For a long time, I have been a religion nerd– I have traveled through two different denominations of Buddhism, three or four (depending on how you count it) of Christianity, at one point considering becoming a clergyman (that lasted a few months, so don’t get too excited), and a few other random things. I’ve read fairly deeply about these topics; thought I can’t claim to be a theologian or anything, I’d argue I’ve spent a lot of time turning over god/gods/not gods relationship to us, probably more than I perhaps should have. It serves me well when reading weirdo books; at our core, most of us are looking for the answers to the big questions™. What happens if we find them?
So, in an awkward way, this leads me to : “Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials.” I’m maybe halfway through— it’s a short book, but denser than 10,000 suns. Reza Negarestani, the author, is a seriously regarded academic philosopher, and you can read his wikipedia page, if you want a summary. I’m gonna be frank and say that my understanding of modern philosophy is limited to broad-stroke explanations, once you start hauling out truth tables or deep critiques of Speculative Realism (which I only know about from reading Negarestani’s wikipedia page, as is entirely likely with you), I’m gonna scratch my head and admit my ignorance. Cribbing from not just wikipedia, but the internet at large, Negarestani is regarded as either a pioneer or refiner of something called ‘theory-fiction’ which is kind of a way of saying that he (and a few others) are interested in exploring ideas within the context of fiction than they are with conventional fictional structures, which means we run into the dreaded ‘this book has no plot that can be easily summarized’ monster.
Cyclonopedia presents itself as a series of summaries within a frame— someone travels to the Middle East to meet someone who never arrives, and discovers some documents after following some clues. The documents themselves are an overview of writings by an archeologist named Dr. Hamid Parsani who’s theories all revolve around oil. He posits a number of theories, which I’ll likely elucidate a little better further down the road, but they boil down to this: Oil is somehow alive, it is malevolent, and it has an agenda we cannot know or understand. If that sounds “Lovecraftian” to you, don’t worry, Negarestani addresses that directly. He also mentions Dean Koontz’s “Phantoms”, the Quaran, Zorastrainism, and to some extent, demonology. It’s one of those things where summarizing it really basically means re-stating it point by point, and I don’t want to do that here. What’s fascinating to me is the means by which the story is told— a summary of fictional notes and books we neither see nor read, rendered in a very academic style. It is, as I said in a tweet, some of the most dense, most batshit stuff I have ever read. I mean, take a look at a selection from the table of contents:
BACTERIAL ARCHEOLOGY: NETHER, SUB-SOIL AND XENO-CHEMICAL INSIDERS
Palaeopetrology: From Gog-Magog Axis to Petropunkism
Excursus I: Incomplete Burning, Pyrodemonism and Napalm-obsession
Machines Are Digging
Excursus II: Memory and ( )hole complex
Your milage, as they say, may vary, but for someone like me, this is something that I find weirdly compelling. I’ve briefly touched upon the notion of ‘self limiting art’ — things which exist in a very narrow tranche; it’s not seeking a particularly wide audience, for whatever reason— but this always reminds me of that one scene from Spinal Tap :
The appeal of something like this is going to be very selective. The title alone is something that may cause eye-rolling. Even if you’re willing to put up with the book’s post-modern quirks, you may not even be receptive to what it offers. It’s entirely unclear to me, at this juncture, if Negarestani’s intent is that you believe the theories that Dr. Parsani is laying down. I don’t think the book intends you to believe that oil is an actual, living substance, but I do wonder if Negarestani is asking you to look at ‘petropolitcs’ is a real discipline. Is the idea that there will always be gaps in our understanding (the ()hole complex) in relation to that a genuine concept? It *feels* like one, which may be as important as being one.
In short, it’s a compelling work, and one which I will write about again when I get further along. I’m not entirely convinced about the framing device the book employs, I’ve read a lot of cool stuff this year, but I haven’t read anything with a hook quite like this.