MLA 08 paper: Corruption and Sameness in the Twenty-First-Century Oil Narrative

I’m forever bumping into old work that, while interesting to me at the time and even today, simply never went anywhere in terms of publication or as part of  a longer term project. I had been focused for a couple of years on a project called Corruption and Sameness, before I turned my attention to media and science fiction (separately and together. This was to be part of that, but it never got past the conference paper stage.

The first three sections are fairly coherent, even if they do not naturally transition into and out of one another. At the end, as is the case when I write anything, but especially conference papers, there is some miscellaneous stuff that I never had a chance to get into the body (for whatever reason–thanks Agamben). It breaks down a bit at the end of the second section and then again at the end of the third, during which I extemporized a bit–relying on my natural charm to see me through. I added in the two videos for this post.

I can only refer to this as a “paper” in the loosest sense of the term. It’s more a series of ideas. Or perhaps three propositions in search of an argument.

Part I: Technologies of the Same

The present state of affairs with regard to US energy policy/oil dependency, is, to me, untenable. That point is, it seems, unexceptionable in reasonable contexts, as demonstrated in documentaries such as A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, A History of Oil, An Inconvenient Truth, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room. Of course, those contexts that count are, it seems, hardly reasonable, and, given those contexts, these texts are able to do little more than document problems; that is, they in no way set or even advise energy policy. This issue is not so much tied to this issue of rightness or wrongness, but rather to the fact that these truths are inconvenient.

The means by which these inconveniences are overcome, ignored, reconciled with other truths upon which they can gain no purchase, are what I call technologies of the same. They do nothing but sustain, even in the certain knowledge of, in fact the demonstration, unsustainability. I will discuss shortly Syriana, a film in which these technologies are on full display. Let me first mention an anecdote from the book upon which Syriana is based, ex-CIA field operative Robert Baer’s See No Evil. What’s odd about the fact that the film is based on the book is that the book has almost nothing to do with oil and is only at times about the Middle East. It is, instead, a personal history of time spent as an agent in CIA: recruiting assets and trying to get Washington to pay attention to what is actually happening in the world. Of such a moment, Baer writes: “But the point was that Washington’s fantasy about a nonviolent overthrow of Saddam helped the big thinkers there to sleep at night, and since we had no human resources inside or even near Saddam’s circle—none—there was nothing to bring them back down to earth” (175). Here Baer is not referring to the relatively recent “greetings with flowers” Cheney and Rumsfeld described, but rather to the political climate in 1995. Later, in reference to a coup attempt in Iraq that same year, one that failed largely because of a US refusal of support, Baer writes, “I knew enough about the way Washington worked to know that when it didn’t like some piece of information, it did everything in its power to discredit the messengers, which in this case were Chalabi and the general. So the corporate line in Washington was that nothing had happened in Iraq on March 4, nothing at all. Frankly, at that point, I wondered if Washington was right” (205). Perhaps it is, after postmodernism, too easy to state that these examples demonstrate yet again that representations often trump materiality, that discourse shapes the world. However, it cannot be said often enough that such representations clearly serve the interests of those with power. Most important, what must also be thought is the nature of these interests, which are not interests in the sense that they will pay actual dividends. That is, they are not financial interests, so to speak, just as we are not here discussing energy futures but rather the future of energy. We must think of these interests as something like what Ralph Ellison calls, in one of my favorite lines, “those lies [the] keepers keep their power by” (439). In other words, these present no opportunity for gain, as Washington’s inaction in 1995 demonstrate—whatever you think about outsing Saddam Hussein, you must recognize that such an event would have represented progress of some sort for Washington in 1995; rather than gain, they merely present the opportunity for more of the same, for the powerful to do what they do: congratulate each other for being powerful for the sake of being powerful over cognac and cigars.

Baer describes such a backroom scene in See No Evil, a meeting he had during an investigation of an oil industry insider who was trying to buy influence in Washington: “He smiled, pleased to be the one to tell me. Before he began, he poured himself another white Armagnac and clipped a cigar” (226). This scene is one of the few actual events that remains in Syriana as a holdover from its source text, although in the film it retains none of the air of investigation and is presented as a cold, hard fact, one whose non-occurrence is all but impossible.

