Cover for Cinematic Nihilism

marmysz_1-2-2-1-draggedI’m currently polishing and organizing the manuscript for Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. The process is coming along smoothly, and I anticipate having the final draft completed within the next month.

In the meantime, the folks at Edinburgh University Press have put together a cover, which I think looks really good. It would be great to hear what people think of it.

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In the Dust of This Planet

66dfc2702f22fe40bf22b6faf95a9dbcIn the Dust of This Planet is a strange little book. It’s main thesis is that “‘horror’ is a non-philosophical attempt to think about the world-without-us philosophically.” (p. 9) Horror, in this sense, derives from the thought that there is a non-human world, cut off and unconcerned with human existence. The author of this book, Eugene Thacker, never really establishes this point with argumentation, but rather uses it as the foundation for a series of short, fragmentary, but thematically related, meditations and reflections on a whole variety of topics ranging from black metal, demonology and mysticism, to literature, film, and philosophy. It is like a scrapbook of ideas that is at times fascinating and at other times downright weird.

My interest was immediately provoked by the author’s promise that he would address “the horror of philosophy” rather than the “philosophy of horror.” This struck me as a clever and novel shift in perspective. “The philosophy of horror” suggests an attempt to philosophize about horror, perhaps by looking for its essential characteristics in various experiential, literary and cinematic forms. On the other hand, “the horror of philosophy” suggests the converse: an examination of philosophy itself, with an emphasis on identifying philosophy’s own “horrific” aspects. According to Thacker, we find these horrific aspects in philosophical works – like those of Schopenhauer and Kant – that attempt to articulate the existence of a non-anthropomorphic and essentially unknowable world independent from, and unmoved by, human understanding. This is what Thacker calls “the world without-us.” (p. 6) The idea that there is such a world is the source of the horrific, according to Thacker, and he applies this notion throughout the rest of his book to brief discussions of, not just philosophy, but also music, fiction, occultism, and poetry.

My favorite sections of this book come, Nietzsche-like, as lightning bolts out of the blue. I have already mentioned the first of these “lightning bolts,” which appears in the prologue. This is Thacker’s clever perspectival shift from the “philosophy of horror” to the “horror of philosophy.” The second “lightning bolt” comes in the second chapter, where, while addressing the issue of occult philosophy, Thacker articulates the thought-provoking idea that while the world in-itself may be something inaccessible to human understanding and experience, its very inaccessibility reveals a quality that is indeed graspable by humans. This quality is the hiddenness of the world. (p. 53) This “hideous” and horrific truth makes present to us the idea that our own human world exists alongside another sort of world, indifferent and closed off to us, implying that we are not the center of the universe.

In the second chapter, this last realization takes front stage, and in its light (or darkness?) the author offers short readings of various pieces of literature, television shows, movies and even of Carl Schmitt! I especially enjoyed the “Excursus on Mists and Ooze,” which notes the role played by these slippery, slimy and amorphous entities in a number of horror stories and films. This section of Thacker’s book reminded me of the section in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in which he likens the nature of “slime” to the in-itself world of non-human existence. Lightning bolt number three.

Besides these three lightning strikes, there are a number of things in this book that I found disappointing. The first chapter confused me. After the promising prologue, Chapter One jumps into a discussion of black metal music and demonology without much preparation. As I read this section I was lost, not understanding the relevance of the examples or what connection this all had to the “horror of philosophy,” which was the theme established  in the prologue.

Another weird aspect of this book is the author’s irregular adoption of a Medieval strategic framework of approach. Chapter One is structured around an initial quaestio (question) followed by an articulus (articulation of themes), sed contra (counterarguments) and finally a responsio (response to the counterarguments). This strategy is carried though in the first section, then in the second and third sections a different strategy, also inspired by Medieval thought, is applied. In the final section, the strategy is abandoned altogether, and the author simply comments on the stanzas of a poem. The decision to approach some of the material in scholastic form starts the investigation off on an intriguing note – and I was more than eager to play along – but dropping this approach later on left me feeling like I was reading two separate books. For me, it would have been nice if Thacker carried through with one single, cohesive approach throughout.

In general, In the Dust of This Planet is more like a grab bag of ideas than it is a cohesive philosophical text. Interesting ideas are touched upon, but are never developed in depth. It is the sort of book you can dip into momentarily, put down, and then come back to repeatedly without losing a chain of argumentation. Not really a systematic work of philosophical reasoning, this is a book that seems intended mainly to express an attitude and adopt a pose concerning the place of humans in the universe; one that is unapologetically dark and pessimistic.

