Cyclonopedia and Non Linear History

I’ve been thinking more and more about how to write something on the archaeology of climate and at the same time putting the final touches on a paper on the archaeology of oil production and a seminar that looks to discuss Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008) .

I’ve posted some fragments of this article herehere, and here.

This work got me thinking about the concept of supermodernity and how crushing weight of the supermodern present disrupts our relationship to the past. Any number of recent scholars have argued that the hyperabundance of the present has a tendency to overwhelm evidence for earlier periods and reduce our understanding and awareness of them to rounding errors and fragments. This line of reasoning preserves an echo of the old Enlightenment view that our evidence for the ancient world is so incomplete (compared the evidence for the 18th and 19th century “present”), that there’s very little hope reconstructing any meaningful or accurate sense of that era.  

The crushing weight of the present likewise has a tendency to compress time and disrupt the flow of the past into the future. Works like the Cyclonopedia hint at the impact of this compressed time on our perception of antiquity and experience of the modern world. In this chaotic example of speculative and philosophical fiction, the ancient past of Mesopotamia courses through the modern through the media of oil, dust, and nomads. The mystical ramblings of a renegade American special forces officer rubs shoulders with ancient deities bent on war and destruction and fueled by “hydrocarbon corpse juice” which flows from the Middle East via pipelines. The spiraling mess that is the Cyclonopedia makes it impossible to imagine any form of linear history or even causality in how we understand geopolitics and industrialization. In fact, Negarestani intentionally inverts the narrative that proposes industrialization and modernity created oil and violence on a global scale. Instead, the  power of oil is a primordial attraction and the recent eruptions of violence in the Near East have roots in the deep past that bubbles up through the present. 

The Cyclonopedia is a challenging texts so suffused in symbolism, visions, analysis, and narratives interruptions that it doesn’t model an especially useful way of thinking about the past. But in this mess of a work, there is a counter-modernity that resists the trajectories that have come to dominate the present. For example, it challenges the view, quite explicitly, that oil has somehow stunted the development of the Middle East by pushing it from premodern to postmodern without negotiating industrialization and the democratizing economic transformations associated with that trend. This view of development, of course, is not a real thing and serves merely as a justification for colonialism. But it does demonstrates how certain linear or developmental views of the past impair our ability to recognize different future (and even different presents).   

As I’ve started working on piecing together a fragmentary paper on the Bakken, Babylon, and climate change, I’m thinking more and more about how late modernity disrupts space and time. It seems like our inability to understand a future shaped by climate change has less to do with the absence of scientific data or even flaws in how scientists and policy makers have communicated that data and more to do with a reluctance to see the linear narrative of progress as inadequate for describing our present and future. A future shaped by climate change, for example, suggests the kind of catastrophe best associated with ancient states whose collapse created the opportunities for new beginnings. In this case, however, the event horizon of catastrophic social, political, and economic collapse prevents us from appropriating the future into our existing narratives. The apocalypse is foreclosed for all but science fiction writers, doomsday philosophers, and survivalists.

Without an acceptable and reliable guide to the future, we’ve doubled down on the present as the antidote for the past that exists primary as the prequel for our own catastrophism. Instead of a foundation for new ways of life or paths not taken, the past mostly lingers as a cautionary tale that subverts the potential of the present by offering a refuge for a kind of regressive (and repressive) nostalgia or is simply irrelevant beyond the specter of rising levels of atmospheric carbon, sea levels, and temperatures. Linear history can make the causal connection between industrialization and its promises of democracy, economic prosperity, and social equality and climate change, but for most, the details are irrelevant because, unlike the present proposed by Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, the modern present shaped by rationality, science, and capitalism, must provide solutions to the contemporary situation that reverse the conditions created in past. 

