Oil: Viscous Time in the Anthropocene




In the 21st century, we are inundated with news about human-induced climate change. But perhaps human-produced media are not the only source of information. What if the best source of news about the planetary effects of environmental damage was the planet itself? This essay is one of a four-part series, Speaking Substances, that considers the stories that might be told by unusual, sometimes nonhuman, but still-eloquent media: Ice, Oil, Bodies, and Rock.

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Adapted from MLA 2015 panel, “Speaking Substances: Media for the Anthropocene.”

There’s a property of geologic time that inheres materially in oil: viscosity. Consider the line from Gerard Manley Hopkin’s famous poem “God’s Grandeur”: “It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” Oil is a strange substance, oozing, rebounding, drawing itself into beads, smearing and adhering.

This sort of oozing is how time works in the Anthropocene. When we inquire into the deep geologic past, our attention is sprung into the distant future; when we imagine the future, we look to the past to ground our guesses in evidence. We read our futures in our pasts or, as the artist Robert Smithson put it in an essay quoting Nabokov, “the future is but the obsolete in reverse.”

In contemplating deep geologic time, scholars of the Anthropocene are riding its elastic snap. In her 2013 essay on “Geologic Life,” geographer Kathryn Yusoff ruminates on the new forms of life made possible by dead organic matter — fossil fuels — and she foresees the death of this phase of life in the future fossils of the Anthropocene: “[…] in unearthing one fossil layer we create another contemporary fossil stratum that has our names on it.”

At the same time that Yusoff invites us into the wide timescales of geohistory, she advocates that we inquire into the more recent past of fossil fuel consumption in order to discover exactly why and how petroleum became so important. Critic Stephanie LeMenager has led the way in an important book that chronicles the ubiquity of petroleum in 20th-century American culture: or that offers, as she puts it, “a short cultural history of, essentially, destructive attachment, bad love.” This essay looks at the emerging petroculture of the 19th century, the beginning of the bad romance between oil and American culture. Although directing our attention only two centuries in the past does not answer the call of the Anthropocene to consider deep history, it is important to look to the 19th century because the debt we are incurring to fossil fuels begins there.

Also in the 19th century, geological science was revolutionized by the new idea that, as critic Martin Rudwick has written, “our human species is a recent newcomer on our planet, confined to a mere sliver of time at the tail end of an immensely long, diverse, and eventful history of the earth.” Rudwick shows how this new historical view of the world was driven in part by historiographical metaphors: the earth as an “archives,” or, as a “recording device,” or “medium.”

Reading 19th-century oil narratives in light of Anthropocene studies might allow us to come to a new understanding of environmental perception and geological knowledge at the beginning of the Petroleum Age. An unlikely trio of 19th-century geologist-Spiritualists ruminated over and over on three questions about oil: where, whence, and whither? These figures were William Denton, a popular lecturer on geology; Elizabeth Denton, a psychometric researcher, married to William Denton; and Abraham James, an oil speculator who sited important water and oil wells in Chicago and Pennsylvania. All were Spiritualists. Their narratives offer fantasies of abundant energy undisturbed by their visions of a deep, pre-human past.

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Abraham James was the most famous but certainly not the only Spiritualist who relied upon spirit guides and divining rods to locate oil reserves. In 1866 in Pennsylvania, James claimed that he was guided by a band of spirits to site and build oil wells he called the “Harmonial Wells,” which were underwritten by Spiritualist investors.

In 1868, the writer J. M. Peebles chronicled Abraham James’s adventures in the oil fields in a book called The Practical of Spiritualism. Peebles characterizes James’s discovery of the underground oil reserves as James’s encounter with a new medium — or, rather, an encounter between two media. James, in classic Spiritualist parlance, is called a “medium”: a person with special access to the spirit world. And throughout the account of James’s speculation, oil itself is characterized as another kind of medium — specifically a kind of wireless broadcast medium that transmits information about its origins and changing environments. “Those petroleum veins and basins in Pennsylvania,” wrote Peebles, emit “currental or flame-like corruscations, corresponding somewhat with incense from plants and flowers.” By tuning in to those transmissions, James struck oil.

William and Elizabeth Denton’s geological research also characterizes Spiritualism and geology as twin ventures in unseen substances: oil and the spirit world. Like Peebles’s narrative of Abraham James, the Dentons’ accounts also describe oil as a recording medium that perpetually broadcasts itself. Their 1888 book, The Soul of Things, describes the Dentons’ experiments in “psychometry,” the science of reading the aural emissions of things.

