Non-Time and Hauntology

by Rob Horning

5 May 2011

There are lots of plausible and interrelated explanations for why the pop-culture future can no longer occur.

I went to a talk last night at NYU by Mark Fisher about “hauntology,” which refers to a kind of intermediate space-time between places palpably shaped by organic time and nonplaces (shopping malls, etc.—see Marc Augé), which are wrenched out of time and posit an unending nontime, the end of history, an undisruptable retailing present that perpetually recurs. I didn’t really get what hauntology was all about: it seemed to have to do with cultural productions that are aware of the nonplace/nontime crisis—the way neoliberalism has foisted non-space/time on us, along with a subjectivity without depth that must flaunt its requisite flexibility by shuffling the deck of floating signifiers—and are “reflexive” and “critical” and “negative” about this condition. Fisher made this point with music: British pop music now is blithely appropriational of the past without foregrounding that in any particular way; retro has ceased to be a meaningful descriptor. So music made now would not be at all disruptive, he argues, if someone living in 1979 heard it. There would be no retroactive future shock. It doesn’t sound like the future; the future that should be occurring now has been thwarted, lost, effaced. The sense of cultural teleology is gone, vanished, perhaps, in the now pervasive relativism that regards all culture product as potentially valuable.
There are lots of plausible and interrelated explanations for why the pop-culture future can no longer occur, including:

(1) The demise of a hegemonic culture industry (and the rise of digitization and peer-to-peer distribution) brought the end of a shared sense of the cultural moment. We’re not all watching the same TV show at the same time and hearing the same records on the radio. Instead we have access to all culture all at once, on demand—whether it’s, say, Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the complete works of Margaret Cavendish, yesterday’s episode of Survivor, or all of them at once. This AV Club article by Steven Hyden about Def Leppard’s Hysteria gets at the idea:

As everything changes rapidly around us, we as music fans in many ways still think we’re living in a Def Leppard world, where winning a Grammy means you’ve arrived, and going to No. 1 on the charts makes you a pop star. In reality, we live in a culture where the terms “mainstream” and “underground” have become virtually meaningless, as practically every song by every band ever is equally accessible, frequently at no cost, to anyone with an Internet connection and the interest to seek it out ... It’s clear that music rarely unites us under the banner of mass-accepted artists anymore; even in a concert audience, we’re all just a bunch of individuals, with little connecting us to one another beyond a shared interest in the artist onstage—one artist among hundreds on our abundantly stocked iPods. Sounds lonely, doesn’t it? Sometimes I yearn for the old world, the one I grew up in, a place where dinosaurs like Hysteria stomped around pop culture for months, if not years, leaving sizable impressions in the hearts of a generation, whether they liked it or not.

The availability of everything means that particular works of pop music lose “symbolic efficiency” to use (and possibly misuse) a term from Žižek. Nothing successfully connotes the zeitgeist; everything invokes a desire to one-up with a better reference or a new meme or detournement of the contemporary. We are too knowing and skeptical to accept anything as unproblematically representative of the now.

(2) Neoliberalism/post-fordism/late capitalism has projected itself as the end of history, normalized nontime, and generalized the reception of conditions of ontological insecurity as freedom. We lack a subjectivity that can experience or recognize historicity. 

Fisher links the idea of a “missing future” with the disappearance of negativity and criticality in contemporary pop culture, which (as I interpret it) has no space for anything oppositional or which transforms oppositional gestures into postures that circulate only as signifiers of personal identity. It reminds me of Douglas Haddow’s “Hipsters are the dead-end of Western culture” argument:

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

Hipsters don’t experience non-time negatively, as a loss, as melancholic, as indicative of deep alienation. Instead they seem to be thoroughly subjectivized by neoliberalism to the extent that they regard it as opportunity to show off how creative they can be in their cycle of appropriations. That last thing they want is to be reminded of how their personality is conditioned by the times they live in; in nontime, one can feel transcendent and immortal, one can permanently defer adulthood.

