Transcendental Monsters

In a brilliant article that draws surprising parallels between Husserl’s phenomenology and the “weird fiction” of H. P. Lovecraft, Graham Harman (2008) argues that Lovecraft’s tales of unrepresentable monsters cannot be read in a Kantian register. Although at first sight “Kant’s inaccessible noumenal world seems a perfect match for the cryptic stealth of Lovecraft’s creatures” (337), in fact these monsters, “however bizarre. . . still belong to the causal and spatio-temporal conditions that, for Kant, belong solely to the structure of human experience. . . The terror of Lovecraft is not a noumenal horror, then, but a horror of phenomenology” (340-342). Lovecraft is a materialist, and there is nothing transcendent or supernatural about his monsters. Indeed, the true source of horror for Lovecraft is that, however much the monstrosities whose presence he evokes exceed all powers of human apprehension, so that they are literally indescribable and unvisualizable, they still belong to the same world as we do. Like us, they are empirical, contingent entities; they do not “float into the world from nowhere” (Whitehead 1978, 244). To think of them as “mystic beings,” noumenal, supernatural, or otherworldly, would in fact be a way of palliating their horror. For such a perspective would turn the sheer arbitrariness of their appearance into something ineluctable and fated, and therefore in some sense justified or “rational.”

Now, what Harman says about Lovecraft’s Old Ones is in fact true of Capital as well. For all its excess and monstrosity, Capital – like Cthulhu – is a body, and thereby an entirely empirical phenomenon. It “appears as [our society’s] natural or divine presupposition” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 10), and “the energy that sweeps through it is divine” (13); yet capitalism is still a contingent, historical process, one that could have been otherwise. It has not existed forever, and it need not last forever. As Ellen Meiksins Wood cogently demonstrates, capitalism is not the “natural realization of ever-present tendencies” (2002, 3), such as the alleged innate human impulse to “truck, barter and exchange” posited by Adam Smith (11). For it is not an inevitability, but rather – much like the advent of Cthulhu – the fortuitous result of a contingent encounter. Capitalism was born out of the “extrinsic conjunction of these two flows: flows of producers and flows of money. . . On one side, the deterritorialized worker who has become free and naked, having to sell his labor capacity; and on the other, decoded money that has become capital and is capable of buying it” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 225). Both of these “flows” arose out of the decomposition of feudalism; but many other flows did as well, and there is no special reason, or structural necessity, why these two particular flows should have become more prominent than all the others, nor why they should have become conjoined with one another. The encounter that gave birth to capitalism need never have happened; and in any case, it happened only once (224).

Wood, more historically precise than Deleuze and Guattari, shows how it was only in post-feudal agrarian England that recourse to the market became, not just an opportunity (as it was for late medieval merchants in Italy, and early modern financial speculators in Holland) but an absolute imperative for both landowners and workers. “Markets of various kinds have existed throughout recorded history and no doubt before, as people have exchanged and sold their surpluses in many different ways and for many different purposes. But the market in capitalism has a distinctive, unprecedented function. Virtually everything in capitalist society is a commodity produced for the market. And even more fundamentally, both capital and labour are utterly dependent on the market for the most basic conditions of their own reproduction. . . This market dependence gives the market an unprecedented role in capitalist societies, as not only a simple mechanism of exchange or distribution but the principal determinant and regulator of social reproduction” (2002, 96-97).

In other words, there are markets without capitalism, but there is no capitalism without the absolute reign of the market. As Wood puts it, “this unique system of market-dependence means that the dictates of the capitalist market – its imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labour-productivity – regulate not only all economic transactions but social relations in general” (2002, 7). And this is the key to what I have been calling the monstrosity of capital. It is utterly contingent in its origins; and yet, once it has arrived, it imposes itself universally. Capitalism might never have emerged out of the chaos of feudal, commercial, religious, and State institutions that preceded it, just as Cthulhu might never have stumbled upon our planet. But in both cases, the unfortunate encounter did, in fact, take place. And it is only afterwards, in its subsequent effects, once it has in fact arrived on the scene and subjugated all its rivals, that capitalism is able – again, much like Cthulhu – to present itself retro spectively as an irresistible and all-embracing force. Capitalism arose “in a very specific place, and very late in human history” (2002, 95). But once it arose, it made market relations compulsory: as Wood says, the so-called “free market” became an imperative, a coerced activity, instead of an opportunity (6-7).

