Wednesday 16 November 2011


In his fascinating essay 'M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire' (the link is to a PDF), the author and theorist China Miéville wrote:

The spread of the tentacle – a limb-type with no Gothic or traditional precedents (in ‘Western’ aesthetics) – from a situation of near total absence in Euro-American teratoculture up to the nineteenth century, to one of being the default monstrous appendage of today, signals the epochal shift to a Weird culture.

Miéville charts the way that the cephalopodic suddenly erupts into late 19th-early 20th century "teratology" (monsterology), with conflicted foreshadowings and pre-disavowals (Verne, for example, and Victor Hugo) leading up to a story called 'The Sea Raiders' by H. G. Wells, in which previously unknown squidular monsters suddenly surface and go on an inexplicable rampage off the British coast, and on to the "haute Weird" of William Hope Hodgson and, especially, H. P. Lovecraft.

In this Weird tentacular, Miéville sees much significance.  His argument, as I've gathered from the essay mentioned above (and from listening to various talks he's given), is that the squidular, tentacular and cephalopodic, but especially the octopoidal, arises as a teratological metaphor to supply a need felt by those writers travelling through the crises of modernity at the turn of the 19th-20th century and after.  In their formless and protean nature - many octopuses and squid have developed natural camouflage abilities, making them capable of astonishing feats of transformation - the octopoda seemed to be the shape to use in order to convey shapelessness.  Moreover, the very "novum" or newness of the tentacular (in the West) as a symbol was attractive to those seeking to convey something that had not been conveyed before, that perhaps cannot be coherently conveyed at all.

The octopus - as I've mentioned on this blog and in Panic Moon, following my reading of Miéville - suddenly appears in and conquers the 20th century political propaganda poster (you can see an amazing array of such political octopus propaganda at this blog... to which I have contributed myself).  I've suggested (rather obviously and, I'm sure, unoriginally) that the many arms of the octopus, radiating outwards from the central hub of the body, make it a perfect graphic figure for representing the putative multifarious global reach and manipulative ability of centralised power, whether that power is military, commercial, ideological, whatever.  Exactly the kind of centralised but increasingly global power that was arising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The octopus poster tends to show the creature reaching to many places at once.  Miéville himself has spoken of the octopus as suggesting manipulation.  He has noted how, in these propaganda representations, the octopus is used to signify just about everything from "perfidious Jews" and "perfidious Bolsheviks" to "capitalists", "unrestrained railroad building" and "landlords".  In other words, it means everything... hence it means nothing.  The octopus became immensely "symbolically fecund" in the early decades of the 20th century, but with no set cultural consensus about what it probably meant (unlike vampires and werewolves, say, which had - and still have - very well established, longstanding semiotic baggage).  It was the consequent ability of the tentacular to, so to speak, mean the meaningless, that made it enormously attractive to that wave of writers known as 'the Weird' (i.e. Hodgson and Lovecraft).  According to Miéville, even Weird writers who did not employ the tentacle tried out other such strategies, seeking new symbols to convey impenetrable and morally neutral meaninglessness.  Miéville notes (in the essay to which I linked) that the gap between the various pre-Weird 'try-outs' (i.e. Verne and Hugo) and Wells' stor

saw the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, the so-called ‘Long Depression’ of 1873-1896, the rise of ‘new unionism’, and the ‘new imperialism’ and murderous ‘scramble for Africa’.  Increasingly visible, especially in the last, the crisis tendencies of capitalism would ultimately lead to World War I (to the representation of which traditional bogeys were quite inadequate). It is the growing proximity of this total crisis – kata-culmination of modernity, ultimate rebuke to nostrums of bourgeois progress – that is expressed in the shift to the morally opaque tentacular and proto-Lovecraftian radical Weird of ‘The Sea Raiders'.

The First World War represents the moment when all the certainties of modernity - rationality, progress, enlightenment - seemed to collapse in upon themselves, to become untenable, to become inadequate as descriptions of a world that had suddenly become indescribable, a world that had become a slaughterhouse... or a revolutionary experiment, in the wave of revolutions and near revolutions that spread out from Bolshevik Russia in the wake of the war.  Miéville has noted the way that, for Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness, the indescribably frightening revelation takes the form of... [SPOILER ALERT]... a slave revolt by the Shoggoths.  Lovecraft, an Anglo-Saxon chauvinist who was horrified by 'race-mixing', was quite typical of the early 20th century 'high Weird' wave, in that he was a reactionary (despite, incidentally, being a self-identified "socialist" who supported FDR's New Deal!).  Miéville identifies the Weird (not the 'new Weird', by the way, of which Miéville himself is an exemplar) as a kind of "reactionary ecstasy".  Lovecraft was also a materialist, but an ecstatic one who longed for the numinous.  Miéville once described him, memorably, as "Julian of Norwich plus race hatred and materialism".

