Published on November 15, 2021
In this episode, Vicky Googasian speaks with Santiago Acosta, a Postdoctoral Fellow at SUNY-Old Westbury about Venezuelan oil literature, about his work on a book project entitled We Are Like Oil: An Ecology of the Venezuelan Culture Boom, 1973-1983.
Speaker: Santiago Acosta is a scholar and poet working at the intersections of literature, visual culture, and political ecology. He holds a PhD in Latin American and Iberian Cultures from Columbia University and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at SUNY-Old Westbury. His book project, We Are Like Oil: An Ecology of the Venezuelan Culture Boom, 1973-1983, examines the relationship between the visual arts, cultural institutions, and state-led ecological transformations in Venezuela during the 1970s oil boom. His poetry collection El próximo desierto (The coming desert) won the 2018 José Emilio Pacheco Literature Prize “City and Nature,” awarded by the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL) and the Museum of Environmental Sciences of Guadalajara University.
Moderator: Victoria Googasian, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.
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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]
VICTORIA GOOGASIAN [00:00:24]: For ease of listening, we’ve broken today’s conversation into two shorter episodes. In this first half of my conversation with Dr. Acosta, we speak about the complicated ontology of oil, the relationship between the oil state and cultural production, and why the era of the Venezuelan oil boom produced so much abstract kinetic art.
GOOGASIAN [00:00:44]: Hello to our listeners and welcome to Everyday Energy. I’m Vicky Googasian. I’m one of three hosts for this podcast series. And this episode is part of what we’re thinking of as our our second cluster of podcast episodes, where we’re taking on the theme of ‘Representing Oil.’ And I’ll just take this chance to remind everyone, if you haven’t listened to our first episode cluster, where we spoke to three very interesting guests about energy and lived experience. You can find it on our website or on a variety of podcast platforms, along with the other episodes in The Representing Oil Cluster. So without further ado, today, I’m thrilled to be speaking with Dr. Santiago Acosta. We’ll just take a moment to introduce to you. Dr. Acosta is a scholar and poet working at the intersections of literature, visual culture and political ecology. And he holds a Ph.D. in Latin American and Iberian cultures from Columbia University. He’s currently a postdoctoral fellow at SUNY Old Westbury. He is at work on a book project that I think our listeners should find very interesting. Hopefully, we’ll chat a little bit about it today. It’s entitled We Are Like Oil: An Ecology of Venezuelan Culture Boom, 1973-1983. And it examines the relationship between the visual arts, cultural institutions and the state led ecological transformations in Venezuela during the 1970s oil boom. He’s also the author of several books of poetry, most recently the award-winning collection of El próximo desierto It translates The Coming Desert. So Santiago, welcome. I’m really happy that you were able to take the time to join us today.
SANTIAGO ACOSTA [00:02:31]: Thank you so much for having me.
GOOGASIAN [00:02:35]: Well, in this podcast series, I think we’ve we’ve we’ve sort of fallen into a little bit of a habit or tradition of asking people to talk a little bit about their origin stories. How they came to be interested in energy and energy studies in the first place. So I’ll just kick us off by asking you to say a bit about how you came to this topic of oil and cultural production as a research interest.
