An insurrectionary necromancy: on hauntology, open futures and talking with ghosts


The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall (hoaxed 1936 photo)
READINGS: Isaiah 8:19-22 in which the prophet says:
Now if people say to you, ‘Consult the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter; should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living, for teaching and for instruction?’ surely, those who speak like this will have no dawn! They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their gods. They will turn their faces upwards, or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.

From Hauntology: A not-so-new critical manifestation by Andrew Gallix in The Guardian, Friday 17th Hunt 2011
As a reflection of the zeitgeist, hauntology [the critical study of the ways ideas of the past and the future, haunt, bleed into, the present] is, above all, the product of a time which is seriously “out of joint” (Hamlet is one of Derrida’s crucial points of reference in Spectres of Marx). There is a prevailing sense among hauntologists that culture has lost its momentum and that we are all stuck at the “end of history”. Meanwhile, new technologies are dislocating more traditional notions of time and place. Smartphones, for instance, encourage us never to fully commit to the here and now, fostering a ghostly presence-absence. Internet time (which is increasingly replacing clock time) results in a kind of “non-time” that goes hand in hand with Marc Augé’s non-places [such as a  motorway, a hotel room, an airport or a supermarket]. Perhaps even more crucially, the web has brought about a “crisis of overavailability” that, in effect, signifies the “loss of loss itself”: nothing dies any more, everything “comes back on YouTube or as a box set retrospective” like the looping, repetitive time of trauma (cf. Mark Fisher’s work). This is why “retromania” has reached fever pitch in recent years, as Simon Reynolds demonstrates in his new book — a methodical dissection of ‘pop culture’s addiction to its own past’.”
          Hauntology is not just a symptom of the times, though: it is itself haunted by a nostalgia for all our lost futures. “So what would it mean, then, to look for the future’s remnants?” asks Owen Hatherley at the beginning of Militant Modernism, “Can we, should we, try and excavate utopia?” It might just be worth a shot.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol,  the Ghost of Christmas Present speaking to Scrooge:

There are some upon this earth of yours . . . who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.

—o0o—

ADDRESS
On hauntology, open futures and talking with ghosts

Reading Barker's "A College Mystery" in The Eagle
Ghosts of a literary kind are often in my mind because I regularly re-read the ghost-stories of M. R. James and, more often than not, listen to one as I’m going to bed. However, ghosts were particularly in mind during my two week break because I re-read A.P. Barker’s splendid Cambridge ghost-story from 1918 about Christ’s College called “A College Mystery.” For those of you who enjoy a very English “pleasing terror” I can thoroughly recommend it, although, having read it, you may never be able to pass by the door into the Fellows' Garden on Milton’s Walk on Christ’s Pieces in quite the same easy way as you used to . . .

The door into the Fellows' Garden of Christ's College
But in addition to this entertaining and harmless literary pastime whilst away I also read the British cultural theorist Mark Fisher’s (1968–2017) last two books, “Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures” and “The Weird and the Eerie” and so I found myself immersed once again in a favourite subject of mine called “hauntology” which seeks critically to explore the ways the past (both real and imagined) and the future (also both real and imagined) often collapse together such that they come to be haunting the present. 

Now you might think that this kind of thing is merely arty, literary nonsense which hasn’t any real, useful, practical application in our world. However, today, I want strongly to suggest that it can help us address a pressing, contemporary cultural issue that has for far too long had a powerful dampening effect upon both our religion and politics. 

As you heard in our reading from Andrew Gallix’s 2011 piece in the Guardian, the issue is that many of us, and not only hauntologists, feel

“. . . that culture has lost its momentum and that we are all stuck at the ‘end of history’. Meanwhile, new technologies are dislocating more traditional notions of time and place. Smartphones, for instance, encourage us never to fully commit to the here and now, fostering a ghostly presence-absence. Internet time (which is increasingly replacing clock time) results in a kind of ‘non-time’ that goes hand in hand with Marc Augé’s non-places. Perhaps even more crucially, the web has brought about a ‘crisis of overavailability’ that, in effect, signifies the ‘loss of loss itself’: nothing dies any more, everything ‘comes back on YouTube or as a box set retrospective’ like the looping, repetitive time of trauma (Fisher). This is why ‘retromania’ has reached fever pitch in recent years, as Simon Reynolds demonstrates in his new book — a methodical dissection of ‘pop culture’s addiction to its own past’.”

These words were written in 2011 but, or so it seems to me, this very strange situation has in the past six years only become more and more the norm. Indeed, everywhere I turn, whether as a musician, political activist, or minister and theologian, I’m continually meeting people who feel haunted by something of the ghostly presences-absences mentioned above and who are also painfully experiencing the loss of the future. It would be remiss of me were I not to acknowledge that I, too, often acutely feel these things too.

Of course, all things being equal, this does not mean that I and others do not think that we are not going to be around tomorrow, next week or next year and so, at least superficially, still feel we have some kind of future. However, it is to say that this future is increasingly felt by many of us merely to be a recast version of a remembered or misremembered past. The more optimistic amongst us still have vague hopes that it could be a kinder version of the past; the more pessimistic, however, strongly fear that it will only be more reactionary, brutal and destructive. But, either way, the general point I wish to make today is simply that for many people the “future” is now held back by remembrances and misremebrances of the past and that certain kinds of cultural ghosts are felt to be detrimentally haunting the present.

