World Energy Literature: Narratives of Extraction and Itinerant Lives

Published on April 27, 2022

World Energy Literature Part 1, Narrating Extraction: Stacey Balkan, Assistant Professor of Environmental Literature and Humanities at Florida Atlantic University, speaks to Firat Oruc, Georgetown University in Qatar.

World Energy Literature Part 2, World Oil Literature: Firat Oruc, Georgetown University in Qatar, speaks to Stacey Balkan, Assistant Professor of Environmental Literature and Humanities at Florida Atlantic University, and Swaralipi Nandi is an Assistant Professor of English at Loyola College, Hyderabad, India.

Stacey Balkan is an Associate Professor of Environmental Literature and Humanities at Florida Atlantic University.  She is co-editor of Oil Fictions: World Literature and our Contemporary Petrosphere (Penn State Press, 2021); and she is the author of Rogues in the Postcolony: Narrating Extraction and Itinerancy in India (West Virginia University Press, 2022).  Stacey’s current book project is titled Black Anthropocene Vistas; and her recent work also appears in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and EnvironmentRevue Études Anglaises, Energy Humanities, The Global SouthGlobal South StudiesMediations, and Social Text Online.  

Swaralipi Nandi is an Assistant Professor of English at Loyola College, Hyderabad, India. She is the co-editor of The Postnational Fantasy: Essays on Postcolonialism, Cosmopolitics, and Science Fiction (McFarland), Spectacles of Blood: A Study of Violence and Masculinity in Postcolonial Films (U Chicago/Zubaan), and Oil Fictions: World Literature and our Contemporary Petrosphere (Penn State Press, 2021). She is currently working on extractivism and colonial commodity frontiers of India in Bengali fictions of wood, coal, and indigo.

Moderator: Firat Oruc, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.



CIRS INTRODUCTION [00:00:04]: Welcome to the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. This podcast series is part of the Energy Humanities Research Initiative. The project aims to generate new scholarly conversations on everyday lived experiences of energy. [DRUMMING ENDS]


Firat Oruc [00:00:24]: Welcome to the Everyday Energy podcast series from Georgetown University in Qatar. This is the third episode in our themed cluster of podcasts on Energy Esthetics: Representing the Lived Experiences of Oil. In the first two podcasts, we spoke with Venezuelan poet and scholar Santiago Acosta on abstract genetic petro-art, and with Nigerian artist, photographer and writer Victor Ehikhamenor about his installation The Wealth of Nations. You can find all our previous activities on our webpage at I am Firat Oruc and it gives me great pleasure to speak in this episode with Stacey Balkan, Associate Professor of Environmental Literature and Humanities at Florida Atlantic University, on her recently published book titled Rogues in the Postcolony: Narrating Extraction and Itinerancy in India. Apparently without taking any break, Stacey has already embarked on a new project titled Black Anthropocene Vistas, which investigates the racialized frontiers of extractive capitalism. Congratulations, Stacey, for your new book and thank you for joining us. I’ll start with my first question. What does a close attention to extractivism in particular to the broader terrain of extractivist violence across the global south, as you put it, tells us about the lived experiences of energy? The latter defined as our everyday encounters with energy in and beyond the nation state.


Stacey Balkan [00:02:27]: OK, well, first, thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited. And by the way, that was the.. I just got tenure last week and hearing that, it was the first time I heard “associate” in my life.


Firat Oruc [00:02:41]: I didn’t want to miss that opportunity to be the first to congratulate you.


Stacey Balkan [00:02:48]: Thank you. I know. Hearing that sounded exciting and thank you for this excellent question. Really excited to talk about the new book. OK, so what do I mean by this?Well, so I refer here to the previously limited or potentially limited and limiting scope of energy humanities work, which has often focused on sites of consumption in the global north, or alternatively with such notorious sites of extraction such as we see in the Niger Delta. So I wanted to kind of shift the lens. As with the collection oil fictions, which we’ll be discussing later. I wanted to expand this lens for several reasons. First, turning the lens to what I call the broader terrain of extractivist violence across the global south, I believe, enables a more expansive understanding of extractivism and I think affords a more robust engagement with its cultural and political expressions. Whether, whether methodologically or, I guess how we read for energy, ontologically or how we understand and articulate such taxa as the human and fugitively non-human beings that are rarefied and rendered as capital in order to serve global energy markets, right? And finally, geographically, as they do, which is to say to consider the contrapuntal map of extractive capitalism that persistently invisibly right as something we talk about right of visibility. If invisibly connects the global north and south in historically uneven and spectacularly violent ways, right. Also, and in keeping with energy humanity scholars who recognize the limitations of conventional critiques of extractivism that focus exclusively on the mining of fossil capital or the ever elusive “oil encounter,” right, is something we talk about a lot. In the book I attempt to a trace, I attempt to trace, sorry, a more capacious genealogy that attends to the broader and ergo political framework of the extractive industries. Such that we understand the harvesting of poppy, for example, as in the case of the Ibis trilogy. As an instantiation of extractivist violence, insofar as the opium economy participates in similar colonial geologic to that of the colonial era coal economy, right. And as extractivism and this I say something about this kind of logic right. As extractivism refers to both a practice and a political ideology. It seems essential to sort of think about outline the logic that’s of tensive right in order to understand how, for example, the rogue protagonists of something like Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, sorry, concisely illustrate the aforementioned taxonomic model wherein there and a reducible to the raw nature of capital. And of course, this is precisely how Naomi Klein famously defined extractivism, right, in This Changes Everything. And this consideration of the framing logics of extractivism is also central to what we call a kind of resource logic, right. Which is to say the a perspective that understands the constituent elements of Earth systems as an inventory of usable resources. And Amitabh Ghosh’s recent book, The Nutmeg’s Curse. He also talks about this. He calls it a European metaphysics, which is a great term. So it refers to the sort of onto-epistemology violence that indeed reduces Earth systems as such. And so this is a logic, of course, that’s been central to colonial campaigns of dispossession for centuries, which continues to frame contemporary global regimes of extractive capital. So in terms of, sorry, the everyday encounters of energy and beyond the nation state. I would say the broadening of discussions around extractivism also allows for a more robust focus on extractive zones, which is to say like sites of production, right. Thereby also allowing for us to materialize what is often understood as the invisibility of extractivist violence. Because obviously, extractivist violence is only invisible to the end consumer, right. Not to those persons whose lives are radically altered by colonial campaigns of historically dispossessed their communities, their land, their resources. And of course, I’m referring, I’m using Macarena Gómez-Barris’s term extractive zone right, which she uses to characterize regions where persons were historically kind of treated as fuel, essentially energy to be extracted, expended and exhausted for the sake of of prosperity elsewhere. Right. And I think, you know, there surely been a lot of progress in terms of exposing these sites, right. And I really do attribute a lot of that to our work here in the Energy Humanities. And so in, you know, of course, we make, we seek to make legible in the Anglosphere that is right and the material impacts of extractive capitalism. And of course, as an English professor, I do that with literature, hence, you know, hence a book about picaresque novels.


