Sunday 19 March 2017

HP Lovecraft and the alt-right

“…only a corpse does not react any more – against the maggots teeming upon it.” – Pat Buchanan

The first decade of the century saw the mainstreaming and attendant commercialization of Howard Philips Lovecraft's eldritch pantheon, most noticeably in the form of the dread Great Old One of the deep Cthulhu. Unrecognized by his contemporaries outside of pulp circles, Lovecraft died in penury in 1937, but his intense stylistics and the internal complexity of his mythos attracted a cult of horror fans, connoisseurs of the weird, and transgressive authors. When geek subculture became masscult, so did Lovecraft. At the same time, movements were made to position his oeuvre as Serious Literature, most noticeably with the Library of America’s 2005 selection Tales. Simultaneously, a canon of critical theory focusing on Lovecraft’s encounters with inhumanism, has hardened around his work, including Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology.

Towards the end of this same period, Cthulhu was also being adopted as an essential metaphor by the very non-mainstream Neo-Reactionary movement. The theory-head wing of the new new right, NRx politics break down to a glorification in the decay of the Westphalian State and the laying of groundwork for a series of neo-feudal statelets organized around the hallowed Right of Exit. In the first part of his A gentle introduction to Unqualified Reservations, Mencius Moldbug (nee Curtis Yarvin), NRx’s prime progenitor, détournes the introduction of Darren Staloff’s The Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals & Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts to read like a Lovecraft passage, name-checking Miskatonic University and the “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred”. Moldbug’s purpose is not to change Staloff’s intent, that the Puritans are “the precursors of the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks”, but to heighten this knowledge as weird. The exact definition of the weird, as both genre and affect, is highly contested, but Mark Fisher’s new book The Weird and the Eerie contains an excellent starting point: “that which does not belong…The form that is perhaps most appropriate to the weird is montage – the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together.” While in fiction and film the weird is meant to disturb or unsettle, in Moldbug’s homebrew-philosophy it is meant to excite. Much of the opening of Moldbug’s nine-part essay (with four appendices!) achieves this weird, exciting tone by appropriating SF tropes and terminology, first with the red pill/blue bill dichotomy from The Matrix, a metaphor now widely used by the alt-right and NRx trollheads: “Alas, our genuine red pill is not ready for the mass market. It is the size of a golfball, though nowhere near so smooth, and halfway down it splits in half and exposes a sodium-metal core, which will sear your throat like a live coal. There will be scarring.”

Moldbug then picks up/perverts Staloff’s line of thought in attempt to prove that America’s state religion is the Cathedral, which can be defined as the totality of the post-Enlightenment project and its invasion into every realm of human existence. To achieve this metaphor, he compares the as-yet-unnamed Cathedral to some “great, invisible predator of the deep - perhaps even Cthulhu himself”. Moldbug sees the “broad unanimity” across the American university system and media as non-hierarchical and “self-organizing”; this is “power itself”. Moldbug climaxes early with the much memefied statement, "Cthulhu may swim slowly. But he only swims left." As Phil Sandifer puts it in his 2016 Neoreaction: A Basilisk, Moldbug is rewriting Martin Luther King Junior’s “‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ as Lovecraft fanfic”. Often referenced or gestured at, the Cathedral was never better conjured than by the figure of that submerged, planet-destroying god-alien of pulp literature, whose hideous form is so inhuman it breaks down the act of description.

