Quantum Haunting

Creator's Statement

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.


Works Cited

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.

Hauntology, spectrality, ghostly agencies of a time “out of joint” – these Derridean concepts serve in Kevin L. Ferguson’s video essay “Quantum Haunting” simultaneously as a thematic focus and as a formal principle of construction. That is, the spatiotemporal “bleed” and the blurring of boundaries between here and there, now and then, are at once the object of Ferguson’s analysis (and of the films he looks at in this analysis) as well as the aesthetic effect or quality of its presentation: ghostliness describes the very medium of his analysis, which proceeds by juxtaposing visual and aural tracks in such a way as to emphasize resonances across a broad historical range of cinematic representations. This productive intertwining of theme and form, object and medium, clearly differentiates Ferguson’s video essay from a “canned lecture” or screencast recording of a conference presentation, for example, while also raising a number of questions or “useful problems” more generally about the goals of videographic scholarship and the role and form of argumentation within it.

In short, Ferguson’s video essay can be read as a provocation that – in addition to saying something about a “pop cultural quantum mysticism” or “specifically technologically-oriented kind of spectrality in contemporary cinema” – confronts us with questions of purpose: not only “What does contemporary cinema want?” but also “What does videographic criticism want?”

The confluence of these two questions is necessarily focused in a more specific one, from which we must proceed and begin to trace these entanglements, namely: “What does this video essay want?” Indeed, the latter question is one that we can (and probably should) ask of any video essay. Oftentimes, the answer will be that it wants to inform us about a given historical or theoretical phenomenon, to provide an answer to a more or less general or specific question like “What does contemporary cinema want (with its representations of quantum entanglement etc.)?” Less often, the answer will be more self-reflexive, and the purpose of the video essay will be (at least in part) to question the purpose of its own medium, to probe the affordances and limitations of the video essay as a medium. Ferguson himself has provided an excellent example of such probing, with his hauntingly beautiful video essay “Volumetric Cinema” (published in [in]Transition 2.1).

Compared to “Volumetric Cinema,” the present video essay seems far less experimental, but the kind of self-reflexivity described above – which itself might be seen to institute a “spectral” blurring of content and container, medium and message – happens to be at the heart of the phenomenon that Ferguson is studying in “Quantum Haunting”: contemporary cinema, or “post-cinema,” uses the narrative conceit of quantum entanglement in order to foreground its own mediality (think of CGI spectacles like Interstellar’s tesseract, which serve the extra-narrative purpose of visualizing the informatic substrate of digital images), while precisely this digital mediality both defines and complicates ontological and historical questions about the relations between cinema and post-cinema. And the medium of the video essay, which in its present form and proliferation depends so crucially on computational editing and digital distribution platforms, is caught up in the same realm of questions: taking materials from the history of cinema, processing them digitally, and using them as the vehicle of reflection, analysis, and argumentation, videographic criticism and scholarship can be seen as quintessentially post-cinematic modes in which sounds and images float “spectrally” between analog and digital, between quotation and original context, and between authorial and critical purposes. Given, therefore, the resonance between the focus and the medium employed, we can detect a much subtler self-reflexivity at work in “Quantum Haunting,” an understated questioning of the means and purposes of videographic criticism itself.

I have already mentioned the way that mixing audio and video from different sources works to show how the history of cinematic representations haunt one another across time and space; this might be seen as a specifically videographic interpretation of a central tenet (and practice) of deconstruction: viz. the instability of texts and their signifiers, such that we never simply read a single text (or view a single film) but are always involved in an endless play of signs, texts, and images that explodes the punctual present. Split-screen juxtaposition, a technique widely used in videographic criticism, enacts a powerful image-based version of this reading practice, while Ferguson’s technique here would seem in some respects to intensify that tendency, as it presents a free-flowing multiplication, dissociation, and recombination of images and audio tracks. This involves a further blurring of medial boundaries, and it presses the question further of what videographic criticism can do or be. But this blending and mixing of sources brings with it the possibility of confusion: I, for one, was at times uncertain about the relations between the visual and aural tracks and puzzled by the connections implied between them. It is all the more important, therefore, that Ferguson uses the closed-captioning functionality of his medium (streaming digital video and the vimeo platform in particular) to document his sources; and these captions, fittingly, are themselves “spectral” signifiers: both there and not there, present even in their absence, they don’t distract from our viewing but they are available to us if and when we need them. In this way as well, Ferguson’s video essay self-reflexively probes the question of both the aesthetic and the scholarly affordances of digital video for the study of audiovisual media.

