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  • On DismantlingA Report from Michigan
  • Jeffrey Insko (bio)

I used to moonlight as an energy humanist. I didn't know it at the time. In fact, I didn't even know the energy humanities—the study, across humanistic disciplines, of the social, historical, and cultural implications of our modern dependence on fossil fuels—were a thing. I didn't know, that is, until some time in late 2013 when I happened upon an advance notice of Stephanie LeMenager's then-soon-to-be-published book Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. It felt, at the time, as if that book had been written just for me, a teacher and scholar of nineteenth-century American literature unexpectedly absorbed by "petroleum culture," a casualty of "tough oil," practicing a kind of amateur "commodity regionalism"—all terms I'd never encountered before.1 Only later did I come to appreciate that energy humanities work takes many different forms, not all of them conventionally scholarly, and takes place in many different sites, not all of them academic. My ignorance of that fact explains why for a long time my literary critical scholarship existed in a state of tension, if not conflict, with (what I then didn't realize was) my energy humanist work—the latter of which I just thought of as advocacy or activism, separate from what I considered my day job as a professional academic. The problem I faced was that the advocacy distracted me, for a number of years, from my teaching and my scholarship. Specifically, I had a book to finish—a book on temporality and nineteenth-century American literature that examines, among other things, the eagerness on the part of a number of antebellum writers to hasten the destruction and crumbling of certain social structures, like slavery and white supremacy, in the absence of any sort [End Page 139] of certainty as to where that dismantling might lead. But I wasn't finishing that book. Instead, I was spending most of my time blogging about oil pipelines.

Only over the past decade or so, perhaps for the first time in US history, have pipelines figured prominently in national politics and public consciousness.2 The debate over approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and the actions taken by the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors and their allies to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline have made pipeline politics—that nexus of questions concerning property rights, local and regional authority, environmental protections (or the lack thereof), safe water, energy policy, tribal sovereignty, the ongoing violence of settler colonialism, and of course climate change—a vigorous site of conversation and contention in the public sphere. But at the national scale, at least, pipeline politics are still a relatively new phenomenon. What's more, controversies over pipelines have centered primarily on new energy infrastructure. They've thus generally been forward-looking movements concerned with how we might imagine and structure our energy future—"after oil" as one energy humanities collective describes it.3 Anticipating imminent environmental disasters, the pipeline-leak mantra has become "It's not if; it's when," as these movements somehow attempt to mitigate or prevent the nightmare scenarios that climate change models have forecast for both the near and long term—scenarios imagined and rendered vividly, for example, in works of climate fiction. Yet this future orientation also duplicates a certain historical blindness about fossil fuel infrastructure, insofar as it fails to remind us of the vast network of already- existing pipelines that lie buried underground, where they've remained more or less invisible, hidden from sight and from our social imaginations for most of the past century and a half.

This is simply to observe that while "pipeline politics" may be a distinctly twenty-first century phenomenon—one of the flash points of the Anthropocene—the transport of oil by pipeline in the United States is part of a constellation of transformative energy developments that began in the nineteenth century with the "discovery" of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859.4 As early as 1865, small-diameter local pipelines were put into use to move oil short distances, typically by gravity, from points of production, like the...


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pp. 139-153
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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