Oct 23, 2013

version #1

Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans

Eugene Thacker

In 1964, the horror and fantasy author Fritz Leiber published a short story entitled ‘Black Gondolier,’ which appeared in the Arkham House anthology Over the Edge, and was subsequently reprinted in the Ace Double volume Night Monsters. In this story, an unnamed narrator tells of the mysterious disappearance of his friend Daloway, a recluse and autodidact living nearby oil fields in southern California. Daloway, it seems, began to develop a bizarre and unnatural fascination with oil – not just as a natural resource, and not just as something of geopolitical value, but with oil in itself as an ancient and enigmatic manifestation of the hidden world. Over time Daloway’s conversations with the narrator begin to take on the form of mystical visions, described by Daloway as a kind of gothic, funereal ooze:

. . . that black and nefarious essence of all life that had ever been, constituting in fact a great deep-digged black graveyard of the ultimate eldritch past with blackest ghosts, oil had waited for hundreds of millions of years, dreaming its black dreams, sluggishly pulsing beneath Earth’s stony skin, quivering in lightless pools roofed with marsh gas and in top-filled rocky tanks and coursing through a myriad channels . . .1

The image of oil as stealthily waiting gives the ooze the vague quality of intelligence and intent – and, more specifically, of malefic intent. In Leiber’s hyperbolic prose, oil is not the type of ooze that we see in Cold War monster movies, where the ooze remains hidden beneath the surface of the Earth. Instead, in ‘Black Gondolier’ oil is described as an animate, creeping ooze that already is on the surface, and that immanently courses through all the channels of modern industrial civilization, from the central pipelines feeding major cities, to the individual homes and cars that populate those cities. At one point in the story, the narrator attempts to put Daloway’s rather crackpot theories into coherent form:

Daloway’s theory, based on his wide readings in world history, geology, and the occult, was that crude oil – petroleum – was more than figuratively the life-blood of industry and the modern world and modern lightening-war, that it truly had a dim life and will of its own, an inorganic consciousness or sub-consciousness, that we were all its puppets or creatures, and that its chemical mind had guided and even enforced the development of modern technological civilization . . .2

“In brief,” the narrator concludes, “Daloway’s theory was that man hadn’t discovered oil, but that oil had found man.”3

At the center of Leiber’s story is an inversion that takes place between human beings and an enigmatic, something else that constitutes a horizon for human thought. Let us call this “something else” the unhuman. The unhuman is not simply that which is not human, be it animals, machines, oceans, or cities, though all of these play a role in Leiber’s story. The unhuman is also not that which is made human, in which we would have featherless, bipedal walking and talking lumps of oil – though even this is hinted at in Leiber’s story as well. The unhuman is distinct from these two ways of thinking – anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, respectively. What then is the unhuman? It is, first of all, a limit without reserve, something that one is always arriving at, but which is never circumscribed within the ambit of human thought. In Leiber’s story, we see at least four stages by which one encounters the unhuman:

At the first level, we encounter the unhuman only as it exists for the human. This is the normative world of modern industrial capitalism described by Daloway in the story. At this level, the unhuman is everything that is for us and for our benefit as human beings, living in human cultures, and bearing some unilateral and instrumental relation to the world around us. This relation between human and unhuman relies upon an anthropic subversion. The unhuman is only that which exists within the scope of the human; in a sense, there is no outside of the human, in so far as the unhuman is always fully encompassed by human knowledge and technics. At this level, the unhuman is everything that is subject to and produced by human knowledge. At this level, anthropocentrism overlaps almost perfectly with anthropomorphism.

But Leiber’s story steadily moves towards a second level, which explores a notion of the unhuman through an inversion of the relation between human and unhuman. The key phrase in Leiber’s story is the following: “man hadn’t discovered oil, but . . . oil had found man.” We don’t use oil, oil uses us. Note that a relation of unilateralism still exists, except that it has been reversed. Instead of human beings making use of the planet for their own ends, the planet is revealed to be making use of human beings for its own ends. Humans are simply a way for the planet to produce and reproduce itself. Clearly, with this sort of epiphany all bets are off – one can no longer regard the human endeavors of science, technology, and economy in quite the same way. But the terms of this relation are still “human” – intentionality, instrumental rationality, and even a touch of malice are attributed to the anonymous ooze of oil. It is as if the unhuman can only be understood through the lens of the human. We can call this the anthropic inversion. The anthropic inversion allows for a concept of the unhuman to emerge, but it is ultimately recuperated within the ambit of human categories, such as intelligence and intentionality.

