Ktismatics

11 March 2008

Spectres of Hauntology

Filed under: Culture, Movies — ktismatics @ 2:18 pm

[I had some further thoughts about the movie Ghost World, some images from which constituted a post about a week ago. Somewhat reluctantly I’m setting these thoughts apart as a separate post, though it remains connected in part to the film.]

The ghost world is the trace in the present of a more authentic past. Some of the objects from this past world still exist, like old 78 records, but they’ve deteriorated with time, their surfaces cracked and warped and scratched. These defects only serve to authenticate the objects to which they’re attached, as if the process of deterioration serves to intensify their authenticity. One can envision a day in the future when these objects are completely effaced by the effects of time, leaving no material trace of the past authenticity to which they testified. Alternatively, one could be left with the impression not that the authentic objects are gone, but that they’re hidden. The gradual deterioration of the surface only serves to intensify the authenticity of what’s behind the surface. When the surface is completely destroyed, the authenticity is all that remains, as a kind of permanent spirit of the authentic object.

Once all the old surfaces are completely gone, then the authentic past is entirely hidden behind the new surfaces of the world, a whole world of authenticity that’s been rendered invisible. And this invisibility is a form of transcendence, an invisible spirit of the Real that cannot be seen or touched but that can only be intuited or remembered or imagined. The authenticity of the Real becomes indistinguishable from the imaginary. But the imaginary doesn’t reside in the image; it’s hidden behind the image. Instead of image being the outer sensory interface of solid material, the image is a hollow fetish that hides the invisible authentic and spiritual and immaterial presence of spirit that lurks behind it.

Derrida coined the term “hauntology” to describe the intangible, immaterial value that consumers attribute to commodities in Marxian economic theory. Hauntology is the ghostly essence of commodity fetishism, the intangible object of desire that drives capitalist consumption. The surface of a commodity is the interface of its tangible use value, but the surface serves also as a disguise hiding the commodity’s ghostly fetish value.

There’s a lot of capitalist activity that goes on in the movie Ghost World, most of it involving the sale of junk food through chain retail outlets. But Seymour is always selling too. He sells records at garage sales; his “party” is really another sales promotion he operates out of his house. The idea is that there’s an authentic shopping experience to be had if you know where to look for it, that some stores and some products really do possess hauntological plenitude.

One such authentic commodity, it could be argued, is this movie itself. It’s selling an alternative consumer model of hauntological authenticity. The movie reinforces the idea that it’s possible to find authenticity in artifacts, and that these authentic artifacts can be bought, and that possessing these artifacts both verifies and enhances the plenitude and authenticity of the person who buys them. Buying a ticket to this movie serves this function, transmitting its hauntological consumer fetish value to the viewer.

I wonder whether hauntology, in contemporary parlance referring to the ephemeral, vaguely mournful aura of presence-in-absence that’s crafted into many pop-cultural artifacts, retains traces of Derrida’s original meaning. Does this new cultural hauntology valorize commodity fetish value by making it at least vaguely tangible? Or in this making-tangible does the new hauntology dissipate a power over consumers that has always depended on its spectrality?

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20 Comments »

  1. so bru, you not only a father…but you also have phd? and you have real life psychology practice, where people pay you to listen to them talk about stuff?

    (fuck, now i am not so sure i like the idea of you reading my massively nurotic blog)

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    Comment by dionysusstoned — 11 March 2008 @ 3:56 pm

  2. I sense your resistance DS — I assure you it’s perfectly normal for people with your condition. But it will pass as you come increasingly to realize that the subject-supposed-to-know doesn’t know shit.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 11 March 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  3. “But for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence . . . truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred. Sacredness is in fact held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.” — Feuerbach, Preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity

    This prefatory quote in Debord’s Society of the Spectacle relates to what I’m talking about. That God seems to have retreated over the course of history, such that he no longer manifests himself empirically at all, doesn’t detract from his godliness. Quite the opposite is the case: God’s invisibility testifies to his immaterial transcendence; his seeming impotence to perform miracles testifies to his omnipotence, keeping everything running behind the scenes. The distance human culture has traveled from the visible, active God of earlier times doesn’t signal the gradual emergence of humanity from ignorance, but rather the reverse: everything man has done over the course of human history serves progressively to obfuscate the truth under layers of corruption.

