Concerning Fun: Some Notes on Cthulhu and Natural History

Max José Dreysse Passos de Carvalho

This one is a bit of an outlier in this series, apologies in advance. I recently visited the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History here in Frankfurt and decided to share a few of my observations. The Museum is a fascinating place for a number of reasons, but being who I am, it proved particularly intriguing as a hook to think through some Lovecraftian problems. Walking between the gargantuan skeletons of dinosaurs and the imposing grizzlies and lions of the taxidermic section, I couldn’t help but feel reminded of Lovecraft’s fascination with his “fear of the unknown”. The carnivores in the museum’s collection are for the most part exhibited in aggressive, threatening stances. As visitors, we get to stand right in front of their gaping maws and enjoy the thrills of imagined encounters with these fearsome creatures in their natural habitats or, in the case of the dinosaurs, their prehistoric age. In as much as it is constructed to enable immersive experiences, the Senckenberg is a kind of Foucauldian heterotopia; it constitutes a prototype of virtuality from a time when VR hadn’t even made it into science fiction yet.

That time, however, wasn’t just a time of technological primitivity, which is why the analogy of the Lovecraftian fails on at least one account. The specific kind of exhibition on display here stems from colonial times. The grizzlies are threatening, sure, but they are also, metaphorically speaking, toothless. Their display presupposes their subjugation at the hands of mankind. Museums of Natural History emerged not just as spaces for cheap thrills but also, along with the zoo and the Völkerschau, as trophy collections. While visitors got to encounter nature in all its glorious power there, that power was always already subdued by that of civilization. As impressive as the lions are, their dead bodies mainly serve as a monument to the supremacy of the ones who defeated them. The Museum of Natural History is a colonial institution that celebrates the expansionist project and simultaneously imagines and depicts its inevitable triumph. In this sense, as an institution, the Senckenberg clearly precedes the technological and scientific pessimism of Lovecraft’s writing, wherein the Outside to civilization, the “black seas of infinity”, will never yield to human reason. But, and now we get to the juicy part, the Museum hasn’t been frozen in time since the 1800s. If you cross the taxidermic section, you enter the recently opened exhibition on climate change. Here, graphs and statistics index the changes to our earthly environment caused by humanity since the industrial age. Another room contains cross sections of “future sediments” of our geographic age that are juxtaposed with ones from prehistoric periods. Where archeologists of the present find dinosaur fossils and mineral traces of primordial ice ages, those of the future will find compressed Coca Cola bottles. On the upper floor, the Museum’s newest exhibition takes us to the deepest trenches of our planet’s oceans. Tentacles abound, Lovecraft yay, but, more importantly, so does plastic.

What does this mean? Plenty of things, presumably. But it definitely means that a Museum trying to tell the history of nature can no longer exclude the human. The defeated Outside from the colonial era makes way to a universalized Inside. Human intervention is now as significant a part of natural history as the impacts of meteorites, ice ages, or volcanoes are. Nature can no longer serve as civilization’s Other: the excited visitor looking for the strange beasts of another, more primitive world, myself included, begrudgingly faces a mirror. If you’ve ever been lured into an existential crisis by a nature documentary that pretended to be about cute sea mammals but ended up being about ocean pollution, you know the deal.

This shift also occurs on a formal level. Lovecraft’s use of meticulous description served to parody the very rationality responsible for bringing the dead grizzlies and lions to Frankfurt. It taxidermizes, represents the Other in sharp detail to subdue it in one and the same gesture – nothing resists human reason, because nothing resists categorization and signification. Except in Lovecraft, it eventually does. Hence, his describing subjects eventually fall silent, colonialist language fails, the Outside triumphs by achieving indescribability. But today, this Outside turns out to be an externalized Inside. Nature is shaped by human rationality in very literal ways. The representation of nature thus turns to the representation of human rationality, and what better way to represent contemporary human rationality than with a pile of spreadsheets and pie-charts. Numbers no longer just count the world, they shape and, potentially, destroy it. Entire eco-systems are reduced to “negative externalities” as the economists call them, become subsumed under cost-benefit assessments wherein their complexity is replaced by a quantitative value. The destruction of rain forests begins not with the lighting of a fire, but with the reduction of a tree to a number. In the Senckenberg, any pretense of capturing some authentic, non-human reality is thus abandoned in favor of depicting the act of quantification itself.

The Senckenberg Museum, I think, succeeds in finding an aesthetic worthy of the Anthropocene. It has adapted. By the same token, Lovecraft too has to adapt. And adapt he has: films like Get Out expose the specter of an Outside as a shallow alibi conjured by an Inside profoundly in denial. Here, the audience finds cold, uncaring evil within, among racist cops and White suburbia. Or games like Returnal, where the whole dichotomy of Inside and Outside is disrupted profoundly by means of a narration that keeps you wondering whether what you’re fighting are actual tentacle monsters or just mirages of your own making, up until the point when the distinction seizes to bare any meaning. Its not fix the world or fix yourself anymore, but both or none of the two. These very different approaches to Lovecraftian adaptation ultimately converge around that one, haunting and timely truth:

In the scientific age, Cthulhu isn’t responsible for the collapse of our planet, or anything else for that matter. We are.