“It is wonderful indeed,” he said. “We are standing on the brink of a strange world, Raymond, if what you say is true. I suppose the knife is absolutely necessary?”
– Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan
The Wild God Downtown
Towards the end of the Arcade Fire song “We Used to Wait,” the narrator resolves to break out of the digitized trance of a hypermediated existence. “Like a patient on a table / I’m gonna walk again / Gonna move through the pain,” he cries. To “walk again” in this context means to locomote outside the automated neural factory illuminated only by that “flashing light” that has settled in our brains. It means ceasing to live in the prefab dreams of others, be they those of peer groups, corporations, nations, or societies. In that dream kingdom, we do not make our lives by our own effort but rather allow ourselves to be moved from fixed state to fixed state, static idea to static idea, concept to concept, as if on a conveyor belt or a stretcher. Learning to walk again—and most importantly in the song, to wait again—requires us to embrace those “intolerable intervals” that a binary apprehension of reality allows us to overlook. It asks us to navigate the world as though it had just come into being, consciously choosing each step, moving with bated breath in the soft but steady light of strange new constellations. As William James says, the trick is to “put yourself in the making by a stroke of intuitive sympathy” for the flow of events of which you are part. Intuitive sympathy demands that we give up our sense of discreteness, of being closed egos hovering in a binary cloud of static things or “its,” in order to make ourselves continuous with an incomputable torrent of things-in-the-making. This means going analog, living analogically, even in a wired world.
For millions of people, the information revolution has resulted in a life made up entirely of human expectations and ideations. Everything in the environment exists only insofar as it serves a human purpose, and the being of each thing within this environment is exhausted in its human apprehension. There is a sense in which these millions of people are the lucky ones, because only the least privileged among us have to deal daily with the elemental forces of the offline wilds outside the digital hotspots. But that knee-jerk defense—“You should count yourself lucky”—is profoundly disingenuous. While we may be comfortable while plugged into our machines, we are ultimately no better protected from the elements than those who live otherwise. There isn’t a person alive now who won’t one day have to face a natural disaster, automotive misadventure, fatal disease, psychotic episode, or uncanny experience which will put all the conveniences of late capitalism into razor-sharp perspective. There will then be no screen bright enough to provide a distraction and no concept compelling enough to furnish an explanation. “So when the lights cut out,” the narrator in the song says, “I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown.” When even the luminous façades of the urban shopping district take on the look of the wilderness they were designed to conceal, you know that things are out of joint. The world you thought you knew has revealed its viscous flipside by turning upside down.
What is the Upside Down, really? Earlier I mentioned the scene in chapter five when Dustin, prompted by Eleven’s description of the place where Will was taken, turns to a Dungeons & Dragons manual for insight. “The Vale of Shadows,” he reads, “is a dimension that is a dark reflection or echo of our world.” The very name “Upside Down” hints that the place isn’t an alternate universe so much as another face of our world, our world cast in a foreign light. In this sense, the D&D text is accurate. Yet the actual appearance of the Upside Down suggests something different from the cold and ghostly shadowland implied by the passage Dustin reads. The Upside Down that we experience has a subaqueous, vegetal texture. It doesn’t seem an ethereal “echo of our world” so much as an even more earthly version of it: overgrown and murky, wild and visceral. Its topography is that of Hawkins, with the same woods, houses, and swimming pools; only, this is Hawkins without its human apparel, Hawkins restored to primeval forces to which it has always belonged. It is this primal nature that is right next to us though we don’t see it, as the game manual suggests. The Upside Down is the non-human aspect of the human world—the primordial stratum of instinct and the unconscious hiding beneath the dayworld of rational subjectivity.
As far as we can tell, the Upside Down in the first season of Stranger Things has only one permanent resident. Earlier in this essay, I argued that Demogorgon was metaphysically tangled up with the character of Eleven, such that each can be described as consubstantial with the other. But from a slightly different perspective, the creature is also consubstantial with its territory. The Upside Down follows it wherever it goes, manifesting traces of itself whenever it arrives or departs. When the creature devours someone, that person is not consumed so much as transported into the bowels of its world. Furthermore, the fact that the creature’s face consists solely of a flower-like mouth suggests that it is one organ of a greater organism, and that the creature is part of the Upside Down in the same way as a mushroom is part of the mycelium that remains hidden underground. Just as the Greeks used the name “Hades” to denote both the god of the underworld and the underworld itself, so the creature and its territory are elements of a single entity.
