Hauntology Beyond the Cinema

The Technological Uncanny

by Carrie Clanton


Visualized Sound: Battle of the Ghost (Deine Lakaien)

The Cinematic Medium

It is not surprising that cinema has enjoyed a particularly rich engagement with ghosts and hauntings. The medium of film, as it seemingly magically conjures sounds and images from other times and places for audiences in a darkened room, is spectral in nature, beyond the ghostly narratives it is so often adept at presenting. The development of all media and communications technologies, from telephones to digital video, is closely associated with the supernatural, with such “ghostly media” producing disembodied voices, enabling scenes of the past to repeat in the future, and evoking the presence of those spatially absent or long since dead. In a sense, all recorded media haunts and is haunted: as Roland Barthes (1981) pointed out about old photographs, the people we see in them are likely dead, but are also going to die, and the same is true of audio recordings and film. With digital media, this unsettling of time (not to mention space) has perhaps become all the more uncanny, with the content of sound and image files capable of being created, archived, fast-forwarded, rewound, and even frozen in time, at the click of a button. Such technologically produced spatial and chronological disruptions imply that media recordings are always potentially hauntological: like ghosts, they call into question established borders and the neatly linear categories of history. Film has especially been a natural home for what Freud (1919), in his seminal essay on the uncanny, considered that most un-homely of iterations, the ghost, as exemplified by countless movies about ghosts produced across all continents. Beyond the cinema, however, a closer look at the spectral tendencies of communications technology in general, and electronic sound in particular, reveals the hauntological undercurrents of all media.

Ghosts have seemingly never been absent from any time or culture. They exemplify Derrida’s (1967:63) statement that “there is nothing outside the text”: they are perpetuated not by people’s ongoing belief in them, but by the myriad representations of them, such as in popular ghost films. John Potts (2006:81) notes, however, that the expression of the idea of the ghost is “shaped by its worldly environment, undergoing transformations in specific cultural habitats.” As such, ghosts always mirror Freud’s theory of repression—like suppressed desires or guilt they always return to haunt, and in culturally determined ways. As Potts (2006:83) argues, a ghost is “a representation of the past as it endures in the future” and “to be haunted by a ghost is to be haunted by the past.” Ghosts may be interpreted as the external expression of some notion of the unsettledness about the past; their presence signifies the past impeding upon the enjoyment of the present. For example, Ken Gelder (1994:xi) describes how Australian ghost stories double as tales of post-colonial guilt, illustrating that the history of white settlement is “fundamentally unsettled.” Likewise, Renee Berglund (2000) has written about the “spectralization” of North American Indians not only through stories of haunted burial sites and indigenous ghosts but also via government policies that have sought to write Native Americans out of U.S. history and politics (while nonetheless maintaining them as fantastical figures in the public imagination). More radically, Michael Taussig’s (1997) The Magic of the State deals with the spirits intrinsic to the state systems of South America; according to Taussig (Taussig and Levi Strauss 2005), “people today gain magical power not from the dead, but from the state's embellishment of them. And the state, authoritarian and spooky, is as much possessed by the dead as is any individual pilgrim.” As Avery Gordon (1998:8) states in her call to incorporate ghosts into sociological thinking, “to be haunted is to be tied to social and historical effects.”

Gordon describes how the narratives of haunting register cultural experiences such as slavery or torture more fully and in different ways than other accounts are able to; she argues that anyone concerned with social and cultural representation, not to mention political reform, must engage with ghosts. According to Julian Wolfreys (2002:3), "to tell a story is always to invoke ghosts, to open a space through which something other returns" so that "all stories are, more or less, ghost stories." But ghosts—with their magical propensity to always be returning—are more than just an allegory for some repressed cultural guilt or an unsettled past. Their presence represents the category of the past, which is expected to remain dead and buried (or archived or repressed) and this disruption implicates those living in the present. As Bliss Cua Lim (2001:287), in her study of ghosts in film, puts it:

The hauntings recounted by ghost narratives are not merely instances of the past reasserting itself in a stable present, as is usually assumed; on the contrary, the ghostly return of traumatic events precisely troubles the boundaries of past, present, and future, and cannot be written back to the complacency of a homogeneous, empty time. The ghost always presents a problem, not merely because it might provoke disbelief, but because it is only admissible insofar as it can be domesticated by a modern concept of time.

