TOWARD A PETRO-CONSCIOUSNESS:
THE CULTURAL LOGIC OF PETRO-CAPITALISM IN US FILM DURING THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL
By Elaine Cullen
Student Number: 12863017
Master of Arts & Culture Comparative Cultural Analysis Graduate School of Humanities
University of Amsterdam
Supervisor: Jeff Diamanti
Between January 2007 and July 2008, the price of oil increased from $50 to its historic peak of $147.30 per barrel. At the same time, the Global Financial Crisis, the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression, was about to take hold. Jeff Diamanti and Imre Szeman maintain that “while capitalism and oil cannot be reduced to one another…they are nevertheless involved in a complex relationship of mutual dependency” (138). What is intrinsically conditioned by the Financial Crisis is a crisis of capitalism, and if the whole infrastructure of capitalism has been built on fossil fuel, the dominant logic of petrol as the fulcrum of that system becomes of utmost concern as the structures of capitalism reveal their frailty. Using Patricia Yaeger’s concept of the “energy unconscious”, I argue that the petro-capitalist logic within the moment of the Financial Crisis enters into cultural
production and forces an examination of the energy unconscious. The understanding of this logic is what I call the petro-consciousness: the shared feeling or understanding of the ways in which petroculture has definitively shaped our social and cultural experience, which starts to formulate during this moment of crisis through the representations of petro-capitalism in cultural production. This thesis offers a new historical analysis of three cinematic objects produced within this period of US film to explore the dynamics of the petro-consciousness.
Across three chapters, I examine There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007), Wall-E (Stanton, 2008) and Blood Car (Orr, 2007) as historical artefacts of this period and map the ways in which they aesthetically and formally render petrol as the cultural logic of this moment, materially and immaterially.
Key Words: petroculture, petro-capitalism, financial crisis, film, cultural logic, energy unconscious, energy humanities
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ... 3
PERIODISING PETROCULTURE IN THE FINANCIAL CRISIS………..4
THERE WILL BE BLOOD: STRUCTURES OF FEELING AND THE ART OF PETROFILM ... 12
THE END OF THE WORLD? WALL-E, PEAK OIL AND PETRO-CAPITALIST REALSIM ... 26
PETROCULTURE AS MINOR CINEMA: BLOOD CAR, SATIRE AND THE US
OIL ADDICTION ... 41
LOOKING BACK; MOVING FORWARD ... 56
WORKS CITED ... 60
Writing this thesis in the midst of the pandemic, cooped up in my room, without access to a library and over Zoom supervision meetings was certainly not the challenge I was expecting this year. However, getting the opportunity to learn, research and study in Amsterdam during this time has been a truly wonderful experience, and there were many people along the way whom I could not have done this without.
Firstly, a huge thank you to Jeff Diamanti, for supervising and shaping my half-articulations into the project that lies ahead. This thesis would still be a blank page without his support, guidance and countless recommendations. He has the most incredible mind I’ve ever come across and it has been an absolute privilege to work with him and learn from him over the past few months.
I would also like to thank all of the magnificent lecturers I’ve encountered at UvA this year who have helped me navigate the complexities of modern culture. To Joost de Bloois, Marija Cetinic, David Duindam, Niall Martin & Giovanna Fossati, thank you.
To old friends and new. To the friends I have made during my time in Amsterdam, who have allowed me to experience all the wonders this incredible city has to offer (despite the COVID restrictions), and to the Arclight Coffee Morning gang, who kept me in the loop of all the happenings back home.
To Darragh, Ronan & Eve, for inspiring me every day to think harder, laugh louder and be the best I can be. You guys are my best friends.
Finally, Mum & Dad. Thank you for everything. For always encouraging me, supporting me and allowing me to take the plunge of studying abroad this year. For listening to my
nonsensical ramblings of life in Amsterdam, all the Zoom calls, (and for sending chocolate on days when I needed it most!) Love you always.
PERIODISING PETROCULTURE IN THE FINANCIAL CRISIS
Between January 2007 and July 2008, the price of oil increased from $50 to its historic peak of $147.30 per barrel (Hamilton 215). At the same time, the Global Financial Crisis, the worst economic crisis experienced since The Great Depression, was about to take hold. Tensions with the Middle East, reports of a decline in petroleum reserves, the imagined threat of peak oil and the falling value of the US dollar against other world currencies caused oil prices to triple just before the Recession. Jeff Diamanti and Imre Szeman maintain that
“while capitalism and oil cannot be reduced to one another…they are nevertheless involved in a complex relationship of mutual dependency” (138). While the precarity of oil was not exclusively causal to the financial crash, they are not mutually exclusive, elucidating Ian Angus’ claim that “fossil fuels are not an overlay that can be peeled away from capitalism — leaving the system intact, they are embedded in every aspect of the system” (173). What is intrinsically conditioned by the Financial Crisis is a crisis of capitalism, and if the whole infrastructure of capitalism has been built on fossil fuel, the dominant logic of petrol as the fulcrum of that system becomes of utmost concern as the structures of capitalism reveal their frailty. Culturally, perhaps, this moment provides insight into western society’s
reluctance to imagine alternatives to the fossil capital, petromodern lifestyle that had been taken for granted, but I maintain that moments of crisis spur an evaluation of how that crisis came to be. I thus argue that the representations and figurations of petro-capitalism in much of the cultural production of 2007-2008 is infused with an atmosphere utterly informed by the external energic and economic conditions and tensions that acutely
governed global society, politics and economics during this moment, thus producing an awareness of oil’s centrality to the system of capitalism.
Patricia Yaeger puts forth the concept of the “energy unconscious” to explain the affectual, yet often unmarked, forces of energy and their infrastructures as they influence and permeate human society in a bid to get us to examine our relationship to oil’s invisible ubiquity in modernity. She further suggests “energy sources enter texts as fields of force that have causalities outside (or in addition to) class conflicts and commodity wars” (309). I argue that the petro-capitalist logic within the moment of the Financial Crisis enters into cultural production, forcing an examination of the energy unconscious, and the
understanding of this logic is what I call the petro-consciousness. “Consciousness”, denoting the state of being aware and responsive to one’s surroundings, and “petro”, encompassing the centrality of oil to the material and cultural realities of our lived experiences. The petro- consciousness is thus the shared feeling or understanding of the ways in which petroculture has definitively shaped our social and cultural experience, which I argue starts to formulate during this moment of crisis through the representation of petrol in cultural production.
