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Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, Scene IV by Henry Fuseli (1789)

Hauntology (a portmanteau of haunting and ontology[1]) is a range of ideas referring to the return or persistence of elements from the social or cultural past, as in the manner of a ghost. The term is a neologism first introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Specters of Marx. It has since been invoked in fields such as visual arts, philosophy, electronic music, anthropology, politics, fiction, and literary criticism.[2]

Derrida initially used the term to refer to his idea of the atemporal nature of Marxism and its tendency to "haunt Western society from beyond the grave".[3] It describes a situation of temporal and ontological disjunction in which presence, especially socially and culturally, is replaced by a deferred non-origin.[2] The concept is derived from deconstruction, in which any attempt to locate the origin of identity or history must inevitably find itself dependent on an always-already existing set of linguistic conditions.[4] Despite being the central focus of Spectres of Marx, the word hauntology appears only three times in the book, and there is little consistency in how other writers define the term.[5]

In the 2000s, the term was applied to musicians by theorists Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher, who were said to explore ideas related to temporal disjunction, retrofuturism, cultural memory, and the persistence of the past.

Spectres of Marx[edit]

"Hauntology" originates from Derrida's discussion of Karl Marx in Spectres of Marx, specifically Marx's proclamation that "a spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism" in The Communist Manifesto. Derrida calls on Shakespeare's Hamlet, particularly a phrase spoken by the titular character: "the time is out of joint".[4] The word functions as a deliberate near-homophone to "ontology" in Derrida's native French (cf. "Hantologie", [ɑ̃tɔlɔʒi] and "ontologie", [ɔ̃tɔlɔʒi]).[6]

Derrida's prior work on deconstruction, on concepts of trace and différance in particular, serves as the foundation of his formulation of hauntology,[2] fundamentally asserting that there is no temporal point of pure origin but only an "always-already absent present".[7] Derrida sees hauntology as not only more powerful than ontology, but that "it would harbor within itself eschatology and teleology themselves".[8] His writing in Spectres is marked by a preoccupation with the "death" of communism after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, in particular after theorists such as Francis Fukuyama asserted that capitalism had conclusively triumphed over other political-economic systems and reached the "end of history".[4]

Despite being the central focus of Spectres of Marx, the word hauntology appears only three times in the book.[5] Peter Buse and Andrew Scott, discussing Derrida's notion of hauntology, explain:

Ghosts arrive from the past and appear in the present. However, the ghost cannot be properly said to belong to the past.... Does then the 'historical' person who is identified with the ghost properly belong to the present? Surely not, as the idea of a return from death fractures all traditional conceptions of temporality. The temporality to which the ghost is subject is therefore paradoxical, at once they 'return' and make their apparitional debut [...] any attempt to isolate the origin of language will find its inaugural moment already dependent upon a system of linguistic differences that have been installed prior to the 'originary' moment (11).[4]

Other usages[edit]

Hauntology has been used as a critical lens in various forms of media and theory, including music, political theory, architecture, Africanfuturism, Afrofuturism, anthropology, and psychoanalysis.[2][failed verification][9][page needed] Due to the difficulty in understanding the concept, there is little consistency in how other writers define the term.[5]

In the 2000s, the term was taken up by critics in reference to paradoxes found in postmodernity, particularly contemporary culture's persistent recycling of retro aesthetics and incapacity to escape old social forms.[4] Writers such as Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds used the term to describe a musical aesthetic preoccupied with this temporal disjunction and the nostalgia for "lost futures".[3] So-called "hauntological" musicians are described as exploring ideas related to temporal disjunction, retrofuturism, cultural memory, and the persistence of the past.[10][11][4]

In late 2010s and early 2020s hauntology emerged as a significant trend in critical theory as well as in cultural and psychological anthropology. In 2019 Ethos, the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology dedicated a full issues to hauntology, titled Hauntology in Psychological Anthropology, and numerous books and journal articles have since appeared on the topic. In a book titled The Hauntology of Everyday Life, psychological anthropologist Sadeq Rahimi asserts, "the very experience of everyday life is built around a process that we can call hauntogenic, and whose major by-product is a steady stream of ghosts."[12]


  1. ^ Original French: hantologie from hanter "haunting" and ontologie "ontology"
  2. ^ a b c d Gallix, Andrew (17 June 2011). "Hauntology: A not-so-new critical manifestation". The Guardian.
  3. ^ a b Albiez, Sean (2017). Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Volume 11. Bloomsbury. pp. 347–349. ISBN 9781501326103. Retrieved 10 January 2020.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Fisher, Mark. "The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology". Dance Cult.
  5. ^ a b c Whyman, Tom (31 July 2019). "The ghosts of our lives". New Statesman. Retrieved 15 December 2019.
  6. ^ "Half Lives". Archived from the original on 7 July 2007. Retrieved 2013-08-19.
  7. ^ The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Ed. by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore, 1970), p. 254
  8. ^ Derrida, J. (1994). Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Routledge.
  9. ^ Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books, May 30, 2014. ISBN 978-1-78099-226-6
  10. ^ Whiteley, Sheila; Rambarran, Shara (January 22, 2016). The Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality. Oxford University Press. p. 412.
  11. ^ Stone Blue staff writers (Sep 11, 2015). William Basinski: Musician Snapshots. SBE Media. pp. Chapter 3.
  12. ^ Rahimi, Sadeq (2021). The Hauntology of Everyday Life. London: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 3. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-78992-3. ISBN 978-3-030-78992-3.

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