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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Tangled in Tentacles: The Hauntological and the Weird

China Mieville posits two types of horror: the Weird and the Hauntological. But the boundaries between the two are sometimes hard to make out, and it's possible to mistake one for the other. This review roundup looks at three different mergers of the Weird and the Hauntological--the Rubbery Men of Fallen London, the skulltopus that is HYDRA, and the phenomenon of Global Warming, and asks: just what is the core of the horror here?






I was all set to write a brilliant review of Suicide Squad that delves into the material culture of Goth, Baudrillard's understanding of "consumer culture," the way signs function under late capitalism, and whether or not Spencer's Gifts is in fact the tackiest place on the face of God's Green Earth (and maybe even some discussion of the movie if I can squeeze it in).

And then I ate some bad chicken.

But, dear reader, despite losing several days to an experience that I assure you was quite... fowl, I am not to be beaten by the haunting resurgence of any bird! No poultrygeist can stop my work!

I ain't afraid of no roast!

In the place of the still-upcoming Suicide Squad article I'm instead offering some material relevant to the season at hand: a delicious plate of fresh steaming horrors picked from my Reviews Series, normally Patreon exclusive, but now made available to you in collected form. These three pieces are alternate attempts to play with the same basic concept: China Mieville's parsing out of the strange ectoplasmic borders between the Hauntological and the Weird. If there's a point to this, it's to underscore a point that he makes in his original article: sometimes what appears hauntological might have a weird core, and vice-versa, and the boundaries are always amorphous without ever quite coalescing into a full merger.

Hauntological and Weird


My understanding of China Mieville's essay on the Hauntological and the Weird is this:

Basically, the Hauntological and the Weird emerge as categories in response to capitalism. The Hauntological represents the repressed, something from within re-emerging to haunt the present, the past reaching forward through time. (I've already covered this in my coverage of Silverthorn and its presentation of trauma as a kind of gothic ghost story). The Weird in contrast represents the outer reaching in, an encounter with a radical other that can't be easily sort of assimilated into our sense of reality.

Mieville's sort of ultimate symbols for these things are the skull and the octopus--a representation of the interior of the body, something that shouldn't be seen because it's all too familiar, and a representation of the profoundly alien, something that can be observed but defies our ability to perceive. And for Mieville, this works as an easy way of showing how these two pieces of teratology (the study of monsters) don't really fit together: there simply aren't very many skulltopuses in cultural history; the skull and the octopus seem to fail to merge. For Mieville this suggests a non-dialectical opposition. The Hauntological and the Weird don't have a relationship where one is the inherent sort of product of the other allowing them to be synthesized into something new. Rather they both emerge from anxieties about modernity--the sort of approach of information and influences and structures and entities more vast and incomprehensible than what we can really easily deal with (a good example of this is William Hope Hodgson's encounter with the Weird in no man's land in World War I) paired with the repression or pathologization of memory, experience, and desire not condoned by industrial capitalism.

I think maybe the skulltopus isn't quite as unlikely a concept as Mieville makes it out to be--after all, what is the logo of HYDRA but a skulltopus, and what is HYDRA but the dark underbelly of liberalism--fascism--made into both a hauntological secret infiltration and also a weird encounter with alien-derived or occult technology?--but Mieville does explore at length the way that the Weird and the Hauntological drift back and forth and can interact in strange ways. Maybe it's notable, in fairness to Mieville, that the Skull and the Octopus of Hydra don't quite exist comfortably at the same time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at least. They might be described as an octopus ("There is nothing more terrifying than a miracle.") enslaved to a quite literal skull. And if there was to be a weird haunting, Armin Zola might be it, a ghost that has become something nightmarishly other through the intervention of uncannily outdated computer technology. A weird means to a ghastly end. If there's horror to HYDRA--and I think there is, even if it often fails to be expressed in the films as much as I, a creepy weirdo, would like--I think it comes from the way HYDRA attempts to weld together the alien materials of the skull and the octopus.

