• Sean Parson

Cthulhuscene: Ecological Catastrophe, Cosmic Horror, and the Politics of Doom

“Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn. In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Amid the desolate winds of the Antarctic, the ice sheets strain under the increasing pressure of warming air and water. Cracks start to form, starting off small, and spreading as they fill with water. Soon the ice itself starts to scream in existential dread, weary and assured of its impending fate. Human rarely hear the screams, and when they do, they do not comprehend the pain and meaning behind them. But maybe other ears hear the cries, as the sound waves travel through the ocean, playing a symphony of dread for all who care to listen. Piece by piece starts to crumble into the churning water below. With each piece that the calves from the glacier tides rise and thousands of miles away coasts are slowly encroached upon. As the seas rise we learn that: “The Ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time(Lovecraft, 2016).”

The arctic is under siege from warming air and water, and scientists are warning of coming catastrophe. Recently, a series of news stories emerged, reminding us that as the ice melts, methane is burping into the atmosphere, leading to a potential feedback loop that pushes us past the point of no return. This adds credence to microbiologist Dr. Frank Fenner, who said in 2010 “Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years… I think it's too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off” (O’Callaghan, 2015). While not all scientists agree that the end of humanity is nigh, there does seem to be increasing concern from scientists about the likelihood of the world to survive, as we know it. Expressing this, we see the “doom” and “death” spiral graph showing the feedback cycle around both global temperature (image 1) and of the vanishing of ice in the arctic (image 2). The scientific fears are apparently permeating the broader political culture as, unlike the era of the 1960s activism where the conversation was on utopian imaginaries, or the 1990s anti-globalization movement with their idyllic desires for “other worlds,” today the conversation has shifted towards “doom” and “dystopia.”

Over the last few decades the language and topic of hope has been centralized in many our political and intellectual discussions. The defenders of hope argue that we need hope to provide a light to guide our actions through the darkness, and that pessimism is more likely to turn people toward apathy or conservative political projects. As James Davis writes, “From a rhetorical standpoint, catastrophism is a win/win for the right… fear and paranoid serve as rights political predisposition more than the left or liberal one” (Lilley, 2012: 106). Similarly, Rebecca Solnit states that “Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope” (Solnit, 2016). This general logic that pessimism breeds conservatism and that liberal or left politics requires hope is at the core of the current tensions and problems we find with ongoing attempts to engage with the catastrophic possibility of climate change.

This paper argues that instead of turning our eyes away from the horror in front of us, we should instead embrace the encroaching doom and tackle it head on. This focus on horror is a continuation, and expansion of Eugene Thacker’s trilogy of books on the “horror of philosophy” (Thacker, 2011, 2015a, 2015b). In the beginning to his trilogy, Thacker writes that

The world is an increasingly unthinkable—a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always looming threat of extinction…to confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all—an idea that been a central motif of the horror genre for some time (Thacker, 2011: 1).

Thacker here is correct, the issues we are currently facing have best been engaged with in the genre of horror, and not just any form of horror, but the genre of cosmic horror. The use of Cthulhu, the horrific and indifferent God found within the mythos developed by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, in this title is an attempt to centralize horror. Cthulhu, which in Lovecraft’s work represents cosmic doom, is also connected to the vile racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and anti-Semitic politics of its author. This reprehensible God, created by a contemptible man, perfectly represents the Anthropocene by expressing the pessimism, fear, and anxiety that currently exists around climate change. The racial, misogynistic and xenophobic aspects of Lovecraft’s work, sadly, also represents the unequal impact of the crises that will be (and currently is) assuredly coming from the climate crises. In this article, I will begin with an exploration of the ways in which hope is centralized within the discourse on the Anthropocene, before developing a politics of the Cthulhuscene through an engagement with the concept of “willful sadness,” developed by late 19th century American pessimists, and the revolutionary actionism of the Russian Nihilists. In an attempt to develop a dialectic form of nihilism, I link “willful sadness” and Russian nihilism with Adorno’s concept of the negative dialectic. The resulting synthesis is a politics of “Survivalism,” which I distinguish from the “prepper” and outdoor community by looking to horror, specifically the 2011 film Cabin in the Woods.

Ecological Pessimism in the face of Catastrophe:

Climate changes, and other global ecological crises, have highlighted the power of industrial human capitalism to alter the entirety of the globe. This expansion in human power to alter global processes has led to what some are calling the Anthropocene, a new geologic era defined as the “human centered” era. The concept is not without controversy and criticism, most notably the concept of the Anthro has been critiqued for “flattening” human differences and moral culpability—allowing all of humanity to take the moral blame and not the small groups that have profited and thrived over ecocide. While the causes of the current era are important to unpack, as is a critical exploration of the ways in which terms used shape the possibility of politics that exist, for this paper I want to engage the way that the ideology of hope is centered in the discourse of the Anthropocene.

