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Abstract

Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), a classic of twentieth century American science fiction (sf), describes a fantastic universe where noble families, corporate interests and shadowy, cultish organisations vie for power and monopoly over a fantastic resource, the spice-melange. It is inarguably the power source of the novel’s setting and its narrative. The immensely valuable and addictive substance increases longevity and radically expands the capabilities of the human mind – enabling movement, commerce, and communication on an epic scale. Positioning sf as “the literature of cognitive estrangement”, I regard the spice-melange as a discursive platform for oil and the ideological, social and political formations that are inextricable from reliance on black gold, while its deleterious aspects are disavowed or deferred. I argue that this collective response constitutes oil as offshore: the degree to which it is implicated in modern political and social formations is fundamentally understated. On the contrary, it is framed as an object of science and political economy, not as their material basis; a mentality only made possible by a utopian discourse of everlasting, ecstatic innovation; itself a discourse made all the more potent by oil’s power and mutability. I argue furthermore that sf is the approach best suited to combat the dominant discourse of oil as an offshore object of our society. Sf’s utopian projects and excessive spectacles may serve as a spark to imagine new, alternative energy futures; as the estranging mechanisms of sf allow us to explore our energy present through extrapolations and analogies of new ways of powering human life. My final argument is that, by highlighting the centrality of energy to modern life and culture, sf is framed as an immediate and terrestrial concern in texts such as Dune.
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Journal of Literary Studies
ISSN: 0256-4718 (Print) 1753-5387 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjls20
Dune Rehabilitation in Progress
Gemma Field
To cite this article: Gemma Field (2018) Dune Rehabilitation in Progress, Journal of Literary
Studies, 34:3, 123-137, DOI: 10.1080/02564718.2018.1507154
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/02564718.2018.1507154
Published online: 05 Oct 2018.
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JLS/TLW 34(3), Sep./Sept. 2018
ISSN 0256-4718/Online 1753-5387
© JLS/TLW
DOI: 10.1080/02564718.2018.1507154
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Dune Rehabilitation in Progress
Gemma Field
Summary
Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), a classic of twentieth century American science fiction
(sf), describes a fantastic universe where noble families, corporate interests and
shadowy, cultish organisations vie for power and monopoly over a fantastic resource,
the spice-melange. It is inarguably the power source of the novel’s setting and its
narrative. The immensely valuable and addictive substance increases longevity and
radically expands the capabilities of the human mind enabling movement,
commerce, and communication on an epic scale. Positioning sf as “the literature of
cognitive estrangement”, I regard the spice-melange as a discursive platform for oil
and the ideological, social and political formations that are inextricable from reliance
on black gold, while its deleterious aspects are disavowed or deferred. I argue that this
collective response constitutes oil as offshore: the degree to which it is implicated in
modern political and social formations is fundamentally understated. On the contrary,
it is framed as an object of science and political economy, not as their material basis;
a mentality only made possible by a utopian discourse of everlasting, ecstatic
innovation; itself a discourse made all the more potent by oil’s power and mutability. I
argue furthermore that sf is the approach best suited to combat the dominant discourse
of oil as an offshore object of our society. Sf’s utopian projects and excessive
spectacles may serve as a spark to imagine new, alternative energy futures; as the
estranging mechanisms of sf allow us to explore our energy present through
extrapolations and analogies of new ways of powering human life. My final argument
is that, by highlighting the centrality of energy to modern life and culture, sf is framed
as an immediate and terrestrial concern in texts such as Dune.
