3-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.sightoil.3-2.11 | Truscel­lo PDF


ABSTRACT: Edward Burtynsky's aes­thet­ic and the New Topo­graph­ic aes­thet­ic from which it derives, I argue, should not be seen as apo­lit­i­cal but rather as traces of an empire in ruins and a social­i­ty to come; that is, by employ­ing a post-anar­chist analy­sis, I demon­strate how Burtynsky's pho­tographs in his recent col­lec­tion Oil, and Mitch Epstein's images from Amer­i­can Pow­er, pro­duce an aes­thet­ic of what Yves Abri­oux calls "inten­sive land­scap­ing," or "land­scap­ing as style, as the promise of a social spac­ing yet to come" (264). What Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein accom­plish in their pho­tographs relat­ed to ener­gy in par­tic­u­lar is "to invent rela­tions, rather than assert ide­o­log­i­cal or cul­tur­al con­trol" (ibid.); the place of ener­gy extrac­tion and trans­port becomes not a self-con­tained stri­a­tion of eco­log­i­cal degra­da­tion, but a "place of pas­sage," to use Deleuze and Guattari's ter­mi­nol­o­gy, a depic­tion of wild­ness and civ­i­liza­tion in con­tact, assem­bled and refor­mu­lat­ing the land­scape into some­thing oth­er. The aes­thet­ic under con­sid­er­a­tion has much in com­mon with Tim­o­thy Morton's "dark ecol­o­gy" and Stephanie LeManager's “feel­ing eco­log­i­cal,” the­o­ries that attempt to under­stand the affec­tive con­nec­tions between the infra­struc­ture of oil cap­i­tal­ism and ecol­o­gy (“Petro-Melan­cho­lia” 27).

RÉSUMÉ : Je pro­pose dans cet arti­cle que l’esthétique d’Edward Bur­tyn­sky, à l'instar de la nou­velle esthé­tique topographique dont elle est issue, sont les traces d’un empire en ruines qui invite à un nou­veau type de socia­bil­ité plutôt qu’à une lec­ture apoli­tique. À l’aide d’une approche ana­ly­tique post-anar­chiste, je démon­tre la manière dont son récent recueil de pho­tos Oil, de même que les images de Mitch Epstien dans Amer­i­can Pow­er, pro­duisent une esthé­tique de ce qu’Yves Abri­oux appelle « l’aménagement paysager inten­sif », c’est-à-dire « l’aménagement paysager comme style, comme plan d’espacement social de l’avenir » [Notre Tra­duc­tion] (264). Bur­tyn­sky et Epstein réus­sis­sent ain­si à « inven­ter des rela­tions, au lieu d’affirmer un con­trôle idéologique ou cul­turel » [Notre Tra­duc­tion].  Par con­séquent, l’importance de l’extraction énergé­tique et du trans­port se trou­ve dans leur capac­ité d’être des « endroits de pas­sage » (terme emprun­té à Deleuze et Guat­tari), à savoir les endroits d’une ren­con­tre entre la sauvagerie et la civil­i­sa­tion qui trans­for­ment le paysage en quelque chose d’autre. L’esthétique que j‘emploie ici a beau­coup à voir avec les théories de « l’écologie obscure » de Tim­o­thy Mor­tons, et avec le « sen­ti­ment écologique » de Stephanie LeM­an­ag­er. En effet, ces derniers ten­tent de com­pren­dre les con­nec­tions affec­tives entre l’infrastructure du cap­i­tal­isme pétroli­er et l’écologie (“Petro-Melan­cho­lia” 27).

Michael Truscel­lo | Mount Roy­al Uni­ver­si­ty

The New Topographics, Dark Ecology, and the Energy Infrastructure of Nations:
Considering Agency in the Photographs of Edward Burtynsky and Mitch Epstein from a Post-Anarchist Perspective

[I]t is cer­tain that the state itself needs a hydraulic sci­ence… But it needs it in a very dif­fer­ent form, because the State needs to sub­or­di­nate hydraulic force to con­duits, pipes, embank­ments, which pre­vent tur­bu­lence, which con­strain move­ment to go from one point to anoth­er, and space itself to be stri­at­ed and mea­sured, which makes the flu­id depend on the sol­id, and flows pro­ceed by par­al­lel, lam­i­nar lay­ers. (Deleuze and Guat­tari 363)

Empires have a way of com­ing to an end, leav­ing behind their land­scapes as relics and ruins. (Mitchell 19)

The New Topographics

The New Topo­graph­ics move­ment in photography—made famous by the New Topo­graph­ics: Pho­tographs of a Man-Altered Land­scape exhib­it at the Inter­na­tion­al Muse­um of Pho­tog­ra­phy at George East­man House in Rochester, New York in Octo­ber 1975—broke with the tra­di­tion­al land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter to frame the post-war indus­tri­al­iza­tion of Amer­i­ca in aes­thet­ic terms “marked by rep­e­ti­tion and iso­la­tion,” the dis­ap­pear­ance of com­mu­ni­ty “in an atmos­phere of vacant alien­ation” defined by sub­ur­ban sprawl, and a “cel­e­bra­tion of direct­ness, emo­tion­al remove, and atten­tive­ness to humanity’s shap­ing of the land” (Rohrbach xiv). Cura­tor William Jenk­ins includ­ed in the famous exhib­it (repro­duced in 2009) pho­tog­ra­phers Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Bech­er, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Hen­ry Wes­sel, Jr.. Decades after the sem­i­nal exhib­it, the New Topo­graph­ics aes­thet­ic is being reassessed by schol­ars, and the aes­thet­ic itself remains rel­e­vant; for exam­ple, the Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Pho­tog­ra­phy in Chica­go host­ed an exhib­it called “Pub­lic Works,” which exam­ined con­tem­po­rary built infra­struc­ture, in the sum­mer of 2011. Above all, and per­haps con­comi­tant with post-1968 cul­tur­al the­o­rists who empha­sized the microp­ol­i­tics of every­day life, the New Topo­graph­ics pho­tog­ra­phers demon­strat­ed an appre­ci­a­tion for “the altered envi­ron­ments of dai­ly life,” some­thing Finis Dun­away sees as “con­tribut­ing to eco­log­i­cal cit­i­zen­ship by encour­ag­ing view­ers to form attach­ments to a broad­er con­tin­u­um of sites” (Dun­away 42).

Con­trary to ear­li­er forms of land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy that sit­u­at­ed nature as pris­tine and untouched by human devel­op­ment, the New Topo­graph­ics engaged Amer­i­can land­scapes as the scarred and decay­ing byprod­ucts of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion, often vacant spaces for auto­mo­bil­i­ty such as park­ing lots, high­ways, or gas sta­tions, as in the work of Robert Adams, indi­cat­ing “the new West’s utter depen­dence upon petro­le­um and pri­vate trans­porta­tion” (Dun­away 27). The Rochester exhibit’s “jux­ta­po­si­tion of aban­doned, new, and incom­plete struc­tures instills the human-altered land­scape with a sense of built-in obso­les­cence and dis­tin­guish­es its rapid growth from the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment in which it is sit­u­at­ed” (Fos­ter-Rice 53). Whether bor­row­ing aes­thet­ic inspi­ra­tion from com­mer­cial real estate pho­tog­ra­phy (Salvesen 81) or aer­i­al pho­tog­ra­phy (Sichel 87), the New Topo­graph­ics was a pho­to­graph­ic style com­mon­ly inter­pret­ed as apo­lit­i­cal, due to its “flat­ness, dehu­man­iza­tion, and decep­tion of scale” (Sichel 94). The same com­plaint has been levied against Cana­di­an pho­tog­ra­ph­er Edward Bur­tyn­sky, whose man­u­fac­tured land­scapes seem to avoid explic­it com­men­tary on the indus­tri­al alter­ations they depict, and often seem to beau­ti­fy indus­tri­al waste and human dev­as­ta­tion.

