HAU’s Hauntings

How does the genre of weird fiction provide the destabilizing framework for the future of HAUtalk? 

The HAU controversy is a dense teratoma,[1] a complicated intermingling of issues and tissues that appear at once monstrous and baffling. The dreadful synergy of its cellular structure is comprised of ethnographic genes warped and misshapen—it is at once a debate over open access, publishing, and the hidden architectures that comprise academia’s skeletal structure; a realization of harassment and abuse, the way power has metastatized amongst an intellectual elite; and a reminder of anthropology’s ugly history with colonialism, racism, sexism, tribalism, a genetic predisposition we thought had been eliminated decades ago. This horrific fusion has resulted in a dense contamination of causes and consequences, rendered all the more gruesome by the fact that this teratoma came from our body, growing within us all this time. In the many delicate excisions and autopsies of the tumor, we’ve been able to bring to bear a number of diagnostic tools to historicize #HAUtalk and #MeTooAnthro, enumerate the institutional culture and protocols that led to such a debilitating condition, and envision a reckoning. The question is what to do now that the malignancy has been laid bare, particularly among those who still qualify the teratoma as benign, dismissing those willing to speak as part of the destabilizing efforts. How do we begin to disentangle such a malformed tumor, particularly when both its origins and its after-effects strain imagination?

Those conversant with the genre of weird fiction will be familiar with the shared sense of dread, dismay and disorientation that has pervaded HAUtalk. A cross-section of speculative fiction, fantasy, horror and slipsteam, weird fiction is characterized by “the ever-present sense of mounting and inescapable dread. Of forces outside both the power and understanding of man. According to Lovecraft, the weird is a malign suspension of the laws of nature, of the very things that we rely on to safeguard our fragile lives and psyches against the chaos and malignancy lurking just beyond the world we know” (Rice 2017). H.P. Lovecraft of Cthulhu fame is often credited as one of the early progenitors of weird fiction, although many trace the genre back to writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, through to the contemporaries of new weird like Jeff VanderMeer and China Mieville. As VanderMeer writes, “There’s a power and weight to this type of fiction, which fascinates by presenting a dark mystery beyond our ken and engaging the subconscious. Just as in real life, things don’t always quite add up, the narrative isn’t quite what we expected, and in that space we discover some of the most powerful evocations of what it means to be human or inhuman” (2014). In weird fiction, we are confronted with problems of scale that force us to face our normative understandings of the world, working with an insouciant body of evidence that seems to deny our traditional logics. We can think of the Yellow King in the first season of HBO’s True Detective, Rust’s visions that seem prognosticatory in nature, or the horrifying admixture of human and mammal in VanderMeer’s Annihilation, a new kind of creature whose plaintive cries only reinforce how far off the basecamp we’ve stumbled.

One of the many indignities of HAUtalk is the extent to which senior scholars have encountered accounts of exploitation, assault and violence (whether symbolic, psychological or physical) with disbelief. It’s as if ongoing critiques of imperfect power structures, dimensions of experience that may go unseen, represent a cognitive apogee—deniers and skeptics have not the imagination to go further. They encounter the mythic Cthulhu of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness—a creature that disrupts not only their sense of human identity, but radically ruptures the orienting structures of the universe with its many tendrils and limbs. This creature rises from the depths eliciting more questions, a “state of confusion, without any real progress, absent answers and understanding” (Pryka 2017, 202). Like the narrator in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), the further into the Byzantine maze you are drawn, the more disoriented you become—the classrooms that seemed so familiar suddenly full of corridors and doors you’d never seen before, extradimensional spaces where the laws of gravity have shifted slightly. The fear, suspicion and anger of those railing against HAU is one where the world they took for granted is no longer tenable. We must instead face these monsters that have always haunted the domain of academia.

True Detective, Season 1

True Detective, Season 1-We come to seek Carcosa

Haunting’s history in anthropology is often credited to Jacques Derrida, who’s hauntology in Spectres of Marx (1993) traces the intrusion of history into the living present, the interruption of secrets and trauma in the contemporary realm. Anthropology is riddled with ghosts, the presence of non-presence—the discipline’s problematic alignment with the colonial empire and the ascendency of races. The numerous cultures, indigenous populations, and marginalized communities that suffered at the hands of ethnographic study—whether by grave-robbing or surrender of stories and authorial ability—continue to haunt the discipline, their imprints left on the post-modern, postcolonial turn that keeps turning. Ideally, contemporary anthropology is a reckoning with these spirits, one that ought to allow the sub-altern to speak and be conducted by the cadre of the “anthropologist as other.” We can consider the process of “rememory” in Toni Morrison’s Beloved—sinking into the river of memory again and again until the violences of recounting make the body new and provide a different kind of resurrection. Some of us are more intimately familiar with ghosts than others.

