This blog post is mainly concerned with the overlapping and/or adjacent spheres of hauntology, folk horror, the weird/wyrd, and other related subject areas, but the conclusions can probably be expanded to other disciplines.
I have mixed feelings about the obsession with overly cataloguing and revisiting the past.
On the one hand it’s the nature of scholarly research (either institutional or individual) to review cultural creations of the past — films, TV shows, books, music, artwork — and to analyse their place within a specific area of study.
This type of research is generally a good thing – it can make obscure cultural artefacts known to people who were previously unaware of them, help people who are already familiar to appreciate them in new ways, and generally increase our understanding of culture from many perspectives.
I very much enjoy Stephen Prince’s A Year In The Country books that do just that – I even ended up watching and writing about the BBC2 play Stargazy on Zummerdown due to one of Prince’s chapters.
I have a great respect for Adam Scovell’s research, particularly his book Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, which was the first monograph-length study of folk horror.
I enjoyed Howard David Ingram’s book We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror, and particularly admired him for calling out the problematic aspects of films such as Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw – one of the keystones of good scholarly research is the capacity to criticise the foundational blocks of a subject (which is an anathema to nostalgic consumption, which we’ll come to later).
The list of the good stuff goes on: Hellebore zine and Andy Paciorek’s Wyrd Harvest Folk Horror Revival series of books meticulously and intelligently cover just about every aspect of this whole area that you could possibly want to know about.
So yes, a certain amount of high quality research is generally a good thing.
What concerns me on the other hand — with particular relation to the subject areas I listed at the beginning of this blog post, and with the exception of the books above (and some others), and what I appreciate is a massive generalisation — is that everyone seems to be still going round in ever-decreasing circles, focused on the past and not appreciating the present or looking to the future.
Honestly, if I read another sentence containing the phrase “the Unholy Trinity of Folk Horror” I swear I’m going to simultaneously fall asleep and scream.
I know people really like this stuff, and it’s not harming me (well, maybe it is, but more of that later) but, as Paul Graham Raven wrote earlier this month:
To be clear, I think the paradigm of let people enjoy things was borne of good intentions, but it has demonstrably resulted in a deluge of crap. There’s good stuff in there, but it’s more jetsam than flotsam: hard to find, harder still to get a hold of.
We seem to have reached the point where we are doing the equivalent of spending months searching out a poor-quality portastudio demo of a song by your favourite band that they completely re-worked to no avail several times afterwards but still relegated to an obscure B-side because it was always a bit meh.
I know that — in the specific case of the current popular definition of hauntology — it’s necessary to look into the past because you’re basically examining the lost worlds of the future as imagined by people in the 1960s and 70s, but at some point (a point long passed, I think) this simply degraded into childhood nostalgia hidden behind an appropriated neologism.
The inherent nostalgia of contemporary hauntology aside (and I’ve written about that before anyway), I think a lot of the problems can be traced to nerd culture.
To quote Sam Kriss’ Substack article All the nerds are dead from April this year:
The nerd doesn’t like bad things because of their actual qualities; the nerd likes bad things simply because they’re there. What counts is collecting, itemising, consuming.
And scholarly research of the type I’ve been talking about can all-too-easily step over the line into nerd culture: merely collecting, itemising, consuming (and taking your attention away from the new).
And yes, a lot of what is actually new is terrible. As Kriss (ibid.) notes, it is:
The same wet bilge that’s been sluicing out the flanks of the culture industry for years, leaching into the groundwater, making all our trees grow weird and spindly and all our children disturbed.
…but the temptation to run away from this bilge into the past — collecting, itemising, consuming — rather than looking to the future is a dead end.
I think it was Stan Lee (I may be wrong on this, so don’t quote me) who really championed the idea of superhero crossovers — having a guest appearance by one superhero in another superhero’s comic — and having footnotes in comic strip panels citing other comics, all as a means of enticing the reader into expanding their comic consumption beyond a single superhero title and into collecting and consuming the broader Marvel franchise.
And the same sort of trap seems to be happening, partially self-induced, with the subject areas of this article.
Someone somewhere is drafting an essay called Folk Horror in The Last of the Summer Wine in which they theorise that the character Compo is clearly a pagan-influenced Woodwose/Green Man archetype.
(Months later a BBC accountant will be mildly puzzled as to why the series’ DVD sales surged briefly with customers beyond the usual geriatric age group.)
The problem with creating new work in any artform is that it’s a big risk – new work, not just the “same wet bilge” that is simply a tired carbon copy of everything that’s already been successful or remakes of already threadbare blockbusters that were released within living memory of all but the youngest teenagers.
That’s why most artists and writers are poor, and held at arm’s length by corporations.
As Mark Fisher noted in Ghosts of My Life (2014):
Despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new. In the UK, the postwar welfare state and higher education maintenance grants constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments in popular culture between the 1960s and the 80s. The subsequent ideological and practical attack on public services meant that one of the spaces where artists could be sheltered from the pressures to produce something that was immediately successful was severely circumscribed. As public service broadcasting became ‘marketized’, there was an increased tendency to turn out cultural productions that resembled what was already successful. The result of all of this is that the social time available for withdrawing from work and immersing oneself in cultural production drastically declined. Perhaps it was only with the arrival of digital communicative capitalism that this reached terminal crisis point. Naturally, the besieging of attention described by Berardi applies to producers as much as consumers. Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal — from, for instance, sociality as much as from pre-existing cultural forms — but the currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before. Or, as Simon Reynolds so pithily put it, in recent years, everyday life has sped up, but culture has slowed down.
To badly paraphrase Orwell’s conversation between O’Brien and Winston Smith towards the end of 1984: if you want a picture of the future, imagine humans having to face watching reboots – for ever.
And yes, this problem obviously goes far beyond hauntology, folk horror, and the weird/wyrd.
And yes, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.
And yes, I’m concerned about this because I’m an artist and I make (some, very little) money from selling my artwork, which involves convincing people to take the risk of buying new art during a cost-of-living crisis that doesn’t seem to have an end.
I’m also concerned about this as someone who enjoys culture made by others, and I don’t want my only options to be yet more of the recycled and recombined past.
And that, by the way, is the essential problem with AI art - it can only recycle and recombine the past, the data it has been trained on. It’s neoliberal capitalism’s wet dream: the endless recycling and recombining of the old pretending to be new, with no payments to artists and writers eating into corporate profits or shareholder dividends.
It’s time to put aside our nostalgia and (as I’ve said before) create things anew about our own potential futures.
Even if they end up being lost pipe-dreams then at least future researchers will have something to write about ad nauseam in fifty years’ time.
I’m going to see The Sisters of Mercy in September when they play the Roundhouse in London again – I’ve seen them more than thirty times since 1990: I’ve lost count now.
I won’t be hoping for them to play that obscure poor-quality portastudio demo version of the song (that I wasted so much time tracking down many years ago) that they completely re-worked to no avail several times afterwards but still relegated to an obscure B-side because it was always a bit meh.
Instead I’ll be enjoying the new and different songs they’re still writing (and yeah, maybe a couple of rearranged oldies) while some tedious bore behind me — and they will almost certainly be dressed like a bad cosplay of a third-rate Hammer Horror character — complains that it’s disgraceful that the band don’t look and sound exactly like they did in 1985, as they do in the old videos on Youtube.