Petrochemical America, an art book and atlas cocreated by photographer Richard Misrach and landscape architect Kate Orff, is a rejoinder to commonplaces about oil’s invisibility and evasion of representation. The book’s visualizations produce a narrative atlas that depicts the oil industry’s transformations of US landscapes and communities. Central to this depiction is Orff’s use of the line, a form essential to visualization technique. Orff’s lines go deep rather than “look across” surfaces to tell stories of growth, fragmentation, toxicity, and displacement. Detailing the affordances of the line as a tool of atlas making and mapmaking, this article argues that Petrochemical America employs lines in ways that stage the oppositional logics at the heart of the petrochemical industry, that is, its tactical recruitment of vertical and horizontal, natural and human made, visible and invisible, proximity and dispersal, and containment and contamination. Without purporting to expose the hidden and without reproducing deterministic narratives of petrochemical dominance, Orff promotes ways of apprehending oil’s pasts, presents, and futures.
“It is astonishing to imagine the breadth and extent of America’s landscape metamorphosis during what has been oil’s heyday.”1 Landscape architect Kate Orff meets this astonishment at oil’s capacity to “transfor[m] the physical form and social dynamics of the American landscape” with design (PA, 115). She turns to collaborative atlas making, employing experimental data visualizations to depict how the petroleum industry has shaped US lands, waters, and communities. Petrochemical America (2012, hereafter PA), the art book/atlas she made with photographer Richard Misrach, documents these changes in what is a hotbed for petro-industry: the lower Mississippi River. The book revives the atlas as a genre that extends from representation to speculation and that integrates photography, cartography, anatomical rendering, and visualizations that are both traditional (e.g., timelines, bar graphs) and inventive (palimpsests of maps, statistics, and corporate logos). Cultural theorists within the oil humanities often bemoan oil’s ability to elude adequate representation.2 Despite its diverse forms, its ubiquity, and the fact that “no one anywhere who has any thought either for his [sic] conscience or his [sic] self-preservation can afford to ignore it,” oil and its derivatives remain “inscrutable,” even “invisible.”3 They are entangled in a “subtle interplay of invisibility and hypervisibility.”4
PA traffics in this “subtle interplay.” It takes on petro-industry’s twinned qualities of ubiquity and inscrutability in a region where oil drives an extractive and racist economy and reshapes land and water. The stretch of the Mississippi River in southern Louisiana has earned the monikers Industrial Corridor, Chemical Corridor, Cancer Alley, and even Death Alley due to the damages wrought by the concentration of industries that extract, refine, and process petroleum.5PA goes deep underground to excavate the sources for these eponyms that signal the illness and death the industry has dealt to poor, Black, and Indigenous communities in South Louisiana.
This article follows Orff down below and details the visual forms through which PA fractures the oil industry’s “subterranean sovereignty.” Architectural theorist Eyal Weizman coins this phrase to refer to Israel’s control over space and resources below and above the surface of land in the West Bank. “Geo-politics is a flat discourse,” Weizman asserts. “It largely ignores the vertical dimension and tends to look across rather than to cut through the landscape.” Attending to the vertical and its politics reveals a whole “set of ideas, policies, projects and regulations . . . severing the territory into different, discontinuous layers.”6 Looking below and above the surface rather than across it can give access to how governments and corporations “sever” landscapes as an exercise of power and as a means to occlude harms to people, cultures, and bioregions.
PA shows the power of verticality by deploying the power of the line in an experimental atlas that extends a tradition of narrative and critical cartography. Orff’s visualizations direct the line toward understanding how petroleum shapes places and people through interventions in land, water, and air, and what lies beneath them. In Orff’s work, lines, a form essential to visualization technique, go deep to tell stories of growth, fragmentation, contamination, and displacement, rather than merely “look across” surfaces. I demonstrate that these stories emerge from the contradictory yet interdependent attributes of the line as deployed in PA, in particular its capacity to stage interdependencies between vertical and horizontal, natural and human made, proximity and dispersal, and containment and contamination. These interdependent oppositional logics that lines put into play also coordinate the contradictory yet complementary forces that empower the petrochemical industry.