This explains to some extent why the jump into fully Weird territory in Agents of SHIELD is so disappointing, not to mention stunningly stupid. The show last season blithely retconned this authoritarian menace into an ancient, Inhuman death cult, which apparently used Hebrew to mark its meeting places, despite, you know, "allying" with Nazis later, because, fucking, sure, what the fuck ever Marvel, why not. Setting aside for the moment this supremely offensive idiocy, it's interesting that with this origin story, and with the creation of Hive, an entity that does in fact have tentacles for a head when this show produced by the Disney corporation suddenly, intermittently develops an actual special effects budget, snaps HYDRA back into more comfortable territory of the unambiguously Weird. I don't think it's oxymoronic to say that this particular brand of weird horror is all too familiar--I'm the person who claimed a few years back that Cthulhu was getting pretty fucking stale, after all, and I kinda stand by that assertion.

HYDRA at its best offers something much more complex than the old tentacular staples, something that partakes of that wonderful weird crawling you get when the octopus and the skull interact, never quite merging but brushing tantalizingly together as though they might.

Hauntology and the Rubbery Men


Fallen London seems to be a game about the Weird. This is, after all, a game where you can fuck a squid person. In fact this is highly encouraged by the creators of the game. And I'm not going to claim there isn't a lot of the Weird as Mieville describes it in Fallen London--there certainly is a lot of encountering of alien otherness. Hell, one of the core concepts in the deeper lore, the idea of Amalgamy, or creation that breaks the Law, is about as Weird as you can get. It's explicitly about entities that are radically foreign to one another finding a way to commune and, ultimately, breed. The Rubbery Men, the squid people you can have hot tentacle makeouts with, are the product of this strange alien science.

Lovecraft is gyrating in his grave.

But, fitting for people described as kind of slimy, there's a weird oozing between the weird and the hauntological in Fallen London, because Fallen London is to great extent a game about memory, memory loss, memory repression, hidden information, and past mistakes carrying into the future. I've already talked at length about Mr Eaten, who despite being modeled on the Weird is an absolutely hauntological force, an entity whose very name was forcibly scrubbed from existence itself, who keeps returning to haunt the present because "a reckoning will not be postponed indefinitely." The Neath itself is formed in part by the Nadir, a region bathed in Irrigo light, light which causes forgetfulness so profound that even the Judgments that order all reality cannot see into the darkness around it.

And while the creation of the Rubbery Men is certainly weird, it is also haunted. Consider the Rubbery Poem, or at least one of its variants:
Do you recall how they came to that place? And we sang of our lightnings and shapeful disgrace? They tilted their vanes and ennobled their spires. We welcomed them then and commingled all choirs. If we could remember those days. If only we could remember.

This poem, which appears, among other places, as the rollover text for the item "Violet Amber," explains in abstracted form the story of the people of a planet called Axile. See, the Flukes that dominated Axile must have wished for more than their oceanic existence. There was, it seems, some longing that outside entities could exploit for their own purpose. The Bazaar, the cosmic entity that, with negotiating help from a group of evil capitalist space bats, stole London and several other cities, reached out to Axile and offered an escape from Law--an escape from the authoritarianism of the laws of physics:
When they came to that place, they brought promises of union, unbound and untrammelled by the bright laws above. How could you have forgotten that?

Loss of memory is core to the experience of Fallen London in a way that I'll probably want to address in another post, but suffice to say here that the people of Axile suffered from their bargain, as all who bargain with the Bazaar do. The Flukes that we encounter in Fallen London are confused, frustrated, unable to communicate, and their servants suffer for their incomprehension. The Rubbery Men are crimes of amalgamy, artificial humanoids that the Flukes seem to have created in order to interact with humans and the other denizens of the Neath. The Rubbery Men have only limited ability to communicate with humans and, frustratingly, their creators, alien in body and in mind, can't seem to quite grasp much of anything about life in the 'Neath as the Rubberies experience it. The Flukes have been left diminished and bewildered, stranded on an alien world, in darkness and horror.

Permeating the history of the Rubbery Men, then, is this sense of loss, of dislocation, of failed communication. The Rubbery Men may be Weird in the sense that their creation is a clear instance of the Outside--the alien, the tentacular--intersecting and intermingling with the human (possibly in a very intimate way!), but that's not where the horror lies. It lies with the way the promises the Bazaar offered of escape and transformation turned to a reality of bewilderment, pain, and forgetfulness.

