Future historianism is not literal truth – even if we are wrong about certain claims that does not deny the political potential of the affirmative Petroleum obsession has integrated into and degraded personhood and ends in extinction – reject it
Stephanie LeMenager is associate professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she served as director of the American Cultures and Global Contexts Center from 2007 to 2010, Spring/Summer 2011 “Petro-Melancholia: The BP Blowout and the Arts of Grief” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences > Volume 19, Number 2,
In Barack Obama's June 2010 speech from the Oval Office on the Gulf oil spill, the words "catastrophe," "disaster," "assault," and "epidemic" touch the edges of what is happening in the Gulf, which the president describes as no less than the destruction of "an entire way of life," the loss of "home" for tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of people. Noting that "the oil spill represents just the latest blow to a place that has already suffered multiple economic disasters and decades of environmental degradation," Obama moves away from the idea of disaster as singular, connecting it, if vaguely, to past policies of deregulation and privatization.12 But he cannot link this past to a tangible national future—the speech was widely criticized for its vague prescriptions. In the tradition of presidential rhetoric, Obama concludes within sacred, rather than historical, time, with a reference to the tradition of the Blessing of the Fleet, an annual event that takes place in predominantly Catholic, Cajun fishing communities throughout Louisiana: "As a priest and former fisherman once said of the tradition: 'The blessing is not that God has promised to remove all obstacles and dangers. The blessing is that He is with us always . . . even in the midst of the storm'" (4). The priest's words seem to refer back to Hurricane Katrina ("the storm") and were most likely spoken in reference to that event, as the president places them in that context. [End Page 28] Once we start talking of humanity in terms of the sacred, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in the wake of World War II, we essentially acknowledge the collapse of constitutional or civil rights—sacred humanity is humanity without citizenship, "raw" and unprotected. Giorgio Agamben has since revised Arendt, urging a consideration of Homo sacer as the modern everyman, the man who can be killed, without legal retribution, but not sacrificed, in other words not inducted into the redemptive time of the sacred. The "naked human," in Arendt's words, or "bare life," in Agamben's, marks a modern dissociation from protective traditional statuses as well as the volatility of constitutional guarantees.13 Similarly, humanity defined as ecological, in the sense of those whose "way of life" is conditioned by a regional ecosystem, may as well be recognized as humanity unprotected by rights or status—the human animal whose primary community is nonhuman. Obama's repeated invocation of Gulf Coast residents' threatened "way of life," which echoes and has been echoed by media accounts of the loss of "a way of life" or a "unique way of life," indicates that Gulf Coast people have fallen out of (or were never included within) the concept of modernity, where life practices are not clearly tied to place. Theorists of the global South such as Ramachandra Guha caution against broad references to "ecosystem people," a term meant to refer exclusively to a very small or even nonexistent number of tribal humans who live outside of modern technologies and markets.14 Yet when modernity evinces spectacular failure, as in the oil-soaked Niger Delta or the significantly more privileged oil colony of the U.S. Gulf Coast, perhaps a revised definition of "ecosystem people," indicating humanity in the process of becoming identified with the limitations of collapsing naturecultures (techno-ecological systems), can be useful. Gulf Coast residents' recognition of their deep entanglement with modernity's most risky objects has prompted a discourse of activism, the environmental justice movement, as well as a vernacular poetry of species failure. The Gulf Coast materializes a twentieth-century U.S. history in which energy, perhaps the most essential quality of biological life, has supplanted personhood, the social "face" of the individual human body. Southern personhood haslong been degradedin the [End Page 29] U.S. national imaginary, in part as a legacy of slavery—southern blacks in particular continue to struggle with the imposition of social death—and in part because of the perceived backwardness of southern industrial development, which has figured as the lassitude of the South's poor whites. From the headquarters of the U.S. oil colony, Houston, Texas, the African American sociologist Robert Bullard fostered the U.S. environmental justice movement (EJ) in the 1980s as a direct response to the influx of polluting industries into southern states in the late twentieth century. What Bullard saw in the South of the 1970s and 1980s, in his self-described role of "researcher as detective," was the local trail of a global trend, the bargaining away of health—a baseline measure of human energy—for jobs.15 EJ's well-known definition of the environment as the place where "we" (humans) "live, work, play, and