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Hauntology and the Right
“I’m looking for … Doesn’t Paul Owen live here?”
A long pause before she answers. “No. He doesn’t.”
Another long pause. “Are you, like … sure?” I ask, before feebly adding, “I don’t … understand.”
She realizes something that causes the muscles in her face to tighten. Her eyes narrow but don’t close. She’s noticed the surgical mask I’m gripping in a damp fist and she breathes in, sharply, refusing to look away. I am definitely not feeling right about any of this. On the TV, in a commercial, a man holds up a piece of toast and tells his wife, “Hey, you’re right … this margarine really does taste better than shit.” The wife smiles.
“You saw the ad in the Times?” she asks.
“No … I mean yes. Yes, I did. In the Times,” I falter, gathering a pocket of strength, the smell from the roses thick, masking something revolting. “But … doesn’t Paul Owen … still own this?” I ask, as forcibly as possible.
There’s a long pause before she admits, “There was no ad in the Times.”
American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis1
An eerie late scene in one of the great postmodern novels. The reader thought he knew who Patrick Bateman was, but with just these few sentences all his assumptions about the singular Wall Street investment banker have been called into question.
The remains of two prostitutes, whom Bateman, by his own account, tortured and gruesomely murdered over five months earlier, ought to still be decomposing in this luxury Manhattan apartment belonging to another victim, Bateman’s Wall Street peer Paul Owen (Paul Allen in Mary Harron’s cult film adaptation of 2000). Yet they are not. Nor does the apartment bear any visible traces of the torrents of blood and gore that covered it the last time Bateman was here. The estate agent Patrick converses with, Mrs Wolfe, is in the middle of showing the property to a young couple, prospective buyers. Mrs Wolfe seems very certain Paul Owen is not the owner of the apartment, or at least not the owner anymore. There’s the possibility it isn’t even the correct apartment, since when Patrick arrived at the building, having taken a cab, it looked different to him, though he couldn’t figure out why.
Furthermore, the keys he’d stolen from Paul Owen no longer fit the lock of the lobby door (a uniformed doorman who, Bateman said, hadn’t been there before, let him in).
Yet there is that intriguing detail, when the estate agent ‘realises something that causes the muscles in her face to tighten.’ This points to Mrs Wolfe possibly being aware the man standing before her is not just some random personage who’s turned up at the wrong apartment.
What’s more, this apartment Bateman believes to be Paul Owen’s is full of bouquets of strong-smelling roses (a key detail absent from the film). Are they there to mask a bad odour, as Bateman initially supposes? Did someone clean up the blood and gore, dispose of the bodies? Unless there simply never were any—no whores, no Paul Owen, no murders. It’s difficult to say which, for Bateman, is the more disturbing possibility.
Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?
Patrick Bateman’s profoundly disorienting experience at Paul Owen’s apartment can be taken as a metaphor for all the troubling ambiguities and complexities of the late 20th / early 21st century individual’s relationship with history, and with time more generally.
The postmodern age of “scepticism towards all grand narratives” (Lyotard)2 has seen the long-hegemonic liberal account of history—as a movement of progress and continual improvement—come to be regarded as more and more suspect, with the online Right now leading the inquisition. Those suspicions certainly aren’t without justification, as the events of the past five or six years have amply demonstrated. Like Patrick Bateman, the liberal establishment has turned out to be that most postmodern of things: an unreliable narrator.
A narrator who can’t be trusted makes the whole tale doubtful, ambiguous, its meaning no longer clear. Events take on a certain insubstantiality, and the reality of even leading characters ceases to be certain. Are these flesh and blood people, figments of the narrator’s imagination, ghosts? A decade ago vaporwave revealed the extent to which even the recent past, the 1980s and 90s, had taken on a strange, spectral quality. Various music hacks pegged vaporwave as a critique of capitalism, but the music’s peculiar uncanniness suggested something weirder, more ambiguous.
