I once attended an academic conference where a member of the audience repeated a criticism made by the author of a rather successful book. In response to this criticism, the paper-giver smiled and began his response by saying “While I think that professor X should be praised for producing such an accessible work on the subject…” before going on to explain at great length why it was that he thought that professor X was both wrong and a grotesquely ugly freak. Though I cannot remember the subject of the paper, or the criticism made of its position, or the response given to said criticism, I can still remember the audible intake of breath and the appreciative tittering from the audience when the speaker applied the word ‘accessible’ to the work of another academic. The dynamics of this withering intellectual put-down are easy enough to unpack: if a work is accessible then it means that it is written with a non-specialist audience in mind and if a work is intended to be consumed by people who are new to the subject then it cannot hope to break new-ground. However, if the aesthetics of accessibility are ‘wrong’ then what are the right aesthetics?
In 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal revealed to the world that he had had a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” published by the postmodern cultural studies journal The Social Text. This paper was nothing more than a series of meaningless run-on sentences presented in the sort of awkward, inaccessible, jargon-rich prose style favoured by many postmodern theorists. Sokal’s revelation sent shock waves through those sections of the media and the academy that love a good intellectual scrap and the hoax continues to form one of the cornerstones of a broadly dismissive attitude towards Theory adopted by many scientists and academics resistant to the influence of continental philosophy upon the humanities. Indeed, the recently deceased philosopher Denis Dutton made a name for himself by running a popular contest ridiculing examples of impenetrable academic prose with the unstated rejoinder that if ‘we’ cannot understand what the likes of Fredric Jameson and Judith Butler are on about then the chances are that they can’t either.
While there are many implications that can be teased from Sokal & co.’s push-back against the encroachment of Theory ranging from the charitable (the editors of The Social Text simply did not do their jobs properly) to the uncharitable (Theory is nothing more than a means for academics to remain in high-status employment without ever having to generate real insights into the world) but the implication I would like to address here is the question of relativism.
The strong programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge studies the construction, adoption and abandonment of scientific hypotheses without reference to the ultimate truth or falsity of these theories. Through the study of abandoned theories such as phrenology, strong sociologists including David Bloor and Harry Collins have argued that the construction of scientific truth can be accounted for in purely social terms by looking at the dynamics of the scientific community and how it reacts to various kinds of evidence claim. In other words, the strong programme’s operational assumption is that truth has no bearing on whether or not a scientific theory is deemed to be true. In the book he wrote with Jean Bricmont entitled Intellectual Impostures (1998), Sokal argued that the strong programme’s attempt to account for scientific truth in terms of the adoption of a theory by a particular community is utterly at odds with what most people think of when they speak of something being true:
Any philosophy of science – or methodology for sociologist – that is so blatantly wrong when applied to the epistemology of everyday life must be severely flawed to its core. – Pp. 92
Obviously, adherents to the strong programme have rejected Sokal and Bricmont’s characterisation of their position as a form of epistemological relativism so extreme as to be indistinguishable from radical scepticism and have responded that their relativism is purely methodological in nature and that truth is simply bracketed for the purpose of discovering how a theory comes to be seen as true. However, might we not turn the table on the Theorists and adopt a similarly sceptical attitude as regarding their truth claims? What if the likes of Dutton and Sokal are right in suggesting that, as rigorous and internally consistent as Theory may be, it does not need to correspond to the world in order for it to be taken seriously? If we accept this as a working assumption then it is possible to press Sokal’s critique even further, this is what I believe Reza Negarestani has tried to do with Cyclonopedia.
