Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Petropolitics: the Dark Matter of Modernity
The cartography of oil as an omnipresent entity narrating the dynamics of Earth. According to Hamid Parsani, oil is the undercurrent of all narrations. Petropolitics can be studied to pursue the emergence of Xerodrome as a flat climax to the Pipeline Odyssey or a world whose narrative is mainly conducted through and by oil.
When oil spills, Earth opens its archives.
Taking into consideration its formal and stylistic nuances, which have been acknowledged although not yet fully realized, we should insist that the most important aspect of the first (and thus far, only) season of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective (2014) is not the disturbing, provocative, and obscure case that occupies the dark heart of the show’s narrative before unfolding into an unimaginable network of criminal debauchery and lechery. What about those recurring backdrops of the Louisiana oil industry: swaths of factories laid out in patterned tracts along the coastline? Or what about Rust Cohle’s brief comment on the oil landscape and the state of the Anthropocene: “Pipeline covering up this coast like a jigsaw. Place is going to be under water within 30 years”? Or, finally, what about the delirious and oneiric opening credits sequence – images of oil refineries superimposed over shots of characters and stills from various episodes. Throughout the entire season, oil remains a kind of specter haunting the backdrop of the American landscape, weaving the relations of the inhabitants of Louisiana and conducting patterns of behavior and interaction to a degree that is likely unquantifiable. Episodes of climatological catastrophe and erosion dictate the elements of the very case to which the show’s main characters are assigned. Late in the season, Cohle theorizes that their murderer “had a real good time after Katrina.” Everywhere, large-scale processes of technological augmentation and environmental reaction shape the trajectory of the narrative.[i]
This is not a commentary on True Detective exclusively, but on something more widespread and permeating: oil. However, this is not an analytical or political paper on the geopolitics of oil, or international global strategies for securing oil reserves across the world, although such posturings play a role in what I want to discuss. I want to discuss oil as darkness, oil as horror. I will not be the first to do this: Reza Negarestani beat me to the punch in his genre-defying Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (2008), and foreshadowings of this pattern can be detected in Lovecraft and other weird fiction authors, and even earlier, in more classically Gothic texts such as The Moonstone (1868), and even earlier in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). My justification for making these speculative leaps lies in the presence not of oil per se, but of slime, ooze, tarn, swamps, and so on: the presence of a dark, sneaking substance. While it is certainly the case that oil evokes sharper political dynamics than, say, the tarn beneath Poe’s House of Usher, the dark implications and ambiguities of substance – material substance, dark matter – carries over into oil, its appearance as oozy, slimy, and organic.[ii] My project in this post is thus not to construct any intensely researched argument, but rather to illuminate the disparate points of a potentially radiant constellation – to ponder some possibilities on the cultural meaning of oil, or its location in the cultural unconscious. Perhaps most simply, this post is an exploration of nothing more than various images.
First and foremost, I want to think of oil in a dual capacity, as both literal and figurative. By this, I mean that in the texts I focus on here oil serves an important figurative purpose. Oil is dark, it is sticky and heavy, it fuels engines as well as economies; and it derives from the leftover decay of perished organisms, the dead entities of prior epochs. Through these energies, oil takes on a variety of metaphoric values. However, oil is never entirely figurative – it is tactile and flammable, it bears the testimony of previously living organisms. Oil is literally matter, and as matter it is meaningless. Our apprehension of this ubiquitous substance produces an oscillation between oil in its many figurative and literal ontologies. There is matter here, and there is meaning. Thus, in a very strict sense, I adhere to Negarestani’s definition of petropolitics, printed at the beginning of this piece: oil is a narrative medium, a material through which meaning emerges. This speculative pursuit not only figures the darkness of modernity that I aim to explore, but the well-known diplomatic relations of our current geopolitical state: “US relations with Israel largely developed within this general context,” Noam Chomsky writes in Hegemony or Survival; “In 1948 the Joint Chiefs of Staff were impressed with Israel’s military prowess, describing Israel as second only to Turkey in military power in the region. They suggested that Israel might offer the US means ‘to gain strategic advantage in the Middle East’ to offset Britain’s declining role” (163). Oil lurks in the background of our national narrative, the narrative of our relations with foreign nations, despite efforts by the State Department and other governmental bodies to spin the arc of this narrative in other directions (usually along the lines of “good guys” versus “bad guys” – the US and Israel against the evil terrorists).
