“Nation is a Skin Stretched over the Bones of the State”: An Interview with Hamid Parsani


It took me nine months to contact Hamid Parsani, the reclusive Iranian archaeologist, after an audience member approached me after a talk and suggested that I find a way to speak with the notorious—and notoriously elusive–scholar. Since the U.N.’s publication of the document redrawing the borders of India and Pakistan, I have become increasingly concerned with the problem of the secret law or, as Parsani described the phenomena in a written exchange before our interview, the “metastases of parallel sovereignties.” Secret treatises, of course, are a common enough phenomena, and a variety of legal mechanisms shield aspects of the state’s functioning from public scrutiny for reasons of “security.” As the South African Protection of State Intervention Bill illustrates, a central challenge confronting contemporary democracy is the state’s exponentially expanding control over access to information concerning both its routine and exceptional operations. But the Gandhi-Jinnah agreement represents something more. It amounts to a subterranean constitutional settlement, a binding act embedded in the foundation of the state’s juridical order, but nevertheless obscure to the ensuing legal regime and its administrators. Although the parallels are not exact, the result evinces some similarities with the Soviet Union’s passage of secret laws or the U.S. executive branch’s decision to classify its interpretation of the Patriot Act as “top secret.”  In the case of the 1947 U.N. decision, however, the law divides internally, creating autonomous sovereignties (some actual, some potential) within the body of state: a humoral structure.

It was my reference to the subterranean that led the audience member to suggest the connection: did I know Parsani’s discussion of ancient Assyrian warfare and the cannibalization of the state by its own war machines? And did I know that he had written an unpublished manuscript on the archeology of ancient law as a “necrotized  transcendental structure?” While finishing my PhD at Berkeley, I read Parsani’s one published book, the dazzling and impenetrable Defacing the Ancient Persia. A deep history of “openness” (a concept related to Heidegger’s Open) in the Near East, Parsani interprets two millennia of history as a single logic by dissolving the lines between religious, biological, political, geological, and even celestial phenomena: archeological materialism radicalized into a kind of anti-theology. After completing the work, Parsani suffered from a nervous breakdown, left his academic position, and then—following several years of silence—began to write a series of articles based on the premise that the Near East is a sentient entity.

These essays suggest that oil is a form of consciousness that lubricates or “narrates” the technopolitics of global capital and thus drives the West into an insane military confrontation with the apocalyptic forces of Wahhabi Islam. In short, Parsani argues that the purist form of monotheism yearns for a singular idea of God with nihilist consequences: totality can only be realized as void and therefore destruction. Through the War on Terror, oil animates the West as Jihad’s necessary antagonist in this global-cosmic push to nullity. Inverting the relationship between human agency and geology, between matter and divinity, this vision is nothing short of mad. And yet, what mode other than madness could represent the predatory symbiosis between American militarism and Saudi Islam that defines much of our current moment? Among Parsani’s small coterie of followers, the debate rages over whether to read his writings literally or interpret them as a highly ironic mode of philosophical fiction. After two hours of conversation with the man himself, I am still not sure. In either case, his form of writing intensifies paranoia, reconfiguring geometries of inside and outside, visible and invisible, surface and depths. Thinking, for Parsani, is productively entropic. It generates openness through corruption and decay.

I spent several months attempting to contact Parsani in vain until the philosopher Reza Negarestani provided me with an old mailing address. Reluctant to meet, he missed one rendezvous in Beirut before finally agreeing to speak with me at a café in Samatya during a trip to Istanbul. I wanted to question Parsani about South Asia and China’s place in his vision of petropolitical Armageddon: did they also possess forms of sentience which, perhaps, animate competing planetary agendas even while being enslaved to the designs of oil? But he steered clear of current politics and much of the interview consisted of a nearly uninterrupted monologue about an unpublished Persian translation of Mahmoud Mohammed Taha’s history of the pre-Islamic Sudan. Despite his studied gracefulness, he twice spilt his tea while gesticulating imperiously. I have excerpted the brief section of our discussion touching on nation, borders, and the law.

 *   *   *

Soske: If we understand the planet as composed of living entities—you write about its telluric insurgency against the empire of sun—then archeology must take a radically different form: it now becomes a science of the geopolitical dynamics produced by the underground, the invisible spaces within apparently solid forms, the porous and therefore “cadaverous” nature of all materiality, the inside and its manner of infecting everything on earth. Does this archeology give us the tools to think about territory and the division of the earth by borders? In other words, does archeology offer any possibilities for thinking through the state and its form of sovereignty?

