May 25, 2007

Lovecraft and the Weird: Part II

lov 6.jpg

(Part II of my reflections on/ extrapolations of the Weird Realism event. Part I is here.) Collages by Julian House.

A provisional definition of the Weird might take its cue from the slightly odd and ambiguous phrase 'out of' that Lovecraft uses in the titles of two of his stories, 'The Colour Out of Space' and 'The Shadow Out of Time'. On the simplest level, 'out of' evidently means 'from'. Yet it is not possible - especially in the case of 'The Shadow Out of Time' - to avoid the second meaning, the suggestion of something removed, cut out. The shadow is something cut out of time. This notion of things 'cut out' of their proper place is one way in which Lovecraft has an affinity with modernist techniques of collage. Yet there is also a third meaning of 'out of': the beyond. The shadow out of time is, in part, a shadow of that which is beyond time.

Thinking of the Weird as the 'out of place' or the 'out of time' will take us some way to distinguishing the Weird from both the Fantastic and the Uncanny. Lovecraft's texts are not Fantastic in Todorov's sense because in his 'localised realism' there is no sense of being suspended between naturalism and supernaturalism. In Lovecraft's 'non-supernatural cosmic art', naturalism has been rejected, but not in favour of a 'marvellous' supernaturalism. As we have already seen, Lovecraft's emergence as a writer in his own right is only secured once he has left behind the Fantasy worlds of Dunsany. Worlds may be entirely foreign to ours, both in terms of location and even in terms of the physical laws which govern them, without being Weird. It is the irruption into this world of something from Outside which is the marker of the Weird.

Conceiving of the Weird as the 'out of place' clearly differentiates it from Todorov's notion of the uncanny (which is marked by the restoration of the ordinary, the return of natural laws). But it is also significantly different from Freud's version of the uncanny, too. (I should point out, at this juncture, that 'weird' comes up once in Freud’s essay as one of the many synonyms for 'unheimlich'.) Freud's uncanny is about the strange within the familiar, the strangely familiar, the familiar as strange - about, that is, the way in which the domestic world does not coincide with itself. The pyschopathologies at work here are those proper to the interior itself. The Weird brings into this interior space something which is properly beyond it, which cannot be commensurated with the 'homely' (even as its negation).

Freud's account of the uncanny has justly been highly influential on the study of Horror - in the end, more because of Freud's hesitations, conjectures and rejected theses than for the actual definition he provides. Freud's ultimate solution to the enigma of the Uncanny - his claim that it can be reduced to castration anxiety - is disappointing. What fascinates is the cluster of concepts that circulate in Freud's text, and the way in which they often reflexively instantiate the very processes that they refer to. (As Nicholas Royle's comprehensive but irritating study of The Uncanny brings out, often at rather excruciating length.) Repetition and doubling - themselves an uncanny pair which double and repeat each other - seem to be at the heart of every uncanny phenomena which Freud identifies.

But neither doubling nor repetition play a central part in the Weird. As China pointed out, the Weird has nothing to do with the 'return of the repressed'. There are, naturally, those who find the repressed - particulary the repressed of sex - returning everywhere in Lovecraft's fiction in disguised form. But this is quite different from saying that Lovecraft's stories - unlike, say, Poe's - are actually about the return of the repressed. Lovecraft's entities do not emerge as the emissaries of his characters' repressed psychic conflicts.

lov 7.jpg

In rejecting the association of the Weird and the 'return of the repressed', China argued that, far from being about the insistence of the past, the Weird is about the breakthrough of the entirely new. As he put it in his introduction to 'At the Mountains of the Madness':

    Lovecraft resides radically outside any folk tradition: this is not the modernising of the familiar vampire or werewolf (or garuda or rusalka or any other such traditional bugbear). Lovecraft’s pantheon and bestiary are absolutely sui generis. There have never been any fireside stories of these creatures, we have neither heard of nor seen anything like them before. This astonishing novelty is one of the most intriguing and important things that can be noted about Lovecraft, and about the tradition of weird fiction in general.

    (Crudely ... one might point to the early twentieth century’s sudden literary proliferation of the tentacle, a limb-type largely missing from western mythology, as symptomatic of this sea-change in the conceptualisation of monsters. There are partial precursors in some of H. G. Wells’s creatures, in the cowled hunter of MR James’s story ‘Count Magnus’, and later superb examples in the works of William Hope Hodgson, E. H. Visiak and others. Of these writers, however, Lovecraft remains utterly pre-eminent.)

