June 13, 2008

Review of Collapse Volume IV: Concept-Horror

Arbor Deformia, Kristen Alvanson, Collapse IV

Collapse Volume IV // Ed. R. Mackay, D. Veal // May 2008 // 406pp // Limited Edition 1000 copies // ISBN 978-0-9553087-3-4 // £9.99

At a time when the malady of book fetishism seems to have been cured finally (thanks to the modification of the publishing industry according to market sensibility), Collapse has endowed us with the frenzy of fetishism once again. From its cover that easily takes the fingerprint of its reader as a token of fetishistic intimacy to its hand-stamped number to its dimension to its meticulous typesetting and its publication logo, Collapse is saturated with subtleties which can only be spotted by a mind inflicted with fetishism. For readers, receiving Collapse is usually accompanied with the suspense of anticipation and thrill of the unpredictable. Even for the contributors, the arrival of Collapse comes with perspiration and heartbeat, as the contributor hastily flips through the pages to discover the hidden connections between the other contributions with his/her own.

After three volumes with diverse yet connected topics, the fourth volume Concept-Horror was published as a culmination of the previous volumes. Wars, famines, natural disasters and the inevitable fates of the body such as survival and death have given us this illusion that ‘thinking horror’ [1] is an undemanding task requiring no effort other than surrendering to sensation. Ironically nothing has been more disastrous for thinking horror than the overabundance of vacuous cruelties or absurd maladies; for it is relatively easy to mimic a battlefield, a bodily decomposition in a text, image or music. If horror is already everywhere, or in other words, if horror has already been culminated, thinking horror can easily turn into a case study, counting its countless manifestations. Yet it seems that with all the indulgence in horror via different mediums, humans have gained more self-estimation and adopted less hazardous courses for survival, immersed more within the illusion of a cosmos without horror. There is something profoundly wrong and terrible with humans (this might be indeed a compliment), for despite all these horrors, humans have proved that they are able to survive – at least as far as they themselves remember – with a parasitic tenacity and in complete indifference to cosmic horrors. It is as if humans have given a twist to the horror of the universe in a way that through their insistence on survival, economical openness and illusive intelligibility, they have become the very personification of cosmic horror and alienage.

Doubtless, in regard to thinking horror, the present situation is highly discouraging. The nature of survival in all its forms includes a process of openness toward the outside which is predominantly bound to the affordability of the subject of survival in regard to its outside. Yet this outside to which the surviving subject opens itself up is merely an environment whose outsideness is inherently affordable for the principles of survival associated with that subject. Therefore, there is a mutual affordability between the surviving subject and the outside to which the subject opens itself up. The openness of the surviving subject to its outside is marked by its closure – that is the law of affordability associated with survival. The openness of humans toward horrors is inevitably an economical venture for mining that which is affordable. It is in this sense that for thinking horror, first, the so-called daring openness of humans toward the outside must be disenchanted, stripped from its fraudulent heroic role. Second, the affordable outside (the accessible human environment) must be disenchanted in regard to humans by being debunked through the positioning of the radical exteriority, the cosmic outside. Third, the simultaneous disenchantment of the surviving subject to the outside and vice versa must take place on the ground of pure indifference, or else horror is oedipalized, recycled as a fuel for survival and reduced to a matter of sensibility. The most extraordinary quality of Collapse: Concept-Horror is its speculative engagement with these three phases of thinking horror. Armed with a maligned rigor and an unprecedented verve for an all-embracing investigation of horror, Collapse Volume IV is a must for everyone not only obsessed with horror but also with philosophy, art and ethics. In a Lovecraftian sense, reading Collapse is like acquiring a trophy from the Other Side:


George Sieg's Infinite Regress into Self-Referential Horror: Sieg’s essay at the beginning of Collapse IV has been poised to conduct a pre-emptive strike on the discourse of victimhood which has horribly distorted such concepts and domains like the other, the outside, us and them which are shared both by horror genre and socio-political discourses. Through presenting Houellebecq’s study of Lovecraft’s racism, Seig shows how Lovecraft’s fervor for Aryanism can be traced back to a more twisted and darker source: the emergence of the Zoroastrian germ-cell of monotheism which is pregnant with a strange xenophobia for which the inside and the outside have been displaced. For a xenophobia whose loci of attention have turned inside out, not only racism but also a good willed openness leads to irresolvable problems and unforeseen consequences. Seig finds the true manifest of such inside-out racism (or conversely, openness toward the outside) in the concept of Druj which according to the Zoroastrians is the Mother of Abominations, an avatar of cosmic unlocalizability and the main protagonist of Vendidad (The Book of Anti-Demon Laws) – a true precursor for Lovecraftian fiction. The inside-out xenology of Sieg’s investigation also reads as an intriguingly aberrant re-examination of eso-tericism.

