Abstract Horror (Part 1)

When conceived rigorously as a literary and cinematic craft, horror is indistinguishable from a singular task: to make an object of the unknown, as the unknown. Only in these terms can its essential accomplishments be estimated.

To isolate the abstract purpose of horror, therefore, does not require a supplementary philosophical operation. Horror defines itself through a pact with abstraction, of such primordial compulsion that disciplined metaphysics can only struggle, belatedly, to recapture it. Some sublime ‘thing’ — abstracted radically from what it is for us — belongs to horror long before reason sets out on its pursuit. Horror first encounters ‘that’ which philosophy eventually seeks to know.

High modernism in literature has been far less enthralled by the project of abstraction than its contemporary developments in the visual arts, or even in music. Reciprocally, abstraction in literature, as exemplified most markedly by the extremities of Miltonic darkness – whilst arguably ‘modern’ — is desynchronized by centuries from the climax of modernist experimentation. Abstraction in literary horror has coincided with, and even anticipated, philosophical explorations which the modernist aesthetic canon has been able to presuppose. Horror – under other names – has exceeded the modernist zenith in advance, and with an inverted historical orientation that reaches back to the “Old Night” of Greek mystery religion, into abysmal antiquity (and archaic abysses). Its abstraction is an excavation that progresses relentlessly into the deep past.

The destination of horror cannot be, exactly, a ‘place’ – but it is not inaccurate, at least provisionally, to think in such terms. It is into, and beyond, the structuring framework of existence that the phobotropic intelligence is drawn. Lovecraft describes the impulse well:

I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.

A monster, in comparison, can be no more than a guide — unless it fuses (like Yog Sothoth) into the enveloping extracosmic fabric, as a super-sentient concentration of doors. We can nevertheless avail ourselves of these guides, whose monstrosity — ‘properly understood’ — says much about the path to the unnameable.

James Cameron’s 1989 movie The Abyss is not atmospherically associated with our topic, but it recommends itself to this investigation not only through its title, but also in a single critical moment of its screenplay. When the others (whose positive nature need not delay us here) are first registered by certain technical indications, they are identified only as “something not us.” In this respect, they reach the initial stage of monstrosity, which is ‘simple’ beyondness, considered as a leading characteristic.

Sinister-punk writer China Miéville, whose horror projects typically fail the test of abstraction, is convincing on this point. Tentacle-monsters lend themselves to horrific divinity precisely because they are not at all ‘us’ — sublimed beyond the prospect of anthropomorphic recognition by their “Squidity”. In comparison to the humanoid figure of intelligent being, they exert a preliminary repulsive force, which is already an increment of abstraction. Insectoid forms (such as the fabled Alexian Mantis) have a comparable traditional role.

It would be a feeble monstrosity, however, that came to rest in some such elementary negation. The intrinsically seething, plastic forms of cephalopods and of ungraspably complex insectoid beings already advances to a further stage of corporeal abstraction, where another form is supplanted by an other to form, and an intensified alienation of apprehension.

Cinema, due — paradoxically — to its strict bonds of sensible concreteness, provides especially vivid examples of this elevated monstrosity. The commitment of film to the task of horror provokes further subdivision, along a spectrum of amorphousness. The initial escape from form is represented by a process of unpredictable mutation, such as that graphically portrayed in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), subverting in sequence every moment of perceptual purchase along with its corollary morphological object. Monstrosity is a continuous slide, or process of becoming, that does not look like anything.

Beyond the mutant there is a superior amorphousness, belonging to the monster that has no intrinsic form of its own, or even an inherent morphological trajectory. This shape-shifting horror occupies the high plateau of cinematic monstrosity, as exemplified by three creatures which can be productively discussed in concert: The Thing (1982); the Alien (franchise); and the Terminator (franchise).

These monsters share an extreme positive abstraction. In each case, they borrow the shape of their prey, so that what one sees — what cinema shows — is only how they hunt. As the Alien and Terminator franchises have evolved, this basic abstract trait has become increasingly explicit, undergoing narrative and visual consolidation. The first Terminator had already been built to mimic human form, but by the second installment of the series (Cameron, 1991), the T-1000 was a liquid metal robotic predator with a body of poised flow, wholly submerging form in military function. Similarly, the mutable Alien body, over the course of the franchise, attained an ever higher state of morphological variability as it melded with its predatory cycle.  (That the Thing had no appearance separable from those of its prey was ‘evident’ from the start.)

After the T-1000 is frozen and shattered, it gradually thaws, and begins to re-combine into itself, flowing back together from its state of disintegration. Is not this convergent wave the ‘shape’ of Skynet itself? What cannot be seen is made perceptible, through graphic horror. (We now ‘see’ that technocommercial systems, whose catallactic being is a strictly analogous convergent wave, belong indubitably to the world of horror, and await their cinematographers.)


