Weird Realism – Lovecraft and Philosophy, Graham Harman

Jan 25th, 2013 | By | Category: Book News

A Writer of Gaps and Horror

One of the most important decisions made by philosophers concerns the production or destruction of gaps in the cosmos. That is to kantsay, the philosopher can either declare that what appears to be one is actually two, or that what seems to be two is actually one. Some examples will help make the theme more vivid. In opposition to common sense, which sees nothing around us but a world of normal everyday entities, Plato created a gap between the intelligible forms of the perfect world and the confusing shadows of opinion. The occasionalists of the medieval Arab world and seventeenth century Europe produced a gap between any two entities by denying that they exert direct influence on one another, so that God became the only causal agent in the universe. The philosophy of Kant proposes a gap between appearances and things-in-themselves, with no chance of a symmetry between the two; the things-in-themselves can be thought but never known.

But there are abundant examples of the opposite decision as well. We might think that horses are one thing and atoms are another, but hardcore materialists insist that a horse is completely reducible to physical atoms and is nothing over and above them. In this way the supposed gap between horses and atoms is destroyed, since on this view there is no such thing as a “horse” at all, just atoms arranged in a certain pattern. Instead of atoms, we might also claim that the whole world is made of water, air, fire, or a gigantic and indeterminate lump. In ancient Greece these were the various tendencies of the pre-Socratic philosophers. Alternatively, we might hold that there are individual objects on one side and the various qualities of those objects on the other. David Hume denounced this gap, reducing supposed unified objects to nothing more than bundles of qualities. There is no such thing as an apple, just many different qualities that occur together so regularly that through force of habit we begin to call them an “apple.” And as for Kant’s gap between appearances and things-in-themselves, the German Idealists tried to destroy this gap by calling it incoherent: to think of things-in-themselves outside thought is meaningless, for given that we do think of them, they are obviously an element of thought. The destruction and production of gaps can easily coexist in the same philosopher, just as black and white co-exist in the same painting. For example, if Hume is a destroyer of gaps by holding that objects are nothing more than bundles of qualities, he is also aproducer of gaps through his denial that we can prove causal relationships between objects (this latter point is an inheritance from the occasionalists he so admired). Nonetheless, there is generally a dominant tone in every philosopher favoring one technique or the other. Since those who destroy gaps by imploding them into a single principle are generally called reductionists, let’s coin the wordproductionists to describe philosophers who find new gaps in the world where there were formerly none.

lovecraftIf we apply this distinction to imaginative writers, then H.P. Lovecraft is clearly a productionist author. No other writer is so perplexed by the gap between objects and the power of language to describe them, or between objects and the qualities they possess. Despite his apparently limited interest in philosophy, Lovecraft as a tacit philosopher is violently anti-idealist and anti-Humean. Indeed, there are times when Lovecraft echoes cubist painting in a manner amounting almost to a parody of Hume. While Hume thinks that objects are a simple amassing of familiar qualities, Lovecraft resembles Braque, Picasso, and the philosopher Edmund Husserl by slicing an object into vast cross-sections of qualities, planes, or adumbrations, which even when added up do not exhaust the reality of the object they compose. For Lovecraft, the cubists, and Husserl, objects are anything butbundles of qualities. In parallel with this tendency, Lovecraft is anti-idealist whenever he laments the inability of mere language to depict the deep horrors his narrators confront, to the point that he is often reduced to hints and allusions at the terrors inhabiting his stories. The present book will consider numerous examples of both sorts of gaps in Lovecraft’s writings. But while Lovecraft is a writer of gaps, he is also a writer of horror, and the two should not be conflated. One could imagine a very different writer who used Lovecraft’s staple techniques for other purposes–perhaps a sensual fantasist who would place us in a world of strange and indescribable pleasures, in which candles, cloves, and coconut milk were of such unearthly perfection that language would declare itself nearly powerless to describe them. A literary “weird porn” might be conceivable, in which the naked bodies of the characters would display bizarre anomalies subverting all human descriptive capacity, but without being so strange that the erotic dimension would collapse into a grotesque sort of eros-killing horror. We will see that while the stylistic production of gaps augments Lovecraft’s power to depict monstrous horrors, the horrors themselves must occur on the level of literal content, not of literary allusion. Lovecraft as an author of horror writes about horrific content (monstrous creatures more powerful than humans and with no regard for our welfare), while Lovecraft the author of gaps is one who could have flourished in many other genres featuring many different sorts of content.

It should be obvious to readers of my previous books why Lovecraft, when viewed as a writer of gaps between objects and their heideggerqualities, is of great relevance for my model of object-oriented ontology (OOO). The major topic of object-oriented philosophy is the dual polarization that occurs in the world: one between the real and the sensual, and the other between objects and their qualities. The two will be described in greater detail below. One involves a “vertical” gap, as found in Heidegger, for whom real objects forever withdraw behind their accessible, sensual presence to us. The other is a subtler “horizontal” gap, as found in Husserl, whose denial of a real world beyond all consciousness still leaves room for a powerful tension between the relatively durable objects of our perception and their swirling kaleidoscope of shifting properties. Once we note that the world contains both withdrawn real objects with both real and sensual qualities and fully accessible sensual objects that are also linked with both real and sensual qualities, we find ourselves with four basic tensions or gaps in the world. These gaps are the major subject matter of object-oriented philosophy, and Lovecraft’s constant exploitation of these very gaps automatically makes him as great a hero to object-oriented thought as Hölderlin was to Heidegger.

