Introduction to Inorganic Demonology: Reza Negarestani and The Exorcist

This is an edit of a transcript for a presentation I gave as part of “Remarkable Things: The Agency of Objecthood & the Power of Materiality”, a conference on the power and value of apotropaic art, hosted on 10th March 2018 by the University of Warwick’s Humanities Research Centre. Special thanks to Kathryn Thompson and the organisers of the event.

What I want to talk about today is an idea I’ve encountered that I think bears an interesting relationship with the subject of today’s conference (apotropaic objects), the inorganic demon, which is a term that appears in Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani’s 2008 book Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials. As a text that appropriates elements of fiction in order to synthesize new methods of doing philosophy, Cyclonopedia has been important to my research for a while now, but this is the first time I’ve presented on any part of its much vaster whole. Although not a structurally integral concept to the book – in fact, the elucidation of the inorganic demon appears as an endnote to the main text – a closer examination of the concept will hopefully serve to intrigue and provoke some of the ideas surrounding objecthood as understood vis-a-vis both popular philosophical traditions and apotropaic studies. Regardless, the tone of this presentation is not meant to be philosophical in a classical sense, but more speculative, accessible, and open-ended.

Simply put, Negarestani’s inorganic demon is a relic or artefact of ancient origin, which houses or otherwise allows a demon to interact with the human world. They are most typically found in narratives of the supernatural horror or fantasy genres. However, I don’t wish for us to demote our understanding of the inorganic demon to a comfortable dark mirror image of the wholesome apotropaic object. I want to propose that the relationship between the apotropaic object and the inorganic demon is more intricate and less oppositional, using the example of the Sumero-Assyrian demon Pazuzu as it is presented in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and by Negarestani and others.

As suggested already, Negarestani introduces the term “inorganic demon” in a somewhat obtuse way. He buries it in the notes of Cyclonopedia’s prophet, the renegade archaeologist Dr Hamid Parsani, who functions in the book as a sort of complex mouthpiece for Negarestani and the quasi-real Hyperstition collective’s speculative ideas. The book’s first clearly defined chapter details Parsani’s investigation into an obscure Zoroastrian relic called Khaj-e-Akht or the Cross of Akht, which is described by its researcher as

an inorganic demon, a sentient relic with the ability to numerically grasp all the undercurrents and inconsistent events of the Earth as modes of narration. (Negarestani: 13 – emphasis added)

The term does not recur elsewhere in Cyclonopedia, save for in a lengthy endnote, where it is given a thorough treatment. Before examining that let us first be aware of the qualities of the Cross of Akht just detailed. Of course, the intelligence Negarestani-Parsani takes the cross to be not merely a passive, insensate piece of wood, but “sentient”, active, and possessing some degrees of intelligence and agency. (How we are to define these latter terms is of course a matter of contention, a conversation which cannot take place here if brevity is to be maintained.) From the quoted sentence we are also informed that the Cross of Akht’s affective capacity incorporates the potential to tap into the recessive narratives of the Earth as they flow beneath the topsoil; a mode of narratology Negarestani elsewhere refers to as “petropolitics”. This also qualifies the Cross of Ahkt as a “hyperstition”, or a fictional element with agency, which occupies a host (such as a reader) with the intention of crossing over into reality. In the way we might believe in a superstition after experiencing some coincidental “back luck”, we as readers believe that Hamid Parsani is an actual figure, or the Cross of Akht is an actual object, and they somehow transcend their fictional beginnings. This is an important function of the inorganic demon, so now I will present a sort of edited summary of that endnote I mentioned earlier, as to familiarise us with the basic principles of inorganic demonology.

Inorganic demons,[1] also called a xenolithic artifacts, are usually depicted in horror and science fiction as objects made of inorganic materials such as carved stone, wood, or metal. They exhibit a series of dualisms intended to deceive the humans that encounter and uncover them: they simultaneously exhibit a sensuous tactility (“provocatively exquisite” in form) and an immaterial permanence; they are local, yet elsewhere; they represent the pinnacle of human scientific endeavour, yet are highly impious and mocking to anthropocentric modes of existence – physics, philosophy, religion, and so on.

Their autonomy alone marks their outsideness to the human and its ecology, the planetary biosphere; this is why they are frequently associated with alien life forms and defined by the prefix xeno- (outside). (Negarestani: 223)

The role of the inorganic demon is that of a facilitator of the Outside, a generation of symptoms that fold the interiority of anthropocentrism (the limits both of human knowledge and its fullest capacities) outwards, and allow the Outside in, to take advantage of the human host’s specific capabilities: communication, mobility, influence, and political power.

All inorganic demons (or relics) exist in relation to one another through a common lineage: a complex demonological framework of three distinct classes. First-class relics are whole objects; second-class relics are fragments of a whole relic, sometimes scattered, sometimes requiring a ritual regathering in order for their activation to take place. Finally, third-class relics are contaminated objects, having come into contact with higher-class relics: of less potential, but still containing the possibility of ruination. The demon’s ability to transfer its centre of power is therefore not limited to human hosts; however, we must remember that such a manoeuvre is purely a strategic means of survival, not an ultimate goal.

