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Crude Stages of the Frontier: Performance and Petro-imperialism


Crude Stages of the Frontier is a study of performance and petro-imperialism—actions undertaken to excavate for, extract, and transport fossil fuels to global markets. Following the tradition of postcolonial scholarship that acknowledges culture is as much part of imperialism as raw materials and military strength, I argue petro-imperialism cannot be reduced to economic critique, or the scholarly equivalents to environmental impact assessments, but must account for its cultural dimensions as well. While leading petrocritics have indicated the global oil economy is a spectacular system, built on and sustained by proliferating cultural significations, oil spectacles have yet to be analyzed through their dramaturgical constructions. I study oil spectacles in Alberta, North Dakota, and the Niger Delta to illustrate how an ecological false consciousness is produced to manufacture consent to petro-imperialism by re-animating the racial and ethnic hierarchies of colonialism used to justify dispossession and extractivism, and to illuminate how artists and activists on these oil frontiers work to foster the development of a petro-political consciousness—awareness of the negative social and environmental costs of a political economy of oil, and a sense of seeing oneself as part of a collective whose interests depend on ecological stability. Crude Stages of the Frontier is a study of how performance enables petro-imperial violence to be normalized, and it is an effort to lift up the work of Indigenous and anti-colonial artists, scholars, and activists who interrupt those colonial and imperial systems of thought and power, and advance decolonial alternatives premised on ecologically sustainable relationships.

My case studies range from a civic festival designed to preserve and promote western heritage and culture in Calgary, Alberta, to a blockadia-style encampment blocking the development of a pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, to a television series satirizing urban life shaped by a political economy of Nigerian oil. Each site is a contested terrain where rival versions of civil society vie with each other, and the definition and management of nature is most at odds. A specific kind of social drama I call extractive frontier dramas occur on these oil frontiers to negotiate the deep social tensions that occur when survival norms are violated, and to give the appearance of sense and order to the events up to and constituting the crisis. Extractive frontier dramas reveal the colonially-inscribed forms of power and dynamics of consent and coercion in which petro-imperialism become justified, as well as how we might counter these regimes and engage with the realities of life being produced through them. Through my study of oil spectacles, I advance a critique of petro-imperial violence as it is maintained though fictions and fantasies of frontier life that anaesthetize us to the violence of fossil-fueled modernity and obstruct eco-activism and the transition to an ecologically sustainable and socially just future.

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