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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.