Today, my talk is about monsters and how we imagine the end of the world. Specifically, I am going to talk about how monsters from science fiction come to structure our imagination of scientific progress run amok. I am interested in accounting for the ways that monsters become tropes and how, culturally, these tropes are shifting along with our understanding of how scientific progress structures our imagination of our own extinction.
To start, I want to consider this poster produced by the University of Utah’s College of Humanities slide (that went viral on social media). There are actually a series of these: one about how Physics can teach you to split the atom and another featuring Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly, but this was most widely circulated. Of course, and important to my argument today, I think this one was most successful of the three because of its allusion to Jurassic Park, which is of course famously about why it’s a terrible idea to clone T-Rexs. Cassandra Bausman, writing of Frankenstein’s bi-centennial (https://indianahumanities.org/promethean-promises-frankenstein-and-jurassic-park), counts Jurassic Park amongst, along with films such as Godzilla, a particular rhetorical pattern, in which we turn cutting edge technology into a monster as a way to work through anxieties surrounding that technology. Where Shelley was concerned with industrialization and electricity, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park work through our fears of genetic manipulation. Both texts deal with dangers of “playing god” and the consequences that result when humans overstep their limits as creators. So this poster is so effective because it taps into the fear of science as a monster.
As another example of this trend, slide we could consider the song “ABC Auto-Industry” by the band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark from their 1983 experimental pop masterpiece, Dazzle Ships. Representing the pinnacle of the band’s experimentation with modernist composition techniques such as musique concrete, the song cuts-up and samples an industrial film talking about robotics:slide
Robotics a science
Tried in some factories
Functions and adaptability
Its own terminology
Auto industry production
Robotics a science
Before looping a sample from the same source intoning “Frankenstein’s Monster” twelve times. The song is only 2 minutes long and part of the album’s general tendency to argue via audio collage; however, I think it’s another symptom of the power of the Frankenstein narrative to do cultural work. Where in Jurassic Park we see the monster as genetic engineering, OMD’s song alludes to robotics as the source of an amok monstrosity. Written in England during the Thatcher years, the song’s sampled lyrics connect to the larger theme of the album: loss of human dignity in the face of technological advances. The song is particularly interesting because it is able to make its argument about automated production, the decline in job availability, and coming mass unemployment simply by invoking the phrase “Frankenstein’s Monster” as a mantra.
I won’t catalog anymore examples of this narrative, because I imagine we are all here because we get how potent Shelley’s novel is 200 years later. I also wanted to pick two fairly random examples to highlight how widespread the narrative form she invented has become; we can find instances of the Frankenstein narrative everywhere from posters advertising majoring in English to strange pop obscurities from the 1980s. The idea of Frankenstein’s Monster, as a trope, structures the way we imagine our anxieties about scientific progress.
However, today, I want to suggest that there exists a counter-narrative within modernity to the Frankenstein’s monster narrative. It is newer and, more important to the argument I want to advance today, becoming more culturally pervasive than the Frankenstein narrative. It is still associated with monsters, however, and that is what interests me.
To clarify, I’m talking about Cthulhu slide. First described in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1928 short story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” Cthulhu is the name of a Great Old One in the mythos Lovecraft invented and later allowed other authors to share. This mythos describes the colonization of prehistoric Earth by alien beings who now lie dormant and are worshipped as gods by cults throughout the world. Famously, in the inaugural short story on the topic, Cthulhu is said to be sleeping in the subterranean city of R’leyh and will return to reclaim his kingdom “when the stars are right.”
In this talk, I focus on Cthulhu as a cultural effect and mostly steer clear of Lovecraft’s fiction. Lovecraft was a racist and a misogynist and there is a lot of evidence compiled from his letters that his stories were exercises in which he worked through, in various ways, his noxious vision of a white male power structure imperilled by various alien others. There has been a fair amount of work recently accounting for Lovecraft’s racism, and much of it suggests that the recently renewed interest in his work is not coincidental to the recent prominence in global discourse of other noxious ideas such as white nationalism and fascism. Lovecraft is also kind of a terrible writer, according to traditional standards of literary quality. Prominent American literary critic Edmund Wilson declared “the only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art,” for instance. Despite these factors, Lovecraft’s monsters have become an increasingly prevalent trope in a variety of strange locations, ranging from slide film, slide to literature, slide to philosophy, slide even in feminist science studies. Lovecraft’s massive cultural import currently, however, occurs despite his noxious views (many of his fans are unaware of the true horror of his ideas) and the limitations of his writing. And today, I want to focus on this Lovecraft effect and what it says about the status of our imagination of disaster and the way contemporary rhetorics of human fate work in our culture.
