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Oil Culture

Oil Culture

Ross Barrett
Daniel Worden
Foreword by Allan Stoekl
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 456
  • Book Info
    Oil Culture
    Book Description:

    In the 150 years since the birth of the petroleum industry oil has saturated our culture, fueling our cars and wars, our economy and policies. But just as thoroughly, culture saturates oil. So what exactlyis"oil culture"? This book pursues an answer through petrocapitalism's history in literature, film, fine art, wartime propaganda, and museum displays. Investigating cultural discourses that have taken shape around oil, these essays compose the first sustained attempt to understand how petroleum has suffused the Western imagination.

    The contributors to this volume examine the oil culture nexus, beginning with the whale oil culture it replaced and analyzing literature and films such asGiant, Sundown, Bernardo Bertolucci'sLa Via del Petrolio, and Ben Okri's "What the Tapster Saw"; corporate art, museum installations, and contemporary photography; and in apocalyptic visions of environmental disaster and science fiction. By considering oil as both a natural resource and a trope, the authors show how oil's dominance is part of culture rather than an economic or physical necessity.Oil Culturesees beyond oil capitalism to alternative modes of energy production and consumption.

    Contributors: Georgiana Banita, U of Bamberg; Frederick Buell, Queens College; Gerry Canavan, Marquette U; Melanie Doherty, Wesleyan College; Sarah Frohardt-Lane, Ripon College, Matthew T. Huber, Syracuse U; Dolly Jørgensen, Umeå U; Stephanie LeMenager, U of Oregon; Hanna Musiol, Northeastern U; Chad H. Parker, U of Louisiana at Lafayette; Ruth Salvaggio, U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Heidi Scott, Florida International U; Imre Szeman, U of Alberta; Michael Watts, U of California, Berkeley; Jennifer Wenzel, Columbia University; Sheena Wilson, U of Alberta; Rochelle Raineri Zuck, U of Minnesota Duluth; Catherine Zuromskis, U of New Mexico.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4394-7
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Anthropology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)

    Oil Cultureis not just a collection of highly informative essays, but it asks an implicit question: What is oil culture? (And are there cultures, more than one?) Along with that, and perhaps conditioning it: How are oil and culture conjoined? What is it for oil to be cultural? And culture to be oily? Why is oil culture and its fragmentation in cultures so fundamentally important?

    These are, I think, central questions, for oil in itself is mere matter, but as a number of authors in this collection point out, it contains, when burned, concentrated energy, the power to do...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-xxxiv)

    The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling’s Report to the President reproduces an Alabama Department of Public Health sign warning residents of the presence of oil on public beaches.¹ Along with more practical advice, such as “do not handle tar balls,” the sign makes the above claim, both a practical warning and a canny statement about oil’s ontology. Oil is not entirely visible to us as a commodity, a fuel, a resource, or a political and economic agent, yet it is also not invisible. Events like the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill—“the largest...

  6. PART I Oil’s Origins of Modernization

    • 1 Whale Oil Culture, Consumerism, and Modern Conservation
      (pp. 3-18)

      In 1859, the first gush of fossil oil from the ground in Titusville, Pennsylvania, opened a new era for energy production in an energetic young America. Within ten years, a clamorous jumble of drilling towers, pipelines, railroads, and refineries assembled to supply the thirsty markets of the industrial Northeast. Quietly senescing in the background, localized mainly to the New England ports of New Bedford and Nantucket, was an aging titan of American enterprise: the whaling industry. In 1861,Vanity Fairran an illustration of a “Grand Ball Given by the Whales in Honor of the Discovery of Oil Wells in...

    • 2 The Wizard of Oil: Abraham James, the Harmonial Wells, and the Psychometric History of the Oil Industry
      (pp. 19-42)

      On October 31, 1866, four men were traveling by buggy a few miles south of Pleasantville, Pennsylvania, which at the time was little more than a crossroads on the edge of the oil fields. One of the men, Abraham James, was no stranger to the region, although this was the first time he had set foot, physically, in Venango County. According to biographer and fellow spiritualist James Martin Peebles, James had “frequently visit[ed] these Pennsylvania oil regions as a spirit, accompanied by his spirit-guides.”¹ On this particular visit, James, along with C. P. Easton, George Porter, and George McBride, was...

