András Molnár is a PhD student at the University of Szeged, Faculty of Arts, Doctoral School of Literature. His research interests are Lovecraftian weird fiction and the philosophy of horror. Email:
The Thing. A Phenomenology of Horror.
Winchester, UK: Zero Books.
Dylan Trigg is Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellow at the University of Memphis, specializing in phenomenology and existentialism. His 2014 book titled The Thing is a true excursion into the realm of horror in fiction and in film. His primary interest within his field of research is the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and its development; therefore, his works rely heavily on Merleau-Ponty’s works, but references to other noted representatives of phenomenology and existentialism, such as Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, and Meillassoux, are also (admittedly) frequent. By examining horror literature and films, Trigg aims to address some basic tenets of phenomenology. He sets two goals in his book: first, he wishes to “redefine phenomenology as a philosophical inquiry;” and second, he intends to “demonstrate phenomenology’s value” by exploring the horror of the body (3). His main objection to traditional phenomenology is that it is essentially human-centred, and cannot “think outside the subject” (3). Trigg wishes to overcome this fallacy by outlining an “unhuman” phenomenology.
The first chapter, “From Beyond,” addresses the Husserlian phenomenology of the Earth as the experiential ground of all bodies. According to Husserl, the experience of spatiality is implicitly formed, provided to the subject as a givenness. The Earth appears before one as a discrete, separate planet in an incomprehensible space, and also as a special kind of body. Viewed this way, the Earth becomes the origin of bodily experience (22). This leads to the question whether there can be another Earth, or, in phenomenological terms, whether another planet can assume Earth’s role in constituting our subjectivity. If this is possible, then Earth can be reduced to a common object, and its “phenomenological validity” will be lost (23-24).
According to Trigg, Husserl’s phenomenology leaves us with a concept of the Earth as “humanised,” and makes us incapable of grasping the concept of the body as something independent of the Earth (25). It is this premise that Trigg aims to diverge from. The human subject, having been born into a given world, realizes that it has a history “that predates its own birth,” and it incorporates this piece of knowledge into the self (27). This ancient history is explored only in an abstract way, with the aid of scientific methodology, which means that the subject essentially remains separate from this history. However, sometimes signs may appear that question this separation and shake the sense of the unity of the self, for they point to a “parallel history” that exists within the subject’s (seemingly) own body. The chapter’s conclusion is that horror marks a point at which language collapses, while continuously trying to maintain a balance between “the body as it presents itself in the phenomenal world”—that is, as it sees itself as a living, separate self—and “the reality that not only resists description but also destroys the subject”—that is, the way the body is viewed as something utterly alien and belonging to an anonymous materiality (38).
Trigg begins chapter two, “Elemental Horror,” by pointing out (through the examples of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) that philosophy commonly binds the human subject to the world, forever perceiving them in relation to one another. Trigg criticises this approach from the vantage point of a “post-phenomenological” approach (43). He reaches two conclusions: an epistemological and an ethical one. First, Trigg argues that phenomenology does not address things in-and-of themselves, rather, it sticks to the analysis of the world as a specifically human experience (43). Second, phenomenology applies a narrow concept of what it means to be human because the phenomena of the world appear relevant only insofar as they “mark the sites of affirmation for the subject” (45). In sum, traditional phenomenology is unable to comprehend the non-human world.
Drawing upon Emmanuel Levinas’s concepts of existence and existents, Trigg asks how we can make contact with the world without existents. Grasping this world would be to grasp an anonymous world that cannot be described as something that consists of separate objects, rather, the world without existents would merely embody the Levinasian il y a, “the fact that there is.” This “there is” can only be expressed by indirect analogy, and Levinas’s most apt analogy for this is the night (49). This analysis leads to Trigg’s conclusion of the chapter, explained through the metaphor of insomnia—also borrowed from Levinas—which appears as a metaphor for horror. For Levinas—as well as for Trigg—, the state of insomnia is a period during which one both can and cannot say that there is an “I” that sleeps, as the border between the conscious subject and the subject’s materiality itself fades: the subject is “partly-formed,” as it is “present to itself while also being simultaneously conscious of its own effacement.” This experience is also the experience of horror: the human being becomes “one with the nothing,” as it takes a glimpse at its own materiality (53).
