The American Weird
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The American Weird

Concept and Medium

Julius Greve, Florian Zappe, Julius Greve, Florian Zappe

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eBook - ePub

The American Weird

Concept and Medium

Julius Greve, Florian Zappe, Julius Greve, Florian Zappe

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Hitherto classified as a form of genre fiction, or as a particular aesthetic quality of literature by H. P. Lovecraft, the weird has now come to refer to a broad spectrum of artistic practices and expressions including fiction, film, television, photography, music, and visual and performance art. Largely under-theorized so far, The American Weird brings together perspectives from literary, cultural, media and film studies, and from philosophy, to provide a thorough exploration of the weird mode. Separated into two sections – the first exploring the concept of the weird and the second how it is applied through various media – this book generates new approaches to fundamental questions: Can the weird be conceptualized as a generic category, as an aesthetic mode or as an epistemological position? May the weird be thought through in similar ways to what Sianne Ngai calls the zany, the cute, and the interesting? What are the transformations it has undergone aesthetically and politically since its inception in the early twentieth century? Which strands of contemporary critical theory and philosophy have engaged in a dialogue with the discourses of and on the weird? And what is specifically "American" about this aesthetic mode? As the first comprehensive, interdisciplinary study of the weird, this book not only explores the writings of Lovecraft, Caitlín Kiernan, China Miéville, and Jeff VanderMeer, but also the graphic novels of Alan Moore, the music of Captain Beefheart, the television show Twin Peaks and the films of Lily Amirpour, Matthew Barney, David Lynch, and Jordan Peele.

