Today is the start of the Science and Metaphysics blog event organized by Pete Wolfendale, Reid Kotlas and myself. Ben Woodard provides us with the inaugural post, setting the stage for some of the implications of a speculative realism chained to the inexorable logic of science.
Ben Woodard, ‘Lovecraftian Science/Lovecraftian Nature’
One of Lovecraft’s more entertaining literary habits is to totally and irreparably demolish the academic mind. Again and again Lovecraft disappears, kills, or transforms the academic into a babbling madman sent off to grow the population of Arkham Asylum. This is not because he has malicious feelings for thinkers (quite the contrary) but simply because the professor, the researcher, the scientist, the philosopher, test the limits of reality and this, in Lovecraft’s world, is a dreadful and dangerous task.
But this image of the mad-brained academic does not appear in our everyday existence and even the mad thinkers of the most popular fictions are not driven mad by their science but by personal traumas. Mad scientists, overwhelmingly, do not have occupational madness. We will probably not (unfortunately) see scientists ripping out their hair at the LHC at the possible sight of stranglets or even more fantastically a portal to another dimension(maybe hell whether demonological or hyperchaotic). Does Lovecraft merely underestimate the mental fortitude of modern day intelligentsia or is it that nothing Lovecraft imagined has ever, and will never, appear, that nothing fundamentally horrifying in the field of research can tear itself from the mundane and singe the nerve endings of a few eggheads?
This gap, I want to argue, comes from a fundamental chasm in conceptual framing, from the treatment of onto-epistemlogical indistinction (and that this leaps from the fictional to the non-fictional). This indistinction means that what is unknown is both unknown as to whether its unknownness is a result of our epistemological limits (we haven’t seen that type of fungus yet) or ontological limits (we cannot say what kind of entity it is). Taking from an earlier blog entry this appears in horror in the statement ‘What is that?’ which indexes the horror of the weird (or the weirdness of horror) in several dimensions.
‘What’ is the epistemological dimension of horror or the very questioning of the identity of the creature or thing before the thinking entity subject to horror. Whatness assumes possibly belonging to a taxonomy in that ‘what’ already assumes an ontology, an isness.
‘Is’ is the dimension of ontology proper interrogating the being of the thing and even the very bounds of the thing’s thingness or identifiability once an epistemological schema has been thoroughly employed.
‘That’ speaks to the spatio-temporal location of the thing that is questionably known/unknown, or solid/gelatinous and so forth.
‘What is’ marks an indistinction of thinking and being, not their ontological distinction, but the ontic fuzziness resulting from the mad stacking of countless epochs driven by rabid nature. In other words, unknowability (epistemological limitation) can result from temporal or spatial distance (too old, too new, too close, too far), an underdeveloped schema of knowledge (unclassifiables, unobservables, dark matter, and so on and so forth) resulting from malformed tools or instruments, or the weirdness of grounding/ungrounding activities themselves troubling the very operation of binding, separating and so forth. Or the problems of discernment could be called proximity, the second blindness, and the third forces and mixtures.
For Lovecraft the soft gray matter which humans cherish so deeply cannot stand up to such an assault. Yet asylums have long been closed and the psychiatric wards are not overflowing at the rate he would expect. It is because, in part, that the naturalism of philosophies of science treat nature as an innocuous container or cheery factory of things which the scientist can rearrange accordingly. That is, even if the Promethean attitude towards nature is no longer exploitative, a view of nature as still mechanistic lingers even in ecological thinking.
Even Roy Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science, sweeps nature into a rhetorical corner as only a generative mechanism or in Cohen and Stewart’s wonderful Collapse of Chaos, nature is left somewhere in the clutches of real patterns. But there always lingers an epistemological wedge which keeps nature from fleeing into ontological obscurity. Of course we know what nature is and if we do not know we worship it or respect to the limit of our own poetical fancy. This split is what the late Pierre Hadot referred to as the Promethean/Orphic split.