pray" should be understood as, in part, an explicitly southern response to the trade-off of civil rights for corporate privileges in a region where humanity had historically been commoditized through chattel slavery. While the environmental justice movement is now vibrant and international, the Gulf Coast origins of its North American theoretical framework are often overlooked. The oil corridor from Houston to Mobile produced this second wave of environmental activism that resonated with other national and international protests on behalf of human health; "ecopopulist" revolts, in Lawrence Buell's terms, including Lois Gibbs's battle with the Hooker Chemical Company in the working-class suburb of Love Canal, New York; and the international response to Chernobyl.16 African American activists recognized that toxic pollution spelled the revision of a hard-won, racially inclusive concept of U.S. citizenship and the reintroduction of Homo sacer, the man who can be killed without repercussion. Bare life has been a recurrent theme within southern U.S. history, an index of both racial and regional disenfranchisement. Bullard writes tersely of the vulnerability of southern poverty pockets to corporate exploitation: "Jobs were real; environmental risks were unknown" (32). The paper mills, waste disposal and treatment facilities, and chemical plants that made the South the last mecca of U.S. industrialization in the 1970s and 1980s—in [End Page 30] 1980 Jimmy Carter famously intoned, "Go South, young man," in response to a national recession in which only the South seemed to be growing industrial jobs—had of course been preceded by the oil industry, which set up shop in coastal Texas in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The bargaining away of southern health for jobs has an historical arc concurrent with that of U.S. modernity, though it is perhaps only now, after Hurricane Katrina and in the wake of the BP blowout, that the inclusion of U.S. southerners within the South as a global region has become clear. When Bullard compares the intangible quality of environmental risk with the hard realism of jobs,he points out a problem that environmental advocates have long recognized as both representational and political: environmental damage yet to come, without (current) aesthetic dimensions, does not stir up alarm or activate an ethic of care. This is one of the supposed pitfalls in trying to communicate the threat of global climate change—it still can't be seen or felt, the argument goes, at least not in the continental United States. Yet for decades, the Gulf Coast has been sinking, quite visibly manifesting a dramatic change in climate and geological structure. What was marsh is now open ocean—to the tune of twenty-five to forty-square miles of disappearing marsh per year—and that is prior to the BP spill. The strong aesthetic dimensions of this problem, whose geological name is subsidence, have been well documented by journalists, politicians, and even Shell Oil, which launched a media campaign to save the wetlands in the early 2000s. Loss at this scale of a nation's territorial state would normally be attributable to an act of war, which calls to mind the comedian Lewis Black's recent joke (again, incongruency that should not register as incongruency) that the United States might declare war on BP, since the corporation is "attacking us with oil."17 Yet the sinking of the Gulf Coast has not stirred significant national outrage, even since BP's debacle. Mike Tidwell, the environmental journalist whose Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast (2003) marks perhaps the best-known chronicle of Gulf Coast subsidence, notes in that book his own struggles to garner attention for the crisis. Initially, Tidwell's reportage was relegated to the back pages of the Washington Post's [End Page 31] travel section, an editorial choice that underlines the perception of Gulf wetlands loss as a regional peculiarity.18 Explicitly political iterations of the subsidence story linked it to human health and the survival of the city of New Orleans nearly a decade before Katrina. In 1998 the Louisiana governor's office, with the state's Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and all twenty of Louisiana's coastal parishes, published Coast 2050, the first comprehensive plan for restoring coastal Louisiana and a clarion call for federal remediation of the ecological "system collapse" wrecking the Gulf Coast.19 Potential losses were listed then—lists we hear again, twenty years later—as 40 percent of the country's wetlands, one-third of its seafood, one-fifth of its oil, one-quarter of its natural gas, and a "historic" urban center of some 500,000 persons, namely, New Orleans.20 The price tag for coastal restoration at the time of Coast 2050's publication, the late 1990s, was around $14 billion, modest in comparison to estimates of what restoration will cost in the wake of the BP blowout. Former Louisiana governor Mike Foster envisioned federal legislation akin to that which created Everglades National Park, and he hoped it would be passed into law by 2004. "Yet despite these efforts," Tidwell wrote in 2003, "the nation remains almost totally ignorant of Louisiana's plight" (BF, 336). Tidwell's epilogue to Bayou Farewell, written in 2005, after Katrina, expresses the hope that the massive