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Published onOct 26, 2023

Illustration by João Queiroz

A specter haunts the present and the future. We were always haunted, actually—but what does it mean to be haunted? Is this a horrible thing, like we see in the movies?

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the word hauntology to describe the study of nostalgia as something that we can never get rid of. Hauntology is a portmanteau of the words haunting and ontology, and Derrida created the term to define the return or persistence of certain elements from the social or cultural past, as if they were ghosts. In his book Specters of Marx,1 he posits that hauntology would be something similar to the ghost of Hamlet’s father, “a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again.”

As in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, in which the author uses the term evolution only twice (his major focus being what he called “survival of the fittest”), Derrida uses the word hauntology only three times in Specters of Marx. But this term would (not unlike the ghost he mentions) return and repeat itself in the work of British philosopher Mark Fisher, who employed the concept to write about melancholy in soundscapes and even in old science fiction series and movies. In his aptly titled Ghosts of My Life, Fisher revisits the British sci-fi TV series Sapphire and Steel, which features a couple of time-traveling aliens, to advance this notion.2 He continues to develop it in discussions of the musicians William Basinski, The Caretaker, Burial, and Philip Jeck, whose work captures a melancholic mood and what Fisher calls “the principal sonic signature of hauntology: the use of crackle, the surface noise made by vinyl.” For Fisher, “Crackle makes us aware that we are listening to a time that is out of joint; it won’t allow us to fall into the illusion of presence.” This is the meaning of hauntology for him: the presence today of the feeling of yesterday.

Based on Fisher’s way of thinking, I would like to propose that certain science-fictional works can bring us to a state of what I call neostalgia: a nostalgia for the future. Hauntology gives us the idea of a past that is always intruding upon the framework of the present time—drawing us into memory, dredging up powerful emotions, insisting that the forces that shaped the past, the injustices and abuses that unfolded years or centuries ago, are still with us. Could we use neostalgia to talk about instances of the future (or our desire for a better future) intruding upon that present-time framework?

The concept of neostalgia helps us to frame several pressing questions: Can we build a healthy future based on images and traditions from the past without carrying forward the burden of toxicity? Is it even possible? Can we shift our cultural imaginary from cyberpunk cynicism to solarpunk hopefulness now?

First, though, we need to explain two things:

  1. What do I mean by toxicity? This requires a two-pronged answer. The first is the literal one: since the Industrial Revolution, as Marx himself warned in the first volume of Das Kapital, the Earth and its ecosystems have been ravaged by the action of machines and the human beings who operate them. The pervasive burning of coal starting in the nineteenth century, and the intensive mining of metal ores in the twentieth, has destroyed soil quality and polluted our rivers and oceans, killing marine life and also making humans sick via the consumption of fish whose tissues have stored heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, and lead. But there is also a metaphorical notion of toxicity, encompassing the myriad forms of violence, oppression, and dispossession meted out by the forces of capital, undergirding all of this wanton industrial expansion and the pollution it spreads.

  2. What is solarpunk? Considered a kind of successor to the cyberpunk literature that thrived in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, solarpunk science fiction has been on the rise for the past ten years or so, featuring stories focused on ecology and proposing solutions for the climate crisis, leaning heavily and healthily on utopianism rather than the cool nihilism of cyberpunk dystopias like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net. While the definition of solarpunk is still emerging, for me, several recent novels by the Californian science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson provide powerful examples of solarpunk literature, including New York 2140 and The Ministry for the Future.

And what steps should we take in order to achieve this neostalgia, this productive engagement with the past to envision healthier planetary futures? I would humbly like to propose just a few:

A new ecology of the mind

This is based on the work of Gregory Bateson, anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, semiotician, and cyberneticist who, in 1972, published the book Steps to an Ecology of Mind.3 Bateson was, above all, a philosopher in the literal sense of the word: a friend of knowledge. He opens this book with a series of metalogues. A metalogue is a conversation about some challenging subject. In an ideal metalogue, the participants incisively and thoroughly discuss the problem, while the way the conversation is structured also sheds light on the subject.

