Tim Richardson, University of Texas at Arlington
(Published August 2, 2022)
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What Will Have Been Cool: Notes on Hauntological and Hypnogogic Music
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Our 17 year old son Ben and I talk a lot about music. But beyond generational high-school devotions (he digs my Joy Division and Laurie Anderson and I like his Death Grips and Kendrick Lamar), we’ve both found ourselves drawn to and sharing music that directly refences pasts we weren’t involved in but that nonetheless resonate with us: the British hauntological and the American hypnogogic, respectively. These are genres that feel like nostalgic exercises, but I’ve never been British, and Ben wasn’t alive in the 1980s. In relation to this music we’ve enjoyed, these nostalgias shouldn’t be so available to us, right?
What follows is a product of thinking through talks and listening sessions I’ve had with Ben. And the amateur music here I made through the coincidence of listening, talking, and reading about hauntological and hypnogogic music while also trying to learn more about modular synthesis. Though neither exactly hypnogogic nor hauntological, these sounds are an effect of the work. And also maybe another kind of work. They are an experiment in trying to think about these kinds of music and nostalgia in, for me, a different way, and I hope they’re interesting and help. Anyway, it’s probably also important to note that everything here has been given at least a shrugged “okay” from Ben.
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In 2009, David Keenan offered the broad, general definition that [The screen darkens and the following quote from Keenan appears in white text.] “Hypnagogic pop is pop music refracted through the memory of a memory,” performing the United States of the 1980s and early 90s through a revisionist nostalgia (26). And just a few years earlier, Mark Fisher pasted the Derridean term hauntology to a certain kind of music I found myself drawn to that was surfacing in England around the middle part of the first decade of the 21st Century, a music that in part gathers up the electronic sounds of pre-Thatcher 1970s British television.
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While there are many examples of outright pop that’s hypnagogic (Ariel Pink, Pocahaunted), I’m using the term more broadly here to describe the kinds of American music that point back to 1980s’ material and sonic extravagances, the “memory of a memory” of what media life was like back then. Ben’s favorite flavor is vaporwave and its many descendants, subgenres that find in 1980s excess the roots of globalization and rabid consumerism and then grapple with these sonically, often in slow motion. In his book on vaporwave, Babbling Corpse, Grafton Tanner declares that [The screen darkens and the following quote from Tanner appears in white text.] “an over-arching definition of vaporwave is harmful, for something so compartmentalizing as a ‘How-To Guide’ for making vaporwave or a one-sentence summation of the genre seems out of step with the anti-corporatism of the vaporwave composers” (39). That’s probably accurate, and I’m certain I can’t offer anything definitive here, but for some context, for some descriptions and examples of some of the varieties of vaporwave and associated musics— Future Funk, Mallsoft, Vaportrap, and other subgenres—check out the guide at falsememories dot neocities dot org. Broadly, though, this music takes many of its references from the commercial music (and often the sounds of actual commercials) from the 1980s and 90s. Vaporwave music includes slightly slowed pop hits like Toto’s “Africa” (1982) put through a reverb effect, chopped and screwed synthesizer-and-saxophone easy listening originally played through shopping mall speakers, new compositions reminiscent of Japanese City Pop, and a lot more. In almost every case, the music that this music points back to is made of sounds tied to glossy commerce and suburban middle-class monoculture. Scott Beauchamp suggests that vaporwave music [The screen darkens and the following quote from Beauchamp appears in white text.] “sort of offers up an alternative history of post-Cold War America.” And Spencer Clark, one of the first hypnagogic artists, maintains that [The screen darkens and the following quote from Clark appears in white text.] “It's more important to say that the patina of different eras is like time travel; to recognise the essence of the past is to imagine the future” (Keenan 26).
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We might say, in our best advertising voiceover, The Future is Now.
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As is probably proper for my age, my tastes run just slightly more old school. And hauntological music is maybe more easily described. Music by bands on the Ghost Box label—The Advisory Circle, The Focus Group, Belbury Poly, Pye Corner Audio, and others—often takes as its reference the 1960s and 70s, referring especially to music from the 1970s schools’ programs and television shows familiar to me from PBS rebroadcasts of Doctor Who episodes and wherever I encountered Children of the Stones (1976) and The Tomorrow People (1973). These new works surface a strange sonic landscape and evoke weird possible worlds that never quite materialized. In Mark Fisher’s words: [The screen darkens and the following quote from Fisher appears in white text.] “[Hauntological] music and covert art constitute an oneiric conflation of weird fiction, the music of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the lost public spaces of the so-called postwar consensus (a consensus that was terminated with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979)” (45). In every case, the music Fisher points to calls up the past in unsettling ways. The work is haunted by promise, potential, and loss.
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Ghosts are promise, potential, and loss.
