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19 Apr 2013

H.P. Lovecraft… Philosopher??

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Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937)

In Salon, Brian Kim Stefans discusses a new book by “Speculative Realist” philosopher Graham Harman (who teaches at the American University in Cairo, not at Miskatonic), which attempts to identify the early 20th century author of pulp horror stories as a literary philosophic opponent of Kantian Phenomenalism, materialism, and linguistic analysis.

Evidently, Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man gibber und kreischen über von einer Band aus amorphem Flötenspieler Begleitet. What we cannot speak about, we must gibber and shriek about, accompanied by a band of amorphous flute-players.

Few movements in recent philosophy have had as startling a rise as that of the writers loosely grouped under the heading “Speculative Realists.” Attention to this movement, which includes Harman, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, and Quentin Meillassoux… is growing exponentially, not just in universities but also among the unaffiliated continental philosophy junkies who troll the blogosphere. The one principle that is inarguably shared by these philosophers is quite simple: they wish to retrieve philosophy from a tendency initiated, or at least made unavoidable, by the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that the subject (meaning a human being) can ever know anything about the external world due to the very fact of subjectivity. For him, reality is always mediated by cognition, and the thinkable has a basic handicap: it is just thought. Nothing comes from outside into the mind, in other words, that is not turned into thought; the radical epistemologist argues that all we can know lies in the firm foundations of what is available to the senses, while the radical idealist argues that nothing remains in this thinking of whatever it was that spawned the thought, leaving one at the impasse of believing that all of reality is virtual, a bunch of mental actions. The result, according to the speculative realists, is that philosophy since Kant has been stuck with making this very mind→object relationship the locus and subject of philosophy, thus shutting down the project of metaphysics, the search for absolute laws beyond what can be established by experimental science.

Quentin Meillassoux has dubbed this mind→object relationship — the impasse that is at the heart of the Kantian tradition — “correlationism,” and the term has become a rallying cry for speculative realists. Harman’s philosophy displaces the mind→object relationship with that of object→object, the “mind” being just one object among many. Oddly, though Meillassoux names correlationism as the primary curse of the Kantian tradition, he also seems the most devoted of his peers to preserving the best part of it by making it the one place where he claims anything like an absolute exists. To Meillassoux (who, coincidentally or consequently, is also a fan of Lovecraft), the universe is not characterized by necessity (God-given or inevitable laws) but by a radical contingency, a “hyper-chaos” amidst which the only thing that could be seen as absolute is the mind→object relationship itself. ….

In Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, Harman enlists Lovecraft in his battle with epistemology and materialism — Lovecraft himself expressed loathing for normative science, and certainly had no love for legitimate academics — but also against correlationism: the conviction that all the mind could ever know are purely mental phenomena, which ultimately led (and here we are brushing with broad strokes) to the so-called “linguistic” turn of much 20th-century philosophy (most characteristically that of Wittgenstein and Derrida). To that extent, Lovecraft’s failure to engage in the linguistic experimentation of his high Modernist contemporaries does not make him some kind of recalcitrant provincial, but rather a sensible (if xenophobic) voyager who simply did not want to make the claim that language was all there was. Lovecraft’s language “fails” only insofar as the narrators fail to get into words, to journalize, some experience that simply cannot be fully available to the meager human senses and mind. For the most part, Lovecraft is happy to use language as a simple, functional tool, rather than to insist at every moment through linguistic estrangement — like, say, a Stein or a Beckett — that language is not what you think it is (and, consequently, that language is everything). For Lovecraft, it’s the universe, not language, that is not what you think it is. So what is it then? Well, weird.

Weird Realism
opens with an idiosyncratic set of short essays that lay out the method of the book. Harman notes that there is a choice that philosophers generally make between being a “destroyer of gaps” — those who want to reduce reality to a simple principle — and “creators of gaps” — those who point to those areas to which we will possibly never have access. He deems the latter “productionists” (in contrast to reductionists) and writes: “If we apply this distinction to imaginative writers, then H.P. Lovecraft is clearly a productionist author. No other writer is so perplexed by the gap between objects and the power of language to describe them, or between objects and the qualities they possess.”

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