A Thoroughly Modern Haunting What is this Irish landscape of the present and the not-too-distant-future? It seems familiar, but it is different. It looks perhaps like Goldsmith’s (1770) “Deserted Village”. Goldsmith’s houses had been abandoned by peasants who had left for the city, to work in the dark satanic mills of Manchester. But they were fleeing what Marx & Engels (1985: 225) called “the idiocy of rural life” and they were people who were going to places where they might ‘make history, with will and consciousness.’ These people were not yet zombies, though that became the fate of millions of their grandchildren. We glimpse this weird modern landscape again in T. S. Eliot’s (1922) The Waste Land; London, epicenter of early 20th century metropolitan civilization, appearing as a fractured and incoherent cultural and spiritual wasteland. And for those few Irish who had not emigrated to London or its equivalents, but who had remained in Ireland hoping to be nourished by the modern Irish republic, Kavanagh (1942, 57) says that they had nothing but ‘the hungry fiend screaming an apocalypse of clay in every corner of the land’. We glimpse another version of the landscape of the recurring future-present in the barren stages of Samuel Beckett: the lunar / nuclear mis en scene of Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Krapp’s Last Tape, wherein, all the content of fantasy and illusion stripped away, the individual is confronted by what Lacan (1981) has called “the Lack”, the void of meaninglessness and groundlessness that yawns open under the feet of modern civilization. The interiors of the houses of Celtic Tiger Ireland seem to be brighter, richer, fuller places than the nightmares depicted by Kavanagh and Beckett. But are they? Have we awoken from the nightmare of our history? Or is this another convolute in the interior structure of the dream – dreaming we have awakened in order that we may carry on sleeping?
The interior of the contemporary Irish “dream home”, the “ideal home” as a wilderness of mirrors, is a shrine to the “cult of the individual” (Durkheim, 1974). The central cult object over the mantle-piece is no longer the traditional picture of the Sacred Heart or the Madonna with the serene gaze, but a large, gilt-framed mirror over the cold hearth, reflecting the empty room and the vacant, grinning visage of the occupant - if there is an occupant; for as often as not the place of the occupant is filled by a placeholder, a sales agent in the so-called “showhouse”, viewing between 11.00am and 4.00pm, Monday to Saturday, and Sunday afternoons. Potential homeowners wander through, pilgrims in the grotto of commodity fetishism; the shrunken family of one-dimensional man, shades of our former selves, or more tragically, simulacra of the fully human selves that we might have become. In the “showhouse” we encounter a thoroughly modern form of haunting, the ghost in the machine. The iron cage of rationalized acquisitiveness, Weber (1958,178) says, thoroughly disenchanted and systematically cleansed of all higher spiritual values, is ‘haunted by the ghosts of dead religious beliefs.’ Lacking, and thereby desiring re-enchantment, we are seeking something in the showhouse as commodity fetish. In the real estate brochures we are promised the ‘home with character’, the house with ‘personality,’ the ‘starter family home’ in the ‘new neighborhood community’; the ‘executive residence’ in the ‘exclusive gated enclave’; all simulacra of the wholeness and continuity of neighborhood, community, society, and of collective life. “There is no such thing as society”, Margaret Thatcher famously declared at the beginning of the neo-liberal revolution. “There are individual men and women, and there are families”. It is the soul-less individuals of this market dogma and its empty, solipsistic theology who occupies Ireland’s new, haunted houses.
Look at David Creedon’s photographs, then, as memento mori, reminders of mortality: “Remember man thou art but dust, and into dust thou shalt return”. These aren’t nostalgic souvenirs, simply images of a vanished past, haunted by ghosts of the faithful departed, but rather, and as well, they are portents and premonitions of a holocaust that may be to come. Just as these photographs represent epiphanies, they are also images of apocalypse. These are images of the quiet, cold spaces that are in the eye of the hurricane, the storm of history that may be about to break upon us – the recurrence of poverty, desolation, and emigration - whereby our new houses, the new houses that we’ve been building during the Celtic Tiger, become emptied once again –abandoned by the builders and developers, repossessed by the banks and mortgage lenders; bereft of parents and emptied of children, big, cold houses, where the fires have gone out, or where there was never a fire lit; houses where there are no ancestral spirits as they have never – and possibly never will be - lived in at all; these vacant, soul-less houses are ‘haunted by a lack of ghosts’ (Frye, 1977, 22). A society that has sold its soul to materialism has left us short of places to shelter. The devil may now come knocking on our doors.