Firat Oruc [00:07:42]: My second question was exactly aiming to bring the discussion to your literary interest and one distinctive feature of your book as you are theorizing quite brilliantly on the the whole concept of extractive zones and so on. You trace the impact of extractive capitalism through a particular novelistic genre, and I have to say that I wasn’t, you know, when I first read the book, it seemed to be quite a unique genre choice, and that’s the post-colonial, specifically the Anglophone Indian picaresque. So could you outline for us what Energy Humanities could learn from this specific narrative form and maybe in general, the value of attention to genre in thinking about energy?


Stacey Balkan [00:08:49]: Yeah, sure. Sure. And first, I, I have to mention and think it’s a wonderful question, and I hope I hope the book is is brilliant. I was so excited and it’s it’s so new. It’s, you know, a very long labor of love that has recently appeared in the world. So thank you. But I should mention, though, that that the sort of study of the picaresque as such is not necessarily my own invention. And so I wanted to first mention that I’m I’m indebted to Rob Nixon, actually. Rob Nixon’s stunning critique of Indra Sinha’s 2007, Animals People, which I discuss in the second chapter of the book as a Memento Mori to late capitalism. But I was really inspired by his reading of the novel in his book, in the Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, when it came out in 2011. Nixon famously coined the term Environmental Picaresque, which really inspired me to characterize the novel, both because the narrator is a fairly typical picaro figure, and more so because in the tradition of the picaresque genre, the non-linear, which is to say the non teleological format of the novel allows for the representation of what he called or what he calls the slow violence. It’s a form of environmental violence that resists representation and conventional literary forms because it resists normative forms of closure. Right. Nixon terms it an attritional violence, which is to say that environmental violence is a protracted phenomenon whose causes and consequences can’t be neatly bracketed in such neat narrative frameworks as subtend something like the Golding’s Roman or the Autobiography. Right. But we might also consider that such forms of protracted violence transcend the teleological temporality of capital more broadly. And that’s something that I was obviously really interested in the book. Sort of also like a developmentalist temporality which I talk about a lot. Interestingly, extractivism also works to subvert such neat forms of closure. Jeff Insko recently described extraction in terms of a disruption to the standard teleology of capitalism’s appropriation of resources. Similarly, in Liz Miller’s new book Extraction Ecologies, which is really wonderful. She describes the sort of extractive temporality, which is something I’m also going for, whereby the expansionist impulse of capitalism and the narrative forms of which industrial capitalism and of course, carbon capitalism are coterminous is necessarily aborted by the finitude of subterranean resources. So she traces a series of popular 19th century novels demonstrating how the perceived exhaustion of coal, for example, produces something like, Wells’s, Time Machine, right. But she also attends to also contemporary Bengali feminist writer Rokeya Hossain, who’s critically utopian vision of a feminist solar powered utopia in 1905. Sultana’s Dream can be read as a vital means of imagining alternatives to both fossil fuels and modernity, as well as its violent social conditions. Anyway, so the picaresque novel to a great extent also forecloses the neat narrative resolutions of the modern novel insofar as it is as a rule told in a series of vignettes. Right. Generally speaking, the vignettes or episodes feature an itinerant and unreliable narrator who inhabits such mundane plots as we glimpse in like the 1554, Lazarillo de Tormes. Are you similar with it? OK, great. So, you know, in the novel, the famed picaro, right, he’s describing the drudgery of acquiring his daily bread. Right. And as we know, survival then and now was never really seen as worthy of a literary attention, right. So hence critic John Colamarino, whose work I really like, discusses the genre in terms of its productive econo-poetics. Which is to say, a narrative mode that centralizes the proletarian desires of the working class subject. Significantly, such a sort of seemingly pointless journey, right, lacking no traditional hero and with no grand resolution, surely doesn’t satisfy the criteria of the modern novel in the really problematic terms of somebody like John Updike, who we may recall, right, famously derided Cities of Salt, right. He said it was an insufficiently westernized novel. I’m trying to remember. That’s right, because, yeah, you know, it was this horrible review, which of course, inspired Ghosh’s famous essay Petro Fiction, right. But you know, he’s in his estimation, he says that, a novel ought to be a story of individual moral adventure and one that features a conventional hero, right. So surely not the sorts of rogues and outcasts that are persistently criminalized and then become the protagonist in the novels that I’m studying. So then I’m sort of departing from that and following, like Lisa Lowe’s argument. In the mid 90s in Immigrant Acts, she talks about the ethnic Golding’s Roman and Joseph Slaughter, who also talks about sort of problematic teleology of capitalist enfranchisement that’s imminent to the Golding’s Ramon more broadly. I was curious to explore story where there was no sort of, you know, ultimate resolution, which sort of, you know, which was representative of what they both call it, the incorporation of the hero into, you know, into an elite class. I was interested in stories that explicitly rejected what I essentially see as a colonialist build on, right. And I’ll just say one more thing in terms of the form specific affordances for the energy humanities or for reading energy, we might say that the non teleological format which resists closure right, and indeed balks at the possibility of any sort of neat narrative closure owing to the material impossibility of such tales. That it precisely instantiates, what I said earlier was the kind of extractive temporality that its resolution or sort of the normative reproductive futurity imminent to something like the marriage plot to return to Miller is necessarily abortive. I could, I guess, you know, we could also think in terms of like the boom and bust cycle. So in the context of like the boom and bust the capital, I see these satirical novels as means of like focusing on the bust and making clear the impossibility of the boom, right. Does that make does that make sense? Anyway, this is I mean, this is definitely how I read something like Arvind Adiga’s coal soaked, picaresque novel The White Tiger, which you know lots of people rightfully also read, including Swaralipi, as a neoliberal buildings Roman. But I actually read it as a carbon picaresque. But we can talk about that, so I don’t want to say too much. I think I hope I answered your question.