If this claim about the newness of the tentacle seems initially surprising, it turns out to be extremely difficult to refute. The kraken might appear to be a counter-example, yet, as China pointed out, the kraken was described as having 'arms' not tentacles.

There is another, crucial, dimension of the newness of Lovecraft's creations however: it is disclaimed and disguised by the author. China: 'There is ... a paradox to be found in Lovecraft’s narrative. Though his concept of the monstrous and his approach to the fantastic are utterly new, he pretends that it is not.' When they confront the Weird entities, Lovecraft's characters find parallels in (invented) mythologies and lore. Lovecraft's retrospective projection of a newly minted mythos into the deep past gave rise to what Jason Colavito calls the 'cult of alien gods' in writers such as Erich von Däniken and Graham Hancock. Lovecraft’s 'retro-interring' of the new is also what places his Weird fictions 'out of' time - much as in 'The Shadow out of Time', Peaslee encounters texts written in his own hand amongst architectural relics.

lov 05.jpg

The emphasis on the new disguised as the old brings out another difference from the uncanny. Freud's uncanny is about the impossibility of the new; every seeming instance of the new will turn out to be a repetition of the very old. Lovecraft's Weird is the precise opposite of this; every apparent instance of the old is actually a case of the new. China's explanation for the Weird's radical newness is the impact of the vast trauma of the First World War (which also played its part in generating Freud's essay on 'The Uncanny' and the later 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle'). Like David Skal in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, China argues that both the deformations in Pulp Horror and the formal experiments of Modernism have their roots in the cataclysym of the Great War.

Now that we have differentiated Lovecraft from Freud, it is time to turn to the parallels between the two. Both Freud and Lovecraft's work is fundamentally about trauma, or transcendental shock. Trauma cannot be conceived of in empirical terms, because it is not an experience so much as a gap or lacuna in experience. The difference between an extremely distressing experience and a traumatic encounter turns on this lacuna. There is a fundamental ambiguity in the notion of 'transcendental shock', which Dominic drew out very well in his recent post on the subject. As Dominic puts it, the question is

    whether the “transcendental shock” presented in Lovecraft’s horror fiction is a shock registered within the transcendental, or a shock to the transcendental itself. In other words: do the “weird” elements within the fiction appear as a (disruptive, incoherent) projection across the screen of the transcendental, indicating an “outside” that is only ever manifest as a lacuna in manifestation, or do they place the transcendental itself in question, establishing a precedence of the inhuman that the transcendental cannot subdue or reappropriate?

There is a sense in which even Kant would himself have granted the theoretical 'precedence of the inhuman' over the transcendental. (Moreover, as the structural preconditions for all human experience and cognition, the transcendental is itself inhuman.) His claim, let's remember, is not that there is nothing beyond the transcendental, only that it is not possible for human beings to experience or cognize this Beyond. Rather than being the prosecutor of a 'deflationary realism' which reduces the universe to a human construction, Kant can appear as the defender of the ultimate alienness of an Outside which necessarily resists any human attempt to grasp it.

The dispute between Speculative Realism and Kantianism turns on both the question of the reality (non-ideality) of space-time and on the possibility of a knowledge radically alien to phenonomenal experience. The positing of such knowledge motivates Speculative Realism to return to Descartes and to mathematics as the model for a type of knowledge which has no analogue in common-sense or experience.

Yet the reason that I believe Lovecraft remains a Kantian is that in his stories the incursions of the Outside are always destructive of identity, sense and sanity. The quest for arcane knowledge can only ever end in schizophrenia. The Real cannot be assimilated. The climactic encounter with the Real in Lovecraft’s stories ends in an identification that shatters identity, a disintegrative integration of the Outside into an interior that is retrospectively revealed to be a delusive envelope, a sham. Take the early, Poe-inspired ‘The Outsider’, in which the unnamed character reaches out his fingers towards a shambling monstrosity only to feel the cold surface of reflective glass – Lovecraft’s version, or reversal, of the mirror stage, in which a being that had previously imagined itself to be complete and coherent finds that it is a monster. Or ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’, in which it is ultimately revealed that the lead character is himself a Deep One. (As Dominic pointed out, it is unclear what the mechanism that has brought about this transformation is: is it genetic reversion, or contamination, or some combination of the two?) I am It; where Ego was, Id shall be.