In the film, Dean Whiting, a mover-and-shaker in a proposed merger specifically and the oil industry generally, meets with Prince Meshal Al-Subaai, younger son of the Emir of a semi-fictional, unnamed Middle Eastern nation. The context for the scene is the aftermath of the Prince’s birthday party, at which he brags about his material wealth and chastises his guests for not providing him with more. As the Prince, Whiting, and an otherwise unidentified middle-man in the oil industry exchange pleasantries and congratulate each other on being powerful, the question of the Prince’s future is raised. Whiting asks the Prince what it is he wants, and in scolding the would-be ruler for not being able to articulate his desire to be Emir, Whiting makes clear that interests within the United States (which are consistently represented as both governmental and private; the distinction between these two spheres loses all meaning) are prepared to back him as Emir so long as he in turns protects the interests of those interests. Although the viewer is not completely aware of the context for the discussion at this point, or necessarily what it means, she will come to understand that Whiting is offering the Prince the Emirship at the expense of his older (more liberal, educated, and generally qualified) brother, who becomes the subject of several assassination plots. (He had the audacity to award drilling rights to China for a higher bid than was tendered by any American company.) What’s remarkable about this scene is not the dialogue, although it is, or anything truly cinematic; rather, it is that the viewer comes away from it with the impression that the reason these men do the things they do (make illegal deals, order assassinations, bribe, beg, steal—in short, enact corruption) is not for the benefit of the future, but for the benefit of themselves. Again, what I mean is not that they are simply selfish or self-interested, but that they never want anything to change. The future they create in these meetings is the present, where they sit around and drink cognac, smoke cigars, and be rich. They know they will not be there to see the distant future, but they will be reflected in those who will: their sons or the equivalent. Thus they seek to produce a Sameness within the world, both synchronically and diachronically, fueled by a country they would invent from whole cloth (Syriana) which will allow them not to produce the new, but to maintain the old.

An older example, from Upton Sinclair’s novel OIL! (upon which the recent film There Will Be Blood is based), is also notable here. About halfway through the novel, Bunny Ross (the son character, HW Plainview, in the film), considers the following absurdity:

Only a few years ago, an oil well had been to [Bunny] the most interesting thing in the world; but now cruel fate had brought it about that one oil well seemed exactly like another oil well! Number 142 had brought in six hundred thousand dollars, whereas Number 143 had brought in only four hundred and fifty thousand. But what difference did it make, when all you would do with the extra hundred and fifty thousand was to drill another well? (292)

Compare the idea presented here, that the accumulation of capital does nothing but allow for the accumulation of capital—that there is no strict gain or progress per se–, with a song sung by members of the Industrial Workers of the World later in the novel: “We go to work to get the cash to buy the food to get the strength to go to work” and so on, presumably ad infinitum. Always, more of the same.

Part II: Energy Narratives, Life, and the Future

The response the Bunny receives from his father, J. Arnold Ross (Daniel Day Lewis’ character in the film, albeit a very different one) brings me to my next point. That response, “The world has got to have oil,” frames the manifest sameness made explicit in the accumulation of capital and the Wobblies’ song in terms of necessity. But is this necessity absolute?

Of course, I cannot argue about the non-necessity of energy. We know that life requires energy in multiple forms and from multiple sources. And what I want to suggest here is something of the relationship between oil/energy as a necessity and life, which is structured as a narrative about the future. I will not be able to come back to the question of sameness per se, but I think the connection to this idea should be implicitly clear.

The idea of this relationship between life and the oil narrative came to me first in the context of an adevertisement for Chevron, which I will discuss in a moment. However, my as yet incomplete thinking on this subject only moved forward after reading a recent blog post by Steven Shaviro, on Roberto Esposito’s Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy. Therein, Shaviro expresses his discontent with contemporary, mainly European, accounts of biolpolitics: “Esposito’s reading is subtle, insightful, and overall unexceptionable. But at the same time, I found myself muttering, over and over again, a weary ‘so what?’.” On the whole, Shaviro finds that Esposito’s reading of Nietzsche does not have the resonance, in the 21st century, that it had during the Third Reich and that the concentration on the holocaust in biopolitical theory (which largely derives from Agamben’s combination of Arendt and Foucault) is, some six decades after the fact, “an obscurantist evasion rather than a moral imperative” in that it comes at the cost of evading the new ways in which life has been inscribed within the political, namely in the disciplines of molecular biology and political economy. In conclusion, Shaviro writes: “I don’t have any conclusion to this discussion, except to say that a biopolitics that is relevant to, let alone adequate to, the contemporary world, and that at least tries (even if not altogether successfully) to be “as radical as reality itself,” is yet to be born. Certainly none of the currently fashionable European theorists and philosophers provide anything like it — or even a starting place.”

