Books / Theoria

On Cyclonopedia: Not everything we read is to our liking

Not everything we read is to our liking. These past weeks, I’ve been spending bits of my time wrestling with a mish-mash of Middle Eastern esoterica, Critical Theory, and metaphysical Political Economy called Cyclonopedia: Complicity With Anonymous Materials by one Reza Negarestani.

It begins with an American woman arriving in Istanbul to meet an online friend. The anonymous acquaintance never arrives. What she does find in her hotel is a mysterious manuscript.

Lured by what seemed like a promising frame story, one is instead treated to a lifeless pseudo-theoretical treatise. The contents of this manuscript would become the focus of the rest of the book.

There are indeed some pretty interesting stuff in the attempt to marry ancient occultism and pseudoscientific obscurities to explain the horrors of the present US War on Terror in West Asia. This include some inspiring passages, like “The utilization of power in a decaying system is a necrophilic experience.”

But “horror fiction” or “middle-eastern Odyssey” Cyclonopedia certainly is not as what it is made out to be in the blurbs.

The ancient monsters Cyclonopedia conjures as well as the vision of apocalypse that it fleshes out is certainly horrific. Oil, it is argued, is the single most important current that moves the world forward. A sentient entity that seduces a whole gamut of politico-military forces into protracted war and the eventual desertification of the entire planet.

But the way this is presented, with all the fancy formulas and diagrams, pseudo-academic jargon, practically useless treatises on war strategy, scattered criticisms of Deleuze, and the most lifeless accounts of ancient monsters and myths, leaves much to be desired.

It would also be productive not to forget amidst all the shibolleth the book’s underlying endorsement of war and terror as inherent to West Asia and its reactionary vision of capitalism as the endpoint of history:

Petroleum poisons Capital with absolute madness, a planetary plague bleeding into economies mobilized by the technological singularities of advanced civilizations. In the wake of oil as an autonomous terrestrial conspirator, capitalism is not a human symptom but rather a planetary inevitability. In other words, Capitalism was here even before human existence, waiting for a host.

It is a given that not everything we read is to our liking. The obverse side of this maxim is that we cannot have access to all the ideal writings that we would like to read. ■

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6 thoughts on “On Cyclonopedia: Not everything we read is to our liking

  1. thankfully i guess, after we read things that we do not like to read to begin with, perhaps because of what they are saying, we can flex our interpretive, critical muscles, while at the same time, validating the kind of grip that we have of our current perspectives. and i’d like to believe that if the content of some of the books we read earn our quiet repulses, we’ll be compensated, kahit unti lang, sa delivery na meron sa libro.for instance, “necrophilic experience,” as if to say, deaths are justified.

    • hahaha, the truth is though I dislike the book as a whole I find particular passages quite interesting. In fact, if not for the flaws (from my point of view) mentioned above I would have loved Cyclonopedia.

  2. Nice review.
    But regarding your comment on capitalism, war and terror: did we read the same book? I don’t think for negarestani, capitalism is the endpoint of history. I say this because I have read a bunch of his philosophical texts. He associates capitalism to a certain necrocratic regime of thought that must be overcome. For him, the pursuit of human thought should be a search for an alternative to capitalism or what he calls a modern universalist thought. As for war and terror, the way I read it, cyclonopedia’s alternatives to them are love and openness. In fact the book literally begins and ends with love even though probably an anthropomorphic love. Throughout the book this love is presented as openness. Just as the principle of love is not wholly anthropomorphic, openness should not be limited to instances of “human affordability” either. The examples are of course abundant, the image of sorceress, the picture of girl and the wolf, the relationship between the earth and the sun, wetness and dryness, oil and desert, thought and the outside and so on. War and terror are presented as the symptoms of the inability of humans and systems to embrace a “radical openness” and a radical love. But I agree, the way cyclonopedia approaches war and terror in the Middle East is a bit vague but in my opinion this is purely intentional. Middle East is “cacophony of voices” and it is easy for the message to get lost. Also it looks like the book is committed to include every possible voice even if it is terrible.
    _ “It is a given that not everything we read is to our liking. The obverse side of this maxim is that we cannot have access to all the ideal writings that we would like to read.”
    Absolutely!!

    • It is great to hear from someone who is familiar with Negarestani’s other philosophical writings. Having some background information, more context, is always helpful in gaining a greater understanding of a particular text, in this case Cyclonopedia. I recognize the attempt to associate capitalism with necrophilia, the system as decadent and moribund, but I didn’t see how its overcoming was tackled. Rather, what I found, being unfamiliar with Negarestani’s genealogy, was precisely a celebration of this terrifying regime. Negarestani might be anti-capitalist in some obscure philosophical sense but I didn’t find this kind of sentiment reflected in this particular text. Or perhaps I just don’t find some fancy love or openness, however radical, believable as an alternative to the terrorist regime of global monopoly capital as an exploitative and oppressive mode of production?

  3. Thanks. Strangely, I don’t see such a celebration of capitalism in cyclonopedia. The fictional mythos of the book is actually quite specific about it. Capitalism is associated with solar economy or solar tyranny, a crazed system of excess that forces both accumulation and celebration of excess on the planet. In the context of fiction, the goal is to undermine this omnipresent system and expose its deeply entrenched traces within our everyday life. But this is as you note is a purely fictional scenario, albeit one that needs to be taken into account when reading the book as a work of experimental fiction. In the philosophical context, negarastani, to my knowledge, understands openness as a systematic philosophy of alternatives or openings. In order for us to think an alternative to capitalism, first we have to develop a systematic thought or logic of the alternative. We need to rationally and universally understand what an alternative is, how it works and how to distinguish it from reactionary instances of thought such as religious fundamentalism and capitalism. As far as I know, this is the idea of openness reza negarestani discusses in the philosophical context.

    • I appreciate your patience in explaining some of Negarestani’s concepts, which are all new to me. Indeed, I must retract that statement on the book celebrating the capitalist orgy of terror and destruction. What the book does is chronicle the ruling order’s celebration of such an excess. But still, retracing my steps a bit, I still believe the overemphasis on this horrific side of the coin in Cyclonopedia overwhelms what little voices for alternatives that may have been presented in the book or expounded by Negarestani on other texts or occasions.

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