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Subterranean Passages: The Gothic and Philosophy

Lecturer: Gregory Marks

Originally Taught: Winter School 2021

The Gothic genre has long been known for its preoccupation with the limits of thought, the ruin of reason, and the unspeakable borders of language. Whether presented in a natural or supernatural form—in the dark sublimity of mountain craigs or the appearance of spectral revenants—the Gothic is a storehouse of figures made for the expression of human subjectivity at the threshold of the unknown. It is no wonder, then, that philosophers have borrowed tropes, imagery, and narrative structures from the Gothic, or otherwise happened upon similar formations of thought. From Kant’s entombment of the thinking subject within the limits of the faculties and Schopenhauer’s horror at the darkly pulsating will beyond the veil of perception, to Nietzsche’s embrace of bodily flux as the hotbed of cognition and Deleuze’s insistence on the unnatural exteriority of philosophical thought, the Gothic flourish has always been close at hand.

This course will examine the philosophical content of the Gothic genre, and the Gothic form utilised by key figures in modern philosophy. The lectures will begin with a definition of the core structure of the Gothic, and its recurrent use of claustrophobic spaces to chart the limits of human subjectivity. This Gothic obsession with delimitation, privation, and exteriority will be examined not only as a narratological or textual device, but as a structure which extends to epistemological, ideological, and even ontological matters. The subsequent lectures will show how the Gothic repertoire is deployed by philosophers to explore the depths of consciousness and discover the outer bounds of human subjectivity.

LECTURE 1: Defining Gothic: A Genre at the Threshold

The first lecture will define the Gothic as a genre pre-eminently concerned with philosophical matters of cognition, perception, and their limits. According to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work on Gothic conventions, the Gothic is structured around a claustrophobic spatial model, composed of an inside, an outside, and a barrier that separates them. In Sedgwick’s terms, this spatial disjunction stretches from the physical scenes of typical Gothic narratives (with their castles, crypts, and prisons), to the psychological conditions of their characters (afflicted by amnesia or hidden behind masks and false identities), and even to the textual composition of the narrative itself (which is fragmented by lacunae, interruptions, and unrepresentable scenes). With reference to two divergent essays on the Gothic in Kantian philosophy, we shall see how this spatial dynamic functions in respect to thought, and the manner in which critical philosophy’s work of delimitation makes recourse to the Gothic structure.

Readings:

  • Marshall Brown, “The Limits of Kantian Philosophy,” in The Gothic Text (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005): 69-84.
  • Mark Fisher, “Gothic Materialism,” Pli 12 (2001): 230-243.
  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “The Structure of Gothic Conventions,” in The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York: Methuen, 1986): 9-37.

LECTURE 2: The Stakes of Knowledge: Dispossession and Disillusionment

This lecture expands upon the question of knowledge and enlightenment in the Gothic, specifically as it relates to the interrogation of social and ideological systems of thought. Gothic plots are frequently concerned with revealing the hidden order of things and discovering the machinations of power that shape everyday life; an ambition they share with critical works of social theory. This week we will examine the Gothic elements of Hegel’s philosophy of dispossession and Marx’s analysis of capitalist enchantment. In Hegel, we shall find the genesis of Spirit in the privations and trials of dispossession, which conform to a Gothic narrative of bondage and freedom. Conversely, in Marx, we will see a narrative of disillusionment via descent, as the critic of ideology pushes through the surface mirage of the market to uncover the dungeons of labour below.

Readings:

  • Ellen Brinks, “Hegel Possessed: Reading the Gothic in The Phenomenology of Mind,” in Gothic Masculinity: Effeminacy and the Supernatural in English and German Romanticism (London: Associated University Press, 2003): 24-48.
  • Selection from David McNally, “Marx’s Monsters,” in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011): 113-141.
  • Anne Williams, “The House of Bluebeard,” in Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995): 38-48.

LECTURE 3: The Limits of Horror: Minds and Bodies in Flux

The third lecture takes up one of the major subgenres of the Gothic, namely the horror story, to chart the limits of human subjectivity and the role of the body in the genesis of thought. Horror will be defined by its role within Gothic fiction as an encounter with some incomprehensible thing, resulting in a limit-experience of shock, followed by anxiety over the boundaries of selfhood. The first half of the lecture will deal with Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will; a will which functions as a horrifying alien presence, neither accessible to human consciousness nor entirely apart from our selves. The second half will take up Nietzsche’s treatment of the body’s inner turmoil as a productive form of body-horror. Whereas Schopenhauer’s philosophy leads toward either annihilation or abjection at the thought of our subordination to an external will, Nietzsche’s corporeal account of thought makes the horror of dissolution the very birthplace of philosophy. 

Readings:

  • Kelly Hurley, “The Revenge of Matter” and “Symptomatic Readings,” in The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996): 23-52.
  • Pierre Klossowski “The Valetudinary States at the Origin of a Semiotic of Impulses” in Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997): 15-54.
  • Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Possibility of Knowing the Thing-in-Itself,” The World as Will and Representation, Volume 2 (New York: Dover, 1966): 191-200.
  • Anne Williams, “Symbolization and Its Discontents,” in Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995): 66-79.

LECTURE 4: The Terror of Thought: The Thought from Outside

Having discussed the capacities and limits of horror as a model for philosophical thought, we turn toward the other major subdivision of Gothic writing: the tale of terror. With reference to the defining works of Ann Radcliffe, this lecture will examine the philosophical content of terror, which differs from horror in its focus upon the rational re-ordering of thought following an encounter with the unknown. Far from being merely the rational conquest of ignorance, we will see that terror is also a form of thought driven by and preoccupied with what lies outside its scope. The Gothic heroine who undergoes the trials of terror is thrust into an encounter which she cannot understand, which forces her to rethink herself and her place in the world to finally unlock its secrets. With reference to the works of Gilles Deleuze, terror may be seen as a “thought from outside,” or an involuntary moment of discovery in which exterior conditions make thought both possible and necessary. For all Radcliffe’s stated rationalism, her terror-fictions reveal the irrationality which lies at the heart of reason. 

Readings:

  • Ann Radcliffe, “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” New Monthly Magazine 16, no. 1 (1826): 145-52.
  • Anne Williams, “Nightmere’s Milk,” in Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995): 99-107.
  • Anne Williams, “The Fiction of Feminine Desires” and “The Eighteenth-Century Psyche” in Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995): 149-172.
  • François Zourabichvili, “Encounter, Sign, Affect,” in Deleuze: A Philosophy of the Event (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012): 56-75.

LECTURE 5: Unspeakable, Inhuman: Beyond the Bounds of Perception

The final lecture turns to the aesthetic categories of the Gothic and their place within a philosophical view of the Gothic. The Gothic predilection for impenetrable forests and precipitous mountain ranges has long made it a natural home for the aesthetics of the sublime, which chart the imposition of nature’s enormity upon the limited minds of its human observers. While the sublime has been theorised primarily in respect to its Romantic practitioners, the Gothic holds the key to an alternative, darker form of the sublime—what Vijay Mishra has characterised as a sublime without transcendence. Less celebrated than the sublime, but no less productive for a theorisation of Gothic thought, are the aesthetic categories of the weird and the eerie, which describe the irruptions and absences of the Gothic style.

Readings:

  • Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater, 2016).
  • Vijay Mishra, “Theorizing the (Gothic) Sublime,” in The Gothic Sublime (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994): 19-44.