Strange Days in the Anthropocene: The Inhuman in "The Colour out of Space" and Annihilation
by Jan Čapek
Abstract: [page 9] This article considers the different ethical effects of extra-terrestrial forces entering the milieu of the Earth in H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 story “The Colour out of Space” and Alex Garland’s 2018 film Annihilation. The article first introduces Lovecraft’s concept of the “cosmic” and, following his proposition of the cosmic indifference toward the Human, identifies cosmic forces as “inhuman,” incompatible with the Human. It then considers the significance of anthropocentric ethics and relatively recent critiques found in É. M. Cioran’s concept of the “void” or the introduction of the spatiotemporal territory of the “Anthropocene.” The article then discusses the effects of the cosmic force in relation to Nature not as “supernatural” but as “supranatural” or “innatural.” Annihilation provides an example of inhuman yet supranatural cosmic occurrence, a proliferation of Nature. After considering the anthropocentric and cosmic significance of the motif of cancer, the article continues with a discussion of transformations of Nature, the Human, and their ethical relations. Lovecraft’s story, seen through a Marxist reading of themes of alienation, fatigue, and depletion, reveals its cosmic force to be inhuman and innatural, exemplifying the frightening materiality of capitalism itself. While both works share the premise of transformations brought by an extra-terrestrial force and exemplify how anthropocentrism affects our perception of it, each proposes vastly different effects of the intrusion.
Keywords: Annihilation, anthropocentrism, capitalism, ethics, H. P. Lovecraft, inhuman
Something hits the Earth, bringing about and emanating energy which does not let anything remain the same. A perimeter marked by strange transformations starts spreading, changing the landscape and everything found within it in unfathomable ways. The following article establishes a dialogue between two works based on this premise, H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 story “The Colour out of Space” and Alex Garland’s 2018 film Annihilation. The dialogue illuminates how these works conceptualize such transformative power coming from the outside of what we have come to call the Anthropocene, a spatiotemporal milieu established between Nature and the Human. [page 10] In order to investigate the effects of the transformative force, I follow Lovecraft’s own propositions on the “cosmic” and begin with identifying such forces as inhuman.1 Through this primary lens, I then investigate the ethical relationships constituted between Nature and the Human as highlighted and, consequentially, changed and mutated by the cosmic, inhuman force entering from the outside and affecting both constituents. Although the article at times overlaps with eco-critical approaches, especially in its contemplation of ecological catastrophes, its focus remains centered around more idiosyncratically ethical questions: How, and to what effect, do these transformative cosmic and inhuman powers, forces, or energies enter the milieu of the Anthropocene? How do they interact with anthropocentric ethics? And how do they come to affect its principal constituents—the Human and Nature?
Leading Lovecraftian scholar S. T. Joshi identifies one of the key features of Lovecraft’s writings as “a ‘cosmic’ perspective that renders human beings, and indeed all Earth life, insignificant and transitory in the immense spatial and temporal gulfs of the universe” (vii). Joshi further solidifies Lovecraft’s attitude, quoting his statement that “‘the humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background’” (qtd. in Joshi x), and that “‘all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large’” (qtd. in Joshi xi). The cosmic ethics are, therefore, opposed to the anthropocentric ethics “considering human beings as the most significant entity of the universe,” or “interpreting or regarding the world in terms of human values and experiences” (“Anthropocentric”). Lovecraft’s position toward anthropocentrism has been quite clearly recorded in his correspondence with other authors. As Lovecraft proposes, “To achieve the essence of real externity whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all” (qtd. in Joshi xii). Lovecraft’s “cosmic” will not, however, be employed as a “non-human” agency but rather as an “inhuman” agency. The prefix “in-” highlights the specific relation between the cosmic and the anthropocentric. [page 11] Inhuman means “lacking pity, kindness, or mercy,” “cold, impersonal,” “not worthy of or conforming to the needs of human beings,” “of or suggesting a nonhuman class of beings” (“Inhuman”). These definitions correspond to the opposition of the cosmic to Human, not necessarily through active aggression but rather through precisely their indifference, disinterest, and indirect hostility in the non-accommodation of the Human.
