Dance Video #3: ‘Intermediary Nightmare of an Unwashed Upholstry’April 23, 2017
Podcast 4: Towards a New Manifesto #1 ‘Individualism, Freedom and Artistic Exploration’ Part OneMay 17, 2017
By Dominic Fox
Readers who know of Graham Harman as the originator of “object-oriented ontology” but do not otherwise know his work may be surprised by his interest in the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft – and more surprised still that he has devoted a book, Weird Realism, to the philosophical exploration of Lovecraft’s strange fictions. Yet it is precisely this kind of confrontation, between a speculative metaphysics and a speculative fiction, that both stimulates ideas and withdraws from philosophical intelligibility, that Harman’s work is concerned with. “Objects”, on Harman’s account, are not merely the furniture of a bourgeois home, inertly available for human use. They constantly interact with each other, without ever becoming the sum of their interactions: there is always more to any object than any other object can make of it. Objects are weird, not only to us but to each other. In this interview, I wanted to see how Harman’s approach to Lovecraft as a philosopher might be fruitful for a consideration of the horror movie as a genre which depicts unspeakable, unthinkable, unfilmable abominations, yet does so by presenting a sensuous surface on which things – and, sometimes, Things – are shown. Is Lovecraft’s apparent unfilmability a special case? I was also interested in how Harman’s technique of philosophically-motivated literary analysis, which produces several delightful and revealing readings of well-known Lovecraft stories, might be applied within film criticism. What would an object-oriented theory of Cinema be like?
Dominic Fox: I’d like to begin by considering one of the greatest mysteries in the reception and dissemination of Lovecraft’s work: the absence of even a single satisfactory film adaptation of any of the major stories in the mythos. True, there is a Dunwich Horror, generally considered botched, and Reanimator, which although it enjoys a cult status of its own has drifted far from the Lovecraftian source. But no Cannes-busting Call of Cthulhu, no Guillermo del Toro Whisperer in Darkness, no Mountains of Madness starring Brad Pitt. Lovecraftiana is everywhere, from role-playing games to internet memes to plush Cthulhu dolls. His “brand recognition” has never been higher. And yet Lovecraft himself remains unfilmed – and perhaps unfilmable. Why do you think this might be?
Graham Harman: Along with films we might also speak of paintings. I doubt there is any visual art that does justice to the stories. While there is always a challenge to translate written work into visual terms, this is especially the case for an author such as Lovecraft (or Poe) whose literary craft has so much to do with an ambivalent description that functions by partially canceling its claim to description.
As mentioned in my book, “Cthulhu is not straightforwardly described as octopus plus dragon plus human. Instead, the description runs as follows: If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.”
Now, some wildly imaginative filmmaker, painter, or sculptor might come up with something memorably weird enough to approximate the strangeness we feel when reading Lovecraft. One could design some ghastly visual amalgam of octopus, dragon, and human with a convincingly jarring effect. But how could a visual product do justice to the qualifying phrases “I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing” and “it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful?” In fact, Lovecraft already subsumes artistic depiction under the weirdness of his language: after all, the description just quoted is of a sculpture after all. And however brilliant the “decadent” sculptor Wilcox from RISD may have been, the narrator Thurston is still not quite able to describe it to us without the hesitant admission that he is “not unfaithful” to its “spirit” and “general outline.”
Unlike Lovecraft’s written text, any film version would have to put its cards on the table and adopt some definite look for Cthulhu, and this is bound to fall short of the text. In fact, it may be that the only successful film adapation of Lovecraft is the recent fake silent film, in which the ludicrous inadequacy of visual depiction can be tacitly blamed on the “primitive” medium of “silent film” itself. I thought that was a brilliant idea by the filmmakers.
The same is true for Lovecraft’s depiction of sound. There’s the scene at the close of The Dunwich Horror, when Wilbur’s monstrous brother makes a loud noise from the mountaintop and Lovecraft says that “only by analogy” could we call it sound at all, and characterized it as having “a ghastly infra-bass timbre” (a brilliant phrase that might be dismissed as purple prose by Lovecraft’s less-discerning critics). No Hollywood sound engineer, however gifted, will be able to generate a fully convincing version of such a sound. So too for the sounds made by the creatures in the hotel hallway in The Shadow over Innsmouth. I especially adore Lovecraft’s description of them as “hoarse barkings and loose-syllabled croakings.” Once in awhile I try to imitate these sounds (only when no one is nearby, of course) and it is difficult even to imagine what it might sound like, let alone pull it off.
So too for bodily movement. Speaking of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, I’ll bet there is no actor or mime on earth who can convincingly mimic the “shambling gait” of Innsmouth’s residents. Lovecraft understands the power of literary suggestion, and whatever kind of suggestion exists in other media, it is too different from the literary kind for direct translation to be possible.
