Understand paranoia as the belief — the feeling — that everything is connected. The products of paranoia are great, big, totalizing, totalitarian conceptual blobs that can assimilate vast swaths of intellectual detritus. It can make one radical, rabid.
The book that made me paranoid was not Gravity’s Rainbow, it was Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials by Reza Negarestani. (If it’s price that’s stopping you, here’s a scanned PDF. Here’s Amzn.)
It’s a baffling, frustrating book; it contains earth-shattering ideas, and yet it hides these ideas deeply beneath strata of self-indulgently florid theoretical language, lies, fictions, references to fictional source-material, shlocky pop-culturalism, and incomprehensible signs. It is a joy to untangle that book, but it would be psychotic for me to expect anyone to do so. And yet, I find those earth-shattering ideas constantly relevant, constantly useful, frustratingly simple.
They are ideas about fossil fuels, oil, coal, natural gas — the cause of global warming. That’s what this essay’s about, global warming, sure.
So, what I want to do is use Cyclonopedia to build a series of speculative arguments that one could, reasonably, be expected to understand and engage with. But to do so, I must continually rely on imagery, emotions, and archetypes.
This is speculative fiction: Cyclonopedia is to theory what Philip K. Dick is to history. So let’s begin with a speculative assumption that’s not in the book at all. This is a fiction, a lie, a belief that need not be proved: let us believe that consciousness is somehow imbued within the stuff of organic life. That in a way that could be empirically knowable (if only our science were better) the potential for consciousness is inherent in carbon-based, organic molecules, and it requires only fuel — energy, in the form of metabolism — for that potential to be realized. We are self aware, and hypothetically aware (aware of hypotheticals and fictions) in the way we are, because our organic matter is arranged into a specific complex system — but as we see from the diversity of life, there are endless other complex systems for life to take.
This reminds us that fossil fuel comes from ancient corpses. Plant, lizard, mammal — the carbon is so old that it doesn’t matter what it once was, only that it once was alive, once was part of wildly fecund and, to us, very strange ecosystem on the surface of the earth. Prehistoric, organic matter that’s been sublimated under the earth. Perhaps, strangely, speculatively, that dormant consciousness could be attribute agency; what if oil wants something?
Let’s also pause to remind ourselves what fossil fuels have done. Timothy Morton has written, “modernity is the story of how oil got into everything.” Robert Gordon and others have pointed out that the hundred years from 1870 to 1970 saw an unimaginable revolution in human society. The thought experiment is: imagine an apple-seller in 1570 — he’s got a horse to bring his apples to market, he shits outside, he goes to sleep when it gets dark, wakes up in the middle of the night to have sex, wakes up when it gets light. That was all true of the apple seller in antiquity, except maybe he didn’t have a horse. Now he falls asleep until the early eighteen hundreds, he wakes up — ideologies have changed, better bathrooms. but day-to-day, he can function without too much adjustment to new technologies. Then he goes back to sleep until the 1940s, and he wakes up and the world is crazy and he can’t understand anything he sees: airplanes, skyscrapers, trench warfare, and so on. The world became unrecognizable, alien, in a smudge of historical time. We congratulate ourselves on our “progress” and “technology,” but what we really mean is, we figured out how get energy from fossil fuels and use it. An immense amount of energy — a surplus, as Georges Bataille reminds us.
Back to our fossil fuels. During all that time the apple seller was asleep, they lay deep in the earth, under the pressure of thousands of tons of earth and rock. Pure energy that the earth had repressed down from a specific physical form to raw black energy juice (or rock). Perhaps it resisted the earth’s pressure, perhaps it resented it. And then — daylight. Drilling, freedom — expression, expansion, fire, smoke, atmosphere.
Maybe this is all garbage, just pure fiction. But let’s carry it through. (By the way, I sometimes use “oil” as metonymy for all fossil fuels.)
From Cyclonopedia: “According to the classic theory of fossil fuels, petroleum was formed as a tellurian entity” — Tellurian means, Of the earth, or Chthonic — “under unimaginable pressure and heat in the absence of oxygen and between the strata, in absolute isolation. A typical, Oedipal case, then, a typical case of repression. Petroleum’s Hadean formation” — Hadean as in Hades — “developed a satanic sentience through the polytics of in-between which invariably wells up through a God-complex deposited in the strata.” And then he cites something from Deleuze and Guattari.
Maybe oil is the return of the repressed, using humanity, using the capitalist economy, as a parasite uses its host, to get free from the earth and to exert power within the atmosphere, to hasten the “tellurian omega” (when the earth is finally consumed within a dying, expanding sun). To hasten the warming of the earth to make the earth a bit more like the sun, and to move the earth beyond this chapter of its history — the anthropocene — via the extinction of its host-animals.
