These are just some sketchy thoughts I've been beaning around for the last few months. It occurs to me that the most interesting aspect of Lovecraft's fiction, particularly his later fiction, is the deliberate nature of his reversal of the Aristotelian ontology of life and non-life which has generally been reinforced by Western thinking since the Enlightenment. This hierarchy is probably familiar: at the bottom is 'inert', 'passive' matter, next above matter is insensate but growing plant life, above plant life is sensate and animate animal life, and above that we find rational, creative, and communicative human life. One might include one more hierarchical tier within the realm of the human--namely the civilized, cultivated, and allegedly superior category of white, European humans who reside above the rest of humanity (in Western thinking).
My contention is that HPL turns this hierarchy on its head with quite a bit of exactitude. For example, the alien races who displace notions of human superiority are often taxonomically identified with forms of life generally deemed to be simple, primitive, and less advanced than human beings: the Great Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness are classified as plantlike, the Mi-Go of "The Whisperer in Darkness" are a combination of fungus and arthropod, the Deep Ones of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" are a combination of fish and amphibian, the Shoggoths of Mountains and "Shadow" are reminiscent of unicellular or amoebic protozoan life. Pushing farther out from the realm of the living into the realm of the Ancient Ones themselves, the alien god-entities of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos tend to exhibit anomalies of behavior and makeup which associate them with a weird, material quasi-life. Witness Cthulhu's plastic composition, the strange ultra-dimensionality of Yog-Sothoth, and the depiction of Azathoth as a nuclear chaos--associating this last most radically with a picture of matter itself as infernal, chaotic, capricious, potent, and terrifyingly willful yet mindless.
There is one more component of Lovecraft's cosmology: the 'degraded' nonwhite cultists who often play a crucial role in this fictional world. Many simply write off Lovecraft's descriptions of these 'mongrel races' as symptomatic of his virulent racism, and while correct, this yet ignores a deeper association at work: His positioning of nonwhites as associated with the nonhuman entities of his cosmology is intimately linked to his deliberate inversion of the Western cosmos. In fact, I think his work more clearly than much other speculative fiction, demonstrates how deeply implicated racist ideology is within the traditional structure of Enlightenment humanism. Consider that humanism, in its concentrated effort to define the human being, is structured by a necessarily exclusionary logic--in order to define what it is to be human, something must be considered not-human. Historically this meant many marginalized nonwhite groups were deemed not human, and even when finally included within an 'expanded' definition of the human race, are treated as less-than-human by the Western whites who historically controlled and disseminated such definitions.
Lovecraft demonstrates, literally through his own racism, and in conjunction with his conceptual reversal of Aristotelian hierarchy, how closely tied together is the conception of the nonhuman as subordinate to the human and the conception of nonwhite humans as subordinate to white humans. This logic of subordination is not only mirrored between the two lines of thought, but the hierarchy is literally continuous from bottom to top. Put explicitly, Lovecraft's cosmology as a one-to-one reversal of Aristotle goes as follows: cultivated, white Westerner at the bottom, mixed-race nonwhite cultist above him, alien (but recognizably living) invertebrate-like creature above the cultist, and radically material god-entity residing at the top.
A final word on the problematic logic of humanism: the problem with merely expanding the definition of the human to include more and more categories is that there's a limit to how much the category itself can contain. At the limit, it will either cease to have any definitional meaning (perhaps the best-case scenario), or a kind of conservative backlash will contract the definition and attempt to return the term to its 'pure', highly exclusionary original state (one could argue that this latter is a continuously present threat). In essence, what can be gained through humanism for human beings can be lost just as easily through the same humanist logic. It seems, therefore, the best we can do is attempt to disassemble the Western concept of the human. I think, interestingly, that Lovecraft's work points out the way, and that's where I take up his fiction in my own art.
As a final note, I certainly hope this is not read as a defense of HPL's racism. There is far too much of that brand of apologetics rampant in fan circles, but there is also far too much in the way of simplistic analysis which dismisses as racist anyone who doesn't loudly condemn Lovecraft's work in total. While the former is indefensible and repugnant, the latter, to me, is crass and disingenuous.
To inaugurate my decision to post sketchy thoughts, here's a good example of something I just thought about today and wanted to get down in writing before I forget it.
One of the criticisms often leveled at philosopher Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology is that his insistence that objects always 'withdraw' into their inner worlds, such that relation to other objects is always secondary, renders the ubiquity of entanglement between objects either unwieldy at best or somehow illusory at worst.
