Enchanting Catastrophe: Magical Subrealism and BP's Macondo

Jackie Orr
Syracuse University



What happened down here?1 In the hold of a ghosted ship, in the hold of their grip, in the thrall of an image circulating in newly subterranean form? Brown cloud billows against patches of bluegreen etched here and there by shadow. The frame dials left, then right, in measured motion. A robotic arm rotates, reaches and grasps, fails and retreats. Repeat. A small fish floats into the frame. Zoom out. Zoom in. Seeing, here, is sequenced by algorithms of hyperindustrial focus. Here, deep water’s horizon is blasted out of an infinite black into a fracked metric of light and time. Zoom in. Zoom out. Zoom in. What can happen down here? Live streaming new scholarly forms in the liquid rush of digital times raptured by disaster, and its release. "No way where we are is here ... And so it is we remain in the hold, in the break, as if entering again and again the broken world, to trace the visionary company and join it" (Harney and Moten, 2013, p. 94).

In the live stream.

Occult ontologies (thinking with oil)

"Oil … [is] a substance that was, once, live matter and that acts
a force suggestive of a form of life."
        -Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil

"The underworld is not really dead."
        -Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets

Set on the edge of an oil field in southern California, Fritz Leiber's 1964 short story "Black Gondolier" narrates the mystical vision of one of its main characters, in which crude oil is revealed as an "ancient and enigmatic manifestation" of the occult world (Thacker, 2011, p. 92). Dreaming its dark dreams for millennia, oil's "chemical mind" manifests as a sentient form of viscous thought, patiently working to become the animating intelligence of modern industrial regimes. Humans, it is revealed, did not discover oil. Oil waited for millions of inhuman years, "sluggishly pulsing beneath Earth's stony skin," to discover humans as its animate puppets, and modern technologic infrastructures as its geopsychic medium (Leiber, cited in Thacker, 2011). The brief, oozing horror story ends with the mystical theorist disappearing into a dark, desiring sea of midnight oil, the silent black gondolier at his side.

In Eugene Thacker's extended meditation on occult philosophy, Leiber's story marks the power of popular horror to conjure the "magic site, deep within the crusts and caverns of the planet, in which the hidden world oozes and gropes forth to the surface" (p. 91). The magic site performs a bewitching and always potentially fatal encounter at the border of the natural and the supernatural—that hidden realm that can nonetheless bleed through in underground fissures or mining operations when, perhaps, an accidental revelation invites the supernatural to suddenly gaze back, with unhuman eyes, at us (p. 82). Channeling the science fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft, Thacker imagines how today the magic site, mutated by modern sorceries of science and technology, radiates outward in a diffuse, atmospheric fallout that no longer marks a distinct border between natural and supernatural worlds, but which instead marks the oscillating, ungovernable boundary between them (pp. 76-77). Once upon a time the magic circle—predecessor to the magic site, and evidenced for centuries in European pagan and theatrical practices—offered ritualized protections from the supernatural in the bounded spacetime of its conjuring. Today, the human world stumbles without ritual safety through realms simultaneously empirical and occulted, through modes of time both perceivable and preternaturally unreal. In the dispersed psychogeography of the magic site, "natural and supernatural blend into a kind of ambient, atmospheric no-place…bathed in the alien ether of unknowable dimensions" (p. 77).

How really to think the thought that thought may be unhuman? How to think with oil, that sentient philosophy living in the interstices, in the tiny voids in sedimented rock, gathering in unhuman dimensions of heat, pressure, dark, and time? Millions of unthinkable human years to form itself into a viscous thought. How to re-think the BP disaster, erupting out of the offshore oil industry's subsea infrastructures, as a magic site? An enchanted catastrophe of supernatural time, compressed in the void, old time heaving into metaphysical motion by the blowout of an underwater oil well in the Gulf of Mexico that BP had curiously named "Macondo," after that magical realist town in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude that blows away in the wind by the end of the story. It is deep time that burned on that flaming rig at sea. It is earth's millennial thinking that spread with a numinous, relentless geo-logic through the startled waters.