For those scholars who are using the concept of the Anthropocene, there are three, broadly defined, strands of discursive argumentation. First, we have the thinkers who look to the role of technology and human ingenuity to solve the problems of the Anthropocene. These thinkers are, in the words of Clive Hamilton ( 2014), “Earthmasters,” who believe that the same technological advances that have put the catastrophic aspects of the Anthropocene in motion can be used to monitor, regulate, and engineer a solution. By using the forces of human action correctly we can create a “’good’ Anthropocene” (Revkin, 2014, 2016). The most extreme examples of this sort of mindset are found with scientists who believe in the prospects of bioengineering. The most well-known defender of bioengineering is Paul Crutzen, the Nobel prize winning scientists credited with popularizing the concept of the Anthropocene (Crutzen, 2006). To Crutzen, humans could oorchistate an increase of sulfate particales into the atmosphere in order to limit the dangerous increase of global warming. This focus on engineering the atmosphere is expaned by Liao, et al, who not only call for bioengineering of the earth ecosystems, but also the genetic modification of humans, in much the way we are already altering non-human animals to bettter survive shifting environments. (Liao, Sandberg, & Roache, 2012). These representative authors all embrace a core logic that was most clearly expressed by Bruno Latour in his article “Love your Monsters,” where he argues that humans need to not fear but love technology and embrace, not distance ourselves, from our power to alter the world. He writes that the “… environment is exactly what should be even more managed, taken up, cared for, stewarded, in brief integrated and internalized in the very fabric of the policy (Latour, n.d.).” In other words, to Latour and the others mentioned here, to deal with the Anthropocene we need to not step back human action, but to centralize human action even more and then use the power of human technology and innovation to direct the world, and humans, towards a better ecological world.

Second are the thinkers who argue that the Anthropocene represents not just a shift, but also a radical alteration of human civilization. This perspective contends that the future will look absolutely nothing like the present and that many of the core values that undergird our economic, political, and social structures will be altered. Fernando Flores and Scot Rousse provide a clear account of this argument when the authors argue that climate change will lead to an “ontological death” for modern humans. This ontological death is a result of the end to our current way of life—defined via our addiction to fossil fuels—which requires us to create a new “ontological world.” Developing an argument that expands on Jonathan Lear’s idea of radical hope, which they define as “a stance of a commitment to possibility. But this is a particular kind of commitment: it is a commitment to something completely indeterminate and currently unimaginable. The commitment is only that to the bare possibility that, from this disaster, something good will emerge…” (Flores & Rousse, 2016: 135-136). Similarly, the politics of collapse promoted by many radical environmentalists and eco-anarchists, share a similar belief. From this perspective the collapse of modern society opens up space for the emergence of a new world of egalitarianism and sustainable living (Jensen, 2006a, 2006b; Zerzan, 2015).

Finally, we have the authors who argue that the Anthropocene means the potential death of civilization, and the possibility of extinction, but who also argue that by accepting this position we can act in such a way that might allow us to save the species. This approach is similar to the last section but centralizes a Buddhist-like politics of impermanence. The most well-known work that represents this perspective is Roy Scranton’s book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. In this work, Scranton argues that the potential extinction of the human species is something that we need to not only come to realize is a possibility but that we need to actively accept. Scranton, a soldier who fought for the US in Iraq, links his military experience with being a climate activist, claiming that to survive in Iraq you had to give up on accepting your life to continue; you had to learn to die. It was only by throwing off the weight of “living” that one could live in the moment and do what is needed to get the job done. Expressing this, Scranton writes that “If, as Montaigne asserted, ‘To philosophize is to learn how to do,’ then we have entered humanity’s most philosophic age, for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub now is that we have to learn to die, not as individuals, but as a civilization (Scranton, 2015: 21).” But this focus on learning to die is really about coming to terms with the fact that we are facing an ontological extinction and by accepting that reality we can no longer be burned by the weight of the past and instead move forward and rebuild civilization:

Humanity can survive the demise of fossil-fuel civilization and it can survive whatever despotism or barbarism will arise in its ruins. We may even be able to survive in a greenhouse world. Perhaps or descendants will build new cities on the shores of the Arctic Sea, when the rest of the Earth is scorching deserts and steaming jungles. If being human is to mean anything at all in the Anthropocene, if we are going to refuse to let ourselves sink into the futility of life without memory, then we must not lose our few thousand years of hard-won knowledge, accumulated at great costs and against great odds. We must not abandon the memory of the dead.