It isn’t as if NRx is somehow appropriating Lovecraft from a mainstream liberal geekcult. Lovecraft was a crankish reactionary and a virulent racist before he became source-code for Cthulhu plushies. In 2015 the World Fantasy Award ceased bearing Lovecraft’s bust after a controversy which crystalized in a Nnedi Okorafor blog post on her encounter with Lovecraft’s poem On the Creation of Niggers. Moldbug’s insistence on “human neurological uniformity” as a Cathedral conspiracy at times resembles the deep loathing Lovecraft expressed of the supposedly subhuman in such tales of The Shadow over Innsmouth and The Horror at Red Hook. In the former, “biological degeneration” is mistaken for “alienage”, and the inter-marriage between the residents of a small coastal town between a pre-human amphibious race is confused for inter-marriage with “South-Sea” islanders. In the latter, the polyglot “chanting, cursing processions of blear-eyed and pockmarked young men” who held “leering vigils on street corners” turn out to be, after all, “the heirs of some shocking and primordial tradition”. These specimens of supposed subhumanity are always described with great fear and hideous loathing. Fears of infection are visible in much of the history of the weird, from the tactile repulsion in M.R. James’ classical English ghost stories to Mark E. Smith screaming “Unclean! Unclean!” in Spectre Vs. Rector. However, Lovecraft’s obsession with dividing peoples into hierarchical layers of (in)authentic humanity partially springs from the dread that mankind is not exalted, but rather just another creature descended from an enzyme and to an enzyme it shall soon return.

Lovecraft’s “dreamscape” (as early critic Maurice Levy termed it) is extremely positivist. Humanity is the center of nothing, part of a progression of species which will walk the earth and be extinguished under the gaze of remote, uncaring galaxies. As Charles Stross has observed, the span of Lovecraft’s relatively short life saw science discover the universe was “two orders of magnitude in age and nine orders of magnitude in size” as was previously thought. Lovecraft wrote to a friend: “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large”. As Michel Houellebecq has observed, even Lovecraft's elder gods can be reduced to electrons. 

Lovecraft feared and despised this conception of the universe, and, likewise, Cthulhu is meant to be similarly feared and despised. There is, however, a tendency, in NRx’s other main spokesperson to glory in Cthulhu’s world-destroying power. If Moldbug is an engineer who “was tinkering around in [his] garage and…decided to build a new ideology”, like Steve Jobs for the Austrian school, Nick Land is a somewhat infamous former professor of Continental Philosophy at Warwick University. Land was the “vortical machine” who, along with Sadie Plant, comprised the center of the mid ‘90s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), which pioneered theory-fiction and attracted a variety of young talent such as Mark Fisher, Hari Kunzru, and Ray Brassier. As Simon Reynolds has written, the CCRU exulted “in capitalism's permanent ‘crisis mode’... believ[ing]in the strategic application of pressure to accelerate the tendencies towards chaos.” This idea, while not entirely new in Marxist thought, has become the cornerstone of Accelerationism, a theory which came back into fashion with the 2013 Accelerationist Manifesto before falling out of favor the wake of Brexit and Trump.

Hence why Land’s 2012 essay The Dark Enlightenment became so important for NRx; here was a heterodox rogue-philosopher applying his not-inconsiderable rhetorical and stylistic powers in its aid. (While Land has always heavily mined the Marxian tradition, he has never, himself, been a Leftist, inveighing early on against the “senile spectre of Socialism”.)

Land’s own encounters with the Outside have been well-documented. At times the CCRU veered toward something like a cyber-Lovecraftian role-playing game, conducted by philosophers who also happen to believe in demons. The end of Land’s tenure at Warwick, which was infamous for his amphetamine-inspired lecture/rants, saw “Land, increasingly claiming that he was inhabited by various ‘entities’ – Cur, Vauung, Can Sah – join[ing] the CCRU in developing a number of quasi-lovecraftian mythologies or ‘hyperstitions.’” In one lecture “complete with jungle soundtrack, Land lay behind the stage, flat on the floor (a ‘snake-becoming’ forming the first stage of bodily destratification), croaking enigmatic invocations intercut with sections from Artaud’s”. Fisher describes Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, a signal text for Land, as “treating discontent, abjection and psychopathology as traces of an as yet unimaginable outside rather than as symptoms of maladjustment.” This makes it rather difficult to state categorically whether or not Land actually went insane, but he certainly left Warwick, his so-called “disappearance”, and ended up in Shanghai, where he currently works as an editor and teacher.

