Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Graham Harman's "Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy"

I recently read Graham Harman's new book Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, published by Zero Books, and would like to share a few thoughts concerning the book. Let me say first that it is very enjoyable. Lovecraft and phenomenology? Why the heck not! Of course the book represents what seems to be an exceptionally idiosyncratic project, arguing that a position similar to the one Hölderlin fills for Heideggerian phenomenology should be occupied by H. P. Lovecraft for thinkers of Speculative Realism. I am a passionate fan of Lovecraft but even I found the project at first audacious. Being the type of thinker I am, however, I also found this very audacity amusing and intriguing, an affect I suspect Harman intended. There is, in and of itself, a philosophically important performative force in placing Lovecraft beside accepted standard bearers of high art who have become central figures for philosophy such as Hölderlin, Mallarmé or Beckett. What would it be for Lovecraft to occupy a position of world historical importance in the manner that Heidegger thought Hölderlin did? 

Harman's book does not, admittedly, really offer an answer to the question I have asked largely because his own hopes for his philosophical project or the insights it offers seem, perhaps refreshingly, more subdued than Heidegger's. There is little intimation that history might find a new beginning in Lovercraft, rather we are left with the suggestion that Lovecraft rather uniquely relies on insights that nicely fit Speculative Realism, or more specifically Harman's own Object Oriented Philosophy, in the development of his stylistic methodology. As Harman very successfully points out, Lovecraft's style is defined by a dependence on two major gaps between appearance and being developed respectively in the works of Heidegger and Husserl. The first gap, developed from Heidegger's thought, is that between an object's reality and the sensuous appearance behind which the object's full reality always withdrawals. The second is the gap found in Husserl's phenomenological descriptions of experience between the collection of aspects or perspectives that make up our consciousness of an object and the unity of these perceptions that constitutes the object itself. Lovecraft's writing, rather than attempting to bridge these gaps, focuses upon them in the construction of his suggestive purposefully failed descriptions. This fulcrum of Lovecraft's style is what has often frustrated critics of his work who can't get beyond the sense that Lovecraft relies upon "indescribable horrors" and "impossible vistas" to the point of falling into a total lack of concrete description. As an apology for Lovecraft, Harman's book convincingly demonstrates that Lovecraft doesn't fail to provide concrete description and avoids using the indescribable as a stylistic crutch. Rather, his works follow the strategy of offering powerful succinct descriptions in order to provide a concrete phenomenological experience of what it is like to face the untotalizable reality of an object. During a very interesting discussion of the impossibility of paraphrase, Harman stresses that Lovecraft does not simply say "the monstrosity couldn't be described" but rather offers extensive detailed descriptions that then make clear their own inadequacy at capturing the object. In short there is nothing lazy or indistinct here, but rather a very successful capturing of experiences more straightforward descriptions would simply fail to touch upon at all. Where ordinary description pacifies, we might suggest that description by means of gaps vivifies.

In order to support his reading of Lovecraft's style Harman provides, in the second part of the book that really makes up its heart, a careful analysis of one hundred passages from eight of Lovecraft's most well known and best stories. The attention to detail and careful interpretation here is very impressive and it is at points very pleasant to revisit well loved moments in Lovecraft's work. However, I can't help but note that the passage by passage analysis can get a little exhausting. Nonetheless, here Harman provides both a detailed presentation of Lovecraft-as-Object-Oriented-Thinker and answers to some of the immediate concerns that come to mind when considering Lovecraft as an important artistic application of philosophical insight. 

The concern that came immediately to my mind when considering Harman's project was Lovecraft's seemingly blatant xenophobia. In this he seems to represent a fairly colonial perspective consistently horrified by the barbarism found in generally dim witted "foreigners" or isolated inbred communities, both of which are repeatedly found to be in league with terrible forces of evil. Ultimately, Lovecraft can't be saved from his xenophobia and racism, and Harman certainly does not attempt to save him, but what he does do is very interesting nonetheless. Harman uses a double strategy to dodge these aspects of Lovecraft's perspective. First, he insists that what is important and interesting about Lovecraft is primarily his style and method, not the content of his work. For this same reason Harman also insists that it is not of central importance for the philosophical message of his work that Lovecraft wrote horror. The genre could have been different and the style would have been equally important. I will have more to say about this point later. 