This puts an altogether different light upon the philosophical question of how to categorize monstrosity. Harman convincingly shows that Lovecraft’s horrors cannot be regarded as noumenal. But this is really just arguing against a straw man. For a proper Kantian reading of Lovecraft’s stories – as well as of Marx’s Capital, and of capitalism – must claim, not that the monstrosity in question is noumenal, but rather that it is transcendental, which is an entirely different matter. Kant always carefully distinguishes the transcendental from the transcendent. A transcendental condition is one that is universal and a priori, but that applies only to experience, and does not transcend or go beyond experience. That is to say, it emphatically does not refer to noumena, or “things in themselves.” The transcendental is not quite empirical, since it is not found within experience. But it is also, at the same time, nothing but empirical, since it can only be referred to experience. The transcendental is thus a strange borderline concept, neither containable within contingent, empirical existence, nor extending anywhere beyond it. At this border or limit there is indeed, as Nina Power puts it, an “eerie proximity of Kant and Lovecraft,” due to Lovecraft’s “internalisation of Kantian categories in the name of transcendental horror” (2007).

Kant says that a transcendental condition, such as time, “cannot be annulled” (1996, 86), but also cannot be represented directly. It can only be referred to indirectly, “by means of analogies” (88). We might well say, therefore, that the transcendental resists any sort of empirical description. When we try to describe it nevertheless – when we seek to evoke what Proust called “a little bit of time in its pure state” – we run into the same sorts of difficulties as Lovecraft’s narrators do when they try to describe the monsters they have encountered: “the very point of the descriptions is that they fail, hinting only obliquely at some unspeakable substratum of reality” (Harman 2008, 339). Yet this “unspeakable substratum” is not itself (as Harman amply demonstrates) transcendent, absolute, or otherworldly. It is a feature of our world, and only of our world. Such is the aporia of the transcendental: we encounter something about which we do not know how to speak, but which we also cannot pass over in silence.

This can best be grasped by contrast to Kant’s account of morality. Kant says that the moral laws that we must obey are in fact laws that we ourselves have imposed upon ourselves: they have been decreed by our rational, noumemal selves. But in the case of the understanding, there is no such rational agency, and no such noumenal authorization. The understanding is not autonomous, because it is confined to an empirical world that it cannot master. The constraints that it encounters are not ones that it has legislated, but ones that are already presupposed by the very fact of its existence. As Deleuze puts it, commenting on both Kant and Bergson, it is not that time is inside us, but rather that we are inside time: “it is we who are internal to time, not the other way round. . . Time is not the interior in us, but just the opposite” (1989, 82).

This sense that we ourselves are the effects of forces that are not ours, forces that surpass us and remain indifferent to us, could well be a formula for horror. Of course, neither Kant, nor Bergson, nor Deleuze presents it this way. But Benjamin Noys convincingly argues that “the vortex of seething time” is the ultimate form of horror for Lovecraft, exceeding any particular instance of one monstrous race of beings or another (2008, 282). What appalls us is less the inhumanity of Cthulhu, and the anteriority of the Old Ones with regard to us, than the larger truth of which these are merely symptoms: the utter “detachment of time from any relation to humanity” (281). More generally, we may say that monstrosity is transcendental because the very idea of the transcendental – as a condition to which we are subjected, but which we cannot locate, describe, or circumscribe in any way – is itself horrific and monstrous.