With regards to the role of argumentation within videographic criticism, “Quantum Haunting” is no less thought-provoking in its questioning of “content” as opposed to form. What exactly is the argument? And where is it located? With the emphasis on spectrality, it seems inappropriate to demand that the argument should be easily “contained” within the video. Even more than many video essays, therefore, we have to view it in conjunction with the written text accompanying it. Depending on one’s taste, this may be seen either as a weakness or a strength, a bug or a feature of the video’s exploration of quantum entanglement. This, too, then involves a formal question that pertains to videographic criticism generally.

But to return to the thematic focus more particularly, Ferguson writes in his text that contemporary cinematic treatments of the quantum realm “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.” Can we regard this as a sort of thesis statement? If so, we need to ask how the video argues for it. The clips from InterstellarBlackhat, and Ant-Man – the three films explicitly discussed in Ferguson’s text – most clearly support his claim about a “specifically technologically-oriented kind of spectrality in contemporary cinema,” while the inclusion of clips from earlier films demonstrates the way in which the contemporary movies are “haunted” by their precursors’ conservatism. On the other hand, however, this “demonstration” is of a particularly performative kind: certainly, the historical films haunt the contemporary ones in our viewing of the video essay because the video ties them together in such a way as to make such connections unavoidable. But does this demonstrate a relation between the films themselves? This is not an entirely rhetorical question; it is wholly unclear to me whether and to what extent Bride of Frankenstein or Alice in Wonderland are “objectively” related to Interstellar or Ant-Man, though they become so in the viewing of Ferguson’s video. This is also not a complaint about an illegitimate “engineering” of connections, for that is the very purpose of juxtaposition, and in this respect any videographic juxtaposition needs to confront the question of performativity and its relation to argumentation. It is in such contexts, I believe, that videographic work opens itself most pointedly to charges that it misunderstands established standards and conventions of scholarship, because it relies here more on subjective aesthetic experience than objective demonstration. I do not believe that such charges are on the mark, but they do show us the need for sustained thought about the role – indeed, the very definition – of argumentation in videographic works, many of which (the present one included) might, sans textual accompaniment, be taken just as easily for works of video art as for scholarship.

In other words, we need to think more about the ways in which this performativity can be a dimension of, rather than a hindrance to,videographic argumentation. And Ferguson’s video, which refrains from explicitly articulating an argument but clearly goes beyond simply illustrating the text that accompanies it, deserves credit for provoking this question. The question “Is this scholarship?” – a form of the question “What does this video want?” – seems unavoidable, and reflection on it might help illuminate the larger question, “What does videographic criticism want?” One way of responding might be to formulate standards of scholarship, but it is doubtful that any single measure will suffice; on the other hand, this is true also for text-based scholarship: for example, deconstruction often looked like linguistic play, like a failure or lack of argumentation, to people outside of that tradition. Is Ferguson’s video essay ultimately a kind of deconstructive video philosophy? I am not sure I am quite ready to affirm this thought, but certainly it points in an interesting direction.