Other than setting aside the content of Lovecraft's work, Harman secondly provides Lovecraft's seeming xenophobia a rather refreshing close reading that makes the issue far more complex and nuanced than it first seems. Harman's nuanced reading of Lovecraft's xenophobia relies heavily on the elements of comedy in Lovecraft's work. The comedy in these works seems generally unrecognized, and I admit myself to never having consciously considered it, but upon reflection it seems clear that comedy is both present and very effective in adding to the entertainment value of the text. Lovecraftian comedy comes through in the general tendency of Lovecraft's main characters to be pedantic, reassured in their own rational explanations of the world, and generally far more clueless than the reader when it comes to the events going on around them. These characters are perfect comic foils, then, because they are both arrogantly self-certain and blind. At a particularly striking moment in Harman's text he focuses briefly on how this comedy diffuses at least some moments of apparent racism. During a scene in "The Call of Cthulhu" when a horrifying ritual is depicted in the swamps of Louisiana the narrator notes that an "excitable Spaniard" is fooled by his imagination or echoes into thinking he has heard a non-human response to the ritual's chants from further off in the swamp. The narrator dismisses this from the arrogant fortress of his rationalism and implies that the mistake can be traced to a racial flaw. But the reader of course recognizes that the Spaniard was anything but deceived. The reason this point is important generally is that it focuses on the central role the racism of Lovecraft's characters plays at times within their comic configuration and the way in which this very role debunks the racism. The passage in "The Call of Cthulhu" is effective precisely because the narrator's self-assured racist superiority is part of his ignorance, which the audience recognizes perfectly well. It is a shame of which Harman is well aware, however, that Lovecraft too often resembles his comic characters and not the more nuanced view his style at times makes accessible.    

To turn to the actual philosophical content of Lovecraft's style we need to discuss what Harman calls his ontography, which he presents in terms of four main tensions that arise between sensuous objects, sensuous qualities, real objects and real qualities. We began discussing this issue earlier in terms of the two basic tensions from Husserl (sensuous qualities and sensuous objects) and Heidegger (sensuous qualities and real objects) but this list can be expanded to include tensions between sensuous objects and real qualities (also drawn from Husserl) and real qualities and real objects (for which Harman appeals to Leibniz). Harman convincingly shows that Lovecraft's style relies at times upon each of these tensions. 

The first tension, from Husserl (SQ - SO), Harman describes as cubist and includes under the general category of fission. It occurs in Husserl or Lovecraft when we experience a gap between a sensuous object (for example the mountainous ruins in "At the Mountains of Madness") and the many sensuous qualities that make up the object but seem impossible to meaningfully unify. Here there is no implication that the ruins (or in Husserl something as commonplace as a book) is anything more than the unity of its sensuous qualities (as Harman points out this tension is purely on the phenomenal plane and is not appealing to a Kantian intuition concerning things-in-themselves) but this unity seems impossible to achieve when we are given only the seemingly endless flood of perceived partial aspects. 

The second tension, from Heidegger (SQ - RO), represents a break from Harman's earlier views that Lovecraft was in no way Kantian. Here we find a tension between the reality of an object and the qualities it offers through experience. The actual object always withdrawals behind its sensuous qualities. The main example of this is the description of the idol of Cthulhu in "The Call of Cthulhu" in which various elements, such as the aspect of a dragon and octopus, are put together and then we are told that they do no justice to the spirit of the thing and the general outline of the whole. Despite seeming similarities between this tension, which Harman describes as based in allusion and fitting in the general category of fusion, and the first Harman insists here we are dealing with several sensuous qualities which do not build up, or fail to build up, to a sensuous object but rather sensuous qualities not meant to be taken literally as qualities of the real object at all. Rather they are simply allusions to the actual sensuous qualities and "spirit of the thing" which language can't capture. 

The third tension, once more a Husserlian one (SO - RQ), is drawn from Husserl's work on eidetic variation in which one varies imaginatively the sensuous qualities of a thing in order to discover its essence i.e. those qualities which can not be changed while still leaving you with the same object. This is a tension, then, that arises between the sensuous object upon which one practices eidetic variation and the real qualities it is discovered to have. Harman groups this as another form of fission, much like the first Husserl tension, and admits this is rare in Lovecraft but can be found in those cases where scientists are baffled when investigating sensuous objects within which they uncover real qualities that they can make no sense of. He refers here to an example from "The Dreams in the Witch House" in which scientists investigate a statue apparently brought into the waking world from a dream and discover elements that science has not yet discovered and which have no place within the standard periodic table.