My formal analysis of PA offers an answer to Jennifer Wenzel’s question, “How do we read for oil? . . . How do different kinds of texts . . . either work against or contribute to oil’s invisibility?”7 Drawing the line on oil, from deep underground to far offshore, the atlas directs a key tool of visualization toward rendering oil infrastructure and its ecological damages and threats to Black neighborhoods in particular. In reading for oil, I contend, we also read for the forms and genres that can erode deterministic narratives of the industry’s inevitable dominance in favor of narratives of a “post-petrochemical culture” (PA, 214).
“A New Form of Narrative Cartography”
PA surveys the 150 miles of the Mississippi River’s engineered meander and the Louisiana lands spreading out from its shores, from just north of Baton Rouge to south of New Orleans. Misrach and Orff approach this region through the media of photography and visualization. The photographs originated in a commission from the High Museum of Atlanta in 1998 that asked Misrach, a preeminent environmental photographer, to “picture the south” (PA, 17). Forty-nine of his large-format photographs constitute “Cancer Alley,” part 1 of the art book/atlas. The Mississippi corridor attracts Misrach’s lens because it is a palimpsest of plantation slavery and petroleum development. These histories meet where land and water merge, producing images that entwine extraction and inhabitation as well as violence and beauty. Returning to the region in 2010, Misrach launched his partnership with landscape architect Orff. He took new photographs, some of which appear in “Cancer Alley,” while Orff and the designers at SCAPE, her design studio, researched and designed the visualizations that constitute “Ecological Atlas,” part 2 of the book.
The collaboration between Misrach and Orff manifests on the page when the photographs from part 1 recur in Orff’s visualizations in part 2. At times, a photograph acts as a kind of wallpaper over which a timeline or map is laid (e.g., PA, 173); at times, it provides context for the data appearing in the visualization and is integral to it (e.g., PA, 171); at other times, the photograph is shrunk down and surrounded by a border, as if it were a window behind or beyond the surface visualization (e.g., PA, 185). The integration of Misrach’s images into Orff’s atlas reinforces the relations of layering, succession, contiguity, and contamination that the book thematizes. My analysis concentrates on Orff’s visualizations in “Ecological Atlas” while acknowledging the ways Misrach’s photos echo through these images.
The title of part 2 situates PA in the atlas tradition, one that is experiencing a surge of innovation in the twenty-first century. Just as artists, architects, cartographers, and scientists have revived the atlas as a tool for depicting the co-constitution of humans, more-than-humans, place, and politics,8 geographers and historians have cast fresh eyes on the atlas’s role in reviving perception and cultivating “epistemologies of the eye.”9 This phrase comes from Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s magisterial Objectivity, a history of an idea—and a value—that has reigned over Euro-Western science since the nineteenth century. Daston and Galison study scientific atlases to demonstrate that the value of objectivity in the sciences does not amount to truth, certainty, or “alleged neutrality toward all values”;10 rather it amounts to “allegiance to a hard-won set of coupled values and practices that constitute a way of scientific life.”11 The atlases Daston and Galison examine were used to establish disciplinary knowledge and train scientific practitioners. They engender these aspirations while also showing objectivity to be a false dream. Though PA does not aim to establish a discipline or train scientists, it, like the texts in Objectivity, intends for its users to “learn to ‘see’ anew,”12 to “make sense of their sliver-world and . . . communicate with one another about it.”13
Traditional atlases strive for conformity, if an ever-evolving one, and hail their readers as members of communities with agreed-on understandings of natural phenomena. PA shares the desire to teach readers “to ‘see’ anew,” but its experimental orientation aligns it with contemporary commitments to narrative cartography, a term that counters the false dream of objectivity and that Orff uses to describe the book. Cartographers and geographers have been drawing the contours of narrative cartography since the 1980s. Denis Wood’s manifesto, “Pleasure in the Idea/The Atlas as Narrative Form” (1987), provided an essential framework that continues to inspire atlas makers who resist rationalist and instrumentalist approaches. He sees maps and atlases as texts, as “a semiological system exploiting any number of codes.”14 He busts the false binary between maps as tools for depicting factual realities on the ground and