Jon Gordon. Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts, and Fictions.
In the introduction to Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts, and Fictions, Jon Gordon offers a subheading that works as a fairly straightforward summation of the book's concerns and its increasing relevance: "Literature's Counterfactual Response to All the Factual Bullshit." Gordon's focus is the Canadian political and economic ideologies that reinforce Albertan bitumen extraction and refinement, and he handles the subject with depth and rigour to demonstrate the ways in which an overreliance on empirical rationality allows the Canadian state to justify the irrationality of tying a nation's long-term economic wellbeing to a fuel source that will inevitably run out. Gordon's analysis of the literary, economic, and political representations of the Albertan bitumen extraction and refinement processes is grounded in discursive and rhetorical analysis. Rhetorical analysis allows Gordon, and by extension his readers, to get past the bullshit--not just in the sense of getting to the "real" facts that bullshit tends to obscure but in the sense of moving toward ways of knowing that are, unlike bullshit, directly related to the matter and material at hand. Unsustainable Oil argues that literature provides opportunities for imagining the ethical, ecological, and social unknowns that are routinely excised by dominant narratives that appeal to the familiar Western tradition of tying reason and rationality to authority and, ultimately, prosperity.
While the book's focus is on Albertan tar sands and Canadian energy politics, Gordon provides a means of understanding the ideological wake of the UniAmerican election of Donald Trump as president. Published in 2015, Gordon's book anticipates the era of so-called post-truth politics, demonstrating the necessity of literary and cultural analysis in a time when the denial of science and empirical reality is encouraged at the very highest levels of U.S. politics. When factual reality and scientific consensus are openly, and often hostilely, rejected, relying solely on empirical rationality and science has been ineffective. Gordon's book demonstrates how literature might engage the Trump administration's strategy of promoting what spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway termed "alternative facts," which have been used to reject the factual reality of climate change. Gordon's analysis demonstrates that literary and cultural representations are thus vital sites of imaginative resistance as the U.S. intensifies its fossil-fuel reliance through both policy and the appointments of Rex Tillerson, Scott Pruitt, and Rick Perry to key cabinet positions.
Unsustainable Oil begins with an understanding that the prevalence and expansion of bitumen processing in Alberta relies upon a dominant narrative that rationalizes sacrifices in the name of a greater prosperity. These sacrifices are made by both human and more-than-human beings, but the decision to make them, of course, is a solely human endeavour. Gordon's central premise is that these decisions are made possible by a legitimating force produced by a strategic overreliance on the professed virtues of facts and rationality. Here, he follows Mike Gismondi and Debra Davidson's important work, Challenging Legitimacy on the Precipice of Energy Calamity, which expounds the formation of legitimacy and ideology in support of tar sands operations. Where Gismondi and Davidson focus their attention on the industry and government sources responsible for the conditions of a populace willingly assenting to the legitimacy of the tar sands project, Gordon extends the conversation by focusing on the counterfactual works of literature that challenge this legitimacy and the privileging of (certain) facts and (certain) forms of reason.
Throughout the book, Gordon argues that counterfactuals, imaginative scenarios typified by a "what if" or "if I had only known" conditionals, are necessary sites of investigation in order to analyze and imagine what should be done with Alberta's vast bituminous reserves and the culture they have created. Given that so much of modern thought and culture has been made possible by petroleum, is it possible to attain the necessary distance from the resource and culture in order to imagine anything else? Gordon compellingly argues that counterfacts are one potential avenue. Through his archive, he demonstrates how literature in various forms offers related and competing counterfactuals mired in the bituminous muck of an uncertain future. As Gordon explains, the book's chapters "might be read as debates between the upward counterfactuals of industry and government--which, while claiming to be simply factual, construct a future in which the trauma of the present leads to a better world--and the downward counterfactuals of the literary texts in which the sacrifices required by current bitumen extraction also sacrifice the future" (liii). While Gordon prominently and openly conceives of the book as a debate between the rhetorical strategies of pro-bitumen industry/governmental interests and literary imagination to the contrary, the book's project at times feels slightly more invested in the former than the latter. For readers who may not already be convinced of literature's place in discussions about the problem of bitumen, the book provides a fantastic demonstration of this need through close consideration of the dominant narratives that have legitimized bitumen production. Those already on board with literary analysis as a necessary project will appreciate Gordon's approach to the subject via rhetoric.