You can say that sometimes thought tries to bend toward
the dark, in the occult company of unthinkable forms of
time. You can say that catastrophe cuts a portal between
different modes of time, and the dead pour through the
open door while a thousand possible futures are buried.
You can say that the catastrophe of time itself—bursting
into the sudden clearing of an accidental apocalypse,
self-immolating in the mundane daily burn of
petro-modern infrastructures—still tries
to enchant at the supernatural site
of its own undoing.

"Oil . . . is a medium," writes Stephanie LeMenager in Living Oil, "that fundamentally supports all modern media forms" (2014, p. 6). Without the mediations of oil it would be difficult, she suggests, to hold on to the cultural category of "human." But oil also helps us to grasp some of the less thinkable contours of the unhuman, undulating us towards planetary temporal scales that petro-modernity effaces even as it requires them for its energetic foundations. Oil thinks deeply as medium of the dead. As archivist of fossilized matters, from mammals to plant life to marine organisms, oil knows how to become the thought of decay that itself has not died. Oil is a medium for a living repertoire of microbial matters, including hundreds of species of microorganisms discovered in the Los Angeles La Brea tar pit, "living bacteria, progeny of soil microorganisms trapped in the petrol sumps tens of thousands of years ago" (p. 155). We can think, with oil, that time itself may be thinking in the sedimented form of "fossil" fuels. We can think with oil as a medium in which time thinks itself into form.

"[I]t was always March there and always Monday, and then
they understood that José Arcadio Buendía was not as
 crazy as the family said, but that he was the only one
who had enough lucidity to sense the truth of the
 fact that time also stumbled and had accidents
andc ould therefore splinter and leave an
eternalized fragment
in a room."

-Gabriel Garc
ía Márquez,
One Hundred Years Of Solitude

The subterranean thought of time dwelling in the bodymind of oil is an indescribably slow thinking. A millennial thinking that gives notice to the slow disaster of time itself, as "petro-capitalism's omnivorous appetite for time" (Nixon, 2011, p. 97) striates human and non-human worlds with depleted signs of exhaustion. If "energy wars are time wars as well" (p. 99), then the enclosures enforced by petro-modernity's primitive accumulations include the real and imaginary enclosure of time. Capitalism becomes time's sorcerer; the slow thought of oil becomes its material engine and its infernal adversary. Speed is the currency of speculative economies of future energy, as transnational fortunes rise and fall with the occult brokering of the price of a barrel of oil. To get a hold on the hold that petro-capitalism, as sorcery, has over us (Pignarre and Stengers, 2011), is to get a hold on how time's enclosure creates energetic binds by which we become beholden to our own capture. Sorceries and superstitions are dangers that we "believe we have destroyed whereas above all we have lost the appropriate means of responding to [them]" (p. 40). How to see that the inability to protect ourselves from sorcery's hold is precisely why "in the eyes of these reputedly superstitious ‘others' . . . the disaster becomes perfectly foreseeable" (Pignarre and Stengers, 2011, p. 40)? How to inhabit the slow, accumulating thought that catastrophe's future is already, ineluctably, here?

"Macondo was in ruins. In the swampy streets
there were the remains of furniture, animal skeletons
 covered with red lilies .… [Everything] seemed to have been
 blown away in an anticipation of the prophetic wind
that years later would wipe Macondo
off the face of the earth."

ía Márquez

One hundred years of sorcery

In 1901, oil blasts through six tons of drilling pipe to create the world's first accidental "gusher" in Spindletop, Texas, somewhat cataclysmically announcing (oil-drenched crews labored for over a week to stop the gush) the discovery of the largest petroleum reserve to date on U.S. land. This is land only recently settled into its manifest yet never-fully-destined national contours after the expansive capture of sovereign territory from Mexico and the semi-legalized dispossession of indigenous land right from Massachusetts to California and all the curiously ‘native'-named states-of-dispossession-in-between: Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma. To sing just a few. Spindletop rises and crashes as home also to the first boom-and-bust cycle of wild oil speculation in the U.S. as 600 new companies move into town in the next twelve months (Freudenburg and Gramling, 2011, pp. 80-81). An oil well launched with a $10,000 investment soon sells for $1,250,000, as hundreds of millions of dollars pour like liquid gold into Texas before the "exuberant" catastrophe of finitude—the oil stops
brings Spindletop to its knees (Buell, 2012).

