Let me repeat, we are dealing with a potentiality, the realization of which depends on prevailing circumstances. The emergence of a new style is dependent on many external influences; and there is also a double internal danger which, in the history of literature, has often marked periods of transition. There may be reluctance, on the one hand, to accept the logic of some new subject-matter; there may be a timid hanging-on to traditional styles, an unwillingness to give up old habits. There may also be, on the other hand, a tendency to overemphasize abstract aspects of new subject-matter (‘in history,’ wrote Hegel, ‘every new phenomenon emerges first in abstract form’). Abstraction thus gains the upper hand. Concrete realities—the exploration with the help of the new consciousness of as yet unexplored subject matter will be neglected or considered of secondary importance.—Georg Lukács, Realism in Our Time (1971: 115-116)
Lukács disqualified the sciences as fetishes of the particular, unable to grasp the totality, over which only the non-science of philosophy had dominion…But climate science is not such a science. And curiously, it takes as its object totality in a quite different sense: the totality of metabolic processes that take place on a planetary scale, and in particular the contribution of collective human labor to those processes.—McKenzie Wark, “Four Cheers for Vulgar Marxism”
In ecological thought, thinking big is back in a big way. And why not? The twin problems of global warming and ongoing pollution are both intensified by an energy-reliant system of accumulation and dispossession that operates at a massive scale. Thinking big seems to match the size of solution-seeking to the size of the problem. In “The Rise of Energy Humanities,” Dominic Boyer and Imre Szeman frame this problem in terms of an ecology-energy impasse: “It is not an exaggeration to ask whether human civilization has a future. Neither technology nor policy can offer a silver-bullet solution to the environmental effects created by an energy-hungry, rapidly modernizing and expanding global population.” (Boyer and Szeman 2014). They posit that the problems we face as a species fall within the expertise of the human sciences, from studies of ethics, habits, and values to understandings of institutions, belief, and power. The discursive mode arguably most interested in coming to terms with the scope of our ecology-energy impasse is that of theory, with examples ranging from Eugene Stoermer's and Paul Crutzen's theorizations of the Anthropocene, to Timothy Morton’s attempt in Hyperobjects (2012) to furnish a language suitable to both new materialism and what he calls the “ecological emergency” (Morton 2012). But how do we begin to think between the proliferating big ideas of geology, climate science, new materialism, and the energy humanities?
I would argue that a particular risk in contemporary ecological theorizing is not the result of trying to think too big; rather, it is a problem of taking too easy a path to thinking that bigger picture. Totalities are nuanced, to say the least, and the way we imagine social and ecological relations can be expressed only in complex and indirect ways, lest we fall back into what Hegel called “picture-thinking.” To avoid the pitfall of mistaking the abstract whole for the sum of its concrete parts, I posit petrorealism – literary, cinematic, and gaming narrative forms, for example – as a possible way to creatively mediate the scalar problem between thinking big and the specific situations and contexts of petromodernity. I use Petro- because I think it is important to conceive of all texts produced within petroculture as functionally marked by the ontology of oil even as they anticipate a world after oil, and I use -realism because I aim to emphasize the way its variants share an ability to mediate the variegated scales implied in specific instances within a larger whole at once and, thus, better grasp the energy-ecology impasse.