In her review of Burtynsky’s Man­u­fac­tured Land­scapes, Nadia Bozak writes, “Because Bur­tyn­sky sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly aes­theti­cizes indus­tri­al civilization’s envi­ron­men­tal incur­sions, his images are marked with an almost insen­tient detach­ment and lack of crit­i­cal posi­tion­ing that can be trou­bling” (68). Jonathan Bor­do asks, “Does such beau­ti­fi­ca­tion sooth irre­me­di­a­ble loss by mak­ing human inter­ven­tions appear like inevitable nat­ur­al facts?” (94). This essen­tial ten­sion between eco­log­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe and aes­thet­ic beau­ty becomes the cen­tral dilem­ma for most view­ers of Burtynsky’s pho­tographs, what Bor­do char­ac­ter­izes as “an ambigu­ous sit­u­a­tion of pon­der­ing pic­tures of eco­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion while behold­ing daz­zling visu­al sur­faces” (91). Burtynsky’s aes­thet­ic and the New Topo­graph­ic aes­thet­ic from which it derives, I argue, should not be seen as apo­lit­i­cal, but rather as traces of an empire in ruins and a social­i­ty to come; that is, by employ­ing a post-anar­chist analy­sis, I demon­strate how Burtynsky’s pho­tographs in his recent col­lec­tion OIL, and Mitch Epstein’s images from Amer­i­can Pow­er, pro­duce an aes­thet­ic of what Yves Abri­oux calls “inten­sive land­scap­ing,” or “land­scap­ing as style, as the promise of a social spac­ing yet to come” (264). What Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein accom­plish in their pho­tographs relat­ed to ener­gy in par­tic­u­lar is “to invent rela­tions, rather than assert ide­o­log­i­cal or cul­tur­al con­trol” (Abri­oux 264). In Bur­tyn­sky specif­i­cal­ly, the place of ener­gy extrac­tion and trans­port becomes not a self-con­tained stri­a­tion of eco­log­i­cal degra­da­tion, but a “place of pas­sage,” to use Deleuze and Guattari’s ter­mi­nol­o­gy, a depic­tion of wild­ness and civ­i­liza­tion in con­tact, assem­bled and refor­mu­lat­ing the land­scape into some­thing oth­er. Bur­tyn­sky him­self described the ambiva­lence of his images:

I think that’s the dual­i­ty. I think that’s what makes the images unsta­ble. I think that’s what makes them inter­est­ing that they’re not kind of used as indict­ments.… Their mean­ing is not fixed and I think in most real­ly inter­est­ing art which does touch upon polit­i­cal bends or what­ev­er. Fix­ing the mean­ing then also takes that work and locates it direct­ly in a par­tic­u­lar time and so it real­ly doesn’t migrate very well into the future once that is con­sid­ered no longer a threat or an issue, so dies the work. (“Thoughts on Oil”)

It is obvi­ous to observers of Burtynsky’s pho­tographs that they cat­a­logue eco­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion. What is often per­ceived as a beau­ti­fi­ca­tion of this dev­as­ta­tion might also be con­sid­ered a rhi­zomat­ic depic­tion of an always-incom­plete process of becom­ing post-empire, post-cap­i­tal, and post-nat­ur­al; the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion, after all, “fuelled by coal, oil and gas has result­ed in a lev­el of land­scape change that is—in both its nature and magnitude—unprecedented in the his­to­ry of humankind” (Nadaї and van der Horst 144). The ambiva­lence pro­voked by these pho­tos sig­ni­fies the death of con­ven­tion­al land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy and its ossi­fied under­stand­ing of nature as a sta­t­ic, pris­tine con­struct, a rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al form pass­ing into some­thing else. Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein depict a post-anar­chist asso­ci­a­tion­al­ism in place of State modal­i­ties of cap­ture and stri­a­tion, while fore­ground­ing the ener­gy rela­tion­ships that shape land­scapes as the sun sets on the sui­ci­dal State.

What is espe­cial­ly com­pelling about Burtynsky’s vision of State cap­ture and stri­a­tion is that it per­ceives this pas­sage from the “dis­tant vision” of a State, unlike some “envi­ron­men­tal­ist” fram­ing of eco­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion, which often sees “appa­ra­tus­es of cap­ture” from the van­tage of what Deleuze and Guat­tari call the “close-range” (492) vision of smooth space. That is, Burtynsky’s pho­tographs see State modal­i­ties “like a State,” like the cadas­tral maps that pro­duced the “syn­op­tic view of the state” (Scott 39), and this per­spec­tive is unnerv­ing for many view­ers, espe­cial­ly those who do not iden­ti­fy with the opti­cal space of the State. Absent are the inti­mate por­traits of oil-soaked birds, dis­lo­cat­ed indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, or tat­tered corpses that nor­mal­ly sig­ni­fy in the visu­al reg­is­ter of the social jus­tice jere­mi­ad the crim­i­nal machi­na­tions of Big Oil. Instead of wit­ness­ing indus­tri­al evis­cer­a­tion from the inti­mate space of the indig­nant observ­er, Bur­tyn­sky com­pli­cates the observer’s rela­tion­ship to agency in the Age of Oil by fore­ground­ing the scale, tech­no­log­i­cal com­plex­i­ty, and almost myth­i­cal ubiq­ui­ty of petro­cul­ture. Absent is the bilat­er­al­ism of earnest envi­ron­men­tal por­trai­ture, the sim­plis­tic agen­tial dual­ism that pits ‘peo­ple’ against Big Oil. Instead, Bur­tyn­sky offers a vision of a dis­trib­uted agency, in which the “unsta­ble cas­cade” (Ben­nett 457) of inten­tion­al­i­ties resists a lin­ear cause and effect in favour of depict­ing objects pro­duced by flows of ener­gy, mate­r­i­al com­bi­na­tions, and “the con­joined effect of a vari­ety of kinds of bod­ies” (454), an onto­log­i­cal real­i­ty that seems par­tic­u­lar­ly note­wor­thy for indus­tri­al nations built on vast and com­plex tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­tures with exten­sive his­tor­i­cal, polit­i­cal and envi­ron­men­tal lega­cies.

State Infrastructure

The mod­ern State form co-evolved with the mate­r­i­al capac­i­ties of infra­struc­ture, mas­sive hydraulic process­es that could gen­er­ate and trans­fer elec­tric­i­ty, exca­vate waste, and cou­ple mobil­i­ty with com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Between 1880 and 1950 mod­ern nation states emerged as great ter­ri­to­r­i­al ‘con­tain­ers’ with grow­ing pow­ers over many domains,” note Gra­ham and Mar­vin (73). With­in this con­text, infra­struc­ture was wide­ly per­ceived as the cohe­sive assem­blage for a sense of nation­al iden­ti­ty, and “infra­struc­ture poli­cies were the cen­tral way in which nation­al states engaged in shap­ing cap­i­tal­ist ter­ri­to­r­i­al orga­ni­za­tion” (74). Some of the most notable infra­struc­ture projects of this peri­od include “the Nazis’ Auto­bahn net­work, the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of the Ukraine and the Sovi­et Union, the New Deal region­al projects of the Ten­nessee Val­ley and the nation­al high­way pro­gramme in the Unit­ed States” (77). These his­tor­i­cal touch­stones con­form to Deleuze and Guattari’s def­i­n­i­tion of State ter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion:

One of the fun­da­men­tal tasks of the State is to stri­ate the space over which it reigns, or to uti­lize smooth spaces as a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the ser­vice of stri­at­ed space. It is a vital con­cern of every State not only to van­quish nomadism but to con­trol migra­tions and, more gen­er­al­ly, to estab­lish a zone of rights over an entire “exte­ri­or,” over all the flows tra­vers­ing the ecu­menon. If it can help it, the State does not dis­so­ci­ate itself from a process of cap­ture of flows of all kinds, pop­u­la­tions, com­modi­ties or com­merce, mon­ey or cap­i­tal, etc. There is still a need for fixed paths in well-defined direc­tions, which restrict speed, reg­u­late cir­cu­la­tion, rel­a­tivise move­ment, and mea­sure in detail the rel­a­tive move­ments of sub­jects and objects. (Deleuze and Guat­tari 385-386)

James C. Scott traces this stri­a­tion of space in ear­ly mod­ern Europe pri­mar­i­ly in the form of cadas­tral maps used for the seg­re­ga­tion and tax­a­tion of land, among oth­er State func­tions, in his book See­ing Like A State. Begin­ning with Ger­man sci­en­tif­ic forestry, in which the “uni­form for­est was intend­ed to facil­i­tate man­age­ment and extrac­tion” (18), Scott demon­strates the trans­la­tion of the State’s syn­op­tic vision from forestry to oth­er forms of stri­a­tion includ­ing tax­a­tion.

