Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
On David Marshall's Integral Archipelago forum, a member there named Shashank recently posted a blog (and initiated a discussion) on the relationship between horror and
fantasy literature and spirituality that I am quite enjoying. I invite
you to read it, if you're interested. Here, I wanted to open a related
discussion, based on some of my comments to Shashank, particularly if
any of you enjoy the horror or fantasy genres. (I wish I had time to
compose something nice, but I don't, so here are a few jotted notes).
I no longer read fantasy or horror, but I used to read and write quite a lot of both, and I still enjoy an occasional horror or fantasy film. In my conversation with Shashank, we were discussing the respective approaches of Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft. I was noting that Barker tends to see "order" behind the terror and horror, and redemptive or transformative potential in the encounter with darkness and evil, whereas Lovecraft attempts to present a vision of reality as ultimately alien, containing dimensions which are wholly other -- realms and beings that are wholly unassimilable, human contact with which can only result in madness or destruction. In other words, absolute limit conditions.
In my reading, Lovecraft's Otherness is an Otherness that must remain Other for the human center to hold, and for our higher ideals to flourish (though those who encounter it now come to see those ideals largely as flimsy defenses in the face of a vast, menacing, terrifyingly alien realm). If I had to place Lovecraft along the values line, I'd say he was a Modernist -- writing for a genteel Modern audience, many of whom were likely in hard flight from "animal nature." This is revealed, I think, in his preference for pre-human, visceral images to represent the Other: slime, gelatinous substances, crustacean or invertebrate anatomy, etc.
But while Lovecraft is primarily a modernist (as opposed to Barker's more postmodern approach, where otherness is a functional limit condition of particular stages of development or perspectival frames rather than a concretely identified, metaphysical "thing" or "realm"), I still find his work offers something interesting to consider, particularly in the context of Integral spirituality: he presents a powerful challenge to complacency and a "comfortable" anthropocentric view of the universe, a view that honestly I sometimes feel marks much New Age and even Integral discourse and thought. I don't think Lovecraft is an Integral thinker (as I said, I view him as essentially a Modernist, though some post-metaphysical materialist writers find kinship with him as well), but I think he makes a kind of move -- a firm presentation of That which intractably challenges and disturbs present boundaries and narratives -- that we could use more of in Integral circles, in my opinion. With talk about "making sense of everything" in Integral marketing, and even in the popularized use of phrases like "swallowing the whole universe in one gulp" (assimilating it in its entirety to the "known"?), I feel there is a move towards what we might call the suburbanization (or urbanization) of the Kosmos. No spooky corners left, no pesky unknowns, no threatening or destabilizing shadows. (This is why King, Barker, Lovecraft, etc, are so powerful: they bring the 'unknown,' the terrifyingly alien and powerfully Other, back into our comfortable suburban back yards).
So, I guess what I'm groping toward is the question, What is an Integral nightmare? What, in its appearance or irruption, would deeply disturb, even terrify, Integral consciousness? What are the boundaries of our (often comfortable, suburban) narratives, and what has the potential to shred them?
I enjoy and appreciate this topic because I think wrestling with, encountering this sort of "dark" or Otherness, is both humbling and chastening (something Lovecraft cultivates through his shocking, chthonic vistas) and potentially transformative (a la Barker). I am thinking here of several things: Rilke's terrible angels, which perhaps show up in modern popular form in something like Strieber's Communion series (where the Other is a vastly more evolved and powerful entity, an entity that has a disturbing, inscrutable agenda for us); and which showed up for me, in a wilderness visionary experience many years ago, as powerfully disturbing -- even terrifying -- entities who I associated with Krishnamurti and who put me through a mind-blowing (and humbling) ordeal. And I think also of the "darker" aspects of Tibetan practice, which I explored when studying with Dzogchen teachers: practicing ch'od, for instance, or purposefully going to graveyards or other frightening places in order to practice. But even doing that, I also was aware of bumping up against worldview differences: not all of the images cultivated in traditional Tibetan practice were really terribly disturbing for me, and I recall wondering at the time what a modern equivalent could be -- how could the practices be made more challenging and relevant for our time?
What would scare the bejeesus out of the Integral community? :-)
Sorry for being late. Great topic, everyone.
Phase 1: It comes from "outside."
genre epitomizers: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Brain Eaters; I Married a Monster from Outer Space, et al. (damn aliens)
Phase 2: It's "within" our ken, but still far off in the hills, swamp, or desert.
genre epitomizers: Psycho; The Hills Have Eyes; Deliverance (damn hillbillies)
Phase 3: It's down the street.
genre epitomizers: Halloween; Silence of the Lambs (damn psychopaths)
PhaSE 4: It's within the self.
genre epitomizers: The Beast Within; The Fly; The Wolfman (damn personal degenerative transformations)
I love this. I think the best horror movies cover more than one phase, mimicking the Wilbers 321 process. For example in Romeros "Night of the Living Dead" the threat is from the outside, the Zombies incessantly crawl in through the barred windows and doors, get shot at with shot guns and chain saws, but in the end the humans do incredibly cruel things to each other just to survive, so it really is the question if we are that much different from those inhuman monsters.
