From Supernatural to Subcultural: Horror and the Endless Present

The text of my paper for the Fantastic Now conference, held in Munster, Germany from 22 – 24 September 2016.

From Supernatural to Subcultural: Horror and the Endless Present
Benjamin J. Robertson

This paper represents a very nascent project, something I thought I would be working on full time when I proposed it, but which has been pushed back in the queue by other, newly arisen opportunities. Nonetheless, I still plan someday to write a book called The ends of genre, which describes  a shift in our critical understanding of the world. This shift has moved criticism and theory away from a model functionally similar to science fiction and towards a model functionally similar to horror. Whereas science fiction assumes the human as well as historical and scientific progress, even if only as objects of critique, horror denies all of this in order to say that the human, history, science, progress, and even critique are contrivances developed and deployed by hairless apes to delude themselves into believing that their allotment of time means something. This shift has become visible in the work of, for example, theorists associated with speculative realism generally and Object Oriented Ontology specifically. It tracks with a rise in para-academic publishing on so-called “horror of philosophy” and claims that we live in the “age of Lovecraft.” It accounts for our fascination with the Anthropocene and our concomitant understanding that we cannot make sense of it according to the forms of meaning making we inherit and inhabit. It understands that, in the words of Bruno Latour, critique has run out of steam.

In the service of this larger argument, and very briefly put, I am interested today in recent discussions and descriptions, in contemporary environmental and media theory, of what lies above and below the threshold of human perception as well as the connection of such to narrative forms. This discussion suggests a possible understanding of what horror might be now even if this understanding of horror remains an ideal one insofar as it exceeds our capacities to represent it, or fails to rise to the level of human representation. In my definition, horror deals with a particular aspect of that which cannot be represented, a state of total problem called aftermath, which I shall discuss in a moment in the context of John Clute’s four-part grammar of the genre. I then move to my primary topic: contemporary discourses of the super and the sub, namely with regard to the Anthropocene and our present media ecology. Both of these discourses foreground time rather than space, the ways in which we are made small by cosmological timescales or rendered ignorant of the data of which we are constructed and by which we are controlled by technological timescales which remain without designation. If the super cannot be reduced to a human scale, the sub does not rise to that scale. However, whereas the super can be measured in terms of human temporal markers, the sub cannot. Both the super and the sub, as with much horror, suggest in their own ways an endless present of which we cannot make sense.

Based on John Clute’s four stage grammar of horror, I offer the following definition, which I will briefly justify. And note that I am aware of competing definitions, which I do not have time to discuss. So, horror is that form of narrative which seeks to reveal that narrative only ever serves as an attempt grant meaning to a fundamentally meaningless planet in order to make that planet amenable to human being. This definition is an ideal one, its very structure suggesting an insuperable contradiction, namely the narrativization of what cannot be narrativized. But this contradiction is precisely the point as it itself dramatizes the confrontation between the human and its meaning-making techniques, on the one hand, and something so vast or so small that narrative cannot face it on the other.

In The Darkening Garden, Clute claims that the horror narrative begins with sighting, moves on to thickening and then to revel, before concluding with aftermath. A character sights something in the world that does not conform to her understanding of it. She realizes that there is, in fact, MORE to the world than she had previously imagined. Thickening is the process in which this “more” further reveals itself, defeating the human character’s attempts to square the newly seen with her science, history, or other meaning-making techniques. During revel, the character either accepts or attempts to deny the single truth, namely that she can no longer establish any truth, even temporarily. Her intoxication marks her ironic celebration or her sincere attempt to forget. Aftermath is the state of total problem in which she is left, a state in which meaning can no longer be found or produced. This narrative structure implies a process or a sequentiality, but this implication is misleading. The process only refers to a individual or group becoming aware of what already is. Aftermath does not complete a sequence so much as represent what has always already been true. As such, horror denies what we refer to the past and the future, denies them as narrative conventions that allow those in medias res to make sense of their lives and their poems, to quote from literary critic Frank Kermode. As opposed to science fiction’s dreams of the future and fantasy’s longing for the past, horror conceives a permanent present out of which humanity carves small segments in order to make meaning and produce difference out of an undifferentiated mass. In this respect, the human is the small opposed to the large, the speck dwarfed by the cosmos, the finite faced with infinity.

