Reading for Oil
Published on June 28, 2021
In this episode, Vicky Googasian speaks with Elizabeth Barrios, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latin American & Latino/a Studies at Albion College about Venezuelan oil literature, what fiction has to say about everyday energetic life, and why oil industry propaganda is fun.
Speaker: Elizabeth Barrios is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latin American & Latino/a Studies at Albion College in Michigan, USA. She received her doctorate from the University of Michigan in 2016. Her current research interests include environmental and energy humanities, petrofictions, Venezuelan literary and cultural studies, Latin American Diaspora Studies, and Latin American cinema. She is currently working on a book manuscript titled Failures of The Imagination: Reckoning with Oil in Venezuelan Cultural Production. Her publications include, “This Is Not an Oil Novel: Obstacles to Reading Petronarratives in High-Energy Cultures”, “Nuestro petróleo y otros cuentos: naturaleza y extractivismo en la revolución bolivariana”, “The Times and Surfaces of Venezuelan Oil Literature: A Reading of Oficina No. 1 and Guachimanes”
Moderator: Victoria Googasian, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.
[BIRDS CHIRPING] [DRUMMING]
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]: Hello and welcome to our listeners to our new podcast on the Lived Experience of Energy. My name’s Vicki Googasian. I’m an Assistant Professor of American literature here at Georgetown University in Qatar. And I’m here with Elizabeth Barrios, who’s the Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latin American and Latino Latina studies at Albion College. And her current research interests include Environmental and Energy Humanities. Petro Fictions, Venezuelan Literary and Cultural studies, Latin American diaspora studies and Latin American cinema and very relevant for our purposes today, she’s currently at work on a book manuscript titled Failures of the Imagination: Reckoning with Oil in Venezuelan Cultural Production. So welcome, Dr. Barrios. We’re really hoping that you can help us think about the relevance of literary studies in particular to our our theme for this podcast. The Lived Experience of Energy.
ELIZABETH BARRIOS [00:01:28]: Right. Thank you for inviting me and having me here. It’s my first appearance on a podcast.
GOOGASIAN [00:01:35]: Well, it’s my first time interviewing anyone for a podcast. We will figure out the process. So I figured before we jump into, to some of the more the nitty gritty details of your work, I thought I would I would ask you, what made you personally want to research and write about the relationship between fiction and energy? Or if you could speak a little bit about the literary text or the archive that interests you most right now in your work?
BARRIOS [00:02:14]: Yeah. I mean, big picture how I ended up here. I really liked literature and so majored in literature and I particularly liked Latin American literature. And so I went to grad school for it. But I had no interest or even idea of thinking about writing, about reading about energy in relation to to to to literature. If anything, I don’t know, 12 years ago, those two things would have seemed to antithetical to me. Sure. And in grad school, I was going through the process of preparing for preliminary exams. And I was more interested in questions of historical memory and temporality. And I wasn’t even studying Venezuela. I was interested in maybe more of the Cuban or Argentinian contexts. And in the process of deciding how to narrow down these interests, I often kept asking myself how the questions that I was looking at related to Venezuela, which is the country that I’m originally from. I grew up there. But I had no, no academic interest in Venezuela. But I had this personal interest where every so often, right, I would look up like, well, what has been written about Venezuela with regards to these topics? And I often found myself very dissatisfied with a lot of the scholarship about Venezuelan history and literature. And it was almost by accident that in that process of kind of now, I don’t know, being curious about why I was so dissatisfied with everything I read about Venezuela that I stumbled upon this. Now it’s like a classic book on Venezuelan and Venezuela and oil, but it’s from Fernando Coronil’s, The Magical State. And it kind of open this door for me of like. Oh, right. Like, you can’t really understand the Venezuelan context if you don’t understand oil. And so then after reading that, I thought, well, what I wonder what the follow up has been, because that book was published in 1997. So I was kind of excited to see like, well, what has come out of this? This very famous, at least on the field book and its own exploration about the role of nature and energy in Venezuelan society. And what I found is that the book had inspired a lot of work about the state and about politics, but not in relation to questions about nature and the environment or even how oil impacts life beyond just economic life. I know that these things are separate, right? The state or economic life or everyday life. All of these things are interconnected. Which I guess was so. Oh, well, the state and Chávez and politics and economic policy. And just from seeing that big hole there, I just felt compelled to to put everything else aside and started exploring how else might we think about Venezuelan society, especially in relationship to oil and the environment. And I think in that process of of of thinking about all of this, this this memory like cropped up that I hadn’t really thought about since I was a kid, which was I remember at some point in elementary school in Venezuela being told that Venezuelan oil didn’t pollute quite as much as oil from other countries. Oh, wow. Yeah. And like I believed it. And I never really questioned it. And the thing is that later in life I became interested in environmentalism and climate change, but I never took that, like, step to then think about how this related to Venezuela or to remember that very blatant piece of propaganda that had shown up at some point in my elementary school. And since I’ve tried to look up, if this was in any way like sponsored by the state or if there’s anything written about this and I haven’t been able to find anything. But I do have that memory of being told that and believing it. And in some ways, kind of creating this vision of Venezuela in my mind, that, well, we don’t have very big environmental problems. Our oil doesn’t pollute as much. That on some level, it really did impact how I viewed Venezuela. Also because if you grow up in Venezuela, you are, bombarded by the media and in school and in the culture at large. With this vision of Venezuela being like the most beautiful country in the world, we have the Andes and the Amazon and the Caribbean. So there’s just the sense of where this natural paradise and then implicitly, our oil doesn’t pollute. So I think all of that. Right. Both. On the one hand, my academic interests being curious about Venezuela and then remembering my own experiences growing up in Venezuela really set me off in this in this in this path.