Years before I read Lovecraft for the first time, I was reading Poe seriously, and Poe is certainly Lovecraft’s ancestor in this respect (as in other more obvious but less important respects). Consider The Fall of the House Usher. When examining a painting of an underground vault, the narrator says that “certain accessory portions of the design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth beneath the earth’s surface.” This “conveyance” of an idea is simply not something that happens in visual terms in the same way as with language.
Dominic: Thinking a little more about CGI monsters, the modelling and rendering techniques involved in bringing such creatures to the screen are typically strictly “Euclidean” or geometrically “standard”. For Lovecraft, “non-Euclidean geometry” is one of the hallmarks of weird architecture, just as “non-Darwinian biology” is a sign that we are dealing with a profoundly alien relationship to life and death. But it’s not impossible to imagine a CGI monster that would be a 5-dimensional mathematical form being projected into three dimensions – or something like the Mandelbulb (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandelbulb), a repulsively and fascinatingly Lovecraftian mathematical abomination. Is the “weird” ultimately the “non-standard” in this sense, or is Lovecraft using notions such as “non-Euclidean geometry” to gesture towards something beyond mere deviance, something that even a “higher” mathematics (or extended vocabulary of CGI forms) would be unable to portray?
“Power 8 mandelbulb fractal overview” by Ondřej Karlík
Graham: I agree about the Mandelbulb, which I had never seen until clicking your link. It is repulsively Lovecraftian indeed, and the closest thing I’ve seen to a living shape that might appear in At the Mountains of Madness. But the more I look at it, the more I think the repulsiveness comes from its suggestion of sinister biological complexity, not so much for its geometry.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d be horrified like everyone else if I were to encounter the Mandelbulb on a dark country road late at night. But I think this would just be a variant of the horror I’d feel if encountering a five-headed dog or a black angel on the same road, even though these creatures would appear in perfectly three-dimensional, Euclidean fashion. It’s not just a matter of taking the stap beyond Euclid to Lobachevski and Riemann, but of stepping beyond geometry altogether. And obviously, language can do this in a way that the visual arts cannot.
Remember that in The Call of Cthulhu, a sailor is swallowed up by an angle of masonry “which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.” Whatever that means. This is not something to which advanced mathematicians are any closer than are you or I. This is why I am unsympathetic to scientistic interpretations of Lovecraft, and am not completely sympathetic to the “materialist” interpretation of Lovecraft found in Houellebecq, much though I love his book in other respects. Lovecraft may be a materialist in the negative sense that he doesn’t believe in souls, ghosts, or other spirtualist leftovers. But this hardly makes him someone whose world is expressible even in higher scientific and mathematical languages, even if he sometimes gestures in this direction. Cthulhu is metaphysically different from our encounter with him, not just beyond our limited sense-organs and cognitive categories. Lovecraft’s numerous mathematical and scientific characters are every bit as stumped as the less educated ones.
Let me now add a slight wrinkle to what I have said. In Weird Realism, I argue that there are two basic Lovecraftian techniques (ultimately four, but only two are used frequently). There is the one we have already discussed, which takes the form of “the description I have given is somewhat obliquely accurate, yet there was some extra element of horror in the thing that I struggle to put in words.” Some critics of my book have called this a hoary old literary cliché, but Lovecraft absorbs this critique in advance by admitting it may sound like a cliché, as when describing the decaying corpse of Wilbur Whately: “It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualized by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions.” And I’m sorry, but this is just not “purple” at all: it is very fine prose of the highest literary caliber. It’s the classic Lovecraftian gesture, the only one that most readers notice.
But then there is a second major Lovecraftian technique. At times, rather than saying that what he sees is indescribable, he treats it as though it were perfectly describable, but then piles on such an impossible number of incongruent details that we can hardly imagine while reading what the thing must look like. That happens in the passage after the one just quoted, when Wilbur’s course is described in great detail, though in a manner quite difficult to assemble into a unit. Recall the description of the Antarctic city, though even here it is only a distorted mirror-image of that city in the sky: “There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped discs…,” etc.
In the book I called such descriptions a parody (no doubt unintended) of the philosopher David Hume, who held that there were no objects, only bundles of qualities. You want to know what an apple is? No problem: it’s red, spherical, hard, shiny, juicy, and so forth. Go on long enough and you will exhaust it; there is no “apple” over and above all these qualities. But Hume is effectively reversed in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, whose whole method is to show that there is an object beneath its crust of numerous qualities. It’s not the mysterious, indescribable real object of Heidegger and of Lovecraft’s first type of technique: “words necessarily fail me.” Instead, you can perfectly well describe the Husserlian object, but it still remains not directly perceptible, since it takes a lot of work to amass so many qualities in a single thing. It is also, I hold, the same object as found in cubist painting, which might also be read as an accidental parody of Hume. Picasso’s candlesticks and violins cannot be obtained by adding up all the cubistic planes that depict them. The objects are there, but each of their faces are somehow accidental and arbitrary, and so too is the sum of all their faces.
