U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Two Essays: Realism––Proletarian, Speculative, and Weird; A Note on Graham Harman, H.P. Lovecraft, and Racist Apologetics

Realism––Proletarian, Speculative, and Weird

For the past few months, I have tried to get a handle on the new theoretical literature on “objects.”

This literature is connected, in deep and multifarious ways, with the revival of Realism in the thought of several philosophers currently active: Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, Levi Bryant, and Tim Morton

I attempted to synthesize some of these thoughts in a review of Steven Shaviro’s recent text on Realism and the “object” turn,  The Universe of Things. (Readers who wish to learn the background and biographical information on the thinkers discussed here may want to give that piece a look, too). There, I tried to map out several lines of inquiry in regard to Marxist applications of an “object”-centered approach.  By engaging with the writings of Ernst Bloch and Stan Weir, for example, I think there are all manner of potential marriages of labor studies and “object” talk that would sidestep the more exhausted discussion of commodities and their fetishization.

It was in this general frame of mind that I picked up Weird Realism, Graham Harman’s study of H.P. Lovecraft.

“The title Weird Realism,” Harman writes, “suggests that our plan is to work through Lovecraft towards a deeper conception of realism than is usual.” This seemed to me like an attractive proposition. In my own study of cultural workers and the idea of cultural work, I have been wrestling with the question of how the various calls for Proletarian Realism and Socialist Realism might be read against the new literature on Speculative Realism. As Ian Watt maintains (and Jacques Rancière confirms), there is more than homophony at play in the two  “Realisms.”  A lot of work remains to be done to map precisely the way the two Realisms go together, but there are no shortage of suggestive leads.

“Most philosophical realism is ‘representational’ in character,” Harman writes. “Such theories hold not only that there is a real world outside all human contact with it, but also that this reality can be mirrored adequately by the findings of the natural sciences or some other method of knowledge.” But it is impossible, Harman argues, to translate reality into representations. “Reality itself is weird because reality itself is incommensurable with any attempt to represent or measure it.”[1]

This is a valuable formulation, I think. As I have read through the manifestos and debates on cultural work in the 1920s and 1930s, I have become convinced of a central premise: although everyone thinks that they should be talking about representation and reality in a more or less bijective way, and everyone thinks that Communism ought to have a coherent theory of the artist’s responsibility in regard to the proper representation of reality, everyone also knows that representation isn’t really the correct ordering term.

Representation is, in fact, a survival of an outmoded, nineteenth century aesthetic discourse. And Harman’s phrase “Reality itself is weird because reality itself is incommensurable with any attempt to represent or measure it” rings true. What we find, so often, in the history of Left art and letters in the 1920s and 1930s is an extraordinary weird-ification of reality, and a parallel proliferation of “weird realisms,” against which the declarations and judgments of the Party press or official critics seem less like dictatorial commands and more like a rather pathetic yelp from a runner failing to keep pace with the rest of the marathon runners.

One of the attractions, then, of a term like Harman’s “Weird Realism” is the persistence of the same mismatch between correspondence theories of art and the actual  output of those who identified as cultural workers within the revolutionary project of Communist Internationalism.

Consider, for example, an unloved work of Socialist Realist art: Philip Reisman’s Soda Fountain (1928):

SodaFountainThere are, of course, technical limitations that can be observed, here: a drawing instructor might have told Reisman to keep working. The scene is also not necessarily easily deciphered as political allegory. In the 1920s and 1930s, a work such as this might have been criticized simply on the basis of its failure to tell the viewer exactly what strike to go on or picket to walk (and, if it was an etching of a strike or picket, it would be criticized for failing to make the Party the hero of that action, etc).

But I think it is a wonderful piece of “weird realism.” The “flat ontology” here calls attention to the strange and shifting lines between body and object, and the scene radiates with a certain plasticity. There is a play of generality and detail that elicits an unfamiliar “weird realist” sort of grotesque. Not the fabulous melding of human and animal body parts typical of the classical grotesque, but hybrid combinations of more and less filled-in reality?

Most importantly, what seems utopian to me about Soda Fountain is that it is radically un-self-sufficient. It belongs in a world of hundreds, thousands of other etchings like it, each pulsating with their own excesses and failures: a democracy both of technique and of objects. And this is where the theme of “cultural work” becomes very significant. A piece like Soda Fountain points to a place other than the garret of the Romantic artist or the depersonalized assembly line of the Orwellian (or Kinkadean) factory of art: to the sort of collective and cooperative spaces of art and education that the John Reed Clubs and other instrumentalities of the CPUSA set up in major cities in the early 1930s. Perhaps the most representative example of this alternative organization of cultural work would be the democratically organized annual “group show,” the preeminent forum for new Left artworks in the Depression years.