    • 3 Picturing a Crude Past: Primitivism, Public Art, and Corporate Oil Promotion in the United States
      (pp. 43-68)

      Not long after the Deepwater Horizon blowout of April 20, 2010, theMiami Heraldpublished an article that considered the disaster’s place in oil history. Moving toward an argument against a federal moratorium on offshore drilling, the story offered a brief historical sketch of the U.S. oil industry that emphasized the dependence of Gulf State economies on deep-ocean extraction. While setting the disaster within the specific history of offshore drilling, theHeraldstory invoked another “context” for the affair, noting: “Oil and humanity have been linked since the dawn of civilization. In ancient times, oil . . . was collected...

    • 4 A Short History of Oil Cultures; or, The Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance
      (pp. 69-88)

      Vaclav Smil beginsEnergy in World Historywith a daring proposition. He considers Leslie White’s assertion that the link between energy and culture is the first important law of cultural development. “Other things being equal,” White writes, “the degree of cultural development varies directly as the amount of energy per capita per hour harnessed and put to work.” Smil then cites the further claim by Ronald Cox that “a refinement in cultural mechanisms has occurred with every refinement of energy flux coupling.”¹ Smil’s book, he then says, is an attempt to evaluate these assertions.

      Only at the end of his...

  7. PART II Oil’s Golden Age:: Literature, Film, and Propaganda

    • 5 Essential Driving and Vital Cars: American Automobile Culture in World War II
      (pp. 91-108)

      On December 8, 1941, as part of the same campaign that included the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japan seized control of rubber plantations in the Pacific, cutting off over 90 percent of the U.S.’s rubber supply.¹ Thus as the United States entered World War II, the country faced a severe rubber shortage. This scarcity, as well as shortages of gasoline and spare parts at various points in the war, created a significant transportation dilemma for the U.S. home front. The federal government’s response was two-pronged: it regulated Americans’ use of limited resources—rationing rubber and gasoline and lowering speed limits,...

    • 6 Fossil-Fuel Futurity: Oil in Giant
      (pp. 109-128)

      The discourse of sustainability asks us all to imagine possible futures that are more environmentally responsible and less reliant on fossil fuels. This is no small feat, as Imre Szeman has argued, since many visions of a sustainable future rely on technological fantasies, the apocalyptic threat of a barren landscape, and, most important, the wishful desire that a new, environmentally friendly society will not require any radical readjustments to our lives at all.¹ Moreover, the difficulty of imagining life without, or beyond, fossil fuels stems from the fact that fossil fuels themselves connote futurity in late twentieth-century culture. It is...

    • 7 “Liquid Modernity”: Sundown in Pawhuska, Oklahoma
      (pp. 129-144)

      In his work on globalization and contemporary cultural transformations, Zygmunt Bauman argues that in the “‘developed’ part of the planet,” people now live in a “liquid” phase of modernity, marked by the radical instability of cultural forms and social institutions, a reality “never before encountered.”¹ To Bauman and other scholars,² this era of radical uncertainty is closely tied to transformations within labor structures and to the organization of the state in the Global North, deriving in large part from post-1970s financial deregulation and the emergence of electronic communication.³ This essay focuses on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma during the first...

    • 8 From Isfahan to Ingolstadt: Bertolucci’s La via del petrolio and the Global Culture of Neorealism
      (pp. 145-168)

      Pier Paolo Pasolini’s novelPetrolio, published in fragmentary form in 1992, almost twenty years after the death of the celebrated poet and director, focuses loosely on the meditations of a character in the employment of ENI (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi), the Italian state-owned oil-and-gas company. But Carlo is not a run-of-the-mill petroleum engineer. His corporate career provides him with a platform for an “intellectual meditation” on the empirical and aesthetic experience of power, more specifically on the “‘space’ where real power is found.”¹ After traveling to the United States, Arab countries, and as far as Tanzania on behalf of his employer,...

