Currently working on a co-authored article (with artist David Jacques). This is for a forthcoming book, Practising Place, being edited by Elaine Speight. The abstract for our article is below. Above is the video ‘Oil is the Devil’s Excrement’ (David Jacques, 2016, 11m 46s).
Oil is the Devil’s Excrement: a confluence of trajectories
Les Roberts and David Jacques
In this chapter we sketch the dovetailing of ideas and critical interventions that have sprung from the politico-magical properties of oil. Ruminations on death, putrefaction, myth and geo-politics vie with those that take as their starting point the spatio-temporal rhythms of a petrochemical installation situated on the banks of the River Mersey. While each of these trajectories represents an invocatory response to the same diabolical putrescence visited upon the dying Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, founder of OPEC (a visitation that was to usher a final ‘dark night of the soul’), at the same time they carve out their own singular, yet intertwined pathways through the sump of critical terrain that probes oil’s dark sentience and socio-political burden. In the hands of Jacques we plunge headlong into the defecatory slipstream, anointing ourselves by way of immersion and infusion in a substance whose alchemical power lies in its capacity to tap and drill deep into the geological bedrock of the human soul. Roberts, on the other hand, skirts the perimeter fences of an industrial colossus that dwarfs the surrounding landscapes as commandingly as it harbours and secretes a (death’s) cargo that remains impenetrable: a secret that lies beyond the reach of those who can but yield to its gift. In this vein, the chapter sees Jacques set out the ground-work for a creative process whereby Alfonzo is envisioned through an interweaving of literary, scientific and mythical threads which link the quest for power and wealth with traditional stories of the ‘devil-pact’, interpreted as critiques of Capital by the Marxist Anthropologist Michel Taussig. By way of countervailing narrative, for his part, the chapter follows Roberts as he sets out, bricoleur-style, to weave auto-ethnographic yarns out of a process of immersive, site-specific engagement with Stanlow refinery in Cheshire. Conceived of as a form of pilgrimage, like Jacques, his quest is one bent on ritual invocation. Oil as foil, creatively, politically or as poetic license. Turning shit into gold need not be the preserve of the oil industry.