The “Hauntological” Condition Plaguing Artistic Expression

The Work of Mark Fisher and Its Implications

Posted by Nicholas Vizzi on August 31, 2021

The late Mark Fisher is arguably one of the most approachable contemporary philosophers. Despite the fact that much of his work makes reference to, or relies on, the philosophical terms of many past individuals, Fisher’s writing style and consistent utilization of pop culture references within his work creates an immensely consumable body of work to an individual without a heavy theoretical background. Fisher provides an argument for a condition which he believed had begun to plague society prior to his suicide in 2017. In his second book, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, Fisher puts forward an analysis of artistic work which seems to yearn for a future that never came to fruition. This provides an honest yet bleak outlook on the current state of society and its potential going forward.

In order to begin to understand what Fisher means in this work, there is some philosophical background that needs, at least, a referential look. Understanding the concept of ontology is very important to Fisher’s work. To get past the philosophical jargon which often plagues conversations surrounding such ideas, ontology can be simplified to mean the study of things that exist. Now what this means in practice can be exemplified through an ontological statement, or a claim or theory which entails, or is committed to, the existence of something. To provide an actual example of an ontological statement, the existence of a God can be pointed too. In the many variations of Christianity, every claim, rule, or ought which is provided within the respective religious texts are predicated on the existence of a God. Therefore, a statement such as “God wants you to love your neighbor,” no matter the interpretation, entails the existence of a God, making it an ontological statement.

Ontology is important to almost every philosophical statement made by any individual, making it a vast, but necessary, component of philosophical discussion. However, is there any kind of inbetween of something existing and not existing? If this were true, would it break down all ontological arguments? Jacques Derrida, as part of the “deconstructive process” which he developed in his active years, makes the claim that all ontologies have a subsequent “Hauntology,” a spectre or a ghost which occurs halfway between this absence and presence which an ontological statement puts forward. An exemplification of this position can be seen through Derrida’s reading and analysis of Marx in his work Spectres of Marx, published in 1994.

Derrida asserts that, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the USSR, and the “demise of Communism” in the aftermath of the Cold War, Marx’s teaching is not fully dead or alive. Rather, it takes the form a spectre, not only a reference to the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, but also an tactile example of this Hauntology, an in between presence and absence. Derrida argues that despite all these events which occurred, society wasn’t done with Marx, as it may be assumed. To Derrida, many of the issues Marx had sought to provide answers to had become more exacerbated than ever before, including but not limited to inequality, famine, violence, and economic oppression. Although these issues were clear, the optimism and victorious feeling which came from the aforementioned events within Western society was cemented, leaving the spectre of Marx to linger.

The spectre of Marx, or the continual living of the contradictions Marx identified, according to Derrida, takes on a kind of haunting of a future which never saw its full actualization, exemplified by the continual presence of economic inequality.

This example helps to understand Hauntology, as Derrida asserted and stands as a jumping off point from which Fisher utilized the term. Fisher’s first book, Capitalist Realism, can be simplified roughly, into the quote attributed to Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” In Ghosts of My Life, Fisher leans more into this idea by identifying what he refers to as a “purely business ontology,” in which everything from jobs to family to hobbies are tied to consumption conceived by the capitalist economic system. He claims that this business ontology is haunted by aborted futures and the potential they had, a subject which I will attempt to explain as this article goes on.

According to Fisher, this ontology leads to a slow cancellation of the future and what it has the potential to bring about, especially in art. Modern art, in almost every format, is an amalgamation of previously existing media. According to Fisher, our ability to conceptualize anything truly original has been greatly lessened if not made impossible. Continual societal influence of media on people has helped to cement this. For context, Fisher discusses governmental care directed towards art and artistic development during the advent of Social Democracy in many portions of the world. Fisher isn’t necessarily saying that Social Democracy was and is the ultimate fix for this artistic stagnancy. He is rather contrasting it to what would follow and what many theorists continue to claim we are experiencing today, an era of Neoliberal market fundamentalism.

What this era is and consists of is highly contentious. However, the importance of this era to Fisher’s argument is more relevant to this discussion. He paints it as a catalyst for the current strangle the market has over artistic expression and development. Much of the media, as mentioned before, is heavily referential to and reliant on nostalgia and past media due to the comparative likelihood of its success. People do not expect music, television, movies, etc. to break down any bounds. This creates a continual cycle of recycling creations based on their financial success as well as a social conditioning which is content with this recycling. This leaves truly new works of art to be unlikely to receive funding, and even if they do, their success is extremely unlikely outside of niche appreciation.

The necessity of financial success brought on by this “business ontology” Fisher hypothesizes leads to a stale, stagnant state of art, a state which is unable to fully actualize many of the future potentials it could create. The hauntology of this ontology is the haunting of the lost futures which never came into fruition, a hauntology which forms a depressive state of nostalgia in which people are heavily reliant on recycled entertainment and creators are forced into artistic stagnancy and curtailing to the market.

This depressive state of nostalgia is directly inspired by the objectively worse conditions of the contemporary world. The lost futures which were meant to be inspired by the artistic development witnessed within the 20th century along with the early emancipatory potential exemplified by Social Democracy are mourned through this depressive nostalgia. This highlights the bleak humanity of what society received after the potential of this era: a growing divide between the rich and the poor, economic austerity, and the dissolution of organized labor.

Fisher argues that all this results in the modern, monotonous condition and a longing for sublime artistic expression existing outside of business, capital, and exchange, a hope where sublime forms of art can receive appreciation and inspire the subsequents. Why is this important to consider? Art, in the many forms it takes, through its consumption, influences humanity, influences our cognitive and emotional condition. Therefore, according to Fisher, art should be something humanity appreciates, upholds, and nurtures, refusing to sacrifice it to the spurious and often austere inclinations of capital.