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Oil, notes David McDermott Hughes, is ‘most dangerous when it behaves ordinarily and when people treat it as ordinary … Only the abnormal event – the spill – brings a black goo into view and into contact with human flesh.’ In Part I, Tracy Lassiter and Imre Szeman take as their starting point the banality of oil infrastructure in settler-colonial landscapes. Alysse Kushinski moves to consider not the aesthetics of infrastructure’s ‘background’ presence, but the aesthetics of transparency and the ways in which oil infrastructure can be just as dangerous when its volatile, leaky nature is made transparent.

Oil, notes David McDermott Hughes, is ‘most dangerous when it behaves ordinarily and when people treat it as ordinary … Only the abnormal event – the spill – brings a black goo into view and into contact with human flesh’ (McDermott Hughes 2017: 2–7). In this part, Tracy Lassiter (Chapter 2) and Imre Szeman (Chapter 1) take as their starting point the banality of oil infrastructure in settler-colonial landscapes. Lassiter's focus in Boom! is an 1859 image of Drake's Well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. While Drake's Well was not particularly productive (the oldest continuously productive oil well was drilled in 1866 in Trinidad), the gushing forth of oil on the eve of Drake's investors deciding that they would pull out of his speculative effort to commercially harvest ‘Seneca oil’ has profoundly shaped the colonial global economy. The enormous wealth of the Rockefellers was built by selling kerosene for heating and lighting in the 1870s, but the appearance of the internal combustion engine prompted a global search for oil. The imperial practice of mapping unruly territories so that they could be ruled, and their riches extracted, was now applied to the subsurface, as soon-to-be oil giants sought to build infrastructure that could profitably extract oil with a range of chemical and physical properties from a variety of territories under imperial control (Shafiee 2018).

For all the work that goes into mapping territory, categorizing the qualities and properties of different types of oil and folding considerations of profitability into drill, derrick and pipeline design, most of us experience oil infrastructure ‘in the background’. Often you may find yourself engaging with such extractive infrastructure through an aesthetic mode. This is not to say that oil infrastructure is ‘art’, but that infrastructures ‘produce the ambient conditions of everyday life: our sense of temperature, speed, florescence, and the ideas we have associated with these conditions’ (Larkin 2013: 336). If you've ever lived near an oil rig or a refinery, how does it make you feel when you walk or drive past it? How does the air smell? What do cinematic images of oil infrastructure conjure up for you? Does oil infrastructure make you feel close to a kind of unnervingly fast, loud and bright ‘modernity’? Or do you feel yourself living in the shadow of a poorly maintained, soon-to-be relic of a foolhardy fossil fuel dependency? It is the sheer banality of oil infrastructure in Alberta's landscape that Imre Szeman (Chapter 1) takes as the focus in ‘Pumpjacks, playgrounds and cheap lives’. It is not only the banality of an oil derrick outside a McDonald's in Alberta, but the sense of playfulness and loyalty to a regional oil industry that Szeman uses as his jumping-off point for exploring the relationship between cheap food, cheap oil and cheap lives.

A pumpjack near a McDonald's playground domesticates the oil industry, makes it an unthreatening part of the landscape, and of family life and household reproduction. The image of Drake's Well – copies of which can be purchased from the Drake's Well Museum and Park – functions as a kind of heritage artefact, valuable because of its ‘pastness’ (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1995), which also removes any sense of threat, immediacy or extractive violence from a cosy history of oil in the American landscape. Yet the setting for both Lassiter (Chapter 2) and Szeman (Chapter 1) is stolen land: the settler colonies of Canada and the US. Lassiter draws a line from Drake's Well to contemporary First Nations’ struggles against violent extraction and pipeline construction on Native lands. Idle No More was founded in 2012 by three Indigenous women (Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam and Nina Wilson) and Sheelah McLean to protest the attack by Stephen Harper's Conservative government on Canadian environmental protections, and violations of Indigenous land and treaty rights. Indigenous women have also been at the centre of the caretaking of land, water and community as part of #NoDAPL protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation (TallBear 2019).

Indigenous organization against extraction, pipeline construction and treaty violation is rooted in an ethical framework of solidarity with ‘other-than-human relations’ (TallBear 2019: 17). When environmental review processes are undertaken, for example in relation to Shell's expansion into Alberta's tar sands on Athabasca Chipewayan territory, relations with other-than-human relations are forcibly reduced to measures of the ‘use value’ available from hunting, fishing and access to territory. As Zalik (2015) shows, Shell was able to successfully argue to the Canadian state that accepting Athabasca Chipewayan demands to protect the Muskeg river would have ‘sterilized’ oil resources by rendering them unrecoverable. Visual representations of the ease with which oil can be ‘recovered’ (or why environmental and other protections might impede this ‘recovery’) have been developed by the American Petroleum Institute since the 1920s. These representations rely upon the language of ‘proving up’ oil (rather than extracting it); doing surveys to increase the probability that there is oil present, and altering financial agreements and commitments to make it financially feasible to ‘recover’ the oil. This language of ‘proving up’ is in fact borrowed from the homesteading legislation which governed the settler colonization of America's frontier: white men and their wives could claim land as their own by ‘proving it up’ (Hughes 2017: 80). The very ideology of settler colonialism is hardwired into the technical language of oil extraction.

In ‘Spillcam’, Alysse Kushinski (Chapter 3) moves to consider not the aesthetics of infrastructure's ‘background’ presence but the aesthetics of transparency. BP's Deepwater Horizon spill, and the attempts to cap it, was livestreamed in real time. Here we have the spill that brings oil into view, brings black goo into contact with human and other-than-human bodies. Kushinski shows, however, that oil infrastructure can be just as dangerous when its volatile, leaky nature is made transparent. Rather than just revealing the ecological destruction and risky subcontracting arrangements through which oil extraction proceeds, Kushinski argues that making the spill visible in fact gave BP an opportunity to make the resealing of the well, and the return to ‘business as usual’, even more salient in viewers’ minds. This ‘aesthetic of accountability’ draws upon our familiarity with disaster footage, and the experience of relief and comfort that can be derived from feeling like we have overseen a process of repair and recovery. Live-stream over, and oil infrastructure can blend back into the background of settler-colonial landscapes. Unless, perhaps, we learn to use our familiarity with the aesthetics of oil, finance and empire to cultivate scepticism and mobilize against Big Oil's self-representation.

Works cited

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. (1995) ‘Theorizing heritage’. Ethnomusicology 39(3): 367–380.

Larkin, B. (2013) ‘The politics and poetics of infrastructure’. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327–343.

McDermott Hughes, D. (2017) Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change and Complicity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Shafiee, K. (2018) Machineries of Oil: An Infrastructural History of BP in Iran. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

TallBear, K. (2019) ‘Badass Indigenous women caretake relations: #Standingrock, #IdleNoMore, #Black lives matter’. In N. Estes and J. Dhillon (eds), Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL movement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 13–18.

Zalik, A. (2015) ‘Resource sterilization: Reserve replacement, financial risk, and environmental review in Canada's tar sands’. Environment and Planning A 47: 2446–2464.

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The entangled legacies of empire

Race, finance and inequality


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