Despite the breadth of the critique of the Enlightenment’s project of anthropocentrism put forth (at least) from the 19th century onwards,2 it remains difficult, to some agencies even undesirable, to avoid assigning centrality to human interests. As E. M. Cioran postulates, “Since all our beliefs are intrinsically shallow, rooted in appearances, it follows that they exist, indiscriminately, on the same level, in the same measure of unreality. We are so constituted as to live with them, we are compelled to: they form the ingredients of our normal, daily malediction” (39, emphasis in original). An example is the appearance of anthropocentrism as one of the basic mechanisms of agencies such as capitalism which in principle operate as inhuman, pitting the Human and its activity against itself in the interest of something other, as I will illustrate later with “The Colour out of Space.” Cioran proposes resistance through leaving the anthropocentric position behind, decentering it through abolishing the “I” and embracing “the void” not blindly but in an informed and deliberate manner (39). It is that exact self-awareness which has been in the past decades used to criticize anthropocentric ethics in relation to Nature, something which, arguably, always stands outside the Human and can be thought of as “a void without the Human” which the Human can, nevertheless, attempt to join in alliance with. One of the ways that critical self-awareness toward anthropocentrism manifests in the last decades can be found in eco-critical positions which, among others, gave birth to the concept which highlights the effects of anthropocentric ethics on the milieu surrounding it: “Most scientists agree that humans have had a hand in warming Earth’s climate since the industrial revolution — some even argue that we are living in a new geological epoch, dubbed the Anthropocene” (Mason 582). I employ the term anthropocene as a spatiotemporal territory marked by anthropocentric ethics and their proliferation of the unbridled Human due to the ties of the Anthropocene to geology [page 12] and its concern with development of space over time.
While I approach the concept of Nature from a seemingly rather naïve perspective as “that which is found beyond the Human,” I do so in order to distance thinking about Nature as much from the (unavoidably anthropocentric) perception of nature as something tied to, and negotiated against, our own activity. It is critical to construct a vocabulary that will consider Nature on its own terms, without necessarily depending on human reason and experience. The term supernatural shall not be used in relation to the cosmic forces due to its connotations of human perception of transcendent phenomena (“Supernatural”). Instead, terms that will be employed are supranatural for forces that bring about a higher intensity of nature and are amiable toward it, and innatural for forces that are indifferent and even hostile to nature in the same way that they are to the Human in our understanding of the inhuman. Both works discussed will correspond with these interactions while both remain intimately concerned with the effects of the same inhuman, cosmic force.
Alex Gardner’s 2018 film Annihilation at its center presents relations between the Human, Nature, and a cosmic intrusion. A meteor hits a lighthouse on the shore, and a perimeter of transformative energy, called the Shimmer, starts spreading. Investigations are launched, squads of soldiers are not coming –except for Kane, the partner of the main protagonist Lena (played by Oscar Isaac and Natalie Portman, respectively). Kane collapses almost immediately after coming back home, and both he and Lena are taken into quarantine. Lena, a cellular biologist and a former soldier, joins a group of other scientists, lead by Dr. Ventress, in order to investigate the cause of the strange perimeter surrounding the impact site of the meteor and, in Lena’s case, to find out what happened to Kane.
As introduced by geomorphologist Cassie Sheppard in reaction to Lena’s proposed loss of a husband, “volunteering for . . . this is not exactly something you do if your life is in . . . perfect harmony. We’re all damaged goods here. Anya [Thorensen, paramedic] is sober, therefore an addict. Josie [Radek, physicist] wears long sleeves ’cause she doesn’t want you to see the scars on her forearms.” Sheppard also describes Ventress, whose first name is never given, as [page 13] a social recluse and admits that she herself lost her daughter to leukemia (00:39:47-00:40:54, emphasis in original). Through such characterizations, Annihilation thematizes loss, disease, and other ailments of the body or soul as devastating, suggesting that the team members have gone into the Shimmer because they do not have much to lose, but at the same time proposes them as undeniably positive motivators which send the team on their journey in the first place.
