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  • A Formal SpillingLeaking and Leaching in Warren Cariou’s Petrography and “Tarhands: A Messy Manifesto”
  • Taylor Mcholm (bio)

This essay investigates artist and scholar Warren Cariou’s aesthetic attempts to challenge the operational logic and legitimacy of petromodernity, what Stephanie LeMenager defines as “a modern life based in the cheap energy systems long made possible by petroleum” (“Aesthetics” 60). Like all forms of modernity, petromodernity has produced numerous aesthetic responses. Methods of representing petromodernity that rely on its existing operational logic ultimately replicate the same techno-scientific rationality and dislocation that produce the harmful practices these works represent. For instance, recent work by Debra Davidson, Mike Gismondi, and Jon Gordon attends to the ways that proponents of the Alberta tar sands project justify its harms through appeals to reason. As Gordon argues, what may be necessary to disrupt petromodernity and its numerous ills is a form of representation that challenges the logical premises of petromodernity (Gordon xlix). Following Gordon, I offer a formal analysis of Warren Cariou’s creative work, in particular his 2012 “Tarhands: A Messy Manifesto” and his 2014 new media project that he terms petrography, referring to petroleum as both the subject matter and material of the medium. I argue that Cariou’s work spills across form and genre, thereby challenging an aesthetic and form of logic that seeks to sequester the environmental and social ills of petromodernity. Moreover, I make explicit the way irrationality serves as an implicit critique of settler colonialism throughout Cariou’s work.

Writing about Cariou’s short story “An Athabasca Story,” Gordon suggests that we understand “Cariou’s call for an ‘irrational response’ [End Page 429] to bitumen extraction as an attempt to expose the flaws in the ‘rational’ and ‘common sense’ logic of capitalism, a move to ‘uncommon sense’”(107). In a recent essay cowritten with Cariou, Gordon extends this analysis to Cariou’s petrographs. Arguing that “literature has the potential to interrupt the relentless justifications and rationalizations of and for the status quo,” Gordon explains that petrographs “are a new medium for such interrupting” (3). Formal analysis can demonstrate the faulty logic of petromodernity, but in order to account for the amplified ways that logic affects Indigenous communities, the analysis needs to be informed by theories of settler colonialism. I argue that Cariou’s disruptive and formally innovative work is not only a critique of the logic of capitalism or petromodernity but also a critique of settler colonialism, which also operates through a logic of separation, containment, and a fantasy of elimination, as Patrick Wolfe has argued (2006). Further, the work’s irrationality performs an epistemic shift rooted in a connection to place, traditional Indigenous relationships with bitumen, and Cariou’s own Métis heritage.

Cariou employs an aesthetic strategy that I term “insensible realism.” As a formal technique that disavows techno-scientific rationality, insensible realism highlights the ways in which the material effects of what cannot be sensed are knowable and as much a part of the real as that which is immediately perceptible. Works of insensible realism, like Cariou’s, operate on two levels, both of which respond to Imre Szeman’s call to “make more fully sensible the shape and form of the world to which oil gave birth” (“How to Know” 156). First, they represent material impacts and social structures that are either not immediately sensible, or have become insensible as a result of familiarity and ubiquity. This expands the realm of the real to include those phenomena that do not seem present.1 Second, the works themselves are deliberately insensible or irrational in an effort to break from the dominant logic that has produced the harms these works target. To be clear, insensible does not mean nonsensical. Instead, the work is “insensible” in that it is strategically irrational. Cariou’s “Tarhands” and his petrography purposefully break with established conventions of genre and form in order to produce a confusion that does not track with the techno-scientific rationality that has produced settler colonial petromodernity. Their forms [End Page 430] leak, leach, and spill in an effort to challenge the very legitimacy of a rationality that somehow continues to justify itself even while its negative...


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pp. 429-446
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