Opsomming
Frank Herbert se Dune (1965) is ʼn klassieke werk van twintigste-eeuse Amerikaanse
wetenskapsfiksie waarin ʼn fantastiese heelal beskryf word waar adellike families,
korporatiewe belange en geheimsinnige, kultiese organisasies meeding om mag en
monopolie van ʼn fantastiese hulpbron, die speserymengsel. Dit is onbetwisbaar die
kragbron van die roman se agtergrond en verhaal. Dié middel is ongelooflik waardevol
en verslawend dit verhoog langlewendheid en kan ʼn radikale uitbreiding van die
vermoëns van die menslike verstand bewerkstellig, wat beweging, handel en
kommunikasie op ʼn epiese skaal moontlik maak. Die speserymengsel posisioneer
wetenskapsfiksie as “die literatuur van kognitiewe vervreemding” en ek beskou dit as
ʼn diskursiewe platform vir olie en die ideologiese, sosiale en politieke formasies wat
onlosmaaklik deel is van afhanklikheid van swart goud, terwyl die nadelige aspekte
daarvan ontken of opsy geskuif word. Ek voer aan dat hierdie kollektiewe reaksie olie
as aflandig konstitueer: die mate waarin dit in moderne politieke en sosiale formasies
JLS/TLW
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geïmpliseer word, is in wese onderbeklemtoon. Inteendeel, dit word geformuleer as ʼn
objek van wetenskap en politieke ekonomie, nie as hul materiële basis nie; ʼn
denkwyse wat slegs moontlik gemaak word deur ʼn utopiese diskoers van ewig-
durende, ekstatiese vernuwing, wat opsigself ʼn diskoers is wat soveel meer kragdadig
gemaak word deur die krag en onbestendigheid van olie. Ek voer verder aan dat
wetenskapsfiksie die mees geskikte benadering is om die dominante diskoers van olie
as ʼn aflandige objek van ons samelewing te bekamp. Die utopiese projekte en
oordrewe vertonings van wetenskapsfiksie kan dien as aansporing om nuwe
toekomste geskoei op alternatiewe energie te bedink, aangesien die vervreemdende
meganismes van wetenskapsfiksie ons toelaat om ons energiegawe te ontgin deur
ekstrapolerings en analogieë van nuwe maniere om menslike lewe aan te dryf. Ter
afsluiting voer ek aan dat wetenskapsfiksie, deur beklemtoning van die sentrale rol
wat energie in hedendaagse lewe en kultuur speel, in tekste soos Dune uitgebeeld
word as ʼn onmiddellike en terrestriële aangeleentheid.
Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), a classic of twentieth century American science
fiction (sf), describes a fantastic universe where noble families, corporate
interests and shadowy, cultish organisations vie for power and monopoly over
a fantastic resource, the spice-melange. Found only on the desert planet
Arrakis, the immensely valuable and addictive substance increases longevity
and radically expands the capabilities of the human mind, enabling
movement, commerce, and communication on an epic scale. It is inarguably
the power source of the novel’s setting and its narrative, as heightened
awareness compels the actions of all the characters. Coeval with the growth
of the environmentalist movement in the United States in the 1960s
signalled by the growing concern over pesticides, air pollution and soil
erosion, a proliferation of nature writing and the birth of the anti-nuclear
movement the novel has been widely theorised for its insight into
environmental change and preservation.
Utilising Darko Suvin’s definition of sf as “the literature of cognitive
estrangement”, I read the spice-melange as a discursive platform for oil and
the ideological, social and political formations that are inextricable from
reliance on black gold, while its deleterious aspects are disavowed or deferred.
I argue that this collective response constitutes oil as offshore: the degree to
which it is implicated in modern political and social formations is
fundamentally understated, on the contrary, it is framed as an object of science
and political economy, not as their material basis; a mentality only made
possible by a utopian discourse of everlasting, ecstatic innovation; itself a
discourse made all the more potent by oil’s power and mutability.
This manifested in sf of the first half of the twentieth century through a
valorisation of dirty fossil fuels and erasure of their fall-out, and fantastic
energy sources of varying degrees of cleanliness. Yet these utopian projects
and excessive spectacles may serve as a spark to imagine new, alternative
energy futures; as the estranging mechanisms of sf allow us to explore our
energy present through extrapolations and analogies of new ways of powering
human life. I argue that sf may serve as the approach best suited to combat
DUNE REHABILITATION IN PROGRESS
125
the dominant discourse of oil as an offshore object of our society; by
highlighting the centrality of energy to modern life and culture, texts such as
Dune frame it as an immediate and terrestrial concern.
Oil’s incomparable rate of EROEI (energy returned on energy invested)
propelled humanity into a fantastic modernity, radically altering environments
and interactions and fuelling our engines and economies, expanding them in
an unprecedented magnitude. But the ever-accelerating pace of “petro-
modernity has proven to be extremely detrimental to the natural environ-
ment, a fact that many actors who are implicated in petromodernity refuse to
acknowledge. Like that of the spice-melange, the ontology of oil in the
twentieth century connoted mobility, power, expansion and accumulation:
powering the engines that powered human activity. The spice-melange
unlocks the boundless potential of the human mind in a manner that echoes
the Baconian discourse of science and engineering since the Enlightenment;
a utopian promise of infinite improvement which oil has deepened. The
“techno-utopianism” that science will solve all our problems (including the
ones that science creates) deflects from the looming threat of peak oil and
environmental catastrophe, and instead promotes an economic discourse
untethered from terrestrial, environmental concerns; a dangerous dependency
that Dune makes apparent. Moreover, there are clear parallels between the
political and economic structures that accompany oil, characterised by core-
periphery iniquities, violence and restriction what has been termed the
“energy unconscious” of the substance and the political economy of the
spice-melange. Drawing on the growing field of petrocriticism, the study of
oil-based literature and discourse, I will situate Dune as mediation on
twentieth century American oil ontology, describing the ambivalent addiction
in terms of these contradictory valences: a discourse promising utopic
accumulation that is at odds with the deleterious politics that accompany it.
