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I’ve been thinking about petromodernity wrong, or at least not as clearly as I could. I’ve failed to make an important distinction between petromodernity as a condition and as a project. In the first instance, what I mean is how we live our lives in a world saturated by oil. In the second, what I mean is the goals to which we claim to be working, with the help of oil and its attendant technologies. To understand petromodernity as a condition is an empirical task. To understand it as a project is rhetorical and philosophical.

Simply put, the API advertisements tell a story that explains the nature of progress. They tell us what progress is and how oil helps us achieve it. They explain how we get from “here” to “there” (and, more fundamentally, where we understand “here” and “there” to be). It is this way that they underpin a project of modernity, or more to the point, a project of petromodernity.

My task now, it seems, will be to piece together the story the API ads tell, and answer these questions:

  • How has petromodernity as a project shaped petromodernity as a condition?
  • How has petromodernity as a condition shaped petromodernity as a project?
  • Who exactly do I mean when I say “we”?
  • What does this project of petromodernity reveal about the iterations of petromodernity described by others?

In my last post, I made five statements about petromodernity. To define the term, I plan to flesh out each one. But I find theory (by which I mean efforts we make to explain the world) works best if I have a concrete object to talk about. It is what I seek to explain, but it is also the test case for any explanation I offer. The world we describe is always more complex than our descriptions, and it is only in dialogue with the world that we can refine our notions of it.

But before I get to that, I have a more basic question to answer. How have people before me defined petromodernity? They have talked about it in a number of ways, but no one has offered more than a cursory definition. Stephanie LeMenager, for instance, speaks in Living Oil of “modern life based in the cheap energy systems made possible by oil”
(p. 67). Others talk about what we might call the symptoms of petromodernity. The Petrocultures Research Group, which is based in Alberta and draws together scholars from across Canada (and the world), writes that people living in the petromodern world are “highly mobile [with] access to the full variety of available goods and services, access to a full range of information access” (After Oil, p. 60). Petromodernity produces by-products “such as oil spills, air pollution, nuclear contamination, and global warming” and is thus characterized by a “slow violence” (p. 62). Consequently, “if petromodernity persists beyond the current decade, it will likely ensure catastrophic global climate change and the extinction of most life on earth, including human beings” (p. 64).

I have still more examples, but I’ll save them for the article I’ll make of these posts eventually. My point here is simple: it is clear that scholars mean something by petromodernity, given the way they identify its symptoms, but no one has yet provided a systematic definition. I plan to do so here by turning my attention to a surprising trove of documents I’ve stumbled upon lately, all published by the American Petroleum Institute in the 1950s. They’re aggressive forms of PR, part of an effort the API, through its Oil Industry Information Committee, undertook to educate the public (not to mention school children) about the benefits of oil. One is a booklet called What Makes This Nation Go (special thanks to the kind folks at the archives of the Glenbow Museum for scanning the document for me). A second is a film called American Frontier, about the boom in the 1950s in Williston, North Dakota. A third is an advertisement the API placed in a number of American magazines and newspapers, including Time, in 1953.

These documents (and others I hope to get my hands on) are valuable because their purpose was to make the ideas that underpinned the modern world, bound inextricably to the development of oil and its attendant industries, seem like common sense. What I want to uncover are those ideas. They will form the basis of my definition of petromodernity.

For the last few years, I have been thinking about oil and its effect on people, especially in the town where my parents live: Williston, North Dakota. Between 2008 and 2014, the region, which sits atop the Bakken oil fields (named after the family on whose farm oil was first found in the 1950s), went through a boom. Since the price of oil dropped, it has gone through a bust. I’ve written about both at my other blog and in a book I co-edited with William Caraher called The Bakken Goes Boom.

In those places, I look largely at the history of the boom-bust cycle in western North Dakota. Here I want to ask some more pointed theoretical questions. I want to understand how the boom-bust cycle affected people’s sense of home and how their evolving relationship to home in turn shaped the way they saw others. At first glance, it might seem that I’m asking how people would feel about their home (and about Williston) if there had been no oil. But of course, there’s no counterfactual to be had: the oil was always there, not just in the ground waiting to be extracted, but in the gas in people’s cars or transformed into ubiquitous everyday materials like plastic. It was also there more abstractly, in the relationships it made possible between people in Williston and people far away, who made the goods residents bought at Walmart or in the city’s charming little downtown. And it was there in the ideas people had about the nature of space (people relate to distance differently in the upper Great Plains than elsewhere) and their ability to overcome it.

