“What Was Gulf Futurism”

Excerpts from my contribution to Ahmad Makia’s artist edition ZIGG: Superficial, November 2018.


[To Ahmad] Your remarks made me think of, once again, the necessity to question existing vocabularies and reinvent their future anteriority, realizing their functioning as hyperstitional entities, bringing about new normals, indeed. However, we often and mostly cannot but stay with existing vocabularies and familiar tropes and try to reinvent them from within. A new terminology is in fact a non-neologism or a heretical transvaluation, only appearing after the fact. So, while questioning the nature of facticity, we need to engage with unprecedented facts that can reiterate and reinforce past neologisms anew, or fulfill their future-oriented inherence. In the words of Kodwo Eshun, in his Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture at Goldsmiths in 2017, this is to retro-currently join the thread of those (non-)neologisms that

“are actually forms of life… The names of and for aesthetico-political positions that operate by disagreements and differentiations, that make claims that must be argued. Each of these is not so much a term as a war of and over interpretation, a stance that aims to intervene in cultural politics, that fashions itself to articulate discontent, to focus despair and depression into theories to live by, theories that are embodied, theories that live in us, and through us, and with us, and on us.”

Recently, at the launch session of Ethnofuturismen at Volksbuhne in Berlin, I addressed such “forms of life” through the notions of “temporal climates” and the “chronosphere.” 

Each temporal climate has its prevailing time patterns, which constantly influence and are influenced by other climatic times, their histories as well as the velocity and frequency of the course of their events. To follow the routes of transformation that tie various temporal climates together is to move along their exponential divergence from initial conditions, that is, from supposedly localized situations to planetary scales, while remaining enmeshed within a mutating earth system whose transformation can be neither attributed to a single cause nor a single set of effects. This, of course, requires us to challenge the constructed linearity of historical causation to begin with, as well as the unilateral and progressive movement of time, and question the geometrical politics of such and similar abstract models in relation to the realities of our times and times to come. Moreover, “timelines” and their associated epistemologies need to be stretched sideways, letting the “planes of temporality” and “layers of time” unfold and spread out, in order for us to be able to come into terms with how little we know of our historical horizons, soon enough before they get totally closed on us, and raise our collective sensitivity toward the complex chronometries of life and labor across life forms.

“Advection” is the term used in meteorology to explain the transfer of heat or matter by the flow of a fluid, especially horizontally in the atmosphere or the sea. To couple this term with the formulation of “temporal climates” is in fact to arrive at another familiar trope, the butterfly effect, which emerged from within hard sciences and has since appeared in fields as far as extreme fiction, as well as late capitalist spoken language, given how chaotic we routinely feel the world has gone.

What I tried to address in terms of ethnofuturisms are phenomena that exist and exert their force in the manner of a butterfly effect across what, again, could only suggestively be called the “chronosphere.” This is to suggest the very complex materiality as well as the planetary expanse of temporal resources, similar to what is at stake in the currently critical condition of other terrestrial resources as well as fluid and atmospheric elements. All this demands to be collectively addressed, as that which we all have something at stake in. In addition to the aggravation of climatic and environmental conditions worldwide, and to hint back at my  there’s also the “AirSpace”, according to a 2016 article on the popular media outlet The Verge, which stands for how the spaces we pass through and occupy internationally are increasingly becoming the standardized product of corporate tech firms –– the “same old same old” of Starbucks, Airbnb, and so forth… “This new geography is the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live or co-work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere we go.” AirSpace is, therefore, an instantiation of the “infrastructure space” of 21st-century life. Accordingly, there could be the notions of AirTime and Infrastructure Time… Is there any moment we can find ourselves off the “airtime” of contemporaneity across our social-mediatized lives? Following the environmental and political crises of recent times, what would be the viable modes of engagement with today’s shared time-crisis? If the distinction between public and private spaces has been de facto “undone” by the machinations of an infrastructure space, then what are the temporal connotations of this undoing? How could we begin addressing our “public time” today?

The hyperstitional artifact of the “chronosphere,” or infrastructure time, or AirTime, is designed to address the realm through which temporal advection is regulated, that is, the horizontal transfer of the “heat or matter” of time, in all its fluidity, across our planetary history.

So let’s rephrase and repeat in order for a definition to emerge: Ethnofuturisms are those phenomena, traditions, movements, and practices that tend to address the latent coordinates of shared time patterns and temporal paracommons by means of facilitating and intensifying, technically accelerating, butterfly effects across the planetary chronosphere.

Notes From the Attic

Displaying the Material History of the CIA


Published in Cabinet 65, Fall 2017 – Winter 2018.


“No single man makes history. History cannot be seen, just as one cannot see grass growing.” The CIA’s online Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room quotes Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. The room features ninety-nine declassified documents, disclosed in 2014, that describe the agency’s covert program to facilitate the first publication, in 1958, of the novel in its original Russian. These documents appear on the website alongside millions of additional pages of material that will appeal to history buffs and UFO buffs alike.