Fortunately, at this stage Negarestani has provided us with a sort of seven-point plan, almost like a “life cycle” of the inorganic demon as it passes from sentient relic to activated contaminant within a host body and back again into deactivated slumber (although of course, these demons are immortal, and occupy living qualities only by proxy). I’m going to run through these stages quickly before turning to the case example, that of The Exorcist. I should reinforce that these seven points constitute the entirety of Negarestani’s writing on the inorganic demon in Cyclonopedia; this is the extent of the detail available:

a) We are told that the inorganic demon is “parasitic by nature”, and that their systems of possession are activated by a range of human states of fascination with the objectivity of relics: their extension through local physical space, or “realism of objects”. The demon is ignited not only through its untimely awakening, but entices the prospective host through its tactility and unearthly aesthetic qualities. This is of course why a demon would choose a mysterious and beautiful object over an ordinary or uninteresting one as its counterpart on the physical plane: it makes it easier for it to get inside us.

b) The demon exacerbates its victim’s fascination through “xeno-excitations”, synthesizing what we might describe as “wisdom” in the victim. We’ve already seen how the demon’s objective is to funnel the Outside through its host: this includes alternate knowledges and modes of perception, ways of sensing and thinking beyond what is ordinarily knowable. Think of Tolkien’s Ring, how it not only draws in all that it comes into contact with (human, hobbit, elf, etc.), but how when worn grants insight into unseen and unheard forces.

c) This is when symptoms of possession begin to develop and manifest themselves. The victim is overcome with “incurable afflictions” and “progressive maladies”. This is because of either the demon’s preliminary attempts to prepare the host for inhabitation, or the host’s nervous recoil to the accommodation of the foreign body. Both of these triggers ought to be recognised simultaneously. The demon’s approach to transformation of the subject, or “reprogramming the logic of organism”, can be viewed as the very stimulation of the host’s adaptation to Outside logics, logics posed by Negarestani as inherently overwhelming on the level of anthropomorphic subjectivity. The inorganic demon’s infiltration poses such insurmountable challenges to human conceptions of the subject-object duality that breakdown occurs at the very level of the subject.

d) The organic subject and inorganic demon-object are now seen to intertwine in a way considered to be inextricable through conventional methods and treatments. Transference from the inorganic relic to the sentient host has given way to affirmation (unconscious affirmation on the part of the subject). The demon’s intelligence has now irreversibly augmented that of the host, now existing side-by-side in an outwardly schizophrenic configuration. The demonic agent is now secure, and conventional techniques of separation may prove fatal to the subject.

e) Affirmation of the embedded demonic sentience gives way to activation. For this to happen, the demon’s nervous system, or “spiritual matrix”, must “be charged by sufficient external stimuli from the human host.” This takes the form of a feeding upon the human’s extreme affective capacities, when we may consider a human quality to be at its most “pure”: pure joy, fear, pain, piousness, or faithlessness, for example. According to Negarestani, the demon is aided immeasurably in this endeavour by the “absurdity of human openness”, humanity’s spiritual vulnerability to the imperceptible Outside. These comments suggest an image of human bodies rather like a computer connected to a vast, exponential network without antivirus software installed, hopelessly requiring several updates. Negarestani also characterizes this state as a “Call” or an open invitation to the inorganic demon as agent of the Outside.

f) Separation of inorganic demon and host is possible only through the use of another demon, but of course this allows the consequences of awakening another inorganic demon to play out. Through this new influence, the original demon succumbs to what Negarestani calls its “forsaken status”: the spiritual matrix is closed, and the demon returns to hibernation in its inorganic state. Interestingly, Negarestani suggests here that human sovereignty is dependent on the hibernation of inorganic demons, who would otherwise suppress the narrative of human singularity if able to run amok.

g) Finally, the inorganic demon is deactivated only on returning to its original “lair”, the unique location for its eternal rest. The object it embodies is then relegated to a mere treasure, a demotion from the possessing to the slave classes of reliquology.

This imagining of the inorganic demon that I have just detailed suggests many provocative things about the nature of the object as traditionally understood by what I suppose we ought to be calling anthropic materialism. We could summarise the key features of such an a priori understanding as follows: that objects are made up of matter; they exist either merely physically, or else ideally, in the image of the mind; they do not possess an intelligence or a point of view; they exist primarily in relation to what we call “subject”, the invariably more noble study of philosophy. Of course these are only crass generalizations on my part: we could point in several directions for examples wherein objects are approached in more favourable ways, for example in the role of AI or object-oriented philosophy. And as well of course there is the more theoretical work being done on apotropaic artefacts, of which the inorganic demon exists as a cruel counterpoint or sadistic challenge. It would be misleading, however, to label the two classes of enchanted relic as somehow opposing one another in function and intent – an Eros and a Thanatos each vying for our attention. We will see how through its appearances in The Exorcist, as well as in Middle Eastern tradition the demon Pazuzu is able to illustrate the pliable motives and strategies employed via its representation as an inorganic demon, and how we might further consider the supposed objectivity of objects.

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Figure 1: Pazuzu-demon

To note the general characteristics, features, and capabilities of the demon Pazuzu and what they might signify for the film’s narrative, we can turn to Cyclonopedia one last time.[2] The most relevant to this discussion include the association of Pazuzu with the dust of the southwestern wind. As a “dust enforcer”, a scavenging agent from the Outside, Pazuzu’s methodology involves the whipping up of dust clouds and soups, and subsequently the relaying of diseases and plagues. For Negarestani, this dust-harvesting and -disseminating activity signifies the infiltration of the ancient demonical into the global politics spiralling around the perpetual and insoluble conflicts of the Middle East, which are able to draw in the ideologically disparate West through its’ nations’ addiction to oil. This forms part of Pazuzu’s “schizotrategy”, defined as “[s]trategies for being opened (by), not being open (to)”, (242) the methodology of possession. Aiding this mission are the demon’s two pairs of wings and specific configuration of its arms – the right pointing upwards and the left downwards, which “suggests a swash-backwash model of epidemics”.