So, why this shift and why now? I think one example can be found in slide Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom. In his re-write of “The Horror at Red Hook” (which is notorious as Lovecraft’s most racist tale; a claim that in itself is really saying something), a Harlem musician named Black Tom turns on Robert Suydam, the antagonist of the original story, and by extension the entire system of white-dominated power in the world, and enters into an agreement with Lovecraft’s monsters. At the end of the novella, Black Tom explains what will eventually happen as the horrors come back to Earth slide:
“The seas will rise and our cities will be swallowed by the oceans,” Black Tom said. "The air will grow so hot we won’t be able to breathe. The world will be remade for Him, and His kind. That white man was afraid of indifference; well, now he’s going to find out what it’s like.
"I don’t know how long it’ll take. Our time and their time isn’t counted the same. Maybe as month? Maybe a hundred years? All this will pass. Humanity will be washed away. The globe will be theirs again, and it’s me who did it. Black Tom did it. I gave them the world. [@, p. 148]
The novel’s conclusion here suggests, not only that Tom’s experience of systematic racism in Jazz Age Harlem is enough for him to want to make a deal with a monster beyond human comprehension, but also that climate change, which we are currently experiencing the beginnings of, is in fact a plot by Cthluhu itself to bring about its return. This association, strongly literal in Lavalle’s tale, will crop up several more times in my talk today, though in other instances, it will treated more metaphorically. Nonetheless, I argue that the contemplation of the imminent end of modernity is a strong motivation for the renewed interest in Lovecraft’s writings.
As another example of this phenomenon, Timothy Morton introduced his larger philosophical project on “hyperobjects”, his term for objects that are so big or so diffuse in time as to be beyond human comprehension, through a double appeal to Lovecraft’s Old Ones and climate change slide:
Hyperobjects are time-squished. To this extent H. P. Lovecraft’s monstrous god Cthulhu is a hyperobject, a giant squid-like being floating asleep in a non-Euclidean realm out there in the Universe. Our ecological devastation has summoned these Cthulhu-like hyperobjects to terrorize us. (Morton 84)
Object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman intensifies Morton’s claim by arguing that Lovecraft is important to a philosophy of the object because Lovecraft’s specific stylistic limitations (in which monsters are described as too horrible to describe and the failure of language to describe is then at length itself described) create pastiches that do not cohere. In our incoherence, we confront, according to Harman, objects that exceed our capacity to understand them. In Harman’s mind, Lovecraft is a poet of objects that exist at extra-human temporal and spatial scales, hence Morton’s use of Cthulhu to describe climate change as a thing that acts.
Morton and Harman’s interest in Cthulhu is also important for thinking through how we think about scientific practice in the present. slide Paul N. Edwards’s A Vast Machine is an attempt to account for the role meteorology played in figuring the globe and accounting for how the quest to better understand and predict the climate led to the discovery of climate change as a byproduct of the project to convert the world into one massive sensor, converting an immense and complex series of ecological interactions into an equally complex and immense collection of data. Writing on the role the creation of a climate sensing infrastructure played in emerging discourses of globalism, Edwards writes that “meteorology participated in the larger scientific project of envisioning ‘the world’ as a whole—a single, dynamic, coherent physical system, knowable as a unit even though far beyond the scale of individual perception” (Edwards 40).
I think it’s important to note here the last part of that, “far beyond the scale of individual perception” is precisely the language that Harman and Morton pick out of Lovecraft’s descriptions of Cthulhu. In Edwards, who does not talk about Lovecraft at all, the climate, which became an object of knowledge through an incredibly large scale and widespread act of coordinated sensing, is hailed as something far beyond our ability to perceive, and yet perceive it we must. In fact, the discovery of climate change is one in which at the moment the global-scale climate sensors first started coming online, the data they told was immediately bad. Climate change existed but was only an object of scientific concern when we were prepared to see it. However, as Edwards draws out in A Vast Machine, this experience results from the way in which the ability to even see the climate as data went about: there was no data, then there was a lot of really worrying data.
