Seriously, I’m both saddened and genuinely perturbed by people who feel capable and justified in casting out monsters, most especially Adam AKA Frankenstein’s Creature. While the Creature’s actions may be contemptible, his plea to be recognized as worthy of human compassion is so convincingly stated.
We must register, here, the contradiction at the heart of all debate on this issue: if we believe literature to be meaningful, we must recognize the power of language and both emotive and rational argumentation. Simultaneously, there are those who would deny the right of any intelligent entity to justify its own existence or advocate for its recognition as human. After all, it could all be a ploy. Each person must decide which of the two arguments they believe and then, one hopes, follow that logic through to its conclusion. Either words are powerful vectors of meaning and can convey an otherwise imperceptible truth regarding the inner qualities of a given entity’s experience of itself, OR any thing which advocates for itself must be treated with suspicion as a result of the possibility that it could be lying (people included).
I can tell you which option I prefer, but ultimately, nothing I say is likely to convince you, so I’ll leave it at that.
In the case of Adam, I am inclined to point to his reprehensible behavior as evidence of his humanity. He ultimately chooses to express himself in the manner with which he has been made most familiar by those around him; a destructive rage which seeks to balance the scales of justice which he sees as having been so cruelly stacked against him.
This particular rhetorical turn leads us to another point of insoluble contention.
Those who register a fundamental difference between Victor and his Creature are prone to the following logical proofs:
Simultaneously, they believe that these are static, immutable categories. Victor is not God, so he cannot create life absent of the usual process of human conception and gestation. The fact that he brought the Creature to life (loosely speaking) does not transform him into a god. Ergo, regardless of any action he takes, he remains a man.
Meanwhile, the Creature is burdened with its own immutable, non-human nature. There is nothing the Creature can do or say to alter its status as “monstrous”.
Given my personal thesis of the Creature’s fundamental right to compassion, I can choose to approach these arguments in a few different ways. First of all, this presupposes two very important ideas. It assumes that “Human” and “Monstrous” are mutually exclusive categories, yet it fails to follow one potential outcome of that very supposition. Namely:
Victor = Man Man ≠ God ∴ Victor ≠ God
BUT if God is the only self-contained creative force, AND Victor created life w/o help, THEN – perhaps – Victor ≠ Natural Natural is oppositional to Unnatural ∴ Victor = Monstrous
This particular line of reasoning can result in the possibility of being both Monstrous and Man without requiring that the terms being interchangeable.
We hit the end of the road when we realize that the question has become ‘What is the definition of “Man”?’
As we can see, it also requires us to deny the possibility that action has any transformative or generative capacity. By relying on the assumption that Victor is a priori excluded from the creation of life without a partner, then anything Victor creates which walks and talks and may show all the usual symptoms of “life” must not actually be alive. Hence the Adam’s designation as “unnatural” and his classification as “monstrous”.
The possible counter-arguments bifurcate once more.
On the one hand, I could produce historical evidence which shows that, prior to the Renaissance/Enlightenment and the development of modern human anatomy, the monstrous was inherently both natural and human. Forces beyond the traditional scope of man were clearly involved, resulting in “monstrous” births being viewed as auguries, portending good or ill. Nevertheless, they were born of human mothers, were seen as relating to human affairs and therefore their position as part of the human world is undeniable.
But an argument from authority, relying on history, is nevertheless an attempt to revise the fundamental assumptions of this argument, in a somewhat underhanded manner.
The other line of argument cuts right to the chase:
By this logic, our behavior is a direct result of our fundamental nature. Because our natures cannot change, our actions are confined to the limits of what our nature allows. If this is the case, then our nature and therefore our actions are the result of having been born one way or another, as this or as that.
If so, Adam is blameless in his monstrosity. His position outside humanity is beyond his control; yet he is supposed to submit to violence and denigration for an accident of birth.
We return to the question of original sin, innate evil, inherent and intrinsic qualities. This is the question which haunts moral philosophy, psychology, religion, and the judicial process:
Are we responsible for our own actions? How must we live pursuant to or in the absence of that answer?