We must make a distinction here between oil as narrator and oil as medium. There is some confusion in Negarestani’s definition, for he identifies oil as an “omnipresent entity narrating the dynamics of Earth,” but also as “the undercurrent of all narrations” (Cyclonopedia 242). Regardless of Negarestani’s intended meaning (if one exists), I want to propose that oil works, before all else, as a medium of transmission. Narrative might emerge through oil, in Negarestani’s conception; but oil itself is not the narrator, at least not in any traditional sense. Kate Marshall addresses this point succinctly in her essay, “Cyclonopedia as Novel (a meditation on complicity as inauthenticity).” Treating Negarestani’s novel in the context of China Miéville’s discussion in World Literature Today, which describes the text as an outline “For a Science Fiction of the Earth as Narrated from a Nethermost Point of View” (Miéville, “Fiction” 12), Marshall suggests that Miéville’s piece
describes a fiction, a fact of narration, a point of view. But unlike, for example, the definition of ‘world petropolitics’ as ‘earth narrated by oil,’ or even oil as organizer of the earth’s narrations, something else is going on. The phrase ‘Earth as narrated by oil” has a subject earth, and a narrator, oil. Narrated by oil. But a ‘fiction of the earth as narrated from a nethermost point of view’ has no narrator. It is not narrated ‘by’ any one or thing. Or if it is, this science fiction of the earth is narrated by the point of view itself. But can a point of view narrate, even in Cyclonopedia? (Marshall, “Novel” 153-54)
Marshall gestures here toward the ambiguity of narratological perspective in Cyclonopedia, and how this ambiguity is bound implicitly (according to the text) to the image of oil. Marshall goes on to explore the complexities of perspective in the novel, and how these complexities respond to traditional questions in narrative theory and novel studies; however, I want to remain on the presence of oil itself.
Oil is ubiquitous in Negarestani’s text, and he spends much of the first chapter of the book theorizing on the narratological capacity of oil. However, he also expounds upon the material qualities of oil – oil as tellurian lubricant, he writes (Negarestani 19). There are narratological implications to this, but also organic qualities, which he specifies as the “Telluro-conspiratorial” aspects of oil: “trapping the energy of the sun accumulated in organisms by means of lithologic sedimentation, stratification, anaerobic decay and bacteria in highly stratified sedimentary basins” (19). In other words, geological processes become signifying processes, processes of writing. The imaginative and highly speculative tone of these suggestions organizes much of the text’s self-conscious humor: as a purportedly scholarly document framed within a fictional context, Cyclonopedia actively undercuts the gravity of its hypotheses. Various agents within the text, including anonymous frequenters of internet forums as well as the text’s central figure, Hamid Parsani, develop questionable theories based on evidence from less than reputable sources: one character appeals to the work of Dean Koontz (20), while Parsani even cites the Hollywood movie The Core (161-62). Another way of putting this is that the text is, to an extent, self-deprecating. The initials of its enigmatic central character – a failed academic whose notes are described as “more like the contents of [his] office trash can than a notebook of an exceedingly disciplined scholar” (9) – even echo those of another early-20th-century failed academician: Hamid Parsani… H.P. Lovecraft…
Despite the humorous and occasionally self-deprecating tone of the text, the lurking presence of oil offers as much food for serious intellectual thought as it does for dismissal. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the novel is its reflexive commentary on its own encoded status: its quality as a text of hidden writing (60-67). Attending to the explanatory pages closely, readers come to learn that Negarestani’s text operates not according to any linear narrative or cohesive plot, but according to its holes, its apertures, its gaps. Thus, the unexplained disappearance of Parsani and his entire team, although enticing on the level of narrative, does not comprise the central, or even a considerable, concern of the text. What emerges as its primary motivation is a network of veiled communications, but veiled only in the sense that we, as readers, have been conditioned to overlook them. Just as religion and morality take center stage when reading the narrative of Western military occupation in the Middle East, the center of the text must be something profoundly meaningful and explanatory – something that grounds us in the plot we have been pursuing. However, as Chomsky tells us about the US alliance with Israel, it has less to do with religious unity and more to do with the dictation of material forces, fossil fuels, oil. It has much less to do with our complicity with moral purity and much more to do with our complicity with anonymous materials. Likewise, the ideological act of reading has less to do with our grasp of a transcendental meaning and more to do with our direction by (and our complicity with) the material forces of language.