    Say someone were to create a cultural artifact — a pop song, for example — that conveys surface characteristics of corruption, decrepitation, even putrefaction, while around the edges it hints at another transcendent level through barely-discernible echoes or free-floating voices that seem to be rendered in language but that cannot quite be understood. This sort of hauntological artifact has been engineered to convey both the essential movement toward lack or emptiness of human culture, superimposed over the perpetually receding movement of supernatural plenitude or excess. It’s a nostalgia that’s consistent with the Judeo-Christian mythos of creation and fall.

    Says Debord: “Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is an affirmation of appearances and an identification of all human social life with appearances. But a critique that grasps the spectacle’s essential character reveals it to be a visible negation of life — a negation that has taken on a visible form.” Let’s say we acknowledge Debord’s point. What kind of life is being negated by spectacle? Judeo-Christians will say that it’s the transcendent spirit that’s being hidden beneath the appearances. It’s possible to craft hauntological trompe l’oeil appearances that enhance this depth-beneath-surface, past-beneath-present, authentic-beneath-inauthentic, truth-beneath-spectacle mystical mythology. And this mythology can be exploited for economic gain in the form of antiques, original works of art, “real” (= expensive) restaurants, etc.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 12 March 2008 @ 8:23 am

  4. I don’t have the graphic novel on which Ghost World is based, but Amazon lets you look inside the cover. The first exchange between the two girls goes like this:

    “Why do you have this?”

    “What?”

    “I hate this fucking magazine! These stupid girls think they’re so hip. But they’re just a bunch of trendy stuck-up, prep-school bitches who think they’re ‘cutting edge’ because they know who ‘Sonic Youth’ is!”

    “You’re a stuck-up prep-school bitch!”

    “Fuck you! I can’t believe you bought this!”

    So they’re already talking about buying things. Now I don’t know much about pop music, but when I listen to Sonic Youth they sound like what I associate with sonic hauntology, based on online tutorials from k-punk.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 12 March 2008 @ 9:03 am

  5. “but when I listen to Sonic Youth they sound like what I associate with sonic hauntology, based on online tutorials from k-punk.”

    The commodity fetishism…maybe, but they always seemed to distant from the punk scene (even for post-punk standards) to have any of those recognizably corporeal tie-ins. Of course, the online community is puffing the hauntological balloon up daily so it seems to be sort of a catch-all buzzword for practically anything…so certainly I’m going to get a little Droogy in-out-in-out for this rejection.

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    Comment by Seyfried — 12 March 2008 @ 12:33 pm

  6. . One can envision a day in the future when these objects are completely effaced by the effects of time, leaving no material trace of the past authenticity to which they testified.

    Hmmm isn’t it rather as Brian Massumi said, that the authenticity to which the artifacts refer is a simulation itself? The movie is very powerful in the art class, when Enid shows her masterpiece on racism: as Seymour says, racism is still there only people don’t pay attention to it. In other words, it persists. I think the conclusion of hauntology would be just as much that things, the past, never went away, as that it never existed. Because the very notion ”existence” is debunked.

    Clysmatics your attempts to marry cognitive and humanistic psychology (”authenticity”) with psychoanalysis are increasingly more sophisticated, and though I will never agree that such a thing is fully possible, I must admit that your hybrid creation makes one think; and this is a sign of originality.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 12 March 2008 @ 3:03 pm

  7. ”the authenticity of the Real” is a hybrid hauntological notion in itself, because it refers to an impossibility (the Real being unknowable can never be ”authentic”) and simultaneously to the proverbial ”presence” (or absence) of the Real which on an affective level is how we experience Death and Birth, all those portalic experiences implied by the notion of the Real.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 12 March 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  8. Buying a ticket to this movie serves this function, transmitting its hauntological consumer fetish value to the viewer.