Nevertheless, Annihilation also presents its prime example of anthropocentric subjectivity, and how drastically it can inform the perception of the events unfolding, in the motif of cancer. One of the opening scenes establishes the theme as the protagonist, Lena, is shown lecturing at Johns Hopkins University about cancer. From the anthropocentric position (in other words, in relation to the Human), cancer can, indeed, hardly be read as anything but a malignant disease. The exemplary case is Dr. Ventress, the team leader, who has supposedly gone into the Shimmer and pushed forward because she “had cancer and was never coming back” (00:58:55-00:58:57), as revealed to Lena in the questioning by the government employee that makes up the narrative frame of most of the story. It is therefore suggested that, from her anthropocentric perspective, she did not care for the danger of going forward since every direction would still bring her only closer to her very palpable death. Further establishing the motif of cancer, the effects of the shimmer encountered on the way are commented on as “mutation” (00:34:02), cancerous, “malignant, like tumors” (00:41:43-00:41:47), but as Lena comments, “you’d sure as hell call it a pathology if you saw this in a human” (00:34:08-00:34:11, emphasis added), herself marking the cancer criterion as anthropocentric.
I, on the other hand, propose reading the transformative energy of the Shimmer as natural and, indeed, supranatural, as an expression of the transformative wild, chaotic power of the cosmos or of Nature itself. Distancing ourselves from anthropocentrism and thinking in terms of Nature, a question arises: Why should a growth of cells care whether the Human perishes in what we call cancer? The effects of the Shimmer ought to be considered merely as another growth of cells, especially under the reign of the cosmic energy and in the territory marked by its transformative powers, [page 14] stressing the inadequacy of anthropocentric criteria within its perimeter. The first encounters with the strange foliage, various flowers in bloom growing from the same stem (00:33:30), give such a reading credence, as do later manifestations such as the uncanny deer with antlers-turned-blooming-flower-branches (01:00:50-01:01:14) that are displaced outside the usual Human reference to Nature through the cosmic intervention.
As becomes increasingly clear, the Shimmer does not remain operative in the domain of Nature and proves to be cosmic and inhuman in its stepping across the boundary, miscegenating with both human products and the Human in general. The first foreboding signs are found when the team reaches the previous base, at the time already deep within the growing Shimmer, ruinous and reclaimed by wild flora, and finds traces of Kane’s military team. The first trace is a haunting recording on a digital camera which shows Kane cutting open one of the soldiers’ abdomens, uncovering a corruption from within, reminiscent of ever-circling coils of a snake or a bundle of eels in place of the soldier’s insides (00:45:07-00:46:25). Mere minutes later, a dead soldier is found grown onto a wall and becoming one with an intricate web of what looks like fungi and mold (00:47:38-00:48:58). Soon afterwards, Sheppard is killed by a bear (00:55:34), which later returns speaking in her voice as though it absorbed Sheppard into its body (1:14:02-1:17:20). Images such as these exemplify the monstrosity of miscegenation between the Human and Nature, attacking the Human as a separate and privileged subject and therefore marking the Shimmer as inhuman.
