As part of the XG Discord reading group, we’ve been reading (and reading around) Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia.
In week one, we talked about how the text is written, its since-removed online origins, and its chaotic references, contradictions, and plot holes, all of which allows the text itself to germinate and pollinate like Nerium Oleander — that strange and toxic plant seemingly without origin, spotted by Kristen Alvanson in the back of a taxi on her way to meet S.
Cyclonopedia is, in this sense, a “bad book” that demands not only to be read but also researched. In trying to figure out what it’s trying to do, it entraps you, and sees how much cognitive noise you have the capacity to filter.
In week two, we connected this to the chapter “A Good Meal”, talking about Reza’s sense of affordance: the way the book suspends an excessive faith in anthropocentric agency that has the capacity to “reach” the outside and instead emphasises, in quite an explicitly Lovecraftian manner, how the outside opens us — it all depends on how much of it you can afford.
We extrapolated outwards from this, and the inter-scalar manoeuvres Reza makes from subjective to cosmic perspectives, to Bataille’s theory of general economy and, similarly, to Nick Land’s essay “Sore Losers”, which might be the most cyclonopedic text published in the 2010s, echoing the various discussions between Nick and Reza on Islamic exotericism that went into Reza’s first book.
For week three — in a discussion held on Friday afternoon over Discord (that was sadly not recorded for Patreon, hence this spirited post trying to gloss all that we discussed) — we decided to jump from Cyclonopedia to Spinoza’s Ethics, exploring to what extent this cosmic perspective — which allows Reza (and us) to view a general economy of the 21st century, entwining capitalism and Islamism in an apocalyptic death spiral — is made possible by the sort of cold rationalism put forth by Baruch Spinoza.
Part of this desire comes from my attempts (undertaken without much success) to articulate what connects Cyclonopedia to Intelligence & Spirit. Something does, I think but something slippery — and it is something similar to that thread that connects Fisher, no matter how inadvertently, to Bataille — as also discussed by Ed Berger recently: the sense through which the noumenal nature of our desires requires that any rationalism come packaged with a certain occultism. This kernel, when fully explored, may constitute, as Ed magnificently put it, “a Lacanian-Spinozist theology … of the seething cosmic void.”
What follows is a brief and idiosyncratic attempt to sketch out this trajectory before it falls out of my head. Please excuse the speed with which I am about to traverse it…
In Spinoza’s pondering of the nature of God, as well as in his challenge to Descartes, he argues that the central fallacy that undermines human reasoning, particularly when it is applied to God, is that we too often try to think of God in the same sense that we think of ourselves. The truth is that we, in fact, cannot.
This is, in part, because it is a logical fallacy to imbue what Spinoza calls “God-or-nature” — the two are inseparable in his philosophy — with any sort of anthropomorphised principle or purpose. Nature does not adhere to rules and rationalisations like we do. It is fundamentally indifferent.
And yet, once we understand this, the ways in which we have historically thought of God nonetheless reveal something about ourselves. That is to say, in thinking rationally about God-or-nature, by detaching ourselves (to the best of our ability) from our socialised sentimentalities, we are able to separate what is “true” of God-or-nature, and what is “true” only of ourselves. As Spinoza writes:
The reason therefore or cause why God or nature acts and why he exists is one and the same. It follows that since he does not exist for the sake of a purpose, he does not act for the sake of a purpose either; but as he has no principle or purpose in existing, so he has no principle or purpose in acting. And the so-called final cause is nothing but a human appetite itself, considered as a principle or primary cause of a thing. For example, when we say that habitation was the final cause of this or that house, we are surely saying simply that human beings had an appetite to build a house because they imagined the advantages of a home. Therefore habitation, insofar as it is considered a final cause, is nothing but this particular appetite, which is in truth an efficient cause that is considered as a first cause because people are commonly ignorant of the causes of their own appetites. For, as I have said, they are certainly conscious of their actions and their appetites, but are ignorant of the causes which determine them to want something.
Here we find clear evidence for Fisher’s claim that Spinoza inaugurated psychoanalysis three hundred years ahead of schedule. Because, in assigning to God-or-nature a certain all-knowing “perfection”, all we are doing is projecting an unknown quality or lack, which is ours and ours alone, onto a noumenal God we cannot know.
