Saturday, 17 February 2007

Lovecraft, Horkheimer, Duncan, Adorno - Kristeva?

Proofreading the Hal Duncan Interview (online at, I got thinking about some of the things Hal said about H.P. Lovecraft, more specifically: That the 'Elder Gods' in Lovecrafts mythology are basically extra-dimensional entities and therefore not metaphysical in the classical sense.

Im not exactly a Lovecraftian - I've read and enjoyed most of his stories, but the only reason to re-read them would be some kind of 'scientific' interest. Nevertheless, I have enough grasp of his stuff to comment on Hals position: I don't completely agree. To be sure, the 'Great Old Ones' are basically aliens, and even the 'Elder Gods' and the 'Outer Gods', slightly different classes of beings, who are respectively more human-like and even less human-like than the Great Old Ones, are more rooted in some weird scientific ideas than in religious and magical traditions: For example, Azatoth, the most powerful of the 'Outer Gods', is described as 'mindless nuclear chaos' - he's basically a living sun, the impersonal principle of the Universe itself.

On the other hand these beings are called 'gods', some of them are worshipped by cults, and Lovecraft seems to love to use the term 'blasphemous' to describe their very nature. There's clearly a strong link between science and religion - think how 'Mountains of Madness' replaces a religious origin story of humankind with a scientific one (to the horror of it's discoverers), think how 'God', Azatoth, is described in terms more related to the Atom bomb (Clearly, we can see Lovecraft as a dark scientific visionary today). And think also that there are Mythos-figures who are more anthropomorphic and clearly rooted in monotheist religions - for example Nyarlathotep, the messenger of the Outer Gods and the tempter of mankind. In Lovecrafts cold, scientific, soulless universe, theres still a lot of 'religion' going on. That makes Lovecrafts mythology, above all else, quite self-contradictory.

Now that's a great thing. Being self-contradictory means developing a consciousness of the fact that we live in a self-contradictory world.

Which brings me to Horkheimer and Adorno - Two German philosophers and sociologist, who, in 1944, wrote The Dialectics of Enlightenment (I hope that is how the title has been translated into English ...), a book deeply marked by the experience of national-socialism. Horkheimer and Adorno, both of Jewish descent, both Marxists, lived in exile in the US at that time. Dialectics of Enlightenment was their attempt to somehow get to terms with the fact that bourgeois civilization had not, as some other Marxists had predicted, evolved into communism. Instead, the German proletariat, which was supposed to be part of the emancipatory force of history, had turned to the barbarism of fashism. This historical catastrophe led Horkheimer and Adorno to the idea that the philosophy of Enlightenment, as much as it had been a prerequisite for humankinds emancipation, had always also had a tendency to fall back into 'myth' (no, that's not the Cthulhu-Mythos, at least not yet ...).

Of course, there's no chance that I'll be able to explain what I understand of this approach, entitled 'Critical Theory', here. Let's oversimplify: Back then, in the times of Gods and Monsters, humankind feared nature as an uncontrollable force of fate. To get to terms with this fear, it gave human names, faces and souls to nature: we get animism and polytheism. The gods are still capricious, but there's a chance to make some kind of deal with them, using magic and rituals.

But magic of rituals were also always instruments of power that allowed humans to rule over other humans. Now, the people being ruled over don't always take such stuff. So, very early in history, there starts a process that somehow leads to the philosophy of Enlightenment: People start saying 'Hey - there are no gods and spirits. The stuff happening in nature follows some kind of causality, and we can figure that out and learn to control it. We don't need you scheming priest-bastards for that. we certainly don't need you to spill our blood and the altar of your gods.' So, instead of multiple spirits and gods, we get the one principle of reason - which kind of works acceptably with monotheism. Still, there's a process of emancipation going on in this.

With the arrival of capitalism, rational thinking becomes more and more the fashion of the era. In capitalism, the human subject has to consider itself to a certain extent rational and free in it's choices - that's a prerequisite of this subject being able to enter into a contract, which is a central function of capitalism.

