Mark Fisher in conversation with NERO on notions of hauntology, nostalgia and lost futures
24 September 2015
When, a bit over a year ago, we had the pleasure of meeting with British writer and theorist Mark Fisher in Rome, his book Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures was about to come out and we took the opportunity in order to talk with him about the future — not about his future or our future, but about the idea of the future itself in present-day society. Now with the lapse of time, then, one might ask wether it is still an interview about the future or rather about the past.
According to the perspective discussed below, the concepts of past and future have less to do with temporal bodies, and more with defining the terrain on which we can place controversial ideas, such as nostalgia of the future, Derrida’s notion of the hauntological as well as hauntological melancholia, social delay, obsolescence and normalized anachronism. If Fisher’s book grapples with the disappearance of the future, what follows is an attempt to come to terms with what this might actually mean in an an era that is increasingly shaped by new virtual and communication technologies together with the whole late capitalist imagery that these usher in.
[Interviewed by Valerio Mannucci and Valerio Mattioli in summer 2014.]
NERO: Let’s start from your last book, Ghosts of My Life…
Mark Fisher: Well, the overall theme of the book is the disappearance of the future, at least in culture. For me, the failure of the 21st century is that the 21st century has yet to really start — so, in a way, it’s a disappearance of both the present and the future. This is something that is quite evident in music. In Ghosts of My Life I mainly collected a number of pieces that have already appeared in a variety of different places, together with some specific articles written especially for the book; it’s an augmented collection, you can say. I wrote a number of pieces concerning hauntology, which is a term originally conceived by Jacques Derrida that started to regain currency in 2006: I picked up on and used it in relation to a number of different musicians such as Ariel Pink, Jessica Rylan, The Focus Group and the whole Ghost Box label… So, in Ghosts of My Life I tried to explicate how this concept had been gaining a new currency, especially in relation to music.
N: Talking about hauntology, there’s one excerpt in your book that sounds like a recap of this kind of aesthetic, even if it’s not about music: that is, when you describe the typical atmosphere of a British TV show from the 70s. Now, musicians such as the ones from Ghost Box heavily rely on this kind of memory—you know, of BBC educational programs, TV series from the 60s and 70s and so on. And they often spread a sort of melancholic feeling, which is quite different from the simple nostalgia of the past…
MF: Melancholia is one of the great threads running through my book. I think that what happened after the 70s—and particularly during the 80s, when the occupying forces of neoliberalism arose — was this sense that things were shifting. But probably the extent to which they would have shifted was not that clear at the time—at least not to me. I guess this is partly about the age that I am, and the expectations that I’ve formed, being born at the end of the 60s, into a culture that was vibrant and experimental. It was something you could describe as an “informal education system.” I didn’t like school too much myself, but I didn’t need to like it because the source of education could come from elsewhere.
Music culture was a big part of that: it was in music press—like NME and so on—that I first encountered the work of continental theorists like Derrida and Baudrillard. It’s this kind of wide and interconnected network that I call “popular modernism,” a kind of infrastructure for disseminating and distributing experimental theory and culture. At the time it was just right, you just expected things to be like that, there was nothing special about it. But during the 80s, this network slowly disappeared. At first, I thought it was just a temporary blip and that it would have all come back. But I was wrong: it was an irreversible shift.
So you see, things that are taken for granted just disappear. And this brings us to a melancholia, a hauntological melancholia.
N: This is interesting, because if we take the classic idea of melancholia — as proposed, for example, by iconologists and so on — we can describe it as the painful consciousness of our limits in contrast to our desires. How does this “hauntological melancholia” differ from that?
MF: First of all, let me tell you that I try to distinguish this kind of melancholia from standard depression, which is another important issue to me. Because you know, standard depression is fairly spread: it’s not very acknowledged, at least not as a political and cultural problem; instead, it’s treated as a chemical problem, or as the result of people’s family history. In other words, it’s highly privatized.
I think depression is manifesting itself in terms of low self-expectations. Depressive people don’t expect much from life. Things are getting worse and they are changing only to stay the same in a more intense form — and that’s what capitalism is. So you have this kind of sadness or depression that is basically a consequence of adjusting to such things.
But the melancholia I’m describing is a completely different thing. That’s why I’m opposing it to depression: it’s a much more conscious articulation, an aestheticized process. I would actually say that if depression is taken for a granted state, as a form of adjustment to what is now taken for reality, then melancholia is the refusal — or even the inability — to adjust to it. It’s holding on to an object that should officially be lost. So instead of saying, “Well, Public Service Broadcasting was like that, but now things have changed,” you simply refuse to accept the loss of the object.
N: And why is that “hauntological”?
MF: Let’s put it this way: it’s easy to say, “Oh, things were great in the 70s, let’s go back to the 70s,” but I think the real issue is “What kind of future did we expect from the 70s?” I mean, there was a trajectory, and this trajectory was interrupted. And now we find ourselves haunted by this future that we vaguely expected at the time, and that was terminated somewhere during the 80s by the values related to neoliberalism. From this point of view, it’s no coincidence that the 80s saw a traumatic and violent defeat of the Left, at least in the UK.