 Who wants to yell at me for using symbology cribbed from the two things I remember from high school freshman geometry? This is the rhetorical equivalent of an economist inserting a so-called “illustrative” graph which merely visually represents their argument without any meaningful relationship to actual observed phenomena. DON’T LET PEOPLE LIE TO YOU. (Especially not me.)
Monsters do not seek the shriveled empathy grown in the moral philosopher’s over-weeded garden. Monsters ask to be met in the space where we are most human: where we hope against hope to be loved.
It has become increasingly apparent to me – or rather, I have been repeatedly and rigorously reminded, recently – that there are many people out there who never recognize themselves in the monsters which abound in our literature. They do not ache with the helpless, anchor-less rage of stepping into a world with no place for you. They cannot see that the monsters have been struggling, terribly, to find voices with which to speak and yet can find no words but those which bleed and terrify as they are screamed into the night.
These people believe that the monsters do not merely hide in shadow, but are made of the formless dark. They do not recognize that it is the light which creates the shadow, and that what is wrapped in darkness was there long before the match was struck. These men (for so have they all been) are well-intentioned, sometimes pious, and completely bereft of the compassion the monster has so long sought.
Most alarming, perhaps, is their willingness to lay blame and simultaneously deny compassion. I find them most often discussing Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. They condemn the doctor for his crimes against nature, and then his creation for the temerity of his anguish in the face of an unbearable accident of birth. There is no space for grief at being utterly alone in one’s existence. The desolation of seeing one’s self reflected only in the mirror is utterly foreign to them.
This clear relegation of the “monstrous” or “unnatural” to an indisputable Other – an uncompromising distinction between “human” and “not” – is a repetition of the greatest sin of Enlightenment. This error has wrought unutterable destruction on a vast proportion of humankind.
Those who have been categorized outside the bounds of humanity are innumerable. They are of every race, gender, form, social position, and intellect. They have been exhibited, enslaved, tortured, executed, lynched, murdered, incarcerated, institutionalized, abandoned, aborted, and cast out.
Worse still are those who think that the monsters were defeated, only now to return. In their ignorant terror, they delude themselves, repeating the myth that the horrors we are bearing witness to are of monstrous origin. But these horrors are born of those long used to holding the light which casts the shadows.
It is only now that we are seeing the monsters on their own terms, carefully exercising voices unused declaration, leaving behind the territory of howling to speak for themselves. The person who declares the monster categorically inhuman is waving a torch into the dark, hoping to burn something he has never truly seen.
Most importantly, monsters do not ask for the condescension of high-minded morality; they do not seek the shriveled empathy grown in the moral philosopher’s over-weeded garden. Monsters ask to be met in the space where we are most human: where we hope against hope to be loved despite the exquisite agony of existence. This is the empathy said to be felt by mothers for their children, and between those comrades, compatriots, and brothers who have loved such as to know their lives are meaningless without the bonds which hold them together.
Unlike men, monsters have known the cold of going without the assurances that such love is possible. They have stood perfectly still in the darkness and known what it is to feel truly, utterly alone.
When a flame belonging to another is held to our face, we are rendered unrecognizable even to ourselves.
It should not need to be said: it is time for man to step into the shadow and hold tight to the fear which blooms when we feel ourselves dissolve into that darkness, to recall the way it feels to be alone, and to remember the relief in finding a hand to hold onto in the dark.
This is all prose for the sake of poetry. I don’t usually let myself run free, all extended metaphors and florid prose, due to an undoubtedly misplaced dedication to the minutiae of rational argumentation. (For rational argumentation please see the following post.)
When considering the “failure of the imagination” which traps people within capitalist realism, the potential in invoking an incoherent – though not necessarily unreal – alternative mode of thought or existence is crucial to breaking out of the bind of capitalist realism. Being able to posit an incoherent alterity is the first step towards being able to move towards a coherent alternate reality. But trying to pull away from the familiar and towards a new paradigm inevitably produces an encounter with Horror.
After reading Capitalist Realism, with its focus on what I have decided to term a “failure of the imagination” – not in the sense that we, the collective political and human consciousness, are exhibiting a personal failing – produced by the peremptory enclosure of possibility inherent in capitalist realism, I have re-committed myself to questions about the Future.