    This is Chabertian exaggeration; the director did sell out with his second movie, BAD SANTA, which is a critique of the Xmas cult while also being a sentimental Xmas movie par excellance. But GHOST WORLD, I do not feel deserves this qualification – unless you were referring to its meta-meta, self-reflexive status?

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    Comment by parodycenter — 12 March 2008 @ 3:07 pm

  9. I called my parody correspondent by the way, partly to play into his paranoia, partly as the Parody Center’s running prank, and he disappointed me enormously by inventing some medical excuse and quickly hanging up, probably scared shitless that I may be next on his persecutive paranoia list – chasing him around Manhattan. I really think this stalking needs to be patented ™ but it seems like you were right, I’ll have to choose more famous victims than that Paris Hilton asswipe who ended up going back to Chabert – of all the humiliations the Parody Center could have endured, this one is probably the worst.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 12 March 2008 @ 3:09 pm

  10. Clysmatics I LOVE the opening of GHOST WORLD, where this positivism and optimism guru (played by a disabled girl) repeats the neoliberalism mantra to comic effect, while the two avant garde girls snigger. The joke is all the more powerful because Scarlett ends up ”pursuing happiness” so retrospectively it’s actually a tragic joke. Lots of things in the movie jump back and forth like that, requiring a ”hauntological glance”. That’s just one of the many delightful aspects of this masterpiece.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 12 March 2008 @ 3:13 pm

  11. “The movie is very powerful in the art class, when Enid shows her masterpiece on racism: as Seymour says, racism is still there only people don’t pay attention to it.”

    The movie’s hauntological artifacts are all non-white I think: the old jazzmen on 78s, the Coon Chicken poster (painted by R. Crumb). “Spook” is an old derogatory slang term for African-American. So in part the ghost world refers to the marginalization of black culture and its persistent ghostly presence in white culture; e.g., Southern fried chicken commodified into the Cook’s Chicken conglomerate, the old bluesman morphed into the white blues rock band at the sports bar. Tying back to Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, this “spookiness” is also a function of the alienation of labor, where the authentic producers of the original artifacts persist in the marketplace only as traces from the past. The Coon Chicken advertisement is transformed into art not by any physical transformation but solely by transporting it from the past into the present.

    “unless you were referring to its meta-meta, self-reflexive status?”

    Absolutely. Money well spent I’d say.

    “Clysmatics your attempts to marry cognitive and humanistic psychology (”authenticity”) with psychoanalysis are increasingly more sophisticated”

    High praise indeed. We had discussed the hauntological aspects of the movie previously, but I was struck how Derrida’s original economic sense of the term, going back to Marx, had been lost sight of, and yet Marx’s spectre continues to haunt the concept. Buying and selling are integral parts of Ghost World: old records, food, an apartment, getting jobs, etc.

    “this positivism and optimism guru (played by a disabled girl) repeats the neoliberalism mantra to comic effect”

    Apparently she got injured in a car wreck when she was drunk or stoned. Later at the graduation party she’s seen again, with some boy pouring booze down her throat.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 12 March 2008 @ 6:10 pm

  12. but solely by transporting it from the past into the present.

    ‘”Transport” is the wrong word, maybe PORTALIC transport (as in moving across parallel-existing realities); art happens here when you cast a retro-futuristic glance on the ”found object” so that it’s recontextualized in a way – or maybe another instance of the Gestaltist image with double meaning.
    I think the film’s self-reflexivity is its source of biting humor, as when the art teacher shows off the feminist tampons of her pet student (that is to say the film is laughing at its own meta-reflexivity and is therefore a double meta; sort of like what Traxus tries to accomplish, but only ends up ridiculing himself in the process as he falls ever deeper into the Cobra’s bosom – see the latest discussion with Martin)

    High praise indeed.

