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) .
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.