While oil politics and mainstream oil ontology positions the substance as
external to the political and social life of the society that depends on it,
enriching a privileged few at the expense of our collective future. Dune makes
the dangers of techno-utopianism quite clear, as Paul struggles to control the
spice and flow of imperial politics. By foregrounding energy as essential
cultural and political matter, rather than an object of those discourses, Dune
depicts the terrestrial nature of oil. My hope is that this will demonstrate the
fallacy of the offshore discourse and contribute towards the mapping of a new,
alternative energy system, one that is not mutually constitutive with anti-
democratic politics, neo-imperialism, and exponential material expansion and
accumulation.
Foregrounding the background energy source of the text is the methodology
of the Energy Humanities. Delineating and deconstructing the politics and
poetics of what powers our world to uncover what Brent Ryan Bellamy
describes as “the energy sources of culture, and the cultural sources of energy”
(2016: 9). Patricia Yaeger calls this intellectual excavation the “energy
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unconscious” (2011: 306) of the text. She proposes a new methodology to
periodise literature, by the energy sources that enable its production and
publication and which feature in its pages. She incorporates Fredric Jameson’s
“political unconscious”, reading the text as a discursive utterance beyond the
author that reiterates class conflict, enmeshed in a symbolic infrastructure
attendant to the modes of production that enable it. The energy unconscious
proceeds in much the same way; the representation of energy in the text
stoking a fire, driving a car, exploring the solar system or FTL travel
highlights the social and political conjuncture occupied by the energy source.
We are moved to ask what the representation of energy in the text tells us
about the politics of the energy sources that powered the production of the
text. Dune is a petrotext in Yeager’s terms, written in the heyday of American
postwar affluence, but the energy unconscious of the spice-mélange echoes
the political and ideological formations of oil in other ways that support this
reading. The everyday nature of oil, its seamless integration into our lives,
makes it difficult to recognise the mechanisms of this petrodiscourse: the
contradictory valences of oil as a symbol and material component of
American economic liberalism at home and abroad on the one hand, and
a very real substance that cannot be divorced from attacks on human freedom,
through political instability and military adventurism, on the other. Oil
productions, and attendant oil problems, are structured to be politically
offshore and ideologically in outer space. It is my hope that outlining the
operation of this “petro-discourse in the text will go some ways to the project
of interrogating oil’s pernicious hold over modern life and bringing it back to
earth. As “the literature of cognitive estrangement”, I believe sf is the genre
best suited to this project.
The ever-present awareness of the mechanics of its world allows the sf text
to explore the extrapolative limits of our energy present, doing so it engages
with the techno-utopian narrative, mostly to reinforce it through fantastic
sources of clean energy. Golden Age and New-Wave sf articulated this
through the erasure or redemption of fossil fuels, polemicised in a fossil fuel
apologist argument that our exponential energy use in the present is key to
finding the fuels to replace it, the “fossil-fuel savings account” (Fuller
1969[2008]: 129) for purchasing future sustainability. This replaces oil and
its anxieties through textual sleight of hand and neatly resolving the problem
of environmental damage through fantastical sources of clean energy. As
Gerry Canavan points out, “by bracketing the negative externalities of oil as
soon to be obsolete, and thus unimportant in the larger scheme of human
history, all that is terrible about oil is thus reimagined as but a temporary
unpleasant blip in the long march of progress” (2014: 330).
DUNE REHABILITATION IN PROGRESS
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Science Fiction: Mechanics, Engines and Power
Sources
Darko Suvin defines sf as “the literature of cognitive estrangement” (1972:
372), distinguishing its workings from the logic of “mere fantasy” (1972:
378). Central to his thesis is the “novum”, the technological and material
differences from the author’s “empirical environment” (Suvin 1972: 373) that
allow us to reflect on that environment. In approaching “a set normative
system”, our “real world, with an estranging “new set of values” (1972: 374),
sf renders visible and/or destabilises the implicit mechanisms upon which that
system is based, through cognitive by which he means scientific - reading
and writing. In sf texts, that cognitive element is “both underlying attitude and
dominant formal device” (Suvin 1972: 375): in recognising the familiar in the
estranged, the reader constructs a bridge to the extrapolated or analogic frame
of the fantastic universe.
But the “science part of sf has proved troublesome: Adam Roberts notes
that “science is just as frequently represented in the sf novel by pseudo-
science, by some device outside the boundaries of science that is none the less
rationalized in the style of scientific discourse” (2006: 8, emphasis in original).
