Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Weird, Yog Meet & The Occult of Personality

After yet another extended hiatus (nearly three months!) the amorphous hive-mind that is the Ghooric Zone is back. Albeit at short notice, here's some info about the follow-up to the Weird Realism: Lovecraft & Theory event at Goldsmiths College this coming Saturday suitably entitled The Weird

Papers already circulated indicate that Lovecraft will continue to be a key focus of discussion. Although I was planning on attending this (despite negative comments about the Weird Realism thing in an earlier post), I've realised it clashes with this year's Yog Meet at Dragonmeet 2007 (which I missed last year). Hmm, roleplaying or academia...tough choice, though I think a day of gaming goodness (and the chance to grab copies of The Trail of Cthulhu and Cthulhutech rpgs) wins out on this occasion.

Onto other news: a round table discussion of Lovecraft's influence upon occultism can be found at the Occult of Personality podcast site. Sadly, the participants collectively demonstrate a confused and rambling understanding of Lovecraft's life and work that is also shot through with factual errors, vague supposition and 'occult insight'. Echoing 'Pickman's Model', one of the hosts suggests that Lovecraft actually summoned up the entities of the Cthulhu mythos and took his descriptions of them 'from life' as it were. Another denies this, but claims that Lovecraft didn't practice ceremonial magick because he was too lazy...None of the discussants seem to have any inkling as to Lovecrafts well-attested atheism and mechanistic materialism (despite the fact that one of them admits to having read a biography of Lovecraft), instead recapitulating the old chestnut about Lovecraft being a practicing occultist with genuine knowledge of forces from Outside. If this weren't enough, constant reference is made to the Simon Necronomicon as if it were the genuine article, and one of hosts even uses Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos as 'proof' of her own ideas - via The Book of Enoch & Simon Necronomicon - about Atlantis. A case of a fiction being used to verify a myth. As I recall, the whole thing ends up being dragged in the direction of some kind of Icke-derived Ultraterrestrial Illuminati conspiracy. Oh dear...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Rick Wakeman Denounces Crowley Shock!

We at Ghooric Zone central like to keep abreast of cutting edge developments in the world of contemporary occultism, so imagine our mixed reaction of shock, surprise and delight at being informed of Aleister Crowley's moral shortcomings by none other than the mighty Rick Wakemen.

After providing the score for a new documentary about Aleister Crowley, Rick Wakeman had the following to say about the Great Beast: 'There is no doubt that Alistair [sic] Crowley was one of the most evil men that walked this earth'. Good God man, do you not have anything better to do with your time!

Granted that Crowley wasn't the most pleasant of people and could be a pretty nasty piece of work (as well as a rather pathetic figure)at times, but he doesn't really deserve this level of vilification. This all-too common insistence on blaming the worlds ills on some external (and usually supernatural) evil is, to my mind, a highly dangerous strategy, and one which - via scapegoating and the subsequent creation of moral panics - is often complicit in the very production of human suffering and evil it seeks to prevent. This is obviously over stating the case in this instance, as it's unlikely that we'll be seeing Wakeman at the forefront of a major witch-hunt against Thelemites and other occultists in the nerar future, but nonetheless scapegoating of this sort only helps to mystify the very real but banal sources of human evil - an issue I mean to explore in a forthcoming post concerning Lovecraft and the 'Occult Reich'. At least Crowley had the courtesy to refrain from unleashing the abject horror of twenty-five minute synthesiser solos on the world whilst wearing a sequined cape and pretending to be Merlin.

In any case, Wakeman's comment demonstrates a total ignorance of Crowley's life and magical philosophy. My presumption is that Wakeman's views were also derived from the documentary, which is pretty much being marketed as a kind of sensationalised horror story. The fact that it's slated for a straight-to-DVD realease doesn't bode well either.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Happy Birthday, HPL!

'That is not dead which can eternal lie'

Today being Lovecraft's birthday, I shall celebrate by spending an hour or so in quiet contemplation (accompanied, perhaps, by a small glass of fine vinatge port!) while listening to the excellent audio version of Lovecraft's sonnet cycle The Fungi from Yuggoth (produced by Fedogan & Bremer in 1987). Having nothing profound to say in honour of the occasion, I'll let the Old Gent speak for himself and leave you with two excerpts from the aforementioned cycle which epitomise the man and his vision. Enjoy.

XXX. Background
I never can be tied to raw, new things,
For I first saw the light in an old town,
Where from my window huddled roofs sloped down
To a quaint harbour rich with visionings.
Streets with carved doorways where the sunset beams
Flooded old fanlights and small window-panes,
And Georgian steeples topped with gilded vanes -
These were the sights that shaped my childhood dreams.

Such treasures, left from times of cautious leaven,
Cannot but loose the hold of flimsier wraiths
That flit with shifting ways and muddled faiths
Across the changeless walls of earth and heaven.
They cut the moment's thongs and leave me free
To stand alone before eternity.

XXXVI. Continuity
There is in certain ancient things a trace
Of some dim essence - more than form or weight;
A tenuous aether, indeterminate,
Yet linked with all the laws of time and space.
A faint, veiled sign of continuities
That outward eyes can never quite descry;
Of locked dimensions harbouring years gone by,
And out of reach except for hidden keys.

It moves me most when slanting sunbeams glow
On old farm buildings set against a hill,
And paint with life the shapes which linger still
From centuries less a dream than this we know.
In that strange light I feel I am not far
From the fixt mass whose sides the ages are.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Lovecraft & Burroughs

An interesting snippet which I picked up from a post by Fun Guy from Yuggoth on the redoubtable according to this William Burroughs was taught by Lovecraft's literary executor Robert H. Barlow while studying anthropology in Mexico. Barlow apparently introduced Burroughs to the study of the Mayan Codices.

While I was aware of Barlow's career in anthropology and Burrough's early interest in the subject matter, it never occured to me that the two may have met.

Admittedly Burroughs' connection with things Lovecraftian is somewhat tenuous: outside of the infamous blurb he supplied for the (equally infamous) Simon Necronomicon (though curiously absent from later printings), Burroughs did include cut-ups of parts of Frank Belknap Long's 'The Hounds of Tindalos' in (if I remember aright) The Place of Dead Roads. I'm not aware that Burroughs ever mentioned Lovecraft by name, and I don't recall reading anything about Lovecraft in the Burroughs' biographies I've read. Even so, one wonders if Burroughs first heard of Lovecraft as a result of this meeting?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Return of the Awful I

Moving on from - though perhaps tangentially related to - my last couple of posts dealing with religion, more news on Vermont's very own Lovecraftian horror, The Awful:

Mr. H.P. Albarelli recently contacted me, having been understandably offended by the sarcastic tone I took toward his article in the Northwest Vermont County Courier concerning the Awful. In any case, I requested details of the sources of the contested Lovecraft quotes. A protracted exhange then followed during which Mr. Albarelli clearly stated his position: that Lovecraft's involvement was peripheral to the whole matter. I countered this by arguing that his original article had strongly emphasised Lovecraft's role in the story of the Awful.

Mr. Albarelli did go on to state that the letters from which he quoted existed in a public archive (though at this point he did not include any additonal information about this archive). An implied accusation of my being a Lovecraft fanatic followed, which was fair comment, although the added insinuation that I had lost touch with reality because of my obsession with the letters smarted: indeed, a rather odd claim given that all I was trying to do was establish the existence of a letter and not that of a winged monster which supposedly haunts the wilds of Vermont...

Sarcasm aside, I must admit to being not entirely unsympathetic to Mr. Albarelli's claims and I certainly don't think he is involved in a purposeful or malicious hoax. Similarly my own intentions toward Mr. Albarelli are not malicious (though I hope he might find it in his heart to forgive me for the occasional dig I make at his expense!). Even so, an important epistemological issue underlies my somewhat dogged pursuit of this case: namely the manner in which Lovecraft's name is often deployed within contemporary occultures as a source of legitimicay. In fact, what one usually encounters in these instances is a kind of non-sequitur appeal to false authority (two fallacious arguments for the price of one).

In any case, I've decided to include herafter the full text of two of the later e-mails which I sent to Mr. Albarelli, with summaries of his replies. In fairness to Mr. Albarelli, please do bear in mind that what follows is my own biased account of the exchange:

Dear Mr. Alberelli,

The letters are of importance insofar as traceable sources are necessary to validate the claims that Lovecraft did go to Vermont to investigate 'the Awful' in 1925, and that the experience subsequently influenced his writing career - and that is all I am trying to establish here. A matter, as you say, of remaining grounded in reality.

My own experience is that Lovecraft has gained far greater recognition than you give credit for - both in North America and abroad (in France, for example, Lovecraft is considered the literary equal to Edgar Allen Poe). This was why I raised the issue of your mentioning Lovecraft in the first place - certainly on the few forums where I have seen your article discussed, the Lovecraft link seems to be one of the key talking points. In all honesty, for me this begs the following question: if you feel Lovecraft to be such a minor figure, why do you give him such a central
role in your account? I'm not asking you to respond to this; I'm simply indicating that this as a question which has been raised.

I'm guessing that the publicly accessible archive you speak of is the collection of Lovecraft's letters at John Hay Library, Providence R.I.? It would be most helpful if, in your update, you could provide exact dates of the letters in question, if possible with details as to their recipients?

Yours sincerely,

Justin Woodman

It turned out that Mr. Albarelli was not familiar with the John Hay collection. He did, however, say that more information about the Lovecraft sources would be appearing in a second article he was preparing about the Awful. In response I sent the following e-mail. To give some context to this, I was responding to Mr. Albarelli's claims that Lovecraft was a marginal literary figure and that it was doubtful (as I had earlier suggested) that he was considered the equal of Poe in French intellectual circles:

Dear Mr. Albarelli

I was not at all implying that you should not mention Lovecraft in your article, but mentioning him in relation to a matter that has escaped the attention of those of us interested in him as an important literary figure is something that is going to draw attention to your claims. As an aside, the fact of the matter is that Lovecraft is now a significant international literary figure - in the United Kingdom, for example, a review of his work have recently appeared in at least one major national
broadsheet newspaper; also the French (and international bestselling) author Michel Houllebecq recently published a lengthy essay on Lovecraft (introduced by Stephen King). Lovecraft has also been discussed by Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher whose work has become internationally recognized since the 1990s. The list of French scholars and intellectuals who have come to recognize Lovecraft as a literary figure equal to Poe goes on. Millions of copies of Lovecraft’s work have, since the 1970s,
been made available in paperback editions; as well as being incredibly popular now in Europe and North America, I understand that Lovecraft has attracted growing audiences in Japan, South and Central America and Eastern Europe (indeed, the Russian president Putin was recently asked, jokingly, how he meant to deal with the return of Cthulhu).

In any case, I was wondering whether, prior to the publication of your second article, you would be willing to furnish me with the sources of the following quotes:

‘When H.P. Lovecraft returned to southern Vermont from Richford he told friends he was convinced that the Richford locals he had interviewed were "not in the least mistaken about what they had witnessed." Lovecraft later wrote, "The Awful became ample sustenance for my imagination" and "over time the creature became the basis for many of my own fictional inventions."’

If you do not wish to furnish the requested citations yourself, you mentioned in a previous e-mail that ‘The letters cited have been sitting in a publicly accessible archive for decades’ and also that the references in question were provided to an internet site months ago. Could you provide further details about the aforementioned archive and the internet site?

I’m almost beginning to feel sorry for being so tenacious about this, but it is simply that I cannot seem to trace any mention of ‘The Awful’ in the four volumes of Lovecraft’s published letters that cover his life from the period of 1925 until his death in 1937. I sincerely hope that you can understand why I’m so curious about this matter: if Lovecraft’s investigations into the Awful had such a profound effect on him, I have to ask why it isn’t something that he returns to time and time again in his letters (where he otherwise amply elaborates on the sources of his fictional ideas). I think that there is also a secondary issue here in that Lovecraft was an avowed rationalist, atheist and mechanistic materialist - a point he reiterates time and time again in his letters, and a viewpoint which he held from a very young age until his death. Lovecraft certainly was familiar with the writings of people like Charles Fort, but nowhere does he seem to intimate any interest of belief in
cryptozoology, the supernatural or other ‘Fortean’ phenomena - other than to publicly debunk them.