    It wasn’t meant as empty praise but as a way to formulate in what way I think your voice is original and why I felt myself drawn to your blog. I think this hybrid voice is the one you should use, maybe for a movie book that combines cognitive and hauntological perspectives. Never saw something like that on the market, would be very interesting.

    Later at the graduation party she’s seen again, with some boy pouring booze down her throat.

    I think her problem is that she accepts the demand of the ”mainstream crowd” to be happy despite her predicament and Enid rightly sneers at her for that. But on the other hand it’s also like Enid seeing her own ghost reflection, her Doppelganger, in that character. Enid could also end up in a car wreck due to reckless drinking. I like the way characters are shadows * reflections of each other.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 12 March 2008 @ 6:58 pm

  13. And why that campy Hindu number that opens the movie? Is it to say that hanging on to a parodic version of the past is the only hope of retaining some stability…? There is certainly a kind of a statement that old is good, and it seems that when that illusion is shattered (in the racist poster episode) all goes down the drain and Enid has to leave the town – as if people were unable to understand the genius of her resurrecting the past in order to show the way to the future.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 12 March 2008 @ 7:07 pm

  14. Your last comment cuts to the heart of it I think. The valorization of the past reveals also the violent repression that was part of the past. Sure the original Southern fried chicken was great, but white capital was able to exploit it both by appropriating the product from its original creators while simultaneously demeaning them. Seymour tries to live in the more authentic past, but only by surrounding himself with the preserved artifacts that someone else created. He consumes them, he buys and sells them (with no portion of the revenue going to the original artists), but he doesnt’ make anything. Intead he’s a manager for Cook’s (formerly Coon) Chicken, spending his real time and making his real money in this modern enterprise yet haunted by the spook of the primal exploitive scene that’s depicted in the poster and filed away in his collection of memorabilia. It’s a split life that doesn’t really work. Seymour needs either to create or to destroy in order to achieve authenticity, but instead he manages and maintains and preserves, collects and displays and exchanges.

    The novelist W.G. Sebald, who’s popular in some intellectual circles, is a hauntological practitioner. In The Rings of Saturn he roams across southeastern England, conjuring from remnants and ruins glimpses of a more storied past for this forsaken landscape, when hope ran high and aristocrats hatched mad schemes. In these apparitions from the past Sebald reveals not so much a better world but a quirkier one, and yet that reality, like the contemporary one, is destined to be effaced and obscured by the future. It leaves the reader with a sense of melancholy futility. The writing isn’t showy; it’s more reverential, like a truly committed archivist documenting the minutest details of his exhibits, like a priest who through the ritualistic incantation of certain words can bring the celebrants through the portal into this arche-world with him.

    DiPalma’s Body Double is haunted by the ghost of Hitchcock, though he forsakes the melancholy reverence and infuses a more manic creative-destructive affect. It’s curious, because Vertigo is certainly hauntological in the sense we’ve been talking about — far more so than DiPalma’s turn of the screw on that world. In Vertigo Scottie has to recreate the past, resurrecting the body of the ghost that haunts his life, but in doing so he’s transported also back to the founding murder of the myth he worships. So even in the archaic paradise there’s violence and corruption that destroys the beauty of the creation. Scottie, and Hitchcock too, are compelled to revisit that primal scene, to reenact it, simultaneously playing the role of the creator and the destroyer, again and again — the eternal return of the repressed as both paradise and hell.

    In a sense DiPalma is pursuing your proposed program of “resurrecting the past in order to show the way to the future.” Still, he’s bound to the past in an obsessive way, dragging the corpse gleefully through the Hollywood sets, reanimating them only to kill them again. If DiPalma is Jake, you wonder when he feels the freedom to take on a role other than the reanimated corpse whose vitality is retained only by sucking the life blood out of others.