But perhaps we shouldn’t overstate this Hadean correspondence. No less than the Vale of Shadows, the image of Hades conjures up something static, cold, bone-dry. The dank, vegetal quality of the Upside Down leads me to think that if there is a Greek deity that relates closely to Demogorgon, it isn’t Hades but Pan, the god of nature. To the Greek mind, the vision of nature embodied in Pan bore little resemblance to the tame and placid pastures that the Victorians timidly associated with the goat-god. Originally, Pan was an object of fear, because the nature he personified was terrible. The archetypal psychologist James Hillman described Pan as a deity “whose demonic shape turns the concept ‘nature’ into an immediate psychic shock.”1James Hillman, Pan and the Nightmare, 22. The god’s name lies at the root of the term panic, which the Greeks reserved for the peculiar form of madness that shepherds experienced when they encountered him in the wilderness. To see Pan in the outer world is to sense him within, for as Hillman writes, Pan points us to the abominable unity of “nature out there” (the greenery, the mountains, the storms) and “nature in here” (instinct, soul, dreams, the unconscious). Pan affirms all that is negated in our reduction of nonhuman percepts to human concepts. In the figure of this god, the Greeks bodied forth an image of physis (nature) as embracing both hyle (matter) and psyche. Pan unveils the earth’s abiding primordial form, the “landscape before man” which endures despite the conceptualizations of the intellect. Seen in a Panic light, then, the Upside Down isn’t an alternate dimension, a kind of Oz, but the “inscape” of the dayworld and the “outscape” of the nightworld, to use Hillman’s language. It is our world stripped of any comforting veneer of conceptual tidiness, the deep psyche and also the deep earth or Gaea of the Greeks.
Is Pan an evil god? Was the medieval Church right to repurpose this horned and hoofed figure as an icon of Satan? There is no doubt that Stranger Things depicts Demogorgon as a creature of irremediable darkness and depravity. But the evil unfolds in a context that can help us understand why Pan, in this setting, must necessarily manifest as a devil, and his world as a kind of hell. Given the correspondences that link Demogorgon to Eleven, one could arguably identify the Upside Down with the girl’s wounded psyche. But from another angle, it can also be read as the dark collective soul of the whole town of Hawkins. After all, this is a community steeped in lies and self-delusion. The police chief himself describes Hawkins as a place where no crimes are committed, where instincts are kept in check and blood is never spilled. But he claims this even as a secret laboratory within the town precinct carries out diabolical experiments on a kidnapped child. It is chilling to realize that the majority of the men and women who work at the Department of Energy compound must live in Hawkins. Like the security guard who switches the surveillance tapes on Hopper without knowing—or perhaps even wanting to know—what it is that he is covering up, everyone employed in that particular facility is to some extent complicit in the crimes committed within its walls. Indeed, since the place is a publicly funded establishment, and its work done in the name of national security, even Americans who live beyond Hawkins’ borders are also, in a way, involved. The crimes committed against Eleven are state crimes; as such, they implicate an entire population. The perverse CIA program known as MK Ultra, under the aegis of which Dr. Brenner has been carrying out his experiments in horror, is no invention of the Duffer brothers—it really existed. In treating the Netflix series as nothing more than an entertaining summer binge, then, even viewers can become implicated, however peripherally, in the events depicted on the screen.
I have already mentioned Eleven’s guilty countenance throughout the narrative, and tied it to her potential awareness that she had a hand in creating Demogorgon. But couldn’t we also argue that in its most profound manifestation, this sense of guilt stems from the girl’s realization (itself the result of the brutal treatment she suffers) of an inherent vice of the human soul, an inborn capacity to reduce other beings to abstractions when the stakes are high enough? Remember the scene where Eleven, after refusing to murder a cat for her minders, proceeds to kill the guards who try to lock her in her cell. That the act was perfectly justified doesn’t necessarily make it easier to live with. The thinker Gilles Deleuze often wrote of “the shame of being a man,” using the word “man” to signify that part of us which presents itself “as a dominant form of expression that claims to impose itself on all matter.”2Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, 1. In using concepts to deny the truth of a world that transcends our personal judgments, we effectively turn our backs on the unfathomable Real. What is buried, forgotten, or denied, however, continues to exist underground. The evil of the Upside Down—the evil of Pan—is our own collective evil rising from the muck of shallow unmarked graves.
