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Independent journal exploring the intersections between material and digital cultures, and broader themes to do with our bodies, labour, and time.
Aims to promote discussion about how technology will reshape ideas around community action, communication, and the arts.


Submit     Contact     Shop     Instagram

Independent journal exploring the intersections between material and digital cultures, and broader themes to do with our bodies, labour, and time.
Aims to promote discussion about how technology will reshape ideas around community action, communication, and the arts.



Maria Dragoi
Time of Publication : 20:27 - 21/12/21

I’m writing from Bucharest: I can’t work out how to turn up the heating and I’m having to drink scotch to stay warm. This essay started several months ago, after I read Mark Fisher’s essay on hauntology. It feels appropriate to finally lay it to rest on December 21st, here and now, as it’s the 32nd Anniversary of the Romanian Revolution. On this day in 1989, a series of nationwide riots began which would last for four days and culminate with the execution of the president and his wife on Christmas. After the revolution, a lot changed, but more didn’t, and yet - the country is still obsessed. On the metro today, TV screens replayed the now infamous footage of Ceausescu’s trial and death. Meanwhile on the streets amidst grey communist block flats, groups of men and children dressed in traditional peasant clothes sang and re-enacted old folk tales, banging drums and wearing bear skins. Romania’s ‘ancient’ cultural heritage seems unable to detach itself from its bloody 20th century history. It seems as if once separate timelines have melted into each other and fused to create a hazy sort of patriotism, a national identity not dissimilar to that of most countries: one that is unable to distinguish between myth and fact (and doesn’t seem bothered to try). If anything, the ghosts of the past are appropriated to lend credence to the weaving of new tales of violence.

Fisher sees our contemporary period as marked by “the deterioration of a whole mode of social imagination: the capacity to conceive of a world radically different from the one in which we currently live.” In both and Eastern and Western Europe, the plethora of revolutions and riots throughout the 80s and 90s failed to catalyse what they promised. Today protest continues, and in most ways society remains stagnant. If there is in fact a kind of predictive historicity tied to place, what happens to us in the 21st century with the homogenisation of the visual field and the creation of the digital non-place? The industrial revolution set up a tension between the new capitalist perception of time as accelerating in a linear fashion and the older, more mythical perception of time as cyclical. The 21st century’s creation of cyber non-time, present-past-future in stasis, has only exacerbated the conflict. We now live on three planes of temporality, and they stretch our perceptions of the self to breaking point. Unable to locate ourselves within the surreal present, we are simultaneously haunted by the burden of the past whilst unable to grapple with the full complexity of its spectral influence due to our block in visualising the possibility of a new future.

The nostalgia drive this births in music and cinema is well discussed, so I want to look at Nigel Kneale’s “The Stone Tape” and John Akomfrah’s “Handsworth Songs” through their shared predilection for the use of haunted language. How we speak about our present, our reliance on supernatural lexicon even in the digital age, is an interesting case study for the yearning and confusion embedded in our stodgy, static, lives.

“The Stone Tape” sets out how the past might weave its way into new technologies and haunt us. In a long abandoned house, a team of scientists set up camp amidst the “weeping fungus rot”, and go about trying to create a completely new recording medium in order to stay ahead of their enemy (Japan) in terms of technological advancement. They soon discover they are not alone, the house is haunted. Capturing this spectral energy seems to be the ideal test for their new invention - the ghost is “a mass of data waiting for correct interpretation” (29:18) They head into the store room to record it’s shrieking on tape, but when they go to play it back the sound has failed to stick. The ghost has managed to escape the machine. (32:04) (Strange sidenote: the "ghost in the machine" is the phrase Gilbert Ryle uses to refer to René Descartes' mind-body dualism.)

After failing to record the ghost, the team change tactics. It becomes apparent that an important variable they’ve missed in their calculation is the visceral strength of each individual’s reaction to the spectral manifestation. (A reaction likely formed by some combination of biological sensitivity as well as one’s past run-ins with the supernatural.) Interestingly, one of the researchers remarks that it’s worse to hear a ghost in pain than a living person, because when you hear a living person in pain you can try to help them, but with a ghost you can’t. They develop a program that somehow takes in “the nature of [each person’s] observed reality.” When they run it, an unexpected patterns emerges. The strength of the recording aligns itself with the strength of belief of those performing the experiment, and a very strange dynamic between unconscious will and technology establishes itself.  

This now clear, they set about performing a digital exorcism. The initial shrieking is banished, but returns the next day, this time with a new voice. The team realise that there is in fact no ghost, it’s the room itself, the stones themselves, which produce the patterns being observed. The place holds a power which is picked up by whoever is inside it. ‘‘What is anachronistic about the ghost story is its peculiarly contingent and constitutive dependence of physical place and, in particular, on the material house as such.’’(Frederick Jameson,‘‘Historicism in The Shining,’’ www.visual-memory.- How does this fit with the lead scientist’s (a resilient skeptic to the paranormal) claim that “what you hear and what you see is inside your own brain”? It’s an interesting relationship to emerge, between the 'haunted' physical space and it’s impact directly on the psyche, carried out in a sort of ‘cyberspace’ - not needing a physical (or even spectral) medium in order to transmit.

