Postcards from a PhD
When I was putting together my research proposal I spent a lot of time trying to come up with a snappy definition of what hauntology is. I stuck pictures and quotes to my wall that I felt in some intangible way had something to do with it – a postcard of the M1, a picture of Delia Derbyshire’s lampshade, the White Queen’s line from Alice in Wonderland about only a poor sort of memory working backwards. It was a curious anomaly that it seem easy to identify something as hauntological, almost instinctive, but insurmountably difficult to define hauntology itself.
One of the bits of ephemera blu-tacked to the wall was a index card on which I’d simply written ‘Ploughman’s Lunch’.
Explorations of hauntology that focus on its Derridean origins make much of the notion of ‘lost futures’. However, my research interest lies in hauntology’s relationship to the personal, so my reading of hauntology is more about ‘re-imagined pasts’ via the commercialisation of nostalgia and memory tourism. Hauntology to me is about the symbiosis between the distant past, a past within memory and the present. This is what makes the Ploughman’s Lunch so perfectly hauntological.
In 1983, when Eric Hobsbawm wrote in the introduction to The Invention of Tradition that “novelty is no less novel for being able to dress it up as antiquity”, he perhaps downplayed the potency of a bit of pseudo-history. A dish that epitomises British tradition despite actually only being datable to the mid-1950s, a marketing ruse to encourage people to eat more cheese, the Ploughman’s Lunch is a lovely example of novelty enhanced by faked past. The Ploughman’s Lunch works as ‘new tradition’ because it packages the past in a way we want to think of it; some good cheese, a big hunk of bread and a jug of ale, simple, satisfying. It speaks to us of a time when we had less, but what we had was good. A warped nostalgia for a time that never existed.
The Ploughman’s Lunch also evokes the time in which it was actually invented, a peculiar post-war paternalistic society that, from a modern-day perspective, is both charming and ridiculous. Invented by the Cheese Bureau, the Ploughman’s Lunch owes its popularity to the promotional acumen of the Milk Marketing Board, just one of a number of trade organisations whose role was to improve sales, guarantee quality and educate on their produce. Other examples include the Tripe Marketing Board, the Potato Council and the Cheese Information Service (from whose book Make a Meal of Cheese the image illustrating this post is taken). These epitomise the absurdity and unintentional humour of the recent past, which hauntology draws on. The theme of the historically situated organisation, institution or figure of authority is one which threads throughout the hauntological aesthetic.
And its relationship to the present? Well I guess that’s tied up with our duality of feeling towards progress, but I think I should probably save that for the thesis. In the meantime I’ll continue to labour over that snappy definition.