If thescience of sf is only tangentially linked to the prescriptions of the
material discourse of “science, this suggests that the scientific element of sf
lies elsewhere.
Whereas other fantastic literature “claims to explain once and for all the
essence of phenomena”, or eschew explanation entirely, sf posits them “first
as problems and then sees where they lead to” (Suvin 1972: 375, emphasis
mine). I believe that sf is not a checklist or an essential narrative, but rather a
methodology for approaching alterity and the future, which, like science, is
predicated on falsifiability and skepticism, but powered by possibility and
creativity. As Farah Mendelsohn remarks, sf is “less a genre”, with
concomitant tropes and conventions, “than a conversation” (2003: 1), with and
about the things we don’t know. The working definition of sf that this inquiry
will proceed from is that the “essence of the canon lies in its interest in but
not necessarily adherence to the normative values, concerns and
methodology of empirical investigation of the material world.
As the Energy Humanities and petrocriticism are relatively recent fields in
the academy, the small but burgeoning study of petro-sf has also emerged,
positioning oil as foundational to modernity and its continuation; our
independence from it seems inconceivable yet we know that the end
approaches. Sf’s anticipation of that end provides a useful way of mapping
historical and contemporary conceptions of the oil crisis through an oil-based
reading practice.
Using the iconic opening chase in Star Wars as a discursive springboard,
Graeme MacDonald positions sf as the medium best-suited to imagining the
crisis of petromodernity, reading the politics of “future combustion aesthetics”
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(2014: 113) to demonstrate oil’s cultural power. The image of roaring thrusters
and gleaming, stream-lined metal of the Star Destroyers “confirm that entire
galaxies are traversable, made reachable and accessible by the imposition of
astounding, powerful and commanding modern technology”; within a matter
of seconds, “ worlds, peoples and multiple species are explored, traversed, and
traversed again, in all manner of vehicular transportation” (MacDonald 2014:
113). With the benefit of forty years of hindsight and cognisant of the
twentieth century economic history of oil this image of vehicle-based
movement seems overblown and gaudy the sound effects in space most of
all a vainglorious, almost fetishistic gesture to twentieth century American
motor culture. The “grandiose expenditure” of space opera may highlight the
energy expended to create such a world and go some way to remedying our
collective failure to “conceive energy as a matter for culture as much as it is
cultural matter” (MacDonald 2014: 114, 115); sf provides the mechanisms for
estranging our habitual energy use so that we might more realise the depth and
breadth of oil’s role in everyday and political life. Sf, says MacDonald,
“allows us not only to realise the nature of our long and on-going addiction to
petroleum but also the manner in which we have continually sought to occlude
or sublimate the monstrous nature of our petromodern fantasy in order to drive
an increasingly unsustainable petrolic life ever onwards” (2014: 115). By
excavating Dune’s buried energy unconscious and concomitant techno-
utopian narrative, I hope to add to the growing body of petro-sf scholarship;
using this text to bring oil’s ideological and political mechanisms, globally
and in our everyday lives, to light. These phenomenological interjections/
injections of future fuels may provide the initial spark to conceptualise
alternatives in the present.
The Political Estrangement of Oil: Avoiding Mainland
Entanglements
Drawing on the burgeoning field of petrocriticism, I will detail the manner in
which the global infrastructure inevitably accompanying oil renders it as an
offshore object; estranging the extraction and consumption of the substance
from the environmental degradation and political oppression that make
petromodernity possible, and estranging the material wealth generated from
oil from democratic revenue streams. This will demonstrate how the “energy
unconscious” of oil is implicated not only in iniquitous global power
structures but that those structures obscure or disavow the human and
environmental consequences of petromodernity in a mutually perpetuating
cycle.