For Kant, of course, time itself does not have a genesis or a history, since all histories and all becomings must necessarily unfold within it. From a Kantian point of view – or, for that matter, from a Heideggerian one – our subjection to time is a general existential condition, one that must apply to all beings conscious of their own finitude. However, does such a formulation do justice to the uncanniness of the transcendental, the way that it ambiguously both belongs and does not belong to the empirical realm? Deleuze notes that post-Kantian thought criticized Kant’s “transcendental deduction” for being incomplete. The post-Kantians “demanded a principle which was not merely conditioning in relation to objects but which was also truly genetic and productive” (1983, 51-52). That is to say, they sought to define the transcendental as an ongoing process of construction, rather than as a fixed structure that is always already in place. The transcendental is actively “genetic and productive,” because it is a “synthesis,” a conjoining or putting-together, and not just a fixed result that has already been synthesized. Time as a transcendental condition is not just produced once and for all. It must be synthesized continually; and this ongoing action of synthesis, or production, is itself the experience of temporality to which we find ourselves subjected.

When Deleuze redefines the transcendental as an ongoing, genetic and productive synthesis, he moves from Kant’s transcendental idealism to what he instead calls transcendental empiricism. A synthesis defines the conditions of empirical existence; but it is itself an empirical process, immanent to the phenomena that it governs. For every synthesis is a contingent encounter of forces. It is a rearrangement or rearticulation of the empirical field – but one that arises from within that very field. Synthesis therefore paradoxically defines an a priori that nonetheless could have been otherwise. And this is precisely the way in which the monstrous body of Cthulhu, or the monstrous body of capital, is a transcendental horror. In both cases, we move from a contingent, empirical encounter, to the imposition of a transcendental conditon. Cthulhu might have missed our planet entirely, and the market might have remained an adjunct to other forms of economic activity, and f political and social life. But once Cthulhu has arrived, or once the market has imposed its relentless pressures at the very heart of the socius, there is no turning back from the full measure of monstrosity.

23 thoughts on “Transcendental Monsters”

  1. This statement of yours is really brilliant. It helps define the parameters of that elemental nature of horror that seems to escape the confines of horror itself. Perhaps there is an ethics of horror to be constructed here:

    “This sense that we ourselves are the effects of forces that are not ours, forces that surpass us and remain indifferent to us, could well be a formula for horror.”

    Something too beautiful and too monstrous…

  2. So delighted to see you bringing Lovecraft into this larger conversation about materialism, Steven. Way too many readers, I think, are stuck trying to uncover some sort of old world mysticism in Lovecraft’s work that just isn’t there (or at least, it isn’t there for me, I should probably qualify).

  3. Perhaps because my appreciation of meaning or empathy regarding “we ourselves” is infinitely expansive in potential, I fail to appreciate reason to be “convinced” that “we ourselves” are merely and only effects of forces that remain “indifferent” to us. Although I do agree that all physically manifested aspects about our bodies are merely transcendental, I do not think “essence of I-ness” (or Will, Inclination, Imagination, or Mind) is entirely reducible to transcendental physicality. Rather, I suspect Physical Nature is transcendentally derivative of pure Will-To-Math (aka, “God”).

  4. hi Steve,
    I don’t have time to do this post and the preceding ones justice, but I hope you’ll allow me to nitpick one point. You write: “there are markets without capitalism, but there is no capitalism without the absolute reign of the market” and I find myself left cold (not a chilling Lovecraftian cold either). In some sense, yeah, of course, if we’re not overly restrictive in the definition of ‘market’. But to loosen the definitions a bit also makes room to ask “why markets?” for the key analytical/theoretical/whatever we call it mechanism of identification? Why not appropriation of surplus labor? Why not state forms? Etc. One answer would be to resist the loosening of definitions I want (and then we argue – or just agree to disagree) about whether slavery was sometimes capitalist, and unwaged reproductive labors. But barring that, why markets?
    take care,

  5. Nate, this is a great question and I am not sure what the answer is. In this posting, I was basically following Ellen Meiksins Wood, who argues in The Origins of Capitalism that there are indeed non-capitalist markets, and who includes late-medieval Florence and early-modern Holland among societies that were non-capitalist, even though they were dominated by mercantile classes who traded in international markets. She says that these societies were not capitalist, because they were not overwhelmingly based upon the extraction of surplus from “free” laborers who were compelled to sell their labor power. It is only when this form of directly economic exploitation is separated from the forms of extra-economically coerced appropriation of the surplus (such as existed under feudalism), that the market becomes a capitalist one, i.e. one in which market relations are *compulsory* for both “owners” and “free” laborers, i.e. there is no other way open to subsist. And it is only under these conditions, she says, that we develop a *unified* market with its forms of compulsion, as opposed to the way Florentine and Dutch merchants accumulated wealth precisely by buying cheap and selling dear, as could be done when markets were fragmented, but which (as Marx says) is never the real source of wealth in capitalism.