The depictions do not, however, allow for simple reactive fear of the Shimmer as malevolent, since they are contrasted with imagery that is everything but violent. As the remnants of the team continue further into the center of the Shimmer, they come across a former human settlement, largely reclaimed by Nature. The discovery presents an alternate side of the miscegenation and cosmic inhumanity in a different, more serene way via the uncanny image of foliage growing in the shape of human bodies (01:04:15). It is then that the physicist Josie Radek proposes that “The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything, not just light and radio waves but animal DNA, plant DNA, all DNA” (1:05:46-1:06:00), explicitly pointing out the miscegenation and transformative power of the [page 15] Shimmer, now in relation to a case in which nature seems to somewhat accept the Human forms and accommodate them as a part of Nature. Soon, Radek “falls victim” to the Shimmer, disappearing after she starts to sprout flora from the scars on her forearms (01:20:40), with Nature transforming her damage and trauma and accepting her under its wings. While such growth may be judged as cancerous, malignant, parasitical, or invasive, Radek’s behavior suggests acceptance of it: “Ventress wants to face it, you [Lena] want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of those things” (01:20:46-01:21:04). With these last words, Radek calmly disappears into Nature, accepting the inhuman and dissolving in the agreeable affirmation of cosmic power. Contrasted with the violent death of Sheppard or the insanity of Thorensen preceding it, Radek’s choice is a markedly different way to encounter the supranatural. As the finale of the film soon shows, she is not the only one to make this encounter differently.
The final act shows Lena arriving at the lighthouse, the impact site of the meteorite and the source of the Shimmer outpouring around it. Even before she enters the lighthouse, the landscape of the beach points to the predominant anthropocentric perception of the whole cosmic event, alluded to by the distress of the scientists and the fear of the creeping expansion of the Shimmer, as an environmental catastrophe. This angle is accentuated visually by the beach glistening as though after an oil spill (1:23:32-1:24:02). Even such a callback, however, highlights the paradox of reference found in man-made disaster echoed in a space absolutely devoid of the Human and its effect on the environment. The belonging of the space to the cosmic is immediately reasserted with the salt crystal trees growing out of the sand surrounding the lighthouse (1:24:03-1:25:16).
Within the lighthouse, Lena finds another digital camera and watches the recording of Kane’s self-immolation: “I thought I was a man . . . I had a life . . . People called me Kane . . . And now I’m not so sure. If I wasn’t Kane, what was I? Was I you? Were you me? My flesh moves like liquid . . . My mind is cut loose . . . I can’t bear it . . . I can’t bear it . . . Have you ever seen a phosphorus grenade go off?” (1:27:37-1:28:59). The explosion of the grenade is followed by the revelation of another Kane, whom Kane spoke to, coming into the [page 16] frame, implying that Kane who returned home was Kane the inhuman. In the act of self-immolation, Kane immolated his self and dissolved it to give way to the energy of Nature forming his inhuman self. He burned away the Human and became one with the inhuman, accepting the void, “the self without self, [which] amounts to the abolition of that adventure called the ‘I,’ it is being without any trace of being, a blessed engulfment, an incomparable disaster” (Cioran 39).
Cioran’s void shall, indeed, be kept in mind as an alternative ethical position to anthropocentrism, as “nothingness stripped of its negative attributes, nothingness transfigured. Once we have tasted it, our relations with the world are thereby modified, something in us changes; although we remain our fallible selves, we no longer belong here in precisely the same way as before” (43). Effectively, Kane sheds the privilege of anthropocentrism toward cosmic ethics, by dissolving his humanity and giving his place over to something other, his cosmic inhuman simulacrum, a new being formed from the cosmic energy. In doing so, he escapes the dictate of anthropocentrism toward the affirmation and existential freedom of being with the void:
Nothing matters: a major discovery if ever there was one, which people have never succeeded in turning to good account. Only the void, whose motto it is, can give an exalting twist to this reputedly depressing conclusion, only the void endeavors to convert the negative into the affirmative, the irreparable into the possible. There is no self, this we know, but our knowledge is riddled with afterthoughts. Happily, the void is there to stand in for the self when it vanishes, it stands in for everything, it answers our expectations, it assures us of our non-reality. The void is the abyss without vertigo. (Cioran 41-42, emphasis in original)
The Shimmer arrives from outside of the anthropogenic territory and not only co-exists with Nature but sets up an alliance with it, injecting nature with energy and potential to reclaim; it emancipates the Nature of Earth by overpowering the cruel, privileged master that rose into prominence through squandering it. Such supranatural agency is somewhat “pure” Nature, entering from a space not [page 17] touched by the Human, never before encountered and appropriated by human agency. In cooperation with Kane’s complicity, the inhuman energy replaces him as Lena’s partner, not merely replacing the naturally formed human being but negotiating its place with it to create a new alliance between humanity, the inhuman, and its grand playground, Nature.