Doctor Zhivago only appeared in Russian after English, French, Italian, and German translations had already earned it international esteem. The original, legendary samizdat has since been the object of intense study. But it was only in 2009 that journalist and broadcaster Ivan Tolstoy made allegations that the CIA had used the novel as an instrument of soft power by enabling Soviet citizens to read it. His book The Laundered Novel: Doctor Zhivago between the KGB and the CIA is crowded with claims and speculations that we know, in hindsight, to be only partially true, such as the suggestion that the agency influenced the Nobel Committee’s decision to award its literature prize to Pasternak, also in 1958.

The Zhivago example would make a perfect plotline for a classic pulp tale about the craft of intelligence, illustrating the shift from the hot, wartime climate of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the early 1940s to the Cold War–era CIA. Procedures for the public disclosure of unreleased government records were instituted as a result of the bloody proxy wars in southeast Asia some two decades later, with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) signed into law in 1966. The statute, which has since gone through numerous amendments and revisions, is still shot through with a comprehensive raft of exemptions. And with Executive Order 13526, issued in 2010, even information that meets the criteria for availability under FOIA can be exempted and reclassified upon reevaluation.

Taking one step back into the CIA’s sitemap, we arrive at the Library, where the earliest posts date back to April 2007, the year conspiracy theorists succeeded in their fifteen-year-long quest to declassify the “family jewels,” described by the agency as “almost 700 pages of responses from CIA employees to a 1973 directive from Director of Central Intelligence James Schlesinger asking them to report activities they thought might be inconsistent with the Agency’s charter.” On the day of their release, the then-director of the CIA, Michael Hayden, wryly stated that “most of it is unflattering, but it is CIA’s history.” Parts of this history had already leaked right onto the front page of The New York Times in 1974 when Seymour Hersh published his article on the “huge” project of domestic espionage against antiwar forces and other dissidents.

Back on the website, another Library subpage leads to the Center for the Study of Intelligence (CSI), a CIA department researching the agency’s very own history, along with methodologies of the intelligence field at large. The department publishes Studies in Intelligence, a peer-reviewed periodical founded in 1955 and containing both classified and unclassified content. Sourcing material for this journal is greatly facilitated by the department’s main mandate: administering the CIA Museum.

Founded in 1972, and occupying three corridors in two buildings at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the museum is not open to the public. Access is granted only to the staff, official visitors, and those occasional reporters who succeed in obtaining security clearance.

Toni Hiley, the museum’s curator for the past fifteen years, directs the “collection, preservation, documentation and exhibition of intelligence artifacts, culture and history”—as well as the Fine Arts Commission program, which has been running since the 1960s—to “bring the agency’s history into life.” The eight hundred exhibits on display range from art works and archival prints to weapons, espionage machinery, insignia, fake film scripts, and even boot hooks belonging to William J. Donovan, the “Father of Central Intelligence” and the founder of the OSS. That is only the tip of the twenty-eight thousand items sealed in this vast collection, drawing on which the museum frequently develops exhibitions, mounted off-site in partnership with other institutions in order to “promote a wider understanding of the craft of intelligence and its role in the American experience,” again according to the website.

More than two hundred of these artifacts are highlighted online, accompanied by concise, often enigmatic and tight-lipped, captions and embedded in a framework of multifarious tags, categories, stories, and dates; some of these items are also linked to the agency’s YouTube channel for a more dynamic follow-up. Branded as a chance to “Experience the Collection” online, the experience is more comparable to an infinite Feed of disclaimers. “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet,” posted @CIA on 6 June 2014, at 10:49 am, shortly after signing up. A catchy and effective PR manoeuver, indeed—and the agency has since been regularly embedding links to an “Artifact of the Week.” Similarly, the official Flickr profile dates back to 2011, and holds an album titled “All CIA Museum Artifacts,” though it contains only 168 images in total.

However, a huge pool of captioned stuff cannot readily amount to a perceptible sense of history. In 2014–2015, CSI published a guide to the CIA Museum and its collection, a companion to all the mediating anecdotes and interactive interfaces. In its preface, A Curator’s Pocket History of the CIA notes: “History can be studied in more than one way. … Museums are where you discover history by studying things, that is, artifacts, in context. … We start with what we have in the collection and use artifacts to reconstruct the history of the Agency. The result is more impressionistic and less linear than other histories.

The Pocket History is apparently the first in a series of publications titled Notes from Our Attic, which “tells the story of the CIA through artifacts illuminating history in a way words cannot alone.” The attic turns out to be a particularly apt space to invoke for such a project. In the mid-1600s, the term began to be used to refer to an element of the classical façade—a low decorative wall right above the main cornice at the top of the entablature. By late eighteenth century, attic came to mean the interior space enclosed by such a structure; only then did the attic, that spooky room right below the roof, come into being. This move from an architectural order related only to the surface of a building to a repurposed, functional space behind the surface seems comparable to certain tropes of clandestine activity, where things are instrumentalized beyond their manifest appearance, as if an unprecedented space has been opened up behind their obvious skin, a space filled up with covert functions. Repurposed things have itchy skins, hence the utility of persistently scratching their surfaces to expose hidden intentions. The Pocket History is a guide to the question of how alternate, covert spaces are produced beneath the surface of ordinary objects when they are repurposed. But it is also a guide to the question of when, to the historical timing of these subterfuges and of their public disclosure. And moreover, it is an apologia for the why, o ften flaunting the logic of the ends justifying the means.

