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Reviewed by:
  • Oil Culture ed. by Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden
  • Robert Lifset
Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden, eds., Oil Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2014. 424 pp. Cloth, $90; paper, $30.

This large, sprawling, edited volume seeks to explore the question, What is oil culture? Lurking behind that question is something more than the desire to examine a commodity both ubiquitous and absent in our understanding of culture. A real sense of crisis animates many of the book’s essays, whether driven by the impact of peak oil or climate change, and provides a degree of political relevance to how the question is answered.

The volume’s editors imply that a failure of imagination is partly responsible for society’s inability to move beyond oil, a failure best remedied by examining oil as cultural material, as part of our everyday experience and aesthetics. Doing so can add a new chapter to our understanding of how oil capitalism emerged, developed, and became entrenched by identifying and scrutinizing those moments when oil’s expansion generated ambivalence and resistance, providing the space from which to imagine a future beyond oil.

The book is divided into five parts consisting of twenty contributions. Part 1, “Oil’s Origins and Modernization,” consists of four essays, the first three of which examine whale oil culture, spiritualism in the early oil industry, and a Standard Oil Trust sculpture designed to rehabilitate the company’s image. In the fourth essay, Frederick Buell offers an ambitious survey of literary interpretations of oil’s meaning since the nineteenth century. Buell finds two contradictory discourses: the first, a discourse of exuberance characterized by promotionalism and progress; the second, a discourse of catastrophe defined by economic and environmental apocalypse.

The essays in part 2, “Oil’s Golden Age,” examine American automobile culture, the film Giant and television show Dallas, John [End Page 264] Joseph Mathews’s 1934 novel Sundown, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1967 corporate-sponsored documentary La Via del Petrolio. The first two essays explore affirmations of oil-based lifestyles, the second two focus on oil-extractive frontiers (Oklahoma and Iran).

The cultural work that helped affirm the second half of the twentieth century’s oil capitalism is the subject of part 3, “The Local and Global Territories of Oil.” Two essays examine how mapping and fiction serve as examples of how culture could be used to facilitate or resist western corporate efforts to establish production zones in the Middle East and Africa. Two additional essays examine the growing intensity of petroleum use in western life. One considers how contemporary female photography serves to delegitimize women’s anti-oil activism; another appraises the role oil has played in advancing the neoliberal refashioning of American social life and politics. A final essay, by Michael Watts, provides an insightful comparison of the Niger Delta and the Gulf of Mexico.

Part 4, “Exhibiting Oil,” opens with a piece that surveys how offshore oil platforms are exhibited and interpreted in American aquariums. A second scans two photographic exhibitions, observing how contemporary landscape photographers treat petromodernity. And Stephanie LeMenager imagines how the George C. Page Museum of Los Angeles (known as the La Brea Tar Pits Museum) might be reconceptualized to envision a post-oil future.

The essays in part 5, “The Futures of and without Oil,” focus on photography, fiction, and oil documentaries in an effort to probe how culture might foster new perspectives on the past and a post-oil future. Gerry Canavan’s essay, for example, divides twentieth-century science fiction into two interpretative perspectives: a techno-utopian belief in the capacity to invent new energy systems supplanting oil, and an apocalyptic fear of the end of oil as marking an end point in human history.

Oil Culture began as a panel at the American Studies Association annual meeting in 2009 and grew into a special 2012 issue of the Journal of American Studies from which ten of the book’s twenty essays are reprinted. While the topic of energy organizes entire disciplines and subfields in engineering and the natural and physical sciences, the humanities have not to date successfully integrated [End Page 265] energy into their understanding of the world. This...


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pp. 264-266
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