Hauntology: The Ghosts We Create
Image credit John Morgan

We all sometimes sit back and think fondly of the past. We all have our own “good ol’ days” we wish everything could return to. Sometimes, when someone will listen, we talk about our pasts, things that happened to us, and relive them, inviting our listeners to do the same. But do these pasts, these good ol’ days, these stories truly exist? What if our memories are inaccurate, or make the past seem better than it really was? What if we’re just remembering ghosts?

This concern influenced French theorist and philosopher Jacques Derrida, which can be seen in his 1993 book Specters of Marx. Derrida believed that in all aspects of human life we pursue things and ideas that are neither present, absent, alive, nor dead. This is because we all construct the world around us in different ways, and as outside forces influence our ways of thinking, we end up believing in things that cannot be said to exist in reality, but exist subjectively, like ghosts. For instance, we idealize the past when we nostalgically discuss it. Because typically, we forget negative experiences that happened during a positive time, and as we remember that time, we exaggerate how much of it was positive. This means we end up discussing a past that never happened and that is inaccessible—we end up discussing a ghost, which is the human tendency Derrida “hauntology.”

Hauntology is an influential concept that encapsulates the way many philosophers think about art (art, after all, creates something that does not exist), but hauntology itself became a sort of aesthetic movement. This was well documented online a decade ago. But consider how people, perhaps even you, are drawn to photos of abandoned shopping malls, and how investigators might enter old buildings to check for paranormal activity. But also think of all the different apps you can download onto your phone to take a picture that resembles a daguerreotype or a Polaroid. And if you have ever read John Updike’s short story “A&P” then you have also seen the link in common between these things: a persistent nostalgia for the present and a refusal to give up on the future.

Hauntological feeling expresses itself in many ways. A good way to get a grasp of hauntological aesthetics is to visit a historical house, say one of Edgar Allan Poe’s, and see how curators have preserved a life, a living space, as a museum. Or you can see Al Capone’s cell in Eastern State Penitentiary, where it was recently discovered that the radio displayed was a model created later than when Capone himself was an inmate. Or you can go to Boston Harbor and participate in the Boston Tea Party aboard a replica ship. Not only do all of these experiences preserve a location as its own ghost to chase, they preserve people themselves as ghosts. And of course, all of these ghosts are given particular costuming based on their curators’ judgment—so when we go to Independence Hall, we go to see the ghost we made in our heads, and do so inside of a ghost, and inevitably end up seeing someone else’s idea of the ghost.

Of course, such impulses are not limited to American history. Helsinki preserves Suomenlinna, an old island fort controlled by the Swedish, then the Russians, then finally the Finns. But Helsinki also preserves Seurasaari, an open-air museum focusing on old wooden buildings that were transplanted from all over Finland but arranged like a true colonial village.

Obsession with ghosts is something we  understand here. But perhaps you make your own ghosts without realizing it. Do you participate in Renaissance Fairs? Use antique turntables? Do you use sepia-tone filters on your digital photos? Do you like blogs that display screenshots of old GeoCities websites? But hauntology runs deeper than just nostalgia. Maybe you’ve had an interaction with a living celebrity and posted about it online. Or maybe you wrote a movie review after you saw its premiere. Sepia filters are not even necessary; a photograph itself will always capture a ghost, because it was taken through your eye and your subjective experience. And if you take a picture of, say, a house, and put it online—that too creates another ghost for anyone who sees and remembers your photo later.

Hauntology is not limited to merely visual or written media; music itself is just as likely to be haunted by its own ghosts. Consider the use of song sampling and auto-tuning software. Some bands incorporate “found sound” into their songs, and others use broken instruments or recording technology to create “glitches” they incorporate into their music. They Might Be Giants, for their song “I Can Hear You,” recorded with antique equipment (in this case, the song was performed without electricity and recorded onto a wax cylinder). The sound is not the only thing that becomes spectral, then. But interestingly, “hauntology” has been used to name a genre of music characterized by slow, electronic rhythms, a sense of droning and hollowness, and a unique aesthetic register drawing on, you guessed it, a nostalgia for the past and future alike. Fittingly, the genre is associated in particular with the Ghost Box label, so if you’re interested in the sound of hauntology, you may want to start there.

If you look hard enough, you can find the hauntological in almost everything. Websites like The Occult Museum and Atlas Obscura devote themselves to the hauntological in different ways. Podcasts can do the same, with Serial and 99% Invisible bringing their own unique spins to the challenge. Furthermore, we engage with and create the hauntological ourselves quite frequently, without even realizing it. The old cliché that “there are ghosts all around us” is far more true than it may seem.

So, how many ghosts do you carry inside of you?

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