Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny

Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny

by Isabella Van Elferen

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Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny traces sonic Gothic from the echoing footsteps in Gothic novels to the dark soundscapes of Goth club nights. This broad perspective importantly widens the scope of Gothic music from Goth subculture to literature, film, television and video games. This book also provides the musical and theoretical definition of Gothic music that lacks in current scholarship. Whether voicing the spectral beings of early cinema, announcing virtual terrors in video games, or intensifying the nocturnal rituals of Goth, Gothic music represents the sounds of the uncanny.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783165315
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 07/15/2012
Series: Gothic Literary Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 794 KB

About the Author

Dr Isabella van Elferen is Professor of Music at Kingston University London.

Read an Excerpt

Gothic Music

The Sounds of the Uncanny

By Isabella van Elferen

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2012 Isabella van Elferen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-531-5


The Sound of Gothic Literature

Gothic Ghostwriting

Gothic Style: Spectralities

Chris Baldick describes Gothic as 'a fearful sense of inheritance in time with the claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.' Baldick's definition succinctly sums up the spatio-temporal parameters of Gothic narrative and its psychological effect, pinpointing the genre's main narrative vehicle: Gothic revolves around the suffocating spaces, the hauntings, and the psychological destabilisation of the ghost story. Empty spaces like deserted ruins, bleak landscapes, urban labyrinths or the endless void of cyberspace furnish appropriate settings for these stories, spooky spaces haunted by various types of spectres. The spaces of Gothic can be read as personal and cultural mindscapes, in which undead presences signify unprocessed traumas or unconscious obsessions of persons, historical periods or cultures. Terry Castle has argued that spectrality in the early Gothic novel represented a model of subjectivity anticipating the Freudian uncanny. In these, as in later Gothic narratives, the ghostly presence of repressed anxieties and desires destabilises the familiar area of the home, rendering it eerie, unfamiliar, unhomely (unheimlich). Since fear and desire are twin impulses, Gothic spectres are simultaneously dreadful and appealing — Anne Rice's vampires are paramount examples. As Gothic spectrality signifies cultural as well as personal hauntedness the psychoanalytical reading of the Gothic uncanny applies to individual subjectivities and cultural-historical periods. The spectrality that is paradigmatic for Gothic stories interrupts chronology, interrogating the 'presentness of the present' through the stubborn return of the past. Jacques Derrida has pointed out that 'a spectre is always a revenant', a return, indicating that the logic of haunting necessarily engenders a collapse of linear time:

'The time is out of joint': time is disarticulated, dislocated, dislodged, time is run down, on the run and run down, deranged, both out of order and mad. Time is off its hinges, time is off course, besides itself, disadjusted. Says Hamlet.

Gothic time is always out of joint. Its ghost stories testify that every present houses the ghosts of various pasts, that every self is haunted by its own repressed fears and desires. The ghosts in Gothic therefore do not necessitate the empirical possibility of spectral being, but rather, as Fredric Jameson has stated in reaction to Derrida, employ the notion of spectrality to perform a critique of the here and now:

Spectrality does not involve the conviction that ghosts exist or that the past (and maybe even the future they offer to prophesy) is still very much alive and at work, within the living present: all it says, if it can be thought to speak, is that the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us.

Gothic does not just narrate ghost stories, it wallows in their effects. Mist rolls from the pages of a Gothic novel, bats fly out of the Gothic film screen, hollow melodies echo through the darkness, transforming the domestic comfort of reading or viewing into a vortex of returning anxieties. Gothic style is repetitive and excessive, its texture overfilled with metaphors, adjectives, mood. This over-the-top-ness has been part of the Gothic idiom almost since its inception. An anonymous critic mocks the Gothic form as early as 1797:

Take — An old castle, half of it ruinous.
A great long gallery, with a great many doors, some secret ones.
Three murdered bodies, quite fresh.
As many skeletons, in chests and presses ...
Mix them together, in the form of three volumes, to be taken at
any of the watering-places before going to bed.

Such Gothic over-stylisation is indicative of the genre's effects. The repetition and excess that characterise Gothic writing are the surface ripples caused by the supernatural doublings and boundary-crossings inherent in the ghost story. Just as the intertextuality of Gothic reflects the hauntedness of writing, the excessive nature of Gothic style reflects the overflow of subjectivity that it expresses. The omnipresent Gothic tropes of found manuscripts and writing machines are a form of self-conscious irony: here the Gothic genre reflects on the artificiality of its own writing, on its own evacuated language and the emptying out of subjectivity it causes. Gothic thus not only provides, but also 'signifies a writing of excess'.