Although the Energy Humanities is still emerging as a research field (the first use of the term came in the 2014 essay “The Rise of Energy Humanities” by Dominic Boyer and Imre Szeman), a significant amount of work has already been carried out to analyse and understand the intersection of energy, culture and politics over the past decade, following the inaugural Petrocultures conference in 2012. It is becoming increasingly more important as a field of research as the climate crisis - caused in large part by the continued use of fossil fuels enabled by the corporate privatisation of oil – ravages the planet. The field highlights the essential contribution that the insights and methods of the humanities can make to areas of study and analysis that were once thought best left to the natural sciences (Boyer
and Szeman 40). Leading thinkers in the energy humanities align on the fact that modern culture is petroculture, and ask what methods could be used to inspect and make visible the possible futures that are not bound to the structures held by the excessive use of fossil fuels in order to overcome the energy impasse we find ourselves at (Diamanti and Szeman 137;
LeMenager 31; Szeman 280). Graeme Macdonald maintains that the aim of petroculture is
“to claim a space for critical, literary and artistic engagements with what has largely been a geological, political-economic and corporate substance, measured and valued by
petrodollars and combustion power rather than (or indeed along) aesthetic modes of representation, image and narrative” (3). Methodologies of art, literary and cultural studies or economic theory, when combined with the study of energy, can produce effective readings of the implications of petrol and oil upon modern culture and society, exploiting the deeply damaging consequences of petroleum upon the economic and environmental landscape. Thus, the humanities are an “indispensable standpoint from which to understand energetic, environmental and economic crises” (Bellamy and Diamanti 3). As a relatively novel field, there is scope to work with and develop exciting and innovative methods of reading energy in cultural production, and it offers room to reimagine the structures of energy through cultural form.
The role of oil in fiction has predominantly been analysed from an anthropogenic, environmental standpoint. Amitav Ghosh’s concept of “petrofiction” from his 1992 essay of the same name has provided the basis for much work on the culture-energy conjunction in petrocultural studies, which often focuses on the ways that energy shapes narrative form (see Yaeger (2011); Szeman (2011; 2017) ; MacDonald (2013). While this has been necessary and vital work, I argue we must now shift attention from how petrol functions in cultural production to how petrol feels, or resonates in a particular societal or cultural moment.
Working in the vein of Stephanie LeMenager’s phenomenological approach to oil culture in Living Oil (2011) and the historical approach of Peter Hitchcock’s “Oil in an American
Imaginary” (2010), I view the cultural production of the Financial Crisis through the aesthetic and atmospheric force of petro-capitalism that enters a text from its productional context.
From this, we can start to question what the larger role of cultural production is in arriving at the petro-consciousness, why this became apparent across 2007/2008, and how this can be read retrospectively with petrol as a dominant infrastructural and cultural logic of late capitalism. To quote Frederic Jameson, “we cannot, not periodize” (29). Therefore, I argue that it is essential to analyse cultural objects within the context of the Financial Crisis in terms of the cultural logic of petrol in order to fully assess how the mood of a text is
informed by the wider socio-economic conditions, and how this mood is generated through cultural form. Investigating the role of culture in shaping what Szeman describes as our “oil ontologies”, and figuratively extracting petroleum from cultural production opens up the field for understanding the deeper connections between energy and culture (3).
Thus, this thesis offers a new historical analysis of three cinematic objects produced within this period of US film to explore the dynamics of the petro-consciousness and
petroculture, and to retrospectively map where the petro-capitalist crisis is intimated within the cultural production of the time. I look at There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007), Wall-E (Stanton, 2008) and Blood Car (Orr, 2007) as historical artefacts of this period and map the ways in which they aesthetically and formally render petrol as the cultural logic of this moment, materially and immaterially. Following Brent Ryan Bellamy’s suggestion in “Energy and Literary Studies” (2016), I argue that a return to old archives will allow for a discovery of new finds as we attempt to break the impasse of fossil fuelled modernity (10). The
simultaneity of the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis and the culmination of the 2000s
energy crisis highlights the interdependence of oil and economy, whilst illuminating the political and social anxieties of the moment. A retrospective examination of these films in context will therefore yield insights into the era of the Financial Crisis as a cultural moment in which the convergences of energy and economy inform how the texts generate the tensions of petro-capitalism, and how that constructs a petro-consciousness within the moment. Although operating through vastly different modes, the socio-historical period binding these objects means they all elucidate oil as the fundamental energy system and cultural logic that has shaped the formation of living under capitalism, and are thus thoroughly permeated by nothing other than a petrocultural atmosphere.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!
(1927), forms the basis of chapter one. The gritty narration of an oil-man’s quest for wealth during the Californian oil boom of the early 20th century portrays the foundations of
petromodernity in which we still find ourselves entrenched. Here, I offer an incorporation of Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling into the analysis of the film to investigate how the text produces a cultural representation of oil at the moment of financial crisis, both within and beyond its physical materiality, through the character of Daniel Plainview as the
medium of oil’s violent logic. I pair this with Gilles Deleuze’s theory of the affection-image to examine how affect is conjured within the petroleum landscape of the film, and to explore how There Will Be Blood generates a conscious understanding of the undeniable
omnipresence and impacts of petro-capitalism on modernity through the mood of the Financial Crisis.
In chapter two, I turn to the mode of animation, exploring the ways in which the petro-consciousness develops through post-petrocultural formations in Disney/Pixar’s Wall- E. The film animates a potential future, where environmental neglect and the effects of
mass-consumerism in a corporatocracy results in an uninhabitable earth. Though the film does not physically figure petrol, the residues of oil culture are enmeshed in earth’s
landscape. Therefore, despite its physical absence, the hegemony of oil spreads across the ecologically destroyed planet, and is thus acutely felt within the dimensions of a world ruined by fossil capital. Using the theoretical formations of Mark Fisher’s “capitalist realism”
and Brent Ryan Bellamy’s “petrorealism”, I argue that a petro-capitalist realist reading of Wall-E determines how the film’s animated form paradoxically signals the reality that living without oil still means living under the conditions of a petro-capitalist ideology.
As an emerging field of study, however, perhaps the impasse that the energy humanities is attempting to overcome may be more rigorously examined within non- dominant cultural spaces. Therefore, the third and final chapter considers Alexander Orr’s Blood Car and its satirical rendering of the US oil addiction through Matthew Huber’s concept of oil as the “lifeblood” of humanity. As a “minor”, or emerging, research field, I argue that reading petroculture through minor cinema is vital to understand the all- encompassing logic of petro-capitalism outside of the dominant sphere of Hollywood cinema as the Financial Crisis was beginning. Blood Car counters the Hollywood
representation of petrocultures seen in There Will Be Blood and Wall-E, and thus provides a space to probe the spillage of oil beyond dominant cultural arenas.Reading the genre of satire through the film within its energic and economic context opens the text for compelling interpretations of the physical and cultural addiction to oil.
