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.

Adler, M. 1979 (1986). Drawing Down the Moon. New York:Penguin..

Bauman, Z. 1990. ‘Modernity and Ambivalence’ in M. Featherstone (ed.) Global
, pp.143-169. London: Sage.

- 1991. Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge, Polity Press.

- 1998. ‘Postmodern Religion?’ in P. Heelas (ed.), Religion, Modernity, and Postmodernity, pp.55-78. Oxford: Blackwell.

Beck, U. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage

Ben-Yehuda, N. 1985. Deviance and Moral Boundaries: Witchcraft, the Occult, Science Fiction, Deviant Sciences and Scientists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

- 1989. ‘Witchcraft and the Occult as Boundary Maintenance Devices’ in J. Neusner, E. Frerichs & P. McCraken Flesher, Religion, Science, and Magic: In Concert and In Conflict, pp.229-260. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bridgestock, M. 1989. ‘The Twilit Fringe - Anthropology and Modern Horror Fiction’ in Journal of Popular Culture 23/3, pp.115-123.

Carroll, P. Carroll, P. n.d.a. The Magic of Chaos’.

- 1992. Liber Kaos. Maine: Samuel Weiser

Clough, P. & J. Mitchell (eds.). 2001. Powers of Good and Evil: Social Transformation and Popular Belief. Oxford: Berghahn.

Cohen, E., Ben-Yehuda, N., & Aviad, J. 1987. ‘Recentering the world: the quest
for ‘elective’ centers in a secularized universe’ in The Sociological Review, vol.35, no.2, pp.320 - 346.

Colavito, J. 2005. The Cult of the Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture. New York: Prometheus Books

Comaroff, J. & Comaroff J. (eds.). 1993. Modernity and its Malcontents. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Davis, E. 1995. ‘Calling Cthulhu: H.P. Lovecraft’s Magick Realism’

Deleuze, G & F. Guattari. 1980 (2004). A Thousand Plateaus. London: Continuum

Featherstone, M. 1995. ‘Postmodernism and the Quest for Meaning’ in L. van Vucht
Tijssen, J. Berling & F. Lechner (eds.), The Search for Fundamentals: The Process of Modernisation and the Quest for Meaning, pp. 217-235. Dordecht:Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish. London: Allen Lane.

Geschiere, P. 1997. The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in
Postcolonial Africa
. USA: University Press of Virginia.

- 1999 ‘Globalisation and the Powers of Indeterminate Meaning: Witchcraft and Spirit Cults in Africa and East Asia’, in B. Meyer & P. Geschiere (eds.),
Globalization and Identity. Oxford: Berg.

Giddens, A. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge, Polity Press.

- 1991. Modernity and Self Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Greenwood, S. 2000. Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld. Berg, Oxford.

Hanegraaff, W. J. 1998. ‘Reflections on New Age and the Secularisation of Nature’
in J.Pearson, R. Roberts, G. Samuel (eds.), Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World, pp.101-110, pp.22-32. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Harms, D. 2004. ‘Dreamer of the Dark’ in Fortean Times, no. 184: 32 – 40.

Hawkins, J. 1996. Understanding Chaos Magic. Berkshire: Capall Bann.

Hebdige, D. 1979 (1985). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London, Methuen.

Heelas, P. 1991a. ‘Cults for Capitalism: Self religions, Magic, and the Empowerment of Business’ in P. Gee & J. Fulton (eds.), Religion and Power, Decline and Growth, pp.27-41. British Sociological Association: Sociology of Religion Study Group.

- 1991b. ‘Reforming the Self: Enterprise and the Character of Thatcherism’ in R.Keat & N. Abercrombie (eds.) Enterprise Culture, pp. 74-90. London: Routledge.

- 1992. ‘The Sacralization of the Self and New Age Capitalism’ in N. Abercrombie & A. Warde (eds.), Social Change in Contemporary Britain, pp.139-166. Cambridge: Polity Press.

- 1994. ‘The limits of consumption and the postmodern ‘religion’ of the New Age’ in R. Keat, N.Whiteley & N. Abercrombie (eds.) The Authority of the Consumer, pp. 102-115. London, Routledge.

- 1995. ‘The New Age: Values and Modern Times’ in L. van Vucht Tijssen, J. Berting & F. Lechner (eds.), The Search for Fundamentals: The Process of Modernisation and the Quest for Meaning, pp. 143-170. Dordecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

- 1996. The New Age Movement: The Sacralization of the Self and the Celebration of Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.

- 1998. ‘Introduction: On Differentiation and Dedifferentiation’ in P. Heelas(ed.), Religion, Modernity, and Postmodernity, pp.1-18. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Hess, D. J. 1993. Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and
Debunkers, and American Culture
. Wisconsin, The University of Wisconsin Press.

- 1994. ‘Parallel Universes’ in Anthropology Today, vol. 10, no. 2, pp.16-18

Hetherington, K. 1997. The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering. London: Routledge.

Hine, P. 1995. Condensed Chaos: An Introduction to Chaos Magic. Arizona: New Falcon.

Joshi, S. T. 1996. H.P. Lovecraft: A Life. Rhode Island: Necronomicon Press

Kahn, J. 1997. ‘Demons, Commodities and the History of Anthropology’ in J. Carrier (ed.), Meanings of the Market: The Free Market in Western Culture, pp.69-98. Oxford: Berg.

