Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Innsmouth Look: Further Intimations of the Kingdom in H.P. Lovecraft

Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species — if separate species we be — for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world. If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did; and Arthur Jermyn soaked himself in oil and set fire to his clothing one night.

H.P. Lovecraft
Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family

In a recent post, Twinglebrook-Hastings wrote:

"Many readers of Lovecraft have been struck by his motivation of banal facts of geology, architecture, genealogy, history and science combined with repeated cliches about "unutterable horror" to provide a truly upsetting result...
"Madness and death are in Lovecraft two views on one thing, for the materialist message of the Ancient Wisdom is that to understand something is to be it, thus his narrators are constantly discovering the horrible truth lies in their own biological history, either as the foundation for all human life on earth or in their genealogy."

I hope here briefly to elaborate on the status of lineage and history in Lovecraft's work.

While contemplating a photograph of the Great Pyramid at Giza taken during the ill-fated Cuddler-Shelton expedition of 1894 I, too, was struck by Lovecraft's morbid fascination with genealogy and his horror of duration.  The image of Shelton, in native dress, staring purposefully at the great enigmatic mass of stone as Cuddler squats balefully half out of the frame always evokes poignant meditations on the discontents of permanence and heredity; four months after this photograph was taken, Shelton's body was forever lost down a previously unknown vertical shaft within the Great Pyramid which has yet to be re-discovered, and Cuddler had disappeared up the Blue Nile searching, it later emerged, for his illegitimate half-breed son.  These two features of Lovecraft's work substantiate the impression that he is, if not a proto-symbologist, at least profitably interpretable by the same critical structures which have been evolved for understanding symbology.

Lovecraft's protagonists are often engaged in genealogical research, and it is typically this activity which leads them to the hideous revelations they uncover (whether directly, as in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Rats in The Walls, and Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, or indirectly as in The Picture in The House)While the hapless genealogist of Picture finds himself sheltering in the home of a freakish pre-revolutionary cannibal seemingly by chance, more often than not the unwitting researcher is drawn into ultimate horror necessarily by his investigation.  He discovers not only that the fabric of reality is infinitely more horrifying than he could ever have supposed, but that he is implicated in the newly discovered unspeakableness by heredity.  Arthur Jermyn is the miscegenated progeny of a man and a white ape; Delapore's forebearers were the cannibal shepherds of domesticated anthropoids; the narrator of Innsmouth realizes that he is slowly turning into an blasphemous amphibian.  This leads one to suspect that the protagonist of Picture's position vis a vis his cannibal host is not, in fact, coincidental to his engagement with genealogy, but that the pursuit of lineage per se draws one inexorably towards nightmare and madness.

Lovecraft also reserves a special and incongruous loathing for long spans of time.  Examples are too ubiquitous to bother enumerating here.  The antique is invariably "hideously" old.  This initially seems strange, since permanence was regarded by most authors of the period as a positive, or at worst neutral, characteristic.  I want to suggest, however, that the "hideousness" of age and the irrepressible horror of genealogy are both products of an attitude towards historicism and diachrony in general has clear analogues in the epistemology of the symbological novel.

Modern symbology, particularly as exemplified by Dan Brown, functions efficiently to generate the illusion of knowledge production at the same time as it operates to constrain knowledge and contain potentially threatening avenues of inquiry.  Most recently, in The Lost Symbol, Brown proffers "The Ancient Mysteries" and "Noetic Science" as immensely fecund, esoteric fields of study which have the power to generate truly efficacious knowledge that will fundamentally change the social, economic, political, intellectual, and physical world.  In the course of the novel, however, the ostensible object of inquiry bifurcates; the cacognostic continues to pursue the literal truth of the Code and is utterly destroyed, and the symbologist, choosing orthognosis, opts for an epistemology in which the esoteric knowledge (which for Brown includes anything not comprehended in the discursive world of USA Today) is replaced by trite ideological commonplaces which, through a kind of legerdemain, retain investiture with the mystique originally accorded the esoteric knowledge they have replaced.  Common sense is thereby substantiated and rejuvenated, and the subject of ideology re-contained.

