There’s a rather interesting new philosophical movement floating around ‘tinternet: ‘Speculative Realism.’ Now, I’ve read a little of their stuff, and I rather like it (coming from a Heideggerian angle, I’m fond of anything that talks about the world as having significance beyond the human usage of it), but there’s a tendency in it that I’d like to address, which is a fascination with horror. Now, when I say ‘horror’ I don’t just mean the emotion: I mean the movies. Oh boy, do they like their horror movies…
This isn’t a criticism of the use of examples from popular culture (or non-traditional culture at any rate) to explicate philosophical points, on the contrary, I think it’s a wonderful step forward for philosophy that we no longer feel that the only relative fictive examples we can use have to be written by dead, white, European males (and that isn’t a criticism of said dead, white, European males either, and I’ll chase you with a stick if you do say anything out of turn about them). I say this as both a philosopher and a film-nerd; I like that now I can talk about why the Alien franchise is fantastic and philosophy at the same time! But, that is not to say that there are certain conceptual problems that I would like to make a movement towards addressing.
The core premise of Speculative Realism, as far as I can tell, is a rejection of the Transcendental Idealist tradition of Kant, which places the human agent, or the thinking being, in a privileged metaphysical position. Specifically, that ‘reality’ only emerges because of the existence of the human agent as she processes the raw manifold of sense data into Kant’s oh-so Teutonic categories of experience and thus generates the ‘world’ of causation, time, space and so forth. This is, of course, a very, very loose and imprecise and superficial discussion of Transcendental Idealism, but you can look into it more in your own time. The Speculative Realists, however, undermine the privileged position of the human agent and suggest that reality exists prior to and beyond thought, that it is not necessarily cognisable and that it obeys laws that we are not able to perceive. These prior existing structures to reality (manifesting in nature and society/language/history) have effects on us and our lives that we may not even be aware of. When looking for their Hölderlin, they found Lovecraft.
And herein lies my problem. The unknown or unknowable for them always fills them with horror and fear. Land, apropos horror as a genre, says that ‘[w]hen conceived rigorously as a literary and cinematic craft, horror is indistinguishable from a singular task: to make an object of the unknown, as the unknown.’ The question that I want to ask is: why is that necessarily a horrifying thing? This isn’t an isolated case, either: read Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics for a philosophical tour around the unknowable origins and nature of life that takes us from the Zerg of Starcraft to the Tyranids of Warhammer: 40,000 along with the inevitable digressions in H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and the occasional visit from Thomas Ligotti. It is worth saying that I enjoyed Slime Dynamics and I have no problem with the examples he was using, but it does certainly reinforce the general vibe of the movements more…excitable quarters, for want of a better term.
It reminds me of a wonderful turn of phrase a friend of mine once used in reference to certain currents of thought in the British occult scene: ‘darker than thou.’
Let’s talk about one of my favourite horror movies: Hellraiser. I love that film, I love the story, the aesthetic, the source material, the performances and, though I’ve not read much of his stuff, I just like Clive Barker (forgive the digression, but have a look at this for an entertaining discussion of Barker from a queer perspective). Now, there’s a very well-known tagline associated with this film, specifically with the monsters that appear in it: ‘Demons to some, Angels to others…’ I will restrain myself from an in-depth discussion of Hellraiser and its brilliance (that will come soon, I fear), but I think that’s a good phrase to use here when we look out onto the thickets of the concealed that the Speculative Realists are so occupied with. Why must the unknowableness of reality be a source of terror for us?
It’s interesting, as I’m sure you need no convincing of, how the meaning and value of words shifts and change, or drop out of usage altogether. Consider the word ‘terrible.’ We use this word to mean something bad, but it used to mean something more like ‘overwhelming,’ a somewhat ambiguous word. For an example, Ivan the Terrible; to quote that least disreputable of sources, Wikipedia: ‘The English word terrible is usually used to translate the Russian word grozny in Ivan’s nickname, but the modern English usage of terrible, with a pejorative connotation of bad or evil, does not precisely represent the intended meaning. The meaning of grozny is closer to the original usage of terrible—inspiring fear or terror, dangerous (as in Old English in one’s danger), formidable or threatening, tough, strict, authoritative. V. Dal defines grozny specifically in archaic usage and as an epithet for tsars: “courageous, magnificent, magisterial, and keeping enemies in fear, but people in obedience”.’
Or perhaps, consider the now largely obsolete expression ‘God fearing.’ To fear God is to recognise and submit to Him in the recognition of His greatness. I think many religious people, and certainly many mystics, throughout history, would probably have had little problem with the idea of an unknowable principle behind all Being. Of course, the Abrahamic religions all allow us to know this principle a little (He speaks to the Jews and Muslims, and even became a human being for the Christians), but there certainly is still a great unknowableness to God in all of these faiths. We can approach Him, certainly, but He can never be known as such. Is that frightening? Of course it is! It’s a terrifying idea…and awe-inspiring idea. An awesome idea, in the old sense of the word.
Consider the Kabbalah: beyond Kether, the highest manifestation of Creation, the highest sphere of God, there lies Ain Soph Aur, the limitless light of which we cannot speak… Why must there be a limitless night at the beginning of Being and not a light? Or something unlike either? Why must the unknown be horrible and not glorious? Theologian Karl Rahner suggests that even in Heaven God will still be a mystery.
The difference, perhaps, is that for the theist talking about the unknowable, it is a known unknown we are talking about. We cannot know God except that He made us and loves us and so on…but, even then, the Spinoza’s, Wittgenstein’s and even Herbert McCabe’s of the world have all emphasised the beyond-ness of God and the metaphorical (or at least non-literal) nature of religious language. This must surely apply to the Speculative Realists obsession with the grotesque nature of the unknown: if it is so far beyond us and our concepts, how can you be so insistent of its dreadfulness? And, if it is only a subjective dreadfulness, a horror felt on our part, why is that a more appropriate reaction than something leans closer to religious awe?
I am not offering any answers, and I am not familiar enough with the metaphysics taking place here to feel comfortable going further with this digression. Any comments or criticisms would be very welcome, as I am keen on learning more here.
Stay tuned for more…maybe.