The Consolations of Contingency
In 1890, the weird author Arthur Machen published a novella that shares some startling similarities with Stranger Things. In it, a scientist carries out an illicit brain surgery on an orphan girl. His goal is to make “a slight lesion in the gray matter” that will enable the girl to see the world as it really is. “You may think this all strange nonsense,” the scientist says to a friend whose has come to witness the event. “It may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan.”3Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan, 26.
Seeing Pan means coming face to face with the Real, that is, with ontological excess, all that is left out of conceptual apprehension. We are constantly compartmentalizing our experience, associating certain things and dissociating others, in order to tolerate the world and live fitter, happier lives. But despite our semiotic inventiveness, the world remains what it is, and the past continues to exert its influence on the present. If the fantastical tradition to which Stranger Things belongs is right to depict the Real as a nightmare, it is because it must manifest as such to those who would prefer to remain ensconced in illusions. The Real is dangerous because it upends all prejudice. It opens up a world that exists whether or not we are there to think it, a world already replete with inscrutable meanings that defy rational analysis. Impervious to our judgments and preferences, it is a place whose very fiber recoils from the touch of intellect, being accessible only by way of the most primal emotions.
Yet the horror of the Real is an epistemological horror: it inheres primarily in our subjective relation to the world. At the ontological level, the Real isn’t evil but amoral. Bury or ignore it, and it becomes a nightmarish abyss. Enter it by way of trauma like Eleven or the little girl in Machen’s novella, and it will take on the form of a living hell, fired up by the fear, anger, and pain that brought you there. But approach the Real in the spirit of intuitive sympathy that James counsels, and it will show its true nature as the locus of all creation, the irrational heart of the world. Every intellectual boundary falls before it, and the truth conveyed in the phrase “Stranger things have happened,” namely that no imagining is so absurd as to be inadmissible, becomes resplendently self-evident.
In sympathy and intuition, life ceases to be apprehended in terms of dialectical computation—either this or that—in order to be experienced through analogy—both this and that. Since the immediate appearances or “likenesses” of the world are then indistinguishable from the world itself, every experience can be said to involve a direct perception of reality as such. But this is perception understood in a visionary and imaginal register. Throughout Stranger Things, the viewer is urged to consider the power of an imagination restored to the order of dreams, visions, stories, and magic. This creative imagination can be accessed in moments of slow or idle time, for in such moments we sink back into the analog reality that undergirds the conceptual projection.
But if the creative imagination is a more direct avenue to the Real than the intellect, it follows that it is the imagination, and not reason, that can tell us what nature is really capable of. Possibility is revealed in what can be dreamed, not in what can be argued to be obtainable given a particular state of affairs. Why? For one, because any particular state of affairs must remain permanently hypothetical. “Given what we know, x is impossible,” the rationalist says. But the fact is that we don’t know, not for sure, and we never will.4For insights into the primacy of imagination over reason, I am indebted to Quentin Meillassoux’s interpretation of the work of David Hume. See the chapter titled “Hume’s Problem” in Meillassoux’s groundbreaking work, After Finitude (2008), and the whole of The Number and the Siren (2012). Unrestrained by a closed rationality, the imaginal mind can utilize the intellect to concoct immanent virtualities that reason, bound as it is to what has been observed to be the case in the past, would immediately expulse from the ambit of the thinkable. As any dream will confirm, the universe as the imaginal mind apprehends it is open and ambiguous, capable of bringing forth the most spectacular transformations. If something can be imagined, then it could be the case, because the power that enables us to imagine it comes from the depths of nature itself. It is the power that shapes dreams and galaxies, all that the intellect then reduces to useful, albeit limited and relative significations.
That the universe is not governed by reason is the most frightening thought as well as the most liberating. It is frightening because it gives the lie to any belief system that would make anything necessary to the functioning of the cosmos. No one thing needs to be in place for the rest to burst into being: not you, not your consciousness, not your god. Everything exists by virtue of a monstrous, gratuitous creation that is never finished but goes on constantly: unceasing becoming. The human, in such a universe, is neither more nor less important than any other element. Deer grazing in a forest, autumn leaves rustling in the wind, a shred of fabric clinging to the rim of a drainage pipe, a flicker of electric lights, a drop of blood dissolving in a swimming pool: even the most trivial detail of the universe is our equal, bathing in the even light of creation.