Kellner, D. 1992. ‘Popular culture and the construction of postmodern identities’ in S. Lash & J. Friedman (eds.), Modernity and Identity, pp.141-177. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Kneale, J. 2003. ‘From Beyond: H. P. Lovecraft and the Place of Horror’, paper delivered as part of the 'Placing Horror’ seminar series, University of London, 11th March 2003.

Lachman, G.V. 2001. Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius. London: Sidgewick & Jackson.

Lash, S. & Friedman, J (eds.). 1992. Modernity and Identity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Leiber, F. 1980. ‘A Literary Copernicus’ in S.T. Joshi (ed.) H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism. Ohio: Ohio University Press

Lovecraft, H. P. 1971. Selected Letters Volume III. Wisconsin, Arkham House.

- 1976. Selected Letters Volume V. Wisconsin, Arkham House.

- 2005. ‘Through the Gates of the Silver Key’ in S.T. Joshi (ed.) The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories. London: Penguin.

Mieville, C. 2005. ‘Introduction’ in H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness. New York: The Modern Library

Mitchell, J. 2001. ‘Introduction’ in P. Clough & J. Mitchell (eds.) Powers of Good and Evil: Social Transformation and Popular Belief. Oxford: Berghahn.

Monday, R. n.d.a. ‘Fade to Gray: Chaos and Mediocrity’

Moore, H. & Sanders, T. (eds.). 2001. Magical Interpretations, Material Realities. London: Routledge.

Noys, Benjamin. 2007. ‘The Lovecraft Event’. Paper circulated for ‘Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Theory’ conference, Goldsmiths College (London), April 26th 2007.

Price, R. 1990. ‘Demythologizing Cthulhu’ in R. Price (ed.), H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. Mercer Island: Starmont House

Price, R. (ed.). 1977. ‘Introduction’ in Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos. Minneapolis: Fedogan & Bremer.

Rappaport, R. 1979. Ecology, Meaning, and Religion. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Richardson, E. 1999. ‘Post-Structuralism and Modern Magick’.

Rose, N. 1990. Governing the Soul: the shaping of the private self. London:

Rutherford, J. (ed.). 1990. Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Sennett, R. 1970 (1996). The Uses of Disorder. London: Faber & Faber.

Spare, A.O. 1913 (1993). The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love): The Psychology of Ecstasy, facsimile in A. Spare, From the Inferno to Zos: The Writings and Images of Austin Osman Spare. Seattle: First Impressions.

Sutcliffe, R. 1995. ‘Left-Hand Path Ritual Magick: An Historical and Philosophical
Overview’, in G. Harvey & C. Hardman (eds.), Paganism Today, pp. 109-137. London: Thorsons,

Truzzi, M. 1972 (1997). ‘The Occult Revival as Popular Culture: Some Observations on the Old and the Nouveau Witch’ in A.C. Lehman & J.E.Myers (eds.), Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, pp.405-413. California: Mayfield Publishing.

- 1974a. ‘Definitions and Dimensions of the Occult: Towards a Sociological
Perspective’ in E,Tiryakian (ed.), On The Margin of the Visible: Sociology, the
Esoteric, and the Occult
, pp. 243-255. New York: John Wiley.

- 1974b. ‘Towards a Sociology of the Occult: Notes on Modern Witchcraft’ in I. Zaretsky & M. Leone (eds.), Religious Movements in Contemporary America, pp.629-645. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Van Hove, H. 1996. ‘Higher Realities and the Inner Self: One Quest? Transcendence and the Significance of the Body in the New Age Circuit’ in The Journal of Contemporary Religion, vol.11, no.2, pp.185 - 194.

Wilson, C. 1976. The Strength to Dream. London:Abacus

Woodman, J. 2004. ‘Alien Selves: Modernity and the Social Diagnostics of the
Demonic in “Lovecraftian Magick”’ in the Journal for the Academic Study of
Magic, no 2, pp. 13 - 47.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Mysterious Benefactor

Attempts to record my recent series on 'Lovecraft and the Occult' at Treadwells in London were, sadly, only partially successful. Thankfully, some enterprising member of the audience recorded the talks and has forwarding MP3 files of the complete set of lectures anonymously. Whoever the mysterious benefactor is, should you read this, then a big thank you. Thanks must also go to Ian and Christina at Treadwells for agreeing to host the files, which I'll link to as soon as they are up on the site.

I'm also introducing a discussion of 'Through the Gates of the Silver' at the 'Weird Realism: Lovecraft & Theory' conference at Goldsmiths college this coming Wednesday (26th April 2007). If you're attending, I look forward to seeing you there. In my attempts to be more active as a blogger, I'm hoping to submit a short report/review of the conference later in the week. Also, expect to see entries with a bit more substance in the coming weeks (including excerpts from the book on occultural appropriations of Lovecraft's fictions I'm currently writing).

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Ghooric Zone Re-Booted Soon (ish)

Clearly my attempts to submit regular posts have failed utterly and abysmally since starting the blog last year, so I'm going to 're-launch' the site over the next week or so. This may involve a cosmetic make-over, but is principally a symbolic act which (hopefully) will drive me to further efforts where the blog is concerned.