In 2008 I published a widely read article on Lovecraft and Husserl. Having recently reread this article, I find that I am mostly happy with the ideas it develops. Nonetheless, it also makes two proposals that I now see as unfortunately one-sided. First, the article holds husserlthat there is no Kantian or “noumenal” aspect of Lovecraft, and asserts that Lovecraft should be paired solely with Husserl as an author confined to the phenomenal plane even if he produces strange new gaps within that plane. Second, it strongly downplays the importance of the fact that Lovecraft is a writer of horror and Husserl (though more “weird” than most people realize) is not a philosopher of horror. My fresh reservations about these two points are in many ways the engine of the present book. First, Lovecraft must be read not as a Husserlian author, but as jointly Husserlian-Kantian (or better: Husserlian-Heideggerian). This places him closer to my own position than either Husserl or Heidegger taken singly. And second, horror as the specific content of Lovecraft’s stories must be accounted for, despite the fact that he is also an author of gapsthat might be stylistically incarnated in numerous different genres other than horror. In short, the tension between style and content now becomes very important. In our efforts to fight the overly literal reading of Lovecraft as just a portrayer of scary monsters, we must also acknowledge that those monsters are his almost exclusive subject matter in a way that is true neither of Husserl nor of the vast majority of fiction writers. In this first part of the book I will show why this presents a problem; in the concluding third part, I will try to provide a partial solution, one that goes hand in hand with the fact that Lovecraft works along two separate axes of gaps, not just one. In the longer second part I will examine numerous passages of Lovecraft in detail, thereby setting the stage for the concluding argument.


weirdrealismWeird Realism - Lovecraft and Philosophy

ISBN: 978-1-78099-252-5, $24.95 / £14.99, paperback, 277pp

EISBN: 978-1-78099-907-4, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook

As Hölderlin was to Martin Heidegger and Mallarmé to Jacques Derrida, so is H.P. Lovecraft to the Speculative Realist philosophers. Lovecraft was one of the brightest stars of the horror and science fiction magazines, but died in poverty and relative obscurity in the 1930s. In 2005 he was finally elevated from pulp status to the classical literary canon with the release of a Library of America volume dedicated to his work. The impact of Lovecraft on philosophy has been building for more than a decade. Initially championed by shadowy guru Nick Land at Warwick during the 1990s, he was later discovered to be an object of private fascination for all four original members of the twenty-first century Speculative Realist movement.

In this book, Graham Harman extracts the basic philosophical concepts underlying Lovecrafts work, yielding a "weird realism" capable of freeing continental philosophy from its current soul-crushing impasse. Abandoning Heideggers pious references to Hölderlin and the Greeks, Harman develops a new philosophical mythology centered in such Lovecraftian figures as Cthulhu, Wilbur Whately, and the rat-like monstrosity Brown Jenkin. The Miskatonic River replaces the Rhine and the Ister, while Hölderlin Caucasus gives way to Lovecrafts Antarctic mountains of madness.

Graham Harman is Associate Provost for Research Administration and Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. He was born in Iowa in 1968. He received his undergraduate degree from the classical liberal arts program at St. John's College, Annapolis (1990). His Master's Degree was done at Penn State (1991) under the renowned philosopher Alphonso Lingis, and focused on Levinas. He completed his Ph.D. at DePaul University in Chicago (1999), with a dissertation that became his first book. While finishing his doctoral studies, he worked as a Chicago sportswriter from 1996-98. In September 2000 he began work in the Department of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo. Egypt has become his base for travel to more than 60 countries and the composition of ten books in less than a decade. He is a vegetarian for ethical reasons.


Also of interest:

What is Speculative Realism


Quadruple Object


If you enjoy the Zero Books podcast consider listening to the Inside Zero books podcast on Patreon!
Tags: , , ,

3 Comments to “Weird Realism – Lovecraft and Philosophy, Graham Harman”

  1. James Anderson says:

    This is a very interesting approach to Lovecraft. I appreciate how the author proves that Lovecraft is a superior artist by using specific quotes from each of the texts and showing how they work the create a new form of cosmic horror. I wish I’d had this book back when I was doing my Ph.D. dissertation on Lovecraft.

    James Arthur Anderson
    Author of “Out of the Shadows” (a rewrite of my dissertation published by Wildside Press.

  2. Fascinating, but the space between HPL and Husserl has been investigated (and inevitably, mostly ignored) over four decades ago. The British phenomenologist Colin Wilson wrote The Mind Parasites for Derleth’s Arkham House imprint in 1967. The novel’s premise is extrapolated from an insight in Wilson’s textbook on the phenomenology of Husserl (The New Existentialsm, 1966) and although it’s tone is parodic – Wilson suggests he was making use of Brecht’s A-Effekt as he was writing it – there is a serious philosophical point on the prejudices of consciousness in it’s narrative.. Wilson continued with the Cthulhu phenomenonology with The Philosopher’s Stone and The Return of the Lloiger. Also worth reading viz HPL is his The Strength to Dream from 1962 which compares the recluse of Providence with the “Vampire of Dusseldorf”, Peter Kurten (!) Like PKD, Wilson was doing phenomenology within pulp covers, and he deserves paricular credence for his linking of HPL and Husserl so long ago. A Wilson fancy, the Crowleyesque occultist Kenneth Grant, also wrote extraordinary stuff on Lovecraft which is relevant to Mr Harman’s argument here.

  3. Sandy Robertson says:

    This relation between Lovecraft and the likes of Husserl was hardly an innovation by Mr Land in the 90s! Colin Wilson was writing on HPL and phenomenology in The Strength To Dream in 1962, and used the ideas in his noel The Mind Parasites in 1967! Credit where credit’s due, please!!!!!!!!!

Leave a Comment