Susan Howe's Hauntologies

Mark Scroggins

     In 1995, during the heady early days of the Kabbalah craze in the US, the New York record label Tzadik released a twenty-three minute CD entitled Zohar, after the Kabbalistic "book of splendors," and credited to the "Mystic Fugu Orchestra." The music, one assumed, was a field recording from some Eastern European ghetto – it was hard to tell, given the absence of liner notes (save for a long German quotation from Gershom Scholem) – and was obviously remastered from early twentieth-century 78 recordings ¬ (maybe even wax cylinders), for only through a haze of scratches, pops, and hisses could one hear Rav Yechida intoning what must be Kabbalistic chants over Rav Tzizit's spare harmonium. It is an eerie record, disinterring ghosts of a lost Yiddishkayt, gesturing towards a mystical tradition with continuities back to the middle ages, perhaps to antiquity. It is also a forgery. Rav Tzizit is John Zorn, the New York avant-jazz saxophonist and composer, and Rav Yechida is Yamataka Eye, vocalist of the Japanese noise-punk band The Boredoms and frequent collaborator with Zorn on such projects as Naked City and Painkiller. The Mystic Fugu Orchestra's Zohar is musical hauntology, avant la lettre.

     Susan Howe's long poem A Bibliography of the King's Book or, Eikon Basilike was first published in 1989. It is a kind of palimpsestic ghost story, a spectral overwriting of a series of texts relating to the 1649 trial, execution, and afterlife of King Charles I: the Eikon Basilike (King's Image) itself, a ghost-written (or flatly pseudonymous) series of meditations and prayers supposedly written by the King in his captivity; Milton's Eikonoklastes, a work commissioned by the Parliamentary government in order to "expose" the Eikon Basilike as a forgery and a series of plagiarisms; and Edward Almack's 1898 A Bibliography of the King's Book; or, Eikon Basilike, a bibliographical survey which is simultaneously an attempt to establish the "true" royal authorship of the Eikon Basilike. Howe's Bibliography is dominated by ghosts – the ghost of Charles I, whose last public word on the scaffold was "Remember"; the ghost of Hamlet's father, who famously speaks that same word to his son; other Shakespearean revenants, including the ghosts of Julius Caesar, Banquo, and Richard II; and the ghost, finally, of textual and historical authority itself. The prose introduction to Howe's Bibliography is appropriately titled "Making the Ghost Walk About Again and Again."1

     In its evocations of Hamlet, especially, Howe's poem seems oddly proleptic of a text that would be published four years later, Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Specters of Marx was based on a pair of lectures delivered at the University of California, Riverside, as part of the conference "Wither Marxism? Global Crises in International Perspective"—a conference responding to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union, and specifically to Francis Fukuyama's triumphalist neo-Hegelian The End of History and the Last Man (1992)—and Derrida's book was to say the least a long- and eagerly awaited statement: at long last an explicit accounting of the relationship between deconstruction and Marxism.

     I'm not so interested in Derrida's overall argument, his assertion that deconstruction has always operated "in the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism" – I agree with Terry Eagleton that a "New International" "without organization, without ontology, without method, without apparatus"2 is to any true Marxism much as non-alcoholic beer is to the real thing – as in Specters of Marx's key term "hauntology." The term is in French a near homonym to "ontology"; it is, according to Derrida, a "logic of haunting" "which would not be merely larger and more powerful than an ontology or a thinking of Being…. It would harbor within itself, but like circumscribed places or particular effects, eschatology and teleology themselves. It would comprehend them, but incomprehensibly."3 Hauntology, as spectral logic or logic of haunting, describes the sense in which Marx himself, and utopian revolutionary hopes more generally, persist after the much-vaunted "end of history" (as described by Fukuyama – history ends, that is, when it reaches its telos in a world-wide late capitalist liberal democracy), but persist spectrally, both absent and present, uncannily eluding the categories of Western metaphysics.

     The ghost appears in the first line of The Communist Manifesto – "A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism" – and Derrida is at pains to trace the surprisingly frequent appearance of specters, ghosts, vampires, and other uncanny revenants throughout Marx's texts. In counterpoint to these Marxian specters, Derrida places Hamlet, in particular the appearances of the ghost of Hamlet's father and Hamlet's own line, "The time is out of joint." The conjunction of these spectral figures, in a time "out of joint," leads Derrida to his formulation "hauntology." "Hauntology," like so many of Derrida's nonce words – "grammatology," "phallogocentrism," "différance" – is a subtle, perhaps over-subtle instrument of analysis. And ultimately I'm less interested in Derrida's own deployment of the term than in the word's afterlife. "Hauntology," that is, has been taken up and deployed within pop music criticism, and in ways that correspond interestingly to Howe's project in A Bibliography of the King's Book.