Why film, then? Oil and film are two industries whose connections run deep and spread far across the modern American landscape and psyche. The discovery of oil in the US rides in tandem with the discovery and development of the cinematographic moving image in the late 19th century. Indeed, the Californian oil boom coincides with the release of
what is widely regarded as the first narrative film shot in the United States, The Great Train Robbery (Porter, 1903). The cultural produce of Hollywood is materially and semiotically imbricated in a world made and run on petrol. Until the 21st century, the use of
petrochemical film stock has been standard in film production, whilst lighting rigs, transport to set, ink on actors’ scripts, are all part of the energic fabric of cinema. Cinematic
production is thus bound to the pervasiveness of oil in modern culture, both in its
materiality and as a cultural form that shapes the way we see, think, and feel. As products and purveyors of petroculture, these films not only graphically render crude oil, but in doing so, capture oil as an all-encompassing logic that has shaped the modern cultural
imagination. Therefore, considering film at this intersection is of utmost importance
because of its historical relationship with oil and in their abilities to represent oil figuratively and visually; as both substance and idea. Film becomes an essential lens into the mood of a particular time, revealing the petro-capital interdependence that frames the atmosphere of the period of late fossil capital.
Across the modes of Hollywood epic period drama, Pixar animation and satirical minor cinema, respectively, each film renders the impacts of petroculture and petro-
capitalism upon human nature and human society that become pivotal to understanding the period of late fossil capital leading to the Financial Crisis. I argue that it is at this moment of crisis when the effects of late fossil capital start to become recognisable on a cultural level.
The political and energic logics within these texts are recognisable and substantiated through the aesthetic rendering and explicit confrontation with oil’s material and cultural logics, which leads me to posit that these objects produce a deep awareness of the cultural implications of petrol during the Financial Crisis. Therefore, when bound to their cultural context, the constant binding these three films together is their visualisations of oil’s violent
logic as fixed within the capitalist system, promoting Wilson et al.’s assertion that oil and energy should be viewed “as the fulcrum around which many of today’s most pressing social, economic and political issues must be understood” (4). Thus, exploring the
relationship between oil and capital as a cultural logic shaping the cinema of 2007-08 opens up critical insight into how cultural production may be informed by the cultural and socio- economic tensions, anxieties and ramifications felt within this period. More broadly, with the vast contrast in mode and genre, the juxtaposition of these three films will allow for a thorough examination of the implicit and explicit figurations of petroculture permeating the atmosphere of these texts.
As Imre Szeman argues, it is time “to puzzle out the implications of our dependency, as much metaphysical as material, on a slippery substance that connects technological futures with prehistorical pasts” (3). My goal here is ultimately to advance the conversation on the convergence of energy and culture through this retrospective analysis. I argue that during this period, the fabrics of these films generate a deep awareness of oil’s material and cultural dominance in the face of a crisis of capitalism, thus energising the awakening of a consciousness that starts to formulate the effects of petro-capitalism into feeling through cultural form. The question, then, is what we can do with this knowledge, and I hope that examining this archive of the past will provide insight into ways of navigating the energy impasse through cultural historicity, towards a more sustainable future.
There Will Be Blood: Structures of Feeling and the Art of Petrofilm
I'm an oil man, ladies and gentlemen. I have numerous concerns spread across this state. I have many wells flowing at many thousand barrels per day. I like to think of myself as an oil man.
As an oil man, I hope that you'll forgive just good old-fashioned plain speaking.
- Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood
In every sense of the word, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007) is an
“oil man”. At the beginning of the film, Plainview falls into a pit and breaks his leg whilst mining for silver, which sets in motion an intimate commingling of oil and blood evincing oil’s logic in relation to the human body. From his discovery of oil in Los Angeles in 1902, his establishment of a drilling company, greed and determination for success, and through his eventual downfall, he is completely subsumed by oil. Come the end of the film, Plainview’s mind and body are utterly reduced to the violent logic of the black gold. Materially and metaphysically, he is energised, driven and eventually intoxicated by both the substance and the idea of oil: subject and object of the petroculture that has inhabited and pervaded the modern American landscape and psyche for the past century. Oil has indeed “spread across this state”, infrastructurally and into the depths of our cultural imaginations.
Brent Ryan Bellamy and Jeff Diamanti delineate this critical distinction of energy as idea and energy as substance in “Editors’ Introduction: Envisioning the Energy Humanities”
(2016). They argue that energy functions as an idea in the way that energy is easy to generate thinking around, “because energy circulates most freely today in conversations
about how to live a life” (2). However, these ideas about energy, they note, “run through the literal circuitry of a world saturated in fossil fuels and their infrastructures” (2). Energy’s second form is thus as substance, and the social and cultural conditions of modern living are constructed by energy’s two forms. Hence, our experience of the world is wholly shaped by the material and ideological infrastructures of the dominant energy system in place at a particular moment: since the 20th century, this has been oil. This is petroculture, which, to paraphrase Stephanie LeMenager, is modern culture, or the normative everyday culture for many people in western parts of the world: “It’s the suburban mall-scape, the highway complex, inside teeth in the complex polymers from fillings, clothing, running through the body: is me, is you” (“What is Petroculture?”). Oil is thus a cultural logic that structures our lived experiences as much as it is a material substance that physically composes the world we inhabit.
There Will Be Blood was released at the end of 2007, as the economy was crumbling and oil prices were rising. Daniel Plainview embodies and is embodied by both the idea and substance of oil, whilst his capitalistic greed serves as the catalyst for his own moral rot. In terms of the film, Peter Hitchcock maintains “what is dirty about oil in this period is its politics and the Americanness that links it to economic power” (95). Oil and capital are thus tethered in the film through Plainview’s economic greed, made explicit in the way that through his excessive greed, he is physically tarnished and eventually absorbed by oil. I argue that re-focusing the analysis of this film in light of its periodisation will allow for an exploration of the energy as idea/energy as substance dichotomy that informs the petro- capital tensions swarming the socio-economic atmosphere of 2007. This is not to say that the film does not portray the impacts of capitalism in its own right, but rather, in the way that oil and capitalism are inherently bound to one another, it captures petro-capitalism as
the dominant cultural logic of modernity. Understanding this will allow me to explore how There Will Be Blood generates a conscious understanding of the undeniable omnipresence and impacts of petrol on modern life, and how it becomes consciously felt within the cultural imagination at the time of the film’s release. My question is, therefore, how does There Will Be Blood, a cultural product of the Global Financial Crisis and the peak oil crisis, generate a mood that is utterly informed by petro-capitalism, and does this mood create a conscious understanding of the impacts of oil at the moment of its release?
The Energy Unconscious & Structures of Feeling
Imre Szeman states we cannot ignore “the specificity of the experiences, social sensibilities and cultural imaginaries [that are] produced by distinct energy systems” (280). Through its portrayal of the foundations of oil in America, There Will Be Blood elucidates oil as the fundamental energy system of modernity - a system tethered to the reality of modern living – in its aesthetic rendering of oil materially, and oil’s hold on the American cultural
imaginary. Following Jameson’s model of the political unconscious - his hypothesis that artistic works should be seen as symbolic solutions to real but unconsciously felt social and cultural problems - Patricia Yaeger puts forth the concept of an “energy unconscious” to describe the affective relation to energy in petromodernity:
Without reverting to crude materialism, I want to suggest that energy invisibilities may constitute different kinds of erasures. We might argue that the writer who treats fuel as a cultural code or reality effect makes a
symbolic move, asserts his or her class position in a system of mythic
abundance not available to the energy worker who lives in carnal exhaustion.