This split covers over a more sinister division, the belief that we are in fact separate from nature as both the Promethean and Orphic attitude pre-suppose that nature is over there somewhere either to be exploited or deified. Our new found unnaturalness does not mean that we are suddenly made of tin and diodes but it reinforces the fact that the world, and particular the world of the scientist (according to philosophy), is one composed of epistemological limits and not ontological or natural curiosities. ‘What is that’ is deprived of all its teeth in the post-Renaissance conceptualization of nature where nature = ineligibility. Against this conceptualization Bhaskar argues:
“Science is not an epiphenomenon of nature, for knowledge possesses a material cause of its own kind. But neither is nature a product of man, for the intelligibility of the scientific activities of perception and experiment presupposes the intransitive and structured character of the objects of knowledge, viz. that they exist and act independently of the operations of men and the patterns of events alike” (185).
Lovecraft’s textual ambiguity over his frequent use of the word nature – whether it means nature-as-we-know-it or nature-as-it-is reinforces Bhaskar’s almost Laruelleian statement. But again, the possibility of the mad academic suggests the possible penetration of the insularity of any epistemological circle whether or not it takes cues from nature as a storm of forces. Take the second to last passage of “The Colour Out of Space”:
“What it is, only God knows. In terms of matter I suppose the thing Ammi described would be called a gas, but this gas obeyed laws that are not of our cosmos. This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shin on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes” (Lovecraft Complete, 616).
Lovecraft lands, perhaps a bit too far, on the ontological side of onto-epistemological indistinction. Lovecraft is not demeaning the real developments made possible by modern science, but merely remarking that, in the end, nature wins. Again quoting from “The Colour Out of Space”:
“Then the dark woods will be cut down and the blasted heath will slumber far below blue waters whose surface will mirror the sky and ripple in the sun. And the secrets of the strange days will be one with the deep’s secrets; one with the hidden lore of old ocean, and all the mystery of primal earth” (594).
To avoid a Hegelian equivocation of mind and nature, or a Fichtean destruction of nature as not-I at the hands of technological progress, the epistemological and ontological must feed into one another – not in a correlationist fashion, but a way in which the un-prethinkable nature breaks into the epistemological circle not only as limitation but as course correction – turning thought itself into a force of nature as opposed to a force on a nature designed for it.
The madness-rotted brain of the Lovecraftian thinker which is the rule of description in his tales appearing as “mental strain” (Dagon), a dazed brain (Polaris), as overtaxed (The Temple), as “mad thoughts” (The Nameless City), as too sensitive (Herbert West) and on and on, is one who breaks the nature-determining epistemology of thinkers on science and, no doubt, some scientific thinkers too. Philosophy would seem something equally susceptible to the creative madness of the world, yet the epistemological circle, firmly encrusted by the bastions of academia, fend off the dark winged things lurking on the age-curled texts of the dusty stacks. This is why Land remarks that Kant’s system is the greatest fit of panic in the history of the Earth and why Badiou dismisses Kant as succor to the academy and a salve against madness and this, unfortunately, is why Kant is still endlessly entertained in the halls of proper philosophy.
Science is frequently charged with letting bloom a disenchanted world and continental philosophy with trying to infuse quotidian mishaps with a anthrocentric vitality but both accusations presuppose that the world is not much of a target for these epistemological exercises, that nature is waiting or that nature is itself, that the world, is not producing that very capacity for thought. A thinking nature requires a deeply rooted weirdness in the thinker, it forces an impossible escape attempt from itself which, in actuality, is a scanning and probing of nature, across the blindingly infinite stratifications of existence. Thinking is nature’s failed attempt at diagnosis, a failure which for a time appears as finitude or individuation, but such appearances soon fold back into the torrid roar of process, of onto-epistemological indistinction.
Madness is to be expected, and maybe suicide as well. Perhaps Lovecraft can only offer the sentiment that the narrator of “From Beyond” offered in regards to his friend: “That Crawford Tillinghast should ever have studied science and philosophy was a mistake. These things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator, for they offer two equally tragic alternatives to the man of feeling and action; despair if he fail in his quest, and terrors unutterable and unimaginable if he succeed.” (115)