ACOSTA [00:03:01]: Sure, yeah, thank you for that question. And again, for inviting me to your podcast. As how I came to be interested in this subject. It’s funny because it would seem that the answer should be pretty straightforward. You know with me being from Venezuela an oil producing country and being a scholar in cultural production. But it actually took me several years and different projects to finally develop, I would say, a lasting interest. an interest in the subject to sort of I would say to find the angle that really resonated with me. Because I studied literature, mainly poetry. I always did a lot of archival work and close readings. I was thinking about how notions of literary value were formed and the relation between this and practices of interpretation and literary criticism. And I was always very interested in the 1960s and 70s in Venezuela. In that period, the cultural apparatus expanded the state cultural apparatus and grew because of, you know, oil money basically from the oil boom of the 70s. But at this point, I wasn’t really thinking yet about the relation between the poets that I was reading and and the country’s political economy. But then something happened about eight years ago for different reasons, including that I was taking some very interesting seminars at Columbia University during the first year of my Ph.D. and I became interested in in the subject of indigenous struggles for land. What happened is that in 2013, an indigenous leader called Sabino Romero was assassinated in Venezuela. And it was really tragic and shocking for me. And it drove me to the research about the fight of the Yupa community to recover their ancestral territories. But what struck me here was that the Yupa were in this very complicated situation. Their lands were occupied by cattle ranchers. But were also on top of this massive coal mines and the coal deposits that belong to the State as does all the subsoil in Venezuela. So they were caught between capitalists cattle ranchers and the oil state with no way out of this deadlock. At that moment. I was reading a lot of Marx and Marxist thought and I read Fernando Coronil’s, The Magical State. This book that completely blew my mind and taught me a lot about how Venezuelan politics was deeply tied not only to oil, but to the subsoil and to nature in general. And the Yupas really never had a chance, I think, because the Venezuelan state, by definition and from its inception, is grounded in its ownership of the land and subsoil. As Coronil says, the Venezuelan state is the ultimate landlord. It owns oil. So it’s very difficult to fight for land in that context. And most importantly, this oil state plays a central role in what Jason Moore calls The World Ecology. This indivisible bundle of nature, capital, and the state that that is premised on the infinite appropriation and commodification of humans and nature. So all this made me go back and look at the cultural field of the 1970s with a very different perspective. And it made me ask a number of different questions like what is the role of culture in all of this? How does cultural production and esthetics and ideas contribute to keeping this system in place? And what can we do to make things change?
GOOGASIAN [00:06:59]: Yeah, can I just follow up and ask just because I was struck by by as a as a sort of fellow literary studies person, I was struck by the fact that it was these questions of literary value. You said that you were thinking about before this this kind of change of tack. And so how did this this kind of realization factor into how you were thinking about esthetics value? Does that does that question make sense?
ACOSTA [00:07:26]: Yeah. I mean, that was the first project that I had when I when I began my Ph.D. And it relates to actually to a project that I, a poetry journal that I used to run in Venezuela called El Salmón. And what we did, me and a friend, we did a lot of archival work and we published poets who had been completely forgotten, who kind of slip through the cracks of the canon of the canonization process of what should be understood as national poetry in Venezuela. So I was trying to combine reflection about cultural institutions and universities, how they reproduced these ideas about what the nation means and what. And I guess the role that literary criticism has in nation building processes in the 20th century, trying to combine that kind of reflection about cultural politics, and institutions with close reading of the text and trying to find a sort of connection between how this process leaves people, leaves poets out and a connection that between that and an interpretation and what kind of interpretation this literary criticism usually do. And when does it fail to recognize literary value in forms, in poetic forms that are basically more difficult to interpret or to or to incorporate in a more solid idea of the canon. But that was very different, a very different project. But then going through the whole reading Coronil and finding out about the Yupas, gave me a different perspective. So yes, it was kind of a weird path, but it brought me here. Yeah.
GOOGASIAN [00:09:14]: Oh, yeah. It’s funny. I think what you said at the beginning was really fascinating, but it seems like it should be a straightforward story. But when you ask people about how they came to their kind of research obsessions, it seems like it’s rarely, rarely a straight path. So that’s great to hear about. Well, maybe I’ll bring us now direct us now to the theme of our cluster Representing Oil, as I was saying at the outset, and it seems like that you have something particularly interesting to bring to this question as somebody who’s thinking about and here I’m quoting from from your book description, “the cultural policies that oil money made possible.” So can you speak a little bit about the challenges or possibilities that oil presents, either as, as the kind of enabling factor behind cultural production or as a as a subject of representation, whatever direction you’d like to take that?
