22/05/2015

mad max: fury road as political allegory -- guest post

guest post by Oded Nir

It is by now almost a cliché to celebrate the ascent of affect in Hollywood—it having become the organizational (or disorganizational) principle of so many films, including the action flick. One might finally be allowed to assert that even with the decline of plot to a mere appendage of, or excuse for, the strings of over-the-top visceral scenes, narrative never actually died and is in fact doing quite well, thank you, even in films such as Mad Max: Road Fury. If nothing else, the debate over the movie’s feminism tells us that some meaning is still hidden in it somewhere among the affective excesses. Yet, there is no doubt that plot has become a subservient element in many action movies, curiously switching places with the affective itself: what was once mere ornament has become a hegemonic functional principle, while, plot, that old cumbersome causal chain of events, has been itself degraded to a decorative status, a mere vestige of the obsolete.  We are probably not far from the day in which action movies will consist solely of constellations of affective scenes, thereby getting rid of plot altogether (the Saw series of movies definitely comes close to this already). Whether one can withstand, let alone enjoy, the constant hammering at one’s nervous system seems in part to be a generational question, one which we will not address here, even if in it we can perhaps find the feeble remnants of modernism’s attempt to shock their bourgeois audience.

Yet, there is nothing more formal than the embodied viscerality of affect in films such as Mad Max: Fury Road George Miller 2015). No matter how often affect theorists insist on the incapturability of affect in meaning or form, there could be no doubt that on the level of filmmaking, affective supercharges are more carefully planned and executed than perhaps anything else in the world of film (and this should also signal to us that the convergence of mastery of affect and painstaking attention to visual detail, such as in Wes Anderson’s films, is no accident). It is on the level of form, therefore, that narrative’s preponderance reemerges in even the most purely affective films. The remnants of plot in the new Mad Max, which hardly cohere, do not in any way enact the cognitive estrangement, to use Suvin’s terms, of serious science fiction. Whatever political content the plot does hold is clearly secondary to the movie’s affective focus.  As in many films, the opening of the new Mad Max gives us something like a key to its understanding: the slowing of the rate of filming in the opening scene—that flickering which makes action look as if slightly fast-forwarded—is no accident here. It queues the viewer to a particular formal pastiche of older filmic form, in which it was the technological limitations of film itself that created the distortion of pace. Mad Max, however, seems to have a more specific referent in mind: Charlie Chaplin’s movies, and in particularly Modern Times (Charles Chaplin 1936) with its organizing thematic of human violent encounter with a new industrial urban existence. The bodily focus of the original is undeniable, captured most strongly perhaps in Chaplin’s character getting stuck between industrial gears or trying to escape the automated feeding machine.


The opening scene of the new Mad Max, in which Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy)  is constantly trying to escape the—now partly human—machine, clawing and scratching as he goes, are perfectly analogous to Chaplin’s bricoleur’s attempt to resist fordist industrial violence. The tension between passivity and frenzied activity is captured in Max’s hanging desperately from the chain-pendulum at the end of the opening sequence, trying to stay out of his pursuers’ reach. Other scenes suggestive of Chaplin’s machinic violence can be seen in Max’s attempt to survive while tied to the front of a vehicle during the long first chase or the scene in which he is fighting someone to whom he is physically chained.   

The grounding affective experience of Mad Max can be described as the combination of gruesome violence and the hilarious, which is the result of its conjuring up of Chaplin, which sends us directly into the tradition of nonsense and slapstick of the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy kind, and its equivalents in the realm of animation. Of these latter, Adorno and Horkheimer already noted long ago their status as last remnants of a resisting folk culture within an increasingly industrialized cultural landscape. Curiously enough, for them too it was precisely the first signs of the decline of plot which occupied them in their brief commentary.

Yet, in Mad Max we are dealing not with the real thing—modernism—but with its pastiche. For the Chaplinesque embattled rascal is completely abstracted from its social and economic foundations (in the original it is the advent of industrial capitalism, of course). Nor, as we already said, should we look to the sorry excuse for a social setting and a plot for a renewed social content, even if these latter do feebly invoke biopolitics, surplus populations, extreme scarcity, and a rigid class system. In other words, the affective supercharges and their particular formal determinants do not function here as figures for the social. Rather, they themselves become objects of ironized play. The parodic distance is perhaps clearest in the scene in which we first see the women that were hidden in the truck, which visually invokes the use of good looking women in action films and commercials alike. Also obviously ironic is the Max’s grunts after emerging injured from wildly violent confrontations. These ironically evoke Mel Gibson’s “mad” characters of Lethal Weapon, or Die Hard’s Bruce Willis’s performances.  Thus, to the Chaplin pastiche we have to add that of the 80s and 90s action films, whose form is ironically invoked throughout Mad Max.

While in Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series some personal unfinished business between the arch-cop and arch-criminal many times allows for plot to happen, in Mad Max the action is completely flattened, as some merely professional confrontation between anonymous combatants. This radical flattening poses a challenge for the very long, affect packed, chase scenes: they are so long, that some form is necessary in order to give them any logic at all. It is here that a sort of mythological structure is mobilized, replete with references to passing into Valhalla after glorious death in battle. In the first chase scene, various characters approach the “immortal” with a plea to let them engage the renegade vehicle in the name of mythical glory, which allows for some structure to be set in motion. It was Erich Auerbach that posited the compatibility of flatness and the Homeric myth. When in the Illiad two legendary antagonists are about to fight each other, this flatness is expressed according to Auerbach in the long breaks from present action, in which the histories of both figures is told (thereby allowing for generating something like historicity). In Mad Max, in contrast, no such opening to history happens. The mythological structure is only there to further the affective bombardment. The tragedy of the individual is thus merely pastiche as well, with no significance for a larger collective history.