It is important to see that it is in this context the by now well-known acronym TINA (There Is No Alternative) gets its present political and cultural power. TINA is, of course, one important, high profile way our collective culture voice seems to be expressing this feeling that we no longer have any genuinely open future beyond the political, economic and religious ideas and structures we inhabit in the present.

Anyway, in the midst of reading ghost stories and books about hauntology, I thought it might be worth going back to the Hebrew Bible to see what that venerable and hoary volume has to say about ghosts. Not a lot is the simple answer. (The most well-known passage is, of course, that found in 1 Samuel 28:3–19 where King Saul has the Witch of Endor summon the spirit or ghost of Samuel.) However, I did find a single passage in Isaiah 8 that stood out as saying something pertinent to my own 21st century musings.

You will recall that Isaiah inveighs against necromancy — that is to say the practice of divination courtesy of the spirits of the dead. He does this, of course, from the point of view of his belief in a living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — a God who not only “is” (“I Am that I Am”) but also, as the Hebrew in Exodus 3 allows us to say, one who “will be what he will be” (ehyeh ašer ehyeh — Exodus 3:14). Because of the future-orientation of God, for Isaiah, the past does not have a veto on either the present or the future and so he was not doomed to think, unlike us, that we live in a world that is going endlessly to come back to haunt us on YouTube or as a box set retrospective. For Isaiah, it is this future-orientated God who constantly guarantees humanity the possibility it can move into an open future that is genuinely very different from both the past and the present. For Isaiah there was, therefore, always an alternative and this was why he was so concerned to persuade people not to consult the backward looking “ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter.” He felt that when and wherever these ghosts began to have the upper hand over God then, wherever people looked, whether upwards or towards the earth, they would see “only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.”

Isaiah’s rather stark words seem to me — alas, alas — to be an exceptionally good expression of how many people feel today with regard to the future — or rather with regard to its (apparent) loss.

But surely we have to hope that we need not be feeling like this? Yet how can we not? because — with respect to those who think differently to me — the open, future-guaranteeing power that was available to Isaiah is lost to our culture because belief in the reality of Isaiah’s future-oriented God is dead and so too, therefore (or so it can seem), is our access to this source of (potentially) radical, open, future-orientated divine power.

In one way I think this bleak analysis is correct but, I hope you’ll be pleased to hear, I don’t think that’s the end of the story. Isaiah’s God may be dead, and certain ghosts and familiar spirits that chirp and mutter may well now be ruling our own time (including amongst them, I should add, the ghost of Isaiah’s God), but is it not possible that we might be mishearing what these ghosts are — or might be — capable of saying to us? Given that Isaiah’s God is now also numbered amongst the dead, paradoxically, we may today only have any hope of engaging with this future-orientated God by consulting him as one of the very same ghosts that nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago Isaiah was encouraging us to avoid.

But what does all this talk of ghosts mean in a practical sense?

The Ghost of Christmas Present
Well, the German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) — the great twentieth century philosopher of hope — often spoke powerfully of the still undischarged future of the past and it seems to me that, were we able to find ways to begin to pay closer and more careful and nuanced attention our culture’s ghosts (which includes, remember, the ghost of Isaiah’s future-orientated God), we might be able to find help from at least as many (if not more) friendly, future-orientated ghosts as we can find hindrance from malevolent and regressive ones. This approach is not at all as eccentric, weird and crazy as you might think and, to show you this is so, I need only point to Charles Dickens’ beloved Christmas ghost-story, “A Christmas Carol” in which Dickens consciously uses the undischarged future of the past found in his various ghosts in order to reveal both to Scrooge and, of course, his Victorian readership the realization that there were still available to them real, alternative ways of living and organizing themselves in the future.

It is fascinating to observe that in this book Dickens only uses the word “God” twelve times and on every occasion it is simply in everyday colloquial phrases such as “God bless” or “God forbid” and nowhere does Dickens call upon God to provide the energy that is required to support an open, alternative future; only the ghosts are called upon and it is only the ghosts that provide the required energy. That’s interesting, is it not? (Just for the record, Dickens uses the word “ghost” 108 times.) 

My point is that via Dickens’ engagement with ghosts we encounter, not malevolent dæmons and spirits that chain us hopelessly to the past and dooming us simply to an endless recycling of what was but, instead, benevolent dæmons and spirits capable of giving us access to a utopian power that was able to be be discharged by Dickens and his contemporaries in their work of creating a profoundly different future than the one that was being offered by the then current political, economic and religious structures and ideologies.

This morning I want tentatively to suggest that, in our own time and contrary to Isaiah’s opinion — and, of course, contrary to the opinion of the various religious institutions who still take Isaiah seriously —, it may only be through such a renewed, creative, conversational (literary and poetic) hunting out of our culture’s future-orientated ghosts that our secular culture we will be able once again to access and discharge a future-orientated power that is capable of restoring to us hope for the future by resisting the pernicious doctrine of TINA (whether uttered by politicians, financiers or traditional religion) that is bringing distress, darkness and the gloom of anguish to so many people everywhere.

In short, I suppose you may say that in the interests of a better, genuinely open future for all people I’m encouraging you to engage in nothing less than a little bit of secular, insurrectionary, literary and poetic necromancy. And we, and our contemporary culture as a whole would be advised, like Scrooge before us, to listen very carefully to the voices of the future-orientated ghosts who we may be able to summoned forth.
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