The following film clip is taken from the opening of the film. To quickly summarise: the film opens on an archaeological site on the remains of the ancient city of Nineveh, in and around modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq, where we see the protagonist Father Merrin uncovering two crucial artefacts which later play important roles in the narrative, which is what I want to concentrate for the remainder of the presentation. This is Merrin’s first real encounter with the power of Pazuzu, a power manifested in above all other things the wind (note west-southwest direction behind the statue), and also the dust being carried by the wind, which we can see in big clouds at the end. Both the novel and the screenplay describe Merrin and Pazuzu here as “ancient enemies squared off in a massive arena”, which is what the last shot is trying to convey, before the narrative relocates to Georgetown, Washington, where the victim Regan MacNeil is staying, and the remainder of the events take place.

This is Merrin’s first real encounter with the power of Pazuzu, which is manifested in above all other things the wind (note west-southwest direction behind the statue), and also the dust being carried by the wind, which we can see in big clouds at the end. Both the novel and the screenplay describe Merrin and Pazuzu here as “ancient enemies squared off in a massive arena”, which is what this last shot is trying to convey, before the narrative relocates to Georgetown, Washington, where the victim Regan MacNeil is staying, and the remainder of the events take place.

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Figure 2: St. Joseph’s medal excavated at Nineveh
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Figure 3: “Amulet” head of Pazuzu statue excavated at Nineveh

I’m now going talk about the relics themselves, which are excavated by Merrin in the scene prior the one shown above (this is all in the first ten minutes of the film), because I want to explore the question of how Pazuzu’s awakening in northern Iraq relates to his presence being felt in a relatively distant and indirect manner elsewhere in the world. The two objects I wish to concentrate on are these: the first is a small medal, which is not actually unearthed by Merrin himself but another archaeologist, and immediately afterwards a stone object discovered by Merrin, which is referred to as an “amulet” in both the novel the film is based on and the screenplay (both written by Blatty), which is in the shape of the head of Pazuzu. Now the biggest mystery of the film is undoubtedly these two objects and how either of them or both of them, possibly working separately or in tandem, are able to unlock, transfer, and subsequently contain Pazuzu, and thereby set in motion the events of the narrative to come. The straightforward answer is that there is no obvious, nonspeculative pathology of these objects, but it appears that their role in driving this narrative is indispensable.

Let us first examine the medal. The first thing about it that we are asked to consider is its position as an anachronism within the site where it is found. Merrin tells us: “This is strange”, to which his colleague replies: “Not of the same period.” (although this is apparently a mistranslation of the conversation conducted in Arabic: according to William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist, From Novel to Film, Merrin is actually saying “What’s this doing here?”, an even more explicit foreshadowing). This medal does not appear in the novel as such, save for in the form of the “Saint Christopher” owned by the other protagonist Father Karras, and therefore was a revision made more significant considering the otherwise relative faithfulness of the adaptation.

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Figure 4: St. Joseph’s medal with inscription visible

The inscription reads “Sancte Joseph ora pro nobis”, or “Saint Joseph pray for us”. The Christian Saint Joseph is a patron of, among other things, people in doubt, children, and dying people, and naturally is a more recent revered figure than those of the ancient Assyrians of Nineveh where the medal is unearthed. Father Karras wears a visually identical medal around his neck, which during a dream sequence is seen falling onto a stone floor, possibly the stone steps outside the house where the MacNeils are staying. Karras’s medal is torn from his neck during his final struggle with Pazuzu. Following this, and Karras’s pleas to “Take me!” and not Regan, the demon transfers its centre of power into him. Now possessed, Karras jumps from the window and falls to the base of the steps, leaving the medal still inside Regan’s bedroom. Following this climax, the MacNeils’ housekeeper Sharon retrieves the medal and gives it to Chris MacNeil (wearing the white gloves: I know you can only see the hands in these shots). Chris then gives the medal to Father Dyer, Karras’s friend at Georgetown University. This is where the original cut of the film ends, but in the Extended Cut, Dyer gives the medal back to Chris and asks her to keep it herself, either as a memento, a confirmation of Chris’s journey from atheism to Christian faith (and we ought to remember that Blatty was a devout Catholic); or as holy protection, the much-lauded apotropaic object.

The second object, the amulet head of Pazuzu, does appear in the novel, although in that version of the narrative it is not unearthed by Merrin personally as is shown in the film. In both versions, however, Merrin’s colleague does utter the line “Evil against evil” upon Merrin’s inspection. But there is something additionally strange to this depiction of Pazuzu, in that it seems incomplete. Being that it is a head only it is missing the key features associated with the demon, such as the four wings and the specific posture of the arms, which we see immediately in the next scene, where Merrin travels to the statue on the site of the palace of Ashurbanipal. Given the importance of these features in Pazuzu’s representation, we can only conclude that a body did or still does exist and has become separated over time.

As for the missing body, we may look across to Georgetown after the mysterious death of Burke Dennings, whose fall to the bottom of the steps prefigures Father Karras’s. Here the detective Kinderman discovers what is described in the screenplay as “a fragment of clay from a crudely made sculpture”.

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Figure 5: Lieutenant Kinderman at the stone steps, overlooked by Regan MacNeil’s bedroom
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Figure 6: “Fragment of clay” found at the base of the steps by Kinderman

This is as clear it can be made out, and admittedly it still isn’t very clear. I’ll leave it to personal speculation as to whether this is supposed to be a Pazuzu body or not. Personally, I think this was made by Regan during the early stages of her possession, as she is shown in the film to be a keen sculptor and illustrator. Perhaps this is an attempt at a “regathering” of the fragments of Pazuzu’s inorganic demon, or maybe a new host body for Regan to impart the demon onto, regardless this is an unsuccessful attempt. I also want to return to the Karras dream sequence alluded to previously, where the Saint Joseph’s medal was dropped, and highlight this zone at the base of the steps as a point of convergence for many of the supernatural phenomena of the narrative. This is also where Karras dies while hosting Pazuzu, his being the “body” that replaces this one of the sculpture, this time more successfully, albeit at the cost of a man’s life.