For the pur­pos­es of tax­a­tion and con­scrip­tion, and in con­junc­tion with the emer­gence of the mod­ern State, cadas­tral maps trans­lat­ed the com­plex­i­ty of phe­nom­e­nal flows into sim­plis­tic abstrac­tions, becom­ing, to use Mark Halsey’s phrase from anoth­er con­text, “a machine of axiomi­sa­tion,” some­thing that “expunges the world of pre-formed things, the world of haec­ceities, the world com­posed only of rhythms and of bod­ies with­out organs, and in its place sub­sti­tutes the cer­tain­ties of Roy­al sci­ence and (il)logics of cap­i­tal” (Halsey para. 12). Scott writes:

The crown­ing arti­fact of this almighty sim­pli­fi­ca­tion is the cadas­tral map. Cre­at­ed by trained sur­vey­ors and mapped to a giv­en scale, the cadas­tral map is a more or less com­plete and accu­rate sur­vey of all land­hold­ings…. The cadas­tral map and prop­er­ty reg­is­ter are to the tax­a­tion of land as the maps of tables of the sci­en­tif­ic forester were to the fis­cal exploita­tion of the for­est. (Scott 36)

The cadas­tral map, this “machine of axiomi­sa­tion” or modal­i­ty of State cap­ture, not only “ignored any­thing lying out­side its sharply defined field of vision” (Scott 47), it also pro­duced a spe­cif­ic aes­thet­ic: “The visu­al sign of the well-man­aged for­est, in Ger­many and in the many set­tings where Ger­man sci­en­tif­ic forestry took hold, came to be the reg­u­lar­i­ty and neat­ness of its appear­ance” (18). Sim­i­lar to the sym­me­try and syn­thet­ic appear­ance of the man­aged for­est, land­scapes under the syn­op­tic vision of cadas­tral maps exhib­it a quilt­ed cal­cu­lus pri­mar­i­ly vis­i­ble from an ele­vat­ed van­tage, “a God’s-eye view, or the view of an absolute ruler” (57). The recon­struc­tion of Paris by Baron Hauss­mann from 1853 to 1869 exhib­it­ed the same log­ic as the sci­en­tif­ic man­age­ment of old-growth forests, and in the city “the above­ground order… facil­i­tates its under­ground order in the lay­out of water pipes, storm drains, sew­ers, elec­tric cables, nat­ur­al gas lines, and subways—an order no less impor­tant to the admin­is­tra­tion of a city” (56-57). Thus, sub­mersed infra­struc­ture func­tions as a sup­ple­men­tary force of rela­tions with ‘above­ground’ stri­a­tions, the repressed mate­r­i­al stra­ta of the flanêur.

Edward Burtynsky’s OIL

I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of ener­gy that makes every­thing pos­si­ble, and as a source of dread, for its ongo­ing endan­ger­ment of our habi­tat. (Bur­tyn­sky, OIL)

Fig. 1  Edward Bur­tyn­sky, Oil Fields #22, Cold Lake, Alber­ta, Cana­da, 2001

The cadas­tral map is very much like a still pho­to­graph of the cur­rent in a riv­er,” writes Scott (46), using a sim­i­le that effec­tive­ly express­es the para­dox of Burtynsky’s pho­tog­ra­phy about oil. The cadas­tral map cap­tures innu­mer­able social process­es in a state of becom­ing and occludes their very tran­si­tive prop­er­ties for the admin­is­tra­tive log­ic of the State. Burtynsky’s pho­tographs often pro­vide a sense of sta­sis where enor­mous sociotech­ni­cal appa­ra­tus­es are oper­at­ing in con­junc­tur­al ten­sion. A per­fect exam­ple of this is Oil Fields #22 (Fig. 1), tak­en near Cold Lake, Alber­ta. The image, which opens his OIL col­lec­tion, cap­tures pipelines pars­ing a for­est in a non­de­script patch of wilder­ness. The above­ground pipelines trav­el from out­side the left frame to beyond the hori­zon near the cen­tre of the image, in a wind­ing path that evokes the nat­ur­al con­tours of a riv­er rather than the mechan­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry of some­thing con­struct­ed. And yet this riv­er of oil is still, the trees are erect as if there is no wind, and, typ­i­cal of Bur­tyn­sky and the New Topo­graph­ics, no human activ­i­ty is vis­i­ble. Despite an enor­mous flow of oil across the land­scape, we detect no motion at all. The effect resem­bles what Shan­non and Smets sug­gest should be the archi­tec­tur­al ambi­tion of infra­struc­ture, a blend­ing of land­scape and infra­struc­ture: “Once mar­ried with archi­tec­ture, mobil­i­ty, and land­scape, infra­struc­ture can more mean­ing­ful­ly inte­grate ter­ri­to­ries, reduce mar­gin­al­iza­tion and seg­re­ga­tion, and stim­u­late new forms of inter­ac­tion. It can then tru­ly become ‘land­scape’” (Shan­non and Smets 9). Their under­stand­ing of the future of infra­struc­ture is not to reduce the amount of it, but rather to inte­grate it with land­scape in such a way that the two become a new­ly marked assem­blage of ‘land­scape’ prop­er; Burtynsky’s Oil Fields #27 (Fig. 2) accom­plish­es some­thing like this effect, in which the lat­tice­work of oil infra­struc­ture is scarce­ly dis­cernible from the rolling hills of Bak­ers­field, Cal­i­for­nia.

Fig. 2  Edward Bur­tyn­sky, Oil Fields #27, Bak­ers­field, Cal­i­for­nia, USA, 2004

To “reduce mar­gin­al­iza­tion and seg­re­ga­tion” sounds equal­ly egal­i­tar­i­an and pos­sessed of the same same­ness that dri­ves the admin­is­ter­ing arm of the syn­op­tic State. “Land­scape and infra­struc­ture merge and move­ment cor­ri­dors are (re)worked as new ves­sels of col­lec­tive life,” in the words of Shanon and Smets (9). An image such as Oil Fields #22 seems to take this approach to the oil pipelines, at least in the absence of more obvi­ous indi­ca­tors of cri­tique, and one could there­fore imag­ine this pic­ture on the wall of an oil indus­try executive’s office, as easy as one could imag­ine it hang­ing in the same room as the most ardent Green­peace activists.

The sta­sis of the oil deliv­ery appa­ra­tus and its riv­er-like cur­va­ture con­note ambiva­lence about what is real­ly hap­pen­ing, an ambiva­lence reg­is­tered above by the review­ers of Burtynsky’s work. We could note, for exam­ple, that the more than 370,000 km of pipelines in Alber­ta present a num­ber of sig­nif­i­cant threats to the provin­cial envi­ron­ment: poten­tial con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of land and water from spills; loss and frag­men­ta­tion of wildlife habi­tat and nat­ur­al veg­e­ta­tion; loss and com­paction of soils; reduced avail­abil­i­ty of agri­cul­tur­al, prairie and forest­ed areas; loss of his­tor­i­cal resources such as arche­o­log­i­cal sites; and stream sed­i­men­ta­tion (Gov­ern­ment of Alber­ta). At the same time, oil is impli­cat­ed in a host of social ben­e­fits (med­ical advances, cer­tain forms of mobil­i­ty, warmth, agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, etc.) and dev­as­ta­tion (mil­i­tarism, pol­lu­tion, tox­i­fi­ca­tion of water and soil, agriculture—again, etc.), and com­plex, dis­trib­uted forms of agency make it dif­fi­cult to cre­ate a bina­ry divi­sion of sin­ners and saints, malev­o­lent demand and benev­o­lent sup­ply, those who are sole­ly respon­si­ble for the petro­cul­tur­al appa­ra­tus and those stand entire­ly out­side of it. Most notably absent from Burtynsky’s oil images, and yet most aggres­sive­ly affect­ed by cap­i­tal­ist resource extrac­tion, are the First Nations com­mu­ni­ties of North­ern Alber­ta. This absence con­tributes to the ambiva­lent tone of his pho­tographs, by visu­al­ly dis­plac­ing the most obvi­ous­ly aggriev­ed sub­jects of oil cap­i­tal­ism; their pres­ence would make it eas­i­er for view­ers to iden­ti­fy a polit­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry of accu­sa­tion. But such a tra­jec­to­ry would also ignore the dis­tri­b­u­tion of com­plic­i­ty with the atroc­i­ties of oil cap­i­tal­ism. By expand­ing our under­stand­ing of dis­trib­uted human and non-human agen­cies in “petro­moder­ni­ty” (LeM­an­ag­er, “The Aes­thet­ics of Petro­le­um” 60), we can bet­ter rec­og­nize the shift­ing inten­si­ties of petro­cul­tur­al assem­blages.