Firat Oruc [00:15:38]: Thank you. Absolutely. And you know, in a way, I imagined the picaresque character anti-hero with some sort of agency that messes up with the temporality and sites of extractivism, right. In terms of, you know, sometimes too slow, sometimes too fast, in their, in his or her movements and navigating the various spaces and so on.


Stacey Balkan [00:16:18]: Right. Well, this is the sort of itinerant nature which..


Firat Oruc [00:16:20]: Yes, the itinerant nature absolutely.


Stacey Balkan [00:16:25]: Which directly subverts this kind of like Lockean mandate of like and subverts, I think Dominic Boyer, in Energopolitics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene, which I really appreciated, he talked about the logic of land as property, which we talk about a lot, and in many ways, this rogue figure subverts that.


Firat Oruc [00:16:47]: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think my next question is a follow up to to that. So from the series of webinars and podcast cluster themed around our research initiative here at Georgetown, Qatar, there emerged a set of questions and considerations regarding the affective dimensions of energy, not just its social, political and material aspects. So what kind of affective intensities, if you will, can one find in what you called Rogue Tales. Can we talk about Rogue Affects?


Stacey Balkan [00:17:31]: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really great question and I, you know, ultimately something that I’ve been thinking about more lately. So thank you. I guess I like thinking about affect in this context, I often think about Stephanie LeMenager’s work and specifically the idea of the petro-melancholic. You remember that in Living Oil, right, which is a stunning character. Right. Yeah. OK. So the sort of like stunning characterization of our effective attachments to oil specifically, and it seems that the dystopian tendencies of popular energy narratives, right, which we see everywhere, particularly in film and television, a lot of the stuff I’m teaching a class on climate fiction right now, which is, you know, all dystopian hellscape, right. But it seems that this, you know, is sort of, you know, demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to articulate a world after oil, right. Because we can’t bear such a thing. And so I was thinking, if we understand such attachments less in terms of a particular form of energy, right, like a material discrete thing that only attains value as we’re talking about before, when marshaled into a system of capital. If we instead think about as an aspect of attachment to a particular set of freedoms that we associate with industrial modernity, for example, or carbon modernity. I guess we might understand, as you’re just saying, right, the itinerant nature of the rogue figure, as in many ways is like the inverse of such freedoms that make sense, right. So I mean, I talk about this a lot in the book and sort of thinking about the rogue figure in terms of a kind of praxis. So like Mike Davis talks about like this, you know, sort of displaced figure that, internally displaced figures in terms of, he says, wealth’s negative counterpart. And I mean, I and whose work I’ve of course, I really, really admire. But I do try to read, you know, I try to read a sort of planet of the commons instead of the slums. So that’s an aside. But anyway, so but yeah, I think a lot about Praxis in the book and the ways in which the kind of rogue is like this monstrous other right like who sacrifices the necessary condition for prosperity elsewhere. And of course, you know, scholars like Sylvia Winter, you know, I’m thinking in terms of a kind of transversality in that sense, which is to say, like the production of the citizens subject by virtue of the ruination of disposable labor. Those persons who indeed can’t enjoy this like colonialist building or developmentalist building because they’re excluded from this narrative, but also because they constitute the material possibility of that narrative, right. But anyway, so I guess, you know, just to say maybe a couple of things about the rogue figure before returning to your question, just because I think our audience, I don’t know how much folks have been thinking about this. But the rogue figure has been defined, you know, by several folks in such a way as sort of the thinking in terms of this kind of praxis. So for example, back to Nixon, who talks about the displaced commoner as a kind of rogue figure. He describes the commons dependent wandering pastoralist who can be dismissed as an unanchored rogue anachronism and someone who in Lockean terms refuses to take root in a private property regime of purported individual and thereby collapse of self-improvement. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker in The Many Headed Hydra. Remember that book, right. They make a similar case, and they they talk about the rogue figure as a kind of unsteady and unsteady proletariat, essentially, you know, produced by the shifting agrarian economy. And in a literary context, I often think about Martinican novelist Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco, as a kind of post-colonial, picaresque right. And he talks about a proletariat without factories and without work, right. So all these different extenuations of displacement. Right. But OK, so back to rogue affects. Readings that might understand this wandering figure otherwise. This is also a really difficult question because I think, you know, the consensus is that this displaced figure, right, serves a particular material. That these novels are necessarily kind of shrouded in suffering. Right. Which to a great extent, they are, you know. And you know, while I want to assert a sort of rogue freedom, right, like imminent to the itinerant character of the picaros, you were saying earlier too, right. I also don’t want to romanticize the material reality of a forced displacement that caused it. In the case of British occupied Bengal, for example, unprecedented internal diaspora, which is also marked by new forms of indenture. You know, and similarly and this might be a criticism of Indra Sinha’s titular picaro in Animals people, the rogue freedoms that we might associate with animal can’t be disconnected from the material hardships of his journey. And so as I state, you know, perhaps too often in the book the trope of adventure and wandering, which is often kind of the central consideration and more conservative considerations of the picaresque genre. A famous example is Robert Alter’s book from 1965 The Rogue’s Progress, the sort of celebration of of a sort of the trope of adventure. Well, which in the post-colonial context, of course, is a kind of force type itinerancy. So anyway, so while I guess I like to think about these kind of rogue freedoms that we can associate with the post-colonial picaresque novel whereby a figure like Ghosh’s picaro Aditi, or Animal, or Adiga’s, picaro Balram kind of subverts, as we said before, this sort of Lockean mandates of modernity. Right. They’re also criminalized and brutalized as a consequence of their resistance to this sort of logic of land, this property. Anyway, look, I’m probably talking too much. I don’t take too much time. But I was going to say though, too, you know, it’s not to say the rogue tales are reducible to the stories of suffering, nor that satire can’t be very productive. And of course, there’s much joy in the novels that I consider, perhaps particularly Animals People. But what we might understand is a kind of picaresque sensibility is indeed, you know, certainly framed by by material suffering right. And this is why I turn to the speculative in the conclusion to the book, which I begin with an epigraph from Gómez-Barris’s Extractive Zone. And if I can just quote her because I really I kind of love the sentiments of this, she says. “If we only track the purview of power’s destruction and death force, we are forever analytically imprisoned to reproducing a totalizing viewpoint that ignores life that is unbridled and finds forms of resisting and living alternatively.” Which is to say right, we already understand the problem, right. And we need to sort of, you know, at least attempt to engage with more productive envisioning of the future. The, after all, collective refers to this as a kind of usefully utopian thinking. So now, as I said earlier, you know, contra sort of images in these popular Cli Fi productions like Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, which I’m actually teaching right now. You know, I don’t want to, I certainly don’t want to believe that the only alternative to extractive capitalism is, you know, these sort of of dystopian hellscape, in which we are cannibalizing each other or something, right. So following some really exciting work in our field, particularly After Oil Collective, in the conclusion I try to envision a kind of post oil or post extractivists future that that doesn’t, you know, merely sort of resort to the dystopian nor mourn you know, all of this kind of petro-melancholic affects sort of mourning that, you know, extractive past, if you will. I feel like I’m talking too much so I’ll stop there.


