Into a Silent Universe: The Sublime and the Eerie in Byron and Ballard


This paper was originally presented for the Cultural Enquiry Research Group seminar series at Federation University, Ballarat in September 2019. 

Extinction is no longer news: everywhere stories abound of a humanity on the brink of collapse. No longer relegated to the distant reaches of deep time or the arcane will of a deity, the end of humanity is now increasingly lived and felt as an ongoing process. The countdown to global tipping points are not measured in the millions or billions of years, but by the decade—and even as the timescale of catastrophe contracts to the span of a human life, the mass of processes, actors, and systems leading into this disaster become inconceivably more complex. In the words of the philosopher of horror Eugene Thacker:

“The world is increasingly unthinkable  – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. […] To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part” (2011, 1).

The future, we are told, is not human, but posthuman: which is to say that we will no longer be able to recognise ourselves as ourselves as we drift further into a global order of ecological disaster. As N Katherine Hayles declares: “If human essence is freedom from the wills of others, the posthuman is ‘post’ not because it is necessarily unfree but because there is no a priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an other-will” (1999, 4). In other words, we realise that the human subject was never truly separate from the material processes  relegated to the exterior of humanity, and as the world outside ourselves becomes unthinkable, so too do we become indistinct within the background noise.

Despite its seeming archaicism in the face of a posthuman future, I contend that the genre conventions of the Gothic, and its formula of “negative aesthetics,” are best suited to making sense of the catastrophe and decay which characterise that future (Botting 2014, 1). Just as the posthuman subject is structured around the human interior’s loss of autonomy from what lies outside, Gothic fiction follows what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has identified as a “particular spatial model” structured around the tensions of fragile interiors under siege from dangerous and desirable outsides (1986, 12). This model of the Gothic as a conflict between “what’s inside, what’s outside, and what separates them” thus lends itself well to depicting the anxious position of the posthuman subject—whose unstable, human interior is infiltrated and overpowered by the vast outsides of nature and machinery (ibid.). To elaborate upon this intersection of the Gothic and the posthuman I will look closely at a pair of aesthetic categories typical of the Gothic, namely the sublime and the eerie, to locate within the Gothic style a nascent sense of posthumanity.

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