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 â€“ like Cthulhu â€“ 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 â€“ much like the advent of Cthulhu â€“ 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 â€“ its imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labour-productivity â€“ 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 â€“ again, much like Cthulhu â€“ 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 â€“ as well as of Marx’s Capital, and of capitalism â€“ 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 â€“ when we seek to evoke what Proust called “a little bit of time in its pure state” â€“ 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 â€“ as a condition to which we are subjected, but which we cannot locate, describe, or circumscribe in any way â€“ 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 â€“ or, for that matter, from a Heideggerian one â€“ 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 â€“ 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.