I have a terrible tendency to submit to the logic of “realpolitik” (in itself a form of capitalist realism) when evaluating the possibilities for creating better systems and better outcomes. While I believe it is partially the result of the natural contrarian in me responding to the more daring potentialities imagined by the people whom I choose as friends and compatriots, it nevertheless perpetuates a limited and limiting view of what could be.
On the Always Already Podcast, at the end of December 2018, the hosts contended with Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy. Without having read it, my understanding of it is of an imaginary book. This book is co-written by the description of the other book’s contents as provided by the crew at Always Already and by my own already-developing thoughts on the role of horror (both genre and emotion) and fear (both affect and effect) in philosophy – but philosophy writ large: any mode and means of asking questions.
Horror, according to Thomas Ligotti, is something which exists independent of the human mind. In “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror” he says:
“[O]ne thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them.” (187)
Horror is something with which we must contend, not because it offers us anything in particular, but because it is unavoidable. Horror, whose handmaidens are Pain, Death, and Uncertainty, is, in point of fact, the soil in which the tree of philosophy has taken root.
Listening to Always Already, Thacker seems to be asking that we prepare ourselves to contend with something that cannot ever be perceived, a something which…
“…is that which paradoxically reveals the hiddenness of the world in itself. […] [You] reveal something which is a paradoxical re-hiding of it at the same time…”
One of the big debates around Lovecraft – the conundrum of his rich, descriptive prose and the his narrators’ perpetual encounters with the “indescribable,” – was put to rest (in my mind) by Mark Fisher, who was building on an analysis by China Mieville, in his essay “The Out of Place and the Out of Time: Lovecraft and the Weird” (collected in The Weird and the Eerie):
“After (1) the declaration of indescribability, and (2) the description, comes (3) the unvisualisable. For all their detail, or perhaps because of it, Lovecraft’s descriptions do not allow the reader to synthesize the logorrheic schizophony of adjectives into a mental image…” (23)
In other words, Lovecraft creates a cognitive rupture by providing enough (or so much) information so that a solution – a coherent image, in this case – ought to be possible, while simultaneously frustrating any attempt to generate that solution. This question of a something or somewhere which is perceptible as a logical and/or affective possibility but which, at the same time, cannot be constructed or imagined as a coherent whole is a powerful philosophical tool.
When considering the “failure of the imagination” which traps people within capitalist realism, the potential in invoking an incoherent – though not necessarily unreal – alternative mode of thought or existence is crucial to breaking out of the bind of capitalist realism. Being able to posit an incoherent alterity is the first step towards being able to move towards a coherent alternate reality.
But trying to pull away from the familiar and towards a new paradigm inevitably produces an encounter with Horror. Following from Ligotti’s assertion that Horror exists independent of the human, then perhaps it can be said that, in the way that venomous creatures are able to prolong their existence by disrupting the biological systems of their predators, Horror serves a similar function in the preservation and perpetuation of particular realities; Horror is a defensive tactic of collective existence which disrupts the cognitive systems of those seeking to change it.
Here it is important to distinguish between Horror, horror-as-genre, and horror.
Little-h “horror” is that which can be described as a feeling or emotion. It refers to a strong negative reaction, often literally embodied, which combines characteristics of disgust, pity, revulsion, and an instantaneous rejection which can be a precursor to fear.
Capital-H “Horror” by contrast is that philosophical/affective entity which Ligotti described as existing independently from the human consciousness. “Horror” is part of the collective consciousness, it is a fundamental part of both generating and processing reality itself. Here, Horror refers to an affective quality which can be perceived even when it is not accompanied by horror. While some philosophical projects (as well as scientific, religious, and narrative) projects inspire horror in those who encounter them, all philosophical projects and re-imaginings of reality will produce Horror.
(While this is exceptionally true of efforts taking place in the tradition emergent from the Enlightenment and ultimately the Modernist philosophical projects, there is reason to believe that even in non-Western Rationalist reality paradigms Horror is emergent all the same. Regardless of what their precepts may be, collective reality rejects its own re-interpretation.)
