Petromodernity and settler colonialism: Taylor Mcholm, ‘A Formal Spilling: Leaking and Leaching in Warren Cariou’s Petrography and “Tarhands: A Messy Manifesto”‘, Western American Literature, 51, 4, 2017, pp. 429-446


Excerpt: This essay investigates artist and scholar Warren Cariou’s aesthetic attempts to challenge the operational logic and legitimacy of petromodernity, what Stephanie LeMenager defines as “a modern life based in the cheap energy systems long made possible by petroleum” (“Aesthetics” 60). Like all forms of modernity, petromodernity has produced numerous aesthetic responses. Methods of representing petromodernity that rely on its existing operational logic ultimately replicate the same techno-scientific rationality and dislocation that produce the harmful practices these works represent. For instance, recent work by Debra Davidson, Mike Gismondi, and Jon Gordon attends to the ways that proponents of the Alberta tar sands project justify its harms through appeals to reason. As Gordon argues, what may be necessary to disrupt petromodernity and its numerous ills is a form of representation that challenges the logical premises of petromodernity (Gordon xlix). Following Gordon, I offer a formal analysis of Warren Cariou’s creative work, in particular his 2012 “Tarhands: A Messy Manifesto” and his 2014 new media project that he terms petrography, referring to petroleum as both the subject matter and material of the medium. I argue that Cariou’s work spills across form and genre, thereby challenging an aesthetic and form of logic that seeks to sequester the environmental and social ills of petromodernity. Moreover, I make explicit the way irrationality serves as an implicit critique of settler colonialism throughout Cariou’s work.

Writing about Cariou’s short story “An Athabasca Story,” Gordon suggests that we understand “Cariou’s call for an ‘irrational response’ to bitumen extraction as an attempt to expose the flaws in the ‘rational’ and ‘common sense’ logic of capitalism, a move to ‘uncommon sense’”(107). In a recent essay cowritten with Cariou, Gordon extends this analysis to Cariou’s petrographs. Arguing that “literature has the potential to interrupt the relentless justifications and rationalizations of and for the status quo,” Gordon explains that petrographs “are a new medium for such interrupting” (3). Formal analysis can demonstrate the faulty logic of petromodernity, but in order to account for the amplified ways that logic affects Indigenous communities, the analysis needs to be informed by theories of settler colonialism. I argue that Cariou’s disruptive and formally innovative work is not only a critique of the logic of capitalism or petromodernity but also a critique of settler colonialism, which also operates through a logic of separation, containment, and a fantasy of elimination, as Patrick Wolfe has argued (2006). Further, the work’s irrationality performs an epistemic shift rooted in a connection to place, traditional Indigenous relationships with bitumen, and Cariou’s own Métis heritage.

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