Thoughts on Hauntology

‘Hauntology’ is a term coined by Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx (1994) to describe the philosophy of haunting; the power for the past to continue to shape and influence the future, to return.  While Derrida’s focus was applying this terminology to Marxism, the term itself has proven useful to many writers from a multitude of disciplines to describe the shifting territory between being and not being, presence and absence.

It is precisely those apparent contradictions that define the term:  “Hauntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.” (Davis, 2005, p. 373) the spectral is a strange mid-ground, neither one thing nor the other.

A ghost, or spectre, is an apparition that lacks solidity, it is ephemeral and unformed, it cannot be described in absolutes, and yet it also cannot be easily dismissed.  A ghost doesn’t have to be the sentimental vision of a long dead loved one, nor the clumsy spook in a white sheet. It is not a literal ghost in the sense of thrilling stories told to scared children around the clichéd campfire.  No, a haunting in this sense is more a fixation or preoccupation; an idea that niggles.  It could be a person, yes, or the idea of a person perhaps, but whatever the case, a haunting is something that exerts more power than it ought, despite its lack of tangible formation. “Haunting denotes an obsession or fear of something, perhaps invisible or immaterial” (Tavin, 2005, p.114).

Hauntology is also about time travel in a way, a spectre is something that has stepped outside of its place in time and space, into the present.  Peim talks about the spectre as a disruptive force, as something from the past that corrupts the flow of time (2005, p. 76). Anything outside of its time, logically, is a disruption, and yet it is impossible to live without disruption, because it is through consideration of the past and projection of what the future might hold that humans come to understand and live in the world.  Davis says, “Phantoms lie about the past whilst spectres gesture towards a still unformulated future” (2005, p. 379). A ghost is a thing displaced, but it is a thing with an agenda; ghosts are messengers, they have a purpose, an unfinished business.  It is the lot of spectres to point at things we can’t, or refuse to, see.

The idea of hauntology, for me, is closely related to trace.  Trace uses what is present to suggest what is absent; trace is about what is missing.  Hauntology extends this idea by drawing attention to the fact that what is missing is also present as a spectre; that is to say, while not literally present, it cannot be said to be absent either, because the trace refers to that which is no longer there, “… the very business of representation  – where one, present, element stands in for another, absent, element – is necessarily ‘ghostly’ or spectral:  that is, its sense necessarily depends on something that is not there.” (Derrida as paraphrased in Peim, 2005, p. 74). Therefore it would seem that representational art by its very nature is hauntological, because it depicts, it re-presents something that is absent. “When you come to think of it, all forms of representation are ghostly.  Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escapes representation.” (Gallix, 2001). Artworks are spectres of the people and things that they depict.  A photograph is the ghost of a moment that has passed, a drawing or painting emulates or replicates, it mimics, and in that mimicry something is lost and something is gained, but it is never quite the thing that it represents.

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