~The Haunted Web~
the web speaks to us as ghost stories speak to us: of memory and time.
Of memory: a jumbled and discordant set of images and sounds, like the hypnogogia of death or dreaming. Facebook remembers more about me than I do.
Of time: splintering, rubbing up against itself, experienced out-of-order, looping and stuttering, and slipping away in a hollow afternoon of doomscrolling that seems not to happen at all.
In the dissociative nonfiction collection Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher writes that time has stopped.
When he first heard Amy Winehouse's song 'Valerie', his instinctive guess was that it was an 1960s original that the Zutons had then covered (in fact, the Zutons' 2006 version came first). And when he first saw the Arctic Monkeys video for 'I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor', he again assumed it was a clip from the past (and the lyrical reference to "1984" an evocation of the future). He writes about the present moment's popular culture as characterised by this stoppage of time: an attachment to retro which means our own period has yet to develop a signature sound that places us in time. He writes that the same distance of time exists between Glenn Miller and Kraftwerk, that exists between us and jungle. And yet, is there anything that's happened musically in the last ten years which would shock a listener of the 1990s, were it somehow piped backwards in time? Anything like the shock of jumping from big band to electrosonic? Fisher uses this as a starting point to explore the sense of stuckness in our politics, a going-nowhere of the 00s; as well as other texts with a hauntological mood, texts which seem to evoke time in reverse or stuck on hold.
I don't think we can explain what Fisher describes without looking at the web. I learned from Simon Reynolds that in the 70s, getting old music was a near impossibility; instead, one was trapped in a perpetual "now". You had to be lucky and wealthy to track down Japanese reprints of albums even a few years old - there was no "back catalogue" available to buy - and so the present moment felt like what was on the radio, what was at the record store, and these formed waymarks in time.
How strange that we are here, in the future, surfing the digital cyberhighway, becoming cyborg as our technology forms such an integral part of our bodies and psyche - and yet our sense of the future feeling "futurey" is gone - because our access to every tune, every era, every evocation of memory and moment, is happening all at once. Stories of ghosts are stories of a fracturing in time: something that ought not to be here, and yet still is.
My machine pipes Patrick Cowley, then the Orb, then back to Noel Coward, and all the way forward to 100 gecs; time does not exist, not here, not any more. There's always been something a little ghostly about music: dead voices, empty Blitz ballrooms, empty San Francisco bars. But if the web is a place, it is one where things from discordant times are jumbled up together - like the lost property offices and antique collections that form triggers for time to shatter in the world of Sapphire and Steel. A girl in sombre victorian clothes skips, unexpectedly, down the hallways of a modern flat; a maid in tudor garb appears, runs and then screams in a certain room of the video laboratory; and in my room, surrounded by wires, Al Bowly lives on as sound - repeated over, and over, and over, until he is interrupted by SOPHIE, and for a moment - we have broken time.
Much of my day is spent sitting still, looking at a pane of black glass hallucinating vividly; my international friends are here-and-yet-not-here. Conversations held silently, like wandering around an empty art gallery. We drift through walls, from room to room - our presence unobserved. Somebody speaks in an empty room. Two years later, their speech act is still echoing there, as I enter the room and finally hear it. Perhaps I make some reply. I am not sure if the speaker will ever return. All the same, I reply - and it is suspended in the air like motes of dust, disrupted as silent feet shuffle by.
The modern interfaces of the internet are designed to distract us from this strangeness; everything is sleek and clean. One of my earliest, clearest memories of computing was how uncomfortable it made me. These places which were not places. The sense of unreality was far more salient. The digibeaches and flooding Miami malls recreated with loving irony in vaporwave are interpreted in popular culture as commentary on commercialism, nostalgia for the optimism of the 90s, or the garish aesthetic joy of retro. What seems to be missing is that these landscapes felt sinister. Uncanny valley, but for space rather than people. Digital art is necessarily abstract - to compress the physical world into binary and pixels that still read to the human eye as real. But unlike the abstractions of life that have existed in art, for as long as humans have created art, the digital is somewhat different. It's designed to be entered. To log on is to be surrounded by unreality - to become unreal.
We are long past the era where we pretended each webpage was a kind of room. The early internet used the language of physical space - from "chatroom" to "homepage" - as if we weren't quite ready to relate to the digital world as pages and data. I remember vividly the sense of relating to the web as a series of places. My early pagan spirituality was built from pixels and Times New Roman in little hand-coded cottages with a "Garden" of herbal remedies and a "Library" of articles (sometimes, delightfully, with a little bookshelf you could click). To come across them now is like wandering the remnants of a silent city; those digi-homes are haunted spaces, long abandoned; diary entries from long-vanished hands, photographs left behind, memories in empty rooms. I think about the pagan prayer to open the circle and part the veil: "this is a place that is not a place, this is a time that is not a time; we are between worlds, but what we do here affects all worlds".
The web is a necropolis, where the dead will one day outnumber the living. In my years online, people who have been part of my daily life have suddenly, unaccountably winked out of existance. Disconnected or died? or, like ghosts on a stone tape, merely overwiped. On the web we are ageless; our bodies may decay, but text typed at 14 looks much the same typed at 24 or 54.