ACOSTA [00:10:20]: Yeah, I’ve actually given a lot of thought to this question, but I think it’s very important and productive, and of course, there are many scholars in the energy humanities who have written a great deal about it. So how I see it, the thing is that oil has a very complicated ontology that allows it to be many different things at the same time. It is a real material and natural substance that makes all sorts of products and creates all kinds of damages in the environment, like oil spills and carbon emissions, you name it. But it is also a commodity that circulates through massive global financial system that is highly dematerialized. And it is also a social relation, as Matthew Huber says, because its material capacities are only mobilized in certain historical and economic circumstances and so on and so on. So I think that this quality, this multiple ontology conditions, how culture and the scholarship about oil approaches the subject and if you think about it, the scholarship seems to be divided along similar lines. Some say that seeing oil as a commodity only in circulation through the financial and energy system obscures the fact that oil is in fact nature, that it has a relation to labor and that it has material effects and signs of extraction or oil spills. So direct environmental damage. And I think this is a fair point because a big part of what sustains oil’s regime is the invisiblization of those effects. But at the same time, representing oil only in this form as a material substance doesn’t really say much about the fact that under capitalism, we mostly experience oil as a commodity, as an energy system, as a financial and economic system of planetary and global dimensions. So I think that all this relates to an ongoing debate about the visibility of oil in cultural production. Where do we see oil, how do we see it? How should we look for it? How do we represent it? In Venezuela, a lot has been written about whether there is a petroleum novel, for example. And then here in the global north, there are there’s the energy humanities, as I said before. And the petro-culture is the idea of petro-culture is that tries to name the cultural practices that sustain oil’s energy regime, mostly by keeping petroleum out of sight, invisible. But then at the same time, other scholars have said that it is pointless to look for the thematization of oil in culture because oil will always be more than just a theme. It will always exceed and kind of overflow any representational form. So there is this conflict that I think relates to this multiple ontology of oil, depends on how you approach it. In my research, I try to think of oil both as a substance that is extracted, burned and represented in literature as a theme. And also, as in almost as this are practically immaterial commodity that’s always in circulation and they can have effects on human societies in more indirect ways, for example, imperialism, new colonialism, under development and all that . So you have to think of oil in those in those two forms where it also sometimes appears, not even as a literal substance and not even as energy, but more as a foundation of the economy as a whole, as a condition of a factor of national subjectivity, in the case of Venezuela. Mm hmm. Because if you think about it, it was only after oil is converted into capital, into money, that it really acquires this devastating environmental effects. What I mean is that oil can leave the ground and flow through pipelines and spill in the oceans only after it has become part of this huge economic and cultural system that that makes it into a resource. Right. So in my research, I say, oil is not only a theme or a substance, but is, I see it as an organizing force in the general relations between nature and society. And I see the problem of a static representation of oil as part of this broader reflection to theorize the place of culture in the ecology of capitalism. That’s why I find that cultural policies and oil sponsorship of the arts are so important and and so are more indirect ways that that the impacts of oil development are represented. For example, I don’t know urban photography or art that doesn’t necessarily represent oil directly, but is somehow impacted and shaped by it, even at the level of form,and we can talk more about that.
GOOGASIAN [00:15:38]: Yeah, yeah, I would love to talk more about that, in fact, let me just ask maybe a kind of crude question that perhaps doesn’t have an answer, but I’m wondering is, is there anything specific or particular to oil sponsored art?
ACOSTA [00:15:57]: Well, I don’t know if there’s anything particular I think in the case of Venezuela, you have to look at it. It would depend a lot on the period that you’re that you’re studying. In the 19-. In the 1970s, there was, of course, this huge boom, as I see it. Most of the cultural institutions that are still existing today were created after 1958 in the, a lot of them were created in the late 60s and then by the mid 70s. And and that really shapes I mean, when I was growing up in Venezuela, all the the publishing houses that I bought books from and everything that I used to for school, it was they were all founded in the 1970s. And and at some point I even toyed with the idea of when I was thinking about the canon of Venezuelan poetry, that it was actually formed. I mean, the way we understand it now, what the main poets are, it was created in the 70s. I think it was solidified in 70s thanks to this huge investment by the State in the cultural sector. And but if you think about other types of, other areas of the cultural production of the cultural field, if you look at the visual art, it is very evident that from the 1950s, late 50s onward, abstract art is very much in the front of everything. It becomes the visual language of the state practically. And that relates to a lot of different to a broad history, to a very large history of the relations between abstraction and extraction in Venezuela. But in the 70s, you see how the murals of, for example, Carlos Cruz-Diez, abstract kinetic murals were pretty much all over the city and you can still see them today. Some of them are in very bad shape. A lot of them have been restored with oil money again recently.So that’s something that I think is very particular to that period. Abstract kinetic art and and publishing houses and museums and all kinds of cultural centers created with oil money. Yeah.