In short, my question is not about Williston and oil but about the conditions of modernity, or the complex social, political, economic, and technological forces that structure how people in Williston (and elsewhere) lead their lives. Oil is an integral part of it, but one that is often overlooked.

In the next few posts, I will begin to lay out a definition of the idea of “petromodernity,” which others have mentioned but not explored (e.g., Stephanie LeMenager in Living Oil). But first, a preliminary working definition: petromodernity is the logic that results from the interplay between political, economic, and technological forces and that structures the way people live in a society that is dependent on oil, where oil is one determining factor among others.

My plan here is to propose five theses of petromodernity, and then flesh them out in later posts. They are:

1. The beginning of petromodernity, if we must date it, is the late 18th century. Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, in the article in which they propose the idea of the anthropocene, identify James Watts’s invention of the steam engine in 1784 as the point where humans begin to affect Earth’s climate. It’s a useful heuristic starting point.

2. Petromodernity is punctuated by moments of acceleration, such as after the Second World War, when car culture expanded and people in North America (and elsewhere) began moving out of cities into the suburbs.

3. Petromodernity is characterized by invisible ubiquity. Because oil is thoroughly imbricated in the way North Americans (and others) live, we do not see it, except in moments of crisis.

4. If we look for its effects, however, we can map them out, in a structure that, like a fractal tree, describes a recursive series of relationships.

5. Petromodernity is global in scope, but its effects are distributed unevenly as a function of the degree to which people in a given locale are integrated into the criss-cross paths of international techno-, ethno-, and finance-scapes.

In 2013, I was teaching a class on semiotics at the University of North Dakota. We ran a blog, and on it I posted some notes about Charles Peirce. They were my own notes, published to help my students work through a set of challenging ideas, and I didn’t think they’d ever go beyond the class.

I’m republishing them here (1) because I found them again while working on an article about the meaning of “multiculturalism” in Canada’s 1991 Broadcasting Act and (2) because I found a published article where the authors had lifted an entire paragraph word for word without attribution. In the original, it’s hard to find my name (the entry is attributed to my login name, undcomm103) — perhaps they looked. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.

At any rate, I wanted to repost my notes here to make it clear I wrote them.

Notes on Peirce:

Peirce’s definition of a sign is usefully broad because it extends beyond words: “something which stands to somebody for something on some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign.” [note 1] More simply, a sign is something that evokes something for someone. A sign points to an object and, at the same time, it brings to the interpreter’s mind another sign (called the “interpretant”) that translates and mediates the original sign. This is the structure of semiosis, or the making of meaning, of which sign, object, and interpretant are three necessary parts. Without one of the parts, semiosis does not take place—the triad is not reducible to pairs of dyads.

This triadic structure recurs throughout Peirce’s analysis. He loves typologies, especially those that describe levels of mediation. The typology he returns to most is that of firstness, secondness, and thirdness, which describe degrees of mediation and reflexivity. Firstness is a condition of unmediated, unreflexive access. Firsts are experience without reaction, cause without effect. Secondness is a condition of mediated but not yet reflexive access. Seconds are experience and the reaction it evokes, cause and the effect it provokes, but not yet a reflection on the reaction or effect. Thirdness is a condition of mediated, reflexive access. Thirds are experience, reaction, and the reflection upon that reaction. They are cause, effect, and the extension of that effect to the form of habit or convention or law.

Peirce’s triads follow this structure, and they are nested. Consider the structure of semiosis: the sign is a first, the object it evokes is a second, and the interpretant is a third. Where signs are concerned, they are characterized by their presentative condition (the ground, or the quality that makes them a sign), a condition of firstness; by their representative condition (the relation in which they stand to their object), a condition of secondness; and finally by their interpretative power (their ability to direct attention to an object in such a way as to evoke an interpretant), a condition of thirdness.

Each of these conditions is also follows a triadic structure. Peirce identifies three types of signs as a function of their presentative condition: qualisigns, or qualities that act as signs (the color red), sinsigns, or actual instantiations of signs (a light that turns red), and legisigns, or signs that have a meaning deriving from convention, habit, or law (a red traffic light that signals to drivers to stop). [note 2] Qualisigns are firsts, sinsigns are seconds, and legisigns are thirds.

He also identifies three types of signs as a function of their representative condition: icons, or signs that resemble their object (an image of fire), indices, or signs that are contiguous with, are caused by, or somehow point to their objects (smoke coming from a fire), and symbols, or signs whose meanings are a function of convention, habit, or law (fire as knowledge in the story of Prometheus). Here again, icons are firsts, indices are seconds, and symbols are thirds.