Indulge this notion of a repressed sentience welling up from the depths. Humans are the agents of the wells, and yet we cannot control it — we are at its mercy, in many ways. We are at its mercy as it changes the climate. We are at its mercy when it erupts uncontrollably from the depths at the bottom of the sea. Indeed, we are at its mercy economically, including that no-one can predict how much of it will well up at any time, and whether that quantity will represent a human surplus or a human lack of need for it.
Cyclonopedia quotes Lovecraft here:
“The nethermost caverns,” wrote the mad Arab, “are not for the fathoming of the eyes that see, for their marvels are strange and terrific. Cursed the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil the mind that is held by no head. For it is of old rumor that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learned to walk that ought to crawl.”
Lovecraft was an intense, monstrous racist — that racism must not be brushed aside, but must be recognized as integral to Lovecraft’s centrality in Cyclonopediac thinking: we’re trying to get to the root of this inhumane thing Capitalism, this thing that controls and commodifies lives, and it should be no surprise that we find racism along the way. And just because Lovecraft named the thing does not mean that he’s not of that thing — we are all of it, all complicit, all indoctrinated.
“Things have learned to walk that ought to crawl” — he could just as well be talking about humanity since capitalism, when we have “progressed” to the point where we are hurdling over the surface of the earth at inhuman speeds, flying in airplanes, and becoming cyborg? When and how do we believe we’ve become more-than-animal?
We have in that Lovecraft quote the conservation of conciousness implicit in the speculative move of giving oil agency — “old rumor…fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws.”
Time to break it down. What is oil? Oil is a:
- Narrative organizer — this is the function in the above idea on human progress, that oil serves as an organizer for the narrative of history, which is itself a narrative construct of the oil age. Our narrative of progress starts and ends with our use of fossil fuels.
- Narrative lubricant — “a demonic lube.” Oil has structured everything within modern politics and economics. “Oil as a narrative lubricant, that slides us through history, slides us through the monotheistic tribes that structure our ‘clash of civilizations.’”
- A Cult/Occult — “A pomo-leftist conspracy-mongering grease that lubes us into slithering rites.” “Petro-Masonism’s trans-historical tentacles.” Paranoia begins to seep in — everything is connected, but beneath the ground. We are all members of a secret cult of oil, but especially our politicians and economic leaders. Witness the atavistic, emotional defense of the carbon economy, the “war on coal” rhetoric, and on the side in opposition to Petro-Masonism, the ferocity of the battles we’ve had to wage at Standing Rock and elsewhere, the “blood for oil” sloganeering. OPEC. Aramco, Exxon. “They” are definitely exerting power from behind the scenes. (But only we “pomo-leftists conspiracy mongers” see it.)
- A Pipeline crawler — Oil distributes itself through humanity via a network that humans have built on its behalf. It smuggles middle-eastern war machines into western civilization. Fuels all war machines, not just the war machines that fight on one side or the other. It is the imperialist, monotheistic force that has taken over all of human civilization. An autonomous vehicle for the monotheistic war machines, distributed throughout the capitalist economy (and for what other purpose does the capitalist economy exist?)
- Black blob of the sun. Hydrocarbon corpse-juice. Black corpse of the sun. the devil’s excrement. The Nether Blob. Oil shares a chemical component with blood:porphryn (a pigment). It is not a geologic force, it is a blob of organic material. “Blood for oil” is a fair trade, a common currency.
- Autonomous chemical weapon. “Petroleum poisons Capital with absolute madness, a planetary plague.” It is insane with greed. It is the engine behind capitalism. Before petroleum, there was no capitalism, in the specific historical sense we mean the word. It drives us into an inhuman orgy of accumulation, of taking all we can get. It lends an inhuman proportion to our thirst.
That’s the core of what I want to communicate/accumulate here. If you dig it, read on:
I said oil wells up from the deep. It does so through a pattern: a complex of holes, or voids, within the earth. The earth seems to be a solid object, but in fact it has pores and holes that we exploit, expand, drill into, and extract the oil therein.
There’s an imagery to this complex. It is the imagery of horror, a cliche of horror flicks — what is solid and safe is in fact porous, a portal to an inhuman realm. It’s an archetype seeping up to the surface, just as oil does, within our culture of fear-enjoyment. It’s the dominant mode of most Lovecraft.
“Even the most despotic and survivalist solids are compositional, infected with the void.”