Well chronicled in the Pocket History is how it took only a few decades to go from Secretary of State Henry Stimson shutting down the US Army’s “Cipher Bureau” in the 1920s because it was wrong for “gentlemen” to “read each other’s mail,” to the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Allen Dulles declaring in the 1950s that “when the fate of a nation and the lives of its soldiers are at stake, gentlemen do read each other’s mail.” An image of a vest-pocket paperback copy of the Russian edition of Doctor Zhivago, published during Dulles’s tenure as director, is featured in the Pocket History, with the caption sternly quoting from Tolstoy’s book: “Pasternak’s novel became a tool that was used by the United States to teach the Soviet Union a lesson.” Expressing no direct endorsement or objection in the face of this allegation, the caption ends by simply noting the official declassification of related activities in 2014.

There is much retrofuturistic technology to be discovered here There might be a miniature camera hidden behind a brooch or button, or a bird for that matter. The Pigeon Camera, devised by the Office of Research and Development (ORD), was used during the still-undisclosed “pigeon missions.” It was small and light enough to be carried by the bird, which flies much lower than a satellite or an aircraft, and delivers more detail than other “imagery collection platforms.” Another initiative of the ORD was the Insectothopter, an eavesdropping Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in the shape of a life-sized dragonfly. Robot Fish “Charlie,” on the other hand, was an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) developed by the Office of Advanced Technologies and Programs. Equipped with certain communication and propulsion systems and remotely controlled, such aquatic exploration too was aimed at perceiving more and more terrains of nature as bearers of intelligence.

But the more modest examples also look more cunning. Take the pair of gold cufflinks that DCI Richard Helms presented to case officer George Kisevalter upon his retirement in 1970. Embossed with the Pallas Athena helmet and a small sword, it was one of two identical pairs designed by the Chief of Station Peer de Silva, a graduate of the United States Military Academy, after his alma mater’s “Duty, Honor, Country” crest. The other pair belonged to Pyotr Popov, a major in the Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU), codenamed ATTIC. Stationed in Vienna and then in East Berlin, Popov wore the cufflinks from 1953 to 1959, always looking for the other pair—worn by an assignee allocated by Kisevalter, his handler—in order to confirm a bona fide connection with the CIA.

Categorized as Bodyworn Surveillance Equipment, the dress code for clandestine activity is “inconspicuous.” The artisans, technicians, and engineers working at the Office of Technical Readiness (OTR) make sure that all accessories and clothing are carefully crafted to stay unremarkable, to help an intelligence officer dissolve into the ordinary appearance of a public body. The caption for “The Well Dressed Spy” reads, “Intelligence officers … know that quality and craftsmanship have been ‘built in’ to their appearances.”

Low-tech accessories can also help you avoid contact altogether. “Dead Drops” are containers, either too unimpressive or too repulsive to attract a second glance, left at prearranged locations. Two examples are a tubular spike, easily pushed back into the ground, and a taxidermied rat, with a cavity opened up in its abdomen. Similarly, a couple of things with the organic look of corms, rhizomes, or some other kind of underground stem are titled Seismic Intruder Detector Devices, “designed to blend in with the terrain”—layers of relay sedimented deep into nature by the craft of intelligence.

The Pocket History’s last chapter on “9/11 and After” ends with a double-page image showing the scale model of the Abbottabad Compound, where Usama Bin Ladin was tracked down and killed. This model is an identical double of another kept at the Pentagon, watched in the White House Situation Room while the raid was unfolding. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) not only modeled the compound but made a life-sized mock-up of it too, to better train soldiers for the raid. Soldiers interviewed after the operation in May 2011 said that during the raid, they felt like they had been there before.

The craft of intelligence stands out from the natural order of things only retrospectively, either when blown apart by the disastrous force of an ill-fated operation, or when the prescheduled end of a given time frame is met—or when some simulation is revealed as a precursor to a future assault that has already ended. Nature serves as a camouflage for the silent growth of history. History, in return, alters nature in the fashion of retroactive legislations – to be treated as always having had effect. It amounts to the craft of sending public time spinning in a rearward direction, always looping back to the present from a forced revision of the past, again and again, one declassified thing after another, one raid after another.

A Postcard from Tehran

Published in Spike 57.


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Tehran is not only the capital of Iran, but a microcosm of it in many respects. So it’s fair to say that the tension between public and private spaces generates the main spatial drama in Tehran. The codes of behavior can dramatically change when moving from one space to another, and there’s a whole range of often conflicting gestures that a single body should embrace through its daily movements. That’s why preferred publics might be more easily assembled in private –– a party is most often a house party. But sometimes this can make it difficult to determine which space is whose, or where one space ends and the other begins. To host the public of your choice, you are most likely to need a space of your own, but a privately gathered public is still a public and can summon the authorities, as it is and remains de facto haunted by them. The interiors of a friend’s car driving around the city can feel pretty weird in this sense. “Should I behave by the codes of a private inside or the public outside?” Well, that’s just the routine banality of living the in-between. Tinted windows can make the experience a bit more clear-cut, yet the police might stop the car and ask for a look inside.