Petrorealism (or its absence), for example, is what is really at stake in Amitav Ghosh’s seminal essay “Petrofictions: The Oil Encounter and the Novel,” where he observes the oil encounter does not produce an equivalently rich corpus of novels as the spice encounter (Ghosh 1992: 138). Extending Ghosh's desire for big thinking, in “Oil and the American Imaginary” Peter Hitchcock cleverly suggests that sugar and coffee are two commodities that could also function analogously to oil (Hitchcock 2010: 81). But if we understand Ghosh to be marking not merely a paucity of fiction of the oil encounter, but also expressing a desire for petrorealism, then these commodities are not so easily substituted for one another. Attention to the formal strategies necessary to representing the oil encounter would reveal that the scale of big thinking is itself among the subjects of this fiction. Realism, in its varied forms and modes, has a penchant for narrating structure without losing site of specificity. Indeed, Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt quintet (1984-1989) and Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (1927) respectively fuel Ghosh’s and Hitchcock’s desire for a realistic petrofiction. For Ghosh, the slow and careful details of Munif’s story make it stand out: for instance, few of the oil developers from the US are named, and instead are simply referred to as the Americans, one exception being Sinclair, who leaps out from the page like oil gushing from a well because his obvious namesake is the 20th century author. Hitchcock’s reading of Oil! attaches importance to Upton Sinclair’s realistic portrayal of the beginnings of US oil production and dependence. Hitchcock figures oil’s centrality to the American political and cultural imaginary, placing Oil! and Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation There Will Be Blood (2007) as bookends of America’s century. Hitchcock does acknowledge, however, that oil's centrality manifests primarily in its in invisibility: “it is oil’s saturation of the infrastructure of modernity that paradoxically has placed a significant bar on its cultural representation” (Hitchcock 2010: 81). Though oil’s ubiquity has seemed to keep it from being of central focus, petrorealism could elaborate the near omnipresence of oil in everyday life in an attempt to defamiliarize or to make strange our petrosubjectivity.
As a materialism term, petrorealism also has a polemic function: it offers an important corrective to philosophical senses of thinking big that evacuate the subject and any form of politics from its imaginations. The speculative realism of philosophers Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux contests our all-too-humanist claim that knowledge is ultimately subjective, while silently opposing already existing materialisms, which, as Wesley Phillips remarks, is notably strange when one considers their shared preoccupation with realism (Philips 2012: 290). Contrasting new materialism with historical materialism emphases a key difference between speculative realism and what I am calling petrorealism: as Phillips explains speculative realist philosophers share an understanding of “the real as the physical” (2012: 290), whereas I argue that petrorealism maintains that the abstract, and not the only the vulgarly physical, can be and is material. I do not want to suggest that the desire to decenter the human and human consciousness from the world is invalid; rather, I would suggest that by thinking along the lines of petrorealism, we can begin to recognize speculative realism as a symptom of the vast, alienating and thoroughly unhuman forces of oil-fueled capital accumulation. As Lukács suggested in the “The Ideology of Modernism,” intention can be read into a text, not as the author’s personal aim, but as the Weltanschauung or ideology of that author (Lukács 1971: 19). Thus, we might say, the object oriented ontologist seeks to escape a situation of their own making by subtracting the human from ecological questions and preferring to speculate about the consciousness of the geological formations on which human impacts have been wrought. No matter how one understands its intention, the effect of this subtraction of the human is an evacuation of politics. By contrast, Morton’s thinking about hyperobjects implies a politics: as a collection of discrete yet like objects (all nuclear materials, or all plutonium, or all uranium), or a place demarcated by a spatial imaginary (the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador), or an entity all but invisible except for its effects (a black hole), or a set of processes and relations (global capital) – a hyperobject can be transcoded as another word for totality. Yet hyperobjects still lack mediation – and thus with petrorealism, I aim to restore mediation to its place in thought, human or otherwise, especially big thought about the energy-ecology impasse.
Examples abound of novels, films, documentaries, and other kinds of texts that outline what petrorealism could be and do. Situated within distinct formal mechanics, the following examples manage to think big without falling into the trap of picture thinking, and are, at least provisionally, divided into five categories:
Maps of energy presents that do not foreground energy: Noel Burch and Allan Sekula’s exploration of container ships and the global circulation of commodities in The Forgotten Space (2010), Max Brooks’s depiction of social totality through circulation and exchange figured as contagion in World War Z (2006), or Steven Soderbergh’s chart of global flows and borders, whether figured through the drug trade or the spread of disease and the development of vaccines, in Traffic (2000) and Contagion (2011).
Postcolonial film and writing: in the recent short film Pumzi (Wanuri Kahiu 2010), water sovereignty and labor as a clean energy source clash with the protagonist’s discovery of uncontaminated soil. Jennifer Wenzel’s description of petro-magic-realism in Ben Okri’s story, “What the Tapster Saw,” combines “the transmogrifying creatures and liminal space of the forest in Yoruba narrative tradition” and “the monstrous-but-mundane violence of oil exploration and extraction, the state violence that supports it, and the environmental degradation that it causes” (Wenzel 2006: 456).