All of which is to say (and we could say much more), that there is plenty to like about this idea of “weird realism,” and I hope to see where research leads.

***

 A Note on Graham Harman, H.P. Lovecraft, and Racist Apologetics

Subconsciously, I have set up this report of my encounter with Harman’s Weird Realism within the formal framework of horror itself. The knowledgeable reader is no doubt shouting at me: “Don’t go in the house! There’s so much racism in there!!!”

If only I had listened. H.P. Lovecraft really is a remarkably racist writer. And Harman’s handling of the question of Lovecraft’s racism is awful.

Lovecraft’s racism is very well-documented (amply so in Weird Realism), and I don’t want to reproduce examples if I can help it. As I have investigated online discussion of Lovecraft’s racism, I have taken note of two common strategies of explanation/forgiveness. It should be stressed, to Harman’s credit, that he eschews both.

First, many Lovecraft fans offer a variation of “not racist––it was just the time he lived in.” Second, many Lovecraft fans suggest that Lovecraft’s racism was incidental, at best, to his creative genius. We should not hold a vulgar expression of animus discovered in personal correspondence, for example, against the towering achievements of the author’s publshed work.

Harman, in fact, insists on reversing each of these claims. Precisely because Lovecraft lived at a time in which phobias about racial Others suffused the political unconscious of the United States, for Harman it is a reflection of Lovecraft’s genius that he was able to manipulate these anxieties in the service of attempts to frighten readers.  Harman also maintains that when Lovecraft’s reactionary impulses rise to the surface of his prose, these impulses in fact improve the writing.

I find these arguments to be profoundly disturbing (if unusual in their frankness). Here is an instance of a literary scholar arguing actively for racism as an aesthetic ideology. I am sure that my response will strike Harman as just so much more politically correct and crowd-pleasing conformism, but here it is: I am not for racism as an aesthetic ideology. I am against it. I think Harman should be criticized for writing a pro-racist, pro-reactionary interpretation of H.P. Lovecraft. I think Lovecraft was part of a broad and dreadful project to reverse the gains of the post-Civil War period by promulgating a quite new and increasingly vicious epistemology of racial difference and Anglo-Saxon superiority. That collective politico-aesthetic project needs to be studied, not least because we are still living in the nightmare it unleashed upon the world. One of the greatest barriers to a more egalitarian future is the extraordinary pride that contemporary white Americans feel in the cultural and intellectual products of this catastrophic failure of moral intelligence. I don’t think a special statue needs to be erected of H.P. Lovecraft getting punched in the jaw. He was one of thousands, who spoke for millions. At the same time, a celebratory treatment of Lovecraft’s racial-paranoia-as-technical-achievement is as inane and tasteless as a CNN anchor marveling at the gesticular brilliance of Donald Trump in his selling of anti-immigrant loathing. Which is to say: it is ordinary, and horrific.

Thus, while I would like to borrow his idea of “weird realism,” and while I will cite to some of his books, I would also like to be able to refer to some firm statement where I say: I hate what Graham Harman has to say about Lovecraft and race. It is an appalling lapse. (Here that is).

To understand how Harman sets himself up for so disastrous an outcome, we need to recall the methodological choices he makes at his study’s inception. Wanting to focus on Lovecraft’s “style” rather than on the allegorical meaning of “content,” Harman chooses one hundred passages (a dozen or so from eight of Lovecraft’s most famous stories) through which he moves systematically. Harman proposes a functionalist hermeneutics: his preferred technique is to “examine individual passages and discover what makes them effective.”

From this exclusive interest in what works, Harman finds himself affirming Lovecraft’s racism”

Racism can only make a philosopher worse (see Heidegger’s condescending reference to the “Senegal Negro” in his otherwise masterful 1919 tool-analysis). But in certain rare cases, reactionary views might improve the power of an imaginative writer. Houellebecq has already noted that Lovecraft’s racism may be such a case: “This is no longer the WASP’s well-bred racism; it is the brutal hatred of a trapped animal who is forced to share his cage with other different and frightening creatures.”

The passage in question concerns the population of New York’s Lower East Side:

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 unnameabilities.

Conceding that “the passage reflects poorly on Lovecraft as a person,” Harman suggests that we foreground our aesthetic response to this writing, which yields (he assures us) sublime satisfactions:

Note that the preposterous hyphenated form “Italico-Semitico-Mongoloid” pushes us well beyond any specific foreign race. As Houellebecq rightly asks: “what race could possibly have provoked this outburst?…The ethnic realities at play had long been wiped out… His descriptions of the nightmare entities that populate the Cthulhu cycle spring directly from this hallucinatory vision.”

