Stephanie LeMenager

Petroleum Culture in the American Century

Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 288 pp. ISBN: 978-0190461973 (Hardback). £46.49 (UK).


Reviewed by Treasa De Loughry, University of Exeter (September, 2019)


Over twenty years ago, Amitav Ghosh remarked that oil had yet to produce expansive petro-fictions akin to the spice narratives of early modern colonialism (‘Petrofiction’, New Republic 206.9 (1992): pp. 29–34). This comment has continued to prompt critics to ponder not whether, but how and why we missed oil fictions. After all, as critics such as Graeme Macdonald (2013), Jennifer Wenzel (2016), and Imre Szeman (2011) have observed, the point is not that texts should consciously register oil extraction (who wants to read novels set on oil rigs?), but that the occlusions of oil in contemporary life are symptomatic of its role as an adaptable ‘ur-resource’, fuelling the time-space compression, cheap fertilisers, and abundant plastics of contemporary life. If oil is both everywhere and nowhere in fiction then the scholar’s role becomes less about divining oil works than establishing what critical practices provide generative energy-driven readings.

Stephanie LeMenager’s Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (2014), is one of the foundational works in the emerging field of energy humanities or petro-cultures, and provides a literary and historical analysis of how US media ‘loves’ and ‘grieves’ oil. For LeMenager, the challenges of narrating oil are scalar and lie in the difficulties of “collating varied sources of intelligence and memory about oil’s material effects, even in small-scale neighborhoods that have been or are energy districts” (184). Grounding this monograph’s commitment to the regional and personal is its foregrounding of testimony — an intimate and subjective genre that ‘resists translation’. These oil testimonies are located variously in internet resources, including blog posts and videos, but also photography archives, poetry, novels, and even overheard conversations (consider the tour guides at the California Oil Museum, 185), across four chapters dealing with the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill in California; the aesthetics of oil and loving automobile freedom; grieving oil or petromelancholia; and finally, tar sands and museums as archives of energy and extinction.

Attesting to the academic influence of this book, terms like ‘petromelancholia’ now circulate fairly widely amongst petro-critics as a way to refer, like solastalgia, to a kind of grieving for the loss of oil’s “embodied memory and habitus” (104). But, rather than paralysis, for LeMenager (borrowing from queer studies) petromelancholia can further an activist approach to post-oil futurities or a reckoning with our “destructive attachment” and “bad love” for oil (11).

Living Oil quickly establishes that its emphasis on testimonial narratives means a commitment to commodity regionalism, and the book focuses on resource-rich sites that have a long history of oil extraction and environmental destruction, like Louisiana, California and Texas, but also Gulf Coast-East Coast class tensions and environmental solidarities (12). In some instances, this led to middle-class green activism: exemplified in Californian responses to the Santa Barbara oil spill. But, in sites like Louisiana, oil spills are an ongoing and chronic problem, while subsidence is everywhere part of the rapidly changing ecology of post-peak oil.

This multi-scalar approach to the study of oil leads to a brief analysis of Niger Delta oil fictions like those by Tanure Ojaide, Ogaga Ifowodo and Helon Habila. Forms like “aggressive realism” may, LeMenager suggests, helpfully circulate in “the New Golden Triangle (West Africa–the Gulf of Mexico–Brazil)”, not least given the longue durée histories of capitalist colonisation of the Black Atlantic with “sister deltas” sharing ecological and cultural responses to oil (“delta blues”) (136, 137). As a world literary critic, these brief asides to the Niger Delta suggest a generative but too-short glimpse into the worlded nature of oil, given the vast petro-networks hooking together unlikely regions. Therein lies a productive tension in Living Oil, between its intimate archive, globalisation and the standardisation of material life and consumption generated by fossil fuels and their by-products.

A general comment ought to be made with reference to Living Oil’s primary sources. Its formal promiscuity is due, the monograph argues, to oil’s role as a “medium that fundamentally supports all modern media forms concerned with what counts as culture—from film to recorded music, novels, magazines, photographs, sports, and the wikis, blogs, and videography of the Internet” (6). Living Oil’s varied emphasis on internet sources begs the question—if paper production is an ecocidal, water guzzling and toxin producing disaster in the making (as noted carefully in chapter 3), what of the carbon emissions, rare earth minerals, and thirsty automated plants that host servers? To add another twist, online sources are ironically fragile ephemera (several links in the book’s endnotes are out of date). If internet sources, especially personal narratives like online diaries and self-published poems, are the oil archives of tomorrow, then they may become nearly as elusive as the missing “great oil novel”.

Secondly, certain genres and literary modes that interact with the testimonial, like journalistic realism or the detective/thriller, are bound up with reconfigurations of ‘tough oil’ at particular moments and in certain regions in the world-system, and future critical oil works should consider how peripheral fictions register the violence of petro-extraction and consumption. This includes the modernist fragmentation and plot irresolution of petro-works responding to state-corporate dispossessions—as in Nawal el Saadawi’s surreal Egyptian novel Love in the Kingdom of Oil, or Helon Habila’s Oil on Water and it’s “distrust of plot” as LeMenager names it (128). Oil’s adaptable and protean role in enabling cheap flights, energy financial futures, and oil-hungry suburbs, are bound up with its geographic and imaginative displacements, an uneven and intensely linked aspect of what Dominic Boyer has labelled the “energopower” of modern life (Boyer 2014); and Living Oil is a vital initial step into the wider and world-systemic comparison the energy humanities is now embarking on, linking the consequences of oil extraction from the rig to the dump, or from “social ‘totalities’ to domestic intimacies” (LeMenager 133).


(c) Symbiosis, 2019