This means that “horror-as-genre,” as a collective, wide-ranging aesthetic project dedicated to exploring the production of both horror and Horror, is kin to the philosophical and scientific projects which seek to push the boundaries of what is admissible in reality. But horror-as-genre can be deployed in the service of two outcomes: the first is the exploratory, imaginative function of positing the “outside” of reality, and the second is as an inoculation. Exposure to horror and Horror (especially in the places where they intersect and intensify each other) encourages familiarity with them, and that familiarity introduces the possibility of separating horror and Horror, making it possible to engage with each quality separately.
An inclusive survey of horror-as-genre quickly reveals the variety of emotional impulses present in a seemingly inclusive category. (This is partially a result of the diversity of any given audience. However, it is also because horror-as-genre traffics readily and effortlessly in pity and grief from tragedy, and a variety of pleasurable sentiments.) So the evocation of mere horror is insufficient as a metric by which to recognize the shared quality which unifies horror-as-genre. What brings the disparate elements of horror-as-genre (a quality which enables a recognition unimpeded by the sometimes confounding confluence between genres) is the evocation of Horror – the affective, philosophical conundrum of the supposedly “unimaginable.”
By transforming the now-cliched Nietzsche quote into its raison d’être, horror-as-genre prepares us for life on the precipice. On one side, the worn-out, inhospitable, hazy terrain of the past, on the other, the abyss of the future, and between the two, the narrow ledge of the present. Capital-H Horror is the cognitive vertigo which comes with a prolonged gazing into the uncertainties of what is not-yet-known and what has not-yet-happened. It is the result of rejecting the materiality of the present and the collectively imagined real in favor of supposing that the void may not be empty after all.
Postmodernism created a Horror in modernism with its fundamental re-imagining of reality as inherently self-contradictory. The capacity of subjects and objects to contain themselves and their opposites generates unmitigated chaos in a modernist reality. The narrative complexity of postmodernism, the constant reproduction through speech and act, can make it impossible for a model of collective imagination which is still bound by the systems of modernism to adapt and respond. Meanwhile, the parts of reality which have embraced and adapted to the postmodernist model are already distant enough from large parts of the collective imagination to be perceived as an already reimagined “future.”
This implicit (though inaccurate) distancing is the result of both an evocation if Horror and the fundamental assumptions of modernism. As a post-Enlightenment ideology, modernism sees all change as progress, any modification, addition, or change constitutes a progressive evolution. This progressive assumption means that postmodernism is – by virtue of being “new” – both more recent and more forward thinking. But it is also disruptive, and that disruption, with its demand of a new paradigm, produces Horror in those attempting to engage it. The alterity of postmodernism to modernism renders it unreadable, especially at the beginning, or, in other words, “indescribable.”
The clash between perceived temporalities or other paradigmatic structures is a perpetual source of Horror. Horror which is very effective at disrupting the processes of the collective imagination. Developing a recognition of the role of Horror in demarcating reality modes and, more importantly, becoming comfortable with Horror as part of the imaginative process is a necessary component of liberating ourselves from the reality systems which have begun to negatively impact the collective imagination.
 Always Already discusses the intellectual crutch of the phrase “something itself” in the Thacker episode, which brings up a lot of very interesting questions. Nevertheless, at this time, the phrase will have to stand.
Aultman, B, et al. “Ep. 60 – Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy.” Always Already Podcast, 27 Dec. 2018, alwaysalreadypodcast.wordpress.com/2018/12/27/thacker/.
Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. Repeater Books, 2016.
Ligotti, Thomas. Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. Penguin Books, 2015.
Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.
The need to ensure the profitability of people’s work, especially for small and/or independent publishers and authors is obvious. Digital media formats have absolutely changed the game in terms of ease of “unauthorized” redistribution of materials. (The very concept of redistribution of intellectual property being “un/authorized” poses a number of significant philosophical questions.) At the same time, there is something very wrong with the way in which DRM software has been implemented.
The metaphysics of intellectual “property” – do you really own the ideas? can anyone be said to own an idea once it has been put out into the world? where do we draw the line between influence, extrapolation, and plagiarism? can two people spontaneously produce the same ideas? how do you litigate such a case? – are impossible to cover here, if onlyb because there are so few good answers. (And even fewer which are acceptable to the Disney corporation, Bono, and, presumably, the entity or entities which make up the romance novelist “Nora Roberts”.)