In contrast with Kane’s acceptance of the void, Lena fights her mimic in an attempt to save herself from being copied, to maintain her privilege of anthropocentric being. As Lena tries to fight off the power of Nature, her mimic fights her back in its mirroring movement, and the embodied prism of the Shimmer turns Lena’s agency against her, proposing a degree of self-harm found in arrogant anthropocentrism. Lena manages to defeat the avatar of the Shimmer and burn it, along with the lighthouse and the salt trees surrounding it, with another phosphorus grenade, suggesting that the whole of the Shimmer disappears. However, as she embraces Kane’s mimic in the end of the film, her eyes shimmer in the same way as his (01:48:06-01:48:16). Despite her attempt to keep her privileged position for herself, her humanity has been transformed by the encounter with the force of pure Nature, and she comes home monstrous. Such transformation is, effectively, the titular “annihilation” in the sense that it is used in physics: “the combination of a particle and its antiparticle (such as an electron and a positron) that results in the subsequent total conversion of the particles into energy” (“Annihilation”). Lena’s journey and agency throughout the film illustrate the true relational basis of such a process: as much as Lena was the antiparticle to the particle of pure Nature, such Nature was the antiparticle to the particle of Lena. As the Shimmer affected Lena, refracting her DNA and infecting her with cosmic transformation, Lena affected the Shimmer by defeating and destroying it in the lighthouse. The result of the combination of the particle and anti-particle is an energy, a synthesis, a final miscegenation of Lena and the cosmic intrusion, creating a new being much similar to the inhuman Kane simulacrum. As Lena postulates at the end of the film, “[the Shimmer] wasn’t destroying . . . it was changing everything, it was making something new” (1:45:02-1:45:10). The cosmic force indeed created something new, two inhuman lovers displaced out of their complacent anthropocentrism, [page 18] infected with the cosmic, dissolved in the void of new ethics formed between Nature and the Human.
Annihilation, therefore, showcases the prevalence of a cosmic force, emancipatory and affirmative to Nature as a testament to the energy of transformation, affecting the Human past the illusions of anthropocentric predominance and delivering the actors engaged to “the primeval bliss, the light of pure anteriority” (Cioran 48). But not all cosmic energies and agencies are so receptive to Nature as to reach the heights of the supranatural and its affirmative transformation. Lovecraft’s own presentation of the cosmic in “The Colour out of Space” proves to be the other side of the inhuman coin. H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 story “The Colour out of Space” depicts a strange territory marked by the outside entry of an asteroid arriving from the space and hitting a valley in New England, Lovecraft’s usual choice of setting. The narrator travels to the valley in order to investigate and record the peculiar story of the area referred to as the “blasted heath,” the impact site of the meteor at the Gardner farm and its surroundings, before the valley gets repurposed as a new water reservoir. In the beginning of the story, the narrator travels to interview a witness of the strange events surrounding the Gardner farm, Ammi Pierce.