ANother Horror Classic is the theme of "becoming the other" e.g. The Fly. Good examples are also the scene from Ridley Scott's Alien, when one of the Starship crew gets jumped at by a Facehugger Alien, then seemingly recovering, until the Alien larva breaks free from the very inside of his guts. Classic scene! (NSFW)
Another Classic is "District 9" which I personally find hilarious. In this recent SciFi movie, the protagonist finds himself contagioned with an alien substance, slowly transforming his right arm into a monstrous claw. Ironically, it makes him use the high-tech Alien Weapons which help deal with the situation. There is a fantastic scene in which he holds his Cell Phone with his healthy arm, gesturing with the Claw while he tries to explain his girlfriend what happend. In vain, as one can imagine.
Theurj: I added the emphasis to show the themes that frighten integralists and which manifest in the likes of Derrida. Kennilingusts are obsessed with knowing and controlling it all within theories of everything, a safe place of confidence, consciousness and light. And comforting themselves with this discovery of "natural laws" through special, esoteric knowledge from the "ascended masters." Hence tales that such masters really don't give a damn about their laws, even subvert them and mercilessly confront them with the unknown, are indeed horrific.
Yes, I agree that an Integral nightmare would likely involve not knowing and not controlling, as you've suggested. That's what I meant with my discussion of suburbanization or urbanization. Those words actually point at a modernist form of this movement to tame or erase the other or the unknown or (presently) unknowable, but I think there is an analogous movement in the Integral community, with its rather Appolonian impulse to "include" and classify and order everything in a clear fashion, so everything makes sense. If the motto of Integral is "making sense of everything," then the nightmare might indeed be that which escapes sense, which resists sense-making, or (possibly) which either resists inclusion or monstrously exaggerates inclusion (a la the Borg).
Since we're also interested in some version of "integral" thinking, not necessarily fully in alignment with Wilber's version of that, I'd like to ask if you have any thoughts on what an integral postmetaphysical nightmare might be? Or, what do you think a 2nd tier pomo nightmare might be? What would scare the bejeesus out of the mature Derrida?
In contrast to this, the Lovecraftian Monsters defy healthy integration and the 321 Process. Creatures like C'thul'hu, Shubb-Niggurath, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep are so freaky alien that one can only wonder about their motives and interior drives. The stories leave you with so little hard knowledge about them that they remain at the very edge, the outer limit, of our imagination and comfort zone. This is still true, I feel, for the modern age. Pure rationality cannot defeat the Great Cthuluhu. The Light of Reason is not sufficient to enlighten the shadows in which the Great Old Ones lurk.
My favorite stories are those that manage to create a nightmarish feeling of overwhelming fear, and the idea that "some horrifying thing" is about to be revealed, which is continously and unsuccesfully trying to break free, always remaining at the brink of being seen and/or known. Examples are the "Whisperer in the dark" when in the end the reader starts to realize the extent to which the beings from Yuggoth have manipulated the humans in their control, or the hellish insights at the end of "Shadow from out of time" when it gets obvious that a terrible juxtaposition has taken place that cannot be reversed, leaving only eternal damnation and naked panic. Or the Dream Stories, e.g. "Dreams in a Witchhouse" or even "Call of Chtuhlu" where the borders between dream and reality become transparent, allowing horrible entities from another dimension to enter our reality. And so on.
Lovecraft plays an important role in Heavy Metal, many Bands in the genre use his imagery and/or mythology for inspiration. For example check out Metallicas "Call of Ktulhu" which is excellent. Also there are Pen and Paper RPGs with detailled descrptions of the monsters and the backgrounds of the Mythos.
I even found this article which explains the connections between Lovercraft and modern Cults like the Goldwn Dawn, Aleister Crowley, and other minor cult leaders. Interesting stuff. Another proof that you can build a religion out of just ANY mythology, authentically historic or not.
What would scare the bejeesus out of the mature Derrida?
Ken Wilber, of course! As did Jurgen Habermas already.
Hahahaha, I expected that! I "feared" I was setting myself up for that answer when I posted my question...
Christophe, nice posts. I'm glad you've joined the conversation. I loved District 9, and like you also enjoy those stories that build up a sense of mounting, nameless dread. I recall feeling that sometimes, actually, when I read some of Castaneda's books. Even though he is not really a horror writer, I recall being disturbed and creeped out by some of his descriptions (of non-sentient beings, or of alien "scouts" that hide out as incongruous objects in one's dreams, etc), especially since I lived at the northern edge of the very landscape he was describing (the Sonoran desert).
I linked to this blog entry (on Lovecraft, nihilism, and postmetaphysics) in an earlier post, but I thought I'd copy it here anyway.
The blog entry:
"My engagement with fictional forms of darkness my seem too hyperbolic (hyperstitional) but this is, as Brassier and others have pointed out, symptomatic of a larger positivity within philosophy – positivity is a far less questioned operative mode whereas negativity is anything but – the dark and the negative is the more attacked tactic, affect, and behavior. The speculative nihilist wager is that positivity is questionable – positivity may merely be another patina to be shorn by the blade of realism.