The same is true of signs as a function of their interpretive condition: rhemes identify a sign but do not reveal whether it exists or can be judged true or false (“a dog”); dicents are propositions that can be judged true or false (“a dog is an animal”); and arguments are signs whose interpretation relates to convention, habit, or law (“a dog is a man’s best friend”). Rhemes are firsts, dicents are seconds, and arguments are thirds.

One implication of these typologies is that we can identify ten types of signs ranging from the barely elaborated (rhematic iconic qualisigns such as “a nebulous patch of color, seeing a blotch of red in an afterimage, hearing the wind blow through an old house, the musty smell while walking in a forest, the aftertaste from a deliciously exotic meal” [note 3]) to the complex (argumentative symbolic legisigns, where the “paradigm case is that of an inference of an argument, which shows the connection between one set of propositions [the premises] and another [the conclusion]” [note 4]).

Why only ten types, rather than twenty-seven, as three sets of triads would suggest? Peirce argues the interpretive condition of a sign cannot be of a higher order than its representative condition, which in turn cannot be of a higher order than its presentative condition. That is, a qualisign (a first) cannot be a dicent (a second) or an argument (a third), nor can it be an index (a second) or a symbol (a third). As a result, the only type of qualisign conceivable is a rhematic iconic qualisign, but many types of legisigns are conceivable. [note 5]

[1] Charles Peirce, The Philosphy of Peirce: Selected Writings, ed. Justus Buchler. London: Routledge and Kegan, 1940, p. 99.

[2] Examples adapted from James Jakób Liszka, A General Introduction to the Semeiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 35–36.

[3] Liszka, p. 48.

[4] Liszka, p. 52.

[5] Although these signs are conceivable, they are not in fact possible. By definition, any instantiation of a sign is a sinsign. Therefore, qualisigns and legisigns cannot be instantiated as such.

I’m happy to announce that the book The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota has been published. You can find it on the website of the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Plus, you can download it for free. (Please do!)

I’m trying (and, for lack of time, usually failing) to use this blog as a public notebook, much like the countless paper ones I carry around for jotting down ideas to explore more later.

So here’s a quick note. I’ve been trying to find ways to make what’s intuitive about phenomenology clear for students, despite the impenetrable writing of many phenomenologists. (For that reason, I’m very excited about my friend Sam Rocha‘s book Folk Phenomenology, which I’ll likely read over the winter break. This exercise was inspired by one he does, although by the time I worked from his notes to my lesson plan, it was almost unrecognizable.)

Here’s a quick experiment we did last Thursday that worked. I came into class with about $20 worth of Smarties (the Canadian kind, not the American kind) and set them prominently on the table. I then ignored them for twenty minutes as I talked about class-related stuff.

My students’ interest was piqued, and I finally explained that today we would be candy phenomenologists. I handed out Smarties to everyone in the class (there are about 80 students, which is why I spent so much), but told them not to eat them yet. I made them start by describing what they looked like, sounded like, and felt like. I told them that as an American, I don’t know anything about Canadian Smarties, and they were aghast. I told them they’d have to describe them to me.

Once they wrote down their descriptions, I told them to eat one at a time, and tell me what they tasted like, again keeping in mind that I didn’t know firsthand.

What made this work, I think, was that the silliness of the exercise allowed them to let down their guard. It was fun, so they were willing to take a risk in what they observed. They were also more open to the act of observing itself. Their curiosity about the prominently displayed but studiously ignored candy put them in the right state of mind, one where they craved an explanation. That craving — that hunger? — opened them up to my explanation of our task, which broke from their expectations of how class should go. I needed to overcome those expectations so they’d be open to something new — a new way of interacting with the world around them, paying attention to the things they’d habitually overlook.

At some point I need to come back to this, but I wanted to write it down so I could use it again in the future.

Disclaimer 1: I don’t know much about punk music (although one of the things that first attracted me to the woman I eventually married was that she wanted to go to a punk concert with two local bands we’d never heard of. We went. One band was younger and worked really hard to be angry. One was older and made playing music look easy.)

Disclaimer 2: I’m not an archaeologist (although I desperately wanted to be one when I was twelve).

So maybe it’s weird for me to write about Punk Archaeology, a collection edited by my friend Bill Caraher. But I assigned it in my graduate research methods class, and we’ll be talking about it Monday.