The project of rendering oil as offshore can be fitted into a larger trajectory
of people moving further away, geographically, socially and politically, from
the sites of energy production, which become increasingly privatised as a
DUNE REHABILITATION IN PROGRESS
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result. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy locates oil at the centre of the
infrastructure of Western democracy and despotism elsewhere. The modern
world, Mitchell argues, can be explained through the history of carbon. While
previous energy regimes based on renewable sources were low in energy
output and required more space to support fewer bodies when burned, the high
energy-concentration of carbon “made available stores of energy equivalent
to decades of organic growth and acres of biomass in compact, transportable
solids and liquids” (Mitchell 2011: 15). This radically transformed collective
life: allowing more people to occupy less land, lifting energy inhibitions on
growth; releasing people from sites of agricultural production and fuelling
urbanisation and industrialisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The organisation of coal its extraction, conveyance and consumption
allowed otherwise inconsequential labourers to disrupt entire regions by
withdrawing their labour. The prominence of oil in the twentieth century
changed this. Oil extraction requires a smaller workforce relative to the
amount of energy it generates, above ground and under closer supervision,
and takes place primarily in isolated regions, reducing the visibility and
culpability of its labour relations; it is light and versatile enough to be shipped
across oceans, it in turn fuels the shipping container industry. All of this
“reducing the ability of humans to interrupt the flow of energy” (Mitchell
2011: 36) Mitchell argues “these changes in the way forms of fossil energy
were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable
to the political claims of those whose labour kept them running the flow of
oil could not readily be assembled into a machine that enabled large number
of people to exercise novel forms of political power” (Mitchell 2011: 39) as
coal had. Carbon Democracy demonstrates the fundamental role carbon has
played in producing modern social and political formations; civilisation and
settlement have expanded over time and space, with concomitant increasing
energy demands for increasing production; as the production of energy
becomes increasingly undemocratic.
When oil is literally offshore it is also estranged in other ways that
perpetuate the process by which our collective natural inheritance is translated
into private profits and degraded conditions for life. In Global Shadows,
James Ferguson compares the historical descriptions of the socially “thick”
extractivist model of the mining towns along the Central African Copperbelt
with a “thin” operation such as Angola:
Industry insiders often compare the “clean Angolan set-up (where offshore
oil is loaded onto tankers without any mainland entanglements) with other
contexts where they are dragged into costly and politically damaging disputes
over environmental damage, [and] demands for social services [Not] nation-
states developing national resources, but enclaved mineral-rich patches,
efficiently exploited by flexible private firms with security provided by
specialised corporations while the nominal holders of sovereignty certify
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the industry’s legality and international legitimacy in exchange for a piece of
the action.
(2006: 204, emphasis mine)
Rob Nixon describes this in terms of “slow violence”. This is not immediate,
spectacular and obvious violence, but “a violence that occurs gradually and
out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time
and space, an attritional violence that is not typically viewed as violence at
all” (Nixon 2013: 2). Invading a country with artillery and military personnel,
launching missile strikes or dispersing chemical weapons, are actions easily
labelled as violent such as the Biafran and Vietnam Wars, where the damage
done to bodies could be readily linked to military imposition and are duly
bemoaned and decried as such; they have a beginning and an end. But the
long-term consequences of Agent Orange and British Petroleum on rural
Vietnam and the Niger Delta poisoned soil and failing crops; undrinkable
water and unbreathable air; birth defects and cancers that have funda-
mentally assaulted human and ecological matter are discounted and
disregarded; time and place severs consequences from their causes.
The paradoxical “resource curse” that blights oil-exporting nations
illustrates the occluding and estranging political mechanics of slow violence
in the Global South. The paradox bestows bountiful mineral wealth on a
polity, but undiversified dependence on its revenue weakens the rest of the
economy and encourages rent-seeking, as the “highly concentrated revenue
stream is readily diverted away from social and infrastructural investments
and into offshore bank accounts” (Nixon 2013: 70, emphasis mine). Political
power is predicated on “controlling the central resource [rather than] on
strengthening civic expectations”; consequently, “national cohesion and
stability may be jeopardized by exaggerated inequalities”: oftentimes creating
a “geographical gulf between the resource-rich enclaves and the remainder of
the country (Nixon 2013: 70) and entrenching existing class, race, and
gender dysfunctions disparities.
The resource wealth of nations like America does not disprove the thesis;
on the contrary, industrialised nations actively perpetuate the unequal terms
of exchange, by supporting (almost inevitably) despotic political formations
in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East that “co-operate with the
skewed terms of resource extraction” and undermining local attempts to move
away from vampiric extraction (Nixon 2013: 70). In tangent with state-
sponsored military adventurism, attempts to cultivate democracy in the
Global South are also hindered by multinationals, which enjoy “dispropor-
tionate influence over the terms of extraction” (Nixon 2013: 71) and local
governments. The relatively lax legislative conditions that these multi-
nationals demand as their due for bringing business to politically and
economically vulnerable countries; engenders the exploitation and degrada-
tion of human and natural life as the price of progress and participation in the
global economy. “These multiple practices of economic and imaginative
DUNE REHABILITATION IN PROGRESS
131
disconnection” allow for the plundering of communal natural resources by a
few while excluding and exploiting the many. Multinationals, industrialised
states and local collaborators “treat a nations’ natural bounty as if it were
neither for nor of the nation”, framing it instead as “a kind of extraterritorial
gravy train” (Nixon 2013: 72, emphasis mine). The problems of oil are always
someone else’s problems, but the substance is also politically uncoupled from
terrestrial concerns in other ways that obstruct democracy and environmental
justice.