But perhaps energy sources also enter texts as fields of force that have causalities outside (or in addition to) class conflicts and commodity wars.
In There Will Be Blood, the manifestation of literal and figurative oil and its socio-economic position both within the film and in its external context is exemplary of the force of oil in how it enters the text. However, I argue that both the economic and energic logics within the text are recognisable and substantiated through the aesthetic rendering and explicit confrontation with oil, which leads me to posit that the film produces a deep awareness of the cultural implications of petrol in late 2007. Therefore, the film confronts the energy unconscious, and I argue it transforms into a shared consciousness within the framework of a larger political unconscious – the Financial Crisis. This is ultimately how the film captures the cultural imagination of its contextual period; a culture profoundly impacted by (and wholly indebted to) a world made and run on petrol. This is the petro-consciousness: the shared feeling or understanding of the ways in which petroculture has definitively shaped our social and cultural experience and acknowledging this allows us to assess how it manifests in cultural production.
Thus, I turn to Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling to map this shift of the energy invisibilities into a petro-consciousness during the Financial Crisis. Williams coined the term in the 1970s to denote the experiences, meanings and values that are actively lived and felt in the moment, before they become thoughts or ideologies after an experience has taken place (132). Jonathan Flatley further describes structures of feeling as the ways that social forces shape our affective lives, which occur “when certain objects produce a certain set of affects in certain contexts for certain groups of people” (26). Essentially, a social force, such
as petrol, can produce a mood or a feeling through objects that cannot be fully articulated during the moment it is being lived through, but it definitively shapes our relation to the world. These structures of feeling will allow for a thorough investigation of how There Will Be Blood produces a cultural representation of oil at the moment of the Financial Crisis, within and beyond its physical materiality, in the characterisation of oil via the film’s “oil man”, Daniel Plainview.
What element of film can produce these structures of feeling, then? I argue that Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “affection-image”, from his influential Cinema Book 1: The Movement Image, should be employed at this intersection to examine how the petro- consciousness is forged within the petroleum landscape of the film. The affection-image relays how the universe is encountered as a world of affects in a film. Deleuze describes affects as the interval between perception and action. In this way, bodies are affected by the world, and then act upon the world, and it is this mediation that the affection-image captures. It is comprised of three elements: the icon (individual emotion captured by a facial close-up), the dividual (emotions expressed by the masses/crowd) and the any-space-
whatever (non-human affects). I will pay particular attention to this any-space-whatever, which, as David Deamer describes, are non-human affects that can be denoted by a landscape, a background, a non-human symbol, or from the technical elements of cinematography that are reflected on screen: “any-space-whatevers may designate the vague and anonymous form of a landscape, cityscape or interior; or a place of ruin, all- encompassing rain, the lens flare of sunshine, the shimmering of heat haze” (85). The affection-images presented in There Will Be Blood are vital to understanding film as an affective site that constructs the mood of a world soaked in the (im)material logic of petro- capitalism. The energy as idea/substance dichotomy that engulfs the film’s landscape and
becomes possible to read through the affection-images, which ultimately allows for an analysis of how the feeling generated by the film’s rendering of oil is visually and formally constructed.
Petrosubjects, Petrofilm and the Petro-consciousness
If bodies are affected by the world and then act upon the world, and oil has reigned as the hegemonic infrastructural material of the past century, it must be argued that oil and the culture it produces are integral to the human body. Thus, oil has given shape and form to the modern human body: we have become petrosubjects (Diamanti and Szeman 141). In There Will Be Blood, America’s culture of oil is symbolised through Plainview himself. He is the ultimate petrosubject, where the extremities of oil’s violent logic materialises within him. Consumed and subsumed by the substance he discovered, I argue that in both its material and ideological representation through Plainview’s body, to draw from Yaeger’s argument, the energy of oil enters the text as a field of force that is ultimately informed by its periodisation.
Released in the midst of the Global Financial Crisis and on the eve of the oil price spike, There Will Be Blood captures the panoptic proliferation of oil through the modern American landscape. By this, I mean the expanse of oil culture that occupies every frame of the film. Not only is the film explicit in its aesthetic figuration of oil, but Daniel Plainview exploits the capital power of the newly discovered black gold. Wilson, Szeman and Carlson view oil and energy as “the fulcrum around which many of today’s most pressing social, economic and political issues must be analysed and understood” (4). Taking this into the context of There Will Be Blood, oil is literally the axis of the film upon which theme of gross capitalism has the opportunity to function. Therefore, petro-capitalism comes to the fore as
the cultural logic produced by the film which allows to understand the affective power of this petrofilm. The film is a confrontation with our oil ontologies, made explicit through the external forces of oil and capitalism that enter the text, heightening our awareness of petrol as the dominant logic of modernity. What makes the visual economy of oil’s logic in the film so provocative is its socio-economic periodisation, in which Plainview’s capitalistic drive is tarnished by oil, eventually destroying him and those around him. Thus, at a particularly tenuous moment for both capitalism and oil, the lived experience of the threat of peak oil and the Financial Crisis perforates the film and it is in this space that we can identify the structures of feeling constructed by the cultural logic of oil that drives the internal and external shape of the film. Williams says that structures of feeling do not have to await definition before they exert palpable pressures (132). Therefore, the cultural logic of oil that is manifested within the fabric of the film formulates and makes recognisable the powerful force of oil that has shaped our lived experience.
From the beginning of the film, the process of oil extraction is intimately wedded to the visual manifestation of oil culture, thus evoking the ways oil functions as idea and as substance. Upon Plainview’s discovery of oil in 1902, the substance physically dominates the screen for much of this scene. As Plainview and his men drill at the oil well, crude oil
bubbles as the drill enters the pit. The slow extraction of the oil drill from ground up to the surface establishes the landscape of oil as the any-space whatever that governs the
emotional response within the scene. Plainview, dripping in sweat from his labour, smiles in ecstasy as he presses his fingertips to the dangling drill. He lifts his oil-stained hand to the sky, taking up the centre of the frame, signifying oil’s hold on Plainview, as much as Plainview’s hold on oil. This is the first instance in the film where Plainview is physically marked by oil, and one of the only shots we see of his face during the scene. Thus, the icon
of Plainview that expresses his excitement is immediately overtaken by the any-space- whatever of the oil as he proudly lifts up his tarnished hand: he starts to become the “oil- man”. A few frames later, a splash of dirty oil splatters the camera lens once Plainview begins to collect the oil. As Plainview is stained by oil, so too is the film, thus implicating the film itself in this confrontation with oil. The mark of oil is echoed by an overhead shot of a large pond of oil that sits on the surface like a blotch on the landscape, that keeps
accumulating oil as men throw the extracted oil into the black ocean. Hence, the oily any- space-whatevers of this scene are indicative of a violent petroculture that has pervaded the modern landscape.