    So maybe there has to be a revisiting of the past in order to see not only the greatness of past creations but also the evil genius behind the destruction. In the past resides both the surplus of the creator and the lack of the destroyer, the archetypal Oedipal players. The question is whether you keep going back, to a time before this split occurred, when individuals were whole within themselves, when relationships weren’t based on mimesis and exploitation and violence. Or do you acknowledge that, no matter how far back you go, the split is always already there? And then do you live in melancholy mourning for a past that never was? Or do you repress the spook of your “dark side” in order to pursue the optimistic, productive, leadership trajectory of neoliberal democracy, ignoring the fact that it’s pursuing this path that’s already crippled you? Or do you get on the bus and look for some other place?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 13 March 2008 @ 4:10 am

  15. H.P. Lovecraft is another celebrated practitioner of hauntology. The arche-myths of his world are covered over by decayed ruins, signaling that this futuristic powerful civilization has already receded into the unknowable past. But the arche-beings weren’t just powerful and intelligent; they were also unspeakably horrible and entirely alien. So there’s this haunting of the present world by the primal forces of both creation and destruction. To capture both, seemingly incompatible and opposite movements in the same image or sound is the hauntological trick that Lovecraft performs.

    K-punk’s links to Joy Division show the same sort of thing: the unrestrained musical creativity of an earlier age superimposed on present-day corruption, the creative licks repeated endlessly until they achieve a haunting monotony, but at the same time the repetition and the flawed surfaces (strangely tuned guitars, nihilistic or morbid lyrics, etc.) provide openings for ghostly overtones and harmonics from the past to intrude in the present, signaling some other future that would otherwise be overlooked. And the front man for the band looks like death warmed over, occasionally reanimated in grotesque spasms like a Frankenstein creature being charged with electricity…

    To recognize hauntology as a creative style is clever. To adopt Derrida’s term to describe this style, a term originally meant to characterize the ironically and uncannily non-material forces that animate Marx’s materialistic descriptions of the marketplace, is to evoke not just Freudian or Judeo-Christian images of the arche-world, but also the Marxist images as well. Behind the marketplace are powerful creative forces, which are counteracted by powerful forces of destruction and repetition, which are both covered over by a seemingly harmonious image or spectacle. The hauntological style establishes an image or spectacle that shows the creative and destructive forces in perpetual tension, stripped of marketing’s synthetic veneer. But does this just inure the consumer of hauntology to the inescapable and endlessly repeating tension of a world where the marketplace crushes all the creativity out of you even before you start? Is it a justification to live this split existence, to enter into the reanimated zombie existence, to haunt yourself with a ghost of someone you were in a past that never existed in your own lifetime?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 13 March 2008 @ 5:36 am

  16. Tarkovsky would be another interest subject for hauntological study. Solaris and Stalkers definitely have the vibe. Where does it take us to think about Tarkovsky as a Soviet filmmaker and interpret his hauntological aesthetic in Marxist-Derridean terms? Solaris brings ghosts from the past back to life; these ghosts were beloved and at the same time were victimized by those whose memories they haunt. Does it make any sense to think of Solaris’ materializing the non-material is related to fetish value of commodities? Maybe. Solaris is like a factory that manufactures le petit objet a, custom-designed for each consumer. Made tangible, this object of desire turns out to be a source of remorse and self-alienation; what you imagined would fulfill your lack turns out to be a persistent reminder that you are the cause of your own dissatisfaction and the destroyer of your own dreams. Maybe.