Firat Oruc [00:25:28]:  No, that’s really fascinating. And I think definitely, you know, an attention to the rogue affects enable us to, as you put it, to envision a new affective horizons beyond melancholia. My final question has to do with the very concept of the speculative as the mode of reading as you propose in your book and I took this, you know, quite, to be quite an interesting method in terms of reading energy or reading for, for energy, right? And so you describe a speculative critical reading praxis as one that centralizes energy and energy regimes for attending to cultural productions like postcolonial rock fictions. I think my question is what does speculative methodology reveal, so to speak, about our collective energy unconscious?


Stacey Balkan [00:26:47]: This is a great question and kind of, you know, very central to this book and also to squarely be in my collection as well. So, you know, the speculative methodology. So this is something I try to do explicitly in the final chapter in the White Tiger in order to read the otherwise elusive presence of coal, for example, and also in the conclusion to project the aforementioned post oil future right, whereby we aren’t necessarily like cannibalizing each other or something. It doesn’t look like Ship Breaker. But this is also part of a broader methodological approach born of the desire to make energy legible. Right? So my initial desire was to transcend what critics like Mosimane describe as the analytical prison house of kind of conventional literary sleaze, whereby we understand energy forms like coal or petrol and so forth. But in terms of refers to as “mere backdrop” and to instead understand the ways in which energy forms seep into every aspect of our lived experiences, right? So like how the period of petro-modernity, as you know, the best? Chakrabarty famously described how it is literally saturated in fossil fuels, right? So and in this sense, of course, we can say, you know, a lot of the critics in our collection say this as well, right, that there is no cultural production in the era of industrial modernity that is not also a petro-cultural production. Right. So we need to read differently, essentially. Although I should also say, and in keeping with, like Karageorghis, recent history of energy too, while I use the term petro-cultural, I don’t only mean petroleum, but the long history of carbon capitalism in which the recent proliferation of petroleum right is just one chapter and a chapter that that indeed reproduces was discussing earlier the same phenomena of displacement and dispossession that we can associate with earlier forms of carbon capitalism. Which is to say also that while Tim Mitchell, whose wonderful book Krugman Democracy Read, he cites the coal powered factory, for example, as in part, a site of of organizing in solidarity, right? And rightfully so. You know, the coal economy, you know, there’s a lot of similarity to the petroleum economy, you know, which was, you know, coal was also marked by is marked by egregious labor conditions, including at India’s longest operating coal mine and run a Gond, which I talk about in the final chapter, which of course opened during the reign of the East India Company. So anyway, you know, given that centuries of cultural production have been framed by extractive capitalism and that the fruits of modern extractive economies are harvested in a global network whereby sites of production are persistently veiled so that energy appears just like some sort of magical force that we may harness and enjoy. And you know, I hate to say this, but in this grotesque landscapes of overconsumption and hyper development places that we inhabit many of us, I try to follow such critics, as Ian McDonald, Swaralipi, you know, and demanding that our critical practices account for that which seeks beyond the frame, if you will. So to read energy to the speculative critical eye, as I do in the final chapter on The White Tiger, is to understand for Adiga’s Piccolo Balram that we are quite literally baptized in the fossilized carbon from the moment a bright and auspicious birth. But also to your point about a speculative critical methodology in terms of attending to our collective energy unconscious are the underlying structure of feeling that sometimes petro-modernity. And of course, I take the term energy unconscious from Patricia Yaeger, right? I find that such speculative reading practices are essential to making legible the otherwise invisible presence of that which enabled literally and directly such otherwise abstract phenomena as maybe think examples like the sublime forms of motion that a poet like William Wordsworth is celebrating in our mind as the steam. Or maybe somebody is, you know, near and dear to my heart as a child from New Jersey, you know, Bruce Springsteen’s famous admonishment of of, you know, the fuel injected in American Dream and Born to Run, right? So I think this cycle of fatigue is essential. And just one more thing I was going to say. You know, as I also argue in the context of The White Tiger, such a speculative mode of reading also attends to what Peter Hitchcock famously referred to as the kind of imaginative challenges that you know that he talks about in terms of the imaginative challenges presented by the constitutive limits. Which is to say, the structural absence, right? of, of oil. Right. So it sort of this kind of speculative critique allows for us to attend to that, which isn’t kind of necessarily legible or palpable for Hitchcock. And I’ll quote him here, you know, “To think energy is always to address constitutive limits and the point and for crowding such discussions within the humanities is not to forget about limits. But rather to focus on the imaginative challenges that they represent.” I think in employing aspects of praxis, we can posit the limit as a kind of point of departure, right, instead of an impasse, right? And I’ll say one more thing I’ll stop and we can chat more. But instead of thinking of an impasse or also what in the the first petro-culture, sorry, the first after oil publication, it talks about sort of thinking about this otherwise impasse as a moment of radical indeterminacy. And I really like that idea. So I think the sort of speculative critical eye, you know, allows for us to, of course, you know, acknowledge as I do, you know, thinking about these rogue tells, right, the sort of material hardships to not sort of deny, right, the, you know, what’s operating in the extractive zone, but but also to sort of perhaps see this as a point of departure for thinking beyond that. And I guess I should probably stop there so we have some time to chat more.