     In its most vulgar form, "hauntology" has been used to refer to any music that sounds "spooky," much as the popular lexicon deploys "deconstruct" when it simply means "analyze." More specifically, however, "hauntology" refers to a genre of popular music which relies heavily on sampling and quotation, which makes a "ghostly" music out of "'found' sounds, old television themes, soundtracks for public information film, allusions and debt to musique concréte."4 It is a music of nostalgia, indeed – nostalgia particularly for the sounds of 1960s and 1970s, the theremin whines of Doctor Who and the sound effects produced by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – but it's as it were a "nostalgia for the future," for what inhabitants of previous decades imagined their future would sound like.5

     These things are hard to trace – especially for someone like me who isn't an obsessive reader of contemporary music criticism, much of which takes place on the rapidly expanding blogosphere – but the first print usage of "hauntology" in reference to pop music seems to be in Simon Reynolds's November 2006 profile in The Wire of the English record label Ghost Box Music. (Indeed, the pop music discourse on "hauntology" seems very often to use the word "ghost" as a jumping-off point; there was much talk of hauntology on the twenty-fifth anniversary re-release of David Byrne and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts album – which some have taken as a foundational moment of the genre.) For Reynolds, the music issued by Ghost Box is "eldritch electronica." "Raiding vintage soundtracks and collections of incidental music," Reynolds writes, Ghost Box founder Julian House "leaves some snippets recognizable as orchestral playing but processes others to the point where they resemble ectoplasm or some supernatural luminescence out of an H.P. Lovecraft story."6

     I'd like to think the parallels between this description and the "ghostly" poetics of A Bibliography of the King's Book are obvious. Most clearly, the sampling techniques of contemporary musical production are precisely analogous to the quotational poetics Howe inherits from the earlier modernist works of Pound, Eliot, Olson, and others, and more generally from collage aesthetics such as that of Kurt Schwitters. (While quotation in classical compositions has been around as long as classical music itself, sampling in popular music didn't really take hold until the early 1980s, a clear instance of an latent artistic technique awaiting the technological developments that would make its full emergence possible – cf. Adorno on "original instruments" performances of Bach.) And Howe's quotational practice is not in the manner of Pound's or Eliot – snippets of previous texts, arranged as indices to their original sources – but resembles the "remixed," "smeared," or "processed" passages in a Ghost Box release: the documents quoted in A Bibliography are presented in tiny, often agrammatical, shards, mixed together, overprinted, wrested even from the horizontal alignment of their original printing. They become a chorus of ghost voices, through which the poet herself, an Ariadne figure, must seek to trace a "thread" of coherence among the "Driest facts / of bibliography": "I am a seeker / of water-marks / in the Antiquity / The Sovereign stile / in another stile / Left scattered in disguise" (64).

     In the wake of Simon Reynolds's dubbing this emergent sub-genre of music "hauntology" – without, it seems, having bothered to work his way through Specters of Marx itself – other music critics and bloggers chimed in, complicating and subtilizing the concept in quite interesting ways. As the blogger K-Punk (Mark Fisher), points out, in reference to Hamlet's "The time is out of joint," "It is this sense of temporal disjuncture that is crucial to hauntology. Hauntology isn't about the return of the past, but about the fact that the origin was already spectral. 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."7 What hauntology foregrounds, then, is the originary spectrality of the "original." Or, as Howe puts it in A Bibliography, "The absent center is the ghost of a king" (50) – not the king himself, executed on January 30, 1649, but the king as the ghostly effect of a series of textual traces, from contemporary accounts of his trial and death, through the "ghost-written" Eikon Basilike and Milton's Eikonoklastes, down to the past century's bibliographies, which seek to pin down and "establish" texts which are no more to be captured than whiffs of ectoplasm. The "king" – the arche – is always a "ghost."

     Paradoxically perhaps, the critical discourse on hauntology, as writing about music, is cast in terms almost exclusively of textuality. Music is traditionally classified among the "performing arts," after all, and until fairly recently the default definition of "musical interpretation" was a performance of a work, not a bit of writing or talking about it. Hauntology, as a musical genre, is a music which is purely produced, rather than in any sense performed. And not coincidentally, the discourse of hauntology has arisen as the polar opposite of what in pop music circles has come to be derisively called "rockism" – the fetishization, that is, of "authenticity" in popular music: the rockist is he who automatically prefers punk to disco, Bruce Springsteen to Mariah Carey, The Strokes to M.I.A.; as one friend of mine puts it, rockism is to valorize "musicians who play real instruments." Rockism is the valorization, precisely, of performance over production.

