a clear parable of power

Raising my head briefly above the palisade*, here, to clip a couple of paragraphs from an excellent (and, unusually, free-to-air) essay at the Paris Review, which is apparently a tweaked version of an introduction by Michael Tondre for a new edition of Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, the foundational petro-novel.

You should read the whole thing, as my clips here are aimed at the aggrandisement of theoretical ideas which VCTB veterans will recognise as not just old favourites, but core concepts in my own framework. Yes, indeed: it’s the self-effacement of metasystemic infrastructure! Poking at the problem of how fossil energy sources have become so totally foundational to almost everything we do, Tondre observes that…

the industry has worked to perfect its own disappearing act. Sites of petro-extraction are scrupulously screened from view, and recovered crude circulates without a trace through a grid of pipelines, terminals, refineries, and gas pumps. That grid reaches collective consciousness only in instances of spec[tac]ularized disruption; for every oil rig explosion or pipeline protest that makes the news, 101 million barrels go without saying each day.

That’s my bold, there, rather than Tondre’s… and that’s also my [interpolation] of three letters which I suspect got lost in the editing process. Unless I’m just projecting too hard? Because a mention of the Spectacular seems too perfect to pass up on, if you assume (as I do) that the Debordian Spectacle was a very particularised conception of what we now quite casually think of as “the media”… and that assumption is backed up by a later aside of Tondre’s regarding the development of Hollywood as a conglomeration of film-making power as running in parallel with the development of LA as an oil-field:

There’s a clear parable of power here: modern media emerged as a vital handmaiden to oil’s legitimation. When we go to the movies or pick up a magazine, we unconsciously consume oil—once a resource for film stock—as refined art and culture.

That same pattern of legitimation continues today, albeit more often applied to products or services which are powered by fossil fuels (e.g. the glacier-melting server-farms required to produce the smoke and mirrors sideshow of ChatGPT and its ilk), and increasingly to products, services or systems which purport to offer an alternative to the oil paradigm, but which are in fact desperate attempts by the oil paradigm to sustain the status quo for as long as possible (e.g. technological “carbon capture” schemes, “blue hydrogen”, “sustainable aviation fuels”, &c &c).

This phenomenon is not a product of oil, or of other fossil fuels, in a direct sense; those substances have, however, both literally and figuratively fueled its frantic expansion and pervasive ubiquity. The phenomenon is more properly an inevitable (if arguably unplanned) function of a system that incentivises the accumulation of money above and beyond all other activities—and Tondre (like Sinclair before him) is not afraid to name it capitalism.

[ * — Steadily digging my way out of the backlog, here. I’m actually working better and more effectively than I have in the last twelve months… but this recovery of capacity has, somewhat counterintuitively, come from a careful and deliberate restriction of capacity: in other words, I’ve forced myself to stick to office hours five days a week, and do little or no work at the weekends. I’m mistrustful of productivity guruism and lifehacks in general—for who is ever more mistrustful than an apostate?—but it seems there’s really something to that whole “work less, achieve more” idea. Who knew? ]

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