Also, the renowned scholar and biographer of Lovecraft S.T. Joshi, who is the person most familiar with the collection of Lovecraft’s letters at John Hay library, fails to make any mention of Lovecraft’s trip to Vermont in 1925 or of the influence of the Awful on Lovecraft’s writing in 680+ pages of his carefully documented and rigorously researched biography of Lovecraft (‘H.P. Lovecraft: A Life). Given the wealth of information now available about Lovecraft’s life, I hope you can understand my scepticism regarding your claims - it’s simply that this matter has not (to my knowledge) been mentioned before in any of Lovecraft’s published writings.

Another of the reasons why I so curious about these claims is because at least one individual has already used your article to make (what I feel to be) spurious on-line statements about Lovecraft - statements to the effect that Lovecraft whole-heartedly supported a belief in the existence of a range of occult, Fortean, cryptozoological, ufological and supernaturalist phenomena (again, a claim that is unsupported in Lovecraft’s published letters and essays). Also - a fact you may not be aware of - your article was cited in a recent edition of the The Fortean
Times (which has a readership in the UK of, I believe, around 100,000; I also know that it is published in a North American edition). As such, the claims found in your article will potentially have acquired a larger readership than, perhaps, you intended. Of course you cannot help how some people have interpreted the information contained in your article once published. However, the problem here is that people seem to be viewing this claim uncritically simply because Lovecraft’s name is invoked. This is why I feel it so important that the sources of the quotes/claims are
made available.

Yours sincerely,

Justin Woodman

Mr Albarelli then informed me that the letters from which he quoted were not in the public domain, but did in fact reside in the hands of two individuals in Vermont (one of which is a minister). Further to this, he told me that more information regarding the Awful was to be found in a) the archives of a Richford newspaper, and that possible one of the contentious Lovecraft quotes could also be found in the journal of the Masonic Lodge 9 based in Richford, Vermont.
Hopefully more news regarding the sources of the alleged Lovecraft quotes will be made available when Mr. Albarelli returns to the matter of the Awful in his next article. In the mean time, I propose to do a bit of background research into the journals of the Richford Masonic Lodge.

Understandably the individuals' possessing the Lovecraft letters were not named. This does, however, mean that clear and unambiguous evidence of Lovecraft's alleged involvement in the affair of the Awful cannot be ascertained (at least to my satisfaction). In light of which, the weight of evidence still lies with what Lovecraft himself has said and which is in the public domain, and which also supports his well-documented skepticism of things Fortean, and certainly offers no suggestion whatsoever that he either investigated the Awful in 1925 or that his alleged investigation of said beast profoundly influenced his weird fiction.

At this point Mr. Albarelli seems to have given up the ghost with the Lovecraft connection, informing me that henceforth the story of the Awful would stand on its own two (cloven? webbed?) feet without Lovecraft's aid. To reiterate - and in fairness to him - I fully believe that Mr. Albarelli is quite genuine about his interest in and pursuit of the Awful, and I'm quite prepared to believe that he has seen letters purporting to be from Lovecraft. Indeed, there is something about the style of the contested quotes that rings true to my ear (which is not to say that Lovecraft's style isn't easily copied), so it could well be that the letters (assuming they are real) are also genuine Lovecraft. If this is the case, then the context of the quotes needs to be assessed. Even if Lovecraft himself made these statements, the Old Gent was prone to the occasional joking turn of phrase. This certainly wouldn't be the first time that Lovecraft's own words have been taken out of context by Forteans, esotericists et al.

Anyway must dash now, but some additional commentary on this - regarding sites that have uncritically assumed Lovecraft's involvement in the tale of the Awful to be genuine - in a few days.

Friday, July 27, 2007

'The Cancer of Superstition' II

First up, a big thank you to GB Steve (one of the moderators over ay who informed me in a comment to my last entry (which I have since revised due to the number of grammatical errors it contained)that he has syndicated the blog's RSS feed to a group of his friends. Steve also raises a question about my previous claims regarding the 'naturalness' of religion, providing me with the opportunity to do something I've been meaning to do for a while here: give a somewhat detailed overview/summary of current cognitive theories of religion - a set of theories which I generally subscribe to. Again, this is a far cry from the usual Lovecraftian goodness we like to provide you with at Ghooric Zone central. That said, I'll reiterate the point that the following fits generally with Lovecraft's own materialism and anti-supernaturalism, and in fact is a contemporary take on Lovecraft's own views on religion as expressed in some of his letters and in parts of 'The Whisperer in Darkness'. Also, some of the ideas contained herein will probably inform later ramblings dealing with the Lovecraft-occultural interface. That said, I'm pretty busy with a number of other projects at the moment (painting miniatures as well as writing my book on Lovecraftian occultures!) so although this entry will be far from brief, it is not going to be thoroughly or properly referenced or contain footnotes, etc.

The 'Naturalness' of Religion
First off, I think Steve is quite right to question the notion that religion is 'natural' because to assume such is the case means that us atheists are somehow 'unnatural' or 'abnormal'! In any case, such a claim is something that definitely requires clarification. Here I’m following Pascal Boyer (see his book Religion Explained) who refers to the ‘naturalness of religious ideas’ in the following sense: it is not so much the case that it is ‘natural’ to believe in the supernatural because of how our brain is wired; rather it is the case that religious concepts can come to seem ‘natural’ and acceptable because the ability to conceptualise the supernatural is an offshoot or by-product of the very ordinary, mundane, and ‘natural’ but often unreflective aspects of our day-to-day cognitive functioning (what Boyer calls our ‘ontological intuitions’). This is an important distinction - that religion is a by-product but not a function of how our minds work. Hopefully this will be further clarified at various points throughout this post. In fact, Boyer and some of the other theorists I'm going to be talking about below are perhaps less concerned with why people believe than with the cognitive capacities that enables the human mind to conceptualise and entertain ideas about the supernatural in the first place.

Also I'm not convinced that it is always fruitful to encourage people to critically review their beliefs on the basis that said beliefs are irrational (even though I perosnally believe this to be the case). In part, this is probably down to my background in anthropology which emphasises sensitivity to other 'ways of seeing'. In this respect I think Dawkins 'evangelical' evolutionism tends to do more damage to his own argument than is necessary. This is because all of us in all sorts of ways apply and demonstrate counter-intuitive and counterfactual ‘magical’ or 'religious' thinking on a daily basis: for example we probably all unreflectively and implicitly attribute human-like characteristics to non-human things or inanimate objects (getting annoyed with your computer when it crashes, or with your car when it won’t start). As Marx also pointed out, under capitalism people tend to attribute organic properties of self-replictation to money (bank advertisements talking about ‘letting your money grow’ and so on), obscuring the actual exploitation upon which the accumulation of capital depends.

Returning to the important distinction above, this doesn’t of course mean that we actually come to believe that money is a living, breathing entity, simply that we are capable of thinking in that way, and that the ability to think like this may be the consequence or by-product of a helpful survival strategy by which we deal more effectively with our environment by projecting human-like qualities on to it (partly a consequence of the complex forms of 'social intelligence' which humans possess). In the theory I’m going to summarise below, this propensity for anthropomorphism is (according to one anthropologist at any rate) the foundation upon which all complex religious doctrines and supernatural beliefs are built. Importantly, its root cause may be the evolved but ‘hyperactive’ ability humans possess for detecting predators.

I'd also like to emphasise the fact that religion is not being treated here as a functional aspect of how our minds work - humans have not 'evolved' the capacity for religion because it is 'useful'; rather, religion is a spandral or by-product of our evolved cognitive architecture. Which is to say that humans beings, once they 'have' religion, can put it to all sorts of uses (engendering social cohesion, for example). However, religion, as a by-product of 'normal' brain functioning, is not in itself inherently useful.

Neurotheology, the God Module and the 'Function' of Religion
A counter-argument to this is sometimes referred to as the 'committment' theory of religion, or more popularly as the 'God Module' theory: a ‘hardwired’ or ‘neurotheological’ view of religion which I am suspicious of. According to two of its main exponents, Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, humans have evolved as part of their brain structure a ‘God Module’. In their 1993 article ‘Religious and mystical states: A neuropsychological model’ in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science) D’Aquili and Newberg have also argued that various religious practices (meditation, trancing, etc.) generate neurological changes, including an increase in activity in the frontal lobes. It also leads, they claim, to decreased activity in the superior parietal lobe (the part of the brain which generates an awareness of the physical limitations of the self)which in turn leads to a sense of transcending material existence, or a feeling of unity with god, oneness with the universe, etc.
D’Aquili and Newberg go on to argue that experiences such as these are more likely to be generated in ritual context, where they create a feeling of unity and connectedness with others. As such, the ‘god module’ may be an evolutionary adaptation to enhance social co-operation. In effect, neurotheology has tried to place Emile Durkheim’s claim that religion is concerned with social cohesion on a neurological footing. This is perhaps a useful way of understanding how ritual functions to facilitate group bonding; this 'neurotheological' approach also suggests that religion is an ‘illusion’ created by neurological processes. However, it also leaves open the doorway for ‘intelligent design’ for the more savvy of creationists: namely that god has used evolutionary processes to open a neurological doorway to communion with he/she/it (the fact that god tends to be gendered is an important point to which I’ll return later). It also posits a hardwired view of religion that does, again, implicitly suggest that us atheists are not functioning properly.

The prevailing view (at least as I see it) is that whilst religion is an outcome of evolutionary processes, it is not an evolved adaptation per se. Steven Pinker has, for example, argued that:

‘Many of our faculties are adaptations to enduring properties of the real world. We have depth perception, because the world really is three-dimensional. We apparently have an innate fear of snakes, because the world has snakes and they are venomous. Perhaps there really is a personal, attentive, invisible, miracle-producing, reward-giving, retributive deity, and we have a God module in order to commune with him. As a scientist, I like to interpret claims as testable hypotheses, and this certainly is one. It predicts, for example, that miracles should be observable, that success in life should be proportional to virtue, and that suffering should be proportional to sin. I don't know anyone who has done the necessary studies, but I would say there is good reason to believe that these hypotheses have not been confirmed’. ( media/2004_10_29_religion.htm)

Scott Atran also suggests that god module theory is profoundly flawed: the claim that religion offsets apparent disadvantages is countered by the fact that it creates other disadvantages. Thus most theories that have been posited to explain religion in functional terms can be countered by showing how religion also does the exact opposite:

‘It tries to answer the question Why? It prevents answers to the question Why? It creates meaning for an arbitrary world. It postulates and imaginary world that hides reality’s reason. It discovers the origin of nature’s regular occurrences…It disguises the origin of nature’s regular occurrences…It relieves anxiety. It terrorizes…It aims to overcome evil, suffering, misfortune and injustice among believers. It aims to cause evil, suffering, misfortune and injustice among nonbelievers…It benefits elites. It benefits the downtrodden…It’s the workhorse of war. It’s a player for peace’ (Atran, 2002. In Gods We Trust, pp. 6-7).

In their joint article ( Atran and Norenzayan go on to claim that whilst ‘commitment’ theories of religion like the 'god module' are useful for understanding how religion can faciltate the kinds of non-kin-based and non-reciprocal altruism necessary for the survivial of human grousp, they are not sufficient explanations of religion in and of themselves. The problem being that such theories don’t account for the apparently universal belief in supernatural beings: the existence of Marxism and humanism as non-religious moral systems suggest non-religious moral systems that do not invoke supernatural agents can be sufficient to engender human co-operation. As such, commitment theories are incomplete explanations of religion because they fail to account for the specificity of its supernaturalist elements.

The approach outlined below is, I think, incredibly useful in helping to demonstrate how and why people potentially acquire religious concepts by understanding religious thought not as 'innate', 'natural' and necessary but in naturalistic terms which are explicable via material processes and by a secular scientific understanding of the universe. In brief, this approach states that religion can be both extremely useful to humans and highly damaging, but in either case it is not necessary for humans to function and survive. This is also sometimes refered to as the 'spandrel' theory of religion: a spandrel being an architectural term for describing an aspect of a builing which was not designed with a function in mind, but is a by-product of the functionality of some other aspect of the building (the space under the stairs is often used as storage, but it was not designed as a storage space; rather, it is necessary to have a space in the building at that point as a consequence of the stairs).