Surveying recent petrocriticism it quickly becomes apparent that not only is
oil implicated in anti-democratic political configurations across the globe that
has cataclysmic consequences for human and ecological communities, these
political formations actively dissemble the substance as external to it; the
estrangement of oil dovetails in a kind of “conjoined ecological and human
disposability” (Nixon 2013: 4) that makes redress almost impossible for
small, scattered communities in the Global South against multinational and
political Goliaths. Slow violence is marked by displacements temporal,
economic, geographic, rhetorical and technological that “simplify violence
[and] smooth the way for amnesia”, minimizing the human and
environmental costs of “turbo capitalism” (Nixon 2013: 7). The slippery and
unspectacular nature of slow violence poses representational and strategic
challenges; Nixon posits that the aesthetic response to the crisis “entails
devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as well as
narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency” (2013: 10);
to highlight the “representational challenges and imaginative dilemmas posed
not just by imperceptible violence but by the imperceptible changes whereby
violence is decoupled from its original causes” (Nixon 2013: 11).
Oil as Infinity Drive
The structures by which oil is rendered offshore are discursive as well as
political. The material properties of crude oil enabled many twentieth century
innovations that increased the speed and depth of human expansion:
improving quality of life through a consumer economy predicated on
indefinite accumulation and exponential expansion. Thus it is directly
implicated in the troublesome discourse of techno-utopianism: even if oil is
running out, we will be able to manufacture a substitute in line with existing
capitalist mechanics, without having to interrogate or alter the habits that led
us to crisis.
The material properties of oil underwrote this in several ways. Seemingly
abundant and inexpensive, its declining price meant that, while exponential
quantities of energy were consumed, the cost of energy or its environmental
consequences “did not appear to represent a limit to economic growth”
(Mitchell 2011: 125). The derivatives of petroleum assured abundance in
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other areas too: the advent of synthetic fertiliser after the Second World War
dramatically increased agricultural yields and the human population sky-
rocketed, and plastics promised limitless mutability and “a direct answer to
resource depletion” (Mitchell 2011: 141). Today, a world without plastics
seems inconceivable; indeed, given its inorganic molecular structure, it is
almost impossible to avoid this markedly unnatural form of human debris that
is so casually tossed aside. By radically expanding the possibilities of how
fast and how far we can go, the paradigm of what human ingenuity could
realise was radically shifted by the advent of oil. Humankind could never have
reached the moon powered by lesser engines, and before the seventeenth
century, the stars would never have been considered reachable with the fruits
of human labour at all. “From the possibility of movement and travel to
expectations of the capacity to move and interact” (Szeman 2013: 147), the
apparently limitless capabilities of oil is closely linked to our society’s sense
of mobility and momentum, and our faith in our capacity for scientific and
social development.
We have always considered oil to be an external element that affects our
cultural, economic and political formations, a “material resource squeezed
into a social form that pre-exists it” (Szeman 2013: 146). But oil is
inextricably ingrained, materially and ideologically, in that form: influencing
the shape of human settlements, the manner and scale of food production, and
the fundamental nature of human infrastructure and interaction, to such an
extent that Imre Szeman insists that we should acknowledge modernity as
“petromodernity”.
But the widespread and fundamental underappreciation of the depth and
breadth to which modernity has been shaped by oil is a dangerous fallacy. The
ostensibly endless fruits of the scientific mind, coupled with a judicious
application of material wealth and technology, have produced “a tendency to
believe that wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear energy could generate the
kilojoules we have come to expect from fossil fuels...while retaining the
quality and form of life that many (though far from all) now enjoy” (Szeman
2013, 146, emphasis mine). The expectation of a painless transition from oil
to a new fuel source obfuscates the truth that fossil fuels inform our
expectations for energy. Our fears are washed away by the promise of
“scientific innovations that are in perfect synchrony with the operations of the
capitalist economy: problem solved, without the need for radical ruptures or
alterations in political and social life” (Szeman 2007: 813). Our cleverness
and creativity with a healthy dose of material wealth will surely resolve
the problems we have created, and in a distinctly capitalist fashion. In
consequence, oil is divorced from the economic mechanics that make it
possible; capitalism is positioned as the way to solve oil’s problems, its role
in creating them comfortably sidelined.
Above and beyond the political formations that render oil as external to
society, formations that obfuscate democracy and environmental justice in
DUNE REHABILITATION IN PROGRESS
133
order to perpetuate unequal terms of global exchange and transform
communal natural resources into private wealth, oil is also the centre of a
hazardous discourse that, discounting limit and scarcity from its operation,
threatens all life on earth. Its chemical components enabled multifold
innovations, expanding our material and intellectual limits and ushering in a
discourse of propulsion and prosperity that characterises petromodernity.