Right in the substance of the stone walls is a trace of what once happened in the room. Humans pick it up, their bodies acting as detectors and amplifiers. Perhaps the ghosts of the past appear not as looming spectres, but instead travel immediately from the material space which physically binds them into the minds of its inhabitants. The crew on site is not alarmed by this in the slightest, and instead celebrates the discovery as a potential to develop a new technology that could transmit sound and vision into a person’s brain with no intervening apparatus. One of the technicians jokes that if the new technology goes wrong, “the power man will have to come operate inside your head.” In a way this is already happening to everyone, every day. We know, know so well it almost seems banal to state, that the places we live, whose physical trauma we inherit, directly impact our mental health.

Then suddenly language, not code, starts pouring out of the newly devised recording devices. Has the ghost dispensed with the need for a fleshy human medium? It looks like whatever energy lay in the stones is now in the machine itself. Once this ancient spectre has made a nest within the tech, it hijacks it and starts to fuck with the scientists. It’s a mesmerising insight into the malleability of the digital to come out of the 1970s, a first glimpse into the fact that technology is not ahistorical in the slightest. Now severely rattled, the team try to blast the ghost out of the machine, to “wipe the tape”. They manage to destroy the technology, but the haunting soon returns. Out of a green amorphous fog, red spheres emerge, floating through the room and its inhabitants. Jill, a member of the team, in attempting to escape the bleary spectres climbs up the staircase and falls to her death, mirroring the death of the original ghost they made contact with. It seems certain patterns of behaviour are rooted into place, destined to repeat themselves time again. In the final scene, the spectre speaks once again, this time in Jill’s voice. The past is a computer virus, a parasite eternally seeking a host.

Meanwhile, in Akomfrah’s “Handsworth Tales”, it’s Labour Day in Birmingham, 1937. A doll maker from east Bengal is taking an adult education class. Later that day she writes to her sister: “You ask me what I think of Birmingham, sometimes I see myself floating at the centre of the earth, loving and loathing the city. In these moments I forgive myself for being alive”. She lives in the areas around the tracks “derelict epitaphs to the industrial revolution” (51:29) Her community is a sore spot for the White English residents of Birmingham, who find it easy to blame immigrants for the destitution their communities are falling into. According to them, Once Upon a Time “the street was the centre of social loyalty, you neighbours and loved ones never moved far away, but today the insular guts of the street communes is rotting away…and to add to the feeling of insecurity there has arrived an army of total strangers.”

This is a different kind of haunting, it’s the spectre of nostalgia that rears its ugly head. In 1981, a series of riots took place in Birmingham brought about by tensions between the ‘Immigrant’ (or Black and Asian) community and the ‘English’ (or White) one. In the minds of the White residents, the riots were an anomaly, an unforeseeable point of rupture driven by recent dissatisfaction and hatred. The catalyst for the riots is disputed. Some sources claim they began due to disproportionate use of stop and search by police on Black residents, others claim they began when police fined an illegally parked car, some say they arose out of boredom. All of these reasons are oversimplifications, using the violence to weave a tale of new discord and division between the Immigrant and the English. But, as we saw with the Bengalese woman writing from 1937, the tensions were decades old. The events of 1981 spoke about a place haunted. John Akomfrah, the director of the documentary, put it well: “There [were] no [new] stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories” (43:49) In 2011, in response to the murder of Mark Duggan, a black man shot by the police in North London, the Tate Modern screened the documentary once again, and bar the police wearing different uniforms, it felt like it could have been made that year.

Now, these biases begin to creep out of the cobblestones and seep into the digital. There’s been a lot of writing recently about racial bias in technology, ‘old’ prejudices infiltrating cyberspaces meant to be a promised land of equality. Ruha Benjamin discusses this in her book, Race after Technology, far more eloquently than I could.

Across both stories, one fictional and one real, it’s a strange combination of fear and yearning for the past that produces the unpleasant historical loops that seem inescapable. We cannot deny our histories, but neither can we let let their grasp on us continue to yield cycles of of hatred and violence. How do we exorcise the past without it possessing us in the process?

“The fear wouldn’t go away, and she began to feel that these thoughts would die before her. Die trying to be heard. She didn’t understand them, but she feared the savage state of death more than ignorance, so she opened the doors and slowly the words came alive and began to speak to her saying : these are for those to whom history has not been friendly, for those who have known the cruelty of political becoming, those who demand in the shadows of dying technologies, those who live with the sorrows of defiance, those who live amongst the abandoned aspirations that which were the metropolis. Let them bear witness to the ideals which will in time be born in hope. In time, let them bear witness to the process by which the living transforms the dead into partners in struggle.” (59:10)

P.S. (Please forgive my incessant use of parentheses.) (Or don’t.) (This essay doesn't intend to offer a solution to the problem laid out, merely to explore some of ways in which this paralytic ‘haunting’ is reflected in the language of popular media.)

Sources:Handsworth Songs:
The Stone Tape:
Mark Fisher - What is Hauntology? :