Dark Vitalism and Lovecraft’s Philosophy of Nature

“In the beginning was nature. The background from which and against which our ideas of God were formed, nature remains the supreme moral problem.”
         – Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae


H.P. Lovecraft, his materialism, and how it relates to certain problems within the new philosophical project of speculative realism was the central leitmotif within the discussions held at the Real Horror Symposium. As it states in the blurb the “symposium extends Graham Harman’s reading of cult gothic novelist H.P. Lovecraft in his essay “On the Horror of Phenomenology” and brings into question the relation between reality and horror. The proposition is that both horror and reality share a common ground and that horrific relations occur within the realm of realism.”

One paper caught my eye right off the bat by Ben Woodard: A Nature to Pulp the Stoutest Philosopher: Towards a Lovecraftian Philosophy of Nature. The formal drift of the essay as he relates it “sets out to propose a philosophy of nature in which the formal isolation of rationality is undone by the processes of an acidic materialism…”. Heady stuff indeed.

Before going into this I did a little digging and found an interview conducted by Paul J. Ennis with Bob Woodard at ahb. In the interview he relates his involvement with Speculative Heresy a blog involving the exploration and discussion of the speculative heresies surrounding non-philosophy, speculative realism and transcendental materialism. His own stance regarding all this is interesting:

“I wear the speculative realist label proudly and define it as something not positional but somewhere in between a method and an comportment. Speculative Realism names a dissatisfaction with certain dominant trends while also pointing towards fields where we think philosophy should go. Besides this the only commonalities I see are viewing Kant as a legitimate target and a taste for H.P. Lovecraft.”

He tells us that the three texts that most influenced him to move toward Speculative Realism were  Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound, Iain Grant’s Philosophies of Nature after Schelling, and Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia. I’ll leave it to the reader to pursue these works as they see fit. What is interesting is how he situates himself within this diverse group of philosophers:

“Michael Austin and myself would make up the Schellingian/Grantian faction though I’m not so sure I would say the two of us constitute a group of our own and we are less Deleuzian then Graham suggested. If I may, I would place myself closer to Reza Negarestani as his voidal energetics and my dark vitalism (itself a mix of Iain and Ray’s work with some psychoanalysis mixed in) are similar projects and both straddle the Grantian and Brassierian factions. We are both interested in a kind of horrorific cosmology following from ancient thought as well as contemporary nihilistic tracts. It is this latter fact that marks my distance from Lacanian psychoanalysis as my emphasis on the centrality of subjectivity has diminished and my emphasis on nature has increased. For most contemporary thought nature is merely something we invented and then learned to control and I don’t think we can maintain such thinking any longer.”

A bit of history, he is working on second residency for his masters at the European Graduate School.

“I am attempting to finish a book project for Zer0 books entitled Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation and the Creep of Life which is focused on the biological aspect of my dark vitalism (which is short hand for a nihilistic speculative realist philosophy of nature). I combine weird fiction and sci-fi with speculative philosophy and biology to diagnose and explicate the metaphysical and literal sliminess of human existence.”

Once I realized that he terms his form of speculative realism as “dark vitalism” I decided to investigate just what he means by this concept. At a bare minimun dark vitalism or mechanistic vitalism is nihilistic but also “attached to the chemical darkness of Schelling’s  unground” and is “mechanistic in that it is deterministic”.[1]  He also tell us that life “is essentially a form of nature which fights itself for vitalistic superiority over the contingencies of space/time. Nature is terrifying in its potentiality cross referenced with its proximity – this is the two darknesses – the ontological and the epistemological.”[2]

So, if i (mis)read this right, he sees life as a grand agon, a struggle against the contingencies within the spacetime continuum, a battle of forces for supremacy in a contest that is interminable; or, at least, till the heat-death of the universe ends the whole game. To fully understand this I think we need to return to Schelling and understand how his idealist philosophy has influenced his arguments, for as he states it:

“The ‘dark’ of vitalism is vitalistically mechanistic in that the depth of erst nature, of the dark past, cannot be accessed and that the long chain of events leading up to and penetrating our existence is always partially beyond access.  Temporality as the vital force is taken partially in response to Schelling’s statement in Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature that life-force is a self-contradictory concept because a force must be opposed or in relative equilibrium or in perpetual conflict. … Schelling goes on to say that a third, something outside the reach of empirical science.  He then suggests that the mind may function as this thirdness.  This is not to say that Schelling separates the mind from nature (such a separation would make nature a dead object) nor, as Merleau-Ponty suggests does it mean that man and nature are unified.  That is humanity’s unity with nature is a non-separation but unified (but only ever ideal).  In this sense Schelling’s relation of human and nature seems distinctly Laruelleian (as identity without unity).” (ibid. 1)

This thirdness, of mind, seems close to the idea of an Archimedian point: a hypothetical vantage point from which an observer can objectively perceive the subject of inquiry, with a view of totality. But can we ever see the ‘totality’. No. As Michael Shermer once said, ” “We can no more separate our theories and concepts from our data and percepts than we can find a true Archimedean point—a god’s-eye view—of ourselves and our world.”[3]  He brings up Laruell’s concept of ‘identity without unity’ which Ray Brassier in his introduction to Laruelle’s What can non-philosophy do? tells us:

“Identity qua radical immanence is not some ineffable abstraction which the non-philosopher has to strive to attain: it is the element he or she is already concretely operating from, the “cause-of-the-last-instance” that is already determining his or her thinking. It is the identity of man as “the One without being.” But man’s identity as radical immanence is an identity-without-unity or ontological consistency; an identity that has already set aside or suspended the pertinence of ontological difference as decision or co-constitution of identity and difference.” [4]

Laurelle tells us that philosophy has always had a problem with ‘reality’ and “what philosophy calls “reality” is in any case a concept – attenuated at worst, elaborate at best –of the world.” He goes on to say:

“Through this concept, philosophy projects a reality in itself, which is to say, one that has been constructed in the realm of operational transcendence, within which it claims to intervene, and in terms of which it gauges all possible intervention. But the real content of philosophy, once the illusion of the in-itself has been bracketed, is this very correlation between itself and the world. In any case, it is within this experience that non-philosophy can “intervene,” and not in the philosophical concept of experience itself (which is too narrow and devised too much in the manner of a projection). We can universalise Kant’s distinction between judgments of perception and judgments of experience and posit that our object is no longer the judgment of perception, whose role the philosophy of reality now plays for us, but the judgment of experience, i.e. the affirmation of existence as such, in terms of which philosophy-in-person, or philosophy as form of the world, presents itself.” [5]

This idea that the “judgments of experience” are now the only true concern of non-philosophy and any speculative realism as a ‘form of the world’ presenting itself is central to our inquiry. Laurelle tells us that philosophy “is a longsuffering desire for the real, to which it aspires but only so as to be able to construct or reaffirm itself in its own proper, consistent order – an order structured by those transcendentals which function like an absolute metaphor for experience.”[6] Laurelle reminds us that philosophy is always an interminable interrogation, an interpretation, a philosophical intervention that “consists in adding and subtracting philosophy, as the form of the world, to and from things.”[7]  He goes on to say:

“Genuine transformation does not consist in playing a game (whether at the level of language, of practice, or of the world) with representation, but rather in determining the latter through a radically un-representable agency or instance – more precisely, through a without-representation that allows itself to be thought by means of representations which have been reduced to the status of philosophically inert material.”[8]

In summation Laurelle tells us that non-philosophy is a “programme for appropriating philosophy itself as necessary relation to the world, since our “experience” is the world as such. Non-philosophical cognition does not relate to the world as an entity or to entities in the world (as objects or forms of knowledge): it is transcendental and exposes the reality of a cognition that relates to philosophy as the world’s a priori form, as “knowledge” or “existence” of the world.”[9]

Now we return to Ben Woodard’s reading of Lovecraft in which he tells us that HPL “reduces the subject to no more than a meat bag whose thought process is one of many natural processes. Since thought is a natural process, and thereby nature thinks (in a distinctively Schellingian vein), thought is nature’s attempt to become an object to itself, an impossible task given the arrow of time, thought can never catch up to the production of nature.”[10] Woodard goes on to say, “Lovecraft questions the possibility of thought to represent the unnatural suggesting, somewhat paradoxically, that the possible is always unthinkable…”

Lovecraft is caught in a web of transcendental paranoia in which nature can only be approached through a vita negativa, an unnaming, a cognitive unbinding of the urgrund that underlies the world’s form thereby letting the Absolute – the metamorphic forces within each object’s generative thought – break through the Mind’s dark chemistry. As Massimo Berruti tells us Lovecraft believed in a third way, between the “rational” and the “supernatural” explanation of non-natural phenomena: the way of the “unnamable”, of the rationally “unexplainable”, which does not entail any supernaturalism.[11]  Berruti goes on to relate that Lovecraft’s ultimate aim in his horror ficition is to depict cosmic Outsideness, a “reality” unknown and unknowable to man, and therefore undescribable under all its aspects, not merely with reference to its themes and “contents” but also to its linguistic rendering.(ibid p. 11) In a final colloquy Berruti tells us that Lovecraft was trying to to write a literature that builds a non-rational language, in order to give voice to the truth that insanity unveils.

“On this regard Lovecraft’s literature operates a Copernican revolution: that of considering language not as an instrument of reason anymore, but as an instrument of insanity. Thus Lovecraft creates the language of the insane, an accumulation of words and subordinate clauses that always say the same thing: that there is nothing to say, because it is not by the rational-conventional language that truth can be signified. Its proliferation of words is used to hide the absence of words, to stem the silence, to express the incapacity for facing the abyss.” (ibid. p. 16)

1. Dark Vitalism II
2. Horrific Nature?/Metroidic Nature?
3. Shermer, Michael. “The Really Hard Science”. Scientific American.
4. Non-philosophy, wikipedia – translation at Scribd by Ray Brassier
5. What is non-philosophy? translated by Ray Brassier (p. 183)
6. ibid. p. 183
7. ibid. p. 184
8. ibid. p. 185
9. ibid. p. 188
10. Ben Woodard – ‘A Nature to Pulp the Stoutest Philosopher: Towards a Lovecraftian Philosophy of Nature’
11. The Unnamable in Lovecraft and the Limits of Rationality, Massimo Berruti

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