We discuss with Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh about the nature of Omnicide, Philosophy After Dark, Seduction and Deception. Interview by Dustin Breitling
DB: Could you walk us through the various encounters, epiphanies, hallucinations, moments of vertigoes, shamans, poets, mystics, charlatans, or writers that have been formative in sculpting the focus of your work or more importantly what compelled you to carve the road of focus you have. Your work draws upon an expanse of writers such as Adonis, Joyce Mansour, Ibrahim al-Koni, Sadeq Heyadat, Ahmad Shamlu, and of course an international constellation from Arab, Turkish, North African, Armenian, Afghani, Chechen, and Kurdish.
JBM: To speak ambitiously, my work aims to fabricate the grand illusion of a movement. The fact is that these names you read are all scattered visionaries from across disparate languages, climates, geographies, periods, cultural backdrops, and so what I am doing is to fashion some kaleidoscopic prism in which they can blend and bleed together in ways that historical borders never actually allowed. In essence, my books hallucinate a hotel somewhere in the abyss where they all can occupy a room and meet together in the lobby for elegant or devious conversations independent of the constraints of time and space that reduced most of them to very lonely existences. Most lived in a kind of rogue isolation, and so I try and build the city where such incendiary voices can gather and experiment alongside one another. If life were more noble or merciful, these hypothetical alliances would have crystallized to form the fiercest secret societies, but for now they remain figments of my theater.
To pull off this magic trick, though, you have to spend years becoming both a master-scavenger and a master-collector. The scavenger knows how to hunt the most obscure places on earth in order to extract vital things—a close friend of mine once told me that there are certain snakes that can burrow below the stones to locate precious gems, so that is our paradigm there: someone who risks everything to rescue something (often an item or talisman in the debris that no one even knows exists yet). And the collector is the one who understands the complicated gesture of forming assortments and recognizing singularity; they know how to differentiate between typologies according to minor intricacies of craft or vision, and they go about constructing perfect atmospheres and glass cases to intensify the radical power of their artifacts.
So that is my relation to these other authors—it’s not the derivative interpretation of a canon but rather a summoning of outsiders to various philosophical and poetic games that I design, that I stage with meticulous rules and implications, and they always rise to the occasion, without fail. Sometimes I conjure them to speak on madness, at other times on seduction or on the nature of making threats, and in other instances the end of the world. In each volume, though, you have to forge a scaffolding with absolute precision and ingenuity if the constellation is to work. So it’s not standard literary criticism; if anything, it’s closer to an occult discipline: Each of the names you mentioned is its own idol, and I treat them like the wondrous idols of the first Babylonian or Sumerian civilizations, but it falls on my shoulders to convene a cosmos in which their effects can strike their mark. They only make sense together in the antechamber of that pyramid. Otherwise, there is no legitimate continuity between these figures from the Iranian, Arab, North African, Turkish worlds—no more or less than when I splice in a strange Japanese or Portuguese writer. These authors are not actually unified by some fake imperialist region known as The Middle East. They have no authentic commonality except that they are all legends of an outlawed trade. Instead, someone must be the architect of a banquet or labyrinth that can accommodate such ravenous individuals and hang their passages like enigmatic hieroglyphs across its walls. That is how I encounter them—never on their terms, but always in a new zone of fascination where they will become beautiful phantoms who shadow-dance according to whatever rhythms I throw at them. The challenge for me, then, is to reanimate them by bringing about that once-in-a-lifetime evening where they can become more cunning than ever before, more eloquent than ever before, more hypnotizing than they were in the best hours of their true existence by entering this citadel. It’s a hell of a sorcery; it takes excruciating care and respect; but it’s the only method if you actually want to crystallize a counter-world
DB: This would potentially feed into my next question concerning your interest especially in Mania or that is the mainstay of your devilish work Omnicide. I would be interested perhaps for our listeners what was one of seeds or germs of influence for you that compelled you to be enchanted by the idea of Mania or more particularly the cornucopia of manias you engage with? As you write mania is driven by a “fugitive trajectory of devotion’ that falls under the influence of a predatory drive, of course, you point to Nietzsche’s contention that the artist “forgets most things so as to do one thing, unjust to what lies behind him,” and also weaving into this focus your book addresses what becomes an idea of omnicide that is inextricably linked to various motives that drive towards its impulse.