Writing about Pompeii in the Age of Catastrophe

The last couple weeks have been a real struggle for me personally and professionally. I’ve been sort of drifting through my days in a post-COVID fog and have found it incredibly difficult to focus enough to write anything longer than a few sentences. This is particularly intense in the afternoons when I start to fatigue. I remain optimistic that this will pass eventually, but it has led me to shift some of my limited attention from longer and more concentration intensive work like revising book chapters to shorter work. In an effort to make a virtue out of a necessity, I prepared this short response to a pair of poems published in Shawn Graham’s Epoiesen last year. I wrote a rough draft of it last week, but after some reflection on Mark Bould’s recent book, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (Verso 2021) and an assist from Sarah Bond on Twitter, I was able to expand my short post into something a bit more substantive. Shawn has graciously accepted my response and I look forward to it appearing over at Epoiesen later this year. 

Here’s what I have to say:

Pompeii has an enduring place in our modern cultural imagination. Excavations at the site, and their often grisly discoveries, have come to stand in for any number of modern situations from the intimate pain of personal heartbreak to horrors of the Shoah, industrialization, and the looming climate catastrophe. I’d like to propose Mary K. Lindberg’s poems on Pompeii continue in this tradition.

The release of Cate Le Bon’s latest album titled Pompeii coincided with my reading of Lindberg’s poems and spurred my reflection. Le Bon’s album while refined, cohesive, and thoughtful, is not a concept album, and it doesn’t seem to connect with the site beyond including a song of the same title. In this song, however, Le Bon evokes a longstanding trope associated with Pompeii through a swirl of reverberating synths:

Get dressed
You’re a mess
You’re a sight Did you dream about Pompeii?
Your eyes always give it away
Cities built on monumental rage
Getting lost in the seminar…

The idea of dreaming about Pompeii invokes Sigmund Freud’s well-known treatise, Delusion and Dream: an Interpretation in the Light of Psychoanalysis of Gravida (1907) which interrogates Wilhelm Jensen’s novel Gravida (1903) through the lens of psychoanalysis. The main character in Jensen’s novel, Harold, an archaeologists, fell in love with an ancient relief carving which he calls Gravida. After a dream about the destruction of Pompeii and Gravida’s demise, he traveled to the site and while there, he saw a woman who looks like Gravida, but was alive and well. The woman was, in fact, Zoë Bertgang, a former neighbor of Harold’s on whom he had a childhood crush. Freud in his treatise, Delusion and Dream, excavated Harold’s dream of Gravida and argued that it was, in fact, a manifestation of his sublimated love for his former neighbor who he just happened to encounter in Pompeii. Thus, Harold’s passion for the Gravida relief and archaeology as a discipline was an expression of his repressed passion for this woman. Zoë understood this and cured Harold by at times imitating Gravida and at other times gently directing Harold’s attention from his fantasy to reality. Freud’s work both revealed his longstanding interest in excavation as a metaphor for bringing the complex working of the unconscious mind to light and demonstrated the utility of his psychoanalytical methods for considering works of literature.

It is hard to escape this long Freudian shadow when reading Mary K. Lindberg’s first poem, “Book Lover.” The narrator in the poem is a freedman, Aristo, who survives the first shocks of Vesuvius’s eruption, but dies in the pyroclastic flow the next day. He was a librarian whose love for books surpassed that for even his family(or perhaps the family of his former master who also perished in the eruption. He was found by excavators still clutching his keys to the library. In another poem, “The House of the Deer,” a wealthy Roman family hoped to escape Vesuvius’s eruption by seeking shelter in the boathouses by the sea. As they fled they grabbed jewelry and coins, but in the end, even with their worldly goods, they died among the fishy nets of boats. Like Harold’s desire for the sculpted Gravida, the characters in Lindberg’s poems appear to displace their desire for family, safety, and home onto material things even as Pompeii crumbled around them. In both poems, Lindberg includes figures rushing about with pillows tied to their heads as if begging the reader to reflect on our dreamtime displacements. These desperate figures seem to embody our own pillow-headed efforts to capture our dreams as they flee the probing fingers of our conscious mind and solidifies the dream-like quality of the poems which capture individuals at the moment of crisis.