GOOGASIAN [00:07:37]: Yeah, I have to say, that’s one of the more compelling academic origin’s stories I’ve heard I’ve heard in a while the sort of inescapability of this topic for you and that amazing memory of a childhood encounter with the with oil propaganda. That’s great. Well, so could you then maybe take the opportunity to speak a little bit about how literary studies as a discipline comes into this? Because, you know, as you know, our project here at the at the CIRS Energy Humanities Initiative is to theorize the lived experience of energy, which I think you’ve already sort of got us thinking about with some of your comments so far. How to think about energy at the scale of the everyday lives of individuals and communities, which, as you say, it doesn’t exclude thinking at the scale the scales of the state or of of the of the infrastructural system either. Yeah. What what can literary studies as a discipline contribute to this project, in your opinion?
BARRIOS [00:08:40]: Yeah, I think I would have a multifaceted answer here. I think in more specific terms, there’s just the very basic fact that there are there is literature about oil throughout the world and it’s literature that is generally not very well read. It’s not well known. I mean, and then when when it does when it is read and when there is criticism about it, it tends to be fairly negative. There’s something about oil novels I’ve found that critics respond very negatively to. And it’s not just Venezuela, it’s also in I mean, the English speaking corpus and the really one novel from the Middle East that I’m that I’m familiar with about its Cities of Salt also was received in similar ways as Venezuelan literature, Venezuelan oil literature, which is somehow this these texts are not really getting it. They’re not really representing our societies. They don’t seem to be in any way resonant with the local population or with the national context. Like, there’s something that that keeps coming up with these texts when they are written about as they they somehow don’t fit or critics don’t know what to do with them. And yet the texts are there and often they’re somewhat similar in that they are talking about similar anxieties about what oil does to a place and what oil does to people in a particular community. And so I do, on a very basic level think that these texts are important, they’re telling us a story about how people received the oil industry when it when it kind of appeared in their in their communities or in their national contexts. And I also think that. A lot of times the way that these novels were read. I guess the way they were expecting something from them that they couldn’t deliver, which is to give some message about at least in Venezuela. What is this novel have to say about Venezuelan reality today? And often what they found in those novels is a story about a place that doesn’t entirely feel like Venezuela. Right. And so I think these stories or these novels have been telling a story about a global industry and about kind of the changing of the world into something somewhat unrecognizable. And at the time, a lot of these texts and I’m right now referencing 20th century literature when they were published. I think the public at large and even literary critics weren’t quite ready to think about. Well, energy and fossil fuels and the transformation of the world by energy and fossil fuels. And so right on a basic level, these texts exist. I do think they’re saying something interesting and important about the rise of the oil industry on a broader level of what literary studies or literature in general has to offer is that I mean, I think it’s the kind of something so easy to forget. But literature in itself has a lot of thought and a lot of wisdom within it. Right. And in that literary fiction or fiction in general is something that really helps us think. It’s something that helps us perceive the world or it helps us rethink our relationship to the world. And I know there’s like neuroscience studies on this, but that like that a good narrative that you feel that you really connect with can feel more real than just data or information or can or it can more easily make you change your mind about something than just providing data or information. So so I think reading fiction is itself a form of lived experience. And so, again, that’s something that literature can provide and either be it that the literature that already exists that depicts, you know, the oil extraction, for example, or the literature that can come about or that is currently coming about, that is trying to depict and think and narrate energy. And our relationship to energy is crucial to to to to rethinking our relationship to energy like we are storytelling animals. Right. And also fossil fuel burning animals. And if we’re going to rethink our relationship to fossil fuels, part of the piece of rethinking that will required art and it will require narrative. And so I think literary studies as the study of literature, but also the analysis of literature and sometimes the critique of literature, of literature and of narrative and language is is an important piece, I think, in the energy humanities as a whole.