This will be obvious to anyone who has ever asked a religious person a seemingly unanswerable question. Take, for instance, that old classic: “Why does God allow people to suffer?” With no answer available, the religious defer to God’s all-knowing benevolence. He definitely has a reason — we just don’t know it yet — it’s all just a part of Gods plan and you gotta have faith, blah blah blah. But isn’t it more likely that God-or-nature is just indifferent? And this does not mean delectably cruel, as Hannibal Lecter might have it; it simply means that God, insofar as God is nature, is naturally indifferent and exists outside our realm of rationalisations.
Whilst Spinoza writes “God or nature”, it is arguably best to just assume Spinoza is talking about nature as the world-in-itself here. Spinoza’s confluence seems to ask his reader: “We would not ask such questions of intent of nature so why should we of God?” For instance, we do not ask why God allows tigers to kill cuter, smaller animals, because the fallacy of a tiger’s indifference to the aesthetic qualities of an animal or the moral qualities of not killing do not compute in that context. This does not mean the tiger is evil. It is simply outside our realm of understanding. (I’m reminded here, perhaps tellingly, of Bataille’s famous remark that a “sexual act is what the tiger is in space.”)
It is important to clarify this because Spinoza’s indifference is not an argument for a kind of universal relativism but rather a “neutral monism”. It is not a suspension of moral judgement but rather a suspension of the judgement of God (as Deleuze, via Artaud, famously put it). The fundamental exercise of rationality is, then, for Spinoza, simply being able to distinguish between the two. As Spinoza writes:
As concerns good and bad: they too indicate nothing positive in things, considered, that is, in themselves. They are simply ways of thinking or notions which we form by comparing things with each other. For one and the same thing can be at the same time both good and bad, and even indifferent. For example, music is good for a melancholy person, but bad for a person in mourning, and to a deaf person it is neither good nor bad. But even though this is the case, we have to retain these words. Because we desire to form an idea of a human being as an exemplar of human nature to which we may look, it will be useful for us to retain these same words in the sense I mentioned. In what follows therefore I will mean by good anything that we certainly know to be a means for us to approach ever closer to the exemplar of human nature that we set for ourselves; and by bad that which we certainly know hinders us from relating to that same exemplar.
What is key here, I think, is that, in writing his Ethics, Spinoza’s main argument is that we must strive for a mastery of the passions — that is, of our emotions and desires; of our emotional responses and actions that are rooted in our desires. To do this, we must know our passions and their objects, and we must recognise that this desire for mastery is a human endeavour alone. To insert the indifference of God-or-nature into this is to distinguish between what is a (or is informed by) human judgement and what emerges the Real — and the possibilities that result from this process of differentiation are, for many, radical and infinite.
This is to say that, whilst Spinoza’s rationalism, on the surface, seems quite explicit and obvious in its claims, it nevertheless leads philosophy to some of its strangest places. To extrapolate this distinction outwards is to distinguish body from organs (Deleuze), moralism from monotheism (Nietzsche), capitalism from realism (Fisher), science from ideology (too many people to count), and all of the above and then some (Negarestani). It is to affirm the ways in which we (as well as God-or-nature) exist and persist irrespective of our categorisations of our (or its) being.
For Spinoza, this insight seems to emerge from his understanding that God-or-nature does not have the same idealised sense of itself as we do, nor does it attempt to shape and filter its own desires based on, for instance, laws or morals. Instead, “to love God” (in Spinoza’s terms, at least) is to become attuned to the distinctive ways in which our passions are products of nature or human judgement. This is not to say that we should therefore suspend our senses of good and bad — or else we suspend ethics — but we must nonetheless reflect on these judgements in light of our understanding of and knowledge of an indifferent God-or-nature that does not share them — that is, we must be able to separate what is “true” from that which just seems ideologically apparent.
It is in this way that we might ultimately find true human freedom — Spinoza’s ultimate goal — which is both a freedom from the passions and, in a way, freedom from ourselves; from our own categorisations of ourselves that limit and dilute the human Real.
Whilst this kind of rationalism is often grounded in the discourses of science, there is a sense — at least at the level of popular science — that science increasingly choses to erase this Spinozistic distinction. I was watching the film Contact recently, for example, famously based on a novel by Carl Sagan.
