If you look at a white grid over a black background, you will see grey splotches at the intersections of the grid. You’ll find, however, that the second you try to examine closer and focus your gaze upon a particular dot, it vanishes.
Those shapes never really existed, but you saw them, didn’t you? The binary concept of real vs. unreal fails to explain these dots; they can’t be simply one or the other. Binary concepts such as reality vs. unreality, truth vs. fiction and good vs. bad have long been the target of postmodern philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, who seek to demonstrate how these oppositions are nothing more than illusions.
Hauntology ― What is it?
Hauntology is a concept that has its origins in postmodern deconstruction theory. Specifically, it began with the work of Derrida, who used the word “hauntology” to describe the alternate future promised by modernism that never came to be, the disjunction between the reality we live in and the cultural memory of the anticipated reality we thought we would be living in.
It is a term that offers freedom for creative interpretation, and while typically used to reference temporal disturbances and the ever-increasing interaction between the present and the past, I will use it to refer to a broader but intertwined dichotomy: Real experience vs. unreal experience. While perhaps abstract-sounding at first, it is not hard to think of examples of experiences you’ve had where the power of the moment comes from what didn’t happen as opposed to what did. Picture yourself passing through a crowded nightclub. You lock eyes with someone who passes by with a slight smile, but neither of you turn back, the flash of potential fading as soon as it begins to burn. Stories you’ve heard that you only know through imagination; dreams that slip away as you wake but leave emotional traces that you can’t shake throughout the day; missed opportunities and regrets that hound you even when their sources are long gone ― these unrealities are just as impactful on our internal experience as the realities we experience, and hauntology is an attempt to capture the ineffable emotion that comes at the border of the two.
In the realm of music, the concept of “hauntology” has been applied almost exclusively to British electronic acts in the late ’90s and ’00s such as Boards of Canada and Ghost Box. The artist most closely associated with hauntology is the enigmatic UK electronic act Burial. Critical to hauntology is a feeling of broken time, a dreamlike non-linearity. In the music of Burial, this feeling is created through a few key means: The first, and most salient, is the use of ghostly R&B samples from decades past that echo coldly with distorted emotional resonance. Also contributing is his drum and bass patterns, skittish and inverted: Instead of keeping time they further warp it. His sampling technique captures and emphasizes all the mechanical noise, vinyl crackle and static of the original recordings, helping to create this sense of temporal disjunction, almost as though each element of the track has been lifted not just from a different place but a different time, a different reality that never came to be. Even the title of his most important album, Untrue, reaffirms this theme of the unreal. The cover art, too, depicts a unreal reality ― it is clear that, while we see an angular, grey, dystopian café, the true experience depicted does not actually exist; rather, it is happening inside his head.
Vaporwave, a subgenre of electronic music which emerged about half a decade ago, is a little more overt in its relationship with time through its supposedly-ironic embrace of the hyper-consumerism of the ’80s and ’90s. I say “supposedly ironic” because even though popular consensus is that the vaporwave aesthetic is a critique of consumerist society, I disagree: Vaporwave is hauntological through its nostalgia for the early days of the internet, an artifact of cultural memory from when the future seemed much more exciting and reality seemed much more simple. The genre focuses on the subsequent loss of this innocence (see: “Teen Pregnancy” by Blank Banshee). If you look for vaporwave videos on Youtube, the predominant style involves heavy use of temporal disjunctions (i.e. Greek statues in a grid-like cyberspace) that channel the feeling of a future that never came.
Hauntology in other art forms
This broader definition of hauntology allows for it to be applied more liberally to other forms of artistic expression, particularly visual media.
The recent cross-platform surge of a neon aesthetic (see: “Drive”, Kavinsky, /r/outrun) could also be viewed through a critical lens of hauntology, where the “retro” styling belies a deeper yearning for this futuristic reality that was anticipated in the ’80s, that might have been but ultimately wasn’t. The constant inability of society to break free of self-reference (i.e. the past) is another component of hauntology that is certainly at play here. The re-emergence of neon aesthetics in the middle of the ’10s is almost the visual equivalent of a musical sample, where a cultural artifact from the past is altered to carry a different intonation or meaning, becoming ghostlike and haunting in the process.
Even the popular television series “Twin Peaks: The Return” can be interpreted as hauntological: Without spoiling anything for those who haven’t seen it, a major plot point revolves around how the past interacts with the present and how dead futures are still, in some sense, alive. The loss of innocence explored in the original series and spin-off movie “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” leads the town of Twin Peaks to a dissonant future, where something, somehow, feels missing even though it never ended up existing. The shots of Sarah Palmer alone in her empty home watching old TV programs are the visual equivalent of Burial’s tunes, a certain inescapable loneliness brought by the unreal.
Hauntology and the supernatural
An interesting theory that has surfaced in developmental psychology is the idea that “monsters,” as children conceive of them, are a mechanism through which their fear that the adults in their life, who are to kids inscrutable and all-powerful, will turn on or abandon them is confronted. Similarly, ghosts can be viewed as a physical projection of a deeper sense of temporal disjunction, or a fear that our past mistakes and traumas loom over our heads, making themselves known only long enough that we remember that they have been there all along. The specters and wraiths of our past hover just beyond our reach, equal parts teasing and threatening, only visible in those supernatural moments where time seems to fold before our eyes: A strange light, an alienated walk home, or the moment between waking life and sleep. Much like the dots in the optical illusion, if you try to home in on these lost futures, they vanish.