GOOGASIAN [00:18:26]:Yeah. And so is that that sort of a profusion of abstract kinetic art. Is that an example of what you were referring to as the sort of links between oil as a as a kind of productive cultural force and form?
ACOSTA [00:18:41]: Yeah, definitely the whole esthetic ideology behind abstract kinetic art had to do with the the way that the artist was capable of handling energy and modifying and transforming the energy of color and of light into events of esthetic perception. And and that also related to the way that artists create environments made of color and color seem to dematerialize. And there was this entire set of discourses around kinetic art, and that was very similar to what the State was saying about how it would handle the nation’s natural wealth and transform it into the visible signs of modernity, you know, and how Venezuela would be transformed from this almost rural country, agricultural country before the 1950s into a modern nation that was completely integrated into the international arena. Right. And had like a new sense of respect. So there was a lot of talk about transforming the raw matter of nature and the raw matter of society into something more refined. That could be a sort of event of perception and. Yeah. Like a more sophisticated nation. And and everything revolved around how to capture the energies of nature and of society and channeled them into a project, into a national project.
GOOGASIAN [00:20:26]: That’s really fascinating, that kind of shared shared rhetoric of refinement between between the arts, the arts and the extractive state. Well, maybe this is a good opportunity to ask you. I wanted to ask you to say something about the title of your book project, because I think it’s really it’s a really evocative phrase. “We are like oil.” And it jumped out at me, particularly in the context of our podcast series here, because we’ve been talking about our kind of big theme, the lived experience of energy. So I wanted to ask you, under what circumstances is it that people experience themselves as like oil?
ACOSTA [00:21:08]: Yeah, the title “We Are Like Oil” is a reference to something that Venezuelan artist and playwright César Rengifo said in an interview in 1973. He was interviewed about his large public work that he was creating for the Ministry of Defense. So it was a mural that was commissioned by the State and he was arguing that the Venezuelan culture should be entirely sponsored by the State with oil money. And that corporations shouldn’t have a part in it because this was the only way that artists could be truly free as long as the private sector wasn’t involved. And then he says that the government should make use of the human materials and spiritual resources that artists represent. And he says, “We are like oil: a reserve; but in Venezuela, we have yet to be set in motion.” Somos como el petróleo: una reserva; pero en Venezuela aún no se nos ha puesto en marcha. So as I explained the first chapter of my book project, I think that he’s using this image as a rhetorical device to appeal to the developmentalist and extractive oil state to try to get more support and to claim more spaces, more ways of participating in the nation’s natural wealth and I think this should be explained a bit further to get the full picture in Venezuela, as Fernando Coronil says, in The Magical State, democracy is understood as the right to get your part of the nation’s natural wealth of the nation’s oil money. He says that towards the middle of the 20th century or so, after the return of democracy to the country, that is the fall of the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez participation in politics and the country’s subsoil became synonymous with participation in democracy. And basically around that time the political elite agreed that the oil industry should be nationalized at some point in the future, which eventually happened in 1976. And the whole relationship between the state and the people and oil corporations completely changed. So Rengifo, when he says this and many other intellectuals after him, they frequently used these metaphors of culture as a resource and artists as raw matter, that should be exported and and should be seen as something valuable outside of the country, in the international space as well. So he’s saying, make us work, pay us, make us work in the same way that you put our oil to work for the nation. And I found in my research that this same kind of rationality is very suggestive metaphors about oil and very spiritual resources and all that or the actually the foundation of the cultural policies and cultural institutions that were created after 1958 in Venezuela and throughout the 70s and 80s. But an interesting thing about the Rengifo quote is that I think it proves or it shows that this was not simply a top down process for the state institutionalized culture, but it was more like a two way street. The state integrated artists and intellectuals into the official apparatus and in that way actually kept them in check in a way. But the artists and the intellectuals also used their own power and their own cultural capital and symbolic capital to negotiate spaces of autonomy and more participation in national public life. So, yeah, this metaphor of being like oil was at the center of all that process.