The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the for­est and the pipelines in Oil Fields #22 recalls what Deleuze and Guat­tari famous­ly described as the rhi­zomat­ic mul­ti­plic­i­ty that con­trast­ed with the hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture of the tree, asso­ci­at­ed with what they called arbores­cent thought—“thought, which like a tree, judges the world from one fixed point (roots, Descartean ratio­nal­i­ty), or requires that think­ing pro­ceed in only one direc­tion (sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, dialec­ti­cal­ly)” (Halsey para. 1). Burtynsky’s col­lec­tion OIL thus begins with an image of trees, a metaphor used by Deleuze and Guat­tari to describe arbores­cent thought. How­ev­er, the struc­ture of the pipeline sys­tem has also been com­pared with a tree:

The pipeline sys­tem is orga­nized like a tree. Small col­lec­tor pipelines in the oil field, called flow lines, are the fine roots of the sys­tem. They gath­er crude oil from many wells and bring it to the field pro­cess­ing sta­tion. Some­what larg­er pipes car­ry the oil to the ter­mi­nus of a main-line pipeline, which sup­plies refiner­ies hun­dreds of miles away; this is the trunk of the tree. The prod­ucts of the refin­ery are then dis­trib­uted through anoth­er sys­tem of main-line pipes, which divide into small­er and small­er branch­es until they reach dis­tri­b­u­tion depots—the leaves of the tree. (Hayes 162)

The entire appa­ra­tus of oil extrac­tion, refine­ment, and dis­tri­b­u­tion per­fect­ly encap­su­lates the hydraulic sci­ence of the State, its hier­ar­chi­cal, arbores­cent thought that cap­tures flows in a con­stant strug­gle with rhi­zomat­ic, open mul­ti­plic­i­ties. Burtynsky’s OIL begins not with an image of oil extrac­tion or com­bus­tion, but with an image of trees and a tree-like sys­tem of pipelines, the image of Roy­al sci­ence, arbores­cent thought.

Fig. 3 Edward Bur­tyn­sky, Oil Fields #19a, Bel­ridge, Cal­i­for­nia, USA, 2003

The rows of “nod­ding don­key” oil wells in Bel­ridge, Cal­i­for­nia, depict­ed from an oblique angle in Burtynsky’s Oil Fields #19a (Fig. 3), could eas­i­ly be mis­tak­en for an aban­doned oil patch, if not for the two devices in the fore­ground vis­i­bly blurred because they are oper­at­ing. Much like the pipelines in Oil Fields #22, the wells depict­ed in Oil Fields #19a encode the ambigu­ous agen­cies of mod­ern indus­tri­al infra­struc­ture. The oblique angle sep­a­rates the image from the con­ven­tion­al geom­e­try of the cadas­tral map, but only the two wells in the fore­ground appear to be mov­ing. No humans are vis­i­ble. Is this a dried up oil patch, or the beat­ing heart of the indus­tri­al soci­ety? Bur­tyn­sky allows the view­er to con­tem­plate the space of pas­sage between the two, between the dying empire and the vision of social­i­ty to come, by iso­lat­ing the mate­ri­al­i­ty of petro­cul­ture from a detached and dis­tant per­spec­tive. Instead of bisect­ing a for­est, which might com­mon­ly con­note forms of bio­di­ver­si­ty, the wells depict­ed here are locat­ed in the desert, a land­scape fre­quent­ly asso­ci­at­ed with hos­til­i­ty to life, and, in the con­text of oil, with the crude oil deposits of the Mid­dle East. A com­bi­na­tion of ele­ments in this image sug­gests psy­cho­log­i­cal ten­sion and alien­ation: the oblique angle, god’s-eye view, desert set­ting, and absence of human activ­i­ty. Burtynsky’s famil­iar use of the hori­zon inti­mates a mytho­log­i­cal scale of pro­duc­tion. But where are the peo­ple who use the oil, and to what ends do they use it? Is this par­tic­u­lar stri­a­tion of oil wells and trans­form­ers, pipes and stor­age tanks, the begin­ning or the end of agency, the source of com­bustible mobil­i­ty, long dis­tance com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and petro­le­um-based cul­tur­al prod­ucts, or the mechan­i­cal moans and sighs of an empire reach­ing exhaus­tion? Bur­tyn­sky does not tell us. Bur­tyn­sky described this pic­ture to the CBC, in terms that reflect the asso­ci­a­tion­al­ist per­spec­tive for which I have been argu­ing: “It’s a mos­qui­to draw­ing blood. It’s like we have these pipes into the ground suck­ing it out and we nev­er real­ly get a chance to see very much of the mate­r­i­al itself, but each one of us is almost using it every day” (“Thoughts on Oil”).

To under­stand the mate­ri­al­i­ty of agency in Burtynsky’s pho­tog­ra­phy, we can sum­mon the obser­va­tions of the ‘new mate­ri­alisms’ of polit­i­cal the­o­rists such as Jane Ben­nett, Diana Coole, and Tim­o­thy W. Luke, and of crit­i­cal urban­ists includ­ing Stephen Gra­ham and Simon Mar­vin. Promi­nent strands of mate­ri­al­ist cul­tur­al stud­ies and urban stud­ies employ the con­cept of “assem­blage” (Ander­son and McFar­lane 2011; Deleuze and Guat­tari 1987; McFar­lane 2011) in order to under­stand the dis­trib­uted agency of urban infra­struc­ture, which is often obscured either by its rel­a­tive invis­i­bil­i­ty or by the anthro­pocen­trism of cul­tur­al the­o­ry. As Jane Ben­nett writes, “There was nev­er a time when human agency was any­thing oth­er than an inter­fold­ing net­work of human­i­ty and non­hu­man­i­ty. What is per­haps dif­fer­ent today is that the high­er degree of infra­struc­tur­al and tech­no­log­i­cal com­plex­i­ty has ren­dered this hard­er to deny” (463). Oil pipeline or well assem­blages, in this con­text, should not be stud­ied as just the mate­r­i­al prod­uct of oil com­pa­ny inten­tions, nor should their con­struc­tion be under­stood as either the vic­to­ry of an oil com­pa­ny or the loss of com­mu­ni­ty resis­tance (the pop­u­lar media fram­ing of pipeline debates). Rather, cul­tur­al crit­ics need to exam­ine the “unsta­ble cas­cade” (Ben­nett 457) of inten­tion­al­i­ties, flows of ener­gy, mate­r­i­al com­bi­na­tions, and “the con­joined effect of a vari­ety of kinds of bod­ies” (454) that are con­tained with­in the mass struc­tures of petro­cul­tur­al land­scapes. Assess­ing the dis­trib­uted agency of petro­cul­tur­al assem­blages is not an act of becom­ing an apol­o­gist for envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion or colo­nial racism, but instead rec­og­nizes that indi­vid­u­als are “sim­ply inca­pable of bear­ing full respon­si­bil­i­ty for their effects” (463). Burtynsky’s pho­tog­ra­phy, I wish to sug­gest, is par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful for encour­ag­ing a dis­cus­sion of agency in this man­ner.

Fig. 4  Edward Bur­tyn­sky, Oil Refiner­ies #34, Hous­ton, Texas, USA, 2004.