    The main thrust of Wood’s argument is to insist upon the specificity of capitalism, and to refute the idea that capitalism is somehow already implicit as soon as the “market” is freed from the “fetters” of feudalism. She claims that many European countries in which this happened did NOT become spontaneously capitalist — that capitalism arose only in England, from the specific conditions of agriculture there. And that it is only in capitalism that the market becomes *compulsory* and a central mechanism for shaping society.

    I know that Wood’s work is not above all criticism — but I find her major points convincing, especially in relation to the question of the contingency of the development of capitalism. I probably should have devoted a whole post to her book, instead of relegating it as I am doing now to the comments.

    I also think that Wood’s framework makes it possible to make sense of Braudel’s empiricl observations about the prevalence of non-capitalist markets in feudal and post-feudal Europe, without having to accept (as I am reluctant to do) Braudel’s larger theoretical claims.

  6. It’s a great post. It got me to pick up some Lovecraft, whom I’ve never read. I had a thought similar to Nate’s. I’m familiar with this claim about pre-capitalist markets from Arrighi (who gets it from Braudel, I think), and, not to run Wood’s very different account together with all of this, I’ve often thought that there was a real confluence between D&G’s account of the transition to capitalism in the “Apparatus of Capture” chapter and Arrighi’s account of the intervention of large capitalist players and states which create an imbalanced relation of trade that then allows for surplus value extraction–this would be, I suppose, like D&G’s account of the State capturing the deterritorializing energy of the war machine and making it into capital (this may be a bad summary, it’s been awhile since I’ve read that chapter).

    I’m compelled by these accounts, particularly because they put emphasis on the State, and domination, and get us away from thinking of capital as naturally evolving from the dialectic of classes in feudal Europe. I wonder, though, about what one might conclude from these accounts about a post-capitalist society. Do these accounts imply that it is possible to establish a post-capitalist market society? (I think this is partly what Arrighi is imagining in his book on China, which I saw him talk on. . .) I’m inclined to say no. Even if the initial conjuncture was an entirely contingent, accidental event, it seems that once it has happened once, capital as latent in a post-capitalist market society would, it seems, become not just something potentially there but something likely.

    The end of the Apparatus of Capture chapter seems to sketch out a perpetually provisional post-capitalist world like this, where the State is always latent. . . But if capital is really a constructible transcendental (a form of abstract impersonal domination), constructible through social relations, then it should be possible to destroy value in all its forms.

  7. Jasper,

    I’m not sure how to think about all of this. Wood herself, though she insists on non-capitalist market forms, also says very strongly that a “market socialism” is impossible, because the compulsion of the market will reintroduce capitalist “laws of motion.” Her basic distinction is between social forms in which the market is an adjunct, or a particular mechanism that offers “opportunities” of one sort or another, and the way that, under capitalism, recourse to the market becomes compulsory instead of optional, and all social forms are subject to the regulation and control of the market.

  8. It occurred to me how much the Deleuzian reading is a simple reversal of Bachofen’s tripartite judgment of cultures. The nomadic and totally selfish is praised (Nietzsche knew Bachofen personally in Basel, and does much the same thing, a reversal perhaps even more pronounced than his reversal of Schopenhauer). Bachofen’s Swiss Protestantism would have been horrified by the unprincipled nature of Chthulu, but also found in it a symbol of matriarchy at its harshest and most spellbinding. The concept of the ID comes out of Schopenhauer, Freud said, and is synonymous with the will.

    Just a few shots from the not-so-hip.

  9. I second the prior comments regarding the delightful brilliance of this post. You make an excellent case for a cthonic reading of capital, Steven.