Thus: “While abominable in ethical and political terms, Lovecraft’s racism is undeniably effective in purely literary ones.”

I am reminded, here, of several scenes, from relatively recent Hollywood productions, that are also “undeniably effective” in purely cinematic terms. I will leave it to the reader to discover if such comparisons are illuminating:

Harman Paper 1Harman Paper 5Harman Paper 2Harman Paper 4

The worst moments in Weird Realism are those in which Harman attends to examples of Lovecraft’s writing that play on popular superstitions of African Americans in Louisiana as monstrous and beastly, connected to the darkest supernatural forces by means of arcane Voodoo rituals and swamp orgies. Setting aside the question of Harman’s total lack of curiosity about this richly overdetermined racist demonology (and his failure to ask himself if a different reader might experience such drivel differently),we must point out that Harman also does not inquire at all into the historical processes which had re-popularized such images as a part of the more general effort to naturalize Jim Crow in the years after 1899. Harman does not inquire into the complicity of science in the creation and dissemination of such libels, nor into the deep inter-embededness of pulp fiction, turn-of-the-century imperialism, and attempts by political elites (in concert with most of the intelligentsia) to animalize the populations of all of the lands of the Global South. Harman does not inquire into the proximity, in the small town shop, of Amazing Wonders magazine, lynching postcards (sometimes, body parts of lynching victims for sale) and foodstuffs bearing the countenances of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.

Lovecraft (like Harman’s other major inspiration, Heidegger) was not merely a complicated man who thought racist things from time to time. Both men were actively involved in creating the cultures of violence and hatred, in giving voice to the fantasies and secret lusts. that culminated in Parchman Farm and Auschwitz. If they are your guys, this has to be dealt with.

Many who don’t like the line of inquiry I have set up jump to the conclusion: well, then, you only want to do X,Y, Z: to punish post-humously, to run great writers through the giant Scantron machine in the sky to see if they past your political correctness test, to prove your own moral cleanliness. This is incorrect, of course. And there, probably, discussion ends. But at least we will have learned where we stand.

Notes

[1] Graham Harman, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great article Kurt. I’m still reading through it…

    I’m interested in new materialism or new realism (I’m probably conflating here)-flat ontology–but only by way of Bruno Latour. I’m totally ignorant of the philosophers you mention and I’ll be sure to check them out. Your discussion of flat ontology as it is made manifest in art reminds me of actor-network theory as a new “flat” ontology of the social as developed by Latour and reflected on by Patrick Joyce in some recent essays. I think Laclau and Mouffe would fit in here? Anyway, I’m rambling and avoiding writing. Great job, as always.

    • Kyle, thanks for this note! Latour is certainly the central figure for many of the OOO theorists, and that is both good and bad news. The earlier Latourian work on science is really valuable (I think most historians would find things to like about and learn from it), and I appreciate Latour’s recovery of Gabriel Tarde and the monadological tradition in French sociology, which is rich and fascinating. The more recent “cult of Latour” stuff leaves me cold, though. And Harman has written a book on Latour’s politics, which involves a very strange Nordic take on the Dewey Lippmann debates, and which I don’t have much use for.

      As for Laclau and Mouffe–there are definitely points of contact, although it would be interesting to process their work through the “Nominalism”/”Realism” filter after the interventions of OOO. In the end, they are more psychoanalytic than phenomenological, which may prove to be the key distinction.

  2. Really interesting piece, Kurt. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I am largely unfamiliar with many of these thinkers, but this is by far one of the better pieces I’ve read on the question of situating Lovecraft in an aesthetic understanding. Well done.

  3. On his blog, Harman has posted a note on Lovecraft and race that might be a response to this? Here is the meat of GH’s response:

    (…)
    So, my claim is emphatically not that to be a good horror writer one ought to be a racist. It seems to me that Poe might well have had more enlightened views while losing nothing as a horror writer. But in Lovecraft’s case, one can see a clear stylistic analogy between the racist outburst just cited and his most fearful descriptions of horrifying monsters. For this reason I suspect, as does Houllebecq, that Lovecraft’s tortured psychology on race matters was one of his key inspirations, no matter how blameworthy his views. Simply erase the bizarre phrase “Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid” from the passage, and it might easily be found in any of his best stories.

    An analogous case is Sade. If we look for instance at the 120 Days of Sodom, we find a work that revels in kidnapping, rape, murder, and child molestation, among numerous other crimes. (I don’t recall any evidence that Sade actually went quite that far in real life, though his biography is bad enough, and tends at times in the same direction.)

