Flashes of Terror/Dredges of Horror

17Jun08

A fairly recent study to verify the existence of non-conscious effects in the brain entailed a subject being flashed with a fearful face so quickly (33 milliseconds) that it could not be consciously registered. Yet, as caught on a high res MRI, the face had an observable effect – causing anxiety in the test subject. Similar to Benjamin Libet’s studies and others which have verified his findings, it appears that the unconscious or subconscious or non-conscious, registers and causes effects prior to conscious thought.

In their text Biology of Freedom: Neural Plasticity and the Unconscious, Francois Ansermet and Pierre Magistretti differentiate between the unconscious and the non-conscious. For Ansermet, the non-conscious is procedural whereas the unconscious is the fantasy trace of experience which, like the coincidence of simultaneously fired post-synapses, glaciates multiple signifiers in ways that are further and further from the signified.

Shifting to the latest volume of Collapse the question arises: are the un-seemingly un-formed oozes and horrors of the universe simply the formed horrors but at a faster pace? Is this the divide between Terror of horror versus the lurk of horror? Could the horrifying event, slowed down, been taken from the unconscious and put into the conscious – would this be the forbidden knowledge of Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos?

At the beginning of Lovecraft’s Call of the Cthulu he writes:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Yet the reactions to ‘godless’ science seems to be more of a mixed bag of reactionary strategies: new age obscurantism, the theological term in philosophy, and, of course, the rampancy of the correlationist impulse. Houllebecq quotes Lovecraft on his cosmicism:

“The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions’. Only egotism exists.”

While Meillassoux does not engage Lovecraft directly in Collapse IV, it seems that After Finitude has much in common with the foremer’s cosmicism – that humans are simply insects that supplant their idealism on the cosmos. Lovecraft’s cosmicism, as different from nihilism, is, instead of a complete meaninglessness, a great leveling of meaning and the aforementioned egotism, no doubt, finds a comfortable home in correlationism. Horror then, is beyond our individual fragility and is about a trace in humanity’s fragility itself where terror is immediately effecting our egotism. It is obvious then that, for terror, it is more than often death whereas for horror it is insanity.

The tipping point here is that of the figure of the last girl or the sole survivor, which I’ve previously discussed. That is, once the terror is over, the last girl lives to carry on the trauma of what happened. While this seems out of the realm of the terrible it does not qualify for the realm of the horrible.

Put most directly: terror is not knowing, horror is knowing too much. However, there is a level of cross over. The horror, in the realm of terror, is the discovery of the body, it is the knowing too much which leads back to not knowing (in relation to the self) hence ‘am I next?’ The terror of horror, is the sight of the thing which cannot be definately described. As I discussed previously in terms of trauma, the figure of the serial killer moves from the full trauma (the human caused creation of the killer) to the result of the empty trauma, the lone survivor who was chosen, at least in the best slashers, arbitrarily.

In terms of trauma, horror moves in the opposite direction, the pointless existence of horrible things, not caused by humans, generate full traumas – causing complex networks of insanity in the victims – a mythos. In the case of terror – the person survives to tell the story for the benefit of others and themselves – in horror the story is hidden and buried, no one benefits from it.

The question then is what of films which display the genesis of what could become the horrible? That is monster movies in which the birth of the monster, or monsters, is obfuscated by the film’s end – that there may or may not be anyone left to tell the unbelievable tale. We are more used to monster tales being public whether massively (Cloverfield, Godzilla films, King Kong films, War of the Worlds and its imitators, Romero’s zombie films and the like) or more locally (vampires, werewolves, witches et cetera). Two of the examples that stick out here are Neil Marshall’s The Descent, which I discussed at length here and John Carpenter’s The Thing. These films reject the participation in legend and remain self contained horrors which are terrifying (Thacker in Collapse IV makes a similar point – p. 89).

Carpenter’s The Thing is particularly interesting because the thing itself is between formed and formless it is a creature which, if it has an orginary form, we never see it – throughout the film it, in various states of accuracy, copies the creatures around it. The thing is the embodiment of the organic excess of the organic, the drive’s axis of iteration. While this is the drive axis that is fitting to horror, and that which is key to speculative materialism as articulated by Brassier, terror’s axis of alteration, the transcription of trauma, is neglected. This is clear when, at the end of Nihil Unbound, Brassier equates Trieb with only repetition towards death.

Thus we end up somewhere between Benjamin Noy’s positing of the horror of time, the experience of time as a kind of horrendous all at once, and a potential buggering of Virlio’s notion of dromology. That is, where Brassier points to the correlationist separation of time and space, we might point out his removal of the experiential of effects of time – as a sharp terror and a creeping horror.

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One Response to “Flashes of Terror/Dredges of Horror”


  1. 1 What is that?: Horrorific Ontology « Naught Thought

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