Friday, 17 June 2011

Ghosts from the Future

Sometimes you read something that gets you thinking, and you feel you have to write something straight off the cuff. Andrew Gallix’s piece in today’s Guardian did just that. He wasn’t (as he clarified on twitter) really making a point one way or another, merely musing on Hauntology, and whether it’s still, er, haunting us. Like Gallix, I’m not really making a point about Hauntology. It’s a rather good way of looking at our obsession with the past. But I do want to take issue with that obsession.

From what I understand, according to Hauntology being in the present is like being made of really runny metal in a world of magnets. Sure, you have the power of self-motion. But as a being subject to the inevitability of bodily deterioration you get exhausted and so bits of you get sucked into a myriad magnets. Not exactly like that, but kind of like that. The present is a dialogue with the past where one party isn’t listening very closely to the other but keep shouting over it. Yeah, that works better. I’ve been in rooms like that. I give my utterance, and someone catches a word of it and they’re off, riffing on that word. Someone else catches another word and they’re off. A late guest walks into the room and sees me talking to these two guys, but the guys are so loud the late guest only hears what they say and has to figure out who or what the hell I am from what they say.

I don’t have an issue with ghosts. Life without ghosts is death. That much is obvious. Ghosts give direction, motion, pulls and pushes and nudges in the dark. Life is motion – never being fully self-contained, fully defined, fully sufficient. And without ghosts there is no motion. There may be a motive force but without those tantalising fuckers teasing and dashing and cherry-knocking us, making our head switch this way and that and our feet follow, that manifests itself as nothing more than anxiety – the eternal foot-tapping of a restive soul with nowhere to go.

My issue is with the past. Put simply, the past is death. Any penumbra it casts on our present is not cultural breath blowing through the art of now but a noxious mix of aftergases from its decay. And that matters. Because art is life. It is living. It is not going. And going, and never stopping. Orpheus and Lot’s wife have no place. When art looks over its shoulder it dies. It becomes nostalgia. Whimsy. Not even kitsch. Kitsch is whimsy that’s given what if a blow job and swallowed.

The past doesn’t branch out from the present, pulling at it and playing with it, shaping it and colouring it. The present truncates the past, crystallises it, stops it in its tracks, cutting off all possible outcomes but the outcome of the present. The past is death – it’s a place of possibility made impossible by our living in relation to it – it has no relation to us. It is not the ego, the author, the narrator who is slain by the past. It is I who turn round, face it down and kick the fucker to ribbons.

The future is what branches out from the moment – the past kind of hovers over the future present making a Diablo shape but the moment the present comes the past strings out behind you like a metroplis of junkie with the clucks.

The future is the noisy fuckers in the room, the ones toying with me. It’s the future that picks up what I say selectively and plays around with it. It takes a word, wonders what will become of it. Who might one day latch onto it. It is not Wagner who haunts Goering’s camp nostalgia but the fat Air Marshall who toys with Wagner’s pen as he hovers ready to score the Tristan chord.

Life is motion through possibility. It is played out in relation to the future, taking *those* ghosts and turning them into pasts. What we see when we live are all our futures taunting us from beyond our reach. It’s the sight of them that incites us to chase, it’s the possibilities of our present’s future morphology that layer what we see when we live, and if we turn round and watch the rolled-up and withered branches of its past in their death throes, we stop moving, become observers of fading patterns not navigators of would-be woven paths. Our presents make us the walking dead. We turn to salt.

So maybe there is a critical edge to these future ghosts. Gallix quotes Freud's "voice of the dead father". We might talk fruitfully of the voices of the unborn maybes. Not children, but possibilities. Art/life is wondering, doing without knowing, dipping your toe in the water of what if, a wilful forgetting of the lessons of previous pains. As such we could cut swathes through the hesitant stodge of a culture caught in the moment of constant pre-uttering stutter, struck dumb by fear of its legacy. But why would we? We're too busy living.

(Dan Holloway is the author of the paper The Ghost at My Shoulder, presented at the conference Ghosts of the Past, and appearing as an appendix in the paperback of his novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall)


  1. " Kitsch is whimsy that’s given what if a blow job and swallowed."

    Best line I've read all day; and very Kundera...

    I read that article too, being the kind of author I am anything that combines ghosts and intellectual pretension is going to interest me. And you're right, ghosts are literally the dead past - which is why they're so scary. We want to be free of that bastard, the past, but are we really free...? Both personally and as a society.

  2. The Chinese say it depends where you stand next to a flowing river. If you stand facing the oncoming flow, then you are looking only at the past and have no idea of the future direction. Whereas if you stand with your back to the oncoming water, you can see its future trajectory.

    It's a mite tricky when artists are concerned with their immortal legacy, art as staving off death in some sleight of hand prestidigitation that means nothing ultimately, but art as an exploration of the material body and its inbuilt obsolescence, art as an attempt to escape/surmount such a feeble material vessel, well then we might be on to something.

    If art is about ways of seeing, then one of thew things it must see and probe and explore is death. Not ghosts, but non-existence.

    marc nash

  3. Marc, I hope you weren't for one moment suggesting that I think art is about legacy. I'm talking about reaching a state of unreflexiveness, a state where we don't think but live.

    James, I think the whole point is to try to be free despite its impossibility.

  4. Oh yes. But some of us like to write about the freedom, and some of us the impossibility. And the true geniuses, both.

  5. Indeed - but I think the very very best is simply to express it, rather than write "about" it. Let the writing emerge from the stripped bare, peeled-back marvellous mess of one's life

  6. Hmmm, you can tell I'd had a few glasses of wine when I wrote that last comment can't you? Sorry. Probably good I was still in my pretentious-drunk phase, and not boorish-arrogant-drunk.

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