Cyclonopedia is a multi-disciplinary work of scholarship that draws on archaeology, history, linguistics, mathematics, geology, political science and continental philosophy to construct a Theory of middle-eastern politics that suggests that Mesopotamia is a sentient entity that uses various occult agents to act upon human affairs in order to further the spread of desert over the face of the planet a.k.a. “the dry-singularity”. From dead alien gods to the War on Terror via rogue special forces units and ancient demon cults, Negarestani embeds a warren of brilliant genre ideas in precisely the sort of impenetrable Theoretical jargon that so-incensed Sokal over a decade ago; the text is littered with undefined neologisms, un-translated ancient dead languages and figures that promise to clarify Theoretical points only to plunge them further and further into the murk. This is a book positively over-flowing with erudite madness:
X. Infernotron, or simply the US pyrodemonism with tentacles spreading through both thematic theism – the cleansing tide of the cathartic fire (the Greco-Latin theme chained to Aryanistic purity) – and the mess-engineering process of incomplete burning associated with Zippo Jobs in the Vietnam War and the NAPALM-obsession of the US war machine: ‘I’ll go to hell with a can of gasoline in my hand’ (Colonel West). – Pp. 28
The hyper-Theoretical gibberish that Negarastani writes so fluently contains enough genuinely compelling ideas to encourage you to read more and his appropriation of concepts and stylistic tics from thinkers such as Deleuze and Guattari gives his bizarre ideas the unmistakable aroma of academic credibility for all that they seem unhinged the further they are dragged into the searing light of day. However, while it would be easy enough to present Negarestani’s book and the positive response it received at the hands of many philosophically inclined Theorists as a hoax in the tradition of Sokal, Negarastani moves the hoax forward by further blurring the line between Theory, truth and nonsense.
Cyclonopedia is presented as a pair of nested found documents. The first layer is that of a manuscript uncovered in a hotel room by an editor lured to Turkey by a mysterious online correspondent known only by an unpronounceable snake-like symbol. The manuscript uncovered by the editor is itself the product of a reaction by a group of Theorists to a manuscript purportedly written by a famously radical Iranian academic prior to his disappearance. This nested structure (itself blurred by a series of footnotes that make it impossible to tell where the original material ends and the different reactions to it begin) harkens back not only to Soren Kierkegaard’s fondness for presenting his works as found and pseudonymous documents but also to techniques used by such historical fiction and genre writers as Alexandre Dumas, Mary Gentle and Caitlin R. Kiernan to blur the lines between historical reality and the fictional realities they seek to describe. Cyclonopedia’s use of multiple framing devices seems to suggest that it is intended as a work of fiction but as a work that far more closely resembles a work of academic theory than a traditional narrative, what are we to make of its ‘truth’? Does Negarastani literally believe that the Middle East is alive? Is it some metaphor intended to broaden our understanding? Is it a hoax intended to deceive? Is it a joke intended to amuse? Answers, such as they are seem to lie in the book’s most obvious genre debt.
All throughout Cyclonopedia, Negarastani refers to the cthuloid entities created by the horror author H.P. Lovecraft. Indeed, in the bizarre glossary at the back of the book, Negarastani defined the ‘()hole complex’ as something that “reinvents the Earth as a machine to speed the return of the Old Ones” before going on to define ‘Cthuloid Ethics’ as:
A polytical ethics necessary for replacing or undermining planetary politico-economical and religious systems. Cthuloid ethics is essential for accelerating the emergence and encounter with the radical Outside. Cthuloid ethics can be characterized by the question ‘what happens next?’ when it is posed by the other side or the radical outsider rather than the human and its faculties. – Pp. 238
On the one hand, this makes perfect sense as a piece of jargon designed to help discussion of the plans that the Old Ones might have for their return to Earth but, on the other hand, what the fuck is it doing in a work of Theory about the politics of oil and the middle east?
One of the more common plot devices to feature in the works of Lovecraft is an explosive confrontation between the world-as-humans-understand-it and the world-as-it-really-is (i.e. how it is understood by the Cthuloid entities and their various agents). This confrontation generally involves some white middle-class academic having his world shaken to the core by the realisation that some books of ancient lore and the ravings of some natives actually contain a good deal more truth than the myths concocted by him and members of his intellectual community. The Ur-text for Lovecraft’s intellectual inversion is the fictional grimoire known as the Necronomicon. Said to have been written by a “half-crazed Arab” by the name of Alhazred, the Necronomicon is known to contain fragments of poetry but its exact contents are never revealed despite the book featuring in the works of a number of different authors and having spawned a number of fake real-world imitations. Part of what makes the Necronomicon such a fascinating literary artefact are the ways in which Lovecraft and other authors use it to play with our attitudes towards the truth or falsity of what is contained in books. Indeed, on the one hand, we might be tempted to think that the Necronomicon and its content are true because:
- It has survived for hundreds of years in a way that many period manuscripts have not.