Significantly, although horror can and does contemplate the spatial, in this definition it has more to do with time. Again, aftermath does not begin or conclude, origins and endings being part and parcel of narrative and therefore entirely conventions designed to grant meaning to human existence. Horror, however, does not imply any eternity, any permanence. That is, it does not represent an unchanging or stable world. Rather, it seeks to represent a state of total problem in which there can be no progress, no movement forward, no goal-directed action. We might do things, but in aftermath these things accomplish nothing of any consequence. Writing in 1778—roughly the moment of the advent of the Anthropocene as we now understand it and also that of the birth of fantastika, when the human, for Clute, became aware of its role in a planetary drama—James Hutton explains this point: “Time, which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing; it cannot limit that by which alone it had existence; and, as the natural course of time, which to us seems infinite, cannot be bounded by any operation that may have an end, the progress of things upon the globe, that is, the course of nature, cannot be limited by time, which must proceed in a continual succession.” Although I am thinking here of certain objective understandings of time, Hutton’s point is well taken: time is a human construction, one that serves to make sense of human limits but only, in the end, serves to reveal them more fully as those limits encounter the apparently unlimited scope of nature.

I had wanted to say a bit more about the super and the sub, that which is above and beyond and that which is below, at this point, but I think my time is better spent on the contemporary issues I am tracking in this paper. So, I hope it won’t be too controversial to say that that which is above and beyond—gods, nature, society, capitalism, networks—has long been a challenge to humanity, what animates many types of human narratives. One particular instance of the super, the supernatural, has long been an issue for the fantastic, for fantasy, for the weird, and for horror. Likewise, that which lies below has also animated various forms of narrative, although in rather different ways and, to my mind, often less effectively. Although I can’t defend this claim right now, I suspect that humanity has, historically, been better at imagining its confrontation with the super than it has imagining its confrontation with the sub. I am not sure this has changed precisely, but the sub, what lies below the threshold of human perception rather than above it, is of much more recent discovery than its opposite.

Over the past several decades, but mainly in the last ten years, the human confronts the super in the form of the Anthropocene, the designation for the contemporary geological epoch characterized by humanity’s impact on climate and the geological record. Dating this era remains a contest, with some suggesting it begins with the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, making it exactly the same as what we have heretofore called the Holocene, and others dating it as recently as the late eighteenth century, with the advent of industrial capitalism and the beginnings of our consumption of fossil fuels. What no one debates, however, is the fact that humans have, in the space of just over two centuries, released into the world energy that the world has been storing for hundreds of millions, or even billions of years. The needs of humanity, at historical and individual timescales, here confront the realities of a planet that exists at a geological timescale in the context of a cosmological one. In his account of the “geology of media,” the way in which our built environment impacts the so-called natural world at the level of the earth itself, Jussi Parikka writes, “The time of human concerns differs from geological time, which is argued to be a radical dynamic force that affects life across the boundaries of the organic and the inorganic.” In short, the human confrontation with inhuman timescales draws into relationships objects, subjects, forces, processes of which the human is but dimly aware, if at all. The individual human is made small on a spatial scale in the midst of all of these forces. More to the point here, the lifespan of the individual human or even of the human institution becomes insignificant when compared to geological time. Human beginnings and endings mean nothing in the context of what seems an endless present.

In the introduction to their recent edited collection on HP Lovercraft, Carl Sederholm and Jeffrey Weinstock speak of the current importance of the weird in general and Lovecraft in particular in terms apposite the issue of the Anthropocene. They write, “what [Lovecraft’s] fiction tells us is that, however grand we consider human accomplishment, it will all inevitably disappear into the unplumbable depths of deep time. Put another way, Lovecraft’s significance to key philosophical debates rests on his assertions of human infinitesimality.” Clearly, as it has been seemingly forever, if in different terms and through different forms,, human finitude continues to be a problem in the face of the super, that which is larger than the human, that which is too big and too close perhaps to see, that which our narratives cannot contain and we cannot fully comprehend. The timescale of the individual is tiny, so the individual connects itself to historical timescales to give itself meaning. History, in turn, can be inserted into larger timescales in order to telescope between human scale events and geological and cosmological ones. However, as critics such as Timothy Morton, Donna Haraway, and McKenzie Wark, among others, have pointed out, the stories so constructed remain irresolvably and problematically anthropocentric. They remain tales of progress, of becoming ever more modern and knowledgeable about the world, the way it works, and how the human belongs to it or in it. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz make clear that this narrative of coming to knowledge, the narrative of the historical novel as well as that of science fiction, remains inadequate to Anthropocene: “The story of awakening is a fable. The opposition between a blind past and a clear-sighted present, besides being historically false, depoliticizes the long history of the Anthropocene. It serves above all to credit our own excellence.” Modern forms of narrative, in which I include science fiction, fail. Postmodern, or perhaps post-historical, forms of narrative such as horror, in which human infinitesimality does not add up to a meaning called “history,” replace them.

