Notes on A Spectre Is Haunting…

“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.” The opening line to the Communist Manifesto unlocks a door in critical theory’s haunted house. Creak…creak…creak: suddenly, global Marxisms! Where have they come from? What tragedies have they escaped? What do they want with us?

Marx handled supernatural metaphors with the silky charm of a Victorian mesmerist. Seized by his spectres, hauntological thinkers have elaborated on these images of ghosts, vampires, and necromantic enchantments to describe how the past persists in the present. Ideological assumptions, aesthetic commitments, material conditions, institutions, social and political forms, economic structures—all are revealed as spectral. “All that is solid melts into air.” But still the filmy remains of these concepts coat our skin and accumulate in our river beds and server farms, the futures they designed and the freedoms they imagined, how some lived, how some died, and how some were never born. 

A Spectre Is Haunting… investigates what ghosts endure after those old presents dissolve into the dust. This issue is illustrated by Lauren Fensterstock with images of her sinister, spangled sculptures. Fensterstock molds shapes that reference both Victorian accumulation and science-fiction adventures, encrusting them with shells (an oft-cited alternative currency for a species of past economy that may or may not have ever existed). From one angle, her baroque objects seem to express the overwhelming threat of capital’s almost magical ability to compound itself, from another, see the alluring properties of the collection or the possibilities of presents yet to be invented.

In Shannon Stratton’s essay “Whose Haunting Who?”, a spectre is haunting craft—the spectre of modernism. Stratton deals with objects, the emotional and vigorous types curated into art museums as well as the too technical, too fussy objects decried by art critics as uncreative. Whose objects, whose art histories and futures, are who’s?  In craft and design museums, technique and polish can signal care and agency over the artist’s own labor. Craft as a field holds tightly to the labor theory of value, hinging that to a politics of liberation that has yet to produce a revolution. Between craft and art, who is haunting who? 

alejandro t. acierto, in his work with Emilian Maria Ignacio Silang, Chief Archivist for the Archive of Constraint, examines photographs that have been taken out of circulation from internet auction houses. These historical images, which keep resurfacing imperial violence in the Philippines as witnesses or souvenirs, are not suitable for display. They are too damaged.

In Ben Compton’s “Pop Star Avatars” a spectre is haunting the contemporary music video–the spectre of the featured artist. Turning his attention to a recent trend in the world of music videos–the portrayal of guest artists as avatars–Compton surveys the sonic landscape, highlights notable examples of featured-artists-as-avatars, and unpacks the economic, racial, and cultural implications of this phenomenon. In what ways, he ultimately asks, do these spectres transcend the converging forces of capital and anti-Blackness that generated them in the first place? Does the avatar have emancipatory potential?  

Meanwhile, a spectre is haunting houses, the spectre of possession. Adam Fales gives us the story of the American haunted house in seven gables in “This House Is Still Haunted: An Essay in Seven Gables”. Meditating on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the subprime mortgage crisis, and a panoply of hauntings in literature and film, Fales shows us seven facets of the haunted house narrative, which turns on fantasies of ownership, on alienation from our own history, and on material problems of capital (like keeping a roof over your head), which are sometimes most clearly expressed by the phantom elephant in the room. 

In Leigh Claire La Berge’s manuscript-in-progress, Marx for Cats: A Radical Bestiary, a spectre is haunting Marxism, the spectre of the cat. Excerpted here, Marx for Cats asks about the role of non-human life in Marxist projects and explores the way that the underappreciated cat, in particular, has figured in the history of revolutionary thought.  

A spectre is haunting ordinary life, the spectre of structural decay. This issue’s poem, “Standing Closer to the Shadows,” is the work of Lauren Camp. In it, the ordinary scenes of the school day, set to the rhythm of the bell, take on a gothic sensibility. The shadows of the title suggest all the obscure pressures of the students’ private lives, imperfectly visible, badly addressed by an institution that has no way to solve hunger or homelessness. This poem captures the sense of being haunted by problems beyond the ability of any one person or strategy to solve. 

We constructed this issue around hauntology, first formulated by Jacques Derrida and elaborated by Mark Fisher, in which cultural forms from the past remain present, and we look back to–or imagine–futures that are no longer possible. How do we mourn these faded futures? What do we do with our failed revolutions? Can we put their traces to use? We don’t mean “haunting” literally or mystically. Taking a page (or a phrase) from Marx, we are attempting to find a way of dealing with our own undead supernatural metaphors. This is not an issue about exorcising spectres but about living with the dead, who could become our companions or even our allies.