GOOGASIAN [00:14:09]: Yeah, I love what you said about the reading of literature being itself a kind of lived experience as well. It’s not just that these are texts that are are depicting the lived experience of energy, though. Of course they are. But they’re also reading them as is part of of that lived experience as well. That seems really, really like a meaningful description to me of how literature fits into this picture. But your comments are also bringing up that this has at times been kind of challenging, a kind of challenging topic for literary studies to come to terms with that that critics have, even at the time of publication, been been sort of had had a sort of dismissive attitude toward these novels about oil production. And that I think there’s something broader about that. The difficulty that the field has had, just finding depictions of energy production and energy use in literature. So what do you think are the are the challenges that energy poses as a topic for. For us in literary studies?
BARRIOS [00:15:22]: Yeah, I mean, I think. On a very basic and fundamental level, there’s a challenge of of language that oil producing regions don’t all speak the same language even in the oil industry. I mean, essentially, since its inception has been carried out in English, it’s the lingua franca of kind of upper management of the oil industry. But then the places where it is extracted and where texts about oil extraction come from. I mean, yeah, they don’t all speak the same language. And so there’s just that limitation there that you’re always limited by the number of languages that you speak. And because oil literature has been so unpopular, it generally doesn’t get translated. And like in the Venezuelan context, which is the one that I that I’m most acquainted with of 18 or so oil oil novels about oil extraction. One has been translated. Oh, wow. And it’s called Mene by Ramón Díaz Sánchez. And it was published in 1935 or 36. And it got published in English into English in the 80s. And the French like the 50s. But there’s also that huge lag there between the 30s and then the 80s when it appears in English and it appeared in English in in Trinidad and Tobago. It hasn’t really ever been published in the United States.
GOOGASIAN [00:16:55]: And can I just ask what motivated? What do you think motivated that translation? Because you’re right, that is almost 50 years after the publication of the novel, it was finally translated into English. Was there any circumstance in particular by that?
BARRIOS [00:17:08]: From what I know is that it had everything to do with the translator himself, Jesse Noel, who was who was Trinidadian living in Venezuela and a literary scholar. And he did some translations and like not just of Mene, but also a lot of his is, the scholarship was about Trinidadians living in Venezuela and about a third of Mene is about a Trinidadian immigrant couple living in an oil extractive town. And so I think that played a big role. But yeah. So essentially, if you don’t speak Spanish and you want to read about the you know, if you want to read Venezuelan oil literature, you can’t you have one novel and you will struggle to find it because it was never published in the United States. So you can ask me for a PDF, and that’s about it. I may personally have to do that. And so I think that right is a challenge. Right. Or even as I mentioned earlier, there’s one Middle Eastern novel about oil that I’m familiar with, and it’s the one that has been published and circulated widely. And there might be many others that I just don’t know about because I don’t have access to it. So I think that is is is a piece of it. But I don’t I don’t think it’s the whole story. I think also I really do think that until maybe somewhat recently, we didn’t really know how to contextualize oil and energy. And as a result, we didn’t really know what to do with literature about energy. And for example. And this is something I’ve written about that oil novels from different countries are so similar to each other in some ways, and they have big differences. But there are themes that they all seem to be kind of grappling with. And they’re often, at least in Venezuela, they’re not necessarily the themes that most of Venezuelan literature is grappling with. And so if you want to read Venezuelan oil literature as Venezuelan littérateur, it seems somehow like it’s not fitting within Venezuela. It’s not speaking to the concerns of of other, I don’t know, novelists or of the public that tends to read literature in Venezuela. It seems to be speaking about something else, but also other texts from other places are also speaking about. And so I think it just didn’t fit within how literary studies tended to contextualize itself in its texts.
GOOGASIAN [00:19:48]: Could you could you say a bit more about that? What why is it that it doesn’t fit with with the sort of prevailing? Is it something about how Venezuelan culture wants to sort of conceive of itself? That that the that that these oil novels are not successfully reinforcing? What’s the what’s the misfit there?
