How has oil shaped American Culture? How do we explain the dominance of oil capitalism in American society? How has oil impacted on media, film, propaganda and art in the past 150 years?

We ask Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden, Guest Editors of the Journal of American Studies Oil Cultures Special Issue for their thoughts on the motivation behind this fascinating collection of articles.

The Oil Cultures Special Issue of the Journal of American Studies traces the broad field of cultural representations and symbolic forms that have taken shape around the fugacious material of oil in the 150 years since the inception of the U.S. petroleum industry. Ranging from Hollywood film and corporate art to World War II propaganda and aquarium exhibits, the representations of oil culture analyzed in this special issue indicate the complex role that American culture has played in establishing and contesting oil’s status as the primary commodity underpinning modern economic expansion and a fundamental force in social and political life.  By addressing the rise of oil as a cultural force and problem, this issue aims to fill a significant gap in oil scholarship and to intervene in what has become an epochal and highly charged moment in the history of petro-capitalism.

In the wake of the industry’s sesquicentennial and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, its most devastating ecological disaster of the twenty-first century to date, Ross Barrett and I believe that the time is right to reexamine the practices, innovations, and conflicts that made the dominance of oil capitalism possible.  While much work has been done to track the material and political processes that fueled the growth of the petroleum industry, relatively little scholarship has attempted to account for the myriad ways that oil has saturated American aesthetic practices, cultural forms, and public discourses since the nineteenth century.  In exploring the fertile role of oil in the cultural imagination, the essays in the special issue model new strategies for understanding a central paradox of oil history: how a natural material understood from its beginnings to be nonrenewable and disastrously destructive came to be embraced over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as an unassailable “fact” of everyday American experience.  At the same time, by analyzing the ambiguities, gaps, and contradictions that have structured cultural representations of oil, our contributors unearth a history of struggle and ambivalence that might inform ongoing attempts to “see beyond” oil capitalism and envision alternative modes of energy production and consumption.

We are offering free access to the entire Special Issue until the 31st October. Access the Special Issue here.

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