REVIEW: Hauntology by Merlin Coverley

People (like me) who have put a lot of time and energy into writing reviews will often argue that criticism should be understood not merely as a reaction to existing works of art, but as an art form in its own right. In fact, one of the reasons for talking about ‘criticism’ as opposed to ‘reviews’ is that ‘criticism’ seems less culturally derivative. I would push this argument even further: I would argue that if we accept that criticism is its own cultural form, then the same must also be true of Theory-craft and Merlin Coverley’s Hauntology is a superb example of how much fun you can have mucking about with Theory.

Theory-craft refers to the practice of producing Theory. Most people would argue that Theory is produced by philosophy, politics, and various forms of perspectival studies and while that is true, I think it’s worth distinguishing between the production of Theory as a means of understanding the world and the production of Theory as a means of adding to the conceptual toy-box that is then made available to critics. For example, producing a Marxist take on Psychoanalysis added a number of huge glistening weapons to critics’ arsenals but in terms of furthering our understanding of human cognition? Funnily enough taking two 19th Century thinkers and mashing them together in the 20th Century can’t really compete with the physical scanning tools available to 21st Century neuro-scientists. Lacanian Theory is great for putting bums on seats at academic conferences and producing journal articles that help people land academic jobs but you don’t seek help from someone in the English department when you start having panic attacks.

Hauntology is an absolutely fantastic piece of Theory-craft. Based on a pun dreamed up by Derrida for his 1993 book Spectres of Marx (a leftist response to the so-called ‘end of history’ heralded by the collapse of Soviet communism), it’s kind of a riff on nostalgia except rather than being a yearning for the past, it’s more about feeling the tangible presence of pasts, presents, and futures that either never came to pass or which have been erased from cultural memory.

Hauntology is a concept that was picked up and developed by thinkers like Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds with a particular view to writing about popular music but the concept soon escaped its enclosure and became an opportunity to think about the present in terms of the work of a load of half-forgotten, under-appreciated, and predominantly British thinkers and artists who themselves had a particular interest in ghosts, the occult, and other fringe intellectual pursuits. In this respect, hauntology is a bit like psychogeography, which is where this book’s author Merlin Coverley enters the picture.

Hauntology shares the same methodology as Coverley’s previous books Psychogeography and Occult London: Each book opens with an accessible overview of a particular area of research before splitting off into a series of self-contained essay-like chapters addressing different aspects or developmental stage of the book’s subject matter before concluding with a thoroughly excellent bibliography allowing the readers to follow up on anything that grabbed their attention. The result is a very effective and thoroughly engaging introduction to what was one of the primary interests of this blog prior to its relaunch.

After a spirited and admirably lucid introduction, Coverley breaks the book down into three long chapters:

“Hauntings” looks at the ghost stories of people like Charles Dickens and M.R. James before touching on Freud’s concept of the Uncanny, a piece of Victorian theatrical technology known as Pepper’s Ghost and Arthur Machen’s concept of Deep Time.

“Experiments with Time” is a bit more wild and woolly in so far as it opens with an overview of JW Dunne’s (nearly nonsensical and broadly incoherent) theory of time before moving onto T.C. Lethbridge’s ideas about residual hauntings. Thankfully, these ideas are then grounded with an overview of authors who seem to have drawn on those core concepts including the works of Nigel Kneale, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, and J.G. Ballard.

The final chapter “Ghosts of Futures Past” is probably the chapter most people will turn to first as it’s the part of the book that deals with works and ideas that were developed around the same time as the concept of ‘Hauntology’ was starting to gain a degree of cultural traction. Thus we have an overview of Fisher and Reynolds’ thinking as well as a look at Folk Horror, nostalgia and the weird early-2010s trend for works that leaned into the creepy vibes put out by 1970s children’s TV and public information films.

