Petrocultures of the Middle East: Textual, Photographic, Cinematic and Literary Representations of Oil
Session X-11, 2022 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, December 3 at 5:30 pm
The entanglement of petroleum and economic and political developments in oil-producing countries has been one of the persistent preoccupations of studies on the Middle East. Until quite recently, less attention was given to petroleum’s specific cultural entanglements; cultural transformations were often discussed as indirect effects of state revenues under the rubric “modernization.” Consequently, petroleum has been studied mainly from the perspective of (political) economy, and the nation state has served as the main unit of analysis. During the last decade, a growing number of publications have broadened the perspective on petroleum development by focusing on the interactions between, on the one hand, petroleum production, transport and consumption, and on the other hand, cultural productions, practices, values and symbols. As a result, they have provided new perspectives by moving beyond the focus on the nation-state and the economy by exploring the relationship between petroleum and culture through studies of urban spaces, local communities, corporations and their employees, art collectives, literature, photography and cinema. The papers in this panel contribute to this new development as part of the global field of Energy Humanities. Transcending generalist approaches to culture, they retrieve historical and contemporary cultural developments in specific settings, ranging from corporate magazines to documentaries and novels, and relate them to more general phenomena such as gender and ethnic relations, regimes of production and consumption, modernity and post-coloniality.
The material flows of oil have always facilitated the global movements of culture in the 20th century, shaping what is referred to as oil modernity in Energy Humanities. The relationship between the materiality of oil and culture, however, is neither unidirectional nor unmediated and unproblematic. Oil corporations have played a crucial role in actively creating a web of cultural practices, values and symbols in which the production, transport and consumption of oil is imbedded and sustained over time. This cultural reproduction of oil modernity has addressed workers of oil corporations, consumers of oil products, and political elites in a context of established cultures. Therefore, oil modernity has been contested and shaped by these actors and pre-existing cultures, particularly in the (semi-)colonial context of the Middle East in which it was advocated by international oil companies.
These themes are explored through the lens of the publications and magazines of the oil corporations and professional organizations in Iran from 1908 to 1979 (Anglo-Persian Oil Company, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and the National Iranian Oil Company). Looking at the texts and images in these publications, this paper retrieves the cultural mechanisms through which they created an imagined community of the employees of the oil industry by defining them as missionaries of modernity in Iran. The cultural impact of these publications went beyond the workforce of the oil corporations, however, as they used oil to represent a new cultural era that defined being modern, including how citizens dressed or educated their children. At the same time, these representations reveal the contradictions of the resulting hybrid modernity in which images from Iran’s ancient past are revived and the ruler is omnipresent.
The cultural mechanisms of this oil modernity are explored in relations to three specific themes of cultural representation in the publications of oil companies: work, gender and consumption. The seemingly stable notion of modernity that they convey is problematized by analyzing the silent, hidden and contradictory representations of oil that reveal the fractious relations between the oil company, its employees, and the state.
This presentation examines the transnational visual culture mobilized around raw material sovereignty and resource nationalism between 1950-1980, a period in which oil has played a significant role. Offering a visual ethnography of oil that is focused on the multimedia productions of the OPEC member countries from the MENA region in the form of promotional films, philatelic cultures, print publications, and magazines, I unpack the aesthetic production of oil in the nexus of decolonial visual cultures and transnational networks of solidarity in the wider MENA. This presentation addresses the emergence of new publics of value and media consumer culture while it charts out their competing and contradictory petrocultural visions through archival and textual analysis. Each of these media-oriented processes has responded to the task of nation-building and the formation of political dissent differently. I seek to map their commonalities and transnational affinities to analyze the disparate ideological frameworks upon which these diverse sets of petrocultural imaginaries and decolonial national aspirations were activated and circulated.
The visual ethnography will center on archival materials pertaining to the multimedia and philatelic productions of the Arab Petroleum Congresses during 1950-1980 along with audiovisual commemoration projects devised and programmed by different OPEC members. This presentation further interrogates transnational dimensions of the representational politics surrounding oil, its historical conditions of possibility, and problematics. In doing so, it traces the processes of adoption and internalization of the Anglo-European ideals and ideas of petromodernity in disparate national modes of self-representation in the MENA region. I intend to examine representation as a contested area wherein modes and conditions of visuality are critically entangled with unequal power relationships and institutional dominance. I further ask how and why did the colonial visual logics continue to underpin the national adoptions of these representational regimes surrounding the oil industry?
Based on a close reading of photographs depicting the local workforce and their working and living environments in magazines and photo albums produced by the Arabian American Oil Company, Iraq Petroleum Company, Kuwait Petroleum Company and Bahrain Petroleum Company this paper engages with the corporate history and practice of public relations oil photography in the Arab World in the 1950s and 1960s. It explores the ‘fields of vision’ of the oil company as a corporation, and the combination of technology and human agency that underpinned the creation and circulation of these images, with particular reference to the interaction between company photographers, cameras as technological devices key to the reproduction of labour, workers as photographic subjects and the images’ intended publics.
Labour-related photographs will be also analysed as evidence of the companies’ values and concepts of work and social relations, and of their power to create imaginary sociologies and geographies of petroleum production in order to entertain, instruct and ultimately subdue the workforce. It is argued that photography depicting local workers provided models for the new corporate lives of oil that made acceptable the introduction of modern material and professional cultures, the transformation of living spaces and natural environments and the exploitative and often discriminatory practices of foreign companies that controlled oil extraction in the Arab World until nationalisation. In interpreting photographs as instruments of social construction and persuasion that served the reproduction of labour this paper also analyses some images in conjunction with stories of oil development published in the companies’ press which were set in specific spaces of petroleum corporate life, particularly the oil township and the suburban villa, with a view to disclosing the companies’ ‘fields of vision’ on social relations, family life and domesticity.