In narratological terms, the film delineates the beginnings of a petroculture that is now taken for granted, and I agree with Hitchcock that “the narrative ingeniously reveals oil’s hold on American consciousness” through its aesthetic rendering of oil (95). This is where it becomes essential to think of the film as a product of its periodisation. The any- space-whatevers are inherently constructed by oil and the aesthetic landscape it produces.
Thus, at the moment when oil stains Plainview’s hand within this petroleum landscape, it marks the beginning of a material and ideological stain by an oil culture that has since energised the lived experiences of petromodernity. Oil as substance and oil as idea
synthesise into an all-encompassing cultural logic. Thus, as oil prices are climbing to historic heights in late 2007, the film confronts the deeply embedded oil and it is this cultural mood, informed by the cultural imagination of oil, that the film generates. It is through this physical confrontation with oil, its tarnishing of Plainview’s body and the force of energy that enters the text where the energy unconscious begins to shift toward the petro-conscious, as our oil ontologies are exposed through the visible and cultural manifestations of oil in the film.
Oil’s cultural logic and its effects/affects upon Plainview are further rendered in a scene in which a gas blowout occurs on one of Plainviews’s oil derricks. Crude oil gushes through the centre of the rig. A fire starts to burn the wooden derrick, and rising into the atmosphere, a thick black cloud of smoke envelops the top of the frame as the sticky substance permeates the landscape and covers the bodies of the oil drillers amidst the panic. Soaked in the spilled oil, watching the rig go up in flames, Daniel Plainview turns to his partner and asks: “What are you so miserable about? There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet. No one can get at it except for me!”
The oil rig is owned by our “oil-man” Plainview, who purchases the land from local preacher Eli Sunday, in exchange for $10,000 for his church. Plainview’s greed and obsession over material oil culminates in this scene, as does the film’s visceral treatment of oil.
Andrew Pendakis asks, “is there an aesthetics of oil or are its cultural manifestations too diverse and localised to be usefully generalised?” (8). This scene replies by striking the audience with a violent, palpable depiction of crude oil through three distinct facial close- ups of each Daniel Plainview, his son H.W. Plainview (who has been deafened as a result of the blowout), and Eli Sunday, watching on from afar, as oil saturates the landscape. Through the icons - the close-ups of the petroleum-stained Plainview men – oil is given a tangibility that communicates the all-encompassing nature of oil in American society. The oscillation between these icons of Daniel and H.W.’s oil-soaked faces and the any-space-whatevers, or the affective sites of the gushing oil, the burning rig and dark smoke cloud moves these backgrounds to the fore of the film. As the orange hues of fire reflect upon the opaque black oil permeating the faces of Daniel and H.W., accentuating their gaze, the viewer is
confronted with the characters’ addiction to oil through this aesthetic rendering. At this moment, oil is physically present on the bodies of the characters, and the reflective gaze as
the oil-fire is watched through the eyes of Daniel Plainview soaks up the atmosphere of petroculture that has permeated the American geo-cultural landscape. Oil is thus rendered materially and through the petro-capitalist logic of accumulation and violence. Plainview, becoming oil’s medium within the film, starts to transform from subject to object of oil within this scene. The landscape of oil, once resigned to the any-space-whatevers, finds itself embodied by Plainview. Soaked in its materiality, it is the logic of oil that truly defines Plainview’s relationship to oil.
Concomitantly, it in these any-space-whatevers where we can establish the
structures of feeling constructed by the cultural logic, or idea, of petroculture, as it was felt in 2007. As Barrett and Worden maintain, petroculture “encompasses the fundamental semiotic processes by which oil is imbued with value within petro-capitalism…symbolic forms that rearrange daily experience around oil-bound ways of life” (xxvi). Infrastructurally and symbolically, the lived experience of modernity is informed by the systems of petro- capitalism that have shaped our ways of being and living. However, these systems were fundamentally rattled at the moment of the film’s release. Therefore, paired with the economic tensions of a growing financial crisis, reading the film as a product of its socio- historical context of late 2007 enables us to think through the manner in which petro- capitalism is positioned as a field of force both within and outside the text. Thus, at the end of the scene, when Plainview, visibly drenched in oil, asks his partner “What are you so miserable about? There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet. No one can get at it except for me”, the capitalist logic of accumulation functions in tandem with the affection-images of Plainview’s dependence on oil to establish the enmeshment of petrol within a capitalist system. As Plainview is engulfed by oil, he is energised by the petro-capitalist logic of accumulation for his own economic gain, but through the external force of petro-capitalism
that guides the text, we know this system is unsustainable. When rapidly accelerating oil prices meant serious concern over peak oil, the lacking prospect of “oceans of oil under our feet” in reality becomes thoroughly felt in the social conscious. This encounter with petro- capitalism as it is manifested corporeally in Plainview provides an explicit rendering of oil’s logic that shapes our affective social and cultural lives and organises our relation to the world. Thus, at a critical moment when this petro-capital logic is disturbed, There Will Be Blood heightens the consciousness of energy through the provocative visualisation of petro- capitalism in the affection-images that explicate the cultural and economic anxieties over oil enveloping the American socio-economic sphere at this moment.
The finale of the film brings these petro-capital tensions into explicit relation as the violent reduction of oil to the body is acted out by Plainview in his humiliation and brutal murder of Eli Sunday, with Plainview bashing Sunday’s head in with a bowling pin, leaving him for dead in a pool of his own blood. Oil is not physically present in this scene, but is paradoxically acutely felt in the internalisation of oil’s violent logic within Plainview that propels his external actions. The affective power of oil in the any-space-whatevers up until this point now seep through Plainview’s body, and Plainview’s body in this scene becomes inseparable from the petroleum landscape he has produced. His aggressive actions in this scene - shouting, throwing, pushing, and the eventual act of murder - are thus expressive of an embodied energy that has physiologically and psychologically destroyed him, and the American landscape.
The Law of Conservation tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed;
only changed or transferred. Oil, the substance, is physically transferred unto Plainview’s body throughout the film until it completely embodies him, becoming a metaphysical force conditioning every action he presents. The hunched over manipulation of his body as he
taunts Eli for moral corruption is grossly affected by the intoxicating logic of oil that now fully subsumes him. This culminates in the performance of violence that had only been portrayed by oil in the rest of the film. Thus, the ubiquity of oil as a violent cultural logic is in full force through Plainview’s grotesque corporeal display of oil, fully transforming him into an object of oil. Therefore, it is ultimately the cultural logic of oil that pervades as the structuring force by end of the film. When oil and Plainview become indistinguishable from one another, the idea of energy interlocks with the materiality of oil, and through the violent actions of Plainview as oil, the film generates the undeniable consequences and impacts of oil as the omnipresent mood that enters the text from the socio-economic point of the Oil Shock and Financial Crisis. Thus, There Will Be Blood extracts this cultural mood of the time and integrates it into the fabric of the text, heightening our consciousness to the effects of oil culture.