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So it is in the background of this conflicted relationship between interiors and exteriors that I, among many others, often find myself planning to leave Tehran, to get out. My general impression is that it would make a fantastic city only if you wouldn’t feel stuck in it. And anyone who doesn’t have the immediate means to leave at any moment would feel painfully pinned down. There are all sorts of external obstacles, including structural poverty and the hazards of international mobility, that can turn the thought of a jailbreak itself into an unbearable prison, with walls made of anxiety and inferiority complex. There’s been a certain municipal trend in mural designs over the past decade or so that seems to have been targeted at soothing such feelings. Surrealist trompe l’oeils, fantastical perspectives, openings onto a serene sky, and pastoral sceneries have proliferated across the many blank city walls, sometimes blending with and seemingly extending their architectural support.

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But against the false impression of open skies, there’s the EXIT. Hastily but most legibly written in uppercase, this graffitti has been rapidly appearing on numerous spots around Tehran. I must’ve noticed it sometime in 2015, and soon started archiving it on Instagram, hashtagged #TehranEXITmap. When friends finally realized that I’m not documenting my own work, my inbox kept getting flooded with images of their encounters, and I’d add them to the growing map. Street walls, trash cans, bus stops, roller shutters, and traffic signs have all had their moments of encounter with EXIT. Varied handwritings betray its collective nature. It’s not egocentric or identity-oriented, but a whole attitude exhibited in practice. Although painted out almost every day, EXIT keeps mushrooming, catching the passerby off guard. You might even start looking for them wherever you go. A blunt parody of escapism, this is a silent practice of territorialization, setting the provisional contours of a shapeshifting territory. So there can’t really be a map, as EXIT is not a signpost either. What fascinates me the most about EXIT is that it acknowledges a dire urge while brutally making fun of it. It’s an extremely simple yet profoundly deep gesture, verging on the status of a worldview, which makes it even more ridiculous. Every surface is turned into a means of reflection, redirecting the suddenly engaged passerby toward their own gaze and location. Upon encounter with EXIT, you are again and again placed on the inside, as if any position before, outside, or beyond this territory is rendered redundant. How can you exit a place without ever leaving it? The kind of opening that EXIT suggests is of a rhetorical nature: the only way out is a different way in.

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Tehran Behind the Screen

Published in Domus, No. 1027, September 2018.


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Photo by Giovanna Silva


Nasr Theatre, located in the back garden of Grand Hotel Lalehzar, was definitely the place to go for a hip night out in downtown Tehran in the 1940s. By the end of that decade, it had already changed name and appearance to Tehran Theatre when, on 5 June 1950, its then manager and Member of Parliament Ahmad Dehghan was assassinated in the Theatre offices. Hasan Jafari, an employee of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, was convicted and sentenced to death during a controversial trial, where the big elephant in the room, a plotted murder or an attempted coup, was deliberately overlooked.  

This story serves as the main backdrop to the 1998 memoir An Innocent to the Gallows, a work of personal investigation as well as an archeology of legal reports by Abolghasem Tafazoli, the lawyer who defended Jafari’s case in court. But there are many more unrecorded stories buried behind the sealed doors of old and often dilapidated theatres and cinemas around Tehran. Such an architectural body, one must remember, contains the double spirit of two lines of past events –– that which happens on as well as off the stage or the screen.

Metropole Cinema, for one, was inaugurated in 1946. One of those better-known cinemas on Lalehzar, it was renamed Roodaki after the revolution, and was eventually shut down in 2008. The design of a modest but strictly modern symmetrical grid, with a tall, projecting sign extending vertically across the facade, is only a minor legacy of Vartan Hovanessian. An Iranian-Armenian designer, architect, and civil engineer, his name is now synonymous with cement and Streamline Moderne, distinctive of a golden era in the history of urban development in Tehran.

The building once again met with the cinematic apparatus during the filming of Masoud Kimiai’s 2013 thriller Metropole. A vulnerable widow, escaping a group of hired goons, takes refuge at an old cinema, owned by two chivalrous young men. The space of the cinema is kept barely operating as a billiard club and storage for motorbikes. But Metropole is cast as both the location and a character, incarnated in the others whose stories unfold all over its ruins.

The film was an attempt to release the spirit of drama from within a forsaken sanctuary, to let the cinema live a second life, to animate its corpse, and exert the force of passion and ecstasy on those who are lured into it. Despite checkmarking some Iranian New Wave essentials, including heavy-handed dialogues, as well as crisscrossing good old Noir with oriental machismo, the film was mainly received with jeering reactions during its premiere.

Another landmark of this sort would be Radio City Cinema, which is located on Valiasr (Pahlavi) Street and was opened in 1958. Designed by Heydar Ghiai, whose other works include the former Senate of Iran (now the Secretariat Assembly of Experts for Leadership), this Googie edifice used to be embellished with populuxe neon works on the face of its giant and gentle curve. It was famous for regular screenings of fresh arrivals from Hollywood, also for the red velvet cover of its cozy chairs.

