Open main menu
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, Scene IV by Henry Fuseli (1789)

Hauntology (a portmanteau of haunting and ontology[1]) is a concept coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx. The term refers to the situation of temporal and ontological disjunction in which presence is replaced by a deferred non-origin, represented by "the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive".[2] The concept is derived from Derrida's deconstructive method, in which any attempt to locate the origin of identity or history must inevitably find itself dependent on an always-already existing set of linguistic rules or conditions.[3][4][5]

In the 2000s, the term was taken up by critics in reference to paradoxes found in late modernity, particularly contemporary culture's persistent recycling of retro aesthetics and incapacity to escape old social forms.[3] Critics such as Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds used the term to describe art preoccupied with this temporal disjunction and defined by a "nostalgia for lost futures".[2]

Origins and definitionEdit

The concept has its roots in Derrida's discussion of Karl Marx in Spectres of Marx, specifically Marx's proclamation that "a spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism" in The Communist Manifesto. Derrida also calls on Shakespeare's Hamlet, particularly a phrase spoken by the titular character: "the time is out of joint".[4][5][6] Derrida's prior work in deconstruction, on concepts of trace and différance in particular, serves as the foundation of his formulation of hauntology,[2] fundamentally asserting that there is no temporal point of pure origin but only an "always-already absent present".[7] Peter Buse and Andrew Scott, discussing Derrida's notion of hauntology, explain:

Ghosts arrive from the past and appear in the present. However, the ghost cannot be properly said to belong to the past.... Does then the 'historical' person who is identified with the ghost properly belong to the present? Surely not, as the idea of a return from death fractures all traditional conceptions of temporality. The temporality to which the ghost is subject is therefore paradoxical, at once they 'return' and make their apparitional debut. Derrida has been pleased to call this dual movement of return and inauguration a 'hauntology', a coinage that suggests a spectrally deferred non-origin within grounding metaphysical terms such as history and identity.... Such an idea also informs the well-known discussion of the origin of language in Of Grammatology, where ... any attempt to isolate the origin of language will find its inaugural moment already dependent upon a system of linguistic differences that have been installed prior to the 'originary' moment (11).[5]

The word functions as a deliberate near-homophone to "ontology" in Derrida's native French (cf. "Hantologie", [ɑ̃tɔlɔʒi] and "ontologie", [ɔ̃tɔlɔʒi]).[8]

Critical applicationsEdit

Derrida's writing in Spectres is marked by a preoccupation with the "death" of communism after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, in particular after theorists such as Francis Fukuyama asserted that capitalism had conclusively triumphed over other political-economic systems and reached the "end of history". Taking inspiration from the pervasive ghost imagery in Marx's writing, Spectres has been said to concern itself with the question, "if communism was always spectral, what does it mean to say it is now dead?"[3]

Contemporary writers such as theorist Mark Fisher specifically used the concept of hauntology to describe a sense in which contemporary culture is haunted by the "lost futures" of modernity which were purportedly cancelled in postmodernity and neoliberalism. Hauntology has been described as a "pining for a future that never arrived;"[9] in contrast to the nostalgia and revivalism which dominate postmodernity, hauntological art and culture is typified by a critical foregrounding of the historical and metaphysical disjunctions of contemporary capitalist culture as well as a "refusal to give up on the desire for the future".[4] Fisher and others drew attention to the shift into post-Fordist economies in the late 1970s, which Fisher argues has "gradually and systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new".[3] Hauntology has been used as a critical lens in various forms of media and theory, including music, political theory, architecture, Afrofuturism, and psychoanalysis.[2][4][10][text–source integrity?]


A derivation of Derrida's hauntology idea informs a style of 21st-century music exploring ideas related to temporal disjunction, retrofuturism, cultural memory, and the persistence of the past.[11][9][12] Hauntology often involves the sampling of older, "spectral" sound sources to evoke deeper cultural memory.[13] Common reference points in hauntological music include vintage analog synthesisers and cassette tapes, library music, old science-fiction and pulp horror programmes (including the soundtracks of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), musique concrète and found sounds, dub and English psychedelia, and 1970s public informational films.[14][15][9] A common element is the foregrounding of the recording surface noise, including the crackle and hiss of vinyl and tape, calling attention to the decaying medium itself.[15]

Artists associated with hauntology include members of the UK label Ghost Box (such as Belbury Poly, The Focus Group, and the Advisory Circle), London dubstep producer Burial, and avant-garde musicians such as the Caretaker, William Basinski, Philip Jeck, Janek Schaefer, Aux Luna, Lofield Fox, Aseptic Void, Moon Wiring Club and Mordant Music.[16] Early progenitors of the approach include Portishead,[13] Boards of Canada, Broadcast, and Position Normal. Other British acts include The Real Tuesday Weld, I Monster[17] and Grasscut.[18]

According to Mark Fisher, the hauntology movement represents contemporary electronic music's "confrontation with a cultural impasse: the failure of the future".[19] Hauntological music is identified with British culture,[20] and was described as an attempt to evoke "a nostalgia for a future that never came to pass, with a vision of a strange, alternate Britain, constituted from the reorder refuse of the postwar period".[11] Music journalist Simon Reynolds described it as an attempt to construct a "lost utopianism" rooted in visions of a benevolent post-welfare state.[15] A sense of loss and bereavement is central to the phenomenon, according to theologian Johan Eddebo.[21]

Hypnagogic pop is described as an American "cousin" to hauntology[20] and is also known to engage with notions of nostalgia and cultural memory. The two styles were likened to "sonic fictions or intentional forgeries, creating half-baked memories of things that never were—approximating the imprecise nature of memory itself".[9]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Original French: hantologie from hanter "haunting" and ontologie "ontology".
  2. ^ a b c d Gallix, Andrew (17 June 2011). "Hauntology: A not-so-new critical manifestation". the Guardian.
  3. ^ a b c d "The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology".
  4. ^ a b c d Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books, May 30, 2014. ISBN 978-1-78099-226-6
  5. ^ a b c Buse, P. and Scott, A. (ed's). Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History. London: Macmillan, 1999. ISBN 9780333711439.
  6. ^ Specters of Marx, the state of the debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, trans by Peggy Kamuf, Routledge 1994. ISBN 9780415389570.
  7. ^ The Languages of Criticism and The Sciences of Man: the Structuralist Controversy. Ed. by Richard Macsey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore, 1970), p. 254
  8. ^ "Half Lives". Archived from the original on 7 July 2007. Retrieved 2013-08-19.
  9. ^ a b c d Stone Blue Editors (Sep 11, 2015). William Basinski: Musician Snapshots. SBE Media. pp. Chapter 3.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  10. ^ "k-punk: Hauntology Now".
  11. ^ a b Whiteley, Sheila; Rambarran, Shara (January 22, 2016). The Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality. Oxford University Press. p. 412.
  12. ^ "Mark Fisher - The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology".
  13. ^ a b Rodgers, Jude. "Dummy wasn't a chillout album. Portishead had more in common with Nirvana'". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 August 2019.
  14. ^ "Hauntologists mine the past for music's future". Boing Boing.
  15. ^ a b c Reynolds, Simon. Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. Faber and Faber Ltd, June 2011, ISBN 978-0571232086
  16. ^ Fact
  17. ^ [1]
  18. ^
  19. ^ Evans, Polly (3 February 2017). "Is electronic music a threat to culture?". Varsity.
  20. ^ a b Bell, David. "Deserter's Songs – Looking Backwards: In Defence of Nostalgia". Ceasefire Mag. Retrieved 17 August 2016.
  21. ^ Eddebo, Johan (24 June 2017). "In search of lost time". Catholic Insight.