Many viewers of Stranger Things disapprove of the fate of Barb, Nancy Wheeler’s friend who suffers a horrible death at the hands of the creature through no fault of her own, and for no reason at all. Some critics have said that this part of the story evinces a gratuitous insensitivity on the creators’ part. While I agree that Barb’s death is gratuitous, I don’t feel it is any more gratuitous than anything else in the show, let alone the real world. In fact, my sense is that the fate of Barb is one of the most important elements of Stranger Things, as it leaves us in no doubt as to the contingency of human life in a truly weird universe. If rationality isn’t the founding principle of the Real and there is no ultimate reason holding everything together, we must come to terms with the fact that no one is exempt from the freeplay of a reality that, ultimately, is equal parts cosmos and chaos. “Eternity is a child at play,” Heraclitus uttered. “The kingdom belongs to a child.” That image ought to be at least as fearful as it is cute.
But the dark truth conveyed in the character of Barb finds its counterbalance in the incredible creative power that Stranger Things attributes to the Cosmic Child, a power which is also present in each of us. Although this power finds an outward manifestation in Eleven’s psychic abilities, it is at work in more subtle ways elsewhere in the narrative. Joyce Byers finds her son because she rejects Hopper’s probabilistic thinking (“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred times when a kid goes missing, the kid is with a parent or a relative”) in order to envision the “other time,” the one that proves probability to be a poorer guide to the Real than infinite possibility. Hopper, for his part, musters the strength to save Will in the final episode by allowing himself to imaginally relive the death of his daughter, an event that he has done everything in his power to banish. And I’ve already mentioned the boys’ ability to tap into the virtual by means of tabletop roleplaying. As beings in a bristling world of beings, becomings in a continuous stream of becomings, we humans are on an equal footing with the dust mites and chrysanthemums, the moons and supernovas; but because the power that creates these varied things is indistinguishable from the things themselves, we have direct access to that power insofar as we, too, are such things. This gives us an agency through which we can perceive and navigate this universe of things-in-the-making. It grants us the ability to leave the husk of a closed, private existence to intuit and sympathize with other beings, human or not. In doing so, we acquire the sense that the Real has no limits, and that much is possible that the naked intellect would assure us is not. While this may or may not include reading minds and flipping cargo vans with a thought (who are we to say?), it does at the very least include envisioning an alternative to the way things are with the world. The urgency of Stranger Things stems from this potent political implication, concealed as it is beneath a thick quilt of conventional entertainment.
The neoliberal animus against idling, dreaming, and waiting comes from an insatiable hunger to reduce life to manageable processes in a global system predicated upon a doctrine of control. It is this animus that drives much of the information technology industry. But like this industry, neoliberalism is rooted in a way of thinking that predates it by centuries, namely a rationalism which, torn from its imaginal grounding, seeks to preserve the sovereignty of human interest by reducing the nonhuman world to an all-too-human intellection. It is said that with secularism, the devil performed his greatest trick by convincing us that he didn’t exist. Well, with neoliberalism, the capitalist system has effectively convinced us that only it exists, and that any imaginable alternative is simply impossible. It would be naïve, I think, to maintain that technology plays no part in the chicanery.
We have lost the capacity to believe in what the creative imagination tells us is possible. If we are to harbor hopes of countering neoliberalism and its capitalist religion, which are well into the process of indenturing billions and desiccating the earth, we need to reconnect with the rhythms and timbres of the nonhuman. This means reinvigorating the analogical mind that gets drowned out in binary computations whose stranglehold on our time grows tighter each year. We must realize that conceptual knowledge, however useful for orienting ourselves in nature’s labyrinths, encompasses only a fraction of an ever-expanding and unknowable nature that no rational model will ever fully comprehend. To live consciously of this truth is to live in the wilderness downtown, that is, in an Upside Down world. While there is no point in downplaying the horrors that such a world can spawn, there is also no overstating the hope it makes possible. Only a lawless universe, one that allows for every manner of death, madness, and chaos, can also allow for the most wondrous expressions of life, the most astounding marvels yet imagined, and things stranger still.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||James Hillman, Pan and the Nightmare, 22.|
|2.||↑||Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, 1.|
|3.||↑||Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan, 26.|
|4.||↑||For insights into the primacy of imagination over reason, I am indebted to Quentin Meillassoux’s interpretation of the work of David Hume. See the chapter titled “Hume’s Problem” in Meillassoux’s groundbreaking work, After Finitude (2008), and the whole of The Number and the Siren (2012).|