The 'Spandrel' Theory of Religion
An initial step in understanding how people are capable of conceptualising the supernatural begins with Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind(ToM) is the remarkable ‘mind reading’ ability that most humans possess which allows us to impute motivations to others. By ‘mind reading’ I am referring to our apparently natural aptitude for inferring what other people are thinking and feeling and predicting their behaviour accordingly, based on visual cues, body language and the like rather than any kind of genuine ‘psychic’ ability! Another key definition of ToM (which I will return to in the epilogue to this piece) is the ability to detect false beliefs in others (I think that she thinks so-and so, even though I know so-and-so to be false). In fact, this is how the 'existence' of ToM is generally demonstrated: if you show a child of around 5 years of age a box of sweets and ask that child what they think is in the box, the will usually say 'sweets!'. Then you show the child that the box actually contains pencils. A second child is brought into the room. The first child is then asked what he or she thinks that the second child thinks is in the box. A child who demonstrates ToM will reply sweets, even though they know it contains pencils. What is demonstrated here is the ability to think about what other people are thinking, even if you know that the other people's beliefs about the world are mistaken.

All in all, ToM is a pretty remarkable ability, but one that we take for granted. This kind of slippage towards taken-for-grantedness is, I think, important in understanding why people are often likely to accept religious ideas and supernatural beliefs (i.e. the dominant beliefs in most cultures have a taken-for-grnated character). This is probably because ideas and beleifs about the supernatural emerge from very banal taken-for-granted cognitive capacities that most of us possess.

With regard to religion, the important thing about ToM is that it allows us to impute a seemingly invisible motivational force to other human beings (‘mind’). We are used to dealing with other humans who have corporeal bodies but are also agents with recognisable motivations, feelings etc. When we encounter a dead body, we are suddenly faced with the corporeal body that is lacking agency and a motivating force. As Pacal Boyer has it, it is then only a small step to inferring the existence of this ‘invisible’ and seemingly non-corporeal mind as something which has ‘left’ the body, and which is, indeed, independent of the body. ToM is one factor that allows us to hypothesis the existence of human-like but non-corporeal entities (i.e. gods, spirits and demons). However, ToM does not demand beleif in said hypothetical otherworldly agents.

The complex kinds of ‘social intelligence’ demonstrated by humans (which allow us to establish massive coalitions such as nation states or global religious communities)are fundamental to our survival (which, for humans is massively dependent on social co-operation - especially in terms of parental investment for human infants - even though humans still remain the main predators of other humans). As such, the social intelligence we possess presumably spread through populations in our evolutionary past as a consequence of its usefulness. However, one of the things about social intelligence is that we simply can’t ‘switch it off’. A consequence of this is that we tend to maintain social relationships with the dead (visiting graves, etc.): especially with members of our immediate family or close friends (with who we have shared deep emotional ties and who, presumably, we depended on in various ways for our daily well-being) even after they have died.

Added to this the human ability for anthropomorphism which cognitive archaeologist Steven Mithen claims is probably a result of ‘cognitive fluidity’. Cognitive fluidity is tied to the idea of ‘modularity of mind’: that the human mind is not some big general all purpose learning tool - if it was, we probably wouldn’t be able to communicate meaningfully via language. The fact that we have language is, according to the 'modularity of mind' theory, a consequence of our having developed a specialised ‘lingusitic intelligence’ mental module. A useful analogy here is to think of a non-modular mind as being like a toolbox containing some nails, a hammer, a saw, a screwdriver and a wrench. There’s lots of stuff you can usefully do with all of this equipment (cut down a tree and build a shelter), but the toolbox has rather limited application when your computer breaks down. For this kind of repair job, you need a specialised toolkit. Understanding weather patterns may be important for successfully undertaking activities like hunting and farming, but the weather doesn't really impact upon the way we learn language. However, the claim is that if we don't possess modularity of mind, we simply would not be able to realise what factors are important when it comes to hunting, and what are important when it comes to learning language. The net result being that it takes much longer to learn how to farm and to learn how to speak a language. Human children appear to be born with a 'technical intelligence' module which means that even very young children find it easy to learn basic tool use. However, the same does not appear to be true of infant chimps who often take a very long time to master using rocks in a simple hammer-and-anvil technique to break open nuts.

What has this to do with religion? What humans also seem able to do think across these mental modules or domains of knowledge - i.e. cognitive fluidity. The dates remain contentious, but this may have been one of the major evolutionary shifts that brought about the 'cultural revolution' or explosion that seems to have taken place somehwere around 70-40,000 years ago. Generally speaking, this period also evidences the emergence of religious thinking amongst anatomically modern human beings (burial sites, rock art, etc.). In any case, cognitive fluidity allows for analogical thinking which is an incredibly useful tool. Not only does the ability to think analogically enable technical development (thus greater human control over the environment and increased chances of survival), it also seems to underlie a great deal of scientific thinking (looking for universal principles of motion by comparing a birds wing to a fish’s fin).

Cognitive fluditiy also means that when social intelligence (the part of the mind we use for dealing with other people, i.e. ToM and the like) interacts with natural history intelligence (the part of the mind we use for dealing with, thinking about and categorising our environment) we can come up with concepts such as an animal who thinks and acts like a human. This can be an incredibly useful way of interacting with one’s environment, and it certainly seems to be the case that human success in hunting comes from attributing human-like qualities to prey. However, it also allows us to attribute a human-like mind to a tree or a statue. In brief, this ability for analogy and anthropomorphism may have tangentially given rise to the ‘earliest’ kind of religious concept: animism. To reiterate, cognitive fludity does not require religion; rather, religious concepts (along with art, poetry, etc.) are by-products of the evolved capacity for cognitive fluidy (which in and of itself is a useful day-to-day survival strategy).

In enabling symbol use, analogy, metaphor, etc. (‘the wine dark sea’) cognitive fluidity also faciltated the development of complex forms of communication that have also allowed humans to establish and maintain equally-complex forms of social networks and relationships previously mentioned. Things like nation states and religious communities are often dependent on ideas about 'fictive' or 'metaphorical' kinship. To the extent that symbol use, analogy and metaphor are also central to the development of various artistic forms, I wonder if the links between cognitive fluidity, anthropomorphism and animism indicates why, for much of the time we've been on the planet, human artistic endeavours (whether literary, visual or plastic) often deal with religious or supernatural themes. This is also one of the reasons why I think that there is a significant overlap between contemporary occultism and the literature of the fantastic. However, one thing I’m not claiming here is that art, poetry, etc. are inherently religious pursuits.

Tying all of this in a roundabout way to the racist invective we find in Lovecraft, Steven Mithen also makes the interesting point that prior to acquiring cognitive fluidity, humans simply may not have been capable of racist thinking: while cognitive fluidity allows us to think of animals as being human-like, it also allows us to conceptualise other humans as animal-like or less-than human (this doesn’t, of course, mean that animosity between humans wouldn’t have existed prior to cognitive fluidity; but according to Mithen such animosity wouldn’t have been given expression through the discourse of race).

As a consequence of ToM, social intelligence (what Boyer generally refers to as 'intuitive psychology'), religious concepts, universally, seem to be constrained by a propensity toward anthropomorphism. The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie (1993, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion) reiterates this in claiming that the most efficient interpretation that human beings can place on events in an uncertain world is to assume that those events are structured by a human-like intentional agency: that shape in the distance might be a boulder, or it might be a bear. It is better to assume that it is a bear if you want to ensure your survival. If it turns out to be a boulder, you've lost nothing. If you think it's a boulber but it turns out to be a predator, you're in trouble. In this respect, anthropomorphism may be relate to an evolved adaptation which (if I recall aright) psychologist Justin Barrett calls the 'Hyperactive Agent Detection Device' (HADD) - a biased psychological-perceptual capacity for ‘over detecting’ potential predators. Like social intelligence, this is 'hyperactive' because we simply cannot turn it off, and in the bear-boulder example above it is a useful survival strategy t to start from the assumption that the boulder is a predator. The HADD kicks alerts us to potential danger when, for example you hear a floorboard creaking downstairs at night, or you hear a rustling behind you during a walk in the woods. The floorboard may be creaking because of temperature changes, and the rustling behind you might just be the wind, but our intuitive response is to react as if a potential predator is in the vicinity. The implications being that the HADD often leads us to detect for agents where none exist. In conjunction with ToM and so forth, this can add weight to the notion that non-corporeal human-like agents exist. The reason why it is human-like spirits that are posited is because the main predator of human beings has been other human beings. Thus the HADD is more likely to lead us to infer human-like predators rather than animal-predators.

This returns me to Tylor's minimal definition of religion as a 'belief in spiritual beings' mentioned in my last post: doctrinal aspects of religion do not necessarily reflect what people think at the 'grass-roots' of religious belief and practice. Christianity holds that god is atemporal, omnipotent and omnipresent; however, when praying people often make different inferences about the nature of god - that 'he' experiences time like other human beings, and that he is specifically focusing on the person praying. In European Christian art, God is often represented in gendered, corporeal, tangible and anthropomorphic form (i.e. a bearded old man enthroned in heaven); in the Bible, God also has human attributes (i.e. being jealous and wrathful). Similarly, Justin Barrett found that many Hindu’s applied anthropomorphic qualities to deities in everyday situations, even though when questioned about the nature of deities in a more formal setting would recapitulate formal, learnt theology that claimed otherwise (J. Barrett, 1998. ‘Cognitive Constraints on Hindu Concepts of the Divine’ in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion). What this indicates is that human religious concepts are, to an extent, constrained and are ‘minimally counterintuitive’. While cross-culturally gods and spirits may be conceived of as all-knowing, there are innumerable instances in the myths of various cultures where humans are able to trick supposedly omniscient gods and spirits.

The Counterintuitiveness of Religious Ideas
Similarly, Pascal Boyer argues that supernatural concepts seem to follow a cross-cultural template, and the nature of such concepts appears to be constrained by existing intuitions about the world which are either innate or which humans acquire early in childhood. These ‘ontological intuitions’ form the basis of what anthropologists refer to as ‘folk knowledge’ - namely implicit assumptions about the way the world is ordered. In brief, humans recognise distinctions between animate objects, inanimate objects, natural kinds, artificial objects, and persons. For example, if we encounter an animate object we have never encountered before, we are able to quickly infer a number of things about it: it has four legs, fur and moves, so it is probably an animal. As an animal, we infer that it is mortal, eats to live, reproduces, etc. We are so used to this that it seems unremarkable, but without these pre-existing ontological intuitions which allow us to cognitively structure our environment in relatively coherent ways (and which are presumably a product of long evolutionary processes) we would have difficulty in recognising that a rock is of a different kind to a fish.

In any case, Boyer what is characteristic of religious representations is that they violate these ontological assumptions in some way. The reason why religious representations become widespread is because they disrupt out ontological intuitions, and as such become more salient or memorable than other kinds of knowledge or ideas, and thus more likely to be passed on. Again, this doesn';t mean that such ideas will necessarily be believed, but it suggests a reason why mental representations of the supernatural become widespread through populations.

However, the implication of this claim is that the more 'outrageous' or ‘counter-intuitive’ a religious idea is, the more likely it is to be remembered and transmitted. Boyer suggests otherwise: a balance is usually struck in religious concepts between being counterintuitive enough to be memorable and being so counterintuitive that the concept no longer sensibly fits with out intuitive understanding of the world. For example, the belief in ghosts, spirits and deities fits into our intuitive assumptions insofar as these entities are classified as persons (sentient beings that have intentions, desires and motivations); however, they are also counterintuitive according to our folk concepts of biology, psychology and physics (they can move through walls, see everything, etc.).
On the other hand, a chair that exists only on Thursdays or (to borrow Justin Barrett's example) cat that never dies, has wings, is made out of steel, experiences time backwards, lives underwater and speaks Russian is so counterintuitive to our concept of a cat that it could no longer be classified as a cat. It is certainly so outside our experience as to be wholly unbelievable. In brief, only concepts which are counter-factual and counter-intuitive in a limited sense are likely to become transmissible and culturally salient. Beliefs that are ‘excessively’ unusual or violate our ontological assumptions to the extreme are likely to be rejected as unbelievable. As an aside, this is something I hope to revisit with regard to representations of the Old Ones in Lovecraft. Following China Mieville's comments at the Weird Realism conference about the overdetermined nature of Lovecraft's descriptions (despite his use of adjectives such as 'indescribable'), I actually think that Lovecraft's representations of the Old Ones are much more anthropomorphic than is often assumed.

In summary, ideas about gods and spirits - which seem to constitute the 'core' of religious and supernatural beliefs cross-culturally - are 'universal' because they only require a slight modification of Theory of Mind, because of social intelligence and because the posited HADD encourages a belief in non-corporeal persons or agents. However, all of these things together produce religion as a by-product of cognitive functioning, but the production of religion is not the function of these ordinary (although in some senses remarkable) human abilitites. In brief, religion is not an evolved adaptation necessary for human survival or co-operation. Human beings can do quite well without it.