In Texas and its kin in early U.S. oil exploration, Pennsylvania, the search for oil stumbles over two distinct problems. First, how to find it? Second, what to do with it? The black "rock oil," as it was called, is used as a medicinal cure by white settler colonists in the early 19th century for a wide swath of human sicknesses. By the end of that century, oil is alchemically conjured into kerosene and used to light the dark. Kerosene lamps blaze a new geography of night and day for an increasingly enlightened industrial capitalism.

Finding a new geologic algorithm for continuous illumination is aided by late 19th century spiritualist practices of divination and spirit possession. Popularly acclaimed "wizards of oil" wander the surface of the earth in a trance state with divining rods and witching sticks, searching for underground veins of oil (Zuck, 2012). Accompanied by indigenous spirit-guides from the dispossessed Seneca Nation, Abraham James, on the 31st of October 1866, All Hallow's Eve, is travelling just south of Pleasantville, Pennsylvania, when he is "forcefully possessed by his spirit-guides and conveyed out of the buggy and over a fence on the east side of the road" where "spirits communicated" that he is "standing on an immense oil deposit" (
Zuck, 2012, p. 314, p. 332). In 1867, Harmonial well No. 1 is dug near the spot and begins producing daily over 100 barrels of oil, followed by three other productive wells in the same area. As the "industrial aspirations of [American] spiritualism" (Zuck, 2012, p. 316) vibrate together with the magical realism of early U.S. oil discovery, oil appears in the interstices between supernatural animations and capitalist sorceries of valued matter. Abraham James, who also divines the psycho-geologics of the less successful "Spirit Well" under the auspices of the short-lived Chicago Rock Oil Company founded by members of the local Spiritualist community, suggests that "oil itself could function as a kind of medium," communicating Spiritualism's capacity to channel the materiel needs of modern capitalism (Zuck, 2012, pp. 324-25).

By the 1920s the discovery and production of U.S. oil is increasingly standardized by the monopoly power of the Rockefeller enterprise. The spiritualist psychometrics of vibrational divination give way to the speculative arts of petroleum geology in pursuit of oil's subterranean lines of flight. Militarized national economies of world war generate cascading use-values for fossil fuels, and by 1945 both petroleum and the instrumental polymerization of waste products from its industrial production begin to restructure the geographies and psychic economies of U.S. society. As petroleum becomes the "material and energetic basis of everyday life" in the Cold War U.S. of A., the racialized class geographies of white suburbanization are built on an emergent petro-privatization built on oil, gasoline, asphalt, vinyl, and plasticized domestic interiors built on early intimations of the neoliberal dream of an ownership society built on automobility, nuclearized family relations, and the mandatory fantasy of self-entrepreneurship (Huber, 2012, p. 302, pp. 305-307). The enchantments of petroleum-based plastic objects begin to offer, like their celluloid predecessors, a new materialism for simulation: proliferating plastic copies of commodity-objects begin to regularly disappear only to magically reappear in exactly the same form. The pen, the shampoo container, the nylons, the toy bucket. Polymerized molecular derivatives of deep time perform disposability without loss. Psychic and political economies attune to accelerating, repetitious circuits of replacement and obsolescence followed by serial renewal. Post-war U.S. consumer cultures energetically lean on a capitalist alchemy of fossilized fuel and its technoscientific extraction and transmutation.

The train winds its way over and around the infinity loop of track, travelling past a school, cheerful houses, a church, and a roadside Texaco gas station tucked next to a miniature highway. The controls for the giant toy train set are placed in front of the Crown Prince Sa'ud ibn 'Abd al-'Azīz, fêted in 1947 at a grand soirée at the Waldorf Astoria attended by 75 guests from New York City banks, the U.S. State Department, Bechtel, and several U.S. petroleum companies including Aramco, which hosts the gala affair just as the industry enters an era of postwar but not quite postcolonial restructuring. At the end of the Waldorf dinner, Crown Prince al-'Azīz is entertained by an Egyptian magician and a chorus line of dancing Rockettes (Vitalis, 2002, p. 207; Vitalis, 2009, p. 32).