BARRIOS [00:20:09]: I think that is part of it. And something I wonder about is, right, as someone who was born in the 1980s in Venezuela. Soon after, like a very kind of traumatic economic downturn in the early 80s and soon before another like traumatic like social explosion in 1989. And then there’s two coups when I’m like in in, like kindergarten, I think. And then all the unrest with Chavismo and then and now the collapsed of the country, I sometimes wonder if these texts that provide such a profoundly bleak and pessimistic view of Venezuela that oil novels resonate with me a lot more than they might have someone alive in Venezuela in the 1970s when there was this optimism about what Venezuela could be and could become. So I do think that part of it might be. These texts were out of step with how Venezuela viewed itself and the promise of itself throughout the 20th century. Right. Even if there were a lot of issues in the 20th century, still a lot of poverty and inequality and a lot of people critical of Venezuela. And when, as it was, even in the quote unquote, more prosperous years, there was still this optimism that we have this wealth. We have gone such a long way since the early 20th century. Things are going to get better or at least things are not going to get worse or too bad. And now it’s really difficult to have any optimism about Venezuela. What has happened there in the last decade has been so bleak, so catastrophic, that on some level this might be the time to revive those novels that provided a very pessimistic view of the country. And they did it. And I think a lot of it was a pessimism over whether oil could really help or change Venezuela. Right. Which in the 70s, 80s, 90s and even 20 years ago was maybe a little too radical an idea that there was so much evidence that oil really had made things better and could only make things better. And now, you know, it’s not just the collapse of Venezuela itself. It’s also climate change. Right. That like it’s just a lot harder to buy the myths of of what oil can provide. Yeah. No, I think that’s a big part that it was these texts were approaching the question of Venezuelan history and culture and the question of oil. from a vantage point, that was radically different from the rest of the country. That was mostly seeing an increase of wealth as opposed to environmental degradation and violence, as was the case in extractive sites.
GOOGASIAN [00:23:21]: Yeah, that makes so much sense, and it’s really interesting that you say that, that maybe now that the moment has arrived when everyone’s ready for a little bit more oil pessimism, as it were. Yeah, but that’s that’s a really, really fascinating argument about how how cultural change might be, paving the way maybe for a renaissance of the oil novel, or at least a greater attention to the oil novel. Maybe I’ll take this opportunity to ask about about oil novels more generally, because you mentioned that you see one of the issues with these texts is that they they sort of paint a picture of of everyday life that might feel a bit unfamiliar to people precisely because it at least for Venezuelans, it doesn’t feel like Venezuela. It feels like somewhere else. But it seems like you’re also making the argument that there’s something that that kind of unites these oil novels across geographic locations and cultural locations. So what is that what is it that makes something feel like like an oil novel?
BARRIOS [00:24:39]: In this instance, I’m describing more literature about, oil extraction or adjacent to oil extraction? Because I think there’s also other literature that very much speaks about the experience of oil, but not in this direct way. But at least in terms right now of of oil, extractive literature, which, again, is what I’ve been referencing so far. I think there’s such a preoccupation with that disruption of time and of life. Right. It being human and non-human life. There’s. I mean, I can think of like a particular imagery that I’ve seen over and over again in Venezuelan texts. I’ve seen it, too, I’m thinking very strikingly in a in a Nigerian novel. Oil and water. I’m blanking right now on the on the author’s name. Habila, right? Yes. Yes. That imagery of the gas flares of this fire. Right. Like that. That at least the way that it’s experienced by the people around it is just this massive fire that’s coming out of the. Of some tube and the smell of gas. And how you see it at night. And I’ve seen descriptions of it as this like midnight sun. Right. That like the night no longer feels like night because there’s just this fire that that’s blazing and that it’s releasing, you know, kind of the leftover gas. But also references to. How extraction never stops. Right. That the, kind of people reflecting on this must go on day and night. Time doesn’t matter. Any kind of consideration of of labor or anything like that. It doesn’t matter. This is something that needs to keep going and that now this space where extraction is happening is ruled by the logic of extraction, where time is just, you know, this never ending extractive process. And once extraction ends, this place is going to disappear. So, also musings about or depictions of or even metaphors about how like once extraction ends, the world ends. Right. Either this town disappears or there’s one novel in particular that that has this imagery of of the entire town being swallowed up by oil and like that. That’s what it’s going to happen eventually. So, yeah, there I think there’s just these preoccupations of what’s happening to time and what’s happening to life in this, in these places because of of extraction. And something that I’ve also been thinking a lot about. And when I turn to something at some point, some article or but it’s it’s I keep noticing it. I’m sort of fascinated by it, is these descriptions of a flat surfaces, of paved roads or of these perfectly manicured lawns and how all like topographical anomalies or specificity to a place is just being flattened out. The descriptions of floors. It’s just a lot of it, just that that flatness that I that I find really, really interesting. So I guess I’m talking more in terms of metaphors and content, how how what these texts have have in common, I think more existentially. There’s just that pessimism about what it all means. Then maybe now again, it might be the right time for it. So we might not be very struck by it. But when we talk about 20th century literature, it really was very rare to have this profound questioning and and skepticism of what oil could do right or of what oil could really provide or whether we should really be questioning. The shall we say, prosperity that oil seemed to be making possible everywhere, right? There’s plenty of critique of capital in the 20th century. But even in. Right, maybe that most emblematic state that claimed to be against capitalism was also a petro-state. Right. So no matter where you looked, the questioning really wasn’t whether we should be using fossil fuels. Right. And I think what some of this literature provides is one of the earlier, very concerted efforts to actually question fossil fuels.