Our class that day is called “against method.” (I like naming each class to help frame our discussion.) Along with Punk Archaeology, we’re reading a selection from H.-G. Gadamer’s Truth and Method. I picked these readings because the first rejects method on principle, as a way to thumb its nose at authority. (Or at least that’s what it looks like.) The second rejects method — well, social scientific method — on ethical grounds. Social scientists, Gadamer says, reduce acting subjects to mere objects. Their conclusions come with a steep ethical cost, not to mention a loss of interpretive nuance.

As I read through the chapters, though, I realized they’re more alike than I thought. I want to jot down those thoughts now so we can relate these readings to communication in class. After all, my students aren’t there for some navel-gazing, nihilist account of method. They’re there to learn how to write a thesis. I respect that goal. It’s concrete and pragmatic, qualities academics sometimes neglect.

Gadamer is asking how we understand things like works of art that were created in a time other than our own, in languages other than our own. He says we should approach them not as objects but as participants in a conversation, as if they were people. Our encounter should take the structure not of a statement (where we declare what a work of art means) but of a question (where we ask it about the world it depicts).

Punk archaeology, it seems, takes a similar tack. Caraher gives five tentative axioms that begin to define punk archaeology:

1) Punk Archaeology is a reflective mode of organizing archaeological experiences.
2) Punk Archaeology follows certain elements of the Punk aesthetic through the discipline of archaeology.
3) Punk Archaeology reveals a deep commitment to place.
4) Punk Archaeology embraces destruction as a creative process.
5) Punk Archaeology is spontaneous. (pp. 101-2)

I’m interested especially in items 1, 3, and 4, at least for now. Items 1 and 3 reveal a similar orientation to the object of study (excavation sites that hold artifacts) in that they are precisely not objects, but more like subjects taking part in a conversation. Archaeologists as the interpreters of history must play both roles in the conversation — they must speak on behalf of the artifacts, in addition to speaking for themselves. In that, they are no different than Gadamer’s hermeneuts. (I’m too tired to detail this here now, but the way authors of certain chapters express their reflexivity or their sense of place bears this out. I’m sure we’ll talk about this in class.)

I’m interested in item 4 because I think there is something fundamentally destructive about the act of interpreting. To provide one interpretation is to close down other potential interpretations. But this thought is rather ill-formed and will need more reflection.

So here’s how I’ll relate the readings to communication. I’ll ask students how they might approach their objects of study (they’re writing about a range of things, including branding, group dynamics, broadcasting policy, press coverage of gun violence, and so on) as if they were subjects engaging in conversation. I want to know where that conversation will go. At the very least, I want students (1) to recognize what avenues of inquiry (and potential conclusions) their choice of methods closes down, and (2) to be better able to justify their choices in turn.

(N.B. Anyone interested in Punk Archaeology can find a link to the PDF here. It’s free, and I recommend it highly.)

A bit more on the theme I was addressing yesterday.

Getting lost and finding our way back is something we do every day. It is how we come to know the world: he have ideas about it, we act on those ideas, and the world — in all its stubborn materiality — lets us act or doesn’t. When the world doesn’t bend to our will, we have to reassess our understanding of it. We are lost, metaphorically.

I watch this all the time with my children. My son is one, and he’s trying to figure out how the world works. It’s a question of mechanics — if I push here, he seems to ask, what happens? Frequently he wants something — a toy, his milk cup, whatever his sister is playing with — and his efforts to get it fail. He gets angry. (And bites things — tables, himself, his mother, anything close to his mouth.) He is confused and frustrated. More to the point, he’s lost, at least for the moment — his map of the world has failed him.

So what does he do? He tries something new. He may make the same mistake twice, but usually not three times. He finds his way back by remapping the world. Of course, his new map is faulty, too, even if it’s refined. It’s better than before.

But let’s be clear: we all have faulty maps. We’ve just had more time to refine them. And that feeling of confusion is disorienting. We lose our bearings and, in extreme cases, become driftless.*

When we feel this confusion, we might be to dig in our heals and hold stubbornly to what we think we know. (My son is doing this when he bites the table in frustration.) Or — and this is the key to the value of engaging with theory — we might recognize that in losing our bearings, we can also lose restrictions that we have imposed upon ourselves (or that we have internalized) about how the world should work. We can refine our map of the world in a radical way. That’s what I mean by “the potential for a dizzyingly free range of movement” in my last post. Liberating and scary are two sides of the same coin.