This story is also the one that begins Lovecraft’s first account of Cthulhu, in 1928:slide:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (Lovecraft 167)
Frankenstein is the traditional narrative of amok scientific progress: humanity makes something it cannot control and then bad things happen. Lovecraft subtly reworks the notion of progress and the failure of progress present in the Frankenstein narrative. Instead of building something that we cannot control, which in turn destroys us, science merely learns something about the nature of the universe, something so inhuman that it drives us into madness and causes us to flee from the very project of modernity itself. As the story unpacks, the thing itself here is Cthulhu, but as we have seen, there is a growing body of texts that hook up Cthulhu as a trope for thinking through what happens when modern scientific knowledge progresses too far, with the discovery of climate change as emblematic of this inhuman knowledge.
This shift to Cthulhu as avatar of scientific disaster is related to what Italian Autonomist philosopher Franco Berardi has labelled as the end of the future. slideIn After the Future, Birardi claims “the idea that the future will be better than the present is not a natural idea” (Berardi 18). Instead, “the myth of the future is rooted in modern capitalism, in the experience of expansion of the economy and knowledge” (Berardi 18). Indeed, claims Berardi, “modernity has been defined by an amplification of the very limits of the world” (Berardi 18). Reading the punk slogan of “no future” as a turning point in the history of modernity, Berardi suggests that, today, “we don’t believe in the future in the same way. Of course, we know that a time after the present is going to come, but we don’t expect that it will fulfill the promises of the present” (Berardi 25). In short, “we doubt that the future means progress” (Berardi 25).
Just as much as Berardi connects this to a growing cynicism toward utopian politics and even toward the possibility of political progress as such, I think we can also connect Berardi’s account to our imaginings of disasters. Frankenstein’s monster, as we have been discussing, is a figure that emerges in concert with the “amplification of the very limits of the world” that Berardi sees as central to the modern project of The Future as Progress. After all, the framing narrative for Shelley’s novel captures the excitement surrounding polar exploration in England following the completion of the Napoleonic wars, a moment when the wartime might of the British Navy was converted to the project of mapping one of the least known horizons of the world, literally stretching the limits of the planet itself. Thus, we can see the roots of how Shelley’s monster became such a potent cultural trope for a particular disaster: eventually, the warning goes, we will push too far and build something that destroys us.
Where Frankenstein’s monster has been an avatar of scientific production taken too far, Cthulhu becomes a symbol of the production of too much knowledge. These are important differences. For instance, as I mentioned earlier, one of the major takeaways from Paul N. Edwards’s A Vast Machine is that climate science did not have the ability to measure the ecological damage caused by modern industry and then, when it did, the projections were very bad indeed. This is why we use Cthulhu as a figure for climate change: we have learned too much about our world and that knowledge suddenly lets us see the squiggly, rubbery monster that figures our doom.
However, does this comparison completely hold up? Does it actually work with the available data about climate crisis? In the same way that the Frankenstein’s monster narrative did damage to the rhetorical potency of scientific authority by introducing the figure of the mad scientist, does using Cthulhu to imagine our current disaster narratives actual work?
To answer these questions, I want to consider Guillermo Del Toro’s 2013 movie slide, Pacific Rim. The movie is about a group of giant robot pilots stationed in Hong Kong who continue a desperate fight against giant alien monsters that emerge from a dimensional rift underneath the Pacific Ocean and are attacking coastal cities. It’s my assertion here that the film is about climate change in really interesting ways and, more importantly, is another text using Cthulhu like creatures as a figure for climate disaster. More importantly, however, the film’s need to conform to the generic conventions of Hollywood superhero films reveals one of the main rhetorical limits of using Cthulhu to think through climate change.
At the beginning of the film, increasing incursions by monsters (which the film call “kaiju”) have led to increasing fatalities amongst the pilots of giant robots (called “jaegars” in the film). Given the failures and the increasing size and danger of the kaiju, the defense strategy being favored by the UN is the construction of a giant wall, The Wall of Life, around the coast of the Pacific ocean. slide Despite the failure of the wall in “under an hour” in Sydney, the plan put forward by humanity’s defenders is still to rely on the wall and move “millions of civilians … 300 miles inland to safe zones”; however, protesters are heard interrogating a UN representative, claiming that the safe zones are just “[f]or the rich and powerful” and asking “what about the rest of us?”
The situation, then, is that humanity in the film’s future has given up the fight against the monsters rising from the Pacific Ocean and, instead, plans to hide behind a retaining wall (that doesn’t work), move the richest to higher ground, and ride the whole mess out somehow. There are two things worth noting here: one, the area of the film’s action, the Pacific Rim region, features some of the most densely populated coastal regions in the world, regions that are most directly effected by sea level rise. slideFor instance, there are numerous map-based visualizations that detail the amount of coastal loss if various levels of predicted sea rising are met. Here is one that visualizes recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) predictions that shows how much of Hong Kong, the setting of Pacific Rim’s main action, will be submerged if current levels of carbon emissions continue. So, just as the film’s jaegar pilots struggle against giant, city-destroying monsters emerging from the Pacific ocean, cities along the Pacific’s coast have to begin planning for their own city-swallowing tides.
