THE AUTONOMOUS CHEMICAL WEAPON: HOW SENTIENT OIL TOOK CONTROL OF OUR HISTORY – PART ONE

“Capitalism was here even before human existence, waiting for a host.”

— Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia, 27

The contention is this: not only do we use oil, it uses us. 

Not just oil, but the fossil trinity: oil, coal, and methane: each unique substances, and yet unified by the chemical energy stored in carbon bonds. Humanity has been possessed by these daemons that now control us: fuel. Oil in particular has usurped our collective agency with its own by dominating our own political systems. Human history is now petrohistory. 

Does oil want global warming? Absolutely. Look at how hard it’s worked to get from beneath the ground up into the atmosphere. Does it not look like a desire for catastrophe?

Does that diminish human responsibility? No.

I. Mineral Consciousness 

“The curse of survival goes beyond intention, will, and orientation.” — Cyclonopedia 214

First, to overcome your initial rationalist hesitance, we must establish that all Things have a type of sentience—not sapience, but persistence. This work was done among others by Jane Bennett, whose “Thing Power” she places in an intellectual tradition that goes back to Spinoza, who said, “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives [conatur] to preserve in its own being.” Bennett translates conatus as “to strive,” explaining, “Conatus names a power present in every body: anything will be able to persist in existing with that same force whereby it begins to exist.” Deleuze translates it as “the right of the existing mode” (Spinoza, 100); Zola Jesus released a 2011 album by the name. Bruno Latour uses the term “actancy,” a word I prefer to conatus because it’s in English, and because of its proximity to “agency,” which is the word I would most like to use for oil’s power, because of the double meaning of agent as either independent or a representative of an industry (insurance agent). However, the word “agency” has become so contested as to be functionally useless. [endnote 1]

Everything has actancy, including but not limited to plants, animals, and fungi. But not of the same degree or type. [endnote 2] It can be incidental and slight, relative to, say, an individual human, or it can be overwhelmingly powerful. We will necessarily find a dog’s actancy more relatable and understandable than a fungus’s, because we share the dog’s animality. However, the cement upon which the dog treads also has actancy; by the fact of its existence, it pushes back against the dog’s paw. 

This is only interesting to a point; with most objects, the observation is mundane. Obviously, the hammers of my typewriter are acting upon the paper on the platen. Bennet’s project is ultimately to get us to respect ecologies and ecosystems as equals, of a sort, and that is admirable, accurate, and supports a viable Rights of Nature legal strategy. But if we realize the personhood of forests and lakes, can we also recognize the moral culpability of materials like plastic, specific pollutants, and oil? 

The attributes of a thing determine the nature of its actancy. One of the interesting attributes of oil is the chemical energy locked within its carbon bonds, so easily released by combustion. This energy gives it exponentially more potential to act than most everyday objects. Indeed, it is the root source of the expanded actancy of all the everyday objects that do matter the most to us, and have changed our lives: our cars, our phones, our food, and so on. 

Often when Thing Power (as Bennett calls it) is discussed, it’s assumed that nonliving things have less actancy than living things because consciousness is so wonderful, and therefore that humans have the most of all. I enjoy having a consciousness, but if there is one thing to be learned from living through American politics in the 21st century, it is how little actual power a person has. How little the interests of human beings matter to politics. So little that even when accumulated into a unified force of The People, it is still usually powerless against such massive inhuman actants like oil and capital. We’ll get dominated every time, at least in the last hunn’red ‘n’ ten years, since the end of history and the beginning of petrohistory, which I’ll put at 1912 when the Royal Navy switched to oil. A hunn’red-ten years is no time at all, historically speaking, especially from the perspective of “mineral consciousness. We’re talking frames per century. Per millennium!” as Filipe the Gaucho says in Gravity’s Rainbow

“A soul in ev’ry stone;” a mineral consciousness would exist on a different timescale than an animal consciousness. Negarestani’s fictional Colonel West calls it “alien time, [exposure to] which carries the risk of chronic side effects or something even worse, something irrecoverable and beyond our bloodiest dreams of frenzy, smoke and ash, which in comparison will come to seem like the harmless daydreams of unsophisticated, naïve innocents.” Perhaps this better characterizes what we all know is true of petroleum, than the notion of it as an inanimate object.