     The history of pop music is of course one of successive attempts to return to some "authentic," original image or performance: in the mid-70s, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead was recording acoustic bluegrass albums; the punk movement of the later '70s, with its DIY ethos, was explicitly an attempt to recover a more authentic rock energy in the face of disco and arena rock; more recently, such bands as Nirvana, The Strokes, The Hives, and The White Stripes have been hailed as returns to the "roots" of pop music. Perhaps the largest-scale such recovery moment in American music, at least, was the "folk revival" of the 1960s, and the source-text of that movement was the six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by the polymathic mystic, archivist, and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith in 1952. The anthology provided the young fogies of the late 1950s and early '60s an enormous treasure-chest of tunes and songs recorded in the 1920s and early '30s – folk, blues, gospel, cajun, etc. – upon which to draw, to be newly performed, adapted, and embellished. As the singer-songwriter Dave Van Ronk commented, the "Anthology was our bible. We all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated."8

     In Greil Marcus's account, the Anthology of American Folk Music gave musicians – Bob Dylan especially – a window into an America almost forgotten in the era of postwar economic prosperity and cultural conservatism, what Marcus calls "the old, weird America." But it is telling that when he describes Dylan and the Band's use of the Anthology in making The Basement Tapes, Marcus resorts to a hauntological metaphor:

What they took out of the air were ghosts – and it's an obvious thing to say. For thiry years people have listened to the basement tapes as palavers with a community of ghosts – or even, in certain moments, as the palavers of a community of ghosts. Their presence is undeniable; to most it is also an abstraction, at best a vague tourism of specters from a foreign country.9
These "ghosts," Marcus goes on to argue, were not abstractions, but a "community" of "native sons and daughters" gathered together on Smith's Anthology.

     But if Dylan, Van Ronk, Joan Baez and the hosts of other new folkies going to the Anthology for material thought they were tapping into some "authentic," originary slice of Americana, they were mistaken. As the blogger Richard Crary points out, "One of the important things to remember about the Anthology of American Folk Music, emphasized by Harry Smith but often overlooked, is that these were intended to be commercial recordings." Unlike much of the other music released on Moses Asch's Folkways label, the cuts on the Anthology came not from in situ recording sessions but from Smith's own vast collection of commercially released 78s. "The musicians may have been playing songs that had been around seemingly forever," Crary continues, "but these were not field recordings, these were performances recorded for release by record labels."10 In short, the Anthology was an unauthorized bootleg collection of regional American popular music, 1927-1932 – but by no means a musicologically "authentic" representation of some indigenous culture.

     Moreover, a listener's sense of these performances' authenticity is precisely a function of their technology by which the performances have been reproduced: the shellac record, with its tightly compressed sound and its inevitable high "noise" ratio. Commenting on the experience of listening to mythical bluesman Robert Johnson through the noisy medium of ancient 78s, K-Punk (Mark Fisher) makes a salient point about the "presence" of the past, about authenticity, rockism, and hauntology: "All that needs to be added to this is the idea that the 'mythologized deep south' arises from the 'layers of fizz, crackle, hiss, white noise'; there is no presence except mythologically, no myth without a recording surface which both refers to a (lost) presence and blocks us from attaining it." Compare, if you will, Moran Lee "Dock" Boggs's late 1920s recordings on the Anthology with his mid-60s folk revival disks: the voice, the banjo technique are practically identical almost four decades apart, but it is the "recording surface," the distanced sound and the hiss and crackle that renders the earlier versions of songs both recognizably "authentic" and simultaneously spectral. In contrast, his clean and well-mic'd 1960s recordings sound like the performances of a folk revivalist.

     "Rockism," K-Punk continues, "could be defined as the quest to eliminate surface noise, to 'return' to a presence which, needless to say, was never there in the first place; hauntology" – and here I take it he means as much the discourse of hauntology as the musical genre – "is a coming to terms with the permanence of our (dis)possession, the inevitability of dyschronia."11 For the rockist, the highest praise that can be given a studio recording is to compare it favorably with the band's live act, and rockism's quest for presence finds its apotheosis in the "live" recording, ideally free of after-the-fact overdubs and other cosmetic corrections: the "Support Live Music" bumper stickers bespeak not merely a fondness for seeing that musicians remain fed and sheltered, but a fetishization of presence, as instantiated in actual real-time performance.12