Hauntological music (like Burial) tries to at least evoke the feeling of loss, tries to register the missing future as a kind of catastrophe, Fisher argues, though it can’t actually instantiate this missing future. It tries to at least restore meaning to the concept of retro, foregrounding the appropriations of the past by sounding like a scratchy record, and so on. (I don’t know; all electronic music literally sounds the same to me.) I wasn’t persuaded that a work’s reflexivity about how symptomatic it is itself of the impossibility of escaping non-time made it viable as a mode of resistance. I’m probably too skeptical of reflexivity to ever regard it as resistance; I see reflexivity as the quintessential mode of neoliberalist subjectivity—a calculating self-consciousness that can’t be escaped, that forces us to be considering our identity as an alienated thing to be developed and invested entrepreneurially. (The following is highly provisional and may ultimately prove embarrassing): Whatever is reflexive needs to become collective. The problem of non-spacetime is that of an isolated individual subject who admits of no possibility for intersubjectivity, which is perhaps the primary way we experience history, through how our relations with others subjectivize us in particular, contingent ways. Reflexivity about our loss of that intersubjectivity seems to still cling to the individuation, to see and secretly cherish one’s isolated uniqueness and incontingency in the recognition of it as a loss.

In my view, social media have become the extension of non-spacetime, where nothing, no identity or incident, is necessarily contingent or organic, and one is doomed to the “freedom” of endless ontological insecurity, the forever search for a grounding authenticity that can only generate more memes. Social media are where we go to protect our experience of nontime, which is threatened by the Real, by historicity, by death. Facebook is the ultimate nonplace. Being on it is to enter non-time, to maintain a continual pseudo-presence.

The non-spacetime crisis, I think, is a crisis of presence. When we exist in non-spacetime, presence becomes impossible—or it is known by its absence, in a kind of negative theology. To put that less cryptically (or maybe not): technology has basically dissolved the unity of the subject in a particular place in time. Smart phones, etc., let us be in many places at once, conducting any number of conversations and self-presentations asynchronously. This casts an air of provisionality over everything we do; our lack of total commitment to a that place at that moment is always implied, always understood. No one is even bothered anymore when someone they are talking to looks at their phone. There is no ethical requirement to be fully present, and without that, there is no genuine (I know, how can you even ever define “genuine”) intersubjectivity. The refusal to be fully present is a restatement of the refusal to permit our identity to be socially contingent or to be palpably collective. The smart phone reserves our right to check out of any collective identity formation at any time. This is the essence of contemporary “convenience,” which I have long interpreted as being able to avoid interaction with other humans and being forced to empathize with them and recognize their existence as other. (We can only tolerate other people when we regard them as extra in our movie.)

Fisher referred to Jameson’s distinction between psychological nostalgia and formal nostalgia, between the ability to evoke a real lost past and being trapped in pastiche. What I took from this is that the postmodern/neoliberal subject cannot access psychological nostalgia, but can only simulate it through pastiche, as this sort of subject has only existed in nontime as opposed to historical time. My sense is that this subject doesn’t yearn for historical time at all but worries about historical time erupting into nontime via some sort of terrible Event. When something that threatens to be an Event happens, subjects rush to assimilate it to nontime by mediatizing it, “sharing” it in social media, or meme-ifying it. I’m not sure if this holds, but it may be possible to interpret the ad hoc celebrations of Osama bin Laden’s execution this way—an effort to experience a historical moment in a way that dehistoricizes it—puts the partyers back at the center of their personal hermetic history, claims the Event as just an event in their individual story.

Because we have no access anymore to psychological nosalgia, we end up nostalgic for the capability for nostalgia, we feel homesickness for a home we never had. These leads to a compensatory attraction to childhood kitsch, to moribund objects (joining a typewriter club is an extreme manifestation of this), to anachronism, atavism, whatever seems genuinely and indelibly marked by a past. This perpetuates the cycle that denies the creation of a distinctive future, guarantees that the future is a more attenuated and annotated reconfiguration of detritus from the past.

(Malcolm Harris has more thoughts inspired by the talk here.)


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