lov 8.jpg

This is why the category of the traumatic is so suggestive in relation to Lovecraft's stories: it grants the importance of the transcendental whilst also indicating how it can be ruptured. Famous remarks that Freud makes in 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' ('as a result of certain psychoanalytic discoveries, we are today in a position to embark on a discussion of the Kantian theorem that time and space are "necessary forms of thought"’) indicated that he believed that the unconscious operated beyond the transcendental structures of time, space and causality which govern the perceptual-conscious system. Throughout his work, Freud repeatedly stressed that the unconscious knows neither negation nor time. Hence the Escheresque image in 'Civilization and its Discontents' of the unconscious as a Rome 'in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest ones' (an image recently, and aptly, cited by Daniel in one of his posts on INLAND EMPIRE).

Freud's weird geometries have clear parallels in Lovecraft's fictions, with their repeated invocations of non-Euclidean spaces. Witness the description of 'the geometry of the dream-place' in 'Call of Cthulhu': 'abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.'

Yet it is important not to surrender Lovecraft too quickly to a notion of the unrepresentable. Lovecraft is too often taken at his word when he calls his own entities 'unnameable' or 'indescribable'. As China pointed out, typically Lovecraft no sooner calls an entity 'indescribable' than he begins to describe it, in very precise technical detail. (Nor, despite his predilection for using the term 'unnameable' - mocked but also defended by Lovecraft himself in his own story 'The Unnameable' - is Lovecraft shy of giving names to Things.) But this sequence has a third moment. After (1) the declaration of indescribability and (2) the description comes (3) the unvisualizable. For all their detail, or perhaps because of it, Lovecraft's descriptions do not allow the reader to synthesize the loghorreic schizophony of adjectives into a mental image, prompting Graham Harman to compare the effect of such passages with Cubism, a parallel reinforced by the invocation of 'clusters of cubes and planes' in 'Dreams in the Witch House'.

lov 11.jpg

So far, my discussion of Lovecraft's weird realism has concentrated on what happens within the stories themselves, but one of the most important effects Lovecraft produces happens between the texts. The systematization of Lovecraft's texts into a 'mythos' might have been the work of August Derleth, but the inter-relationship of the stories, the way in which they generate a consistent reality, is crucial to understanding what Ben Noys called the 'Lovecraft event'. It might appear that the way that Lovecraft produces such consistency is not very different to the way in which Tolkien achieved a similar effect, but, once again, the relationship to this world is crucial. By setting his stories in New England rather in some inviolate, far distant realm, Lovecraft is able to tangle the hierarchical relationship between fiction and reality. The interpolation into the stories of simulated scholarship alongside authentic lore and history produces ontological anomalies similar to those created in the 'postmodernist' fictions of Robbe-Grillet, Pynchon and Borges. By treating really existing phenomenon as if they had the same ontological status as his own inventions, Lovecraft de-realises the factual and real-ises the fictional. Graham Harman looks forward to a day when Lovecraft will have displaced Holderlin from his throne as philosophers' most exalted object of literary study. Perhaps we can also anticipate a time when the pulp modernist Lovecraft displaces the postmodernist Borges as the pre-eminent fictional explorer of ontological conundra. The 'Lovecraft event' instantiates what Borges only 'fabulates'; no-one would ever believe that Pierre Menard's version of Don Quixote exists outside Borges' story, whereas more than a few readers have contacted the British Library asking for a copy of the Necronomicon. (Borges was ambivalent about Lovecraft: according to Zack Stenz, 'Borges, in his maddeningly elliptical way, first denied ever having heard of Lovecraft--then went on to dedicate his story "There Are More Things" to him.' Borges also reputedly held the hackneyed view that Lovecraft's flaw was in describing his monsters in too much detail.)

Lovecraft generates a 'reality-effect' by only ever showing us tiny fragments of the Necronomicon. It is the very fragmentary quality of his references to the abominable text that induce the belief in readers that it must be a real object. Imagine if Lovecraft had actually produced a full text of the Necronomicon; the book would seem far less real than it does when we only see citations. Lovecraft seemed to understood the power of the citation: something seems more real if it is cited than if it is encountered in the raw; and a text is only accepted as genuine once it is authenticated by another text.