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Year
2020
ISBN
9781350141216
Julius Greve and Florian Zappe
“The weird is the discovery of an unhuman limit to thought that is nevertheless foundational for thought. The life that is weird is the life according to the logic of an inaccessible real. . .”
—Eugene Thacker, After Life
KEEP Austin Weird, it says on a popular bumper sticker for the city where I spend much of my time. That old Anglo-Saxon word for fate or destiny has taken on a lot of meanings. And, should you mention a coincidence to someone, they are likely to respond “Weird!” That kid next door who prefers to read rather than play is weird. How weird is that?”
—Michael Moorcock, “Foreweird”
How to conceptualize what is called “the weird” in American culture? What are its genre conventions in literary terms, and what are the dynamics that pertain to the contemporary mediations and remediations in the contexts of its nonliterary permutations: film, television, photography, video games, music, visual and performance art, and music, among others? In the spirit of Roger Luckhurst’s invaluable essay “The Weird: A Dis/Orientation” (2017), we will start our reflections on what has been called “the American Weird” (see also Luckhurst 2015) with a digression: In her book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012), Sianne Ngai thinks through the notions of “zaniness,” “cuteness,” and “the interesting” along the parameters of political economy and its aesthetic consequence. As Ngai contends, these notions, “for all their marginality to aesthetic theory and to genealogies of postmodernism, are the ones in our current repertoire best suited for grasping how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism” (Ngai 2012: 1). For her, established concepts of aesthetic theory, such as “the beautiful” and “the sublime,” are not sufficient to account for contemporary lived experience, caught as it is in the throes of affective labor, social networks, and the aesthetics and politics of media-technological modes of distribution. Different from traditional aesthetic theory in the wake of Kant, according to whose Critique of Judgment “[a]ffective states can either be judged beautiful or not beautiful, sublime (as in the case of ‘enthusiasm’) or nonsublime (as in the case of ‘hatred’)” (Ngai 2012: 57), Ngai’s exposition places the supposedly “minor” or supposedly “less powerful evaluations” (53), such as being cute, and their pop culture and avant-garde manifestations center stage. Why is such an approach needed in the context of contemporary American literature and culture, including the experimental poetry of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, the 1996 movie The Cable Guy, or the comedy show I Love Lucy (all of which are part of the “canon” that establishes Ngai’s alternative or “minor” aesthetic categories)?
We agree that twentieth- and twenty-first-century American culture is, indeed, structured according to a distinct set of new aesthetic forms, functions, and categories that exceeds that of the Romanticist dichotomy of the beautiful and sublime, recapitulated via Nietzsche as Apollonian order versus Dionysian force and, and via French psychoanalytical criticism as plaisir versus jouissance (see Ngai 2012: 57). Contemporary American culture, to be sure, rests on a plethora of affective states that go beyond indifference versus difference. And Ngai’s set of categories is idiosyncratic and extremely useful in the context of what she describes as late capitalism’s commodity fetishism indexed by cuteness, the cultural investment in discursive production indexed by the interesting, and the “becoming-labor of performance” (233) that she reiterates via readings of the work of “performers like Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy and Richard Pryor in The Toy” (7). In the latter, for instance, zaniness “evokes the performance of affective labor—the production of affects and social relationships—as it comes to increasingly trouble the distinction between work and play . . . under what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the new ‘connexionist’ spirit of capitalism” (7).
Thus, while Ngai’s efforts in redefining today’s aesthetico-political paradigm are on point in the contexts she discusses in her book, we would like to return to the initial set of questions voiced at the beginning of these remarks, namely by proposing the addition of “the weird” as yet another foundational aesthetic category of not merely, or predominantly, twentieth-century American culture, but in particular that of the new millennium. H. P. Lovecraft introduced the concept of the weird to describe a particular aesthetic quality of literature in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), based on what he termed humanity’s “oldest and strongest kind of fear” or anxiety—that is to say, “fear of the unknown” (Lovecraft 1973: 12)—and “the creation of a given sensation” (16) related to such an aesthetics. To borrow Ngai’s phrasing in our present context: “for all [its relative] marginality to aesthetic theory and to genealogies of postmodernism” (Ngai 2012: 1), the weird has been a haunting presence in American literature and culture. Originally referring to a particular form of genre fiction, the term by now refers to a broad spectrum of artistic practices and expressions. Hence, similar to Ngai’s transmedial approach to the aesthetic proliferation of the cute, the zany, and the interesting, the weird, too, is a question of literary (and nonliterary) genre, of aesthetic categorization, as well as of a partic ular mode of experience. Like Ngai’s categories, the weird—especially in the American context—provides a simultaneously colloquial and conceptual, a vulgar and philosophical dimension, as exemplified by the two epigraphs above and their respective definitions of the term, referring to the “unhuman limit” (Thacker 2010: 23) that is the basis of human thought and pointing to the merely strange instances that characterize human culture beyond the beautiful and the sublime: “How weird is that?” (Moorcock 2011: xi).
