Hidden in Plain Sight: Sina Queyras’ Expressway and the Ubiquitous Invisibility of Oil in North America

Grande Prairie, Alberta was once a booming city in the Peace region of Alberta, growing faster and with more notoriety in the mid to late-2000s than even Fort McMurray. Its population, growth, and economic strength has always relied on the gas fields nearby. Everything from daily life to tourism hinges on the oil stock, even though the people who work in the oil fields work mostly in camps outside of the city. Grande Prairie experienced steady growth until the oil boom in 2006-2007 when “thousands of new residents [moved] to Grande Prairie in a short period of time” (cityofgp.com). New housing developments sprung up on the fringes of the city, sprawling out into local agricultural land. The surges of wealth saw the construction of luxurious high-end homes, and a plethora of mid-sized homes for the new families. Droves of people from all over the country moved their families to Grande Prairie in order to share in the prosperity. However, these tales of success are undercut by a reality that regularly strikes the community: for every boom there must be a bust. Grande Prairie’s growth stopped as suddenly as it started; construction crews moved out of half-finished suburbs as families stopped buying new homes and moved away. In recent years, the economic downturn and the drop in oil prices have seen massive layoffs not just in Grande Prairie, but in all of Alberta. Suicide rates skyrocketed by 30% while the stocks plummeted, speaking to the “horrible human impact” (cbc.ca) of these layoffs which resulted not only in the loss of income, but the loss of a trade identity. More recently, Maclean’s magazine named Grande Prairie the most dangerous city in Canada for the second year in a row, making the Peace region decidedly less peaceful (Markusoff).

Oil had a much greater hold on Grande Prairie than what its tourism website suggests, and its absence has created bigger consequences than could possibly have been foreseen when oil production was booming. For a region ripe with agricultural potential, the economy has taken a crippling blow. Grande Prairie is now a spectre of what it once was: the city attempts to maintain the appearance of stability and safety despite the increased frequency of break-ins, assaults, and violent deaths (often drug related) in the city of nearly 70 000 people (Markusoff). The oil bust has undoubtedly taken its toll with the sudden loss of steady income spelling insurmountable debt for some families, and the physical scars on the city’s infrastructure are all too visible. Businesses are closing, homes remain vacant and unsold, and even relatively ‘wealthy’ neighborhoods have an air of despondence. Weeds have sprouted in lawns, driveways, and sidewalks. What this cycle of prosperity and scarcity has shown is that oil injects certain economic, social, cultural, and environmental values into the communities whose wellbeing and identity then become dependent on its presence, and the way that presence manifests itself is often more obvious in its absence. However, this process is not only true for communities that claim oil as their primary identity and source of economic stability. Oil sustains a level of urban modernity and culture throughout North America that collapses as quickly as it is constructed when oil production and value suddenly vanish. Are the people whose lives are affected by oil in unobvious ways aware of these consequences? And would they consent to the use of oil as a primary economic, social, cultural, and environmental influence if they were fully aware of the vice grip oil has over all of these factors? In order to address these questions and determine how oil is an invisible influence in many parts of contemporary North American urbanity, it is necessary to discuss how the uncertainty and negative potential consequences of oil prosperity is erased from the public consciousness.

