Ben Woodard, ‘Lovecraftian Science/Lovecraftian Nature’
One of Lovecraft’s more entertaining literary habits is to totally and irreparably demolish the academic mind. Again and again Lovecraft disappears, kills, or transforms the academic into a babbling madman sent off to grow the population of Arkham Asylum. This is not because he has malicious feelings for thinkers (quite the contrary) but simply because the professor, the researcher, the scientist, the philosopher, test the limits of reality and this, in Lovecraft’s world, is a dreadful and dangerous task.
But this image of the mad-brained academic does not appear in our everyday existence and even the mad thinkers of the most popular fictions are not driven mad by their science but by personal traumas. Mad scientists, overwhelmingly, do not have occupational madness. We will probably not (unfortunately) see scientists ripping out their hair at the LHC at the possible sight of stranglets or even more fantastically a portal to another dimension(maybe hell whether demonological or hyperchaotic). Does Lovecraft merely underestimate the mental fortitude of modern day intelligentsia or is it that nothing Lovecraft imagined has ever, and will never, appear, that nothing fundamentally horrifying in the field of research can tear itself from the mundane and singe the nerve endings of a few eggheads?
This gap, I want to argue, comes from a fundamental chasm in conceptual framing, from the treatment of onto-epistemlogical indistinction (and that this leaps from the fictional to the non-fictional). This indistinction means that what is unknown is both unknown as to whether its unknownness is a result of our epistemological limits (we haven’t seen that type of fungus yet) or ontological limits (we cannot say what kind of entity it is). Taking from an earlier blog entry this appears in horror in the statement ‘What is that?’ which indexes the horror of the weird (or the weirdness of horror) in several dimensions.
‘What’ is the epistemological dimension of horror or the very questioning of the identity of the creature or thing before the thinking entity subject to horror. Whatness assumes possibly belonging to a taxonomy in that ‘what’ already assumes an ontology, an isness.
‘Is’ is the dimension of ontology proper interrogating the being of the thing and even the very bounds of the thing’s thingness or identifiability once an epistemological schema has been thoroughly employed.
‘That’ speaks to the spatio-temporal location of the thing that is questionably known/unknown, or solid/gelatinous and so forth.
‘What is’ marks an indistinction of thinking and being, not their ontological distinction, but the ontic fuzziness resulting from the mad stacking of countless epochs driven by rabid nature. In other words, unknowability (epistemological limitation) can result from temporal or spatial distance (too old, too new, too close, too far), an underdeveloped schema of knowledge (unclassifiables, unobservables, dark matter, and so on and so forth) resulting from malformed tools or instruments, or the weirdness of grounding/ungrounding activities themselves troubling the very operation of binding, separating and so forth. Or the problems of discernment could be called proximity, the second blindness, and the third forces and mixtures.
For Lovecraft the soft gray matter which humans cherish so deeply cannot stand up to such an assault. Yet asylums have long been closed and the psychiatric wards are not overflowing at the rate he would expect. It is because, in part, that the naturalism of philosophies of science treat nature as an innocuous container or cheery factory of things which the scientist can rearrange accordingly. That is, even if the Promethean attitude towards nature is no longer exploitative, a view of nature as still mechanistic lingers even in ecological thinking.
Even Roy Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science, sweeps nature into a rhetorical corner as only a generative mechanism or in Cohen and Stewart’s wonderful Collapse of Chaos, nature is left somewhere in the clutches of real patterns. But there always lingers an epistemological wedge which keeps nature from fleeing into ontological obscurity. Of course we know what nature is and if we do not know we worship it or respect to the limit of our own poetical fancy. This split is what the late Pierre Hadot referred to as the Promethean/Orphic split.
This split covers over a more sinister division, the belief that we are in fact separate from nature as both the Promethean and Orphic attitude pre-suppose that nature is over there somewhere either to be exploited or deified. Our new found unnaturalness does not mean that we are suddenly made of tin and diodes but it reinforces the fact that the world, and particular the world of the scientist (according to philosophy), is one composed of epistemological limits and not ontological or natural curiosities. ‘What is that’ is deprived of all its teeth in the post-Renaissance conceptualization of nature where nature = ineligibility. Against this conceptualization Bhaskar argues:
“Science is not an epiphenomenon of nature, for knowledge possesses a material cause of its own kind. But neither is nature a product of man, for the intelligibility of the scientific activities of perception and experiment presupposes the intransitive and structured character of the objects of knowledge, viz. that they exist and act independently of the operations of men and the patterns of events alike” (185).
- Hellboy Director’s ‘Lovecraftian’ Horror Game Debuts On VGAs Next Month [Spike TV] (kotaku.com)
- Moody, weird short film “Dirt Dauber” brings HP Lovecraft into the 21st century [Video] (io9.com)
- Howard Phillips (ask.metafilter.com)
- This Wednesday, have yourself a Merry Cthulhu Christmas [Comics We Crave] (io9.com)
- H.P. Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep is getting an über-cute anime series?!? [Cthulhu] (io9.com)
- Call of Cthulhu Friday: Ramsey Campbell from TEMPLE OF DEMOGORGON (templeofdemogorgon.blogspot.com)
- A Naturalistic Ontology for Mechanistic Explanations in the Social Sciences (3quarksdaily.com)
- Mysterion, Coon Battle Cthulu in South Park (wired.com)
- The Dunwich Horror (1970) (horror-movie-a-day.blogspot.com)