Tentacles Longer Than Night, Vol. 3 Horror Of Philosophy – Eugene Thacker

This is a crucial twist in both Poe’s and Lovecraft’s stories – what is horrific is not that one is insane, but that one is not insane. – Eugene Thacker, Tentacles Longer Than Night, Vol. 3 Horror of  Philosophy, p.4

Ray Milland in The Man With The X-Ray Eyes. Having been pushed to the edge of sanity by his ability to see through not just clothes and stone, but reality itself, he has ripped his eyes from his their sockets. The last line, dropped from the final print, was his agonizing declaration, “I can still see!”

While I’ve had my share of nightmares, including those that leave me waking up screaming, only once as a child of about eight or so did I ever have a Night Terror. Upon waking from a nightmare, I always know what is and is not real, that I was asleep and am now awake, that it was nothing more or less than my brain scaring me.  That Night Terror, however . . . I awoke to see a large patch of blood on the ceiling of my room. It had dripped into a spreading pool on my bed. I screamed and screamed. It wouldn’t go away. My father came in to see what was wrong and he started to sit down in that spreading pool of blood! I told him not to sit down and when he asked me why, in that instant, the blood, the dark patch on the ceiling, the pool at the foot of my bed, that horrid plop of the drops – it was all gone. I tried to tell my father what had happened, but the impossible part was making clear to him that what I had seen and heard and felt wasn’t just a dream. It was, in fact, a horrible reality that may well have begun while I slept, but chased me into the waking world, leaving me terrified.

In the third and final volume of his series Horror of Philosophy, Eugene Thacker offers what is, in effect, a lengthy study of various literary themes in (mostly literary, although some Manga as well) horror fiction. Blurring the lines between literary criticism and philosophy – something that is really quite irritating, to be honest – Thacker’s major premise in this work, as in the previous two volumes, is that when human thought confronts its own limits, it encounters that which can neither be thought nor spoken, yet seems to demand to be named and spoken and described.

Except, really, what’s so horrifying at the thought of human beings limited in their abilities? We can’t run very fast. For our size we’re far weaker than other animals. Consciousness (the villain in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race), when combined with our sociability and language, are the tools with which we’ve been equipped to survive in a world in which there are the eaters and  the eaten. Other than the fear of being eaten by another creature (which, let’s face it, is pretty terrifying), what’s so awful about the reality that our world isn’t about anything, that we’re contingent, limited creatures, and that not just ourselves, but all that we know and all we will never know will disappear? It is what it is, after all.

Horror fiction, whether literary horror, genre horror, novels, or films, or manga all present us with a variety of questions, including important philosophical questions. When done well, we confront not just the literal (or figurative) horror on page or screen; we also confront that which frightens us most. The pay-off, of course, comes when that horror is defeated. Contemporary horror, particularly in film, offers the disquieting idea that, in fact, the horror is not overcome. Indeed, it seems to insist over and over that there is no escape from the horror that awaits us – whether that be death itself, a protracted dying, or a madness so thorough one’s very self becomes irretrievable.

Last week, I watched for the first time in 20 years the last movie that truly scared me. Event Horizon is about the attempted recovery of the first ship designed to travel faster than light. It had been lost, but has suddenly appeared in a decaying orbit above the planet Neptune. Along for the ride is the man who designed the ship, played by Sam Neill. When asked about the whole faster-than-light travel being impossible, Neill goes into a discussion about creating an artificial singularity which would, theoretically, bend space-time, allowing the ship to travel immense distances in an instant.* When they arrive on the ship, they find the crew missing, a haunting yet indecipherable log entry, and the occasional uncanny event, such as seeing dead loved ones, or those left behind on earth, or worse.

The horror of Event Horizon comes when that enigmatic log entry is deciphered. Apparently the cost of breaking the laws of physics is more than just the ability to move between the stars in an instant; it also propels you into a dimension of what Neill’s character calls “pure choas. Pure evil.” For me, this right here, is the most horrifying thought. Not that our Universe places a limit upon our abilities to travel long interstellar distances. It is, rather, the idea that there exists somewhere a place in which chaos rather than the ordered regularity of our Universe rules. A place where things like cause, effect, time, matter, energy have no meaning. While such a place is certainly possible, in theory, it is a place in which life would be impossible; the horror would be to find oneself trapped in such a place with no hope of escape.

The idea that the world and the Universe are quite indifferent to humanity and its concerns is neither new nor particularly frightening. It certainly carries with it, contrary to Thomas Ligotti’s insistence, no negative categorical imperative, that we human beings should end ourselves once and for all. How it’s possible to make the leap from the “is” of inhabiting a Universe where our very existence is an accident of circumstance to the “ought” that we should, therefore, end ourselves is quite impossible for me to figure out.

