Created By: dogboner on August 23, 2011


Dwelling with spectres of the past, we become nostalgic for the future.

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The word "hauntology" was first coined by Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International, where he postulated that the unrealized utopias of defeated ideology will continue to haunt present civilization like spectres, never born, never given shape to be destroyed. The present is historicized beset upon by ghosts of the past which cannot be reasoned away. Under invasion from the past, the notion of "now" becomes vulnerable and is robbed of importance.

In the hollows between between thought and history and experience and hope dwell these spectres. History haunts ideology. Ideology haunts history. Utopia haunts reality. Reality haunts utopia. Theory haunts practice. Practice haunts theory. Experience is beset upon from all sides.

Hauntology denies the stability of retro aesthetic by denying a reference point of now. ShaNaNa's style was dated when they came onto the scene but ArcticMonkeys sound connects to the present despite their appearance being seperated from ThePolice by four more years than the gap between BuddyHolly and RunDMC.


  • Bioshock not only takes place more than forty years before the game's release but sets the main character invading a utopia that was never actualized, and the story is experienced primarily through collecting records from the past with player action revolving around resolving these spectres.

  • Portal2's main character is a hotshot engineer/businessman from the 1960s with a cowboy attitude and NASA contracts, while the player character is a silent observer with a gun that lets her walk through walls.

Western Animation
  • VentureBros depicts tech largely developed by Rusty's dad.

Community Feedback Replies: 12
  • August 23, 2011
    I'm not sure this concept -- while fascinating -- works as a trope. For one thing, three of your examples don't seem to involve ideology or utopianism, but rather are about fictional high technology in a nostalgic setting. There's much more to hauntology than that, as your description makes clear.

    For another, Derrida proposes hauntology as a historical condition. Any work would theoretically display it in some fashion, making this a high-concept, high-theory form of People Sit On Chairs.

    Finally, none of your examples do even the barest job of making the trope clear. The connections between the Arctic Monkeys and the police, let alone the the contrast with the stylistic distance between Buddy Holly and Run DMC, is really baffling. (For one thing, most people don't hear much of a Police influence on the A Ms, so there's no coherent contrast being made.) To the extent it can be explained clearly for a particular work, it will be there as a condition of the work's historical situation; insofar as it can't be explained clearly, the examples will be insufficient, confusing, and garbled.

    This is probably not tropeable, and worse, it's not even a good explication of hauntology.
  • August 24, 2011
    This is confusing.
  • August 24, 2011
    Okay, so the various "-isms" will have stronger ideological force if they have never been put into practice and failed. Communism is not credible because the communist states either collapsed, moved to free-market systems, or became poverty-stricken pariahs, but Objectivism (for example) continues to be a bugbear in American politics because there's never actually been an Objectivist society that failed. I get that.

    Every example you cite except the Bioshock one has nothing to do with that concept.
  • August 24, 2011
    IMHO, Not A Trope and bordering on unreadable nonsense. At the very least, Needs A Better Title.
  • August 24, 2011
    While definitely the most interesting YKTTW I've ever read, the pervasiveness of Viewers Are Morons may very well be the the spectre that haunts any writer intelligent enough to try to work with this theme.

    Honest examples of this premise are likely to be shot down in favor of a fart joke. If you wanted this to be a trope that followed the concept of Hauntology both in letter and spirit, you'd be left with something Too Rare To Trope. And that's a pity.

    And I think the Venture Bros example is actually the most relevant rather than least. It just needs a better description.

    • Jonas Venture Sr., the grandfather to the Venture Bros, was a successful and renowned "super scientist." His exploits well known and his influence vast, he lived a life of success under every interpretation of the word barring his premature death. His son, Rusty, beset with the overwhelming shadow of his father spent his entire life falling short. Among the countless machines and enormous statue of his father, the Venture Compound he inherited serves as a constant reminder of what he could never accomplish.
  • August 25, 2011
    I think the Venture Bros is an example as well, but even the two descriptions offered don't do a good job of showing why it's a good example. It's more than just the present being overshadowed by the past, for one thing; Derrida is very specifically talking about the way unfulfilled ideological aspirations that have never been subjected to the test of historical implementation forever "haunt" the present, denying meaning to today and destabilizing any "retro" aesthetic.

    The Road Not Taken always seems like the road to utopia because it's the road not taken. The other side of this is that The Road Taken is always beset with complications, realities, and practicalities, and so we grow nostalgic for lost utopias, or for historically foreclosed and impossible choices. Thus retro aesthetics are both an attack on the present from the perspective of a ghostly vision of unreality and, paradoxically, only possible from the vantage of the "actual" present. Thus they are unstable.

    I also have to disagree with Andrew J's statements about Communism not being subject to hauntological appearances. Hauntology its not about ideologies that were tried but failed: Derrida's major example is Marxism, after all. Rather, it's the idea that a world where those ideologies had not failed forever haunts our world, where they either never happened or failed the test of pragmatism. Marx haunts us today because Communism was tried and failed, and this failure makes it possible to imagine a "pure" Marxism that wasn't tried or that wouldn't have failed, even to desire it despite its apparent practical impossibility. Hauntology is why failed ideologies don't go away, and why excuses always seem possible to make. Paradoxically, the failure of an attempt at utopia can actually prompt a stronger desire for that utopia's realization; the fact that an ideological dream became, in practice, a nightmare can lead us to dream all the more insistently.

    In short, hauntology is a way of describing that uneasy paradox that animates nostalgia, retro, even the No True Scotsman fallacy in some instances. (Derrida was more concerned in his book with philosophical and political thought in this instance than with art, so it's not really intended as a pop culture trope in the original essay.)

    It's not really Too Rare To Trope -- any work with retro aesthetics or referencing retro ideology might fit -- but rather requires way too much explanation to ever become a facile, oft-cited trope. The Wiki Magic will doom it. (And then we can be hautned by the vision of a successful Hauntology trope page!)

    That said, a more general trope about the idea that the present is constantly being overshadowedby the past in some works could include Derrida's Hauntology as an example, and would work very well
  • August 30, 2011
    I thought I'd give this old page a little bump. I'm haunted by the fact that this fascinating topic probably isn't tropable, and I'm nostalgic for a little more fresh insight before we determine it unworkable.
  • March 4, 2012
    Bump. Also, this is pretty much the fixture of Gil Pender in Midnight In Paris.
  • March 5, 2012
    Like jaytee, I think this is Not A Trope and unreadable nonsense, as well as a good way to make gratuitous Natter seep in. I'd nuke it.
  • March 5, 2012
    When I saw the title Hauntology I thought this was going to be about the science of dealing with ghosts a la Ghostbusters.

    I also agree that this doesn't sound like something we need to have.
  • March 5, 2012
  • March 5, 2012
    I agree wholeheartedly with Arivne and Omar Karindu and others who whose stated this is not a trope. Likewise, this is not wikipedia.