Parsani: The problem of state—which is the term for the earth’s vivisection by competing delusions of mastery, delusions specific to the particular technological-human configurations you call economy—has always been a problem of law in its purist, and therefore most incestuous, sense. We might invoke here the figure of Aži Dahāka or Zahhāk (ضحاک), the dragon tyrant that committed incest with his own mother. This type of law, sovereign law, is an absolute residue of the divine, its complete absence. Its form is apophasis: it reign everywhere without control, it assumes the physical form of absence only when violated, when a criminal demonstrates the powerlessness of law through his transgression. The phenomena of borders compounds this paradox because the border at once emanates from the law but also circumscribes its domain by binding the divine residue to a particular stretch of earth, therefore making God’s excrescence slave to the human. One can never occupy a border. One can only pass in between absent Gods. Reaching the border would be a violation of Zeno’s dichotomy paradox. It would involve a subluminal unity with chaos, with what the Zoroastrian’s call druj (دروغ ), the root of “lie” in Persian, with the mutual antithesis of both the godhead and creation. Satan.

The priests of the law, however, are consumed by sacrilege and seek to rebuild heaven on the surface of the planet, a crime against both law and earth. The state is one name for this crime. The state is a reflection: an anti-paradise, a mirror image of Eden. Anticipating when the law will be broken (a border breached, for example), the priests create rituals of power in advance of the manifestation of divine absence: castles, watchtowers, bridges, dungeons, gallows, border stations, demilitarized zones. They claim to be defending order and the divine will by waiting for the moment that the law will be broken. This human arrogance simply mocks God by creating a twisted caricature of reason. In saying all of this, I should emphasize that I am using the term “divine” figuratively. It is essentially the limit of the earth, the limit that the earth constantly comes up against and then uses to remake itself as ground, as foundation in both senses of the word. This limit emanates openness, the relationship to the outside that makes history possible. Every discussion of the law requires that we use theological metaphors because language itself belongs to the earth and therefore can only name the open obliquely.

Soske: But if a border can’t be crossed, can it be moved?

Parsani: The engravings within pyramid of Unas do contain a passage about the apotheosis of a dead king, who hunts downs gods in the fields, and when they are bound, he disembowels, roasts and eats them. But an absent god devouring an absent god? Absurdities. The question that you ask cannot be answered from the vantage point of the law. The border can’t move. It disappears and reappears elsewhere. In that moment, you will see why the earth can never be truly enclosed. The border is pure surface with no depth. (Soske: like the pure event in Deleuze’s Logic of Sense? Parsani: Shakes his head.) The earth is a name for the depth within the depths. But this depth is not a simple emptiness. Every grain of sand in the desert is surrounded by a void, creating an uncountable number of pathways. The abyss consists of rotting pores.

Soske: How then do we understand the question of the secret law? Does the idea not suggest a fissure within what you are calling the absent divine, a depth within the surface? Can this problem be tied to the petropolitics of the War on Terror?

Parsani: The nation is a skin stretched over the bones and organs of the state. This membrane allows for the conceptualization of the state as a single entity, its personification as a coherent actor, as an organism. It is unclear that the state can be thought, or has yet been thought, beyond personification. But war, as I have discussed in my article on the “Assyrian syndrome,” requires that the state engage outside of itself and produce agents, war machines, capable of acting in an autonomous fashion, and therefore pursuing the state’s interests with their our volition and judgment. Before oil used industrialization to animate the entirety of global techno-capitalism, the individual sovereign’s role in articulating and organizing the state meant that it was still conceivable for war machines to escape from and betray the sovereign will.

I have enumerated this process in detail: it leads to the state’s pollution and impoverishment as its apparatus becomes contaminated by increasingly autonomous elements which bring the outside of war into the state’s body, perforating its operations and producing decay. Oil has transformed this once cyclical process into a structural feature of modern politics, which increasingly blends everyday life with perpetual mobilization for battle. The state has become a set of organs without a body. There is no single sovereign will, no clear line between the inside and the outside, no human plan that could comprehend, let alone encompass, the totality of war machines that feed off the king’s disintegrating corpse. The secret law is the theological expression of this parasitism and our surge towards the apocalypse.

Soske: Does the nation not have another afterlife in the realm of art and poetry? I am thinking of Jean Genet’s final statement in the Thief’s Journal: “I intend to report, describe and comment upon the festivals of an inner prison that I discover within me after going through the region of myself which I have called Spain.”

Parasani: Your Genet is a great heretic. He understands that the Jansenists were wrong. Our actions can impose obligations on God.

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