Derrida’s hauntology reinfused ghosts with academic social capital, but that doesn’t mean it overcame the gaslighting that often accompanies ghost stories. Ghosts are the stuff of credulity and ignorance, often the first signs of madness or subterfuge. We may treat ghosts as fascinating epistemic, metaphorical traces of harm, but this recognition is often glossed with a fine veneer of dismissal that the supernatural was never actually there in any tangible way. As Jess Zimmerman writes,

When someone tells me about a malign presence in their basement or Bloody Mary appearing in their bathroom mirror, I generally don’t think I’m being lied to. I understand that the teller is sharing something they find deeply distressing and viscerally real. But I also think I know better. Their explanation goes against everything I know about the world. I’ve never experienced anything like it, so I have no reason to take their word over my own intuition. This is the same rationale that fuels widespread dismissal of harassment, pressure, threat, abuse, and assault. They believe that you think you experienced harassment, just like I believe that you think you saw a ghost. (2017)

Assault and abuse rarely leave traces which might serve as evidence of violence. There is the visual imagery of bruises, cuts and scrapes which evoke the brutality of physical domination—it discloses a tableau of suffering that survivors are infrequently able to document in real time. But for harassment, psychological manipulation, and gaslighting, these poltergeists often manifest in small, seemingly ephemeral ways that bedevil objects of proof. A slip of the eye and it’s gone. Sure you saw a ghost, they might say, sure he did those things to do—but how am I supposed to believe you? Especially if I’ve already cast you as an unreliable narrator? These are the ways that instances of harassment get recast as ghost stories. Yet these ghost stories unsettle, a prickle running up the back of our spines. Perhaps the house has been haunted all along.

So we return to the site of apprehension, the intellectual and imaginative vertigo of the weird, one in which the veracity of claims of harm abut with our genealogical legacy. If H.P. Lovecraft’s work, like that of anthropology’s own academic canon, was foundational to the creation of weird fiction, and remains the touchstone for the new weird, how do we confront an equally eminent, if not onerous heritage of his racism, sexism and xenophobia? As Ruthanna Emrys (2018) writes, “Perhaps Lovecraft’s own metaphors are best: Can this ancestral taint be denied, or does it warp its descendants even today? Could we destroy it, even if we wanted to? If we did, what would remain of our modern branches? Could we instead transform it? Can we work such metamorphoses with our own foundations?” In the process of unsettling, of exposing the toxic roots nestled so deeply into anthropology’s body politic, we need to remind ourselves, yet again, of all the things we don’t know, of all the worlds that cohabitate the ones we occupy. The weird forces us into spaces of epistemic vulnerability, where plurality, heterogeneity, and turbulence provoke and perturb and push us forward. We can no longer look away or excuse the substratum of monstrous knowledge and means of ethnographic execution. But we can also use the genre to attune ourselves to the possibilities of metamorphosis, and attend to what other authors of the weird, like Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, have done to transform the racist roots of the Chthulu mythos.

In advice on how to write weird fiction, VanderMeer discusses bridging the gaps between the strange and the familiar, nature and culture, classificatory divides anthropologists will likely recognize. The act of writing, VanderMeet counsels, must be one of simultaneous disruption and contamination, values that “acknowledge a world that is much more invisibly volatile and teeming with life than most fiction is able to portray” (2018). This disruption makes room for multiplicity, an “embrace of heterogeneity” and plurality Carlos Mondragón takes up in reflecting on the worlds of anthropology. The most recent statement of HAU’s Board of Trustees instead clings to a singular story, one in which “gossip and innuendos” are taken as their own form of symbolic violence. The statement stipulates the “impossibility” to “fix clear terms of reference.” We remain stuck, yet again, in the discourse of impossibility, the desire for stasis, even if the terms for such fixity depend on a singular vision of harm, and therefore harm reduction. Instead, I would posit that we are all unreliable narrators, seeking to make sense of the texts and terms of engagement laid before us. If we are truly committed to an anthropology of open access, we need to necessarily open ourselves to the unknown, even if it terrifies us. We need to be open to alternative ethnographic horizons (Mondragón 2018), tentacular thinking (Haraway 2016) and paradoxical presents (Lempert 2018), a questing in multiple realities which recognizes that the desire to stabilize is one that excises other ways of living and seeing the world. The only way to “fix” this problem is to lean into the process of destabilization and complication, weirding a world that refuses to abide by a singular etiology or epistemology.