Nothing to see here.

[a reanimation of Shoggothic Materialism, next]


August 21, 2013admin 22 Comments »


22 Responses to this entry

  • fotrkd Says:

    My battered facility for subjunctive thinking briefly flickered into life toward the end there. ‘Convergence’ reminded me of this early example of (mild and disputed) mass paranoia. Similarly, during the recent NK stand-off Japan had a worrying tendency to tweet about phantom missile launches. Imagine if all of google news suddenly got a twitchy post now finger? That would be a headfuck. Fortunately in the West we have our democratically-elected politicians and free press to keep things sane (whilst letting reality seep out slowly, once nobody really cares).


    admin Reply:

    No abstraction, though?


    fotrkd Reply:

    As I hinted, I’m feeling a bit too compromised to be able to answer that just now. Some things just aren’t cricket, no? But I’m sure that’ll pass. Maybe an evening revisiting Coppola’s finest and some Brando-style mumbling may help…


    Posted on August 21st, 2013 at 5:18 pm Reply | Quote
  • Bill Says:

    There is a relationship between the unheimlich (German for not home like) which is translated into English as the uncanny, and disgust and horror. During a seminar in grad school I presented an article written by George Didi-Huberman that was about Art Historical method and how life-molds used as wax effigies had been written out of art history. They were a big part of academic art history in the 19th century, and then written out in the 20th. Didi-Huberman suggests this is because a 2,000 year old effigy is the same as an effigy made today, therefore effigies don’t fit into a narrative of progress. The essay also reminded me of the way you wrote about the Terminator and the Thing. Here is the summary I cribbed from the article (It’s a little long, but well organized so not too annoying…):

    Georges Didi-Huberman, ‘Viscosities and survivals: art history put to the test by the material’, in Roberta Panzanelli (ed), Ephemeral bodies: wax sculpture and the human figure (2008), 154-169; Presented by: Bill


    Historiography: Georges Didi-Huberman, in Viscosities and Survivals, presents a historiographical and theoretical account of wax sculpture with the intention of elucidating the reasons the inclusion of wax has proven problematic to the writing of art history. Didi-Huberman provides an accounting of the late 19th and early 20th century historians who have dealt with wax as part of art history, Aby Warburg and Julius Schlosser, and their mid-to-late 20th century academic predecessors who marginalize wax, E.H. Gombrich and H.W. Janson.

    Problem of Material: Didi-Huberman begins by quoting Sartre on viscosity, invoking the in-between quality of something that is neither solid nor liquid, and further comparing that in-between quality to Freud’s notion of the uncanny – one way Freud writes about the uncanny is as something that appears alive even though it is dead. Thereby linking the physical qualities of wax to notions of representation, i.e. the qualities of wax make it too close to something alive to function as art in most cases. This mixture of material and representation, problematically, is why wax sculpture appears to be alive. Wax does what E.H. Gombrich describes as “caus(ing) uneasiness because it oversteps the boundaries of symbolism.” Gombrich further clarifies this “(when we see a marble bust…) we do not, as a rule, take it to be a representation of a cut-off head.” Didi-Huberman is presenting the case that the powerful mimetic qualities of wax come too close to life to function symbolically. Later, he delves into the reasons why this symbolic failure is one among several reasons that make wax problematic to the central art historical narrative presented by Gombrich and Janson. (156)

    Censorship: Didi-Huberman gives several examples of wax sculpture being censored, which he attributes to wax affecting a “dual uneasiness of degradation and excess.” The first example is a 1987 book about wax sculpture produced by the Musees de France in which “Not a single thing is written on the wax sculpture from ancient Egypt to the sixteenth century.” The second is the Dictionaire de l’Academie des beaux-arts, which devotes a tiny amount of space to wax sculpture is because, Didi-Huberman asserts, “that wax is primarily a “living” – even organic – material, deteriorates, passes away, vanishes more easily than others… our museums have kept only a small portion, for physical but also ideological reasons.” (155)

    Two Methods of Rejection: Didi-Huberman describes Janson and Gombrich’s rejection of wax: 1. “Janson rejects the gaudy side of “bad form” as it exists in likeness of the Madame Tussaud or Musee Grevin kind.” (156) 2. “Gombrich, in contrast, rejects the morbid or mortifying, even cadaverous, side of a resemblance that “oversteps the boundary of symbolism.” (156)

    Janson’s Problematic Lineage: Janson studied under Erwin Panofsky, who, in turn, studied under Aby Warburg. “Warburg proposed an art history capable of broadening its corpus beyond the choices made – that is, the censorship of certain works – by art museums since Vasari (who helped make the Uffizi). Hence Warburg’s erudite appeal to the Florentine archives, designed primarily to “return the voice,” as much as possible, to certain images that had vanished… discovered what may be considered a true missing link in the history of the visual culture of the Renaissance: these were the boti of the Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata, life-size votive effigies whose faces and feet were molded directly from the living bodies of their donors.” (157) “The boti imposed a “hyperrealism” – Alessandro Parronchi called it a naturalismo integrale del primo Quattrocentro – nonhumanistic, medieval, devout, artisanal, produced by an impression… Janson, a practitioner of iconology conceived as a “humanist discipline,” sought to distance Donatello’s oeuvre from that impurity.” (157)