That said, Scott Atran does see scope for incorporating 'committment' theories into a more general understanding of the evolutionary contours of religious thought. Earlier I mentioned that Theory of Mind enables humans to recognise false beliefs in others. This also allows us to represent and communicate counterfactual or false beliefs to others. The capacity for deception is useful for our survival, but as social beings it is also a potential threat to the social order. Scott Atran points out that 'religion often involves hard-to-fake public expressions of costly material commitments to supernatural agents, that is, offering and sacrifice (offerings of goods, property, time, life). A general problem in the maintenance of cooperation is how to distinguish people who are altruistically committed to a coalition from those who are not. One way to test who's genuinely committed is to see who is willing to undertake a costly sacrifice. Painful ritual practices such as tattooing, scarification and circumcision are not the kind of thing that anyone would do unless they took their affiliation with the group seriously.'

Our ability to recognize potentially false beliefs (including supernatural beleifs) also means that most human societies are always under threat of defection. If some better ideology comes along there is no longer any reason to accept the current ideology. Once human beings have the ability to conceptualise supernatural agents, such agents become incredibly useful in encouraging people not to defect from the group, especially if this supernatural agent is believed to possess the power to invisibly check and review people's thoughts and behaviours, and can punish them accordingly. The 'social usefulness' of the supernatural (despite the fact that this can also be incredibly damaging on a personal and individual level) may also be an important component to understanding why religious moral systems are more widespread than non-religious ones, despite the fact that (as Atran himself seems to recognise) non-religious moral systems can also be used to facilitate social co-operation. On this point, I am not advocating the necessity of religion; rather, I'm pointing to a factor that might be important in understanding the social contexts underpinning people's 'preference' for supernaturalism and resistance to atheism.

Here endeth the lesson.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

'The Cancer of Superstition'?

As returning readers may be aware, we at Ghooric Zone central are not afraid to take the occasional meander down avenues somewhat tangential to our favoured Lovecraftian topics. This post being no exception (although I will justify it as being in the spirit of Lovecraft materialist atheism).

Guardian readers out there will no doubt have encountered Gordon Lynch's piece berating Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett popular books on religion (published Saturday 21st July 2007) which can be found here.

It seems to me that, as one commentor to the article has already noted, Lynch has constructed something of a straw man argument: invalidating Dawkins and Dennett's claims not by what they have said, but what they have failed to say. In all, this seems to be a case of sour grapes on the part of a sociologist of religion who is a bit miffed that his particular field of expertise has not achieved popular recognition in the way that Dawkins and Dennett have popularised their take on religion.

The problem here (or so it seems to me) lies in the 'crisis of representation' afflicting the social sciences since the 1980s (especially in the wake of Clifford & Marcus' 'Writing Culture'). In brief, this 'crisis' (which has led disciplines such as anthropology to argue themselves into a corner) was the consequence of concerns surrounding how a range of literary and rhetorical devices were being deployed (in anthropological writings, for example) as a means of presenting partial and culturally-biased 'data' as scientific fact. This was highly problematic because of the way anthropological writing in particular presented often deeply ethnocentric views of other cultures (views which implicitly asserted the 'superiority' of the Western anthropologists' own culture) as 'factual'. Further to this, postmodernist and poststructuralist trends in the social sciences have also emphasised the folly of pursuing 'objective' knowledge, and have maintained that 'Western' science is a myth or 'discourse' (an approach which fails to take into account the fact that centres of scientific thought have, of course shifted geographically across the duration of human history), and that 'rationality' is a culturally and historically contingent product of the European Enlightenment rather than a panhuman propensity. Don't get me wrong - there are sound and important epistemological issues being addressed here, not least of which is the way politics, ideology and knowledge become intertwined. As an anthropologist, I absolutely recognise the many problematic ways in which my discipline is founded on - and has been used to support - colonial expansionism and the exploitation of people's across the globe. Furthermore, 19th Century pseudo-scientific anthropological theories (outmoded even in the 1920s) were brought to bear as 'scientific proof' of Nazi racial doctrines. Thus Nazi scholars used anthropological pseudo-science to justify the Holocaust. More than enough reason to exercise caution when one encounters claims that a particular set of ideas is 'scientifically proven' (New Agers take note).

A consequence of these debates is a kind of epistemological double-bind meaning that social scientists become complicit in their own marginalisation. Eschewing explanations of human behaviour - particularly those grounded in the 'myth' of science, rationality and reason - many social scientists have come to favour self-conscious and reflexive 'interpretations' of human behaviour. Said interpretations also favour an outmoded view of a)the mind as tabula rasa and b)the social and the cultural as forces which exist external to human beings.

As mentioned above, there are good reasons for this turn away from science in the social sciences. However, emphasising the role of the social on our behaviour has enabled social scientists to dispense with the need for investigating 'human nature' or to have outright rejected the notion that such a thing might even exist. I personally don't doubt that culture and society have a profound part to play in shaping our behaviour; however, if one goes looking for books on human behaviour, what one tends to find on the shelves of most major bookshops these days is a range of popular science texts written by biologists and geneticists offering 'hardwired' explanations of said behaviour. It is unsurprising that ideas about human behaviour have eclipsed sociological and social anthropological thinking about the same issue, because said texts offer concrete explanations of human nature. Social and cultural anthropologists, on the other hand, tend to offer very wooly semi-autobiographical musings about (to paraphrase Clifford Geertz) their own interpretations of other peoples interpretations about what they think they might be doing.

For all their rejection of science, social scientists have tried to write themselves out of this mess via an elistist retreat into obscurantism which, paradoxically, legitimises itself through the deployment of 'technical' and quasi-scientific jargon (for an excellent critique of this - though one generaly rejected by the social sciences - see Sokal's 'Intellectual Impostures') disguised as genuine knowledge (a huge generalisation, I know, but we of the Ghooric Zone are not known for out impartiality). I should know, as I've been guilty of this myself on more than one occasion. To be frank, I find this obscurantism both patronising and incredibly hypocritical given that it almost wilfully re-instates the very problem that responses to the aforementioned 'crisis of representation' sough to address. This, of course, compounds the problem of the marginalisation of the social sciences because people who might otherwise be interested in what anthropologists and sociologists have to say are quickly put off after encountering even the most 'basic' of introductory texts. Compared to the mass of popular texts about human behaviour produced by natural scientists like Dawkins, I can think of only two popular books written by social anthropologists in the past twenty years.

The accessibility of the social sciences is further compounded by the claims iterated by Gordon Lynch in his article (and nicely summarised by another commentor on the Guardian website): that to fully understand the issues in their depth and complexity, one must have read X,Y & Z. While a broad knowledge of the intellectual history of a given field is always desireable, failure to take into account the breadth and depth of that history doesn't logically invalidate the claims of Dennett and Dawkins.

What Gordon Lynch does not address here is the fact that Dennett's work (if not Dennett himself) is informed by a wide array of research provided by long-standing and respected anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer, Dan Sperber and Scott Atran - specialists who aware of the history of their field and who do explicitly address the shortcomings of prior anthropological understandings and theories of religion.

American anthropologist Scott Atran (in his book In Gods We Trust), for example, has taken pains to demonstrates the failure of previous approaches in the social sciences to develop anything close to a comprehensive explanation of religion. At heart, Atran's argument is quite simple: every (functionalist) theory of religion can be countered with by an example of religion acting to support an opposed function. For example: 'religion is a way of dealing with anxiety in the face of death'. Yes, but religion also generates anxiety in the face of death (i.e. the threat of what might come in the afterlife, hellfire and damnation and so on). In effect, Atran (along with Boyer) argues that prior explanations of religion are not, in fact, 'scientific' expanations; rather they are a kind of interpretive folk-psychology or folk-sociology masquerading as scientific theories. What Boyer and Atran do instead is to posit a generally non-functionalist cognitive theory of religion: the human ability to conceptualise religious and other kinds of hypothetical otherworlds, spiritual beings etc. is simply a by-product of our mundane everyday cognitive functioning (itself a product of millennia of evolution). What this approach also suggests is (to borrow a phrase from Boyer) 'the naturalness of religious ideas'. In otherwords, religion can be understood not as 'irrationality' or 'superstition' (although of course Dawkins often couches the issue in comparable terms) but as a 'natural' outcropping of our day-to-day cognitive functioning. This is, I think, where people like Dennett and Dawkins fall short and where I probably find myself partially agreeing with Lynch: as an atheist, I can't but help regarding religion as part of what Lovecraft called the 'cancer of superstition'. However, from another point of view I can understand why religion is unlikely to go away: it's simply part of how our mind works, and the production of religious concepts and representations well be tied to the same cognitive capacities (the production of symbol, metaphor and analogy) which allows our imaginative faculties to flourish and which (oddly enough) enabled Lovecraft to produce his visionary but atheistic fictional otherworlds. Of course, simply having the capacity to cognise hypothetical otherworlds doesn't necessarily mean we have to believe in them!

In fact, the general approach of Atran and Boyer (which to my mind is part of a hugely significant, groundbreaking approach to the understanding the origin of religious concepts) is profoundly indebted to the intellectual history of their discipline, starting with 19th century anthropological and psychological theories of religion posited by Edward Tylor, who offered a minimal definition of religion as a 'belief in spiritual beings'. Interestingly, Talal Asad is invoked in the Lynch article as demonstrating the partial and ethnocentric definitions of religion deployed by Dawkins and Dennett. This leads me to raise a point that perhaps addresses some of Lynch's concerns: does Buddhism (a non-theistic religion) not, therefore problematise this presumably ethnocentric definition of religion as a belief in spiritual beings (one based, according to Asad, in the Christianity and philosophy of Western Europe)? Probably not. Social anthropological studies of Buddhism have themselves supported the view that non-theistic and 'rational' forms of Buddhism found in places like Sri Lanka and Thailand are, in part, fairly recent European 'inventions'. In brief, the 'elite' (often middle class) forms of Buddhism found in these areas (which espouse non-theism and demand that Buddha was just an enlightened human being) are, to some extent, products of a Buddhism transformed by European colonialism and reinterpreted by European scholars to fit a 'rational' Western world-view, then fed back to indigenous populations via Western forms of education. However, as the scholar of Buddhism Martin Southwold points out, localised village and rural forms of Buddhism in places like Sri Lanka do in fact incorporate spiritual beings into their beliefs and practices, and various Buddhist scriptures also support the 'supernatural' nature of Buddha. What this brief example hopefully goes some way to showing is that the consequence of reviewing the intellectual history of (in this case) anthropological approaches to religion - and the subsequent recognition that cultural and historical contingencies shape the content, meaning and character or 'religion' - does not necessarily invalidate the apparently ethnocentric claim that religion is concerned with spiritual beings. (Further to this, psychologist Justin Barratt has undertaken a number of research projects which appear to demonstrate cross-culturally that, regardless of what a given doctrine teaches, in informal settings human beings tend to think about religion in terms of human-like but supernatural beings such as gods and spirits).

It seems to me, then, that the argument Lynch employs is typical of the self-sustaining (and condescending) argument marshalled within the social sciences in order to promote the continued neccessity of (increasingly marginalised) social sciences specialists: i.e. we are the only people who have the time and resources to read and properly understand all of this stuff - if you challenge our view or fail to buy our books or accept our ideas that is a consequence of your ignorance, not a failure on our part to communicate our ideas clearly or to support them with hard data.

Again, this is why people turn to the likes of Dennett and Dawkins: they offer concrete explanations (not 'interpretations') grounded in empirical data (not 'discourse'), and couched in an accessible and comprehensible style. This is not to say that such popular reviews of religion are without flaws. However, the emphasis on interpretation over explanation provided by social scientists is generally not satisfactory for the majority of human beings. This latter point is indeed one that anthropologists have themselves recognised. Why is it, then, that they have consistently failed to operationalise in their own field of study? A failure to 'properly' understanding the complex role of religion in the modern world lies not with the Dennett and Dawkins, but with the inability of those who oppose them to mount anything close to sustainable defence.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Vote Yog Radio!