Firat Oruc [00:32:50]: Thanks, Stacey. As you might recall, Fredric Jameson’s on political unconscious, the sort of founding text for speculative critical reading, if you will start with always historisize. And I think for us, energy humanity, humans should be always energized. The dictum. always energized. But thank you so much for this really insightful conversation. And it definitely gives us a lot to think about further about the thorny question of energy forms and representation. Thanks a lot.


Stacey Balkan [00:33:36]: Oh, thank you and I thank you for giving me so much to think about because like I said, I feel like I need, you know, there are areas that I want to explore much more, particularly in terms of these sorts of rogue ethics. So, yeah, thank you for the wonderful questions.




CIRS INTRODUCTION [00:00:04]: Welcome to the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. This podcast series is part of the Energy Humanities Research Initiative. The project aims to generate new scholarly conversations on everyday lived experiences of energy. [DRUMMING ENDS]


Firat Oruc [00:00:24]: Welcome to the Everyday Energy podcast series from Georgetown University in Qatar. In the second part of the third episode in our podcast series on aesthetic and narrative representations of lived experiences of oil, we are with Stacy Balkan and Swaralipi Nandi to talk about their co-edited volume titled Oil Fictions: World Literature and Our Contemporary Petrosphere. Stacey Balkan is associate professor of environmental literature and humanities at Florida Atlantic University. She is the author of Rogues in the Postcolony: Narrating Extraction and Itinerancy in India, and is currently working on a new book project which investigates the racialised frontiers of extractive capitalism. Titled Black Anthropocene Vistas. Swaralipi Nandi is an assistant professor of English at Loyola College Hyderabad, India. In addition to oil fictions, she is the coeditor of two books on postcolonial literature and film and is currently focusing on extractivism and colonial commodity frontiers of India in Bengali fictions of wood, coal and indigo. Stacey and Swaralipi thank you so much for joining us.

Stacey Balkan and Swaralipi Nandi [00:01:55]: Thank you. Thank you so much.


Firat Oruc [00:01:59]: Well, I was impressed by your very first opening sentence of your, of your co-edited volume “your fictions”, you write, “Is a transnational collaborative project with its editors and contributors located in diverse global context and connected through metaphorical pipelines of an increasingly precarious environment? Can you please elaborate on the value and challenges of collaborative, transnational work in energy humanities?

Stacey Balkan [00:02:34]: First, I want to say thank you again, Firat. This is wonderful and Swaralipi and I are having our first opportunity to collaboratively celebrate and talk about this collection. I’m so happy.

Firat Oruc [00:02:48]:  I’m so glad to bring you virtually together.

Stacey Balkan [00:02:52]: I know. And of course, you know, yeah, our collaboration was, continues to be really amazing. And we’re of course, working from, you know, very distant geographic regions. So first, I should I should mention that I think more collaborative work is essential across the academy more broadly. Frankly, the emphasis on individual publication for career advancement in my mind seems to only buttress the neo-liberalization of the academy, whereby the fruits of our labor are pursued in large measure in the interest of market value. You know, of course, I say this from a very recently tenured position, literally last week. So, you know, I know full well the precarity of our world, but this still concerns me deeply. So it seems that this kind of toxic individualism that’s of course central to consumer capitalism and here in the States, and sort of the American persona more broadly, ought to be at odds with what we do in the academy, in the classroom and surely in the field of energy humanities, which is an interdisciplinary project that not only produces syllabi and journal articles, but which is genuinely and actively engaged in the world making project of energy justice for the historically marginalized communities. So toward that end in our work, we also seek to make legible the oppressive political structures of carbon modernity and their disastrous impacts on earth systems through cultural expression, right? And it seems to me if we are in fact a transition away from the oppressive political structures of petro-modernity, right, the form of our work ought to reflect the shift. Thank you, I’ll give it to Swaralipi.

Swaralipi Nandi [00:04:34]: Well, transnational work in energy humanities is definitely the need of the hour. And as we mentioned in our preface that we, editors, connected over a common concern for a shared living in the real world. I remember we conceptualized oil fictions in 2017 from our common concerns about environmental catastrophes. And as far as I remember, there was this series of devastating hurricanes and consequent evacuation in Stacey’s community in South Florida. While in my hometown in Telangana, India was sweltering from unprecedented temperature extremes and devastating floods too which are reported from other parts of India. So five years down the line, our concerns remain the same because those distinct these catastrophes referred to the debilitating effects of fossil capitalism, extractivist regimes and feckless development that characterized the global ramifications of what Jason Moore calls as “The Age of the Capitalism”. So definitely, I mean, this is something that informs our work even now, and we see that all fictions particularly aims at grappling with the ubiquity of oil and the global pervasiveness of fossil fuels in ushering and sustaining cultures of capitalistic modernity, which are built on the decimation of local ecologies and thriving on uneven geographies. There are, of course, challenges in locating common coordinators, especially given the disjunctive temporarily days of fossil energy and particularly polyphony of discourses on energy that is available in different contexts. However, a transnational, collaborative study like this not only aims at grappling with the magnitude of global petro-cultures, but it also seeks to inculcate an aesthetics of planetarity about our shared future beyond, you know, any kind of geopolitical boundaries.