Derrida first used the term hauntology in Spectres of Marx, writing: [The screen darkens and the following quote from Deriida appears in white text.] “To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology. Ontology opposes it only in a movement of exorcism. Ontology is a conjuration” (202). Something extra is necessary, something introduced from the outside that doesn’t get counted. Hauntology designates a spectral surplus of and for being and time. A haunting perhaps indicates an impasse or impossibility that needs accounting for, rendered in the present as an object that is always missing and is conspicuous by or through its absence.
So, should we perhaps imagine nostalgia for something we feel like we lost in the past—or even a generalized feeling of loss—as a kind of haunting of the present by the past? Maybe especially the pasts of our youth, when times were simpler because we were?
Nostalgia can clearly be a cause for action in the present. Calls to make whatever great again or to return to the good old days rely on a certain constituency’s nostalgia for some time previous, whether or not that constituency really experienced that time. Or whether or not that time even really existed that way. Svetlana Boym calls this kind restorative nostalgia, a nostalgia dedicated to the restoration of origins and conspiracy theories (100). Against this, she offers a reflective nostalgia that [The screen darkens and the following quote from Boym appears in white text.] “is more concerned with historical and individual time, with the irrevocability of the past and human finitude” (112).
Certainly, the restorative form of nostalgia demonstrates a dissatisfaction with the present. It’s why we’re looking back. And we can also imagine our dissatisfaction with the present when it’s compared to an imaginary past as a goad toward a more fulfilling future. Such would depend upon seeing the past as a site of what has since been lost and the future as a place where we will have reclaimed what was lost. The past and the future, then, would overlap at the point of having, and the present would be defined by loss. Restorative nostalgia, and policies that depend upon its deployment, would work toward positivizing a substantive or formal lack, impossibility, warp, impasse, or whatever by making it a presence that is absent now. In other words, the trick is to demonstrate a contemporary deficiency—prosperity, peace, traditional values, rock and roll—as something we’ve lost and then promise to get it back. In this way, the past and future are identically full.
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A ghost, though, is an absence that is present now. A ghost is substantive. A haunting can also be generative, may be a cause, because it also marks a problem with the present. According to Peter Buse and Andrew Stott, in their introduction to Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History: [The screen darkens and the following quote from Buse and Stott appears in white text.]
Ghosts arrive from the past and appear in the present. However, the ghost cannot be properly said to belong to the past, even if the apparition represents someone who has been dead for centuries, for the simple reason that a ghost is clearly not the same thing as a person who shares its proper name. 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. (11)
Ghosts, then, are always also creatures of the present. We are being haunted now. The origin of a haunting may be found in the past—a murder, say—but that cause as cause persists as the presence of the departed, as a constant and active returning to what remains of the scene of the crime. A haunting is not a reminder, but the insistence of what has not been—or cannot be— remembered. If I may put on a psychoanalytic hat for a moment, as a repetition, a ghost embodies a lack in the record—what Cathy Caruth calls a latency (17)—that insists as a symptom of what has not been accounted for. A ghost is the return of that which hasn’t been counted, in or as a new manifestation, and is thus a fine figure for trauma and its symptom. In any case, in contrast to restorative nostalgic moves, this repetition ties the past and future and present together in terms of an insisting and insistent lack.
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Haunting is not nostalgic. A ghost is what nostalgia is trying to hide.
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As a memory of a memory, hypnogogic music figures lack as a double loss, as nostalgia for nostalgia, as the loss of loss that 1980s excess promised and the 21st Century internet provides. In Retromania: Pop's Addiction to its Own Past, Simon Reynolds argues that these works [The screen darkens and the following quote from Reynolds appears in white text.] "relate to cultural memory and the buried utopianism within capitalist commodities, especially those related to consumer technology in the computing and audio-video entertainment area." (81)
Instead of finding its voice in the potential quashed by the enforcement of neoliberal politics of commerce, the hypnagogic works to repeat the gross naiveté and the superficial shimmer of what resulted. Vaporwave often takes up the comfort of sounds and images of 1980s and 90s advertising, top 40 radio, and computer magazines, processing them even more through effects that emulate tape hiss and vcr tracking problems in order to stage nostalgia, and then loops these to play over and over again. It amplifies, repeats, and thereby aestheticizes the artifacts of a media scene it barely remembers.
Decades ago, Jean-François Lyotard argued that the modernist aesthetic is nostalgic, allowing [The screen darkens and the following quote from Lyotard appears in white text..] “the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure” (81). To the reader and viewer, we might add listener. Formal, generic consistency and comfort are what we enjoy in television, in film, in music, in popular entertainment broadly, as they cover the gaps or suggest a positive, if absent, content that might otherwise be experienced in more traumatic ways.
Genre is a solicitous container. In our recognition of the song as a good representative of the kind of thing it is, we find security. Generic consistency allows us to sing along without ever hearing the words. Which is to say, fantasy is a formal, generic treatment of, or response to, an impossibility or impasse.