This is how oil functions as both matter and metaphor in Negarestani’s text. Oil positions countries and governments, it influences the ideological behaviors of a population; and it achieves this not through some innate or divine quality, but through its presence as matter. Like the refineries in True Detective, oil slickens the background and the stage, organizes the whole drama for the final act. Oil begins, in this sense, to look like a sentient entity; and Negarestani’s mysterious Parsani even evinces that the Middle East is a living entity, an organism moisturized by the blood of oil, the remnant of dead matter. In Tom McCarthy’s more recent literary vision, Satin Island, oil takes on a less intentional aspect and becomes part of something even less anthropomorphic: a computational system, an evolutionary program. Yet oil remains something of a conductor, or transmitter – a programmer of vast networks of life and energy. McCarthy’s narrator, known only as U., develops this presence of oil in an imagined lecture on oil spills:
Oil and water, as the old adage goes, do not mix. So what are we observing when we watch these elements con. When we watch them introduced to. When we watch these liquids thrown together? You might say that we’re observing ecological catastrophe, or an indictment of industrial society, or a parable of mankind’s hubris. Or you might say, more dispassionately, that we’re observing a demonstration of chemical propensities. But the truth is that, behind all these episodes. Dramas: beneath these. Beneath all these dramas, I’d say, and before them, we’re observing, simply (gentlemen), differentiation. Differentiation in its purest form: the very principle of differentiation. Ones and zeroes, p and not-p: oil, water. Behind all behaviour, issuing instructions, sending in the plays – just as behind life itself, its endless sequencing of polymers – there lies a source code. This is the basic premise of all anthropology. (Satin Island 112)
McCarthy’s U. criticizes the traditional humanist response to oil spills as part of a “misguided and ignorant” ideology that romanticizes the natural world “as sublime, virginal and pure” (116). In contrast, U. encourages an embrace of oil as nature: “Rock-filtered organic compounds – animal, vegetable and mineral – broken down and concentrated by the planet’s very crust: what could be purer than that” (116). Satin Island exposes humanity’s adverse reaction to oil spills as indicative of a deeper exposure: that of our reluctance to witness the exposure of the death we walk on.
In a sense invoked by both McCarthy and Negarestani, oil is parasitic. It is organic decomposition appropriated as fuel, as economic product. We thrive literally upon death, and death thrives, literally, upon us; and one of our greatest cultural fears is that death could have its day. Death, of course, in its relation to Life, is tied up in a biological dynamic with the relation of the earth to the sun; as Freud wrote as early as 1920 in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, “In the last resort, what has left its mark on the development of thought must be the history of the earth we live on and its relation to the sun” (qtd. in Brassier 223). In this sense, the truth of horror, not as emotional phenomenon but as a condition of thought itself, comes to the fore. Horror is the condition of all thought that finds itself fundamentally concomitant with that which it cannot think – not that it cannot conceive of something that cannot think, but that it remains ontologically blind to the very notion of thoughtlessness: as Eugene Thacker says, “Horror is about the paradoxical thought of the unthinkable” (Thacker 9). Horror communicates a thing to which thought necessarily remains incapable of conceptualizing. All we have to work with at this point is a kind of roughness, a material presence that terrifies by remaining concealed and horrifies by the realization that it conceals nothing – no agency, no conceptual being: “what genre horror does do,” Thacker goes on to say, “is it takes aim at the presuppositions of philosophical inquiry – that the world is always the world-for-us – and makes of those blind spots its central concern, expressing them not in abstract concepts but in a whole bestiary of impossible life forms – mists, ooze, blobs, slime, clouds, muck” (9). I would add, of course, to Thacker’s inanimate menagerie: oil.