Similar to Scranton, Joana Macy, the Buddhist philosopher and activist, in a recent interview argued that the current world is a “dark storm” that threatens all life on the planet. To Macy, we need to be aware of the potential destruction that this storm can bring, but also that…“it is this very storm that could very well bring about The Great Turning. We need an opposing wind to fly. It's the hardship that catalyzes our awakening (Jamail, n.d.)." For both Macy and Scranton, by realizing the possible horrors of the future, we can accept the “changing” nature of the world, but through that we can become more active in the now, which allows us to actually change the world and, even if it is implied, make it better.

What all three accounts share is a focus on hope. The focus on hope is part of the project of modernity and industrialism. Lauren Berlant (2011) focuses on the western cultural role of hope and optimism in Cruel Optimism. Berlant writes that:

I described “cruel optimism” as a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic. What’s cruel about these attachments, and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that the subjects who have x in their lives might not well endure the loss of their object/scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well- being, because whatever the content of the attachment is, the continuity of its form provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world.(Berlant, 2011: 25)

In her book, she argued that the ideological commitment to optimism, which undergirds liberal political culture, has a powerfully destructive impact on individuals. For instance, the myth of the “American dream” structures the way that we interact and engage with the world and, as data increasingly shows a limited potential for class mobility, having the vision of the “dream” can be a form of cruel optimism, which causes emotional and psychological harm for the vast majority of people—those who will never experience class mobility, regardless of what they do.

When it comes to Climate change, there also exists many forms of cruel optimism—from the claim that wearing a sweater, driving a Prius, or changing light bulbs can solve climate change, to the much deeper optimism that liberal governmental reforms could ever work to solve the crises. The failure of political institutions when it comes to climate change means that “… these moments of optimism, which mark a possibility that the habits of a history might not be reproduced, release an overwhelmingly negative force (Berlant, 2011: 45) .” Similarly with climate change, the optimism that claims we can solve this problem—either through individual changes, technological innovation, or radical transformations of society after the collapse—leads to an overwhelmingly negative and destructive force when reality disproves this claim. The irony of cruel optimism is that, since it is ideological in its function, even when the optimistic perspective is shown to be false, we often act in the world as if it is true. Leading to cognitive dissonance, unconscious feelings of dread, and a crippling sense of apathy.

One of the primary forms of cruel optimism within modernity is the acceptance of the idea of “progress,” the belief that humans are on a path moving us from barbarism towards increasing civility. This progressive value is seen within liberal moral judgments of the “backwards,” targeting cultural practices in the non-western world; with the new atheist smug declaration of their “rational” worldview being a progression from the dark-ages belief in the absolute truth of religion; and in radical political ideologies desires to transform human society and create a world devoid of oppression. According to philosopher John Gray:

For those who live inside a myth, it seems a self-evident fact. Human progress is a fact of this kind. If you accept it you have a place in the grand march of humanity. Humankind is, of course, not marching anywhere. …But the myth of progress is extremely potent. When it loses its power those who have lived by it are – as Conrad put it, describing Kayerts and Carlier – ‘like those lifelong prisoners who, liberated after many years, do not know what use to make of their freedoms’. When faith in the future is taken from them, so is the image they have of themselves. If they then opt for death, it is because without that faith they can no longer make sense of living (Gray, 2014).

In this quote, Gray argues that the vision of “human progress” is not only wrong, it has the potential of causing harm. Similarly to Berlant, Gray contends that attempts to obfuscate the more pessimistic aspects of reality lead, not to action and change, but to inaction and depression. With the election of Trump and far right politics globally, if there was ever a chance to stop catastrophic climate change, it is probably no longer possible. Hiding this reality, and ignoring the dark pessimism that people are currently experiencing globally, does not lead to solutions, but instead much like the “living prisoners” in Gray’s metaphor when political communities lose the ability to define their identity around hope and faith, they can longer make sense of their actions and begin to question the importance of living.

From “willful sadness” to “Catechism of a Revolutionist”

Nicolette Gable (2017) in her article “’Willful Sadness: American Decadence, gender, and the pleasure and dangers of pessimism,” latches unto the phrase “willful sadness” from the writing of American Decadent writer Louise Imogen Guiney, as the phrase that helps explain the late 19th century American pessimists (Gable, 2017). As Gable argues, American culture is often defined for its optimism, and therefore there are few examples of popular pessimism. This movement, whose most well-known other, Edgar Saltus, attempted to promote a uniquely American version of pessimism, which not only confronted the cruel optimism of American liberalism but also undermined the masculine gender norm that had developed in the late 19th century, which promoted aggressive action, control, and conquest. In order to do this, the authors of this movement embraced a “willful sadness,” in which the authors fixated on the darker and sadder aspects of life—death, despair, pain, suffering—and in this, more gothic horrors found a politics of pleasure. As Gable described this process,

Decadents are pictured as deliberate inversions of everything good and normal. The Decadents associated themselves with death and despair, not because they have to, but for fun. Pain, wounds, fevers, hangings, dyspepsia and nerves, these were the words that Americans associated with the Decadents, not Chopin or Art or Beauty. Here we see the beginning s of the pleasure that Decadents took in their pessimism (Gable, 2017: 107).