Secondly, a report from February 2018 published in The Guardian outlined plans by the ultra-rich, led by Paypal-founding, blood-transfusion-from-the-young enthusing billionaire Peter Thiel, to buy up high-elevation properties in the isolated portions of New Zealand. They have set up a variety of strongholds there to ride out a collapse of democracy and global civil order that is seen as largely inevitable amongst much of the Silicon Valley rich. So, while not exactly government-organized-safe-zones, as discussed in Pacific Rim, many of the power-brokers in our society have decided to leave us to our own devices should things get especially grim as sea levels rise and crops fail.
Based on this concurrence, and a few other points (slide particularly this speech by Newt, a particularly Lovecraftean scientist (who is tormented by psychic visions sent by the kaiju’s masters)), I want to suggest Pacific Rim as a particularly potent text in the emerging genre of “cli fi” or “climate fiction,” texts that deal with, in various ways, the ramifications of a rapidly changing planetary ecosystem. Moreover, as I’ve suggested, I want to see the film’s use of Lovecraftean trappings (giant, rubbery monsters emerging from the Pacific; esoteric investigators tormented to the point of insanity by dark emanations from Beyond) as marking it as an important site for investigating the limits of the Cthulhuean narrative as a means of raising awareness and, more importantly, promoting action in response to climate change.
If you have seen Pacific Rim, the Lovecraftean and climatological subtexts I’m drawing out are probably not what you remember. More likely, you remember a bunch of giant robots beating the crap out of a bunch of giant monsters and Idris Elba’s speech about slide“canceling the apocalypse” that was so rousing. My reading of Pacific Rim specifically ignores these superhero trappings because they ultimately negate the main emotional impact of the film: outside of a few “heros,” humanity just gives up in the face of climate change. The monsters would most likely win.
Today, today at the edge of our hope at the end of our time we have chosen not only to believe in ourselves, but in each other. Today there’s not a man nor woman in here that shall stand alone. Not today. Today we face the monsters that are at our door and bring the fight to them! Today we are canceling the apocalypse!
The monsters winning is, of course, the point in Lovecraft’s stories. Texts such as “Nyarlathotep” document a world that ends in a way that even the story’s narrator cannot explain let alone prevent. Cthulhu will rise in Lovecraft’s stories and there’s nothing we can do to “cancel” it. This element of fatal hopelessness is the main thing missing in much of the early non-Lovecraft mythos fiction (most prominently in August Derleth’s tales or Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow novels), as though Lovecraft’s early followers loved the trappings but couldn’t get down with hopelessness of the original stories.
And this is also the case with Pacific Rim. In the end, the brave heroes of Earth figure out, against all odds and the overwhelming defeatism of the majority of world governments, how to cancel the apocalypse and end up destroying the threat of the rising Pacific. The Cthulhu-esque monsters that rise from beneath the waves in that film can be beaten by human gumption and the threat to modernity are displaced by hard work and a healthy application of heroic violence.
In conclusion, we see the problem with any metaphor: other associations creep in. The logic of movie narrative dictates that if there is a monster, it can be killed, which was beside the point in the original stories. A figure of hopelessness becomes one of hope and hardwork. Of course, metaphoric creep also happens to Frankenstein’s monster as a conceptual figure for scientific disaster. In Shelley’s novel, the creature demands to be acknowledged by its creator while the creator is busy trying to kill the mistake. However, in many texts that take up Frankenstein’s Monster as a trope, the killing of the mistake is highlighted in favor of the creature’s demands. The monstrosity is simplified from the novel’s original vision and becomes the villain Victor always assumed it to be. By figuring scientific disaster as a villainous monster, and by figuring ourselves as the heroes who can kill it, we ignore the most important lesson from Shelley’s novel: that the monster was always us.
Berardi, Franco "Bifo". After the Future. Edited by Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thoburn, AK Press, 2011.
Edwards, Paul N. A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. MIT Press, 2010, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/tamucs/detail.action?docID=3339172.
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Tales. Library of America, 2005.
Morton, Timothy. “Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects.” Graz Architectural Magazine, no. 7, 2011, pp. 78–87.