It's well worth reading Miéville's essay (linked to above) because it develops these ideas in greater detail, while also looking at the paradoxically relevant figures of various 'ghost story writers' (if you read it, you'll see why I put that phrase into cautionary inverted commas) like Le Fanu and, particularly, M. R. James.  Miéville's concern there is to compare the Weird, in all its tentacular glory (and much of it is glorious stuff) with the spectral... what has come to be broadly called (included in?  analysed as?  obscured by?) the hauntological.  (For a quick intro to the genesis of the interesting, amusing, poetic but ultimately unconvincing wrinkle in the fabric of trendy theory that is hauntology, see here... I especially like the bit about Tintin).  (The best, most persuasive writer I know of on this subject is K-PunkFor instance.)

Miéville identifies M. R. James as a figure who, in some ways, straddles the hauntological and the Weird, going beyond the tired and routine observation that most of James' ghosts are not ghosts, to note that "the adversaries of James’s stories are disproportionately and emphatically Weird" because they tend to be physical and touchable, to be hairy or chitinous or slimey or amphibious or made of cloth... and even, on two occasions, to be tentacular.  Miéville writes that James'

use of more traditional ghosts and/or occasional folk-ish figures is repeated alongside Weird figures that in shortly forthcoming work would be repudiations of them. James’s corpus represents an under-one-roof co-existence – that would be all but unsustainable at any but that unique fulcrum moment – of what will later be seen to be hauntology and the Weird, the oppositional dyad.

In this context, the key James story is without question ‘Count Magnus’. Here, the ‘strange form’ from whose hood projects ‘the tentacle of a devil-fish’ – a Weird, inhuman, Cthulhoid figure who sucks faces from bones – is the servant of ‘a man in a long black cloak and broad hat’, a malevolent human ghost. This is an astounding crossover, its categoric transgression eclipsing any Marvel-DC or Cerebus-meets-Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtle shenanigans. James creates the ultimate tag-team: Hauntology deploys Weird as its sidekick.

This crossover/transgression is the exception to the rule, possible only at the moment just before the Weird-proper emerges.  Miéville suggests that the hauntological and the Weird are two distinct and incompatible ways of thinking about certain aspects/problems of modernity.

The Weird, then, is starkly opposed to the hauntological. Hauntology, a category positing, presuming, implying a ‘time out of joint’, a present stained with traces of the ghostly, the dead-but-unquiet, estranges reality in an almost precisely opposite fashion to the Weird: with a radicalised uncanny – ‘something which is secretly familiar, which has undergone repression and then returned from it’ – rather than a hallucinatory/nihilist novum. The Great Old Ones (Outer Monstrosities, in Hodgson’s formulation) neither haunt nor linger. The Weird is not the return of any repressed: though always described as ancient, and halfrecalled by characters from spurious texts, this recruitment to invented cultural memory does not avail Weird monsters of Gothic’s strategy of revenance, but back-projects their radical unremembered alterity into history, to en-Weird ontology itself.

Weird writers were explicit about their anti-Gothic sensibility: Blackwood’s camper in ‘The Willows’ experiences ‘no ordinary ghostly fear’; Lovecraft stresses that the ‘true weird tale’ is characterised by ‘unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces’ rather than by ‘bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule’. The Weird entities have waited in their catacombs, sunken cities and outer circles of space since aeons before humanity. If they remain it is from a pre-ancestral time. In its very unprecedentedness, paradoxically, Cthulhu is less a ghost than the arche-fossil-as-predator. The Weird is if anything ab-, not un-, canny.

The hauntological uses the spectre or phantom or revenant as a signifier for the forgotten, the unspoken, the buried, the hidden, the covered-up, the guilty secret.  The Weird, by contrast, is not about what we don't want to know, it's about what we can't know.  It is, as its literary practitioners constantly insisted, about the unnameable, the indescribable, the both previously unimagined and presently unimaginable, the hitherto unexpected and currently incomprehensible.

Hauntology and Weird are two iterations of the same problematic – that of crisis-blasted modernity showing its contradictory face, utterly new and traced with remnants, chaotic and nihilist and stained with human rebukes.

Miéville suggests that the incompatibility between these two modes is heavily suggested and/or confirmed by the fact (rather startling, on reflection) that, despite our species' apparent obsession with and ingenuity about the creation of monsters, there are hardly any examples to be found, in literature or art, of the skulltopus, the merging of the octopus (Weird) and the skull (Gothic, hauntological).  He announces the creation of a skulltopus as something like a manifesto objective, in order to sublate the unsublateable.  He even draws a skulltopus for us - the picture is to be found near the end of the essay... and strangely compelling it is too.  I understand he now has a skulltopus tattoo.

I find Miéville's ideas both fascinating and highly seductive (which is near enough to 'persuasive' to be going on with for now).  With all this in mind, and remembering this blog's USP, I'm going to be looking at various Doctor Who stories which seem to touch... even if sometimes only very tentatively and tangentially... upon some of these issues.

I can't promise that any of this will happen soon... but you never know.

1 comment:

  1. I've only just come across this Skulltopus business, but many years ago I was asked to do some artwork for the band Anonymous Tip. I came up with this:

    (Though the skull is removable, as seen here: - the basic 'pentapus' shape is the Jain hand symbol inverted.)