What kind of historical narrative, then, does the new Mad Max offer its viewers? If the postapocalyptic landscape does not generate here historical thinking  through what Suvin called cognitive estrangement, and the point of closure—the masses’ taking back control of water—is merely another instance of pastiche (with its own set of coordinates, within which the classical Western is an important reference point—think of the protagonist of Shane, saving the helpless farmer town from the menace of the Rancher’s “primitive accumulation,” then riding off into the wilderness), what kind of deeper logic undergirds the movie’s formal play? If the postapocalyptic setting of Mad Max is nothing but the catastrophe which is already here—as Zizek and others claim—then the formal invocation of so many instances of “action” movies (from Chaplin, through the Western, all the way to the 80s and 90s action blockbusters) enacts here something like a frenzied search for an appropriate form to narrate the present catastrophe. Mad Max enacts a kind of allegorical encounter between our apocalyptic present and an array of representational vehicles through which this present might be captured. The difference between Mad Max’s frenetic search for form and that of so many similar searches in Modernism is that here we enjoy the failure to find an appropriate form – as if trying to enjoy trauma. To conclude, it is only through affect that we can unpack the new Mad Max. The pastiche of modernism and earlier postmodern moments reveals itself only through the ways in which affect is generated. Yet—and this is an important “yet”—narrative itself never goes away just because affect becomes hegemonic formally; rather, even in pure affective films such as Mad Max, historical narration is still unconsciously active, in the frenzied attempt to find a form of thought that might make it possible for us to imagine the present as a space of historical collective practice.

Oded Nir recently received his PhD from the department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University. His work focuses on Marxist notions of totality, and figurations of collectivity in Israeli literature and culture.

02/04/2015

oil infrastructure as literary form

Special thanks to Adam Carlson, Alexandra Carruthers, and Jeff Diamanti for their conversations and guidance as I wrote this paper. Thanks also to the participants of the session "Infrastructure and Form" at the 2015 meeting of the ACLA, especially the organizers Joseph Jeon and Kate Marshall.

The problem I am interested in elaborating here today has to do with the difficulty of getting a grasp on oil. From the now famous claim of Amitav Ghosh—that the oil encounter lacks the same literary production and imaginary that bore witness to the spice encounter—to more recent attempts to know oil or to come to terms with living it, oil presents issues for both infrastructural and theoretical mapping. It is a moving target. As Timothy Mitchell points out in Carbon Democracy, oil tankers can be redirected to new ports either to avoid conflict or to seek the highest prices (and preferably avoiding strife also means reaping higher profits). Oil’s liquid mobility is part of what makes it a difficult target for academic study and political action. In the face of such difficulties, the work of James Marriot and Mika Minio-Paluello devises a compellingly elegant formal solution to petroleum’s historical “slipperiness” (Ghosh 141): The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London (2012) takes up the Baku-Tbilisi-Cehyan pipeline as the backbone of its plot, which, at the same time, spatially delimits the terrain of its story. This focus has the formal effect of creating a travelogue that is at once historically deep and politically focused. Indeed, its targeting apparatus is primarily focused on the company now known as BP. As Marriot and Minio-Paluello move along the same route as the crude pumped from the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli oilfield they also recount major shifts in regional power, from Soviet dominance to the present multinational control. The lesson seems to be that the way to grasp oil, in both a cognitive and physical sense, is through its infrastructures just as the way to stop its crude dominance is by ceasing to engineer, build, and expand its platforms, pump jacks, pipelines, tanker routes, refineries, and pumping stations.

This paper falls under the guise of what Sheena Wilson and Imre Szeman have called Petrocultures. Though you may already be familiar with the study of energy in the humanities, I will offer a brief overview of this emerging critical approach. Thinking about petroculture, simply put, involves giving energy, specifically petrol, a central role within humanities and social science frameworks. An initial task for petrocultures is to elaborate the impasse that our petro-reliance puts us in either along the lines of Imre Szeman’s provocative query “How to Know about Oil?” or through our experiences of oil life as Stephanie LeMenager proposes in Living Oil (2014). Focusing on oil means taking risks—especially that one might begin to see petrol as the source of all conflict, the substance behind all commodities, and the reason under all global political decision making. While cautioning against reading energy as the prime-mover of history, Allan Stoekl writes, “the most effective way of refusing such a reification of oil, all the while granting it the visibility it deserves, is to write its history...It’s when we think about what “oil history” could mean that we take a natural entity and recognize its cultural centrality” (Stoekl 2014, xii). Though oil presents itself as critically overwhelming, responses to it should find ways to mediate the particulars of oil and the general situation of our energy system. My aim in what follows is to take the pipeline as an infrastructural innovation of petroculture and examine the effects it produces as a narrative tool in The Oil Road. I turn to the formal innovations of writing about oil to better understand the possibilities of oil and its limits.