    Gombrich’s (Even More) Problematic Lineage, Julius Schlosser’s Geschichte der Portraitbildnerei in Wachs (1911): Gombrich’s first mentor, Julius von Schlosser, wrote articles and a short book about wax sculpture. According to Didi-Huberman: “Schlosser, then, did not “invent” a history of wax sculpture. But he founded it, that is, he imposed on it a problematic order… Schlosser examines the theoretical problems associated with four essential functions of sculpture in wax: funerary, votive, artistic, and “antiaesthetic” (we will have to return to this paradox). (157 – 158) Then Didi-Huberman makes a key point: “Above all, Schlosser engaged in a risky attempt at a history where the standpoint of genre – a reassuring standpoint for the traditional historian – collided as it were with the standpoint of the material.” (158) Didi-Huberman asserts that when Schlosser “…places the material itself, wax, into the position of a critical tool,” Schlosser challenges the Vasarian model which has a “mythology of inventors” and avoids the functional generalities of “cultural history.” (159)

    Collapsed Time and Historical Narratives: Didi-Huberman asserts that a wax ex-voto (an ex-voto is a religious offering, the Latin means “from the vow made”) that is two thousand years old is in many ways identical to an ex-voto made today, they “possess exactly the same formal, material, and processual characteristics, the same scale, and the same functions of an ex-voto made two thousand years ago.” (160) Wax sculpture could be said to collapse time in a sense, and creates, for Didi-Huberman, a confrontation within Schlosser’s work which is “head-on,” despite “…however painful the consequences for art history and its canonical models of temporality might be.” (160) Schlosser’s book on wax, the Geschichte der Portraitbildnerei in Wachs (1911), “…requires us to move from historical museums and archaeological excavations, and from them to the present day of newspaper photographs, store-window mannequins, or travelling museums – that is, to a reminiscent present, but one that usually unconscious of its own memory.” (161)

    Survival and Edward Burnett Tylor in Schlosser’s work, and Complex Time as an Attack on Class Bias: Tylor defined survival as: “A survival is a ‘standing over’ (superstitio) of old habits into the midst of a new and changed state of things.” Tylor was working around the mid 19th c, Didi-Huberman uses the dates 1865 and 1871. (162) Didi-Huberman writes that: “The standpoint of survivals profoundly changed the relationship between anthropology and the historical sciences. On one hand, the ethnologist’s field of observation moved towards a complex temporality that ran counter to the ahistoricity of archetypal “primitivism” but also to the hasty evolutionism of cultural “progress.”” (162) Didi-Huberman makes a point about how Tylor’s complex time, and the way Schlosser similarly worked to create a complex temporal understanding, both worked in a way that attacked the class basis in art history, writing: “The long duree of the wax portrait comes at a cost: survivals exist only “déclassé,” that is, “detached” from the artistic – or even aristocratic – sphere, within which the art historian had been accustomed to confine that decidedly paradoxical “genre”…” (162)


    admin Reply:

    Very pertinent — thanks. You’ve edited the creepiness out, but it’s not hard to pick up on, underneath.


    Bill Reply:

    The imagery in the essay was of an Italian church filled with wax effigies of the dead, lit by candlelight. The effigies look basically real, too real for art. If I remember right, the effigies were sort of stacked against the wall, maybe nailed against the wall, from the floor to the ceiling. It was a long time ago, and there are no photos, so the description is based on written sources. Being in a room like that could definitely be creepy. The wax reminded me of the melting metal of the T-1000.


    Bill Reply:

    @admin I’ll send you a paper I wrote about Giotto’s Fresco the Massacre of the Innocents.

    Posted on August 22nd, 2013 at 7:11 am Reply | Quote
  • Alex Says:

    Curious how Miéville’s suggested “skulltopus” never quite works (an unhappy visual clash of pulpy and osseous), whereas the abstracted depiction of the alien grey — hairless cranium, large blank eyes, tapered chin — cleverly suggests both an insect and a death’s head.


    admin Reply:

    My sense of it is that both the skull, and the schwa face (‘gray’), are icons rather than portraits. The notion of a mask is intermediate, and might include either of these ‘death-faces’, but only by taking on a symbolic character (quite different from camouflage or functional mimicry).