Here is a movie in which science finds itself hopelessly entangled with ideology — both from within and without. I couldn’t help but wince, for instance, when a Christian extremist suicide-bombs the alien portal generator that humanity has built because he believes that scientists don’t deserve to talk to God, and in sweeps capitalism to save the day — one of the benefits of money and statecraft, the movie argues, is that you can build secret backups for when the zealots shut you down. This is to say that, in myriad ways (many of them hilariously unsubtle), this movie is often incapable of separating the “rationality” of science from the “rationality” of capitalist realism, often despite itself.
Lest we forget that Fisher references Spinoza repeatedly in Capitalist Realism, making precisely this point when he writes:
Spinoza has immense resources for analysing the affective regime of late capitalism, the videodrome-control apparatus described by Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and David Cronenberg in which agency is dissolved in a phantasmagoric haze of psychic and physical intoxicants. Like Burroughs, Spinoza shows that, far from being an aberrant condition, addiction is the standard state for human beings, who are habitually enslaved into reactive and repetitive behaviours by frozen images (of themselves and the world). Freedom, Spinoza shows, is something that can be achieved only when we can apprehend the real causes of our actions, when we can set aside the ‘sad passions’ that intoxicate and entrance us.
(Slavoj Žižek’s The Ticklish Subject is a book I’ve been dipping in and out of recently that goes into this in way more depth, exploring, for example, the Cartesian subject as the spectre that continues to haunt Western academia and the entanglement of science and ideology in late capitalism — suffice it to say that these are all issues within philosophy that go far beyond Spinoza but we’ll be sticking with him for brevity.)
For many of those involved with and adjacent to the Ccru, the perspective from which this freedom is achieved must involve certain inter-scalar manoeuvres that we most often find deployed by weird fiction and some speculative philosophies. What the Ccru do so surreally and effectively, then, is dramatise the stakes of a thought stretched between two perspectives — the all-too-human and the unthinkably cosmic — affirming the gulf between them and the ways that our often flawed knowledge of one can nevertheless tell us a great deal about the other.
What often results from this, in practice, is a strange entangling between science and the occult. But that’s not really rational and Spinozist, is it? After all, Spinoza’s central critique of Descartes is that the latter rests far too much on the unknowable qualities of the “pineal gland” — a gland that is, for Descartes, little more than an anatomic screen onto which he projects his unknowns.
For Descartes, the pineal gland is a kind of God-gland, and Spinoza doesn’t buy it. “Surely I cannot properly express my bewilderment”, he writes, “that a philosopher who had stated firmly that he deduced nothing except from self-evident principles, and affirmed nothing except what he perceived clearly and distinctly, and who had so often rebuked the scholastics because they attempted to explain obscure matters by means of occult qualities, should take up a hypothesis that is more occult than any occult quality.”
There is a kernel of something here, however, which Spinoza wishes to grasp and hold aloft triumphantly. Descartes at least had the right idea when grounding his observations of a certain “animal spirit” in an actual part of our anatomy. This is to say that, rather than the pineal gland being some organ of indeterminate intention, as Descartes has it, it is simply a part of the brain that retains some sort of indifferent function from God-or-nature.
In light of this, Spinozism is a philosophy that seems to resemble Bataille’s Gnosticism, which, “in its psychological process, is not so different from present-day materialism, I mean a materialism not implying an ontology, not implying that matter is the thing-in-itself.” Bataille continues:
For it is a question above all of not submitting oneself, and with oneself one’s reason, to whatever is more elevated, to whatever can give a borrowed authority to the being that I am, and to the reason that arms this being. This being and its reason can in fact only submit to what is lower, to what can never serve in any case to ape a given authority.
Here, Bataille does not affirm our impulses as the will of God but affirms their emergence of Cyclonopedia‘s oily materialism, its “blobjectivity”, reemerges for us. In submitting himself to what is below, Reza submits himself to oil, the thick life blood of the Middle East, and this submission is powered quite explicitly by Reza’s initial infection with the thought of Nick Land.
Land, in his book on Bataille, The Thirst for Annihilation, makes infrequent references to Spinoza but he nonetheless appears like a key antecedent, at least in his establishment of a certain Counter-Enlightenment tendency that is later picked up by far more explicitly transgressive thinker. Similarly, Land himself argues that, “beneath the shadow of the cross”, Spinoza’s “neutral monism” foreshadows the limits of Kantianism first dramatised by the Marquis de Sade, going so far as to write that “Spinoza and Sade occasionally reach a comparable pitch of anegoic coldness” (although never getting quite as cold as Nietzsche).