However, positioning oil as “just the caloric stuff that happened to propel
modernity” and denying its role as “an essential component of social, cultural
and political form” (Szeman 2013: 148) means that neither modernity nor oil
are adequately interrogated for their roles in environmental and humanitarian
injustices. The denial of oil’s essential role in shaping modernity, coupled
with utopic scientism, results in a dangerous teleology; “the bad utopianism
of hope in technological solutions to the looming end of oil” (Szeman 2007:
814), that fails to take into account that the scarcity of oil is a direct result of
the discourse of technological solutions.
Bringing Oil Back to Earth
Offshore oil facilities are out of sight and out of mind: the physical distance
consumers enjoy from sites of energy production reduces the understanding
of how deeply consumer society is dependent on it for social and material
advantages of modern life. Hedley Twidle notes that “from fuel to shelter to
healing to plastics to infrastructure the petro-economy of the twentieth
century permeates every component of our lives” (2017: 78): the chemical
components of crude oil separated through fractional distillation to provide
gasoline for cars, kerosene for aircrafts, naphtha for industry; diesel oil for
heavy motor-vehicles, fuel oil for ships and power stations, domestic gas for
households, and the bitumen residue to tar roads and roofs.
In political economy, the discourse rendering oil as offshore is marked by
legal loopholes and administrative circumventions that estrange economic
and political energy and power from terrestrial, public oversight. It is
instrumental in perpetuating the distance Rob Nixon describes as slow
violence, by which the damage done by oil capitalism is rhetorically and
temporally decoupled from its causes. Oil is pushed offshore by politics, but
a utopic faith in modern science propels it into discursive outer space. The
innovations of the oil century produced an ideology of mobility, momentum
and perpetual expansion running through twentieth century American
discourse from JFK’s rational for the moon landing, to Neil Armstrong’s
small, great steps, to the marketing of sports cars and off-road vehicles. The
expectations we have of oil are not understood as such and the resultant
techno-utopianism, argues Imre Szeman, further obstructs efforts to save the
environment and move away from oil politics. In viewing oil as external to
modern life, not as the terrestrial basis of it, we imagine that we can exchange
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it for another, equally potent source. The crisis of oil is comfortably deferred,
projected into and onto the futurity and fantasy of future-space there will be
no need to interrogate or alter existing patterns of consumption, because the
technological innovations of oil-based consumer capitalism will resolve them.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an archipelago of accumulating plastic
debris, reminds us that ultimately, casting things offshore is a futile gesture.
It serves as a stark reminder of how we are putting our foot on the gas on the
highway to hell; a crude dialectic of our ecological entropy and nature’s fury,
where the eventual synthesis is the end of life on earth. But images of starving
polar bears, mountainous trash piles, and oil-slicked penguins have yet to
provide the shock needed in order to realise radical change. This substance
on the one hand, as local as the corner shop; on the other, global and fantastic
“fuels the fantasies of limitless expansion in such a way that has proved
difficult to challenge or counteract” (Szeman 2013: 152). Consequently, one
of the greatest obstacles for any aesthetic engagement with oil is “the apparent
capacity of the substance to absorb critique in much the same way that it
absorbs light” (Szeman 2013: 155). Because oil is so deeply in our political
structures and our cultural norms, any aesthetic contact with oil risks failure
by slipping into didacticism at the impasse that is the sheer enormity of the
crisis at hand, or deferring the question altogether. Szeman suggests we might
circumvent this by “trying instead to make more fully sensible the shape and
form of the world to which oil gave birth [and] considering the ways in
which oil is named and framed in aesthetics to reposition it in our daily
practices and so create new social imaginaries” (2013: 156).
If exploring the energy unconscious of a text involves interrogating the role
of energy in the narrative and setting, then sf always-already embodies this
practice. The “freedom and responsibility of its speculative and imaginative
verisimilitude” (MacDonald 2014: 117) must account for the engine driving
its fantastic narrative, and in the manner that we have defined above. Sf
understands energy as literary and cultural material to a greater extent than
most realist fiction, its visions of futurity all the more potent. Having to
account for its eschewal of realism in a manner in line with ‘science’, sf has
had to ‘invent’ all manner of “facilitating devices requiring a heightened sense
of enablement” (MacDonald 2014: 117, emphasis mine).
