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Life after Oil: The Politics of Labor in Bessora’s Petroleum

  • Alexandra Perisic

Abstract

Petroleum, a 2004 novel by Swiss-Gabonese writer Bessora, takes place almost entirely on the Ocean Liberator, a ship extracting oil off the coast of Gabon. I argue that the Ocean Liberator operates as what Marc Augé calls a non-place, a place that cannot be defined in terms of history, identity, or relations. Non-places, frequently under neither national nor international supervision, facilitate the creation of a precarious international labor force. I furthermore underline the relation among the non-place workplace, environmental degradation, and the choice of detective fiction. Petroleum is what I call a supermodern detective novel, which moves beyond local violence to deal with transnational networks of capitalist power and oppression.

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1 Bessora, Les taches d’encre: roman (Paris: Serpent à Plumes, 2000).

2 Bessora, Cueillez-moi jolis messieurs . . .: roman (Paris: Gallimard, 2006).

3 Susan Ireland, “Bessora’s Literary Ludics,” Dalhousie French Studies 68 (2004): 716 .

4 Augé, Marc, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995), 78 .

5 de Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), XIV . For Certeau, “practice of everyday life” encompasses “innumerable practices by means of which users reappropriate the space organized by techniques of sociocultural production.”

6 Augé, Non-places, 94.

7 Ibid., 103.

8 Harvey, David, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 2 . In most of my work, when I use the term neoliberalism I rely on David Harvey’s definition: “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices.”

9 Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 17 .

10 Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

11 Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 290 . A set of commentators, including Marxist theorists Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, have adopted the concept of affective or immaterial labor in opposition to the more traditional category of material labor in order to highlight the shift to service economies in the global north: “Since the production of services results in no material and durable good, we define the labor involved in this production as immaterial labor—that is, labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication.” I use the term here to refer to the labor of foreign managers.

12 Bessora, Petroleum (Paris: Denoël, 2004), 9 . (“At the very top, the senior executives and directors . . . In the middle, an aggregate of technical and administrative agents, a sort of two-tier middle-class, White and Black, with an elevator for the former . . . And at the bottom, the always indigenous working classes . . . Marl that fattens up the first two.”) Unless otherwise noted, all the translations are my own.

13 Mitchell, Timothy, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2011), 29 .

14 Bessora, Petroleum, 123. (“Elf built its boulevard between the forestry company and the oil company. It runs parallel to an old canal that used to separate the White part of town, off-limits to Black people from the African villages. During that time, the White city prospered all along the bay, which century after century saw the ebb and flow of so many salt bunkers, slave warehouses, trading firms, concessionary subsidiaries, log yards. The canal separated two races. The boulevard separates two classes, one of which happens to be Black.”)

15 Mawuna Remarque Koutonin. “Why Are White People Expats when the Rest of Us Are Immigrants?” The Guardian, March 13, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration.

16 Christopher Dewolf. “In Hong Kong, Just Who Is an Expat, Anyway?” Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2014. http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2014/12/29/in-hong-kong-just-who-is-an-expat-anyway/.

17 Dimitar Bechev. “Britain’s Bulgaria-Romania Phobia,” Open Democracy, December 23, 2013. https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/dimitar-bechev/britains-bulgaria-romania-phobia.

18 Balibar, Étienne and Maurice Wallerstein, Immanuel, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991).

19 Sassen, Saskia, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991).

20 Bessora, Petroleum, 7. (“After a long journey, the black gold will reach the surface. Its voyage will have spanned three thousand meters in depth. The Liberator will deliver it from the bowels of the earth.”)

21 Blyth, Mark, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

22 Henri Astier. “Elf Was Secret Arm of ‘French Policy,’ ” BBC, March 19, 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2862257.stm.

23 Bessora, Petroleum, 192–93. (“Now, the hard hats were rummaging through the water; would the water genies, disciples of Mamiwata, ask for their share?”)

24 Heise, Ursula K., Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 142 .

25 Ariel Schwartz. “The Green Guide to Obama’s State of the Union Address,” Fast Company, January 26, 2011. https://www.fastcompany.com/1721057/green-guide-obamas-state-union-address.

26 Bessora, Petroleum, 23 (“Well environmentalism is Elf’s primary concern. Just like human rights”).

27 Huggan, Graham, Postcolonial Eco-criticism: Literature, Animals, Environment. (New York: Routledge, 2015), 80 .

28 Ireland, “Bessora’s Literary Ludics.”

29 Bessora, Petroleum, 239. (“collective adherence to the oil legend,” “collective adherence to the colonial legend”).

30 Ibid., 245. (“Oil is the Golden Fleece and Elf is its guardian.”).

31 Spivak, Gayatri, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 243261 .

32 Higginson, Pim, Mayhem at the Crossroads: Francophone African Fiction and the Rise of the Crime Novel (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2005), 17 .

33 Close, Glen S., Contemporary Hispanic Crime Fiction: A Transatlantic Discourse on Urban Violence (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 19 .

34 Baudrillard, Jean, The Agony of Power, trans. Ames Hodges (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2010), 33 .

35 Ibid., 38.

36 Bessora, Petroleum, 87. (“Bongo, de Gaulle, Elf-Gabon, there are no signs marking the names of these avenues. It’s understandable that the cadastral reality is concealed, because there’s nothing to crow about. Yes, this reality is invisible.”)

37 Berardi, Franco, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Los Angeles,CA: Semiotext(e), 2009), 88 .

38 Tani, Stefano, The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 40 .

39 Kravitz, Bennett. “Thoughts on the Anti-Detective in Paul Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy,’ Adam Ross’s ‘MisterPeanut,’ and Martha Grimes’s ‘The Old Wine Shades,’Studies in Popular Culture 36.1 (2013): 4561 .

40 Bessora, Petroleum, 125. (“The answer can be found in time, she says. What happened on the ship, it’s . . . It’s memory that you should question.”)

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Life after Oil: The Politics of Labor in Bessora’s Petroleum

  • Alexandra Perisic

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