The “petro-” prefix is becoming as ubiquitous as the substance itself because the use of petroleum has become synonymous with 20th and 21st century modernization. Contemporary North American consumer culture is based around independent accessibility, convenience, and near instant-access; everything from travel to technology is progressing to be faster, smarter, and easier to use, but at the cost of a greater dependence on cheap energy. The results of this ubiquity are present in the infrastructure of our cities to the devices at our fingertips. In “The Materiality of the Digital: Petro-Enlightenment and the Aesthetics of Invisibility,” Carolyn Elerding states that “petroculture is naturalized and ubiquitous to the point of invisibility.” She then quotes Stephanie LeMenager, who states that “petromodernity has enveloped the Euro-American imagination to the extent that ‘oil’ has become implicitly synonymous with the world.” It seems contradictory that the ubiquity of oil in contemporary Western culture nevertheless remains invisible, but this ubiquity breeds complacency. The invisible ubiquity of oil is accomplished in four ways: its omnipresence is erased by distracting the public with the design of urban spaces such as the expressway, the buildings, and the landmarks surrounding it; the negative consequences of oil are denied through careful physical “screens” (LeMenager 79); the void created by oil—in particular through the loss of natural beauty and other commodities through environmental damage—is replaced by neatly maintained products of petroculture need in order to maintain the illusion that oil consumption can provide in excess; and information is curated through the manipulation of the available language to discuss the production and consumption of oil products, as well as their uncertain influence on the economy, the environment, and society. In the introduction of Fueling Culture, Jennifer Wenzel discusses the idea of petroculture as a magical act, more of a sleight-of-hand trick directing attention elsewhere while the action happens in the periphery. She describes petromagic (9) as “enable[ing] an economy and infrastructure of the as-if, where one reaps the benefits of resources that one does not actually have…petromagic [is] all surplus! All the time!” (9). This petromagic not only creates the illusion of perpetual excess and wealth, it also contributes to the elaborate vanishing act of the substance of oil itself. She states that the visible effects of oil and the pressure it exerts on society are more obvious “when energy is not-said: invisible, erased, elided, so “slippery”…and ubiquitous as to elude representation and critical attention” (11). In Sina Queyras’ poetry collection Expressway, she writes of a poet who attempts to identify the subtle influences of oil by tracing its (auto)routes through culture and nature. She uses the expressway, North American road infrastructure, and the language surrounding as a scaled version of the larger petroculture that is fueled by more than just highways and automobiles. She attempts to see what often remains unseen of the physical and cultural structuring of North American petromodernity: how petroculture distracts from certain realities, how it subsequently denies its own destructive tendencies, how what has been destroyed is replaced by other products of petroculture, and how the words necessary to identify and address concerns about petroculture are alarmingly absent.

            Queyras concentrates North American petromodernity and its consequences into one symbol for oil production and consumption: the expressway. Expressways, highways, roads, streets, and even country lanes, are major contributors to the shape and design of contemporary North American life. In Expressway, Queyras quotes William Faulkner who states that “the American really loves nothing but his automobile: not his wife his child nor his country nor even his bank-account first… but his motorcar” (60). The automobile is a more readily apparent symbol for one’s status than a family or even one’s financial well-being because the automobile is at once a way to conform with society, and to carve out one’s individual identity from the group. In “Automobilities: An Introduction,” Mike Featherstone illustrates that one’s autonomy, mobility, freedom, independence, social life, and work schedule, are all influenced and structured by the automobile (1-2). The automobile, therefore, must be accommodated in every other organizational structure. This accommodation translates into the roadways that pervade Queyras’ poetry and much of North American urbanity.

The automobile is a symbol for how one fits into contemporary American petromodernity which is dominated and structured around automotive access. When the functionality and appearances of these structures are maintained, the visual impact of the automobile distracts from the impact of the automobile on culture and on the environment. Mike Featherstone further discusses the idea that “the visibility and influence of the car [is] a key object of mass production (Fordism) and mass consumption [which has an] impact on spatial organization through roads, city layout, suburban housing and shopping malls” (1). But what reality does the image of the automobile obscure in the deeper machinations of petroculture? Featherstone continues that “there is a powerful socio-economic and technological complex at work sustaining the car” (1), and it is this powerful “complex” that contributes to the invisible consequences of oil production and use in North American petroculture. Automobile aesthetics are designed for their aerodynamic façades, their shiny chrome exteriors, and their indomitability on the pavement. These aesthetics distract from the reality that these vehicles are constantly emitting exhaust, and many are involved in fatal ‘accidents.’ Both of these damaging side effects remain unnoticed unless there is a problem with the internal mechanisms of the automobile or the news. There are ways to control the speed, the noise, and the size of every vehicle, but the only control exerted over emissions and fatalities is how much exhaust a vehicle emits at once (not whether these emissions can be halted altogether), and how to improve the likelihood that a fatality will not happen (fatalities are inevitable as long as people continue to drive). Neither of these effects are visible unless the control exerted by the forces intending to maintain a positive petroculture fail. Black exhaust is a faux pas because it serves as incontrovertible proof of the vehicle’s invisible inner processes, as well as its burden on the environment. Queyras, however, sees beyond the façade of the vehicle and maintains what she sees as a link between the vehicle’s internal combustion and death. In “Endless Interstates,” the internal combustion engine is discussed alongside Chernobyl:

The morning after Chernobyl

Out there with tiny umbrellas. All those internal

Combustions. This is a country that has accepted death

As an industry, it is not news. (29)

Like nuclear energy, vehicles are clean until it becomes clear that they are not. Car crashes, too, are treated with similar apprehension as aberrations rather than the inevitable consequence of road culture. Once again, the vehicle’s design is meant to maintain an air of caution and safety. The same appearances can be applied to road culture on a whole; every road—especially important thoroughfares—is paved and maintained to a particular visual and aesthetic standard. Potholes, worn paint, and broken road signs are akin to black exhaust from an engine or the shock of a car crash: they reveal the degradation of control as the pavement is chipped away to reveal what was once paved over.

Roads provide a context for vehicles, and petroculture provides a context for roads. The reason for the widespread use of vehicles is embedded in the feedback loop of cultural identity creating petroculture, and petroculture creating cultural identity. Featherstone explains:

The motorized landscape contributes to our sense of place, of ‘being in the world’ within a familiar context. Road signs, street lighting, telephone booths, architecture of petrol/gas stations and roadside cafes/diners all contribute to our sense of national identity. (Featherstone 5)

Featherstone alludes to a series of physical signifiers—a road language—that conducts the way in which we organize our perceptions of individual and collective identity. However, the presence of this organization has a sinister undertone in Stephanie LeMenager’s description of the industrialization of Los Angeles throughout the 20th century. In Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century she discusses oil-based industrialization’s impact on American infrastructure and road culture. She determines that many of the intentional designs of the “parkways” were in fact “screens” (79). She outlines one plan by two firms, the Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew and Associates (78), who “propose[d] a road system made up almost entirely of parkways for an intensively industrializing urban region…pivot[ing] upon the idea of screens. ‘Screens’ for Olmsted and Bartholomew mean[t] landscape features that [could] be allocated generously to hide ecological wounds” (79). Screens can be façades, or blocks, intentionally placed in such a way that they obscure vision or prevent access. In her poems, Queyras grapples with the expressway itself as a screen covering up the social and environmental consequences of petroculture, and how the poet has been implicated in that larger scheme.

Throughout Expressway, Queyras returns to the idea that the poet is the one who sees beyond the screens and exposes the cracks in North American petroculture. However, the poet’s discoveries lead her to question her own role and complacency in the overarching petroculture. She further realizes that the screens aren’t about embracing oil for its faults, but about denying those faults entirely. Queyras herself, as the poet in this series of poems, often finds herself entangled in the shapes of cities, roads, and expressways, and all the modern conveniences that these screens afford. In the very first poem titled “Solitary” she expresses her desire to be connected with someone or something else as “she walks near the expressway… cellphone at her ear” (6). Two ostensible methods of connection and communication enabled by petroculture are at her disposal, and yet she finds herself disconnected and even blocked entirely from that connection. Instead, she sees past these methods of connection—especially the expressway—and notices what it is trying to cover up:

Here the expressway

Smoothing each nuisance of wild, each terrifying

Quirk of land, uneven, forlorn paths… (6)

For Queyras, the expressway eradicates the minute details of nature; it flattens inconsistencies and replaces them with tightly controlled surfaces. The pavement of the expressway is instead “the idea of river” (6); it is rather the ideal of a pure state of flow that denies the constant renewal and change of an actual river and instead emphasizes what LeMenager calls the “perpetual motion” (74) of petroculture. So much of petroculture takes inspiration from nature for the purposes of dominating it, but this reality is revealed through the progression of Queyras’ poetry. In “A Memorable Fancy” “[the poet] lifts the expressway’s veil. Hardly modest but, still, a crevice here and there to slip into” (22). The veil that is “hardly modest” must then be ostentatious. Its presentation is meant not only to distract from what lies beneath but take precedence over the subject that it covers. The paved expressway intends to draw attention to itself by emphasizing select “landscape features” (LeMenager 79), and evoking images of other natural processes such as the river in order to hide what is smothered beneath the expressway’s smooth surface.

