Mieville and the monstrous

I’m tinkering with my paper for this weekend’s China Miéville conference. I’m compiling a primer of terms coined by Miéville to describe the non-mundane spaces encountered in his novels and was planning on a smash and grab raid of spatial theory through which we might think these spaces but have instead found myself concentrating on Kant.

China Miéville
China Miéville

Isobel Armstrong’s essay Spaces of the nineteenth-century novel’ argues compellingly that Kantian space was foundational for the nineteenth century novel in recreating a sense of lived space in the mind of the reader. The emergence of n-dimensional and non-Euclidean geometries in the second half of the nineteenth century created problems for the Kantian idea of space, not least because Kant aligned geometry so closely with his a priori space. Discussions in Britain over the new geometries invariably orbited Kant; indeed, Helmholtz’s popular essays on the subject were sustained attacks on the idea of space as a priori, arguing that because we can conceive non-Euclidean spaces, Euclidean lived space must therefore be learned rather than innate.

The biggest obstacle for Kantian space was produced through projective geometry, which suggested that Kant’s incongruous counterparts – objects that could not be made to coincide with their mirror images, say left-handed gloves or spiral snail shells – could be made congruent in higher dimensional spatial manifolds. The rug was therefore pulled from underneath the very peculiarity of three-dimensional space that tied it to the body of the thinking subject.

Miéville’s work is a very long way from the nineteenth century novel, but part of what I want to say in my paper is that it exists in a tradition – specifically what both Mieville and Lovecraft define as ‘the weird’ – that deployed these non-mundane spaces to change the shape, and space, of the novel after the nineteenth century. Miéville is, in many ways, a post-Kantian writer, and given the currency of Object Oriented Philosophy whose project is to overturn the Kantian doctrine of correlationism (and Miéville’s loose fraternity with some of these bods), this is a good fit with the moment of philosophical thought.

I’ll post the text of that paper here after I’ve given it, but in the meantime I want to suggest a non-spatial way in which Miéville is a post-Kantian writer. I read this fantastic essay on contemporary art by “money-laundering knowledge pimp” Simon Critchley last week, and lingered on the following passage:

In Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, he makes a passing, but suggestive set of distinctions between the beautiful, the sublime, and the monstrous. The beautiful is the free play of the imagination and understanding, when everything seems to hang together, rather like driving a humming-engined expensive German car through the California desert. The sublime is what is refractory to the formal harmony of the experience of beauty, something formless, indefinite, and mighty, but still containable within the realm of the aesthetic. For Kant, the sublime is “the almost-too-much,” and is distinguished from the monstrous understood as “the absolutely-too-much.” That which is monstrous defeats our capacity for conceptual comprehension. Kant simply asserts that the monstrous has no place in the realm of aesthetics. The great aesthetic danger is the moment when the tamed terror of sublimity—the Alps or Mount Snowden for the English Romantics—might tip over into the monstrous. Indeed, in the founding text of philosophical aesthetics, Poetics, Aristotle makes an analogous gesture when he makes a distinction between the fearful (to phoberon), which has a legitimate place within tragedy, and the monstrous (to teratodes), which has no place at all.

To put this in other terms, we might say that a certain dominant strain in the history of philosophical aesthetics might be seen as trying to contain a dimension of experience that we might call the uncontainable. This is the dimension of experience that Nietzsche names the Dionysian, Hölderlin calls the monstrous, Bataille calls the formless, and Lacan calls the real.


This rang across to what I was writing about Mieville. Not only is he surely the finest creative teratologist since Lovecraft – I give you the Ariekei as exhibit A, The Weaver as B, Slake Moths etc. – a writer whose stock-in-trade is the imaginative heft of producing the monstrous, he also works extensively with the post-Kantian space of the n-dimensional, which likewise – largely – ‘defeats our capacity for conceptual comprehension’ – many examples to follow in the paper. In this reading, the non-Euclidean and the n-dimensional are, in Kantian aesthetic terms, as monstrous as Miéville’s monsters.

If you’ve a Miéville fan you could do worse than signing up for Weird Council – he’ll be doing a Q&A and reading on Saturday evening. If you haven’t read the text of his brilliant address to the Edinburgh Literary Festival on the future of the novel, it’s definitely worth a look. Likewise, his hybrid state-of-the-nation photo essay, ‘London’s Overthrow’. Hope to see you there, cephalopod lovers.

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