Yesterday I’ve listened to the recording of China Miéville‘s talk at Kingston University on ‘The Weird’ in fiction and politics (by the way, I’m not sure who runs the Backdoor Broadcasting Company, but they have my deepest respect for what they do). Given my sceptical stance towards the porting of weird tropes and language from fiction to non-fiction (including politics and philosophy) I was somewhat prejudiced, and was expecting, from Miéville, an all-round defense of all things weird. I was wrong.
Miéville defends his predilection for weird fiction (both in its early twentieth-century peak and in its contemporary resurgence, of which he is of course a central herald) but is very cautious in claiming any straightforward political relevance for ‘the weird’. He similarly expresses scepticism regarding the — now waning — popularity of hauntology both in its metaphysical sense and in its political ‘applications’: Miéville sees hauntology as being concerned with that-which-comes-back-unexpectedly-revealing-itself-as-always-already-there, on a par with the psychoanalytic return of the repressed, and of course the horror/spiritual trope of the revenant, the re-turner. Therefore — I surmise — offering limited resources to the political theorist seeking to formulate the possibility of radical novelty. This is a classic criticism towards ‘deconstructionist politics’, an orientation often indicted of political unassertiveness (or straightforward passivity). On the other hand though, Miéville didn’t explain precisely how ‘the weird’ fails as well to offer a viable theoretical alternative. A discussion regarding the poltical poential (if any) of these two borrowings from fiction would be extremely interesting, but it’s way out of my competence, and it’s not my primary interest here.
[However, let me note that Miéville seems highly sceptical of the sudden widespread interest in Black Metal among leftist intellectuals: Miéville observes that, death of the author notwithstanding, one just simply cannot ignore the intrinsically reactionary, neo-romantic nature of a musical genre whose practitioners are -- when not, I would add, just plainly politically ignorant, too busy posing as more-evil-than-thou to care about politics -- mostly openly placed on the far right of the political spectrum. In general Miéville doesn’t seem to me to be particularly enthusiastic about the current 'let's turn weird all of our intellectual productions’, whilst at the same time staunchly defending the importance of this genre as a literary production. I agree on both counts. And once again, let me clarify that I write this as an avid weird fiction reader, science fiction aficionado (enough to name my red cat ‘Jones’) and as someone that, with a library of about 200 albums accumulated over the last 10 years knows a thing or two about Black Metal].
What is ‘the weird’ anyway? Miéville prunes away misunderstandings: weird fiction is not a genre populated by folklore-inherited monsters (ghosts, vampires, werewolfs), does not employ the trope of the horror unleashed by human hubris and rationality gone wild (Frankenstein, Moreau) and — most importantly I would say — does not employ its unsettling elements (creatures, places…) as allegories. Miéville is particularly fond of cephalopods in general and octopuses in particular (which explains the one tattooed on his arm) precisely for this reason: they are (spectacularly intelligent) creatures which are virtually absent from Western mythology and are either prone to non-codified symbolic appropriations or seem to have no allegorical meaning whatsoever. Allegories, Miéville goes on arguing, are most interesting when they break down, when they stop working, when they mean nothing and acquire a life of their own (even though, to be pedantic, we could argue that such an allegory is no allegory anymore since strictly speaking what makes an allegory not just an over-stretched metaphor is the possibility of its rational, conceptual interpretation).
Miéville cites Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘The Kraken’ as an excellent example (in fact, a metaphor) of how allegories die when overexplained:
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His antient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
The Kraken dies when exposed to the gaze of humans and the light of day. The allegory is at its most awe-some power when its meaning is either absent or impossible to analytically decode. And of course, who else sleeps on the bottom of the sea (and has cephalopod-ish semblance)? Good Old Cthulhu of course, which is not just any ‘monster’ (Wikipedia, accurate as ever for anything related to geek culture, rightly describes it as ‘a fictional cosmic entity’).
So, crucially, the weird resist allegorical meaning. Miéville exemplifies his point by stating that (Giger’s) Alien is not weird. Why? Well, because of its all too obvious (‘camp’ is a word which Miéville uses often in this context) sexualization, both in shape and in actions (see the famous scene of the Alien’s tail creeping up Lambert’s leg). Conversely, the weird indexes that which is utterly alien, unsettingly resistant to conceptualization, impossible for thought to metabolize. As Miéville notes, however, this concept-proof constructions used as literary devices impose an interesting disjunction (very noticeable in Lovecraft): on the one hand their complete transcendence, while on the other the literary necessity and the human desire to get to describe them. So, we are told how utterly impossible the shapes seen by the terrorized witness were…and yet these latter are still able to go on describing them in all their grotesque details. This tension is even more evident, Miéville observes, when Lovecraftian creatures are ‘tamed’ in order to be located in the economy of spin-offs RPGs: ‘so, how many HPs does a shoggoth have?’. I don’t fully share Miéville’s passion for tentacled creatures (which I still find too easily sexualized) so I think that in this respect Cthulhu is the least successful of Lovecraft’s deities: all too representable (reason for its iconic ‘popularity’: indeed Miéville laments the capitalist mercification of Cthulhu in plush form – shame on me for having bought one!) as compared to other, more thoroughly cosmic, Old Ones. Even in fiction then, abysmal incomprehensibility must give something in to representation. Just as ‘an incredulous [or terrified for that matters] stare is not an argument’, a blank page is not a story.