But petroleum isn’t a mineral, it is organic. It is the product of the descent and pressurization of an entire epoch’s biosphere. It is life, and therefore unique to the Earth. You may find things you can burn on other planets, but you won’t find petroleum anywhere that doesn’t have organic life. It is life’s assemblage with geology. I’m not arguing that oil is alive because its components were once alive—I do believe in death. But it was once alive. And it has a will to persist, and in that, a will to power, a book in which  Nietzsche writes: “Do you know what Life is to me? A monster of energy…that does not expend itself but only transforms itself…[A] play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing.” Do you believe that Death is the end?

People seem to believe that because these materials affect humans and because humans profit off of them, that makes them humans-by-proxy, or under human control. One reason for this is that people aren’t used to talking about the actancy of nonliving things. Another reason is that oil corporations have, by funding a campaign of denial, forced us to talk about “anthropogenic” climate change to counter their sociopathic assertions that there’s no such thing as climate change at all, or that it’s somehow “natural.” It is in recognition of humanity’s actancy that we take responsibility for global warming, and that is proper, but reductive. 

The strength of oil’s actancy comes from its movement up through boreholes, into pipelines, up the distillation column differentially, through markets and into engines, which engineer the combustion at the end of the fuel line—the fire that drives the flow of fluid throughout the oil machine. The movement down and back up again out of the earth generates Power. Its ascent and re-emergence flows down an energy gradient, from highly concentrated, fully metabolized ancient corpses to parts per million. Accumulating there at the low end, the atmosphere, nowhere left to go, and so to once again amass itself to accelerate the ultimate realization of its process: the Tellurian Omega, the heat-death of the earth, or at least a nostalgic recreation of its lifetime biosphere. We humans are essential as stewards of the flame; the combustion is indispensable to the maintenance of this flow, and we build the ignition switches. Essential to and complicit in hastening the Tellurian Omega, but we remain mere servants of the flame.

II. On Names

 “The Dead God is a god who has taken an avatar or who has fallen to the grund (the so-called chthonic god)… The laws of gravity must be complied with and the logic of the ground must be affirmed; this is the route taken both by humans and by the avatars of the outside. Dead gods come open, to eat and defile, to immerse themselves in mess, entangled both by the immensity of the outside and by earthborn restrictions.… The dead god is not a tired, abolished, or doomed god but a god with a weapon of catastrophic destruction. A plague coming to earth to make of the earth’s restrictive ground a direct passage to openness.” — Cyclonopedia 204

In the Zoroastrian Vendidad, Druj is “The greatest polluter of Ahura Mazda’s world.” Ahura Mazda is the creator, so his world is our world. Druj is The Dead Mother of All Contagions (genderless). Druj is the decay that takes over a corpse (nasu) upon death, the catalyst for its decomposition, the inevitable returning underground. It would not be hard to imagine that Druj has even more power beneath, in the layers of putrefaction buried for eons, in the product of the long term process of anaerobic metabolism; it is not such a leap from believing in the scientific reality of organic metabolism to see that oil could be the distilled essence of Druj, an energetic being with much more potential actancy than the chemically inert rock it is buried among. Druj has utterly remade the human experience from what it was before industrialization—indeed it has remade humanity itself into lords of the earth, destroyers of nature itself. Lifted us from animalism—from living like animals, in the colonizer’s tongue. And in the process, added energy and warmth to the atmosphere, creating this world of constant cataclysm, of constant cataclysmic opportunity (markets). 

Now that “climate science” has shown us clearly its terrifying power to insulate the earth and drive the ecosphere mad, why should we now stop calling oil an avatara of a superhuman, a god? Why should I have to use boring phrases like “fossil fuels,” “natural gas,” and “global warming”? That ain’t my job. 

