Friday, October 8, 2010

Academic Flashback: Lovecraftian Media Theory

I didn't read a lot of "respectable" literature when I was younger, but I read a ton of mindbending science-fiction. The short stories of Philip K. Dick were a favorite in high school, and I started reading H.P. Lovecraft in eighth grade. I feel that labeling something with a genre is a lazy way to ignore a work's literary merits; I maintain that Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs, and certain works of Thomas Pynchon belong on Sci-Fi bookshelves. Looking back, I may try a little too hard to bring respectability to the things I loved, but who doesn't?

This essay was published in the most recent Monochrom anthology, and was the first thing I sent them after meeting them in 2007, a slightly modified version of a final paper for a media theory class with Thomas Y. Levin. Unfortunately, it's formatted in the book as a sort of fake-handwriting on crumpled paper, making it nigh-unreadable.  A couple of people had asked me to put this up after hearing I had written about media in Lovecraft's stories, so I figured I'd put it up here. It's a bit long for blog-reading, but if you're willing to wade through the academese, there's a couple of decent insights here and there...

Imperfect Vessels: The Treatment of Media in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cosmic Horror
“Kittler's book[Gramophone, Film, Typewriter] is great. I consider it a branch of occult media studies, or at least weird media studies, in the sense that I feel like if H.P. Lovecraft were writing media theory, he'd come up with something like this…”
    --found among the Microsound mailing list archives, Feb 6th, 2003

It is perhaps one of the great surprises of literary history that the work of Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890-1937), pulp writer of “weird tales” replete with fungi-creatures from Pluto, monstrous gods trapped beneath the seas, and cults of “degenerate Esquimeaux,” has become widely read, studied, and translated into all manner of languages. Lovecraft has been criticized for his prose, but never for his imagination. His creation of an entirely new kind of horror writing, based on the dread unleashed by a thoroughgoing examination of the implications of a materialistic universe bereft of a benevolent god, has influenced a diverse assortment of writers, from Stephen King to Joyce Carol Oates. Yet, in the small cottage industry of Lovecraft scholarship, few if any have touched on the role of media qua media[1] in his work. Lovecraft’s treatment of written, oral, gramophonic, and photographic media, (as particularly evidenced in his story, “The Whisperer in Darkness”[2]) is notable for its use of ‘signal loss’ as literary device, its role in evoking the uncanny, and its more general relation to the episteme in which he lived.

1 .Why Lovecraft?
Determinedly old-fashioned in taste, Lovecraft was unwillingly the arch-priest of the modern, post-enlightenment world. Paul Buhle, who skillfully juxtaposes quotes from Dialectics of Enlightenment and The Call of Cthulhu at the beginning of his essay “Dystopia as Utopia: Howard Philips Lovecraft and the Unknown Content of Horror Literature,” points out the trenchant assault on the established (rationalist, progressive, Western, Enlightenment) order that horror presents.  And indeed, it is the stark rediscovery of ‘nature’ and the artificial, temporary nature of the civilizing system placed upon it that presents the greatest source of terror to Lovecraft’s narrators (nearly always educated, cultivated men of some kind). In his pulp horror, one can see the clash of rising and falling paradigms at work: the main character of his “Dreams in the Witch-House,” for instance, is a student of mathematics who finds hidden correspondences between non-Euclidian geometry, quantum physics and the lore of seventeenth-century witchcraft. The bedeviling, unearthly architecture of sunken R’yleh, where “the geometry is all wrong” is compared to futurist and cubist art. Lovecraft found the modernists generally repellent (Eliot a dead-end and Freud “puerile symbolism,” though he had some kinder words for the Surrealists) and yet within his tales he seems convinced that decadence and doom are all the future offers, and that they have been heralded by the developments in art, science, and politics since 1900. Lovecraft’s terror is in part informed by the fear that the world he knew (one firmly rooted in the 18th and 19th centuries) had ceased to be, and that a strange new one was being birthed during his life.

