Petrohorror and Unknowing: Petrocultural Engagements with the Limits of Philosophical Thought // Part 2

This is the second of a two-part essay. Part 1 can be found here.

Clinging on to dear life

Reading the theories established in the first part of this essay together, we can now investigate the themes associated with them in concept horror, especially those which are underrepresented by the conventional body of petrofiction; and to integrate the wealth of theoretical terms and practices discussed up until this point into our readings of the chosen stories: H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”[1] and Dean Koontz’s Phantoms.[2] To begin with: the idea of emergence, the how and why of the oily substance’s collision (and collusion) with the lives of its victims. There are three possible culprits: human agency, the substance’s own agency, and the aleatory agency of chance. All three are culpable to some extent in both stories. In “The Colour Out of Space”, it is the meteorite from unknown regions of deep space that provides the colour with its entrance: there is no knowing whether it falls to earth by coincidence or whether it is somehow directed to a place where it could be recharged (the Gardner ranch) before continuing with its journey, but fortuitousness seems to play some role in the colour’s trajectory, and in addition, it does actively effect change on its surroundings for its own gain. What is unambiguous is the human role in its progression: there is an obvious moment of release when the scientists crack the rock open, but human agency is also shown in the story through the agricultural maintenance of the ranch, providing nutrients and shelter (the well) for the parasite to thrive.[3] In Phantoms there exists a more observable negotiation between the Ancient Enemy and the human characters, however this is made clear this is purely for the benefit of each respective side, never mutual. And as with any work of fiction, there are deliberately constructed moments of chance incorporated into the narrative, such as the accidental release of the killer Kale, and the general orchestration of the group of characters which possess the right characteristics (muscle, scientific knowledge, medical skills) needed to save humanity.

As these substances emerge, they bring to the surface with them questions surrounding the distinctions between the living and the dead, the organic and inorganic, and the natural and “that which ought not to be.” These distinctions are tested thoroughly through the process of contamination, usually leading to the reanimation of the dead, as is the case with murdered officer Wargle in Phantoms;[4] or takeover of the victims’ autonomy or natural behaviour, as with everything animal, vegetable or mineral inhabiting the ranch in “The Colour Out of Space”. Is this not also how we imagine the role of oil itself – creeping into and taking over, such as in the cases of industrialisation, the replacement of manual workers with fuel-guzzling machines, many times cheaper and more powerful? In these contexts, the idea of “petropupptry” no longer seems so outrageous, especially when considered alongside similar imagery employed in canonical petrofiction.[5] The recurrence of this visual metaphor across distinct work of fiction implies a common aim, namely, to convey the flows of oil (or oil-capital) as it infiltrates the global, social, or ideological body. These bodies often display what Negarestani terms “zones of emergence”: holes or porosities serving as entrances and exits (Negarestani 2008: 49). For the victims of Phantoms, their faces are often fixed in paralytic screams, their mouths serving as a reminder of their horrifying physical destruction from the inside. Even more disturbing is Nahum Gardner’s death as witnessed by Ammi Pierce, who tells of the “brittle”, “distorted parody that had been a face”, culminating in the line: “That which spoke could speak no more because it had completely caved in.” (COS 329-330) The gaping well and the porous meteorite can be considered continuations of this theme.

In a study of Justin Cronin’s petrogothic vampire novel, The Twelve (2012), Macdonald explains the vampiric transformation of oil-victims into oil-subjects as follows:

Here is the zombified expression of extended oil, a world where petroleum, despite everything, remains undead. Its deathly brilliance, its accelerant uses, allows a form of desperate survival, and, as is explained, the ironic monstrosity of this is that the monsters themselves require the life of humans to extend, as permanently untapped deposits for future consumption. For humans, who create the monster-filled future, are themselves the ultimate, “organic” form of energy supply. (Macdonald 2014: 137)

Here we have the symbiotic relationship laid bare, wherein not only is oil an energy supply for humans, humans are themselves an energy supply for oil. In this relationship, both participating bodies are “undead”: too valuable to be left to either surface or ground, their interaction involves both a surfacing (surging upwards or seeping out) for oil, and a katabatic descent for humans (drilling and extraction). The way in which we use “undead” energy reserves to animate our lives is mirrored by oil’s ability to transfigure its (human) subjects into becoming-undead prey.

The reversal of roles in the dominant energy narrative (wherein usually it is people who are “exploiting” natural resources, the roles of master and slave being strongly defined), the victimisers becoming the victims, and “we [no longer] use oil, oil uses us”, is called “anthropic inversion” by Thacker (Thacker 2012: 176). The intermediary agent, the Earth (the world-in-itself), is pivotal here too. Not merely a milieu to be weirded (in Thacker’s terminology, it is the World(-for-us) that is weirded; the Earth is always weird), the Earth dictates the conversation between the two energy resources (human and oil) through its own surface-ground dynamics, and by this process becomes the true victim, the contaminated body, dying of heatstroke.