What is most important in Bataille, it seems — a manoeuvre he takes up from Nietzsche and his “view from the summit” (previously discussed) — and, arguably, also from Freud — is that he inaugurates a practice of scaling that becomes key to Deleuze and Guattari and also to the Ccru. This scaling is the scaling — the “inter-scalar manoeuvres” — previously discussed, where the Unconscious and geological strata find themselves entwined, where subject and planet come into a counter-intuitive relation. It is arguably Spinoza’s rationalism that makes this possible but it is Bataille who takes it to extremes. As Land writes:
Scaling is the positive superfluidity of God inherent to matter, but its gradations of relative transcedence must be commensurated with an impersonal nature exhausting the real: genealogically rather than metaphysically explored. The labyrinth is the unconscious of God, or the repressed of monotheism. The illusion of ego in general requires that it remain unthought. What God really was is something incompatible with antyhing ‘being’ at all. Real composition is not extrinsically created nature, but if this is a Spinozism, it is one in which substance itself is sacrificed to the scales.
This process of scaling remains central to a lot of post-Ccru thought and I think the best book to affirm this practice in recent years — this link between scales but also between occultism and scientific knowledge, via philosophy and psychoanalysis — is undoubtedly Thomas Moynihan’s Spinal Catastrophism. His frequent references to Sandor Ferenczi, in particular, are fascinating. After all, it was Ferenczi most explicitly — that is, more explicitly even than Freud — who connected the chaos of the passions to the earth’s own thalassic nature.
A particular passage that comes to mind is Moynihan’s discussion of Ferenczi’s 1916 essay “On the Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money”, in which he argues that our
drive-to-accumulate [comes] from the sublimation, corollary with uptight posture, of the infant’s desire to play with its own faeces (a desire which Freud, of course, saw as itself a recapitulation of quadruped forms of life and libidinal olfactions). In spinal erection, we repress our anal desire for our own ‘faecal property’, which duly becomes deflected into the drive to accumulate money’s ‘filthy lucre’…
Moynihan is a master of scalable rationalism, dragging scientific understanding to the heights and depths and farthest reaches of the thinkable. What emerges here is a kind of Ferenczian scaling that echoes Cyclonopedia magnificently, retaining the linguistic limit-experience whilst losing the ferocious libido. More specifically, it is a scaling that connects the occultism of an alchemical understanding to the biological reality of intestinal expenditure and psychological repression — a form of psychoanalytic investigation, informed by geophilosophy, that brings to mind that fabled mythological process of alchemy that connects us, through the transformation of matter, to God.
I’m thinking here, specifically, of that scene in Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, in which the thief, on his journey to reach God on the titular summit, meets an alchemist who turns his shit into gold — a process that resembles a kind of alchemical-scientific feedback loop, where the thief is sat within a man-made system of glass organs that digest him and his faeces, the fumes triggering an abjectly psychedelic experience, symbolically connecting his biological systems to a system outside of himself: a kind of fractal alchemy of expenditure and accumulation.
Moynihan connects this allusion to turning shit into gold to Bataille explicitly. He continues:
In this way even capital itself is derived from Ferenczi’s ‘biogenetic ground principle’ of ‘phylogenetic’ repetitiousness. To reach this conclusion, the Hungarian rallied the argument that ‘capitalism’ is ‘not purely practical and utilitarian, but libidinous and irrational.’
That an entire economic system is neither ‘utile’ nor ‘practical’ is, perhaps, a strange notion at first sight. Yet Ferenczi was writing in the midst of the first of the two world wars. Decades later, just after the Second World War, it was Georges Bataille … who noticed that these global conflicts represented ‘the greatest orgies of wealth — and of human beings — that history has recorded’, and that, whilst they may well ‘coincide with an appreciable rise in the general standard of living’, such an upswell in our quality of life represents — like the wars — just another way of expending surplus energy. Bataille was masterful in his sustained revelation of the fact that the capitalist global system is, in Ferenczi’s terms, ‘utterly libidinous and irrational’. For, when any system has an inevitable point of total exhaustion (and our globe is, in the longest term, just such a system), every single process that will ever have taken place within said system becomes utterly indistinct from a route towards that terminal point: thus, what may locally be called ‘means’ or ‘utilities’ are all alike revealed so many avenues through which the wanton and squandrous ‘end’ announces and hastens its arrival.