  8. PART III The Local and Global Territories of Oil

    • 9 Aramco’s Frontier Story: The Arabian American Oil Company and Creative Mapping in Postwar Saudi Arabia
      (pp. 171-188)

      In the late 1940s and 1950s, the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) became intricately involved in Saudi Arabian territorial disputes. The story of Aramco and the Buraymi Oasis, located on the eastern borders of Saudi Arabia, was one manifest in everything from border skirmishes to high diplomacy, but also one that included creative storytelling and the selective use of the past for corporate and national ends. Company story makers operated outside the firm’s public relations realm in aid of the Saudi monarchy in its border dispute with the British protectorates of Oman and Abu Dhabi. Using history as a tool...

    • 10 Oil Frontiers: The Niger Delta and the Gulf of Mexico
      (pp. 189-210)

      During the late evening of April 20, 2010, a geyser of seawater erupted from the mariner rise onto the derrick of BP’s drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, located in deep water almost fifty miles off the coast of southern Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. Shortly afterward a slushy combination of mud, methane gas, and water was propelled 250 feet into the air followed by a massive explosion, instantly converting the rig into a raging inferno. In the desperate attempts to control the flow of the gas and fluids, the blowout preventer, developed to cope with extreme erratic pressures and uncontrolled...

    • 11 Petro-Magic-Realism Revisited: Unimagining and Reimagining the Niger Delta
      (pp. 211-225)

      Given the overlap in the trajectories of petroleum and publishing in its postcolonial history, Nigeria confirms and challenges some long-standing assumptions in literary studies about how cultural production fosters national imagining. In 1958, two years before Independence, Nigeria exported its first barrel of oil from Port Harcourt. That year was also a seminal early moment in Nigeria’s literary exports, with the publication in London of Chinua Achebe’sThings Fall Apart. The timing of Nigeria’s simultaneous entry into global print and petrocapitalisms on the eve of its independence may have been a historical coincidence, but the imbrication of oil and literature...

    • 12 Refined Politics: Petroleum Products, Neoliberalism, and the Ecology of Entrepreneurial Life
      (pp. 226-243)

      In his recent book, journalist Peter Maass reflects on the apparent powers of oil: “Across the world, oil is invoked as a machine of destiny. Oil will make you rich, oil will make you poor, oil will bring war, oil will deliver peace.”¹ In discourses like these, oil is invoked as asingular forcecapable of producing singular effects–oil wars, oil addictions, and oil states. In one sense, this is a preeminent example of what Karl Marx calledfetishism—that is, according material “things” a kind of autonomous power divorced from the social relations that make such “things” possible.²...

    • 13 Gendering Oil: Tracing Western Petrosexual Relations
      (pp. 244-264)

      By employing a feminist lens to “follow the oil” and trace “the webs of relations and cultural meanings through which oil is imagined as a ‘vital’ and ‘strategic’ resource,”¹ I wish to interrogate the relationship between human rights and gender and racial equality and the petro-discourses that are newly oriented around ecology in our contemporary moment.² As with many cultural transformations and their associated ideological turns, women’s relationship to oil, to the environment, and to the petrocultures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the West is portrayed in the mainstream media in a limited number of largely superficial ways:...

  9. PART IV Exhibiting Oil

    • 14 Mixing Oil and Water: Naturalizing Offshore Oil Platforms in American Aquariums
      (pp. 267-288)

      On June 26, 2010, the brand-new Gulf of Mexico exhibit at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa, opened devoid of life. The tanks were purposefully left empty, rather than showing the vibrant aquatic life of the Gulf, to highlight the oil spill associated with BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling incident earlier in 2010. According to the museum’s press release, the museum wanted “to open a Gulf exhibit recognizing the crisis that is happening on the Gulf Coast. . . . The exhibit, without fish, now has the opportunity to make a bold statement related to the...

