What is that?: Horrorific Ontology


The statement “What is that?” indexes the horror of the weird (or the weirdness of horror) in at least 7 dimensions.

/1/ – ‘What’ is the epistemological dimension of horror or the very questioning of the identity of the creature or thing before the thinking entity subject to horror. Whatness assumes possibly belonging to a taxonomy in that ‘what’ already assumes an ontology, an isness.

/2/ – ‘Is’ is the dimension of ontology proper interrogating the being of the thing and even the very bounds of the thing’s thingness or identifiability once an epistemological schema has been thoroughly employed.

/3/ – ‘That’ speaks to the spatio-temporal location of the thing that is questionably known/unknown, or solid/gelatinous and so forth.

/4/ – ‘What is’ marks an indistinction of thinking and being, not their ontological distinction, but the ontic fuzziness resulting from the mad stacking of countless epochs. In other words, unknowability (epistemological limitation) can result from temporal or spatial distance (too old, too new, too close, too far), an underdeveloped schema of knowledge (unclassifiables, unobservables, dark matter, and so on and so forth) resulting from malformed tools or instruments, or the weirdness of grounding/ungrounding activities themselves troubling the very operation of binding, separating and so forth. Or the problems of discernment could be called proximity, the second blindness, and the third forces and mixtures.

/5/ – Proximites, as both temporal and spatial, is exemplified by the demonic. Possession is the strongest example. ‘What is that?’ in the case of proximal horror is a question of orientation and infection. This is the ‘what is that’ going to do.

/6/ - ‘What is that?’ is an appeal to being amidst becoming. This is what separates weird horror (or cosmic horror, or supernormal horror) from slashers. Slasher’s are about ‘who are you?’ as it moves in the circuit of trauma. These being the horror of personality films or horror of blindness.

/7/ – For mixes and forces the natural/supernatural are obscured. Mixes and forces are the play of interiors and exteriors displaying the potency of the radical outside and the depth of internality.’ What is that’ acquires in its most purified form in the supernormal.

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7 Responses to “What is that?: Horrorific Ontology”

  1. 1 R

    This is a good start to examine distinctions and ambivalences between fictional weird horror and the philosophical horror of the weird:

    ‘What is that?’ has a constitutional propensity for the weird insofar as it sharply accentuates the perpetual withdrawal of the quiddity as the first dimension of the concept of the weird. This is more or less in line with the weird that Graham’s objects evoke. The second dimension of the weird is that not only the quiddity progressively forecloses the access to the object but also thinks through the subject that thinks it. In other words, the question of ‘what is that?’ is not weird as much because it is set to determine the object that withdraws it as it is weird because it is capable of reversing the order of thought from the object to the subject in a concurrent possessing / dispossessing manner. If ‘what is that?’ is weird because it points to a diachronicity that imposes ‘the discontinuity of the object that cannot be accessed by the subject’, it is even weirder because such discontinuity registers itself as an inassimilable interstice within the order of thought that crystallizes and shapes the thought of the subject around itself i.e. according to the unilateralizing identity of the object. Therefore, the weirdness of apparitional withdrawal is culminated by the unghostly weirdness of the real: So in posing the question ‘what is that?’, the answer ‘It …’ withdraws me at a spectral pace but that just doesn’t end here because ‘It’ has been thinking for me all along. ‘It’ is the exteriority that determines the question ‘what is that?’ not the subjective thought that seeks to determine the object through the order of quiddity. Sutter Cane as the prophet of the weird recapitulates this twisted reversal in a fit of literary horror: “For years I thought I was making all this up, but ‘they’ were telling me what to write.”

    So my question is: Encountered with the second dimension of the weird, how can we distinguish – whether on an epistemological or an ontological level – ‘what is that?’ from ‘who are you?’ because even before ‘It’ becomes the ‘What’ of the object, it determines and becomes the ‘Who’ of the subject? This to me is one of the pinnacles of the weird in which ‘what is that?’ and ‘who are you?’ become inconsistently – according to the voidal excess of the object – interchangeable.

  2. 2 Ben Woodard

    The problem of the external ‘it’ is deeply problematic – this can be thought in terms of Iain Grant’s Schellingian what thinks in me is outside of me. Itness is before both the who and the what where the what indexes the possibility of itness the who obliterates itness completely. ‘who are you?’ presupposes a me which can be threatened by an externality which is supposed to be self contained in whoness. You is the seal of whoness in its (familiar externality). This could also be why the unity of subject object in Schelling is always only an ideal unity.