The more insightful Mark Fisher grasped the most salient thing about vaporwave and related musics: their hauntological quality. For Fisher, the hauntological affect par excellence is a kind of nostalgia peculiar to the 21st century, nostalgia for the future: a retrofuturist longing for the poetic futures imagined by the 20th century.3
Vaporwave channelled exactly that. A science fiction of the two decades immediately preceding 9/11, vaporwave tapped into, and amplified, the neofuturist current running through that period. And futurism, of course, has always been strongly connected to the Right.
Patrick Bateman memes likewise tap into that nostalgia for the 80s / 90s which is also nostalgia for the future. Bateman memes are right-wing vaporwave, with one difference: they are genuinely political. It turns out the potent energies running through all things hauntological can be turned to political ends. Slyly nostalgic, these memes are both seductive and powerful. They take a chainsaw to hegemonic earnestness and the new prohibition on taking pleasure in immorality (which liberalism, the originator of the prohibition, gets around by redefining morality). They’re untimely in Nietzsche’s sense, bringing something of the aggressively irreverent spirit of the 1980s Right into the 2020s.
I have to return some videotapes
The term hauntology was coined by Jacques Derrida in a 1993 book entitled Specters of Marx. There the master of deconstruction contemplated the fate of Marxism now that the USSR had collapsed and mainstream European socialist parties had pivoted to ‘Third Way’ politics, a centre-left brand of neoliberalism. His meditations were highly unorthodox: inspired by the famous opening of The Communist Manifesto, Derrida pondered the ‘ghost’ of Marx; how that ghost was continuing to haunt the Left, not to mention Western civilisation as a whole. A ghost is an entity out of time, in the sense of being in the wrong time, of transgressing the proper temporal order. Thus Derrida opened his book with a meditation on those famous words of Hamlet, “The time is out of joint”:
Time is… deranged, both out of order and mad. Time is off its hinges, time is off course, beside itself, disadjusted.4
Today not a few of us have a similar sense of time being off course. Progress of all kinds—with the exception of techno-scientific, but even that’s not without its ambiguities—has stopped, has even gone into reverse. Few people genuinely expect anything to improve—a situation contrary to what modernity, so we’ve always been told, is supposed to deliver.
It’s entirely understandable, then, that in our depressed and unloved 21st century a reactionary longing for the past has grown and grown. Meanwhile that past has become increasingly opaque, haunting, mysterious. This mysteriousness is not only a question of alternative facts, psyops and false flags. There’s a more profound, metaphysical dimension to it: the increasingly alien quality, the otherness of times gone by, which hauntological music like vaporwave trades upon. “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” L.P. Hartley made this memorable observation in his 1953 novel The Go-Between, set in 19005. The past is―with that unsettling use of the present tense, Hartley was doing hauntology long before Derrida. He knew the time is out of joint.
When the now-foreign country of the 1980s and 90s somehow feels more futuristic than the 2010s and 20s, than the actual future, then we know the time is indeed out of joint.
An entity, something illusory
Patrick Bateman’s encounter with Mrs Wolfe transforms his own past into a foreign country for him. Perhaps his memory is faulty, sign of a disintegrating mind. Or could it be someone knows about Bateman’s little hobby, is covering the hobbyist’s tracks for reasons of his own? Perhaps his father, who, we’re told, practically owns Pierce and Pierce, where our antihero ‘works’. Or maybe this is the work of another Bateman, one inhabiting—unbeknownst to the protagonist—the same skull. A second Mr Hyde to complement the first.
Whatever the truth, assuming there is one, Bateman’s sense of himself is massively shaken. The supposedly murdered Paul Owen takes on a spectral existence, with sightings of him in London. An acquaintance claims to have had lunch with him just a few days prior. Consequently, Bateman feels his own existence becoming ghostly, insubstantial (“I simply am not there” as he asserts in a monologue towards the book’s end). Did he really carry out all those murders, or is he in fact a severely disturbed fantasist? Even his attempts to confess his crimes, if he ever really committed them, come to naught, with colleagues dismissing his claims as a joke.
