Sunday, 31 October 2010

Review: Fred Botting, Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic (Manchester University Press, 2008)

In 1996, Fred Botting published the influential textbook, Gothic. It's likely that anyone who has studied Gothic literature at university level since then will be familiar with this work, as it is a staple of reading lists and bibliographies. Limits of Horror is the second book on the Gothic that Botting has written since 1996 (the first being Gothic Romanced), and it revisits the territory of his earlier work with a sharply critical and theoretical eye.

"Horror is not what it used to be," states the inside cover of the hardback edition. And this is a fitting introduction to Botting's argument. Considering material spanning over 200 years, all of which could arguably be labelled 'Gothic', Botting charts the development of the meanings of horror and monsters. Considering literature, film and computer games, Limits of Horror offers a theory of cultural production that expands current understandings of genre, horror and 'Gothic'.

Botting's argument explores the relationship between the Gothic, modernity and technology, drawing on Freudian and post-Freudian ideas of the uncanny, the pleasure principle and the death drive. Limits of Horror also considers Gothic texts as products of capitalist societal structures, arguing that as we move into what many have described as 'late capitalism', with the forces of supply and demand becoming wholly inverted, the meanings we ascribe to monsters and horror change. Botting denies any ahistorical or universal sense of 'horror', asserting: "Light and dark, good and evil, knowledge and mystery, self and monster, are paired productions of the same cultural systems rather than natural or universal characteristics."

Chapter 1 is entitled "Daddy's Dead", and considers how the patriarchal figure of prohibition, so integral to early Gothic, has been killed off by late capitalist cultural production. Botting suggests that "[h]uman creativity and agency, along with paternal metaphors, are replaced by a mechanical system in which questions of meaning and agency matter less and less." He goes on to consider how the proliferation of contemporary monsters is "bound up with recent developments of technoscience and the consumer economy", arguing that the removal of the "paternal metaphors" removes much of the transgressive horror from today's monsters. Transgressive energy, without limitations and prohibitions, therefore, becomes the "norm". Chapter 2, "Tech Noir", continues this analysis to explore the close relationship between consumerism, horror and technology. Botting explores theoretical ideas of play, and its "aneconomic" wastefulness, and how we might apply these ideas to a study of computer games. The argument returns to the question of proliferation: "Games, like fictional narrative, are not, it seems, neatly contained, but spill over, with ambivalent effect, introducing a disruptive heterogeneity into the social sphere." The concept of the uncanny is pivotal to Botting's argument in this chapter, as he suggests the mechanisms of fiction and reading - as well as horror itself - are revealed as mechanical and dependent on the breaching of boundaries and the engendering of identifications. Ultimately, this chapter returns to the question of late capitalism; monsters are no longer something that threaten us from without. Indeed, in a world driven by consumption and unbridled desire, we are the monsters: "There is little difference it seems between figures on the screen and figures twitching in front of it, puppets, zombies, mutants, vampires, automata."

The third chapter in the book is entitled "Dark Bodies", and begins with an analysis of the extreme bodily mutilations of performance artist Orlan. Botting considers the anxieties, shocks and revulsion caused by Orlan's art. However, he returns to the question of repetition and identification to suggest that monsters are now "banal, unsurprising, ubiquitous, visible and overlooked at the same time". What Botting terms "Gothic affect" has been emptied out of horror, and images are produced wholesale and repeated ad nauseam. The fourth and final chapter, "Beyond the Gothic Principle" is by far the most theoretical of the book. Here, Botting explores Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" and concept of the 'death drive" in relation to horror and the Gothic. This chapter includes an exploration of the sublime, the importance of the 'past' to Gothic texts, and ideas of loss and recovery. The book ends on a bleak note, positing a notion of machinic desire which "is driven by a headless and immanent drive - 'synthanatos' - an artificial death drive (as if the drive were ever natural)".

As with Gothic, the strengths of Limits of Horror lie in Botting's incisive theorizing of genre, horror and the monstrous. Psychoanalytic and cultural theories, along with Deleuzian philosophy and ideas of the post-human, combine to give a consistent and thorough exegesis of contemporary and classic Gothic. For an introduction to such concepts, I would recommend Gothic rather than Limits of Horror, as some prior knowledge of Botting's approach to the genre is advisable. However, the latter book moves current discussions on and is highly recommended for anyone researching or reading Gothic/horror texts to any depth.

Of course, the book is not without its problems. As is sometimes the case with Botting's work, theory often overshadows textual analysis. Botting's considerations of Candyman, Reservoir Dogs and Orlan's performance art are detailed and probing, but there are other examples which are treated with somewhat less rigour. Chapter 4 has almost no textual examples, exploring instead the theories of Freud, Lacan, Zizek and others. Moreover, some of the examples chosen by Botting seem a little dated. While the Marxist analysis of Pac Man is certainly entertaining, it did little to address the complexity of desires at play in contemporary gaming. Additionally, I suspect that the chapters in the book began life as stand-alone articles, as there is some overlap and repetition. The same quotes appear in more than one chapter, and some analyses also reappear. This is somewhat unsettling, and adds a kind of uncanny quality to Botting's argument. It does not detract from the overall quality of the book, but leaves the reader with a feeling of 'didn't I read this before?' - which, as I say, fits well with Botting's thesis.

Limits of Horror is an invaluable book for students and readers of horror and the Gothic. It continues Botting's insightful theorizing of genre and culture. It is a fascinating read, which challenges understandings of the relationships between modernity, technology and the monstrous. While it may often privilege theory over textual analysis, Botting's model can be applied to, and used to elucidate, numerous cultural productions and developments. A word of warning, though, Limits of Horror has little optimism about it, but then, perhaps, there is little about late capitalism to be optimistic about: "Game over and over again."

1 comment: