The Spectacle Of The Void by David Peake

This is the dilemma of being human: believing that something needs to be communicated – a feeling, a thought, an urgent message – and not being able to communicate it; or, having made an attempt at communication and ultimately failing, causing irreparable harm. – David Peake, The Spectacle Of The Void, p. 11

Lovecraft’s Vaginal horror Cthulhu. As Stephen King once wrote, is it any wonder the guy had weird ideas about sex and probably died a virgin?

There’s a notion in semi-pop philosophy that I kind of like: It’s called “The Weak Anthropic Principle”. The idea is actually a mixture of commonsense, about both ourselves and the larger Universe. It states that human consciousness as it has evolved is precisely the kind of consciousness one would expect to evolve in the Universe as we understand it. It’s admixture of order with a chaotic element that itself is governed by mathematical laws would, in all likelihood, evolve consciousness similar to our own, with its own understanding of order and acceptance of contingency and limited disorder that provides us the freedom both to imagine as well as figure out the Universe in which we live. With too much order, there would be no imagination, no room for any spark of insight that escapes the rationally resconstructed idea of knowledge. With too much chaos, the physical, chemical, and biological rules that create the needed stability for life itself, then evolution including consciousness, wouldn’t exist.

In other words, it isn’t a Matrix. It isn’t God. It isn’t a demiurge. It’s just the laws of probability with their openendedness that create the condition for a consciousness like our own to evolve. We are not so much special because of consciousness as we are the Universe having evolved to contemplate itself by using the very laws of the Universe to do so.

My recent foray into a species of recent explorations of philosophical pessimism, The Spectacle Of The Void, makes up in repetition what it lacks either in insight or originality. The argument that the facts of our own  finite existence, combined with the evolution of human consciousness, which allows us to ponder that gap between our own contingency and the enormity of our Universe as well as the limits of our own ability to comprehend somehow, inexorably, leads to a kind of meta-existential horror in which we understand existence itself and human consciousness in particular as ethically vicious fails on so many levels it’s a wonder it carries on.

Perhaps the most egregious failure of philosophical pessimism is its combination of privilege and hubris. It takes someone with the time and education to consider these matters fully to articulate a philosophical notion of existence itself as evil; it takes a hubris that would make the Greek gods blush to insist that the best – indeed the only – response to the nothingness that is the limit both of our ability to think as well as what awaits us at the end of our contingent, limited life, is to end the entire species. No consciousness, no evils that flow from it. It’s the kind of logic any first-year philosophy student would be proud of.

The thing is, that nothingness, that limit both to human thought and existence, well, that’s not really a big deal, is it? I mean, really, when you think about, after a long life, the rest of death all too often seems like a blessing, particularly to those who are going through it. “But what about . . .?” demand so many voices who insist that certain kinds of death – the death of a child or spouse; young people dying needlessly in wars; the accident of genetics or environment that bring on diseases from cancer through MS to early-onset Alzheimer’s that destroy the human brain and body piece by piece – are morally wrong and proof enough that our Universe is one of singular horrors of which consciousness is the most evil, in need of destruction.

To all those who point out those horrors of disease and intra-human self-destruction, I can only say, “Well, it’s kinda always been this way, hasn’t it?” We lose some diseases – smallpox, say – and we gain others – like the Hanta Virus that emerged in the desert southwest of the US a couple decades ago, a hemorrhagic disease carried by fleas on desert animals. Europe’s age of internecine war is largely over while Africa’s enters its own stage of slaughter over much the same reasons as Europe’s in the 20th century – land, resources, and control over wealth and its production. This isn’t so much an evil as it is just kind of the way human beings and the world are made. A “making” that created our consciousness of that making as well as the “how” of that making. Nothing evil or immoral about it. The evils are the diseases we continue to seek to end; the evils are the human need for power and control over resources for the pursuit of personal and national wealth at the expense of others. These are things we continue to fight against. To struggle with. Rather than insist our consciousness of them renders us incapable of action, that it would be better if the human species cease reproducing in order to end them, that self-same consciousness gives us the tools to work to solve these problems.

The Spectacle Of The Void offers the reader nothing particularly new or interesting, especially if one has read other recent works of a similar bent. The idea that horror is about “nothingness”, besides being wrong, is only outdone by the claim that horror is the result of the contingency of interpersonal communication and the limits of understanding between people. This latter is no more a source of horror than are urban legends. We are, it needs to be repeated, limited contingent creatures who inhabit an unbounded but finite Universe that operates according to mathematical laws and meta-laws that determined, in the first nano-seconds after the Big Bang, the limits and possibilities of variety within the then-natal Universe. As such, we have the freedom to imagine all sorts of wonders and horrors; we also are limited in how much of that imagination we can bring into actual existence.

Real horror would be a Universe in which there was just a tiny bit more order than ours has: A Universe in which imagination, freedom, even consciousness as we know it, would be impossible. Real horror would be Universe in which there was just a tiny bit more chaos than ours has: A Universe in which space-time has no direction, or changes randomly; a Universe in which it were as easy to put a broken glass together as it is to break it; a Universe in which human life lasted mere moments, or centuries. A Universe, in other words, in which imagination, freedom, and even consciousness as we know it, would be impossible.

That is the source of horror: Not an active void that steals even our ability to comprehend it as void; but a world that would permit, say, a creature like Cthulhu to exist, or in which human beings aged backwards, or in which the thermodynamic, space-time clock were not bound by any laws. A world in which murderous revenants, shape-shifting humanoids, evil shadows, creatures of pure evil intent on human destruction were at all possible is not a world in which human beings would or could live with any hope of maintaining anything like sanity. Horror fiction takes our fear of chaos, gives it shapes and names and faces and teeth and claws and allows us to face it and destroy it (or have it destroy us, as sometimes happens).

The idea that human consciousness is an active evil that needs to be destroyed for the benefit of the Universe at large is kind of silly. The idea that human existence is an active evil we should seek to end is ethically horrible, considering it views other human beings as inherently active agents of evil, in need of destruction. The fascism that lurks behind the idea that we human beings are some kind of deformation the Universe coughed up before it had a chance to apologize needs to be called out as it is. The idea that we human beings use horror fiction as a way of expressing the long-repressed “reality” ignores what horror fiction, when done well, really is and how it works.

There should be better works on the relationship between horror fiction and philosophy than the ones currently available.

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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.