My point here is that this second Lovecraftian gesture can be translated, in principle, into visual terms. I cannot imagine a film version of The Call of Cthulhu in which the Wilcox sculpture was convincing. But I can imagine a Brad Pitt At the Mountains of Madness in which computer graphics rendered an awfully convincing Antarctic city.
Lately I’ve been working with architects and trying to learn their language, since they have shown some interest in my philosophy. As a non-design person, it has been a struggle for me even to imagine what object-oriented building would look like. But it occurs to me now that I may have been looking in the wrong place. It may be difficult for architecture, a palpably visual medium, to suggest “spirits” and “general outlines” of its buildings. But architecture, like film and the visual arts, could easily succeed with the second sort of Lovecraftian technique. It’s too early to make a final decision about this, but it may be part of the solution.
Dominic: One of the techniques of analysis you use in Weird Realism is to “ruin” passages from Lovecraft, modifying them to remove their specifically Lovecraftian characteristics and render them bathetic or over-literal. This reminds me a little of Daniel Dennett’s practice of tweaking the parameters of philosophical thought experiments, showing how they stop working or suggest different conclusions if we cut off one “intuition pump” or raise the pressure on another. Films in the horror genre, particularly those that aim at inducing the feeling that sinister and occult forces are at work, have their own vocabulary of suggestion. Can you think of any particularly effective examples of cinematic unease where a small change in timing, lighting, camera angle and so on would spoil the effect of a particularly creepy sequence? Might the technique of “ruination” be fruitful for the analysis of such effects?
Duel, 1971, dir. Steve Spielberg
Graham: Sure, though I don’t watch as much film as many of my friends, so my fund of examples may not be very rich. Let’s start with a popular film that I love very much: Steven Spielberg’s debut work Duel. This is the originally made-for-TV film about a nerdy salesman who passes an ugly black truck near the beginning of the film, and the truck spends the rest of the film trying to kill him. One salient feature of the film is that we never see the driver. We do see his boots at one point, but otherwise it’s just a white t-shirt, an evil gesturing hand, and the extremely vague outline of a face. You could easily ruin the film, I think, by letting us see the driver and learn a bit about his background and motivations. The horror would disappear if we were given too much information. Indeed, I already wish that we knew less about Dennis Weaver’s main character, such as the fight he’d had with his wife. I prefer simply to think of him as “David Mann,” his name in the film: a generic human fighting a vehicular Goliath.
As for timing, lighting, and camera angle, these are all important and there must be countless ways to ruin them. We could sit down and watch Hitchcock together and I would probably notice a lot of them.
Ruination is an important philosophical topic for me, because it teaches us so clearly about the gap between any thing and its literal translation. That gap is always there.
You mention Dennett, and I am appalled by his suggestion (in the article “Quining Qualia”) that wine-tasting as we know it (“a flamboyant and velvety pinot”) might be replaced by a machine that would replace the wine-taster’s verdict with a set of chemical formulae. Obviously something would be lost here, just as magic tricks are ruined if the secret is divulged, threats are ruined if made too specific, the same for erotic suggestions, and finally also for jokes (an extremely important topic little treated by philosophers).
At the Venice Biennale in 2011, I visited the Irish pavilion and heard the lecture by artist Corban Walker, whose sculpture consisted of a cluster of hollow metallic cubes all askew. When discussing the influences on the work, he included the fragile state of the Irish economy of the time. That’s when I saw how you could ruin the artwork: simply fix a tattered Irish flag on top of the cubes. The method of ruination helps us see the ways in which any given work is not already ruined, and this brings its positive features to light.
Dominic: A phrase from Weird Realism that stuck out for me was “outsourced sincerity” – this seems like a suggestive description of what film itself does, if we consider the film-making apparatus as an object which observes the interactions between other objects, and then makes these observations observable in turn by an audience. A lot of film criticism focuses on alienation effects, on the ways that film can display or induce detachment and withdrawal; do you think it might also make sense to speak of “sincerity effects,” as a way of focusing on the sensuous relationships that the making and screening of movies bring into play?
Re-Animator, 1985, dir. Stuart Gordon
Graham: The phrase “outsourced sincerity” is adapted from Slavoj Žižek, who makes some brilliant remarks about how we see ourselves as free and transcendent and want to ascribe naiveté to others. This can already be seen in his early comments about Buddhist prayer wheels as a delegation of our belief to inanimate things. But the idea is even clearer when he discusses how we now outsource belief to the developing world: Muslims, Hindus, and Fundamentalist Christians are given the task of doing our believing for us.
