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.

Week in Review 2019: 003

Read:

Books:

  • When I Grow up I want to be a Futurist. Badminton, N.
  • The Only Harmless Great Thing. Bolano, B.
  • “Prodigy of Dreams,” “Ms. Rinaldi’s Angel,” “The Tsalal,” and “Mad Night of Atonement” in The Nightmare Factory. Ligotti, T.
  • “Protestant and Catholics.” HPL to Frank Belknap Long, collected in Against Religion: the atheist writings of H. P. Lovecraft. 2010.

Articles:

  • “Lovecraft, Witch Cults, and Philosophers.” W. Scott Poole in The Age of Lovecraft. 2016.
  • “Weird Investigations and Nativist Semiotics in H.P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett.” Brooks. E. Hefner in MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 60, Number 4. 2014.
  • Jason Colavito’s blog.

This week has been a little scattered. Whatever terrible thing I did to my wrist some time before Christmas continues apace and has vastly limited my manual dexterity and completely undermined my comfort. At least it has had the good grace to put my non-dominant hand out of commission so that I can continue to scribble. (Should I be typing? Probably not.)


Hefner’s article about Hammett and Lovecraft is really quite remarkable. It examines how Hammett’s novel, The Dain Curse, dismantles the racist ideological underpinnings of the classic ’20s detective story and/or Weird fiction tale, and how those ideas are metamorphosed into the narrative mechanics of nativist fiction.

He sees Hammett’s novel as “a broader critique of a cultural phenomenon in which bodies are seen as legible text where corporeal difference and criminal degeneracy go hand in hand.” (654)

Somewhat predictably, Hefner focuses on Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hood” and “The Call of Cthulhu”.

His analysis of “Call” and Arthur Machen’s influence on Lovecraft’s views on cultural and racial “evolution” in Europe would have benefited from a greater familiarity with Lovecraft’s correspondence around Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Hefner mistakenly credits Lovecraft with developing Machen’s theories of a degenerate pre-Aryan European race into the atavistic cult in “Call”. W. Scott Poole’s article in The Age of Lovecraft clearly shows the link between Murray’s description of the persistent prehistoric witch-cult and Lovecraft’s “global atavistic conspiracy” (Poole, xx). I mentioned Bobby Derie’s article Conan and the Little People last week, which provides a detailed primary source examination of Murray’s influence on Lovecraft.

(Aaand I just realized last week’s link to Derie’s article was busted… It should all be fixed now.)

Personally, I am interested in how Lovecraft’s knowledge and study of history impacted his racial views. Without contesting the assertion that his views were aggressively racist and that they profoundly shaped his literary output, I nonetheless contend that he displays a nuanced (and at times inherently contradictory) view of the different “races.”

Moreover, his eugenic epistemology (to borrow Hefner’s term) engages a racist semiotics which goes beyond the simplistic “Brown people are scary” logic which is often used as a short-hand for his views on the Other. In stories such as “The Lurking Fear” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” he uses a genetic determinist framework to define a degenerate or inferior class of people who, in contemporary terms, would be considered “white.” This classist dimension to his racism is particularly important, in a large part, because it continues to persist in contemporary fiction and ideology.

More on this to folllow…


Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (CATHR) continues to trouble me. Bridging the gap between my instinctive and wholehearted agreement with his fundamental premises (the universe is meaningless, the self is a construct of consciousness, we turn away from this fundamental truth, clinical depression provides a clear view of this inherent meaninglessness, etc) with my equally strong reaction to the tone of his argument.

I’ve described it variably as: “Yeah, the universe is meaningless. It’s not about you, so why are you taking it personally?”; “No shit.”; and, “Judith Butler says, ‘Everything you believe to be true is an imaginary construct, including the notion that you have an essential internal identity which can be expressed in such a way that it will be seen and recognized by others.’ Ligotti says, ‘EVerYthINg yOu tHoUGHt WAs tRUe is A cONstRUcT, IncLUDiNg YouR PerCEPtIoN Of A FUndAMEntAl sELf!!!'”

This has lead me to consider CATHR through feminist and post-colonial critical lenses – drawing on Butler and W.E.B. DuBois, primarily – particularly around the question of identity and the “Self.”

This week I took an unfortunate detour when I Googled “female pessimists,” and had the priviledge(?) to encounter a thread on the official Ligotti forum. It posited a number of reasons why women might be ill-suited to True Philosophical Pessimism. A few voices defended the possibility of feminine pessimism, but overall there was a marked failure to consider the female experience as one wherein even a purported Human subjectivity plays any role.

I hope to be able to contribute something organized and coherent on this subject in the future. For the moment, I offer instead this quote from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?

(52) Harcourt Paperback.

Capsule Reviews I

It has seemed incomprehensible to some that there should be any need or desire for horror fiction when one need only look to the newspaper or out the window to find things to make one’s blood run cold.