Unlike the pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer, in which he advocated for chastity and extreme aesthetic repression, the American Decadence movement, found a politics of libertine pleasure. This was a pleasure in embracing, accepting, and enjoying the negative aspects of life, and with it a withdrawal and refusal to engage with the optimism of American culture. It also rejected the actionism of American masculinity. At this time, American masculinity was being defined in relationship to the colonial expansion of the American empire, and dominant culture argued, rooted in a view of American exceptionalism, that America could, through its action, transform the world in her image. This view tied masculinity with colonial power grabs. In response, willful sadness, and the pessimism of Edgar Saltus, argued against this view of masculinity by denying the liberal view of agency and empire. Gable, discussing this, writes that, “In the worlds of Saltus, where no real historic action could take place, characters were left to amuse themselves in the glittering world of fashion, dinner parties, adultery and duels (Gable, 2017: 106).” When combined, the rejection of American optimism, of historical action, and of dominant norms of masculinity, the American Decadence provided a hedonistic pessimistic politics that, unlike European pessimists of the 19th century that could appeal to large swathes of the American public.

The American Decadent movement did not question or engage with issues of class, gender, or racial supremacy in the US, and as such their politics of pessimism and withdrawal tended to be a radical politics only open to wealthy, white men. In addition, the project of the American Decadence was also plagued by its individualism, egoism, and Nietzschean elitism. But this is not the only path for a pessimistic political project to develop. It is here that I think it is important to link this American pessimistic movement with the late 19th century Russian Nihilist movement, in order to construct a more active, engaged, and socialistic form of revolutionary pessimism, which will serve as the basis for my understanding of radical action in the Cthuluscene.

The Russian Nihilist political movements formed in the 1850s in Russia, after the freeing of the serfs and allowing them to enter the wage labor movement. The movement, which became associated with “propaganda by the deed” and acts of political terrorism, had originally started off as an early counter cultural and artistic movement, with strong connections to radical urban Russian feminism. It was brought into the mainstream of Russian life by the classic work Fathers and Sons by Turgenev and also by Chernyshevsky’s What is to be done?, which influenced Lenin in the writing of his screed of the same title. The character Vera, from What is to be done? became one of the central figures of Russian nihilism. Vera, in this book, famously declared:

You call me a dreamer and ask what I want out of life. I prefer neither to dominate nor to submit. I wish neither to deceive nor to dissemble. I don’t want to be concerned about other peoples’ opinions, or strive for what others advise...I don’t want to submit to anyone. I want to be free. I don’t want to be obligated to anyone for anything. I don’t want to every to say, “You’re obligated to do this for me!” I want to do only what I desire and I want others to do likewise (Chernyshevsky, 1989).

This desire for freedom from oppression and opposition to Russian society served as the primary impetus of the movement.

This early Russian nihilist movement started with the premise that the current world has no value and is an inherent enemy to freedom and happiness. By denying the value of the current world, the Russian nihilists focused, almost exclusively, on the present and attempted to undermine all aspects of their contemporary society—its politics, its economic order, and its moral codes. It was, as Peter Kropotkin wrote about the movement, “the Highest Revoltees against the conventional life in all its aspects” (Kinna, 2016: 83). It was this focus on moral codes that feminist nihilists often latched onto, as it allowed them, and their male counterparts, to radically reject Russian patriarchy and work to undermine the institutions of Russian moral order.[1] Nihilist women wore their hair short, to confront the beauty norm that fetishized long hair on women, and they dressed in clothing that was not deemed socially fit for women. Both nihilist men and women rejected the social norms of the society and worked to create alternative, and radically free spaces for sexual, gender, and personal expression. One of the core institutions that nihilists fought against was the institution of marriage. Kropotkin, once again, expressed this hostility writing, “Marriage without love and familiarity without friendship was repudiated. The nihilist girl, compelled by her parents to be a doll in a doll’s house, and to marry for property’s sake, preferred to abandon her house and her silk dresses…” (Kinna, 2016: 84). This rejection of contemporary social mores was linked to an embrace of revolutionary socialism and anarchism, and not the egoistic aristocratic politics of Nietzsche, and as such might provide a more valuable lens.