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As psychometry is often associated with mourning culture — making contact with deceased loved ones through their personal belongings — the Dentons’ work seems suited to one of the tasks of the Anthropocene, if not fully to the scale of grieving mass extinction and climate change. Denton describes forces radiating from objects “daguerreotyping the appearances of each upon the other,” and how “each motion is recorded by a thousand faithful scribes in infallible and indelible scripture.”

This is just as true of all past time. From the first dawn of light upon this infant globe, when round its cradle the steamy curtains hung, to this moment. Nature has been busy photographing every moment […] Every radiate and mollusc of the Silurian era, every ganoid of the Devonian, has sat for its portrait, and here it is.

In one experiment, Elizabeth holds and reads a fragment of shale broken off from the wall of a Pennsylvania oil well. Upon holding the specimen, Elizabeth felt herself “deep underground, how deep, I cannot tell, but I feel a great weight above me.” While there, she watched a time-lapse panorama of coral in prehistoric oceans crushing and oozing themselves into iridescent petroleum. As Elizabeth Denton, entranced, names geologic epochs and sounds the minor-key existential gloom she feels on behalf of coal — as coal — her prose sounds weird and occult.

It is interesting to read Abraham James and Elizabeth Denton’s experiences with geological substances in light of the imperatives of current environmental scholarship. Political theorist Jane Bennett, for example, argues in her book Vibrant Matter that nonhuman things — much like Denton believes of shale — “act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.” I do not mean to debase Bennett’s urgent and ethical work by comparing it to a fringe 19th-century pseudo-religious practice. But neither do I believe we should ignore the thought model offered by these Spiritualist tracts, which invite us to recognize that nonhuman entities might have agency beyond our own understanding, and that agency itself be distributed widely within and beyond the human world. Indeed, one of the most urgent tasks of the Anthropocene is to grapple with the force of rising seas, whiplashing jet streams, melting ice shelves, and other agentic forces of climate change.

In those 19th-century Spiritualist tracts, unlike in most scientific and economic writing of the 21st century, we can glimpse a model of how humans might imaginatively embody geohistory, experiencing geological change as a felt sensory experience. The model of making your body into a sensitive receptor of freely-given geological information is generous, imaginative, humble: in opposition to the model of greedy and competitive petroleum consumption perhaps best expressed by Daniel Plainview, the protagonist of P.T Anderson’s oil film There Will Be Blood. In the violent climax of the film, Plainview acts out an absurd allegory of oil extraction: “I drink your milkshake!”

That said, there was something of Daniel Plainview’s imperial greed in Elizabeth Denton, too. In an essay on the Denton’s geological writings, Dana Luciano located the limits of Elizabeth Denton’s imagination. While Elizabeth had the capacity to cast her imagination into nonhuman substances like whalebone, coal, and shale, she could not bring herself to imagine that the Native American people who appeared in her fantasies might have shared her own human capacity for thought or sensibility. Luciano writes: “[T]he ‘queer’ capacity possessed by the mediums — their radically intensified and expansive sensitivity — is itself not inherently incompatible with white supremacy.” In spite of Elizabeth Denton’s wide geological imagination, her racism limited her capacity to feel for and with entities outside herself.

In his professional life apart from his partnership with Elizabeth, William Denton popularized contemporary geological science in a series of lectures published as Our Planet, its Past and Future. Although William did not share Elizabeth’s psychometric talents, he too tackled one of the Petroleum Age’s most pressing questions: Whence came oil?

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Denton considered the origin of petroleum at length, eventually settling on the notion — supported by Elizabeth’s psychometric visions — that petroleum is derived from fossilized coral, which secreted and held oil in its honeycomb cavities.

It is worth mentioning that oil discourse has always yoked oil to the ocean, metaphorically and materially. On the material register, oil was supposed by 19th-century geologists including Denton to have come from the organic matter in primordial oceans. And in the 19th century, the ocean was the site of the energy source that petroleum supplanted: whale oil.

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Whale oil was an important point of reference for the petroleum industry, which wanted to prove that petroleum was as desirable and safe an illuminant as whale oil, one that was cheaper and more abundant. While the nomenclature of petroleum was still unfixed — sometimes it was called rock oil, coal oil, or mineral oil — one petroleum lamp producer made the comparison explicit by naming rock oil in terms of whale oil: Downer’s “mineral sperm oil.”