One of my issues with ebooks, like many others, is the way in which they destroy the materiality of books. In this case, I don’t mean the way they feel, or smell, or sound, or taste, or whatever sensory aspect people usually invoke. I mean that almost every book I own, and certainly the ones I love, are the means with which I discourse with the author.
Unlike the sterile overprotectiveness which causes such divisions amongst “Booktubers” – the collective reader/writer community of YouTube – my books are heavily marked up. I have usually extensively highlighted, annotated, dog-eared, and sticky-noted any book I found worth my while, in addition to having dropped, sat and spilled and slept on it. I like to lend my books out, and get them back with a little additional wear showing that the other person enjoyed it enough to carry it around with them. (Obviously, I’d prefer that my books come back in a form where they are still legible and mostly intact, but I’m never particularly concerned about their physical status beyond those basics.)
In other words, I’m exceedingly particular about the ways in which I’m allowed to interact with my books. Ereaders, such as the Kindle Paperwhite (and certainly its predecessors), were never going to work for me, because highlighting and annotating are low-priority functions. For now, the ebook app which works best for me is Google Play Books. This is largely thanks to the automatic syncing of highlights/notes to a Google Doc.
Other apps have attempted similar features, but Google has done a remarkable job of making it easy to annotate your reading and make those annotations accessible and usable. Four highlight colors, which are all imported along with their content to the annotations document (It shouldn’t be necessary to remind developers that exporting the color of the highlight is as important as exporting its content but here we are. I’m looking at you, Xodo), allow a range of different active reading methods, and any notes added to a given highlight are exported as a related annotation along with the highlighted text (Again, I didn’t think we needed to remind people of this, but…). It isn’t fully customizable, but it is remarkably flexible.
This isn’t to say that Amazon’s Kindle app can’t or doesn’t do some or all of these things. I merely happen to like Google’s material design. But I’m not actually here to extoll the virtues of one ereader or ebook app over another.
I’m here to talk about personal preference. Almost everyone has had an experience where the format, layout, or design of a book has negatively impacted their experience of it. Some people have almost certainly found themselves unwilling, unable, or at great pains to continue reading a book based on one of those factors, be it font choice, page gutter, or book size. Ebooks are intended to be less susceptible to those types of user experience failures thanks to flowing text, which allows the reader to resize and reformat the text to their liking, making it easier to read purely in terms of eyeball mechanics. (Obviously, format contingent works, such as House of Leaves, are unable to benefit from this kind of malleability.)
When the use multiple and/or variable devices – in a range of sizes and weights – is factored in, the portability and maneuverability made available to readers is unparalleled. (Consider the difference between reading something like David Graeber’s Debt, the first 5,000 years (534 pages), Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (641 pages) or K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (891 pages) in a physical format versus a digital one. It’s the difference between being able to read them in bed and needing a table.) Additionally, for people who like to annotate as they read, the digital space is without limitation, because comments and ideas are liberated from the confines of the margin.
This kind of flexibility should make ebooks vastly appealing to people. In so many other parts of our lives, we have been converted by the adaptability, convenience, immediacy, and shareability of the digital world. Newspapers, magazines, videos, television, etc…. And yet, not so with ebooks. This is not down merely to the fact that “book people” are all luddites who prefer the “physicality” of the book.
It’s because publishers have done next to nothing to make the ebook an appealing alternative to its physical counterpart.
The real advantages of the physical book over the ebook are as follows: anything with the prefix “re-”. Re-selling. Re-gifting. Re-mixing. Re-using. Re-reading. Books, unlike most other commodities, are rarely entirely personal. Cars, underwear, and plates of nachos are all things we acquire with the understanding that they are not intended to be shared. I don’t offer to give you my car or a perfect nacho just because I enjoyed it. Books, on the other hand, are regularly swapped, lent, borrowed, entrusted, assigned, given, and gifted.
The treatment of a book like a single-use, limited-use, or personal commodity is to fundamentally misconstrue the social use and function of “the book” as a cultural object. Intellectual property may cover the ideas embedded within a book’s pages and may need protecting. But books, in general, exist and proliferate explicitly because those ideas are intended to be distributed.
