This Haunting Memory that is not my Own

Panos Aprahamian
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/ɛkˈstɪŋ(k)ʃ(ə)n/ n. 

That which awaits all at the end of History. 

“There was not a breath, not a birdsong to be heard, not a rustle, nothing. And although it now grew lighter once more, the sun, which was at its zenith, remained hidden behind the banners of a pollen-fine dust that hung for a long time in the air. This, I thought, will be what is left after the earth has ground itself down.” — W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn

An unnamed narrator reads a letter to an ancestor or a descendant in Western Armenian. Another, now in a female voice and Literary Arabic, reads a letter to you. Here you stand in as the agent of the convictions of humanity. She tells a story of land grab and land loss, exile and exploitation, productive and reproductive labor, extraction, and resource transfer that has taken many forms throughout history and pre-history.

The old way moved across geographies, searching for land uninhabited by other humans and rich with resources. It acquired resources by transferring them from nonhuman animals, plants, and other organisms. Here it stands in for the strange simians that possessed a peculiar uniqueness and the capacity to produce, dominate, create and destroy.

Then came conquest, and the conquerors acquired resources by transferring them from nonhuman animals, plants, and other organisms, but also other human inhabitants of the conquered land, often resulting in their expulsion, enslavement, or destruction. A secret sadness now inhabited these strange simians due to all the suffering they produced throughout history, inflicting it upon their kin and others.

Now a dominant power does not only transfer resources from other human and nonhuman contemporaries but also the past and the future. From the future, it transfers time from its descendants and extracts resources that would’ve been quintessential for the survival of human and nonhuman future inhabitants of the planet. From the past or the deep, where the ‘Silurian Sun’, named after the period that witnessed much of the formation of coal deposits around the world, lies dormant, it transfers resources to the present or the surface generating sacrificed zones.

Sacrificial landscapes that must die so other places can live, where time can only be experienced as broken, as a fatal repetition, where the border is a trauma living in the body, passed on to other bodies, where decaying landscapes betray decaying social structures, and where the time is out of joint. Where the silkworm gives way to the oil-producing algae, and where the documentary gives way to the digitally generated, as a way to explore alternative ecologies, as a way to play with temporality, as a way to flatten the landscape where the human and the nonhuman, the dead and the undead, the past, the present, and the future all coalesce.

Before the labor of (un)dead algae — who have been deconstructing themselves into fossil fuel for over five million centuries — was extracted, another nonhuman laborer, the silkworm — whose preferred food, the mulberry leaf, was abundant on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean — helped catalyze the arrival of industrial capital to the region. This process of modernization no longer allowed for multicultural empires and replaced them with homogenized nation-states that led to endless trails of death and displacement across its former territories. Mapping these trails goes beyond the mere spatial and migrates toward the temporal to trace the past and the future within the decaying landscapes of the present and gaze back at specters of Levantine history and forwards to the coming ecological collapse.

The story of the region’s human inhabitants, like elsewhere, is intrinsically linked to that of their nonhuman counterparts and the landscape. Here the Bombyx mori, more commonly known as the mulberry silkworm, is the catalyzing historical agent of change. This relationship of the human with the nonhuman continues, and the silkworm is soon replaced by the aforementioned (un)dead algae and later automation. The extraction of the (un)dead algae’s labor scars the territory far more drastically than that of the silkworm. It generates sacrificial landscapes just like their human and nonhuman inhabitants must die so other places can live. The histories of those seeking refuge in the dumping grounds of Beirut’s eastern suburbs with that of the Levantine silk industry—a major catalyzing factor in the regional emergence of (Seri-)Capitalist Modernity and the subsequent rise of nationalism(s)—are intrinsically linked. 

The accelerated modernization brought upon by the human/nonhuman labor of the silk worker/silkworm put forth a long and bloody transitional period when the crisis has already begun and has already been taking place ever since. These intrinsically linked histories of the region’s human and nonhuman inhabitants are reflected in its Third Nature and sacrificial landscapes; “landscapes where time can only be experienced as broken, as a fatal repetition” (Mark Fisher), where physical decay betrays decaying social structures, and where “the border is a trauma living in the body, passed on to other bodies” (Marcos Santiago Gonsalez). The exploitation of the silk worker/silkworm’s labor and the subsequent summoning of the ethnoreligiously homogenous nation-state was only able to come about through mass death and displacement. The silkworm speaks.

Unable to complete our transformation, a string is spun from the silken thread of our cocoons as we melt away. One batch after another until the entire killing business is complete. Our stories are linked to each other, to the land, and to this extractive relationship that continues well beyond my days. My kind is soon replaced by the microscopic agent deconstructing itself on the seabed and into fuel, over five million centuries, and into synthetic silk, scaring the land and generating seascapes and landscapes that must die so that other places can live. Seascapes where things can only be experienced as a fatal repetition. Landscapes where machines reshape old structures for upcoming ceremonies, turning remnants of an industrial past into monuments of a service (sector) future. I wonder if extraction can only summon that which comes about through mass death. Bred to total domesticity, I exist only in the context of production and I am harvested at the point of metamorphosis. My purpose is to feed growth as I perpetually consume mulberry leaves. I am lucky that my cocoon accidentally entangled with that of another, rendering our silk unusable. We were spared and were allowed to complete our journey, becoming breeders. He is already dead, and I await my own as I remain blind and flightless, living in a shadowscape dictated by artificial light, evoking memories of lost futures that could’ve been, memories from before the trauma of metamorphosis. For so long, my ancestors had been nighttime pollinators, attracted to glowing pollen as the sun faded. This has been perturbed, however, by your kind’s neonscape that turned dusk to dawn, shrouding the land in a perpetual haze. Once your attempt to conquer the night, it is now being replaced by diodes that have taken command.

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