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Harman Wants to Know: How Does Lovecraft “Get Away with Racism?”

Graham Harman posts a beautifully if excessively written passage wherein Lovecraft seems to “get away with racism” at least in Harman’s eyes. He is mystified it seems why Lovecraft can write such things and remain largely innocent of the charge, but if Heidegger had written something of the same rather than the comparatively tame remarks he made, just think how vilified he would be:

In this case I think it’s fairly easy to see why we let Lovecraft get away with it… It’s the same sort of viscerally cosmic disgust toward foreign creatures that made his life’s work possible. If he were a philosopher we would be shocked at these words. (Imagine if Heidegger had written them in a letter during his Rectoral period.) Even if he were a musician or actor writing these words I think we’d be shocked. And finally, we’d be far more shocked if he were a writer working in a different genre- imagine Henry James writing those words, for instance, or T.S. Eliot. The effect would be far more sinister. To say nothing of finding the same words in Mein Kampf. But when it’s Lovecraft we just feel like he’s gearing himself up for Cthulhu and the fungoid crabs from Pluto, and he more or less gets a free pass.

The very framing of the question at first blush seems odd, as if we would all like to “get away with racism” but only Lovecraft gets to enjoy the pleasure of it (I think that there is some truth to this). Was it that Heidegger nearly got away with it, (if only he had allowed his former professor Husserl his library privileges)? Did Nietzsche get away with it with his poeticisms and hyperboles, not to mention his intellectual couchings? And what of Swift? I do not think that it is simply a question of profession or even genre but I can see that context does play its part in interpretation. I do think though that there is something to Graham Harman’s take on Lovecraft’s freedom as a freedom; there is a very real sense in which Lovecraft’s writerly abstraction of the “-Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid-” New York immigrant allows a certain deterritorialization of affects, the way that we can participate in them out and beyond their specific historical target, as he is naming or invoking the very essence of immigrative forces, the excesses of the organic: as Harman quotes Lovecraft:

“The organic things -Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid- inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities. They -or the degenerate gelatinous fermentation of which they were composed- seem’d to ooze, seep and trickle thro’ the gaping cracks in the horrible houses… and I thought of some avenue of Cyclopean and unwholesome vats, crammed to the vomiting-point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and innundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness.”

Getting Away with Affect-Language

Through the profusion of words and images, perhaps indicative of genre, we are invited to indulge, to travel. That is how he does it. But there is something further. Graham suspects that this exception, the way that Lovecraft is allowed to do what we can’t regularly do, is linked to the subject of “ethics”, a theory of ethics that he limps towards.

I don’t have a fully worked-out theory of the “getting away with” ethics, but I’m limping toward it, and do believe that it’s fairly fundamental to ethics somehow. We’re all allowed to break the rules at a few key points and no others, and those points probably tell us more about who we are than any other information we might give about ourselves.

It seems to me that Zizek has a very fine point on the ethical nature of the exception, when he tells us that it is not the laws that all agree upon that unite a community, but rather the exception taken, and joined in, to those laws. Yes, Thou Shalt Not Kill, we all agree, but we must kill “him” or “them;” or as he also puts it at a maximum “Liberty for all” becomes “Death to the enemies of Liberty”. Zizek contends that it is through our binding and shared guilt in the transgression of what we otherwise all agree to be universal prohibition that works as the glue to a community. There is a strong sense, even in the way that Graham phrases his question, that Lovecraft can be seen as allowing his reader to participate in the horror or revile of others, a kind of shared indulgence.  His priviledge becomes our privilege (Graham even rephrases and re-prints Lovecraft’s words for a second time, now hypothetically directed at the very Egyptians he protects from Flaubert’s literary encroachments. I have written on how Graham’s own richly poetic orientalisms of the exotic, in a sense, carry forth colonialist binarism, something Graham takes great exception to). There is not only the pleasure the words themselves, but also, I suspect, the pleasure of their reterritorialization, the way in which the excess can fall upon others without incrimination. Of course such de- and re-terriotorializations are the expertise of racism, as we can see in the merely humorous recent comic of the shot chimpanzee. Whether one “gets away with it” or not is, I suspect, not ultimately a question of genre, but of sensitivity and the historical construction of intent. Is there an indulgence in reprinting it here? Perhaps a painful one. This is the thing about metaphors, tropes, jokes, affect-rich language. They open the involuntary comprehension and collapse of meanings into regions we might not otherwise allow. If you simply “get” the joke, you participate in it. What makes affect-language the gateway for creative new worlds, makes it also the means by which we can unjustly concretize our fears/pleasures in reactionary forms, confirming older modes of perception.