Unsurprisingly, Lovecraft has always been a focal point of Land’s, not always as explicitly as in The Origins of the Cthulhu Club (dating from around ’98-’99), which riffs on Lovecraft’s above-mentioned obsession with the South-Seas and pseudo-invents “hyperstititons”, “semiotic productions that make themselves real”. Land is especially obsessed with the concept of Outsideness. (His Twitter handle is even named such.) Fisher: “Lovecraft’s stories are obsessively fixated on the question of the outside: an outside that breaks through in encounters with anomalous entities from the deep past, in altered states of consciousness, in bizarre twists in the structure of time. The encounter with the outside often ends in breakdown and psychosis.” In short, Land resembles, at times, a Lovecraft protagonist.

Land’s recent horror fiction heavily references Lovecraft’s many-tentacled Squid Lords, the cults who worship them, and insanity/the end of humanity. In the self-published 2015 novella Chasm, the narrator ruminates upon his eldritch cargo: “It had not occurred to me that it could be anything we might understand. That was a pre-emptive defense mechanism, I had already begun to recognize. Otherwise, the tantalization would have been intolerable, consuming all thought, without remainder.” In an appendix to the 2014 short story Phyl-Undhu, Land writes of that unholy spawn of Fermi’s Paradox the Great Filter, which postulates an unavoidable incoming extinction event: “A galaxy teeming with life is a horror story. The less there is obstructing our being born, the more there is waiting to kill or ruin us.” As Reynolds observed, even pre-breakdown Land essays contained a “tone of morbid glee…intensified to an apocalyptic pitch. There seems to be a perverse and literally anti-humanist with the ‘dark will’ of capital and technology, as it ‘rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities.’”

The signal difference between Land pre-breakdown and now-Land is that he is currently actively soliciting the destruction of the world, instead of merely wriggling about gleefully whilst envisioning it. Land views the bulk of the new new right as a “sort of Petri dish in which he can observe the spasming collapse of the technosingularity” (Sandifer again). What we have here is a kind of reprisal of Land’s Warwick days, except that he’s in Shanghai on a smartphone and his acolytes are a bunch of a wanna-be-shitlord world destroyers, not up-and-coming cultural theorists.

Land has also retained an enthusiastic, if slightly cryptic, interest in magic as more than mere metaphor. The Dark Enlightenment’s sigil, 333, was generated by Urbanomic’s quabbalistic engine, which is based on Land’s concept of Qwernomics, an attempt to access the “machinic unconscious” present in “global technocapitalism” via the Qabbalistic code encoded in Qwerty. Land remained capable of admitting, at least in 2004, “Of course, there may be nothing behind the mask.” (A 2013 post shows his interest in the Kabbalah is still strong.) The new new right is obsessed with a similar, if baser form of numerology, which is being called “meme magick”. Kek, originally the Korean version of “lol” used in World of Warcraft, has been revealed to be an ancient deity resurrected by accidental 4chan numerology in the form of Pepe, the Matt Furie-created cartoon-hipster frog now worn as lapel by alt-right figures such as Richard B. Spencer. This has led to call-outs for using “thot” in case it happens to resurrect a rival deity. (Land doesn’t seem to take this hyper-seriously.)

As Sandifer notes, Land sees Moldbug as a “perverse ally” as he is a “utopian whereas Land is a philosophical pessimist”. Moldbug asserts that the left represents “war, anarchy and crime”, thus disorder, and “order is simply good, and chaos is simply evil.” Land is, however, all about the chaos his useful clowns are sowing. If the two have anything like a coherent political goal, it is the dissolution of the United States. This is the NRx long game, and they appear to be winning at it. Cthulhu now acts as the reactionary version of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, except the angle is toward oblivion. 


Brendan C. Byrne's criticism has appeared in Rhizome and Arc, among other organs. His fiction has appeared in Flurb and Flapperhouse.

This article first appeared in issue 1 of Imperica Magazine.


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