I am not certain that I agree with Shaviro’s conclusion in its strongest sense, but I do want to suggest that in the context of thinking about energy and the future, we cannot but think in terms of biopolitics, whether Foucault’s, Agamben’s, Esposito’s, or some as yet unthought take on the idea. And with this suggestion, let me offer two statements on the relation of oil to life:

Statement one:

In June 2007, attendees of the Gas and Oil Exposition in Calgary, Alberta, alleged National Petroleum Council representative Shepherd Wolf proposed a new product, Vivoleum, which was to be produced from the rendered flesh of deceased humans. While actual oil men listened to Wolf and ersatz Exxon rep Florian Osenberg describe the practical necessity and market opportunity of this product, the two lit candles they claimed had been made from the body of a former Exxon employee. At this point, the two men were forcibly removed from the room. Even as they went, however, Shepherd Wolf (whose name is so perfect that it defies analysis) continued his sales pitch:

We’ve got to get ready. After all, fossil fuel development like that of my company is increasing the chances of catastrophic climate change, which could lead to massive calamities, causing migration and conflicts that would likely disable the pipelines and oil wells. Without oil we could no longer produce or transport food, and most of humanity would starve. That would be a tragedy, but at least all those bodies could be turned into fuel for the rest of us.

Of course, neither Wolf nor Osenberg were who they claimed to be. They were, as it turns out, members of the Yes Men and their product, Vivoleum, is fortunately only the stuff of science fiction. Soylent Black is people!

Statement two:

Lest you think I am engaging in unfair parody, I will read the entirety of the narration from the first television spot for the Chevron “Human Energy” campaign, which began to air in the United States in September 2007. The video, which is available on Youtube, is almost, by itself, a perfect critique of the oil industry. Imagine, as I read, not only the contemplative piano that accompanies the spot, the calm and nurturing male voice that reads the copy, but also the visuals, which seem a cross between Syriana and life insurance advertising, combining images of oil fields and workers in the Middle East with men, woman, and children eating around dinner tables. Also included is a touch of lefty protest, scenes it seems from Seattle 99 or the global protests over the Iraq War. The title of this spot is “Untapped Energy,” an idea that stands in contrast to the title “Tapped Energy” that begins the spot and refers to those things that already produce energy:

And outside the debate rages. Oil. Energy. The environment. It is the story of our time and it is definitive and all-encompassing. And it leaves no one untouched. because make no mistake: this isn’t just about about oil companies. This is about you and me and the undeniable truth that at this moment there are six and a half billion people on this planet. And by year’s end there will be another seventy-three million. And every one of us will need energy to live. Where will it come from? This is Chevron’s challenge each day. Because for today and tomorrow and the foreseeable future, our lives demand oil. But what’s also true is that we can provide it more intelligently, more efficiently, more respectfully. That we’ll never stop looking for alternatives. That an oil company can practice and espouse conservation. Yes, we are an oil company, but right now we’re also providing natural gas, solar, hydrogen, geothermal. because we live on this planet too. This is who we are, in 180 countries: not corporate titans but men and woman of vision. 58,000 citizens of the world: liberals and conservatives, engineers and scientists, pipeline welders and geologists, husbands and wives, part-time poets and coaches. People who daily try to find newer ways, cleaner ways, to power the world. Humans have always reached for what seemed impossible. Because it is then that we find a way. Tell us it can’t be done. Then watch as we tap the greatest source of energy in the world: ourselves. This is the power of human energy.

I am not certain whether to accept at face value the idea that “oil is the story of our time,” considering the source. It is without question that, if this claim is true, then it is not true in the manner that Chevron means it.

What is so striking about these two statements, taken together, is that both place organic life at the center of an energy narrative, Vivoleum in the chemical sense of bio-fuel and the Chevron ad in the political sense of biopower. And what we must understand is that Yes Men’s a priori parody of the “Human Energy” campaign in one respect is a mere literalization of Chevron advertisement, and the bio-fuel the most extreme version of bio-power. If we consider the Wobblies song, that we work to eat to work, and what it is that J. Arnold Ross does: drill to power the drilling, and the relationship between labor and capital Sinclair traces throughout his novel, we understand that all oil is the product of life, both in the sense of Chevron’s human energy and in the sense of its petro-chemical origins, origins which are not-too-subtly alluded to in the Yes Men’s product, Vivoleum. (I wish there was time to discuss, both what was there when the Yes Men still controlled the domain and the auto-generated links that now reside at the domain since it was squatted sometime in the last six months.)

In Aristotelian terms, we are here dealing with two different things in a certain respect. In the case of Vivoleum, we are dealing with the human body and its life as the material cause of energy. Humans are cut out of the equation of turning potential energy into actual energy. They are the potential energy (of course some human is behind this production). In the case of Chevron’s untapped or human energy, people are at least implicitly an efficient cause.