  3. 3 R

    On an explicit epistemological level ‘What’ indexes it-ness but only via the detour of ‘who’ which in this case is not the who of ‘who are you?’ but the ‘who’ that seeks to determine the quiddity of it (in the question ‘what is that?’) or the identity of an external self in the question ‘who are you?’. So this means that the panorama should also be investigated from a different side (what I call “a nethermost point of view”): Although ‘who’ does not index ‘it’, but it is immediately indexed by ‘it’, so that in posing the question ‘who are you?’ I become the ‘it’ which is pitted against an exteriorized self (the illusory verity of You). This is usually the moment in horror stories that the one who is supposedly haunted or hunted is revealed to be the haunting or the hunting menace itself. Carnival of Souls meticulously gives a fictional account of this reversing or twisting mechanism that constitutes the apotheosis of the concept of the weird: The slit or gap induced by ‘It’ in the ontological synthesis that maps the order of thought is capable of turning the subject into an object and then setting this illusory subject against a series of more illusory external horizons (selves, living people, ghosts, etc. which can be indexed by the question ‘who are you?’). The protagonist is chased by ghouls and illusory selves (indexes of who) to a place where ‘we’ (not her) realize that she has been dead all along.

    The question ‘who are you?’ binds itness not through its determining structure (i.e. not through the inquisitive ‘who?’, or ‘You’ which can be she, he, them, us or even ‘It’ as in the case of the Uncanny) but through its most fundamental presupposition: That no one can ask ‘who are you?’ unless he/she/they is a self. We need to presuppose ourselves as someone i.e. selves to be capable of questioning someone else – another self. But the ‘Order of It’ that the weird takes to its extreme cuts this symmetry between self of the subject and the external self by turning the former into ‘It’. Consequently, it is horrifically revealed that it is precisely No One that poses the question ‘Who are you?’

  4. A most enjoyable gloss. I would want to expand the meaning of ‘that’ in this experience/expression as essentially factical, so that ‘what is that?’ is like an unbearably inverted what/that relation: unknown what plus all too present or palpable that. Of course the deictic sense is part of this, what is *there* as index of the fact that it is. Cf. ‘the thing that should not be’, which pretty much seals the deal on horrific ontology as the identify of the ontology of horror and the horror of ontology. Cf. the way Lovecraft, Cormac McCarthy et al use “like some” as term for weird comparison. E.g.,

    “The thunder moved up from the southwest and lightning lit the desert all about them, blue and barren, great clanging reaches ordered out of the absolute night like some demon kingdom summoned up or changeling land that come the day would leave them neither trace nor smoke nor ruin more than any troubling dream.”

    “Just where the supreme horror lay, I could not for my life tell; yet there swept over me such a swamping wave of sickness and repulsion – such a freezing, petrifying sense of utter alienage and abnormality – that my grasp of the wheel grew feeble and uncertain. The figure beside me seemed less like a lifelong friend than like some monstrous intrusion from outer space – some damnable, utterly accursed focus of unknown and malign cosmic forces.”

    Sensible indeterminacy.

  5. 5 R

    Nicola, it’s very interesting to me that you are putting Lovecraft and McCarthy together. I am very glad that I am not the only one who thinks McCarthy has systematically developed a philosophical edifice of the weird which has grown to epic proportions. Whilst Lovecraft racism ultimately seeps into the order of the weird through a bizarre form of inverted-racism that is the hallmark of ancient Aryanism, McCarthy’s individualism uncontrollably morphs into a feat of cosmic fear which cannot be easily subsumed within Hobbesian scenarios that Mark K-punk ascribes to The Road in his current article. Although in agreement with Mark, I think The Road has a distinctively capitalist philosophy. But Blood Meridian and the less publicized Child of God are entirely different fiends, the latter comes close to Brockden Brown’s weird horror.

  6. 6 Ben Woodard

    What is interesting is to what degree the ‘who’ is temporarily solidified so it can ask ‘who’ as a who – and this problem lies somewhere between Schelling’s problem of individuation (as a retardation of an external force/power) and the lost power of Freud’s energetic model. The minimum material character in Lovecraft’s stories is essentially the subject as a ball of nerves constantly frayed by the powers coming forth from the depth of space.

    This is also a question of energetic model vs economy which is the essentially tension in No Country for Old Men – in the film the capacities of humans to build out in the dark vs the horrible things people do for money as in the two dreams at the end.

  1. 1 Transcendental Miserablism, The Pathos of Finitude, and the Utility of the Negative « Naught Thought

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