The representation of fuel in Dune offers that intellectual power-up. By
positioning energy as integral to the matter and mechanics of human society,
the text challenges the dangerous offshore discourse of oil. As the fuel of
personal and political movements, the spice-melange drives the narrative and
the actions of the characters, including the young duke Paul Atreides. When
House Harkonnen, the Atreides’ sworn enemy, kill Paul’s father Leto, he
finds refuge with the Fremen of Arrakis. Themselves victims of the
Harkonnens’ brutal spice-harvesting practices, they embrace Paul as a
messianic warrior and teach him the ways of the desert. The novel chronicles
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135
Paul’s journey to actualisation as the Fremen messiah, guided by increasingly
unstable prescient visions guided by the spice-melange.
The representation of Paul’s first experience of the spice shows its
apposition with vitality, movement and transcendental potential, in a manner
that recalls the fuels of our own age.
Abruptly, as though he had found a necessary key, Paul’s mind climbed
another notch in awareness…as though he existed within a globe with
avenues radiating away in all directions…yet this only approximated the
situation.
He knew names and places, experienced emotions without number, reviewed
data of innumerable unexplored crannies. There was a time to probe and test,
but no time to shape.
I have another kind of sight. I see another kind of terrain: the available paths.
The awareness conveyed both reassurance and alarm so many places on
that other kind of terrain dipped or turned out of his sight.
(Herbert: 226-227)
Much like oil, the spice-melange is wrapped up in a symbolic economy of
distance and vitality, of knowledge, mobility and connectivity, ample and
seemingly without end. The analogy of a “necessary key” to unlock potential
and transcend mundane consciousness recalls oil’s sweeping impact on our
way of life: it smacks of treasure to be unlocked, but a phrase loaded with
utility, reminiscent of firearms and automobiles. The radical potentiality that
oil promises is also evident in the spice, like tarred roads and the means to use
them the mélange offers countless “avenues radiating away in all directions”
and “innumerable unexplored crannies” of possibility, yet at the same time
Paul is contained and perhaps constrained inside his “globe” of subjectivity.
He may have a unique “kind of sight” and see “another kind of terrain” but
the description of that vision is marked by uncertainty: from his position/
perspective other places on that landscape “dipped or turned out of his sight”,
suggesting that Paul, or those places, or both, are by no means stable. His
experience of abundant information “names and place emotions without
number” – is overwhelming for Paul. He is the Kwisatz Haderach, “the one
who can be many places at once”, with his “trinocular vision” (Herbert: 341,
512) of past, present and future, can gather data, can “probe and test” and
apply his brilliant mind, but even Paul admits he has “no time to shape”
(emphasis mine) what his unique observation reveals.
This suggests the volatility of the substance and its usage. Paul’s inner
struggle with his prescient vision illustrates the dangers of becoming
untethered from reality that such a sense of limitless vision and movement
entails. Seeing the universe through his “trinocular vision” has damaged his
other sensory powers to the point “that past and future and present mingled
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136
without distinction” in his mind, and demonstrates that the vision offered by
the spice is also flawed. What he describes as a “constant necessity” of
engaging with “the prescient future as a kind of memory”, gradually causes
him to doubt “his position in time” (Herbert, 211, 438, 440). Paul’s early
experiences with the spice illustrate the substance’s connotations of mobility,
progress, and knowledge, but this extract also hints at addiction and the
dangers of overuse., its buoyancy risks becoming untethered from material
reality.
As MacDonald says, “oil might not appear directly in visions of the future,
but its spectral presence is traceable in energy substitutes or interpretive
extrapolations” (2014: 123). It is my belief that Dune demonstrates this
sentiment: even in a universe as epic and sophisticated as Paul’s, even with
all the seemingly boundless power of the human mind, a political/energy
hegemony based on neo-imperial force and monopolistic, exponential
expansion will run into the problems of scarcity and limit.
References
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Gemma Field
University of Cape Town
Fldgem001@Myuct.Ac.Za
Article
Full-text available
The characterization of spice in Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune plays a significant role in world-building and focusing readers' attention on natural enhancements to the human mind. Herbert uses historical and social contexts relevant to real-world spices to create layers of meaning by tapping into emerging trends in ecology, psychology, and politics. These include the historic spice trade, drugs in the countercultural movement, the disciplines of ecology and psychology, and foreign interference in the Middle East. Such linkages help position spice as a valuable commodity as well as a psychoactive substance that various characters must consume to accomplish extraordinary feats. In the world of Dune, everything is dependent on one substance, and although spice may give advantages, it also takes its toll. The consequences of spice consumption on an individual level then mirror the larger ecological disruptions in the novel in the realms of politics and the environment. In this way, spice represents a key feature of world-building that assists in tying the threads of the novel together and driving through to readers the ecological message about the interconnectedness of life.
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