Snaking across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America, miles of pipe have been laid in order to convey fossil fuels from the source of extraction to refineries and distribution centres. So long as oil keeps flowing, the length and duration of the journey does not seem to matter—each instant when oil is fed into the mouth of the pipeline is buoyed up by the tanker and then completed in the barrel on the other end. In The Oil Road, the authors describe those silent seafaring tankers as “the emissaries of Azeri geology, camel trains of the industrial age. Picking up where the pipeline leaves off, they distribute the dark matter across the surface of the earth” (250). Whether by rail, ocean tanker, or pipeline, the energy costs of transporting oil are great. As Marriot and Minio-Paluello suggest,
This global oil trade does not just flow by itself. Every day, close to 100 million barrels of crude are collected from zones of extraction and delivered to points of consumption….The mass relocation of great volumes of fossil fuels requires constant coordination of logistical and financial resources. (250)

Pipelines came into being as part of what Fredrick Buell calls the “bootstrapped system” (Buell 2012, p. 280) of oil-capital transport: first carts and barrels, then rail, and then pipelines. Unlike those earlier modes of conveyance, the pipeline appears shaped by the logic of oil capital. That is, the pipeline is shaped in the interest of a smoothness that does not require workers and can flow evenly throughout the entire day. The authors of The Oil Road work very carefully to undo the assumed “smoothness” of oil transport, by calling attention to its bumps, snags, corrosions and ruptures along the way. In a review of the book, Doreen Massey incisively claims that it depicts a “space full of obstacles”:
The Caucasus, the sea, the Alps… all have to be overcome. Every kilometre along the pipeline route there is a metal stake, with a yellow hat and numbers on, to mark where it is buried, itself a vast earthmoving exercise. Every few kilometres there is a block valve, where the oil can be shut off in an emergency, surrounded by steel and concrete. There are pumping stations, to force the oil on and on up gradients and through mountain ranges. The oil only flows because of all this material effort - grinding, tough, often slow, often bitterly contested, heavy. (130)

Rather than say this outright, the authors show the reader each painstaking step in the construction and maintenance of the Oil Road, creating an itinerary of their journey and the petrol’s journey as well as a conceptual map of BPs legal, economic, and cultural dealings.












The book illustrates the struggle over the way oil moves, both as substance and as fuel. The authors enumerate the juridical battles fought over the development and construction of the pipeline. In “Without Having to Amend Local Laws, We Went Above or Around Them by Using a Treaty,” they outline the legal massaging that British Petroleum had to carry out across three countries—Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey—from two other legal contexts—the UK and the USA. These “Agreements” circumvent local laws by “overriding all existing and future domestic law apart from the constitutions of the states in question” (144). Furthermore, a new tax structure was put in place to exempt the energy companies and construction companies that worked on the pipeline. Any disputes arising would be settled by international tribunals in Stockholm, Geneva, or London. The legal adjustments made on behalf of energy transport define the legal maneuvering in the struggle over the energy future. In a passage headed with the title “Burnaz, Turkey,” Marriot and Minio-Paluello write that “People have learned from the nearby experience of BTC and the Isken coal plant that battles must be fought early on. New projects need to be challenged before they are approved, financed, and planned on hard drives and flipcharts in far-off capitals” (239). The importance of these insights into the infrastructure of post-industrial energy systems seem worth emphasizing here: the development of energy infrastructure displays economic, engineering, industrial, and political effort on a massive scale. The only way to get ahead of it is to do so literally: to be ready before hand and to map before the mappers.

The text also operates on a speculative register. At several points along their journey the authors encounter barriers, like fences or seas. They write, “The wells lie in a forbidden zone to which only our imaginations can travel… the route we are following is obscure. It is described only in technical manuals and industry journals, data logs and government memos” (16). And so, Marriot and Minio-Paluello attend to the mediated nature of every moment of their journey. Imagined moments, like when they describe the oil tanker, the Dugi Otok, silently gliding over the waters of the Adriatic, are no less real than when they are able to reach out and touch the pipeline itself, and moments that seem all too real are no less mediated!

The form of the travelogue, in the hands of Marriot and Minio-Paluello, carefully tells multiple stories at once. The unfolding of the plot happens along the BTC pipeline, which takes the authors through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey as they follow the pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. Succinctly “plot”-able on the map, the itinerary of the trip remains linear even while the authors delve into the history of region. Indeed, some of the drama of the text arrives from it fulfilling a promise it makes early: that the journey along the Oil Road will pass “through the crucibles of Bolshevism and fascism, Futurism and social democracy, through the furnaces of an industrial continent” (9). In this manner, the descriptions of the pipe’s visibility—sometimes it is buried, sometimes it runs through private property, sometimes it is under heavy guard—are supplemented by other layers of the text. As Marriot and Minio-Paluello recount stories of their previous visits to the region, they describe the development of the pipeline as technology, and offer a political history of the area from its soviet days through to its corporate present. In one particular instance they describe the seizure of Rijeka, a port city with a large refinery, in 1919 by the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio who arrived “triumphantly in a red sports car at the head of a column of 297 black-shirted Arditi followers” (265); while, in another, they turn to the “outbreak of World War II,” when Royal Dutch Shell, Standard Oil, and BP, then Anglo-Persian, “shared 57.8 of the German market,” and “all three companies provided fuel to the Nazi state as it rearmed, re-industrialized, and established its structure of terror” (301). BP’s web published history passes over the years spanning 1932 and 1948 in silence. These strata of thick description in The Oil Road tellingly reveal the difficulty of knowing about energy infrastructure. Travelling the route of oil surely offers a place to start, but the book also suggests that more time is needed to grasp the magnitude of energy extraction and transport. The missing years and the strata of thick history The Oil Road make available arrive through its own familiarity with the oil archive--they are reading industry journals, promo materials, investor updates, and so on. This effort tells us about the genres of writing that oil both traffics in—engineering tracts, investor opinion, public promotion, CEO biographies—and the types of approach that a materialist critique of energy must navigate in order to register as mapping at all. In a sense, it’s a kind of political realism.