    A few riffs on your points:

    If Cthulu is indeed a sort of horrific anologue to capital as a synthetically manufactured transcendental category, it’s interesting that he and his environs tend to distort the spatio-temporal perceptions of the humans that encounter them. The opening of a portal in R’lyeh causes “a fantasy of prismatic distortion,” in which the portal moves “anomalously in a diagonal way, so that all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset.” Of Cthulu himself, the narrator writes: “The Thing can not be described– there is no language for such… eldrich contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order.”

    Despite his status as a phenomenological, a posteriori entity, Cthulu generates a field that distorts the synthesis of space/time and blurs the categories of judgment. The impossible, madness-inducing fact of his existence derails notions of pure reality and negation (as does the concomitant unreliability of the narrators), and he can be both plural and singular in form. During the chase scene, for instance, he is fragmented into bits when he collides with the ship, but then this “scattered plasticity” is seen “nebulously recombining itself into its hateful original form.”

    These details resonate rather interestingly with the parallels that you’ve identified, and point towards another reason for the horror induced by cthonic capital. As a new (or previously unknown) transcendental condition or category, Cthulu interacts in some way with the the other conditions, disrupting their sytheses, confusing the judgment of the transcendental I; and the effects of this distortive interaction have a retroactively shattering effect upon the ostensible purity, consistency and tautilogical authority of the forms that govern the understanding, revealing that they were always truly synthetic, plastic, and produced, rather than fixed, constant, and prior.

    Through such works, Cthulu confirms Kant’s suspicion that the categories are not tethered to transcendent correlates (K does hold out the possibility that they might be), but ironically, this confirmation undermines the stability of the Kantian system. This is, of course, also what capital (as a freshly produced transcendental condition) does to space, time, and our categories of judgment. It is both real and unreal (a fictional/virtual entity with mateiral effects), plural and singular (manifesting both atomistically and as a full-body), and it has profoundly distortive effects on spatial and temporal conditions. In short, it is a Thing of uncanny power that pervades the liquid substratum of our being.

    Thus it makes sense that Cthulu is titled a “God.” He is the unnecessary but inescapable substitute for the necessary being that he has displaced, a post-a priori monstrosity. Just like capital.

    And yet… despite his alterity, he still seems dependent on sequence, chronology, shape and form. In the final scene, he chases the ship–an inherently temporal activity. (And however traumatized, the crew DOES manage to escape). So he is still subject to the very things that he distorts, above all space and time. And this turns out to be his greatest weakness.

  10. hi Steve,

    Thanks for clarifying. Before I get into my reply, let me say what I thought but didn’t actually type before – I’m really glad you’re getting back into these Age of Aesthetics posts. I need to print them all out soon so I can give them a thorough think (screen reading doesn’t work well for me).

    About Wood and your reply to me – I agree 100% about the importance of seeing capitalism as contingent (you’ve probly read but just in case not the Althusser collection Philosophy of the Encounter is good on this, and I’m not usually a fan of him). I also agree with you/Wood on the need “to refute the idea that capitalism is somehow already implicit as soon as the “market” is freed from the “fetters” of feudalism,” that’s part of the contingency piece. I don’t have a strong opinion about capitalism being the only mode of production where markets are compulsory, but I’ve also got no objection – especially if we’re not only talking about what objects people buy with their money but also labor markets.

    What I’m not sure of, and which gets at the heart of what I’m stuck on here, is this:

    Wood “says that these societies were not capitalist, because they were not overwhelmingly based upon the extraction of surplus from “free” laborers who were compelled to sell their labor power.”

    I guess I’m not sure about the emphasis on formally free and waged laborers. Slave production can (doesn’t always and doesn’t have to, but can) be capitalist in nature as well, I think, in that there’s an activity describable as M-C-M’ where the dynamic part of C is commodified labor power. It’s a vitally important point that the labor power is bought outright rather than by the hour, but I’m not convinced the point is important for whether or not this production can be called capitalist. Likewise there’s other legally disqualified labors – women, children, indentured servants, apprentices, criminals – that are important parts of historical capitalism at different times. And labors which are often not called labors, like unwaged reproductive work (“women’s work” like housework, child care, etc) which are important parts of capitalism, which can fall out of the market centered approach (as with centering on waged workplaces). Know what I mean?