The Lovecraft mythos, in a nutshell, is this: The real truths of the universe, already revealed by Einstein to be less than self-evident (If the laws of physics need not be constant in all areas of the universe, the possibility of the utterly unknowable arises), are sufficient when discovered to drive humans to despair and insanity. Humans are but ants in the larger scheme of things, owing their rise and inevitable fall to mere accident. Their place in the universe is insignificant, and the limits of human comprehension end at little more than the realization of that insignificance. The climax of the typical Lovecraft story is rarely an unequivocally real encounter with an actual creature or dark god—rather, the climax is often marked by the addition of the final, incontrovertible piece of evidence that makes possible the dreadful confirmation of suspicions long held[3]. This evocation of the uncanny through indirect means makes it more likely for the reader to be equally perturbed. The entire plot of “The Call of Cthulhu,” for instance, is driven by the piecing together of several media objects.  The joint force and full effect of a Lovecraft story is a piece that might border on mundane in its constituents (Many are the Lovecraft groaners in which the payoff is utterly incommensurate to the build-up) but profoundly nihilistic in generality. His creations are an evil for an age ‘beyond good and evil.’

Unheimlich Maneuvers (a brief note)
The uncanny, first considered by Jentsch and Freud, has been done half to death (ha!) over the past century, but I will describe [my] working conception of it briefly. The uncanny is a difficult-to-describe sensation of dread that belongs to “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (Freud) . In Jentsch’s original essay, the unheimlich is strongly associated with intellectual uncertainty about the human-ness of an object of perception. It may be living or dead, human or inhuman. The doppelganger recurs. Freud notes Schelling’s characterization of it as “everything…that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.” Lovecraft’s use of uncertainty in his stories (especially uncertainty regarding objects and events of strange provenance) is important for maintaining dramatic tension. The notion of the uncanny seems to undergird the supernatural horror of Lovecraft and is helpful for thinking about the dread of the unknown expressed in his stories.

2. MEDIA IN A HOSTILE WORLD, Or: why perfect communication is not a good thing.

 Given that a perfect communication of meaning from his world would have to invoke insanity in order to be realistic, Lovecraft turns the traditional drawbacks of a given medium into saving graces. In print media for instance, the enveloping of a tale within letters and memoirs makes for an ingenious solution to the simple theoretical problem that persons who encounter entities of the otherworldly power and inhuman malevolence Lovecraft ascribes to the Great Old Ones are (as a rule) not long for the world. Therefore, the fact that text “stored writing—no more and no less” (Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, pg 7) is an incredibly merciful thing in Lovecraft’s fictional world, and a device to aid the suspension of disbelief in the reading world. Just as the bible could store nothing but “mere words” in its description of Moses and God on Mount Sinai [Kittler, ibid], it is bluntly said of Cthulhu that “The Thing cannot be described--there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of matter, force, and cosmic order.” (of course, he tries.)  The subjects of his stories are too horrid for depiction to do them justice—their trace is only conveyed through the impossibility of a trace.
Further, individuals who hold cosmic secrets are most likely dead or insane, or very rarely both, with homicidal mania to boot. “The Call of Cthulhu,” for instance observes an excellent unity when it comes to textual sources: the narrator, known via the story’s subtitle to be dead, finds the notes of his dead great-uncle on the Cthulhu cult, and tracks down the manuscript of the only man to survive an encounter with Cthulhu, also dead. Therefore through writing one might engage in a conversation from safe distance, so to speak.
Plato’s objection in the Phaedrus that the author of a text is not there to clarify himself and take questions is perhaps less pressing, then, when the author was a ‘mad Arab’ renowned for his blasphemous iniquity and said to have been devoured by invisible beasts in broad daylight on the streets of Damascus, as is the case with the author of one of Lovecraft’s most popular fictional tomes, the Necronomicon.

It is an old saw among horror writers that over-description is dangerous; it is usually better to let the reader fill in ambiguities with entities far more fearful than anything the author could do with his poor power to add or detract from a dramatic situation. While his successors often ignored this rule, constructing tidy pantheons of Outer and Elder gods, Lovecraft intentionally remained vague on the definite natures of any of his fictional creations, as it should be with any ‘knowledge’ meant not to be known. Even when the narrator’s ignorance is dispelled (as in “The Whisperer in Darkness”) and “the foulest nightmares of secret myth” are “cleared up in concrete terms whose stark, morbid hatefulness exceeded the boldest hints of ancient and medieval mystics” the particulars are unrevealed.

The vagaries of oral transmission and misunderstanding mean that even the cultists devoted to the worship of these creatures have little understanding of their true nature. Half-remembered truths become softened through oral culture into myths and legends palatable to general mankind. It should be remembered that Albert Wilmarth and Henry Akeley, the main human characters of “The Whisperer in Darkness,” are themselves folklorists with experience in the transcription of folk tales; the transmission of oral culture into the written. In part, the horror Lovecraft seeks to impart can only be taken in by contemplative reading of texts.