Why, specifically, am I so mad about this? How does DRM software specifically tie into this screed about the nature of books and ebooks?
The issue moved from the theoretical (intellectual property management in the digital age) to the personal. In the capitalist fashion, this was through financial investment and subsequent “buyer’s remorse”.
It is now abundantly clear to me that the primary way of ensuring that an ebook is not wildly proliferated across the web is to tie the file (in my case, an epub) to a specific reader application (in my case, Adobe Digital Editions). If you do or cannot buy your ebook through one of the combo purchasing/reading ebook ecosystems in accordance with your personal preference (Amazon → Kindle, Google Play Store → Google Books, Barnes & Noble → Nook, Kobo → Kobo, etc.), you may make the mistake of attempting to purchase a DRM protected ebook from somewhere else.
I made the mistake of not reading the fine print.
Always read the fine print. Even if you have to search for it, always, always read it.
Ebooks.com was, I thought, an oasis in the desert. It seemed I would be able to purchase an epub of K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (which is not available through Google Play Books) from them. In my unbridled enthusiasm to dig into the writing of Mark Fisher, I did so.
Don’t want to download the ebooks.com app? Click this link and download an epub, instead. (This was were reading the fine print comes in.) But I didn’t get to download an epub, actually.
What I could download is an acsm file. ACSM stands for “Adobe Content Server Message” and it is a file format which Adobe uses to pull content protected by Adobe’s DRM software to your computer. My unmitigated irritation does not permit me the patience to dig into the technical details of how Adobe uses this method to enable permissions across devices through Adobe Digital Editions to access the ebook. Suffice to say, you create or use an account associated with Adobe products and are able to sync that account’s library.
Just to add insult to injury, once you have opened the ACSM file with Adobe Digital Editions, a copy of the epub (as in, an actual booktitle.epub file) does come to live on your device. Forget opening it, though. It is impossible to open with any software other than an Adobe product. (While someone has undoubtedly designed software specifically designed to crack the DRM code embedded in the file, but I’m not actually interested in stealing anything today.)
The end result of all this is that I cannot read a book I paid $13 to access using the ebook reader of my choice.
Reading is an incredibly personal, intimate experience. Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.
You know what I found really galling, though? The thing that finally pushed me over the edge, after paying to be digitally inconvenienced?
Ebooks.com says they cannot accept returns, because they have not handed over a physical object. Therefore, there is nothing to return, according to them. Given how many times I had to feed my email address into Adobe Digital Editions and ebooks.com, I find it exceedingly improbable that they would not be able to revoke my access to any DRM encoded file which requires the usage of their proprietary software to be read.
This isn’t Schrödinger’s epub. The file can’t both exist enough to be monitored and secured with proprietary software and simultaneously be so immaterial that I can’t have my access to it revoked in return for my $13.
It is probable that neither publishers nor the wider “book people” community care very much about how ebooks are managed. The publishers are probably happy to conform to the digital mediocrity produced by proprietary DRM software, as it does the work of securing their IP and therefore their profits, while “book people” are happy to take it as proof that the physical book is still preferable to the digital one, and everyone else is more interested in audiobook integration than anything else.
So this is my rallying cry into the void:
We all deserve better ebooks. Authors and publishers deserve DRM software that limit the amount of mass, “unauthorized” distribution of the material that produces their livelihood, and readers deserve DRM software that doesn’t completely incapacitate their engagement and enjoyment of that same material.
Whether this means cutting out the middle man, so I can buy my ebooks directly from the publisher, or if it means an aggressive diversification of the distribution channels so that more books are available across more services, I neither know nor care. Ideally, it would involve a practice of building new DRM code which enables transfer of the files without copying them, in addition to non-proprietary or locked formats.
Whatever publishers and authors decide, at the moment, the only ones with any respect for their audience are the ones brave enough to distribute their ebooks DRM free.
Even as Aquaman rejects notions of racial purity and as it celebrates the possibilities inherent in hybridity and change, it still falls back on narratives of genetic determinacy and degeneracy. These ideas are inextricably linked to the eugenic epistemology which defines the supremacism the film is trying to critique.