“Lovecraft’s horror is built upon geo-poromechanics, a machine to facilitate the return of the old ones”. Cthulu is an ancient god of the deep who is summoned through a human cult that has been ongoing through history. This cult has been present and active through history, but at one point it was dormant and at another it was awakened. Cthulu himself acts as a parasite upon the cult that brings him force, uses it as a mechanism to escape his confines deep in the earth. Much as oil acts upon the cult of capitalism to escape the earth.
“The earth is incapacitated, no longer capable of stratifying and grounding functions.”
Fracking causes earthquakes. We blow up the earth with contaminated water to build more hole complexes in the rock, and then we force the waste water that results back down into the earth via old, used up holes, the earth then becomes unstable. The ground begins to shift under our feet. All that is solid melts out from under us. Sinkholes ensue, the coasts crumble away. Anyone who lives on an island knows, the sea doesn’t rise to submerge the land, the land disintegrates, erodes, down into the sea.
“A worm infested body exhumed by a worming process and vermiculating machines.”
The earth is that body. The mechanical organs that are thrust down into the deep — drills, pumps, miners, etc. — sometimes explode or lose control of themselves.
“For every inconsistency on the surface, there as a subterranean consistency.”
Wealth inequality is so extreme, our capitalist system is so infected, so contaged, with greed and plastic, and so psychotic that it doesn’t have any rational explanation. It doesn’t appear to have any foundation, any body upon which it stands — unless we look under the ground, not on the surface of it. All wealth today comes from oil wealth, or at least oil energy. There’s no internet without it — so all that tech wealth — there’s no governance without it. The surplus of calories that accumulates in the form of dollars at the top of the economic ladder is a surplus of energy from the burning of fossil fuels.
We’re using nitrogen based fertilizer, which has ramped our agriculture system up to some inhuman or unnatural level of frenetic, mono-cultural productivity. Another devil’s excrement. It creates dead zones in the ocean because of the frenetic over-availability of energy it provides; algae orgy on it and then die, and their decomposition sucks the oxygen out of the water. Corpse-juice.
“Every mine is a line of flight that is in communication with smooth spaces — there are parallels today in the problems with oil.” — Deleuze and Guattari.
It’s an information economy, and Negarestani — whose is interrogating the primordial spirits of the Middle East, writing from Iran, waiting for his U.S. visa to come through, calls dust “the middle eastern unit of information.” Dust is data, discrete (digital, composed of digits) yet swarms in the cloud, and only has meaning as an overwhelming mass — a swirl, big data.
The dust of the middle east is far older than Islam, and yet that region is the world center of monotheism. Monotheism is a desert religion; all is one between the earth and the sky; the world is of planes and surfaces. The human stands perpendicular to the desert, a perfect cartesian plane, with the meeting point of the earth and sky on each terminal of the x axis and sun and center of the earth on the y, intersecting pools of oil and bedrock on the way down. Dust flows over the surface of the horizontal plane.
Zoroastrianism, the rudimentary ovum of monotheism, takes dust as the smallest element of creation. The founding aphorism of monotheism is Dust to Dust. All is one, all is dust, one is dust; we have echoes in our scientific discourse today, as Carl Sagan said, “we are all star dust.”
Monotheistic and modern societies are cleanly; we dust our surfaces. Dust and dirt carry foreign objects; organisms, diseases, smogs, pollutants. And yet, dust is the elemental base; the pure form of matter, so also inherently pure.
This is not a contradiction; the purity of dust can only be perpetuated by contagion and pollutants and non-human things; xeno-agents (xeno being other, or from the outside), tiny yet powerful, capable of making a huge range of psychophysiological changes in us — we encounter many pharmaceuticals and street drugs as a pure white dust, or a solidified conglomeration of white dust (a white pill). And yet, in human communities large part of the dust around us is comprised of dead cells, skin cells schluffed off of our bodies.
Take a break and watch this:
For Negarestani, the specific xeno-agents native to the desert of the Middle East are not quite bacteria nor pollution nor disease, but the remnants and memories of ancient life, the same life that comprises the vast stores of oil beneath the desert; energy that gets expressed in conflagration, burning fuel. War-machines, Negarestani names them, borrowing the idea from Deleuze and Guattari. “Nomadic war machines are dissolved in oil.” In their essay on war machines, D&G argue that the army, in its manifold forms, is a nomadic thing that is separate from the state. Although we think of the army as an aspect of state power, or perhaps the defining aspect of state power, it is not the same thing as the state. The state is despotic; it sits in one place on the earth, while it sends its war machines out to roam across the map. This nomadic war machine, roaming the earth, is older even than the state; the state emerged as an outgrowth of the war machine, not vice versa. Now Negarestani shrinks this nomadic machine down to the sub-microscopic level and insinuates it in oil, in dust, in sand, in disease, in contagion.