As members of Platform London—a collective that combines research, artistic practice, and activism—Marriot and Minio-Paluello have the experience, contacts, and resources to undertake the more than five thousand kilometer long journey along the path of oil. As reviewer Terry Macalister points out, they “know the industry from a decade of campaigning against it.” A part of these resources means that they have been able to work to devise a theoretical map to match the infrastructural one traced in the book. In the prologue, they write:
Our experience, gained over years of researching BTC, has taught us that such a massive project is not carried out by one company, BP, but rather by a network of bodies, which we have come to call the Carbon Web. Around the oil corporation are gathered institutions that enable it to conduct its business. These include public and private banks, government ministries and military bodies, engineering companies and legal firms, universities and environmental consultants, non-governmental organizations, and cultural institutions. All of these make up the Carbon Web that drives forward the extraction, transportation, and consumption of fossil fuels. In our attempt to explore and unravel this network, we will not only travel through the landscape of the pipelines, but also investigate the topography of bodies most responsible for this contemporary Oil Road. (6)

Here is The Carbon Web designed by Platform London and charted in The Oil Road. The Oil Road seems to move a step beyond the assumed limits to representing oil. This is a difficult feat and great accomplishment, but I would like to suggest that the book does not stop there. As slippery as oil is or can be, by taking it as the structuring force of its plot and the ground of its story The Oil Road effectively begins to figure the larger structure lurking in the background—that other, much more difficult to grasp totality: the mode of production itself. The Carbon Web bears a striking resemblance to Fredric Jameson’s revision of the Marxist schema of base and superstructure. Where,
the more narrowly economic—the forces of production, the labor process, technical development, or relations of production, such as the functional interrelation of social classes—is, however privileged, not identical with the mode of production as a whole, which assigns this narrowly “economic” level its particular function and efficiency as it does all the others. (36) 

Jameson goes on to say that, if one were to consider this a structuralism it is a structuralism where there is only one structure “namely the mode of production itself…, it is not a part of the whole or one of the levels, but rather the entire system of relationships among those levels” (36). What we get then, in The Oil Road, is the start of a mapping of the mode of production from the standpoint of energy.



In closing, I’d like to make reference to a conversation that has been unfolding recently under the heading of Paranoid Subjectivity on e-flux. I want to attempt to avoid the risk, as Sarah Brouillette puts it, of “simply mapping the mapmakers” by emphasizing “capitalism’s mysteriousness and intractability, […] our incapacity in the face of it, [or] our anxiety about our incapacity, and so forth.” To avoid this risk, Brouillette implores us to foreground “the importance of a given map’s relationship to struggle.” The practicality of Marriot and Minio-Paluello’s map lies in its dialectic between infrastructure and form. Where the occasion of the pipeline presents a through line for plot, the tale of the Oil Road enables the story of the Carbon Web. In this sense, the text’s careful development of BP’s connections as a totality is central to its political usefulness. The labour and the maintenance of such roads comprised of pumps, steel tubes, security fences, security personnel, spouts, gauges, monitoring devices, tanker ships, refineries, more steel tubes, more spouts, more security personnel, delivery trucks, gas pumps, and on and on, is a very real, ongoing kind of work. Marriot and Minio-Plauello show us this work, which in a way helps us to understand the scope of the task at hand and to locate crucial starting places to begin to dismantle the Oil Road and the Carbon Web it weaves.

works cited

Buell, Fredrick. “A Short History of Oil Cultures: Or, the Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance.” Journal of American Studies 46 (2012): 273-293.

Brouillette, Sarah. “Paranoid Subjectivity.” e-flux.com. 12 March 2015. Web. 24 March 2015.

Ghosh, Amitav. “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel.”Incendiary Circumstances. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. 138-151.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

LeMenager, Stephanie. Living Oil: Petroleum in the American Century. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.

Macalister, Terry. “The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello – review.” The Guardian. 14 December 2012. Web. 24 March 2015.

Marriot, James and Mika Minio-Paluello. The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London. London: Verso, 2013.

Massey, Doreen. "Mapping the Carbon Web." Soundings 54 (Summer 2013): 127-130.

Szeman, Imre. “How to Know About Oil: Energy Epistemologies and Political Futures.” Journal of Canadian Studies 47.3 (2013): 145-168.

11/02/2015

blast, corrupt, dismantle, erase - book review

This review first appeared in English Studies in Canada 40.2-3 

Brett Josef Grubisic, Gisèle M. Baxter, and Tara Lee, eds. Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier UP, 2014. 480 pp. 

Frack, Gene-splice, Hinder, Immolate...We all have dystopias to write.
With an introduction and twenty-five separate essays, Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase covers impressive ground. The book comes to terms with a genre that appears to be, if anything, broadly conceived: while the sheer length of the project suggests that it might have benefited from editorial discretion, the ethos of dystopia lends itself to varied applications and interpretations. Indeed, the rewards of engaging the text as a whole are great, especially as some of the strongest work is found in its latter half.The collection, when read in sequence, does not allow one to settle in to a particular geography, national-economic space, or version of dystopia; instead, the arrangement of the chapters jumps, for instance, from alter-histories of women in the Mexican Revolution, to the deeply troubled Montreal of the mid-nineties, to Douglas Coupland’s slacker realism. The effect produced is one of cycling defamiliarization, a shuffling of imagined destinies and short-circuited hopes that comprise a dauntingly heterogeneous futurity. These vertiginous snap between futures subtends, but does not override, the critical intervention of the book: to shift contemporary studies of dystopia from an Anglo-American or loosely international frame to one that understands the dystopian literary mode, and the texts specifically produced, in the wake of the cultural changes that have taken place in North America since the North American Free Trade Agreement (nafta). In this collection, held separate from its literary tradition, dystopia becomes a critical tool that assesses the unevenness of the North American political economy. Indeed, the dizziness of considering, in turn, Nalo Hopkinson’s hollowed Toronto, Alex Rivera’s sleep factories, and Neil Gaiman’s dystopian phantasmagoria emulates the free flow of goods across Canadian, U.S., Mexican, and the ever-obfuscated Indigenous borders of the continent.