The web is a place between the living and the dead - where we are souls but not bodies. Where we create ourselves through words, and we are imagined to look something like our avatars - no flesh here, just a 90x90 and flatness, reduced to colour and text - nothing sensory, nothing real.
i adore tumblr's playful xenogenders: raingender, deergender, stargender. they speak to a deep truth of what it is to live online. in the physical world, we signal gender through our bodies and clothes and mannerisms; but what is it to be "clothed" or "bodied" online? What is an online "mannerism"? Instead, we create our presence from paper. I think it is deeply true for someone whose sideblog is gentle gifs of the rain against a muted thick-glass windowpane to express their gender as rain. Their social signalling, their physical shape, what we experience when interacting with them - is the rain. What other truth could there be, in a world without bodies? Here, too, is political possibility: we practice living in a world where social and physical gender becomes an irrelevance. Alongside those who feel their relationship to traditional genders is core to who they are - who wish to continue stating and celebrating that part of their existence, and bring it with them into their second life - we can explore other ways to be: "the most essential part of me is my deerlikeness; the essence of my body and brain is autumnal; my inner truth, and how I wish you to perceive me, is something to do with outer space".
Only online could we begin to articulate ideas like voidgender, glitchgender, ghostgender - people experiencing themselves as entities and presences. I think of myself as sonic; i feel ghostly, not the shape of a human person who was once alive and is now not, but the emanation of something from the walls and floorboards, the distant drifting melody of tearoom pop from a room that can never be discovered. But then, i blog about music. The "online body" that i am, the self that others encounter, is no more than the cumulation of sounds i have presented.
I could drift through lists of xenogenders all day, marvelling in the imagined sensory delights and political possibilities of living online: i am a star, i am a wind, i am "a gender that is spring-like, flowery, lightly frosted, thin, and calming"; i am "a gender that is flamboyant, dark, cool, and wintry. It is gloomy, calming, and freezing as well". What i am not is a thing trapped by my flesh, confined merely to the sensations i can encounter in the world. There's something ghostly about that: leaving the body behind, to become instead a spectre. Yours is like a spirit of the breeze that blows through town; no one remembers, unless it knocks something down.
After a while, it becomes hard to tell if the dissociative web is creating my dysphoria, or the other way around; the internet is where I go when I need to be nowhere and nothing, a place where feeling ghostly is not strange, and everyone's gender is uncanny.
When Mark Fisher writes about the eerie, he starts from pop culture: M.R. James, Sapphire and Steel, Picnic at Hanging Rock.
When he looks at The Shining, he doesn't see a haunted hotel - he sees a happening; he sees things that are not immediately nameable as 'ghosts', things the characters never identify as a monster called 'ghost' - there is no suggestion, for example, that they could be exorcised or banished. They're just there; and one could just as easily imagine it as an encounter with an alien presence, a mind that humans cannot comprehend whose inscrutable motives are its own. His refrain "Who is the real Management of the Overlook Hotel?" points us to the invisible presence of the Hotel Management - which is described, but never seen; its nature unknown, but its power undeniable. Inevitably, he turns to politics. Capitalism is an eerie entity - it has no cause, no first mover, it is everywhere but nowhere; it causes-things-to-occur, we feel but cannot touch it. To live under capitalism is to be trapped within a structure where things Occur. We shall never know the true Management of the Overlook Hotel, but to feel its presence in every part of every hour. Food arrives at shops. Elections occur. Cargo is offloaded. Who directed them? How did these things begin? I'm reminded of Wilfred Owen's ghostly "The Send Off"; "Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp/ Winked to the guard."
So what do I imagine the shape of the internet to be? Not wires, not webpages, not people sitting at desks: I think about the Overlook, the abstractions of ghostliness; I think about formless things, whitenoise and fogcloud.
I think about an absent presence that follows me when I walk down the street, still musing on what happened online earlier that day - a whole reality that only ever exists within my skull. It makes things occur, but it has no clear direction - no management, no sole mover, no first cause - and yet it permeates everything, like the scent of a haunting that cannot be scrubbed out of the walls. I think about chance online encounters that have changed my life, and yet there is another sense in which they have not happened at all; nobody saw them happen; nobody intended them; nothing was seen or recorded, ghosts that cannot be picked up on geigercounter, apparitions only i saw. Fisher picks up on "it is nowhere, and it is forever" as the characteristic mood of capitalism, being trapped in the the motorway service station of the soul. I think about my hours lost to Facebook, that are not hours at all - compressing and expanding so that I experience time as both blink-of-the-eye and eternal emptiness.
I think about a ghost's compulsive looping - over and over and over again, I run then scream and I fall, I run then scream and I fall//as I lie there in stillness clicking refresh, clicking refresh, clicking refresh. I have not left this house in weeks. perhaps I am no longer able to. perhaps I give excuses to myself for why I am inside (clicking refresh, clicking refesh) to hide from myself the truth that I am trapped here, and the outside no longer exists for me.
eerie feelings are the natural state of the internet: where did this come from? why is it here? who did this?
how do we make it stop?
Ghosts of My Life - Mark Fisher
// The Weird and the Eerie - Mark Fisher
//Retromania - Simon Reynolds
// Sapphire and Steel: Assignment 4
//Selected Memories of the Haunted Ballroom - the Caretaker