Hosted by Radio City, The Bubble, a 1966 science-fiction by Arch Oboler, was the first 3D feature ever shown in Iran, right after the international popularization of Space-Vision technology. But the transparent shield and entrapping force field that characterize the film seem to still hold the cinema captive, isolated inside a bubble, right where it is and has always been. It survived a fire in 1974, but was terribly damaged during the Revolution and, of course, shut down right after. Before being left totally abandoned, it was briefly reopened as a pharmacy in the war-torn 1980s. Currently, above its entirely glass storefront, a Bowl of Hygieia and another sign that reads “Peace be upon you, Imam Khomeini” are still hanging on the scaly facade.

Almost all of these buildings are technically confiscated properties, occasionally caught up in legal arguments between different (para-)governmental organizations, including the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation or the Foundation for Preserving and Propagating the Values of Holy Defense, on the one hand, and the Bureau of Beautification within the Municipality of Tehran, the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran, or even some burgeoning private art institutions, on the other.

In late 2017, another campaign was successfully wielded by a large group of the culturati for the preservation of Nasr Theatre. The proposal is to turn it into the Theatre Museum, which will also come with a cafe and all the fuss. However, the spectral and the corporeal, as well as the dramatic and the mundane, had, from the beginning, populated these places together. Now the only way out from destruction, or a rusty storage, is to accept museumification. But what would be left of a cinema if the spirit of drama is exorcised? What would raise and fulfill curiosity for a night at the museum? It is the pull of imagination that seems to have vanished, and no museum can simply bring it back.

A Butterfly Effect Across the Chronosphere

Lecture delivered at Armen Avanessian & Enemies #30: Ethnofuturisms on the occasion of the publication of Ethnofuturisms (Merve Verlag, 2018), Roter Salon, Volksbühne, Berlin, September 2018.

How do ethnic conditions and regional micro-histories influence the future as such?” This question might seem much easier to answer if reversed, for there have been many episodes of preordained futurity imposed upon local lifetimes that were and are still being lived under the circumstances of one colonialist script after another.

[…]

“Advection” is the term used in meteorology to explain the transfer of heat or matter by the flow of a fluid, especially horizontally in the atmosphere or the sea. If considered in the context of so-called “temporal climates,” advection can evoke a familiar trope, the butterfly effect, which emerged from within hard sciences and has since appeared in fields as far as extreme fiction, as well as late capitalist spoken language, given how chaotic we routinely feel the world has gone… A groundbreaking discovery, it actually was a bit of a disappointment to all weathermen, and their avid audience, who thought received announcements were or even could be quite accurate.

Ethnofuturisms exist and exert their force in the manner of a butterfly effect across what could only suggestively be called the “chronosphere”. This is to suggest the very complex materiality as well as the planetary expanse of temporal resources, similar to what is at stake in the currently critical condition of other terrestrial resources as well as fluid and atmospheric elements.

[…]

The hyperstitional artifact of the “chronosphere,” or infrastructure time, or AirTime, is the realm through which temporal advection is regulated, that is, the horizontal transfer of the “heat or matter” of time, in all its fluidity, across our planetary history.

EF_VOLKSBUHNE

Ethnofuturisms

Toward a Comparative Futurism 2.0
. . . the rebirth of a non-neologism, a heretical transvaluation . . .

Realized in collaboration with Armen Avanessian and published by Merve Verlag, this volume includes contributions by Fatima Al Qadiri, Monira Al Qadiri, Sophia Al-Maria, Aria Dean, Kodwo Eshun, Steve Goodman, Anna Greenspan, and Karen Orton. It also includes the introductory essay Ethnofuturisms: Findings in Common and Conflicting Futures.

This anthology should by no means be considered exhaustive, but only a first step toward a new field of research that might once be called Comparative Futurism.

Instrumental Xenotation

H. P. Lovecraft, Susan Sontag, Linda Trent, Walter Benjamin, and Tom Ford


An uncharted island in the Pacific is home to the “nightmare corpse-city” called R’lyeh. Earlier, “measureless aeons behind history,” alien beings descended from the stars high up in the sky and “died vast epochs of time before men came,” but survived ever after below the abyssopelagic zones, lying in the nether wastes of the earth. The Great Old Ones live a germinal death, through which they haunt and possess the sensitive by molding strange dreams of great Cyclopean cities, “for only thus could their language reach the fleshly minds of the mammals,” who would then get infected with feverish hysteria and lethargic delirium. H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” as aligned as it is along the meteoritic tail of his other weird stories, is an arcane tale of openness. Dank and cracked stones, fragments of rotting walls and the cancerous rise of morbid flora and fungi near the swamp and lagoon country south of New Orleans, where the cultists gathered in response to the call of the Great Old Ones; the abnormal and non-Euclidean geometry of the dream-place with its “vast angles and stone surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth” and “loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours;” the monstrous stone pillars sticking out of the sea and “heaved to the sun and air” near the muddy and weedy coastline of R’lyeh — these all correspond to the dimensional wreckage and interphyletic collisions of the necrotized geospheres that characterize the exhuming pest of life and the ungrounded death, while the disterminalized becomings of “dead Cthulhu who waits dreaming” incarnate in verses of a language shivering at its extremes and, more remarkably, in documents, objects, bas-reliefs, statuettes, fetishes and idols delivered in dreams.