Aquaman is undeniably a story where hybridity and inclusivity triumph, as both personal characteristics and philosophical approaches to life. This celebration of mixed bloodlines has been hailed as a revocation of the racist ideologies embedded in much of its pulp inspiration, such as the work of H.P. Lovecraft.
While Lovecraft would certainly have been distressed by the moral of Aquaman (as by the teratophilic romance in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water), there is more of the racism associated with the author embedded in the film than is immediately apparent. Lovecraft’s stories utilize – to borrow the term from Brooks E. Hefner – a “eugenic epistemology,” a racist view which holds “that knowledge about character and identity can be gained through the description and taxonomic indexing of bodies.” (652) Or, in other words, that appearance is indicative of an individual’s personal qualities. Even as Aquaman rejects notions of racial purity and as it celebrates the possibilities inherent in hybridity and change, it still falls back on narratives of genetic determinacy and degeneracy. These ideas are inextricably linked to the eugenic epistemology which defines the supremacism the film is trying to critique.
Understanding the racial politics of Aquaman requires a simultaneous acceptance of the biological narrative established within the world of the film and a critical view of the creative decisions which resulted in that reality. First, there is the film’s propagation of a narrative of evolutionary “progress” by willingly classifying the outcomes of natural selection as a degenerate and regressive.
Second, it is necessary to explore the way the film’s assumptions interact with historical reality, with special attention to the audience’s credulity when presented with a narrative which explicitly uses visual cues—as well as narrative ones—conveying degeneracy and hierarchical taxonomy.
Does evolution make mistakes?
The biological reality in Aquaman is aggressively segregated. Each of the undersea kingdoms of Atlantis is patterned on a drastically different body type, conveying a long evolutionary history of isolation and dramatic speciation. By providing an explanation for the various kingdoms which relies on an evolutionary process, the film implicitly posits that a formerly unified humanoid species (seen briefly in a flashback) with minor variation in gene expression at a surface level (variations in skin tone, eye color, hair color and texture, etc.) would evolve into sexually incompatible species exhibiting massive morphological differences in the course of mere tens of thousands of years. In so doing, Aquaman is unconsciously reinforcing the idea that “race” is a prelude to speciation, an idea which is in no way reflected in the biological record.
Each kingdom that evolved out of the original Atlantis is established as having developed from a sentient, humanoid species into distinct sentient species possessing of differences in culture, political ideology, and physical traits. Their morphological distinctions are seen as correlating with their social development, for example, the crab-like Brine – renown for their prowess in physical conflict – are possessing of powerful bodies and hard carapaces (the better to fight you with, presumably). While, the kingdom of the Fishermen are delicate, polychromatic merpeople noted for being a non-violent, intellectually and artistically motivated society. The hand-wave-y evolutionary explanation postulates some form of environmental natural selection was involved in the speciation of the different kingdoms.
Taken without its pseudo-scientific evolutionary history, those choices would have remained ambiguous in their allegorical potential. But the inclusion of that history and the decision to characterize the mysterious Kingdom of the Trench as a primitive, evolutionary regression unfortunately cleave closer to the racist semiotics of the pulp era, ultimately undermining the film’s attempt at deconstructing supremacist ideology.
The manifestation of an “animalistic,” “primitive” degeneracy through genetic contamination or evolutionary error is rampant throughout Lovecraft. It is, arguably, the defining feature of Lovecraft’s racial anxieties, encompassing religious, class, and ethnic groups whom he considered inferior. Lovecraft explicitly invokes a eugenicist, genetic determinist vocabulary when describing rural whites in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” and “The Lurking Fear:”
…a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts. (“Beyond the Wall of Sleep” 28)
Simple animals they were, gently descending the evolutionary scale because of their unfortunate ancestry and stultifying isolation. (“The Lurking Fear” 285)
Embedded within the ideas of de-evolution and degeneracy is the belief that there is such a thing as evolutionary “error.” This normative, teleological understanding of evolution is a direct continuation of the eugenicist view that social and cultural variance and adherence to Western standards of “development” reflect not only immutable, fundamental differences between groups, but also indicate different stages along the evolutionary path towards a perfected biological organism.