Oil pipelines are but one aspect of oil extrac­tion, trans­port and use, but they con­nect the envi­ron­men­tal, cul­tur­al and health impacts of oil explo­ration, drilling and extrac­tion with the assem­blages of oil trans­port, refin­ing, and con­sump­tion. The spillage of oil is not always the most dev­as­tat­ing effect of this process: “The phys­i­cal alter­ation of envi­ron­ments from explo­ration, drilling, and extrac­tion can be greater than from a large oil spill” (O’Rourke and Con­nol­ly 594). Oil refiner­ies, such as the one from Texas depict­ed in Burtynsky’s Oil Refiner­ies #34 (Fig. 4), “pro­duce huge vol­umes of air, water, sol­id, and haz­ardous waste, includ­ing tox­ic sub­stances such as ben­zene, heavy met­als, hydro­gen sul­fide, acid gas­es, mer­cury, and diox­in” (603). The oil and gas indus­try in the Unit­ed States cre­ates more sol­id and liq­uid waste “than all oth­er cat­e­gories of munic­i­pal, agri­cul­tur­al, min­ing, and indus­tri­al wastes com­bined” (594). The trans­port of oil from its place of extrac­tion occurs by super­tankers, barges, trucks, and pipelines; there are now “more miles of oil pipelines in the world than rail­roads” (598). Typ­i­cal­ly, these pipelines have “caused dis­pro­por­tion­ate impacts on low-income and minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States and been con­nect­ed to human rights vio­la­tions around the world” (602). In oth­er words, per­haps we could view what often lies with­in Burtynsky’s frame as an invi­ta­tion to con­tem­plate the many asso­ci­a­tions beyond the frame; in the case of his pho­tographs about oil, the pipelines, wells, and refiner­ies rep­re­sent pas­sages, asso­ci­a­tions, trans­fers of ener­gy beyond the frame. Burtynsky’s images do not neglect social, psy­cho­log­i­cal and envi­ron­men­tal dev­as­ta­tion, so much as they invite con­sid­er­a­tion of an agency that is mul­ti­ple and beyond arbores­cent cap­ture.

There­fore, when we see an image such as High­way #5 (Fig­ure 5), we might see in this image an aes­thet­ic par­al­lel with Oil Fields #22.

Fig. 5  Edward Bur­tyn­sky, High­way #5, Los Ange­les, Cal­i­for­nia, USA, 2009.

In High­way #5, trib­u­tary lanes of traf­fic con­verge into a riv­er of asphalt that extends to the hori­zon in a seem­ing­ly end­less bisec­tion of the frame and the built land­scape. Like the pipelines in Oil Fields #22, the high­way bends casu­al­ly as it drifts toward the hori­zon; this cur­va­ture, again a fea­ture of undo­mes­ti­cat­ed objects, con­trasts with the cadas­tral strips of habi­ta­tion on either side. In the fore­ground is a high­way that runs par­al­lel with the frame, and in the back­ground lie rolling hills. While the fore­ground and back­ground por­tray con­ven­tion­al con­trasts of stri­at­ed and smooth space, the cen­tre of the image fea­tures a provoca­tive strip of high­way that desta­bi­lizes our topo­graph­ic expec­ta­tions. The hori­zon once again gives the impres­sion that the built land­scape con­tin­ues for­ev­er, the hills stand­ing like phan­tasms on the edge of a dream.

Burtynsky’s OIL col­lec­tion is orga­nized to empha­size the ubiq­ui­ty of oil and, I would argue, the dis­tri­b­u­tion of agency. It is telling that the image of a pipeline opens the col­lec­tion, and not an image of the point of extrac­tion, refine­ment, or use; this is a col­lec­tion about the places of pas­sage. With­out that epi­graph­ic image of the pipeline, the rest of the col­lec­tion would unfold in a more con­ven­tion­al way: the sec­tion titles progress from “Extrac­tion and Refine­ment” to “Trans­porta­tion & Motor Cul­ture” and “The End of Oil.” The last image in the col­lec­tion, Recy­cling #10, is that of oily foot­prints in the earth, tak­en at Chit­tagong, Bangladesh. The last sec­tion of the col­lec­tion depicts aban­doned oil wells, scrap yards with dis­card­ed jets and bombers, cars and tires, and the ship­break­ing yards in Bangladesh where oil tankers go to die. Obvi­ous­ly, there is a con­ven­tion­al mes­sage here: the cul­ture of oil leaves a foot­print, and it is mas­sive and destruc­tive. But the image of the pipelines in the for­est that opens the col­lec­tion sug­gests we should not read the process­es of petro­cul­ture as uni­di­rec­tion­al and lin­ear, as the obvi­ous pas­sage from extrac­tion to deposit. Instead, con­sid­er the absence of human activ­i­ty in the first and last images of OIL. Burtynsky’s vision is dis­tinct­ly mate­ri­al­ist, with human activ­i­ty reduced to a rel­a­tive­ly minor pres­ence (in the few pho­tographs devot­ed to “Motor Cul­ture” and lat­er to “Ship­break­ing” and “Recy­cling”). The diminu­tion of human actors reveals at least two ways in which Burtynsky’s pho­tog­ra­phy is con­so­nant with the “mate­ri­al­ist turn” in cul­tur­al stud­ies: first, his cadas­tral vision artic­u­lates what Patrick Joyce and Tony Ben­nett call the “mute­ness” of infra­struc­tur­al pow­er, the ways in which “infra­struc­ture is a good loca­tion for under­stand­ing how mate­r­i­al pow­ers can to vary­ing extents oper­ate out­side human con­scious­ness and lan­guage,” the durable pow­er of “objects and process­es,”  “this capac­i­ty to be left to oper­ate by them­selves” (10); and sec­ond, Burtynsky’s rel­a­tive resis­tance to the “close range” of smooth space sug­gests the pri­ma­ry con­cern of his pho­tographs about oil is “less the ways in which objects become effec­tive by being inte­grat­ed into the sub­jec­tive world of human con­scious­ness, and more the dif­fer­ence they make in their own right as a con­se­quence of their spe­cif­ic mate­r­i­al prop­er­ties con­sid­ered rela­tion­al­ly” (Joyce and Ben­nett 5).

Mitch Epstein’s American Power

I want­ed to pho­to­graph the rela­tion­ship between Amer­i­can soci­ety and the Amer­i­can land­scape, and ener­gy was the linch­pin…. Energy—how it was made, how it got used, and the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of both—would there­fore be my focus. (Epstein, “After­word” )

While Edward Bur­tyn­sky tells us he had his “oil epiphany” in 1997, Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­ph­er Mitch Epstein embarked on a form of what he calls “ener­gy tourism” in 2003 after wit­ness­ing the evac­u­a­tion of an Ohio town from envi­ron­men­tal con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. For five years, Epstein cat­a­logued the var­i­ous forms of Amer­i­can ener­gy pro­duc­tion and their con­se­quences. His com­ments in the After­word of Amer­i­can Pow­er reflect a real­iza­tion about ener­gy that empha­sizes the cur­rent moment as one of pas­sage:

About a year into mak­ing this series of pic­tures, I real­ized that pow­er was like a Russ­ian nest­ing doll. Each time I opened one kind of pow­er, I found anoth­er kind inside…. But now—while Amer­i­ca teeters between col­lapse and transformation—I see it dif­fer­ent­ly: as an artist, I sit out­side, but also with­in, exert­ing my own pow­er.

Epstein’s pho­tographs share in com­mon with Burtynsky’s this sense of liv­ing between a dying empire and the social­i­ty to come. They also share an under­stand­ing of being impli­cat­ed as artists in what Imre Sze­man calls “oil cap­i­tal­ism” (Sze­man 806). Many of Epstein’s images, such as Amos Coal Pow­er Plant above (Fig. 6), jux­ta­pose the set­tings of the New Topo­graph­ics, in doc­u­men­tary form, with the types of ener­gy that either make habi­ta­tion pos­si­ble or con­sti­tute the indus­try for that locale. In Amos Coal Pow­er Plant, a low­er-mid­dle-class habi­tat shares the frame with an appari­tion­al pow­er plant; the con­nec­tion of every­day life with what in Burtynsky’s images is often a dis­tant and seclud­ed phenomenon—the pro­duc­tion of energy—foregrounds the asso­cia­tive ethos of Epstein’s pho­to, and the lush, sat­u­rat­ed con­cep­tu­al­ism of the habi­tat makes the pow­er plant seem even more dis­cor­dant by con­trast. Epstein’s doc­u­men­tary pro­fi­cien­cy and almost sur­re­al con­cep­tu­al­ism cre­ates an effect much like the ambi­gu­i­ty of Burtynsky’s cadas­tral images: some­thing either banal or deeply cor­ro­sive acquires an aes­thet­ic sheen that trou­bles the viewer’s desire to con­demn in sim­ple bina­risms the social and envi­ron­men­tal caus­es and effects that pro­duced this scene. Where­as Bur­tyn­sky prefers the cadas­tral spa­tial­i­ty of the dis­tant view and the fre­quent­ly unseen mate­ri­als of petro­cul­ture infra­struc­ture, Epstein vis­its many of the every­day spaces and archi­tec­tures typ­i­cal of the New Topo­graph­ics. Epstein cap­tures the asso­cia­tive qual­i­ties of ener­gy pro­duc­tion and trans­fer not by ges­tur­ing beyond the frame, as Bur­tyn­sky often does, but by fill­ing the frame with uncom­mon objects with­in this trans­fer: the per­fo­rat­ed Amer­i­can flag that adorns the refin­ery in BP Car­son Refin­ery (Fig. 7), for exam­ple, or the belch­ing stacks of the Amos coal pow­er plant observ­ing a high school foot­ball prac­tice in Poca High School and Amos Coal Pow­er Plant (Fig. 8).