The interesting thing for me is that I find the problem of access in Harman's work to be one of the features that's really interesting since it tends to blanket the universe of things in a tantalizing epistemic darkness. However, 'withdrawnness' doesn't seem to give the right picture as it tends to reduce the universe to a collection of static objects separated by unbridgeable gulfs of emptiness. His notion of 'subterranean' aspects to objects which can't be accessed by perception of their surface features offers a somewhat more evocative analogy for the relations between objects, but falls just short of its potential. I might replace 'withdrawal' with 'excess'; pointing to the sheer voluminousness of materiality that always exceeds our perceptual and conceptual grasp.
To Harman's 'subterranean' aspects, I would also add 'extensive' aspects, such that the inner life of an object recedes both into itself but also extends away from the perceiving object.
My thoughts here are really incomplete and I'm probably off the mark, but rendering this notion of 'extensive recession' in terms of entanglement between objects would seem to suggest the possibility for a kind of spatial limit to our ability to limn the contours our own entanglement. Meaning, we can apprehend the disparate objects that compose, adhere to, and contaminate us, and follow them to a point, but eventually we reach a limit, where the sheer excessiveness of matter results in a thing's nature extending away from us beyond our grasp.
Here we are entangled, but there's a darkness at the horizon of our conceptual reach and a darkness within the tendrils of matter that enmesh and diffuse through our bodies.
Thought I would dump a couple of announcements here. 2015 is going to be a very busy year for me!
The project taking up most of my time right now is the book-format release of Der Trepanomikönen. I'm currently collating all the memoranda transmitted by the Trepidopterous...um...Disorgan(-ism?)(-ization?). Working as "their" pseudonym is a full-time task, I have to say. At any rate, independent publisher Are Not Books have picked me up and my collaboration with Matthew Smith, who runs the imprint, has been nothing short of excellent. The book should come out sometime this year, although it's difficult right now to pinpoint just when that will be, even down to the quarter.
I'll be contributing some images to a collaboration with Russian artist/writer Ilya Dolgov for his Forest Journal project. Expect more word on this collaboration and a number of others with my Russian friends soon!
I have a number of album cover commissions in the works as well, but for the time being I'll be keeping a lid on those. Announcements to come. Seems like the DeadSideOut sub-imprint is shaking the dust off yet again.
I'm in talks with faculty at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, who are planning a panel on new materialism to take place later this Spring. I'll be sitting on the panel with two other artists, my University of Notre Dame MFA colleague Joseph G. Cruz, as well as Nate Morgan from the University of Michigan. So far, the thinking is that the panel will address the diverse philosophies that fall under the label 'new materialism' as well as discuss the different ways artists are mobilizing these ideas or manipulating them in their work. I feel I provide a unique perspective because the most straightforward way to deal with materialism in studio arts is through material manipulation, i.e. sculpture. Visual artists like myself have a different relationship to these ideas in terms of how we phrase our concerns and how we explore them. More details on that will be posted as they emerge.
In other news, I recently purchased the domain name for this site, so navigation will no longer require the old .weebly.com address. It's just shoggothkinetics.com now. It wasn't really a cheap move, as it goes, but it felt like the right step.
That said, a number of small changes will be happening, including a host of updates that I will slowly be getting around to. My artist statement on the homepage really needs re-vamping if not total re-writing. The project titled "Problematic Objects; Disappointing Aliens" has recently undergone a name-change and last semester saw a major conceptual shift in how I talk about this body of work. Once I solidify some of the explanatory writing and re-shoot some of the older pieces (the paintings now total 10 and one of the original paintings has been altered), I'll get that updated.
I also think that producing fairly finished and fully-cited essays for this blog is too time-consuming if I want to post more regularly. It's just not possible to keep up a steady stream of content that meets such a high level of academic discourse--something that the sparse posting on this blog since the site's inception indicates. So, I'm probably going to shift to posting my thoughts-in-progress much more. I think the stakes are low enough with a blog that it won't make a difference to my readers (if I have many!) and this way I can post a lot more. I certainly write way more work than ever gets posted, mostly because up to this point I've been reluctant to post sketchy ideas and half-formed theses.
So expect a change in the length of posts and the depth to which they've been thought through. All this work is intended to form the nuclei of later pieces of writing, particularly for my MFA thesis. So, the "Notes on Hyperhorror" series will undergo a bit of a shift with lots more short, sketchy posts and less of the lengthy, fully-researched and -cited essays.
arts educator, painter, drawist, heavy metal enthusiast, and long-time Lovecraft fan