Stacey Balkan [00:06:36]: And I wanted to add something earlier too, you know, that we co-produced the CFP for our book right during, you know, both of us being literally shuttered by climate disaster was, you know, a perfect representation of the urgency of this kind of work. You know, there are lots of wonderful examples of this sort of of collaboration of the kind that we do, right? And so, you know, in addition, to what, you know, Swaralipi was talking about, there are similar collaborations to that of oil fictions, for example, the publications of the after oil collective, which I also see as really vital to our continued work. And another recent example of collaborative work that I wanted to mention here too, that I find particularly inspiring in terms of its form is actually the duograph authored by Rice University anthropologist and co-host of Cultures of Energy, right? The podcast “Cultures of Energy”. Sorry, Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe, entitled Wind and Power in the Anthropocene, wherein the two anthropologists offer their unique ethnographic accounts of the same field work in order to engage with different and variously nuanced approaches to, you know, in this case, the virtues and vices of corporate within parks, which is yet another example of capitalism that essentially reproduces the violent politics of petro-capitalism, right? And then, of course, and I mentioned the After Oil Collective and whose works are collaborative there no single name, no single author name, and which I think also represents a way in a really productive way in which we might just articulate our academic work and our activism from what I mentioned early as a sort of kind of the the impulse to kind of individualize, right, that seems imminent to do the neoliberal academy.


Swaralipi Nandi [00:08:34]: Well, if I may add to what Stacey said, that we are constantly engaging in all kinds of interdisciplinary dialogues. So we are looking into energy humanities, energy histories, energy anthropology and energy politics. And then we obviously have works on energy and culture. So we are constantly looking at each other, working with each other, conversing with each other. And so it’s not only transnational, but also interdisciplinary in terms of where we are going and how we’re making sense of the whole field through borrowing from each other and learning from each other. I think it is quite interesting to say energy humanities vis-a-vis other fields of study, especially as Stacey mentioned about activism. Energy humanities is collaborating with critical indigenous studies, what Cariou calls as to quote him “indigenized philosophy of energy”, which indicates prospects for future studies that are numerous and absolutely exciting.


Firat Oruc [00:09:32]: Although you rightfully point out at the specific aspects of the lived experiences of energy in the global north and the global south, you also call for establishing a biological contrapuntal connection between the two. Can you elaborate on this point, please? And it seems that this is part of the transnational collaboration vision as well, right?

Stacey Balkan [00:10:02]: Well, I think we first need to complicate the distinction between global north and global south. Right? Because many communities in the global north suffer similar forms of resource colonization and consequently material dispossession, in addition to violent forms of displacement. So in that sense, we can consider a myriad of pipeline projects in the Dakotas and across the Midwest, new calls for the mining of precious metals right in the southwestern U.S., the exploitation of workers in Appalachia were consistently invoked in search of exploitative political campaigns by violent populist leaders, and then here at home, very close to my heart, that sort of horrific forms of environmental injustice that are happening in Central Florida in the agricultural industry is, you know, soaring asthma rates because of big sugar. And then ultimately, you know, forms of mobility injustice here, including something I write about a lot, which is that the racialized sighting of bicycle lanes, you know, so so the distinction needs to be kind of troubled, but at the same time, of course. And you know, the distinction is often made to indicate the difference between what, you know, a lot of folks understand as a sort of sites of consumption and sites of production, right, or sites of consumption then extractism, you know what we were talking about earlier. And so those are sites of of production and consumption. And so far, sites like the Niger Delta, for example, are ostensibly invisible to consumers in the United States, right? That works like those of poet, you know, slain activists, somebody like Ken Saro-Wiwa right? or more recently, Cameroonian novelist Imbolo Mbue. Right, that work like that sort of makes legible right? The otherwise what we read we talk about as a sort of incommensurable aporia, right. between these two contrapuntal sites. And, you know, I think part of our project of, of course, and in our teaching right, because it seems critical to put these two sites in conversations. I know in the classroom, I often try to conjoin these two punitively disconnected sites in discussions about sort of the broader cartography is of contemporary geo-petro context, right? And I, you know, I see this, of course, as critical to making legible, you know, the extractive zones of global capital, all right. And ultimately to exposing what are the obvious human costs of our overdependance on fossil fuels. And I might just say one more thing I don’t want to talk too much, I want to give Swaralipi an opportunity to, you know, it’s been interesting lately to see, of course, you know, these horrific images of Ukraine flooding social media, popular cable news outlets and such. And here in the States, you know, watching, you know, as the United States Congress for the first time has to stand and bear witness right to the human cost of in this case, like our overdependence on Russian gas, you know, and so this, you know, so part of the like the thrust of the project is kind of to bring these sites into conversation. And of course, in the energy humanities, we look at cultural expressions to make these these places more legible. But, you know, I think what’s happening lately, you know, I shudder to say this, but is perhaps an opportunity, right, to to kind of move beyond this, this dystopian present, and I’ll stop there.

Swaralipi Nandi [00:13:24]: Oh, well, absolutely. I mean, while I do acknowledge northern and southern environmental concerns are more overlapping than distinct, I would like to agree more with Stacey’s last statement on the distinction between the science of production and the science of consumption that play out against imbalances created by colonial histories. Because we see that petro capitalism deeply entrenches on the precarity of the post-colonial states in the global south, and it operates on a global network of transnational label, often invisiblized, whose roots are drawn along imperial histories of human migration. For example, the Kafala labor system that we get to see in many of the Gulf countries, which deny citizenship right and other basic rights to the migrants going there. So situating energy humanities in the global south, this entails more informed focus on this invisible petro-labor as the human cost of extractive energy systems that replicate slave economies over through overt barriers of borderless labor extrication from the global. So as I was mentioning the case in point being, the multitudes of Kafala laborers from South Asia and the Gulf states were characterized by undocumented migrants in vulnerability. We need to forge a petro-critical paradigm that engages more actively with the question of labor in an oil economy, a trope that has been substantially missing in the existing discourse and petro-cultures in the North. It is this discourse of spaces that we have attempted to address in our book Oil Fictions, and we hope to see more dialogic scholarship on energy in the future. Thank you.


