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.”
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):
There 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:
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.
 Graham Harman, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy.
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