Archaeology of Oil Production: Petroleumscapes and Oil Time (Part 2)

It’s the first day of classes and I’m pretty excited to begin my “teaching sabbatical” this semester and focus my attention mostly on teaching. Like most sabbaticals, however, just because I’m shifting my focus, doesn’t mean that my other responsibilities will vanish. In fact, I’m working on wrapping up a paper on “The Archaeology of Oil Production” that’s due sometime this spring. 

You can read the first part of the paper here and below is the second part of the paper. 

I’m pretty happy with it so far (especially consider that I am working a bit to a deadline) and would love to get some feedback on it. Feel free to post thoughts, criticisms, or outright ridicule in the comments below. 

Petroleumscape and Oil Time

Efforts to reconcile the spatial locations associated with oil and oil production and the broader context of oil as the key commodity of global capitalism have long occupied scholars. Zigmut Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity appears, albeit indirectly, to owe some of its conceptual power to the liquid state of oil which constitutes the defining element of its value in modern markets. The ability of oil to flow and be stored in a liquid state made it easier to transport to market than coal or natural gas which require more substantial investments. The liquidity of oil parallels the concept of liquidity in economic terms where the ability of human and financial capital to move quickly in response to market pressures and opportunities has become a ubiquitous metaphor in contemporary capitalism. Philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze (1992), anthropologists such as Anna Tsing (2015), and geographers such as Deborah Cowen (2014), have produced probing and critical works laced with the concept of flow as the defining characteristic of late capitalism, modernity, and contemporary life.

Thus oil exists within a conceptual world that encourages archaeology to follow its flow both literally and as the manifestation of dense networks of human, financial, social, and political capital. In this sense, the concept of the assemblage has emerged as a useful tool to understand the interplay between various actors, technologies, and systems that describe the production of oil. While much of this remains tacit among archaeologists studying oil production, scholars outside the discipline are working to establish a robust framework for more sophisticated archaeological interventions. For example, historian Katayoun Shafiee (2018) has drawn upon science and technology studies (STS) in her effort to interrogate the development of Iranian oil industry in the first half of the 20th century. For Shafiee, the physical infrastructure such as drill rigs, pipelines, and the massive Abadan oil refinery exists only within an equally expansive assemblage of intangible diplomatic, financial, and racial infrastructure. The sociotechnical devices that define these relations dictated the colonial character of the material culture (and physical infrastructure) of the oil industry, such as the company town built for Iranian, British, and Indian workers at the Abadan refinery, but also created spaces for resistance which included strikes by Iranian oil workers, nationalization by the Iranian state, and volatility in the diplomatic landscape among oil producing countries. Similar works approaches have sought to unpack the significance of certain forms of technology, such as pipelines, in shaping the geography of oil and forging new political, economic, and social relationships. For example, the massive Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline, both became the center of disputes over their technical and material capacities that made visible the complexities of the assemblage associated with oil production. In no ways were the environmental, political, and social subordinate to the technological, material, and economic character of the undertaking.

Carola Hein’s notion of petroleumscapes offers spatial vocabulary tailored to fit the often totalizing landscapes of produced by the petroleum industry. From the oil fields themselves characterized by wells, pumping stations, tank farms, and pipelines to the cluster of refineries and industrial facilities associated with global port cities such as Houston, Rotterdam, Philadelphia, Gujarat (India), and Singapore. Likewise the rise of the automobile and the design of urban space to accommodate the needs of personal and commercial transportation extends the petroleumscape from restricted spaces of industrial production to our everyday lives. An archaeology of oil production that stops short at considering oil’s distribution and use, for example, might overlook evidence for how oil producers created demand for products that resulted from oil refining methods and technology or supported visions of the world that assumed abundant petroleum based energy. At the same time, the idea of the petroleumscape has proposed form of oil heritage which articulates the significance of individual sites within historical networks of production. The sites associated with the now largely closed refineries around the port of Dunkirk in Northern France reflect the city’s century-long place in the global oil industry and includes the refineries themselves, but also ancillary industries, worker housing, and polluted soils that will invariably shape the community’s future. In many ways, abandoned petroleumscapes represent spaces of supermodernity where, as Alfredo González-Ruibal has observed, the hyperabundance of both visible and invisible material created forms of ruin carved out from the nearly incomprehensible scale of the flows produced by the liquid, late modern world.

For González-Ruibal there also exists a temporal dimension of supermodernity as an archaeological period which embodies the overrepresentation of the present which endeavors to destroy not only the evidence for other periods, but also the latent potential that the past possesses for different futures. Thus, the present formed by petroleum extraction, production, and consumption accentuates pasts that invariably culminate in a world made possible by fossil fuels. Alberto Toscano, for example, has argued that the presence of oil often produces “retropolitical” conditions that dictate a nation’s or a community’s political and economic development. In these situations, wealth derived from oil effective short circuited developmental models (e.g. Chakrbarty xxxx) that assumed wealth derived from increasingly industrialized labor would also produce concomitant social and political “improvements.” Thus, oil like so many supermodern developments located so-called petro-states in a present where they are “always-already failing” which justifies colonialist attitudes, interventionist policies, and rapacious economic strategies designed to liberate these states and regions from the source of their misfortune. From an archaeological landscape, the petroleum industry sees the past and the future primarily in terms of its value in the present. Contemporary attitudes toward archaeological sites, for example, represent them as cultural resources of value to the present or available for destruction in the name of economic and political strategic interests. Thus, oil has the capacity to transform archaeological remains from the past into fungible resources that occupy the same balance sheets as technological, political, and social costs involved in the extraction, transportation, and distribution of oil. The cultural resource management operations supported by oil, then, represent one element in the larger process of oil production, and a broadly defined archaeology of oil production should also include a critique of how oil in the present dictates the value of the past. This process is fundamentally similar to the way that  oil reserves primarily represent value as collateral for present wealth.

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