The hauntology of the commons

I’ve been aware of the existence of hauntology for a while, but not engaged with it. It’s often come to me connected with rather obtuse, deliberately difficult bit of writing, performance and philosophising. It turns out, I’ve not only been missing the point entirely, but been missing out massively. 

For hauntology connects the dots for a whole range of things I’ve loved and been fascinated by for a while, and in some cases, most of my life. The music of Boards of Canada, Kate Bush, unsettling folk like Emily Portman. The films of Patrick Keiller, Ben Wheatley, Nigel Kneale. Childrens’ literature like Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, and childrens’ TV of the 70s, including the Public Information Films school would terrify us all with from time to time. The fiction of John Wyndham and 70s parodies like League of Gentlemen and Scarfolk. Megaliths, rural horror, the violence and weirdness of the English countryside. Folklore and the 60s counterculture. Edgelands and ruins. Peeling back the layers of places to get at deep time. 

Though a term coined by Derrida, someone I’ve little time for, hauntology has come to mean the persistence into the present of something which is no longer there or of that which never was. This working definition comes from Mark Fisher, whose The Weird and the Eerie was a real personal benchmark last year for understanding my photography and my affective and aesthetic relationship with landscape.

Specifically, hauntology encompasses cultural expressions of the failed utopias promised by modernism, the post-war consensus, and the 60s counterculture, pointing to the 1970s as the era when these dreams began to die, leaving us haunted by utopias that never were. It also encompasses the deep time of megaliths, and folklore which haunt the landscape, mainly rural, but occasionally urban or part-urban. The Civil War is another persistence from the past. 

Hauntology also has a concern for appropriating old technology and old cultural forms, not for the sake of nostalgia, but to recast it unsettlingly both to disrupt pleasurable recollection and to cause a rethink of the present. Hence the 70s Public Information styling of Scarfolk is readily applicable to contemporary politics such as Brexit, and the Radiophonic Workshop-inspired Boards of Canada’s obsession with cults and apocalypses seems to be a fitting obituary to rave’s more recent utopian outpouring. 

Hauntology is thus political, and typically examines a political moment – the end of progressive state socialism and the rise of neo-liberalism (a term I find too friendly – I prefer ‘feral capitalism’). But the 70s fixation, and the very English focus, also reflects the age of its practitioners, advocates and fans, who grew up through this era – myself included – and has a faint whiff of a (boys’) ‘club’, albeit unintentionally. But since then, another utopia has arisen and failed – the internet – and global history is littered with other failed utopias. One might argue the case for the US as a failed utopia, while Merlin Cloverly dates hauntology to Marx’s 1848 depiction of communism as a spectre haunting Europe. Hence, hauntology can be expanded beyond the music of Ghost Box records, and the cult status of The Wicker Man to become a broader historical reflex, as with millenarian movements. 

The 1217 Charter of the Forest, a stand-alone development of a portion of the Magna Carta, remains a radical and contentious document. It provides a legal status for the continuation of communal, collective and inclusive modes of social organisation which had been the basis for most people’s day to day lives for millennia. It was a response to the UK’s first great privatisation drive, when the new Norman landlords swept people from the land which had sustained them ‘since time immemorial’ so they could indulge in their favourite pastime of deer hunting. While not redistributing the land’s ownership, The Charter of the Forest at least created a legal framework by which people retained rights of access to and use of patches of land – registered commons – which they did not own. 

If not exactly utopian – rather, it was conservative in the sense of partly restoring what had been lost – it has formed a cornerstone of utopian impulses and movements ever since, from the Diggers to the Chartists, the Romantics, communism and countercultures right up to the present day. It is notable that so many of the key sites of resistance were commons: the Diggers at St. George’s Hill, the Chartists at Tooting Common (both now long since enclosed), the Ruskin-inspired fight to save Hampstead Heath, the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, the era-defining and era-ending rave at Castlemorton Common. 

Commons are thus hauntological in both senses. They’re a persistence of what never was – the utopian, egalitarian, communal modes of living which they suggest. They’re also largely a persistence of what no longer is: very few commons these days are ‘commoned’ by commoners who use them for subsistence. You’ll not find sheep grazing on Tunbridge Wells Common. Rather, they’re largely used for two functions of great importance to the Romantics: public amenity and conservation. Their ancient pedigree and their associations with geese, grazing, gypsy caravans also make them sites where that which no longer is persists into the present. Prohibitions against development have also meant that more recent history persists – the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths are peppered with relics of World War II, while most of London’s remaining round barrows are on registered commons. Indeed, lost commons haunt the present through names – Golders’ Green or the vast HS2 construction site at Old Oak Common (which is still bisected by a public footpath). 

Magna Carta academic Peter Linebaugh argues that the Charter of the Forest’s communal, egalitarian impulses were in part relocated to children’s literature, pointing to the meadows of Wind in the Willows and the popularity of the Robin Hood myths. Certainly, the freedom to roam implicit – but actually inaccurate – in public perceptions of commons are key elements in childrens’ stories, children being, of course, landless repurposers of other people’s territories. Tellingly, the eco community of The Wombles is located on Wimbledon Common, while the Winnie the Pooh stories are largely set on the vast Ashdown Forest commons. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say any of these works are hauntological, the ideas implicit in them haunt our ideas of childhood, and thus of ourselves; through them, we are haunted by a utopian, free childhood that never was, or by the glimmers of it we caught in our own childhoods. I mention this as childhood literature and TV is crucial for contemporary hauntology, but this all needs considerably more though and it’s interesting that British 60s counter-culture drew so explicitly on exactly these texts – such as Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Some other time.

I’ve been looking for a framework for exploring commons through the medium of film for a while. Sense of place is of huge interest to me, the affective, autobiographical and aesthetic connections which I and people generally have with place. Through looking at this in photography, I’ve come to understand the importance of the weird and the eerie, and childhood, in the process by which I form connections with places. But the politics of place, both current and historic, are also of huge interest to me, as are the experiences of others. I’ve been stumped as to how to bring these together. Sensory ethnography is an approach I admire and to some extent draw on, but it keeps matters too much on the surface, by and large; what can be immediately examined. Likewise, voiceover-heavy essayism, such as the work of Patrick Keiller and Chris Petit, whose work touches on hauntology without being specifically hauntological, seems to me to intervene too heavily between the viewer and the landscape for the effects of place I want to explore and express. 

Hence, a deeper engagement with hauntology could well be the way to do this: a use of old technology, such as Super 8, an engagement with the fantastical, mythic and horrific modes of fiction, an acknowledgement of the pastness of the present, and the failure of the imagined future, this suddenly becomes possible. In terms of film, Wheatley’s A Field In England, Kötting’s By Our Selves, River’s Two Years at Sea and – in terms of its use of fiction and fixed-frame shots – Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins. These are all going to be useful guides, but exploring other forms, such as Robert Darch’s photobook The Moor, will be important. Engaging more with hauntology would allow me to continue my personal, aesthetic exploration of commons, while also engaging with the places both visually and through personal connections and text-based research. If I can figure out what this looks like, I will know in what direction I’m going. Figuring out what this looks like, of course, could well be the research as practice work forming the backbone of my PhD. 

Published by andythatcher

Photographer - filmmaker - writer - researcher Environment - wellbeing - politics

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