    I for one tend to feel extremely disturbed whenever I run across such kidnapping, abuse, and murder items in the actual news. (Something of the sort happened just down the street from us on September 1.) But there is also little question in my mind that 120 Days of Sodom is a literary masterpiece. Will that lead anyone to say that “OOO has a sex killing problem”? I would hope not, because that would be absurd.

    Now, here’s the other point I made in Weird Realism. Let’s imagine the passage above as if it were found, not in H.P. Lovecraft, but in some recently discovered notes by Martin Heidegger:

    “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 unnameabilities.”

    It’s a bit more shocking when Heidegger is the author, isn’t it?

    Now read it one more time, and imagine you’re encountering it in the pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf:

    “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 unnameabilities.”

    It now reads like one of the showcase examples of an unhinged genocidal madman.

    Now go back and read it once again with H.P. Lovecraft firmly in mind:

    “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 unnameabilities.”

    At most you might say: “Lovecraft was an asshole.” More likely, you’d say: “Lovecraft was seriously disturbed.”

    But I see no grounds here for saying: “Lovecraft was a terrible writer.” You could certainly make that claim, but not simply on the grounds of the objectionable content of this passage, any more than you can call Sade a bad writer just because his characters do violence to women and children.

    (…)

    My only comment is that I think this clarification confirms that my interpretation is reasonably well-grounded.

    I have only ever been interested in the question “how does Graham Harman think about Lovecraft’s racism–a help or hindrance to his style?” I am totally uninterested in the questions: “Is Lovecraft a great writer?” or “Given our obligation to create a master list of great writers, does Lovecraft belong on such a list?” Not interesting questions, to me.

    addendum: it’s also worthwhile to point out that HP L wasn’t alone in writing horrific racial-paranoid cityscapes. Recall Henry James, 1904-05:

    “(T)he scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds. That it had burst all bounds in New York, almost any combination of figures or of objects taken at hazard sufficiently proclaims; but I remember how the rising waters, on this summer night, rose, to the imagination, even above the house-tops and seemed to sound their murmur to the pale distant stars. It was as if we had been thus, in the crowded, hustled roadway, where multiplication, multiplication of everything , was the dominant note, at the bottom of some vast sallow aquarium in which innumerable fish, of overdeloped proboscis, were to bump together, forever, amid heaped spoils of sea. The children swarmed above all—here was multiplication with a vengeance…” (The American Scene, 127-28)

  4. Oops, forgot to link to Graham Harman’s post: https://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/lovecraft-and-racism/

    And I do want to emphasize that I have no idea if it was written in response to my piece; only that it speaks to the concerns outlined above.

    I would be very interested in readers’ thoughts on the discussion, so far, and invite especially our friends in language and lit/comp lit/radical theology/Latino/a Studies, Black Studies, and Feminist Studies to weigh in if the mood strikes.

    • Kurt, it’s pretty clear Harman is replying to you, it’s too much of a coincidence. Anyhow, I agree with your take on Lovecraft and your critique of Harman’s reading. It is interesting how he elabores his interpretation in his reply, but nevertheless I disagre with it, or at least with how he explains it. To link the style of a writer to their “tortured psychology” (be it on race, gender, class, etc.), especially as “inspiration” (so is it then a conscious desire?), is, to put it nicely, pure speculation. Does the supposed formal singularity of Lovecraft’s writings have to do with the question of race, necessarily?

      Perhaps what Harman is trying to simply point out is that Lovecraft’s aesthetics of monstrosity are inseparable from a broad cultural anxiety about the racial/ethnic other, which would be a quite conventional interpretation. It’s an aesthetics of racialized, gendered excess that goes back to naturalism and its textual spectacles of decadence.

      By the way, I think one could say something about the use of Houellebecq here, since he has his own penchant fo polemical textualizations of women and Muslims.

      • Kahlil, thanks for this thoughtful note, and I agree completely with your reflections on the interpretive architecture that GH sets up, and on the very problematic status of Houellebecq as authority.But I think it is worth stressing that HPL not only reflects the anxieties of his time, but if we read him as GH wants us to, deploys those anxieties for us, re-stages them, in order to induce terror.

        The difference might be akin to the way a comedian like Louis CK takes America’s unsettled racial situation as his background, as opposed to a writer like Jim Goad (or comedians like Sam Kinison and Lisa Lampanelli), who wants to marshall all those materials, assemble them in a toolbox, and construct nasty little machines of shock and offense. (It should be noted: all of the above-mentioned racists may be analyzed favorably on a purely technical level; just as a Skrewdriver recording may be expertly mixed and mastered; just as a defense of Aristotle on natural slavery may be beautifully constructed).