Fig. 6 Mitch Epstein, Amos Coal Pow­er Plant, Ray­mond City, West Vir­ginia 2004

Fig. 7  Mitch Epstein, BP Car­son Refin­ery, Cal­i­for­nia 2007.

Fig. 8  Mitch Epstein, Poca High School and Amos Coal Pow­er Plant, West Vir­ginia 2004

Alien Capitalism and the Dark Ecology of Burtynsky and Epstein

The con­tent of Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein’s pho­tographs invites an asso­ci­a­tion­al­ist per­spec­tive on the rela­tion­ships between ener­gy and land­scapes. More specif­i­cal­ly, Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein evoke some of the impli­ca­tions of Tim­o­thy Morton’s “dark ecol­o­gy”: in the way they “linger in the shad­owy world of irony and dif­fer­ence” (Mor­ton, The Eco­log­i­cal Thought 17), in the way their images are “dark but not sui­ci­dal” (100), and in the way they fore­ground what Mor­ton calls “hyper­ob­jects,” mate­ri­als that will “far out­last cur­rent social and bio­log­i­cal forms” (130). In Ecol­o­gy With­out Nature, Mor­ton declares that his work is “about an ‘ecol­o­gy to come,’ not about no ecol­o­gy at all” (6). The idea of ‘nature’, so explic­it­ly fore­ground­ed in the pho­tog­ra­phy of Ansel Adams and recon­fig­ured in the New Topo­graph­ics, “will have to with­er away in an ‘eco­log­i­cal’ state of human soci­ety,” says Mor­ton (1). “Sub­stan­tial­ist images of a pal­pa­ble, dis­tinct ‘nature’ embod­ied in at least one actu­al­ly exist­ing phe­nom­e­non (a par­tic­u­lar species, a par­tic­u­lar fig­ure),” claims Mor­ton, “gen­er­ate author­i­tar­i­an forms of col­lec­tive orga­ni­za­tion” (17). Morton’s project is to decon­struct “nature” to the point it no longer reg­is­ters, result­ing in what he calls “the eco­log­i­cal thought,” the “think­ing of inter­con­nect­ed­ness” and a form of think­ing “that is eco­log­i­cal” (The Eco­log­i­cal Thought 7).

The con­cept of dark ecol­o­gy is a “melan­choly ethics” (Ecol­o­gy With­out Nature 186) that “pre­serves the dark, depres­sive qual­i­ty of life in the shad­ow of eco­log­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe” (187). Mor­ton believes “we can’t mourn for the envi­ron­ment because we are so deeply attached to it—we are it” (186); instead, deep ecol­o­gy is “sat­u­rat­ed with unre­quit­ed long­ing,”  “a politi­cized ver­sion of decon­struc­tive hes­i­ta­tion or apo­r­ia” (186). In this arti­cle, I have sug­gest­ed repeat­ed­ly that Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein rep­re­sent this kind of ambiva­lence in their pho­tographs, even in the face of cer­tain cat­a­stro­phe; how­ev­er, some might chal­lenge this read­ing of the pho­tographs, per­haps not see­ing the same ambiva­lence or irony. To this objec­tion, I would pro­mote dark ecol­o­gy as a more eth­i­cal response to these pho­tographs than the per­spec­tive that sees only arbores­cent cap­ture; in oth­er words, as Mor­ton writes, “We should be find­ing ways to stick around with the sticky mess that we’re in and that we are, mak­ing think­ing dirt­i­er, iden­ti­fy­ing with ugli­ness, prac­tic­ing ‘hauntol­ogy’ (Derrida’s phrase) rather than ontol­ogy” (188). Burtynsky’s SOCAR Oil Fields #4 (Fig. 9) exem­pli­fies “the sticky mess that we’re in,” paus­ing at an aban­doned oil field in Baku, Azer­bai­jan, to see its haunt­ed reflec­tion in a pool of dirt and oil, proof that not only does rust nev­er sleep, it also has night­mares. Dark ecol­o­gy also pro­motes lines of flight that inter­rupt the inter­sec­tion of nation and nature, cadas­tral map and the eco­log­i­cal thought. “Lat­er in the mod­ern peri­od,” Mor­ton writes in Ecol­o­gy With­out Nature, “the idea of the nation-state emerged as a way of going beyond the author­i­ty of the monarch. The nation all too often depends upon the very same list that evokes the idea of nature” (15). Decon­struct­ing the syn­op­tic view of the State con­joins with the eco­log­i­cal thought, when con­tem­plat­ing and prac­tic­ing the ecol­o­gy to come.

Fig. 9  Edward Bur­tyn­sky, SOCAR Oil Fields #4, Baku, Azer­bai­jan, 2006

Nowhere in these col­lec­tions of pho­tographs does one find an image that inti­mates a pos­si­ble return to some form of pris­tine nat­ur­al world; instead, view­ers must con­front the tox­ic future of oil refiner­ies, hun­dreds of thou­sands of kilo­me­tres of pipelines, and oth­er hyper­ob­jects of petro­moder­ni­ty. Mor­ton com­pares these hyper­ob­jects, such as the plu­to­ni­um waste from nuclear reac­tors, to the “acidic blood of the Alien in Rid­ley Scott’s film” (130). Indeed, in con­junc­tion with Rob Nixon’s con­cept of “slow vio­lence,” Morton’s hyper­ob­jects begin to artic­u­late what I would call alien cap­i­tal­ism, an eco­nom­ic sys­tem whose mate­ri­al­i­ty kills while dying, unleash­es almost unimag­in­able tox­i­c­i­ty even as its pur­pose or func­tion­al­i­ty wanes. In this sense, the social­i­ty to come is always already tox­ic. Cer­tain­ly, Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein do not try to avoid the tox­i­c­i­ty to come in their haunt­ed images.

In addi­tion to Tim­o­thy Mor­ton, the work of Stephanie LeM­an­ag­er speaks to the aes­thet­ics of ecol­o­gy and ener­gy in the work of Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein. Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein pro­vide an aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of ener­gy infra­struc­ture that presents some of its asso­ci­a­tions with land­scape but does not impose a solu­tion to the prob­lem of envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion (there are no images of wind farms jux­ta­posed with oil refiner­ies, for exam­ple). There are, how­ev­er, sev­er­al impres­sions of every­day life under oil cap­i­tal­ism: a high school foot­ball team prac­tic­ing, a busy free­way, the Tal­lade­ga Speed­way, a McDonald’s, a gas sta­tion. LeM­an­ag­er right­ly iden­ti­fies the rela­tion­ship between “eco­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive” ("Petro-Melan­cho­lia" 26) and the embod­ied mem­o­ries of life under petro­moder­ni­ty, mov­ing for­ward:

The petro­le­um infra­struc­ture has become embod­ied mem­o­ry and habi­tus for mod­ern humans, inso­far as every­day events such as dri­ving or feel­ing the sum­mer heat of asphalt on the soles of one’s feet are incor­po­rat­ing prac­tices, in Paul Connerton’s term for the repeat­ed per­for­mances that become encod­ed in the body. Decou­pling human cor­po­re­al mem­o­ry from the infra­struc­tures that have sus­tained it may be the pri­ma­ry chal­lenge for eco­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive in the ser­vice of human species sur­vival beyond the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. ("Petro-Melan­cho­lia" 26)

One way to decou­ple “human cor­po­re­al mem­o­ry from the infra­struc­tures that have sus­tained it” is, as Epstein does, to depict explic­it con­junc­tions of ener­gy pro­duc­tion and every­day life, such as a coal-fired pow­er plant loom­ing over a low­er-mid­dle-class home and yard, or that same pow­er plant spec­tat­ing at a high school foot­ball prac­tice. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of tox­ic ener­gy pro­duc­tion and every­day life per­forms a kind of defa­mil­iar­iza­tion that dis­rupts the quo­tid­i­an affect asso­ci­at­ed with petro­moder­ni­ty. Bur­tyn­sky often iso­lates ener­gy pro­duc­tion from human cul­tures; how­ev­er, his images of ener­gy pro­duc­tion, as not­ed above, depict the “sticky mess” we are in, what LeM­an­ag­er calls the “humil­i­at­ing desire and depen­den­cy of the human visa-vis non-human actors” (“Petro-Melan­cho­lia” 27). LeM­an­ag­er, in a nod to Mor­ton, calls this “feel­ing eco­log­i­cal,” and it “need not be pleas­ant” (27).