Yog Radio - Yog's podcast about Lovecraftian games and gaming - has been nominated for this year's Gen Con EN World rpg award (the 'Ennies') for best gaming podcast. We at Ghooric Zone central would ask all of our regular blog viewers to head over to the Ennies site here and vote for Yog Radio. If you haven't yet had the opportunity to listen to Yog Radio, mp3 files can be downloaded here. Though Yog Radio's general emphasis is on the Call of Cthulhu rpg the show demonstrates a much broader remit: the most recent episode including, for example, an interview with Brian Aldiss. Fans of things Lovecraftian are certain to find something of interest in the Yog Radio vaults so please do take the time to check out some of the episiodes and cast your vote for Yog Radio. The hosts Paul Maclean ('Paul of Cthulhu'), Fin Patterson and Neil Young provide an excellent, informative and highly entertaining show in addition to maintaining - currently in its ninth year of existence and without doubt the best provider of on-line resources and support for the international community of Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraftian roleplayers (as well as being kind enough to host the mp3 files of my 'Lovecraft and the Occult' lecture series).

Vote for Yog Radio now. You know you want to.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

New Cthulhu Movie?

Unless you've been hiding in a lead-lined bunker with no internet connection for the last few days, likelihood is that you've encountered some aspect of the viral marketing campaign for JJ Abrams forthcoming untitled movie aka 'Cloverfield' aka 'The Parasite' - think Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla. If not, you can view the trailer that started the whole ball rolling here. Though I'm loathe to be party to said viral marketing, one claim that keeps cropping up is that the movie might be inspired by Lovecraft, or be about the return of Cthulhu. Though my own gut reaction is that this will probably turn out not to be the case, the buzz of interest this is generating around Lovecraft may well mean that Hollywood moguls will begin to take heed of the call of Cthulhu...

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Chariots of the Dark Gods?

A recent thread on brought this ufo sighting to my attention:

The underside of the vehicle is also marked with the following characters:

While I'm in no doubt that this is a hoax, the following site claims otherwise. Specifically, the author of said piece claims that the symbols on the craft (one of which is, according to a commenter on the thread, the Japanese for 'hoax') signify a kind of ET technology or alien superscience akin to magic:

'a language, that could quite literally execute itself, at least in the presence of a very specific type of field. The language, a term I am still using very loosely, is a system of symbols (which does admittedly very much resemble a written language) along with geometric forms and patterns that fit together to form diagrams that are themselves functional. Once they are drawn, so to speak, on a suitable surface made of a suitable material and in the presence of a certain type of field, they immediately begin performing the desired tasks. It really did seem like magic to us, even after we began to understand the principles behind it.'

The author also provides images from a 'linguitic analysis primer':

As well as reiterating the Lovecraftian (and Clarkean) theme of magic-as-superscience - and that of (imaginary) non-human languages which paradoxically signify the inconceivable or represent the unrepresentable - the above 'interpretation' (worth reading in its entirety) may well have taken its conceptual lead from Delta Green, a sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu rpg. For those unfamiliar with Delta Green, it reframes the Cthulhu mythos in terms of late-20th Century conspiracy theories, particularly those surrounding ufos, alien abductions and of course the now-legendary Roswell incident. Without giving too much away, Delta Green includes information concerning symbols suposedly found on the crashed Roswell saucer, wherein the source and function of said symbols are grounded in the now familiar time-and-space warping non-Euclidean geometries of the Lovecraftian cosmos. According to Delta Green's take on modern ufology, those that learnt the secrets of the saucer's language invariable went mad, died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Needless to say, Delta Green implicates the Greys as agents of Unseen Powers From Beyond.

All in all, I'd say that this case presents us with additional (albeit circumstantial) evidence of how Lovecraft's influence - via a roleplaying game - continues to be felt in contemporary ufological lore. This will probably feed into a forthcoming post of mine dealing with the controversial topic of roleplaying and the occult.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Hello Dave!

Dr. Dave Evans has recently returned to the UK and his new book (based on Dave's PhD thesis) exploring the contours of contemporary occultures post-Crowley is now available. Although I've yet to read Dave's book, I understand that Lovecraft gets a look in (presumably with regard to Kenneth Grant, whose work I believe form's a focal point of Dave's book). A review will hopefully appear here once I've had a chance to pick up a copy, but word is that this is defintely one not to miss so be sure to order your copy from Amazon forthwith

Dave will also be speaking at Treadwell's in August:

16 August 2007 (Thursday)
The Amado Crowley Phenomenon
Sons and Lovers
Dr Dave Evans
7.15 for 7.30 pm start

Amado Crowley claims to be the son of Aleister Crowley and has published numerous books on the alleged private teachings he received. Dave Evans has researched in detail the claims and proven biographical details of the individual in question. He lays out his findings on this night, and makes some remarks on wider issues raised: the role of the teacher, discipleship and hero-worship in Western occultism, as well as that sub-culture’s ideas on magical heirship, lineage and transmission. Dave Evans has recently completed a Ph.D at Bristol, the results of which are published in his History of British Magic After Crowley: Kenneth Grant, Amado Crowley, Chaos Magic, Satanism, Lovecraft, the Left-Hand Path, Blasphemy and Magical Morality (Hidden Design, 2007).

On a similar note, I will be revisiting 'The Occultural Lovecraft' at London's Moot With No Name (run by the redoubtable David V. Barrett and compered by the mighty Steve Wilson of 'Chaos Ritual' fame) on Wednesday 29th August 2007. More details to follow.

You're my wife now.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Back with a Vengeance II: The Profligate Weird

Perhaps as a consequence of the relatively recent ‘Weird Realism’ conference at Goldsmiths College, the concept of the ‘weird’ suddenly seems profligate online - particularly as a focal point of academic inquiry. It may be just me, but this seems a typical strategy of the academy (especially within the realm of the social and cultural ‘sciences’): namely the (jaded, populist) theoretical encompassing and championing of anything which smacks of the marginal, anomalous and oppositional simply as a consequence of said phenomenon’s perceived oppositional nature.

Academia is by its nature elitist and while I don't want to be accused of anti-intellectualism, the need to categorically define concepts such as ‘the weird’ and to erase any sense of the porousness of their boundaries smacks of a kind of 'colonisation of consciousness' and often prefigures the commodification and emasculation of said terms/concepts.

As an aside, I’m curious why the notion of ‘the weird’ (including the much vaunted ‘new weird’) has suddenly gained wide currency, particularly with regard to Lovecraft. In fact, Lovecraft seems to have used the term interchangeably with ‘the supernatural’ and also as an adjunct to - but in this instance not necessarily interchangeably with - his own cosmic indifferentism (granted, I might need to dig up some quotes to justify this). One wonders if there a danger lies in this tangential sideslip toward a concern with the weird: namely that of diverting attention from the more challenging problem of the cosmic (whose presence in Lovecraft's tales threatens to overthrow all categorical distinctions as the product of anthropocentric thought).

Back with a Vengeance I: Intellectual Decompression Chamber

It has come to my attention that misunderstandings about what I was banging on about at the Weird Realism conference continue to abound. No doubt this matters to no-one else other than my curmudgeonly very own self; but some recent disparaging remarks about Lovecraftian magicians coming from within the academy has left me with a rather unpleasant taste in my mouth, hence the following tirade: that Leftist academics (in whose company I generally, but not exclusively, count myself) actually seem to have a great deal of trouble grappling with the materiality of human agents when said agents intervene into the otherwise tidy abstractions of theory (most of which, it seems to me, have become increasingly distant and disengaged from the political realities of everyday life). This probably explains why I became an anthropologist, being generally better at dealing with people than I am with theories...

I'm also incredibly frustrated by the impenetrable Lacanian pseudo-psychology that informs much of the current intellectual critique of capitalism. Which is not to say that said theories and approaches do not have their value, but in most cases academics are working with incredibly outmoded, unsupportable or folk- theories of the mind (usually some variant of the tabula rasa) that have been left far behind by current research in neuroscience, the cognitive sciences more generally and (the ever unpopular) evolutionary psychology. That said theories are still presented as having explanatory power without, it seems, actually being testable compounds the problem.

That aside, an accusation made against Chaos magicians' that their position on Lovecraft was politically 'unsound' was, in any case, a position I myself expressed (or so at least I thought!) at the Weird Realism conference. Not wanting to detract from what was an excellent day, I must say that I'm still somewhat flummoxed as to why a number of the discussants failed to realised this. Ultimately, though, there is no-one to blame but myself and my inability to communicate ideas clearly and succinctly. Also granted that the theme of my paper seemed somewhat out of alignment with what the conference was supposed to be about. In any case, there seemed no point in mounting a 'defence' of my comments as at least two of the more challenging questions they raised appeared to reiterate the very points I was trying to put across.

Claiming that Chaos magical co-options of Lovecraft is ineffectual and politically unsound also demonstrates, to my mind, a deep rooted fear of the magical (itself a reiteration of capitalism’s own rationalizing discourse) which also ignores the potential ‘radicalism’ of magic and religion. This brings to mind the anthropologist Peter Worsley who, employing a Marxist analysis, attempted to demonstrate that millenarian movements in colonized areas such as Polynesia and Africa were not simply the responses of an ‘irrational’ peoples to colonization, but laid the foundations for later more overtly ‘politicised’ independence movements.

Given that the capacity to generate magic, religion and overtly fictional fantasies may very well intimately interlinked via our cognitive evolution, one wonders why academics thus deem fantastic and weird fiction worthy of investigation. Magic and the literature of the weird and fantastic participate in a shared field of relations. Indeed, much of what passes as ‘theory’ partakes of the fantastic to such a degree that I would consider much of it a form of ‘magical thinking’! On a final accusatory note, I really don’t see how the theorizing of the Left in and of itself constitutes an effectual alternative to capitalism, especially when it has come to constitute (at least for Luddites like myself) a form of cultural capital indented in the elitism of its own obscurantism.

Even so, I'm also feeling rather quixotic this morning so will try to respond (yet again) to how Chaos magickal appropriations of Lovecraft can be potentially 'revolutionary': identification with 'alien otherness' - whether through the embodiment of possession or whether simply reading sci-fi - has the capacity to transform consciousness and raise awareness through the adoption of a different position or perspective. (In this respect, Lovecraftian magick might even be considered to be an occultural variant of standpoint theory). If this is any different to what most politically-engaged academics are trying to do (albeit not very effectively given the aforementioned obscurantism that has spread with viral-like intensity throughout academic discourse) then I don't know what is.

Something else I have decided to address here is the fascistic overtones of Chaos magick - a point raised on the day of the Weird Realism conference. This is, indeed, a point that I have myself raised on occasion. They are certainly there, although on this point the blame again lies squarely on myself in highlighting apparent links between Chaos magick and right-wing occultures (though in fact most Chaos magicians of my acquaintance seem to be more left-leaning). The whole issue was initially exacerbated by my statement that Chaos magick involves the imposition of one's will upon the cosmos. In actual fact, Chaos magical practices tend (at least in theory) to emphasise the attunement of one's 'will' with the universe. In this respect, the notion of 'will' closely follows that of Crowley's; and rather than magick being an act of violent imposition, it is concerned (again) with the transformation of awareness: namely, unbinding oneself from dualistic assumptions about the universe and instead recognising the permeability between one's microcosmic self and the macrocosm. Of course, as an atheist and materialst I hold all of this to be hogwash; even so, as I think Patricia MacCormack argued in her recent paper at Treadwell's, notions of permability, of flux, of amorphousness found within Chaos magick (and particularly in its engagement with the Lovecraftian demonic) offer an alternative to phallocentric hegemony (at which point I have, of course, rendered myself guilty of using the same obscurantisms for which I just admonished the rest of academia...)

Rant over (if, indeed, that made any sense whatsoever). I do of course welcome comments to this post, but following the example of Mr. Alberelli don’t be surprised if I’m not of a mind to respond to them...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Al Hazred Legacy

I've had a couple of requests (Hi Terje!) concerning an update about the Al Hazred Legacy (my proposed indie roleplaying game). Fear not, the game is still in development. However, the bad news is that a first draft is unlikely to see the light of day for a while yet. This is mainly due to generally busy-ness, and the fact that I have a number of other more pressing projects to focus on at present. This is compounded by the fact that, although I have the opportunity to play boardgames with some lovely folk over in South East London every so often, I'm not currently part of a roleplaying group (and that's not likely to change in the near future), which means playtesting the damn thing could be somewhere way down the line.

However, I may as well use this as a plug for Contested Ground's Cold City indie rpg, with which I currently enamoured with (think Cold War monster hunting in 1950's Berlin with a good dose of Lovecraft and Charlie Stross thrown in to boot).