Lovecraft's attitude to time and lineage can be seen to produce an analogous result.  His stories open with the suggestion that genealogical research is intrinsically fascinating and worthwhile; after all, the well-educated and sympathetic young protagonist is travelling all over New England doing it.  But invariably, it leads to the sort of revelation to which self-immolation is the only conceivable response, and after which we long only "to flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."  Likewise the hideousness of age; the only products of inquiry into the remote past are the remnants, and the revenants, of beings who as merciless and hostile as they are powerful and alien.

Just as the symbological novel gives the illusion of being a source of knowledge and intrigue while functioning as an abattoir for both, Lovecraft gives the impression of antiquarianism, but on examination his stories uniformly imply that the only possible result of historical inquiry, genealogical or otherwise, is the discovery of things whose concealment was the condition of the investigator's existence.

All of the foregoing may be read as a further articulation of Twinglebrook-Hastings' astute observation that "Kingdom's characters are Brownian people in a Lovecraftian universe."  Nancy Kelly is a character more Brownian than Brown himself has yet produced.  Katherine Solomon is a pale emanation of her determined orthognosis (or, "orthognosis(f)" as we should probably call it in order to distinguish the permanent, natural orthognosis of the female subject of symbological knowledge from the vulnerable and hard-won orthognosis(m) of the male subject).  Indeed, it is difficult to resist the conjecture that Kingdom is a programmatic exploration of what a symbological novel in which the only protagonist is constantly orthognostic(f) might look like.  But where does her quest for her surrogate father lead her?  Towards a horrifying realm of unimaginable antiquity where, in fact, human immolation is a regular and hallowed practice, which occupies precisely the relation to humanity that Nature (broadly construed to include Nyarlathotep, Chthulhu, etc,) does, and whence the object of her quest was drawn by the search for his own father.

Thus Martin, ever the synthetic genius, draws together the anti-epistemological function of the classic symbological novel and Lovecraft's anti-diachronism to produce, in our final view of Nancy Kelly, a subject who has successfully rejected both knowledge and diachrony and can bask eternally in a present which is identical with ideology and simultaneously considers itself utterly sui generis.  He has achieved the final object which Brown and Lovecraft indicate: idiocy ex nihilo.

Friday, January 1, 2010

"Avatar": Orthognosis and the Late Imperialist Imagination

The controversy elicited by James Cameron’s latest multimillion dollar cinematic extravaganza, “Avatar,” which has been lauded by critics and flocked to by audiences, has thus far unfolded along predictable lines.  Conservatives have attacked the film as covert environmentalist propaganda, harking back to the days when their predecessors sought hidden communist messages in Hollywood productions – somehow ignoring the fact that Cameron has been quite explicit about the film’s ostensible ecological agenda.  Meanwhile, the left, broadly defined, has debated whether the film’s presumably benign and laudable earth-hugging message is marred by its patronizing representation of the Na’vi, the natives of the planet Pandora, which has been invaded by rapacious humans eager to exploit its rich supply of a substance called “unobtanium.”  The Na’vi look like a cross between E.T., the Maasai, and the Mohawks, cannot seem to open their mouths without uttering a barrage of portentous metaphors, and the film’s portrayal of them generally consists of a predictable pastiche of National Geographic clichés.  Certain critics have seized on the fact that these benevolent, nature-loving natives evidently require the paternalistic intevention of the film’s hero, crippled ex-Marine Jake Sully, to save their primordial ecotopia from the ravages of the technocapitalism that has, in the film’s futuristic scenario, already laid waste to the Earth, as proof of the incurable racism of the Hollywood imagination.