But Professor Nobody, who makes his appearance in Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer, explains why it is exactly, in moments of turmoil and distress, that we turn to horror fiction, not as individuals, but as a collective:

“In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny the horror, to savor and suffer them at the same time. […] In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.”
— “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures,” Thomas Ligotti

With that in mind, consider picking up the following titles the next time you are at loose ends and looking for something to read.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Beyond a barrier blocking off a portion of the Floridian peninsula, some kind of otherworldly natural rejuvenation is at work. In Annihilation, the first book, we join the 12th expedition, this time comprised entirely of female scientists, across the barrier as they seek to understand what is happening in Area X,. Few things in that otherworldly Eden are as they first appear.

The first installment works excellently as a stand alone narrative, introducing us to Area X and establishing the tantalizing promise of the Southern Reach, the government department tasked with understanding Area X. The subsequent two books take you deeper into the mystery of Area X and the Southern Reach to find answers that are as strange and satisfying as the questions to which they correspond. Vandermeer’s lush prose is rivaled only by the Florida landscape it describes and the elegant tapestries of his characters.

Ultimately, Jeff Vandermeer’s alienating masterpiece might best be described as it was by the reviewer Scott Christensen on Google Books: “It’s kind of a love story at the end. And I thought that was sweet.”

(Read Annihilation to prepare for its cinematic adaptation, starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac.)

Looming Low (Vol. 1) Edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

The first anthology out from Dim Shores, a press established by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan in 2015 dedicated to Weird and dark fiction. The press has has made a name for itself publishing chapbooks from esteemed Weird fiction authors including Jeffrey Thomas, and more recently, Gemma Files and Joseph S Pulver, Sr.

Looming Low Vol. 1 serves as a whistle-stop tour of contemporary Weird fiction. While it features works by established names like Michael Cisco, Brian Evanson, Livia Llewellyn, and S.P. Miskowski, it also includes stories from less immediately familiar names. As a whole,  it serves as an excellent introduction to Weird fiction and its impressive variety of styles and topics; from the supernatural to the mundane, the romantic to the fraternal, and beyond, the human heart is metamorphosed before your eyes as it tangles with the incomprehensible and the irreconcilable.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has been described as a mix between Kafka and Lovecraft. His personal brand of transcendental horror, as if Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau had ascended to that higher spiritual plane only to realize that life is something worse than a cosmic joke, is utterly unlike anything else. His dreamy, rotting post-industrial landscapes peel back to reveal humanity dancing on the end of a string, while elsewhere, close by, the universe laughs.

Perhaps most effectively, unlike the hapless or blissfully ignorant characters which populate Weird and Science Fiction, who unwittingly stumble upon unimaginable horrors, Ligotti’s characters often walk to their doom with some foreknowledge. His protagonists are seekers after truth, aware that they are damning themselves by looking but unable look away.

The Penguin classics single volume re-release of his first and second collections of short stories (Songs and Grimscribe, respectively) is an opportunity for everyone to re-/discover this master of dread.

Edited 26 JULY 2018 (for typos/clarity)

Book Review: The Grimscribe’s Puppets, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. ED. Miskatonic River Press, 2013

“I don’t really want to see a ghost, but if someone said, ‘Do you want to go to a haunted house and see a ghost?’ I would say, ‘Yes’.”  — Kelly Link. Oct. 6, 2015. Brown University

A review of The Grimscribe’s Puppets by Justin Steele on arkhamdigest.com said, “Thomas Ligotti, one of the finest horror authors, can be a tough pill to swallow. […] His work is definitely not for everyone though, casual horror readers would most likely be turned off by this particular brand of philosophical horror, yet everyone should read Ligotti at least once.” Though I have never read Ligotti, I can easily (and eagerly) imagine his desolate cityscapes, and agonized protagonists who lurch through them, revolted by the existential truths they have uncovered. Their miserable voices call to me saying, “We are all connected. None of us is alone.”

Book photo from MIskatonic River Press

Pulver’s collection here is (according to Wikipedia) award-winning and rightfully so. The stories in it bring a range of voices, both narratively and creatively, together in a dizzying rush through the darkened, greedy corners of our universe. I started the book in the middle, with Jon Padgett’s 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism, and from there explored outwards from the center of the book, devouring the stories and letting the thread, whatever Ligottian impulse Pulver had called forth from them for this collection, which bound them together, thread its way through me and draw me in, another puppet for the Grimscribe, or whatever else is hiding out past the blue veneer of the sky.

Of extra special note are Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace, Kaaron Warren’s The Human Moth, Robin Spiggs The Xenambulist, and Gemma Files’s Obliette (which I didn’t save for last, and highly recommend you take the editor’s implicit recommendation and let it be the last morsel of this collection you savor to end the experience). The Human Moth left me feeling like Ms. Link, now that I know stories like it exist, though I might prefer to have eschewed that knowledge, I must seek them out.

ORIGINALLY APPEARING IN PRINT AS THE FIRST STAFF PICK 
AT THE LOVECRAFT ARTS & SCIENCES COUNCIL