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Back Soon

Whispers from the Ghooric Zone has been on hiatus for the last few weeks (a consequence of our temporary entrapment in exam-marking hell) but be assured we will be back soon. At least it gives Mr. H.P. Alberelli more time to respond to my previous post...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Lovecraft & the Awful Redux

H.P. Albarelli Jr. has contacted Ghooric Zone central on the matter of 'the Awful' (his comments can be found attached to the earlier post on this topic), having taken issue with my thoughts on his article. Mr. Albarelli informs me that he has no reason for emphasising a link between Lovecraft and Vermont, and that he does not even care for Lovecraft's writings. 'Fair enough' we at Ghooric Zone central say. But why then make such an issue of Lovecraft's alleged involvement in the case? And why claim that said cryptid had an important influence on Lovecraft's writing career? However, questions such as these simply sidetrack the main issue: where is the evidence to support claims about Lovecraft's interest in the case? And, indeed, for his supposed secret visit 1925 to Vermont? Given that Mr. Albarelli's article emphasises the important influence of 'the Awful' on Lovecraft's writing, it would also be helpful if full and proper referencing/sourcing of Lovecraft's alleged quotes on the matter could be provided. The following paragraph being the most problematic on this account:

"When H.P. Lovecraft returned to southern Vermont from Richford he told friends he was convinced that the Richford locals he had interviewed were "not in the least mistaken about what they had witnessed." Lovecraft later wrote, "The Awful became ample sustenance for my imagination" and "over time the creature became the basis for many of my own fictional inventions."

I'm trying not to be too smug or trite about this, because if Mr. Albarelli's claims can be supported they would constitute a major breakthrough in contemporary Lovecraftian scholarship, indicating a significant new source of Lovecraft's ideas, and necessitating a re-evaluation of Lovecraft's well-documented scepticism of things Fortean. I await Mr. Albarelli's response with trepidation.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

My, how the last couple of weeks have flown by! It only seems a few days ago since my last post...

In any case, Thomas Ligotti has posted his first major work of philosophical non-fiction The Conspiracy Against the Human Race at Thomas Ligotti Online. The essay is currently available to view for free on-line or as a pdf download for members of the site, but is likely to be removed once Durtro publish the essay in hardcopy.

This seems like a good move, especially to someone like myself who has become increasingly frustrated at how difficult it has become to procure Ligotti's recent works (most of which seems to have been published in expensive limited editions): as a major literary exponent of the weird, Ligotti certainly deserves wider recognition.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Lovecraft & 'The Awful'

The June issue of the Fortean Times (no. 223 in the UK) contains an article on p.10 drawn from a Vermont local newspaper, the County Courier. Said article reports on the return of a flying cryptid known locally as 'the Awful', and the author makes various claims that Lovecraft secretly visited Vermont in 1925 to investigate this monstrous entity. In fact, the article in its entirety can be found on-line here, where additional claims are made about the pervasive influence of 'the Awful' on Lovecraft's writing. Unsurprisingly no references are supplied for any of the supposed quotes, although the final quote of Lovecraft's cited in the comlete article comes from his short travelogue 'Vermont - A First Impression' (an account of his documented 1927 trip to Vermont and published in March 1928 - see Lovecraft's Collected Essays vol. 4 published by Hippocampus Press, 2005). Otherwise, there is no evidence (at least of which I am aware) to support the claim that Lovecraft went to Vermont in 1925. Of course, the trip being secret, we can presume that evidence is either non-existent or difficult to come by (which begs the question of exactly how the article's author uncovered these 'facts'!).

In any case, said author was probably banking on the association between Lovecraft and Vermont via 'The Whisperer in Darkness', working Lovecraft into the tale about 'the Awful' retrospectively. In any case it seems that what we are actually dealing with here is a case of a fiction being used authoritatively to support another fiction.

On a more conspiratorial note (those of us at Ghooric Zone central being partial to the occasional dissemination of conspiracies) the on-line context in which the article appears makes me wonder if 'the Awful' - sounding a little bit too Lovecraftian, perhaps, to constitute an piece of established local folklore - has been purposely manufactured to legitimise a particular reading of Lovecraft as occult/Fortean apologist?

What fascinates here is the cultural salience of Lovecraft's very name (especially, it seems, within Fortean and occultural circles) and the presumption that simply adding 'Lovecraft' to the mix implicitly validates the claims of the writer deploying it.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Lovecraft & the Occult MP3 files available for download

The mp3 files of my 'Lovecraft and the Occult' talks at Treadwells Bookshop are now available for download at
A massive thank you to Paul of Cthulhu for offering to host the files, and for maintaining what is without doubt the premier (and Ennie award-winning) site for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying community.

Also thanks to Dan Harms, John Gonce and Jason Colavito whose works I plundered for the second and third instalments of the talks.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Patricia MacCormack at Treadwell's

Patricia MacCormack - of whom the fungal hive-mind here at Ghooric Zone central can claim a brief acquaintance - will be speaking at Treadwell's tomorrow night, and rumour has it that her talk will include more than a little Lovecraft:

08 May 2007 (Tuesday)
Enfolding Magic
The Demon of the Female
Dr Patricia MacCormack (Anglia Ruskin University)
7.15 for 7.30 pm start

'The reconfiguration of flesh underpins contemporary Continental philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. Tonight, Patricia MacCormack takes this idea, and enfoldment of surface, as a starting point on a journey through inflecting flesh of female genitalia, sexuality, magic, horror, daemonic alliance, and the idea of becoming-woman. The female genitalia, she posits, is a monster, all the more monstrous for being so tempting, for evoking the fascination of ambivalence. For all the ways it transgresses dominant phallic paradigms it is both prohibited and revolt-ing (in both senses of the word). It is, above all, an assemblage of folds, organs, elements, textures, tastes and involutions with its disciples. It is a daemon. Who dares and invokes this daemon, then? Tonight's speaker is senior lecturer of Continental Philosophy at Anglia Ruskin University; she works on philosophical issues in contemporary magic, including chaos magick, feminism, occult culture and HP Lovecraft.'

Those of us here able to extract ourselves from the tendrils of the rhizomic Ghooric zone collective (currently residing at an undisclosed location below the Plateau of Leng) will endeavour to be present tomorrow. For those of you not fortunate enough to be in the locale on the evening, we would point you in the direction of the following online essay on Lovecraft, Lefanu and Leibniz which Patricia contributed to the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Lovecraft Scholars

I've just added a link to the Lovecraft Scholars discussion group at yahoo which I co-moderate with James Kneale and Bill Redwood. The group is a diverse and sometimes lively forum for discussing things Lovecraftian from a broadly 'scholarly' (though not necessarily 'academic') point of view. Admittedly, though, I haven't been much of a contributer myself in recent months due to general busy-ness. Whispers on the Lovecraftian esoteric grapevine also intimate that additional visual evidence of yours truly engaging in 'anthropological fieldwork' may be forthcoming on YouTube...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Weird Realism Re-visited

Just a note to the effect that Mark Fisher has posted some astute observations and reflections on the the notion of the 'weird' as well as commenting on the recent Weird Realism conference at his k-punk blog.

As Mark notes, the conference remained largely focused on its stated aim (although admittedly my paper strayed somewhat from this), but did not satisfactorily resolve the 'problem' of 'the weird' in definitional terms (not that such a thing should be expected from a one-day conference!). China Mieville summed up the problematics of the weird when he made a statement along the lines of 'I can't define the weird but I know it when I see it', which leaves me wondering whether an attempt to conceptually 'fix' the weird might ultimately fall into the trap of overdetermining the concept (thus divesting it of its power)? This is why, in my mind, occultural appropriations and explorations of Lovecraft's universe often fail: they tend to frame Lovecraft's Old Ones - a la Derleth - within the safe and meaningful intersubjectivity of an anthropocentric worldview, or otherwise try to fix Lovecraft's cosmicism within the familiarity of established esoteric structures of thought(attempts by Kenneth Grant and Alan Moore to subsume Lovecraft's creations into the kaballah for example). However, as Mark notes, this is the very reason why many of Lovecraft's tales are written from a first-person perspective: the very 'weirdness' of the 'weird' is produced by intrusions 'from beyond' upon the normative expectations and contraints produced by an all-too human subjectivity. The problem with the occultural use of Lovecraft - and perhaps a consequence of subjecting the weird to too strenuous an analysis - is it so often takes the weird and makes it familiar. Even when Lovecraft does this (describing the Elder Things of Antarctica as 'men') he then presents us with a kind of recursive horror(to paraphrase Fritz Leiber, Lovecraft intimates that there is something that even the monsters are afraid of).

Also, I wonder if it is useful to delineate a clear conceptual boundary between the 'weird' and 'the fantastic': Hodgson's 'Night Land' seems to straddle both the weird and the fantastic; the same could also be said of M. John Harrison's 'Viriconium' tales and indeed Mieville's Bas-Lag novels. There are even (albeit brief) intimations of intrusions of 'outsideness' in Tolkien, although I certainly wouldn't consider his writing to be of 'the weird'.

I guess I'm wondering here at the embodied, affective and experiential dimensions of reading Lovecraft that are perhaps not easily fixed or reducible (and that coming from a reductionist materialist!)...

None of this is, of course, meant to suggest that Lovecraft should not be theorised - as modernity's key 'mythographer' he more than any other modern writer is in desparate need of a sustained theoretical investigation.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Post-Weird Realism Tentacularity

Last Thursday's 'Weird Realism' conference was a blast, despite the emphasis being on philosophical interpretations of Lovecraft's work (not being a philosopher - to be frank, Continental philosophy gives me the willies - some of the more gritty discussion was a bit hard to follow).

Sadly, my paper appeared to cause some confusion, I guess as a result of failing to communicate my ideas clearly. In any case some of the participants seemed to think that I was saying the opposite to what I was actually trying to express (that occultural appropriations of Lovecraft's fiction does tend to drift towards a kind of 'McDonaldisation' and celebration of consumerism). One point I also failed to emphasise, though, was that such appropriations can be considered 'revolutionary' in the way that science-fiction and fantasy genres more generally are replete with a 'revolutionary potential': namely in facilitating a re-envisioning and re-pereception of the world. In any case, it was a fruitful experience, forcing me to re-evaluate some of my notions about Lovecraft's work. Also fantastic to see, at last, Lovecraft being taken seriously within academia. I'm not aware that any other conference has been solely dedicated to Lovecraft, making this a first.

Highlights of the day were Benjamin Noys presentation of 'The Shadow out of Time' and (trying not to be too much of a fanboy here) China Mieville's discussion of the post-WWI explosion of the 'tentacular' (which is also explored in his introduction to 'At the Mountains of Madness'). I also felt that Mieville's notion that Lovecraft's entities - far from being 'unnameable' - are drawn with an explicit and often overdetermined precision was spot on.

Cogratulations to all who made it such a fascinating event - special thanks go out to Mark Fisher for organising it

Monday, April 23, 2007

Weird Realism Paper

Here's the paper I've written for this week's Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Theory conference at Goldsmiths College. Please note that I haven't yet revised the bibliography, which still contains a number of sources not currently cited in the text of the essay. There are a small number of footnotes that go with the essay, but, to be honest, I can't be bothered incorporating them at the moment!

All dimensions dissolve in the absolute’:
Magick, modernity and the horror of indetermination in
Through the Gates of the Silver Key

Justin Woodman (2007)


'The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space & matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality - when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & measurable universe. And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt - as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiousity?’ (Lovecraft 1971: 295-296)

S.T. Joshi concludes that this statement - made whilst Lovecraft was writing his ‘demythologised’ (Price 1990) masterpiece ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ - ‘may be the most important theoretical utterance Lovecraft ever made’ (Joshi 1996: 489). What Joshi (quite rightly) treats as significant here is Lovecraft’s ‘Copernican’ (Leiber 1980) materialist reframing and modernist re-imagining of the literature of the weird. Equally important, though, is the fact that Lovecraft’s ‘most important…utterance’ retains a ‘gnostic’ sensibility at its theoretical core, albeit locating this within what Erik Davis has famously described as ‘a twisted materialism in which scientific progress returns us to the atavistic abyss, and hard-nosed research revives the factual basis of forgotten and discarded myths’ (Davis 1995: 5). Indeed, despite his varied and well-documented iterations of unbelief (and uncompromisingly negative views of the occult), a gnostic sensibility remained central to Lovecraft’s personal aesthetics:

'Time, space and natural law hold…suggestions of intolerable bondage, and I can form no picture of emotional satisfaction which does not involve their defeat - especially the defeat of time, so that one may merge oneself with the whole historic stream and be wholly emancipated from the transient and the ephemeral' (Lovecraft 1971: 220)

The conceptual tension which Lovecraft attempts to resolve in his later weird writings - between myth and modernity, between a romantic gnosticism and materialism - footnotes wider Western social and cultural tensions: those emergent from the rationalising and disenchanting project of Enlightenment modernity which reactively birthed the romantic, anti-materialistic and overtly gnostic magical revival of the 19th century. In its late 20th and early 21st century manifestations this revival does, in fact, owe a huge debt to Lovecraft’s fictions (see for example Lachman 2001; Woodman 2004; Colavito 2005), a point I explore later in this paper. No doubt Lovecraft would stand aghast at these contemporary romantic and anti-rationalist occultural appropriations of his literary vision were he alive today; even so, if Colin Wilson is to be believed Lovecraft himself waged a ‘war with rationality’ (Wilson 1976: 1), palpable in his own gnostic romanticism and in his ‘Cthulhu mythos’ tales which uncompromisingly delineate irruptions of chaotic, non-rational forces deeply antagonistic to the quotidian and to modernity’s instrumental rationality.