    • 15 Petroaesthetics and Landscape Photography: New Topographics, Edward Burtynsky, and the Culture of Peak Oil
      (pp. 289-308)

      Landscape is a cultural formation. It is not simply what is out there (geographically, ecologically, spatially), but how we figure it ideologically, politically, economically, and aesthetically through representation. Coming into its own as an aesthetic subject in the sixteenth century, the landscape tradition has taken shape in a variety of media and contexts from the earthy naturalism of seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting to the imagined Arcadian idylls of Nicholas Poussin, and from the bombast of Alfred Bierstadt’s views of the Rocky Mountains to the ephemeral instantaneity of John Constable’s watercolor cloud studies. Consistent throughout the landscape genre, however, is a...

    • 16 Fossil, Fuel: Manifesto for the Post-Oil Museum
      (pp. 309-328)

      “If the problem of death can be solved, the solutions to other problems cannot but follow.”¹ These are the words of the Russian librarian and philosopher Nikolai Federov, as performed by David Wilson. Wilson is founder and curator of theMuseum of Jurassic Technology,Los Angeles’s ironic encomium to the RenaissanceWunderkammernthat preceded Enlightenment-era museums of natural history. The “resurrection and resuscitation” in full body of all the dead who have gone before is a “task that will be realized by the museum,” Wilson intoned in a voice-over at a recent screening of his film mash-up about Federov,The...

  10. PART V The Future of and without Oil

    • 17 Retrofutures and Petrofutures: Oil, Scarcity, Limit
      (pp. 331-349)

      Fredric Jameson has written that “in our time . . . the world system . . . is a being of such enormous complexity that it can only be mapped indirectly, by way of a simpler object that stands as its allegorical interpretant.”¹ In this chapter, I offer up oil, and oil capitalism, as one such interpretant for the historical world-system as a whole—and further offer up science fiction as a means to register the different meanings of “oil” that are available in different historical moments.

      Oil’s ubiquity and centrality within contemporary consumer capitalism suggests it as an especially...

    • 18 Crude Aesthetics: The Politics of Oil Documentaries
      (pp. 350-365)

      How does the problem of oil appear in documentary film? In what follows, I examine the manner in which oil is represented in three “feature” documentaries released over the past five years: Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack’sA Crude Awakening(2006), Joe Berlinger’sCrude: The Real Price of Oil(2009), and Shannon Walsh’sH2Oil(2009).¹ As might be expected, while each has oil at its core, these documentaries differ substantially both in subject matter and form. Berlinger’sCrudedeals with a protracted legal case against the activities of Chevron in Ecuador; Walsh’s film examines the ecological and social impact of...

    • 19 Oil and Dust: Theorizing Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia
      (pp. 366-383)

      Reza Negarestani’s 2008 workCyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materialshas been described as a work of “theory-fiction” and “Geotrauma” by those who have worked to theorize the text.¹ An enigmatic work by an enigmatic Iranian philosopher and writer,Cyclonopediaemploys a mix of fictional prose, academic critique, and observations culled from technology studies, global political theory, and contemporary philosophical debates to assemble a Deleuzian critique of global capitalism and petroleum politics. Negarestani’s previous work has been featured,an online journal edited by technology theorists Arthur and Marilouise Kroker,² as well as in the independent journalCollapse,edited by...

    • 20 Imagining Angels on the Gulf
      (pp. 384-404)

      The story of how oil culture has wracked ruin all across the Gulf of Mexico begs to be told by angels—at least two of them. The first of these winged creatures steps out from the pages of a famous twentieth-century essay, “The Angel of History.” Witness to the havoc of the past, this angel looms large in modern consciousness. Its wings are helplessly extended by storm winds propelling it into the future, while it stands immobilized in a gaze riveted on the wreckage of the past. The second winged creature is much older than this Angel of History and...

  11. Contributors
    (pp. 405-408)
  12. Index
    (pp. 409-424)