Haunted by the Past: Retromania and Fear

Ein Gespenst geht um…

Hauntology is one of those buzzwords that get thrown around in an attempt to put a finger on certain cultural trends. Deriving ultimately from Jacques Derrida, in reference to the opening sentence of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto, the term nowadays is used to refer to the ‘ghosts’ haunting our culture; the intangible spectres of (imagined) past and (unrealised) futures that inform our ways of thinking and creating. More than the possible futures, it seems to me that it is in particular the ghosts of culture past that leave their mark on our culture today.


In a time when Instagram and other retro cameras are some of the most popular smartphone apps I often wonder where this global (i.e. Western) tendency towards nostalgia and retro comes from. It is a tendency we see in various domains of popular culture, and I think it’s interesting to briefly touch upon a couple of those.

I’ll start with music, as I’ve noticed – and I’m not the only one – that pop music has been stuck in a bit of a rut lately. First of all, in my view, the last truly meaningful musical revolutions happened roughly twenty years ago. Among these, we could highlight grunge and the revival of rock, house music leading to dance, mainstream hiphop, or even the sub-branching of heavy metal into quite variegated new styles. These revolutions were based on several developments. Some involved a much-needed re-invigoration of an old idiom, such as grunge. Other were based on a fresh influx of ideas from (ethnic) subcultures, such as rap and hiphop, or on new instrumental possibilities: house and dance music were the final mainstream currents in a series of electronica-based styles beginning with pioneers in the middle of the 20th century.


Since then, the days of my youth, I’ve seen relatively little in the way of innovation. The vast majority of popular music is building on these and other idioms developed at least two decades before, and those artists that do manage to sound relatively fresh, e.g. Amy Winehouse, do so mainly because they represent a revival of even older idioms, in her case the jazz and soul music of the sixties, not to mention the hair.

It's time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man

The underground fares little better. Truly revolutionary styles such as industrial, new wave, punk, metal, and ambient all appeared before I was born, most of what has followed since is based on the groundbreaking work made back then. Ironically enough, here too the recent styles that sound quite ‘new’ take their inspiration from older periods. The evanescent witchhouse boom was a case in point, with its use of retro synths and ghostly æsthetics. More profound to me seems the (re-re-)revival of folk music, starting with the (post-industrial) neofolk of the early nineties, and joined in the new millennium by freefolk, new weird, and what have you. Many artists from this movement combine influences from traditional folk with modern (and other retro!) influences to great effect, but at its heart, it is another revival. Is it a coincidence that the term ‘hauntological’ rears its head in many attempts to describe some of these new musical currents?

The reasons for this apparent stagnation in pop music elude me. A part of it may be the decline of subcultures in the sense that we used to know: relatively isolated cultural areas that had the opportunity and spirit to develop a (musical) style of its own without influence (or co-optation) from the rest of the world. In a world that is ever more connected by digital media, subcultures are changing shape or disappearing, and their artistic fruits are shared, reshared, and forgotten before they get the chance of a longer independent maturation towards their own voice.

Another area where we see the retromania pop up is video games. On the one hand, this seems to be a result of two generations of gamers ‘growing up’ and thinking back with nostalgia to the games of their youth. Nintendo iconography is more popular than ever, and some of their most popular recent games are evolutions of NES classics from the eighties. An ‘old school’ æsthetic also flourishes in the indie games scene, where small developers solve the problem of small budgets by adopting the more limited but more affordable graphical styles of games from two decades ago.

A pirate walks into a bar...

But the game nostalgia is not limited to visuals alone. More and more gamers clamour for a return to styles of gameplay and narrative design of a (recently) bygone period. A “golden era of computer games, when creativity was king”, as game designer Brian Fargo recently stated in his recruiting video for the Wasteland 2 Kickstarter campaign. It seems retro-minded gamers are going to get what they want, with Kickstarters like this one, and the one that will allow Tim Schafer to return to the adventure game genre. These projects involve established and celebrated designers who’ve created some of the canonised classics of the medium, but they also signal something else: an industry that’s moved to a point where some gamers’ demands for great stories and great design aren’t being met (enough), as well as a look towards the past for inspiration and gratification. No doubt these campaigns will result in quality video games – I trust in them enough to invest in the Kickstarter – but they will be explicitly retro in outlook.