The third chapter, “The Body Out of Time,” focuses on Lovecraft’s late horror/sci-fi novella, “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936). This text, according to Trigg, provides insight into the phenomenology of the body in at least two ways. First, it presents the human subject as “‘sharing’ its bodily experience with a prehistoric subject” (63). As the protagonist’s body is appropriated by an alien entity from the past via mental exchange, the body becomes the possessor of the subject and, at the same time, the body becomes possessed by the subject. Second, personal identity itself becomes questioned due to this exchange. The narrator tells us about the disruption of his conception of time, and this leads us, as Trigg describes, to see a “symbiotic organism” consisting of two “spatio-temporal realms” that inhibit the same body (64). In order to fully explore these ideas, Trigg employs a dual methodology. First, he surveys the lived dimensions of the human body. This methodological aspect includes an overview of Merleau-Ponty’s views concerning the prepersonal subject. Second, the following speculative questions are asked: Can it be said that one possesses his or her body if it is foreshadowed by an alien subjectivity? And if the answer is no, then who (or what) possesses it?
According to phenomenology, the body is a lived entity, and for Merlau-Ponty, it is even more: it moulds together the past, the present, and the future into a coherent, consistent whole. Trigg points out that in Merleau-Ponty’s thought, the body has an additional aspect, the prepersonal body, which has been generally neglected in phenomenology (67). The prepersonal body creates a doubled body structure in which it is responsible for the repression of the awareness of the conscious body’s own materiality—and thus maintains the experience of being a separate subject. Merleau-Ponty’s well-known example for this is his theory of the phantom limb. The doubled body structure causes a paradox: on the one hand, the body orients our phenomenal experience; on the other hand, one’s own body is doubled by an anonymous body. This body—the prepersonal body—at once constitutes the personal self, is inaccessible to it and poses a threat to it, which results in a double repression: the prepersonal body represses the mutilation (which is the source of the phantom limb experience), but the personal self represses the prepersonal body. The concept of the prepersonal body changes the approach to what Trigg calls “bodily ownership” (75). As human subjects, we lay claim to our bodily subjectivity as our property. Without it, we feel ontologically displaced. But because our bodily structure involves the prepersonal body, an anonymous and ahistorical entity, it becomes possessor and possessed at once, which forces us to reconsider the boundaries between living and nonliving, human and non-human, alien and non-alien.
Chapter 4, “The Flesh of the Thing,” discusses the notion of the flesh. The starting point is once again the attempt to get beyond the correlationism and, consequently, the anthropocentrism that characterise a large portion of phenomenology. To do so, Trigg muses on the nature of what he calls—following Merleau-Ponty—the “thing” (105). The thing is, on the one hand, the correlate of the body. On the other hand, however, even Merleau-Ponty points out that the thing is not equal to the “real” (106). Things have an aspect that is present in every object, and do not conform to experience (because this experience is necessarily human-centred). On the grounds of Merleau-Ponty, it is possible to argue for a “non-phenomenology” that considers Earth not as the basis of all subjective experience, but as something that is constituted before the subject (107). This non-phenomenology relates to Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the flesh. The “flesh of the thing” can be sensed (or rather, conceptualised) when we overcome anthropocentric phenomenology, a phenomenology that can only view the objects of the world from the aspect of human perception, and take a look at the world as it is without any categories imposed upon it by our minds. This leads to a neutralisation of the human body in the overall scheme of things: from a post-phenomenological perspective, Trigg proposes via Merleau-Ponty that the human body is converted into an “extinct life” (130), something that originates from before its coming into being as a conscious subject. The book concludes with an overview of the plot of John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing, which also refers back to the conclusions reached in the earlier chapters.