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6 responses to “Harman Wants to Know: How Does Lovecraft “Get Away with Racism?”

  1. Timmy March 16, 2009 at 12:11 am

    Real original, calling German-influenced philosophers racist for making phenomenological distinctions. Let me guess, the PC police have nominated you for propaganda secretary of ad hominem.

  2. kvond March 16, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Aside from issues of originality with which I am not really concerned, I don’t really see that my point to Graham’s ontology is specifically due to Heidegger’s social problem. For in my mind it comes equally, if not more, from Husserl, who was the very Jewish professor agaist whom Heidegger acted. My past point on Harman’s importation of problematic binaries inherited from Idealism, was much further brought out by Harman’s own rather poetic, sometimes purple, prose descriptions of the “sensual vicar” realm. This stylistic impact, coupled with his own declaimed love of the exotic projection that such binaries bring, made my criticism directed specifically at his philosophy.

    But really the above post had less to do with my overall criticism, and was taken to a point that Harman himself was raising. Yes, I can see how Harman’s love for the exotic, his propensity to project and ontologize onto the other does have interesting value when put in context Lovecraft’s own projections, but it was much more the question of how and where do we attribute responsibility for racism to others. In this important sense, the post was not about Harman, but about “us”, about the way that we the need to specifically identify one person or another as a “racist”, that is, as the locus of all the enjoyment of the perception; this is attempt identify and exclude can be a way for us to wash ourselves clean of our own, sometimes perverse, sometimes destructive identifications.

    Because of this, PC is the furtherest from the point I am making. And though I do believe that arguments “to the man” can be valid or parts of criticism of ideas – judgment of character can play a role – it seems specifically not the case here. In my view, this has nothing to do with Graham Harman’s character, opinions or affiliations, but with the way we ourselves participate in and organize around the enjoyments of others. Our objections to others often is at base an objection to their enjoyments, so Lovecraft and the genre of horror provides an interesting case study for this. For instance there is the question of antisemitism in figure of the uncanny, corrupt Jew in E.T.A. Hoffmann. If Zizek has a point, it is against PC morality, not in favor of it.

    As an aside, it may be notable that as Graham Harman restarts his blog, he commenses with this keynote sentiment:

    Harman: “What I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that I believe in democratizing access to intellectual life, not in democratizing intellectual life itself. The blogosphere, like the billiard halls and race tracks of old, has become a hangout for a pretty unbearable, unproductive cross section of the populace.”

    http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/2009/03/16/restart/

  3. anodynelite March 16, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    “Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid- inhabiting that awful cesspool”

    Yes, we New York Italian Jews are pretty scary. Especially because we had to leave Europe to get away from all of the hate and injustice, so we don’t have much respect for those “traditions” nor do we cower at the authority of those from the fatherlands. Oozing around the buroughs, all unhumanlike, no vertebrae, no “structure” to our bodies.

    Reminds me of what Virno says in Multitudes about how language is part of what helps humans get over their mirror neuronal empathy with other humans, through the negation of the Other’s humanity in words/culture. It was possible for Nazis to kill Jews because they were “nonhuman”, “vermin”–those big insect-like eyes, boney bodies, the weeping. Jews in the camps finally looked as hideous and otherwordly as they’d been described for years in the language of anti-semites.

    As Virno so aptly recognizes, “Language does not civilize aggression between species; rather it radicalizes it beyond measure”…

  4. kvond March 16, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Excellent comments Anodynelite. Especially the Virno. It makes me feel that I was too easy on the Lovecraft quote, not its substance, but its treatment. One forgets the power behind such saturated projection. What is difficult is that the very same processes of agreessive deterritorialization are also the processes of artistic and creative becoming. Perhaps this will dovetail into my coming post on normative Achilles and thymotic rage.

  5. anodynelite March 17, 2009 at 5:55 am

    I’m not doing the book justice really–the passage about the holocaust that I mention is actually concerned specifically with the power of negation in language, not just language general. (Virno talks about the power to make someone *not* something, not-human, through language)

    Side note: the stuff on jokes in Multitude had me thinking of Sarah Silverman. She’s one of those very not-PC comedians who actually has something to say (well, sometimes)…she reminds me of Richard Pryor in that respect…being one of those who understands the deterritorializing power of language…

  6. kvond March 17, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Yes, to animalize is to reduce, but also in other contexts to open up the possibilities of new connections. A careful line to walk.

    I actually enjoy Sarah Silverman quite a bit, and wrote a post on her take on the Pledge of Allegiance, with Letterman. Maybe you’d like it:

    https://kvond.wordpress.com/category/sarah-silverman/

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