The nature of this interaction may help to explain oil’s agency and mission objectives. Both the colour and the Ancient Enemy are survivors: rare, endangered, and in need of its own form of biopower. And while human need for oil may be more socio-political than Darwinian, the (short-term) security and massive acceleration it has provided to both the developed and developing worlds ensure that any future downscaling of its consumption may be logistically and psychologically painful. Consider Nahum’s continued “listless” and “mechanical” drinking of the clearly poisoned well water: “he had by that time become calloused to strange and unpleasant things.” (COS 324) His sentiment seems a precursor to our current energy crisis, our age of continuing exhumation of “tough oil” we know is bad for us, yet a “safer” investment than alternative energy sources.

Horror of philosophy

As explained already, for Thacker horror is an attempt to conceive of the world-without-us philosophically, but in a “non-philosophical” way. This statement assumes that philosophy is by definition concerned with the world-for-us as its sole avenue of inquiry, and that horror deflects philosophical inquiry from the foundation that the world is the world-for-us to the world-without-us. This for Thacker is symptomatic of the decoupling of thought from the individual mind: in the same way that the world is not really a world-for-us, thought itself is also not “ours”; it too occupies a hyperobjective distance beyond our immediate selves, specifically in the “lacunae in the World and the Earth.” Thought is planetary (residing in the world-without-us) (Thacker 2011: 7-9).

In his essay “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans” (2012), Thacker posits a pathway out of anthropocentric and anthropomorphic thinking altogether, using another petrohorror short story, Fritz Leiber’s “Black Gondolier” (1964), as his case study. He frames the experience of the weird encounter in four stages: the transformation of the human from a rational subject into simply another expression of the fundamentally weird object; or the “unhuman”, defined as “a limit without reserve, something that one is always arriving at, but which is never circumscribed within the ambit of human thought.” (Thacker 2012: 173-80) The first stage is mere subsumption of the unhuman into humanistic frameworks, or anthropic subversion. Following this is anthropic inversion, as alluded to above. This is the recognition of “something else”; of having been discovered by the autonomous, creeping unhuman, rather than being the discoverer.

The third level is ontogenic inversion, the moment in the story wherein the faith of the human protagonist is shaken entirely by the realisation that humanity itself is simply “one instance of the unhuman.” Let us pause for a moment and consider the implications of this shift in perspective. The victims of petrohorror narratives are no longer negotiating with an outsider monster for the purposes of its own enslavement and consumption, they themselves are negotiating with their own monstrosity. In these terms, the ancient enemy’s prophesy/threat of returning at the end of Phantoms takes on a new meaning. Perhaps the “human” victims of Snowfield are themselves separated parts of this paternal “Legion”, suggested by the itching beneath Kale’s skin (Ph 426-430). Not only are anthropomorphic descriptors (terms such as “intent”, “sentience”, or “agency”) no longer easily applicable when recognising the unhuman, it cannot even be thought of as “other”. When faced with the monster of the weird story, the victims are foremost victims of themselves; the limits of their capacity for thought. Their crisis is a crisis of the inside, not the outside, and only a reckoning with the unhuman that is the collective self (what is thought of as humanity) will suffice.

A negotiation with ourselves, then, is shown in works of petrohorror be the adequate response to the looming energy crises which dominate our own human narratives. Yet, as horror narratives, we should be aware that delving deeper into them, the more “rational” we make them in an attempt to understand them, will also produce further horror still, as noted by George Sieg (Sieg 2008: 30-31). A confrontation with our energy future requires much more than systemic behavioural changes, mutually agreeable international policies and treaties, vast economic investment and infrastructure, and so on; it also requires a questioning of how we choose to conceive of and represent ourselves, and what we (collectively) are really capable of – an idea that for many is much more frightening even than oncoming environmental disaster.

In this sense, global warming really is a philosophical concern – the frameworks of existentialism, ontology and phenomenology are starting points in considering how to think philosophically about the crisis. But before using it, we must first be aware of what happens to thought when the thinking subject is exposed to the unhuman. During his moment of ontogenic inversion, the third level of inversion as mentioned above, Daloway, the protagonist of “Black Gondolier”, is able to conceive of the human as an indifferent instance of the unhuman. “At this point”, Thacker writes, “thought falters, and here we enter a fourth stage we can call misanthropic subtraction.” This is represented by the Lovecraftian technique of utilising euphemistic, analogical phrases such as “the unnameable”, in conjunction with baroque, over-gratuitous descriptors; and for Thacker they together constitute “a singular epiphany concerning the faltering not just of language, but of thought as well.” Attaining “the thought of the limit of all thought”, results in a “black illumination” by which the unhuman is treated by the subject as an indifference towards the human (Thacker 2012: 177-180). Human thought, finally, is therefore a property of the unhuman (Thacker 2011: 93-94).