GOOGASIAN [00:29:43]: Yeah, I’m starting to get the feeling that maybe one from from your comments, that maybe one reason why these texts sort of have slipped through the crack is that they seemed they seemed sort of before before their time in the moment in which they were written because they had this this pessimism that their audiences weren’t ready for. And now when some of us are starting to feel that pessimism is as a kind of constituent part of our our relationship to energy, they almost feel they almost feel like they’re saying something obvious. As you were saying just a moment ago. So maybe the challenge is really to kind of think about how how to sort of defamiliarize that that relationship to the oil that at times it seemed not worth not worth, thinking critically about it now seems almost too worth thinking about, as it were.
BARRIOS [00:30:36]: For sure, and that is part of why I do like more like historical texts about, about oil extraction when it was still new. Right. From the new at least in places like Venezuela in the 20s, 30s, 40s. Because in some ways the texts are registering the shock of what was happening in a way that now we take it for granted. I like to be reminded that at some point. Things weren’t this way and it was quite shocking that the world was changing in this way. I think there’s something very useful about about. I mean. Yeah. For ourselves today, maybe defamiliarizing ourselves from the world of oil by remembering that at some point it actually had to come into existence. Yeah.
GOOGASIAN [00:31:31]: Yeah. I mean, as a as a recent transplant to Doha, I can sort of speak to that experience of having that kind of shocking realization that it’s very fairly recently things were not that we’re not what you see outside the window today. Fossil fuels have obviously a lot to do with that. The shock of that rapid transformation that that obviously took place before I got here. I want to maybe sort of go back, rewind a bit, to, to a comment that you made in passing that you’ve been speaking about novels that are really about the process of oil extraction, that kind of foreground, that that extractive experience or process but that there you say there are other texts that that are also about oil, but in that in a kind of different way or that have something to contribute to our understanding of of the lived experience of energy. So maybe one way I could ask this question would be to just say, is this term oil novel in what in what sense is that term useful to you? And what kinds of things that are not oil novels? Should we be paying attention to if our aim is to understand the the lived experience of energy?
BARRIOS [00:32:56]: Yeah, that’s that’s an interesting question. Like the what’s the usefulness of a oil oil novel or oil literature? And truthfully, I don’t 100 percent know on some level it’s useful because it gives me a term to refer to when when when writing. Right. And having this unwieldy narratives about energy extraction and so on and so forth, and what it’s done to the environment. So in some ways, it’s it’s a shorthand. It’s useful, too, because, I mean, essentially it exists. People have been writing about oil novels. So then I can say oil novel and we have a great common common language that we can sort of agree on. So it’s useful in just having conversations and being able to communicate and write about oil extraction, in relationship to literature. At the same time, I’m not sure what its definition truly is or should be. Right. If I if I were to be more specific and concrete about what I’ve been talking about and what a lot of my research is about is literature about oil extraction. But the reality is that oil extraction is not the only thing that relates to oil. Right. At this point, the oil and petrochemical industries have infiltrated essentially every area of life. Right. Right. Plastics, pesticides. You know, it’s an essentially every consumer product. It’s what enables our lives to go on as they do. So I really. Do think. And so there are there is a case to be made that much of the literature about life in the 20th century is not disengaged from oil in the way that life in the 20th century couldn’t be disengaged from from oil. That said, I don’t know that it’s useful either to just be like, well, everything is oil literature. So when I say oil literature, I just mean literature, like that. There is no that. Yeah. Then it doesn’t mean anything. If if oil literature means everything, then then it’s nothing. So I think on some level it’s the idea of oil literature, what you’re defining as oil literature will really depend on your framework. Right. I. Are you are you again, are you talking about extraction or are you talking about consumer products or you’re talking about climate change, which in itself it’s it’s a side effect. It’s a you know, it’s an oil products in its own way. It will depend on framework. I think there is a case to be made to talk about. I don’t know, road novels from the mid, you know, the mid 20th century, in the United States as being their own form of of oil novels. They’re they’re depicting the certain a certain hubris and ability of movement that that is tied to the world that oil made possible. But then if you’re going to refer to them as oil novels, it requires that contextualization of explaining or being aware of or knowing that context.