In addition to primary focus on the present, the Russian Nihilist movement also embraced revolutionary action in all aspects of life. This focus on deeds and not words meant that action was the primary role of nihilist politics and, as government repression of the movement grew, their actions primarily turned to violent attempts to destroy the government. The need for political violence is seen when Stepniak writes: “He was not born to be a martyr- he knew it only too well and it pained him to hurt even a dumb creature. But frightful, necessity over which he had no control, compelled him to trample down his feelings (Stepniak, 1889).” It was this desire and need to act against the institutions of present oppression that led nihilism to embrace a revolutionary political project without a demand or desire for a specific future. They instead valued a pragmatic revolt against the present and it was the action of revolt, be it against moral codes, or political elites that mattered. They also rejected a sense that a single act of revolt would change the world, revolt needed to be constant and the revolutionary to be fully committed to the destruction of society. This is why, Nechayev in his infamous “Catechism of a Revolutionist” wrote that

The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name...The revolutionary knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily (Nechayev, 1869)

This revolt against the present, and a radical rejection of the institutions of the modern world, mean that political action to the nihilists was not focused on a sense that they could bring about a specific world but instead on an immediate reaction to the world they experience. They felt the oppressive suffocation of Russian life in the 1850-1890s and experienced harsh repression from Russian authorities and they reacted to that reality not by moderating their political stance, giving up, or speaking about a “better future.” Instead they revolted against that system: they killed political leaders who oppressed them; they worked to undermine marriage, which forced women into sexual slavery; and they rejected the growing capitalist economic system. They acted not expecting their actions to motivate the peasants and lead to revolution—like other anarchists believed—but simply because, as Bakunin put it “The urge for destruction is also a creative urge.” It was a full negation of the present they wanted, but there was no vision of the future.

How do the revolutionary manifesto of Nechayev and the politics of the Russian Nihilists change in a world in which every person in the world is doomed, as we are now due to catastrophic climate change? From this perspective, all we can do now is act, and not act to save our future, or ourselves but, as the Russian Nihilists highlight, we act because through action we express ourselves and by destroying that which oppresses us we might still have the last laugh and there is nothing more cryptic and haunting then manic laughter in a dark graveyard.

The American Decadent and Russian Nihilist movements share similar pessimistic ontological views. They share a deep hostility towards the world-as-it-is, from the gender norms to the structure of capitalism itself, but they end up offering different political projects. For the Decadents it was withdrawal and private pleasures, and for the Nihilists it turned towards revolutionary political action and a politics of resentment and revenge. These two strands of action are two ways that radical climate activists have dealt with the catastrophic effect of the Cthulhuscene: with the withdrawal of groups like the Dark Mountains Project[2], or the ecotage activism of groups like the Earth Liberation Front or the Individualidades Tendiendo Salvaje (ITS)[3]who claim to be “the burning rage of a dying planet.” But there might be another approach—one that combines the strengths of both but, hopefully protects against some of their more self-destructive impulses.

Negative Dialectics in the Cthuluscene:

In addition to a “willful sadness” against the current state of “cruel optimism” that dominants our discussion and perspectives of the Anthropocene, there is a need to disenchant our connection to human progress. Adorno in his seminal work Negative Dialectics, where he asserts that, “Disenchantment of the concept is the antidote of philosophy (Adorno, 2015: 13). This view of disenchantment is connected to living and theorizing in a world shaped by the horrors of the holocaust, which closed the door on much of the optimism and hope that existed in the pre-holocaust Marxist academic work. Adorno asserts that “There is no getting out of this, no more than out of the electrified barbed wire around the camps. Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems” (Adorno, 2015: 362). To Adorno, the horror of the holocaust both foreclosed the world of optimism, as his generally pessimistic work highlights, but it also provided a moral imperative to act, even if there was no hope. This moral imperative to Adorno was to do everything we can “…to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen” (Adorno, 2015: 366). It was the end of hope and development of a revolutionary pessimism that provided both Adorno’s critique of traditional Marxist dialectic, as well as the moral imperative radical and revolutionary action.

