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​English Seminar | “This oil thing touches everything”: World-Literary Crime Fiction and Fossil Capitalism

Published on: 23-Jul-2019

We are joined by Prof. Sharae Deckard, Lecturer in World Literature at University College Dublin, for the second paper in the Global Cities in World Literature and Culture series.

This paper combines an approach to crime fiction as world-literature with the insights of the emergent disciplines of energy humanities and petrocultures. I will compare contemporary novels that depict crimes occurring in different global contexts of peripheral oil extraction and concentrated oil wealth, including Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising (Houston), Kwei Quartey’s Murder at Cape Three Points (Ghana), Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s Shadow of the Shadow (Mexico), and Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s Nairobi Heat (Kenya). I will argue that these novels should be considered not only crime fictions, but petrofictions in both their content and form, foregrounding the nexus of crime, oil, environmental crisis, and capitalist exploitation. Not only do their plots revolve around crimes emerging in the context of resource conflicts, petro-political struggles, and strikes against oil corporations, but their characters express affects inextricable from petrolic life, whether the exuberance of energy surplus or the dread of oil price shocks and environmental collapse, while their very narrative energetics and mechanisms of suspense, such as the gas-powered automobility of their investigators as they drive around their “energy-obsessed” cities (Locke), traverse socio-economically uneven geographies in search of clues, and chase down suspects, are fuelled by the fossil fuel combustion. Furthermore, I suggest that “fossil capital,” as Andreas Malm calls it, functions within these texts as a metonym for the hierarchical inequalities of global capitalism, entangled with both formal and informal economies, and bound up with both transnational corporations and state violence, especially in sites of crude extraction in the Global South. As Imre Szeman has recently argued, oil is not merely a source of energy, but a “substance that has given shape to capitalist social reality, perhaps as much as the division of labour or the dance of commodity reification” (2010: 34). In each of these crime novels, the investigation of individual criminal acts of violence or murder gradually leads to the revelation of larger contexts of systemic and structural violence and environmental racism—what environmental critic Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.” As such, reading global crime fiction and energy through such a world-ecological lens offers opportunities for critics to reimagine how the ‘art of social detection’ associated with the genre might mediate the particular constellations of unequal relations of race, gender, class, and ecology that uphold the petrolic regime of late fossil capitalism.


Date: 23 July 2019

Time: 2pm

Venue: HSS Conference Room

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