GOOGASIAN [00:36:39]: Yeah. I think one thing that you’ve written about that I’ve found super helpful is this idea that maybe we we can sort of set aside the question of trying to decide what is and is not part of this sort of canon of oil, literature, energy, literature, and instead maybe turn our attention to thinking about how we read for energy or how we read for oil. So I wonder if you have any advice on that front for for readers who want to sort of attend to energy in the texts that they’re engaging with. What are the reading practices we should be cultivating?
BARRIOS [00:37:18]: Yeah, I think I think that there are several things that I would suggest on the most fundamental level. In a sense, becoming an observer and a reader and a and a student of of how energy and fossil fuel energy works is helpful, like, frankly, without really knowing the extent to which oil has infiltrated every area of life. It’s really hard to read for it. I like just the basic information that we don’t really get taught that in school you really have to go out of your way to to get a sense of that. So just being essentially just knowing the context, which is knowing how our lives are shaped by by oil. And if it’s helpful, I could mention books now or at the end or but there are ways of acquiring that information. And it isn’t just, you know, readily available on Netflix or it. It takes a little a little looking and a little knowing. But beyond that, right, just understanding energy, understanding how it shaped our lived experiences. There’s also, as part of that, knowing kind of the geography of it, knowing that what might seem like a place that has nothing to do with you, be it. I don’t know, North Dakota or being the area around Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela or be it. Right. Oil fields in Saudi Arabia. That might seem very distant. They might seem like it has nothing to do with you. It’s another world. It’s another culture. But the reality that the events in those sites absolutely impact your life Right. Even in the most fundamental level that the oil that was extracted in those places are now, you know, your water bottle and the gas in your car and the you know, the fertilizer that made your, you know, offseason Apple possible for you to be, you know, eating it or the refrigerants or all of that. So, again, it’s still talking in terms of of context, but of of just. Cultivating a way of maybe seeing the world and reading about energy that that takes into account the interconnectedness of it all. And I’m not speaking about it as some romantic, spiritual way that we’re all connected and we’re all one planet. But that very materially speaking, we are interconnected. And again, that. Whether you know it or not, you’re so impacted by the actions and decisions of the petrochemical industries, among other energy, right. Like coal. Right. But I’ll be focusing on oil here. And something that in terms of that, like how to cultivate that. Something that I found very useful is Ursula Heise’s, concept of kind of cultivating a sense of planet, which is, right, through this ecological framework where you’re trying to account on both how like culture, the culture and ecology or that ecological system that is local to you is also implicated in in in in global systems. Right. And breeding in several registers at ones that like I mean, to situate this a little more. I think I’ll just bring an example right there. The novel that I brought up earlier. Mene the only one that has been translated to English right from Venezuela is published in the mid thirties. It depicts events in the teens and the 20s in a very specific area of Venezuela, of the state of Zulia, which is just geographically and and temporally very limited and very situated, I guess. Well, the reality is that whatever oil got extracted during that time and being depicted in the novel, that CO2 from that extraction process, it’s still in the atmosphere. At least a good chunk of it is still in the atmosphere and is going to be there for a really long time. And it will be, you know, a small contributor to a changing climate. That’s going to affect future generations. And so you could read it as well. This is just a novel about the 1920s in Venezuela. What does that have to do with me? That’s one way to read. And I think it’s the more standard way of reading your situating it in that time. Yeah, I guess what I’m trying to, cultivate in my own readings of these texts is that, yes, you absolutely have to pay attention to, that’s right, specific context. Like you can not forget that this is a 1920s and it is Venezuela. And that context is crucial for understanding this text. But also part of its context is the oil industry in the United States and Britain and their own policies that then got implemented in Venezuela. Like….fun. And I say that, you know, with quotation marks, their example is that some of these companies implemented Jim Crow laws in Venezuela. Right. So in a country, at least in a region that is I mean, sure, there are white Venezuelans, but they’re not the majority. So. Right. You have the very literal implementation of U.S. doctrine of the U.S. south in Venezuela. So right context, Venezuela in the 20s, but also Jim Crow somehow is is related to that. But then the events happening there completely transformed Venezuela. So there’s this national context that, again, the critics usually have haven’t really seen as they haven’t fully seen the connections. Or see that the novel doesn’t seem to be related to this wider context, but that is very much part of it, that national context. But it’s also, again, it’s a lot about that. The intensification of climate change. Climate change was already happening. Prior anthropogenic climate change was already happening prior to to the oil industry. But it got intensified in great part because of what the oil industry made possible in terms of technology and extraction and its own release of CO2. So it’s also a novel about that, about kind of the beginning of this new world. And so, therefore, it’s also about you as the reader and your own consumption of oil. Right. That the events in that novel made possible for you to have the life you have now. So it’s not like the sexiest way of reading, like it’s not like the literature PhD. This is you know, it’s not maybe what would get advised by a thesis advisor and how to present yourself in a job market or whatever. But I do think reading in those different registers is helpful to really think about energy and think about your relationship to energy.