These war machines insinuate themselves into the major monotheistic religions, bringing chaos and fire alongside an insatiable appetite for growth and power.
Power, but not centralized power, unless it’s gathered together. “Dust is the master of collective insurgencies. It is an indivisible part of authority, yet it unfolds only as an uprising.” This book was written before the “Arab Spring,” the fall of Hosni Mubarak, but that has become a quintessential symbol of collective insurgency. In his brilliant book The Egyptians, Jack Shenker writes:
In reality, the revolution is about marginalized citizens muscling their way on to the political stage and practicing collective sovereignty over domains that were previously closed to them. The national presidency is one such domain, but there are many others: factories, fields and urban streets, the mineral resources that lie under the desert sand and beneath the seabed, the houses people live in, the food they eat and the water they drink.
Over the previous few decades, all of these domains had been sealed off and commodified for the purpose of private gain. This act of enclosure was made possible not only by the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian state, but also by an economic orthodoxy that today spans the planet — from Chicago to London, Cairo to Cape Town, and virtually everywhere in between. The outcomes of that economic orthodoxy are neither regrettable aberrations nor dastardly conspiracies: they are a condition of a particular system of thought. In our neoliberal age, we are told that politics is something separate from economies, that the management and distribution of goods and services are best supervised by the market. and that governments should get out of the way. But as the progress of Egypt’s revolution makes clear, neoliberalism is not antithetical to the state, in Egypt or anywhere else, it is the very core of it. Despite many setbacks, Egyptian revolutionaries have exposed and resisted deep-rooted, international patters of privileged accumulation and mass dispossession, and the brutal force needed to sustain them…
Strictly speaking, I didn’t need to quote every word of that to make my point about dustism, but I wanted you to read it. The revolution is like a dust storm sweeping over the fences and barriers of Western neoliberal capitalism. Although Shenker has tremendous respect for the Egyptian revolutionaries in this example, by no means is a dustish or dusty political insurgency necessarily in alignment with Western liberal values or interests — ISIS is clearly an insurgent dust-storm, as are the many faces of the Palestinian Infitada, the Kurdish independence movement, and so on, each with their own unique relationship to the colonial West and to Western liberalism. So move beyond value judgements — we’re describing a thing, not saying whether it’s good or bad.
Let’s run through some of Negarestani’s language:
“Dust is the name of a rebellion marked by utter collectivity and progressing at a cosmic level.”
At the same time, dust is a terrifying thing, it is the stuff of crypts and of mummies and tombs.
“Flesh is a dust necropolis constantly refreshed by wetness, vaults of anonymous materials, crypts and restless things.”
Wetness is not water. Wetness is slimy, slick, alive; oil and phlegm. The above quote is the only time the phrase “anonymous materials” is used in the book, as far as I can tell.
“Dust is an agent of decay which evokes horror…decay can extract softness from despotism, political persistence from the abolition of utilizable power.”
Which goes back to the idea of decentralized political resistance. “Dust is the name of an utter collectivity progressing at a cosmic level.” “Deities breathe dust and sear worlds.”
To connect dust back to oil; dust contains nomadic war machines, and “nomadic war machines are dissolved in oil.” Remember the pipeline crawler; that oil distributes itself across the world on vessels of capital. “As the Machines of the west consume oil by burning the Blob” — oil — “the smuggled war machines begin to activate and are unbound.” So the Western hyper-consumption of oil as the basis for all technocapitalism inadvertently free ancient war machines from their oily vaults out into the atmosphere, where the fuel endless conflagrations: warming of atmosphere and ocean, but also the long war in the middle east between West and Other, both fueled by the same war machines. (I’m reminded of the great red spot on Jupiter — a storm or an eruption that seems to us to be permanent and stuck in one spot, rather than whirling around the planet like what we’re used to.)
“If western war machines exhibit a capitalist zeal to waste energy and material, there is no altar better for this wastage than Islamic Apocalypse and its divine cause. Contaminated by the sentience of oil as well as running through it, western Technocapitalism and its war machines [drone] are attracted to and drawn into agitated participation with Islamic war machines.”
That’s right — participation. Not battle, but participation. That feels correct, doesn’t it? Keep in mind that the US military is our largest consumer of fossil fuels — and our largest consumer, generally. (If you’re interested in the “capitalist zeal to waste energy and material” don’t deprive yourself of a reading of Georges Bataille,The Accursed Share.) Participation in immolation, the ultimate end-point of global warming. To turn the whole world into desert. “For Jihad, the desert lies at the end of an oil pipeline.”
This blob of paranoiac meta-connections and synergies can run endlessly, onward across the plane of polytics.