hurricane "finally awakened America to the fragility and importance of south Louisiana." But the book concludes in the fatal rhetoric of the sacred: "Either we are witnessing the death of something truly great in America or the start of something even better, something new and blessedly permanent" (BF, 343, 344). Bayou Farewell prominently features the Cajun Blessing of the Fleet. Again, the sacred is invoked when social death has already occurred, and civil rights suspended. Thinking through subsidence as a narrative that has not become national despite its dissemination through national media raises the question of when, exactly, the Gulf Coast fell out of the U.S. territorial imaginary.One might say—as anthropologist James Clifford suggests—that [End Page 32] it becomes clear that a certain set of humans have lost civil rights and protections when scholars gather their oral history, with the archiving of the voices of a doomed community serving to memorialize their sacrifice. In the first year of George W. Bush's presidency, 2000, the now defamed and defunct Minerals Management Service (MMS) funded an oral history of southern Louisiana, Bayou Lafourche: Oral Histories of the Oil and Gas Industry (2008). Bayou Lafourcheis the Gulf Coast region most intimately linked to the deepwater drilling that began in the 1990s, and it was chosen as the site of the oral history project in part to create an epochal break between the era of onshore oil drilling and "shelf" drilling for natural gas and the outer continental shelf deepwater industry. In the prologue to Bayou Lafourche, author Tom McGuire acknowledges that "people who knew these communities prior to the oil and gas industry, people who orchestrated the technological innovations to explore, drill, and produce in the marshes and bays for the coastal wetlands, people who ventured out into the open Gulf in the risky pursuit of fossil fuel—they were passing away. A collective memory . . . was dying out."21 Since "incorporated towns with municipal governments which might be expected to preserve community history" were few along the Gulf Coast, and "corporate memories have been erased through mergers, acquisitions . . . closures," and "blue-collar workers seldom write memoirs," the project solicits the federal government, the MMS, to support the transcription of voices that have no other representative (BL, 2-3). The result of the grant proposal would be some four hundred interviews, archived at several Gulf Coast universities, and a book-length report, Bayou Lafourche, that alternately could be titled MMS: The Novel. The report has "not been technically reviewed by MMS," and it is "exempt from review and compliance with MMS editorial standards" (BL, iii); it seems to be yet another objectthat slipped through MMS regulatory filters and, ironically, condemns the federal government's role in the industry history that it describes. A messy social panorama composed of interwoven interviews, Bayou Lafourche predicts the rash of interwoven life stories that appeared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, from Spike Lee's epic When the Levees Broke (2006) and journalist Dan [End Page 33] Baum's nonfiction Nine Lives (2008) to Josh Neufeld's graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge (2008) and writer/producer David Simon's recent HBO series, Treme (2010-). To a certain extent, all of this post-Katrina art foregrounds the tension between the structure of the individual life, with its aspiration and its foreboding of death, and bodilesscorporate structures that change form over durations longer than human life spans.Corporate temporality, like ecological time, is not strictly historical, insofar as it involves the duration of systems and "persons" neither human nor mortal. The larger conflict between human and corporate ecologies is played out more specifically in post-Katrina narrative when the wished-for triumphalism of art meets a limit point in the collapse of naturecultures made vulnerable by the deregulation that feeds corporate entities. Bayou Lafourche intends to offer an epic of oil-made-by-hand, of petroleum extraction as craft and embodied memory. Interviewees reflect a landscape where risky objects like deepwater rigs share real time and space with traditional extractive work such as shrimping, since the shrimpers' large boats have been used for years to service the offshore rigs. Oystermen, who don't enjoy the off-season compensation from Big Oil that shrimpers do because their smaller, flat-bottomed boats are not ocean-worthy, emphasize the more purely ecological perspective of the oyster beds that they work, which are the natural filters of the wetlands. "Barataria Bay used to be full of oysters," Whitney Dardar, a Houma fisherman, complains, "Oysters don't grow like that anymore because there is too much salt. . . . I know a lot of places that oysters used to grow that they don't grow anymore. Now, it is like the Gulf; it is all open. They are trying to restore and all but I think they are about twenty years too late for that. They pump and pump all that oil and don't put nothing back. It sinks and sinks and sinks" (BL, 118). Nearly every interviewee mentions the problem of subsidence; all recognize that the profit their region has gained from the oil industry is balanced by geologic loss, salt water invading freshwater marshes