* The link is to the only video I could find of Greg Brown singing “Driftless.” It’s a great song, but not a great recording. I also recommend his song “Two Little Feet” as an antidote, if you find “Driftless” leaves you feeling too exposed. You can find different versions on YouTube.

This semester I’m teaching CMN 3109: Advanced Theories in Communication. I’ve taught the class before, both at the University of Ottawa and at the University of North Dakota.

This semester I am trying something a bit new. At first glance, theory seems like an impractical exercise in abstraction, the type of thing parents would discourage their children from pursuing, ‘cuz how’s that gonna get you a job? But I think, on the contrary, that theory is practical. It’s an effort to explain how we experience the world, and it helps us maneuver through the world more effectively. Theory helps us understand problems and solve them.

That’s the idea I want to put into practice this semester. I’m going to use my blog (read by a total of four people, perhaps? two? just me?) to think through the pedagogical side of that idea. What exercises can I lead my students through to help them see for themselves how the abstractions of theory help us understand our everyday experience?

I’ve put together three axioms to help clarify that process. They are:

  • Axiom 1: Theory is an attempt to explain our experience of the world.
  • Axiom 2: If the explanation theory offers doesn’t match our experience, it’s bad theory.
  • (Axiom 2a: In the end, it’s all bad theory.)
  • Axiom 3: We must refine our explanation to replace bad theory with good theory.

In addition, on Tuesday I’ll be leading a presentation on “How to Succeed at University.” It’s for first year students, and I want to make it valuable, despite its atrocious title. I offer four pieces of advice:

  • Show up.
  • Take notes.
  • Get lost.
  • Find your way back again.

It’s the final two that are the most interesting. They’re about “productive negativity,” or the value of confusion. We can get lost in a lot of ways — we can lose ourselves in a book, we can follow a map wrong, we can be confused. They are all important (I follow maps wrong all the time!), but I want to emphasize the value of confusion: when we find ourselves in a place we don’t understand, we’ve been given two gifts. First, we are not beholden to the rules that would normally govern that place because we don’t know them and haven’t internalized them. Without them, we have the potential for a dizzyingly free range of movement. Such freedom is scary, but it is also liberating.

Second, if we can figure out why we’re confused, we can identify a starting point for finding our own way back to places that are familiar. We get confused when there are two possible answers to a question, but only one can be right. We don’t know which because we haven’t acquired the tools to discern between them (or because our teacher has not given us the tools). But that’s our starting point — we can identify and evaluate the two possible answers.

But when we find our way back, we see our familiar places differently. It’s something like a parallax effect: it’s the same world, but our angle on it has changed.

So my goal this semester is to find ways to translate these abstractions into concrete experiences for my students. I’ll keep my notes here — if I do luck into finding a reader, I’d love to hear what you think.

I want to write, finally, about a thought experiment. I’ve been going on and on about figs. Now’s the time to do some work. How do we get to the point I describe here:

That’s what I want my students to do — figure out how to “cook” with new technologies. If they’ve got some sort of machine in front of them, but no “recipe,” can they make it work? How can I get them to the point where they have strategies to generate the questions they need to ask, and then answer them?

I’m not sure how this thought experiment will turn out, and I expect to refine it. But what if we 1. choose an object in the world, and 2. “look” at it through the filters of different mediating technologies? We can perform the phenomenological reduction I described in previous posts, but when we take our “naive look around,” it’s not the effect of our senses we’re concerned with, but the effect of the technologies, which come to act like senses. If we turn our attention to those effects, can we build mental catalogs that allow us to “cook” in the way I’ve described above?

Think back to the meal you had at Thanksgiving (which I’m presuming was turkey — if it wasn’t, humor me!).
1. What did it taste like? Look? Smell? Sound? Feel?
2. How do you know? That is, how does your memory of the meal differ from the meal itself? Why do you feel you can trust your memory?
3. What do these clips (here and here) reveal about the experience of Thanksgiving dinner? How do they suggest experience that they are technologically incapable of conveying? (You can’t taste YouTube. How does YouTube suggest taste?)
4. What does the gap between our mediated experience and our knowledge of a turkey dinner reveal about the types of mediation each technology performs?
4a. Questions 1 to 3 went step by step, and question 4 jumped a few steps, but I’m not yet sure which. What do you think?

(Some time, I’ll write about Marshall McLuhan, who described the media as “extensions of man.” Those who know me know I find McLuhan’s work frustrating because he makes proclamations or even declamations without ever saying how he got to them. I think if he had named his method, it would have looked like what I’m proposing here.)