But what is forgotten might return:
Do you recall how they came to that place? And you sang of your lightnings and shapeful disgrace? They tilted their vanes and ennobled their spires. You welcomed them then and commingled all choirs. You can remember those days. It can be as it was.

Crimes of amalgamy are the best crimes because they offer a merger with the weird and, to some extent, a transformation of the weird into a thing that there can be some communion with. In this sense, the horror of Fallen London comes not from the Weird--the Weird is merely an aesthetic. It's the Hauntological where horror really comes, because it's the crimes of deceit and exploitation characteristic of deals with Space Bat Capitalism that lead to the most nightmarish scenarios.

And there's a real sense, I think, of a horrible return bubbling up from the depths. A reckoning, to steal a line from another entity in the game, is not to be postponed indefinitely, and as much as forgetfulness pervades the Neath, so to do the echoes of history, reaching their tentacles out into the present. And certainly at least some of the Flukes, the huge and alarming Lorn-Flukes, are more than a little unhappy with the Bazaar's deals. If there is horror here it's horror at the damage done to the people of Axile... but perhaps there's horror, too, in the suggestion that perhaps humanity might find itself caught in the middle of the conflict between the Lorn-Flukes and the Bazaar, collateral damage in a sale gone wrong.

Key to this is that it really is just bargaining-in-bad-faith on a cosmic scale:

What makes all of this horrible is that, in the end, it's not so very different from the violence inherent in capitalist society, and the repressed and forgotten promises of utopia that we see bubbling back to the surface in our own culture.

Global Warming as Horror Story


From the first moments of Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything I was struck by how hard it hit some of the same horror philosophy notes as, say, Neoreaction A Basilisk (previously covered here) or source texts like The Conspiracy Against The Human Race. This is probably somewhat inevitable. The subject, after all, is global warming, which is about as close as you get to an Elder God. Someone once described her previous work The Shock Doctrine to me as "The Naomikleinicon" for how dire it is. And let's be real, some of this stuff makes you want to gibber madly like a Lovecraft protagonist.

This Changes Everything opens, after all, with a description of a jumbo jet unable to take off because the tarmac got so hot in Washington DC that the plane sank and got stuck. From their, Klein proceeds to itemize numerous other instances in which the very industrial scale burning of fossil fuels caused conditions that made it impossible to burn fossil fuels. This is less Lovecraft and more Heller or Huxley or Vonnegut: it's funny right up until the point where it really sinks in and you start feeling sick to your stomach. It's an ostentatious display of self-destructiveness, which Klein stoically points out: the response, she says, to these perversities is to lean in and apply elbow grease so that our blithe march toward oblivion can continue apace.

Here's though where the book really takes a turn remarkably familiar to anyone who's glanced at least at The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. That's all I can claim to have done: I've read a ways into it but it's so convincing that I had to stop for my own mental health (and because honestly there's healthy ways of dealing with global extinction and then there's drafting arguments for why we should introduce giant hogweeds and kudzu and North American Sea Lampreys everywhere in order to accelerate total ecological collapse and when you find yourself doing the latter it's time to take a fucking break). But notable to me is the fact that these two books start in essentially the same way: with a careful detailing of the ways in which humanity stridently avoids thinking about the oncoming apocalypse. For Thomas Ligotti, the apocalypse is on the level of the personal. Consciousness, for Ligotti, is a horrible mistake, a nightmarish accident of nature that causes us to be aware of our own deaths but incapable of functioning unless we can construct whole elaborate ways of suppressing that knowledge. For Klein, the apocalypse is this perverse acceleration toward a point where our coastal cities are swallowed by the sea, and she provides a litany of ways in which we don't-respond to this knowledge.