Eugene Thacker's Nine Disputations on Theology and Horror: In his erudite essay, Thacker traces the genealogy of a certain strain of horror genre to theological discourses regarding resurrection and afterlife. The horror of the Slime, the Blob or that nameless Thing is the horror that leaks from the fissure or the gap between the living being (to live) and Life itself. It is from such a crack and sharp disjuncture between Life and the living being that the teratological legion of horror genre crawls in. The post-mortem afterlife of theology, Thacker shows, is a recoded form of this fissure which is a spawning zone for certain monstrosities – things which convey the horror of a life without the living being. At first sight, the horror of Thing might be the horror of a fiend without face, without form and without matter, but it is certainly not the only horror that it insinuates. The Thing exposes the externality of life to the living being. For the subject of survival, life itself is an exteriority, an impossible which can only be afforded and rendered possible at the cost of perishing in horror and a teratological holocaust in the realm of the living being. Life, therefore, becomes the very equal of Lovecraft’s cosmic alienage. Thacker’s essay is a startling biohorror odyssey into the depth of theology and its metaphysics.

China Miéville’s M.R.James and the Quantum Vampire: In his ingenious contribution to Collapse: Concept-Horror, Miéville briefly exposes the fantastic and weird conceptual resources of his fictions which are entangled together in an utterly philosophic way. If this is just a fragment of the mechanisms, undercurrents and subterranean resources that Miéville nourishes his fiction with, then what is the rest? And how weird are they? More than anything, Miéville’s essay confirms that pulp is not only a host for the weird and horror but also for philosophical thought; and he himself as a ‘champion of pulp’ [2] is also a weird philosopher (and a philosopher of the weird), just as a horror writer who can be a god.[3] This strongly echoes Graham Harman’s bold defense of continental horror and science fiction to which we will return later. In the Quantum Vampire, Miéville performs an autopsy on the ultimate diagrammatic model of the weird+hauntology, the Skulltopus. Despite its concreteness, Skulltopus refuses to be literal, for it is the production of ‘haptic flirtation’ between two objects, a skull and cephalopodic tentacles, a quantum contact without the possibility of merger. Miéville’s haptic model, in this sense, can be a prototype for a weird metaphysics of objects.

James Trafford’s The Shadow of a Puppet-Dance: In his massive treatise Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, the German neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger proposes that we are and have never been in direct and immediate epistemic contact with ourselves. Or simply, self is not but an illusion, ‘no one’s illusion’. Basing his essay on Metzinger’s theory, Trafford argues how the nemonymous horror of Ligotti’s fiction foresees the catastrophic consequences of Metzinger’s philosophy. Horror of Ligotti’s fiction, Trafford rightly suggests, is a horror dissipated by neither us nor them but ‘no one’, its source is the void and its mechanism is nemocentric (nemo-: no one). If self is merely the content of an ongoing and dynamic process i.e. the process of transparent self-modeling, then since childhood, ‘I’ have been a persistent illusion designed by the system as a functional module in order to regulate its interaction with the environment and facilitate the affording of the ‘outside’. And even further, this environment or affordable outside, is merely a fabricated scheme (a mirroring illusion) by which the system can represent itself in the environment and mirror it back to itself, and thereby, conjuring an alibi or illusive cognitive verification for the existence of its Self. Trafford incisively concludes that Ligotti’s fiction, in fact, takes its power as well as narrative formation from the ‘oneiric aphasia’ predestined by this ‘cognitive protectionism’ and ‘organic enslavement’ of the system. However, one question remains that neither Metzinger nor Ligotti have fully elucidated yet: exactly how this dynamic process of self-modeling has internally been generated over the course of evolution and how is this process correlated with the evolution of survival ex nihilo?

Thomas Ligotti's Thinking Horror: A pillar for the venture that Collapse IV has embarked upon, Ligotti’s article is perhaps the coldest and fastest journey to the void. Illustrated by the portraits of dead monkeys, Ligotti’s text is an annotated post-mortem family photo-album dedicated to a bedtime story called human race. Ligotti’s first and foremost thesis, similar to Ray Brassier’s argument in Nihil Unbound, is that horror and thinking are the same thing. To think is to irrevocably plunge in horror and evaporate. The entire survivalist conspiracy of human race, Ligotti states, has been involved with devising schemes to dodge and temporarily escape the brutal consequences of enlightenment, an enlightenment which only emancipates on behalf of the void. For this reason, such enlightenment is comparable to the Cthulhu cult’s ‘holocaust of freedom’, where luminosity is inseparable from extinction. As Robin Mackay suggests in the introduction to Collapse IV, the first survivalist objection to Ligotti’s all-embracing pessimism is that writing itself and the laborious tasks involved in publication (even if all is done with no secret joy whatsoever) are distractions and in contradiction to such pessimism. I absolutely agree that writing on nihil or ranting about uncompromising pessimism ‘forces the reader to secrete something of the poison that is buried within them’, yet I am not fully convinced that this ‘invocation of demons’ through the act of writing is sufficient to tackle the survivalist or even a more pessimistic (albeit problematic) objection: this openness to bleak subjects through the act of writing cannot be entirely absolved from its survivalist impetus, for as we stated earlier, once openness is conceived as ‘being open to’ which in this case is ‘writing about will-to-extinction’, it operates as an implicit but devoted agent of survival. Openness for us – even if it is toward will-to-extinction – only amounts to survival because it is only a matter of our affordability; in other words, our openness is grounded on our survival and is regulated by what is at stake for the subject of survival rather than the target of openness. To this extent, the survivalist objection might indeed project a more fundamental pessimism, perhaps on the nature of pessimism itself. If all doors seem already closed, then we should also look into the nature of survival and see if it really brings with itself a purely survivalist and vitalistic impetus or something exterior to its ontological intention.[4]