GOOGASIAN [00:45:01]: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, I think what I’m taking away from what you’re saying is that is the importance of scale. Right. Which is kind of pragmatic in an unsexy way. Sure. But also, it’s such a valuable skill for reading and for for really interpreting any cultural phenomenon. And you’ve just pointed out how this single text is sort of inviting us to move not just between the sense of place and sense of planet, but also between all of all the sort of scales that are in between the hyper local and the and the planetary. And also in terms of historical scale, as well as sort of connecting one’s once personal timescale to the geologic time scale in which these emissions are going to operate. And also that kind of historical time, those sort of longer historical timescale in which that process of of extraction and consumption is taking place. So thanks for that. Well, maybe I will. Just because we’ve been talking about novels so much. Maybe I’ll ask you if you have any thoughts about what other cultural forms we might be interested in, in energy humanities, what are other ways of thinking, to use this phrase, telling the story of oil? Are there other other forms that are well suited to telling that story beyond beyond novels?
BARRIOS [00:46:31]: Yeah, absolutely. I mean. I would say film is great, although it’s still very much within the purview of what of what like a contemporary literary scholar might, might, might look into. But right. At the end of the day, I think any any cultural production can can serve its own purpose in helping us think and experience, rethink energy. For me, film has been really important. Especially there’s this one documentary from Venezuela that kind of changed my life. It’s available on YouTube, but it doesn’t have subtitles. English subtitles. It’s called Nuestro Petroleo Y Otros Cuentos. Our Oil And Other Stories that kind of essentially made an argument about how in some very fundamental ways, when you look at refineries and oil extraction sites, Venezuela in the, you know, 2000s, early 2000s when it was still widely believed that the country was undergoing this glorious socialist revolution, that from the vantage point of oil and oil extraction, things hadn’t really changed that much since the 50s. You know, it’s not that it hasn’t changed much in 10 years. It hasn’t changed since the 50s. And I think there’s something about the visuals of it that is very compelling and that it actually made, like pro Chávez intellectuals freak out in a way that they don’t. They didn’t really freak out quite as much when it came to things that were written. So I do think sometimes getting that visual kind of almost tangible sense of what these sites look like can can be very powerful. And again, I might be talking here about like some very basic film theory from from decades ago. But the thing is that all of us are so disengaged from what like oil and extraction and refining looks like like it really is very foreign to most of us. I think seeing it actually is is powerful. It’s important. And then I also love, in like a cringey kind of way, the cultural production that oil companies put together. Right. And this includes propaganda. I’m just going to call it cultural production because it is even if it’s propaganda. I love oil industry ads. I love, like the documentaries that Shell Oil would finance throughout the 20th century. They still do. But there are no YouTube clips or YouTube videos. But I think it is so I mean, I love it. And it’s so it’s so terrible in what it’s saying. But it really reveals some of our kind of our fundamental assumptions about the world or the world that oil created. Right. They talk. I mean, nowadays, oil companies on their cultural production is all about how environmentally friendly they are. Right. Right now, it’s all about how much they love the Earth and how much they love the polar bears. Like, that’s what they said. But if you go back in time. There was a time in that in the in the 30s, 40s, 50s, where they were a little more transparent about their aims of sort of taking over the world. That there’s like this Shell Oil ad. where I think it was on Life magazine in the mid 40s where you see planet Earth inside a lab. And the title of the ad. is Climate in a Cage. And they’re talking about how they’re developing the technology to modify like temperatures. Right. And they’re talking about agriculture in the context of agriculture. But like, there’s a way to read that as they’re really telling us what they’re doing. I’m not sure that people that wrote the copy. In fact, I’m pretty sure that people who wrote the copy for that ad. didn’t know that. Right. They didn’t know really what they were saying. In terms of what this how this would be read in the future. Right. But there’s a lot. It’s amazing. It’s like that where where it’s just that the weird transparency of it is fascinating. Also, the optimism of an oil industry is something to marvel at. And so I also think really following what oil industry the oil industry says about itself to the public. Right. Not to investors or to governments, but to the public is such a nice kind of like counterbalance to the pessimism of then, like oil literature or really most art about oil. Like in some ways they’re in this like, I don’t know, argument or fight with each other. That is that it’s kind of fascinating to see.
GOOGASIAN [00:51:23]: Yeah, you’re making me want to want to go out and read oil propaganda.
BARRIOS [00:51:33]: It’s great. I think its one of the things that, it motivates me. Like I read this stuff and like, oh, I have a new idea now. Like, based on this.