As the narrator notes, the wilderness found in the valley induces anxiety: “Upon everything was a haze of restlessness and oppression; a touch of the unreal and the grotesque, as if some vital element of the perspective or chiaroscuro were awry. I did not wonder that the foreigners would not stay, for this was no region to sleep in. It was . . . too much like some forbidden woodcut in a tale of terror” (Lovecraft 63). But it had not always been that way:
It all began, old Ammi said, with the meteorite. Before that time there had been no wild legends at all since the witch trials, and even then these western woods were not feared half so much as the small island in the Miskatonic where the devil held court beside a curious stone altar older than the Indians. These were not haunted woods, and their fantastic dusk was never terrible till the strange days. (64-65)
Already then, in the beginning of the story, Lovecraft assigns to the meteor power which transformed the valley into a dark and unnerving area. After description of the uncanny findings by [page 19] scientists from the nearby Miskatonic University, the narrative turns to the effects on the Gardner family farm, the impact site of the meteor and the center of the narrative.
The seemingly positive effect of the contaminated soil on the following harvest of unprecedented proportions and aesthetic pleasure, fruits of “phenomenal size and unwonted gloss, and in such abundance that extra barrels were ordered to handle the future crop” (67), is followed by the realization that the fruits are unfit for human consumption. Soon, the family and other inhabitants of the area start noticing strange mutations of both the fauna and flora at the farm and in the nearby forests, as well as the slow descent of the family into insanity, the corruption of their minds akin to the mutations transforming their bodies and the whole area into decaying husks. In the course of its narrative, Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space” presents an anticipation of a critical thesis on the disproportion between anthropocentrism and Nature uncovered by the inhuman agent, the cosmic energy emanating from the Gardners’ well. The focus on the farming family is key to understand the dissolution of anthropocentric privilege by the inhuman agency.
On a superficial level, we may consider the family name to be an allusion to gardening, a Human attempt at controlling the growth of flora in order to extract either aesthetic pleasure or subsistence. Gardening itself is an anthropocentric concept, a domination of human reason over natural chaos, or even a position of mastery over nature working toward a commodifiable product. The Gardners’ ability to control the soil and its productive potential, the privilege of their craft as well as of their ownership of the land, is taken over by the cosmic energy. After all: why should the huge harvest of fruits grown on the Gardner farm, produced by the outside, by the cosmos, be edible? These transformed cosmic fruits do not care to accommodate human taste and needs, or to sustain Human predominance. They would not even need to grow in recognizable shapes and forms. All the anthropogenic space of the farm, the curated soil, and the human activity are negated as the human subjects are deprived of the fruits of their labor.
One may notice both a similar plot and an aesthetic connection between Annihilation and “Colour.” Annihilation’s depiction of the prismatic oily tinge marking the space of the Shimmer, first seen in [page 20] detail before the eighteen minute mark, parallels Lovecraft’s description of the odd colors surrounding the Gardner farm: “No sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of earth” (70). Annihilation attempts to provide a visual representation of, much as “Colour” provides a textual allusion to, the cosmic and otherworldly, not providing direct descriptions or explicit explanations but rather attempting to implicitly convey the sense of a space marked by the outside. As much as both works attempt to do so in a similar manner, their interactions between Nature and the cosmic force work toward different ends.
It is the process of alienation of the farmers’ fruits of labor, as well as their labor in general, which invites a Marxist exploration of “The Colour out of Space” as an early text allowing for engagement in a more specific permutation of the geological epoch of the Anthropocene. The so-called “Capitalocene” is a spatiotemporal territory formed by the flows of capital which, in the words of Jason Moore, “signifies capitalism as a way of organizing nature—as a multispecies, situated, capitalist world-ecology” (6). It is not just that the fruits of the Gardners’ labor become alienated from them, exemplifying the worker’s alienation from the fruits of their labor found in Karl Marx’s Capital, but also that the Gardners are confronted with the fruits and, indeed, the whole space in which they labor, quite literally turned alien. The whole process of their labor as well as the fruits of their labor are infected by something from the outside, as though the farmers were not reaping the fruits of their own labor or working on their own property and in their own interest anymore.