JBM: With respect to mania, which is the starting-point of the Omnicide project, what compelled me above all else was the search for a will to delirium. Certain writers understand this delirium; certain warriors and artists can carve into its electricity; and certain mystics definitely have their own ritualistic strongholds in these realms of delirium. On my side, years ago I began experimenting with a continuum of ideas—from rage to silence—that take one to the outer boundaries of this convulsive power: and that is not free will, but rather something that has the spontaneous fluidity of lightning, a tremor that happens only when consciousness submits itself to almost trance-like automaticity. It took a long path of many corridors for me to decipher the logic of these fever-dreams of almost otherworldly insight, but mania might have been the right password that enabled me to trespass through the final door and into the heart of the question. The reason is that mania is ceaselessly crumbling down into further particularities—cataptromania: the obsession with mirrors; dendromania: the obsession with forests; bathymania: the obsession with deep water—which means that I had to develop an approach that was the like those ancient lantern-makers whose hands would bleed from constantly fracturing glass into smaller and smaller shards. There is a unique genius that can only be found in the fragment and in the partial glance; that is why so many of the most phenomenal figures even in the Western philosophical tradition, from Nietzsche to Bataille to Blanchot and Baudrillard, increasingly started turning toward aphorisms as their mode of writing, which brought them right back to where Middle Eastern poetry has always stood, you know, in fragments (because it allows thought to navigate the most miniscule chambers, to thread the needle into a cylinder of imagination that allows no totality or grandiose truth to enter). But it’s a treacherous business, this movement into mania, because you are dealing with the most volatile substances while yourself having to walk a very narrow tight-rope—it’s like the actual practice of the medieval alchemists, so many of whom were burned or went blind in their laboratories testing the limits of these metal toxins and poisons and flammable liquids just to understand how dosages work—or like a martial artist suspended in a perfect pose on a rock cliff while the winds around them are howling and throwing everything off-balance. The paradox is to maintain calmness as all else starts collapsing or disappearing or lighting on fire.
So that is just the first act of the Omnicide drama—learning how to negotiate each little Pandora’s Box of a mania that wants nothing more than to unravel into chaos, and you do this by studying the way each grooves and bends and shatters, like a surfer who reads the breaking of the waves. But then you also do have to chase it to its fatal outcome; you don’t want to constrain it from reaching the point of its fallout: thus the apocalyptic nature of the title, Omnicide, which signals that there is a dangerous suspension bridge that leads one from curiosity to intrigue to astonishment to awe to compulsion and finally some type of death-wish. You know, the ancients understood something when they imagined the gods Hypnos and Thanatos as brothers, Sleep and Death, for our dreams (which are often the warehouses of our desires) are intimately tied to our annihilation: and not in some suspicious, covert way necessarily; but in the most explicit sense of it being the most captivating performance of the end. Martyrs understand this all too literally; look deep into the eyes of those who hang on crosses during crucifixions and later correctly get linked to experiences we call “rapture”. They want nothing more than to match their finitude against their passion in some lethal alignment. The Decadents too at some more nihilistic level understood this in their back-alleys and absinthe taverns: that there is nothing better than savoring every drink as the last possible drink, every poem as if it were the last thing ever inscribed and whispered into the dying air. Even the Romantics sensed this when they unlocked the mad detail that a lover’s ultimate fantasy is to have the whole world fade away so that they can remain suspended in the nothing with their object of infatuation. They all eventually call for the vanishing once they have found that one thing which can simultaneously satisfy their euphoria and dysphoria, their longing and their wrath, their pleasure and their agony, their creativity and their cruelty, for at the edges of experience they synthesize into a perfect reckoning apparatus. So that is what the book traces, that razor-like line from adoration to desolation that sometimes appears deranged and disturbing but which itself is not wrong—after all, in existential terms, it is simply the desire to end at our height, at our best, at our most enchanted eleventh hour. What is the alternative?
To perish in our mediocrity, abandoned and dwindling? Notice, by the way, that this is exactly what our modern age conditions us to accept and which we are perhaps just now beginning to realize: that there is nothing worse than dying for nothing. Three centuries of this nonsense, its pathetic ideologies and false utopias, and nothing but genocides and killing fields and mass graves to show, but finally maybe some recognition that there is no worse fate than to cry for the one who dies for nothing. Middle Eastern writers know this all too well, with our million elegies to futile loss and wasted lives. So yes, Omnicide has its own violence, no doubt, we can’t avoid that, we are in a violent universe; birth and death, the bookends of our existential experience, are themselves brutal gestures, and so we must by necessity dabble in suffering, thirst, betrayal, revenge, war, but the omnicidal dream is the very antidote to the nightmare of our everyday reality that kills everything in order to try and win permanence. It offers a chance at what Nietzsche called the free death, which is to know how to die at the right time, which strangely enough also means knowing how to live in the untimely, how to drift into the orbit of another charm, and also how to return.