One effect of such ontological displacements is that Lovecraft ceases to have ultimate authority over his own texts. If the texts have an autonomous reality, then his role as their ostensible creator becomes incidental. What matters is the consistency of his fictional worlds - a conistency which invites collective participation by both readers and other authors alike. As is well known, not only Derleth but also Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E Howard, Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell and many others have written tales of the Cthulhu mythos. Again, the contrast with Borges is instructive. Still a classical author, Borges remains the Master of his texts, their God, because he makes and destroys his worlds with each new act of fictional creation. By webbing his tales together, Lovecraft loses control of his creations to the emerging system, which has its own rules that acolytes can determine just as easily as he can. (Compare the titular character in Peter Straub's Mr X, who sincerely believes that the Lovecraft mythos is true.) Lovecraft, the Pulp engineer, is an inventor of formulae which others can use.

lov 10.jpg

Lovecraft's fictions also enjoy a special relationship to capitalism. Lovecraft, in fact, may be the great poet of capital - not because he explicitly deals with capital in his texts (Houellebecq argues that money, like sex, is gloriously absent in Lovecraft's fiction, although, as China drew out at the Weird Realism event, a text like 'The Shadow over Innsmouth' centrally concerns the relationship between State regulation and the market), but because he provides a heightened imagery equal to capital's protoplasmic mutability. Capitalist power can be understood as 'tentacular' rather than pyramidal. But it is in the shoggoths - signficantly, the proletarian entities in his fictional system, the drones bio-engineered by the Elder Things to perform construction tasks - that Lovecraft produces his most compelling image of capital. Lovecraft's entities are often erroneously described as formless, but the shoggoths are better characterized as only ever having a temporary and provisional form, much like capital itself, whose power, as Deleuze and Guattari have it, 'resides in the fact that its axiomatic is never saturated, that it is always capable of adding a new axiom to the preceding ones.'

It is not accidental that, in their characterization of capitalism, Deleuze and Guattari's language coincides with that of Lovecraft: in Anti-Oedipus they describe Capital as a Thing without any fixed or final form, but which reveals the previously occulted forms of preceding social systems by incarnating what they had abominated. 'If capitalism is the universal truth, it is so in the sense that makes the capitalism the negative of all social formations, it is the thing, the unnamable, the generalized decoding of all flows that reveals a contrario the secret of these formations.' (Deleuze and Guattari never remark upon this coincidence of registers; they do not mention it when they discuss Lovecraft in A Thousand Plateaus.) As Ray Brassier glosses in his 'hazardous' splicing of D/G with Badiou in his 'Remarks on Subtractive Ontology and Thinking Capitalism', '"Capital" names what Deleuze and Guattari call the monstrous "Thing", the cancerous, anti-social anomaly, the catastrophic over-event through which the inconsistent void underlying ever consistent presentation becomes unbound and the ontological fabric from which every social bond is woven is exposed as constitutively empty.'

It is John Carpenter who provides a compelling image of capital's 'metamorphic plasticity' in his own The Thing. Carpenter's The Thing owes a great deal to 'In the Mountains of Madness' - the Antarctic setting, but also the protean and shoggothic nature of The Thing itself. There is much more to be said on the relationship between the Lovecraftian Thing and other Things: Lacan's, Freud's, Kant's, Carpenter's. But let us end on a consideration of what role Lovecraft's 'reactionary novelty' might play for anti-capitalism. Ben Noys ends his essay 'The Lovecraft Event' with a provocative suggestion: what if the best deployment of Lovecraft was not a reversal of his texts' libidinal polarity, such that the slimy and mulitiplicitous is embraced rather than reviled - the well-known strategy favoured by Chaos Magick sympathisers such as Grant Morrison and Alan Moore? What if, instead, it was Lovecraft's horror of the body and the chaotic that contained the most political potential in the current conjucture?

    Lovecraft’s horror might well be inflected, or re-evaluated, today by anti-capitalists as straining to represent the “unrepresentable” horror of capitalism – particularly in its “chaotic” form. Therefore a “post-Lovecraft” fidelity to the “Lovecraft event” would involve a measure of rejection of the ideological dominant of a capitalism that exploits avant-garde strategies. At the same time, perhaps seemingly paradoxically, we might also wish to welcome the destabilisation of “hyper-chaos” in terms of reality or ontology. Not for its supposed consonance with market capitalism but for a destabilisation in which reality disturbs the humanist dominated conceptions of philosophy and imposes a real impasse, not least in the Lacanian sense. While this “chaos in the symbolic” only seems to offer radical disorientation it also demands the making of new forms of orientation without any guaranteed structure of discipline and orientation (without the “Name-of-the-Father”).
Posted by mark at May 25, 2007 01:24 AM | TrackBack