N: You’re introducing another major theme of hauntology: the so called “nostalgia of the future”…
MF: I think that the concept of “nostalgia of the future” partly illustrates one of the paradoxes that I’m trying to get across through the book; for example, hauntological music is often accused of being nostalgic. To a certain extent this is true, but the point is: “nostalgic compared to what?” I mean, the whole 21st century music scene could be described as nostalgic: where is the sense of the future now? Today, if you ask people what is “futuristic music,” they would reply electronic music from the 90s, or even Kraftwerk, and stuff like that. In a way, we still rely on an old future.
N: What do you think of recent phenomena such as vaporwave and the “pop art of the virtual plaza”? According to music critic Adam Harper, artists such as James Ferraro or Fatima Al Qadiri are at least trying to reconsider the concept of future in music, taking inspiration from virtual technologies and the whole late capitalism imagery…
MF: I actually think that vaporwave still relies on a 20th century vision of the future. The sound texture and even the imagery is derived from 90s corporate sources. The fact that vaporwave has been perceived as an example of “futuristic music” shows a kind of diminished expectations: can we really compare that to, let’s say, Kraftwerk? Or to jungle music? Or to BBC Radiophonic Workshop? All of these things clearly delivered a sense of future-shock, like “Where does this thing come from?” After listening to such artists, people had to reconstruct the whole sense of the music that was around them. Unfortunately, I just don’t think there’s anything like that in relation to vaporwave…
N: But it’s nonetheless interesting how these artists relate to a typical 21st-century imagery. To quote The Wire’s review of Fatima Al Qadiri’s album, this music “imagines a world of frantically animate matter with no life outside of the iPad.” You can’t deny that such a description sounds like a mirror of our time.
MF: I think Fatima Al Qadiri mirrors this time by also not having a specific relationship with our time, at least in a way previous music did. Don’t get me wrong, I sincerely think this music deserves attention: it was very interesting when I was in Berlin at the CTM Festival and somebody played some vaporwave stuff over big speakers, and you could just hear that it wasn’t meant to be heard that way. You know, the compression, the sounds… it really seemed music made for smartphones and tablets.
N: The relation between music and smart technology also resembles what happened with the visual aspects of our everyday lives: the idea of “image” can no longer be completely detached from the devices on which it is displayed…
MF: Indeed, smartphones and tablets are increasingly becoming—if not exclusively—the image of what the present is; of the extent to which communication technology has completely colonized our sense of what technology is. This is another symptomatic phenomenon of the 21st century. Now, think about it: how much did we really care about communication devices in the 20th century? We cared a lot about music technology because we could hear that… But phone calls and stuff like that: who really cared?
NERO: These communication technologies are also affecting our idea of representation. Let’s make an example: the concept of realism in present-day horror movies is often based on the idea of “digital footage”(i.e. amateur footage that depicts supernatural events, etc.) In a few words: it is “real” what could be captured through an amateur camera. All that considered, how much do you think these technologies are influencing our understanding of reality and our relation with imagination?
MF: It looks as though, for example, we forgot the grand visions that science-fiction once had about technology: I mean, we used to talk about terraforming, transforming planets, altering solar systems! And from terraforming now we are discussing how to improve our access to the internet. That’s a kind of reduction in itself, I think. Anyway, speaking schematically and overgeneralizing, I think that there’s far too much emphasis on online digitality. It has totally colonized our sense of what the present and the future are, and I think the actual phenomenological reality is engaging with what I prefer to call “capitalist cyberspace.” So I’d rather not talk about technology as such, but more about the way technology operates within our economic system. For example, I think one of the key elements of digital technology is this sense of being slightly late all the time. Let’s think about social media like Twitter: you’re in a perennial state of reactivity, by the very fact you’re there, you’re always late, and therefore you’re always in a state of slight and intense anxiety. I think we kind of normalized this as part of our nervous system, where even if something is perceived as instantaneous, it isn’t quite. And this is part of a general sense of lack, of things laggingbehind, which is a feature of the digital as such. Capitalist cyberspace demands a constant dispersion of attention, you’re always solicited to respond and to react, so it’s very difficult to be absorbed in anything. Also, the basic form of digital communication is command: every time you pick up your smartphone, you’ve been told to do things. And even if they are friendly commands, nevertheless it’s a massive stress on the nervous system. Just dealing with these commands, or even ignoring these commands, blocks us with a constructive relationship to the future: that’s the other side of the destruction of time-perspective.
N: And then there is also the inundation of information. Do you think that when you see a lot of things, it makes you feel like you’ve already seen everything?
MF: Well yes, it does. But back in the day, it wasn’t just the lack of exposure to things that made people think that they were experiencing something new. They were really experiencing something new, it wasn’t just an illusion.