The weird attempts to describe things so violently in-themselves to shatter any attribution of meaning and scale down human self-perception. In this regard, I was extremely pleased with Miéville’s claim that William Hope Hodgson was perhaps a worse writer but a more interesting one than Lovecraft was since, well, I always thought that to be the case. You want cosmic weirdness and ancestral isolation? The breathtaking second half of The House on the Borderland (a book that is now over a century old) still leaves me speechless at every re-read (if you got a Kindle, you can find a free copy in the Kindle store, do get it).
The weird is not the horror of the unheimlich re-cognition but that of getting a glimpse of the unknown and realizing that it is operating according to meaningless rules, rules which have been in place far before we appeared in the universe and will go on undisturbed after we’ll depart it. I am deeply enamored with Thomas Ligotti’s short ‘story in the story’ The Astronomic Blur (part of Sideshow and other stories, in Teatro Grottesco) a two-pages long tale of a mysterious (yet anonymous, bland) little store with a strange flickering light. It’s hard to convey the mood which Ligotti builds up in just a few paragraphs, but the last, masterfully constructed one is a marvelous example of the getting a-glimpse-on-the-meaningless trope of weird fiction:
Perhaps I had seen too deeply into the nature of the little store, and it was simply warning me to look no further. On the other hand, perhaps I had been an accidental witness to something else altogether, some plan or process whose ultimate stage is impossible to foresee, although there still comes to me, on certain nights, the dream or mental image of a dark sky in which the stars themselves burn low with a dim, flickering light that illuminates an indefinite swirling blur wherein it is not possible to observe any definite shapes or signs.
Leave the unknowable alone or it shall annihilate your ambitions with the hazy banality of its meaninglessness.
Having reached this point, it is all too easy to leap from weird fiction to Meillassouxian ‘realism’ of contingency and related philosophical ideas. For what is hyperchaos if not a name for those strange aeons during which even death may die? This is a most delicate point, since we are starting to walk the thin line between the careful comparison of certain kinds of sensibility — of affine orientations of thought — and the wholesale, meaningless (in the vulgar sense) and often pretentious unregulated exchange of concepts between ‘dark’ literature and philosophy.
When asked about style Miéville concedes some ground to the critics that accuse Lovecraft of over-writing of employing a baroque, faux-18th century, and heavily adjectival style. Yet he defends the necessity of such a ‘convoluted’ style for weird fiction to achieve its affective results. I wasn’t surprised, since Miéville quite obviously adores to use powerful, and often cryptic, words: if you ask me, occasionally indulging in this impressionistic practice too much — see the quantity of things which ‘ooze’ in Perdido Street Station (which, don’t get me wrong, is a staggering novel, in content and in style): winds, aerostats, blood, spit, skin (?), houses (!), rivers, flying creatures… However, in fiction a story has to be told, and I wouldn’t want Miéville to change his trademark style, where the vocabulary is skillfully employed to construct metaphors which buttress the ‘weird’. On the other hand, in philosophy (which is not, pace Rorty just ‘a kind of writing’) and in science, there are good and bad metaphors, i.e. those that facilitate an increase of knowledge and those that remain pure metaphors, resisting any possible conceptual clarification. Philosophy needs the former. Breaking down metaphors, those that die when brought up to the light of day, meaningless metaphors are not the right material for philosophy, even when such a philosophy is trying to track the consequences of the meaninglessness of the universe. As a rule of thumb, over-writing is a mistake in philosophy. I wouldn’t go as far as Williamson in arguing that ‘pedantry is a fault on the right side’, because I believe it is perfectly possible to be good, engaging and yet precise writers. Bachelard writes (about science, but insofar as philosophy and science aim at being modes of rational inquiry, the point stands for both): ‘the danger of immediate metaphors in the formation of the scientific spirit is that they are not always passing images; they push toward and autonomous kind of thought; they tend to completion and fulfillment in the domain of the image’. The Miévillian ‘broken metaphors’, literary powerful, don’t do philosophical work, but remain lost in a fuzzy world of affective ideality.
