Petrochemical Gothic: True Detective and the Energy Unconscious of American Studies

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This Podcast is part of our Rupture, Crisis, Transformation series, drawn from the conference of the same name offering new perspectives on American Studies, held at Birkbeck, University of London in November 2014. .

In Petrochemical Gothic, Georgiana Banita addresses the new, shifting interface of American Studies and the emerging field of Energy Humanities. Through a discussion of the anti-humanist HBO series True Detective, the paper shows that at this juncture American Studies must inevitably absorb the ethical narrative of diminishment and limit so closely interwoven with the Anthropocene and hydrocarbon culture. Yet in placing this show in a broader context, I argue that American Studies should respond to the formless menace of peak oil with an erudite historiography of energy concepts and a molecular hermeneutic capable of detecting energy traces in deep (literary and visual) subtexts.

From the derelict refineries that form the backdrop of iconic film noir shootouts to the morally saturated finale of David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Se7en, where giant power lines index the primal wiring of the human mind and its high-voltage potential for irreparable destruction, an intriguing pattern has emerged around the imagination of energy and evil. The roots of this entwinement can be found in fictions of the dark romantic period, whose obsessions with exhumation and excavation resonate with the Gothic inflections of Southern literature in the mid-twentieth century at the height of the oil boom.

The eclectic traces of this energy unconscious surface in the first season of True Detective, which drapes the literary idiom of the Southern Gothic over a sacrificial Louisiana landscape in a state of terminal environmental decline and moral exhaustion. Leaning upon a growing archive of petro-environmental photography, the series’ refinery landscapes intimate a systemic, non-localizable infestation initially associated with isolated human wrongdoing, but then gradually expanded to a morally bankrupt psychosphere as pervasive as petrochemical fumes.

The series unpacks a variety of energy discourses both within and outside traditional American Studies—geochemical, ecological, thermodynamic, and cosmological—to complicate familiar narratives of energy ultimacies. It negotiates forms of gratification and exploitation in ways that link natural detritus to human depression, and the sinister post-industrial anthroposcene of toxic Louisiana to the perverted minds bred by this poisoned soil. Ultimately, I would argue, it helps us understand how the energy imaginary has invisibly shaped US literary and cultural history, and devise a melancholy methodology to anticipate its exit.

The podcast was produced by Jo Barratt with Lucy Bradley

Georgiana Banita

Georgiana Banita

Georgiana Banita is Assistant Professor in North American Literature and Media at the University of Bamberg. She studied and worked at the University of Konstanz, Yale, and the University of Sydney. She is the author of Plotting Justice: Narrative Ethics and Literary Culture after 9/11 (U of Nebraska P, 2012) and co-editor of the forthcoming collection Electoral Cultures: American Democracy and Choice. She is currently completing her second book, a study of how the oil industry has shaped the development of transnational American literature, and she has published widely on US, Canadian, and global energy cultures, including oil movies, petrofiction, energy photography, comics about strip mining, and the role of energy rhetoric in US presidential elections.

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