In fact, the process of the story “The Whisperer in Darkness” can be seen as almost entirely based on successive media. The beginnings of the plot are found in the exchanges of letters in the pages of Vermont newspapers regarding the reports of strange bodies seen floating downstream during the great floods of November 1927, setting a somewhat Fortean tone for the tale that predates Ufology by a generation. Albert Wilmarth, a professor at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Mass, becomes well-known in Vermont without ever having stepped foot in the state for his debunking of the incidents. He receives a letter from and soon engages in correspondence with one Henry Akeley, a semi-recluse and folklorist who seems far more credible than the average crank, and who follows up his first letter with photographic prints.

The photos are seen as far more convincing evidence than the letters alone, possessing “a damnably suggestive power which was intensified by the fact of their being genuine photographs—actual optical links with what they portrayed, and the product of an impersonal transmitting process without prejudice, fallibility, or mendacity.” This credulity as to the absolute faithfulness of the photographic medium is balanced by a savvy about the means of photographic fakery: a photo of a creature claw-print is affirmed as “no cheaply counterfeited thing, I could see at a glance; for the sharply defined pebbles and grass-blades in the field of vision gave a clear index of scale and left no possibility of a tricky double exposure.” The narrator, while aware of methods of photographic forgery, possesses a faith in photography now rendered impossible by photoshop. It is important to note, however, that there is never any direct photographic evidence of the creatures harassing Henry Akeley. In one of his letters he claims to have seen a corpse of one killed by his dog, but standard photographic film could not capture its image, which ‘evaporated’ within a few hours of his encountering it. Wilmarth is incredulous at this, believing Akeley’s failure came through “some excited slip of his own.” The fraudulent letter (the only one that was typewritten) sent to Wilmarth (by the aliens or their human agents) claims that the aliens are composed of matter foreign to this part of the universe, right down to the “vibration of the electrons,” but that special emulsion could be prepared by any reasonably skilled chemist which would capture their image. Whether this is true or not is uncertain, but it follows the general idea of there being different laws of physics in different parts of the universe.

The most interesting object Wilmarth receives in “The Whisperer in Darkness” is the gramophone recording of ritualistic speeches between a human and the aliens. Akeley, a folklorist, makes a clandestine ‘field recording’ of an exchange that supposedly took place on the early morning of May 1st, 1915(‘May-eve’), at a cave entrance noted for its weird voices. The remarks Akeley sends surrounding the recording clearly note its materiality and imperfection:
The recording phonograph and Dictaphone had not worked uniformly well, and had of course been at a great disadvantage because of the remote and muffled nature of the overheard ritual, so that the actual speech secured was very fragmentary. Akeley had given me a transcript of what he believed the spoken words to be, and I glanced through this again as I prepared the machine for action. The text was darkly mysterious rather than openly horrible, though a knowledge of its origin and manner of gathering gave it all the associative horror which any words could well possess. I will present it here in full as I remember it—and I am fairly confident that I know it correctly by heart not only from reading the transcript, but from playing the record itself over and over again. It is not a thing which one might readily forget!
The transcript contains numerous caesuras, and the final speech is cut off by the end of the record. Once again, the limitations of the media (the record, the memory-transcript, and the description of the record) give Lovecraft an excuse to attest to a greater horror than he is able to create on his own. Again he strains at the limits of language to describe the buzzing voice of the aliens: “I have not even yet been able to analyse it well enough for a graphic description…there were singularities in timbre, range, and overtones which placed this phenomenon wholly outside the sphere of humanity and earth-life.”  He describes his repeated audition and study of the record, listening to it over and over as one might do with a piece of complex music, attempting to transcribe the spoken ritual as a jazz student might transcribe an improvised solo. The recording of the buzzing voices is considered the most valuable of the human-made media objects by Akeley and Wilmarth because of the difficulty of its reproduction (compared to photography and even letters, which are hand-copied by the correspondents to replace letters intercepted by the human agents of the Mi-Go.) and its ability to produce actual speech without the according danger. This gives some degree of power to the listener, whose listening experience is far less stressful than what it would be were he actually within earshot of such danger.

The objects of the aliens are more philosophically interesting, because here Lovecraft is not (theoretically) limited by the technology of his time, only by the imagination (of his time). The effect of the aliens that creates the greatest uncanny feeling is the Akeley-disguise; in the big shocker of the story, Wilmarth discovers the prosthetic hands and head designed by cunning alien science to look like his correspondent Akeley, leading him to realize that the unnerving person whom he has been speaking with had actually been one of the fungi from Yuggoth. The entire conversation was in essence theater for one.  There is an open question as to whether the disguise is formed from Akeley’s very body (thus making it at least its own index, after a fashion) or created from scratch.