Quentin Meillassoux’s Spectral Dilemma: Meillassoux has shown four times in Collapse that he is unquestionably among the most imaginative yet rigorous philosophers of today: first with his essay on time and hyper-chaos, second by his brilliant reconstruction of Deleuze’s text (which is among the best texts I have read on Deleuze), third with his reference to Captain Haddock in the Adventures of Tintin to explain the problem of correlationism, and finally for the forth time, by bringing his previous philosophic texts together in the form of an implicit ghost story with a Lovecraftian twist. Spectral Dilemma is set as an ethical development of the necessity of contingency. What are the consequences of rejecting the Principle of Sufficient Reason and instead embracing the absolute contingency of the laws of nature? Can the necessity of contingency be employed as an ethical resource, or more accurately, can the cosmic dread implicated by absolute contingency be reconciled with ethics, or even further, constitute its infinite resource so that ethics be posited in terms of the cosmic? Meillassoux examines these lines of inquiry by posing a new question: how can we bridge atheism and theism without submitting to either of them? Or is it possible to have a third type of engagement, a third mode of encounter with god and his dead corpse? His answer like his philosophy which shines forth from the most unexpected openings of thought is creatively novel. Meillassoux argues that this atheo-religious dilemma is essentially spectral, that is to say, it is a specter whose memory haunts us and requires a proper mourning in order for us to maintain an ethical rather than morbid living. If the question of the Divine is necessarily spectral because it has begotten by terrible deaths – either as victims of God’s extreme cruelty or God’s own death – then we must devise a space of mourning which can simultaneously conform to these two terrible deaths. Meillassoux then moves on and takes the thesis of divine inexistence through the law of absolute contingency or unbound chaos according to which despite the inexistence of the Divine, God may exist in future. Unfortunately, the end of the essay is too sudden, and leaves us with many questions as if it is a speculative prelude to further investigation and a massive thesis. But this should not dishearten any reader, for after all, when it comes to horror stories, one should anticipate the return of horror, the law of sinusoidal returns.

Benjamin Noys’s Horror Temporis: Iain Grant in his work on Schelling remarks that as Time grows and expands, the role of things in it become progressively more insignificant. In his essay for Collapse IV, Noys claims that ‘the worst’ or ‘the most abominable’ in Lovecraft’s fiction is the yawning gap (khaos) of Time. It is not only because Time is saturated with vampiristic qualities in regard to things in it but also because Time is a blind god who does not even heed calls and cries of its own monsters and offspring. The unspeakable monstrosity of the Ones who threaten humanity is generated perhaps by a trauma induced by the pure indifference of Time to its offspring and natural laws. But since this trauma cannot be resolved by recourse to its origin as a result of itself being uprooted by the abyss of Time, it has no other way than being senselessly wrought upon others, or as in Lovecraft’s fiction, upon humanity. Noys rightly attributes to Time, a vortical structure which is repeated throughout Lovecraft’s stories as stygian gulfs, foaming gaps, black pits and rotting holes. Chaos of Time, Noys sinisterly elaborates, is in fact the blind genesis, a vortex from which the great Old Ones tumble upward and to which humanity is sucked in. This ascent and descent, however, are both the orphans of an absolute Time, begotten by its indifference to the necessity of natural laws.