I’m only really skimming the surface of the works and ideas covered in this book as Coverley casts a broad net and pulls in a really diverse range of thinkers and artists whose work appears to touch on the hauntological. As with Coverley’s previous books, the joy is as much as the contents of the pages as in angles introduced to you by the endnotes and bibliographies. Hauntology is an absolutely fascinating book and a real joy to read but I’m not sure that the concept makes more sense to me now that I have read a book about it.

The issue here is that while Psychogeography is a concept that was briefly trendy in the 2000s, the trend served to surface a rich intellectual history stretching back several hundred years. So while you might buy Coverley’s Psychogeography because of an interested in Sinclair’s London Orbital or Will Self’s Guardian columns about going for walks on the South Downs whilst smoking a pipe, you soon discover that those methods and ideas had emerged a number of times before and that each emergence had been subtly different and so exposed a different facet of the core concept. Coverley tries to repeat this with Hauntology by tying each of the chapters to a different cultural moment, the different moments soon wind up dissolving and bleeding into each other because hauntology is a concept that is in and of itself hauntological in so far as it appears old despite actually being the product of work done by a pair of then-bloggers in the very recent past.

Hauntology is both a concept and a feeling: It is literally the feeling of being haunted by another point in time that may or may not have existed. It is like nostalgia but for futures. pasts, and presents that somehow never came to pass. While the original concept may have been articulated by Derrida, his pun is really just an extended riff on the fact that the Communist Manifesto opens with a line about Europe being haunted by the spectre of Communism. What made this line interesting was the fact that, when the Communist Manifesto was being written, there were no Communist states past or present. But if Communism had not yet been born, how could one say it was haunting Europe? That’s where the idea of being haunted by alternate timelines swims into focus.

The concept of hauntology caught on because it was bundled up with Fisher’s concept of Capitalist Realism and the fact that (at the time) it seemed easier to imagine the end of the world than it did to imagine living in a world not governed by capitalism. With no viable leftist projects looming on the horizon and no obvious way to get from Tory Kleptocracy to even a mild form of Social Democracy, Leftism’s presence in British culture was best understood as a kind of haunting, a yearning for a timeline that never came to pass. And that’s it… there is literally nothing more to it, and that is why I refer to this book as Theory-craft.

Academia is a highly-structured intellectual environment. There are ways of doing things because a failure to follow the rules means that your work won’t get published and you won’t have your contract renewed. One of the rules of academia is that you can’t just have an idea; before an idea can be brought to the table, it needs to be legible. Legibility is a function of embeddedness in existing discursive patterns and roots in the broader sweep of cultural history.

Because at least one of the re-developers of hauntology was an academic and because academia is now pretty much the only place you can make a living by writing down your ideas, it was necessary to render the concept of hauntology legible to an academic audience and this meant placing it in a broader cultural context. All of the works and theories explored in this book are works and theories that have been bound to hauntology in an effort to make it appear valid and legible. Did M.R. James write with hauntology in mind? Of course not, but if you squint at his stories and cherry-pick a few details, you can see that some of his ideas about ghosts are relevant to the ‘haunting’ motif. The same is true for JW Dunne’s theories about time and W.G. Sebald’s books about feeling alienated whilst out for a walk. All of these works are attempts at expressing a sense of alienation from the present and so they are, broadly speaking, related to the concept of hauntology but it always requires a bit of a stretch and some muddying of the philosophical waters.

Coverley’s Hauntology is Theory-craft because, at the end of the day, it is more interested in playing with ideas than understanding the things that ideas pertain to. Indeed, while hauntology might have started out as a feature of the emotional landscape of political activists and thinkers, this book presents it as a vague feeling that is used to explore the connections between a load of cool genre writers and weirdy-beardy Victorian intellectuals.  This may sound bad but for someone like me who is now completely alienated from any form of politics, it’s really kind of cool because I love hearing about cool genre writers and weirdy-beardy Victorian intellectuals. It’s a lot of fun, it’s really easy to read, and the bibliography is sensational. I genuinely wish that these kinds of books were more common as Coverley’s books are a fantastic form of curation in their own right.

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