3-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.sightoil.3-2.1 | Wil­son | Pen­dakis PDF


Sheena Wil­son | Uni­ver­si­ty of Alberta
Andrew Pen­dakis | Uni­ver­si­ty of Alberta

Sight, Site, Cite: Oil in the Field of Vision

The image we have cho­sen for the cov­er of this spe­cial issue on oil and visu­al­i­ty nice­ly frames our prob­lem­at­ic. To one side, burns oil lit­er­al­ized, oil in the shape of its own pro­duc­tive appa­ra­tus, the clas­si­cal image of the silent, effec­tive refin­ery. This is a cul­tur­al­ly trans­par­ent image, one which domi­ciles oil’s com­plex­i­ty, its life as social process, and even its his­tor­i­cal con­tin­gency, in the sim­ple imme­di­a­cy of a func­tion­al indus­tri­al pro­ce­dure. Oil does noth­ing more or less than its soci­etal­ly pre­scribed duty: there are no spillages or exter­nal­i­ties, no leeks in the coher­ence of its A = A. It may be, how­ev­er, that this iden­ti­ty is today unrav­el­ling and that the refinery—here smok­ing bright­ly in the background—already has about it the whiff of an apoc­a­lypse, a dying indus­tri­al Mor­dor. Very quick­ly the gleam­ing effec­tive­ness of oil’s tech­nolo­gies can morph into their oppo­site: images of excess and fail­ure, a process with­out a sub­ject, util­i­ty pushed to a point with­out telos or rea­son, sheer instru­men­tal nih­lism. Though we would not want to dis­miss the urgency, even the polit­i­cal neces­si­ty of this pic­ture, there is a way in which it suf­fers from the same debil­i­tat­ing iconic­i­ty, one which push­es into obliv­ion the whole ram­i­fy­ing nexus of petro­le­um. Mean­while, in the fore­ground of the image, we are con­front­ed abrupt­ly by an oil extrater­res­tri­al, anony­mous, with­out use or place, beyond sen­si­ble scale, a crea­ture, weapon, or tool, per­haps, depend­ing on the light. At once hideous and for­eign this is an object freed to a place beyond sta­ble rela­tions, beyond mean­ing or inher­ence, pure defa­mil­iar­iza­tion in all its dis­com­fort and uncertainty.

We do not want to rest con­tent at any moment of this dialec­tic: not the first sta­bi­lized image of func­tion­ing pro­duc­tion, nor its apoc­a­lyp­tic rever­sal, nor even this clas­si­cal fig­ure of aes­thet­ic or epis­te­mo­log­i­cal rup­ture. Instead, look­ing again at the image, but now from with­in the spir­it of what Ursu­la Bie­mann calls visu­al research, we find a name for the object in the foreground—a ‘buck­et­wheel excavator’—and a con­text for its dis­play, posi­tioned across from the Syn­crude plant on High­way 63 north of Fort McMur­ray.  What ini­tial­ly dis­turbed us is now under­stood as a frag­ment from the oil industry’s repro­duc­tion of its own tech­no-his­tor­i­cal legitimacy—it is an affair of his­to­ry and dis­course. The buck­et­wheel in this pho­to, paired in phys­i­cal real­i­ty with anoth­er rel­ic, a dragline exca­va­tor, func­tion both to imbri­cate oil into Alber­tan and Cana­di­an his­to­ry, as well as its future.  These two machines are an archive of out­dat­ed tech­nol­o­gy and inef­fi­cien­cy that stand in con­trast to con­tem­po­rary oil dis­cours­es that revolve around a focus on sci­en­tif­ic inno­va­tion.  It is not enough to defami­lar­ize oil, to free it to some imag­ined objec­tal mon­stros­i­ty or ret­i­cence. Rather, the task of visu­al­iz­ing oil, one which goes beyond phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy, beyond even the log­ic of the gaze itself, is that of hoard­ing maps and screens and files, lay­er­ing medi­ums, and set­ting into motion myr­i­ad arts and sci­ences of oil’s deter­mi­nate pres­ence. This is a task which is by def­i­n­i­tion end­less, but not pre­cise­ly infi­nite, not end­less­ly deferred; or rather, it is one which rest­less­ly explores and inves­ti­gates a con­crete mate­r­i­al knot, draw­ing con­clu­sions as it goes. It is research con­strued as pro­fu­sion, but also, cru­cial­ly, as inter­ven­tion. This is a pic­ture, then, that owes equal debts to soci­ol­o­gy and art his­to­ry, to dis­course analy­sis and mate­ri­al­ist geog­ra­phy, to polit­i­cal econ­o­my and the his­to­ry of sci­ence. It is a pic­ture that is not mere­ly an image, but a si(gh)ting.

