Monday, July 19, 2021

an explanatory footnote to the previous post

I have no particular enthusiasm for Eugene Thacker. But I am struck by his remarks on the relationship (even though it is an inverted relationship) between mystical theology, the experience of the sublime, and "the fantastic" and contemporary attempts to grasp the age of the hyperobject and potential planetary extinction.

I need to refine my own thoughts on these topics, and have promised analytical essays for too long a time. Thacker's observations are enough to spur me into motion, I hope. I hope.

summing up one philosopher's take on any number of my past topics, by excerpting a Eugene Thacker interview

The old maxim “All things come to those who wait” is self-evidently not true (my all-expenses-paid invitations to the Helsinki or Riga Biennales haven’t showed up yet, for example) but some of the topics on which I have been promising for years now to write my own reflections are dealt with, albeit obliquely, in Daniel Beatty Garcia’s 2019 interview with Eugene Thacker for the culture-and-fashion site and print magazine 032c. I have strung together some highlights that I think are obviously relevant to the several topics on which I have been writing for the past few decades, initially in Art Papers magazine but more recently in my blog and (I thought I included a brief discussion of Thacker’s books in my 2015 “History of Religions and Cultural Fashions Revisited” essay in Mihaela Gligor, ed., From Influence and Confluence to Difference and Indifference: Studies on History of Religions, which you may download free of charge from Cluj University Press, or you can download just the essay from, though you may have to sign up for a free account. But on consulting the text I discover that I only cited some of his companion philosophers on the same subject matters. Never mind.)

[The sentences set off by triple hyphens are Daniel Beatty Garcia’s responses to Eugene Thacker’s remarks.]

For me, the most interesting horror criticism isn’t necessarily academics from film studies writing about horror films. I’m more inspired by theologians writing about religious experience, for instance. They aren’t talking at all about horror film, but there’s something in what they are talking about that resonates with the kind of films that I’m interested in. …if you look, say, at mystical traditions, they’re simply using the terminology of religion or theology to talk about the same structural issue, which is a horizon to human understanding. ---In that sense you could say that the ancestor of modern horror is negative theology.---


And you see some of these motifs historically: in Tarkovsky, in Ingmar Bergman’s films – Through a Glass Darkly especially – all the way back to German expressionism.

It’s also there in a lot of Asian horror. There’s a lot of film coming out of South Korea that I find really compelling. There’s a recent film called The Wailing, and another called A Tale of Two Sisters. Both of these not only have that slow horror feeling about them, they also explicitly deal with a dilemma: is something supernatural happening, or is it all in my head? You have a split between the scientific and the religious, or the psychological and the supernatural, and an uncertainty that’s held all the way through to the end. That’s really hard to do, and it’s another example of just holding or inhabiting uncertainty and confusion and not trying to resolve it too easily.

---That sustained uncertainty – what the literary critic Tzvetan Todorov calls “the fantastic” – and that slowed down dread seem to be spreading. Part of the movement comes from the other direction – other genres incorporating horror tropes, directors like Nicolas Winding Refn using the Giallo horror aesthetic.--

Absolutely. Crime thrillers like You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay’s film. These are out of genre, but you can see how they’re importing that same sense of slow, almost lyrical dread. There’s again this zoomed out sense that these characters aren’t really making decisions. There’s some other nebulous set of forces, and the human beings are just puppets. That it’s leading them to some end.

Sometimes this is expressed visually. I just watched this TV show, The Terror. It uses a technique you see a lot in film in which you cutaway to the landscape. The contrast is between the smallness of human beings – the intensive little human drama happening aboard this ship – and then this vast indifferent landscape that is surrounding it. Again, there’s some resonance between that sort of experience and earlier accounts of mystical experience or religious experience.

---Couldn’t this experience of our smallness in front of the vastness and incomprehensibility of nature be a positive one? Poets have called it “the sublime.”---

Of course, for some philosophers like Kant there’s a happy ending to the story, because human reason is able to recognize this limit and then say, “Well, okay, that’s off limits, but within this domain we can obtain a certain level of mastery.” It’s interesting to quote somebody like Lovecraft in juxtaposition to Kant, because they’re both talking about that distinction between the world in itself and the world as it appears to us, but Lovecraft goes all the way, and says that there is no moment of redemptive reason.

---Bruno Latour has an interesting take on this. He points out that if new research into the Anthropocene shows the nonhuman world to be marked at every point by us, human influence has “scaled up” to the extent that we are no longer so small compared to nature. So experiencing the sublime, that feeling of being dwarfed, becomes impossible. What this shows, for him, is that what we took to be an unreactive or indifferent nonhuman world was in fact sensitive all long, and that we are enmeshed in it at every point.---

There’s some interesting things in those kinds of theories, but they are still heavily anthropocentric. I think one of the lessons of the Anthropocene is that there seems to be a species-specific solipsism that we’re so stuck in that we’ve actually named an epoch after ourselves.

---What are Anthropocene theories missing?---

They usually ignore two kinds of indifference at work. The first is that we can call the world whatever we want and measure it however we want – there’s still the unbreachable opacity of the something-else out there reacting or not reacting. The second kind of indifference is more specifically contemporary. If you look at the tradition of the Gothic novel, there’s a tension between science and religion, and often that boils down to a conflict between the rational and the non-rational. Now added to that is something we could call “cold rationalism.”

Every day you can look at The Guardian, and there’ll be some article with a lot of facts and data about the amount of biomass we consume, or the sixth mass extinction, or whatever. We’re inundated with this big data level of horror. It’s not so much a failure of science – the science works almost too well. What it reveals to us is exactly how indifferent the world is to all of our attempts to master, or control it, or produce knowledge about it. Authors in the early 20th century like Lovecraft and other “weird” authors already understood that the more horrifying path was not anti-science, the non-rational. Far more horrifying is what science will reveal.