    • Thanks for clarifying, Kurt, this is very helpful. I grasp now how Harman sees Lovecraft’s work as a resignification of the anxieties I mentioned, through the shock–or weirdness to use Harman’s concept–of his monstrous aesthetics. I am reminded of the darker side of surrealist art, a Georges Bataille or a Hans Belmer, which produced its own machines of offense through the violent imagination and fragmentation of the female body. Even as one can easily articulate a feminist critique of Belmer or Bataille, nevertheless there’s an excess that escapes this critique, not unlike the racism that you and Harman are examining here.

  5. A nice piece in many respects, but I’m going to challenge you to develop your argument without disclaimers (Sorry!). The last paragraph forecloses argument against your review, which seems antithetical to the intellectual-professional projects of many people who read this blog.

    I haven’t read Harman’s text referred to, but there is something dubious about what you afterwards state as your question: “I have only ever been interested in the question “how does Graham Harman think about Lovecraft’s racism–a help or hindrance to his style?”” You’re posing it as a dichotomy — help or hindrance — that is unsatisfying to a reader because it gives us a fairly biased impression of Harman’s position. Perhaps it is so unequivocal, but if it is, you are also calling Harman by analogy a racist (an analogy supported by other glosses at the end of your review — indeed, my basic takeaway from your article is “Harman thinks Lovecraft’s racism is a help and that also makes Harman a dubious character). That may be what you think deep-down, but it’s likely an unfair characterization. Ultimately, this segue takes the reader away from what I thought I was supposed to be reading about but which I learn very little in the rest of the article: weird (new?) realism. I get that these are 2 essays. But, I think you can both maintain your position on Harman’s book without analogizing him as pro-racist AND explain how the book uses (what it is that is) Weird Realism. Indeed, this really should be a critique of weird realism if you find that it leads a respected philosopher such as Harman to such conclusion. I feel like I would have gained a lot more intellectually from this review if you were able to show how the two were related (or else clarify how they aren’t). And, really, your question should be “how does Graham Harman use new realism to think about Lovecraft’s racism–and what conclusions does this lead him to?”

    The breakdown in your analysis occurs, to my mind, after your provide telling racist phrases from Lovecraft and Harman’s analysis, and then reveal what is intimated to be Harman’s position: ““While abominable in ethical and political terms, Lovecraft’s racism is undeniably effective in purely literary ones.”” Instead of unpacking this, you provide images from recent films/television that portray nonwhite characters as primordially menacing. That’s my interpretation of the images, anyway, which are otherwise left unexplained. Yet of the shows that I’m familiar with (Wire, Breaking Bad), the portrayal of African American and Mexican Americans are far from caricatured. The analogy doesn’t really fit — or if it does, then I’m missing something. An explanation would have helped.

    The paragraph that follows gives me, the reader, the most potent arguments against Harman. This is a powerful paragraph, but it really lacks the thorough analysis you had brought to previous sections. The problem is that (a) it overdetermines the reader’s comprehension of Harman since you don’t provide concrete examples and (b) it doesn’t engage with “weird realism” or seek to understand why Harman might be uncurious about such and such historical representation practices. These are certainly historical truths, and they have consequences for readers today (especially those who aren’t “like” Lovecraft), but my sense is that Weird Realism (whatever that may be!) is an attempt to suss out the symbolic “excess” (nod to Chaar-Pérez, above) that persists to this day in a palpable and potent form. Why is Lovecraft or Sade evocative when, as Harman notes, you could remove the racism from Poe and it might still be Poe?

    I apologize that my response is a bit like a paper critique rather than a friendly blog response. But I was frustrated with your presentation since you don’t really deliver on the goods that are probably most valuable to those of us who don’t know the work, don’t yet comprehend weird/new realism (and it’s relationship to OOO), and who are also critically engaged with historically racist people and trying to reckon with the ways we feel about them. Much respect for throwing your thoughts to the wind, though!

    • Thanks very much for this feedback. I agree with your critiques, entirely, and I think that to be effective as something more than a blog essay this writing needs substantial revision (along the lines you provide). I am particularly grateful for your push to follow the critique with which I tentatively play here into a fuller consideration of the politics of OOO/”weird realism.”

      So thanks again, and I hope that I might be able to further acknowledge your help in upcoming revisions of this work.

      • You’re welcome, and again hope if you took my tone as overly harsh, since reading in isolation doesn’t allow for nuances. No need to acknowledge me — but I do encourage you to develop this more fully because I think it could be valuable to us/me/readers. Or I’d read it, anyway. 🙂

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