The expressway contributes to the loss of natural spaces and the expansive, sprawling urban space in which the vast majority of the North American population lives. The paved urban sprawl subsequently contributes to the loss of natural beauty and products. These losses are replaced by well-maintained, curated attractions on the side of the road and the backyards of North Americans. Queyras implicates the expressway, and North American petroculture, as the replacement of both natural and human expression. One example of the replacement of human expression is the narrowing of the possibility for self-expression seen in the purchase of automobiles discussed previously: one must at least own a vehicle in order to express one’s American independence. Another example of this replacement of expression is apparent in Queyras’ poem “Acceptable Dissociations”:

And Peoria, Willingboro, Paterson, every inch of it grafted,

Numbered, planted, barriered, mowed, guardrailed,

O my citizen consumers, for the the, infinite,

Replaceable, scaling these walls of sound and motion,

Dipping in, expressing oneself, expressing oneself,

Expressing oneself (72).

In this poem, natural expression is replaced by urban impressions of nature. These cities are petroculture, as much as the expressway is petroculture. They, too, are screens that obscure the view of something that used to be there. This image is associated with a kind of violence: the graft, a quick patch-job, and a relocation of one part of a body to another. A graft is a replacement of damaged skin with different skin in surgery; in nature, a graft is the forced unity between the tissues of plants so that they might grow together. Queyras catalogues the dominance exerted over the natural elements that remain after erasure, and even those natural elements have their “quirks” (6) smoothed out by petroculture through numbering, planting, and mowing. Lawns and gardens are neatly maintained expressions of identity. In the third poem, “Renewal,” in a series titled “Three Dreams of the Expressway” the poet urges the participants in North American petroculture to consider the broader context of their replacement of nature: “all along the expressway, gardens, and in them people…Tell the people not to worry so much about their own gardens. Tell them to worry about the one garden” (93). Rebecca Altman also discusses the pervading idea of well-kept gardens as a replacement for the natural world in her essay titled “American Petrotopia.” However, these replacements are even further removed from the natural idea (like the idea of river) that they take inspiration from. In Altman’s vision, she sees “plants of another species: tables set with inedible fruit, backyards where grass stains have been traded for turf burns and gardens landscaped with polyethylene boulders.” From Altman’s perspective, the expression of the Expressway, and North American petroculture, has become fake and plastic; it has taken the mobility from oil and made it solid. It has brought the expressway home and driven nature out. Through the apparent ability to replace what it destroys, petroculture provides a seemingly endless supply of product which creates the illusion that nothing has been lost.

After the denial of oil consequences through distraction and replacement comes the final contributor to the invisible ubiquity of oil: the idea of how petro-language obscures and manipulates the concepts of choice and freedom in order to deny the negative realities of petroculture. Throughout Expressway, Queyras struggles with how the poet herself, and even those who are less observant than she is, are implicated in the structure of petroculture. The poet struggles with her complicity most in “A Memorable Fancy” where she converses with a somewhat sinister voice (perhaps even her own self-consciousness) that locates her within the scheme of petroculture as a consumer of oil. At first, the poet attempts to establish that she does not intentionally do harm: “I am a person who pays bills, she yelled. I am a person who responds! I am a good person: I go along without much trouble” (36). The poet recognizes that she contributes to the petrocapitalist system. She gives what she owes, she interacts with her society and her environment, and because she does not intentionally cause problems she is therefore “good.” However, Rebecca Altman states that “we are past the point of simple dichotomies such as good/bad, nature/plastic, innocent/complicit.” Queyras’ anxiety about her integration and complacency in this system responds to the blurring of such dichotomies. Shortly after she insists that she is a good person, the question is raised: “Why is complacency good?” (36). Culture itself is an assumed facet of social identity, and participation in North American petroculture is not necessarily optional. The poet then recognizes how she has been fooled by the screens of petroculture: “what blindness had she suffered?” (36). Queyras’ poet focuses in on the choices she has made and the choices she has been able to make given the circumstances. What she discovers is that what is presented to her as choice was never really choice. Instead, she has been presented the illusion of choice; she has been given a word empty of meaning, and she struggles to find the words to fill the gap. In “The Endless Hum” Queyras establishes a place called A, which stands for the country in which she, the poet, lives. She determines that “in A, what is said is not what is meant” (62). In A, rather, language is utilized towards the deception of the population.