This power is a trinity: oil, coal, methane, each with different properties and different roles, and yet all one. Avatara in Sanskrit means to descend. The divine chooses to descend to the mortal plane in order to do something, to change history, whether it’s making sure the Pandavas defeat the Kauravas or accelerating the tellurian omega.  Vishnu descends to the material realm (most often as a non-human animal) in order to gain actancy, which is the one thing gods do not have. 

In this case, the descending being was already material: plantflesh, mostly. The living realm in turn undergoes katabasis (chthonic descent), into the subterranean realm, the “plateau of black matter where the chemistry of god is more fertile than ever. God chooses to be a corpse in order to be a protagonist” (Cyclonopedia 205).  A protagonist of earth’s history, and of human politics.

 The Dead God is not omnipotent, just exponentially more powerful than human animals, yet tragically bound to those humans to keep its flame alive. A fire djinn. A daemon that has chosen to confine itself to the material plane in exchange for becoming a protagonist in material history. 

Yes, a similar claim could be made about any natural resource, each with their own personalities and actancies. But fossil fuels are the Kings of history, and Oil the King of Kings, since in part it contains the domain of plastic, the king of materials, since it controls agriculture in the form of nitrogen fertilizer, and so on. The King that dethroned Coal, but is faced with a strong upstart contender for the throne: Methane, which simultaneously is doing its part to hasten the Tellurian Omega by seeping unburned into the atmosphere. 

So don’t call it drilling for oil; call it exhumation: the movement from terranean surface to underground and back up through holes in the earth, fracked holes that undermine the surface of the earth, making it more porous, the effort to exhume Druj is turning the ground under us inside-out, releasing the Dead God into the atmosphere, where it will be truly free, free to make us burn. To hasten the tellurian omega in which all earthbound energy will be returned to the dying sun in 6 billion years? Or merely to mimic that omega, to reproduce it in war machines?

III. Oil’s Attributes

“Modernity is the process of oil getting into everything.” — Timothy Morton 

Oil, coal, and methane are the largest and most powerful actants in this world at this historical moment, with effects that reach long into the future. They have created our urban world, and they are insulating the planet Earth into the most abrupt mass extinction in its history. This trinity gained its seat of supreme authority over the surface of the earth by acting upon humans and our assemblages: by manipulating our politics. This trinity wasn’t always the dominant oligarch it is now, and it won’t be forever. Other sets of materials (drugs, food) vie for significance, but ultimately in today’s world, all their power is predicated on fuel. It’s a question of scale; postindustrial humanity has become supernatural in every way that matters. 

Fuel lies at the base of every other enterprise, and comprises the mountain of wealth that is being hoarded by the archcapitalists. Whether it’s driving for an hour and arriving somewhere fifty miles away, or watching live video from the other side of the world, it doesn’t happen without fossil power. It could, hypothetically: we can get power from other sources, but by and large, we don’t. And so all companies are oil companies—the only business is the business of converting chemical energy into wealth. But only some companies sell the stuff. [endnote 3] 

According to Mitchell, “a single liter of petrol used today needed about twenty-five metric tons of ancient marine life as precursor material.” When plant energy accumulates like that in animals, we call it meat. When it accumulates in the belly of the earth, it’s a greater concentration of energy, and we call it petroleum. Ground meat. Meat that non-alive machines can eat, fattening everything, not just human tum-tums. 