Iain Hamilton Grant’s Being and Slime: Iain Grant’s essay is my most favorite of all; refined, fresh, deft and beyond everything, it oozes a scholarly philosophy without any constraint. The title of Grant’s essay insinuates a deviation from Heidegger's Being and Time, but even more cleverly, an alternative retrospection for Badiou’s Being and Event and his thesis (which is mathematics = ontology). Those who have read Grant’s work On an Artificial Earth: Philosophies of Nature After Schelling know that the section 3.3 of the book, Organics as Antiphysics: Fichte contra Oken, argues how the notorious Naturphilosophen Lorenz Oken, by drawing upon a ‘mathematics endowed with substance’, develops a system which can generate complex multiplicities which are not only formal (matheme-oriented) but also substantial (substance-infused matheme). Grant’s essay in Collapse is a full-fledged development of the aforementioned chapter. What happens when the substance is mobilized by mathematical ideas, or even more importantly, matheme is invested with substance? If substance invests matheme, then, its germinal ground overlaps and becomes one with the generative ground of mathematics, zero. For Oken, this substantial zero is Ur-Slime (a thesis which makes Grant’s essay a perfect choice for this issue on Concept-Horror). Oken’s philosophy is essentially constructed on polarity (+ -); polarity is the first force in the universe which enables slime to have the ability of differentiation or generative introspection. It is the introspection of zero or slime or realization according to polarity that brings about the possibility of numbers or the manifold of particulars. This strikes me as a Schellingian god, a pure contraction or no-thing. Only out of the horror of problematical intimacy with the void, this god unfolds and creates the contingency of nature or the explicatio of universe. The contingency of nature (the explicatio) is grounded on the necessity of complicatio or God-contraction. Yet the grounding of nature's explicatio (contingency) and the manifold of particulars on the necessity of complicatio is indeed an act of 'ungrounding', for the God as contraction is the problematical binding of the void in its intensive no-thingness. Against theo-tyranny in which the act of grounding (i.e. the grounding of nature on the consolidated body of god) is the stratification of universe as layers of an already sealed god, the grounding that Schelling expounds on is the very act of ungrounding: the founding of contingency of nature on the necessity of no-thing or generative zero. Only once zero comes to terms with its own no-thingness or basal horror, the explication of nature becomes possible and diversity of particulars comes into being.

Graham Harman’s On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl: Beginning with mounting a vehement attack against the insipid and unimaginative dimensions of today’s academic philosophy, Graham Harman offers us an adventurous alternative for cotemporary philosophy. With feisty prose that reminds us of restless travelers and adventurers of the last century, Harman lays out the foundations of his weird and speculative realism. The philosophic resources of weird realism are continental horror and science fiction. If Harman’s reading of Heidegger is rogue and heretical, it is because for him, the role of Hölderlin for Heidegger has been substituted with that of Lovecraft. In his essay, Harman exposes the pulpy and weird body of phenomenology by suggesting that the weird and objects, like wyrd sisters always come hand in hand. First, Harman sets Lovecraft’s stories free from a Kantian reading by showing that the elusive abominations of Lovecraft’s fiction are not noumenal but phenomenal, and even worse part of our world. In demonstrating the non-Kantian nature of these loathing monstrosities, Harman conducts a sabotage against a Kantian reading of Lovecraft rather than adhering to a purely anti-Kantian front: the phenomenal and secured land of the finite, the last front of experience and consciousness, has already been taken over by weird finite things or phenomenal abominations. However, these objects or phenomenal abominations exude an excess of properties, an inner inexhaustible infinity which refuses to be accessed. This is, in a twisted way, equal to the diagonalization of the Kantian healthy finite with the excessively phenomenal (in)finite, the inner infinite life of objects. This excessive or extra-phenomenal finite is a source of pure malignancy and inexhaustible foulness against which Kantian ocean, the noumenal, is a puerile redundancy. In the second phase, Harman shows how this excess (of properties) or ineffability of objects lies at the base of Husserl’s phenomenology. The effect of objects of Harman’s weird realism is both of vertigo and horror, akin to Tilford’s objects whose skins slough off in a vertigo of diabolic particles and aimless electrons which never settle.

Collapse Volume IV is also a visual pilgrimage of the underworld: from the materialist fairy-tale of Rafani to the cartoonism of Eye-care by Jake and Dinos Chapman to Oleg Kulik’s dead monkeys album to slime-vortices of Todosch to Steven Shearer’s impersonal horrographic poems to Keith Tilford’s weird objects and the infinite deformity of those things in the jars photographed by Kristen Alvanson, everything has been deployed throughout the book, in such a way, not to give a sense of distraction or relief but to highlight its fiendish qualities and make anomalous pacts with the texts. Robin Mackay and Damian Veal have curated and refined a book which is a tour de horreur.

[1] Also the title of Thomas Ligotti’s contribution to Collapse IV.

[2] From R. Mackay’s introduction, p. 9.

[3] In John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, after bringing the Old Ones (Them) to our world, the pulp-horror writer Sutter Cane reappears to the insurance detective John Trent and says: 'I am god now'. Trent (Sam Neill) opposes by saying: 'God cannot be a hack horror writer'.

[4] For more details on survival as the implicit enforcer of the void see: The Corpse Bride: Thinking with Nigredo, Collapse vol. iv, Concept-Horror.

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