Future Imaginary and the role of Horror

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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.

Bibliography

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.

2016.11.18 : Dirty Little Secrets and the Duke’s Bastard Son

I can’t remember where I picked up the term consensus reality. I know only that it appeared in my lexicon sometime in the last 2 years, and that it has become one of my foremost tools when trying to explain and understand our current political moment.

Consensus reality is a term to describe the communal reality: things are understood to be a particular way by the majority of human beings and those points of agreement between that majority create a thing we call “reality” which may coincide or may differ from an objective reality but is nevertheless verifiable outside of individual experience. It exists between a solipsistic reality, in which individual experience and understanding is the only basis with which one parses and manages “reality,” and objective reality

Consensus reality is the reason that you can hear things that aren’t there. It is impossible to say whether someone who hears voices that no one else hears is living in a solipsistic reality experience, or whether they have the means to interface with objective reality in a way that the rest of us cannot. Consensus reality merely describes this unique experience as a divergence from the reality that is experienced by the majority. 

I don’t want to take the time to defend, philosophically, any of these positions, because it is one of the elements of philosophy I do not have the patience for. Ultimately, consensus reality seems like the only functional method of engaging with reality, in a social, political, and communal way. Maybe this is a solipsistic universe, and everything is a construct of my imagination; some incredibly detailed dream that I will wake from into a different reality, or I am some slumbering god, imagining each instance from within it. It seems more like an excuse to escape responsibility than a real engagement with universal uncertainties, since I will still have to navigate consensus reality.

Likewise, it is entirely possible that ghosts are real, and some people can see them, but it is impossible for me, at this time, to verify that knowledge, with the tools at hand.

This is where consensus reality and scientific opinion begin to complement each other. 

Scientific opinion is just another name for consensus reality. Scientific opinion is formed when enough people have reproduced or otherwise verified a particular outcome of a particular set of actions or interactions through a variety of methods and have produced a particular result. Scientific opinion is a definition of some aspect of reality, derived from (ideally) rigorous, meticulous study and experimentation, reproduced and verified at a large scale resulting in the agreement of a majority of the scientific community (or subset of the scientific community) that certain conclusions are consistent. That consistency is otherwise known as “being true”. 

But there are other aspects of consensus reality. Because consensus reality is a tool that can be applied far and wide, and not merely to things that are verified quantitatively. Consensus reality is at its strongest (and, sometimes, most ambiguous) in the social sphere. 

There are two kinds of being out of sync with consensus reality, where the strain of bridging the lived and understood realities is at its highest.

The first one I call, 

The Duke’s bastard son:

The Duke’s bastard son is a linguistic aberration of consensus reality. A bastard is defined as

adj. [archaic or derogatory] born of parents not married to each other; illegitimate: a bastard child.

As an illegitimate child, a bastard son is not considered an heir to whatever inheritance might be claimed upon the death of the Duke. In all public record, the bastard son will be renounced and placed firmly outside the sphere of the family of the Duke. The bastard son is without political power.

Nevertheless, the Duke may well extend a measure of charity towards the bastard son. There is no reason to treat him badly, and, in fact, there is a measure of social value to be gained in avoiding ill-will with one’s illegitimate children. If the bastard son is allowed to exist within the Duke’s estate, it is almost guaranteed that everyone will know that the bastard son is the Duke’s. 

Simultaneously, no one will openly acknowledge that he is the Duke’s bastard son. 

Here, consensus reality contains the contradiction: everyone knows one thing to be true, but no one will say it. 

This type of consensus reality is familiar to anyone who has lived under a repressive regime; be it within a household, in a community, or a country. Something that is common knowledge, is systematically disavowed. 

The other aberration is 

The Dirty Little Secret:

This one is familiar to anyone who has ever been someone’s “side piece” or has suffered abuse or listened to a multitude of popular songs, including The All-American Rejects’ Dirty Little Secret

This is the place where solipsistic reality, objective reality, and consensus reality coalesce at can create total breakdowns of communication and affect. 

Some might be familiar with the question: “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to see it, does it make a sound?” Consensus reality says, yes. Solipsistic reality says, no. Objective reality is impossible to ascertain. 

The Dirty Little Secret asks: “If you are in the forest and break your arm, and no one is around to see it, did you fall or were you pushed?” 

Or my personal favorite: “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” 

The Dirty Little Secret is when some action, cause or effect, is prohibited from consensus reality. 

Secrets are the biggest barrier to consensus reality. I don’t necessarily consider the Duke’s Bastard Son to be a problem, although the recent election is changing my mind about that. (R.I.P. Facts) But I have never liked secrets. Sometimes, I think that is the number one reason I tend towards journalism: because only establishing and maintaining consensus reality, and thus dismantling the Dirty Little Secret allows people to make informed decisions. If you don’t tell people the things they need to know, there is no way to make sure that we can move in the same direction; or even disagree about which direction we should be moving.