Oil allowed industrialized economies to create massive surplus value, which at some times in history was shared with some of its workers, at other times, not at all. The scale of the fueled economy radically dwarfs anything that humans had before experienced or generated. Carbon, temperature, economic growth; on different x-axis scales, they look identical.  All the graphs go hyperbolic (which, assuming we’re all dumb, the scientists have deadened called a “hockey stick graph.” Someone tell M.M. that you hold a hockey stick like this 🏒, not horizontal by its handle). The hyperbolic flight path of gross product and consumption is an evolution, an integralization, of its wartime shape, the parabola. In the flight of the Rocket, the hyperbolic movement is in the slope of the curve, the rate of change, and the destructive descent of War, Oil’s own creature, which cleared the decks for the petroliberal world order.  The hyperbolic path of consumption of the twentieth century proved to be the attainment of escape velocity, the Machine detaching itself from the people who fired it, becoming autonomous. 

This machine has been referred to as capitalism, a word that doesn’t describe some sort of ideal state of uncontrolled markets, but rather a messy and quite authoritarian historical reality. Capitalism is “an epidemic openness whose eventuation is necessarily equal to the abortion of economical or human openness. As far as survival is concerned, radical and pandemic horror, the horror of the outside emerging from within as an autonomous xeno-chemical Insider and from without as the unmasterable outsider” (Cyclonopedia).  

Oil is the horror of the inhuman terrestrial insider emerging from within the Corporation, the constituent agent of capitalism. The oil corporation is the “progenitor of its own butchery,”, seeking only to continue to profit off the conflagration at the heart of that destruction as the age of catastrophe dawns. But if the price of oil crashes, those suppliers lose some of their economic power relative to the rest of us who merely burn the stuff, and would happily switch to another energy source if one were available. The hope of environmentalists has been that the price of fossil energy goes up enough that we will not be able to afford it anymore, and that the market will magically switch us all to solar panels. This hope of “peak oil” was nurtured by the very oil corporations that profit off of it. Because “Affordance molds a horizon of mutually economically secured openness which accompanies both sides.” That is: affordance manipulates history to perpetuate its object. 

This is why the weakness of the oil company is cheap energy. The corporation tries to manipulate and support oil flows and prices. But ultimately it is vastly less powerful than the oil itself, in its fecund plenitude. In the end, the Corporation is only human, limited by our animal selves. The Dead God prevails.

IV. Petrohistoriography

“For every inconsistency on the surface, there is a subterranean consistency.” — Cyclonopedia

Consider the surface inconsistencies of the events that Peter Dale Scott calls “deep events.”  JFK, 9/11: pivotal moments, but instances when history is marred by inconsistencies which drive some people mad. Following Lt. Slothrop, the quest for the subterranean consistencies of these events is sometimes called paranoia, which reaches its purest form when it’s all true. Well documented, thoroughly researched truth that nonetheless marginalizes anyone who talks about it.

All of these intelligent people who study this will acknowledge the central role that “oil interests” play in deep history. But they will accurately argue that other factors must be considered as well.  Of course. But I am concerned that this obscures the centrality of oil and its human agents in the 20th century. There is a consistency with which everyone’s interests are soaked in oil. [endnote 4] The specific political agenda of oil matters hugely, both historically and at the present.

I’m not arguing that there is a universal spirit that unifies all oil, something outside of history. Separate flows of oil are differentiated, as we all are, by our particular time and place. Also, the flow of oil itself is separate from the human organizations built to manage and profit from its flow, the corporations and cartels. In his book Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell follows Michael Serres in describing the oil corporation as a parasite on the flow of oil. I see both more complicity and more antagonism in this relationship than is contained within the concept of parasitism, but I agree that the corporation is subordinate to the material they sell. 

In order for it to retain its place as the first mover of the human economy, oil needs to stay cheap enough to make any other energy source look expensive. But it also needs financiers to manage its capital, lawyers to advocate for it, engineers to build the infrastructure, soldiers to guard it, and, to a much lesser degree than coal before it, actual workers. The price must support—enrich—that industry. In order for the flow of oil to be maintained, the demand for oil must also be maintained, so that it can reliably be converted into capital.

