Hauntology and the Slow Cancellation of the Future


Originally Published in Farrago Edition Six (2022).

What happened to the future? When looking back upon art and music throughout the 20th-century, you are bombarded with ambitious imaginations of what the future might look like. The Jetsons, Blade Runner, and Jungle music are a few of the countless examples of this. Since then, it has become clear the great promises of the future from decades past never materialised. Speaking with friends illuminates not only the current generation's pessimism for the future but the complete inability to imagine a future different from today. If we continue down our current path, we will be left with a world where every attempt to look forwards will only look backwards, where all hope for humanity will be gone. Reclaiming our lost hope for the future is the first step we must take to defy this postmodern reality. If we fail, the future will not merely consume us with sadness and despondency, it will fail to actualise entirely.

To understand how the current situation has arisen, we must first look to the past. In the decades following the Second World War, the cultural zeitgeist was dominated by experimental art and music that fuelled our dreams of the future. This explosion in experimentation was powered by the post-war welfare state and higher education maintenance grants, which constituted an indirect source of funding for experiments in pop culture between the '60s and '80s. Free university tuition from the mid-70s to '80s in Australia had the same effect, as it alleviated young artists from the pressures of pumping out art that had to be immediately successful and provided them with the resources necessary to produce the new. However, post-Fordist economics and the subsequent ideological attacks on public services, which continue today, destroyed the spaces in which artists were allowed to thrive. This, paired with the monopolisation of radio, meant consumers' tastes in art became commercialised, leading to a tendency to turn out what was already successful. The necessity to withdraw from society to produce the new became almost impossible.

Mark Fisher, a cultural critic and philosopher who spent much of his work on the condition of late-capitalist culture, borrows a term from Franco Berardi: "the slow cancellation of the future". By this, he means, there is no longer real and significant cultural movement or development, life continues, but time has somehow stopped. Postmodern culture has given up on the modernist challenge of innovation and
exploring the new. We are trapped in a graveyard where every tombstone is a failed promise for the future. Today, even the word futuristic no longer holds within it an image of the future. Or as Fisher puts it: "If electronic music was "futuristic', it was in the same sense that fonts are 'gothic." Fisher contends that what it means to be in the 21st-century is to have 20th-century culture on high-resolution screens and distributed by high-speed internet.

As a result, reused and re-branded cultural elements of the past dominate pop culture to such an extent that it feels almost impossible to create something new. This yearning to consume what has already come before is a by-product of the impossible demands of modern work culture. Where free time is a rarity, it is no wonder we have become passive zombies who are slaves to the cheap tricks of the culture industry. Berardi argues: "The intensity and precariousness of late-capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated." This leaves us always looking for a quick fix which we find in the familiar and dopamine-induced rush that the nostalgic satisfaction of the past affords us. Pop culture has become a decrepit haunted house where the ghosts of the past have become our only escape.

Examples of this are all too easy to find throughout every area of pop culture. Last year, six of the top ten highest-grossing films at the box office all had origins in the 20th-century: Spider-Man: No Way Home, No Time to Die, F9, Godzilla vs Kong, Venom, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Similarly, series like Sex Education mix together cultural signifiers from different decades; it belongs neither to the past nor to the present. This jumbling up of time creates art that is in effect, "timeless". New music artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Greta Van Fleet adopt what were previously counterculture sounds and assimilate them into the culture industry. Greta Van Fleet often sounds almost indistinguishable from bands like Led Zeppelin to unfamiliar ears. As Fisher argued, "Just because something is current doesn't mean it is new."

Even in the fashion world, clothing companies-from fast fashion brands to luxury houses--are recycling trends from decades ago. For instance, Schiaparelli, under Bertrand Guyon, often alludes to classic designs from the house in their new shows, even re-imagining old looks like the lobster dress; Hedi Slimane, whose designs are heavily inspired by '70s rock-and-roll culture, is often criticised for repeating the same looks year after year at Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Celine; and on the red carpet, with Kim Kardashian recently wearing one of Marilyn Monroe's iconic dresses to the Met Gala. Here the ghost of the past haunts us to such an extent it materialises in this quasi-resurrection of the dead. While it can be argued that art and trends are cyclical, all we have today is cyclical.

As we continue to go further into the cancelled future, we reach an impasse. Time keeps moving forward while culture stops. Although the future is dead and an infinitely repeating virtual past has taken its place, its absence is like a bony grip on your shoulder, which disappears as soon as you turn your head. Fisher calls this "hauntological culture", a concept he borrows from Jacques Derrida that was originally concerned with the spectre of communism.

Fisher argues the figure of this haunting spectre cannot be fully present, but it marks a relation to what is no longer or not yet. We can apply this in two aspects: 1) what no longer exists but remains effective, which is found in the repeating of the past in art, and 2) what has not happened yet but is effective, an anticipation that shapes and undermines the present state of things. This, of course, being the promises of the future that never materialised which haunt us However, we are no longer haunted by modernist culture, we are haunted by its disappearance. Fisher applies "hauntology" to musicians like William Basinski, the Ghost Box label, The Caretaker, and Burial. What unites these artists is their overwhelming melancholy produced by the acknowledgement that the promises of modernism have evaporated. However, these artists refuse to give up on the desire for the future, they refuse to accommodate the closed horizons of postmodernity.

In this same vein as these hauntological musicians, we should refuse to give up on the future. We must use whatever hope we have left to reclaim the forgotten promises of the future, lest they be lost forever. We must exorcise the ghost of the past and refuse to adjust to the present moment. By salvaging the future, we can wake up from this nostalgic haze that has turned us into lifeless consumers. When Greta Van Fleet comes on the radio, whether we like it or not, we should say, "I can't accept this". As Fisher asserts, once we focus on "the shocking difference between what we thought might have happened and what actually happened", it is impossible to passively continue in our current condition; five years after Fisher's passing, this call to arms only rings truer as each year passes. The only question now is, how much time do we have left?

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