But “the dream is in fact the telling of the dream,” said Susan Sontag while conversing with John Berger about storytelling in a 1983 episode of Voices on Channel 4. Berger had previously said that “stories begin at their end; the story of Romeo and Juliet, in a sense, begins at their death, that is when the story is given form. The end is not always death, but it quite frequently is… A life gains its full meaning in death, it is only then that a life is readable,” hence narratable. Sontag, of course, could not disagree more. She finds this way of storytelling fundamentally dependent on true lives, having been lived as precedents for stories, and utterly concerned with truth, thus hindered by it. There are no people and no lives outside of language, before the writer writes the story, as there is no experience of the dream before one accounts for it. Commenting on death as the vindicating telos of life and as the condition of fiction, Sontag suggests marriage as an equivalent to death, “that is, if one sees life only as having a meaning because it leads up to something, then it could be that it leads up to its end or it leads up to, at least, its transformation,” as marriage was traditionally viewed as a transformation. “Life is seen,” she says, “as whatever that leads up to this [ending or turning point] and what happens next is considered as another life, or another kind of life.” Shakespeare, again, is the model, whose tragedies end up in death and whose comedies end up in marriage. Against this teleological conditioning, obviously loaded with sociopolitical exigencies too and not only demands for literary novelty, the function of storytelling, she says, “is to introduce a sense of the fantastic, which might include the absurd,” to let the prism of reality keep receiving and refracting all the meaningless and absurd particles too, that is, “to establish the rights to intensity… to restore the claims of intensity.” She is pointing to the kind of feature found in the works of Edgar Allen Poe, which do not tell posthumous stories “but… real stories… stories of generally a disaster, which may or may not end in death… they are terrifying stories, they are fabulous stories…” These ideas, more or less, resonate with those of the fashion designer Tom Ford as told in an interview with Vogue Voices, where he says that although his “heart lies in reality,” but film also is reality for him, because actors and actresses did actually say those words, they did actually walk through those sets, and that film did actually happen, in a parallel reality, “forever sealed in film.”

“The Call of Cthulhu,” too, reads like a posthumous story. Purportedly “found among the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston,” it thus begins not with Lovecraft himself, despite the mainly first-person narrative, but with his invented character, Mr. Wayland Thurston, going through the notes left behind by his granduncle, a professor of linguistics, after his death. And at the end of the story, the narrator himself is convinced enough to anticipate a strong sense of ensuing fatality, after obsessively having studied and researched the notes, objects and stories that all revolved around Them. In a way, They have always been beside him, their affective presence always too close, and it is only then that he knows this, at the end of the story. This fascination with or attraction to horror is a mix that, as Mark Fisher points out, should be counted as the particularly “weird” characteristic of Lovecraft’s stories, which also dovetails with the fondness and danger that are simultaneously driven through necrophilic bonds. But the more important indicator of this characteristic weirdness is the quality of “real externality,” as Lovecraft himself notes on writing weird fiction. Such reality is the fruit of Lovecraft’s obsession with the outside but is entirely and exactly different from Ford’s “sealed” reality. The really exterior manifests its exteriority by making irruptions into the spatial dimensions and temporal coordinates of the familiar interior, that is when the recognizable here-and-now gets punctured by the unknown then-and-there (Fisher 2016). The outside is, once again, rendered in an extra-proximal relationship to the familiar world.

The effects of extra-proximity on reality are best traceable when concerning the Necronomicon. Endowed with mysterious and dangerous dominion over those who study its esoteric words, this written contagion is not merely a fabulation, in contrary to, say, Poe, but an instantiation of exteriority (Fisher 2016). Similar to other Things in other Lovecraft’s stories, it is more than occasionally discussed and meticulously but not fully described in details as a para-fictional entity that makes it then possible for other elements borrowed from the objectively familiar reality, most remarkably including places, geographies and institutions, to collapse onto the fictional side — simply because it pushes against the membrane of the extra- proximal sphere and spreads it out across the parcels of reality, where it is invoked. And it does so in a very particular manner. “Lovecraft generates a ‘reality-effect’ by only ever showing us tiny fragments of the Necronomicon. It is the very fragmentary quality of his references to the abominable text that induce the belief in readers that it must be a real object… [He] seemed to have understood the power of the citation, the way in which a text seems more real if it is cited than if it is encountered in the raw” (Fisher 2016: 24). This “reality-effect” is the hyperstitional potency of a fiction, by which it can be effective and make itself real. The main reason why fictions become hyperstitions is the “consistency of the fictional system” (Fisher 2016: 25), a network of multiple tales, to which the initial author loses control. In fact, it is this consistency that enables the “collectivization of the fictional system” (Trent 2004) — because of the fragmentary eruptions of the reality-effect, conveyed by the prismatic Things, a multitude of readers and authors have explored the Cthulhu mythos and released unshed stories welling up in its many undiscovered corners beyond the journeys of Lovecraft himself.