What's notable to me is that Klein seems to be pushing for an acknowledgment of horror here. I can't help but see this in affective terms, and Klein certainly describes a core problem here as being one of people failing to address or admit fear. This fear response for Klein is an overpowering one, so painful to address head on that we find ways of working around it and mitigating it. Denialism is one of those methodologies, and Klein includes here the process whereby we decide that climate science is too hard to understand and can be left to the climatologists, the process whereby global warming becomes an issue that we can take up and put down at will. Another is a kind of techno-utopianism that claims that if we can merely accelerate economic growth fast enough, we can uplift everyone's quality of life to a point where drowning cities simply aren't a problem. Another is the tendency to joke: "Another sign of the apocalypse!" becomes a dismissing mantra here, a way of pitting affects against each other directly in order to nullify the stress of the fear response.

But the ice caps are melting, the tide's rushing in, all the world is drowning to wash away the sin. Pretending not to be scared in that context isn't particularly helpful. Instead what Klein urges us to do is admit and accept terror as the proper affective response to this oncoming global extinction event.

This is fascinating to me because it seems like a clear instance of negative affective utility on a large scale--the acceptance of the experience of fear, the willingness to experience the affect rather than to cognitively reroute it into an alternate experience, is foundational for our ability to change things on a large scale. It is crucial to our push towards a transformation of global capitalism (though I suspect I would push for a more radical change than Klein might). I'm a big fan of finding ways to defend negative affects, particularly terror, as not only a critic and scholar but as a Marxist, and I find China Mieville's discussion of this kind of stuff very very productive. And in particular I think it's worth noting that this is NOT fundamentally a brush with the Necronomicon, this is not an encounter with Cthulhu. No, if we're dividing things between the Weird and the Hauntological this is clearly the Hauntological--what we're experiencing here is the horror of that which is suppressed and disavowed returning with a real fucking vengeance.

Global Warming is not an outer god but a poltergeist.

And I think that understanding it in those hauntological terms, in terms of the horror of the return of the disavowed, we can understand that the techno-utopian solution which might work well for Cthulhu--ram the fucking yacht into it and hope to somehow "defeat" it--isn't one we can take much solace in because the hauntological is slippery and adaptive. It's already within us. You can yank the plane off the tarmac but the tire treads are still there, you can't erase what's happening. Instead there needs to be a kind of reconciliation with the ghost.

But to take that very Marxist step we need to first rip off the layers of cognitive insulation and experience the horror story for what it is.

Let everyone sing about those melting ice caps, how they're coming down into the sea, how all the cities are sinking into the sea, and let us all have a swimming time!



Too Much Horseman

Is BoJack Horseman more driven by the sitcom reset button, or by continuity? And what does that say about its themes?

5 Ways AM2R Transforms Metroid II

AM2R--Another Metroid 2 Remake--made the news a few months ago when its long-anticipated release was immediately followed by a DMCA takedown demand from Nintendo. But is AM2R really just a copy of Metroid II, or is it a transformation? And what does a Jorge Luis Borges story have to do with contemporary fan games?"

Feeling Hen-Pecked

If you want to check out the sprites for today's article, and how I composite these images, here's the original Krita file for them. This week I also offer some brief thoughts on limited-palette pixel art and some tips on how I manage things like transparency effects with this kind of art. Try these techniques at home!

A Bodyless and Timeless Persona

A Bodyless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme covers four previous essays from Storming the Ivory Tower exploring everything from Gnostic themes in Homestuck to the way the comic makes use of difficulty. Additionally, the collection features an exclusive triple-length article, "Is There A Text In This Classpect?," which explores all the different possible answers to the question "just what is a character in Homestuck?"

At the end of Homestuck's seven year journey, this collection aims to be a starting point for anyone interested in delving deeper into the meaning of the comic and its complex and rewarding mythology, symbolism, and narrative experimentation.

A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities

This collection features four articles on Homestuck's experimentation with comics and hypercomics as a medium, and the uniquely experimental fandom that these experiments spawned, as well as an all new exclusive article on the wave of hypercomics that Homestuck inspired. This collection will be the first pop-academic look at Homestuck's place within a wider history of the comics medium, and will be available to $5 backers of the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon.

1 comment:

  1. The puns. Why so many puns. I am actually surprised you didn't make that last Poltergeist into another Poultrygeist. Genuinely surprised you didn't try to squeeze another pun into the henhouse.

    ReplyDelete

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