DB: Another key element to your work engages with of course the atmospheric or the intoxication textures of “sound, sensation, and mood” that become ignited or unleashed in your focus of the night, or rather your work posits that “Night brings revolution against the archetypal time-space of the visionary, the imaginary, the unreal, the unknown, the elsewhere, the outside, and the emergent. It is where one first builds machinations of radical thought, letting fall those droplets of mad and dangerous consciousness” You also continue to write “Night solves the paralyzing dilemma of modern philosophy for which the grand challenge to truth, knowledge, and metanarrative appears (to some critics) to have bequeathed a vacuous moment of self-defeating disenchantment.” How do you reflect upon your work countering the possibility of Grand Narratives or what still lies outside the possibility of being subsumed within narratives? How do you regard the importance of narrative especially in a day of age where meaning seems to dissolve, and the need for some form of myth-making or narrative still carries weight socially, personally, and potentially politically?
JBM: So let me tell a story here, because the storyteller is precisely the figure who knows how stop a narrative from ever becoming a grand narrative, as you say. Storytellers know the awful threat of that moment when a fairy-tale becomes a myth, because myths are typically about origins and belonging whereas fairy-tales are about the elsewhere and becoming (which comes from forgetting yourself for a while). And that is also what intrigues me about Night: it’s exactly where one goes to get lost.
So anyway, a story: A few years ago, I went to Tokyo, Japan to honor the fact that Japanese literature is among the only places where you can find stories where the actual main character is something like Sand or Night itself. Meaning that the human protagonists are basically just useless vessels and hollowed-out devices to allow this inhuman atmospheric phenomenon to take over and impose its moods on whatever it touches. And so there were three short novels that I brought with me during this trip, because each of them is set against nocturnal backdrops and in fact they allow Night to blanket the world and drive the plot’s destiny like a fortune-teller laying out tarot cards on a table: the first book was titled The House of the Sleeping Beauties, which is about this eerie inn at the outskirts of the city where old men go to lay beside young dreaming women for the night, and it’s run by this terrifyingly cold or almost ghostly Madame who prepares the objects and beds of each rotating room in the place; the second book I had during this extended time in Tokyo was titled The Box Man, where a man in his apartment notices a growing trend of individuals in the alley below who have chosen to stay inside small cardboard boxes, with only a hole for their eyes, and who wander the cityscape or dwell beneath bridges all the while encapsulated in this weird insular space of the box, and the whole text begins with a haunting photo of a box man running away into the dark after he has just been shot by the narrator; and the third book was titled After-Dark, which if I recall takes place between the hours of 11 pm to 4 am and follows a winding trajectory of events and encounters in this window of time that consists of both absolute quiet and absolute disquiet, and what’s most compelling about the work is that there are these disorienting interludes every few chapters that for a page or so describe a young woman who is suspended in a deep, unwaking sleep in a hotel room, and there is some unnamed diabolical intelligence doing this to her, and it is gradually pulling her into the white digital static of the running television in the room, so her soul is being imprisoned in the artificial light of the virtual.
What I did was I carried these three books on Night with me to Tokyo, and I went to every last conceivable site that was mentioned in all three books, footstep by footstep. I followed all the touchstones of their exact maps and I performed the night-walks to these locations like a ritual, observing the exact times when they supposedly take place, witnessing the different types of people they depicted—runaways, vagrants, criminals, dealers, musicians, pleasure-seekers—noting the particular visual dimensions in each district and deserted streetcorner, and really allowing myself to get caught in their spiderwebs for a while, to play both tracker and prey in order to uncover these mysterious relations with the after-dark. And I ended up writing three pieces in conversation with these three works, like a confidential meeting with each of their three iconic authors; but I published only one of them in my philosophical book on Night. That means I chose to withhold the other two writings, and to offer them as a sacrifice to the blackness that made them possible. And I think this practice is at the core of my original attraction to the Night’s folds: it’s the place where you can exercise your rights as the deserter, where you can forfeit the most irreplaceable things and hand them back to the silence, because that is precisely the criterion of freedom: not knowing or transparency, as we are taught in our age of delusional Enlightenment, but secrecy.