Žižek’s wider point, of course, is that no one is really free from sincerity; ideology is there in our practices, even when our conscious beliefs are saturated with irony. I love his example about the Neo-Nazi who explains his views not with crude racist outbursts, but as the result of “a breakdown of paternal authority and diminishing social mobility.” He speaks the sophisticated language of academic sociologists, yet he is still a Nazi! I also think of the brilliant mock editorial in The Onion from 2005, “Why Can’t Anyone See That I’m Wearing This Business Suit Ironically?” The editorial writer claims that he first wore the suit as a joke, then “ironically” took a job at a law firm and “ironically” cashed their stupid paychecks. He then marries “a clueless girl from Connecticut” who likes shopping, and together they have “two creepy kids” who look like something from an old school textbook. I wonder if Žižek has read that article, because it lends emphasis to his point: even the most ironic cynic stands somewhere.
So, I mean to say, “alienation” must be the most exhausted and miserable paradigm on earth. Everywhere, everyone’s a detached observer, not invested in anything, not taking anything too seriously. I detest the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, because that is where this attitude seems to have reached its peak at this point in human history. To take just one example, there was a cybercafe worker there who thought it was pretty cool not to communicate with me verbally at all. Everything was “ironic” smirks, slight inclinations of the head that were barely distinguishable from non-motion, and vaguely discernible wags of his forefinger to indicate regions of the room. Finally, when he could no longer avoid answering my questions in words, he turned his head over his shoulder and passive-aggressively framed the answer as a response to his jaded co-worker. This cybercafe employee was the very emblem of the contemporary hipster, a personality type that has deep roots in the idealist philosophy of the past two centuries. If self and world are two distinct regions, then it follows that to be remote, aloof, and unabsorbed in the world is the height of cognitive and even social prowess.
I’m all in favor of a post-ironic art, and certainly in favor of a cinema against alienation. But this will all take awhile to work itself out, and will need a few brilliant successes to show the way.
Dominic: In Badiou’s recently-published collected writings on cinema, he suggests that cinema can be a philosophical genre – rather as Weird Realism shows that “pulp” literature can stage philosophical questions with unusual tact and vividness, and incite us to think about them in novel ways. But as you also discuss in the book, Lovecraft is not writing *as* a philosopher, and the fact that his fiction belongs to the horror genre isn’t just an incidental detail. Although you’ve written books that mingle philosophy with other genres – I’m thinking of Circus Philosophicus here – it’s always clear that they’re ultimately books of philosophy, in which whimsy, horror, the comic and the grotesque are used to make philosophical arguments vividly. Do you think that philosophy is necessarily a separate genre, which can seek its questions and materials in other genres but cannot wholly inhabit them, or is this an accident of history related to the professionalisation of philosophy within the academy? Can you envisage a philosophical cinema – and if so, what might it look like?
Dagon, 2001, dir. Stuart Gordon
Graham: Žižek has tried to show how many philosophical (or at least psychoanalytic) concepts are already woven into Hitchcock’s film. Whatever one thinks of those efforts, it is quite possible that film might resonate with philosophy; philosophy resonate with different disciplines at different times in its history, and my view is that the arts in general are the future dialogue partner of philosophers, after four centuries of slavish admiration of the hard sciences and the deductive procedures of geometry. The key point for me is that the “philosophical” aspects of film should not be too literal. If a filmmaker has a conscious philosophical doctrine in mind and puts that in the film, the result will invariably be banal. Imagine a hypothetical Heideggerian film called “Throwness.” It would probably just be a predictable story about how the lead character is absorbed in the idle chatter of the public until one day he has a liberating experience of anxiety, and so forth. That’s not the kind of relation that film (or any art) should have to philosophy, dramatizing on screen the explicit things that have already been put into books.
Philosophy’s task is conceptual innovation, an avoidance of the trench warfare that leads us to choose one concept simply because it opposes another that we happen not to like. What philosophy does, or does at its finest moments, is carve new paths that resemble no currently available alternatives. This makes philosophy a Protean discipline that cannot afford to rest in one place— though ironically, it is also slower in speed than the other disciplines, which face pressures from reality to innovate more quickly. Philosophy moves more slowly, but moves at a level that others take for granted, along paths that lead into all other disciplines without dominating them.
Since I’m a philosopher, all of my books are of course philosophy books, even Circus Philosophicus, the most unconventional of them. I am a full-time philosopher who is interested in all disciplines, though I find it difficult to practice any of them besides philosophy. The reason to stay in close contact with other disciplines is to share in the pressures they are facing from reality: the need to respond to new technologies and social forms. But since philosophy can only be love of wisdom rather than wisdom itself (cf. Socrates), it has a certain ingrained negative element in which the other disciplines cannot afford to indulge. Other disciplines must all take a stand in real time, and that’s why all disciplines are more political than philosophy.