Saturday, 28 November 2020

Merlin Coverley's 'Hauntology'


Merlin Coverley's latest book - Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past - has just been published by Oldcastle Books (2020), and I am lucky enough to have a review copy. This isn't going to be a 'traditional' review. Rather more, in providing some extracts and discussion, I am going to highlight a couple of my favourite theories from the book. If you would like a straightforward review, you can go to The Indiependent or Horrified Magazine, but I will also include the blurb from the back cover, so that you get an overview of this non-fiction text and can see where the theories I will be discussing fit into the overall book. I just want to add, though, that despite the fact I am looking at two of the key theories elucidated in the book, this is a book for anyone interested in: the past, the occult, psychogeographical literature, popular culture, ghost stories, folk horror, nostalgia, and so on, and not just for academics:

Ghosts and spectres, the eerie and the occult. Why is contemporary culture so preoccupied by the supernatural, so captivated by the revenants of an earlier age, so haunted? The concept of Hauntology has evolved since first emerging in the 1990s, and has now entered the cultural mainstream as a shorthand for our new-found obsession with the recent past. But where does this term come from and what exactly does it mean?

This book seeks to answer these questions by examining the history of our fascination with the uncanny from the golden age of the Victorian ghost story to the present day. From Dickens to Derrida, MR James to Mark Fisher; from the rise of Spiritualism to the folk horror revival, Hauntology traces our continuing engagement with these esoteric ideas. Moving between the literary and the theoretical, the visual and the political, Hauntology explores our nostalgia for the cultural artefacts of a past from which we seem unable to break free.

DERRIDA'S HAUNTOLOGY: Utopian Futures and Enduring Spirits

Coverley's opening launches with a proposed answer to the question above in regard to our fascination with the past. He says that our "preoccup[ation]...can be found through the examination of what one critic has described recently as 'perhaps the most important, political-philosophical concept we have right now': hauntology''. Quoting Thomas Wyman, here, Coverley then leads us to the inventor of that theory, Jacques Derrida, explaining its explication through Derrida's text The Spectres of Marx (1993). While the theory of hauntology was formulated by Derrida as a way of examining the enduring nature of Marx's work, today it has become common parlance in certain circles and is about how the past constantly reappears in our present through its various cultural manifestations, but also in regard to the political ramifications of the past and how they come back to haunt us. A perfect contemporary example of this is the populist political figurehead and the current draw, amongst many, towards more authoritarian political stances. On this point, I like the way Coverley highlights the utopian aspect of hauntology when he states: "Derrida used hauntology, his science of ghosts, to demonstrate that...the spectre of Marx, like all ghosts which have yet to be laid to rest, would return, repeatedly, disrupting the present and continuing to remind us of another possible future". Something we should all hope for after the 2020 we have had, which has both politically and medically invoked the ghosts of the past!

Coverley also evokes - actually under the rubric of hauntology, he rather invokes - Mark Fisher's work (see Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology & Lost Futures) in regard to his discussion on "temporal currents". For Fisher, hauntology operates when phenomenon that is "not yet" present "haunts the present from the future". It is also the case that something that "no longer" exists "haunts the present from the past". Both these spectres are evident in the present via "repetition or anticipation". Coverley explains that this "ghost...comes from the past to manifest itself in the present and yet...belongs to neither". This is where Derrida's interest in the ghost as a deconstructive mechanism becomes apparent, the spectre being both "absent and present". Later in the book, Coverley revisits Derrida's hauntology in more depth by examining the paradox functioning in these types of binary oppositions - e.g. absence/presence - that intrigued Derrida so much. Coverley says the ghost is "both inside and outside of time, both beyond and of history" and one of the themes that recurs in his discussion of Derrida's hauntology is 'the return', which leads me neatly on to a discussion of the uncanny in regard to Coverley's book.

FREUD'S UNCANNY: The Return of the Father

For Freud the uncanny (The Uncanny 1899) is something which - to put very simply - is both familiar and unfamiliar, homely and unhomely (heimlich and unheimlich in the German). Because of its definition, it is clear why Derrida was so interested in Freud's uncanny: there is a contradiction at the heart of its very being. For Coverley (and he does allude to the knottiness of the term), the uncanny is used in the sense that it represents for Freud "death, dead bodies, revenants, spirits and ghosts" (Freud's words). Coverley explains that Freud is uncomfortable with using the language of the spectre due to his academic standing. However, we can see how the ghost (in the form of the returning 'thing', the repressed) is actually a fundamental part of psychoanalysis, as both a phenomena located in the unconscious and in terms of the psychoanalytic process itself: returning, repeating, and so on. Whether it is the compulsion to repeat (the returning trauma) or the revisiting of that trauma within the consulting room of the psychoanalyst. Coverley explains: "the repetition and doubling [are] to be found at the heart of Freud's concept [and] are replayed through the returns the re-enactments of the historical past". 

The section that follows the above in Coverley's book takes a look at Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Derrida 1995), in relation to literature. For those literature boffins who read this blog, Coverley discusses M R James, Robert McFarlane and H P Lovecraft in this section. I think this is a neat inclusion of Archive Fever here by Coverley, where he examines the death drive in relation to the literature he discusses. But I would also like to add to that the ghosts that appear at the outset of Archive Fever, Derrida's inspiration for the book, and there are two. In Archive Fever Derrida writes of how the private event of Freud’s circumcision becomes public when its trace becomes part of the archive which is the Freud Museum. An inscription appears in the archive in the form of a bible that Freud’s father has re-covered in new leather and re-gifts to him. Freud's father presents it to his son on his birthday. For Derrida this private inscription is both the note from Freud’s father, and Freud’s circumcision. I would argue, too, that both these (in their ghostly manifestation) are ever-present, ever-absent...spectres...the haunting of which appear in the trace that is left by what was...

You can order Coverley's book here!

I have also written about the uncanny on this blog before (in relation to psychogeography), so if you are interested, click on the following:

Taking an Urban Walk With Freud

Uncanny Effects and Perambulatory Weirdness