    Then there’s Stalkers, which is another movie about a dream factory. It’s in the prohibited Zone, proximate to the corruption of a nuclear power plant, presumably the place where an alien civilization once touched down and left a residual plenitude-generating apparatus. Those who go there have their most important wish come true. The problem is that what people think they want isn’t what they really want: their true desire remains hidden from them in their unconscious. The voyagers’ quest for the Zone is also a pursuit of self-awareness, which leaves them unwilling to have their secret desires fulfilled. Have you ever seen anyone leave here happy, one of the stalker’s clients asks him. No he hasn’t; he never sees any of them again, except for one ex-stalker who received his wish and killed himself a week later. Is this forbidden Zone the capitalist dream factory, that promises what it delivers by destroying you? Or is the Zone the ancient futuristic promise of the original communists? I think it’s more likely capitalist, since the dreams it fulfills are individualistic rather than communal.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 13 March 2008 @ 9:46 am

  17. Firstly, it’s Stalker. ;}

    “K-punk’s links to Joy Division show the same sort of thing: the unrestrained musical creativity of an earlier age superimposed on present-day corruption, the creative licks repeated endlessly until they achieve a haunting monotony, but at the same time the repetition and the flawed surfaces (strangely tuned guitars, nihilistic or morbid lyrics, etc.) provide openings for ghostly overtones and harmonics from the past to intrude in the present, signaling some other future that would otherwise be overlooked. And the front man for the band looks like death warmed over, occasionally reanimated in grotesque spasms like a Frankenstein creature being charged with electricity”

    OR rather, previous-day destruction superimposed upon a falsely-realized modernist landscape that was never to be. JD’s penumbrous (the locus, the architectural inhabitation of ‘shadowy’) atmosphere’s and Curtis’ almost space-occupying, retreating voice always seemed like that future-world that never was – I think k-punk said something along these lines. Joy Division’s immediacy is that it tends to ‘speak’ through the sound system, the falsity of late-70s Ballardian paranoia makes them ‘hauntological’ in the sense that we can’t comment and can’t communicate…it’s just mourning. I could be off here, though. You’re completely on about Tarkovsky, especially to be seen if you get a chance to see Nostalghia.

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    Comment by Seyfried — 13 March 2008 @ 11:02 am

  18. Sure, that sounds good to me Seyfried. I’ve listened to like 2 tunes from Joy Division and practically no other “serious” popular music of recent vintage (recent for me spanning your entire lifespan — did I mention that my first rock concert was the Yardbirds?), so it’s fully conceivable that I’d hear hauntic overtones in just about anything. I like your observation about speaking through the sound system, presumably providing an immediacy that his authentic voice doesn’t convey, which makes his real voice the ghost in the machine — or is it the machine in the ghost.

    The idea of a future that never was is important I think — not just a mourning of the past, but mourning the promises extended by the past. There is in modernity a forward-leaning trajectory of hope and expected fulfillment that just never gets delivered. Also in the marketplace. And it’s that hopeful look into the future that’s also lost, not just the past qua past.

    I haven’t seen Nostalghia. Andrei Rublev doesn’t work that way, since it takes place in a time that actually approaches the authentic past, and Rublev comes back from his own phantasmic phase of doleful silence and penitential inactivity to create again.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 13 March 2008 @ 11:19 am

  19. Clysmatics I became intuitively aware of hauntology when the DVDs first came out; I saw John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN – that was my first DVD – and was amazed at the way the digital restoration brought out certain aspects of the film that were only visible as suggestions in 1970s cinema. A certain clinical look, conveyed by the colors. It made the whole experience more intense while you would expect it to diminish on the small screen.

    Wouldn’t this be the point of hauntology, not to ”put the ghost to rest”, but to bring the ghost to another level of life/reality. This is why hauntological Marxism would make sense – if that is what the British brutalists are attempting.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 13 March 2008 @ 7:50 pm

  20. Hauntology would be the return of the repressed, the recognition of the worker and/or the capitalist behind the product, the conflict between the first creation and the founding murder, the promise and its failure — any and all of these themes would be the point, I would think. But the ghost never comes all the way into awareness; it’s more like a symptom, an attempt to be recognized. And I’d think that the repressed is always both something to be desired and something to be dreaded. It comes closer to recognition as the surfaces of ordinary awareness are eroded, as symbolic efficacy declines.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 13 March 2008 @ 8:04 pm


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