Whether it’s a Manga series about spirals (and this does sound quite terrifying), a Poe story about a maelstrom, one of Lovecraft’s many stories about indescribable horrors he goes on in some detail about, or a radio play about a darkness that seems to have teeth (and, yeah, this one would be pretty scary too), this idea that human beings encounter the unknowable, therefore confront our own limitations and thus have some kind of existential revelation about our own limitations and irrelevance is also at the heart of one of Stephen King’s better short stories from the 1980’s. Included in the collection Skeleton Crew,  the story “The Jaunt” concerns itself with a family about to embark on a trip to Mars via teleportation. While the family waits, the father tells his son the stories he knows about how teleportation was invented. When asked why they have to be put to sleep before using the teleporter, the father offers the wild suggestion that, even though in the physical realm, teleportation happens in an instant, there might yet be something . . . in . . . that instant that is beyond our ability to comprehend. So, of course, the story ends with the family arriving on Mars. The son, however, didn’t take his sedative, remaining awake during the teleportation only to discover that “in” is far bigger and more horrible than it is possible to imagine.

Everything else is just a variation on this simple formula.

I find it fascinating to believe that our being a contingent, limited species is somehow a source of angst, whether metaphysical or existential. Oh, I’m sure it is for some people. By and large, however, the idea that the Universe really doesn’t care one way or another about us human beings seems to illicit shrugs more than screams of fright. To select obscure pieces (with the exception of Dante’s Inferno and various works by Poe and Lovecraft) that would open up the possibility of this paradoxical encounter between that which cannot be yet it, that which cannot be explained yet is described incessantly ignores the variety of topics laid bare by horror fiction in its sheer variety: fear of sex and becoming an adult; fear of the ambivalent relationships we continue to have with friends and family members who have died yet continue to be a part of our lives; fear of the possibility that science just can’t explain everything; fear of our annihilation, whether through natural or artificial cataclysm; various political fears. A fear of the unnameable “Nothing” that brings human thought  both to an abrupt end yet causes it to work harder just doesn’t seem, well, very scary at all.

There are things that horror fiction and philosophy share. There are ways each can inform the other beyond an exploration of the boundary regions of human thought and experience. Most of all, both are simultaneously base yet vaunted exercises of the human imagination. It would seem to me a multi-volume work on the relationship between horror fiction and philosophy might explore these commonalities rather than propose a singular topic – das Nicht – as the core not only of horror, but of the horror of philosophy.

*Never mind that, by passing over the event horizon of the singularity, the ship and the people on it would be stripped of their materiality, reduced to elementary particles that would forever be trapped within the singularity. I know science fiction loves to travel faster than light, but, yeah, not so much.

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Starry Speculative Corpse: Horror of Philosophy, Vol 2 – Eugene Thacker

“But what’s it mean,” Roy cried, agonized. “What is it for?”                                                                       “Not for anything. It exists.” – Parke Godwin, Waiting For The Galactic Bus, p. 212

The proposition that governs this book, Starry Speculative Corpse, is that something interesting happens when one takes philosophy not as a heroic feat of explaining everything, but as the confrontation with this that that undermines thought, this philosophy of futility. Certainly there is a bit of tongue-in-cheek in this method of reading philosophy as if it were horror; and, like all methods, it is not to be taken too seriously. But the focus in the sections that follow will be on those moments when philosophy reveals the thought that undermines it as philosophy, when the philosopher confronts this thought that cannot be thought. – Eugene Thacker, Starry Speculative Corpse: Horror of Philosophy, Vol 2, pp.14-15

The surface of Venus, taken by the short-lived Venera 12 lander, sent by the Soviet Union and landing in 1975.

I loved reading Stephen Jay Gould’s essays in Natural History magazine. I remember one – which I tried to find online but couldn’t – from early in the 1990’s. He was discussing popular discourse regarding the impact of a full-on nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, viz., that it would, to quote an oft-used phrase, “destroy the world.” Gould took issue with this. While it is true the vast majority of flora and fauna both would be wiped out due to a variety of causes, from radiation poisoning to the extended freeze of nuclear winter, “life” would continue in a variety of forms.

Having made this much clear, Gould returns to the matter at hand – the horrific results of nuclear war – and insists that it would most likely result in the extinction of Homo sapiens sapiens. For this reason alone, ethical, scientific, and political effort must be used to prevent it from ever happening. While it’s certainly a parochial point-of-view – we should care about nuclear war because it would bring about our extinction – that certainly doesn’t make it invalid.