From the start, I noticed a typical formal split in the author’s approaches to dystopia. On the one hand, some seem to refuse to assume the kind of shared intimacy with their object literary critics so often accept as a part of their endeavour. This variety of essay in the collection relies heavily on quotation, communicating as much as possible of the dystopia in question in its own words, be it Cormac McCarthy’s futureless future or Lisa Robertson’s critique of a gentrified Vancouver. I like this approach particularly in “‘The Dystopia of the Obsolete’: Lisa Robertson’s Vancouver and the Poetics of Nostalgia,” Paul Stephens’s essay on Robertson’s The Office for Soft Architecture (2003), precisely because he seemed able to remain true to her poetics and her politics through his citational practice. On the other hand, Sharlee Reimer insists on the critical project of interpretation championed by Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl (2002) in “Logical Gaps and Capitalist Seduction in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl”; Sharon DeGraw places Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) against Detroit’s deterioration to highlight the green urban policy of the novel; while Robert T. Tally Jr. comes closest to naming the obfuscated futurity of the global hegemon through Gaiman’s American Gods (2001) in “Lost in Grand Central: Dystopia and Transgression in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.” The essays that work through their texts, rather than alongside them, seem to extend the critical work of the dystopia in a shared world-building with their authors, developing their work, riffing on Jameson’s description of the dystopia as “near future novel,” into a near future criticism.

Although the 1993 ratification of the North American Free Trade agreement liberalized trade, it did not liberalize history, as the essays on Central American dystopias bear out. These six essays, focusing explicitly on Mexican, Chicano/a novels and film stand out for their strongly unified generic theory of dystopia. In “Archive Failure? Cielos de la tierra’s Historical Dystopia,” Zac Zimmer assesses that “as Americans, North, Central, and South, we live in a series of superimposed afters: after the conquest; after colonialism; after independence; after this revolution; after that revolution; after this war; after that war. Perhaps, one day, there will indeed be an ‘after globalization,’ an ‘after neoliberalism,’ an ‘after nafta’” (233). Thinking about the histories and present of settler-colonialism María Odette Canivell similarly posits that “when speaking about the Latina American utopian imaginary, two clearly defined camps emerge: utopias for Latin America and utopias of Latin America” (240). Further, Adam Spires argues that Homero Ardjis’s novels are “informed by Aztec history” and that they “remind us that, like the laws of nature, mythological time is cyclical not linear, and that indigenous legacy of mythology is inextricable from Mexico’s future” (352). Finally, Luis Gómez Romero describes Latin America in Borgesesque terms as “a historical labyrinth erected upon antique and new stories of oppression and inequality that seem to stretch from the sixteenth century right into the twenty-first” (373). What Zimmer, Canivell, Spires, and Romero collectively uncover is the radical critical quality of the Latin American dystopia and the penchant for such texts
to outdo their U.S. counterparts, even those as developed as Gaiman’s, in their mobilization of history. One overwhelming result of this collection’s purview is the revelation of how the centre seems determined-yet-unable to represent its own decline. While this observation does little to address post-nafta unevenness, it does address the kinds of diagnosis that help to depict the system behind such liberalizing agreements themselves, reminding me of the very real dystopian settler-colonial petro-capitalist hetero-patriarchy that we live in today.

Several chapters are worth mentioning outside of my interpretative synthesis: Janine Tobeck on William Gibson’s Bigend trilogy; Richard Gooding on the ya dystopian novel Feed; Annette Lapointe on eating and eating disorders in Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy; and Lee Skallerup Bassette on Canada and Quebec’s cultural responses to nafta. Whether for teaching or research, I anticipate this collection will prove an invaluable reference, opening up new pathways and connections for those well versed in science fiction’s dystopian variants as well as for those newly embarking down the pathways of the future.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Cecily Devereux for the opportunity to review this book and to Alexandra Carruthers and Adam Carlson for their editorial suggestions.

06/01/2015

energy and literature

This is the text for a talk I will give at the MLA 2015 in Vancouver on a roundtable “Envisioning the Energy Humanities, NarratingEnergy Pasts and Futures” in VCC West Room 121 from 10-11:30. 

Suggestions or comments welcomed! bbellamy [at] ualberta [dot] ca

...

The energy humanities excite thought, invigorate methodology, and entice research. In one jolt the proposition that humanities researchers, literary scholars among them, address history from the standpoint of energy joins against accusations of irrelevance that humanities departments face. In Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer’s provocation “The Rise of the Energy Humanities,” they pose a crucial question for our times: “How to work towards a sustainable energy future?” (Boyer and Szeman 2014). It would seem that there is no time like the present to come to terms, on a number of fronts, with the cultural, economic, and political roles of energy in late capitalism and its historical development.

In this way the energy humanities must operate in a reflective mode, since it comes late to the party otherwise populated by scientists and policy makers. But, the energy humanities ought to be anticipatory too, since humanities scholars bring a hermeneutic precision to the table that allows us to engage the relationship between narrative and duration. Put otherwise we seek to understand the contemporary (or many contemporaries) as energy soaked moments in history.

...