A decade before the Crown Prince's visit, Aramco builds the city of Dhahran as a new company town in the desert of eastern Saudi Arabia after the discovery of oil in the region, drawing on the racist architectures of Jim Crow America and the spatial violence of similar oil "camps" run by U.S. business in Columbia, Venezuela, Indonesia and elsewhere, which were themselves modeled on 19th-century mining towns blooming at the hungry borders of a colonial grab for subterranean minerals (Vitalis, 2002, p. 200; also Vitalis, 2009, pp. 54-61). By the early 1950s, Aramco morphs into a miniature State Department intelligence service mimicking the wartime Office of Strategic Service's division for Middle East intelligence and propaganda, and offering a hospitable regional outpost for early officials of the CIA (Vitalis, 2002, p. 190). In Saudi Arabia in 1948, a year after the enchanted Aramco evening, the Crown Prince's father, King 'Abd al-'Azīz Ibn Sa'ud, reports to a visiting State Department official: "The whole people are saying that my country is an American colony. They are plotting against me and saying Ibn Sa'ud has given his country to the United States, even the Holy Places…. I have nothing, and my country and my wealth I have delivered into the hands of America" (
Vitalis, 2002, p. 200).

In 1953, after nearly a century of preeminence, the United States loses its global hegemony in oil production, no longer the sole nation mining over half the world's petroleum supplies. In 1954, Iran nationalizes its oil industry after throwing out the Shah who returns a year later, bringing back a more ecumenical petrol policy with the occult help of the CIA and the British government. In 1954, British Petroleum is born, shape-shifting from its previous colonial incarnations as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and, originally, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company founded in 1909 (Freudenburg and Gramling, 2011, pp. 100-106). As huge oil fields are discovered in the deserts of what are now known as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, and Kuwait, entrepreneurial spirits in the Cold War U.S. turn to the Gulf of Mexico where offshore oil production was launched in 14 feet of water in 1938—the same year that Mexico nationalizes its oil industry.
Created by millions of years of sand, soil, and salt deposits sculpted into a singular underworld edged by the continental margins and the mouth of a giant river recently named the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico manifests as a potential "world class petroleum province." In 1957, the Zapata Offshore Company—named after the assassinated Mexican revolutionary and guerilla warrior for the poor by Zapata's founder, the Texas oilman and future millionaire, CIA director, and U.S. President, George H.W. Bush—successfully designs a new drilling platform that enables offshore oil production in the Gulf to move for the first time into depths of over 100 feet (National Commission, 2011, pp. 22-24).

Plagued regularly by monstrous hurricanes which ravage offshore infrastructure, and threatened by the political force of a U.S. environmental movement in the wake of the January 1969 blowout of an offshore well in the Santa Barbara Channel that generates 30 miles of blackened California coastline, an 800-square-mile oil slick, and the first annual Earth Day in 1970—the U.S. offshore oil industry deepens its hold. Drilling in depths of over 300 feet in the Gulf of Mexico by 1970, the industry is buoyed by a series of technoscientific innovations, including digital 3D seismic imaging to animate the speculative geophysics of locating oil, and the first successful remote control engineering of a subsea wellhead celebrated as an achievement "akin to John Glenn's space orbit." By 1980, Shell Oil is drilling in the Gulf in over 1,000 feet of water, the official definition of "deepwater" (
National Commission, 2011, pp. 25-31).

British Petroleum, staggered by expulsion from former colonial territories—Iran after the 1979 revolution and Nigeria, the same year, after its nationalization of oil—partners with Shell in the late 1980s on a new deepwater oil well 3000 feet below the Gulf's surface. The $1.2 billion project, code-named Mars, saves British Petroleum from bankruptcy. The company pursues deepwater drilling throughout the 1990s with speculative flair, emerging by the millennium as the largest oil producer in the Gulf of Mexico. Atlantis, Mad Dog, Crazy Horse, and Blind Faith, compose a series of non-randomly signifying oil fields that the company christens in the Gulf over the next several years, promising BP over two billion gallons of commercially exploitable oil at underwater depths of up to 7,000 feet (National Commission 2011, p. 36-37 and 45-50).