GOOGASIAN [00:24:54]: Yeah, that’s really interesting because I I think, you know, one could if one if one reads it lazily, one could read it as as people sort of experience themselves as this inert resource to be exploited. But you explained how, of course, oil is a is a substance that has a particular kind of power. So maybe claiming to be like oil is a way of of actually claiming some agency within that structure. At least that’s what I’m taking you to be, to be arguing here.
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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]
VICTORIA GOOGASIAN [00:00:24]: Welcome back to Everyday Energy. I’m Vicky Googasian, and this episode is part II of my conversation with Santiago Acosta, poet, and scholar of Venezuelan cultural history. In the second half, we speak about petro cultures of the global south, ecological crisis, and why oil is the devil’s excrement. We also get some great reading suggestions, so stay tuned for those at the end of the episode.
GOOGASAIN [00:00:49]: Maybe we can we can zoom out a little bit because one of the contributions that I think you highlight for your work is that it can widen our understanding of petro-cultures and petro-modernity, which has so far focused somewhat exclusively on the on the global north. So I wanted to ask, how is how is the study of oil culture different? Do you think when it begins with the global south or takes the global south, as the sort of center of petro-modernity is a starting point for an inquiry or with Venezuela in particular?
SANTIAGO ACOSTA [00:01:28]: Yeah, that’s a great question. Thank you. I don’t think that oil in the global south is experienced primarily as I don’t know, the comforts of modernity that are widely and easily accessible. I think, on the contrary, it is often experienced as a burden or as a as a curse. You know, as I say, this is why we encounter so many writings and work so far that identify oil with, for example, the devil’s excrement. That’s how that’s a phrase coined by OPEC founder, Venezuelan guy, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo. And oil producing countries, I think, are usually plagued by all kinds of problems, political instability, economic dependency, environmental degradation, you name it. You could think of this, I guess, as something similar to what the colonial critics have theorized as the darker side of modernity, or I would say the darker side of petro-modernity. And so the violence and destruction that that makes possible capitalist development, as such, but which falls entirely on one side of the world, usually the post-colonial societies of the global south and the marginalized peoples of the world and in nature, you know, everything that suffers negative impacts of modernity. So when I read about modern societies, addiction to abundant and always available energy, I can’t help to think of gasoline shortages in Venezuela and all over Latin America. It’s a completely different picture. Or when I hear someone say that modern society is completely dependent on oil, I don’t think of oil in terms of all the, I don’t know, petrochemical products that are available or how plastics have shaped in relation to the world. No, what I see in my head is oil as this unequal international division of labor and of nature. That sort of subjugates extractive periphery to the to to what I was saying to the negative effects of oil extraction and oil trading, including environmental degradation, but also political and economic instability. While sending most of the profits and benefits and comforts to the global south. So so I don’t think that oil as a as a civilizational force can be fully understood unless we take into account the broader history of extraction and neo-colonialism. That is not limited to hydrocarbons, by the way, but goes back to the beginnings of the modern world system with European colonization.
GOOGASIAN [00:04:09]: I really like your phrase, ‘the darker, darker side of petro-modernity,’ I think that’s a that’s a really helpful way to think about it. So thanks for that. OK, well, maybe changing tacks a little bit, but I think one of the reasons why we’re also very excited to have you on the podcast was because you’re also a practicing poet. So could you speak a little bit about the role that that oil plays, if any, or other forms of energy play in your poetry? Are you are you actively trying to engage in that project of representing the substance that resists visibility, as you were talking about earlier?