Despite being the ultimate unconscious condition of human thought, as well as a deep-seated fear at a visceral – biological even – level, the paradox of thought, its inability to think its own origins, also secures a certain libidinal drive: that of thoughtfulness to recede back into thoughtlessness. This is the basic premise of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle as well as one of the major themes of Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010): the idea that matter “‘wants to lose its self-consciousness’” (50). DeLillo’s novel is set in the desert, directly in the heart of the earth’s most visible expressions of accumulation and erosion. In a word, DeLillo’s novel addresses what Quentin Meillassoux has called the “ancestral,” or the scientifically quantified and yet cognitively paradoxical temporal period of anteriority: put simply, time before life. During this time, there would not only have been no organisms capable of not thinking the category of thoughtlessness; there would simply have been no organisms at all. Ancestrality, Meillassoux argues, levels a direct challenge to post-Kantian philosophy by complicating the correlational quality of thought objects.[iii] Meillassoux’s formulation of the problem and his proposed solution have enjoyed recent scholarly attention and been hailed as indicative of a turning point in contemporary philosophy; however, it remains true that anti-Kantian energies and the paradox of thought have been expressed before, perhaps most recognizably in Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966), in which the author declares that the “modern cogito does not reduce the whole being of things to thought without ramifying the being of thought right down to the inert network of what does not think” (324). The problem in question, in both Foucault and Meillassoux, is how thinking beings can conceptualize a temporal period prior to the emergence of conceptualizing organisms. The paradox makes itself painfully visible: before the emergence of thinking beings, thoughtlessness was a condition of the world. Therefore, thinking a world of thoughtlessness engenders the paradox of making it into a world conceived by thought.
In Negarestani’s vision, which is only half-fantasy, oil extends this time of thoughtlessness into modernity itself. Oil enables the inconceivable mobilization of the earth, sparking a chain reaction of terrestrial events within which human agents and governments play only passing roles. Despite its prevalence in much of the text’s theoretical posturings, it remains in the background. Likewise, True Detective keeps oil in the background, confined to refineries along the coast, landscape shots and tangential commentary. In McCarthy’s novel, Satin Island, oil occupies newsfeeds, quick snapshots often in background settings even when they grab the narrator’s attention; furthermore, the grand speech that he delivers on oil spills is never actually delivered, it is only imagined. The pattern I develop here should not aim to bring oil into the foreground, to expose it, open it up and deconstruct it chemically – this is precisely what we should avoid. The picture painted here resembles Holbein’s The Ambassadors; our oil is a smudge, a streak, a material presence that eludes our perspective. Should we twist ourselves enough to get a good look at it, we would find that (to our horror) we lose the world.
True Detective demonstrates the impossibility of grasping the pure plane of death, the intractable narrative conditionality of oil, when it takes its viewers to Carcosa.[iv] Little if anything is explained in the mythic and ritualistic depths of this holy of holies, the serial killer’s inner sanctum. As Cohle pursues the killer, we hear whispered beckonings: “Come die with me, little priest”; or, perhaps more tellingly, “You know what they did to me? What I will do to all the sons and daughters of man. You blessed Reggie, Dewall. Acolytes. Witnesses to my journey. Lovers. I am not ashamed” (Pizzolatto). While the history of the killer remains largely shrouded in mystery, the real-life location of Carcosa does not: it was filmed in Fort Macomb, “a 19th-century brick fortress that once guarded the waters of Chef Menteur Pass in New Orleans” (“Real Location,” Slate). In more recent decades, the fort succumbed to the natural forces of hurricanes and the gradual weakening of its stone structure – in short, to the slow but consistent creep and clatter of the earth. It is a place of abandonment, the relinquishing of manmade structures to the shifts of the earth, and of contribution to the expanding layers of the Anthropocene. It has fallen victim, to borrow from McCarthy, to the source-code of matter.
