Listening Session #23

Mark Fisher’s Ghost Track

The Ultramagnetic record has run through, only the crackling of the needle in the run-out groove can still be heard. Not just said motif, there are many reasons to crossfade Paul C.’s small-scale Sampladelia with Mark Fisher’s equally melancholically crackling concept of hauntological sound culture. In some of the more advanced pop musics of the early 21st century – for example with Burial, Drake or the Ghostbox label – Fisher heard the haunting of a past not coming to rest with the simultaneous loss of any positive concept of the future. Every sonic futurism today – that is, at the time of the publication of Fisher’s book Ghosts of My Life: 2014 – is itself already a retromanic evocation of past promises unfulfilled. Futurism in general no longer functions as a radical break with all established modes of perception, but as a nostalgically colored retriggering of old ideas of a coming world. Lukewarmly reheated space-age design, refurbished jungle breakbeats, and chewed-up ’90s cybertheory jargon.

Fisher knew that this lament about the aesthetic as well as the political lack of alternatives to the prevailing present quickly runs the risk of repeating the very old song of cultural pessimism. But he was concerned with more than the even so predictable scolding of a cultural practice that had supposedly become thoroughly predictable. He read the breaking away of futuristic designs of possible ways out of the capitalist realist present primarily as a symptom of a fundamental »temporal pathology« of this present itself (Fisher, Mark (2014): Ghosts of my Life. Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. London: zero books. P. 16). Fisher was by no means the aging know-it-all, frowning at the lack of ideas of the upcoming generation. With Franco Berardi, he was much more describing the ›slow cancellation of the future‹. The future has quite simply been canceled.

There are various readings of this temporal pathology that Fisher attested to the 21st century. Two main diagnoses can be identified, that are, of course, closely intertwined: On the one hand, the failure of the future can be understood as the embalming of a permanent present in Capitalist Realism (cf. Fisher, Mark (2009): Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? Winchester: zero books). When the verwaltete Welt is so tightly knit that an exteriority is no longer imaginable, then the future becomes effective only as a marketing promise of the latest generation of gadgets in the first place. On the other hand – and my record is still crackling in the background – this permanent present is dripping with pasts and even more so with futures that have deeply seeped into it.

»We live in a time when the past is present, and the present is saturated with the past. Hauntology emerges as a crucial – cultural and political – alternative both to linear history and to postmodernism’s permanent revival. What is mourned most keeningly in hauntological records, it often seems, is the very possibility of loss. With ubiquitous recording and playback, nothing escapes, everything can return.«

Fisher, Mark (2013): »The Metaphysics of Crackle. Afrofuturism and Hauntology«. In: Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, 5 (2). P. 42-55. Here: 49.

For Fisher, then, the rejection of the future is always also the result of such a media-technical surplus of the past. And it is no coincidence that he repeatedly returns to the image – or rather the sound – of the crackling record on the endlessly spinning record player when he explains the concept of hauntology. For Fisher, music and sound culture are a prime example of the out-of-joint temporality of the 21st century. While, on the one hand, the media infrastructure of music had been subject to fundamental techno-cultural change, and established practices of reception and consumption had been completely reshaped, on the other hand, the formal design of music itself had gone over to the constant repetition of old patterns, to pastiche (cf. Fisher 2014, p. 16.). Faced with the massiveness of seemingly universal archives, available at the push of a button and navigable by search mask, artists no longer sought their purpose in the design of future worlds, but in the sheer mastery of the pop cultural past.

Past no longer passes, it becomes another option in the playlist. For Fisher, the only adequate way to still deal with this situation aesthetically can be heard in a genuinely hauntological music. In Burial’s surreal echo chambers, for instance, which spread like mist over the melancholic ruins of rave culture, immersing these sonic memories – which are never one’s own, which always remain alien – in the patter of South London rain and, of course, crackling vinyl. Hauntological Music makes no effort to smooth over the chronological discrepancy of its elements just to suggest an impression of supposedly ›authentic‹ presence.