ACOSTA [00:04:55]: Yeah, a little bit, I mean, it’s not necessarily at the center of my of my project, but it’s definitely something that, as I was saying, is part of a bigger, bigger problem, the bigger context. And that is basically the workings of the capitalist world ecology. In El próximo desierto, I guess I had to to blend poetry and the narrative form to create this sort of hybrid form that made it easier to write about it and to imagine. What I did, was write about and write about several different scenarios in the future. I didn’t do this in any systematic way. Of course, of the poems are about many different things and they all tell different stories. But in the background, there’s always this type of dystopian setting. I don’t know. I prefer to write poetry about the subjects in more indirect ways as a background that influences and determines the subjectivity that the poem is trying to to to represent. So in a couple of the poems from the book, I write about this world after oil, for example, about after hydrocarbons are no longer used as a form of energy. But I develop this scenario in which this, in fact doesn’t change anything fundamentally. For example, I say something like I don’t know, we thought that after oil society, that after oil, society will become more equal, the air would be cleaner. But this never happened. Instead, the State has become more repressive and violent. Here of course, I was thinking about how Venezuela may be entering this sort of post petroleum era, being that the higher oil industry is in shambles and the government is looking to expand mining and extraction activities into the Amazon and the Orinoco River Basin, which, of course, is making everything much worse. My thinking here was that it’s not enough to think about a future that supersedes the need for abundant energy in the global north or that supersedes fossil fuels in general. That’s an important issue. But oil, as I see it, is only part of nature, just one more part of nature that is commodify, extracted and sold in the international market. And therefore, it is part of a much larger structure and a much longer history of unequal relations in capitalism that also needs to be addressed. And by creating these types of backgrounds in my poems, I was, I guess I was trying to suggest all these meanings, not in any direct, straightforward way, but simply as a small change in the context that completely defamiliarizes, the world.
GOOGASIAN [00:07:49]: Yeah, I was going to ask you specifically to talk about the sort of role of ecological crisis in your work and the links between this representation of a world in crisis and these extractive processes. I think you’ve started to answer that question. So I guess I’ll just ask if there’s anything else you’d like to add on that topic.
ACOSTA [00:08:12]: Yeah, in my research and my book project in particular, I write about those two types of works of cultural products. Some some visual artists like Carlos Cruz-Diez or Alejandro Otero, were I would say complicit with the extractive state to a certain degree and with the entire ideological apparatus of the federal state, but in very subtle ways, are not usually, I think, recognized in studies about Venezuela. But on the other hand, there cultural producers who even when many of them, not all of them, but some of them were working within the same circle of oil sponsored institutions, were capable of elaborating a critique of oil capitalism. Again, through this very indirect ways that that we really need to to read closely, to notice that. For example, I’m thinking of photographers like Ramón Paolini who try to represent how Caracas, the capital city, have become a type of monster, urban monster, an urban chimera, he says, after so many layers and layers of basically unplanned and spasmodic oil funded development. Or the works of filmmaker Carlos Oteyza. He filmed the thousands of Venezuelans who flew to Miami every day at the peak of the oil boom to basically spend all the extra money that they had, in shopping malls. This documentary called Mayami Nuestro, it’s just absolutely fascinating. And he draws some very subtle parallels between that compulsion to spend and the way that oil’s energy regime is based on continuous expenditure and the idea that energy and money are somehow infinite and unlimited and always accessible. But these were not I think, they were really neatly divided fields. And you can’t speak here of two opposing teams of cultural producers, one complaisant and the other one critical. Yeah, the reality was much more difficult to pin down. And part of my work is to evaluate in hindsight how cultural production participated in all the changes that the Venezuelan oil state went through since the 50s, until the mid 80s.
GOOGASIAN [00:10:46]: Yeah, the concept of complicity is really interesting in this in this context, because as you speak about, this is the kind of global hegemonic system in which we could not really avoid some degree of complicity. But it’s useful to hear you to make some of these distinctions about the different kinds of cultural practice that are coming out of that. Yeah. So let me move us a little bit away from oil specifically, this is this is a kind of forward looking question for our energy humanities project here at CIRS, because we’ve recently become interested in the the more effective dimensions of energy, another way of kind of tying this topic to lived experience. And so with that in mind, I was really interested in the first poem from El próximo desierto, the title of which I think translates in English, ‘Never give your heart to a nuclear plant.’ And this seems to me to be about the kinds of deep attachments that we have to cheap and abundant energy and also at the same time about the kinds of denial and despair, thinking about more negative affective relationships that those attachments cover up. So let me just ask you, what kinds of affects would you say are most important to thinking about the lived experience of energy?