Sight, site, cite: sight­ing oil requires this triple pas­sage through vision, space and dis­course. Oil, per­haps, is no more invis­i­ble that any oth­er ele­ment of our post­mod­ern economies, no more occlud­ed, say, than corn or socks or coffee—or even the image itself, for that mat­ter.  In the age of oil it is the image, at this time more than in any oth­er era, that pro­lif­er­ates as a medi­um of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And, the very image-tech­nolo­gies that allow us to con­cep­tu­al­ize our rela­tion­ship to ener­gy and petro­le­um are a prod­uct of oil: the first pho­to­graph in 1827 result­ing from a com­bined use of bitu­men, met­als, solar ener­gy and chem­i­cals in a sol­vent.  The prob­lem of visu­al­iza­tion, of the pro­lif­er­a­tion of deter­mi­nate, use­ful maps of our eco­nom­ic lives, is not spe­cif­ic to oil, but one polit­i­cal­ly struc­tur­al to a sys­tem that is at once spec­tac­u­lar­ly con­sumerist and ful­ly glob­al­ized on the lev­el of pro­duc­tion. How­ev­er, it could be argued that oil is a unique­ly occlud­ed sub­stance: not only does its exchange val­ue engen­der an enor­mous cor­po­rate project of hid­ing, an explic­it machin­ery of decep­tion and spin, its per­va­sive­ness, its pres­ence every­where, per­haps sin­gu­lar­ly chris­tens its posi­tion as “hid­den in plain sight” (Sze­man & White­man). At the same time, there is no alter­na­tive to oil, no sub­stance avail­able to the sys­tem by which its func­tions can be replaced or exchanged with­out mas­sive struc­tur­al dis­or­der; it is this indis­pens­abil­i­ty, the way oil comes to appear more and more like our time’s secret sub­stan­tia that neces­si­tates the diverse sit­u­at­ing pro­ce­dures employed by the var­i­ous con­trib­u­tors to this col­lec­tion.  Their research makes bla­tant the visu­al rhetor­i­cal strate­gies of indi­vid­u­als and groups invest­ed in either main­tain­ing or dis­rupt­ing hege­mon­ic struc­tures.  Tak­en as a whole the arti­cles in this issue lead us to ques­tion how diverse visu­al petro-nar­ra­tives func­tion col­lec­tive­ly to con­struct a pub­lic under­stand­ing, whether fac­tu­al or fan­tas­ti­cal, about the role of oil and ener­gy with­in our his­tor­i­cal moment.  Oil in the field of vision: the bal­ance of all that stands to be squan­dered or saved remains to be seen.

Works Cited

Sze­man, Imre and Maria White­man. “Oil Imag(e)ries: Crit­i­cal Real­ism and the Oil Sands”. Sight­ing Oil.   Spec. Issue of. Imag­i­na­tions: Jour­nal of Cross-Cul­tur­al Image Studies/ Revue d’Études Inter­cul­turelles de l’Image 3.2 (Fall 2012): 46-67.

Image Notes

Cov­er pho­to­graph by Andriko Lozowy


Copy­right Sheena Wil­son and Andrew Pen­dakis. This arti­cle is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.