 

[1] The word teratoma means a type of germ cell tumor that may contain several different types of tissue, such as hair, muscle, and bone. The term was introduced by physicist and anthropology Rudolf Virchow in in his 1863 collection “Die krankhaften Geschwülste,” originating from the Greek word “teras” for monster.

[2] This post is indebted to numerous authors and anthropologists who have contributed to the debates surrounding #HAUtalk. Even though I wasn’t able to cite every article, I am immensely grateful for the destabilizing efforts of blogs like Footnotes, Anthrodendum, Allegra Lab, Cultural Anthropology and Focaal to name a few.

 

Works Cited

Danielewski, Mark. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning & the New International. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Emrys, Ruthanna (2018). “H.P. Lovecraft and the Shadow Over Horror.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2018/08/16/638635379/h-p-lovecraft-and-the-shadow-over-horror?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=social

Garland, Alex, dir. (2018). Annihilation. Film. Paramount Pictures.

Haraway, Donna (2016). “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene.” e-flux. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/75/67125/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/

Mondragón, Carlos (2018). “Whose Worlds? Whose Anthropologies?” Cultural Anthropology. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1535-whose-worlds-whose-anthropologies

Mathur, Nayanika (2018). “Shocked, Not Surprised.” Allegra Lab. http://allegralaboratory.net/shocked-not-surprised-hautalk/

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

LaValle, Victor. The Ballad of Black Tom. New York: Tor Books, 2016.

Lempert, William (2018). “Generative Hope in the Postapocalyptic Present.” Cultural Anthropology. https://culanth.org/articles/951-generative-hope-in-the-postapocalyptic-present

Lovecraft, H.P. (1936) “At the Mountains of Madness.” Astounding Stories.

Pandian, Anand (2018). “Open Access, Open Minds.” Cultural Anthropology. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1455-open-access-open-minds

Pyrka, Pawel (2017). “Haunting Poe’s Maze: Investigative Obsessions in the Weird Fictions of Stefan Grabiński and H. P. Lovecraft.” AVANT Vol. VIII (2): 201-210.

Rice, Keith (2017). “So You Want to Read Weird Fiction: Here’s Where to Start.” Unbound Worlds. https://www.unboundworlds.com/2017/01/want-read-weird-fiction-heres-start/

Ruff, Matt. Lovecraft Country. New York: Harper Perennial, 2017.

Todd, Zoe (2018). “The Decolonial Turn 2.0: The Reckoning.” Anthrodendum. https://anthrodendum.org/2018/06/15/the-decolonial-turn-2-0-the-reckoning/

VanderMeer, Jeff (2014). “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/10/uncanny-fiction-beautiful-and-bizarre/381794/

VanderMeer, Jeff. Annihilation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

VanderMeer, Jeff (2018). “Jeff VanderMeer Explains How to Write a Haunted Book.” Electric Lit. https://electricliterature.com/jeff-vandermeer-explains-how-to-write-a-haunted-book-4873785502c 

Zimmerman, Jess (2017). “When Men Treat Assault Stories Like Ghost Stories.” The Cut. https://www.thecut.com/2017/10/when-men-treat-assault-stories-like-ghost-stories.html

 

 

 

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About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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  1. Modalities of Culture Change: A Query | Shreds and Patches

    […] Neuroblastoma Rosettes by Dr. Maria Tsokos, National Cancer Institute [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Although this cancer image is probably visually arresting when taken out of context, use of metastasize in cultural analysis is usually intended to provoke horror and to evoke ill social health. A great example encountered yesterday is in the first paragraph of Emma Louise Backe’s essay “Hau’s Hauntings“ […]

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