World Building, World Reduction: Science Fiction, White America, and Totality

Today I want to offer some remarks on the sub-genre of science fiction commonly known as the post-apocalyptic in order to address the topic at hand, thinking totality as remedy to the trouble with the trouble with diversity. This variety of science fiction story imagines a near-future scenario set just after a major destructive event. The plague has already run rampant. The flood has ended. The bombs have long gone off. The fashioning of such a story set after rather than before revises the older apocalyptic plot. The post-apocalyptic mode is not typically concerned with the thrilling how of survival. Instead, it focuses on what new world may be built in the ashes of the old. In this way, post-apocalyptic novels offer a slightly less subtle estrangement effect than many science fiction novels do. These are not alien worlds; they are cognitively reduced versions of our own. The thinning out of the world that appears in post-apocalyptic texts offers a chilling lesson for thinking totality without something like diversity, for thinking totality without imagining what does not appear, for thinking totality without considering the overdeterminations of class. It is this connection between the real world we know and the fictional version of it that gets destroyed in these novels about which I would like to make a few brief remarks today.

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Mad Max: Fury Road as Political Allegory — Oded Nir

guest post by Oded Nir: It is by now almost a cliché to celebrate the ascent of affect in Hollywood—it having become the organizational (or disorganizational) principle of so many films, including the action flick. One might finally be allowed to assert that even with the decline of plot to a mere appendage of, or excuse for, the strings of over-the-top visceral scenes, narrative never actually died and is in fact doing quite well, thank you, even in films such as Mad Max: Road Fury. If nothing else, the debate over the movie’s feminism tells us that some meaning is still hidden in it somewhere among the affective excesses. Yet, there is no doubt that plot has become a subservient element in many action movies, curiously switching places with the affective itself: what was once mere ornament has become a hegemonic functional principle, while, plot, that old cumbersome causal chain of events, has been itself degraded to a decorative status, a mere vestige of the obsolete.  We are probably not far from the day in which action movies will consist solely of constellations of affective scenes, thereby getting rid of plot altogether (the Saw series of movies definitely comes close to this already). Whether one can withstand, let alone enjoy, the constant hammering at one’s nervous system seems in part to be a generational question, one which we will not address here, even if in it we can perhaps find the feeble remnants of modernism’s attempt to shock their bourgeois audience.

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Oil Infrastructure as Literary Form

The problem I am interested in elaborating here today has to do with the difficulty of getting a grasp on oil. From the now famous claim of Amitav Ghosh—that the oil encounter lacks the same literary production and imaginary that bore witness to the spice encounter—to more recent attempts to know oil or to come to terms with living it, oil presents issues for both infrastructural and theoretical mapping. It is a moving target.

This paper falls under the guise of what Sheena Wilson and Imre Szeman have called Petrocultures. Though you may already be familiar with the study of energy in the humanities, I will offer a brief overview of this emerging critical approach. Thinking about petroculture, simply put, involves giving energy, specifically petrol, a central role within humanities and social science frameworks. An initial task for petrocultures is to elaborate the impasse that our petro-reliance puts us in either along the lines of Imre Szeman’s provocative query “How to Know about Oil?” or through our experiences of oil life as Stephanie LeMenager proposes in Living Oil(2014). Focusing on oil means taking risks—especially that one might begin to see petrol as the source of all conflict, the substance behind all commodities, and the reason under all global political decision making. While cautioning against reading energy as the prime-mover of history, Allan Stoekl writes, “the most effective way of refusing such a reification of oil, all the while granting it the visibility it deserves, is to write its history…It’s when we think about what “oil history” could mean that we take a natural entity and recognize its cultural centrality” (Stoekl 2014, xii). Though oil presents itself as critically overwhelming, responses to it should find ways to mediate the particulars of oil and the general situation of our energy system. My aim in what follows is to take the pipeline as an infrastructural innovation of petroculture and examine the effects it produces as a narrative tool in The Oil Road. I turn to the formal innovations of writing about oil to better understand the possibilities of oil and its limits.

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