Conclusion: Post-Anarchist Ecology and the Synoptic View

The pho­tog­ra­phy of Edward Bur­tyn­sky and Mitch Epstein pro­vides a series of cul­tur­al objects with which to con­sid­er rela­tion­ships between agency and ener­gy in oil cap­i­tal­ism. As demon­strat­ed above by ref­er­ence to the (large­ly Marx­ist) ‘mate­r­i­al turn’ in cul­tur­al stud­ies and the post­struc­tural­ist asso­ci­a­tion­al­ism of Deleuze and Guat­tari, the fore­ground­ing of infra­struc­ture in the con­text of oil cap­i­tal­ism in the pho­tographs of Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein offers an occa­sion and a visu­al lex­i­con for inter­ro­gat­ing the “cas­cade of inten­tion­al­i­ties” often unseen in every­day life. Agency, once explored through a mate­ri­al­ist and asso­ci­a­tion­al­ist lens, appears dis­trib­uted among human and non-human actors, and the images of oil wells, pipelines and pow­er plants rep­re­sent tem­po­rary sta­bi­liza­tions of agency observ­able from the cadas­tral per­spec­tive of the State. After close read­ings of var­i­ous pho­tographs, I now wish to explore some of the con­se­quences of this the­o­ry of agency; in par­tic­u­lar, I advo­cate for a post-anar­chist ecol­o­gy, in which dis­trib­uted agency is one com­po­nent.

Post-anar­chism is the term giv­en to forms of post­struc­tural­ist and post­mod­ern anar­chism. Most of these ideas and prac­tices emerged from the May 1968 upris­ings in France, and were giv­en new pub­lic vis­i­bil­i­ty in the con­text of the post-Seat­tle anar­chist milieu. As Süreyyya Evren writes in the intro­duc­tion to Post-Anar­chism: A Read­er, “post-anar­chism is bet­ter under­stood as an anar­chist the­o­ry first and fore­most rather than a post-struc­tural­ist the­o­ry. At the end of the day, it is an anar­chism, it is not a new kind of post-struc­tural­ism” (Evren 10). In par­tic­u­lar what Deleuze and Guat­tari call ‘geophilosophy’—described by Patrick Hay­den as an “attempt to for­mu­late a mode of think­ing in asso­ci­a­tion with, and as the affir­ma­tion of, the diver­si­ty and mul­ti­plic­i­ty of the con­tin­u­ous becom­ings of a fluc­tu­at­ing nat­ur­al real­i­ty” (29)—represents a post-anar­chist form of ecol­o­gy that is anti-essen­tial­ist, anti-human­ist, and decen­tral­ist. The basic ques­tion of geophi­los­o­phy, for the cur­rent moment of eco­log­i­cal crises brought on pri­mar­i­ly by oil cap­i­tal­ism, is the fol­low­ing: “How do Deleuze and Guat­tari help us rethink our eco­log­i­cal crises beyond the impass­es of State-sanc­tioned resource exploita­tion and reac­tive envi­ron­men­tal­ism?” (Chisholm para. 1). This impasse is, I think, a source of ambiva­lence com­mon­ly found in cri­tiques of Burtynsky’s work.

As Bernd Her­zo­gen­rath explains,

As a con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing machine, [Deleuz­ian phi­los­o­phy] can pro­vide ecol­o­gy with con­cepts that com­ple­ment its sci­en­tif­ic prospects or ‘reprocess’ its inher­it­ed philo­soph­i­cal notions. Deleuz­ian con­cepts are ‘eco­log­i­cal’ in the sense that they do not address the essences of things, but the dynam­ics of events and the becom­ings that go through them” (“Intro­duc­tion” 4).

The phi­los­o­phy of becom­ing advo­cat­ed by Deleuze (and Guat­tari) allows for the “active, unfi­nal­ized flux of con­stant­ly cir­cu­lat­ing rela­tions, inter­ac­tive encoun­ters, and shared trans­for­ma­tions” among the Earth’s “nat­ur­al-social habi­tats” (Hay­den 31), while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly it offers polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy a con­sid­er­a­tion of “which con­cepts, prac­tices, and val­ues best pro­mote the col­lec­tive life and inter­ests of the diverse modes of exis­tence inhab­it­ing the plan­et” (34). In this sense, a post-anar­chist ecol­o­gy works against the sys­tem­atiz­ing and cat­e­go­riz­ing of con­ven­tion­al impe­ri­al­ist sci­ence.

Deleuze and Guat­tari are unique in post-struc­tural­ist cir­cles by their pro­mo­tion of a form of nat­u­ral­ism. “Deleuze’s nat­u­ral­ism is not an essen­tial­ist the­o­ry,” notes Hay­den, “nos­tal­gi­cal­ly seek­ing to return to some pris­tine nature that is an object apart from human exis­tence, con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion, and inter­ven­tion” (35). Instead, Deleuze pro­motes “a type of nat­u­ral­ism that high­lights the diverse inter­con­nec­tions between human and non­hu­man modes of life, in such a way as to pro­vide some over­looked philo­soph­i­cal resources for inte­grat­ing eth­i­cal and polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions with eco­log­i­cal con­cerns, while resist­ing the reduc­tive temp­ta­tion to turn nature into a sta­t­ic meta­phys­i­cal foun­da­tion” (24). This form of nat­u­ral­ism, what I am call­ing a post-anar­chist ecol­o­gy, stands in con­trast to some promi­nent thinkers in the anar­chist tra­di­tion because it rejects both “a sta­t­ic meta­phys­i­cal foun­da­tion” (includ­ing a sta­t­ic under­stand­ing of “human nature”) and forms of speciesism that have con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed Left think­ing, as Steven Best writes, “from Kropotkin and Marx to Bookchin and beyond” (Best 190).

A post-anar­chist ecol­o­gy empha­sizes the microp­o­lit­i­cal over the macrop­o­lit­i­cal, but not to the exclu­sion of the macrop­o­lit­i­cal. Hay­den argues that “for ecopo­lit­i­cal activism to engage itself effec­tive­ly, it must steer clear of uni­ver­sal­ized abstrac­tions and care­ful­ly study the spe­cif­ic needs and alter­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties with­in local­ized sit­u­a­tions” (34). The glob­al scale of the eco­log­i­cal cri­sis has led some to demand a glob­al solu­tion; how­ev­er, “while exist­ing eco­log­i­cal prob­lems undoubt­ed­ly present a dan­ger to the entire plan­et, a microp­o­lit­i­cal focus on the par­tic­u­lar needs and inter­ests of diverse local habi­tats and inhab­i­tants in light of the avail­able knowl­edge of eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions will per­haps bet­ter con­tribute to the cre­ation of effec­tive ecopo­lit­i­cal inter­ven­tions than will a focus sole­ly from a uni­tary, large-scale frame­work” (35). This mode of thought is also con­sis­tent with the anar­chist pref­er­ence for direct action and aver­sion to bureau­crat­ic and insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures. Any glob­al response to envi­ron­men­tal crises is more like­ly to pro­duce arbores­cent pow­er struc­tures than it is to pro­duce open mul­ti­plic­i­ties. Deleuzean microp­ol­i­tics “is about crit­i­cal eman­ci­pa­tion, not nec­es­sar­i­ly from sys­tems, but towards oth­er types of open sys­tems” (Cato and Hilli­er 11). For cen­turies, state cap­i­tal­ism has killed indige­nous ways of exist­ing and non-human species, to the point of mass extinc­tion in which we now live. The pro­longed eman­ci­pa­tion from this rule of arbores­cent thought will require an unprece­dent­ed pro­lif­er­a­tion of “open sys­tems” attuned to “diverse local habi­tats and inhab­i­tants,” not a one world order of resis­tance.