Where, how, and when to incorporate energy into our various and varied research programs? I would like to offer an all-too broad methodological schematic for the study of literature and energy. We could:

– include energy in the narrative frame in a New Historical approach
– locate the signs of energy through a New Critical practice of close reading
– assess trends across a set of digitized texts in a Distant Reading approach
– return to old archives, asking which Genres are germane to the study of energy?
– read for the gaps left by energy in a Symptomatic approach

New Historical and New Critical approaches could return to novels such as Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), which offers a bleak description of Coketown: “It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it…It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled” (Dickens 1994, 19). Here we see the obvious sign of coal’s impact on the realist novel. What can Hard Times tell us about the impacts of carbon energy on the industrial revolution or on the bodies that lived and labored in such places or on the soil, the air, and the water? Are other texts similarly marked?

A Distant Reading approach could look for energy keywords in a variety of texts and genres. Reading energy on the level of content would be a way to understand when and how an energy source arises in literary form and to ask which forms seem to come to terms with energy, in any given manner, most prominently and most directly. This approach could be a way to move beyond the broad questions, towards more focused research on stories about wood, about coal, about oil, about nuclear energy, and so on. We already know how to do these things, and it is amazing how attuned distant and close reading in particular are to gleaning for the narratological qualities of energy.

When it comes to Genre, considering my other work on post-apocalyptic narratives, I would ask, what does it mean to write about an energy scarce future in the midst of an energy rich one? And, what can we learn by reading against the grain in stories set after the end of petromodernity? Other questions materialize rather quickly once we begin to look for energy in relation to other literary genres.

We could perform a Symptomatic Reading that looks for energy as a kind of structuring absence. Amitav Ghosh asks why the oil encounter has not produced the same literary response as the colonial spice encounter did—there are many novels about the spice trade, where are the oil novels? A symptomatic approach to energy would need to follow Patricia Yaeger’s suggestion that “…energy invisibilities may constitute different kinds of erasures” than other invisibilities (Yaeger 2011, 309).

...

These suggested approaches cannot be read without attendant theoretical commitments, and it is my suspicion that once we wed them with our other driving concerns, such as decolonization, anti-racism, feminism, queer politics, and ecocriticism, we will begin to work towards a radical idea of what the energy humanities can be and do for our future. Perhaps it is the authority of oil as energy that precludes its narrativization on the same level as the spice encounter or the industrial uses of coal. Beyond a doubt, the fact that its role is being re-narrated today demonstrates that the age of its flourishing is at a crucial moment for intervention.

Works Cited

Boyer, Dominic and Imre Szeman. “The Rise of Energy Humanities: Breaking the Impasse.” University Affairs (12 February 2014) Web.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Penguin: New York, 1994. Print.
Yaeger, Patricia. “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale-Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power and Other Energy Sources.” PMLA 126:2 (2011): 305-10. Print.

30/12/2014

naomi oreskes and eric m. conway's future history

Science fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present. —Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 10)
In 2013, two historians of science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, published a speculative piece in Daedalus titled “The Collapse of Western Civilization.” They subsequently expanded the piece into a short book of the same time, and, in the process, added a subtitle “A View from the Future.”  The book combines the science fictional conceit of an imagined future with a rigorously thought historical document in order to come to terms with the energy-ecology impasse. The text takes the occasion of the fictional “tercentury of the end of Western Culture (1540-2093)” to address the incredible failure to act on “robust information about climate change and knowledge of the damaging events that were about to unfold” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 10). The look backwards from the imaginary future of 2393, could be described as a kind of retroactive futurity, and it is through this device that Oreskes and Conway attempt to re-invigorate scientific reportage and transparency.[1] Through the synthesized modes of science fiction novel and history treatise, their intervention offers one way to come to terms with the inertia of our energy commitments in the present. In effect, they use a long durée as a narrative device, extrapolating the effects of a global time elapse.

In their own words, Orsekes and Conway have written a science fiction-historical novel. As a great thinker of both science fiction and history, Fredric Jameson’s description of the former seems entirely applicable here: “[Science fiction’s] multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come” (Jameson 2005, 288).[2] The negotiation of time, especially the way it is presented as rapidly passing before the reader’s eyes, has the effect of returning the reader to the present. Oreskes and Conway’s text pushes the reader to imagine just what energy commitments in the present mean for the future and precisely why it is so urgent not only to rethink those commitments, but also to rethink the whole network of scientific practice and economic doctrine that shore up oil-capital.

Oreskes and Conway use the device of the narrator to address an imagined future audience, while they simultaneously target the present. For instance, they distance the imagined future through the plain-spoken asides of the narrator. The narrator explains the politico-geographic language he uses like this:
Throughout this essay, I will use the nation-state terms of the era; for the reader not familiar with the political geography of Earth prior to the Great Collapse, the remains of the United Kingdom can be found in present-day Cambria; Germany in the Nordo-Scandinavian Union; and the United States and Canada in the United States of North America. (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 15)
This fairly neutral narrative device teaches the reader how to understand and grapple with the extrapolation at work in the text, in effect explaining the world of Oreskes and Conway’s present, the reader’s present, from a scientific-political angle.

Each chapter starts with a regional or continental map. These maps depict ocean levels in one geographic space across two temporal planes. The reader will recognize a map of his or her own present, and superimposed in a ghostly imprint is the land that was—will be—swallowed by the rising oceans.[3] At the start of chapter one, the map of the former Netherlands places Brussels on the coast, while it submerges The Hague, Antwerp, and Amsterdam, and the highlands around Apeldoorn become an island. The map that adorns the title page of chapter two swallows the floodplains of Bangladesh, and the map at the start of Chapter Three depicts what is left of Manhattan and the Borrows of New York City as a new string of thin islands. This device works to reinforce the temporal negotiation of the text itself, hammering home the ecological imperative of the text. Readers can look at the land that will be underwater and consider their own relationship to those places, not only geographically, but also temporally. In this way time becomes the central axis on which the political bid of The Collapse of Western Civilization turns.