What this embodiment of oil culture ultimately produces is the destruction of two men in a petro-capitalist system that they are failed by. Eli confesses to being in complete financial ruin due to the “the recent panic in our economy”, telling Plainview he has sinned as a result, and asks if Plainview will sell him land. Plainview declines and brings forth the idea of “drainage”, which is metaphorically encapsulated by the phrases: “I drink your water”; “I drink the blood of lamb from Bandy’s tract”; “I drink your milkshake”. The act of drinking symbolises this drainage whilst signifying the entrance of a substance into his body.
Plainview’s “drainage” of oil thus makes its way from the ground into the fabric of his being, with him becoming the ultimate symbol of petroculture. Both Plainview and Sunday’s economic greed is tethered to oil, from its discovery to the buying and selling of oil fields, and the idea of drainage here evokes an accumulation of something that eventually runs out. This heavily resonates with the structures of feeling that shaped the period of the film’s
release. With an economic crash on the horizon and threats of peak oil invading the social conscious, the external atmosphere of a faltering petro-capitalist system forces its way into the text, and the social force of oil that has implicitly governed modernity is explicated in this visual rendering of oil’s violent logic. Hence, the mood of There Will Be Blood is perforated by this petro-capitalist anxiety that becomes detectable through the film’s rendering of petroculture.
Szeman contends “that oil plays an important role in our lives in ways that we might not have believed—or have wanted to believe—is a fact that seems, at long last, to have become a conscious part of our social imaginaries” (3). At this socio-historical moment, when the end of oil was a real, tangible concern, There Will Be Blood traces the discovery and development of modern society’s addiction to oil. Through Daniel Plainview’s
embodiment of energy, oil may be understood as the material and metaphysical substance that shapes social being. Through the affection-images that construct oil as the fulcrum of the social consciousness, the aesthetic rendering of petroculture in There Will Be Blood thus responds to and represents the concrete historical situation it was produced in, becoming the field of force that informs the mood the film elicits. Peter Hitchcock considers oil as “a cultural logic that dares any writer to express its real, not as some character or passing reference, but as a very mode of referentiality, a texture in the way stories get told” (86).
That, to me, is why it is vital to re-frame and re-contextualise There Will Be Blood retrospectively. Elucidating those unfixed, half-articulated structures of feeling and
understanding how a specific cultural logic is felt through the textures and fabrics of the film
from its socio-historical context is central to the film’s construction of meaning. It is in these structures of feeling where we can uncover our deeply lodged oil ontologies which guide us towards a more conscious experience of oil’s influence and force. Thus, the film’s explicit figuration of oil as substance and oil as idea is central to the recognition of the petro- consciousness, which emerges from the text through the mood of oil in which the film is textually and contextually soaked. At the moment of peak oil and the economic crash, the unconscious, invisible feeling of oil saturating every facet of our lived experience becomes visualisable and recognisable in cultural production. Imbued with visual aesthetic form, the expression of oil culture in There Will Be Blood elucidates oil’s material prowess across the US, as well as its dominant hold on the American consciousness over the past century.
The End of the World? Wall-E, Peak Oil and Petro-Capitalist Realism
It is easier to imagine the end of the world than an end to capitalism. Often attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, Mark Fisher calls this “capitalist realism”, which is the widespread sense that capitalism is the only viable political and economic system, and it would be impossible to imagine an alternative to it (2). It is not an aesthetic of “realism” in a literary sense, but rather, as Leigh Claire La Berge explains, an “ideological formation in which capitalism is the most real of our horizons, the market-dominant present that forms the limits of our imaginaries” (2). Capitalist realism is thus a pervasive atmosphere that conditions and informs cultural production.
As we have seen in chapter one, however, the all-encompassing ubiquity of petrol in modern capitalist society has asserted itself as the dominant, or hegemonic, cultural force within the social psyche of the Global North. As Jeff Diamanti and Imre Szeman posit, oil may be understood as hegemonic insofar as “the practices of everyday life and the physical infrastructures of modernity have long been organized in relation to oil” (139-140). Oil has shaped our infrastructures, economies, affective social lives and remains the fulcrum of political and economic strategy. Therefore, it could equally be stated that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of oil, as a result of the petromodernity we have been subject to over the past century. We arrive at an inherent paradox here, in that the end of oil has been extensively theorised and envisioned, particularly through the techno- utopian ideology - the belief that technology will solve environmental problems resulting from oil usage. As of yet, however, there is little evidence to support the reality of techno-
utopianism whilst we still live in a petroleum economy. Hence, I argue that it is the
“pervasive atmosphere” of oil that truly informs cultural production, and oil’s relation to capitalism is enveloped within this dominant cultural logic of oil. It is not capitalist realism then, but a petro-capitalist realism that hegemonizes as the most “real of our horizons”.
Here, I am also drawing upon Brent Ryan Bellamy’s concept of petrorealism, whereby he posits the narrative form of texts produced within petroculture might provide a possible way to creatively mediate the scalar problem between thinking big and the specific situations and contexts of petromodernity as we try to navigate the energy-ecology- economy impasse (“Petrorealism”).
Fisher argues that the aftermath of 2008 economic crisis is the quintessential
example of capitalist realism in action, arguing that the bank bailouts occur as a result of the pathology of an economic system that cannot but reproduce its own institutional logic, even when that logic is in complete chaos. But, with oil’s material and cultural dominance in modernity, it becomes impossible to read the effects 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis without identifying the position of oil within this socio-historical moment. While the conflation of oil and capitalism would be a reductive simplification of these two pillars of modern society, capitalism has continued to thrive on the global demand for the substance.
The strong demand for oil during the 2000s caused a consumption rate that far exceeded new discoveries in the period, while the significant decline in the U.S. dollar against other currencies, particularly between 2007 and 2008, concurrently triggered vast increases in oil prices, peaking in July 2008 (EIA). We can thus identify that this moment of a faltering economy and the anticipation of peak oil potentially activates a heightened anxiety of the end of capitalism and the end of oil, and I argue that the cultural implications of these crises are signalled by the inability to think beyond petro-capital dominance.
If There Will Be Blood portrays the beginnings of a petroculture that has saturated every facet of modern life, what does a cinematic rendering of oil look like beyond petro- capital modernity, and yet firmly within the limitations of that modernity? What are, to borrow a term from Stephanie LeMenager, the “aesthetic dimensions” that are conjured by a world in which oil does not explicitly feature, but is still inherently present? (31). I turn to another mode of filmmaking to consider the ramifications of peak oil as a symptom of the Financial Crisis: animation. For film theorists David Bordwell and Kirsten Thompson,
“animation provides a convenient way of showing things that are not normally visible”
(712). Animation is thus important to consider at this junction because of its capacity to generate an aesthetic form to petrol’s ubiquitous invisibility.