Oil, however, is not an interminable thought. By the time BP begins drilling the Macondo well in 2009, the wizardry of "subsea infrastructures" (Markeset et al. 2013) for the globalizing offshore oil industry has been forced into deeply occulted territory. Millennial matter grows exhausted; the Macondo well lies 5000 feet below the water's surface, and its oil fields another 13,000 feet under the subsea floor. The Sorcerer appears tireless. To work at the necessary depths, BP deploys the liquid robotics of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), first developed by the U.S. Navy and used to recover underwater atomic bomb debris (Wagner et al., 2010; Newman, 2010). Oceaneering International, Inc., specialists in subsea hardware and manufacturers of the ROVs used by BP to build and then destroy the Macondo well, runs a parallel entertainment division that produces animatronics for robotically engineered theme park attractions including simulations of dinosaurs, alien bugs, and downtown Tokyo. The live streaming of an exploding Macondo well captivates millions of viewers in the U.S. with the real time aesthetics of disaster delivered by cameras attached via subsea ‘umbilical’ cords to a human operator with a joystick in a control room on the water’s surface (Black, 2010; Farbman, 2012). As the Politician calls on the Sorcerer to show his hand and supply submerged digital images for the People (Black, 2010, p. 743); as privatized corporate screens for robotic command and control become public live streams of mesmerizing catastrophe; as time ticks online and off, from milliseconds, to minutes, to days, to nights, to months to 4.9 million barrels of deep time blasted out of the sea floor into acres of undulating water . . . oil keeps thinking. In the interstices. Even as the Sorcerer moves ever closer, ever confident, toward the occulted void.

Magic and method

If magical realism is not only a genre of writing but also a genre of power, exercised through the binding of enchantment and the empirical—say, a ghost devil and a labor regime (Taussig, 1980); contagious phantasms and an economic implosion (Nelson, 2012). If energy infrastructures are assembled via both supernatural and material economies; if the exploding Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico is both a magic site and a singular node in a transnational nexus of multibillion dollar petroleum production and profits, then how to tell a story that can dwell long enough in the portal between magical efficacy and persuasive history to have a fighting chance to change perceptions of what’s really real? "Reality is more than that which exists," writes Eduardo Kohn (2013, p. 216) from the ethnographic edge of a thinking forest in Ecuador. How to write from other edges, toward a real that exceeds what exists?

Petro-magic-realism is Jennifer Wenzel's (2006) useful term linking literary production to the violent political ecologies of resource extraction in countries that produce both magical realist stories and petroleum as commodity exports to the Global North.2 Countering the "empty globalism" of magical realism as a genre-category in which "the magical might be anything unfamiliar to a European or American reader," Wenzel's petro-magic-realism foregrounds "the relationships between the fantastic and material elements of these stories, linking formal, intertextual, sociological, and economic questions about literature to questions of political ecology" (Welnzel, 2006, pp. 456, 450). Abdelrahman Munif's novel Cities of Salt (1987) conjures a light shimmer of petro-magic-realism across 600 pages narrating the Americans' arrival in the Saudi desert to drill the first oil field. The "inexplicable, the hallucinatory, and the realistic converge" as the radically displaced local Bedouins witness the magic technologies used by the U.S. oilmen to penetrate both "geologic and spiritual substrates" in their relentless, bewitched forays underground (Nixon, 2011, p. 93-94).