Trigg’s work is at once a philosophical investigation and a foray into literary and film theory, but the emphasis is unmistakably on the former, which is made apparent by the proportion of texts dealing with philosophy compared to the ones on literary or film analysis. This book fits well into the line of his other treatises, in many of which he aims to explore the possibilities of transcending classical phenomenology. From the viewpoint of a literary scholar, this might be seen partly as a drawback, because what he says about horror fiction is in fact a demonstration of how the enhanced phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty is expressed in certain works. We do not get, for instance, an overall theory or typology of the genre, we are not provided an insight into, say, rhetorical devices most commonly applied in horror, nor can we read any evaluation of, for example, the camera techniques and perspectives that produce the effect that makes cinematic horror what it is. Perhaps it may be argued that there is a general theory of horror in the book implicitly, a theory that gradually unfolds as the reader pores over the tenets developed in the chapters. It is not necessarily true either that horror can only work through expressing the fear that overcomes one when one discovers the alienness of one’s own body. Monsters in themselves are often sources of fear in horror, and their appearance need not imply any of the claims Trigg makes throughout his analysis. Such is the case, for example, with giant insects that are fearful only because they are big, disgusting, and dangerous, but they are essentially alien to the human race, therefore neither a “disordering of interiority and exteriority” (53) can occur, nor a mutual possession of the body and the subject. The author clearly did not intend to deal with such branches of the genre of horror, which means that his analysis only has partial validity as it does not keep with the promise of a general theory on the book’s title.
Trigg’s analysis is a valuable contribution to the study of Lovecraftian horror, and fits well into the recent trend that views Lovecraftian horror from a posthumanistic aspect. Such an approach to Lovecraft has already been tangentially outlined by Deleuze and Guattari (240), but the increasing significance of posthumanist studies and the need to “rethink our taken-for-granted modes of human experience” (Wolfe xxv) nowadays make the work of Lovecraft particularly relevant. Trigg’s phenomenological enterprise is openly based on the Lovecraftian claim of human insignificance in an indifferent universe. This claim is seen from a new perspective in Trigg’s attempt to surpass the inherent human viewpoint in phenomenology.
The emergence of a new type of materialism called “speculative realism” or “object-oriented ontology” should also be considered as part of the greater context of Trigg’s book and the new critical focus on Lovecraft. The leading purpose of this branch of philosophy is the contestation of an ontological position called correlationism, a “current of thought” that finds “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (Meillassoux 5) unsurpassable. By stating that objects have an ontology independent from and unspoiled by human perception, speculative realism shares the posthumanist paradigm of challenging “universal human supremacy” (Sederholm and Weinstock 4). Although Trigg’s approach differs in many ways from that of speculative realists, the influence of this paradigm should be taken into consideration in the evaluation of The Thing, because Trigg recurrently emphasizes in his book that he aims to outline a phenomenology that overcomes anthropocentrism (cf 3, 25, 43-45, 107). Trigg pursues a phenomenological approach and focuses on the reformulation of the experience of being and perceiving as a human being, instead of the ontological status of objects (as the bulk of Meillassoux’s treatise does). It is at this point where Trigg’s analysis adds new insights to Lovecraft studies.
Finally, Trigg’s discussion may help to cast a new light on a certain aesthetic aspect of Lovecraft’s writings. Lovecraft is occasionally criticised for using flat, uninteresting, abstract characters. However, Lovecraft consciously avoided emphasising the personal traits of his protagonists: his ars poetica was to depict phenomena rather than personalities (Joshi 261). It is possible that the representation of many-folded characters exceeded his artistic skill, but this handicap was well in line with his philosophy. By providing new philosophical arguments for the exclusion of anthropocentrism, Trigg’s analysis helps consider this strange characteristic of Lovecraft’s works as a consciously applied tool.
- Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1980. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press.
- Joshi, S. T. 1999. A Subtler Magick: The Writings and Philosophy of H. P. Lovecraft. Berkeley Heights, USA: Wildside Press.
- Meillassoux, Quentin. 2010. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Ray Brassier. London, UK: Bloomsbury.
- Sederholm, Carl H. and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. 2016. “Introduction: Lovecraft Rising.” In The Age of Lovecraft. Edited by Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press. 1–42.
- Trigg, Dylan. 2014. The Thing. A Phenomenology of Horror. Winchester, UK – Washington, USA: Zero Books.
- Wolfe, Gary. 2010. What Is Posthumanism? Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press.