The petro-capital crisis is crystallised in Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E (Stanton, 2008). The computer-animated ecocritical film imagines a future earth where environmental
destruction caused by rampant consumerism has rendered the planet an uninhabitable wasteland. Humanity has been evacuated from earth by megacorporation Buy-N-Large (BNL) and has existed on luxury spacecrafts for seven centuries whilst one trash compactor robot, Wall-E (a Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth Class) is left to clean up the waste-filled earth. Paradoxically, oil is not explicitly characterised in the film, yet the infrastructures of petroculture reign dominant, whereby the iconography, topography and social relation to oil resides over earth, regardless of human extinction. Though the film does offer a
rendering (and critique) of hyperreal techno-utopia in its formations of human life beyond earth, I will be arguing that the affective power of Wall-E comes from its portrayal of the reverberations of petro-capitalist society on earth. Furthermore, the medium of animation plays a pivotal role in constructing this world because of its visual and narrative capabilities in highlighting the dominance of petro-capitalism beyond its material form.
Therefore, I argue that the representation of petrol, as the dominant cultural logic of late capitalism, is intrinsically bound to the structures of capitalism that rely on oil, and this triad of culture, capital and energy becomes thoroughly explicit in the cinematic cultural expression of 2008. Wall-E, released mere weeks in advance of the peak of petrol prices in July 2008, is heavily imbued with renderings of these complex petro-capital tensions in its portrayal of the effects of capitalist greed in a world socially, culturally, politically and ecologically figured by oil. Through Michael Malouf’s concept of petro-literacy and the idea of petro-capitalist realism, I will look at how petroculture functions as the overarching ideological formation of this text. In understanding the pivotal role petrol has played in modern capitalism, my aim is ultimately to discern how the petro-consciousness, or the shared feeling of the ways in which petroculture has definitively shaped our social and cultural experience, emerges from the cultural production that coincides with the
exponential rise of oil prices between 2007 and 2008; a critical moment precipitating the Financial Crisis. Once we acknowledge oil’s centrality to the structures of late capitalism, we can start to ask how we might use our petro-consciousness to break away from oil’s
destructive grasp on ourselves and on the planet.
A Crisis of Oil
The release of Wall-E in June 2008 arrives mere weeks before petrol prices were to hit their peak, and three months prior to the Lehman Brothers’ declaration of bankruptcy, triggering the Global Recession. While the film portrays a potential futurity, the space that Wall-E takes up within this contentious socio-economic period reflects the anxieties of peak oil ruminating in the social conscious of the period. Peak oil ultimately signals that there will be
an end to oil; that oil will eventually run out. Graeme Macdonald encapsulates this in his suggestion that “petroleum culture is constantly haunted by its eventual depletion” (13).
The visualisation of a post-oil world is thus acutely recognisable in the cultural imagination of 2008. I argue, however, that through the overarching absence of material oil presented on screen, the residues of oil culture in Wall-E are focalised by the prevailing mood of the petroculture that has shaped modernity, which is captured in culture production at this significant turning point in economic history.
The opening sequences of the film delineate a future earth devoid of humanity, but a world that bears the stains of capitalism in its wake: an ultra-store, a bank, a gas station, all conspicuously owned by single megacorporation, Buy N Large. Mounds of excessive waste flood this apocalyptic city as an ample supply of green BNL money bills sift through the dusty, lifeless landscape that our loveable anthropomorphic waste-collecting robot, Wall-E, is left to clean up centuries after humans are evacuated for over-pollution. The portrayal of an environmentally damaged earth caused by the capitalist circuit of over-production and over-consumption naturally lends the film to ecocritical or post-Fordist analyses. For example, in her seminal conference paper “Luminous Trash: Throwaway Robots in Blade Runner, the Terminators, A.I., and Wall-E” (2011), Patricia Yaeger views the film in terms of its relationship to waste, claiming that Wall-E exemplifies how economic strategies of waste have been more viable than tactics of reuse and recycling. However, I maintain that these readings are only made possible due to the pervasive atmosphere of petroculture that envelops the material and metaphysical infrastructures of modern culture and society. The visual interplay between capital and waste is a detectable signifier of the late capitalist regime, but only insofar as it is expressed within the boundaries of a society that is built upon and governed by oil. I therefore argue that it is essential to view Wall-E through the
lens of petro-capitalist realism because this analytic framework provides a way to
understand the concept of futurity as presented in the film within the limits of the cultural forces influencing its construction within the context of the Financial Crisis.
Wall-E does not explicitly figure or produce oil in the way that we have seen in There Will Be Blood, and hence, Wall-E finds itself adjacent to the critical discourse of the energy humanities. Therefore, I look to what Michael Malouf refers to as “petro-literacy” to draw out how Wall-E positions itself within the discourse:
Petro-literacy draws attention to the ways that children grow up within a petro-consumption society structured loosely around a developmental process determined by various “worlds” based in fossil fuels. As a result, theories of petroculture cannot ignore the role of popular children’s culture in mediating how petroleum and fossil fuel energy economies determine our affective relation to the world (138).
The concept is used by Malouf to delineate the effects of children’s popular culture, specifically Pixar films, in how they imbue in children an unconscious understanding of the ubiquity of oil in the modern world. I propose shifting the concept somewhat to question what petro-literacy looks like from the socio-historical standpoint of the film’s release. Thus, reframing Wall-E within the context of Global Financial Crisis allows for an evaluation of the prevalence of petro-capitalism in the American cultural imagination at this moment. From here, there is room to analyse how the film constructs the mood of petroculture and constructs a petro-consciousness without overt representations of oil.
Malouf maintains that “Wall-e is an example of petro-literacy in that it describes a world in which petroculture is taken for granted” (149). Essentially, a petrocultural logic is assumed as the dominant structure of Earth as it is rendered uninhabitable in Wall-E. As mentioned earlier, while there are no signs of the aftershocks of a world indebted to oil are heavily implicated in the opening moments of the film, and our “oil ontologies” present themselves in the film’s apocalyptic landscape that is ultimately produced by an oil culture (Szeman 325). The opening shots of Wall-E construct a post-apocalyptic earth where the impact of rampant capitalist-consumerism becomes visualisable through colossal mountains of literal waste that consume the frame, showing the natural world has been utterly
subsumed by dirty, plastic trash. As the camera travels through this mountainous landscape, it enters a cityscape of high-rise skyscrapers. But, conventional, recognisable skyscrapers are overpowered in the frame by the presence of trash-skyscrapers, constructed out of
thousands of stacked cubes of compacted trash. A dusty, dirty, brown colour palette evokes an intimate display of destruction and ruin, or a visual that resonates with the burning of fossil fuels into the atmosphere. A small amount of wind turbines amidst the waste suggest that renewable forms of energy exist, and have been attempted, but the reveal of a lifeless planet dispels any notion that these forms of energy were successful. The entire sequence therefore establishes a landscape rife with the aftermath of petrocultural planet in how it aesthetically portrays environmental ruin as an issue of petro-consumption. The caustic imagery of an oil-depleted world that still bears the marks of the damage it has caused thus inflicts an undeniable understanding of oil’s dominance upon the planet, within and, more significantly, beyond its material form. Despite its physical absence, oil’s dominance is ubiquitous across the landscape, and is thus acutely felt within the dimensions of a world destroyed by oil in these opening moments.