Centralizing Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics is essential In order to develop a revolutionary pessimism for this current era . Traditionally, “As early as Plato, dialectics meant to achieve something positive by means of negation; the thought figure of a “negation of negation” later became the succinct term” (Adorno, 2015: xix). Adorno, in his work, tries to alter this historical project and separate dialectics from claiming progressive, and linear development, of human society, in the process critiquing both Marx and Hegel and their progressive vision of historical change. Instead of viewing dialectics as a “positive” process that, through conflict we see the development of solutions to a crises the and movement, ever slowly, towards a teleological goal, he contended that dialects are never fully resolved, and as such there is no such thing as guaranteed and everlasting progress. Instead, we must prepare ourselves to fight against the terror that is always a potential outcome of a dialectical struggle. For instance, in many of Adorno’s work, there is a dialectical tension between desires for liberty and fascistic impulses. Since the dialectic does not lead to a positive result forward, even if we temporarily keep fascism at bay, there is always a chance that at some point later fascism will come to power and we will see another holocaust. Similar to Walter Benjamin and his beautiful description of history, where he wrote that:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress (Benjamin, 1986: 249)

In both Adorno and in Benjamin, the dialectical and historical process is a scientific process of justifying human “progress.” This concept of a negative dialectic helps remove, from our analysis of politics, a vision of the future—as since the angel looks back she can make no claim about what the future she is being pushed to. If we cannot envision a future, all that leaves us with is an analysis of the past and a politics of the present.

That said, Adorno was opposed to immediatism, or what he calls actionism. In his short article “Marginialia to theory and praxis” he writes: “In relation to real power, which hardly feels a tickle, actionism is irrational.” In this work, which is primarily focused on the political desire to act, without philosophic contemplation and historical analysis, Adorno argues that actionism, since it is rooted in an acceptance and embrace of irrationality, promotes a dangerous politics. In his perspective, action should be grounded in a dialectical theoretical understanding of history and power and should, even if we reject a positive dialectic, be structured to moving us towards a more liberatory politics. This is because, through a negative dialectic, we can never insure a utopian future, and more likely than not, we are in a constant process of dialectic struggle, without the hope of a world without conflict. This, when combined with the pessimism of Dialectic of Enlightenment, which highlights that the core logic of fascism is imbedded within the hyperationalism of the enlightenment, means that while we can never create a Utopia on earth, and see the “end of history” we can though praxis work to confront the forces of fascism and slow the move towards authoritarianism. Because we can slow down, and resist fascism, Adorno, therefore, warns strongly against actionism. He worries that action rooted in emotion, and not theory, will not be able to stop fascism and will most likely reinforce already existing fascist tendencies. And since, to Adorno, our only moral imperative in the post-holocaust world is to never allow another Auschwitz to occur, we need to be thoughtful in our actions. Yet, as climate justice activist Javier Sethness-Castro argues (2012), the impact of climate change is nothing but a series of never ending holocausts—as the devastation, death, and destruction of way of life, will be nearly global. If we are, as many scientists already believe, passed or near the point of no return, what does it mean to Adorno’s moral imperative and his valuable warning against encroaching fascism? I would contend that in the current moment we can, through Adorno, and “willful sadness” develop a form of political action in the Cthulhuscene, a form of nihilist activism that I call “Survivalism.”

Horror and the Politics of Survivalism: An Exploration of Cabin in the Woods

Anthropologist Marc Abélès, in The Politics of Survival, argues that the development and dominance of global neoliberalism has altered the relationship people had between politics, agency, and hope. While prior to the rise of neoliberalism, utopian project dominated the political mindscape, but that utopian image has increasingly been replaced with a dystopian fear of either ecological catastrophe or political authoritarianism (or both). Central to his argument is the difference between convivance, which he defines as the “harmonious living” with survival. In the first instance, which dominated liberal politics prior to the rise of globalization, the political community was a contest and struggle to find ways for people to live together. Today that image has broken down, as there is no longer a utopian desire to find harmony or happy living, and instead politics has been replaced with the need to merely survive. He writes:

This uncertainty awakens an anxiety over the durability of a humanity perceived as precarious because of its self produced dangers, as much for nature as for culture…It is now the idea of survival that orients our concerns and choices through the reshaping of the public sphere (Abélès, 2010: 15)

To Abélès the politics of survival is entirely the result of neoliberal governance, and this prospect needs to be resisted. We must find a way of recreating “convivance,” in order to create a world in which there is an engaged, empowered, and stable political community. While he is correct to argue that neoliberalism is heavily involved in the destruction of the convivance political community, there is a deeper politics that exists around the development of survival. This book, published in 2005 does not adequately engage with the growing ecological crisis and as such assumes that the recreating past political arrangements is a possibility. As this paper has argued, the growing ecological crises has, or will, drastically alter the range of what is possible as the optimistic desire of Abélès to return to a pre-neoliberal political space is no longer possible: that future has been blocked.

