Friday, November 13, 2015

Lovecraft, Racism and the World Fantasy Award

A while back I made the decision to no longer participate in Facebook discussions regarding Lovecraft’s racism, due to the fact that they invariably devolve into name-calling flame wars. This week, the awards panel of the World Fantasy Convention announced that the ‘Howie’ – the caricature bust of H.P. Lovecraft sculpted by Gahan Wilson and given to recipients of the World Fantasy Award since 1975 - was being withdrawn after this year’s event. Subsequently there has been a lot of name-calling, tantrums, and general throwing-dummies-out-of-the-pram immaturity over what is, ultimately, a symbolic statement. As I have stated elsewhere regarding the matter, there are much worse things going on in the world at the moment that would provide far better targets for people’s vitriol and anger. Even so, a number of things have emerged around the ‘debate’ – particularly in terms of how the discourse surrounding Lovecraft’s racism is being framed – which I feel a need to comment on.

In the first instance, there is the irony of Howie supporters claiming that it is unfair to judge Lovecraft's racism on the basis of his being a man of his time (MOHT) - whilst condemning the WFA panel for the very same in seeking to reflect modern, inclusive and anti-racist sensibilities. Additionally, I think it worth noting that the MOHT argument forecloses the possibility of making moral evaluations of any kind about anyone or anything - based as it is on a kind of unsophisticated cultural relativism (itself the bugbear of the very same neo-Con attitudes that the disappearance of the Howie appears to be evoking).

Similarly, the MOHT argument problematically treats ideologies as monolithic, culturally homogenous and somehow frozen in particular historic moments in a way that disavows any possibility of social or cultural change. In other words, Lovecraft did not exist within a racialised ideological vacuum. Quite the reverse: anti-racist discourse was evident in the very bodies of knowledge with which Lovecraft regularly engaged: anthropology being a case in point. In this respect, he seemed to pick and choose the anthropological perspectives that best suited his own racialised proclivities, completely ignoring, it seems, the work of keys figure in early 20th Century anthropology - including Franz Boas who, during Lovecraft’s lifetime, presented substantive data contesting the racialised presuppositions of earlier anthropological theory – about which the autodidactic Lovecraft must surely have been aware.

Then there is the odd claim that Lovecraft’s racism is unimportant to understanding his fiction - one which is, frankly, rather risible to anyone who has taken a close look at Lovecraft's major work. Even more so, when some of those who make said claim have also feted Houellebecq for his validation of Lovecraft's work in the literary world - whilst apparently failing to recognise that it is the foundational role of racism to Lovecraft's literary and philosophical production which forms the central thesis of Against the World, Against Life. Similarly Lovecraft’s cosmicism is invoked as his most important literary contribution - but also one that should be treated as separate, discrete and compartmentalised from his racism. This, I think, is also questionable insofar as Lovecraft's cosmicism is acutely tied to his racism by way of the particular cultural aesthetic that Lovecraft evolved out of his cosmic perspective – a topic that I will return to in a later post.

But if anyone was unsure as to the contemporary significance of Lovecraft’s racism, this talk hosted by the British National Party, and effectively lionising Lovecraft as a cultural hero because of his racism (not something I would normally link to), is just one example of how the racialised elements of Lovecraft’s work have contemporary political salience.

Ultimately I can’t help wonder whether apologists for Lovecraft’s racism really understand how racist he could be. His was not some kind of culturally ubiquitous and ‘moderate’ racism (which is not of course to say that even a ‘moderate’ racism is tolerable), but a racism which - as Leeman Kessler points out - at times advocated the legitimacy of ‘extra-legal measures’ for dealing with the ‘race problem’: in other words, Lovecraft appears to have explicitly supported the lynching and murder of African Americans.

Which brings me to a recent tweet by Nnedi Okorafor – herself a recipient of the WFA in Howie form – about being inundated with hate-mail regarding this 2011 blog post. A worrying reflection of the ongoing gamergate controversy where, it seems, anyone who challenges the status quo of white (male) privilege is abused, threatened, and simultaneously labelled as a fanatical ‘social justice warrior’ seeking to impose a minority position of ‘political correctness’ on everyone else.

Indeed, I think that the continued appeal to the perceived evils of 'political correctness' and 'social justice warriors' by detractors of the WFA panel reflects an unsettling - if coded - message from some elements within Lovecraftian fandom signalling an unwillingness to even countenance the possibility of inclusivity. At best such messages perpetuate a utopian myth that today all writers of speculative fiction operate upon the same level playing field, regardless of gender and ethnicity. And this is not just a matter of drawing abstract ideological lines. From a personal perspective - as both an anthropologist and instructor who convenes an academic programme specifically oriented towards widening participation (and also as someone who benefits from white privilege) - I have been witness (but not, of course subject) to the kinds of structural inequalities and forms of structural violence that non-white, non-male, non-middle-class students regularly encounter. Conversely, these are experiences about which many white students are often unaware – simply because those experiences do not constitute a fundamental aspect of their own cultural/class-based/ethnic/gendered lifeworlds. It is not atypical to find that, when addressing issues of race in a class, some students who are the beneficiaries of white privilege ask ‘why are we even talking about racism? We all know it’s wrong!’ The inferential and oft-unspoken corollary of this being ‘because we know it is wrong we can’t be racist.’ Indeed, the obliviousness to white privilege and its consequences by those who benefit from it most is the crux of the matter.

Does this mean that Lovecraft’s literary legacy needs to be redacted? Absolutely not. Even though I support the WFCs decision, this does not amount to advocating a total and absolute Stalinist erasure of Lovecraft’s life and works (as apparently feared by some of the Lovecraftian 'old guard'). I’m certainly not against the use or display of Lovecraft’s image – indeed, as part of my personal collection of Lovecraftian art I own a bust of the Old Gent, as well as many other images and drawings of him:

If the Howie ends up being licensed for sale, I might even buy one. But this is where context is everything. Indeed, there are a couple of other online sources – including this blog post by Ross Lockhart, and this piece by The Atlantic – which more ably address how retiring the Howie is not about vilifying Lovecraft’s literary legacy, but about inclusivity. For my part, I would contend that Lovecraft absolutely is a literary giant – but that his racism is a fundamental part of the literary legacy he has bequeathed to us modern-day Lovecraftians; as such, it needs to be addressed and interrogated. Unequivocally and unapolagetically.


  1. Matt Carpenter9:26 PM

    Well said, Justin

  2. Hey there, Justin! Stumbled upon your blog via a google search and reading your post about the Grail bloodline and it's relation to the Cthulhu mythos. Just wanted to say a lot of good stuff on here. Are you still going to put this stuff in book form? Based on what I read, I'd check it out.
    Relating more to this post, I don't know if there's much I can add that you haven't already said. As I stated both on Facebook and Colavito's blog, regardless of my position on the issue, I can understand that certain people want to retire the Howie, especially since it seems at least a tad bit awkward to use a blatantly racist author as an award for a diverse community. I will say though that I think a lot of the backlash is just another episode in the recent ugly events in fandom.