narratives as devices for imagining worlds and providing pleasure. Having debunked a distinction that has dominated discourse on the atlas, Wood proceeds to propose that maps are like paragraphs and the atlas like a novel. The form, sequencing, and juxtaposition of maps, no matter their pretentions to objectivity and factuality, produce meanings; they “create a discourse, a mediation, . . . tell a story.”15 In his essay and throughout his oeuvre, Wood vociferously—and playfully—denounces objectivity and mimeticism as illusory and undesirable. PA at once strives for the seeing anew that Daston and Galison identify as central to scientific atlases and for the story that emerges from sensing and visualizing the undersides, the B-sides, the offsides of “infinite” places that cannot be reduced to one perspective.16
“Ecological Atlas” groups Orff’s visualizations into seven chapters that provide access to these perspectives while evoking the categories one might find in a conventional atlas: “Oil,” “Infrastructure,” “Waste,” “Displacement,” “Ecology/Economy,” “Food,” and “Landscape.” The atlas opens with a flow diagram depicting how fossil fuel extraction impacts these domains (fig. 1). With its curving, fanning lines sweeping across the page to connect “Oil, Natural Gas, and Coal Extraction” to such things as “Automobiles” and “Degraded Ecology,” the visualization announces that even so-called easy oil is complex. The visualization trains readers in the complexity of Orff’s lines as well: they do not always run full and straight but sometimes sweep, snake, and fragment. At the same time, the diagram’s sweeping lines train us in the law of unexpected connections and unintended consequences, that causalities are provisional at best. These formal attributes provide a neat segue into the subsequent visualization, a schematic drawing of the staggering changes to the shape of the Mississippi River over millennia (PA, 116). Lines become even more unwieldy in an image of the “early” Mississippi that predates white settlement; the river is a multistranded, uncontained waterway producing a complex watershed. With time, it simplifies topographically and ecologically into a single-stranded, engineered river out of which radiate narrow strips of land called arpent sections. On these riverfront properties, the plantation system of chattel slavery flourished in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The final drawing, of the present-day industrial corridor, shows the geometric roads servicing oil refineries and chemical factories that were built where plantations once stood.
Each of the subsequent chapters in PA begins with an essay overview and proceeds through four to six visualizations that network factories to food and families, Louisiana’s past to its present and future, and economic development to ecological demise and renewal. The goal of “Ecological Atlas,” Orff writes, is to produce “speculative drawings [that] begin to unravel and expand Misrach’s photographs in space and time in a new form of narrative cartography that maps the civilization-wide network of interdependent relationships that link industrial sites, neighborhoods, lawns, and river views” (PA, 117). She breaks down the components of her “narrative cartography” in the atlas’s introduction: Maps orient readers through “a layering of spatial data, geographical characteristics and community narratives.” Data narratives then “decod[e] . . . the image by analyzing and revealing associated industrial and ecological processes.” Finally, eco-portraits are “synthetic moments where a series of data points and observations converge into an overall ecology or process view, joining seemingly isolated phenomena into a perceptible whole” (PA, 117). A data narrative might put on a map the number of individuals affected by oil spills and industrial toxicity while an eco-portrait might track the lifecycles of oyster, shrimp, crab, and crawfish that inhabit the Mississippi wetlands and Gulf waters. These elements add up to a “throughline”—“a type of visual narrative” that proposes “a series of stories and questions” (PA, 17, 117).17
With this introduction, Orff situates PA within the trend toward narrative that has grown within the fields of cartography since Wood’s and others’ foundational theorizing. (Other terms defining this trend are critical cartography, radical cartography, and experimental geography; I retain narrative cartography to follow Orff’s usage.18) Narrative cartographers disrupt the values of referentiality and Cartesianism in these fields and open them to representational forms that counter rationalist knowledge systems. The atlases and maps emerging from this effort often have origins in grassroots organizations or in Indigenous, feminist, and Black epistemologies that have been marginalized in the Euro-West. They are often speculative or experiential and may foreground uncertainty and the limitations of knowledge. Narrative cartography redresses how Euro-Western mapping has produced an “over-coded territory . . . as knowable, neatly layered and hierarchical.”19 A tradition of geographers and mapmakers that includes Helen Couclelis, J. B. Harley, Katherine McKittrick, and John Pickles rejects the idea that maps are transparent instruments of a “‘spectator’ epistemology” that positions observers as separate from and masters over the worlds they depict.20