Derrida based his Spectres of Marx (1994) on these questions of time; his conception of hauntology as part and parcel of deconstruction underlines the capacity and implication of ghosts and their disruption of linear chronology—and hence the notion of history. As Fredric Jameson (1999:39) notes, Derrida’s spectrality “does not involve the conviction that ghosts exist or that the past (and maybe even the future they offer to prophesy) is still very much alive and at work, within the living present;” rather, ghosts “make the present waver,” for their appearance shows that the here and now are not as solid as they claim to be.

Derrida’s (1994:4) hauntology calls for the deconstruction of all historicisms grounded in a rigid sense of chronology, and he states that “haunting is historical, to be sure, but it is not dated—never docilely given a date in the chain of presents, day after day, according to the instituted order of the calendar.” Like all texts, including film, ghosts always arrive in the present from the past. They are not the same person, and so are not of the past, and are thus always making a debut—because they are not of the present either. As Peter Buse and Andrew Stott (1999: 15) put it, “the temporality to which ghosts are subject is therefore paradoxical, as at once they ‘return’ and make their apparitional debut.” This dual movement of return and inauguration constitutes hauntology. As Derrida (1994:161) himself describes it:

To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology. Ontology opposes it only in a movement of exorcism. Ontology is a conjuration.

Hauntology functions as a kind of deconstruction; to acknowledge that cinema is a haunted medium is to submit to its capacity to perpetuate ghost stories, but also to the technological uncanniness of the very concept of cinema: to the way in which filmic time is always “out of joint” (as Derrida (1994), after Hamlet, phrases it), and space is no longer bounded in the way that it is outside of the cinema.

Haunted Media

Long before the early cinematic travelogues of two centuries ago allowed audiences the uncanny experience of seeing and hearing other times and places, audio-visual technologies were used to produce phantasmagoria: sound and light shows that seemed to magically conjure and project voices and figures from thin air, to the delight and often terror of audiences. X. Theodore Barber (1989) has described how phantasmagoria shows prefigured modern contemporary film techniques such as superimposition and tracking shots, while Cristina Britzolakis (2000:79) sees the shows as denoting “a heightened, distorted, or manipulated visibility; the apparitional quality of objects extracted uncannily from the process of their own making, and disporting themselves in the new urban landscape of modernity.” It is no wonder that Walter Benjamin (2002) likened the arcades of 1920s Paris to phantasmagoria, replete with dialectical images in which the archaic and the modern combined, offering the possibility of profane illumination via this radical chronological and spatial displacement. Cinema, with its phantasmagoric roots, is always haunted; its narratives of haunting may offer deconstructive cultural criticism, but a shortcoming of narrative cinematic ghosts is that they tend be resolved, and the resolution of a haunting is not of the concept of haunting. As Derrida (1994) described, to pin down the ghost in time—to solve the mystery of why it comes or from whence or when it came—is akin to exorcism. It is not the resolving of the disruption of the ghost, but the experience of the disruption of the ghost itself, that constitutes hauntology. It is the technology of film itself that is truly uncanny and hauntological, but despite film’s particularly apparitional qualities, ghosts have haunt the technologies of all media.