There is a lack of vocabulary to use in order to describe the damages supported by North American petroculture. Existing language is often manipulated in order to deceive the general population into complacency. For example, the deceiving language that Queyras discovers creates complacency surrounding the use of the automobile despite the risk that vehicles cause to their occupants and pedestrians. Featherstone echoes this sentiment in his essay. He discusses that, traditionally, “road safety is the sole responsibility of individual road users, and the answer is to encourage road users to adopt ‘error-free’ behaviour” (4). Here, the humanity is removed from any individual who chooses to drive, for it is the driver who must be hypervigilant in order to prevent disasters that could be avoided by producing fewer vehicles. But since North American petroculture is obsessed with the automobile as a symbol of control and independence, it cannot be responsible for the negative consequences that arise from its use. Automobile ownership is such that one must own a vehicle, one must drive it, and one must not make mistakes. Human caused errors and accidents are the determined causes of road incidents and even deaths. Featherstone states that “[the] regular murder of human beings and frequent physical injury is largely accepted as something unavoidable” (4). In fact, “the term accident is often preferred to car crash, as it doesn’t suggest the attribution of blame and points to the intrusion of fate into life” (16). The subtle effect of the way these incidents are worded fosters an attitude of indifference towards the production and use of automobiles and the oil used to power them. The car crash becomes an “aberration” (3) rather than “a normal social occurrence” (3). In this language blame game, it is not petroculture, or the road, or the vehicle that is at fault, but the very individual whose car is meant to represent his or her individuality. Queyras further exemplifies the way language denies car crashes as an unfortunate product of petroculture in her poem “Crash”:

The crash, mistakenly thinking it happened. The Expressway rather than the odd joker. …Nowhere is the expressway’s fault. If your car crashes into me, it’s your fault. Car crash collision and insurance stories. (42)

The language of car crashes is based around responsibility reassignment; someone must be responsible for the consequences, as long as it does not damage the reputation of the vehicle and the larger petroculture it represents. In short, the language manipulation surrounding the high-speed collisions on the expressway are applicable to petromodernity on a whole.

The apparent complacency of North Americans, or Queyras’ citizens of A, is largely due to implied consent that has been built over years of manipulative language and a distinct lack of public knowledge of the economic and political machinations that perpetuate petroculture. Information is either selectively provided or denied in order to perpetuate the erasure of petroculture’s influence on contemporary cultural, social, and political structures. However, the question remains: who curates this information? Who seeks to erase the negative consequences of petroculture in North America? Who profits from such invisible ubiquity? Queyras’ poet is only capable of recognizing the gaps in her own information; she asks questions, but she is unable to answer the majority of them. For example, in “Solitary,” she writes:

What sounds, what sympathy, what silence, what

Creation? What recompense? What word? What land?

What legacy? What future? What expressway?

………………………………………what never

Having to deal with the revulsion of self, only

The joy of forward, the joy of onward, the endless fuel:

The circles, the ramps, the fast lanes, the cloverleaf (11).

These questions are an endless refrain through Queyras’ Expressway. At first, the poet begins with the “what” of invisible petroculture: what is the expressway? What is its future? What is it made of? What is it hiding? She asks these questions until finally she is able to provide one answer for herself: the expressway is about joy. Not just any joy, but the joy associated with road culture: the open road, the speed, and the ideal of progress and forward momentum. However, for Queyras, these joys are actually a denial of the self; they replace the difficulties of being with the instant satisfaction of driving. When one is driving, one does not have to worry about how one is complicit in the things one despises. Throughout the poems, Queyras’ questions become more specific and complex, but many of them remain unanswerable. She also begins to question where the individual belongs in petroculture, and who is responsible for petroculture. Of all the questions that Queyras asks, the most sinister are the ones that seek to find a culpable party. In “Endless Interstates,” the poet asks: “Who / Knew where the road would take us?” (32). Queyras is able to imagine the personalities of the individual parties, but their identities are impossible to trace because their names do not exist in language. Instead, she simply names these individuals using letters of the alphabet, like mathematical variables that could represent any number of capitalistic bureaucrats or corrupt political figures.

