Speculative Anxiety

In the closing pages of The Mathematics of Novelty Sam Gillespie turns to the subject of anxiety to relate Lacan to Badiou. Anxiety for Lacan, as Gillespie points out, centers on the lack of lack – the empty ground of being (p. 118). In terms of other philosophers’ concept of anxiety it is the “confrontation with possibility” – moral obligation for Kierkegaard and freedom in the world (Heidegger) (p. 119). Via Gillespie’s association of ontological anxiety with the objet a (for Lacan) and with the Event (Badiou) however, there is a certain formal (whether mathematizable or not) shell denying ontological anxiety from connecting to everyday objects.

While, on the one hand, I support a rather old fashioned distinction between the ontic and the ontological and cringe at a quotidianization of the ontological – it would seem that the formalization of the object denies the metaphysical everyday (as opposed to the muted metaphysical as the everyday). Or, in other words, the question becomes what is the depth or ontological reach of so called ordinary objects.

Graham Harman’s “Object and Network: The Ferris Wheel” depicts a wonderfully horrific scene – an enormous Ferris wheel where the central hub is at the ground – where its cars (filled with various objects) pass high above the earth and then deep beneath its surface – passing subterranean rooms filled with other objects (whether living or not).

If objects are, as Harman argues, deep wells and never touch one another – they become anxiety inducing in a fashion which is neither quotidian nor formalized but truly metaphysical. The weirdness or horror of objective life as an anxiety causing event (nor non-event, as commonplace) suddenly springs into life and this, as the introduction to the new issue of Collapse suggests, is at the heart of the Copernican shift – the fact that the world can no longer be fundamentally visible.

Here the difference between the known (following into the category horror) and the unknown (falling into the category of terror) crosses the sensible and the speculative. The intense feeling of ontological anxiety stemming from the known-horror is wonderfully displayed at the end of Lovecraft’s “The Mountains of Madness.” The survivors fly away from the Arctic wasteland and observe strange bands of purple light on the horizon as one of the men begins to repeat the non-sensical murmurings of the great old ones. As S.T. Joshi suggests in The Thomas Ligotti Reader, “At the Mountains of Madness is a perfect example of Lovecraft’s ‘quasi realism.’

In regards to Thomas Ligotti however, Joshi argues that his work represents a flight from the real, that his fiction is fundamentally oneirc – calling his essay on Ligotti “Thomas Ligotti: The Escape from Life.” However, I believe that Joshi is completely wrong on this account. As Ligotti has made clear in interviews and in his contribution to Collapse IV – dellusion is simply the more preferable option as a response to the horribleness of every day existence. Stefan Dziemianowicz’s contribution to to The Thomas Ligotti Reader rightfully connects Ligotti’s strategy to injecting doubt into the most banal occurrences of quotidian existence.

The question becomes one of the psychological versus the metaphysical in relation to realism. As Harman suggests in the closing lines of his talk “Intentional Objects for Non-Humans” – there is a need for a speculative psychology – for understanding the tension between an object and its qualities and the function of time – that is to understand the change anchored in experience and that in the essence of things themselves.

In his piece “The Horror of Phenomenology” Harman points out that Lovecraft appreciates the lengths to which clusters of atoms (objects as purely material things) can be formed into horrifically incomprehensible shapes but the power of thought in Lovecraft is thought to be primarily harmful. This may explain Joshi’s argument in his H.P Lovecraft: The Decline of the West, that Lovecraft shifted from a cynical materialism (informed by nihilism) to a cosmic indifferentism falling closer to a Bertrand Russell styled humanism (p. 5). Ligotti, on the other hand, is unabashedly nihilist – although he points out that one should never call themselves a nihilist – I would argue this speaks to Nietzsche’s unfair anchoring of nihilism to apathy and the pop-cultural assumption that nihilism is always solipstic.

If thought itself can be an object or, at least a network of objects following neuroscience, then perhaps there is a connection between Harman’s articulation and Grant’s statement, following Oken, that “thinking is time” (Collapse IV, p. 321). The assertion that time (as repetition) is the wellspring of ideation seems well supported in Ligotti who uses repetition heavily in his short stories – if horror springs from the known then repetition is the very genesis of horror through time.

In the end, the issue of a speculative anxiety resides within the larger problematic of relations (whether psychological or not) between the material and matter in the world of Speculative Realism.

1 thought on “Speculative Anxiety

  1. “Ligotti, on the other hand, is unabashedly nihilist – although he points out that one should never call themselves a nihilist – I would argue this speaks to Nietzsche’s unfair anchoring of nihilism to apathy and the pop-cultural assumption that nihilism is always solipstic.”

    A trivial point but, I always thought that Ligotti was interpreting ‘nihilism’ in that interview as the radical ontological claim that nothing exists, not even the phenomenal appearance of one’s self or world. Hence the harsh comment that no one of any intelligence has ever called themselves a nihilist, even while most readers would think Ligotti the epitome of life-denying folk.

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