And there the real problem begins: Capitalism establishes a structure that seems to the individual living under it's rule as some kind of 'Second Nature': The rules of society ('If you want to eat, you have to work', for example) appear as laws of nature. The thing is that each individual in capitalist society experiences these rules of society as some kind of nature, and that this prevents the individual from truly realizing that this structure is made and reproduced by humans - not only by some evil, scheming capitalists, but by society as a whole. So the subject, that appears to be free, in fact isn't free. But hey, at least Enlightenment and Capitalism gave us a pretty wortwhile idea of freedom!

But the ongoing quest of controlling nature, eliminating everything unknown, has in fact a tendency to empty out the human subject itself: The idea of nature becomes blind and soulless, and so becomes the idea of humanity. In national socialism, this process resulted in the 'Verdinglichung' (no idea how to translate this ...), in the ideological organzisation of the self-contradictory aspects of society into two main principles that were identified with different kinds of 'nature': The 'Arian race' and the 'Semitic race'. National-socialist society saw itself as identical with the process of their nature, carrying out their 'natural mission' of exterminating - murdering - all Jews. The subject, that was still the central character in classical bourgeois society, didn't play much of a role in this any more - the 'Volksgemeinschaft' was everything. Even though I certainly don't want to ´compare contemporary theoretical neurologists to the Nazis, you can't help but notice that some of their thesises on freedom of choice also tend to 'cancel out' the subject - if it's really all just firing neurons, we do nothing more than to blindly carry out 'natural mission'. And that's, basically, Horkheimer's and Adorno's thesis of Enlightenment falling back into myth: Humankind, who tried to emancipate itself from the forces of nature by Enlightenment, in the end has only managed to fall under it's spell in an even more profound way. I would argue that, probably on a very abstract level, Horkheimer and Adorno have made a very valid point.

Now back to Lovecraft. Remember him being self-contradictory? Yep - exactly. His 'Elder Gods' are emblemetic of the dialectic relation mentioned above - they are gods and blind processes, describable only in the terminology of reason AND religion at once. They are Myth and Reason at once. Lovecrafts work truly embodies humankind's fear of falling back into the process of nature, under it's cold, meaningless spell. Think 'The Shadow over Innsmouth': Here the protagonist, led to the coast town of Innsmouth by biological imperative, mutates into a sea-dweller - in evelotionary terms surely a step backward. But this transformation is at the same time described as some kind of 'Enlightenment' about the true, unspeakable nature (!) of the world. Progress is regress. The fear of 'degeneration' was a prominent theme of the times - there's Well's Island of Dr. Moreau, Conrad's Heart of Darkness. You'll even find it in Kiplings (so deeply, deeply reactionary ...) Jungle Book. This fear was nearly always articulated in racist terms, it was 'verdinglicht', turned into some kind of 'nature' itself - the problem was projected onto a group that was defined by some crude biological or anthropological theory, and the fantasy was that by eliminating this group, humankind could somehow get 'whole' again, lose it's fear of nature. In Lovecraft, it's a little different: He has a tendency to revel in degeneration, to invest it with sublime qualities, and this, while still being deeply linked to racist terms, comes much closer to provoking some critical thinking on the dialectics of Enlightenment.

There's also something very speaking in Lovecrafts 'talkiness' in describing his creatures, a talkiness that always kind of misses the point. The fact that scientific AND religious terminology both don't succeed to truly grasp their object, and the fact that the narrators keep on trying until their last breath, is extremely significant, for it shows that it's impossible to integrate these beings into a 'logical' system, not even in the empty form of the 'variable' which they take on in so many classic Gothics. There's another contradiction at work here, one that I haven't quite figured out yet. Since I'll be reading some stuff by French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva in the next few weeks, I hope I'll be able to get back to this from another perspective. Mark my words: Lovecrafts creatures are semiotic. It's just that I'm not yet sure what exactly that means ...

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