Lovecraft may, indeed, have waged a war against rationality but he framed this revolt in terms of an ‘adventurous expectancy’ (Lovecraft 1971: 100), enumerating the symbolic power of the topographies of the everyday to generate (at least for the aesthete) a ‘sense of expansion, freedom, adventure, power, expectancy, symmetry, drama, beauty-absorbtion, surprise and cosmic-wonder’ (Lovecraft 1971: 124) . As China Mieville points out, Lovecraft is ‘a kind of bad-son heir to a religious visionary tradition, an ecstatic tradition, which…locates the holy in the everyday’ (Mieville 2005, xii-xiii). In which case, Lovecraft’s ‘gnosticism’ is one that is profoundly embedded in a particular perception of the materiality of things. In this respect his war against rationality did not necessitate a denial of the real, nor a complete dissolution of the self in some transcendent absolute. This latter point is conspicuous in the ‘horror of indetermination’(Bauman 1991: 56) expressed by Lovecraft in ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’ (and, indeed, many of his tales). In fact, for Lovecraft the ‘revolt against time space and matter’ was one that remained deeply grounded in two authoritative principles of Enlightenment modernity: that of the autonomous self, and the claim of science to a privileged objectivity. Thus Lovecraft writes:

‘my wish for freedom is not so much a wish to put all terrestrial things behind me & plunge forever into abysses beyond light, matter & energy. That, indeed, would mean annihilation as a personality rather that liberation. My wish is best defined as a wish for infinite visioning & voyaging power, yet without loss of the familiar background that gives all things significance’ (Lovecraft 1971: 214).

Crucially, though, the horror of indetermination given expression in Lovecraft’s key literary creations (Azathoth, Yog Sothoth, shoggoths, the hybrid Deep Ones et al) is as much a consequence of that very same rationalist and materialist epistemology to which Lovecraft subscribed. This is, in fact, explicitly recognised in the opening paragraphs of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’:

‘The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age’ (Lovecraft 1926: 125).

This paper seeks to make sense of the cultural popularity and salience of Lovecraft’s life and work: a salience, I claim, which rests on Lovecraft’s ability to capture and encapsulate modernity’s own ambivalence toward chaos and the indeterminate as alluring, desirable and liberating on the one hand, and polluting and horrifying on the other.

That ‘progressive’ capitalistic modernity produces chaos - a notion implicit in the works of social theorists like Weber and Marx - paradoxically enunciates the possibility of disrupting the hegemonic aspects of that selfsame modernity. While Lovecraft’s view of chaos was, generally, reactionary, Benjamin Noys (2007) suggests that Lovecraft offers cautionary ruminations on chaos via the ‘horror of indetermination’. In ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’, for example, Lovecraft’s fictional alter-ego Randolph Carter seeks to step across the threshold of order and structure in search of ‘the untrammeled land of his dreams and the gulfs where all dimensions dissolve in the absolute’, only to discover a site of abject horror and detestable hybridity. Through an exploration of these ambivalences which surround chaos and uncertainty - in this instance, as articulated in Lovecraftian occultural enactments which take their cue from ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’ - I consider that, though undoubtedly replete with revolutionary potential, engagement with the uncertain is neither exclusively exterior to consumerist modernity nor antithetical to it.

Lovecraft, Magick, and Modernity
Parts of this article draw loosely upon anthropological fieldwork conducted amongst the community of Chaos magicians in London between 1997 - 2001. Chaos magick appeared in the United Kingdom during the late 1970’s under the aegis of Peter Carroll and Ray Sherwin (Sutcliffe 1995: 127; Hawkins 1996: 31-34) and forms part of a wider occult subculture. Chaos magick is significant here in constituting one of the major strands of contemporary occultures which has explicitly engaged in sustained magical enactments of Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu mythos’.

The focal point of Chaos magick is the attainment of gnosis through altered states of consciousness, and is the means of awakening practitioners to an unmediated experience of “Chaos”: a term denoting the inchoate, indeterministic and amoral life-force which forms the ontological foundation of the cosmos and the microcosmic self. Gnosis also enables Chaos magicians to engage the “magical will”: the single-pointed focusing of practitioners’ intentionality and imagination upon the nascent potentia of Chaos, in doing so transforming both the substance and their perception of the world.

A popular maxim amongst Chaos magicians - who view themselves as ‘postmodern’ magicians advocating a radical epistemological and moral relativism - is ‘Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted’. In the absence of absolutes, practitioners posit the necessity of adopting a Nietzschean attitude of self-affirmation and self-creation. Through gnosis, Chaos magicians thus attempt to bypass the conditioning and conventions imposed upon the individual by culture, society, and ideology. This is sometimes referred to as illumination - the experience of Chaos, unmediated by socially-constructed and sublimated beliefs, expectations and desires. Despite these libertarian tendencies the Chaos magicians I worked with often displayed an ambivalence towards authoritative epistemological discourses: whilst rejecting “positivist” science, they embraced popular exegeses of quantum theory and the science of ‘chaos’ or non-linear dynamics. Chaos magick is thus conceptualized as a quasi-scientific project:

‘a kind of scientific anti-science...Chaos Magic attempts to show that not only does magic fit comfortably within the interstices of science but that the higher reaches of scientific theory and empiricism actually demand that magic exists.’ (Carroll n.d.a.: 1).

Such claims promote and legitimise the view that the apparent structure and order of observable reality is founded upon indeterministic, acausal, and non-teleological bases. Crucially it also underpins the Chaoist claim that reality is no more than the product of perception and belief. Given such concerns, it is unsurprising that Lovecraft’s pseudo-mythology has formed a focal point of Chaos magical practice.

Merged with the therapeutics of spirit possession, Chaos magick also aim to make visible the ‘demons’ of the psyche. Such demons are conceived of as socially-inculcated and unconscious fears, desires and habits which shape practitioners’ personae, and are often personified and imbued with a degree of agency by Chaos magicians. Practitioners also believe that they can negotiate with or master these demons; the demonic thus form the locus of the project of self-transformation, another key aspect of Chaoist praxis.

With regard to the central themes of this paper, it is worth noting that recent analyses of Western occultures have tended to position them as sites of resistance to the rationalising and alienating effects of modern consumer capitalism. However, another body of Marxian-influenced theory concerned with the ‘modernity’ of postcolonial African witchcraft beliefs (Comaroff & Comaroff et al 1993; Geschiere 1997; Clough & Mitchell 2001 et al; Moore & Sanders 2001 et al) offers an alternative to polarising tendencies (especially in the field of anthropology) which have equated witchcraft and magic with the ‘traditional’, the ‘romantic’ and the ‘non-rational’. Rather, witchcraft is seen to represent an inherently modern idiom by which the impersonal, mystifying and occluded transnational economic interventions which have increasingly come to shape actors’ local experience are made visible, and by which new inequalities of power - as well as the allure of commodities and a market economy - become comprehensible within indigenous systems of thought.

In the face of this, the ‘anti-modernity’ of Chaos magick is rendered problematic; for Chaos magicians, the demonic is a highly ambivalent category (both morally and ontologically) insofar as it represents a source of both alienation and (within the context of possession practices) creativity and resistance. As such, encounters with the ‘demonic’ aspects of the self - often rendered in terms of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos comparable with Randolph Carter’s self-identification with Yog Sothoth in ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key - enable practitioners to construct contextual and contingent narratives of selfhood, narratives that are commensurable with the uncertainties and anxieties inherent in the ‘condition’ of modernity. As Paul Heelas (1996: 3) argues, ‘New Age’ spirituality (in which he includes neo-pagan and magical subcultures) challenges certain aspects of modernity, but it also incorporates many of modernity’s core values and assumptions: typically those of responsibility and self-reliance (Heelas 1996: 168) which form part of the utilitarian and individualistic “enterprising self” of capitalist modernity (Heelas 1991b: 74, 78). Similarly Susan Greenwood (2000: 10) suggests that neo-paganism also forms part of the individualistic discourses of modernity in searching for an experience of an “authentic” or core self.

Importantly, the modernity of Chaos magick is discernable in its praxis, which not only incorporates the ‘modern’ discourses of self-discipline and self-surveillance (Foucault 1977), but also re-formulates the supernatural in a manner commensurable with the psychologistic discourses of modernity. In common with ‘New Age’ movements, the supernatural is thus seen in terms of ‘atavistic’ irruptions the unconscious forces, or imaginally-realised manifestations of the occluded self which can be ‘worked’ with as part of a psychotherapeutic project. As a result, the broadly libertarian and therapeutic goals of Chaos magick also constitute a set of discursive practices attuned to the social, economic and ideological requirements of modernity, and to its characteristic ontological and moral uncertainties (Lash & Friedman 1992, Giddens 1991, Beck 1992, Rose 1990). Thus the Chaos magician Phil Hine not only states that ‘being a ‘good’ being effective and adaptive in as many areas of one’s life as possible’ (Hine 1995: 48), but also claims that Chaos magick has emerged ‘out of the twists of contemporary culture, a reflection and reification of the current social landscape’ (Hine 1995: 175 -176). Subsequently, the practices of Chaos magick - in reifying the ‘current social landscape’ - encourage participation in the consumption of neatly-packaged experiences of exotic otherness, drawn from the profusion of signs, images and ‘lifestyle options’ characteristic of consumer capitalism.

Associations of the occult with ‘tradition’ also fail to acknowledge the ‘modernity’ that is fundamental to the central project of contemporary occultures: namely, the pursuit of an synthesis of science, religion and magic that is instrumental, rationalising and demystifying (Ben-Yehuda 1989: 254, 1985: 104; Truzzi 1972: 413; see also: Truzzi 1974b). This is, in fact, precisely the space that Lovecraft inhabits within the structure of contemporary occultural thought (and precisely the reason for recognizing his wider cultural salience): the ‘Cthulhu mythos’ has garnered wide appeal because it does, indeed, offer a rationalized and technologised reframing of the supernatural. Thus does the atheist and materialist Lovecraft thus sit comfortably alongside such iconic figures of the contemporary occulture as Helena Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley: all three, in their varied ways, sought to reconcile ancient myth with scientific modernity (Harms 2004: 39).

‘Becoming-Monstrous’: Occultural Enactments of Lovecraftian Chaos
Importantly, the popular and occultural appeal of Lovecraft’s work lies not just in his demythologising of the supernatural, but (as suggested in the introduction) his ability to reveal science as a source of profound awe and strangeness: the denouement of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ suggests even greater cosmic horrors lurking just beyond the horizon of the Elder Things’ advanced scientific knowledge; as Robert Price (1992) himself has admitted, there is an ambivalence about the supernatural in Lovecraft’s work: even the most ‘secular’ of his alien races are given to abandoned ecstatic worship of monstrous cosmic abnormalities.