The inhuman agency takes over the production, putting forth an object without function and use to the Human, an inhuman fruit which, while resembling fruit previously grown and harvested by the farmer, is devoid of its use value as subsistence. If such fruit retains any value at all, it is the aesthetic exchange value of an uncanny curiosity, a freak of nature fit only for libidinal consumption of its spectacle: “In the inverted reality of the spectacle, use value (which was implicitly contained in exchange value) must now be explicitly proclaimed precisely because its factual reality is eroded by the [page 21] overdeveloped commodity economy and because counterfeit life requires a pseudo-justification” (Debord par. 48). The inhuman fruits, not offering nurture, exemplify the contamination and alienation of the fruits of one’s labor in the capitalist mode of production. The economic mode of life of families like the Gardners would have already been transformed into a constituency of the Capitalocene. They would have already entered the competitive market, as the New England farmer’s rural life during the 19th century did in general (see Clark), moving past self-reliant production for consumption towards participation in the market with the natural resources-turned-commodity. But, presumably since they still owned their land and exercised control over it, it was not until the inhuman force took over that they felt the full devastating effects of capitalism on their spirits and bodies, exemplified by their mental and physical deterioration, expedited, and quite exaggerated, by the invasion of the cosmic force.
The family, alienated and frustrated, drinks the contaminated water from the well “as listlessly and mechanically as they ate their meagre and ill-cooked meals and did their thankless and monotonous chores through the aimless days. There was something of stolid resignation about them all, as if they walked half in another world between lines of nameless guards to a certain and familiar doom” (Lovecraft 72). Such contamination, and the deliberate self-poisoning by drinking the well-water, can be read as both the source of their madness and deterioration and a measure of complicity with the destructive, inhuman contagion, as though the Gardners attempted to adapt to their new predicament. In any case, it is symptomatic of the change taking place, put forth by the inhuman energy. Hauntingly prescient, Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space” anticipates the complicit capitalist participation in self-destructive consumption, to the end of presenting the reader with a localized catastrophe not unlike our current global ecological crisis, largely a product of the unchecked neoliberal capitalist project of devastating extraction of natural resources.
What is more, the sudden abundance of produce followed by fatigue and decay of the whole affected territory points to the kind of process which, outside of fictions of cosmic horror, can be identified as the tendency of capitalism itself. Coming from “infinity beyond all [page 22] Nature” (85), it manifests as a malignant force corrupting and destroying both the Human and Nature and, therefore, as both inhuman and innatural. It works both the Human and Nature to death beyond the point of no return, so that no leisure time nor seasonal cycle can rejuvenate them, as the extent of the inflicted damage is absolute. This is where Lovecraft’s short story finds itself extremely relevant and terrifying even after the nine decades since its first publication. We may relate to the depletion of the flows of energies, not through drying up but through draining, or the fatigue and collapse of both the space of production and the bodies occupying it and laboring there. After all, as famously postulated by Karl Marx, “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him” (342). We may relate to spaces affected by such activity, many “five eldritch acres of dusty grey desert” (Lovecraft 83) found everywhere around the world, in America recorded for example by David Hanson, who comments that “driven by our distorted notions of progress, we have realized the logical conclusion of our Manifest Destiny, and have transformed our natural world from wilderness to pastoral landscape to industrial site and now to wasteland” (Hanson). We may relate as well to the continuity of the devastating parasitism, always finding more to mooch from: “The rustics say the blight creeps an inch a year, so perhaps there is a kind of growth or nourishment even now. . . . Is it fastened to the roots of those trees that claw the air?” (Lovecraft 84). The integration of this malignant energy is seemingly irreversible and present everywhere in the space of Capitalocene.