Following this sense of a code, True Detective’s attention to the creep of matter recalls Cyclonopedia’s numerological explanation of terrestrial energy. Negarestani’s text speaks of “feedback spirals,” abstract machines that regulate and organize the interaction of Trisons: alliances of numerological code (Negarestani 244). These feedback spirals influence governmental invasions and radical insurgencies by combining Trisons in specific patterns, thus having large-scale impacts on broad political alliances and maneuvers; at this point, the text claims, politics morphs into “polytics,” or political organization that is enabled by the shaping forces of the hard, cold, nonhuman earth itself. I do not wish to dwell on these terms or definitions, since they are unrelentingly vague and highly speculative. However, I do want to focus on Negarestani’s proposed shape of this dynamic interaction between Trisons, an interaction that informs the text’s title. Such machinations materialize, he claims, as cyclones: “In feedback spirals, all these pragmatic orientations are simultaneously mobilized to produce a type of polar rotation or degree of differentiation necessary for the construction of a vortex” (35). The defining figure of material relations, the organizational complicity of which Negarestani writes, appears as a cyclone; and Cyclonopedia functions as a purported (if failed) taxonomy of elements related to the cyclone. In other words, the entire network of Negarestani’s dark model appears as a destructive phenomenon of material force and climatological energy.
The connection between oil and cyclones emerges as one of strata, or layers; over time, as the surface of the earth is battered and worn by cyclones, the waste and death left behind, that which is covered by the detritus of ages, comprises the thick darkness that expands beneath. Oil, as McCarthy suggests, is the archives of terrestrial history – a history of death, of dark ritual murder, of the inconceivable drive of matter itself. The compulsion to kill, ritualized and aestheticized in Carcosa, echoes the compulsion to die, recorded in the fossils and organic substances of epochs past (just as the killer’s lair is housed within an abandoned and decaying structure). The altar in the center of Carcosa, the idol of the Yellow King, presents a secret of matter that does not want to know itself because to truly know itself would be to no longer know anything – to be that which does not know. Dead matter.
Immediately prior to Cohle’s harrowing confrontation with the killer, he witnesses a vision that seems to hang in the air in the midst of Carcosa’s holy of holies. The vision recalls previous episodes and invocations of time “as a flat circle,” and the ominous description of Carcosa as “he who eats time” (Pizzolatto). The line conjures specters of Lovecraft and other supernatural entities, but it also refers to something far more banal and yet excessively horrifying: the ooze of death itself, its material remainder, oil. It is thus only fitting that when Cohle experiences this vision in the final episode, it appears to him not as a formless chaos, the very substance of death itself. It appears, rather, in the shape of organization that Negarestani invokes for his impossible taxonomical project. That is, the communicating passage to the space of death – to the dark heart of Carcosa, he who eats time, the Outside – appears in a vortical fashion, as a cyclone.
It is also the shape, we must recall, of hurricanes.
Brassier, Ray. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Chomsky, Noam. Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.
DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. New York: Scribner, 2010.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Marshall, Kate. “Cyclonopedia as Novel (a meditation on complicity as inauthenticity).” Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium. Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2012.
McCarthy, Tom. Satin Island. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: an Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Trans. Ray Brassier. London: Continuum, 2008.
Morton, Ella. “The Real Location of True Detective’s Carcosa.” Slate. The Slate Group. 11 March 2014.
Negarestani, Reza. Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Melbourne: re.press, 2008.
Pizzolatto, Nic. True Detective. HBO. 2014.
Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1. Winchester: Zero Books, 2011.
[i] For more on the Louisiana landscape and its role in True Detective, see Adrian Van Young’s brief but compelling piece in Salon, “Santeria and Voodoo All Mashed Together,” published on March 4, 2014.
[ii] Dark matter also conjures the more cosmic image of dark matter in an astronomical sense. See Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007, 20: “At the end of the day, no matter how confident we are in our observations, our experiments, our data, or our theories, we must go home knowing that 85 percent of all the gravity in the cosmos comes from an unknown, mysterious source that remains completely undetected by all means we have ever devised to observe the universe. As far as we can tell, it’s not made of ordinary stuff such as electrons, protons, and neutrons, or any form of matter or energy that interacts with them. We call this ghostly, offending substance ‘dark matter,’ and it remains among the greatest of all quandaries.”
[iii] For more on this compelling topic, see Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: an Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier, London: Continuum, 2008, 1-27.
[iv] Taken from Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” in which the anonymous narrator wanders through Carcosa only to eventually stumble upon his own gravestone.
[v] Of course, oil drills have a very unique shape that does not resemble the shape of typical, smaller drill bits. However, the spectacular phenomenon of watching a cyclone spiral to the ground eerily recalls the act of drilling into the earth.