If we take his claim that survival has become the central means of structuring and engaging in politics seriously, there is a need to distinguish between two forms of mere survival. The first, which is the one that he discusses, in which people fumble blindly through the world, devoid of agency, and merely trying to survive without having interaction with larger systemic and institutional forces. The second, which is the one I want to promote, is rooted in a revolutionary nihilism, and finds a way to survive, engage, and resist. The second form, I call survivalism. The term survivalism is often associated and connected with the “prepper”, “survivalist” and “outdoor” community and as such as an intellectual and cultural connection to right wing extremism, religious extremists, right wing libertarianism, and fundamentalist offshoots of the Mormon community (Schneider-Mayerson, 2015). But this linkage is primarily descriptive; below I want to offer an alternative philosophic view of Survivalism by focusing on the genre of horror.

Everyone knows the feeling of horror; we have experienced it at certain points throughout our life. Be it during a traumatic event that we have experienced, while covered in a blanket reading a book during a windy fall night, or in the shock of seeing a shadowy figure in a corner when you wake up in a sweat during a nightmare. Horror as an emotional experience is universal, potentially an evolutionary trait essential for survival, as it is felt by humans and by nonhumans alike (Gregersdotter, Höglund, & Hållén, 2015). What is interesting is that horror, a feeling typically associated with a fight or flight response, is searched out by many in the public—as seen by the high sales for horror movies and books, the infatuation and love of Halloween and haunted houses, and the rise of extreme sports and other adrenaline fueling activities. While many early cultural critics, who were confused by this niche experience, saw horror lovers as emotionally stunted or harmed individuals; as people who look to horror do to some deep seated psychological problem, most would nowadays, find that to be inaccurate as many horror lovers are, otherwise, well-functioning members of society (Tudor, 1997). Many current theorists claim that horror connects to broader social and political fears around gender, sexuality, race, and national trauma (Creed, 1993; Grant, 2015; Kristeva & Roudiez, 2010). While most of these works tend to focus on horror though the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis, using his work on abjection as its basis, one can also see fear and identity as intertwined in a cultural dialectical conflict with other political meaning, in much the way that Fredric Jameson theorizes science fiction and utopian literature (Jameson, 2007). This means that different types of horror tend to engage with different types of fears.

Instead of focusing exclusively on how horror expressed our unconscious, or even conscious, fears, it is also important to focus on the exploratory ways in which horror provides an exploration of how to engage in a world in which prospects for hope and optimism are shattered. As a quick, and cursory, exploration of this concept I want to look briefly at the critically-acclaimed horror film Cabin in the Woods (2012). In this film, a group of college students are manipulated by an ancient cult, using modern technology, into a situation where, through their own actions, they will sacrifice themselves. The blood of these college students is needed to satiate an angry elder god. Through their process of manipulation, the cult allows the college students to, inadvertently, pick their demise depending on random choice, and the group chooses to be killed by a crazy undead family of hillbillies. The family proceeds to kill all but two of the college students—Dana Polk (Kristen Connolly), the “virgin,” and Marty Mikalski (Fran Kranz), the joker. These two escape their enclosure and enter the cults underground bunker. After entering the bunker the college students proceed to kill all the cult members, after releasing their menagerie of “horror cliché” monsters. After working their way to the center of the bunker the cult director” (played by Sigourney Weaver) tells them:

This is all most unpleasant. I know you can hear me. I hope you'll listen. You won't get out of this complex alive. What I want you to try to understand is that you mustn't. Your deaths will avert countless others. You've seen horrible things: an army of nightmare creatures. And they are real. But they are nothing compared to what lies beneath us. There is a greater good, and for that you must be sacrificed. Forgive us... and let us end it quickly (Goddard, 2011).

In response to finding that they have no possibility to survive, the two, shoot the director, embrace each other, and welcome on the end of the world.

The film Cabin in the Woods has been read by academic as either representing the conflict and struggle between urban and rural communities in the globalized New World Order (Murphy, 2013) or as a modern adaptation of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror story for the 21st century (Lockett, 2015), but the political and social dynamic of the film has not been fully explored. Here I want to argue the actions of the protagonists in the film are an expression of nihilistic political action in the face of impending doom. In this reading, Dana and Marty are seen as similar figures to Vera in What is to be Done? or the revolutionaries inspired by Catechism of a Revolutionist in that their goal is a confrontation with the dominant order, which has caused them nothing but suffering and pain, in a desire to negate that institution from existence. As such this film also represents a dialectical conflict between those whose bodies are literally being sacrificed to keep the status quo functioning, and the elite administrators of this reprehensible social system. This dialectic leads to a negation of both sides, as we seen acceleration through despair into the destruction of the world. In a sense this is a negative dialectic, and leads to the destruction of the entire system—i.e., the planet. In this film the protagonists instead of being forced passive by fear decided to act against the institution and individuals who have caused their crises.

