Thursday 19 June 2008

Lovecraft Event Part 3

Agreeing with Houellebecq we could say that racism is at the core of Lovecraft’s texts, although this molten core of jouissance is unstable and even illusory. In this way Lovecraft’s texts can capture the chaotic effect of the promise of jouissance, incarnated through the surplus “value” of capitalism in what Lovecraft calls “amusement value”. For Lovecraft horror at this demands the response of a

psychology of non-calculative, non-competitive disinterestedness, truthfulness, courage, & generosity fostered by good education, minimum economic stress, and assumed position, & just as achievable through socialism as through aristocracy. (Lovecraft in Joshi, 2000)

It is racism, however, that still plays the factor of embodying the degeneration and horror of the “chaos” of capitalist relations, which is of course linked through the concept of the “alien” to his cosmic horror. In this sense Lovecraft disavows the loss of jouissance that he recognises as the function of a deceptive “amusement value.”

Therefore the “Lovecraft event” remains poised on this fault-line of chaos, at once registering horror and trying to constrain or limit this effect of chaos to the racially Other or to his own weird fictions. In a sense we could say that unregulated capitalism and quantum physics both feed the destabilising effects that Lovecraft “diagnoses” in his fiction. It is not a matter of reducing one to the other, and offering either a social or a naturalistic “explanation” of this chaos. Neither, I would say, is it a matter of complete separation between them, but rather a matter of tracing a continuity or entanglement between them in terms of matching the impasses of the “social” and the impasses of “nature.” Chaos is the limit of both, and marks the point where neither can provide a stable prop to the other. In that sense it is the point of mutual collapse, where both “nature” and the “social” no longer function consistently. Allied with the sense of horror at this inconsistency we can suggest a refusal to simply celebrate chaos, which could slip all too easily into the celebration of the symmetry of “chaotic” nature with the deregulated forces of free-market capitalism.

The celebration of chaos is also found in those reversals of Lovecraft, which play on his own texts’ attraction to horror to suggest we love the alien. In this way Lovecraft’s horror at and fear of chaos is passed off as the effect of his reactionary position, whereas today our avant-garde references support the chaotic. This is explored in Grant Morrison’s excellent short story “Lovecraft in Heaven” (1994), which skilfully traces Lovecraft’s monsters in terms of his anxieties concerning miscegenation and femininity. Morrison stages an exchange between a dying Lovecraft and his character Professor George Angell from “The Call of Cthulhu”. Where Lovecraft decides that a world of chaos is a nightmare Angell replies “Only if you fear it” and Lovecraft’s hallucinatory recitation of his misogynist horror, which he names as hell, is, for Angell “Quite the reverse” (18). In this narrative the character of Angell “opens Lovecraft like a door” (18), a door leading to a new perception where what was seen as horror is no longer seen as such. Morrison’s anarchist aesthetic shifts away from Lovecraft’s reactionary fear of chaos into an embrace of chaos and the richly archetypal resonances of Lovecraft’s anti-mythology.

This gesture is common to a number of contemporary readings and elaborations of Lovecraft (such as those by Alan Moore and a number of other occultists and “chaos” magicians). It develops from the re-positioning of his work within the context of contemporary avant-garde experimentation in both the arts and the sciences. In art we have seen the emergence of new forms of body art or abject art that probe the potential of human bodies to be transformed, whether biologically or technically. This is what the film director David Cronenberg has called “the new flesh,” which only appears as horrible from within the confines of the traditional image of the secure and fixed boundaries of the body. Also, in science, there has emerged the new “paradigm” of chaos, which emphasises the complexity that can be generated by simple systems. Although “chaos science” might equally be described as a science of order, because it traces the emergence of order from chaos, in the popular imagination it has come to suggest instability, unpredictability, and disorder. The new valorisation of the body and the chaotic marks a shift towards what we could call the optimistic reading of Lovecraft.

Certainly this is an attractive vision, after all who wants to be a reactionary racist and old positivist like Lovecraft? However, I want to make a qualified defence of Lovecraft’s sense of horror at chaos and the body. Although Lovecraft was a reactionary (despite a shift to the centre-left in his political views later in his life), the question concerns what he was reacting against? His horror of chaos could be seen as not simply a rejection of hybridity, femininity, and new perceptual modes, but also the rejection of new forms of dominance that take on a chaotic form – the lure of “amusement value” as promised realisation of jouissance. Alain Badiou has remarked the emphasis on the powers of the body might present itself as revolutionary but it mirrors the ideology of contemporary capitalism. The body that transforms itself is the body that conforms to the chaos of market capitalism, which demands a malleable body open to new desires and new patterns of consumption. At the same time, chaos science and the merging of machines and biology have been promoted as consonant with the free-market ideology of cyber-capitalism (this is particularly evident in the work of those around the US computer journal Wired, and has been nicknamed “the Californian ideology”).

Lovecraft’s horror might well be inflected, or re-evaluated, today by anti-capitalists as straining to represent the “unrepresentable” horror of capitalism – particularly in its “chaotic” form. Therefore fidelity to the “Lovecraft event” involves the rejection of the ideological dominant of a capitalism that exploits avant-garde strategies. At the same time, perhaps seemingly paradoxically, it involves us welcoming the destabilisation hyper-chaos inflicts on reality and ontology; not for its supposed consonance with market capitalism but for a destabilisation in which reality disturbs the humanist dominated conceptions of philosophy and imposes a real impasse. While this chaos seems to only offer radical disorientation it also demands the making of new forms of orientation without any guaranteed structure of discipline and orientation. Not jettisoning “reality” or, which amounts to the same thing, leaving it as the infinitely malleable result of human “construction” or perception (itself consonant with a capitalist ideology of “perpetual transformation”). The pass through this impasse is the Lovecraft event.

References (Part 3)
Alain Badiou, “Democratic materialism and the materialist dialectic.” Trans. Alberto Toscano. Radical Philosophy 130 (2005): 20-24.
Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1991). Trans. Dorna Khazeni. Intro. Stephen King (San Francisco: Believer Books, 2005), pp.105-109.
S. T. Joshi, ‘H. P. Lovecraft’, The Scriptorium 2000.
Grant Morrison, “Lovecraft in Heaven.” In The Starry Wisdom: A tribute to H. P. Lovecraft. Ed. D. M. Mitchell (London and San Francisco: Creation Books, 1994), pp.13-18.

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