Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy is an eccentric monograph that misses various marks of contemporary literary criticism and yet presents a useful tool for reading weird literature. Harman’s References to a few Mid-Century Modern critics including Edmund Wilson and Cleanth Brooks effectively dismisses criticism published in the last fifty years. Admittedly this Cthulu-like body of data is daunting even for literary critics, but Harman doesn’t even gesture to the current discipline. Harman interprets one hundred passages from the major works in the order that they appear, further undermining his own promising thesis with this bare method. The monograph is also repeatedly derailed by secondary arguments about paraphrase, and comedy and tragedy, which contribute little to the overall thesis. Nevertheless Harman’s primary conceit is original, and his application persuasive enough to warrant the serious attention it has received from a cross-section of the critical theoretical community. Within the context of speculative realism, “hyperobjects,” alien phenomenology, and panpsychism, the weird has become a category not only for fiction and philosophy, but also for contemporary readings of the built and natural environment, and the fuzzy borders between any number of given categories of experience.
Let me summarize Harman’s thesis, which is closely based on the “new fourfold,” introduced in his Tool-Being, and the focus of The Quadruple Object. Harman’s matrix is derived from combining Husserl’s distinction between qualities and objects, and Heidegger’s distinction between sensual the real objects (4-6). (Sensual objects appear to the subject; real objects categorically withdraw, even from themselves.) From these two axes Harman arrives at sensual objects (SO), real objects (RO), sensual qualities (SQ), and real qualities (RQ). This fourfold is intended as four aspects of all objects (rather that four categories of objects). Nevertheless, these four aspects interrelate in distinct ways, and these interrelationships are the focus on Harman’s “ontography,” as well as his reading of Lovecraft. (See a recent review of The Quadruple Object here, though the present post contains a better summary of Harman’s basic thesis in that work.)
Sensual objects are comprised of sensual qualities but are distinct from those qualities because not all qualities of a sensual object are apparent at once. Sensual objects and their sensual qualities are accessible but dynamic. Thus Harman denotes this relationship (SO-SQ) as “time” (32). Because they withdraw, real objects do not interact with one another; however, real objects can interact with sensual objects. The relationship between real objects and sensual qualities (RO-SQ) is termed “space” because both withdrawal and access are presumed to occur within this dimension (239). Real objects also have real qualities. Neither is accessible, but real qualities differ from sensual qualities because they cannot be separated from the object—hence Harman’s choice of “essence” to define the RO-RQ relationship. And real qualities can indirectly affect sensual objects. This indirect relationship (SO–RQ), is illustrated by the visible effects of an inaccessible object, like Harman’s example of a black hole indicated by swirling light (238). Harman argues, referencing Husserl, that we can derive real qualities from sensual objects through a form of theoretical inference he terms “eidos” (31-32). This scheme does not exhaust the possible relationship between the four aspects of an object or between two fourfold objects; however, it provides a powerful heuristic for understanding allusive language and for reading literature, which is categorically allusive.
Harman claims that Lovecraft, as “a writer of gaps and horror” is the poet laureate of object-oriented philosophy (2, 5, 32). Eliding for a moment the unfortunate resonances between Lovecraft’s racism and Heidegger’s fascism, we can readily appreciate Lovecraft as a chronicler of weird objects, and more so when we see his work through the prism of Harman’s “ontogrpahy” (33). Here are four examples that may be considered emblematic of Harman’s thesis.
A central figure in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountain of Madness” and Harman’s discussion is an alien, “Cyclopean” Antarctic city of incomprehensibly strange and complex geometry and design (165-66). Harman compares Lovecraft’s description to a cubist painting (197). The object is presented from myriad, conflicting, perspectives and yet it remains impossible to grasp as a whole, in “time.” Harman identifies this moment as a tension between a sensual object and its sensual qualities (234). The proliferation of sensual qualities suggests a sensual object that might potentially be grasped, and yet remains elusive.
Lovecraft’s famous Cthulu idol/monster represents the tension between real objects and sensual qualities (RO-SQ). The monster is described with the sensual qualities of an octopus and a dragon, for example, but Lovecraft makes clear that no combination of these qualities approaches a description of the thing itself, which withdraws from its sensual qualities (237–38). Like many science-fiction monsters, Chtulu exceeds our comprehension in scale, nomenclature, motivation, and sheer potential. Under Harman’s sign of “space,” it is alarmingly present and yet “absolutely distant” (239).