»Hauntology restores the uncanniness of recording by making the recorded surface audible again. One of the things that the 21st century’s hauntological artists – Burial, Ghost Box, The Caretaker – share with Tricky is the foregrounding of the sound of vinyl crackle. There is no attempt to smooth away the textural discrepancy between the crackly sample and the rest of the recording.«

Fisher 2013, P. 48.

But does this diagnosis of temporal dysfunction actually work? I have difficulty understanding at what precise point Fisher is placing his incision. Jungle and hardcore are still radical futuristic utopia? Yet both are openly audible accelerations of their immediate past. And Burial is certainly melancholic, but at the same time conducts an examination of the possibilities of auditory design that is highly contemporary. Countless examples could be used to develop other temporal readings and alternative ways of listening that cast doubt on Mark Fisher’s diagnosis through listening alone.

I would like to bring up another one here. One that is hardly mentioned by Fisher’s himself – and if so, then mostly as a somewhat cheap cliché of hypercapitalist subjectivity: I hardly know any text passages in which Fisher writes in depth about Hip Hop, apart from Drake’s depressive hedonism. And that may not be a coincidence, insofar as Hip Hop sampling, to me at least, doesn’t seem to add up in hauntological terms. Hip Hop has always been an archival music, a music about other, about past musics. Digging in the dusty record crates, wading knee-deep through the dross of sounds long gone. But Paul C. and the enthusiasm that his sample-chopping evokes to this day, are the best example of a music saturated with the past, that always was and still is futuristic at the same time. »Give The Drummer Some« is a track about the 1988 possibility of funk. Attempting to redevelop the artful heterochronicity of the original funky drummer on and with the machine.

And heterochronicity is the keyword at hand. In his sampling, Paul C. hints at the fact that the past of his record box is not simply a stop at the other end of a linear arrow of time that can be remembered nostalgically. But that this past itself is much more complex in time, that it lies buried in two stereo channels, for example, each of which can be dug up separately. Switch up! Change my pitch up! Mark Fisher dubs hauntology an alternative to linear chronology (cf. Fisher 2013, p. 49), but even with the former’s help he cannot find a way out of the latter’s one-track logic. The canceled future is, for him, still a future in whose direction one would have to proceed straight ahead. But heterochronicity – which funk celebrates in the minimal dimension of microrhythmics and which Hip Hop sampling has extended to a vinyl-historical scale – is something other than Fisher’s and Reynolds’ dyschronicity. (From Simon Reynolds, his brother in hauntological spirit, Fisher adopted the term ›dyschronia‹, a hopeless temporal dystopia (see Fisher 2013, p. 47).) Heterochronicity would also mean the possibility of temporal alternatives that cannot or do not want to believe in a future that simply marches promisingly ahead. The revolution will not be televised. Doesn’t revolutionary hope always contain a teleology, a straightforward idea of temporality? And: Doesn’t the talk of a canceled future also contain a disappointed revolutionary heroism?

But maybe it’s no longer about such heroic advances but rather about the funky sidestep. Perhaps the apt diagnosis that our present is bursting with pasts – and not merely since the 21st century – cannot be countered by listening to the nostalgically never-ending reverberation chambers, which certainly open up in many places. But much more by chopping, by working through and reworking the sounding past as aesthetic material and by rhythmically dealing with temporal variety. And perhaps it would then become clear that it is precisely music that still makes this possible.

»Throughout the 20th century, music culture was a probe that played a major role in preparing the population to enjoya future that was no longer white, male or heterosexual, a future in which the relinquishing of identities that were in any case poor fictions would be a blessed relief.«

Fisher 2014, p. 28.

The record is still crackling. I keep it running a little longer.

Paul C lives.

Mark F lives.

This Listening Session is a translation from the book ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen by Malte Pelleter. The book (in german language) can be accessed here.

Citation: Pelleter, Malte (2020): ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen. Hildesheim: Olms und Universitätsverlag. 494-497.