Oil’s physical absence is substantiated by the lack of petro-images in the film, as the audience, via petro-literacy, are already aware of how embedded petrol is in this society. It appends to Wilson and Pendakis’ theory that “[oil’s] pervasiveness, its presence,
everywhere, perhaps singularly christens its position as ‘hidden in plain sight’” (5). The only examples that fossil fuelled energy ever existed in this world occur in these opening
sequences: images of neglected cars sparsely parked around the ultra-store, plastic bags flowing through the air and mass-produced commodities thrown away into the wasteland.
Perhaps the most clear-cut image is presented when the camera tracks Wall-E passing an abandoned gas-station, which he simply rolls past as he collects the wasted remnants of an over-consumed earth. Yet, precisely through these seemingly innocuous images of petrol is an encounter with our oil ontologies that, in the words of LeMenager, “confront the deeply embedded aesthetics of petroleum in our lifeworlds” (61). The gas station is radically symbolic of a culture that thrived and survived on petrol. It evokes the car culture that exploded in post-war consumerist America and it explicates the invisible status that oil is often granted in cultural production due to its ubiquity in modern life. The semantic power of the letters atop the station spelling “GAS” in juxtaposition to the vast amounts of waste engulfing the floor of the station creates a cognitive association between oil and waste, and at this critical historical moment of “Peak Oil”, when the fear of oil depletion is fixed within the American psyche, the film perpetuates the notion that the wasting of oil in late
Capitalist society could potentially lead to an uninhabitable earth.
This is petro-capitalist realism: capitalist society so intoxicated by the logic of oil, energy so immersed in the topography, that it becomes impossible to imagine earth beyond it. If capitalism is viewed as “the most real of horizons”, it is the cultural logic of petrol that drives capitalism toward this status. LaBerge intimates that “for capitalist realism… to be of
any service to the present it must articulate…the violence produced by a capitalism that constantly seeks to expand its sources strategies of accumulation” (6). I rather see this
“violence produced by capitalism” as indicative of the systems of petromodernity that have allowed rigorous capitalist expansion: industrialisation and mass production fuelled by energy. Therefore, it is a petro-capitalist realism that frames Wall-E in its portrayal of a neglected earth, left in the violent ruins of a dominant oil culture, impossible to imagine an earth that is not permeated by the cultural logic of oil. The end of the world (or the end of humanity on earth), as rendered in the film, ultimately cannot be detached from the hegemon of oil. Wall-E exposes our oil dependencies through these succinct petro-images, magnifying an energy awareness and thus, enlightening our petro-consciousness to the catastrophic consequences of the over-consumption of petrol.
The role of cultural production, then, is to mediate how petroleum economies determine our affective relation to the world. In this sense, to emulate Peter Hitchcock’s summation that oil becomes “a very mode of referentiality, a texture in the way stories get told”, how does Wall-E’s distinctive use of animation elicit the petrocultural mood or atmosphere of petro-capitalist realism? (87). The film is exemplary of petro-capitalist realism through its use CGI-animated “perceptual realism”. Animation theorist Stephen Prince coined the idea of “perceptual realism,” which refers to what the referent of the image, if it had existed, would have looked like to the perceiver (Steinberg 288). In the production notes of the film, production designer Ralph Eggleston recalls “our approach to the look of this film wasn’t about what the future is going to be like. It was about what the future could be” (15). This approach, paired with the mode of animated perceptual realism, is integral to how Wall-E captures the petro-conscious. It forces the viewer to consider a potential future world which highlights the “persistence of a petrocultural view of the
natural world” (Malouf 150). In these opening moments of the film, the audience are drawn into this wasteland and through perceptual realism can identify the various signifiers of an implicitly conspicuous oil culture and its effects on the planet. In the way that oil’s
“significance is named in part by the fact that it was not explicitly figured in literary-cultural production” (Szeman 284), Wall-E plays on Bordwell and Thompson’s assertion that
“animation provides a convenient way of showing things that are not normally visible” by intimating the pervasive invisibility of petrol (712). The cultural logic of oil paradoxically emerges from the physical absence but ideological presence of oil that texturally seeps through the film and into the social imagination. Wall-E’s mode of animation gives aesthetic dimensions and structure to the invisible ubiquity of oil and oil culture, and this perceptual realism is cemented into the fabric of the petro-capitalist realism that elevates the film’s affective power in its cognitive mapping of the realities of oil. We can thus identify that the petro-consciousness starts to forge through the tension of oil’s cultural value and its economic reality, as it is rendered in the film.
From the 20th century onwards, petroculture has remained dominant in the
(infra)structures of modern living. The textures and fabrics of social and personal being are lived through petrol, fuelling our entire sense of the world, that we remained oblivious to in its invisibility. Thus, when oil prices inflate to over $100 per barrel during the 2000s and peak in 2008, so too does the cultural logic petrol within the social psyche. Through Wall-E, the shared feeling and understanding of oil’s undeniable centrality to modern culture is prescribed a form at this pivotal economic moment. What was once “hidden in plain sight”
starts to conspicuously materialise in cultural production: the metamorphosing of the energy unconscious into a shared petro-consciousness at this cultural moment.
A Crisis of Capitalism
Having discerned the petro-consciousness on the side of oil, we must now shift our attention to the role of capitalism and its marriage to oil to pinpoint how the petro- consciousness is generated in cultural production within this critical moment in economic history. An economic crisis, as John McMurtry argues in The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, is a systemic crisis of capitalism itself: “[Capitalism’s] invasive growth...could reverse all the progress that has been made toward social equity and stability. On every continent, in every state, there are indicators of profound economic and environmental collapse” (85).As we have previously determined, modern capitalism runs on oil: petrol is the dominant logic of capitalism. With the aggressive expansion of neoliberal capitalism from the late 20th century onwards, oil production has intensified profoundly. As David Wallace-Wells notes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades” (4). The structures of neoliberal life - industry, transport, electricity – are all reliant on oil. Therefore, when the Global Financial Crisis transpires and the foundations of capitalism are fractured, one cannot ignore the intimate reciprocity of capitalism and the substance that it thrives on.
In Wall-E, capitalist organisation functions through Buy-N-Large: the
megacorporation whose monopolistic control of earth serves as the catalyst for the consumer-driven ethos of modern civilisation. The waste, pollution and environmental degradation designed by this ethos is what renders the planet uninhabitable, engendering the evacuation of humanity from earth. The film presents ecological and environmental disaster as a direct effect of capitalist over-production and the ramifications this has for humanity. Integral to Buy-N-Large’s role as this embodiment of capitalism is the power they