Given its central feature of “[a] certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces” (Lovecraft 1973: 15), the weird is sometimes relegated as being merely one of many forms of genre fiction—in between horror and science fiction, as scholars most routinely characterize this form of literature. Yet with the multiple manifestations of weird American culture, many of which (and yet only a comparatively small number, compared to the rich diversity of cultures and subcultures) are examined in this book, it is key to realize the various extraliterary forms of cultural expression, those contemporary media ecologies that emerged in the wake of Lovecraft. Even S. T. Joshi, the eminent scholar of “the weird tale” (an expression taken from Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, and used as the book title of Joshi’s defining 1990 monograph on the topic), described this type of literature as not so much grounded in genre categorization, as in ontological claims: “the weird tale, in the period covered by this volume (1880–1940), did not (and perhaps does not now) exist as a genre but as the consequence of a world view” (Joshi 1990: 1, emphasis in the original)—a claim that he would repeat in the beginning of his sequel of sorts, The Modern Weird Tale (2001). This take on a type of narrative literature and medial expression that evades categorization and yet evokes an equally aesthetic and affective category in itself is also reflected in recent, albeit rather specialized, publications on the topic—Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (2012), Justin Everett and Jeffrey H. Shank’s The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror (2015), Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock’s The Age of Lovecraft (2016), and Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie (2016). Nonetheless, the weird remains a comparatively understudied phenomenon. We want to single out Harman’s and Fisher’s books for a more careful analysis, because these are consistently argued monographs that develop highly useful and impactful theorizations of weird culture—Lovecraftian and otherwise—as can also be seen in the influence these studies have had on the contributions in the present volume, The American Weird: Concept and Medium.
Harman’s Weird Realism (2012) galvanized the valorization of the weird as a philosophical category. His point of departure is, unsurprisingly, Lovecraft, in whom he sees not only a kindred spirit with regard to his own philosophical school (object-oriented ontology and speculative realism) but he even elevates him to the status of “a hero of object-oriented thought” (Harman 2012: 5). That praise is based on Harman’s reading of Lovecraft as a “productionist author,” as a “tacit philosopher” (one inevitably wonders if Lovecraft would have embraced such a label) who is “perplexed by the gap between objects and the power of language to describe them, or between objects and the qualities they possess” (3). In doing so, he renegotiates the relationship between epistemology and ontology in a way that corresponds with Harman’s own philosophical viewpoint and thus offers a notion of realism that is indeed—for lack of a better word—weird.
Fisher’s last book The Weird and the Eerie is a similarly important landmark in theorizing the weird (and its conceptual sibling, the eerie). Building on close readings of numerous manifestations of weird art—Lovecraft is, of course, on top of the list, David Lynch is also a key example but there are also artists and authors, such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Philip K. Dick—Fisher develops a theory of weirdness defined as the presence of the inappropriate, as “that which does not belong” (Fisher 2016: 10, emphasis in the original). To him, the weird is a multifaceted mode of artistic production and aesthetic experience that transcends the idea of genre. Put differently: in the conception of weirdness, the supernatural is wedded to the subcultural.
In spite of these monographs (and other studies on the topic), and in spite of the concept’s undisputed significance and unbroken popularity, the weird has nonetheless remained surprisingly undertheorized so far. This volume therefore brings together perspectives from literary, cultural, media, and film studies, as well as from philosophy to provide an interdisciplinary framework to generate new approaches to answer our initial questions: How can the weird be conceptualized as a generic category, as an aesthetic mode, or as an epistemological and ontological position? What are the transformations it has undergone aesthetically and politically since its inception in the early twentieth century? Which strands of contemporary critical theory and philosophy have engaged in a dialogue with the discourses of and on the weird? And what is specifically “American” about this aesthetic mode? Luckhurst reminds us that
[i]t is hard to define a national tradition (is there an “American weird” after all?), precisely because influences are often pulled together from multiple canons. The weird might just as well contain Théophile Gautier, Franz Kafka, Gustav Meyrink, or Bruno Schulz as Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe. At the same time, it seems entirely plausible to extend the American weird to run from Charles Brockden Brown to the sinister comics of Charles Burns, such as X’ed Out (2009), where weird affect crawls out of the gutters of his spookily disconnected panels, or the multimedia art of David Lynch, one of the best contemporary artists to grasp weird affect in cinema, TV, music, painting, and even his strip cartoon, “The Angriest Dog in the World.” . . . As if reacting like a bewildered Lovecraft narrator, the weird seems to expand and contract strangely, leaving one unable to judge with any appropriate sense of scale. ( Luckhurst 2015: 202)
Along these lines, The American Weird (re)frames the weird based on a broad spectrum of artistic manifestations and media practices, including the writings of Lovecraft, Caitlín Kiernan, and Jeff VanderMeer, the graphic novels of Alan Moore, the music of Captain Beefheart, the films of Lily Amirpour, Matthew Barney, Jordan Peele, and David Lynch, and the video game The Secret World. Our project is not so much invested in examining the concept of “weird media” Eugene Thacker describes as those devices facilitating the end point of communication—that is to say, “excommunication”—by pointing out the irredeemable gap between the two registers of the phenomenological “for us” and the ontological “in itself” (Thacker 2014: 132–3) in the weird literature of Frank Belknap Long or Clark Ashton Smith (even though authors like Smith are nonetheless important in the present context, as Johnny Murray’s chapter will show). Rather, we are interested in the ways in which the philosophical and literary concept of the weird—qua medium—has been (and is) mediated and “remediated” by extratextual practices in US-American culture (“remediation” being understood in Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s sense of “respond[ing] to, redeploy[ing], compet[ing] with, and reform[ing] other media” [Bolter and Grusin 2000: 55]).
The book is structured in two parts, Part One: Concept and Part Two: Medium. The chapters in Part One take up...

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Citation styles for The American Weird
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2020). The American Weird (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1978402/the-american-weird-concept-and-medium-pdf (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (2020) 2020. The American Weird. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing. https://www.perlego.com/book/1978402/the-american-weird-concept-and-medium-pdf.
Harvard Citation
[author missing] (2020) The American Weird. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1978402/the-american-weird-concept-and-medium-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. The American Weird. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.