How will we know this devil when he comes calling? The Celtic Tiger is dead. We need a picture of the “rough beast” in his next metempsychosis. While his specifically Irish form hasn’t yet fully materialized - perhaps as a free-wheeling cosmopolitan with roots in the homeland, a champion of the market who rails against Europa’s collective household under the banner of Liberty - we do have to hand a powerful image of high-modern lycanthropy that might serve as a placeholder for the time being. This figure of man-devolved-into-wolf - ‘wer-wolf’ - is the well-known cartoon figure of Wile E Coyote. Wile E Coyote and the Road Runner are cartoon anti-heroes of the decline of American civilization into market driven nihilistic mass consumerism wherein homo homini lupis est – “man is a wolf to man.” In the North American Native mythology analyzed in Radin’s (1972) famous study, Coyote is a Trickster archetype. Native American Coyote myths are tales ‘told to account for the history of the universe’ embracing cosmogony, religion and tradition, history, law and economics, and tragedy and comedy (Bright, 1993, xii). Wile E Coyote stands for humanity as mere individual animal appetite. His intelligence and cunning are singularly devoted to his ungoverned desire. He represents the political and libidinal economies of an unregulated market. Coyote stands for possessive individualism chasing obscure and fetishized goals of progress & abundance (represented by Roadrunner) through a barren desert landscape (representing modern civilization). In trying to catch Roadrunner, Coyote employs cunning but also science & technology, represented by the various gadgets, tricks, and devices supplied by the “Acme Co.” - rockets, telescopes, invisible paint, superfoods, geometric models & mathematical formulae - the paraphernalia of espionage and the cold war arms race (which of course was actually happening in America’s deserts at the time the cartoon was penned, just as Coyote’s mad pursuit whips up a storm now in another desert). Furthermore, the formulae and models used by Coyote represent the market dogma of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School economics and “rational choice” theory that have been the hallmarks of global American hegemony. “Acme,” meaning “American Corporations Make Everything” and acme meaning the pinnacle of development envisaged by modernization theory’s Stages of Economic Growth as the stage of global mass consumption, is an overdetermined signifier for the dominant mindset of American civilization as hyper-individuated technocratic free-market utopia.
But Wile E Coyote’s reliance on technologies employed only in the narrow instrumental goal of satisfying his immediate appetite invariably rebound on him. The result is always the same - catastrophe! He runs out over the edge of the canyon. He is suspended momentarily in the air, carried on by his momentum, or clinging by his fingertips to the remnants of his fantasy, until he looks down at the lack of ground beneath his feet. And then, when the disjuncture between the imaginary and the symbolic orders reveals the Real, he falls. The only question that remains is “how far?” He falls to the bottom of the canyon floor and crashes painfully in a cloud of dust, and, typically, the wreckage of his tricks and schemes – a flying contraption, a ticking bomb (Acme’s market failures like banks and private enterprise’s debts and liabilities passed on to the public and the taxpayer) come plummeting after him, and just as he is picking himself up they land on his head and clobber him again. But Coyote always survives. An archetype, he is indestructible, like a vampire cursed to be forever undead; driven only by a thirst that is impossible to slake, he gets up, charred and smoking from the explosion, crushed and broken under the debris, and he repeats the cycle all over again. This is the horror of the consumer in the modern wilderness where community and society have been eclipsed by the market. Like Coyote, we seem to learn nothing, and under the spell of progress through technology - cathected in fantasies of the divine powers of market logics and rational action to deliver affluence, reduced to the impoverished form of frantic circulation of digitized financial products, leveraged on our dream houses and a superabundance of commodity fetishes - we remain trapped in a nightmare of history as perpetual recurrence of the present. We bail out the banks, transfer the debt burden to the public, reboot the markets, return again to the Acme catalogue, and begin the mad cycle all over. But right now, like Wile E Coyote, the post-Celtic Tiger Irish are suspended in thin air over the abyss, clinging to the remnants of the illusion of affluence, afraid to look down, about to fall. It’s a long way down…