Reading these poems and listening to Cate Le Bon’s oneiric voice ask “Did you dream about Pompeii?” begged me to consider how “cities built on monumental rage” had became “lost in the seminar.” Primo Levi’s haunting poem “The Girl-Child of Pompeii” (1978 [1984 in Italian and 1992 in English]) offered a depressing clue. The poem juxtaposes the plaster cast of a child who died in the eruption of Vesuvius while clutching her mother with Anne Frank and the famous Hiroshima blast shadow of the girl jumping rope. This poem was brought to my attention by Joanna Paul’s chapter in Pompeii in the Public Imagination ((2011) edited by Paul and Shelley Halles). Pompeii’s monumental rage has made it a timeless vessel for the past horrors of the Holocaust and the looming anxiety of the nuclear age: “Since everyone’s anguish is our own | We live ours over again…” Cities built on rage reverberate across the centuries suffusing the seminar with displaced anxieties.

The anguished dreams of Le Bon, Lindberg, and Levi jarred me. I’ve never been to Pompeii, but I nevertheless feel like the city looms over our contemporary world in a million cautionary tales. Perhaps Malcolm Lowry’s short story, “Present Estate of Pompeii,” published in the Partisan Review in 1959 offers a perspective on Pompeii’s appropriate to our present time. In the story, Roderick MacGregor Fairhaven and his wife travel to Pompeii by train where she insistently takes her husband on a tour of the site. Roderick is distracted and finds the site’s “tragic because almost successful — effort at permenance.” And, in keeping with the Pompeii’s status as a place of displaced dreams, Roderick noted that “it looked sometimes as though the Romans here had made all their dreams come true in terms of convenience, wicked and good alike.” Pompeii was an ancient city reshaped by modern priorities.

The dream transported Roderick back to his home in British Columbia where his cabin stood across the bay from an oil refinery. As the Italian tour guide escorted him and his wife around Pompeii, Roderick recalled the violent explosion of oil tanker Salinas as it unloaded its cargo at the refinery. Mark Bould in his new book, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (2021) argues that most contemporary fiction manifests our displaced anxieties about climate change. Lowry’s story appears to anticipate this. The ancient and ruined convenience of Pompeii collided with the mechanism of convenience in the contemporary age as the flames from the burning ship subsided and the ship itself slipped away sparing the refinery an even greater calamity. The dead sun of Lindberg’s Pompeii and Lowry’s sun “as the fiery hub to a gigantic black-disked wheel tired by a rainbow” of spilled oil traced the calamity’s global proportions. The ruins of Pompeii were the ruins of the refinery and the ruins of convenience, wealth, and arrogance. Pompeii, whatever else it was, can, or could be reminded Roderick that “Man had become a raven staring at a ruined heronry. Well, let him deduce his own ravenhood from it if he could.”

As the specter of the global climate change looms over contemporary society, the site of Pompeii takes on new meaning for contemporary writers and readers. It is impossible to escape the tragic futility of convenience, wealth, and “the countless words of thinkers who tried to understand human nature” in the face of horrible power of nature. The best we can do is displace it onto powerless, if not uncooperative sites like Pompeii. Restoring Pompeii reveals a city saturated with Levi’s recurrent anguish, Le Bon’s rage, Lowry’s ravens at the heronry, and Lindberg’s imperceptible move from the end of life to the beginning of death. Pompeii always reminds us of the final and inescapable end.

As Lowry’s Roderick departed the city he abruptly asked the question that perhaps haunts anyone who thinks about Pompeii for more than a moment: “What it amounted to was a feeling that there was not going to be time. Did you want to harrow yourself looking at what had been only temporarily spared, at what was finally doomed? And Roderick could not help but wonder whether man too was not beginning to stand, in some profound inexplicable scene, fundamentally in some such imperfect or dislocated relation to his environment as he.”