The central trope which weird fiction and philosophical speculation share, that of the meaninglessness of the in-itself, is expressible without having to recur to wild metaphorizing. Incidentally, it has always been my understanding that what Meillassoux wants to do with mathematics is precisely this. The in-itself is only mathematically expressible, and mathematics is the language of contingency, a formalism of symbols devoid of meaning. Again, an interesting parallel could be drawn here, between ‘Meillassouxian mathematics’ and Lovecraft’s employment of mathematics to convey the utterly alien and the non-linguistically conceptualizable. The fact that both weird fiction writers and speculative realists are interested in the way in which the in-itself is fiercely (human)concept-proof does not imply that philosophers should buy into the affective style which writers employ in order to produce a sense of awe in the reader. ‘The architecture oozes out of its bounds’ is a powerful, highly impressionistic literary metaphor which produces definite effects on the reader, hence with a specific literary value. On the other hand, in a philosophical context a sentence like ‘The noumena ooze back into the phenomenal world’ means nothing, i.e. does no philosophical work – in terms of clarification of concepts – whatsoever.
Having said that, what I find most interesting is a certain cultural resonance between ‘weird fiction’ and ‘new realism’, specifically when it comes to the dialectic between the intelligible and the unknown/unknowable and to the meaninglessness of the natural world. I take it to be a central axiom of any realism that certain things or states of affairs in the universe are unknown and perhaps unknowable. To make such a claim is not to be an anti-realist, but a consistent realist. Stathis Psillos spells this out very clearly when he writes that
Despite their many differences with the early empiricists, modern anti-realists do share with them the view that existential claims should be tied to some possibility or other of verification, a thesis which scientific realists deny.…Since…it is typical of scientific realists to argue that the content of the world can in principle exceed what human beings (even ideal observers) can access epistemically, none of these modern anti-realists is a scientific realist. (Scientific Realism: xx)
And recently Michael Brooks wrote it in a recent featured story on the New Scientist (pdf)
There are some things we can never know for sure because of the fundamental constraints of the physical world. Then there are the problems that we will probably never solve because of the way our brains work.
To accept that in principle parts of the universe can exceed our epistemic and conceptual grasp does not turn one into a vulgar Kantian, for to assert epistemic inaccessibility does not imply lack of reference and ontological antirealism (unless you are Van Fraaseen). It is a realist move to claim ‘there are things we do not know’ (and yet exist) and even ‘there are things/mathematical propositions we cannot know to be true’ (and yet are true).
What I take to be the most important contribution that a certain continental ‘orientation’ can bring to the table of the (scientific) realist is the elaboration of strategies for identifying and transcending the horizon of knowledge (meant as Badiouian technical term). As I see them, an attempt to break the constraints of ‘warranted assertability’ is the minimum common denominator that unites the philosophy of Deleuze, Derrida and Badiou (a trend which in fact goes back to the French tradition of épistémologie of Bachelard and Canguilhem). We must trace the historical evolution of our scientific concepts in order to be committed to an open-ended project of enlargement of knowledge and of creation of new concepts and truths (uphold the virtual possibility of the previously impossible).
It seems to me that a balance must be reached. An excessive emphasis on the weirdness, inaccessibility and incomprehensibility of reality in itself (re)produces a secular form of a vacuous mysticism of darkness (which is more self-congratulatory than philosophically fertile) and undermines naturalism by re-imbuing nature of ‘supernatural’ traits. On the other hand, we should be cautious with hyper-rationalisms, relying on the sheer power of pure thought to comprehend everything, for that is just the flipside of the old theological coin: on the one hand negative theology (which is always about meaninglessness for-us), on the other confidence in the lumen naturalis of reason (which ultimately banishes meaninglessness in-itself). The limits of our epistemic grasp cannot be overcome via either poetic talk nor via a mysteriously efficacious intellectual intuition. They can only be probed and pushed by rational inquiry.
Epistemic optimism is not an ‘all or nothing’ package, since there are clear limits to the knowable imposed upon us by our very best scientific knowledge (the Hubble horizon, the sub-Plank scale…but also the mathematical work of Goedel and Turing). Similarly we need to push thought to its rational limits, circulating — to borrow Graham Priest’s terminology — between transcendence and closure. Even someone like me, with neo-Pythagorean, mathematical-structuralist sympathies must acknowledge that there are limits to our scientific/mathematical knowledge because I believe that (probably due to my other, de-totalizing, post-structuralist sympathie) the uni(multi?)verse itself is not the kind of complete and consistent whole which we would like it to be. It is dappled, chaotic and imperfect – and the rather gifted (yet limited) creatures called humans are the product of this chaotic, purposeless and meaningless universe.
So no, thought is not omnipotent but yes, there is something like objective scientific progress and like the discovery of new truths. No, there’s no need to quiver in awe of ‘fanged noumena’ but yes, there are things ‘out there’ which will always elude any conceptualization (due to the limits of our biological brains) and attribution of ‘meaning’ (due to the intrinsic meaninglessness of reality). I join Meillassoux here, in stressing that the answers to ‘big questions’ don’t have to induce in us any sort of fear and trembling, but can be just be prosaically, rationally given.
Ultimately, I like to be disturbed and unsettled by weird literature and to be stimulated and provoked by ‘speculative’ philosophy – and these are pleasures best enjoyed separately.
~ by Fabio Cunctator on May 13, 2011.