Perhaps this is why there appears a strange but brief disjuncture in Lovecraft’s literary output during 1933: the merging of science and sorcery that is a key thematic component of his other work of this time slips momentarily with the writing of ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’. Originally penned by E. Hoffman Price under the title ‘The Lord of Illusion’ (see Price 1997), the tale was later re-written almost in its entirety by Lovecraft. Situated initially within Lovecraft’s burgeoning ‘weird materialism’, the tale forms an adjunct to his earlier literary explorations of hyperspace in ‘The Dreams in the Witch House’ (1932) wherein archaic New England witchcraft is revealed as an alien science. This is problematised, however, by the recalcitrant quasi-mystical ruminations which permeate ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’ and which at first glance seem far removed from Lovecraft’s materialism. Even though the overtly occult and Theosophical sentiments of the story can be attributed to Price, the themes and substance of the finished collaboration appear to be Lovecraft’s. Those themes are, indeed, consistent with Lovecraft’s peculiar form of ‘gnostic materialism’: how an ‘ecstatic’ perception of things does not mystify everyday reality in terms of a ‘higher’ transcendent reality, but ‘reveals’ the meaning of the everyday as a matter of one’s perspectival positioning and perception within the indeterminate multiplicity of the real . As Randolph Carter discovers in ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’:

‘The world of men and of the gods of men is merely an infinitesimal phase of an infinitesimal thing - the three-dimensional phase of that small wholeness reached by the First Gate, where 'Umr at-Tawil dictates dreams to the Ancient Ones. Though men hail it as reality, and brand thoughts of its many-dimensioned original as unreality, it is in truth the very opposite. That which we call substance and reality is shadow and illusion, and that which we call shadow and illusion is substance and reality…so do the local aspects of an unchanged and endless reality seem to change with the cosmic angle of regarding. To this variety of angles of consciousness the feeble beings of the inner worlds are slaves, since with rare exceptions they can not learn to control them. Only a few students of forbidden things have gained inklings of this control, and have thereby conquered time and change. But the entities outside the Gates command all angles, and view the myriad parts of the cosmos in terms of fragmentary change-involving perspective, or of the changeless totality beyond perspective, in accordance with their will.’ (Lovecraft 2005: 284 - 284, my italics).

Though Lovecraft and Price here equate substance with illusion, I would suggest that Lovecraft’s own gnostic sensibility attempts to recover the marvelous within the everyday. What is illusory here, it seems, is not reality itself; rather, it is the localized perceptions of that reality which lack substance. Contemporary occultures such as Chaos magick have, indeed, directly co-opted this core element of Lovecraft’s fiction and deployed it as a kind of ‘social diagnostics’ by which imaginal delvings into Lovecraftian hyperspace via trance and other altered states of consciousness are treated by practitioners as generating liberating perspectival shifts (Woodman 2004). As I suggest below, for Chaos magicians a renewed perception of the real-as-monstrous strives also to recover the marvelous in the everyday from the alienating conditions of consumer capitalism. Importantly these perspectival reorientations require, as Randolph Carter realizes in ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’, a Nietzschean transition from a human to a ‘monstrous’ post-human condition:

‘Damnation, he reflected, is but a word bandied about by those whose blindness leads them to condemn all who can see, even with a single eye. He wondered at the vast conceit of those who had babbled of the malignant Ancient Ones, as if They could pause from their everlasting dreams to wreak a wrath on mankind. As well, he thought, might a mammoth pause to visit frantic vengeance on an angleworm. Now the whole assemblage on the vaguely hexagonal pillars was greeting him with a gesture of those oddly carven sceptres and radiating a message which he understood: 'We salute you, Most Ancient One, and you, Randolph Carter, whose daring has made you one of us.'’ (Lovecraft 2005: 275- 276; my italics).

Here Lovecraft prefigures what I have identified elsewhere (Woodman 2004) as a central characteristic of ‘Lovecraftian magick’: that of Chaos magicians’ self-identification with the monstrous and alien ‘other’. In this sense Lovecraft’s ‘Old Ones’ are rendered not as alien outsiders but as an alien immanence and a kind of Deleuzian ‘becoming-alien’ which precipitates a post-human metamorphosis. In the words of Anton LaVey, Lovecraft’s Old Ones are ‘spectres of a future human mentality’(LaVey 1972: 178). Invariably occultural enactments of Lovecraft’s fictive universe rest on a ‘becoming alien’ through the kinds of hybridity commonly encountered in Lovecraft’s tales and, indeed, evident in the Carter-Zkauba hybrid and Carter’s immersion within a multiplicity of identities in ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’. Correspondingly, practitioners of Chaos magick seek to experientially embrace atavistic chaos whose multiplicity is invited to take habitation of otherwise stable bodies in ritual acts of spirit possession. This was described by one Chaos magician as the process of

'waking up the Great Old Ones that lie sleeping...the primeval consciousness of the universe which has been lying dormant in humanity but is now slowly waking up...becoming the monsters ourselves.'

Similarly, another practitioner informed me that seeking possession by the Old Ones was a method of ‘trying to approach the unthinkable through the monstrous’. It was these acts of ‘becoming-monstrous’ which precipitated perspectival disruptions of ‘normative consciousness’.

Becoming alien, monstrous, and hybrid marks a transgression, a culturally forbidden stepping across the thresholds and boundaries into the hinterlands of structure, precipitating heterogeneity, amorphousness and anomaly. Martin Bridgestock (1989) thus argues that horror fiction is fundamentally characterised by a concern with the marginal, the anomalous and the interstitial: it is the ‘horror of indetermination’, the incursion of chaos, the ‘blasphemous’ violation of established cultural codes and categories which evokes horror. Inhabiting ‘the borderland between mental categories', Lovecraft’s entities threaten ‘our entire system of thought and, by implication, the society which generates it’ (Bridgestock 1989: 115). As with Lovecraft’s own protagonists, these disruptions provoke corresponding perspectival disruptions of ‘normative consciousness’, causing many of the Chaos magicians I worked with to experience physical and psychological distress. Yet as James Kneale notes ‘while we might inevitably locate the place of horror on the threshold...we do not have to value these thresholds in the entirely negative way that Lovecraft did’ (Kneale 2003): in contrast to Randolph Carter’s horror at the foundational indeterminacy and multiplicity in ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’, this distress was subject to a positive valuation. For Chaos magicians possession by Lovecraft’s Old Ones was initiatory: it actively destabilised categorical boundaries and socially-circumscribed modes of thought upon which ‘consensual reality’ was built, causing them to dissolve within the undifferentiated wholeness, continuum or 'primal chaos' of consciousness; the ‘atavistic resurgence’ (Spare 1913) of the primordial Old Ones within human consciousness was thus open to interpretation as a political and revolutionary act: one that enabled practitioners to cognize and imagine their social worlds anew, and in doing so contest embedded alienating and prejudicial categories (including, significantly, that of race) .

Normalising ‘the Horror of Indetermination’
Within the context of globalised capitalist modernity, patterns of coherence are disrupted when individuals encounter experiences which are discontinuous with conventionalized conceptions of order and categorization. This cognitive dissonance may produce identity problems and a whole range of destabilizing anxieties, often resulting in ‘the desire for purity’ (Sennett 1970: 22) via the anchorings of religious fundamentalisms or populist nationalisms (and their concurrent racism), or the modernist project of subordinating the inchoate and ambivalent elements of reality in order to make them manageable (Bauman 1990; 1991: 15). Of course, Lovecraft’s own horror of indetermination, multiplicity and subsequent desire for purity is evident in his own racist tirades against ‘miscegenation’, but is also powerfully evoked in various passages in ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’:

‘Now, beyond the Ultimate Gateway, he realised in a moment of consuming fright that he was not one person, but many persons.’ (Lovecraft 2005: 279)

‘in a chaos of scenes whose infinite multiplicity and monstrous diversity brought him close to the brink of madness, were a limitless confusion of beings which he knew were as much himself as the local manifestation now beyond the Ultimate Gate.’
(Lovecraft 2005: 279 - 280)

‘No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity. Merging with nothingness is peaceful oblivion; but to be aware of existence and yet to know that one is no longer a definite being distinguished from other beings - that one no longer has a self - that is the nameless summit of agony
and dread.’ (Lovecraft 2005: 280)

For Lovecraft, the horror evoked by these particular liminalities and boundary-crossings is the horror of displacement from the authoritative Cartesian self to a selfhood which is fragmentary, multiple and knows no centre or grounding. One reading of Lovecraft’s hyperspatial adumbrations is that entry into hyperspace does, indeed, entail a ‘twisted materialism’ which, much like Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, opens perception up to the warped, monstrous, fragmented and alienated nature of the everyday social and material relations when seen through the lens of capital.

Yet there is, potentially, another aspect to this horror of indetermination which problematises the celebrations of chaos found not only in Chaos magick but conventionally lauded within academia. In postmodernist and poststructuralist parlance this kind of visioning constitutes a kind of core experience of ‘hyperreal’ consumerist modernity as

‘a melange of fiction and strange values, intense affect-charged experiences, the collapse of boundaries between art and everyday life, an emphasis upon images over words, the playful immersion in unconscious processes as opposed to detached conscious appreciation, the loss of a sense of reality, of history and tradition; the decentring of the subject’(Featherstone 1995: 222).

Certainly much of contemporary occultural praxis is itself formulated via a sampling of this ‘melange’ including, ironically, Lovecraft’s own pseudomythology. Such practices can, therefore, be problematised aspects of the detraditionalised utilitarian self of contemporary consumer culture, which seek transcendence through self-indulgent experiential consumption of otherness (Heelas 1994, 1995; Bauman 1998).

Rather than seeking certainty within ‘traditional’ forms of religious transcendental absolutes - and somewhat following Delueze and Guattari’s concern with ‘becomings’ - Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos offers a cosmological model suffused with post-Newtonian salience, in which dynamism and fluidity, chaos and uncertainty are foundational in ways which explicitly ‘undermines the certainty of knowledge’ (Giddens 1991: 21) - itself the legacy of Enlightenment positivism - thus creating conditions in which the

‘autonomous, self-constituting subject that was the achievement of modern individuals, of a culture of individualism, is fragmenting and disappearing, owing to the social processes and the levelling of individuality in a rationalized, bureaucratized, medialized, and consumerized mass society’ (Kellner 1992: 142).

According to Kellner, as both the subject and its locus of meaning become fractured and decentred under the conditions of consumerised mass society, “Anxiety...becomes a constituent experience of the modern self.” (Kellner 1992: 142). The Satanist Rex Monday suggests that the Chaos magical response to this is to advocate ‘a “go with the flow” mentality...[but] They offer no way out of the Postmodern cultural decay, only total immersion in the mirage.” (Monday n.d.a.: 2). This comment expresses what I take to be a crucial point: that an attempt to expiate the modern experience of anxiety lies at the root of occultural appropriations of Lovecraftian chaos. For example one Chaos magician of my acquaintance described how he often situated himself at the centre of the ‘chaotic hyperspace’ comprising the contemporary consumer landscape by

‘visualising all things around me (both animate and inanimate) merely as brief tangible manifestations of an endless swirling primordial chaos with myself in the centre...Good to do whilst walking down the street or shopping or something like that.’ (My italics).

Similarly the Chaos magician Ed Richardson suggests that:

‘With the collapse of grand narratives and a fragmented market the individual develops a schizoid, jumbled up view of reality that is open to change (sounds pretty cool, eh?), and designer cults (like magick!) start to replace organized religion...Magick stands to benefit from many of the effects of post-modernity...As post-modernity implies a depthlessness we are free to drop ideas or paradigms which are of no more use to us. This is all useful in the process of deconstructing the self...By fragmenting the self and being selves instead we are open to change and therefore more adaptable’ (Richardson 1999: 5-6)

Occultural borrowings from Lovecraft constitute a practice that, in normalizing the horror of indetermination, is adaptive to and normalizing of the capacity for capitalism to colonise otherness: as Jonathan Rutherford (1990) notes, within the context of global modernity difference ‘ceases to threaten, or to signify power relations. Otherness is sought after for its exchange value, its exoticism and pleasures, thrills and adventures it can offer’ (Rutherford 1990: 11). In other words, ‘otherness’ has also become commoditised within the Lovecraftian occulture . Contemporary occultural movements - particularly in their ecstatic forms - have often been theorised as forms of resistance to the alienating conditions of capitalist-driven global modernity. Peter Geschiere (1999), however, notes that the proliferation of occultural movements is as much a consequence of economic booms as of social and economic deprivation. In the former case, Geschiere argues that these movements represent a means of managing the anxieties emergent from the indeterminacies that proliferate within consumer capitalism rather than challenging the conditions which produce those anxieties.

Concluding Remarks
Finally, then, I would like to sound a note of caution where contemporary academic celebrations of chaos are concerned: as Benjamin Noys notes, Lovecraft’s horror of indetermination can be read as ‘a refusal to simply celebrate chaos, which could slip all too easily into the celebration of the symmetry of chaotic nature with the deregulated forces of free-market capitalism.’ (Noys 2007: 4). Whether in the case of the Bahktinian carnivalesque, notions of anti-structure, or Deleuzian becomings, it is worth noting that these reversals, inversions and hybridities often foreshadow a return to structure and the status quo. They are themselves ‘occult’ in the sense of occluding and mystifying this fact, which they do by implicitly signifying the ‘rightness’ of what they claim to challenge.

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