Stacey Balkan [00:15:07]: I may add to that too, right? I mean, there’s a there is a significant, you know, it was critical to engage in a post-colonial intervention right into sort of popular energy humanities discourse, and so far, as Swaralipi was just saying, I mean, what we argued right in introduction to this is a huge lacuna in terms of attention to, you know, not only invisible networks of fossilized energy, but of course, invisible networks of forced labor. Right. That indeed follow the imperial trajectory of colonial era labor practices, right? And continue right. And I think we’re talking earlier this morning, right, continue to sort of operate with these same kinds of of logic. And if I can just say, I know we don’t have a great deal of time, but several of the chapters in the book, including Swaralipi’s, right, attend very specifically to the South Asian context, thinking about forced labor regimes and essentially now tracing the genealogies of the different petro-states right from their origins in this exploitative colonial era economy is, right. And so I think what we’ve accomplished to a great extent, right? And I’m proud of the work, although of course, I love our afterword. Yeah, it’s really exciting. And of course, our afterword by Imre Szeman and he says, now we have to, you know, obviously have to keep going. Where do we go from here? Right. But I think the essays really speak to all, you know, all of the different ways in which it’s so critical to to consider how these different cultural expressions really do make legible, you know, you know, the sort of vast extractivist frontiers that are ostensibly invisible. And I guess, you know, and I want to know if I can just to say that I guess I, you know, talked about not making the easy distinction, but I should say that, of course, the distinction obviously needs needs to be made. I think sometimes, you know, we, you know, we make the distinction without thinking about the ways in which they’re intimately connected, right? And these really spectacularly violent and uneven ways.


Firat Oruc [00:17:17]: Thank you. And on that note, another I think quite interesting moment of contrapuntal connection appears in your volume in relation to global energy systems on the one hand and work literature on the other. Right. And as your the title of your volumes suggest, you attempt to interpret and theorize oil fictions as world literature. And clearly, this doesn’t mean a cartographic sampler of all your themed literature from different parts of the world. Rather, you identify a relationship between hydrocarbon and literary modes of production in terms of what you aptly called dear metaphoric liquidity of consumption and extraction, forming a truly transnational web of debilitating structures of domination. So could you please tell us more about what petro-cultural studies and world literature studies learn from each other? And I think in relation to that, if in the final analysis, world literature is about the mimesis, as you know, pioneers of the field such as Eric Oibakh would insist. How does then literature best address oil’s resistance to representation? So I think another way of thinking about the relationship between world literature studies and petro-cultural studies is around the intersections between fossil capitalism and narrative form. And so is there a way out of mimesis?


Swaralipi Nandi [00:19:15]: Well, a distinct objective of all fictions has been to explore literature on petroleum as world literature, and that means not only just in terms of various geographical regions focusing on the ubiquity of oil, but also looking at the varied cultural responses to petroleum in the post-colonial states. So echoing Amitava Kumar’s proposal that he talks about in terms of defining world literature he says “Let us revise the term from what literature to a world bank literature”, hoping that will constitute a call of arms to analyze literature that deals with new global realities. So oil fictions invokes a comparative paradigm of transnational cultures of fossil capitalism against the new realities of economic globalization. So our initial engagement with the field meters realized that petro-cultural discourse has largely been tethered to the cultural production in the global north, and it has therefore been a central aim of this volume to engage with better fictions in a variety of postcolonial and world literature. So we have had, you know, contributions and essays from African right in context of Africa, South American contexts, South Asian, Middle Eastern and transnational encounters addressing the all pervasive oil economy. A major focus of this volume has been to foreground the human cost of petroleum extraction, while also grappling with the vexed categories of what we can call as human in nature because those real abstractions that have last long sustained global capitalism. So our volume engages with literature that represents a trajectory of imperial power imbalance, as well as extractive labor regimes of the transnational petro-economy. Now, along with the comparative material conditions of oil economies, what oil fictions also does is that it marries petro-culture studies and world literature studies in discussion of heterogeneous literary forms. To borrow from Imre Szeman “We seek” what he calls as, I’m quoting him, a “new critical sensibility in our analysis of world literature or the third or the world literary system that permits us to understand how every social practice, cultural form and political expression is animated by the sheer energetic capacities and seemingly boundless excesses of fossil fuels.” So in the volume subsequently, we also propose in the lines of Franco Moretti, a kind of a new critical method of reading texts, which is hinged on the idea of a combined and unequal development of literary texts across transnational cultures. So to quote Moretti, he says “One and equal one literature well literate, singular as good Goethe Marx would say, or perhaps better one vol literary system or interrelated literatures, but a system that’s profoundly unequal” So emphasizing on the centrality of narrative prose and exploring the trajectory of the rise of the modern novel as a compromise between the west informal influence and local materials, essays in this volume address what Moretti calls as again, I’m quoting “a unique, tripartite comparative paradigm of oil literature as the literature of the modern capitalist world system with the foreign form, local material and local form, which all collide together in unique interferences as symmetries of materialist, as symmetries of circulation and exchange of world literature in the context of reading world economic relations.” What is also interesting about the volume is that that there are certain essays in the collection that look at this heterogeneity or form beyond my methods. For example, if we take the example of Corbin Hiday essay in our collection, which offers a unique reading strategy of thinking of absence as a trope within a particular set of novels. So the twofold absence, he argues, is combined with a particular articulation of specialty, which further reveals a disillusionment and stances which are structurally embedded in what Hiday’s understanding of contemporary British modernity is. Apart from reading strategies, let me talk a little bit about the contributions in this volume that focus on this particular question of literary forms in the structure of the text. So our approach is primarily informed by the research collective serialization of combined and uneven development that invokes to quote “the connection between capitalist modernity and the literary forms to the core, semi peripheral and peripheral literary traditions of the world literary systems.” Individably uneven but connected by a common mediation of literature in the lived experience of capitalism’s bewildering creative destruction”. So subsequently further the literary coordinates of the text written in an uneven environment that retained the natural origins of their local or regional cultural ecology can be witnessed in the discrepant encounters, alien effects, surreal cross linkages on an identified freakish object. So they quote these instances in their polemic, they’re talking about semi peripheral and peripheral literary traditions. So similarly, in our collection also, there are several essays that discuss text that displays such unevenness in form. So there is the magical, the uncanny, irrealist, folklorish indigenous traces that are blended with realism. So again, we can take the example of Wendy Walters essay that discusses the works of Okorafor whose Spider the Artist is a text where artificially intelligent spiders got pipelines and dismember interfering humans. While again, we can talk about Simon Ryle’s essay on megasthenes cyclopedia which analyzes the paranoid, speculative terms of the novel that projects oil with demonic agency. Maya says, for example, in the collection on only Christians magic realist text in Mufasa Group People, discusses it realist modes of representing the otherwise invisible Indian petro-label in the Gulf, and these and several other literary musings moved beyond the mimetic reflection to instead explore fossil capitalism narrative forms, which attests to peripheral realism. So there are actually endless ways to tap oil beyond realism in spite of its illusic form.

