Despotic Ophidiophobia

Feathered Serpent and Flowering Trees Mural, Teotihuacan (A.D. 1–750), De Young Museum, San Francisco.

The following is an overrun footnote that had to get expelled from my dissertation-in-progress. Here in exile, may it rest in peace.


Gilles Deleuze once distinguished the late twentieth century societies of control from disciplinary societies that reached their height almost one hundred years earlier. The latter initiated “the organization of vast spaces of enclosure… Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point” (Deleuze 1992: 3-4).

The “continuous change,” “self-modulation” and “transmutation” are crucial points for outlining the relationship of Iran’s economic order at large to the planetary apparatus of capital since the late 1980s. The neoliberal logic of capitalism, only principally speaking, does not require all the walls to come down. Adaptation, as a mode of conduct, is coded into its coils. Ahmadinejad’s fanaticism, therefore, can be understood as a phobic reaction, a hysteria, in the face of the consistently shapeshifting and “complex coils of this serpent,” as Deleuze called it. Ahmadinejad’s administration, in this sense, was ophidiophobic, to stay with the analogy. We can take a detour here and briefly discuss how ophidiophobia resonates with the issue of survival and thus goes beyond the tradition of modern pathologies.

Snakes originate in the Cretaceous period from around one hundred million years ago. Descending from the now extinct amphibians of the Class Reptilia, their limbs grew shorter and shorter over thousands of millennia, enabling them to overcome the difficulties of life underground — a certain flexibility without which many other reptilians could not and did not survive. This makes snakes the oldest species alive today, meaning that their origins of life precede that of many more recently developed mammals, who had to advance a perceptive ability to focus on environmental threats in order to survive and to follow the path down the line of evolution. Hence a fear of snakes and serpents, and of spiders for that matter, which have been among the most longstanding threats coexisting with the mammalian ancestry.

These extra-pathological aspects of the ecobiological deep time are reflected in certain productions of popular culture in the modern era, including the reptilian humanoids and the Serpent Men, a fictional race created by Robert Howard in the 1920s, which fuel many more contemporary conspiracy theories about the mainstream politicians and their ties with secret cults who can adopt anthropomorphic appearances, manipulate human societies, and roughly speaking, have control over all global affairs.

The allegory of the serpent suggested by Deleuze as the image of late capitalism, its networked disposition and the accompanying logic of control reflects a sense of triumphant survivalism that relies on a particular anatomy or architecture, that of the flexible, shape-shifting coils that spread across and stretch into and out of dimensions that challenge the validity of an anthropic principle in the face of technocommericial forces of global capital. Hence a reflection, too, of the overarching agency of capital and its nearly unmappable, untrackable reach, of how an inexplicable system operates beyond the aims, intentions and agencies of humans and, as Mark Fisher put it, how seemingly “conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity” (Fisher 2016: 11).

Taking these allegorical attributes seriously, Reza Negarestani suggests the figurative substance of oil to replace the serpent, which therefore eschews the immediately racist connotations of how reptilian survivalism has been reflected in the white racial frames of the Western culture. Capital’s survival is registered by the oil and its “petropolitical undercurrents.” Put differently, capital’s enduring life, lubricated by oil and consummated in the emergence of “war-as-a-machine,” occupies an agency and a timeframe beyond that of humans:

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 (Negarestani 2009: 27; emphasis added).