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More often, though, petroleum served as a counterpoint to whale oil, specifically as a more abundant resource. Underground oil reserves were not just whales, they were oceans. “Ocean of oil” is the clichéd fantasy of limitless oil that runs through oil narratives from the 19th century straight through to the present moment. Hester Blum wrote in a signal work of oceanic studies that the “sea is not a metaphor,” urging scholars to take seriously the material conditions in which 19th-century sailors labored and lived, and not only because their workplace is available as a capacious metaphor. But sometimes the sea is a metaphor, and metaphors ramify in the material world. Just as the metaphors of the earth as an “archive” propelled new understandings of geological history, the metaphor of oil as an “ocean” did work as well. The metaphorical ocean in “oceans of oil” helped engender twinned fantasies of abundance. The metaphor convinced us that oil was vast, abundant, eternal, immutable. The ocean is not actually immutable or eternal, of course, but thinking that it might be led us to create the Pacific garbage patch and climate-change-driven phenomena like ocean acidification and sea level rise. Metaphors work.

William Denton ruminated on primordial oceans before finding himself snapped into the future. Denton envisions the future as a time of vertical imperialism: humanity’s needs will be answered by extracting the Earth’s heat from deeper and deeper sources: coal, petroleum, geothermal steam. He entertains the question of resource exhaustion, but ultimately dismisses it. He explains the future patiently, as if to an anxious child:

As long as the world exists, then, we may be assured that man’s ingenuity will keep pace with his necessities of this kind, and the human race march on to the goal that shall lie before them. Man is an important part of Nature; and his importance increases hourly. At first a helpless log, he floated on the stream, but now stems the current, or boldly directs it.

In William and Elizabeth’s fantasy of the past, geologic substances exerted agency: daguerreotyping impressions, exerting weight, recording transmissions. Their vision of the past is one in which agency and power are shared among humans and nonhumans. But it appears in William’s forecast of the future that all of that shared agency narrows into one channel, directed by humans. As soon as Denton thrust his imagination into the future, the vision that he and Elizabeth developed of distributive agency among human and nonhumans dissolved.

As with the Dentons, the temptations of human ambition blinkered the geological imagination of Spiritualist speculator Abraham James. To James, oil was a spiritual medium and a commodity, a substance subject to the concerns of the spirit and of the material(ist) world. James offered spiritually-dictated advice on how exactly new oil barons should manage their reserves to drive up prices. And when James in a trance state roamed over the Pennsylvania oil fields to site his Harmonial well, he stopped at the site of the well and marked its place by pressing a penny into the ground. The penny was a node connecting the past with the future, the very site where whence? flips over to whither?

The symbolism of the penny was clear to his chronicler, J. M. Peebles:

So James, clairvoyant-eyed and spirit-inspired, thrust a penny under the sod, and to-day millions come gushing up to illumine distant cities, and spiritually enlighten human minds.

In James’s gesture, the economics of oil are thoroughly naturalized, literally pressed into the ground and made to appear as artless and uncontrived as a plant. That penny struck a shut-off valve in Peebles’s mind, closing off his sense of wonder about James’s psychometric encounter with oil’s glittering corruscations. James pressing a penny into the ground mirrors the moment in Denton’s narrative when upon imagining the future, he envisions humankind as nature’s master, and oil as an abundant source.

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At the same time that Anthropocene studies opens up deep histories and distant futures, neoliberal economic policies have enacted different senses of time. In plunging oil prices and expanding oil production, we see evidence of a new economic strategy: accumulate profits now, without regard to long term economic or environmental outcomes.

Commodity pricing interrupts environmental perception and redirects our visions of the future. In the 1974 short story “The Petrol Pump,” Italo Calvino describes the affective push and pull of the 1970s energy crisis. As the story’s narrator — his car’s gas gauge at empty — searches for an open gas station, he feels scarcity. Minutes afterward, when he and his gas gauge find relief at an open pump, he feels abundance. “So let me say that right now I am experiencing simultaneously the rise, apex and decline of the so-called opulent societies, the same way a rotating drill pushes in an instant from one millennium to the next as it cuts through the sedimentary rocks of the Pliocene, the Cretaceous, the Triassic.”

And as we continue after more than a year to see low gas prices, oil feels more abundant, doesn’t it? Aren’t we all feeling this sense of sticky, slowed-down time since oil prices have plunged over the past few months? Even though you know better, doesn’t the future feel slightly more remote when you pay $1.59 a gallon for gas? SUV sales are up, and car manufacturers are ramping up their production of trucks and other gas guzzlers. Time in late capitalism has its own viscosity.

I will close by returning to a critical idea with which I began: Kathryn Yusoff’s call for a “geopolitical turn” in humanistic and political thought. She believes that new readings of the old fossil record may open up new futures: “if origins are conserved in the forgotten strata of endings, new origin stories possess the possibility to disturb the reality of the end.” As we continue dig through oil’s past, I hope that she is right, and that we will find new futures, too.

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Jamie L. Jones is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is writing a book about obsolescence, oil, and oceans.


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