Walter Benjamin, one of Lovecraft’s contemporaries, also happened to leverage great importance on citations. Benjamin wrote at a time when what the future held was the impression that “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy, if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious” (Benjamin 2007: 255), an extra-proximal horror from which no distance is attainable, haunting both those who are gone and those who have not yet come with equal valence. Benjamin is preoccupied with alternatives for transmissibility across history, a way for seizing the past from the present standpoint other than by clinging on the ladder of an instrumental tradition whether with a prospective or retrospective inclination, both dependent on linear filiation. Against this fabricated continuity, inadequate to the ruptures of modernity, he poses the idea of cuts and breaks, wrenching the phenomena from the continuum of tradition and making them transmissible again. It is by the shock of citation that “disturbing strangeness of past vestiges” make eruptions into the present (Simay 2005), “arresting thought and allowing reality to collide and roll over it in search of another and until then unacknowledged history” (Taussig 2000). This is a fight over the past and its true meaning. And for Benjamin, as he writes in “Convolute N,” truth is not to be revealed but manifested in a “flash” of recognition, a fleeting image stitched together in a flickering constellation (Benjamin 2002). Lovecraft would not have been too surprised if had heard of the momentary constellation or the figure of the lightening, writing of the “day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality,” or more literally, of “all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things.”

However, as much as the lines of filiation and the bonds of philia configure dissimilar epistemogeometries, neither “the past from time immemorial” (Benjamin 2002: 464) should be mistaken with “measureless aeons behind history,” nor “the eruption of a prehistoricity into the present” (Taussig 2000) with “an irruption, through time and space, into an objectively familiar locale.” The distinction lies in Benjamin’s attempt to formulate a moment of historical awakening, when the fantasy of tradition is shattered and its instrumentalization is manifest, while Lovecraft, quite to the contrary, deepens the dreams, endorses instrumental transmissions and actually “traditionizes” the objects (Simay 2005). That is the birth of the tradition of hyperstitional actualities, a weird genesis that is always open to further fabrications and projective extensions to prior or later points of origin, exactly as Benjamin described it: “Origin, although an entirely historical category, has, nevertheless, nothing to do with genesis. The term origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance” (Benjamin 1998: 45). This “process of becoming and disappearance” is critically diagnosed and laid bare when the dialectician flips it into “a specific mix of repression and of expression,” that is, the instrumental basis for becoming a social being who learns to know what not to know (Taussig 2000). But that same process is intensified and hyped up toward further actualities if “the production of the new,” the becoming, is “disclaimed and disguised by the author,” as writes Fisher. “Lovecraft’s retrospective projection of newly minted mythos into the deep past,” his strategy of “retro-interring” (Fisher 2016: 22), molds the dark matter of dream into objects of hyperstition. Eventually, by setting up a paradoxical but consistent strategy, Lovecraft takes creative advantage of what Benjamin, in the name of truth, rigorously tries to criticize.


All citations, if not specified otherwise, are from Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”.

CITED WORKS:

Books and Articles:

  • Benjamin, Walter. (2007). Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books
  • Benjamin, Walter. (2002). The Arcades Project, trans. H. Eiland, K. McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Benjamin, Walter. (1998). The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne. London: Verso
  • Lovecraft, H. P. (2011). “The Call of Cthulhu,” in H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction. New York: Barnes and Noble (http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cc.aspx) [10/12/2016]
  • Lovecraft, H. P. (2011). “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”, in Supernatural Horror in Literature and Other Literary Essays. Maryland: Wildside Press (http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/nwwf.aspx) [15/12/2016]
  • Simay, Philippe. (2005). “Tradition as Injunction: Benjamin and the Critique of Historicisms”, in Walter Benjamin and History, ed. Andrew Benjamin. London: Continuum
  • Taussig, Michael. (2000). “The Beach (A Fantasy)”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 249-278
  • Trent, Linda. (2004). “How Do Fictions Become Hyperstitions?” Hyperstition Blog, 19 June 2004 (http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003345.html) [3/1/2017]

Web and Television Productions:

Objective Hyperreality vs. Hyperobjective Reality

The following is an overrun footnote, expelled from my master’s-thesis-in-progress. Here in exile, may it rest in peace.


Jodi Dean argues that the Internet, on the one hand, “imagines, stages and enacts the “global” of global capital. But on the other this global is nothing like the world — as if such an entity were possible, as if one could designate an objective reality undisturbed by the external perspective observing it or a fully consistent essential totality unruptured by antagonism” (Dean 2005: 67-68). Latent in Dean’s argument is that the reach of capital is beyond “our specific worlds,” beyond the image of the global that the internet puts forth. Then, it can be surmised that capital has captured “an objective reality” beyond the specific worlds of situated experiences. Although the totalizing ruse of the imagined global makes it seem as if “everything is already there” inside the network (69), the foreclosed outside cannot exceed a planetary scale regardless. Put differently, capital has already captured the objective reality of the planetary scale as its launchpad. The planetary scale is where the informatic infrastructure of capital is installed, it is the operative horizon of all the satellites orbiting the earth and all the fiber optic cables spread across the bottom of the oceans.