This, too, brings us back to Negarestani. In Cyclonopedia, Reza famously presents oil as a sort of plane of consistency, or the form(lessness) of “blobjectivity”, where these various affects and processes similarly become “utterly indistinct”.
For Reza, oil is a kind of solar excrement that we hoard, even go to war over, all because it allows us to expend more energy. In burning fossil fuels — that is, in burning the latent energy retained in spent forms of life — that are seized from the war-torn Middle East, we similarly hasten the arrival of an Islamic apocalypticism.
To understand this, and to understand all the entangled processes that constitute the oily Islamism of the desert, is precisely Negarestani’s attempt to unearth an occultism that is necessary for us to engage with if we are to truly understand the Real. Islam is not simply capitalism’s Outside, in this sense, but rather its opposite. Considered from a cosmic perspective, capitalism and Islamism start to resemble the ying to the other’s yang, and yet all of this becomes indistinct when ground down into desert sand.
The way that Reza describes the desert is worth paying close attention to here, particularly when seen as part of the hypercodex previously discussed. In Cyclonopedia‘s glossary, he writes:
The Xerodrome (or the dry-singularity of the Earth) as both the all-erasing monopoly of the monotheistic God and the Tellurian Omega or the plane of base-participation with the cosmic pandemonium (Dust, Sun and the Tellurian Insider). Desert signifies a militant horizontality or a treacherous plane of consistency — in a Deleuze-Guattarian sense — between monotheistic apocalypticism and Tellurian Insurgency against the Sun (god). As a dry-singularity, desert is usually linked to unheard-of wet elements and thus brings about the possibility of revolutionary but anomalous (and perhaps weird) cosmogenesis or world-building processes.
Once again, the density of Reza’s prose reflects the very processes he is describing. The plane of consistency becomes a plane of indifference where god and oil and dust and sun become indistinguishable. To try to rationally — that is, for Parsani, archaeologically — understand it, we must approach the desert from a cosmically wide perspective and accept that, in digging beneath the indifferent sand where all processes become immanent, we are also digging beneath our own skin. 
Furthermore, with this in mind, we shouldn’t understand this text as being obscurantist in a wholly negative sense. It instead constitutes a sort of xenopoetics, invoking a Lacanian Real that escapes all language. What is being discussed is that which slips between the spaces like sand in an hourglass. The “true” nature of what we are left with is hard to parse but it is in this sense that Cyclonopedia establishes itself as a kind of excremental product of Negarestani’s philosophical process.
Here we find our understanding of Cyclonopedia as a “bad” book taken to new depths. It is not just “bad” but “shit” — a shit book where rational understandings of the desert, oil, geopolitics, Islamism, Zoroastrianism, geology, geophilosophy, psychoanalysis, and untold other specialisms, find themselves excreted as a noxiously consistent language-turd. In beginning our task of figuring out what Reza cognitively “ate” is to become complicit in the very processes of economical and intellectual accumulation that connect philosophy to capitalism and capitalism to our repressed animalistic desires to play with our own poop.
It is arguably this process of disentanglement that Reza later seeks to externalise. To follow Moynihan, it is as if, in now rejecting his first foray into libidinal philosophy, Reza now recognises the “immaturity” of his thought and desires, in his neorationalist mode, to stand upright.
There is a chapter in Intelligence & Spirit that I think speaks to this explicitly. In “This I, or We or It, the Thing, Which Speaks (Objectivity and Thought)”, Reza uses an extended analogy of a child (or “CHILD (Concept Having Intelligence of Low Degree)” to describe a form of cognition that is underdeveloped –much like this post, perhaps. I can’t help but wondered if this process of cognitive distancing that Intelligence & Spirit inaugurates — where an AGI becomes an independent subject to be reared, and that is itself not yet upright — is precisely a form of (psycho-)Analytic philosophy that attempts to determine the constitution of our own SHIT (Subjective Holism Infected by the Tellurian) without getting its hands dirty.
 Side note: in our conversation on Friday, Bob spoke about Reza’s passages on the film Begotten, in which God disembowels itself, and we connected this autobiopsy to the horror of a Spinozist geophilosophy — something I’ve written about previously — that does not take the surgeon’s distancing of seeing only the organs of another but instead looking upon the reality of the body of the self and cuts anyway. This is a good analogy, perhaps, for what Reza calls Parsani’s “leper creativity” — the freedom from human bondage that results from a literal shedding of flesh: a catastrophic becoming-desert, or becoming-dust.