Final­ly, a post-anar­chist ecol­o­gy could embrace Deleuze and Guattari’s con­cept of machinic assem­blages, not only for the epis­te­mo­log­i­cal and onto­log­i­cal advan­tages of a process phi­los­o­phy that empha­sizes rela­tions over essences, but also to avoid the lim­i­ta­tions of debates over what kinds of tech­nol­o­gy are appro­pri­ate for an anar­chist pol­i­tics (for a brief dis­cus­sion of anar­chism and tech­nol­o­gy, see Truscel­lo 2011). Her­zo­gen­rath sum­ma­rizes the advan­tage of the con­cept of the “machine” in Deleuze and Guat­tari, which con­cerns con­nec­tions rather than essences: “Their mod­el [of machines] also affords a sin­gle mode of artic­u­lat­ing devel­op­men­tal, envi­ron­men­tal, and evo­lu­tion­ary rela­tions with­in eco­log­i­cal sys­tems, and makes room for a con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of a gen­er­al, non-anthro­po­mor­phic affec­tiv­i­ty with­in dynam­ic sys­tems” (“Nature|Geophilosophy|Machinics|Ecosophy” 4). From this per­spec­tive, a post-anar­chist ecol­o­gy con­cerns itself with “res­o­nances, alliances and feed­back loops between var­i­ous regimes, sig­ni­fy­ing and non-sig­ni­fy­ing, human and non-human, nat­ur­al and cul­tur­al, mate­r­i­al and rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al” (5). The result­ing phi­los­o­phy avoids out­mod­ed invo­ca­tions of the tech­nol­o­gy “neu­tral­i­ty” the­sis and Manichean com­part­men­tal­iza­tions of “good” and “bad” tech­nol­o­gy:

[Deleuze and Guattari’s] “machin­ism” avoids both technophil­ia and techno­pho­bia, its guid­ing prin­ci­ple being that of the inven­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ties of life. For Deleuze and Guat­tari val­ues are per­spec­ti­val, and hence unavoid­ably allied to what deep ecol­o­gists might deem “speciesism.” How­ev­er, Deleuze and Guattari’s prob­lema­ti­za­tion of the con­cept of the human ensures that their per­spec­tivism is not anthro­pocen­tric, at least in the con­ven­tion­al sense of the term. (10)

Instead, as Mark Halsey notes, the “func­tion of machines” in Deleuze and Guat­tari “is to break and redi­rect flows—flows of cap­i­tal, wood, met­al, genes, friend­ship, knowl­edge, work and so forth” (Halsey 40). In oth­er words, the machinic assem­blages of Deleuze and Guat­tari refer to the “process­es which give to the earth its dis­cur­sive qual­i­ties and quan­ti­ties (the effects levied by abstract machines of cod­ing) and which, on occa­sion, implode the log­ic under­pin­ning such qual­i­ties and quan­ti­ties (the effects levied by abstract machines of absolute decod­ing)” (40). How machines con­nect flows of desire and pro­duce habit-form­ing poten­tials is nev­er sim­ply a ques­tion of doing the right thing for the envi­ron­ment, obvi­ous­ly, and some­thing always escapes machinic encod­ing. But at least Deleuze and Guat­tari offer a per­spec­tive that always seeks to pro­lif­er­ate the “inven­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ties of life.”

Halsey argues that this per­spec­tive forces the “crit­i­cal ques­tion: what would it mean to cease map­ping the earth? Alter­na­tive­ly, what might it mean to map earth accord­ing to, for instance, a becom­ing-eagle, a becom­ing-fish, a becom­ing-red­wood, a becom­ing-worm, or a becom­ing-riv­er? This is what Deleuze and Guat­tari demand of us—that we move beyond the bod­ies, lex­i­cons and modes of envi­sion­ing tra­di­tion­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with late cap­i­tal­ist sub­jec­tiv­i­ties in order to devel­op and inhab­it the worlds of oth­ers” (45). Bur­tyn­sky reminds us of the cadas­tral lega­cy of the syn­op­tic State, but as a place of pas­sage. As Halsey con­cludes, “What else are envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems oth­er than the vis­i­ble and audi­ble result of attempts to con­sti­tute var­i­ous por­tions of earth as a uni­ty in spite of its being a mul­ti­plic­i­ty? The chal­lenge, it would seem, is to devel­op a lex­i­con which does the least vio­lence to the nuances of each (socio-eco­log­i­cal) event” (51). In this con­text, the pho­tographs of Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein effec­tive­ly invite view­ers to see oil infra­struc­ture and human inter­ac­tion with it as a mul­ti­plic­i­ty with dis­trib­uted agency. Rather than depict alter­na­tives to oil cap­i­tal­ism, Bur­tyn­sky and Epstein show us places of pas­sage in the infra­struc­tur­al web of human and non-human actors; they fore­ground the tran­si­tion­al, asso­cia­tive, and con­junc­tive debris of petro­cul­ture. They show us we are becom­ing some­thing oth­er, but do not dic­tate the terms on which this pas­sage shall be accom­plished or its des­ti­na­tion.

The tran­si­tion from post-empire to the social­i­ty to come has, as a result of the mate­r­i­al infra­struc­ture of the petro­mod­ern State form, more than sim­ply ide­o­log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties: the gath­er­ing storms of cli­mate crises, tox­ic hyper­ob­jects, and rapid resource deple­tion, all inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed to the infra­struc­ture of petrod­moder­ni­ty, rep­re­sent an assem­blage of mate­r­i­al con­di­tions that threat­en the sur­vival of the human species. Unlike lib­er­al and pro­gres­sive respons­es to oil cap­i­tal­ism, which often pro­pose tech­no­log­i­cal fix­es or glob­al insti­tu­tion­al arrange­ments, a post-anar­chist ecol­o­gy is bet­ter equipped to describe and respond to the longue durée of petro­mod­ern infra­struc­ture, the ‘slow vio­lence’ of its prin­ci­pal assem­blages, and the sui­ci­dal State form of hydraulic sci­ences that are slow­ly but sure­ly stri­at­ing the escape routes.

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Image Notes

Fig. 1 Bur­tyn­sky, Edward. Oil Fields #22, Cold Lake, Alber­ta, Cana­da, 2001. Pho­to­graph. Edward Bur­tyn­sky Pho­to­graph­ic Works. Web. August 14, 2012. <edward​bur​tyn​sky​.com>.

Fig. 2 Bur­tyn­sky, Edward. Oil Fields #27, Bak­ers­field, Cal­i­for­nia, USA, 2004. Pho­to­graph. Edward Bur­tyn­sky Pho­to­graph­ic Works. Web. August 14, 2012. <edward​bur​tyn​sky​.com>.

Fig. 3 Bur­tyn­sky, Edward. Oil Fields #19a, Bel­ridge, Cal­i­for­nia, USA, 2003. Pho­to­graph. Edward Bur­tyn­sky Pho­to­graph­ic Works. Web. August 14, 2012. <edward​bur​tyn​sky​.com>.

Fig. 4 Bur­tyn­sky, Edward. Oil Refiner­ies #34, Hous­ton, Texas, USA, 2004. Pho­to­graph. Edward Bur­tyn­sky Pho­to­graph­ic Works. Web. August 14, 2012. <edward​bur​tyn​sky​.com>.

Fig. 5 Bur­tyn­sky, Edward. High­way #5, Los Ange­les, Cal­i­for­nia, USA, 2009. Pho­to­graph. Edward Bur­tyn­sky Pho­to­graph­ic Works. Web. August 14, 2012. <edward​bur​tyn​sky​.com>.

Fig. 6 Epstein, Mitch. Amos Coal Pow­er Plant, Ray­mond City, West Vir­ginia, 2004. Amer­i­can Pow­er. Got­tin­gen: Stei­dl Pub­lish­ers, 2009. 1. Print.

Fig. 7 Epstein, Mitch. BP Car­son Refin­ery, Cal­i­for­nia 2007. Amer­i­can Pow­er. Got­tin­gen: Stei­dl Pub­lish­ers, 2009. 2. Print.

Fig. 8 Epstein, Mitch. Poca High School and Amos Coal Pow­er Plant, West Vir­ginia 2004. Amer­i­can Pow­er. Got­tin­gen: Stei­dl Pub­lish­ers, 2009. 3. Print.

Fig. 9 Bur­tyn­sky, Edward. SOCAR Oil Fields #4, Baku, Azer­bai­jan, 2006. Pho­to­graph. Edward Bur­tyn­sky Pho­to­graph­ic Works. Web. August 14, 2012. <edward​bur​tyn​sky​.com>


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