    Posted on August 22nd, 2013 at 1:10 pm Reply | Quote
  • John Hannon Says:

    “… or even in music”

    While horror is a well established genre in literature and cinema, the only example of effective “horror music” that comes to mind right now is the track “Under the House” by Public Image Limited. In a radio interview, Lydon mentioned that the track was inspired by the old Manor Studios where the “Flowers of Romance” album was recorded. “I thinks it’s haunted,” he announced emphatically, and when listened to alone in the dark the track can indeed evoke a chilling sense of the ontological “wrongness” of the undefined, unspeakable “it” that “went under the house.”
    A bit like the chills one gets from a solitary reading of William Hope Hodgson’s “The House on the Borderland” (a seminal influence on Lovecraft apparently).



    admin Reply:

    It wasn’t horror, but abstraction in music that I was vaguely indicating — best example: Cage. But what the hell …


    Posted on August 22nd, 2013 at 10:44 pm Reply | Quote
  • David Says:

    The uncanny–not only in Freud’s sense, but also in the “uncanny valley” sense posited by roboticist Masahiro Mori–seems to animate (and reanimate) another vector of horror (or, perhaps, some arm of the sublime), in which it is the almost-perfect-but-not-quite simulacra of human life rather than that which is radically other and monstrous in an immediate sense (the arachnid, the blob-slime-fungusoid, the teeming hive, etc.) which dissolves the familiar and threatens the abyssal. In a techno-futurist sense, the android and cyborg wait in the wings, sparking outbreaks of PKD paranoia among us (Ubik is in production as a film now, I believe, and of course Bladerunner stands as the classic). It’s also resonant in a political sense that seems highly relevant here: the fear of assimilation into a hive-minded individual/individuality-obliterating collective–of being abstracted, made abstract?–(Body Snatchers) that registers as cold horror, perhaps all the more horrific for the fact that whatever they are they look just like us (the recent Battlestar Galactica series is another of so many instances of this). Is there a political-spectral dimension to map here, perhaps, in which the radically “other” alien horror resonates with one range of political anxieties more than the “they look just like us”/uncanny valley horror? Direct invasion vs subtle infiltration–which is more terrifying, and for whom? Which is a more effective route to the abyssal? (And how might such intimations of horror, the other, the abyss be mobilized ideologically, whether directly or indirectly–say, via Hollywood).

    Lovecraft hits both sweet spots in “The Shadow Out of Time,” of course (I reread thanks to your pointer a few months ago, btw… thanks!), and in many horror or horror-tinged works the assumption is often that some insectoid–or worse–being or beings are taking human form and walking among us. Zombies also hit both, albeit crudely (when horror misses the mark it’s mere comedy) as their similarity to living humans remains and falls away simultaneously–a key, perhaps, to their cultural omnipresence these days. And in rough tangential relation to the recent atheism post, the “soul” seems to be the litmus (or perhaps Turing) test–no soul or loss/devouring/destruction/assimilation of individual soul=horror (perhaps, too, why mystical sects and cults that emphasize the collective/obliterate the individual can seem so Pol Potty-horrifying, transferring millennial religious coding to the political… [heaven is a hell on earth])?


    Bill Reply:

    I wonder if human beings which do not share a moral worldview, for instance, a professor who makes it up from poverty through the Army and graduate school by pure grit and now tries to maintain a decent life, and section 8 people who do nothing but sit on their front steps, approaches some relationship to the uncanny. I used that example because it is close to home, close to my home. It’s hard to understand those section 8 people, I talk to them once in a while, they have inexpressive faces and the dead eyes of sharks. They do not do anything the way I would, and they are destroying my street.


    admin Reply:

    I knew this horror expedition would begin to turn up some exquisite material. (I’m stealing your last two sentences as the epigraph for a project that need to remain confidential for the time being — hoping that a “‘Bill’ at Outside in” attribution will suffice.)


    admin Reply:

    @ David
    Superb, and theoretically capped by ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ observation.
    Isn’t it a sign of inadequate human defense mechanisms that we emerge out on the other side of Uncanny Valley, to embrace the Cylon?


    Posted on August 24th, 2013 at 1:06 am Reply | Quote
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  • Wagner Says:

    Just making notes for my horror novel as per usual.

    There’s a scene with a boy and he has a devil on both shoulders, right? And all they do is collaborate and conspire together, and the boy tries not to listen.

    One of them is always going on about some emperor and how “milquetoast” he is about everything. The other one always agrees, this time saying that well how is letting them be replaced by m u d p e o p l e any different from a grand-scale death penalty anyway? The boy is perplexed- what are they referring to? And the instigator devil chortles like usual and says that a good rule of thumb is that if they don’t wear suits it’s not worth it. What kind of suits, the boy wonders. Like clown suits?

    Ahh that’s enough fiction for now, maybe I’ll hit the nonexistent readers of this dead blog with some philosophy later.


    Omnio Reply:

    Something is still watching.


    Posted on August 6th, 2019 at 1:48 pm Reply | Quote

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