    The big problem with all this, though, is that the specificity of capitalism gets harder to see, I find it increasingly slippery conceptually.

    Following on, “this form of directly economic exploitation is separated from the forms of extra-economically coerced appropriation of the surplus (such as existed under feudalism)”; I’m not ready to pitch the distinction between extra-economic and economic/directly economic, but I’m also increasingly unsure about the distinction, in the light of the types of labors I mentioned a moment ago. At the least, it’s fuzzy at the edges, and the economic/extra-economic are closely related historically. In one of the few Arrighi pieces I’ve read, can’t recall the title, he says something like capitalism as a world system also cycles like M-C-M’, with the transition from C (commodity production) to M (finance capital) involving a recurrence of so-called primitive accumulation: extra-economic coercion. If that’s right, then I’m not sure how much sense it makes to identify capitalism with economic instead of extra-economic appropriation. Again the really hard part for me here is that capitalism seems to melt into air, conceptually, and my overinvestment in Marx makes me start to balk in a big way.

    take care,

  11. Nate, again I have no quick or easy replies. Wood draws a lot on the way the “political” and the “economic” are intertwined in non-capitalist societies. The peasant works land, produces, and then the lord forcibly takes away part of that production. In a case like this, there is no “autonomous” economic realm, and the market — though it may well exist — is not central to the procedures that regulate the society as a whole. Wood says that capitalism arises in England when the relationships between lords, tenants/yeomen, and agricultural workers who are not even tenants but just workers for hire, becomes mediated through the market rather than through mechanisms like taxation, the lord’s direct appropriation of a portion of the product, etc. So she says that capitalism involves the separation of the economic and the political — which is presented positively in liberal political theory, though in fact what it means is that the political structure works to enforce the supremacy of the market, and market structures come increasingly to regulate all aspects of social life, from the sale of labor power as a commodity to the imposition of economic “rationality” in spheres of life that were previously regulated by other principles.

  12. Nate, if you have a free weekend (I know those are rare), I’d go out and grab the Origin of Capitalism and Empire of Capital. They’re both short and easy reads, and my summaries that Shaviro linked lack a certain elegance. At any rate I did some more precise, as in closer, treatments as well.

  13. Thanks Steve, that’s clearer, and thanks Jasper as well. I’ve read the Origin one, but long enough ago that I don’t remember it at all. I’ll give both of those a look as soon as I can then type something so I can have more coherent things to say.
    take care,

  14. This is in passing, and I think you explained it to me once when I was your student. However, I can’t understand how Deleuze could be Nietzschean and Marxist simultaneously.

    Maybe you’ve explained this, but since Nietzsche believes that all there is is will to power, therefore Cthulu should be a good thing, if one can side with it, and partake of its monstrosity. That is, if you can make capital work for you, then more power to you.

    You are permitted and encouraged to be a vampire.

    Marx on the other hand isn’t about the individual but about the underclass expropriating the expropriators.

    So in a sense it’s about empowerment, too, but it seems also to think that there is a saintly underclass who once they attain power will share and share alike, in a saintly manner — putting the interests of the society ahead of that of the self.

    How can you be Deleuzian and be Marxist and Nietzschean simultaneously.

    It’s like saying, be selfless, be selfish, as one single imperative.

  15. Pingback: REAL HORROR
  16. Surprising parallels? Credit for originality, please – Colin Wilson made the connection between HPL and phenomenology before Harman was even born. In The Strength to Dream (1962); more explicitly in The Mind Parasites (1967) and The Philosopher’s Stone in 1969. The Mind Parasites was even published by Arkham House at Derleth’s request, so no pleading ignorance of it’s existence in the Mythos. Zizek mentions Wilson in The Ticklish Subject, but this is as far as anyone in the mainstream has got to grudgingly giving him any kind of credence recently (outside of Japan, anyway). A revival of interest in his pulp phenomenology is long, long overdue.

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