Allow me, in conclusion, to follow this trajectory for just a moment. “Video philosophy” is the rubric under which Maurizio Lazzarato has sought to think the reorganization of time through new technologies, including above all video and digital computation, which “see” and “think” faster than we humans can. Building upon Lazzarato, we might think with Ferguson towards an even more self-reflexive engagement with videographic techniques as an explicitly post-cinematic practice. Accordingly, we might revisit his argument about the specific function of quantum entanglements in recent films like Interstellar and Ant Man: these, I suggest, are not just about what Ferguson calls the “alienating science of quantum mechanics” and the gulf between it and human values, but about a fundamental reorganization of time through digital technologies operating on a microtemporal scale beneath the threshold of human perception. We can think here of the many images of computers and nanoscale representations highlighted in Ferguson’s video, as well as the foregrounding of digital animation techniques that they serve self-reflexively to effect. Such post-cinematic techniques take us “beyond” the cinema in its classical forms (those of celluloid, live action, theatrical projection, etc.), but they do not mark a simple caesura; instead, they signal a revision of temporal relations to and within cinematic history, captured so nicely in the haunting resonances established by Ferguson across different sources, periods, and genres. As I have suggested, though, this revision of properly “historical” (or media-historical) time is inseparable from a microscale revision of temporality itself and our lived relations to it, as our perception is increasingly anticipated by the predictive algorithms of the digital (instituting what media theorist Mark Hansen has called a “feed-forward” dynamic). Because of its essentially digital processes, videographic work taps into this post-cinematic ontology, I contend, thus opening the door to a kind of praxis-based video philosophy. The video essay then becomes a “thing to think with,” a philosophical object.

This notion of “video philosophy” may not be quite what “Quantum Haunting” was aiming for – not “what this video essay wants” – but Ferguson’s spectral piece provokes a wide range of imaginative and experiential connections, beyond any narrow definition of the video essay and its supposed purpose. Amidst these possibilities is that of a speculative video philosophy, one that probes its own digital substrate and urges us to embody this “time out of joint” – both as a poetic and as a scholarly experience.

Quantum Haunting’s ingenious, seamless montage draws from a significant number of live-action and animated films released since 1935 to address a range of concerns prompted by recent and less recent ghostly narratives, as well as filmic embodiments of a trend that its author dubs “pop cultural quantum mysticism.” This is an essay that requires multiple viewings—not least because its chain of subtle audiovisual associations is relied upon at once to deliver the critical argument and to evoke and exploit cinema’s own ghostly capacities.

On the one hand,Quantum Haunting investigates the ideological implications of narratives like InterstellarBlackhat and Ant-Man, and the paradoxical conservatism of their positions on technology, humanism, and gender representation; on the other hand, it foregrounds the spectrality of film itself as a medium that can magically conjure images and voices from other times and places, as well as summon the otherworldly in ways that are deeply uncanny. In doing so, Quantum Haunting explores and demonstrates some of the specific capabilities of the video essay as a mode of film studies research: for its argument is not confined to the explicatory level, to an exemplification of the analytical work of the researcher, but emerges in equal measure from the text’s affective and aesthetic dimensions—more specifically, from what we could term their evocative intelligence. As such, Quantum Haunting foregrounds editing as the space of meaning-making where semiotic analysis and political argument become intertwined with the text’s own fascination with the filmic medium. This method relies on a certain practice of cinematic slowness; not a slowness of long sequence shots and sparse cuts, but of a web of connections that progressively come into view, form constellations, disappear, only to rise to the surface once again.

Arguably, the critical impact of such spectral connections becomes more fully apparent when examined in parallel with the author’s statement; indeed, the debate remains open as to whether a written statement is just an appendix or is in fact an essential component of an audiovisual essay—especially in the case of “poetic” essays such as Quantum Haunting. The concept of the Derridean supplement comes to mind. Equally, one wonders how the aspects of the theoretical argument that remain implicit in this essay could be further developed, if at all, through the audiovisual medium. What is certain is that Quantum Haunting produces a modality of vision in-between a pensive and an enchanted spectator, and that it overcomes the potential contradiction between the two by drawing on the particular capacity of the medium to produce knowledge at an affective and aesthetic level of communication.