Based on these inevitably noticeable stylistic premises Gothic is an easily identifiable genre: you simply look for haunted houses, gloomy graveyards, or Victorian vamps, and there it is. Only attentive to its flamboyant style, popular evaluations of Gothic usually stop after the description of arched cathedral windows or black make-up. Academic assessments of the genre sometimes tend to follow same path; equations of horror and Gothic film or the attribution of an inherent Gothic-ness to all things vampiric are not uncommon even in scholarly debate. Yet style alone is a fragile basis for the definition of Gothic, and style-only identification can lead to problems. The narrative pattern of forgotten deaths does not in itself make Waking the Dead (BBC, 2000) a Gothic television show, for instance, and the black hair and eyeliner of Emo should not be mistaken for Goth. Gothic is a cultural phenomenon in which style, themes, mediation and performative effects are intricately linked together. Rather than focusing on the most conspicuous of these levels of expression — style — it is more fruitful to study the entanglement of these elements within the genre.

Gothic Themes: Hauntologies

'Evidently, the Gothic is not merely a literary convention or a set of motifs: it is a language, often an anti-historicising language, which provides writers with the critical means of transferring an idea of the otherness of the past into the present.' Besides the delights of terror, the desolate spaces and spectral appearances of Gothic offer their readers and viewers a form of cultural critique. The Gothic ghost story addresses the anxiety that arises when familiar values are transgressed and exchanged for the borderland of the unseen, the unheard and the unknown. Wandering in the liminal space between such opposites as past and present, life and death, good and evil, the characters in Gothic tales confront their own and their audience's latent fears and desires regarding such dichotomies. Gothic ostentatiously pushes the uncanny into its audience's face, demanding that they confront their own spectres. Like the portraits in The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole, 1764) or The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde, 1891), it offers a dark mirror image that one would rather not see, exposing the inevitable return of the repressed within the here, the now, the self. The critical gesture of Gothic revolves around this unveiling of unspeakable presences lurking underneath the well-organised surfaces of self and society, giving them the unpleasantly anthropomorphic shape of ghosts.

Gothic appears and reappears in times of cultural crisis, interrogating the spectral revenants haunting each era and society. While the specificities of the deserted spaces and spectral presences appearing in Gothic ghost stories are therefore culturally and historically contingent, their effect remains constant: they question and subvert the false securities of patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism, law. The early Gothic novel sought to explore and transgress the limits of enlightenment rationality through the destabilising factor of supernatural phenomena; Goth subculture criticises mainstream consumerist identification patterns through the defiant stance of the dark outsider; postcolonial Gothic defies imperialism through the fear of the barbaric vengeance of the non-western Other. All these forms of Gothic share a focus on spectrality as a pervasive cultural condition, a notion that has been most thoroughly explored in Derrida's accounts of hauntology. Derrida was a Heideggerian as well as a deconstructionist, and combining insights from both philosophies he followed through the 'deconstructive logic' of the spectral. This necessitated a redefinition of ontology that acknowledged the always-already of haunting:

To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology. Ontology opposes it only in a movement of exorcism. Ontology is a conjuration.

If all being and all time are fundamentally haunted, the critical gesture performed by Gothic — the disclosure of cultural spectres — is a hauntology. The cultural work of hauntology is defined by its opening up of cultural binaries and linear histories. Gothic forces its readers, viewers and listeners to identify the ghosts that haunt them, and urges them to follow Shakespeare's command to confront these: 'Thou art a scholar, Horatio. Speak to it. ... Question it.'

Uncanny Media: Hauntographies

'The gothic is a transforming agent for other codes: the uncanny ... is not one code, but a kind of gap between codes, a point at which representation itself appears to fail, displace, or diffuse itself.' The diffusion of representation that Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith notice in Gothic is the result of a complex process of friction between that 'code' and its narratological and medial context. Besides being a main theme in Gothic narrative, the uncanny is simultaneously operative on various levels of this process of Gothic narration.

To begin with, spectrality is inherent in storytelling. The creation of text is the creation of ghosts, phantom beings whose only origin is the pen that wrote them. Gothic narration explicitly puts itself in the foreground as narration, as artificiality, stressing the fact that telling a ghost story is a ghost story.'[T]he labyrinth of fiction offers no other ground, no ultimate reality, no depth and no origin': Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000), with its ever-expanding corridors, references and narrative layers, is perhaps the most evidently ground-defying labyrinth in recent Gothic literature.

Adding to the phantomality of narration, the medium that transmits the ghost story is itself far from a stable signifier. Language has long been deconstructed as ultimately self-referential and temporally disjointed: the logic of deconstruction reveals that language is far separated from originary provenance and that stories are haunted by non-origin. Hauntology seeks out the spectres that witness the non-birth of language, identifying the unrepresented behind presentation, the unsignified in signification. The act of narration, from this viewpoint, is an exposure, a revealing of the hauntology of language: to put a ghost story into words is not only to create the phantoms inhabiting the narrative but also to evoke the spectres of language. Of course this does not only hold true for language. Every act of narration, be it textual, visual or auditory, can disclose the hauntology of signification. A camera may observe a fictional world but also cuts and edits it; music technology distorts the spectral voices it communicates. The media that voice narration thereby become hauntographical agents, active mediators of the unsignified. Hauntography is hauntology operating through mediation, with media as the agents disclosing the hauntological abyss behind the symbolic order they transmit. To a certain extent all mediation is hauntographical, just as all ontology is hauntological. Since the unveiling of hauntology is the main critical gesture of Gothic, however, the uncanny media of the genre privilege hauntography. If Gothic signifies a writing of excess, then this excess must be defined as the expenditure of signification.