According to Altman, the lines between good and bad are irrevocably blurred in North American petroculture, but Queyras focuses in on the ambiguous identities of the potential culprits whose language promotes capitalism, unquestioned consumerism, and implied consent. In “Cloverleaf Medians and Means,” the letters A and B act as two characters in an absurdist play. Their dialogue bounces back and forth, often interchangeably, and though the poet is never able to identify these figures, they are able to identify her. These anonymous individuals are such a powerful force that they are able to dominate over the written words. A literally takes the words out of the poet’s mouth: “A: This is not a poem, she asserts with much exclamation” (18). Queyras writes A and B as the masters of language, understanding, freedom, and consent. They are the ones who answer the questions, and they are the ones who make the decisions. However, these decisions are made using the implied consent of the poet and even the reader:

A: Long ago you already said yes.

B: Long ago a deal was struck, something about pebbles and the weave of blankets.

A: Certain matters have been undertaken on your behalf.

B: Prior to this you had no experience.

A: Let sleeping cars lie, she said. Let little dogs go.

B: Now that you are accustomed to signing the waiver / without reading.

A: Now that you are willing to say yes.

B: Now that you are willing. (17-18)

The first two lines give this transaction a date, and reveal that this one affirmation given long ago by ‘us’ has been re-used well into the present. The “deal” of which A and B speak is unexplained, and was never understood. B’s choice of words—pebbles and the weave of blankets—implies that the deal being negotiated was somehow as common as pebbles or one tiny stitch in the tapestry of history. This choice of words in particular exemplifies the lack of a common language between the public and the policymakers that each group understands. The constant lack of understanding led to the eventual blind trust (literally, the inability to see such blatant deception) that over time, figures like A and B can present all of the necessary information to those the dealings of petroculture will affect, and none of those people will read the documentation. The identities of the figures who make these choices on the behalf of North American society remain anonymous and invisible, despite the fact that their power is everywhere. Like oil, they too remain ever present yet invisible because language is not able to keep up with the exponential growth of oil use, nor is language able to guard against the sinister manipulation of those who stand to benefit most from oil profits.

In Expressway, Queyras has created an insightful perspective on the subtlety of oil’s influence. However, even though she is now able to see and write on her findings, the poet is powerless to change North American petroculture without the drastic, and nearly unanimous, rebellion of those who live in this petro-society. In her poems, she comments on those aspects of petroculture and oil use that are simultaneously damaging to nature and even the individual, but somehow these effects remain unobserved. By scrutinizing the things that modern North American petroculture takes for granted, from the shape and quality of the highways to the way that information is presented through the manipulation and gaps in language, Queyras paints a picture in which the negative consequences of oil are everywhere, but no one seems to notice. She finds herself unable to pin down that which eludes detection. On a larger scale, these influences still structure modern life to such an extent that the absence of oil is somehow more visible than its presence. Featherstone states that petroculture creates non-places, which are “new spaces of circulation, communication and consumption” (7), apparently wanting to describe how empty of spirit petroculture is. However, if oil brings the culture, then it takes the culture with it when it leaves. Petroculture is not devoid of meaning, its meaning is simply elusive; it is impossible to detect how it has changed North American lifestyles for the worse (especially since part of this elusiveness is due to the distraction tactic of hyperfocusing on the benefits of petroculture) until the shopping malls, gas stations, and expressway motels have been abandoned and become decrepit and disused on the side of the expressway. Queyras’ vision for a post-petroculture future is one of upheaval, when the deceived public finally decides to tear away the screens that have prevented them from fully comprehending the burden the expressway and petroculture has placed on nature and society. However, at present, post-petroculture does not exist. The cities and people who have been abandoned by oil and petroculture are left to struggle, decay, and wonder what they did wrong.

 

 

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