Those trained in cultural studies today might read the claims of narrative cartographers and find them obvious: of course there is nothing natural or unmediated about a map. However, despite the influence of Wood et al., atlas makers and mapmakers must still actively contest cartography’s self-understanding as a rational and objective enterprise, arguably more so with the ascendancy of geographical information systems (GIS). In the 2010s we find Sébastien Caquard describing “the growing interest in the relationship between maps, narratives and metanarratives,”21 and Bieke Cattoor and Chris Perkins emphasizing “the importance of a situated and historicized narrative approach to all mapping.”22 Such an approach underscores the “specific relations of power” that maps engender; “that is, mapping is involved in what we choose to represent, how we choose to represent objects . . . , and what decisions are made with those representations.”23
Attention to the formal elements of cartography is integral to elaborating this how and what. Margaret Pearce explains that maps tend to order data hierarchically using a “division of features into points, lines, and areas.”24 This approach treats space as a measurable, classifiable reality. The oil extraction industry effectively exercises this approach. Michael Watts describes the “astonishing” territorial manipulations and visualizations that authorize extraction, including “map[s] to determine subterranean property rights” and aerial surveys to set territorial boundaries and identify oil reserves.25 Against these extractive uses of mapping, Pearce and narrative cartographers such as Orff seek visual features that depict place rather than classify space, that convey and elicit feeling, and that express relationships of power and affiliation. These maps capture the experiential dimension of place that helps parse “the connections between justness and place, difference and geography, and new spatial possibilities.”26 McKittrick’s account of Black feminist geography accords with PA’s emphasis on experience as well as recovery and rebuilding. For Misrach and Orff the experiential dimension of place must encompass not only people vulnerable to the effects of toxic exposure but also birds whose migration routes are interrupted by the loss of wetlands, frogs whose endocrine systems are disrupted by synthetic chemicals, and the air, water, and soil on which all these creatures depend.
With this brief on the atlas as a form of narrative cartography, we arrive at the question of how static—if potentially lively—images such as those in PA can tell the story of all these creatures and the systems in which they are enmeshed over time. Orff’s experimental atlas seeks to access these human and more-than-human experiences through multiple expressive modalities and with commitments to statistical data, historical change, and the ways places carry “imprint[s] of our dreams, lifestyles, aspirations, and collective values” (PA, 191). The lines in PA are central to this endeavor; they carry the stories of the Mississippi River corridor from past to future, from up high to down low, from proximity to dispersal. If maps are always mediations, mapping oil to apprehend its placemaking and place-disrupting powers requires the strategic mediations of the line. With contradictory yet interdependent affordances, detailed in the coming sections, Orff’s lines both map the subterranean sovereignty of petro-industry and fracture that control by reclaiming its oppositional logics.
Affordances of the Line
My analysis of PA mostly attends to Orff’s “Ecological Atlas,” but we should not overlook the striking linearity of Misrach’s photographs in part 1, “Cancer Alley.” The compositions are replete with lines: pipelines, fence lines, parking lines, horizon lines, one-point perspective. For instance, Helicopter Returning from Deepwater Horizon Spill, Venice, Louisiana, 2010 (fig. 2) foregrounds the line of a creek as synecdoche for the river system that terminates at the titular town. The background of Helicopter includes a horizon line defined by a lone white cow aligned perfectly beneath the machine. Misrach’s use of lines makes for masterful photographs that build contrast between order and ambiguity, an effect amplified by his images’ desaturated colors and hazy atmospheres.27 In “Ecological Atlas” the line retains its ability to contrast order and ambiguity, but it also becomes a tool for inhabiting the contradictions of the US petro-industry.