Negativity is more often than not shooed into the self-destructive circuit of the suicide solution (Dominic Fox addresses this via Xasthur in Cold World – suicide is capitulation). An alliance with the darker bits of culture (whatever that may be and whatever that means) may be pigeon-holing but negativity is already pigeon-holed (and we are of course attracted to thinkers and writers often due to gut feelings of agreement).
Certain darknesses are already relegated to genre fiction (ie not to be taken seriously) and the more negative thinkers (such as Schopenhauer) fair far better in the arts than in philosophy. In the fourth book of The World as Will and Representation (the serious book) Schopenhauer delves again and again into the brutish nature of life, of nature, of human existence. Where sadness is the result of internal characteristics (317) Schopenhauer also asserts that optimism is a wicked way of thinking (326) and that happiness is a short lived exception and not the norm of life. Yet it seems that the lack of a smile (in philosophy and in life) is immediate cause for concern.
To hyperbolically address Lovecraft et all may also seem too phenomenological or too Kantian – horror and, in particular, Lovecraftian horror, is concerned with the limits of experience but this limit says more about the complexity of the world, about the voidic cauldron that is the cosmos than about our living in the world. Melancholy (in the traditional sense) becomes inverted (or extroverted?) turned outward – the inability to lord over the world becomes the fact of being caught in a thinking and self-conscious existence.
But maybe I am just a malcontent!"
And a reply by S.C. Hickman:
"You’re neither too hyperbolic nor hyperstitional in the sense of one who uses the figuration of excessive imbrication that overlaps the edges of form upon form, which would entail a more Joycean excess of language to fend off the closure of discourse by creating a gap in the representational trace between the ending and beginning that is always ever the repitition of the death drive in his Fennigans wake.
As for our love of Lovecraft, Ligotti, and speculative nihilism, and the figure of “dark” in our terminology: I think that what Meillassoux said in the The Speculative Turn, which seems to be a prolegamena toward defining a new metaphysique says is apropo(where he discusses virutality):
'...the notion of virtuality, supported by the rationality of the Cantorian decision of intotalising the thinkable, makes of irruption ex nihilo the central concept of an immanent, non-metaphysical rationality. Immanent, in that irruption ex nihilo presupposes, against the usually religious vision of such a concept, that there is no principle (divine or otherwise) superior to the pure power of the chaos of becoming; non-metaphysical in that the radical rejection of all real necessity assures us of breaking with the inaugural decision of the Principle of Sufficient Reason'.(233 ST).
Zizek on this notion says,
'Quentin Meillassoux has outlined the contours of a post-metaphysical materialist ontology whose basic premise is the Cantorian multiplicity of infinities which cannot be totalized into an all-encompassing One. Such an ontology of non-All asserts radical contingency: not only are there no laws which hold with necessity, every law is in itself contingent, it can be overturned at any moment. What this amounts to is the suspension of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: not only the epistemological suspension, but also the ontological one. That is to say, it is not only that we cannot ever get to know the entire network of causal determinations, this chain is in itself ‘inconclusive’, opening up the space for the immanent contingency of becoming—such a chaos of becoming subjected to no pre-existing order is what defines radical materialism' (215).
It’s this immanent contingency of becoming that is not founded by any transcendent order that is what is dark in our speculative realisms. So out of this discourse we’ve learned that there is no substrate of potentialities that pre-exists the emergence of objects into our universe, no great big Other (God, All) that orders the formation of things in our universe (no transcendental principle); instead we discover the notion of virtuality and irruption ex nihilo into a 'time that nothing subtends'.
I can even see from the other end Harman in his OOO, although from the metaphysical side (with a qualifier of “materialism”):
What aligns Harman with both Lovecraft and Ligotti is a form of materialism without matter: 'What separates this model from all materialism is that I am not pampering one level of reality (that of infinitesimal particles) at the expense of all others. What is real in the cosmos are forms wrapped inside of forms, not durable specks of material that reduce everything else to derivative status. If this is ‘materialism’, then it is the first materialism in history to deny the existence of matter.'" (Tool-Being: 293)
The concept of matter has been defined as absolute outside or radical heterogeneity. I am not even sure that there can be a “concept” of the absolute outside. If I have made little use of the word “matter,” it is not, you know, through amistrust of the idealist or spiritualist sort. It is because, in thelogic or the phase of inversion, this concept has too often been reinvested with “logocentric” values, associated with those of thing, of reality, of presence in general, perceptible presence forexample, of substantial plenitude, of content, of referent, etc. Realism or sensualism, “empiricism,” are modifications of logocentrism.... In short, the signifier “matter” appears problematic to me only at the moment when its reinscription would not avoid making of it a new fundamental principle, when by a theoretical regression, one would reconstitute it as a “transcendental signified.” The transcendental signified not merely the recourse ofidealism in the narrow sense. It can always turn up to reassure ametaphysical materialism.
Interview: Jacques Derrida, Diacritics, Vol. 3, No. 1, 34-5