Perhaps the most philosophically interesting objects in the story are the metal cylinders in which are kept live brains. Humans, like many other species encountered by the Mi-Go, cannot withstand the rigors of interstellar travel for obvious reasons. So their brains are taken out of their bodies and put into “ether-tight” metal cylinders. Three ports connect the brain via electrodes to machines which act as surrogates for the faculties of sight, speech, and hearing. They are, for want of a better term, plug-and-play; the ports are common to all the worlds inhabited by the Mi-Go, “so that after a little fitting these traveling intelligences could be given a full sensory and articulate life—albeit a bodiless and mechanical one—at each stage of their journeying through and beyond the space-time continuum. It was as simple as carrying a phonograph record and playing it wherever a phonograph of corresponding make exists.” Different machines exist for the various and sundry beings from across the universe with different means of sensation and communication. When the electrodes are detached, the brain supposedly falls into a state of “vivid and fantastic dreams;” Speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil. Their contraptions for the faculties seem today laughably primitive—vacuum tubes seem to mark the height of their electronic circuitry, and the voice synthesizer is flat, metallic, uniform among brains and without intonation. And yet the idea that a brain’s transmissions can be reduced to electric signals, that one can plug their brain into a machine for sensory input, is remarkably current, perhaps more so today than it was in Lovecraft’s time.  It privileges a mechanistic interpretation of human consciousness, one newly possible in Lovecraft’s day, and further privileges the faculties of sight, hearing, and sound, though this is likely a comment on the imperfection of such a device.

Possibly intentionally, these brain-boxes can be thought of as an excellent analogue to a phonograph record. Like the capture of a musical event by the phonograph (especially as analyzed by Adorno) many of the special qualities of that musical event are destroyed by the process of encoding in that medium. While they can now be transmitted far beyond their original context, the source materials (in this case, Humans) are rendered uniform by the process, the individuality of their voice eliminated by the lo-fidelity transmission of the voice synthesizer. They are imperfect vessels for human consciousness, just as radio and phonograph are imperfect vessels for musical performance.

Media form an important part of Lovecraft’s narrative toolkit, allowing him to filter ‘imperfectly’ the terrors beyond man’s ken into something consumable by the average reader of pulp literature. His conceptions of media, especially as a metaphor for cognition, place him as a man of his time even as he attempted to write stories that transcended it.

End Notes:

1. Burleson provides a deconstructionist analysis of a number of Lovecraft’s stories that recognizes the sophisticated use of framed narrative in “Call of Cthulhu,” and Houellebecq has ruminated on the importance of architecture in Lovecraft’s oeuvre generally, but I have yet to see a media-theoretical analysis.

2.1931 story, narrated by Albert Wilmarth, “instructor of literature at Miskatonic University,” about the strange goings on in the Vermont Hills he has learned about from correspondence with one Henry Akeley, a retiree and semi-recluse who believes the ancient legends about creatures from another world (called either Mi-Go or the fungi from Yuggoth) have some grounding in fact. Their exchanges reveal the presence of organized opposition that disrupts their mail and exchanges gunfire with an increasingly agitated Akeley, who seems to become less and less confident and sane as time goes on. This abruptly ceases when Wilmarth receives a typewritten letter, apparently from Akeley, asserting that he has made his peace with the aliens and learned much secret knowledge from them. The letter invites Wilmarth to come to Vermont with all the correspondence, photographs, and the phonograph record, so that they might compare notes. He obliges, and falls victim to the alien subterfuge, which includes disguising a Mi-Go as Akeley using very good prosthetics, and showing off their ability to keep human brains alive in metal cylinders for space travel, a process which Akeley has fallen victim to. Wilmarth, though he never sees one of the fungi ‘in person,’ hears a mysterious conversation that night, and bolts the house after discovering the Akeley-puppet. The police sent to the house the next day find nothing out of the ordinary, besides a number of bullet holes from the earlier gunfire. It is a testament to Lovecraft’s skill as a writer that the story is not actually as goofy as this description implies.

3. See Fritz Lieber, Jr’s essay “A Literary Copernicus” for more information. This seminal essay can be found in H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism ed. S.T. Joshi. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1980.

For more information, check out Kittler's Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.

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