Throughout Starry Speculative Corpse, we are presented with the insistent notion that behind all that is, including even the thought about this notion, nothing at all. From Descartes’ “Evil Genius” who tricks all of us into believing there is some thing when in fact there is nothing through Nietzsche’s laughter not only at the pretensions of much of the Enlightenment project but at the abyss that stared into him a bit too long; from the mystics whose apophatic theology was so complete they were confident in saying “God is nothing” to Arthur Schopenhauer’s recasting of Kant’s phenomena and noumena to representation and Will, where this Will is, in the end, nothing; all of this is offered as “the horror of philosophy,”  that is, the point at which (to use a metaphor Thacker employs) human thought becomes an ouroboros, swallowing not only it’s own tail, but it’s body and head as well. Before this “Nothing” that operates as the that nothing upon which human life and thought rest and to which all that is – not just human but cosmic existence – shall return at some future time-beyond-time, all all-too-human efforts to make sense of the world faces, should a certain species of intellectual honesty be employed, it’s own negation. A negation that negates even itself yet still remains . . . nothing.

For some reason, Thacker and others believe this is a horror beyond measure, bringing on not just existential but ontological dread as we face that which we cannot call by a name because it is nothing. Not just the brevity of existence, but the varieties of pains and terrors we face; not just the fact that we human beings too-often arrogate upon ourselves the meaning and purpose of the world; not just human extinction, but the final, “asymptotic” demise of the final elementary particle as thermodynamics works its terrible magic; all of these combine to demonstrate the futility and emptiness of existence. Including philosophy.

One point to which Thacker returns again and again is the necessity of setting to one side any kind of anthropocentrism in our philosophizing, in particular when we encounter what he has already named the “world-without-us”. Again and again, I have to ask, “Why?” It is we humans who are doing the philosophizing. Of course our viewpoint is going to be anthropocentric. The whole goal of such thought has always been understanding ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves as it impacts us. Anything else would be . . . it wouldn’t be philosophy, certainly. In fact, it would be impossible. That there is a world-without-us, the “unhuman”, to use another of Thacker’s terms, is neither a new thought nor even all that interesting. It certainly is only a source of dread should we contemplate finding ourselves in such a place.

I used a photo from the Soviet lander Venera to make clear that, far from terrifying, the idea of a world-without-us, is as mundane as the so-called “extremophiles”, various fauna and flora that exist in extreme conditions of heat, radiation, acidity, and cold. That there are bacteria that are happy living inside radioactive rocks does not make our understanding of “life” questionable; rather, it shows that we need to continue to expand that to which the word applies (and set to one side the silly idea that there is some metaphysical principle, “Life”, that sits behind each and all instances of living creatures, determining and limiting them, separating them ontologically from “non-living” things). Anyone who lives with chronic pathological depression could tell Thacker that meaninglessness in and of itself isn’t frightening; nor is death; nor pain. What depression can  teach us (not a “Depressive Realism”) is that there are those who live with this “Not” as an everyday reality, rather than some metaphysical principle. It is possible to not-live yet affirm that life in and for itself is most certainly worth continuing. With the exception of those for whom this “Not” becomes too much and end their lives so their outward existence now reflects their inner lives, to live with Depression is to face the abyss as it stares back and refuse to blink.

There is little in this survey of apophatic theology and Western philosophy that is either very scary or, to be honest, presents philosophy with a horror that sends it into a crisis. The “Not”, the “Nothing”, whatever word we wish to use to describe our inability to grasp non-existence, has always been there and will continue to be there.

Returning to Stephen Jay Gould, in the late-1980’s he published a book entitled Wonderful Lifein which he not only recounts the history of our understanding of the Burgess Shale and its reexamination, but muses on what might have been had not that entire ecosystem been wiped out in a mass extinction event hundreds of millions of years ago. One firm conclusion is there would be no species known as Homo sapiens. The radical contingency of all that is, up to and including each individual, who might not have been had different germs cells united to create each unique individual, is not a source either of existential angst or cosmological pessimism. It is, rather, the beginning of wonder, the wonder that something as strange as “life”, represented by the millions of creatures that have lived, do live, and will live long after human beings are extinct, exists at all. It doesn’t need reasons.

That it is, well,  that’s enough. The rest is, well, nothing.