These postmodern themes in American Psycho, the themes of uncertain reality, of the elusiveness of the truth, of the question of who one ‘really’ is, these themes are rarely explored explicitly by Pat Bateman memes, but they’re nevertheless implied, even if the meme makers aren’t consciously aware of them. Through the psychotic and ambiguous figure of Bateman, right-wing meme culture delivers an ironic running commentary on itself.
Walking on sunshine
The film adaptation of American Psycho is the version of the tale everyone knows. It, not the novel, is the source for the countless memes, profile pics and videos. Shot in early 1999 and hitting cinemas a year later, the film belongs to, and is a very late product of, the world it depicts: that of the 1980s and 90s, the first, utopian era of neoliberalism. Having lived through it, and despite no doubt having had my memories subtly altered by electroclash, vaporwave and Stranger Things, I can confidently testify to it being a fundamentally optimistic era. Which is to say, optimism was hegemonic. Cheery mood music in the form of upbeat, at times euphoric TV, films and actual music was blasted out at maximum volume by the centre-right establishment in the 80s, by the centre-left one in the 90s. Of course, by no means everyone was walking on sunshine during those decades. For practically all those working-class communities that, going into the 80s, provided labour for heavy industry it was a time of defeat, humiliation and impoverishment. Devout Christians were also left disillusioned by the new ‘conservatism’, which did essentially nothing to turn back the tide of permissiveness that had engulfed the West since the 1960s.
Thanks to hegemonic optimism, the protests of the massed ranks of the victims of downsizing and offshoring fell on deaf ears, as did those of the stubbornly God-fearing. This is the other side of the 80s / 90s, the side that vaporwave and other exercises in nostalgia like Stranger Things ignore.
Watching American Psycho today, one inevitably notices the different Manhattan skyline. At least one shot of the World Trade Centre appears. In 1999 the towers were not, outside New York at least, that much talked about; indeed they rarely had been (1993 provided an exception, for a reason the reader no doubt knows). The towers were just there. Of course just three years later the WTC 1 and 2 were, posthumously, two of the most famous and most talked-about buildings to have ever been erected. Had American Psycho been shot then, it would have been necessary to insert the towers digitally. And that wouldn’t have been the only change: the same film simply would not have been made, because September 11th 2001 was a portal through which we all passed into a different world.
A pretty sick guy
The irony of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman becoming a right-wing meme is surely not lost on the more astute online rightist. A Hollywood satire, helmed by one woman and written by another, clearly intended to skewer Wall Street’s bro culture. An invitation to have a good laugh at the Masters of the Universe, at their small-souled callousness and boorishness. An obviously left-wing film, but one smart and witty enough to have appeal across the political spectrum.
Back in the 1950s, Marxist Guy Debord and his Lettrists invented détournement (rerouting, hijacking), a technique which had a significant impact on the French political scene when honed by Debord’s more famous outfit of the 1960s, the Situationists. Détournement has been described as "turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself."6
Although this practice did acquire an Anglosphere name—culture jamming—I prefer the original French term for the way it evokes a turning against, a hijacking.
American Psycho memes, in addition to being hauntological, are pure détournement. Bateman’s energetic third life (the first being as a character in literature and the second as one in film) provides a demonstration of how various left-wing avant-garde techniques, abandoned by the side that invented them, have been taken up by the Right.
Bateman’s grinning (sometimes blood-spattered) face is a sarcastic response to the Left’s increasingly ludicrous moralising and its demonising of its opponents. At the time of writing Bateman is, by my reckoning, the most visible, the most commonly encountered fictional character in the RW memescape. And it’s not only the Right that’s been drawn to Bateman’s meme resonance: the serial killer appeared recently in a promo video for Mexico City’s Museum of Modern Art. The ad was deliberately crude, with Patrick B unconvincingly superimposed on manically sped-up footage from the museum. Thrown together meme-style, in a couple of hours perhaps.