The history of the development of media and communications technologies is inextricably linked with magic and ghosts. As Arthur C. Clarke (1962:36) famously theorized, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” However, 19th century Spiritualists were keenly devoted to the tasks of advancing technology for the purpose of scientifically bringing the world of ghosts closer, and as Eric Davis (1999), John Durham Peters (2001), and Jeffrey Sconce (2000) have all explored, Spiritualism, and later psychical research, were two of the driving forces behind the development of telephonic, photographic, and phonographic communication technologies. Film, Frederic Kittler (1999) has pointed out, was, like many 19th century explorations, invented to study movement too fast to otherwise be seen. Spirit photography, in which the images of dead family and friends were made to appear in photographs alongside the living, was invented for a similar reasons; as Steven Connor (2000:208) describes it, “in spirit photography, otherness is made visible and familiar, and the unmasterable event of the manifestation becomes the fixed and manipulable record.” Likewise, the advent of devices for contacting and recording the voices of those not present came at a time when people hoped that technology could extend to realms beyond death. According to Connor (2000:222), “spiritualism attests and contributes to the ghostliness of these new technologies [telephonic (transmissive) and phonographic (reproductive)], even as it also deploys them in its strangely enthusiastic struggle against the supernatural, to affirm the materiality, the manipulability, the technicality of the unseen.” Peters (2001:180) is less cynical of the spectral drive behind the development of media and communications technologies, citing the circumstances of the first telephone call made by Alexandra Graham Bell to his assistant Thomas Watson (as recounted by Ronell (1991)); he considers Bell’s exclamation--“Watson come here, I want you”--as “the symbol and type of all communication at a distance—an expression of desire for the presence of the absent other.”

Electricity would not only add to the ease of these desirous communications with and recordings of loved ones at a distance, but would also further contribute to the uncanniness of the media technologies themselves. As electricity was harnessed for communications inventions, scientists from Nikolai Tesla to Thomas Edison and later, even Einstein, explored the possibility that it could serve as a conduit to some unreachable world beyond that of the living. Indeed, technologies such as television and wireless radio would disrupt the previous concepts of proximity and the boundaries of place, while telephones, and much more recently, the Internet, would bring about the uncanniness of virtual communication—the opportunity to converse with voices without bodies, and in some cases, instantaneously receive “live” textual communication from some invisible and silent source across the ether from one’s computer screen. Kittler (1999:22) has written that “media always already yield ghostly phenomena,” and even the face and voice of a living loved one experienced on Skype is rendered ghost-like and uncanny when an inevitable audio delay and frozen screen remind us that we are reaching across a great void, thwarting accepted conventional concepts of space and time in the process. As Scott McQuire (1997:686) has stated, “even those who don’t believe in ghosts might acknowledge that technology often produces surprisingly similar effects.” Certainly, the turn to digital technology has introduced new aspects of the uncanny to media. While “analogue” hints at the likeness between a source and a recording of that source, digital recordings, despite their presumed lack of accretion and deference to an original, are infinitely repeatable (and thus potentially simulacrous) and easily malleable. Through digital media, the promise of the phantasmagoria shows lives on, though in perhaps unexpected ways.

Beyond the Cinema

Beyond the apparitional qualities of photography and cinema, the sonic realm of media hauntology has often been neglected, despite the intensely spectral nature of phonography and telephony. As Eric Davis (2005) has stated, “sound clearly plays a privileged role in both manifesting and mystifying electricity,” and he recites an account of the finale of a lecture given by the Edison Company in 1887 that used sound to produce what more or less amounted to a séance: "bells rung, drums beat, noises natural and unnatural were heard, a cabinet revolved and flashed fire, and a row of departed skulls came into view." Indeed, sound—and the act of recording it—is a focus of contemporary Spiritualists and ghost hunters who use audio recording devices to capture apparent voices of the dead (termed “electronic voice phenomena,” or EVP); importantly, these voices cannot be heard without being conjured by media technologies, which not only reveal their presence via the act of recording, but enable interpretation of them, thanks to computer programmes that allow digital sound clips to be manipulated and analysed. Davis (2005) likens EVP, and the uncanny possibilities of sound in general, to Kodwo Eshun’s (1998) concept of “sonic fictions,” the virtual spaces carved out by electronic media in particular. These spaces are inevitably haunted, not just by the voices of the dead, but by their potentially forgotten origins, and their propensity to debut even as they endlessly repeat.