For instance, in Bateson’s metalogue What is an Instinct? (in Steps to an Ecology of the Mind) a man talks with his daughter about the notion of instinct:

Daughter: Daddy, what is an instinct?

Father: An instinct, my dear, is an explanatory principle.

D: But what does it explain?

F: Anything—almost anything at all. Anything you want it to explain.

D: Don’t be silly. It doesn’t explain gravity.

F: No. But that is because nobody wants “instinct” to explain gravity. If they did, it would explain it. We could simply say that the moon has an instinct whose strength varies inversely as the square of the distance...

D: But that’s nonsense, Daddy.

F: Yes, surely. But it was you who mentioned “instinct,” not I.

D: All right—but then what does explain gravity?

F: Nothing, my dear, because gravity is an explanatory principle.

D: Oh.

The structure of this conversation is in itself an explanatory principle. We are observing a father explain to his daughter what explanations are.

Metalogues are useful tools not only for dialogue, but also for effectively presenting and reaching shared understandings of vexing issues. We could say that a metalogue is an attempt to build a model, or even a kind of thought experiment: it puts the reader right into the middle of the action, making them another participant in the discussion. Each speaker in the metalogue contributes an approach to a problem that doesn’t quite solve it, but calls the participants to action, inviting them to offer alternative framings and explanations.

KSR’s dialogues as blueprints for metalogues

In many novels written by Kim Stanley Robinson, dialogues among characters are constructed as metalogues of a sort, since they are always laser-focused on scientifically and socially challenging subjects, usually involving life-and-death actions and the creation of protocols. An early example of this model for dialogue is Robinson’s 1992 novel Red Mars, the first in the acclaimed Mars trilogy, where he describes a politically fractious, ideologically complex century-long project of colonizing and terraforming the Red Planet. Another example is 2015’s Aurora, which describes life aboard a generation starship traveling to establish a human settlement on a moon in the Tau Ceti star system. In both cases (and in many other novels), KSR is fond of pitching characters against each other, but not with fisticuffs. Instead, he seems to enjoy putting them in scenarios—congressional sessions, seminars, symposiums, or similar meetings—where two or more people discuss politics, society, and economics, but always framed by current events in the story. Their focus is always “what is to be done?” per Lenin’s famous question.4 And they try to come up with real answers—logistically oriented ones that can be the basis for concrete plans. There are plenty of examples in KSR’s aforementioned Ministry for the Future. One of the most interesting (and literal) ones is in Chapter 81, which is a transcript of a phone conversation between two key players at the novel’s titular ministry, Mary and Tatiana. In less than four pages, they conversation starts as run-of-the-mill dialogue and quickly mutates into a metalogue about tax havens, blockchain, and the value of money in their time. Tatiana asks Mary if she remembers cash:

Mary: I still use it! It was numbered, right?

Tatiana: Sure. But once it got moved around a couple of times, it was just cash. There were lots of ways to launder it, and it couldn’t be traced. Now it can be traced, in fact it has to be to stay real. So there’s no place to hide, there are no tax havens.

Then they talk about the climate change and how they can convince the rich, particularly in Russia, where Tatiana lives, to invest in ways to cushion this climate catastrophe, appealing to their common sense and at the same time giving us a quick-and-dirty lesson in climatology and Russian geography:

Tatiana: … And Siberia is melting, which turns out to be no joke. Some people thought it would be a good thing, that we would grow more wheat and so on, but turns out we just get a bunch of swamps, and you can’t drive on the frozen rivers like they used to. It’s a mess. Also it’s releasing so much methane and CO2 that we might make jungle planet. Nobody in Russia wants jungle planet. It’s too messy, it’s not Russian. So ideas there are changing.