Finally we face the last tension, between a real object and its real qualities, which is the final example of fusion. This is found in the most extreme experiences found in Lovecraft's work, for example descriptions of the mindless horror in the heart of the ultimate chaos that is known only as Azathoth, where it is hard to even say that we witness allusion as in the case of the Cthulhu idol but rather are offered little more than proper names that cover over impossible real qualities of an inconceivable real object.
Though the third and fourth tensions are fairly uncommon in Lovecraft and, in the case of the fourth, distinctions between it and the Heideggerian-Kantian tension seem rather tenuous, Harman does do a nice job of showing that there is an important and meaningful difference between the first two tensions in Lovecraft's work. His deployment of the rest of the ontography can be charitably understood as showing the greater depths of analysis Object Oriented Philosophy makes possible even where they were not fully appreciated or deployed by Lovecraft himself. The book, however, is largely a work of literary theory with the presentation and development of Harman's own philosophy playing a fairly brief role in the text. However, Harman's underlying philosophical commitments very clearly provide the foundation for his larger reflections on the practice of literary criticism and theory and offer some interesting connections with philosophy of art generally.  In order to transition to some philosophical suggestions of my own I will turn briefly to the issue of literary theory and philosophy of art  now.

It is possible that the most interesting part of Harman's book is his argument for a literary theory that is in line with Object Oriented Philosophy. Based on the central claim of that philosophy, according to which objects are radically unique and thus not reducible one to another or interchangeable, Harman argues against paraphrase and any context focused literary theory. Nothing in existence can be converted into anything else without distortion, and so the attempt to convert a work of art into either its context or its effects is to distort the radically unique being of the work. There is a sense in which this fits nicely with the views of both Heidegger and Gadamer, i.e. a work of art is characterized precisely by its ability to continually give rise to new and unexpected experiences and meanings. An art work is precisely that which always exceeds any previous grasp of its being. Harman basically extends this characteristic of art works to all objects in general. Again this is not so very different from Heidegger who, arguably, extends the analysis of art he gave in "The Origin of the Work of Art" to all things through his attempt in his later works to address the thing. Based on these reflections, I rather wish Harman had talked a bit more about Heidegger's middle and later works and less about Heidegger's tool analyses from 1919 to 1927 which are the areas of Heidegger's project that seem to be Harman's main focus. 

Despite the above mentioned similarities to Heidegger, Harman himself points out that common readings of Heidegger seem to be in tension with his own dismissal of context. When we consider Heidegger's tool analyses don't we come to see that the important point is the location of the hammer within the context of its world, and not its sensuous qualities or the way our consciousness engages with it? Harman suggests that here either Heidegger, or the interpretation of Heidegger, is mistaken. The object which is the hammer is more than either its place in a world context or its Husserlian constitution by consciousness. It has a radically unique existence that escapes from any of our attempts at reduction, paraphrase or contextualization in the same way Harman claims a work of art does. This brings me to a point of philosophical contention I believe I hold with Harman. This disagreement first began to come into focus when Harman described the Heideggerian elements of Lovecraft in terms of Kantian noumena. It then became much more clear for me when Harman criticized literary theories which focus on the historical context of a work. 

Heidegger was able to dissolve the centrality of the subject/object distinction in philosophy, at least according to many readings, by shifting from an "object oriented" focus to an event oriented one. The reason that event ontology escapes the subject/object distinction is because subjects and objects are understood in terms of the larger events or contexts which alone make them possible and meaningful. To clarify this we might glance at Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art". There Heidegger insistently shifts the discussion from one focused on the work of art to one focused on Art itself as a historical event. The art object and the artist both are discussed in terms of the art-event that makes each what they are. To discuss art, then, is to discuss the historical event in which art works and artists arise with both works and artists being recognized as secondary to the originary events within which they show up. A similar move occurs in Heidegger's later thought concern the thing. There things are understood primarily in terms of thinging, an event of meaningful interplay between the fourfold. At times thinging itself is even understood as the way in which the world and the fourfold come to appearance. 

The important point here is that a major shift taking place in philosophy through Heidegger is a move from object focus to event focus. Events, of course, can become objects for us but when they are so experienced we have already lost them to distortion. This insight is consistent in Heidegger's work, from his earliest lecture courses to his latest essays. Where Harman, then, wants to talk about the impossibility of converting one object into another without distortion, Heidegger's insight was the impossibility of converting events in which we find ourselves into objects standing before us and apart from us without distortion. This, then, was the continual challenge of Heidegger's philosophy: to think the event from within the event without excepting oneself distortingly from it. 

The above considerations make clear why Harman's concerns about objects being reduced to context seems to miss the point. Shakespeare's Hamlet wasn't an object within the context of Elizabethan England. Rather it was an event within the larger event of Elizabethan England which itself was an ongoing event within the larger event of Western History and so on. To understand adequately any of these events in isolation from the larger one they are part of is impossible and to exhaust the meaning of any of them is impossible, but neither of these facts means that these events were something over and beyond the woven tapestry of "context" which was their being. In this sense there is only context, no content. Or, rather, context is content and vice versa depending on the level from which it is experienced. 