But this issue of an uncaring world operating according to laws and at scales incommensurate with individual and historical time only addresses part of the issue I am trying to get at here. The other part, and the relationship of each part to each other, is significantly weirder, and even less amenable to our understanding. The super seems so material and obvious in whatever form it takes and the human, smaller than the super, able to fit within it as a unit of measurement, whether that fitting in takes the form of embrace or suffocation being another question entirely. But below the threshold of our perception lies the sub, that which does not rise to the human scale and therefore remains ungraspable to the techniques meaning making humans use to fend off the horror of the world.

Cultural theorist Steven Shaviro has argued that consciousness is “cognitively expensive,” that it costs a great deal more energy than it is worth. In short, we do not need to be aware of what we think in order to think it, although modern sensibilities related to Kant’s critical faculty demand this awareness at all times as a ward against ideology and dogmatism. Shaviro argues this point based on studies that suggest that humans actually make decisions before they are aware of having made them, that suggest we begin to act even before we know of what we have “chosen” to do, that suggest we react to stimuli of which we are not conscious. Along very similar lines, media theorist Mark Hansen claims that “Human experience is currently undergoing a fundamental transformation caused by the complex entanglement of humans within networks of media technologies that operate predominantly, if not almost entirely, outside the scope of human modes of awareness (consciousness, attention, sense perception, etc.).” Hansen further argues that twenty-first century media systems “help us—embodied, minded, enworlded macroscale beings that we are—to access and to act on the microtemporality of experience, [and] they do so precisely and only because they bypass consciousness and embodiment, which is really to say because they bypass the limitations of consciousness and embodiment.” Hansen’s argument tends to be optimistic about the potential consequences of human involvement with these media systems, but we need not take that optimism without a grain of salt. That grain of salt makes clear that there exists, all around us on a daily basis, a microworld of data and sensibility to which we have no access. The temporality of this world is calculated on the order of fragments of seconds. Moreover, this subcultural world—created in some respect by humans but manifest at a scale into which the human is too big to fit—exerts considerable control over the human. Any smartphone, for example, is capable of not only perceiving information we cannot, but also of compiling, configuring, coordinating this information into forms legible to human perception and thereby enjoining us to act upon this information. At the scale of the super, our inherited techniques of making meaning fail even if they do so knowingly, even if they narrativize their failures as narrative. At the level of the sub, these meaning making operations do not so much fail as they never have the chance to even begin to work. They are too blunt as instruments, unable to grasp the granularity of data and temporality of nanoseconds. In the absence of human narrative, inhuman narrative—those written by tablets, networks, communication technologies—take over.

So the human lies below that which is above and above that which is below. This situation remains true in contexts other than that of the Anthropocene and twenty-first century media. However, these two contexts share a peculiar relationship with one another, one only becoming visible now. The world, it seems, is thickening as a result of our understanding of our intervention into it, an intervention which we surely no longer control and perhaps remain incapable of perceiving in its manifold consequences or in real time. Benjamin Bratton describes what he calls an “accidental megastructure,” the Stack, made up of six layers: the Earth, the Cloud, the City, the Address, the Interface, and the User. I can’t describe each of these layers, but note that they are decidedly anti-humanist. Minerals and netbots have as much agency as users as do humans, the latter being an increasingly marginalized element of the total structure. Importantly, Bratton makes clear that even if much of the Stack was constructed, it does not obey any single authority and largely defies the political, epistemological, and even ontological categories and methods of definition we inherit from modernity. Most importantly, and most horrifyingly, for the present argument is Bratton’s explanation of the ways in which the Earth, the physical planet itself, feeds the twenty-first century media that control us. He writes that, in the Stack, “the Earth is the Earth—a physical planet—not a metaphor for ‘nature.’ There is no planetary-scale computation, now a vast network of many billions of little Turing machines, that does not intake and absorb the Earth’s chemistry in order to function.” Moreover, “there is no Stack without a vast immolation and involution of the Earth’s mineral cavities. The Stack terraforms the host planet by drinking and vomiting its elemental juices and spitting up mobile phones.” In other words, the human, in some ways unknowingly, contributes to the Anthropocene as a consequence of its production of those devices that mediate our knowledge of the world in ways that cannot perceive. The human inserts its time and interests into supernatural time and interests in order to manifest a subcultural field of fragmented moments that cannot be be made to mean anything to the human. This is contemporary horror, the experience of an endless present, the experience of an existence situated between the alpha and omega of inhumanity. Horror, as a genre, has not yet caught up to what we have already done to ourselves. We no doubt have some place in this circuit, but, to use a woefully outdated metaphor, that place seems to be between the hammer and the anvil.

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