Thought, then, is like a resource we borrow for the purpose of understanding. It too is a hyperobject: we cannot easily think “beyond thought” (of death, for example); it cannot be easily localised according to the contours of the brain; and so on. If we then define philosophy as the creation of or engagement with concepts and systems of thought designed to broaden our awareness and understanding,[6] the relevance of going beyond philosophy in the context of going beyond oil consumption begins to emerge. Not only does the energy crisis replicate the classical thinker’s predicament of needing to work beyond the limits of their epistemological framework when that framework becomes unsustainable, and to cognise an unstable future ahead of time; the energy crisis also finds its parallel in the autophagic process of thinking, the self-effacing of the individual consumed by their interaction with logical propositions and postulates.

It is from this perspective that Thacker can equate the boundaries of human(-driven) thought with the horror of philosophy; and by extension, we are able to associate this strand of extra-philosophical inquiry with the horror of ecology. This is Thacker’s understanding of the horror of philosophy:

the isolation of those moments in which philosophy reveals its own limitations and constraints, moments in which thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own possibility – the thought of the unthinkable that philosophy cannot pronounce but via a non-philosophical language. (Thacker 2011: 2)

This new association of concept horror with the energy humanities can be used to uncover themes within petrohorror which have greater resonance in our understanding of the oil crisis. Many observations regarding emergence, agency and autonomy could be made here, but we must be careful not to reduce our usage of these terms to the anthropic. The relative indistinction uncovered by Thacker between human subjectivity and weird objectivity must be maintained if we are to utilise the concept horror methodology.

One way in which to think through this is to consider the oil creatures of petrohorror, the colour and the ancient enemy, as what the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl termed “intentional objects”. A large influence on Timothy Morton’s own phenomenological hyperobjects, intentional objects behave oppositely to real objects, which as we attempt to grasp the essence of them, “withdraw” from us, and become unknowable.[7] Intentional objects, on the other hand, are always present, immanent, encroaching even (Harman 2008: 353). Crucially however, these two objects are interlinked. Oil is both a real and intentional object, as are the colour and the ancient enemy: this is another of their weird qualities. According to Graham Harman, an intentional object is “both always and never present.” (ibid.: 362) Oil both withdraws into our unconscious and oppresses us with its presence; the threats of petrohorror monsters are simultaneously observable and unmeasurable, and “express their reality only by drawing neighboring objects into their orbit.” (ibid.)

A quality such as “agency”, therefore, can be understood as associated with weird objects such as oil beyond the level of anthropic inversion, if viewed as an expression of its intentionality, and not merely an endowment of a “human” attribute. The colour has the intention to regenerate itself using the earth’s resources, and the ancient enemy’s agenda also implies a certain logic regarding its own survival. Our unhuman agency – to grow stronger, to consume – is witnessed in the reflection of these narratives; and in the case of Phantoms, the enemy is eventually overcome through an observable negotiation, and recognition of the other. What is clear, when recognised in this way, is that these stories do not present the kind of human morality – the anthropo-guilt – which is often expected from ecofiction; instead providing complex, unprecedented, horrific occurrences for which no singular blame can be directly administered.

Conclusion

In “Petrofiction”, Ghosh made a distinctive claim. “The truth is”, he wrote, “we do not yet possess the form that can give the Oil Encounter a literary expression.” (Ghosh 1992: 31) However, by considering the body of work I have called petrohorror, this claim can be contested. Surely, Ghosh did not consider “The Colour Out of Space”, Phantoms, and “Black Gondolier” works of petrofiction: his usage of the term “Oil Encounter” seems to refer to a specific instance of emergence, a West-meets-East narrative that largely adheres to the pre-established mould set by colonial and postcolonial literature. Yet many years on from 1992, and given the substantial advances in our awareness of the oil crisis, it is now apparent that oil encounters are universal. For us then, petrofiction must be multidirectional and non-monotonic, and aim to utilise new literary forms to express not merely a singular historical event, but a much wider series of environmental effects and consequences. It is this revised definition of petrofiction, and its integration into ecocriticism, which the petroculturalists since Ghosh have sought to identify and exemplify.