My purpose here is to suggest the fruitfulness of certain of the insights developed within our burgeoning but still marginal field for a more satisfying account of the film’s obvious contradictions, about which I think few of any political persuasion or cinematic tastes would have any doubt.  First of all, let me be as clear as possible about these contradictions, which have already been discussed in the body of criticism generated since the film's release: we have in “Avatar” a film that is perhaps the supreme recent aesthetic product of postmodern technocapitalism, the spectacular sophistication of whose seamless integration of computer generated imagery with sequences involving human actors few would dispute, which nevertheless claims to articulate a radical and thorough rejection of postmodern technocapitalism as a necessarily monstrously sadistic, genocidal, and ecocidal catastrophe to which the only appropriate ethical response is violent revolution.  Moreover, its protagonist completes his repudiation of his origins by abandoning his humanity altogether in order to exclusively occupy his prosthetic Na’vi body, which, however, was genetically engineered for him by the scientific research apparatus whose work the film explicitly exposes as instrumental to the strategies of domination of interplanetary capital.  Finally, the film has been variously identified as undertaking a critique of the Bushian War on Terror by way of its emphasis on the heavy-handed tactics of the cartoonishly malign Colonel who heads up security for the mining company exploiting Pandora's resources, even though it is more or less impossible to read its romantic portrayal of the anti-imperial revolt of the Na'vi, correspondingly, as a flattering account of the Iraqi insurgency.  

As those who have attempted to defend the film from accusations of racism and stereotyping have insisted, the Na’vi are emphatically not human beings, but rather somewhat conventional cinematic aliens, at least if you take away their feather headdresses, bead breastplates, breachcloths, and so on.  Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that one could set the same storyline in, say, the Amazon, Indonesia, or the Congo, with few significant alterations, and you would have a relatively realistic, if schematic and manichean, representation of the very real and very contemporary catastrophic impact of the extraction of raw materials on small-scale subsistence communities, the complicity of technoscience in such forms of exploitation, and the use of quasi-military mercenary force by transnational corporations.  In fact, the 2000 documentary “The Coconut Revolution” tells a by no means dissimilar story about how the beleaguered inhabitants of the island of Bouganville managed to expel the Rio Tinto mining company and achieve political autonomy.  If part of the point of the film's focus on a twelve-foot tall, blue skinned race of quasi-feline, quasi-simian humanoids rather than an exotic society somewhere in the tropics is that it is not really a celebration of, say, the armed groups in Nigeria which blow up oil pipelines or Yemeni pirates, even though it might initially appear that way, why does Cameron seem so determined to give the appearance that it might be a heroic representation of violent resistance to transnational capital, even while, by giving the film an interplanetary setting, he produces a convenient disavowal of the literal implications of this appearance?

It is here that I believe some of the terms we have developed to characterize some of the narrative motifs and operations of the admittedly distinct but overlapping sphere of symbological fiction and film may prove useful.  Prandleforth (forthcoming 2010; see also Bremselhäcker 2008) has formulated a promising model of orthognosis as the largely absent but necessary structuring term of all symbological narrative and thought.  Furthermore, the Generative Grammar (Bremselhäcker 2009) has opened up new possibilities for the exploration of symbological narrative as a variant within a broader continuum of popular narrative genres (see also Prandleforth's Reilly: Hack Novelist, Symbologist, Asshole [2009] for a cogent account of the continuities and ruptures between symbological fiction and Cold War spy fiction).  The Na'vi, whatever their resemblance to traditional objects of ethnographic study, are familiar enough for anyone aware of the basic terms of our field of study: they are what we might call the Orthognostic Other.  This prodigious but liminal figure appears in different form in many of our canonical texts: we need think only of Poimandres and his presumable Copt brethren, of the assumed but never explicitly named peoples of the utopian feminist pre-Christian Mediterranean as imagined in the Da Vinci Code, or for that matter, of Riane Eisler's Minoans and Shlain's pre-alphabetic, image-centered, matriarchal peoples of prehistoric Southern Europe.  The distant, ineffable Orthognostic Other, qua sujet supposé savoir, overlaps partially with the equally significant figure of Woman, basking in her sublime indifférance (Catherine, Katherine, Nancy, etc).  The important point about the Orthognostic Other is that, unlike the positions of Mythognostic and Cacognostic, it is not even a temporarily available position for reader or protagonist, whom the novel ultimately must reconstitute as the effectively re-contained subject of late capitalist hegemony.  The remoteness and unattainability of this exotic form of consciousness reassures him of the appropriateness, nay the necessity, of his acquiescence to the obviousnesses of his culture, and it instead remains present in its necessary absence as a flattering spectral projection of his own inert apathy. 

