What is hauntology?

The idea asks if people can be haunted by ghosts of lost futures

French philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term ‘hauntology’ in a 1993 book
(Image credit: JOEL ROBINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Hauntology is an idea developed by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, one of the most well-known 20th-century thinkers.

While “hauntology” may sound like the study of invented ghosts and ghouls, it is actually a concept that considers the real-world effects of how “dead” futures can haunt the present.

The word “hauntology” is a portmanteau of “haunting” and “ontology”, the branch of philosophy concerned with questions about being and existence.

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What is hauntology?

It is the idea that the present is haunted by the metaphorical “ghosts” of lost futures.

The concept asks people to consider how “spectres” of alternative futures influence current and historical discourse, and acknowledges that this “haunting” – or the study of the non-existent – has real effects.

Derrida considered the idea of hauntology to be an essentially political one, but it can be applied to apolitical things.

Mark Fisher wrote in the Film Quarterly journal in 2012: “The future is always experienced as a haunting: as a virtuality that already impinges on the present, conditioning expectations and motivating cultural production.”

What hauntology mourns “is less the failure of a future to transpire – the future as actuality – than the disappearance of this effective virtuality”.

Where did the idea come from?

The word first appeared in Jacques Derrida’s 1993 book Specters of Marx, in which the philosopher said that Marxism would haunt Western society from beyond the grave many said it was confined to.

Though the word “hauntology” only appears three times in Specters, the concept is central to what Derrida was articulating, says the New Statesman.

He challenged the widely accepted notion that communism was “dead” as a concept and liberal democracy had triumphed, as the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued in his 1992 book The End of History and The Last Man.

Instead, said Derrida, Marx would continue to haunt Europe just as Marx had written in the introduction to Marx and Engels’ 1848 Communist Manifesto that “the spectre of communism” haunted Europe.

How does it apply to modern culture?

Derrida’s predictions have turned out to have significant substance.

“All anyone need do is look at how the English media covers Jeremy Corbyn and his programme of mild parliamentary social democracy to see how the spectre of progressive politics remains with us (and haunts the establishment) today,” says the New Statesman.

And away from politics, “at its most basic level, it ties in with the popularity of faux-vintage photography, abandoned spaces and TV series like Life on Mars”, said writer and academic Andrew Gallix in The Guardian in 2011.

“When you come to think of it, all forms of representation are ghostly,” he added. “Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escapes representation.”

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