The fluid field of petroculture

Sep 19th, 2014

Janet Harron

The fluid field of petroculture

Oil is everywhere. 

It's in the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the roads we drive on, and the buildings we live in. 

Its production employs us. Its sale sustains our booming economy. Our lives, our cities, our world are shaped by oil, from the arrangement of streets to the arrangement of geopolitics.

Much is made of the economic, environmental, and political consequences of our oiliness, but what of the cultural and social consequences?

Academics like Memorial’s Danine Farquharson and Fiona Polack are contributing to the rapidly expanding field of cultural energy studies and examining oil from the point of view of lived lives, rather than technology.

“We want to broaden and deepen the conversation about oil,” said Dr. Farquharson. “How we live it, how we think about it, how it conditions our lives.”  Up until now, according to Dr. Polack, the conversation has been predominantly technological or economic.  “There haven’t been enough interventions from the cultural realm.”

Their joint research project Cold Water Oil examines how the North Atlantic offshore oil and gas industry is imagined in a wide range of high and popular contexts – everything from oil company websites, to government-sponsored documentaries to literary fiction. They have recently contributed an article to Fueling Culture: Politics, History, Energy, an upcoming volume from Fordham University Press which explores various reimaginings of the offshore rig in film and literature.

Both acknowledge that oil revenues have a direct impact on the economic health of Newfoundland and Labrador.  But that shouldn’t be a reason not to delve further. 

“It can’t all be in the context of only fracking or not fracking,” said Dr. Farquharson. “That doesn’t get at the biggest possible picture.”

Not surprising, the field of petrocultural studies is fluid. It is comprised of film critics, visual artists, political scientists, literary critics, cultural theorists and cultural anthropologists – some are focused on the environmental impacts of oil, some on a world without oil and some (like Drs. Farquharson and Polack) on what is happening right now or what Dr. Polack calls “thinking through oil.”

Of particular interest to the two are texts that address, question, and explore both the contemporary affects and the historical resonances of the North Atlantic offshore oil industry on the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and other Northern areas of energy extraction, including Aberdeen in Scotland and Mayo in Ireland.

A large focus of the project is developing partnerships with other academics and bringing research to the general public.

On Wed. September 24 at 4 p.m. in A1049 with the support of Scholarship in the Arts funding, they have invited Dr. Janet Stewart, the Director of the Centre for Visual Arts and Cultures at Durham University, will to speak on "OilScapes" -- the connections between oil, geopolitics and visual culture with particular emphasis on human mobility and the natural environment. Dr. Stewart, Drs. Farquharson and Polack, and novelist and creative writing assistant professor Lisa Moore will also participate in Oil in Edgewise on Tuesday September 23 starting at 8 p.m. at the Eastern Edge Gallery.

Dr. Farquharson and Dr. Polack will discuss images of the offshore oil industry at MUNBUTTONED on October 1 at The Rocket Room.

In the longer term they will be hosting the third international Petrocultures conference to be held at Memorial in September 2016.

The organizers are aiming for the conference to focus on the offshore industry, specifically on the people who work in the industry and who become part of our community and our culture.

“We have to figure out how to theorize oil from the inside rather than the outside – the more people who are contributing to our understanding, the better,” said Dr. Polack.