This may be part of the reason it has had such an impact on popular culture. In the Dust of This Planet was an influence on the writers of the television show True Detective, it’s cover has appeared in fashion magazines as well as in a Jay Z music video. Eugene Thacker has appeared as a guest on the program Radiolab, and was subsequently attacked by Glen Beck (who, judging from his comments, appears not to have read the book or to even understand what nihilism is!). Thacker himself expresses surprise at all of the media attention, stating in an interview on the New School website that it is “just another part of the media circus.”

Whatever it is that the popular media has found so compelling, I was entertained enough by In the Dust of This Planet that I plan to go ahead and read the next two books in Thacker’s trilogy: Starry Speculative Corpse and Tentacles Longer Than Night. The titles alone make them impossible to resist!

The Human Body as Raw Material

DownloadedFileIn World War Z , an otherwise uninteresting and emotionally flat film, the most powerful and disturbing images are those that depict masses of zombies coming together as one enormous mass. Throughout the movie, these creatures rush forward like flooding water or armies of ants. They pile up on top of one another, obliterating all individuality and creating the appearance of undulating mounds. They flow in torrents, like lava, knocking over those obstacles that stand in their way. While normally I find computer animation much too artificial and clean to be truly horrifying, in this film the only feelings of horror that I experienced were precisely the result of these effects. What CGI has made possible in World War Z is the depiction of the human body as raw material on a massive scale.

There is a sense in which all horror might be thought of as derivative of this idea. In horror, there is usually a visceral component that engages with human embodiment and with our fears of death, dismemberment and the loss of bodily integrity. Juneko Robinson, in her paper Immanent Attack: An Existential Take on The Invasion of the Body Snatchers Films, makes this argument, claiming that the horror in the Body Snatcher films is connected to “motifs of engulfment and forced transformation.” (p. 25) Images of human bodies mutating, losing form and melding with other bodies produce in us feelings of horror precisely because they challenge our sense of individual uniqueness and dignity. Such imagery reminds us of our brute, physical, bodily nature, which is governed not by intellect and free will, but by the natural forces of cause and effect. It is horrific to think of ourselves as “things” that can be torn asunder and utilized for purposes that have nothing at all to do with our own personal desires.

The masses of dead bodies discovered by the allied forces in Nazi death camps are the closest real-life equivalents to the masses of zombies depicted in World War Z. The two main differences of course are that: 1) the bodies in the death camps were real; and 2) the bodies in the death camps did not move and attack others. In a horror movie, part of what makes the imagery entertaining is the assurance that what is being depicted is a fantasy. So while looking at photos of death camps is simply depressing and repulsive, looking at images of zombies is somehow enjoyable. While such images are frightening, disgusting and awful, they are also spellbinding. They absorb our attention while also provoking a visceral feeling of horror. Robinson offers a possible explanation for this strange ambivalence toward such depictions when she notes that while engulfment and transformation are frightening, they are also associated with feelings of awe and transcendence. The same awe-inspiring sense of being overwhelmed is described by Immanuel Kant in his book The Critique of Judgment as the experience of the “sublime.” When encountered in this manner, loss of individual identity has a positive cast to it, being associated with wholeness, connection and unity. In the encounter with the sublime, we move beyond the confines of our separate and finite experience of reality, moving instead in the direction of the infinite. This is the path toward God, Being and Totality.

imagesSo it seems thaty while depictions of the human body as raw material are horrifying, they may also potentially provoke other sorts of feelings. Such depictions can provoke sexual arousal (as in porn films), curiosity (as in documentary and instructional films), awe (as in religious depictions), and even humor. Commonly, more than one of these reactions is provoked at a time. So, for instance, in World War Z, there is a sense of horror mixed with sublime awe concerning the flowing tide of thousands of zombie bodies. On a smaller scale, in a film like The Human Centipede, horror is mixed with curiosity about the medical possibilities of surgically joining three bodies, mouth to anus. (The film was advertised as “100% medically accurate.”) Horror and humor co-mingle and become confused in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, a film in which body parts pile up to such ridiculous extremes that all sense of individual identity gets forgotten. Then there is the unsettling mix of sex, horror, humor, and history in a film like Caligula where human bodies are sexually used, abused and dismembered in all sorts of inventive and creative ways. In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, one human body is subjected to more than two hours of torture for both horrifying and religious effect. In all of these films, the dramatic results are achieved – at least in large part – by means of the human body being treated as a “thing,” an object that can be manipulated, stimulated, torn asunder or sewn together like any other objectively present “thing” in the world. In this, the potentiality of the human body as raw material for any sort project, good or bad, is revealed.