- It has been repeatedly translated by well-known scholars such as the Elizabethan magus John Dee.
- It appears in the work of a number of different authors.
- It has spawned numerous real-world imitations.
- It is not only described as containing truths but people have killed to obtain these truths.
Taken together, these different elements suggest that a) the Necronomicon might very well be real and b) that we should take its contents seriously as they may include some previously overlooked truths about the world. However, on the other hand, we might be justified in not only dismissing the Necronomicon as a fictional book but also as a book that could not possibly contain any elements of truth because:
- Lovecraft and other authors have always been quite open about the fictional character of the Necronomicon.
- There are no known authentic copies of the book.
- It was written by a mad man.
- It contains fragments of poetry.
- Ancient grimoires tend to include nothing even remotely close to a proper truth about the world.
Cyclonopedia plays similar games with our attitudes towards books but blurs the lines between fiction and reality using a far more up-to-date set of conceptual tools. Indeed, one might want to dismiss the book as a work of fiction because:
- It talks about alien gods.
- It refers to and cites works of fiction in its discussions of the world.
- It presents itself as a found document and works that present themselves as found documents tend to be fictitious.
- It is written in a style that is inaccessible to the point of being indecipherable if not actually incoherent.
But, on the other hand, we might be tempted to read Cyclonopedia as a serious work of political Theory because:
- Its ideas are original and evocative.
- Its engagement with those ideas that are familiar to us are intelligent and competent enough to create a halo effect whereby the other aspects of the book might be taken seriously.
- Many works of Theory walk a similarly fine line between poetical non-fiction and serious analysis.
- Its theories do help us ‘understand’ the politics of the Middle East even if they are, strictly speaking, entirely made up.
Negarestani’s blurring of the line between creative non-fiction and academic text as well as his frequent references not only to Lovecraft but to Lovecraft’s own ontological line-blurring techniques suggests that Cyclonopedia should be read not as a work of straight theory but as a sort of work of art that presents Theory as being intellectually equivalent to the rigorous metaphysical falsehoods of medieval theologians, the epicyclical maximalism of modern-day astrologers and the ravings of a fictional mad Arab. Indeed, what is the exiled Persian academic Parsani if not a 21st Century fellow traveller for Lovecraft’s 8th Century mad Arab Alhazred?
Cyclonopedia’s rogue academics and editors are not only part of a 21st Century version of Lovecraft’s academics and antiquarians, they are also part of a fascinating critique of changing standards in academic discourse. Indeed, part of what drives Lovecraft’s characters insane is the realisation that not only the falsity of everything their believed to be true but also the truth of many things they assumed to be false. Their insanity is the product of their emotional and philosophical investment in the existence of a hard line between truth and falsity. However, from the likes of Foucault onwards, postmodern Theorists have sought to undermine this belief by stressing the social construction of our received truths. As a result, were a modern academic to feature in a story by Lovecraft it is unlikely that he would be plunged into madness by the realisation that science is false and the ravings of mad Arabs are true… Theory takes a far more flexible approach to the distinction between truth and falsity. However, while Sokal complained that postmodernism has resulted in academics being unable to tell the difference between truth and nonsense, Negarestani takes a more nuanced approach. Cyclonopedia and the warm response accorded it by many academics suggests that a text not only need not be true in order to be taken seriously, it can actually go out of its way to be false and still have Theoretical value.
Negarestani can be taken as a rejoinder to the Sokal affair as Cyclonopedia is nothing short of the realisation of Sokal’s worst nightmares: It embodies an academic culture where impenetrability, the playful use of data from other disciplines and indifference to objective truth are not hidden secrets but standard operating procedure. However, what is even more enjoyable about this book as a piece of guerrilla methodology is that Negarestani is not chiding the cultural studies for its wayward values… he is positively celebrating them. Cyclonopedia presents Theory as a form of artistic creation where words and images combine in obscure and unexpected manners in order to produce works of obscure but terrifying beauty. Cyclonopedia exposes the dark heart of academic culture but, far from dying in the grips of existential despair, Negarestani’s Kurtz is living the dream with a huge grin on his face.