Any recorded electronic sound, including music, technically has the capacity to haunt. Mark Fischer (2006a) has conjectured that if the popular music of the UK during the 1990s was characterized by rave and “jungle” music, with their fantasies of an African soundscape fusing the “tribal” sounds and electronica, then the more sober new century has been typified by dub. Dub songs are like the ghostly others of the Caribbean reggae hits from which they glean their sparsely laden and highly manipulated electronic samples and beats, now echoing through the dancehalls of Brixton, evoking traces of their origin, but also debuting as something new. In dub, the uncanny is apparent; as Davis (1997), in an article on dub musician Lee “Scratch” Perry—himself an uncanny, idiosyncratic figure—describes it:

Dub arose from doubling—the common Jamaican practice of reconfiguring a prerecorded track into any number of new songs. Dub calls the apparent 'authenticity' of roots reggae into question because it destroys the holistic integrity of singer and song. It proclaims a primary postmodern law: there is no original, no homeland. (Davis 1997)

The digital sounds heard in dub music are mutations—ghostly doubles--of the original. According to Davis (1997): dub music, “despite the crisp attack of its drums and the heaviness of its bass…swoops through empty space, spectral and disembodied.” Even the word “dub” is presumed to have been derived from the Jamaican slang for “ghost”--“duppy”--with Lee Perry describing dub as "the ghost in me coming out" (Toop 1995:115).

Ghosts, those uncanny others that haunt houses and may never be domesticated, are, of course, without a homeland, and according to Fischer (2006a), "it's no accident that hauntology begins in the Black Atlantic, with dub and hip-hop.” Time being out of joint is what defines the African slave trade, which Fischer, after Paul Gilroy (1995) considers an Armageddon—an end of history—that cannot be written back into the past or reconciled with future. Fischer (2006a) sees hauntology in the music of rap musicians Public Enemy:

In this disjunctive time, it makes perfect sense for Terminator X to juxtapose samples of helicopters with discussions about the slave trade, as he does on Apocalypse...91. There is no way in which a trauma on the scale of slavery - 'the holocaust that's still going on' as Chuck D had it - can be incorporated into history, American or otherwise. It must remain a series of gaps, lost names, screen memories, a hauntology.

As with cinema, the hauntological tendency in electronic music to experiment with temporality through samples, fractures, echoes, and re-assemblage constitutes a critical engagement with media and its representations of history and culture.

The sound of hauntology may be also apparent in any music where there is “a deliberate fogging of the digitally hyper-clean” (as Fischer (2006(b)) has written of musician Ariel Pink). Around the turn of this century, electronic musicians in the UK began to mine the audio of Britain’s distant past: crackling old library instructional LPs, recordings of war-time radio broadcasts, badly recorded sound-clips of conversation from folk-horror films such as The Wicker Man (UK 1973), with the resulting popular (if somewhat obscure) musical genre being been dubbed hauntology—drawing, of course, upon the Derridean concepts discussed and applied above to other electronic music such as dub, but functioning in a particularly British way. British hauntology music, perhaps best represented by the releases of record companies such as GhostBox and the musician The Caretaker (James Kirby), represents a resurrection of certain nostalgic elements from Britain’s past, but elements that speak of a past when certain dreamy imaginings of the future flourished. Related to retro-futurism, the genre imagines a past that is already haunted by an imagined future; it is a deconstruction—indeed, a critical reconstruction—that allows listeners to discard traditional ways of thinking about social history and to re-imagine an inter-implicated past and future. Sonic hauntology—whether in the form of British hauntology, dub, or even EVP, represents a collage that is more than just fragmented and hybrid (cf. Sharma and Hutnyk (1996)). Electronic music—indeed, the inevitable sampling and assemblage that is inherent in digital media texts in general—is collage-like, but it goes one step further, blurring the seams so that the archaic and modern merge and transcend their original sources, phantasmagoric, dialectical, profane, but above all, deconstructive and hauntological.



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Clanton, Carrie (2012) “Hauntology Beyond the Cinema: The Technological Uncanny”, in: manycinemas, issue 3, 66-76.

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