Sunday, April 1, 2018

Haunt of Fear

Nostalgia and the Rise of Hauntology

"When Bagpuss wakes up, all his friends wake up too." Bagpuss, Professor Yaffle and the Organ Mice in the fondly remembered BAGPUSS from 1974. The titular cat's description of "saggy ... and a bit loose at the seams" typifies the disjointed melancholy of the Hauntology movement.

POPULAR culture surrounds us in a whirlwind of nostalgia. Nostalgia was first described as a psychosomatic disease, rooted in the desire of soldiers to return home; this longing for the motherland is so strong that it induces a doleful, mental state. Swiss physician Johannes Hofer first used the term in 1688, and the disorder came to be associated particularly with Swiss soldiers, who were so susceptible to nostalgia when they heard a particular milking song, that its playing was punishable by death. Confusing the past and the present, and the real and the imaginary, our preference for the sights, sounds and smells of yesteryear often has its foundation in the carefree wonders of childhood. It was Immanuel Kant who stated that people who were steeped in nostalgia were triggered not so much for an actual place as for the time of youth. David Lowenthal's The Past is a Foreign Country considers that nostalgia preys on the past to construct a form of escapism; and by savouring these ruins of artificiality, author Susan Stewart condemns the condition as a "social disease," maintaining that the past is something unspoilt, utopian and unreachable.

British television in the 70s exists in what writer and radio presenter Bob Fischer describes as "cosy wrongness," a grainy and blurred netherworld that - because of its pre-digital, incomplete heritage - can be a nostalgic notion that actually extends to the early 80s Video Nasty flap of VHS degradation. BBC shows of the polyester decade - such as DOCTOR WHO, A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS, THE STONE TAPE and COUNT DRACULA - showed the corporation embracing the Gothic, but also fortolded how this portentously gloomy sub-genre would mutate into visual art Hauntology. Hauntology was coined by Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx, and taken up by critics who referenced contemporary culture's persistent recycling and incapacity to escape old forms. If nostalgia is sentimental perspective, Hauntology bleeds into our psyche like a spectre who gestures towards what is inevitably an intellectual abyss. 

Music Has the Right to Children was the debut studio album from Boards of Canada, and hailed as a seminal Hauntology work. The piece was described as a "thing of wonder" and "the aural equivalent of old super 8 movies."

Fischer has also highlighted the children's programme BAGPUSS as a prime example of 70s "vague disquiet." This strange shadow world’s mixture of scrambled memories and weird, bygone images is explored in the Hauntology concept, where the presence of being is replaced by absent or deferred parallels, a yearning for a future that never arrived. Hauntological music has been particularly tied to British culture, an alternate reality constituted from the stagnation of the postwar period. This soundscape is expertly captured by the 1998 album Music Has the Right to Children by Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada. Subsequently, musicians and artists whose formative years were in the 70s have developed their own Hauntology analogue synth brands and universes. In 2005 Jim Jupp and Julian House founded Ghost Box Records and the fictitious world of Belbury, an eerie English village straight out of John Wyndham. Similarly, writer and graphic designer Richard Littler created Scarfolk together with spoof book covers and dystopian government pamphlets that evoke the distinct Penguin Classics and Public Information Films so entrenched from the period.