What develops in this film is a politics of survivalism. With the end of hope and optimism in the story, each and every character had to act, either individually or collectively, to continue to survive. At first the characters attempted to flee the horror and return to the optimistic world they came from, but in trying to do so they both realized their fate, and Curt (played by Chris Hemsworth) died in an attempt to hold onto the cruel optimism. After that point, Dana and Marty’s only path for action was not withdrawal or passivity, but to resist and fight against the forces oppressing them. It was this action, and resulting conflict, that allowed for the negation of the oppressing institutions and, ultimately, the end of their survival. While the characters here, did not survive, but they were able to express their humanity and struggle for the implementation of justice as the world died around them. This is not a passive nihilism, nor the aristocratic and individualist nihilism of Nietzsche, but a revolutionary, socialist, and ultimately feminist nihilism.

Politics after the Point of No Return

We are currently on path for a six-degree global temperature increase by 2100, and if there are no significant cuts within the next few years, and there most likely will not be, there is little hope to mitigate away the climate crisis. The closing prospects for the global human community to address the crises also represents the diminishing of hope civilizational, if not species, existence. We are soon to be facing the ethical and psychological need to imagine the possibility of extinction (Heise, 2016; Leslie, 1998). Extinction, unlike mere catastrophe, weighs deeper on the psyche and there is a kneejerk emotional reaction to focus on the hope and not the dread. As Deleuzean psychoanalysis Pelbart argues the only way to adequately address nihilistic thoughts is to further embed oneself in the negativity that the thoughts feed on, and explore the depths of nihilism in its full (Pelbart, 2015). It is through an active engagement with nihilism that the subject can move from the passive man, awaiting death and fearful of it, to the active man who can engages with and finds joy while embracing the finitude of life. In other words, in confronting the horror of the Cthulhuscene, we need not turn our head and believe in false, or cruel, optimism, but to be forced to look at the horror in front of us through a willful sadness. It is through this process, and this process alone, that action and meaning can be found in the current world.

In this article, I argue that we need to look to horror—the most nihilistic and pessimistic genre—to imagine what survivalism will look like in the Cthulhuscene. Within academia horror has been under explored largely because the genre has been criticized for being misanthropic. This misanthropic aspect is the primary reason that Donna Haraway, in her work on the Chthulucene intentionally distances herself from Lovecraft and cosmic horror, instead looking to a more optimistic metaphor in web like and binding nature of tentacle creatures and “namely, the webs of speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction, and scientific fact” (Haraway, 2016). At this moment, the misanthropic aspects of horror are not a fault but a feature. And instead of looking away, as Haraway recommends, there might be a more productive space to delve into misanthropy at this historical moment.

The Cthulhuscene is a metaphor of the human-centered era that centralizes the misanthropic, pessimistic, and nihilistic, strands that exist within the Anthropocene. In using the image of Cthulhu, the indifferent elder god of destruction in the Lovecraftian mythos, I want to highlight that the natural forces that human actions have put in motion are indifferent to our own survival. This is central to Lovecraft’s work as Eric Wilson writes, “the Lovecraftian world cannot be changed or controlled. It is a no-mans-land with arid desolation, without love or warmth. It contains no human value or worth since it does not allow anyone to be represented as the immanent ‘I’” (Wilson, 2016: 16). While taken to the extreme the Lovecraft world is similar to the world we currently live in. The climate cycles, while impacted by human behavior, are indifferent to us as a species. As such, in facing the threat of climate change, what better antagonist is there to serve as a metaphor for the potential devastation ravaged on the planet then an indifferent but destructive God? The world might be doomed, but that does not mean that there is no joy and meaning to be found as the world burns.

"In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming"

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[1] Even though Russian nihilism is often seen as an expression of a unhealthy for of radical masculinity, it is worth mentioning that the majority of nihilist terrorists, as well as counter culture activists, were women

[2] The Dark Mountains Projects connects “former” eco-activists and writers to produce art—poetry, fictionary stories, philosophic work, paintings—that decenter the human and promote an uncivilizing of art and culture to better explain and develop a world in which humans are either extinct or no longer the dominant alterers of global systems. more information about the group can be found at: http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/

[3] ITS is an underground terrorist organization that engages in bombings, assassinations, and arsons against biotechnology and ecological destructive scientific research in Mexico. The group, which is often associated with the writings and actions of the Unabomber, have a much deeper political project connected to green anarchism, green nihilism, and insurrectionary indigenous and anarchist politics. The group is also a much more militant and radical then the global Earth Liberation Front movement, which while radical has always rejected the killing of people or animals as a tactic for revolutionary change.


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