GOOGASIAN [00:51:42]: Yeah. I can totally see how that would be super inspiring for thinking about how how, how narrative and how esthetics are playing in to the way that oil is presented in our in our culture. Well, just to wrap things up, I mean, I don’t want to rush us to end this this conversation because it’s been and really fascinating to me by far, it gives you the opportunity, if there is anything else you’d like to recommend to our audience. I know you mentioned earlier that you had some some reading recommendations, and I think you’ve already given us a few a few great recommendations. But if there’s anything else you’d you’d like to add for our listeners who are thinking about the lived experience of energy.
BARRIOS [00:52:26]: For sure. One thing I really do want to say and emphasize, if you can at all read Spanish, I really think the best Venezuelan novel about oil and my personal novel about oil in any tradition that I’ve been able to read is Memorias de una Antigua Primavera or like memories of an oil old spring or of an ancient spring. However, you want to translate that by Milagros Mata Gil, was published in 1989 in Venezuela and I do think it’s just wonderful and I do think it’s one of the best Venezuelan novels period. Like not just oil, it’s the best oil novel in my opinion. It’s also one of the best novels in the country and generally it is read as like women’s’ literature. The articles I’ve seen about it have a lot to do with feminism and the feminism of the author. Which is fine, but I think it has also. There’s been not enough of a reckoning with what an interesting critique it is of oil and of oil history in Venezuela, in Venezuelan politics. So I think I don’t think it has been sufficiently been read and appreciated in Venezuela. And then it’s just it’s like it doesn’t exist anywhere else. Venezuelan literature generally is not internationally read. And so this novel is kind of unknown outside Venezuela. But another thing that I really do want to highlight is that the author, Milagros Mata Gil, I mean, has continued writing, is generally works as a as a journalist. And she was imprisoned by the Venezuelan government in late March or early April for criticism that she posted on Facebook about a government official. And so she and another author who this is embarrassing, I’m blanking on his name right now, lets that kind of sucks. But they insisted she’s also older woman. She’s in her 70s. They went to prison and they’re now out on bail. And again, it was for criticizing the government on social media. If if anything, right now, the government’s being fairly transparent about the reasons why. And so we are talking about an overlooked but very important Venezuelan author who wrote this marvelous novel that I hope one day gets translated. I really do think it would add so much to the conversation about oil literature and was currently being persecuted by. Yeah, by the government. So I do feel I have a responsibility to plug that. And what has happened. Yeah, that’s great. But that sounds like an urgent read and an urgent topic. And then in terms of if right, if or not a specialist on on on energy or oil, but you want to be that better educated on that. I would suggest some books that are not academic. But I do think do a really good job at explaining energy and our dependence on oil. And it would be Sonia Shah’s Fuel published in the early 2000s. And then, Andrew, I might not pronounce his name correctly. Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves. I think they do a really good job at a really kind of giving you this big picture account of of energy oil in our le
GOOGASIAN [00:56:04]: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much. Those recommendations and yeah, we’ll definitely make sure that they get the all the information for those is available when we post the podcast episodes so people can easily find them. Right. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I feel like I’ve learned a lot. Hopefully, people listening to this will also learn a lot as well. And thanks for also making it so easy on me as a first-time podcast interviewer. It’s been a really fun conversation. Yeah. I really, really enjoyed it
BARRIOS [00:56:42]: I’m very happy to have done this. So so thank you so much for it for inviting me.
[DRUMMING AND BIRDS CHIRPING]
- La novela del petróleo en Venezuela, by Gustavo Luis Carrera
- The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela, by Fernando Coronil
- Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global, by Ursula K Heise
- Crude; The Story of Oil, by Sonia Shah
- The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude, by Andrew Nikiforuk
- Barrios, Elizabeth. “This is not an oil novel: obstacles to reading petronarratives in high-energy cultures.” Textual Practice (2021): 1-16.
- Barrios, Elizabeth. “Nuestro petróleo y otros cuentos: naturaleza y extractivismo en la revolución bolivariana,” Trópico Absoluto (2020).
- Barrios, Elizabeth. “The Times and Surfaces of Venezuelan Oil Literature: A Reading of Oficina No. 1 and Guachimanes.” Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies 23, no. 1 (2019): 33-52.
- Barrios, Elizabeth. “The Chicago Latino film festival: shaping Latin American/Latino cinema in The United States.” Transnational Cinemas 9, no. 2 (2018): 212-226.
- Cities of Salt – by Abdelrahman Munif
- Mene: A Venezuelan Novel – by Ramón Díaz Sánchez
- Oil on Water: A Novel, by Helon Habila
- Memorias de una antigua primavera, by Milagros Mata Gil
- Nuestro Petroleo y Otros Cuentos – in Spanish