A third example is a concept with withdraws on all levels, though as Harman notes this is rarer in Lovecraft’s corpus. “The Dreams in the Witch House” alludes to a “blind idiot god Azothoth“ through various literary tropes, but Lovecraft makes clear that these tropes merely cloak a “monstrous nuclear chaos” (234-35). Language indicates an absent presence: “both the object and its features resist all description” (234). Azohoth is a real object with real qualities (RO-RQ) but lacking any accessible sensual qualities. This is an example of Harman’s “essence.”
A final example is a controversy in “At the Mountain of Madness,” concerning fragments of slate which elude scientific testing. This example represents a tension between a sensual object and real qualities (SO- RQ). While we have come to expect that the scientific method is a means of inferring real qualities through sensual objects (“eidos”), the common sci-fi trope of introducing objects, such as space matter or alien technology, that remain resistant to scientific scrutiny illustrates a tension between sensual objects and real qualities (151-53). The confounded scientists identify sensual qualities, but these qualities have no relation to existing sensual object or their real qualities. Thus a sensual object can be present while resisting eidetic processes (235).
Harman’s arguments are often hard to follow, but generally worth the effort. However the most perplexing moment in Weird Realism is the discussion of Lovecraft’s racist stereotypes. (See previous Environmental Critique post on Lovecraft here.) Harman acknowledges that these representations create an atmosphere of anxiety and panic, but misses an opportunity to explore a fairly obvious relationship between race and “ontography.” A racist stereotype is patently a tension between a sensual object and a real object. And socio-cultural biases in general can be confounded by counterexamples, in which sensual qualities exceed their sensual objects. Indeed, the process of destroying stereotypes might be described as circulating sensual qualities that challenge stereotypes as sensual objects. In this sense Lovecraft falls short as a writer for our time, and Harman misses a cue to connect object-oriented philosophy, science fiction, and race. Weird Realism provides a model for understanding some other monstrous aspects of contemporary culture, however, through Harman’s association with the common topoi of object-oriented philosophy at large.
As I implied in my introductory comments, Cluthu is like big data. We can access parts of the object, but we can never apprehend the whole, and have few reasons to believe the creature is subject to our control. Even more frightening may be a feeling that we are compelled to interact with this monster—that we are in a sense hypnotized. We see the effects of information but cannot grasp the sensual object. Similar comparisons could be made to other hyperobjects such as transnational consumer capitalism and anthropogenic climate change.
And so, inevitably, to the Anthropocene. While some writers and critics see nature or human beings as the problem, it may be more accurate to say that human culture is the problem, or rather some contemporary aspects of human culture, both familiar and strangely beyond our grasp. While pundits point fingers at corporations that profit from consumer culture, the monster may be closer to home. It may be that the formless leviathan of the consumer is to blame. This incomprehensibly complex hydra, with a widely distributed, prosthetic brain, billions of blind eyes, and an insatiable appetite for resources, amoral, seemingly immortal, and yet withdrawn from its animal, technological, and alien qualities (sensual and real), has become our intimate, our paramour, but seems completely beyond our most advanced cultures of discipline and control (be very afraid).
And yet hyperobjects are more frightening if we remain self-important, assuming they are out to get us—that we are the object of “alien” aggression. Indifference is not aggression, there are no antagonists, and we are not tragic heroes. Imagining “nature” or “culture” is poised to destroy us may be sheer adolescent, if not infantile, narcissism. And if fear of a faceless, aggressive other is a contributing factor to paralysis, then perhaps getting over our selves might help to focus our own actions and energies and motivate sustained meliorative action. Rather than preparing to fight off alien others, we could begin by recognizing the alien self, which categorically withdraws from our fortified self-image. Alluding to Jeff VanderMeer’s contemporary weird fiction, acceptance may be a productive stance. (See previous EC post here.)[i] I don’t mean that we should accept the status quo, but rather accept the uncomplicated responsibility to clean up our ecological mess, whether or not such reparations will ultimately benefit what we heretofore recognize as our kind.