     Howe's Bibliography of the King's Book or, Eikon Basilike is also deeply interested in performance, but here performance is not musical but theatrical. The poem is shot through with references to the theater, from a lengthy quotation from Sir Thomas More's unfinished History of King Richard the Third, to references to "Tragicum Theatrum Actorum," "dramatis personae," and "the stage of history"; Charles's execution is repeatedly referred to as "Tragedy." In drama, of course, "players" are not musicians but actors, and their speaking of particular lines and sentences always bears the stigma of theatrical performance: that the words spoken originate not from the speaker, but from the dramatic "part." Charles I is a spectral king largely owing to the difficulty of confidently attributing to him the words he is assigned. Milton's assault on the Eikon Basilike, for instance, makes much of the fact that the work presents, as an authentic prayer of the king's, a speech lifted from Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia. On the scaffold, Bishop Juxon tells the king that "There is but one Stage more, this Stage is turbulent and troublesome, it is a short one….It will carry you from Earth to Heaven" (59) – but is this "stage," that of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, a stage on a journey, or a stage in a playhouse? And is Charles's last word to Juxon – "Remember" – an injunction to memory, or is it a quotation from Hamlet ("Adieu, adieu, adieu! remember me," says the ghost of Hamlet's father)? Charles was, after all, a devoted reader of Shakespeare, as Milton notes; was he quoting his dying word?

     In the theater, performance is always interpretive or secondary, always mediated by playtext; and for Howe, history itself is fundamentally mediated by text, by the technologies of writing and print with their inevitable statics, the inevitable "noise," in the sense of that which is not "signal." "Noise," however, is not merely decay, the temporal degradation of a once-pure signal, but an inevitable formal component of communication or performance itself. "Modernity," K-Punk writes, "was built upon 'technologies that made us all ghosts'" – the prosthetic technologies, I take it, of the printed page and the mass media – "and postmodernity could be defined as the succumbing of historical time to the spectral time of recording devices. Postmodernity screens out the spectrality, naturalising the uncanniness of the recording apparatuses." Hauntology, by contrast, whether in the "spooky" recordings of Ghost Box Records or on the scattered, haunting and haunted pages of Howe's attempts to sweep together the unmatching shards of history, foregrounds the "noise" and the imperfections of our "recording devices," whether aural or textual, and thereby recovers the uncanniness of history itself, the ultimate irrecoverability of a founding presence which was never there in the first place. "The absent center is the ghost of a king."


1. Susan Howe, The Nonconformist's Memorial (New York: New Directions, 1993) 47; A Bibliography of the King's Book or, Eikon Basilike was published in 1989 by Paradigm Press, Providence RI, in a version that differs somewhat from that collected in The Nonconformist's Memorial.

2. Terry Eagleton, The Eagleton Reader, ed. Stephen Regan (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) 264.

3. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994) 10.

4. Bethan Cole, "The Art of Noise Refined," The Sunday Times 25 March 2007.

5. This according to the now-disappeared—spectral?—Wikipedia entry for "Hauntology (musical genre)."

6. Simon Reyolds, "Spirit of Preservation," Frieze 94 (October 2005).

7. K-punk blog, "Phonograph Blues," 19 October 2006.

8. Qtd. in Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (New York: Henry Holt, 1997) 88.

9. Ibid., 86.

10. Richard Crary, "The Existence Machine," 21 October 2006.

11. K-punk blog, "Phonograph Blues," quoting Owen Hatherley, "Sit Down Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy" blog, "well, that was actually more in the ragtime idiom," 9 October 2006.

12. It's here that I find Portishead, a group usually associated with the trip-hop movement but having a great deal in common with hauntology – lavish sampling, nostalgic textures, generally "dreamy" and "ghostly" mixes – most paradoxical, in that the band has devoted a great deal of energy to reproducing their obviously heavily studio-produced recordings in the context of live performance.

Mark Scroggins is both a poet and a leading scholar of the poetry of Louis Zukofsky (Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (U of Alabama Press, 1998) and The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007), among other books). His own poetry can be found in Red Arcadia (Shearsman, 2012), Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles (The Cultural Society, 2011), and Anarchy (Spuyten Duyvil, 2002). He teaches at Florida Atlantic University.
He is also one of the original Contributing Editors of FlashPøint, with contributions including:

"Blood to the Ghosts: Biography and the New Modernist Studies (with special reference to Louis Zukofsky),"

"The Piety of Terror: Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Modernist Fragment, and the Neo-classical Sublime,"

"Dogmatic Gossip: Defining Modernism (Recent Assays),"

"Taggart: Sound & Vision."

His poetry in FlashPøint includes:

"Damage Poem,"

"Spin Cycle,"

"Milton's empty" and "Cromwell's achievements" from anarchy for the u.k.,

"In Praise of Sheetrock,"

"weather division,"


"wee song."