The book is organized into three chapters, which separately take on the three overdetermined limits of imagining a time after present of oil-capital. The chapters are titled “The Coming of the Prenumbral Age,” “The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels,” and “Market Failure.” The authors also include a “Lexicon of Archaic Terms” and an Interview. The first chapter situates the reader within the temporal frame of the text, while the second and third chapters outline the mutually reinforcing cognitive limits of petromodernity and neoliberalism. The conceit of the lexicon is that the imagined readers of 2393 will not be familiar with terms prevalent during the height and collapse of Western civilization. The lexicon works to introduce the actual readers of the present time with terms that may be unfamiliar, despite their prevalence and accuracy. While the lexicon provides a snapshot of the overall logic of the text, the arrangement of the three chapters speaks powerfully to the inseparability of the problems of anthropogenic climate change, the overreliance on fossil fuels as energy source, and the dependence on the free mark to resolve these problems. Pursuing these logics, The Collapse of Western Civilization kindly but firmly insists that coming to terms with the energy-ecology impasse is only one crucial step; we must use our knowledge to act.

The first chapter works as a history of science leading up to the present of the narrator, which, at the same time, is partially the reader’s history and partially the reader’s future. The narrator tracks the development of anthropogenic climate change, and people’s awareness of it, from the discovery of CO2 to the rise of environmental movement, and from the foundation of the environmental protection agency to that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 16-18). Alongside the hard facts of scientific discovery, the narrator tracks a problem the problem of climate change denial. The narrator traces climate denial to the U.S. noting that “some countries tried but failed to force the United States into international cooperation. Other nations used inertia in the United States to excuse their own patterns of destructive development” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 18). Further, the narrator identifies the way scientists were—read are—stifled by their own practices as one of the crucial factors that stands between knowledge and action in the present.

Chapter two “The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels” takes a step towards extrapolation as the narrator describes events as they unfold in the twenty-first century. They mention a series of artworks that endured through the heated debates that raged between scientific truths and the cash spent to buy scientific opinions.[4] For instance, in 2025 the U.S. introduced a National Stability Protection Act (modelled on the Sea Level Rise Denial Bill) which “lead to the imprisonment of more than three hundred scientists for ‘endangering the safety of and well-being of the general public with unduly alarming threats’” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 25). The narrator explains that this kind of response is described in his time as a part of the psychological phenomenon known as “human adaptive optimism,” which could be read as the mirror image of cognitive dissonance—the making of choices against one’s own understood best interests—or of what philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s calls fetishistic disavowal—‘I know very well what I do is wrong, but I choose to do it anyway.’

The text traces these explanations to their root in enlightenment thought. They call this impasse the fallacy of Baconianism, where despite their knowledge of the ecological threats generated by fossil fuel use they could not act on it. Unlike the Roman and Mayan empires, where historians, archaeologists, and synthetic-failure paleoanalysists are unable to agree on the engine of their ruin, in the case of the twenty-first century nation-states that referred to themselves as Western civilization experts agree that people “knew what was happening to them but were unable to stop it” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 14-15). The narrator refers to “the archaic Western convention of studying the physical world in isolation from social systems” as evidenced in the very title of the position “physical scientists.” In this manner, they develop an enlightenment legacy—the impasse of knowledge and action—while insisting on the need to bring physical scientists into conversation with the social and humanistic sciences.

The turn to the future, and the shift from history to science fiction in the text, hinges on China’s decision “to control its population and convert its economy to non-carbon-based energy sources” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 6).  According to this document as of 2050 the impact of these decisions were registered as China’s emissions rapidly fell. However neat the separation of history and science fiction appears in the text, their interplay is not so simple, as evidenced in the narrator’s declaration: “Had other nations followed China’s lead, the history recounted here might have been very different” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 19). The use of history and fiction here mixes truth about population control with speculation about carbon emissions, resulting in a kind of imperative that is familiar in science fictional environmental writing, but shows up here with a twist.[5]  Not, “if we continue on this path, this is where we will end up,” but “had we done as we knew we should have, things would have been different.”[6] The first statement is familiar from what we might call catastrophism, using the threat of a catastrophe to spur action, while the second seems to gain its affective punch from the careful generic dance of the text.[7]

“The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels” grapples directly with the inertia of energy commitments. In it the narrator asks, “How did these wealthy nations—rich in the resources that would have enabled an orderly transition to a zero-net-carbon infrastructure—justify the deadly expansion of fossil fuel production?” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 35). The first answer has already been explained: denial. The second answer is that shale gas deposits could offer a bridge to renewables. The narrator addresses this answer by outlining its fallacies: fugitive emissions, the distribution system, it replaced clean rather than dirty fuel sources, the aerosols from coal actually have a cooling effect, and a sustained low price for fossil fuels prevented new energy sources from emerging (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 36-37). The results of not breaking free from this inertia are crippling heat waves, crop failure, rising ocean levels, and changing weather patterns. Here the temporal device works in the favour of the text as it avoids turning into an apocalyptic thriller. The narrator claims, “there is no need to rehearse the details of the human tragedy that occurred; every schoolchild knows of the terrible suffering” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 44). In a Hitchcockian move, Oreskes and Conway show the reader more by leaving it up to his or her imagination. Fossil fuels, the path of least resistance, are also the path that could prove humanity’s ultimate failure to adapt to the world of their own making.