ACOSTA [00:12:19]: Yeah, again, I can only think of this from the perspective of the of the global south and specifically Venezuela. I think the first thing that comes to mind is that there’s a lot of anxiety involved, mainly because of the issue of accessibility to energy. Access to the energy is deeply unequal in Latin America. There are, for example, infrastructural challenges, economic distortions that lead to problems like gasoline smuggling. And there is, of course, the problem of power outages, electrical grids that are failing, hydroelectric dams that are failing after having, you know, meant such a huge expense for these countries when in debt to build these dams. Back in the 70s, the World Bank was financing mega dams everywhere in the world. It was crazy. And now a lot of them honestly need to be dismantled. I would say, replaced by smaller ones or by solar and wind, who knows, because they’re failing and the research has proven proven that they can’t be seen anymore as any kind of clean energy with such a huge environmental impact. But still, this dams, and I’m thinking specifically of the Guri Dam in Venezuela, are part of the national imaginary. They’re an essential aspect of what makes people proud of their nation. And I think Rob Nixon says that dams are a sort of national performance art and the esthetic esthetic of mega dams plays a fundamental role here. So, I mean, at the risk of sounding like a pessimist, which I’m not, I can only think of this negative affects like anxiety, fear and disappointment, even the shame, you know. Venezuela is an oil producing country that needs to import gasoline from Iran. It’s a paradox. It’s a it’s very hard to understand. It’s very confusing, but it’s something that defines the everyday experience of energy there. And and you were you were mentioning my my poem about a nuclear plant and and, yeah, nuclear energy we know it has a lot of potential, but it also has many negative impacts. And we have to think about where those impacts will go and who will benefit and who will get the darker side of that kind of energy.
GOOGASIAN [00:14:52]: Yeah, that’s that makes a lot of sense, what you say about the kind of dominance of these more negative aspects to that darker side. So you think that that even this kind of national narrative of fear and shame and disappointment, as you were referencing, that kind of filters down to even individuals’ everyday experience of energy?
ACOSTA [00:15:17] Yeah, I mean, I think in Venezuela, you are exposed to this every day. It’s actually kind of difficult. The thing is that it’s difficult to zoom out and make these connections that I’ve been saying, you know, and so I’m…
GOOGASIAN [00:15:32]: A problem of scale
ACOSTA [00:15:34]: Yeah, exactly, a problem of scale. You’re so immersed in the society that for so long has taken oil and energy petrodollars for granted. You know, there are these oil booms, like in the 70s or even in 2006. And you don’t think about it. And it’s very hard to zoom out and see the danger in that kind of a kind of behavior. So you have to zoom out and you have to look at the geopolitics of being a major exporting society and the way that power plays out internationally, but also how the world market and global politics have this kind of local impact that can be seen every day, even when you’re in a line to fill your tank with gasoline. So you have to zoom out and look not only at the space in terms of geopolitics, as I was saying, but also the history of this larger history of colonial extraction and domination of nature, not only by foreign powers, but also internally, like the issue of internal colonialism and the expectation that the very Venezuelan state is doing, has always done, in the Amazon and Guayana Region and everywhere and the impact of all that. So it’s it’s really it’s very difficult. And you have to really zoom out. Yeah.
GOOGASIAN [00:16:59]: Well, the last thing that I wanted to ask you to leave our listeners with was maybe any any suggestions that you might have for people who are interested in learning more about either the petro-cultures of the of the global south or the cultural production of extractive states, or for that matter, any poets that you’d want us to have on our radar to recommend to our listeners.
ACOSTA [00:17:27]: Yeah, absolutely. Well, the first book that comes to mind is Fernando Coronil’s that I mentioned.
GOOGASIAN [00:17:33]: Yes, we’ll be sure to to make sure that’s linked in the podcast page.