The effects of hypermediacy, the emphatic foregrounding of the media involved in mediation, can support hauntography. The fact that Gothic style is excessive, ironic and hypermedial supports its workings: it is the act of mediation itself that enables Gothic to expose the spectral. As Alex Link has noted, the obsessive foregroundedness of Gothic media can 'produce a momentary position of epistemological uncertainty whose euphoria stems from its bleeding into an ontological uncertainty.' What is observed here is the effect of hauntography, the ontological destabilisation caused by the disclosure of pervasive spectrality. Three orders of spectrality can therefore be distinguished in Gothic fiction: the ghosts in the narrative, the phantomality of narration and the hauntography of mediation.

Gothic is traditionally analysed with the tools of psychoanalysis. The Gothic uncanny can be read as the Freudian return of the repressed, the transgressions in Gothic stories as forms of the Freudian death drive. The disrupted binaries in Gothic stories reflect the castration Lacanian psychoanalysis associates with paternal or phallic structures; the unnameable desires and fears can be read as figurations of the Lacanian Thing. The agency of Gothic media is interpreted in such readings as functional within this psychoanalytical framework. From the Gothic textbook (1996) through to more recent works such as Limits of Horror (2008), Fred Botting argues that the Gothic 'writing of excess' is so conscious of its own function as a screen for fears and desires that this mediation itself becomes the message. Conflating media theory and psychoanalysis, Botting's readings also collapse the distinction between the spectrality of Gothic style and the hauntology of Gothic themes: 'In the dark mirror Gothic holds up to psychoanalysis repetition reduces the image to sameness, an inertial reflection occluding difference.' But in Gothic the hauntography of mediation stands between image and reflection. Gothic's emphatic disjointing of style, theme and mediation allows a clear view of its hauntological content — a content to which mediation has enabled access. Thus I would argue that in and because of the dark mirror Gothic holds up to psychoanalysis, repetition becomes difference yet again. The hauntographical mirror of Gothic mediation does not signify the dissolution of the difference between inside and outside, psychoanalysis and media; rather it establishes an uncannily reflecting but simultaneously permeable border between them. Precisely because of its hypermedial distancing of stylisation from theme, it signifies the possibility of difference. While Botting's analyses confirm the McLuhanesque 'the medium is the message', hauntography shows that this longstanding creed of media theory is in need of a Gothic update. Performing hauntography between theme and style, the Gothic medium is the transgressive massage.

Gothic Performativity: Transgressions

The work of Gothic is enabled by the crossing of boundaries, the exploration of limits. Gothic is located in a perpetual and selfperpetuating in-between. It inhabits a radicalised liminality characterised by the destabilising force of pervasive ambivalence. The effect of this ambivalence is notable within Gothic fictions themselves, but these also draw their audiences into the twilight zones they sketch. Gothic performativity — the effects and affects it causes — leaves readers, viewers and listeners as haunted by the ghosts of the repressed as the characters they read, see and hear. The crossing over into the borderlands of the uncanny occupies an important place in Gothic fiction, its transgressions depicted so vividly that audiences can almost see, feel and experience them. Gothic transgression becomes imaginable in descriptions of the vampire's bite leading to an opening of the senses and a gradual letting go of the borders between life and death. In Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1976), for instance, Lestat's bite makes all the colours in the room merge into one, the vampires seemingly radiating with preternatural light; after that there is only sound, 'louder and louder until it seemed to fill not just my hearing but all my senses, to be throbbing in my lips and fingers, in the flesh of my temples, in my veins.' Gothic transgression becomes visible when Neo takes the red pill in The Matrix (1999) ('and I'll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes') and feels the body detach itself from one, allegedly virtual, reality and sliding into the other, allegedly real, reality.

Gothic transgression is usually confined to the limits of the Gothic narrative. At the end of the story or film, the border crossing turns out to have been temporary, the limits return and the ghosts go back to their corners. This movement across, beyond and in affirmation of limits it at the heart of transgression's paradoxical phenomenology, as Michael Foucault has asserted:

The limit and transgression depend on each other for whatever density of being they possess: a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows. ... Transgression carries the limit right to the limit of its being; transgression forces the limit to face the fact of its imminent disappearance, to find itself in what it excludes.


Excerpted from Gothic Music by Isabella van Elferen. Copyright © 2012 Isabella van Elferen. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: 'Baleful Sounds and Wild Voices Ignored',
1 The Sound of Gothic Literature,
2 Gothic Film Music: The Audiovisual Uncanny,
3 Gothic Television Music: The Unhomely Home,
4 Gothic Game Music: Hyperreality Haunted,
5 Goth Music: Uncanny Embodied,
6 The Unthinkable Sounds of the Uncanny,

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