Petrocultures Conference 2022 

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On Wednesday, August 24th, 2022, the OCMELA group will be presenting the following panel at the Petrocultures Conference 2022, Stavanger, Norway.

PANEL: New Petroleum Perspectives from the Global South: Visualising and Connecting Oil Cultures of the Middle East and Latin America

In line with OCMELA’s programmatic agenda the first paper frames the main objectives of the group by tackling the issue of the different ‘centrisms’ that have dominated literature on Middle Eastern and Latin American oil, precluding an understanding of connections between the two regions and beyond, as well as obscuring the impact of oil in the cultural sphere (Fuccaro). The panel as a whole emphasises the limits of the western centric perspective brought about by a focus on European and US oil companies as carriers, producers and reproducers of a particular ontology of Western capitalism; the limitations posed by methodological nationalism and regionalism, both of which have tended to depict oil as an exclusive national and regional commodity, often confining petroleum effects to rigid national boundaries and geographic units; last but not least we wish to reflect upon the broad idea of oil culture beyond the industry ‘standard’ popularised by literature on North America and Europe, and the role of the Middle East and Latin America in the making of transregional and global cultures of oil.

In the papers that follow the discussion of oil ‘centrisms’ OCMELA members present some research in progress that focusses on the group’s thematic exploration of the visual and public cultures of oil in and across these two regions. This is a fertile terrain of investigation that aims at filling gaps in the literature and brings to the fore the world of media infrastructure and public relations that supported the oil industry in the age of colonisation and de-colonisation. Concentrating on the processes of production, circulation and reception of cinema, photography, multi-media publications, stamps and posters the papers discuss the political economy of image making, its technologies of production, power dynamics, aesthetic languages, and the various actors involved (oil companies, governments, international and media organisations) alongside the multiple publics that they targeted.

We are particularly interested in the production, circulation and consumption of oil’s visuals as instruments that served to negotiate and assuage social, political and cultural tensions: visual representations of the ‘safe’ journey of crude to Europe from the Middle East and Latin America in the long 1950s (Biglari); cross regional transfers of oil imagery through postage stamps, and the new visual and political literacy triggered by these exchanges among different politically inclined publics (Hindelang); the production of magazines and advertising by oil companies in Latin America whose illustrative materials and articles sought to popularise new ‘national’ cultures shaped by the strategic objectives of oil companies across the region and the ways in which this was reflected in how the industry was experienced by the labour force (Rojo Jiménez and Salas Landa); the cross-regional intersections of petrocultural visions and postcolonial national aspirations promoted by Middle Eastern oil producers in the context of OPEC and Arab Oil Congresses through films, philatelic cultures, and published materials (Sohrabi).

While drawing attention to the shortcoming of research on oil in the Global South and presenting empirically based case studies that deal with inter-regional and cross regional image flows, this panel highlights methodological and research challenges faced by the group. Locating archival, visual and text-based sources is often difficult, as well as adopting trans-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary perspectives while thinking comparatively and cross regionally. The papers also offer some reflections on the use and nature of regional oil archives, not only those produced by foreign oil companies but also those created by individuals, institutions, corporate entities and national or independent media organisations whose operations intersected those of the oil industry. As key repositories of petroleum cultural production, we read these archives as traces of colonial and post-colonial power dynamics and as sites where these dynamics continued to be manifested and practiced long after images were produced and first circulated. We are also engaging with the thorny issue of access to documentary, visual and other types of materials, and how the availability of sources determines the kind of petroleum historical knowledge about these two regions academics and practitioners produce and popularise.