As I’ve already suggested, the question of these objects’ journey across the narrative and the logics of their transportation is perhaps secondary to their seemingly active/ated inhuman sentience and implied causality. Which brings me back to Pazuzu itself and its manifestations around Regan, particularly in her room where she is bedridden for most of the second half of the narrative. I feel it is here where the complex relationship between the condition of the objects as sources of contamination (or inorganic demons) and sources of inoculation or protection (or apotropaic artefacts) can be most visibly examined.

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Figure 7: The ever-open window in Regan’s bedroom

In the room we have features resonant with what we know about Pazuzu: the open window though which an icy wind blows through serves as a portal for the Outside to infiltrate (consider it is Pazuzu itself that keeps opening it – being opened by rather than being open to). There are the physical, and if we choose to be pious, moral signs of deterioration within the victim herself; the sickness of body and mind brought about by the plague of the demon’s inhabitation. And at the centre we have these objects in proximity: the small statue outside the window, which we may assume is either causing or worsening Regan’s condition as a second- or third-class relic; and the St. Joseph’s medal worn by Father Karras during his visitations, which we might believe to be a protective relic for the priest, and instrumental in driving Pazuzu out of Regan. The counterparts of the two objects which were found buried together in Nineveh, and which signify the beginning and ending of the narrative.

Now, if we return to Negarestani’s notes on the inorganic demon with all of this in mind, we can observe the xeno-excitations caused by Merrin’s contact with the amulet, the progressive maladies and otherworldly consequences enacted by the host (Regan) through another fragment of the same amulet (whether original or not is unimportant), the subjective reprogramming and schizophrenic changes, and, finally, the imposition of another spiritual object as a method of exorcism (the medal but also the holy water and other Christian paraphernalia). But if we consider how Pazuzu is defeated, it is not through a deactivation of the inorganic relic but murder (suicide) of the host (Karras) – martyrdom, if we wish to go that far. Regan is healed, as we can see at the end of the narrative, but only through what amounts to a temporary fix, with the potency of the inorganic demon undiminished and therefore free to possess again. And this is where we may see Pazuzu’s host object as not only a source of malevolent power, but also as its own perverse apotropaic object. For if we follow this interpretation to its limit, we find The Exorcist to be not a story of salvation and purification via the magnificent power of Christ, overcoming the hideous polytheisms of an ancient and frightening otherworldly past. What we find instead is an atheistic and amoral overflowing of nonlinear narratives, subverting the dominant Christian one at every turn. We see Pazuzu in its other role, that of a protector of still further unfathomable Outsides, more terrible afflictions tearing at the anthropocentric known universe. We know this Pazuzu was worn as an amulet, as a desire to let the demon inside the host, to ward off Lamashtu, who was said to kidnap and consume children. In conclusion, we ought to read The Exorcist not as a triumph over pre-Christian superstition, but as a hyperstition, an actualization of recessive narratives on both fictional and metafictional levels, driven in this example by the concrete objectivity of autonomous relics.

Notes

[1] The following exegesis (until section break) is of note 4 (223-225) of Cyclonopedia (see Bibliography and Filmography below).

[2] Specifically, the chapter “The Dust Enforcer” (113-121).

Bibliography and Filmography

Blatty, W.P. (1974) William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist from Novel to Film, Toronto/New York, Bantam Books.

Blatty, W.P. (2011) The Exorcist, London, Transworld Publishers.

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne, re.press.

The Exorcist Wiki (no date) “St. Joseph’s medal”, available online at http://exorcist.wikia.com/wiki/St._Joseph_medal.

The Exorcist [film] (1973), dir. Friedkin, W.

Pazuzu image (Figure 1) is a scan of Cyclonopedia (116). Featured image and all other images are screenshots taken from The Exorcist.

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Petrohorror and Unknowing: Petrocultural Engagements with the Limits of Philosophical Thought // Part 1

This is the first of a two-part essay. Part 2 can be found here.

The emerging field of cultural studies that has been variously named the energy humanities, petrocultural studies and petrofiction seeks a new critical method to interpreting the arts, particularly literature. In his 1992 essay “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel”, the author Amitav Ghosh asked the question: If the oil industry is the twentieth century’s equivalent of the Spice Trade, why are there so few literary responses to it? This is a question which has driven a new wave of cultural critics, historians and writers who collectively seek to read pre-existing works of literature through both their implicit and explicit consumption of energy. This new engagement, in turn, can serve a cultural or political function. When a text is situated historically (both date of setting and publication) within the various crises surrounding the real uses of oil, it is hoped that the humanities can function as part of the more general response to our problems with energy consumption (see Yaeger 2011).

And these problems are numerous. Humans’ lives have revolved around the consumption of energy for as long as recorded history, whether in the form of wood, sunlight, or biopower (ibid.). In a real sense, human life is impossible without thermodynamic energy transfers; they dictate the organization of societies, economies, healthcare, and much more besides. But the “modern” forms of energy, specifically oil, pose new devastating challenges. The sheer volume of oil consumption since World War II has compounded the environmental impact of the preceding dominant energy sources significantly, raising CO2 emissions to a peak now almost impossible to climb down from. Economically, too, oil appears miraculous, especially to the global North: as an inexpensive resource, it has made home and work life much more comfortable on an individual level, and has ensured greater amounts of capital be kept in the hands of fewer people (Smil 2008: 1-2). As Irme Szeman says, “It requires surprisingly little effort to produce an alternative history of the past century in which oil plays the role of the central protagonist directing and organizing human life activity.” (Szeman 2012: 3) Yet as reserves deplete and temperatures rise, it is precisely this centrality of oil which must be overcome.

