

(3) M. Fisher, (2006) ‘Phonograph Blues.’

(4) A. Harper (2009) ‘Hauntology: The Past Inside The Present.’

(5) F. Fukuyama, ‘The End Of History’, in The National Interest. Summer 1989. p. 18.

(6) M. Blanchot, ‘The Instant of my Death.’ in, J. Derrida, M. Blanchot & E. Rottenberg (trans.), The Instant of my Death & Demeure. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). p. 7.

(7) J. Derrida, Specters of Marx. p. 86.

(8) J. Derrida, T. Dutoit (trans.), Aporias: Dying — Awaiting (One Another at) the “Limits of Truth” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993). p. 15.

(9) J. Derrida, Aporias. p. 20.

(10) J. Derrida, Specters of Marx. p. xix.

(11) J. Bridle, ‘Hauntological Futures.’

(12) This is precisely the problem that I address in my forthcoming book Nuclear Futurism (Winchester, Zer0 Books, 2012).

(13) M. Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, in, M. Heidegger, D. F. Krell (ed.), Basic Writings Revised and Expanded Edition. (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993). p. 333.


Liam Sprod was born in England before the possibility of nuclear war prompted his parents to relocate to Hobart, Australia. He currently lives in Stockholm where he works as a philosopher, editor and writer, and collaborates with artist Linda Persson within the spaces between art and philosophy. His forthcoming book Nuclear Futurism: The Work of Art in the Age of Remainderless Destruction is published by Zero Books and will be released in late 2012.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 11th, 2012.