In this sense, what was surmised from Dean’s argument — namely the planetary scale that capital has already expropriated as its own objective reality — can be better explained if dubbed, following Timothy Morton, in terms of a hyperobjective reality. But we might need to first briefly examine Jean Baudrillard’s conception of hyperreality.

When the real itself, or that which bears the function of the real, is generated by models and doubles that bear no reference to an original reality, all that is left is the “Precession of Simulacra.” Hyperreality is inaugurated by “a liquidation of all referentials — worse: with their artificial resurrection in the system of signs” (Baudrillard 1994: 2). The theory of simulacra is among the first attempts to account for the cultural logics of a new era of capitalist development, for which postmodernism has come to stand as the most ubiquitous designation. This era is marked by “an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes” (2). Here capitalism is exclusively carried on by the symbolic exchange of signs which are ungrounded from any real referentiality that would have hitherto determined their value. Exchange or abstraction itself generates the real of capital. Hyperreality, therefore, is based on the dissolution of the “sovereign difference,” hence the signs of the real being substituted for the real. This makes it a challenge to think about an objective hyperreality.

An aesthetics of the hyperreal is made apparent by visual technologies that attempt “a frisson of vertiginous and phony exactitude, a frisson of simultaneous distancing and magnification, of distortion of scale, of an excessive transparency” (28). Baudrillard charts microscopic vision, pornography, and the generics of An American Family, a 1971 reality TV series, as harbingers of hyperrealistic aesthetics. Such aesthetics presents that which comes across as effectively and operationally more real than what previously operated as reality, or for that matter as sex or as nature. If effective signs and symptoms of the real can be generated and operationalized without the real preceding them, then is an objective diagnosis of (hyper)reality possible any longer? I might not sat objectivity is technically precluded, but has perhaps lost its significance, because hyperreality does not leave anything out. It does not rest on any preexisting territory that could be previously mapped by a logic of “imaginary coextensivity.” It first produces the map, and its territory will be generated thereof. There will be no imaginary, no sign or symptom which is not as real as reality used to be, if not more. And there will neither be a reality as such because “no imaginary envelops it anymore” (2). Objectivity, in the sense of the faculty of distinction between that which can be accounted for as true fact and that which is false, is threatened when confronted by the hyperreal, which is “produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (2). Hyperreality resolves the question of objectivity by invariably enabling it in regard to all the operative elements that take part in an order that functions as same as the real used to.

The loss of an objective reality is therefore occupied by a kind of materialist indeterminacy or, as Morton would say, “a boiling whirlwind of impermanence” that is today’s capitalism (Morton 2010: 130). This loss, however, has always been fundamental to capitalist operations, or to an understanding of the world and its reality after capitalism. “There was no world before capitalism,” writes Morton. Nature only shows up and becomes intelligible as Nature once attempts at terraforming Earth have already been made, when Nature has de facto vanished: “Things are first known when lost” (132). Global warming and the planetary extents of nuclear contamination, among others, shape what we refer to as the world and also bring about the end of the world, rendering the operational capacities of such a concept redundant. In other words, following its fundamental mechanism of dissolution and abstraction, capitalism “creates things that are more solid than things ever were… things that appear almost more real than reality itself” (130). These things are hyperobjects, “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans… [T]he sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism” (Morton 2013: 1). Speaking of a universe entirely assimilated into the matrices of late capitalism, Morton refers to the most widely cited sentence that Karl Marx quoted from Macbeth, “all that is solid melts into the air,” and continues, “at the very point at which the melting into the air occurs, we catch the first glimpses of the all-too-solid iceberg within the mist” (20). Therefore, that which was previously intended as an objective reality of the world as such can now be only traced in a search for hyperobjective realities.

Important in this transition is also a revision of postmodernism. “The ultimate goal of this project,” writes Morton of postmodernism, “was to set up a weird transit lounge outside of history in which the characters and technologies and ideas of the ages mill around in a state of mild, semiblissful confusion” (4). The confusing indeterminacy of hyperreality, so to speak, gives way to the shocking reality of hyperobjects. Finally, while the simulacra and the genesis of hyperreality were frequently ascribed to televisual effects, their hyperspace seems to be now populated by the all-too-real hyperobjects that, by extension, locate the pursuit of objectivity on the internet and computational networks of various kinds. Nonlocality, after all, is one of the key common properties of hyperobjects. Just like the distributed networks of planetary informatics, “one only sees pieces of a hyperobject at any one moment;” local manifestations that are not the direct equivalents of the larger totality (4). Morton proposes the practice of an “Ecological Thought” that can attend to the future of these hyperobjects, a mode of thinking that can attend to an “Ecology without Nature.” Since hyperobjects or, we could say, the hyperobjective reality of the internet and its distributed networks outscale us so massively that although we know that they are there, we cannot point to them directly (12), the ecological thought needs to stand in as a mode of “irreductionist thinking” that can encounter the “scalar dilemmas” that hyperobjects present (19).