In The Dust Of This Planet: Horror Of Philosophy, Vol 1 – Eugene Thacker

If historical mysticism is, in the last instance, theological, then mysticism today, a mysticism of the unhuman, would have to be, in the last instance, climatological. It is a kind of mysticism that can only be expressed in the dust of this planet. – Eugene Thacker, In The Dust Of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol 1, pp. 158-159

Professor and author Eugene Thacker

Where does human thought fail? What is the Event Horizon of philosophy, the boundary point that, should one venture past, results in ultimate destruction with no possibility of escape? For the West, at least (less so in the east, particularly in various strains of Buddhism, but we’ll come to that later), that boundary line is quite simply “that which is not”. Even at a semantic, grammatical level, such a sentence is meaningless; after all, the pronoun “that” needs a positive referent, and the “not” is the nullity of all content, even the nullity of the null.

Yet philosophy in the west, particularly in its middle, onto-theological phase from late antiquity through the Renaissance, has demanded that this not be so. It is only in post-modernity, particularly with regard to our reflections upon global climate change, where we come face to face with something that cannot be named except through negation. If Kant posited a phenomenal world, the thing-for-us, which may or may not be a result of or reflection of the thing-in-itself, that never-knowable yet necessary postulate of a noumenal world, Eugene Thacker asks us to add thing-without-us. He puts it another way early on, distinguishing among world (the world-for-us), Earth (the world-in-itself), and Planet (the world-without-us). Corresponding to this, he also proffers the human, the non-human, and the unhuman. However one seeks to understand this named unnameable, we find ourselves confronted with a horror defined as cosmic: that for all that we human beings have achieved and will achieve in the future, the Universe in fact doesn’t care one way or another about human beings. Indeed, given what we know about the time-scales involved at a Planetary and Cosmic Scale, humanity is no more significant than any other form of life.

For all this horror can be defined and named, pushed by philosophy to think about this results in more than simple existential angst. Rather, we are left facing that which is not, a “thing” that is no-thing, having a name that is unnameable. It is Thacker’s interesting thesis that in horror fiction we human beings wrestle with precisely that which both is not and cannot be, yet not only is, but is the ungrounded ground of existence itself. Precisely because we move beyond dialectics through paradox to the unspeakable, we are confronted with a horror to which human beings have given various names over the centuries – from God to the Devil to the Will to the Abyss – always recognizing we are in the realm of a negative onto-theology that strips these names not only of content, but referent even as that to which they point nevertheless brings horror and awe.

In this first of three volumes on Horror of Philosophy, Thacker introduces the reader to a variety of ways of thinking toward the point where thinking ends, offering us ways that horror fiction has done much the same, only through a narrative framework that not so much answers the question as presents the problem. Lovecraft and Lieber, Dennis Wheatley and James Blish, Christopher Marlowe and J. G. Ballard are among those presented as, in various ways and various styles, nevertheless offer the reader (or in Marlowe’s case, since he was a playwright, the viewer) a glimpse of the particular problem: Is it possible to encounter that beyond which a word such as “encounter” has no meaning? Indeed, no word, including meaning, has meaning?

Using in particular Scholastic methods of the QuaestioLectio, and Disputatio, Thacker asks us to consider everything from the “Black” in “Black Metal” to whether “blasphemous life”, as presented by Dante in Inferno is or can even be conceived as a thing when it might well be an inherent contradiction, death-in-life. In the process we consider B-movies like The Blob and Caltiki The Immortal Monster, classics such as Goethe’s Faust, and, serving as a kind of Coda or Postlude, a reflection upon an Internet poem of uncertain origin, entitled “The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids”.

It is in Christian mysticism, more than anywhere else, however, that Thacker finds the best analogy to contemporary horror fiction as a genre willing to accept the unnamed as unnamed, the darkness as void, nothing as precisely that. Apothatic Theology, or Negative Theology, is a way of arriving at God by the act of subtraction, yet always leaving something, “Being”, on the table. In mysticism, even that is swallowed up in a light so bright it is indistinguishable from absolute darkness. Whether it’s Teresa of Avila’s sense of her self being shattered in the divine presence, St. John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul,  or the anonymous Great Cloud of Unknowing, it is in these texts in particular where we face that which is presented only as allegory, or perhaps as unmitigated realism (in the case of H. P. Lovecraft), and to which philosophy proper points yet can never arrive: That which is not yet must be considered. It is the unthinkable thought of certain schools of Buddhism, in which one thinks about not thinking about thinking.

It is a Void so vast and terrible that, as Lovecraft’s characters often say, they cannot even afford the luxury of insanity once faced with such a horror. To consider not only the “world-without-us” but what Thacker often refers to as “the unhuman” is to contemplate the thought that existence itself is, like its opposite, also swallowed up by it: Nothing at all.

I am interested to see where Volumes 2 & 3 take these provocative and frightening thoughts.