In the third chapter, “Market Failure,” Oreskes and Conway return to the energy-ecology impasse from an epistemological and economic vantage. The narrator expresses frustration, once more, with Western civilization: “the victims knew what was happening and why...[and they]had the technological knowhow and capability to effect an orderly transition to renewable energy” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 48). In order to account for the lack of uptake of alternate energy sources, the narrator turns to, what he calls, the carbon-combustion complex. The complex is composed of fossil fuel extractors, refiners, and producers, manufacturers (who have come to rely on inexpensive energy), and a whole matrix of firms (advertising, financial, marketing, public relations) who promote and rely on fossil fuels. The intense interest in maintaining economic growth based on fossil fuels outweighs any desire to take up alternate, clean energy sources. Underlying these interests are the infrastructures of petromodernity.

Throughout the text, Oreskes and Conway deploy infrastructure as both a limit and what needs to be changed in order to break free of impasse. Infrastructure gets figured as something those in “passive denial” cannot be convinced needs broad changes (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 19-20). Further, it becomes a crucial term in the fictionalized debates over moving beyond fossil fuels: “Many said the time had come to make the switch to zero-carbon energy sources,” while, “others argued that the world could not wait ten to fifty years required to alter the global energy infrastructure, much less one hundred years it would take for atmospheric CO2 to diminish” (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 39). In this way, infrastructure shapes the realm of possible secondary actions, so that primary environmentalist action could only be targeted at staving off further fossil fuel development, repurposing existing structures, and developing the requirements for new zero-carbon energy sources. Indeed, the caption of the map of New York City that adorns “Market Failure” reads, 
Once the financial capital of the world, New York began in the early twenty-first century to attempt to defend its elaborate and expensive architecture against the sea. But that infrastructure had been designed and built with an expectation of constant seas and was not easily adapted to continuous, rapid rise. Like the Netherlands, New York City gradually lost its struggle. Ultimately, it proved less expensive to retreat to higher ground, abandoning centuries’ worth of capital investments. (Oreskes and Conway 2014, 47)
This history in miniature acknowledges the way time itself becomes overtaken by space in the development and construction of the hulking infrastructures of modernity. The city is there. It grows and moves. In order to abandon the commitment to fossil fuels, we must turn away from the most energy intensive development in human history. As James Marriot and Mika Minio-Paluello persuasively argue in the The Oil Road, “The solution to the unsustainable extraction of oil and gas—from both an economic and an environmental perspective—is simple: stop drilling for oil and gas” (Marriot and Minio-Paluello 2013, 47). I would add to this, the solution to breaking free of the inertia that comes along with energy infrastructure is simple: stop building rigs, pipelines, and refineries and start re-imaging what those structures can be and do.

Works Cited
Asimov, Isaac (1983). “The Nightmare Life without Fuel.” Science Fiction: The Future edited by Dick Allen. New York: Harcourt Brace Javonavich. 34-36. Print.
Duggan, Jennifer (2014). “China pledges to cut emissions at UN climate summit.” Available at: < http://www.theguardian.com/environment/chinas-choice/2014/sep/24/china-pledges-to-cut-emissions-at-un-climate-summit>. [12 October 2014].
--- (2013). “How China's action on air pollution is slowing its carbon emissions.” Available at: < http://www.theguardian.com/environment/chinas-choice/2013/nov/21/china-air-pollution-carbon-emissions>. [12 October 2014].
Jameson, Fredric (2013). “The Historical Novel Today, or, Is It Still Possible?” The Antinomies of Realism. London: Verso. 259-313. Print.
--- (2005). Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso. Print.
Jansson, André and Amanda Lagervist (2009). Strange Spaces: Explorations Into Mediated Obscurity. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing. Print.
Liley, Sasha, Editor (2012). Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. Toronto: Between the Lines. Print.
Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia UP, 2014. Print.
Marriot, James and Mika Minio-Paluello (2013). The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea tot eh City of London. London: Verso. Print.




[1] André Jansson and Amanda Lagerkvist (2009) uses the term retroactive futurity in passing to explain a particular form of nostalgia. I use the term here to negotiate the way Oreskes and Conway’s text negotiates temporality.
[2] In Jameson’s recent essay “The Historical Novel Today, or, Is It Still Possible?” he calls for a further consideration of the connection between the historical novel and science fiction: “In what follows I will want to claim, however outrageously, that the historical novel of the future (which is to say our present) will necessarily be Science-Fictional inasmuch as it will have to include questions about the fate of our social system, which have become a second nature. To read the present as history, as so many have urged us to do, will mean adopting a Science-Fictional perspective of some kind, and we fortunate to have at least one recent novel [David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas] which, against all expectations, gives us an idea of what that might look like” (Jameson 2013, 298).
[3] According to a recent article on ThinkProgress.org the Earth is heating faster than scientists predicted (Romm 2014).
[4] They note that the most enduring artistic text from the period is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy (2004, 2005, 2007), which quickens the pace and effects of global warming to test various scenarios and human responses.
[5] Jennifer Duggan has been tracking China’s emissions, and appears hopeful about their fight against pollution and climate change (see Duggan 2013 and Duggan 2014).
[6] In this way, The Collapse of Western Civilization is not dissimilar from a 1977 Isaac Asimov essay that was printed in Time Magazine, titled “The Nightmare Life without Fuel.” The essay imagines a post-fuel world as a one where teams of workers dismantle automobiles for metal and tear down infrastructure and buildings in order to harvest rich yields of raw material. Asimov closes that piece by speculating: “If we had started 20 years ago, that might have been another matter. If we had started 50 years ago it would have been easy” (Asimov 1983, 36).
[7] For more on catastrophism see Sasha Liley’s edited collection of the same name (Liley 2013).