- Beyond OilThe Emergence of the Energy Humanities
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At least since Foucault, scholars in the humanities have produced research about power; only recently have we begun to investigate energy. Energy humanities is a new field, and it is late. In fact, it has already become so conventional for energy scholars to remark on their own belatedness that the field seems to arise from a lament: we might be too late. Distress is galvanizing the energy humanities, however; and the field is emerging around a vibrant group of recent publications by Stephanie LeMenager, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Bob Johnson, Ross Barrett, Daniel Worden, Imre Szeman, Jennifer Wenzel, Sheena Wilson, Adam Carlson, Patricia Yaeger, Amitav Ghosh, and others. Like the larger field of the environmental humanities, the energy humanities holds an environmentalist mandate: climate change and the violence of resource extraction render it critical that we use all available means to address energy extraction and consumption. Humanities research is well suited to the tasks of imagining a future beyond fossil fuels and of understanding exactly how and why we have become so deeply enmeshed in destructive energy systems.
The humanities are late to energy research because energy is, paradoxically, both everywhere and hard to see. According to editors Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden, “oil’s signature cultural ubiquity and absence is the occasion” for their collection called Oil Culture—and the same can be said for the other works assembled here.1 Disaster breaks the spell of invisibility, and highly spectacular oil spills like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and the 2010 disaster aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig feature prominently in energy humanities scholarship. The mass media have produced a highly recognizable visual vernacular for these disasters: oil-soaked birds; beach cleanup crews in hazmat suits; images of oil gushing, leaking, and coagulating into greasy clots in the ocean. As Sheena Wilson warns, though, the spectacularization of oil spills produces complacency by naturalizing the much more violent and dangerous “ordinary” processes of extracting, shipping, and consuming oil.2
Under those ordinary circumstances, the material and conceptual [End Page 156] infrastructures of oil production keep oil invisible. This insight owes in large part to Timothy Mitchell, whose Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil connects the materiality of different energy resources to the political forms that emerged from them.3 Oil is more easily controlled by a centralized authority and less vulnerable to labor stoppages and sabotage than, say, coal; oil is extracted and shipped by highly mechanized processes that take place out of sight in underground oil wells and inside opaque pipelines.4 Some of the most important recent work on energy infrastructures comes from Canada, where scholars are using their proximity to the Alberta tar sands as a mandate for research. The essay collection Petrocultures: Oil, Politics, Culture, edited by Sheena Wilson, Adam Carlson, and Imre Szeman, collects important and deeply informed insight on infrastructures, cultural artifacts, and political problems arising from the...