Towards the end of Leiber’s story, this anthropic inversion undergoes another turn, leading to a third level where the unhuman is encountered. As Daloway is weirdly carried off into the viscous night where oil and nocturnal darkness merge into one, effacing all horizon lines in a miasmatic, black blur, Daloway’s own individuation slips away and is engulfed, and at this moment he realizes that the human categories of life, mind, and technics are themselves simply one manifestation of the unhuman. In other words, as opposed to the anthropic inversion (human don’t use oil, oil uses humans), here Daloway experiences another kind of inversion, an ontogenic inversion in which everything human is revealed to be one instance of the unhuman. The ontogenic inversion is both ontological and ontogenetic, at once the evisceration of thought from the human, as well as an epiphany about the essentially unhuman qualities of the human. In the ontogenic inversion, the human is only one instance of the unhuman.

At this point thought falters, and here we enter a fourth stage that we can call misanthropic subtraction. At this point, thought falters, and language can only continue by way of an apophatic use of negative terms (“nameless,” “formless,” “lifeless”), which are themselves doomed to failure. This failure is leveraged with great effect in the literary tradition of supernatural horror and weird fiction. Authors such as Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, and of course H.P. Lovecraft excel at driving language to this breaking point. Here one notices two strategies that are often used, often in concert with each other. There is a strategy of minimalism, in which language is stripped of all its attributes, leaving only skeletal phrases such as “the nameless thing,” “the shapeless thing,” or “the unnamable” (which is also the title of a Lovecraft story). There is also a strategy of hyperbole, in which the unknowability of the unhuman is expressed through a litany of baroque descriptors, all of which ultimately fail to inscribe the unhuman within human thought and language. Some examples from Lovecraft follow:

. . . the rayless gloom with Miltonic legions of the misshapen damned . . .

. . . the nameless bands of abhorrent elderworld hierophants . . .

. . . brooding, half-material, alien Things that festered in earth’s nether abysses . . .

. . . a pandeamoniae vortex of loathsome sound and utter, materially tangible blackness . . .

Often these two strategies – minimalism and hyperbole – dovetail into a singular epiphany concerning the faltering not just of language, but of thought as well. At the end of Lovecraft’s story ‘The Unnamable’, one of the characters, speaking to his friend Carter from a hospital bed, attempts to describe his strange experience in the following way: “No – it wasn’t that way at all. It was everywhere – a gelatin – a slime – yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes – and a blemish. It was the pit – the maelstrom – the ultimate abomination. Carter, it was the unnamable!”4

Taken together, these four stages of the unhuman result in a paradoxical revelation, in which one thinks the thought of the limit of all thought. At the level of the anthropic subversion – the first stage – this limit is present but hidden, occulted, and it remains unrecognized. At the level of the anthropic inversion – the second stage – this limit is brought into the foreground through a reversal of the terms, but not of the relation. But here the unhuman still remains hidden, something only known at best indirectly, through the ad-hoc use of human terms (such as sentience or intentionality or malice).

Proceeding from this, at the third level the ontogenic inversion produces a misanthropic realization, a realization that the unhuman exists antagonistically with respect to the human. This leads to the fourth stage, the misanthropic subtraction, in which the relation itself is reversed. Here the unhuman is not even known indirectly – and yet it is still intuited, still thought, but only via a thought that has been stripped of all its attributes. What is thought is only this absolute inaccessibility, this absolute incommensurability; what is affirmed is only that which is itself negation.

What results, then, is strange kind of epiphany, a realization that is, at its core, profoundly antihumanistic. It is not just a realization about human knowledge and its relative horizon of the thinkable, but an enigmatic revelation of the unthinkable, or really, what we might call a black illumination. Black illumination leads from the human to the unhuman, but it is also already the unhuman, or one instance of the unhuman. Black illumination does not lead to the affirmation of the human within the unhuman, but instead opens onto the indifference of the unhuman (Lovecraft, in his letters, refers to his own position as “indifferentism.”)

The unhuman does not exist for us (the humanisim of the unhuman), and neither is it against us (the misanthropy of the unhuman). Black illumination leads to the enigmatic thought of the immanence of indifference. The unhuman, at its limit, becomes identical with a kind of apophatic indifference towards the human – at the same time that this indifferent unhuman is immanently “within” the human as well. It is for this reason that the examples of black illumination in supernatural horror indelibly bear the mark of a generalized misanthropy, that moment when philosophy and horror negate themselves, and in the process become one and the same.

Source: (http://punctumbooks.com/titles/leper-creativity-cyclonopedia-symposium)

  1. Leiber, Fritz, ‘Black Gondolier,’ in Night Monsters, Ace (New York, 1969), 14.
  2. Ibid..
  3. Ibid., 15.
  4. Lovecraft, H.P., ‘The Unnamable,’ in The Dreams in the Witch-House and Other Stories, ed. S.T. Joshi, Penguin (New York, 2004), 89.
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