I wish to examine a body of work hitherto underrepresented in discussions of petrofiction: genre horror literature, and in particular, the sub-genre (of sorts) known as weird fiction. In several weird short stories and novels, oil has a unique function: as a horrifying, unstoppable entity which, upon encounter, reveals humanity’s insignificance and finitude. From the beginning, petrocultural studies have engaged with modes of horror,[1] and it seems apt to continue this trend into new critical territory. If the energy crisis does indeed evoke horror, then an examination of the forms this horror may take may help us conscious of the energy crisis to better realise our role in its unfurling petrodrama.

The aim of this essay is twofold. Firstly, it is to establish horror fiction (particularly weird fiction) as a genre of legitimate interest to petrocultural studies. This will be achieved by granting focus to texts which directly or indirectly allude to the substance and environmental effects of oil. The primary two examples chosen here are the H.P. Lovecraft short story “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), and the Dean Koontz novel Phantoms (1983). Secondly, in this essay I will be exploring precise philosophical connotations of “petrohorror”. The relationship between horror and philosophy has already been significantly documented, and to attempt a complete integration of this pre-existing scholarship into the domain of petrocultural studies would be too grandiose a task here, so I will be mostly limiting myself to an analysis of the central thesis of Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Volume 1 (2011). In the introduction to his book, Thacker defines horror as the encounter with the limits of rational thought, a thought for which the language of philosophy fails to adequately express. This I argue is similar to the horrors of the fossil fuels crisis, within which there is no singular coherent narrative which accurately conveys our species’ and our planet’s present situation, or potential or necessary future orientation.

Weird energy

Weird fiction is a genre tag which was first applied to short stories such as those found in the American pulp magazines Weird Tales and Amazing Stories (the former’s print run began in 1923). It categorizes a blend of fantasy, horror, and science fiction which deals primarily with “alien” beings, existing within hidden realms and usually imperceptible to humans, but which manifest themselves under particular (if sometimes undisclosed) circumstances. In doing so, the characters and settings of the story are unsettled, as is the reader, by the prospect of a disruption to what was previously considered the rational and natural order. Undoubtedly the archetypal weird fiction author was H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). Frequently published in the aforementioned pulp publications, the scope of Lovecraft’s fiction encompasses a vast and barely coherent genealogy of monstrous entities, woven together in a lore known to fans as the Cthulhu Mythos.

Within this group of stories, all the conventions and literary techniques of weird fiction can be traced. Lovecraft’s prose is grandiose, archaic, and mystical, yet it is always tethered to an empirical or scientific framework, narrated by a distinguished and respectable New England professor: the collision of these two contrasting effects pushes the tone of the Lovecraftian story into the degree-zero of the uncanny. As author and Lovecraft scholar Michel Houellebecq explains, “the trajectory of this collision is traced by a precise and firm line that becomes more dense and more complex as the story progresses, and it is this narrative precision that converts us into believers of the inconceivable.” (Houellebecq 2008: 81) And this element of inconceivability, which tears through and makes a mockery of the anthropocentric “laws of nature”, is almost entirely indescribable or “unnameable” as well. There is a great example of this in “The Colour Out of Space”, wherein the farmer’s wife, having witnessed “things in the air which she could not describe”, is able only to communicate through wild gesticulations and incomplete speech: “In her raving there was not a single specific noun, but only verbs and pronouns. Things moved and changed and fluttered, […]” (Lovecraft 2014: 323).[2] Thacker describes the push-pull of Lovecraft’s literary style, the simultaneous hyperbolic description of the landscape and the essentially minimalist (non)description of the forces which disturb it, as “misanthropic subtraction” (Thacker 2012: 177-178). (We shall return to the full implications of what this concept might suggest in the second part of this essay.)

“The Colour Out of Space,” one of Lovecraft’s most celebrated short stories, concerns a land surveyor who has been sent to an area known by locals as “the blasted heath”, where a new reservoir is to be constructed, for the benefit of the townspeople of nearby Arkham. His meeting with a local man, the elderly Ammi Pierce, leads the latter to recount the tale of Old Nahum Gardner, who had in the 1880s owned a ranch on the prospective site; a ranch that in Nahum’s time had been visited by a meteorite. This extra-terrestrial object exhibited unusual properties, such as rapid cooling and shrinking, and when a group of scientists from the local university drilled into a section it released a strange globule, which reflected bands of indescribable colours. At least this is how it is portrayed by Ammi: he also states it was “only by analogy that they called it colour at all.” The substance popped when hit with a hammer by one of the scientists, leaving a spherical cavity where it had been (COS 317).