Each chapter in the book is structured as a way of demonstrating the limits of one form of rhetorical approach and the possibilities of another approach in Gordon's literary archive. Chapters 1 and 2 investigate the ways in which human and ecological loss can be justified and essentially rebranded as a necessary sacrifice through an upward counterfactual that promises to do better next time, relying upon the state as an arbiter between industry and public outcry. These upward counterfactuals are countered by reading Rudy Wiebe's "The Angel of the Tar Sands" and Far as the Eye Can See. Gordon understands Wiebe's text operating in line with Jan Zwicky's suggestion for "lyric thinking" as a means of "accessing what is left out of rational-analytical thought" (3). This theme continues into chapter 2, looking briefly at Thomas King's "Alberta Oil Sands Land," the poetry of early twentieth-century mining engineer Sydney Ells, and Mari-Lou Rowley's contra-bitumen poetic lamentations of loss rooted in an unwillingness to concede to the utopian promise of liberal modernity. Chapters 3 through 5 engage more specifically with rhetorical analysis and theories of rhetoric, before turning to the apocalyptic implications of lust for oil in chapter 6. Chapter 3, "Impossible Choices," urges readers to consider the impossibility of making any kind of decision regarding Albertan bitumen on fact alone. As Gordon sees is, the preponderance of "facts, statistics and data of various kinds" leveraged by both sides of the debate "makes it impossible to come to any satisfactory conclusion" (62). As such, Gordon suggests that we instead understand bitumen as what Bruno Latour calls a "matter of concern" rather than "matters of fact." To do so, Gordon reads the presentation of facts and figures from both pro- and contra-bitumen interests alongside rhetorical theory on bullshit, enthymemes, and the various limits of arguments steeped in ethos, logos, and pathos.
To make such contrasting forms of rhetoric visible and impactful, Unsustainable Oil spends much of its time investigating the theoretical and rhetorical underpinnings of the dominant narratives. These readings are sharp and expansive and draw on an impressive range of philosophers, rhetoricians, and cultural critics--Slavoj Zizek, Bruno Latour, Socrates, Aristotle, George Grant, Kenneth Burke, Benedict Anderson, and Harry Frankfurt among them. As a result of such theoretical depth, some of the book's treatment of primary source literary texts read more like gestures toward possibilities of alternatives rather than sustained engagements with them through close readings. The text draws on a strong Western tradition of thought and rhetoric and could be expanded by including theory that, like Gordon's archive, operates outside of dominant narratives, particularly as it relates to rationality, modernity, and coloniality. Here, the work of Anibal Quijano, Walter Mignolo, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, for example, can help extend Gordon's framework and speak to the ways that racism and settler colonialism are key elements of the privileging of Western empiricism, elements that also justify the settler colonial resource extraction at root in the tar sands projects.
These caveats aside, I found Gordon's sustained engagement with the possibilities of parrhesia in the figure of Elder Brother in Warren Cariou's "An Athabasca Story" the most compelling and rich demonstration of literature's productively disruptive capacity, especially when it comes from the traditions and cultures often hidden by dominant narratives of progress (read: settler colonialism). Parrhesia, as a rhetorical appeal, decentres pathos and logos, creating ethos via the speaker's very real exposure to risk (91). It serves as a particularly helpful demonstration of Gordon's sustained arguments for rhetoric in thinking beyond facts and rationality. Cariou's story of Elder Brother, drawing on Cree traditions, demonstrates an epistemology so alternative that it almost entirely eschews an appeal based on reason in favour of one based in lived-experience and relationships. The fate of Elder Brother, writes Gordon, implicates us in his suffering by way of demonstrating a failure to understand him and his condition as one of our own relations, whoever it is "we" may be.
Unsustainable Oil is an impressively well-researched book, and the focus on formal rhetorical analysis is a welcome extension of the field, bridging existing conversations in literary/cultural studies with arguments often made in organizational studies and fields more focused on industry practices. In an era of post-truth politics, its interventions are sorely needed.
University of Oregon
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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