Given that natural selection operates on a non-normative principle of survival, it is illogical to argue that a species which is well-suited to its environment is a product of de-evolution. The Kingdom of the Trench evolved within an environment of limited natural resources. They are swift to respond to new presences in their environment, do not appear to have any defined settlements, and they are able to communicate between themselves insofar as they act as a group.
Unfortunately, given the tendency toward anthropocentrism and specifically to the prioritization of the cognitive and social characteristics which are considered to evidence “sentience,” the Kingdom of the Trench is subjected to evaluation using a set of standards which, in addition to continually being updated, are impossible to ascertain from the evidence presented in the film itself.
For example, the ability to communicate abstract knowledge between individuals is one of the qualities which is considered proof of a high degree of sentience. There is no evidence of audible language in the few scenes where actual denizens of the Trench are present. They are capable of coordinated responses, however, which implies at least the level of sophistication present in social insects (bees, ants, and termites). The possibility of non-verbal communication, through metaphysical or mundane means, is never addressed. It is possible that they have some method of communication equivalent to sign language (which emerges organically in communities with significant rates of congenital deafness just as spoken language does in communities dominated by hearing individuals). And, given that Aquaman, includes a giant telepathic sea monster, the possibility of telepathic communication between individuals of the Kingdom of the Trench cannot be discounted.
Not intended as a full-scale re-interpretation of the Aquaman cinematic canon, these questions are intended to encourage a critical response to the paucity of information provided by the characters and, therefore, the audience. Even the hybrid champion of the narrative is unable to eschew the rampant hierarchical taxonomy which dominates Atlantean culture. The relative “inhumanity” of the Kingdom of the Trench is accepted at face value and its people are dealt with accordingly; they are invaded and slaughtered in the name of personal and political expediency.
Looking for ourselves
The reduction of an entire branch of Atlantean evolution to an undifferentiated, expendable Other is part and parcel of a eugenic semiotics which strips groups of their potential as subjects and, simultaneously, relieves the audience of any moral or emotional responsibility to them.
It is imperative to recognize the way that physiognomic indicators (the lack of humanoid features, the absence of spoken language, inclusion of claws and teeth, etc.) are still used in fantasy media to demarcate the “human” (or “analogously human”) from the “in-human” and “non-human.”
Acceptance by authors and audiences of this sort of physiognomic shorthand is an implicit acceptance of the eugenic epistemology employed by Lovecraft and others who shared his limitations. It actively transforms bodies into texts which can be perused for information about the emotional and intellectual capacities of other beings and propagates the idea that it is possible to intuit the presence of subjectivity by observing an entity’s physical form. In addition to the racist underpinnings of this logic, it closes the door on the possibilities—narrative and philosophical—provided by intelligences or beings which fail to conform to categories with which we are already comfortable.
Human history is a litany of failure to recognize subjectivity. Inclusion and exclusion from “the human” has been the primary method of instituting power relations and enacting political and social subjugation. Consider the way Black people were reduced to chattel under American slavery, the belief that women are dominated by their biological functions (and thereby cognitively and emotionally deficient), or the assertion that life begins at conception, and it is possible to see how, in defining what constitutes a “human being,” we have determined not only which people are allowed to engage in self-determination, but which entities are entitled to consideration and empathy.
Lovecraft failed to appreciate that the human experience is multifarious, and that variety in ways of life in no way diminishes the humanity of those who live it. He could more easily imagine vast unknown and unknowable alien intelligences capable of dwarfing mankind in their considerations, than he could imagine that working class immigrants might contribute intellectually and culturally to the human experience. Continuing the Lovecraftian tradition which can imagine previously unknown sentience and intelligence existing only at a scale greater than humanity’s would be a mistake. We should be able to imagine that such unexplored ways of being exist on Earth concurrent with humanity, not only as intrusions from beyond the stars.
Ultimately, by endowing a comprehensible—if unknowable—consciousness to the Cthulhoid horror at the bottom of the trench and banishing an entire branch of the Atlantean evolutionary line to mute unrecognizable collectivism, Aquaman may have become truly Lovecraftian.
Brooks E. Hefner. “Weird Investigations and Nativist Semiotics in H.P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 60, no. 4 (2014): 651-676. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed January 23, 2019).
Aquaman. Directed by James Wan. United States: Warner Bros., 2018. Film.