N: But don’t you think that these technologies somehow affect our imagination? For example, for a long time the future was envisioned by humans through the invention of new technologies (i.e. Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Asimov, etc.), and in the 90s technology was seen as a tool for change on an aesthetic and political level (techno music, cyberpunk, etc.). Today, instead, technology itself has become the subject who’s “telling us what the future is,” bringing about an inability to imagine it…
MF: I agree. If you think about it, nowadays we don’t have “the future”: we have upgrades. And in a way it’s a pre-postmodernist thing. The whole experience of modernity was this double perception that whatever your current experience is, it’s already obsolete; because modernity is a process which never reaches an end: there’s no resting, no point of equilibrium, only this endless upgrading. And then today you have corporations such as Apple, whose business model is entirely based on this: obsolescence. You don’t expect to own an iPod for very long, if only because they don’t last that much… I’ve had five or six already!
N: So what’s the difference between the modernist approach and this let’s say post-postmodern way of being modernist?
MF: Well, I mean that the degree in which modernism survives is the sense of newness, as in traditional modernism, but it’s been transformed in terms of upgrades. In the past, the grand vision of the future was essentially a great dislocation from the present: that grand vision is no longer available to us.
Look at science-fiction: I think already in the 80s there was a crisis of the genre, but anyway, the last great science-fiction movies are from that time. Today, we’re still locked into Blade Runner, dystopian cities or even William Gibson’s cyberpunk… I would say that The Matrix itself, with its vision of a fully simulated society, couldn’t update this vision. Perhaps Minority Report, with its pop-up corporate advertisings, captures the reality of capitalist cyberspace even better than William Gibson: today cyberspace is like those continuous pop-up windows that constantly appear as advertising, commanding us to do something, in which we are not fully immersed in; it’s more like a background noise from everyday life.
N: Let’s go back, then, to the years when — according to your analysis — the trajectory toward the future was interrupted: the 80s. Perhaps, one thing we shouldn’t underestimate, is that the 80s is also the decade where postmodernist aesthetics became a common language; we come from thirty years of temporal pastiches, past and present anachronisms, double codes, quotations and appropriations from different eras… Wasn’t that a negation of the future itself?
MF: Absolutely. Also, if you read texts like The Ecstasy of Communication by Baudrillard, which is from 1987, you find out that things like the overwhelming flow of messages, the inability to constitute a distinction between the inside and the outside, to deal with having no halo or private protection anymore… Well, he’s basically talking about Twitter and Facebook! And if you think about another author such as Frederic Jameson, his texts from the 80s are astonishingly prophetic. What was the specificity of postmodernism in the 80s, is now the dominant aesthetic paradigm; to the degree that it’s very hard to see anything else. One of the most penetrating things of Jameson’s analysis is this awareness of a particular form of anachronism that was emerging and calling attention to itself: if you think about a film like Body Heat, it was set in the 80s and it had a contemporary aesthetic, but the feel was something from film noir of the 30s and 40s. Now, that mixture of contemporary settings and out-of-date references is exactly the standard for so much culture of the 21st century. We naturalized anachronism.
N: What about physical spaces? We talked about how postmodernism reshaped our relationship with time, but if you think about it, the term “postmodern” first emerged in architecture as a reaction against modernist architectural movements.
MF: I think that the defeat of modernism in architecture, as described by Owen Hatherley in his book Militant Modernism, is part of the picture I’m describing. Just consider a city like London: the most futuristic parts of the city are the brutalist ones. You go to the Barbican Centre and you spontaneously think about the future, precisely because of the modernism of the buildings. Fashion is another example: it seems to be stuck, they’re cyclically re-modernizing old styles. It’s not even fashion as it used to be.
N: In that sense, what’s your opinion of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, his book about the obsession that pop culture has in relation with its own past?
MF: I mostly agree with Simon’s analysis, but I guess that the main difference is that he sees retromania as an internet-related phenomenon. Of course the internet changed our lives, and of course the idea of timeless time deeply affected our habits, even in music; but we also have to bear in mind all the consequences of the naturalization of anachronism and its side effects, which are issues related not only with the possibility of accessing a space like the internet: it’s also a political matter, it’s the way in which we use the internet and the way in which the internet functions in our economic society.
N: We started by talking about the “informal education system” you grew up with during the 70s, and how it shaped a common idea of “popular modernism.” How do you think younger generations relate to that? How does their idea of “future” compare to the old one?
MF: I think that they still feel a need for futurism, but it’s in terms of a spectral, virtual presence of the former sense of it. I think that this leads to the fact that there’s no specific discontent about the present. But when you produce something and you have the feeling that everything’s already been done… it’s sad, you know?
Interviewed by Valerio Mannucci and Valerio Mattioli
Mark Fisher is a music writer and a theorist, author of the acclaimed Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of my life. He writes regularly for The Wire, frieze, New Statesman, Sight & Sound and The Wire, where he was acting deputy editor for a year. He is a Visiting Fellow at Goldsmiths, University Of London, and maintains one of the most successful weblogs on cultural theory, k-punk (http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org)
*We would like to thank Peter Sarram and John Cabot University for making this interview possible