Harman assumes that we will want to account for some common sense intuitions that the above view seems unable to address, for example the idea that we are still discussing the same object even when we discuss alternative possible histories for it or alternative ways to use it. Hamlet, then, is Hamlet even if it had been a lost play or even if it is performed in the future in some dramatically avant garde manner (Harman actually mentions berries, and how they are the same berries whether they are shipped elsewhere or eaten where the grow). It is certainly true that event ontologies have trouble accounting for hard and fast lines between particular events or things. But the question is really how much hangs on this issue. There are practices (i.e. events) which allow for us to carve up what happens in various ways and other practices which offer other ways of carving things up. We have little trouble navigating these whether we are object oriented or event focused. Any such concerns can just as easily crop up when discussing objects with just as little real difficulties being raised (i.e. are we still dealing with the object that is Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" if one period has been mistakenly left out in the printing, or a whole page, or if it has been adapted and used in an avant garde theater performance, etc?).  

I would like to offer a few closing considerations on the topic of horror and whether it was important that Lovecraft was a writer of horror. Although I have stressed Harman's use of the style/content distinction to dodge problems with some of Lovecraft's content, Harman also claims that a change in his view about the importance of Lovecraft as a writer of horror was part of what motivated his book. At the start of the third and final part of the book he suggests he will address the issue but his engagement with the subject is fairly minimal. It seems that his general suggestion is that horror is uniquely suited to bringing us face to face with situations in which we experience dramatic breakdowns in our relation to objects and their relation to their qualities. This certainly seems true, as does Harman's claim that Lovecraft's style still could have been used in a different genre. What Harman is touching upon seems to be an interesting reworking of the problem of the sublime from the perspective of phenomenology. As such, however, I tend towards the view that the sublime is always to some degree horrifying, as indeed is an experience of objects as always other than familiar qualities totalized in terms of our expectations, even when such experiences don't arise specifically within the genre of horror. How, then, are we to address the reverse question, not whether Lovecraft had to be a writer of horror but whether Heidegger, Kant and Husserl are necessarily in some sense philosophers of horror? Each in their own way are thinkers of the uncanniness of the ordinary even if, in Husserl and Kant's case, this aspect is not consciously recognized (we can, however, see this aspect of Husserlian thought brought out very strongly in Sartre). For this reason, I think there is a robust sense in which each is indeed a philosopher of horror, a philosopher who makes clear we are far less comfortable in the world than we attempt to convince ourselves we are. 

It is possible, however, that there is one other aspect necessary to make one a philosopher of horror which would correspond with Lovecraft's writing. This missing aspect has to do with an element of Lovecraft's content that calls for the inclusion of a philosopher in the discussion who seems to have been overlooked. Lovecraft is not just committed to the breakdowns in experience Harman has discussed, he is also committed to an anti-rationalist view that insists that truth is not good for us. Consider this quotation from "The Call of Cthulhu":   

“The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but someday the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” 

It is this view, perhaps, which more fully makes Lovecraft a thinker of horror. It is not just that the world and its objects are other and stranger than we ever suspect it is also that we are not well served by knowing the truth concerning these objects, rather this truth destroys us. To find a philosopher of horror such as this we need to turn to Nietzsche, or students of Nietzsche such as Georges Bataille. In them is it suggested that faith in the truth, faith that it will be good for us and that it is better to know than not to know, is likely an ungrounded or false faith. But this view could not exist without one first having made the realization of the uncanniness of the ordinary, for example as found in Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense". It seems that Lovecraft's style, with all of its overlaps with Kant, Husserl and Heidegger, is intimately connected to the claims concerning truth he makes within the content of his stories. If Lovecraft is to be the Hölderlin of Speculative Realism it is likely that thinkers such as Harman are going to have to come to terms more fully with the philosophical content of his horror and more fully grapple with the connection between his style and content. To do that they will likely have to turn their Husserl and Kantian-Heidegger to face Nietzsche, a challenge that Heidegger himself struggled with throughout his career.     


1 comment:

  1. I would like to thank Professor Harman for mentioning this review on his blog. As he mentions there, and I meant to mention myself above, I have not previously engaged with his work and so am indeed unaware of his own arguments against an event focused reading of Heidegger. Having enjoyed his book, I do indeed intend to read more of his work and consider further our disagreements on the interpretation of Heidegger.