"Avatar" differs from its strictly symbological relatives in that, first of all, it dwells extensively on the elaboration of the Orthognostic Other, while completely leaving out its mythognostic and cacognostic counterparts.  The film's hero, Jake Sully, proceeds from a subject position that is not even cacognostic or mythognostic, and indeed, neither of these subject positions are available in "Avatar."  Its best candidate for a mythognostic is Dr. Grace Augustine, a Jane Goodall-esque scientist who has lived among the Na'vi as well as developed the eponymous "avatar" program at the center of the film's drama, in which prosthetic Na'vi bodies are generated for humans to occupy (ostensibly because humans cannot breathe Pandora's atmosphere, but also so as to facilitate a benign, paternalistic colonialism in which the Na'vi are taught English and generally persuaded to cooperate with the corporation in their displacement from their sacred territory).  However, her strong mythognostic credentials - she seems, in essence, to think that the Na'vis' orthognostic union with nature is a matter of great "scientific" interest, but that it has no implications beyond satisfying her personal curiosity - are compromised by the film's insistence on the instrumentalization of knowledge by corporate interests.  The mining corporation which has colonized Pandora only funds her research because of its direct utility to their techniques of domination and exploitation, and its representatives are quite explicit about this fact.  What the foregoing should suggest is that the dominant subject position of the film, that occupied by the corporate hegemons and their military henchmen, is not even cacognostic, because, for all their avowals of the instrumentalities of knowledge in the pursuit of power, this pursuit is ultimately not invested in any mediating symbolic forms whatsoever.  They are, in short, creatures of vulgar economic determinism, driven exclusively by the accumulation of capital, fully aware of the fact and prone to articulate it incessantly in a forthright, exaggeratedly demystified manner.

It is crucial to note here that this figure, the subject of vulgar economic determinism, is largely absent from symbological fiction, an absence made interesting by the important relation this figure bears, in "Avatar," to its ostensible opposite, the Orthognostic Other.  The Na'vi and the interplanetary corporate conglomerate backed up by brutal force turn out to be marked by an extensive series of resemblances and correspondences.  Take their respective power structures: the triangular structure of power among the human protagonists, with interplanetary capital supplemented by the male-dominated RSA of the Colonel and the female dominated ISA of Augustine, is identical in form to the tribal hierarchy of the Na'vi, where the male chief is backed up by a male head warrior and female shaman.  The extensive human installation in technological prostheses is similarly parallel to the Na'vi's relationship to their animal prostheses, horse and pteradactyl-like beings into which they plug a tendril-like supernumerary limb in order to control their movements.  The total integration of mind and nature always already achieved in the Na'vi's orthognostic inertia is also the explicit goal of both Augustine's research and the military technologies used by the Colonel to bring Pandora under the more effective control of corporate power.  Meanwhile, one of the consequences of their position of absolute orthognosis is that the cultural practices of the Na'vi appear to have no necessity - since they enjoy unmediated psychic integration with their surroundings and seem to exist as a unified collective mind, it is unclear why they would need to possess language or rely on sign systems at all, much less engage in the complex symbolic mediations of ritual.  If all symbolic action is therefore rendered entirely supplementary and decorative, their situation is, in fact, identical to that in which the deracinated, "wired" subject of late technoscientific capitalism perceives himself to be.  

The originary orthognosis of the Na'vi, then, is quite clearly global techno-capitalism's spectral image of itself.  The Na'vi harmony with nature, which permits them to instrumentalize its abundance without conflict, violence, or resistance, is the corporation's domination of nature minus the contradictions it generates.  Orthognosis, similarly, turns out to name the way that the imaginary relation to knowledge into which we are installed must appear to us, at least in certain prevalent narrative forms.  The Orthognostic Other reminds us of the necessity of our assuming this position by allowing us to forget that we are assuming it.