Apparently, that’s what we want. But isn’t it ironic that we want games and music in a style that used to be  innovative? Perhaps it is because we feel that anything older is better than what passes for new these days.

Vintage Harry

As far as contemporary literature is concerned, I’m not too sure whether it participates all that much in this retromaniac trend. Literary currents seem to operate on a different timescale than those of other media, and if anything, the image is a bit vague to me. On the one hand, that is because of my limited perspective; my reading tends to focus on older works, library and second-hand books, and genre fiction. Besides, it is not immediately obvious to me how literature could be retro, apart from jacket design, which does show such ‘vintage’ tendencies from time to time. A substantial retro feature could be use of older language – outside of dialogues – when writing historical fiction, but I’m not sure if this is done often.

Wasteland Max

A possible retromania can be detected in the popularity of post-apocalyptic settings and steampunk in recent fantastic fiction. The latter example is the most direct, thriving on a nostalgia for fantastical victoriana, though one could argue this has more to do with a fascination for history and fantasy than with retro æsthetic per se. The case of post-apocalyptic settings might be different. It seems to me that the current fascination with the concept of the post-apocalyptic wasteland could in part be a throwback to the themes of the eighties and nineties, in which the setting was given form by films and videogames like Mad Max, the first instalment of abovementioned Wasteland, Fallout, etc. You don’t have to look too hard to trace the influences of that era to more recent works like The Road and The Hunger Games. In yet another instance of irony, we envision the future according to a retrospective idiom.

Of course, this isn’t all bad. Some things simply were better in the past, as some of the above examples illustrate, and practically all forms of popular culture build on the visions of the past to some degree. To take some of the better aspects of yesterday’s culture and use them to reinvigorate today’s is a good thing. At the same time, something seems to be missing. Whereas the revolutionary cultural currents of the nineties and earlier built on the past and reached for new heights, today’s culture seems mostly content just to dwell on the past. Why could that be?

What follows is mere conjecture, but perhaps I will strike a right note here and there. Retromania and hauntology are, to me, conspicuous in particular because they seem to lack a counterpart. Where are the artistic movements that, for better or worse, radically reject the forms of the past, and try to build the future from the ground up? Isn’t that how many of the idioms we nostalgically love today were created in the first place?

The Internet is basically the Jedi Archives

It almost seems as if we radically do not want to even think about the future. On one level, for many people in the West, the present is pretty cosy, and we now have (digital) access to so much past culture that the need to innovate is less urgent. If something is missing in today’s cultural landscape, we can simply resurrect some campy element of the (recent) past, and if we present it ironically enough, we can be cool to boot. Some revolutionary currents of the past were born as a protest against poverty, isolation, and repression, and obviously that has little relevance to today’s middle class youth.

At the same time, just beyond the veil of the future, things are clawing at us. It often seems as if more than anything, we are all seeing the first signs of our modern welfare under siege, and fear that we might lose our way of living. There may be some truth to that. Economic developments and increasing financial insecurity, social mobility, globalisation, the rise of (domestic and global) terrorism and tribalism, these are all issues that put strain on sense of community and security, and perhaps this is why we have an extra incentive to hold on to the present and (imagined) glorious past for dear life?


The longing for a better past is mirrored in many more sociocultural trends than the few I’ve mentioned here. In the Netherlands at least, people are frantically trying to (re)construct a national identity, based on perceived traditional values and symbols thereof, and this is reflected in the visuals and language of our politicians and media. Symbols like cheese, wind, water, level-headedness, as well as linguistic labels of ‘ur-Dutchness’ [Oerhollands] are utilised to a great degree to instil some sense of community into the citizens, whether it is to sell a product or secure a vote. To me, all this seems like trying to catch water in a net.

Shouldn’t we rather be facing the future, and secure a place in it? The eighties were an era of cold war angst, yet that didn’t stop artists from looking forward. So how do we lift the fog of tomorrow today? Perhaps we should reinstate the future utopia alongside the post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the sepia-toned meadows of the past. First in our imaginations, and then in our plans. And create things that help us get there, or that allow us to escape if we can’t get there in our lifetime.

Ghosts will keep haunting us, but that doesn’t mean we should always acknowledge them. We can ignore them and look ahead, or even attempt to exorcise them.

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