There is no super-science or “handwavium” in KSR’s stories. Elsewhere, I’ve called this approach a “logistic utopia,” meaning a utopia-in-progress, where (differently from what happened in the French and Russian revolutions) people want to have their problems solved and pursue happiness here and now, rather than waiting for fulfilment in a “workers’ paradise” in the distant future.5

An example of metalogue from Red Mars, about ecology and the economics of energy in the process of terraforming Mars:

“Better just to concentrate on what we’re doing here,” Marina put in. “The basic equation is simple, efficiency merely equals the calories you put out, divided by the calories you take in, times one hundred to put it in the form of a percentage. In the classic sense of passing along calories to one’s predator, ten percent was average, and twenty percent doing really well. Most predators at the tops of food chains did more like five percent.”

“This is why tigers have ranges of hundreds of square kilometers,” Vlad said. “Robber barons are not really very efficient.”

“So tigers don’t have predators not because they’re so tough, but because it’s not worth the effort,” John said.


“The problem is in calculating the values,” Marina said. “We have had to simply assign certain calorie-equivalent numerical values to all kinds of activities, and then go on from there.”

“But we were talking about economics?” John said.

“But this is economics, don’t you see, this is our eco-economics! Everyone should make their living, so to speak, based on a calculation of their real contribution to the human ecology. Everyone can increase their ecological efficiency by efforts to reduce how many kilocalories they use …”

It’s practically the same structure as Bateson’s metalogue, except that its intended audience is adult science fiction readers, preferably those with at least a passing knowledge of ecology and economics. But even if you don’t know anything about those subjects, Robinson will explain them to you in painstaking detail through numerous metalogues scattered throughout the book. Which is a good thing, actually, because you finish the reading with much more than entertainment value.

Decolonizing and deweaponizing the past

Now, how can we—real-life people, not characters in a novel—do the same thing? To build something new, you don’t always need to destroy what came first. The green Japanese-like landscape by João Queiroz that inspired me to write this essay combines KSR’s green mindset with the old Gibsoniana fascination for East Asian cultures, particularly Japanese culture, so much in vogue in the 1980s. William Gibson, one of the greatest cyberpunk writers and author of the aforementioned Neuromancer, was one of the first authors in that movement to delve into the ambience of Japan. Instead of treating Japan as an exotic country, in Neuromancer Gibson immerses us in the geography of the streets of Chiba, a city about 25 miles east of the center of Tokyo. In the first chapter, we follow the protagonist, the hacker Case, through the streets of a seedy neighborhood at night. We don’t see only Japanese buildings and people, though; instead, we see a multitude of characters from all countries and walks of life, all of them searching for something indefinable and probably violent, as is so often the case in cyberpunk stories. In KSR’s stories, the characters also come from many different countries (Japan very much included, especially in the Mars trilogy, via the figure of Hiroko Ai, a radical ecological thinker and geneticist), but virtually all of them find connection across cultural differences in their search for a simpler way of life—a healthier and more peaceful one shaped by meaningful labor and a commitment to deliberative democracy.

I’ve never been to Japan, but I live in São Paulo, home to the largest Japanese community in the diaspora. I love Nipponese culture and the Japanese commitment to the protection of the environment. So, my affection for the gritty, cosmopolitan vitality of Gibson’s Chiba, for Robinson’s approach to diverse, collective future-making, and for the rich syncretism of Japanese-Brazilian culture in São Paulo evokes at the same time a nostalgia for the past and a desire for a better future—hence, neostalgia. Nostalgia for the new.

And it’s nostalgia because we can’t afford to forget the past. As Mark Fisher reminds us, hauntology is the presence today of the feeling of yesterday. Instead of running away from the specter of the past, with all of its messiness and violence, he invites us to embrace it and study it—using it as a point of inspiration for creating a more balanced future landscape, where we can pay homage to the past but also strive to change our mental ecosystem, learning together how to balance nature and technology.

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