Ghosts of the past are haunting us.
We are stuck in the 20th century.
experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was
infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It
doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We
remain trapped in the 20th century.
There’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and
articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and
articulate any more.
‘To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce
haunting into the very construction of a concept,’ he wrote. (Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State
of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, 1994, p202)
Hauntology was the successor to previous concepts of Derrida’s such as the
trace and différance; like those earlier terms, it referred to the way in which nothing enjoys a purely
positive existence. Everything that exists is possible only on the basis of a whole series of absences,
which precede and surround it, allowing it to possess such consistency and intelligibility that it does.
(…) a refusal to give up on the desire for the future. This refusal gives
the melancholia a political dimension, because it amounts to a failure to accommodate to the closed
horizons of capitalist realism.
‘Capitalist societies,’ Derrida writes, ‘can always heave a sigh of
relief and say to themselves: communism is finished, but it did not take place, it was only a ghost. They
do no more than disavow the undeniable itself: a ghost never dies, it remains always to come and to
come-back.’ (Specters of Marx, p123)
In her essay ‘Resisting Left Melancholy’, Brown attacks ‘a Left that operates without
either a deep and radical critique of the status quo or a compelling alternative to the existing order of
things. But perhaps even more troubling, it is a Left that has become more attached to its impossibility
than to its potential fruitfulness, a Left that is most at home dwelling not in hopefulness but in its own
marginality and failure, a Left that is thus caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a certain
strain of its own dead past, whose spirit is ghostly, whose structure of desire is backward looking and
punishing.’ (Wendy Brown, ‘Resisting Left Melancholy’, boundary 2 26:3, 1999, p26).
Brown’s left melancholic is
a depressive who believes he is realistic; someone who no longer has any expectation that his desire for
radical transformation could be achieved, but who doesn’t recognise that he has given up. In her
discussion of Brown’s essay in The Communist Horizon, Jodi Dean refers to Lacan’s formula: ‘the only
thing one can be guilty of is giving ground relative to one’s desire’ and the shift that Brown describes –
from a left that confidently assumed the future belonged to it, to a left that makes a virtue of its own
incapacity to act – seems to exemplify the transition from desire (which in Lacanian terms is the desire to
desire) to drive (an enjoyment through failure). The kind of melancholia I’m talking about, by contrast,
consists not in giving up on desire but in refusing to yield. It consists, that is to say, in a refusal to adjust
to what current conditions call ‘reality’ – even if the cost of that refusal is that you feel like an outcast in
your own time…
At first sight, it might be possible to see hauntological melancholia as a
variant of postcolonial melancholia: another example of white boy whingeing over lost privileges…Yet
this would be to grasp what has been lost only in the terms of the worst kind of resentment ressentiment,
or in terms of what Alex Williams has called negative solidarity, in which we are invited to celebrate, not
an increase in liberation, but the fact that another group has now been immiserated; and this is
especially sad when the group in question was predominantly working class.