One may therefore think about the implication of “Colour,” in that the surroundings where the horrible energy did not reach are portrayed as overgrown, even replacing and reclaiming spaces previously occupied by people in a similar manner to that which Annihilation depicts, creating a fertile ring around the blasted heath. The fertile wilderness is, however, a ring where the destruction has not yet reached, space which only lies there to be reached and devoured in the future. The force “feeds on everything livin’ an’ gits stronger all the time” (79), and it does not make any difference [page 23] whether one can see or touch the strange, alien substance, which evaporated soon after arriving (67). Even after the dissipation of the meteorite and even long after the whole incident, “The Colour out of Space” presents the material consequences of the spectral, slowly creeping workings of the corrupting stimulus. A similar effect is nowadays experienced in increasingly disembodied and spectral capitalism, already impersonal since the rise of the first corporation, a hauntingly incorporeal entity, and growing ever more spectral with its transition into the digital domain during recent decades, with only its effects, its own “blasted heaths,” found on the face of the Earth. Much more so than the supranatural miscegenation and reclamation of the Shimmer in Annihilation, the innatural transformation in “Colour” is malignant and cancerous, a prescient vision of terminal capitalism coming to its late stage during the 20th century.
At some point in history, like the meteors in Lovecraft’s story and in Annihilation, the material call for capitalism hit the Anthropocene.3 Ever since, capitalism has risen to be the predominant system of Western civilization. However, as much as capitalism is also a void of sorts, necessitating an abolishment of the self in its great machinery, we have submitted to it completely, blinded by privileged anthropocentric arrogance without any self-awareness. While Annihilation proposes a possibility of escaping the trap of anthropocentrism through self-aware being with the void, we are, instead, guilty of failing to see through the strength of the illusion of the systemic insistence on anthropocentrism. Instead, we have submitted to its seductive appearance, one of the “ingredients of our normal, daily malediction” (Cioran 39) and the disaster of “making the void a substitute for being, thereby diverting it from its crucial function, which is to sabotage the mechanism of attachment” (39). It has been increasingly clear that humanity is slowly living toward catastrophe through its own version of “The Colour out of Space,” a story of encounter with an absolutely destructive intrusion from the outside. The malignant force in question, found in “Colour” as much as in our everyday existence, inhuman and innatural, compatible with neither the Human nor Nature, transforms and destroys everything, leaving behind only desolate wastelands and decaying husks which may once have served it as sources of material or labor. In the end, the water shall cover over [page 24] everything, sweep away the traces of the catastrophe from the face of the earth and, finally, just like in the case of the blasted heath, “the secrets of the strange days will be one with the deep’s secrets; one with the hidden lore of old ocean, and all the mystery of primal earth” (Lovecraft 62).
1. I deliberately do not work with Reza Negarestani’s concept of the inhuman (found in “The Labor of the Inhuman” articles), nor his or the surrounding scholarship’s fascination with cosmicity recorded in Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials and Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, respectively. With all due respect, I do not share Negarestani’s extreme post-humanism, as I still believe in the advantage of considering the humanist angle for a more holistic approach to post-human agencies. Therefore, while my present article shares some of its focus with Anthony Sciscione’s “Symptomatic Horror: Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space,’” published in Leper Creativity, his article is very much grounded in specific “Negarestanian” themes and motifs as well as aiming towards (and reaching) different conclusions than mine.
2. The various approaches to critique of anthropocentrism, constructed during the enlightenment period, can be found in many writers and thinkers of the modern and post-modern periods. Among others, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Georges Bataille’s “The Sacred Conspiracy”, Jacques Derrida’s method of deconstruction, or Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus come to mind due to their various insistence on decentering of human agency or privilege of sense, intelligence, or virtues such as morality, etc.
3. While we may think that the capitalist system must have originated in the human mind, let us not forget that the basis of historical materialism, as followed by Karl Marx and other thinkers of his time, lies in the proposition that it is material conditions that form ideas, not the other way around. The necessity for a critique of capitalism was anchored in the material realities brought about by capitalism. It may then also be true that capitalism itself, as well as proto- and pre-capitalist systems before it, rose from some material reality as well.
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MLA citation (print):
Čapek, Jan. "Strange Days in the Anthropocene: The Inhuman in “The Colour out of Space” and Annihilation." Supernatural Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2019, pp. 9-25, Supernatural Studies - StrangeDaysintheAnthropoceneCapek