Between Lovecraft and Kafka we get two very different sci-fi, horror genres of withdrawn objects. Mel likes to joke that Lovecrafts stories and novels always involve men going in arctic mountains. Lovecraftian horror is not simply weird, but rather is a form of horror that depicts an encounter with absolute alterity. The Lovecraftian monster is a monster that is such a strange stranger (in Morton’s terminology) that it elides all possibility of being a neighbor. For this reason this form of horror deserves to be called, drawing on Jaques-Alain Miller’s term, extimate horror. Extimate horror spells the ruin of Kantian synthesis. The madness experienced in Lovecraft’s arctic escapades results from an encounter so foreign, so thorough, so extimate that it cannot be synthesized by any categories, meanings, signifiers, codes, etc. Lovecraft’s monsters are thoroughly other, non-related, beyond domestication, and thoroughly unheimlich. These monsters are beyond any sort of relation or synthesis. It is, no doubt, here that we encounter the link between Lovecraft’s sci-fi/horror and his deep xenophobia.
In Kafka we encounter a very different sort of sci-fi/horror and its accompanying withdrawal, born not of extimacy, but rather of intimacy. Where Lovecraft’s monsters are thoroughly other, the horror of Kafka’s monsters lies in their claustrophobic proximity. This proximity is strange because the characters are simultaneously entangled in it while the monster is nonetheless withdrawn. While there is an absolute separation and distance in the relation between Lovecraft’s monsters and the adventurous scientists, the horror of Kafka is that distance and separation is not possible. Lovecraft’s monsters are the “Great Old Ones”. Kafka’s monsters, by contrast, are purely anonymous entities that have names like “Law” and “Castle” that we nonetheless inhabit somewhat like a members of a Borg collective without techno-telepathic communication. Like an insect in a spider web, Joseph K. is entangled in these monsters, yet the threads of these monsters are terrifying in that they are simultaneously intimate, pervading every and all aspects of interiority or psychic life, bodily life, and social life, yet are thoroughly invisible and withdrawn. The presence of these monsters is suffocating and oppressive because traces of them are everywhere ubiquitous, yet these monsters are perpetually withdrawn and impossible to capture. Here we have a very different failure of synthesis. Such is the lesson of the parable of the law in The Trial.
The excruciatingly painful horror of Kafka’s monsters is that we are part of them, that we are entangled within them, yet in such a way that we are simultaneously independent and forever unable to determine what, precisely, it is that we are entangled in. This is one of the reasons that Kafka’s sci-fi/horror has evoked so many poor theological readings. One might suggest that Kafka’s literature is a humanist literature due to the manner in which novels like The Trial and The Castle revolve around the figure of Joseph K. Yet as we read these novels we sense that we’ve entered an atmosphere very different than the one breached by Montaigne and Descartes.
In Kafka’s universe we encounter all sorts of figures, apparently human, that are gears and cogs in a machine rather than persons in their own right. This comes out with special clarity in the open of Amerika with the figure of the stoker. We encounter institutions and entities that are agencies in their own right like the Law and the Castle that aren’t remotely human in their organization, functioning, or experience. No doubt Kafka, in his profession and his peculiar historical moment, was particularly positioned to discern the existence of entities or autopoietic machines that could no longer be comprehended as mere accretions of human intentions and meanings. We also encounter endless explorations of machines and animals throughout his work. In Kafka what we encounter is the story of a human entangled in a posthumanist universe. And if Kafka’s horror is deeply terrifying, then it is precisely because some of these machines draw on humans as sources of energy to perpetuate themselves without us ever being able to determine the precise nature of the vampiric machine (yet another theme in Kafka’s early letters) that devours us.