Over the coming months, the Gardner ranch slowly began to undergo supernatural transformations: the vegetation grew abnormally large and became luminous in the dark for a while, before turning grey and brittle and quickly disintegrating altogether. Nahum’s wife and sons, one by one, descended into madness or otherwise disappeared entirely. And the well water had become putrefied: this was discovered by Ammi when he visited the ranch. After a gruesome final encounter with Nahum, Ammi called for an investigation of the well, wherein the bones of two of Nahum’s sons and several animals were discovered. Additionally, the well contained an unusual slimy substance; later at night the well was seen to be displaying the same luminous qualities as the colour found in the meteorite. In the final scene of Ammi’s tale, he tells the surveyor that he and the other men witnessed a shaft of the colour’s light “pour” upwards into the sky. Concluding his story, Ammi expresses grave concern that the new reservoir will bring up a water supply still contaminated by the colour, and this could potentially lead to the deaths of several Arkham citizens. The surveyor mirrors this sentiment to the reader, but also states that he will continue with his work regardless: “I hope the water will always be very deep – but even so, I shall never drink it.” (ibid: 339-340)

Dean Koontz’s 1983 novel Phantoms is set in the Californian mountain town of Snowfield. Returning from her mother’s funeral with her younger sister Lisa, Dr Jennifer Page soon discovers that the town’s entire population of around 500 are either dead or missing, with bodies littered everywhere. She is unable to diagnose their cause of death, or understand why the corpses are bloated, bruised, and unable to decompose. She calls Santa Mira County Sheriff Bryce Hammond, who brings a squad over to investigate. Sensing high-level risk, Hammond calls an old ally, CBW (Chemical and Biological Warfare) Civilian Defence Unit General Galen Copperfield, for military assistance. Unable to leave due to the possibility of contamination (although disease or poisoning are looking less likely as causes of death), the group spend several hours overnight waiting for Copperfield’s unit, mostly in hiding from a giant moth which has savagely killed one of the officers.

Meanwhile, the incident begins to receive major press coverage, and in London, the eccentric (and for some time discredited) anthropologist Dr Timothy Flyte is informed that his name, as well as the name of his book The Ancient Enemy had appeared on a mirror in Snowfield, and he is encouraged by his publicist to travel to the town to rejuvenate his career. The next day, the CBW division unit arrives, and although initially sceptical of Hammond’s claims soon fall victim to a pair of gruesome deaths themselves. They are then contacted by “the ancient enemy” itself, through a computer terminal, describing itself as a demon and asking for Flyte personally, so that he may become his “Matthew” and chronicle it. Later Flyte arrives and Dr Sara Yamaguchi of the CBW unit makes some progress in identifying the creature responsible for their torment. It is an entity living below the Earth’s surface with the ability to alter its DNA structure and take any form, as well as break off parts of itself and operate independently of its nucleus. This substance is revealed to contain a large variety of hydrocarbons, giving it similar properties to petrolatum (petroleum jelly). The survivors develop a weapon made from Biosan-4, a bacteriological invention currently being tested to eat away at oil spills, and using this weapon they defeat the ancient enemy. However, a remnant appears in the woods outside Snowfield to the escaped murderer Fletcher Kale, as well as motorcycle gang leader Gene Terr, and suggests to them that by worshipping it and carrying out its commands, namely killing the survivors, it will one day return. A few days later the two men storm the hospital and attempt to carry out the task, but are finished off by the surviving officers (Koontz 1990).[3]

It should be immediately apparent to petroculturalists that both substances in these stories – the colour and the ancient enemy – are analogous to energy resources or their waste: oil, “natural” gases such as shale gas, and nuclear runoff such as thorium. Both substances are deliberately mercurial, constantly undergoing change and being of limited perceivability at a time to human observers. They are “unconscious” in the sense described by Patricia Yaeger: following from Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, Yaeger suggests that the symbolic dimension of a text reveals its underlying thermodynamic processes, as an “energy unconscious,” which interferes with the dominant narrative of energy abundance, and the “touch-a-switch-and-it’s-light” magic realism of contemporary modes of living (Yaeger 2011: 309-310). Likewise, the fictional slimes lie hidden underground, beneath human perception, feeding and growing stronger, until they are brought to the surface, and corrupt and shake the faith in the human narrative.

By human hands, the iridescent colour is drilled out of a giant space rock which shouldn’t be there, only to leak out and slowly corrupt the local biosphere, and eventually its human inhabitants. This is a clear analogy for the discovery of oil beneath the Earth’s surface, and its applied scientific and cultural usages which were beginning to occur in the period between the story’s two settings (1880s and 1920s): the appropriation of an “alien” substance for human consumption.[4] The egregious ballooning of the vegetation, which initially burn brightly with an alluring, almost neon-like luminosity before crumbling to grey ash, also mirrors the pattern of “exuberance and catastrophe” as investigated by Frederick  Buell.[5] The ancient enemy, which is effectively called oil by Koontz, also takes on a multitude of forms and names, one of which is Proteus, the Greek god of change and mutability. It epitomises the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that energy can be transferred from one state to another, with some escaping as heat (when disguised as a dog, the ancient enemy becomes “painfully hot” whilst metamorphosing in the arms of Officer Gordy Brogan (Ph 334)).

Both of these stories are unambiguous with their depictions of the weird: scientists are informed of the presence of an unidentifiable object, which they deny can exist in an ordered universe, and are then disproven by these objects’ monstrous, life-threatening exhibitions of their qualities; qualities which imitate those of the real-world ooze, oil. This would lead to the conclusion that oil is a weird substance, and can be investigated using these genre concepts alongside those of “canonical” petrofiction.