Science fiction energy futures: when Kim Stanley Robinson discusses terraforming in the Mars Trilogy (1993,1994,1996) he shows that petrorealism need not be only about oil, but should be able to hold together the complex of various forms of energy, their scales, and temporalities.
Actual accounts of the petro-present: James Marriot and Mika Minio-Paluello’s travelogue The Oil Road: Journey from the Caspian Sea to the City of London (2012) maps the oil present spatially, economically, and ecologically. Their figure of the “oil road,” reviewer Adam Carlson notes, “gives us a powerful tool for representing the totality, for seeing through the haze, to make sense of both the physical Oil Road, and the Carbon Web – the political, social and economic, the superstructure of the infrastructure” (Carlson 2013).
Interactive documentary and documentary/videogame hybrids: Offshore (Brenda Longfellow, Glen Richards, and Helios Labs 2013) and Fort McMoney (David Dufresne 2013) offer an immersive petrorealism. The former depicts an oil rig modelled on the Deepwater Horizon, which viewers explore at their own pace and direction by navigating an eerie maze of stations and compartments; in the latter, viewers travel to Fort McMurray, Alberta and explore the town – they can follow bottle collectors, visit the Oil Patch, and vote on important town issues.
Following these examples, petrorealism does not operate in terms of longing for a return to a time before oil. Instead, it follows Stephanie LeMenager’s (2012) insistence on the irreversibility of petrocapitalism and looks to futures that take the infrastructures and imaginaries of petromodernity into account, with ingenuity and rigor. Petrorealism is, of necessity, an attempt come to terms with petromodernity from within; indeed there is no vantage from outside from which to write about its flows and limits.
In Realism in Our Time (1971) Lukács makes a useful distinction between the view critical realism had from outside socialism versus the view socialist realism had from within it. As he points out, despite enabling the critical realist to better grasp his or her own age “it will not enable him [sic] to conceive the future from the inside” (Lukács 1971: 95). But this is precisely the task before us. To quote another mid-century Marxist “Petroleum resists the five-act form,” and so we must embrace the new styles and forms that resist petroleum! (Brecht 1977:29). My hope is that by learning from petrorealism we might reach as close to the root of the energy-ecology impasse as possible, drawing spatial connections between capital’s energy demands and effects and the temporal possibilities of reaching beyond our energy-dependant, growth-based system of social relations to a future in which energy is no longer the metaphor or the cause for speculation, but the actual driving force of our creative endeavors to overcome such crises. By maintaining a moment of narration within the elaboration of a vaster totality, petrorealism sharpens our focus on the task at hand: we must accept the logic of the impasse without overemphasizing its abstract qualities. It is here that the work of petrorealism stands revealed as a critical task to set for ourselves as much as it is an already existing archive of material.
Boyer, Dominic and Imre Szeman. “The Rise of Energy Humanities: Breaking the Impasse.” University Affairs (12 February 2014) Web (3 April 2014).
Brecht, Bertolt. 1977. Brecht on Theatre. ed. and trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang. Print.
Carlson, Adam. “Petrorealism in The Oil Road.” Introduction to Mika Minio-Paluello “Unpublished Talk” at the Humanities Centre, University of Alberta (18 October 13).
Ghosh, Amitav. “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel.”Incendiary Circumstances. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. 138-151. Print.
Hitchcock, Peter. “Oil in an American Imaginary.” New Formations 69 (2010): 81-97. Print.
LeMenager, Stephanie. “The Aesthetics of Petroleum, after Oil!” American Literary History 24.1 (2012): 59–86. Print.
Lukács, Georg. Realism in Our Time. New York: Harper Tourchbooks, 1971. Print.
Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Print.
Philips, Wesley. “The Future of Speculation?” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 8.1 (2012): 289-303.
Wark, Mackenzie. “Four Cheers for Vulgar Marxism.” Public Seminar Commons. (25 April 2014) Web (26 April 2014).
Wenzel, Jennifer. “Petro-Magic-Realism: Toward a Political Ecology of Nigerian Literature.” Postcolonial Studies 9.4 (2006): 449-464. Print.