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Nostalgia For an Age Yet to Come

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We ask Mark Fisher — author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and the forthcoming Ghosts of My Life (Zer0 Books) — a couple of questions about hauntology:

3:AM: Why do you think the concept has gained currency in the past 5 years or so? It’s a concept that seems to define the zeitgeist, but that also has all these other ramifications: the crisis in society that led to the Gothic genre, Freud’s Unheimlich, Levinas’s il y a; the whole haunted media thing that goes back to the invention of the telephone and first radio transmissions; the retro-futurism that came out of the kitsch closet in the late 70s in answer to the “no future” of the times, postmodernist sampling etc. …

MF: All of the senses of hauntology that you refer to above are, of course, legitimate. There’s a hauntological dimension to many different aspects of culture; in fact, in Moses and Monotheism, Freud practically argues that society as such is founded on a hauntological basis (the voice of the dead father).

My use of the concept of hauntology isn’t by any means opposed to any of these other applications. But what I’m interested in is the way that hauntology emerged as a cultural moment (if not quite movement) in the last decade — the way that a group of artists (primarily working with sound) came together, by confluence rather than influence, to articulate a crisis in history, memory and materiality. One practice that is shared by many of these producers — who include Burial, The Caretaker, Philip Jeck and the artists on the Mordant Music and Ghost Box labels — is the use of vinyl crackle. The sound of vinyl evokes an older regime of materiality — indeed, it evokes materiality itself at a moment when the consumption of music is increasingly divorced from material objects that we can see or touch. But the sound of crackle also suggests, to use the phrase from Hamlet that Derrida makes great play of in Spectres of Marx, that “time is out of joint”. The illusion of presence is shattered; we’re confronted with a broken time. This relates to a growing sense that culture has lost its forward momentum, that pastiche and retrospection are becoming normalised. In the 80s, Fredric Jameson argued that pastiche was a defining characteristic of postmodern culture, but, back then and on into the 90s, it was easy to find alternatives to this retrospection, not least in electronic music. But, since the turn of the millennium, electronic music has ceased to be the sound of the future rushing in, and has succumbed to the same retrospective tendencies. Hauntology was an acknowledgement of this: the futures we’d expected — whether they be those conjured by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 60 or 70s, or by jungle in the 90s — had failed to arrive. As Leyland Kirby put it, Sadly, the Future is No Longer What It Was. That’s why hauntology is important, in my view: it acknowledges our condition, but it pines for the lost futures that never came.

3:AM: Could you explain what you mean by the inevitability of dyschronia? You stated that nostalgia was impossible today — why exactly?

MF: Dyschronia was a word coined, I believe, by Simon Reynolds. It signifies that “time out of joint” condition that I referred to above. It’s inevitable partly because it’s no longer possible to have a linear notion of cultural time; everything coincides with everything else. That’s because, as Simon argues in his new book Retromania, popular cultural time has collapsed in on itself. There’s a crisis of overavailabilty — nothing dies. It comes back as a box set retrospective or on YouTube. There has always been retro; the difference now is that retro is no longer a particular style: it’s so dominant that it goes unremarked upon. Duffy and the Artic Monkeys make music that could have come out thirty years ago. Why aren’t they seen as revivalists, as groups like Sha Na Na or Showaddywaddy were in the 70s? Because there’s no Now to compare them to. That’s why I said that nostalgia is impossible: in conditions of generalised formal nostalgia, nostalgia doesn’t operate in the old way any more. You have to ask: nostalgia compared to what?

First posted: Wednesday, July 13th, 2011.

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