In his reading, Anthony Sciscione classifies “The Colour Out of Space” as an example of “symptomatic horror”, which, as he explains, is a term applicable to “works that attempt to encounter the radically non-human without recourse to ontological presence and positive conceptualization, instead channelling the incompatible agency through its effects on the landscape and representing it in the text primarily with reference to the discursive and hermeneutic gaps it occasions.” (Sciscione 2012: 131-132) Although Phantoms doesn’t rely on “discursive and hermeneutic gaps” in the same way as “The Colour Out of Space” does (Ammi’s tale is full of “gaps […] where his sense of logic and continuity broke down” (COS 314), making its teller an unreliable narrator in conventional literary terms, but entirely credible in terms  of the weird), it also can be considered “symptomatic”, in that the antagonizing force is revealed through environmental effects (on the victims’ bodies) rather than through direct initial encounters. Sciscione calls this corruption weirding; a term used to describe the odd disturbances effected by these alien forces’ proximity, and the resultant uncanny effects. “The Colour Out of Space” contains several pages of unusual changes on the Gardner ranch brought about as a result of the colour; in every detail, there is something “not quite right”. For example, trees grow “too” thickly to be considered healthy, as a result of the poisoned water, resulting in “inconsistencies” between what is and what ought to be, according to their human observers (Sciscione, 137, 143-4). Similarly, a large proportion of Phantoms is used to illicit confusion regarding the condition of the corpses, which are swollen and bruised all over, yet without showing signs of decomposition, nor blood or broken bones or skin. It could be argued too that the global ecological effects of oil consumption are weird in this phenomenal sense; an idea which will be returned to later in this essay.

Concepts of oil

Now that the legitimate interest of oil to authors of weird fiction has been observed, we can begin to investigate oil through philosophical “concept horror,” which will eventually lead to Thacker’s understanding of horror as the encounter of the limits of philosophy. In the Editorial Introduction to Collapse IV, subtitled Concept Horror, Robin Mackay asks:

What if, prising the more disturbing elements of modern thought loose from their comfortable framing as part of an intellectual canon, we were to become fully attentive to their most harrowing consequences? What if, impatient with a consideration of their claims solely from the point of view of their explanatory power and formal consistency, we yielded to the (perhaps ‘unphilosophical’) temptation to experiment with their potentially corrosive effects upon lived experience? If the overriding affect connected with what we ‘know’ – but still do not really know – about the universe and our place in it, would be one of horror, then, inversely, how might the existing literature of horror inform a reading of these tendencies of contemporary thought? (Mackay 2008: 4)

This loose explanation of philosophy’s liaison with genre horror literature is designed to open many streams of conceptual engagement. The anthology’s many essays offer a variety of responses to the horror and weird labels, but where the whole volume appears unified is in the contributors’ attempts to utilise horror’s disruptive and weirding qualities to dislocate thought from the dominant “philosophical” framework. This critical technique is employed by the essayists in Collapse IV to practice new incarnations of phenomenology, theology, and metaphysics.

These practitioners of concept horror have all the conventions of horror and weird fiction at their disposal, yet of the selection it is oil which takes many of their imaginations. There is a consensus of what, conceptually, oil is, or a shortlist of what it could be. Many of these imaginative descriptions are inspired by Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, a work that simultaneously encompasses speculative theory and speculative fiction to create a highly original interpretation of Middle Eastern politics both ancient and (super)modern, and of which oil itself is a principal actor. Here then is an effort to describe oil as it resides in the works of Negarestani, Benjamin H. Bratton, Robin Mackay, McKenzie Wark, Ed Keller, and Eugene Thacker; all themselves heavily influenced by the “paleopetrology” of Dr. Hamid Parsani, the subject of Cyclonopedia. Oil is an autonomous, global agent which takes the control of the socio-political biosphere (the Earth), as the xeno-agent from within, as its primary aim. Flowing from a unified source, beneath the vast desert regions of the Middle East, oil corrupts human relations using (Islamist) religion, capitalist economy, and warfare (or jihad); permeating the entire globe in its viroid contamination. On a molecular level, oil embodies death, as “hydrocarbon corpse juice”, or “Devil’s excrement” (Negarestani 2008: 25-28); or “the planetary archive of putrification and cumulative decrepitude”, or “meat” (Bratton 2012: 48). But on a number of more disturbing levels, oil is also life, produced from photosynthetic processes and stored across eons as “buried sunlignmht” (Mackay 2012: 29); gifting it some consistency with Bataille’s theory of solar economy. It is also an animative force, “poison[ing] […] with absolute madness”, infecting (individual and social) bodies and manipulating them in a reverie of “petropuppetry” (Negarestani 2008: 20).

There is one further element of the Parsanian/Negarestanian school of oil theory that must be mentioned: that is, it comes in two variations, elucidated in Negarestani’s later essay “Outlines for a Science Fiction of the Earth as Narrated from a Nethermost Point of View” (2010). Much of what has been described in the previous paragraph would be classified by Negarestani as belonging to the “biogenic” theory of oil: oil as having been formed from hydrocarbons of existing planetary biomatter under immense pressure, heat, and time. The counterpart to this interpretation is the “xenogenic” or “abiogenic” theory. Liberally inspired by astrophysicist Thomas Gold’s theory of the “Deep Hot Biosphere”, the contention here is that the hydrocarbons from which our planetary oil is formed originated in deep space, before becoming trapped inside the earth. Furthermore, the bacterial processes which create oil may be more continual, even renewable, than otherwise thought. Oil is no longer a “fossil fuel”, but an alien “xeno-insider” which has always been there, potentially a signifier of the origins of life on Earth. Furthermore, this xenogenic oil displaces the role of the Sun to merely one lifegiving celestial body amongst many, exploding Bataille’s “solar hegemony” entirely (ibid.).[6] Whilst Negarestani upholds both theories as viable during Cyclonopedia, it becomes evident that his imagination finds greater riches in the latter.

