Hauntology, or the spectral turn: while its brief moment of fashion as a bit of critical theory quickly came and went a decade ago, current popular cinema has yet to give up the ghost, foregrounding moments of spectral fascination that blur a formerly reliable division between the concepts of presence and absence. Jacques Derrida, punning on “ontology,” first coined the term to describe the lingering effect of Marxism on the West (“a spectre is haunting Europe” et cetera), but as Fredric Jameson explained later, hauntology nags our culture more broadly with the idea that “the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be” and that we would do well to attend to the ghost as a neither present nor absent figure of incomprehensible otherness. Thus, hauntology is not simply about a belief in literal ghosts, and Derrida’s recurring example, Hamlet’s lament that “the time is out of joint,” instead captures the deeply unsettling experience of a haunted existence.
Curiously, in recent popular releases like Interstellar, Blackhat, and Ant-Man, this not-here-but-not- gone haunting spectrality is associated with and arises from a kind of pop cultural quantum mysticism. Plot points about time travel, gravity, relativity, the atom, and higher dimensions demonstrate a renewed fascination with describing and explaining atomic and subatomic worlds and their relationship to our own from a semi-scientific point of view that conservatively attempts, but ultimately fails, to posit humanistic values of love, family, and memory as triumphant over the alienating science of quantum mechanics.
For instance, in Interstellar, the hero bends space-time in order to haunt his daughter from a higher-dimensional future and reunite with her. In Blackhat, the hacker “ghostman” enters a nuclear facility destroyed by a computer hacking that was visualized at the atomic level. In Ant- Man, the hero’s sacrifice for his daughter threatens to leave him haunting the subatomic world forever, like his predecessor The Wasp.
The spark for this essay was my frustration at Ant-Man’s narrative containment of women: the film has an expert woman train a weak man in order to perform a role that she is already more than well suited for. We learn that she is denied the opportunity to be a hero because her father, the original Ant-Man, lost his wife The Wasp, and he is afraid now of losing his daughter. In an earlier battle The Wasp disappeared into the quantum realm, eternally shrinking and haunting her husband’s past, her daughter’s future, and possibly even other dimensions. As with Ophelia’s suicide in Hamlet, hauntological narratives come at the expense of women, and I immediately recalled how Blackhat and Interstellar (to somewhat lesser degrees) also elevated scientific-minded men over otherwise equally intelligent women. I wanted to use the video essay format to show how these films haunt each other, juxtaposing audio and video from earlier eras of science fiction film.
Quantum haunting, then, is a specifically technologically-oriented kind of spectrality in contemporary cinema, taken by the strange new science of quantum concepts like superposition, complementarity, decoherence, and the quantum entanglement that Albert Einstein famously dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” Like most narrative films, these are ultimately conservative and antithetical to the ethical aims of hauntology as a philosophical position: these films both embrace a bright future where the quantum world can be placed under man’s dominion and argue that no matter how spectacular, the science of the quantum world will always be subservient to the sensitivities of man’s heart.
Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, (New York: Routledge, 1993).
Fredric Jameson, “Marx’s Purloined Letter,” New Left Review 209 (1995): 75–109.
Note: for shot-by-shot citations of the video essay’s source material, please turn on closed captioning.
Thanks go to Kevin B. Lee for helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of this video.
Kevin L. Ferguson is Assistant Professor at Queens College, City University of New York, where he directs Writing at Queens and teaches digital humanities, film adaptation, college writing, and contemporary American literature. His book Eighties People: New Lives in the American Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) examines new cultural figures in the American 1980s.