This line of thought, however, raises the question of whether we can make a distinction between material and efficient causes in this context.

This energy, the commercial tells us, is “untapped.” And while it is not the chemical rendering of bodies into a what we think of a a literal energy source (oil), we cannot forget that in both cases, that of Vivoleum and human energy, bodies are the same:

Part III: Cultures of Corruption

Juxtapose with Dalton speech:

Dad again, to Bunny who is railing against his father’s involvement in what they both refer to a the “purchase of government”:

It’s all very well for a feller to go off in his study and figure out how the world ought to be; but that don’t make it that way, son. There has to be oil,and we fellers that know how to get it out of the ground are the ones that are doing in. [. . .] You talk about laws, but there’s economic laws, too, and government can’t stand against them, no more than anybody else. When government does fool things, then people find a way around it, and business men that do it are no more to blame than any other kind of men. This is an oil age, and when you try to shut off production, it’s jist like you tried to dam Niagara Falls. (300)

The method through which events are relegated to the status of what Derrida calls “mere events” and individuals are denied interaction with the world is corruption, the manipulation of politics, economics, and society generally by those with the power and vantage point with which to do so. Perhaps the most remarkable statement on corruption in recent years is made in the course of the 2005 film Syriana, based upon Baer’s See No Evil. In a pivotal scene, Bennett Holiday, a lawyer charged with investigating the machinations behind an international oil merger, confronts lobbyist Danny Dalton. Dalton, who earlier in the film appears on television arguing that money is speech (in terms of campaign finance and advocacy) and espousing a neoconservative doctrine of individual sovereignty, is one of the primary objects of the investigation. He rants at Holiday about the investigation and its illegitimacy:

“Some trust fund prosecutor, got off-message at Brown, thinks he’s gonna run this up the flagpole, make a name for himself, maybe get elected to some two-bit, no-name congressman from nowhere, with the result that Russia or China can start having, at our expense, all the advantages we enjoy here. No, I tell you. No.

But Danny, these are sovereign nations. . . Sovereign nations! What is a sovereign nation, but a collective of greed run by one individual. But, Danny, they’re codified by the UN charter. Legitimized gangsterism that has no more legitimacy than an agreement between the Crips and the Bloods!

“Corruption charges. Corruption? Corruption ain’t nothing but government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That’s Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get a way with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption is what keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are here in the white-hot center of things instead of fighting each other for scraps of meat out there in the streets. Corruption. . . is why we win.”

Much of the film focuses on a pervasive Sameness at the heart of the oil industry. The small number of movers-and-shakers who attend board meetings that have consequences that range from the personal to the global (with the distinction between the two spheres often blurred if not wholly lost at this level) are all, to a person, white men (we must exclude from our count the Middle Eastern leaders who are led about by their noses throughout the film as well as Holiday, whose blackness exists to highlight the otherwise unbroken whiteness of power). This scene between Dalton and Holiday is no different, despite the fact that they appear isolated from the rest of the inner circle.

What’s significant here is the connection of corruption to legitimacy: corruption legitimates or, more precisely, corruption affords a specific legitimation. That with which Dalton disagrees is illegitimate, despite the fact that it has been sanctioned by an ostensibly democratic institution. The deliberation and transparency through which such sanctions are supposedly achieved threaten Dalton’s way of life (which he generously extends to the American people), a Sameness he intends to maintain for himself and others like him at the expense of enemies who wish to have such lives themselves.

From press release on “Human Energy” campaign:

“The energy industry is one of the most complex and vital industries in the world. Yet public opinion is most frequently shaped by the price at the pump,” said Chevron Vice Chairman Peter Robertson. “How we find, produce and use energy are critical issues of our time. We all need to participate in developing and shaping our energy future. Chevron takes on this challenge every day.”

from Red Storm Rising (1986):

“There was no place—and no reason—to run. Mohammet and Ibrahim stood immobile in the doorway as the grenades bounced and skittered across the tiled floor. Around them the whole world seemed to be catching fire, and because of them, the whole world really would.

They shopped, if at all, in guarded stores restricted to the elite, were served by doctors in clinics established pnly for the elite. Because of this, these men regarded themselves as masters of their destiny.

It was only now beginning to dawn on them that like all men, they too were subject to a fate which their immense personal power merely made all the more intractable.


# Difficult to manage or govern; stubborn. See synonyms at unruly.

# Difficult to mold or manipulate: intractable materials.

# Difficult to alleviate, remedy, or cure: intractable pain.


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