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Postmodern art, for Lyotard, would be work that [The screen darkens and the following quote from Lyotard appears in white text..] “puts forward the unpresentable in the presentation itself,” denying the formal comfort of modernism in order to repeat the impossibility of instantiation. The postmodern accommodates the ghostly. The irony is that this accommodation—the acknowledgement of loss as a formative lack or impossibility—treats the future as another case of the past, since the past and present and future all lack in the same way. Where the modernist impulse was to aestheticize whatever and whenever possible, the postmodern impulse was to explore every mode by which we can repeat the impossible.
By preparing a place for what’s missing, we can perhaps see where the postmodern and late capitalism overlap. An example is the music streaming archive, something like Spotify. Practically speaking, if much of all recorded music is available now, and if older music that has been remastered and digitized for the archive sounds a lot like newer music such that good production only ever means contemporary tastes, then perhaps even nostalgia is becoming impossible. A system without loss—of work or even fidelity—is also a system that lacks nothing. Or, rather, it is a system that has a place always already prepared for everything it lacks so far. What it offers is a lack of lack, a lack of the possibility of there ever being something not accounted for. And if that something hasn’t arrived yet, then for a whole lot of customers, it doesn’t exist at all. And when music does arrive, there is shelf space awaiting the new addition to the collection once each piece is compiled and compressed into the same packaging. Such is the ordinary psychosis that has become our common state.
It's not an accident that vaporwave has fragmented into a dozen or more morphing sub-sub-genres [The screen darkens and the following quote from Beauchamp appears in white text..] (“So vaporwave is dead. Long live vaporwave,” Beauchamp) and that the Ghost Box label has widened its catalog to include new folk and psychpop (though it still describes itself as a [The screen darkens and the following quote from the Ghost Box website appears in white text..] “label for a group of artists exploring the misremembered musical history of a parallel world”). The moment hauntological and hypnagogic musics were available as playlists, they had to be ditched, not out of some hipsterish impulse to not like what’s popular, but because playlists are the emissaries of an archive that cannot permit their kind of substantial lack.
That archive system can, in its own terms, merely perpetuate itself. It is without a future, as the promise and potential of the new are subsumed by the flattening archive and the spirit of marketing. What haunts it is the possibility of substantive, formative lack or impossibility, something that is necessarily excluded, the what-will-have-been of an aborted potential.
In the early 1990s, Slavoj Žižek suggested: [The screen darkens and the following quote from Žižek appears in white text..]
Till postmodernism, utopia was an endeavor to break out of the real of historical time into a timeless otherness. With postmodern overlapping of the "end of history" with full disposability of the past in digitalized memory, in this time where we live the atemporal utopia as everyday ideological experience, utopia becomes the longing for the real of history itself, for memory, for the traces of the real past, the attempt to break out of the closed dome into smell and decay of the raw reality. (228)
It seems that to turn to the postmodern is a kind of nostalgia, too. The irony is that the rush to recover and reanimate the past, to remember what it was like and how we enjoyed then, has in effect aestheticized the past. And if we have lost the “smell and decay of raw reality” and a market exists for such odors, there’s little doubt that these can be packaged and sold, as well.
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Thinking through Boym’s distinctions, Lewis Hyde offers: [The screen darkens and the following quote from Hyde appears in white text..]
Reflective nostalgia…may dream of an end to exile, but knowing that the home is in ruins and return impossible, it keeps delaying its departure. Yes, it longs to go back, but the stress falls on the longing, not on the home. It has learned to find pleasure in the marks that time leaves on all things—the patina on the bronzes, the candle soot on the frescoes. It has little story to tell going forward, past loss having made it clear that the future is various and unknown. (Hyde 118)
The types of music that Ben and I have enjoyed together and separately “find pleasure in the marks that time leaves on all things.” What we enjoy isn’t the lost thing—it was never ours—but the repetition of longing ultimately for a future that can escape with us, a future that will have been cool.
[The music swells and plays for a while; a finger moves to the Master volume control and slowly fades the music out; the finger presses the Stop button; the screen fades to black as slow, scratching music fades in; the following Works Cited appears on the screen, as well as a brief acknowledgement.]
Beauchamp, Scott. “How Vaporwave Was Created Then Destroyed by the Internet.” Esquire, 18 Aug. 2016, www.esquire.com/entertainment/music/a47793/what-happened-to-vaporwave/.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books, 2002.
Buse, Peter, and Andrew Stott. Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History. Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. JHU P, 2016.
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Routledge, 2012.
Fisher, Mark. "The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology." Dancecult, vol. 5, no. 2, 2013, pp. 42-55.
Ghost Box, 28 Apr. 2016, ghostbox.co.uk/.
Hyde, Lewis. A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.
Keenan, David. "childhood's End." Wire, Aug. 2009, pp. 26-31.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. U of Minnesota P, 1984.
Reynolds, Simon. Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
Tanner, Grafton. Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. Zero Books, 2016.
Žižek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. Routledge, 2001.
"music" by Tim Richardson: Eurorack and VCV Rack recorded to cassette with a Tascam Porta Two (circa 1987, pictured).
special thanks to Ben Richardson