Theories of magical realism also look beyond literary practice to relations between the fantastic and the material located in the very heart of social power. Michael Taussig's (1984) analysis of another extractive economy—the rubber industry in late 19th-century South America—names magical realism as a political force. Here, the "mysterious side of the mysterious," condensed through image, fantasy, and myth, "create[s], through magical realism, a culture of terror" animating a colonial imaginary: "What distinguishes cultures of terror is that the epistemological, ontological, and otherwise purely philosophical problem of reality-and-illusion … [becomes] a high-powered tool for domination and a principal medium of political practice" (Taussig, 1984, p. 492). Revealing the cultural work of magical realism in assembling business and terror into the intimate cut of everyday worlds, Taussig moves magical realism toward an analytics of ordinary power, practiced through extraordinary renditions of torture and a political economy of terrors both fabulated and real. 

But what if magic can move even further? Beyond and beneath the fantastic im/materiality or efficacious murk of ‘reality-and-illusion' that constitute the storied formations of colonizing power and capitalist exploitation? What happens if we press through and beyond the "dialectic optic," offered by Walter Benjamin and re-incarnated in Taussig, as an antidote to spiraling mysticisms (Taussig, 1984, p. 469)? What if there are occult agencies, animate unknowns, coursing through the dense circuits of symbolic and political economies? Subreal agencies that are not unreal. Submerged but not always subordinate. Impenetrable and yet still capable of penetrating culturenatures in subnatural and never fully knowable ways.

"[T]he boy enjoyed the story of…the fisherman who borrowed
 a weight for his net from a neighbor and when he gave him a
 fish in payment later it had a diamond in its stomach, and
the one about the lamp that fulfilled wishes and about
 flying carpets. Surprised, he asked Ursula if all that
 was true and she answered him that it was, that
many years ago the gypsies had brought magic
lamps and flying mats to Macondo. 'What's
happening,' she sighed, 'is that the world
is slowly coming to an end
and those things
don't come here anymore.'"

-García Márquez

Eugene Thacker's magic site is one image of subreal force. As an occult philosopher of contemporary horror, he evokes the technoscientific laboratory that has become the real, a dispersed, unbounded materialization of supernatural agencies inseparably mingled with techno-nature. The branded BP disaster unfolds within emergent subsea infrastructures of deepwater drilling and extraction, and also within a magical subrealist scene of prophetic catastrophe and enchanted time. The extraordinary power of enchantments pulses within the ordinary play of things when an oil well named after a doomed city in García Márquez's 1967 tale of supernatural time is blown out of an imaginary future into the foreseeable disaster of the present, materializing in a relentless swell of mud and oil and subterranean force. Enchantment arrives inside superstitious time, a time that can warp into curved lines of fate and chance as a spell of oblivion is cast across magical, real worlds.

"Every oil spill remembers every other," writes Stephanie LeMenager (2014, p. 64). And what if every oil spill remembers more than that? What if "the time of enchantment enacts repetition's strange power through relays across time that aren't supposed to happen" (Burlein and Orr, 2012, p. 17)? Perhaps the BP oil spill does remember with uncanny precision the all-too-real history of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, enacted with ferocious repetition in 2010:  that "the oil industry had no means of remediating spills; that industry had long been aware of the dangers of drilling . . . ; that Corexit, the dispersant favored by Union Oil [and then BP] was toxic to marine life" (LeMenager, 2014, p. 33). But the catastrophe of Macondo, that dispersed magic site of time-shattered story, may also offer a strange, subreal relay of impossible timings as the blowout sinks the $350 million Deepwater Horizon oil rig in a red-orange inferno on Earth Day, April 22, 2010. In fact, on the fortieth anniversary of the first Earth Day organized on April 22, 1970, amidst the atmospheric fallout of the Santa Barbara spill and the spiraling smoke, visionary and real, from the bonfire of the birds—burned with the other bloating carcasses on the petro-drenched beaches by black and brown prison workers bused in from San Lois Obispo, Santa Clara, San Diego to clean the spoiled surfaces of Santa Barbara (LeMenager, 2014, pp. 60-62).3