Thinking the unthinkable

Contentious, even objectionable as these theories may immediately be from an ecological standpoint, taking them as serious approaches towards literary interpretation leads to some fascinating insights into the more horrific elements of petrofiction, as we investigate Thacker’s particular strain of thought and its relevance to discussions within the energy humanities. In The Dust of This Planet opens with the author’s ecological concerns, and charts the pathway along which they will be encountered:

The world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. […] The aim of this book is to explore the relationship between philosophy and horror, through this motif of the “unthinkable world.” (Thacker 2011: 1)

For Thacker, for thought to be able to approach “unthinkable” territory, it must overcome the assumptive, pre-given modes of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, and to do this, new terminology must be implemented. The world-for-us (also called the World) is that anthropocentric conception to be broken out of; the world-in-itself (the Earth) is the paradoxical anthropocentric attempt to think of the world without the human, or the world as it “ignores our attempts to mold it into the world-for-us.” (ibid.: 4-6) The world-without-us (the Planet), on the other hand, can be imagined by the human: as a mediatory state between the human and the non-human, this is the Planet as represented in post-apocalyptic fiction and that which forms the basis for the ecocritical incentive (to “save the planet” is to preserve the human as much as the terrestrial body) (ibid.). The Planet is described by Thacker as “a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific.” (ibid.) And once again, this horror finds its ultimate expression in the form of ooze, or oil.

It would seem necessary, if we are to take seriously the crisis of energy and its impact on humanity, we would need to think in terms of the Planet, and not just the World as we see it. To attempt to perceive even partial or temporary solutions to the problem of our current levels of energy consumption is to think one step ahead of an oncoming threat we can barely even identify; in effect, to think beyond that which is already beyond us. It also requires a degree of ethical engagement: to act not on our own behalf as such, but for the Planet, and the future generations which are to inhabit it.

A large proportion of Timothy Morton’s work has been to designate global warming, the earth, and combined human environmental impact as “hyperobjects” (Morton 2013). From a human perspective, hyperobjects are massive in both temporal and spatial terms, making their causation difficult to identify. Among their many properties, they are “viscous”, meaning that they “stick” to us. They are pervasive, persistent, and difficult to think outside of (we are always inside hyperobjects) (ibid.: 2, 27-37). They are also “nonlocal”: in a sense, they are themselves not the physical objects they are manifested as, but somehow operate on another plane of spacetime, spanning vast epochs on huge timescales (ibid.: 2, 38-54).

Within this terminology, oil too is hyperobjective. It is incalculably vast (no-one can say for sure exactly how much is left), has formed over millions of years, and its usage will leave an impact for a time period far beyond the humanly imaginable. This is suggested by Thacker, when he writes that “any attempt to point to or isolate oil is futile, precisely because it is fully continuous, not only with the Earth, but also with modern industrial society” (Thacker 2011: 93). Furthermore, oil holds a totalitarian grip over our imagination: to adapt a famous quote attributed to Fredric Jameson, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of oil consumption. Yet despite this, observes Caroline Edwards, it is simultaneously “absent” from cultural discourse (Edwards 2015), usually providing merely an unconscious input (to return to Yaeger’s term).

But in addition to these invincible attributes, oil is “horrifying”: in Morton’s vernacular, this word applies to an immediate timescale (affecting within five hundred years), as opposed to “terrifying” (thirty thousand years), and “petrifying” (one hundred thousand years) (Morton: 58-60). As a hyperobject, oil is all three of these, but it is chiefly the first which concerns us. As Graeme Macdonald observes, projections of this horror may be fictional, but at the same time, “all too horrifically unreal.” (Macdonald 2014: 133) As something actually observable to humans, horror both shocks and humiliates us, reveals our flaws and limitations, and entices a feeling of helplessness. Yet it is not immediately apparent that, in Thacker’s sense, the horrifying expresses the limits of the knowable. The terrifying and the petrifying certainly do: those timescales are unimaginable. But I would argue that the “horrifying” timescale cannot be so easily separated from the effects of terror and petrification; rather, that it is the very overwhelming immediacy of the energy crisis that freezes us in our tracks and compels us to silence, as much as it is the unimaginable consequences beyond our lifetimes. In this way, objects of horror can be symbols for what lies beyond their visceral immediacy.

Notes

[1] Ghosh began his “Petrofiction” essay by alluding to the history of oil as “a matter of embarrassment verging on the unspeakable, the pornographic”, and “a story that evokes horror, sympathy, guilt, rage, and a great deal else” (29-30).

[2] Hereafter COS.

[3] Hereafter Ph.

[4] The beginnings of the U.S. oil industry are fictionalized in the quintessential work of petrofiction: Oil! by Upton Sinclair. It is interesting to note that both Oil! and COS share a journal publication date (1927), suggesting that the oil consciousness typically thought of as having originated fully after the Peak Oil crisis of 1973 may have had a much earlier episode worthy of further investigation.

[5] Buell, F. (2012). In his usage of these terms, Buell draws heavily on Catton (1980).

[6] See also Bratton: 48-52; Smil: 67-68.

Bibliography

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Buell, F. (2012) “A Short History of Oil Cultures: Or, the Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance”, Journal of American Studies, Volume 46, Special Issue 02, May 2012, 273-293.

Catton, W.R., Jr., (1980) Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, Urbana/Chicago, University of Illinois Press.

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— (2012) “A Brief History of Geotrauma”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books, 1-37.

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— (2010) “Outlines for a Science Fiction of the Earth as Narrated from a Nethermost Point of View”, in World Literature Today 84, 12-13, available online at http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Fiction+by+Reza+Negarestani.-a0225794206.

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— (2012) “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books, 173-180.

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Featured image credits: übermorgen.com (2008) “05_MILLION_LITERS”.