The fluid field of petroculture

Jan 19th, 2015

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 which explores reimaginings of the offshore rig in film and literature to Fueling Culture: Politics, History, Energy, an upcoming volume from Fordham University Press.

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.

And the recent drop in oil prices only serves to reinforce their position that a conversation about oil is needed.

“All of our questions and lines of inquiry are made increasingly relevant with the boom and bust cycles of oil-dependent economies,” said Dr. Farquharson.

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.

Drs. Farquharson and Polack will host the third international Petrocultures conference at Memorial in September 2016. The conference will focus on the offshore industry, specifically on the people who work in the industry and who become part of our community and our culture.

Given Newfoundland and Labrador’s North Atlantic context, the organizers are interested in recruiting participants with knowledge of other offshore oil-producing countries in the region, such as Scotland, Norway and Ireland. Topics to be explored include: resource history; offshore future; safety/risk; cultural imaginaries; labour/workforce; community responses to energy industry-induced change; oceans resource management; law and policy of the sea; oil and mobility.

“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.