ACOSTA [00:17:38]: I think I think it’s one of the best books about the subject. And perhaps at least for me, I’m a big fan. So to me, it’s like the greatest book ever written about Venezuela. That’s how much I love it. Then you have Jennifer Wenzel’s, The Disposition of Nature, which I believe has, she’s written a lot about Nigeria. And there are a lot of parallels, I think, between Nigeria and Venezuela, especially in the 70s. And there’s also that book by Andrew Apter called, The Pan-African Nation, about Nigeria as well in the 70s in Nigeria. That was really helpful and doing my research. And now there are people working in world ecology, for example, Kerstin Oloff or her writings about zombies in the Caribbean, literature and film. I really like them. There is Michael Niblett, his book just came out. It’s called Something Like Literature, World Ecology and Global Food System. And then in poetry, I would recommend, I think, Raquel Salas Rivera, Puerto Rican poet. His book, Lo Terciario, The Tertiary, is very amazing about depth and value and environmental impacts of of everything in Puerto Rico, and then I really like Daniel Borzutzky. His book came out a few years ago, The Performance of Becoming Human. It’s an amazing poetry book. And then recently, Timothy Donnelly, his book, The Problem of The Many. I really like that one. Yeah.
GOOGASIAN [00:19:31]: Sounds like a great list to me. Yeah, so yeah, thanks so much for that. And we’ll be sure to make a little reading list for the for the podcast page and to include your own work in that as well for listeners who might be interested in reading more.
ACOSTA [00:19:50]: Thank you.
GOOGASIAN [00:19:51]: Yeah. Well, and thank you so much Dr. Acosta for joining us today. I think is really great conversation and I hope our listeners will have enjoyed it.
ACOSTA [00:20:02]: Thank you. It was my pleasure.
[DRUMMING AND BIRDS CHIRPING]
- Fernando Coronil. The magical state: Nature, money, and modernity in Venezuela. University of Chicago Press, 1997.
- Jennifer Wenzel. The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature. Fordham University Press, 2019.
- Andrew Apter. The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria. University of Chicago Press, 2008.
- Michael Niblett. World Literature and Ecology: The Aesthetics of Commodity Frontiers, 1890-1950. Springer Nature, 2020.
- Santiago Acosta. “Una economía mayamera: petróleo, gasto y consumo en el ocaso de la “Venezuela saudita”.” Estudios de Teoría Literaria-Revista digital: artes, letras y humanidades 10, no. 21 (2021): 117-127.
- Santiago Acosta. “El Capitaloceno y la ecología de la cultura.” Reporte Saxto Piso, (2021).
- Santiago Acosta. “Posthegemonía y postsubalternidad: desencuentros del latinoamericanismo frente a la “marea rosada”.” Cuadernos de literatura 20, no. 39 (2016): 28-40.
- Santiago Acosta. “La cabellera negra de Emira Rodríguez.” Letra Muerta (2017).
- Santiago Acosta. “Los poetas del desvarío: Tensiones entre sentido y rostridad en la poesía venezolana del siglo XX.”Investigaciones Literarias 1, no. 18 (2010), 87-102.
- Santiago Acosta. “Vilas sabe lo que hace, o la poesía como crítica de la ideología.” in Antología poética by Manuel Vilas, Barco de Piedra, 2015.
- Kerstin Oloff. “‘Greening’the Zombie: Caribbean Gothic, World-Ecology, and Socio-Ecological Degradation.” Green Letters 16, no. 1 (2012): 31-45.
- Kerstin Oloff. “Zombies, gender, and world-ecology: Gothic narrative in the work of Ana Lydia Vega and Mayra Montero.” The Caribbean: Aesthetics, world-ecology, politics (2016): 46.
- El próximo desierto – by Santiago Acosta
- Negro oscuro • Blanco trágico / Mañana vendrán las piedras
- Cuaderno de otra parte – by Santiago Acosta
- Detrás de los erizos – by Santiago Acosta
- El Salmón – a journal devoted to archival work on Venezuelan poetry, founded and edited by Santiago Acosta & Willy McKey.
- Lo Terciario / The Tertiary – by Raquel Salas Rivera
- The Performance of Becoming Human – by Daniel Borzutzky
- The Problem of the Many – by Timothy Donnelly
- Mayami Nuestro by Carlos Oteyza – in Spanish