Stacey Balkan [00:26:10]: Thank you Swaralipi, that was great and maybe just just to add something really quickly to that point. And then we kind of think about this other question regarding right memetic reading this right? Like how you know how we actually need, Swaralipi was talking about, the ways in which several of the chapters engage with different cultural expressions and different modes of reading. I was thinking of Sharae Deckard’s chapter, which it tends to, or which reads the violence that I always love in the Kingdom of Oil, right? Which is just like a realist text in which the the narrator is kind of literally living in an island of oil and the ways in which the sort of petro-spectral presence is literally seeping in all around her, right? You know, so we have, you know, the different chapters Tracy is really, you know, as Swaralipi said, often magical rendering of this otherwise illegible presence or this otherwise structurally invisible presence of oil and energy. Right. And I think toward that end also returned to Swaralipi also mentioned the ways in which we think about world energy literature. I guess World Bank literature, right? And the return to Imre Szeman’s chapter. That’s conjecturism and energy literature. Another thing I wanted to add because, you know, that I think what’s most significant and that’s what we kind of think about or trouble this category of world and its representations. But I guess I just wanted to add from from Szeman’s piece to I love the sentence when he says, you know, “One can argue that the world announced by the category of world literature does not, in fact, come into existence until the beginning of the era of fossil fuels. Production of the imaginary named world quote is fueled by the presence of energy sources, including coal and oil that make the space of the globe increasingly available and accessible the travel, trade and political power.” But anyway, but yeah, that that the world that we’re talking about here comes into existence at the, is coterminous right with with a quote, “Putative birth of carbon capitalism”, right? And as postcolonial as, of course, we’ve long thought to trouble the category of world I’m thinking about, like Feng Che’s last book, kind of talking about “world as a spatial imaginary right that’s been stratified by artificial temporal lines that are produced by global markets” right? So it’s also a category we’re trying to trouble. But in terms of then representing that world, which is to say, representing a world, you know, both saturated in fossil fuels and also produced by them, right? I think this is like the question of the field, right? How do you actually represent this? How do you actually make legible something like what I guess I call, and by the way, I stole that term, the petro-spectral presence. I was just teaching Pablo Neruda this wonderful poem, Standard Oil, the other evening. So that’s it’s a wonderful, where he also uses the term petroliferous, which is a sort of. How do you how do you make that felt? How do you how do you make this legible, right? This is something that we’re centrally concerned with in our field. And so, you know, you know, so I guess it just to say a couple of things, you know? And of course, we think we talked a little bit about this earlier this morning. It sort of, you know, this question of how we read for oils that are no longer, sorry, read for oil in ways in critical ways that are no longer constrained by the conventional categories of classic literary criticism. You know, and I’m thinking about energy humanist Susan Hatmaker, who writes about coal, is great. You know, she refers to the reductive like an epistemological, what she calls, epistemological containers with which we have long apprehended cultural works, right? So how do we get away from that and and conceive of new hermeneutics, if you will, to literally read for oil or to read for that which is otherwise illegible? Right? So and this is where, you know, in our field again, we often talk about forms of structural invisible, invisibilities, of course, we’re asking, you know, how we how we read for that. The other thing that we often think about, right? And you know, you mentioned form and we’ve been talking about forms, though like both, you know, how we make this otherwise spectral presence of energy legible. But but also like how we understand literary form right in different ways as and which is to say, as directly produced by the form of this global petro sphere. Right. So how we understand plot, for example, not in terms of the sort of banal themes of the modern novel, but instead as a production of the material forces that mitigate its every turn. Right. And we were talking this morning about a kind of extractive temporality or a developmentalist temporality right, which is imminent to, you know, popular “world literature” or sort of the modern novel, the buildings, Vermont and so forth. So how do we read the form itself, right, as in hearing with kind of with the sort of temporalities and material realities produced by extractive capitalism? And then, you know, one other thing we do talk about quite a bit in the book and in the field, right, is sort of how to think about the aesthetics of “resources” right? You know? And Jeff Diamanti and Brent Bellamy’s wonderful book on sort of Material Critiques of Energy in the introduction they talk about how resources have historically been seen as having is say, you know, it’s great matter that literally has no aesthetic whatsoever. Right? And as we’ve talked about here, right like that, you know, these resources are simply brut matter that don’t come into being until marshaled into, you know, come out of viable forms or tradable forms, right? And so what we try to also do is sort of think about the aesthetic, you know, the aesthetics of resources themselves and and you know, and how those, you know, answer the aesthetic, I guess of the, what we might call a sort of infrastructural esthetics. And I’ll stop there because I think we are over time. But thank you.


Firat Oruc [00:32:14]: Thank you. I’m sure we can go, you know, at least one hour more, but this was really great and perhaps since I am in my jamesonian moment of announcing dictums, I’ll add that all world literature is hydrocarbon literature.


Stacey Balkan [00:32:38]: I love that. Yeah.


Firat Oruc [00:32:38]: Well, Stacey and Swaralipi, I’d like to thank you again for this genuinely enjoyable conversation. And we should definitely do another podcast interview when your next books are out. And who knows, maybe we’ll bring you together in Doha in person. That would be even lovelier. But thank you so much

Stacey Balkan and Swaralipi Nandi [00:33:07]: Thank you. Thank you.