I made the conscious decision to stage a secret, to deprive certain essential things from my reader in my Night book, to hold back certain priceless modes, and to exhibit only one of three turns that happened in those late-night walks in the Japanese metropolis. What that means is that no matter who reads me, now or whenever, no matter how close they come to expertly memorizing or interpreting my thoughts, they will never have all of it, they will never own my image entirely or know my every last impression, not to mention myself, that not even I can claim some immaculate self-awareness or ownership, because there are these two remnants of the unspoken or the untold out there, sensitivities that arose and were buried in the same soundproof room, because I gifted these elements, maybe even the best of my abilities, back to the oblivion.
DB: I would further like to excavate into your work of Deception as you have conducted a whole seminar at the New Centre orbiting around as you state “Deception as a philosophical art-form of the highest order, one requiring intricate mastery of the varying states of unreality: the dream, the nightmare, the mirage, the fantasy, the hallucination, the simulation, the vision, the memory, the enigma, the story, the wish, and the apparition (ghost, shadow). Along these axes, we will also unravel the particular techniques of distortion, riddle, and encryption that make up the vast arsenal of the liar.” What has been the motor behind your examination of the dimension of Deception and also its function as a subversive yet way to discover new traps, exits, and even forms of plotting against the present?
JBM: Yes, I believe that the liar is always the world’s last chance. As I have said in other places, there are those philosophers who believe that only a myth can kill a myth, following the old principle that only a wolf can kill a wolf; but I actually think that only a lie can kill a myth, or a belief-structure, or an ideology. What the seminar at the New Centre for Research & Practice allowed me, and for which I remain quite grateful for the platform, was a chance to unfold the many shape-shifting concepts that go into fulfilling a Deceptive scheme. For this, we had to decode the highly acute techniques behind different types of radical illusion, and to respect Manipulation as our patron god for eight weeks together. It’s honestly no joke when you begin disentangling the strands, however absurd or light-hearted a lie might be—you realize quickly that you are in the sphere of pure complexity. Realities are usually reductive and based on simplistic archetypal clichés—that is how they can encompass and control large collective groups—but deceptions are one-of-a-kind contraptions filled with the most sophisticated strategies of layering and metamorphosis. So for eight weeks we meditated on thematics like subtlety, vulnerability, insinuation, subterfuge, disguise, extortion, concealment. We saw that to hand philosophy, literature, art, and even technology over to Deception is to spin the mind in an altogether unforeseen orientation, and I can’t say here all the axes that we walked together in that seminar, but yes we learned how to form a conspiracy, how to sabotage and envelop perception, how to talk in forked tongues and see the world as a smoke-and-mirrors form of play. Still, the diagrams from that course did make it into my next manuscript, which is Omnicide volume 2, and particularly the final chapter or epilogue which is titled The Book of the Liar.
DB: I think your reflections, contemplations and meditations regarding our catapulting into an era illuminates some discussions concerning the nature of Demonology, the Avant-Garde, Theology, would you have any new kernel of reflections concerning Covid-19?
JBM: To the current situation, I would simply offer an interesting piece of trivia: you know, there is a recurring sub-genre for thousands of years throughout different folklores and superstitions where it is rumored that certain names, songs, or texts if spoken out loud or even said in the mind could supposedly result in the cursing of oneself or the death of a close family member or a complete stranger in the world. What this fear is symbolically communicating to us is that we are in an unsettling landscape where the slightest wrong turn could have terminal consequences. This means that everything is a potential trigger and doomsday button, or equally an escape-route and cure: so we have to be willing to study the minefield, not to deny its explosivity, we have to actually listen to the damned omens and oracles, because we have tempted fate into an era where everything has the capacity to be either the last movement or the beginning of another vanguard. I know which one I fight for; I am always on the side of more lifeblood and another round of the game; that is why my project for decades has been to coalesce the slickest thinkers, sages, and quick-talkers I could find in the hopes that this might buy us some extra time or possibility, or at least if we are inching closer to the end, to expand that interval into eternity somehow, and like the best ancient storytellers taught us, to make the end never-ending.