From the beginning of its industrial exploitation, the problem with oil has been the same: “there was always too much of it. To be more precise, there was too much of it in too few locations” (Mitchell). And so the price of oil needs to be managed for the benefit of both the buyers and the sellers. It’s too important to be subjected  to the whims of “supply and demand,” since there’s always enough supply in the ground to crash the price. The logic here implies sabotage and cartels, because even one independent producer, say, Venezuela, could crash the price. As an oil empire, it is not enough to have adequate reserves; you’ve got to exercise control everywhere on the planet, at all times. Over and over in petrohistory, you’ll see Them go to inhumane and absurd lengths to gain control over an oilfield, and then once they’ve got it, leave it undeveloped. [endnote 5]

The object of petropolitics is not to produce oil, or to accumulate more oil to exploit, but to shut the other guy out of the market. War creates opportunities and tactics for sabotage, and creates a permanent, reliable over-consumer of product.  War creates opportunities and tactics for sabotage, and creates a permanent, reliable over-consumer of product. “The true war is a celebration of markets. Organic markets, carefully styled ‘black’ by the professionals, spring up everywhere” (Gravity’s Rainbow 107). Not only self-styled “black,” but also markets self-styled “free.” And not just markets in the sense of the space in which transactions occur, but also that of creating demand, manufacturing buyers. Follow Enzian as he rides into “this ex-refinery, Jamf Olfabriken Werke AG is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on, modified, precisely, deliberately, by bombing that was never hostile” (520). 

Negarestani, Pynchon, and Deleuze & Guattari all emphasize one key point: War is a Machine. In Cyclonopedia, there is a rogue American colonel, West, who sought to “grasp war as an autonomous entity.” He did so only after he learned, “the meaning of war is only to be found in the search for the meaning of petrol. Enlightenment, as spoken of by the Jihadis, is the realization of this fact” (129). As a fictional career American soldier, “The Jihadis” were his longtime brothers-in-arms in the service of the great War Machine. At their point of origin, Saud, they were collaborators.  All belligerents in war are on the same side: the side of the war itself. 

People think that war is a part of human nature, and that may be true, but this particular military-industrial complex we’ve been living with for the last hunn’red-ten years is an oil machine. A machine of industrial sabotage, a battle to monopolize the market by selling to both sides and destroying competitors. A machine that is capable of spectacular feats of carnage. Also the only thing capable of funding technological innovation. This long war machine can be broken down recursively into smaller and smaller war machines, down to the level of specific atrocities. 

The overabundance of energy guaranteed by oil creates a perpetual excess of production, not only of oil but also of war. Fuel decouples productive capacity from the human demand for any one product, including fuel itself.  War creates a key avenue of overkill to absorb, consume, and pay for excesses in production. This is equally the case of oil itself and of the production of the manufactured goods it enables, and, in the case of plastic, embodies. Weapons in particular can be stockpiled with no limit—the more the better, always.  If used only for human needs, oil would be too powerful for material capitalism; the logic of oil requires the overkill of war to destroy its massive excesses, and to create weapons markets for oil that aren’t bound by human needs. And along the way to shut down as many enemy pipelines as possible. 

The relationship of The Dead God to the war machine: so intimate, yet not coterminous. Oil seeped, from the beginning of its adoption into the war machine, into civilian lives. You can’t quite say that oil is the War, only that oil needed the War to gain saturation and dominance over human lives: the meaning of war. An engine of consumption was jump started by the War, one that created a few generations of wealth on an inhuman scale, beginning from the start of The Great War, which was fought not only over the spoils of colonialism but also avenues to cannibalize and financialize the excess value. The accursed share. [endnote 6] Too much wealth being made, too much capital, too much material, from coal and from colonial expropriation; it can’t be given back to the people, so it must be burned in The War.

READ PART TWO HERE

— Jed Bickman is a worker and a father based in the Bay Area. His writing can be found at The Spouter Magazine, he sells typewriters at Vineland Typewriters (with big discounts given to writers who want to actually use them; if you’re interested in a typewriter, don’t order through Etsy–DM via Twitter), and is on Twitter. The images featured in this essay are available on OpenSea.