To speak of magical subrealism is not to make a sociological claim, or a superstitious provocation. It is perhaps to speak on the order of what Pignarre and Stengers call the "witch's proposition," which does not "ask for the conversion of those to whom it is addressed. When witches address others, they do nothing other...than relay, echo the question that transformed them themselves
existential catalysis" (Pignarre and Stengers, 2011, p. 141). As a mode of relay and transmission, magical subrealism proposes that we look elsewhere or underneath our proliferate empirical scholarship and theoretical innovation to pursue more deeply a "hunger for entanglement" (LeMenager, 2014, p. 194) between the human and unhuman, the visible and the subterranean, the living and the dead. Between what is known and what will never be. Magical subrealism proposes that if BP has partnered with Magic Earth, a 3D modeling and simulation software company, to launch a Visualization Center at the University of Colorado, then it may be time for a critical feminist technoscience to pursue its own militant enchantments and counter-sorceries. To visualize its own subreal understandings of the hold that capitalist technoscience has, and the protections needed to evade our own capture.

Subreal infrastructures

"With infrastructure, something both huge and hidden is conjured up—a dark and indistinct shadow of a thing that needs to function in order for it not to be thought about. Beneath structure, below architecture, under life as we know it . . . . it [is] precisely within the infrastructural that societies articulate their political imagination, and guide how they want to live."
Céline Condorelli, "Infrastructure"

How do you want to live? Chanter (from the French—to sing, to chant) is at the etymological heart of enchantment.  Chants can be heard as "resonant dwelling places;" to enchant is to reanimate the question "'Where and how do we dwell?'" (Bayer 2012, pp. 27-28). Enchanting catastrophe at the edge of the sixth mass extinction, at the site of what is now a subsea desert soaked in degraded oil stretching across 3000 square miles in the Gulf of Mexico, is to wonder how to inhabit the times in which I live (Ceballos et. al., 2015; Juhasz, 2015).

The infrastructural is a kind of dwelling place … hidden, unthought, beneath, shadowed, below, in Céline Conderelli's meditation. Under life as we know it, the infrastructural builds material and imaginary enclosures between what's possible and what's not. "The petroleum infrastructure has become embodied memory and habitus for modern humans" (LeMenager, 2011, p. 26). Perhaps a collective encounter with infrastructures of the subreal might help us imagine, or remember, differently. Perhaps today it is not our task to save the planet, but rather, to burn it. Which we are doing. What we fail to do, repeatedly, is to read the hieroglyphs of our own incense, the patterns of temporary matter in time, which might tell us for what or for whom we really burn. Or that might offer instruction for protecting ourselves from the fatal hold of this particular—but not interminable—inferno, in which we currently dwell.


Deep thanks to Dovar Chen for the digital artistry, and to Gorda Stanisic for research assistance on the BP disaster. For smart and generous criticism, my gratitude to two anonymous reviewers and, as always, the Oxidate Working Group.


1 The digital video accompanying this text is archived footage of the BP oil disaster and the gushing Macondo well recorded on May 22, 2010. The film was edited by digital editor Dovar Chen with a soundtrack added. The video was retrieved January 10, 2012 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5KoL41Lu5aA

2 For more on postcolonial literatures and magic realism see Slemon (1995). For more on literature and petro-capitalism see Ghosh (1992).

3 For the full version of the stunning 1969 poem discussed by LeMenager that narrates the bonfire of the dead, written by Conyus, a member of the prison work crews sent by Union Oil to Santa Barbara, see: http://alyoung.org/2015/05/24/the-great-santa-barbara-oil-disaster-or-a-diary-a-poem-by-conyus-reissued/


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Jackie Orr is Associate Professor of Sociology at Syracuse University, and a performance theorist working at the crossroads of cultural critique, the politics of bodies, and the poetics of knowledge. Her scholarship focuses on contemporary and cultural theory, and critical studies of technoscience and media. She is the author of Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder (Duke, 2006). Her live digital performance work includes "Daddy Does Cybernetics," "The PSYCHOpolitics of Bioterrorism," and "Body Animations (or, Lullaby for Fallujah)." Her most recent performance piece, "Slow Disaster at the Digital Edge," stages the BP disaster in relation to the everyday catastrophe of deep time, and has recently been performed at the University of Chicago, Goldsmiths, Buddies in Bad Times Theater (Toronto), and Rhode Island School of Design.


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