due to shipping canals cut for oil transport, fresh water kept from replenishing marshlands because of the channeling of the Mississippi River, also for industry and development. [End Page 34] Living on the line between earth and world, between ecological systems and the technologies that attempt to make them more accessible, the ordinary peopleof Bayou Lafourche live at the cutting edge of climate collapse. Theirs is, and has been for decades, a twenty-first-century ecology. The oil industry picked up in southern Louisiana in the 1930s, with the arrival of the Texas Oil Company, now known as Texaco. At first resented, the "Texiens," as Cajuns called them, began to hire locals for their skills as carpenters and sailors, bringing jobs to a poor, rural region made more desperate by the Great Depression. For the World War II generation in southern Louisiana who became middle class as a result of Big Oil, the industry still appears, nostalgically, as a robust future. Subsidence fails to make sense within this historical boom narrative, even as it is being somatized. Bayou Lafourche only touches the U.S. oil industry downturn of the 1980s and the reinvention of the industry in the 1990s through deepwater play. With deepwater drilling came unprecedented technological experimentation, subcontracting to foreign rigs and crews, the perception of federal takeover, and less local love for Big Oil. As early as the Submerged Lands Act of 1953, the federal government claimed ownership of the continental shelf to three miles off the coast of Louisiana and other Gulf states, with the exception of Texas and Florida, which own the ocean bottom extending twelve miles out from their coasts. What this meant is that the United States would be in charge of leasing the outer continental shelf, and federal coffers would enjoy income from deepwater leases—if the technology ever got that sophisticated, which was scarcely imaginable in the 1950s. Windell Curole, a Cajun radio personality and marine biologist who has a large voice in summing up Bayou Lafourche, dissociates the U.S. government from any image of a "country," representing its role in the Gulf region as that of an irresponsible corporate actor: "If you're a business man, CEO of government USA, and I see three billion dollars [from leases] coming into my treasury in my business . . . I'm going to make sure that things that protect that infrastructure are in good shape and yet government doesn't see it that way" (BL, 164). Curole rejects both the ecological and the [End Page 35] moral price that he feels has been levied on Louisiana by the oil corporations and environmentalists, respectively: "We're human beings. It's us and the environment we live [sic] and the environment and every part of it, well, every part of it. We use up stuff just like every animal uses up stuff in the environment, but the point is don't use it up so that the reason you're living there isn't good anymore" (BL, 163). The repetition of "the environment" and "every part of it," tics duly transcribed by Curole's interviewer, indicate the anxiety of ecological compromise, a constant rehearsal of losing something not quite anticipated. Human aspirations toward incorporation as part of a privileged and potentially timeless entity such as Texaco falter when subsidence begins to indicate a new telos of infrastructure, infrastructure that serves itself. The MMS oral histories offer a template for art (as in innovating, creating, triumphing) without the human. The poet Martha Serpas, who has lived all her life in Bayou Lafourche, suggests a postscript to the MMS interviews that were conducted throughout her home parish. Serpas refers to the dialectic of petroleum and subsidence as "decreation" in a poem of that name and elsewhere in her collection The Dirty Side of the Storm (2007). Imagining herself in a coffin that has been unsettled and set afloat by the invading ocean, the poet writes, Someone will lay a plaster vault for me to ride, like long boxes children pull down flooded roads. In my plaster boat I'll ride Gulf shores till I vanish like a rig in the sun.22 The poem suggests the Leeville cemetery, one of many Cajun burial sites that have floated out to sea due to subsidence. Serpas's poetry invites an openness to personal extinction ("If only I could give the land my body— / . . . I would lie against the marsh grass and sink, / . . . and welcome the eroding Gulf—"), as if humans count primarily as matter, our corpses sandbagging the wetlands (79). To live in such a world is to be sculpted by subsidence, with that geological artist linked tenuously to the rigs, whose silhouettes against the sun make them appear as symptoms of distant intelligence. Serpas and [End Page 36] the MMS interviewees offer a vernacular poetry of human species collapse: heroic, Catholic, melancholic. Feeling ecological means the discomfort of surrendering historical thinking, with its linearity that honors the perceived arc of human lives, and welcoming breakdown of the human into "marsh grass and sink." This organicist vision is not unfamiliar in environmental discourse, yet it takes on force, and threat, in a place where human bodies literally fight back the ocean because of the technologies meant to extend human energy and comfort. Feeling at home in a petrol "world" creates an affective drag on thinking through human survival.