This revision of the genre (if, indeed, this term is adequate), I argue, allows and benefits from the inclusion of the works of genre horror I have identified. Petrohorror, bolstered by the philosophical investigations of concept horror, brings into focus the immediate fear and dread of a substance difficult to objectify; a substance we cannot think beyond, as it is fully integrated not only with “our” thinking, but which itself takes on the form of thought, which cannot be thought of beyond itself. In a sense, petroculturalists attempt to seek new perspectives on the Lovecraftian unnameable thing, and to use empirical data and rational discussion to cognise the extent of its impact on the future. Petrohorror, through techniques such as anthropic inversion and misanthropic subversion, constructs allegorical manifestations of the thing in question, and plots which bring to the surface the paralysing, chaotic responses to our encounters with it. The result of these inversions is that narratives can begin to adequately represent a disjointed, “unnatural” world, of plastic,[8] of seemingly boundless energy and capital, that makes a call for a “return to nature” even less convincing, and forces us to invent progressive, anterograde solutions to the eco-pocalypse facing us.  The palliative potential of the petrohorror genre, as the energy dilemma reaches peak urgency, would be to show its readers that although humanity’s actions have resulted in an age of global horror, reactionary stasis would only further problematise the crisis.

Notes

[1] Hereafter COS.

[2] Hereafter Ph.

[3] There is an unambiguous anti-industrial, even transcendental streak running through Lovecraft’s story, a reaction to the unreasonable demands of expanding urban environments, creeping into his beloved New England home, which of course is the primary concern of the metanarrative here. The new reservoir being built perhaps suggests “The Colour Out of Space” be read as a revenge story against encroaching modernity, in which case Lovecraft’s own ecological views may be of secondary concern.

[4] The narrator describes the fatal attack as follows: “Wargle moved erratically across the street, jerked this way and that, heaved and writhed and spun, as if he were attached to strings that were being manipulated by a drunken puppeteer.” The victim shortly re-emerges later in the story, continuing the theme of reanimation beyond the boundaries of life and death. Ph 152 (my emphasis).

[5] For example, in John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil , there is a visually arresting scene which physically enacts a petropuppet danse macabre: a Texan oil baron and a senior Civil Servant attach strings to a government official, and together the three perform a song-and-dance number (McGrath 2015: 156-157).

[6] This is primarily a Deleuzoguattarian definition, derived from What Is Philosophy? (1994). Negarestani recurs this idea by defining philosophy as a “program”; “the primary focus of this cognitive program is to methodically urge thought to identify and bring about realizabilities afforded by its properties (theoretical and practical intelligibilities pertaining to thinking as such), to explore what can possibly come out of thinking and what thought can become.” (Negarestani 2015)

[7] “To represent a globe or tower is to witness a specific configuration of colors, textures, shadows, and physical co-ordinates. But if we see presentation as object-giving rather than presentational, we shift our focus toward the essential nucleus of the perception”. (Harman 2008: 352)

[8] “For Earth, the rendering of organic life on the surface of its crust into subterranean mineral fossil fuels is a core vascular labor. As oil, plastic is life recycled. So that the plasticity of plastic – the real compression-decompression effect of oil as the ultimate fate of the living thing – long predates the physical possibility of its composition by animals (humans) as the chemicals we call “plastics.” That futurity is ancient.” (Bratton 2012: 47)

Bibliography

Bratton, B.H. (2012) “Root the Earth: On Peak Oil Apophenia”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books: 45-57.

Ghosh, A. (March 1992) “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel”, The New Republic, 29-34.

Harman, G. (2008) “On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl”, in Mackay, R. (ed.) Collapse IV, Falmouth, Urbanomic, 332-364.

Koontz, D. (1990) Phantoms, London, Headline Book Publishing.

Lovecraft, H.P. (2014) The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, ed. Klinger, L.S., New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Macdonald, G. (2014) “Improbability Drives: The Energy of Sf”, Paradoxa, No. 26, 111-144.

McGrath, J. (2015) The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, ed. Macdonald, G., London/New York, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne, re:press.

— (2015) “What Is Philosophy? Part One: Axioms and Programs”, e-flux #67, available online at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/what-is-philosophy-part-one-axioms-and-programs/.

Sieg, G. (2008) “Infinite Regress into Self-Referential Horror: The Gnosis of the Victim”, in Mackay, R. (ed.) Collapse IV, Falmouth, Urbanomic, 29-54.

Thacker, E. (2011) In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, vol. 1, Winchester/Washington, Zero Books.

— (2012) “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books, 173-180.

Featured image credits: übermorgen.com (2008) “04_MILLION_LITERS”.

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