However, the most notable hauntological phenomenon on the Right in recent years has been, not Bateman memes, but instead something vastly bigger: MAGA. The 80s, more than any other decade, is still the one Donald Trump’s most closely associated with. It’s perhaps fitting that the signature slogan of his 2016 White House bid was seemingly borrowed wholesale from the Reagan ’80 campaign: back then the ex-Hollywood actor had sought to mobilise the nation with the stirring motto, ‘Let’s Make America Great Again.’
For Trump the MAGA slogan became unusually important, indeed defining. It was an 80s sentiment and he an 80s throwback. That’s what conservatives in the US were hungering for, and, it seems, not only conservatives. Candidate Trump resonated powerfully with the mid-2010s zeitgeist. The music microgenre of Trumpwave sprung up to celebrate Trump’s and MAGA’s brash, vulgar, rabble-rousing vibe.
2016 saw the appearance of a handful of brilliantly cut and sometimes hilarious videos in which The Donald wandered through dazzling montages of politically incorrect 80s imagery, delivering some winning Trumpisms along the way. If there was a lost future here it was the macho, militaristic, turbocapitalist one imagined 30 years earlier by Reagan’s America.
If you don’t know me by now
We may thus suppose that everything that disappears—institutions, values, prohibitions, ideologies, even ideas—continues to lead a clandestine existence and exert an occult influence, as was said of the ancient gods who, in the Christian era, assumed the form of demons. Everything that disappears seeps back into our lives in infinitesimal doses… We might even suppose ourselves to be following the tracks of our previous lives, not to speak of the Unconscious. Nothing ever disappears.
Jean Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?7
It’s a commonplace that everything in this world is transitory, and not infrequently, painfully so. Things are constantly disappearing, and the vanishing act that values, ideas and so on have a habit of pulling is a reoccuring theme in Baudrillard’s writing.
L.P. Hartley showed himself no stranger to that theme in The Go-Between, which is a novel of that most evanescent of things, childhood. Hartley was writing in the 1950s, a time considerably more foreign for us than 1900 was for him. We can put that down to the acceleration of history. There’s been a speeding-up of everything since 9/11, a state of affairs that poses problems for the Right. Hauntology, hauntological cultural production, can help us try to get a grip on these questions. The first step, I think, is to reach an understanding of all the ways in which we are haunted, and how the unquiet ghosts of the past weigh on our thoughts and guide our actions, not necessarily in helpful ways.
We conceive of the past as a living and authentic presence in traditional societies. For postmodern 21st-century societies, by contrast, the past is an undead half-presence, something the system can’t quite manage to kill off. With the acceleration of the tech-driven process of consolidation, simplification and impoverishment of the Western lifeworld, even the recent past has come to take on this spectral quality. Our situation is such that even the West of just a couple of decades ago seems, in our haunted memories, far richer in variety and possibility than today’s. Perhaps the very substrate of our modernity, having served over a half-dozen generations, is now in a heavily degraded state, like a VHS tape recorded on and played back too many times.
To what extent can we, products of an era of delusion and spiritual near-exhaustion, hope to understand an earlier time much richer in spirit? Can we really place ourselves in our predecessors’ shoes, see through their eyes? The Right dreams of ‘retvrning’ to tradition. But what does that mean? Of what does tradition actually consist? Is it a pretty blonde in a cornflower blue frock standing coquettishly in a lush meadow? Are the aesthetic accounts that serve up such images on Twitter pointing the way toward tradition, or are they purveyors of seductive simulacra? In attempting to find our way back to that foreign country that is the past, there’s a risk of ending up in Disneyland.
Ellis, Bret Easton, American Psycho, Vintage, 1991.
Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition, University of Minnesota Press (English translation), 1984.
Fisher, Mark. “What is Hauntology?” Film Quarterly, Vol 66, No.1, 2012.
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge (English translation), 1994.
Harley, L.P. The Go-Between, Hamish Hamilton, 1953.
Holt, Douglas B. Cultural Strategy Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands, 2010, Oxford University Press.
Baudrillard, Jean. Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? Seagull Books (English translation), 2007.