The horizontal lines of Misrach’s photographs evolve into the timelines that open Orff’s atlas. The timeline is one of the most familiar expository uses of the line in data visualization; this graphical form is firmly rooted in data but also builds stories by plotting development and cause-and-effect relations.28 Four of the five visualizations in chapter 1, titled “Oil,” are timelines. The first one follows the geological birth of oil from the carbon-based lifeforms of the Jurassic period to the present “Age of Oil.” Overlaying the significant points on this timeline—for example, the arrival of flowering plants in the Cretaceous Era and of primates in the Cenozoic—are a distended map of Louisiana in silhouette and a line graph of the rise of atmospheric CO2 levels, which had reached 397 parts per million (ppm) by 2013, well past the 350ppm mark recommended by climate scientists to maintain the planetary conditions to which humans have adapted.29 Subsequent timelines in the chapter represent the expansion and diversification of petroleum corporations from 1850 to 2010 (PA, 122–23) and chart changes in technologies of extraction and the growth of oil-based consumer products that now fill American homes (PA, 134). With these first images, Orff disrupts expectations for visualization form. While each of the four timelines opening “Oil” contains an x-axis that lists dates in an ordered, straight sequence, the elements on the timeline—whether they be oil company names or developments in extraction technology—do not fall neatly along the timeline. Instead they bob up and down or even radiate out from a center point as in “From Spindletop to Chevron” (PA, 122–23).
There is an obvious reason for beginning the atlas with these innovative timelines that chart geophysical, evolutionary, technological, and cultural change: they situate readers historically before delving into the complexities of these systems. However, the historical approach also reminds readers that US oil is both shallow and deep. Shallow in the sense that the country entered the “Age of Oil” only 110 years ago. Deep in the sense that, geologically, oil’s origins reach back millennia. And also deep in the sense that the timelines coordinate the horizontal with the vertical. That is to say that, while timelines typically run horizontally, Orff’s do so to visualize verticality. This is no trivial point; as we will see, it is crucial to understanding how the atlas activates the powers of the line to render petro-industry’s damages to people and places.
Before moving forward, what are the powers of the line? Literary critic Caroline Levine offers one approach to this question through Forms, her study of narrative affordances via design theory. In design, affordance refers to an object’s capabilities, “the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs. Glass affords transparency and brittleness. Steel affords strength, smoothness, hardness, and durability. . . . Specific designs, which organize these materials, then lay claim to their own range of affordances. A fork affords stabbing and scooping.” Levine explains that the connections between material, design, and action are not as deterministic as her definition makes them sound. “Designed things may also have unexpected affordances generated by imaginative users.” On this point, the concept of affordance nicely carries over from design to narrative theory in Forms and yields Levine’s motivating question: “Rather than asking what artists intend or even what forms do, we can ask instead what potentialities lie latent . . . in aesthetic and social arrangements.”30 With Levine’s account of affordances in hand, the potentialities of the line emerge as a distinct formal strategy in Orff’s visualizations that mediate oil’s subterranean control and its contradictory but complementary logics.
Lines afford movement. They carry things from an origin to a destination—whether in actuality or in representation—passing through space along the way. Anthropologist Tim Ingold refers to this as the “communicative aspect” of lines,31 that is their role as a mode of “transport,” as “a connector, linking a series of points arrayed in two-dimensional space.”32 In affording connection through movement, lines do not only go from A to B; these points also assume new meanings because the line puts them into relation. Space is no longer a void. It becomes organized into areas that connect in ways generated, if by nothing else, by the line itself. Timelines exemplify the connective capacities of the line in that they indicate cause and effect and bring readers to a destination (death, war, the founding of a nation or a company, etc.). At the same time as the line connects, however, it also demarcates and differentiates. The contradictory affordances of connection and differentiation can emerge from the same line: it can connect in one move while dividing in another. For example, the timeline in “From the Earth to the Sky” illustrates the continuities between fossil fuel formation 500,000 years ago and offshore drilling in 2010, but it also differentiates the Age of Oil from prior eras. The implications of this are far-reaching and revelatory, as we will find in the readings of Orff’s images below.
With its capacities to make things move, create relations, and demarcate, the line confers authority on those who wield it. What was fixed is now mobile. What was diffuse, disparate, even meaningless now holds together, belongs, signifies. What was once unified is now two or more. Artists and theorists have typically considered these powers in disparaging or at least skeptical terms, conceiving of the line as an instrument of order, rationalism, colonialism, racist segregation, nation formation, and border enforcement. Ingold specifies that such conceptions of the line pertain to its connective forms rather than to its entangled, meandering, and enmeshed ones. The former abet imperialist projects that “have sought to occupy the inhabited world, throwing a network of connections across what appears, in their eyes, to be not a tissue of trails but a blank surface.” These lines “are typically straight and regular, and intersect only at nodal points of power”; they do not entangle to produce the mesh “along which life is lived.”33 Orff’s parting words in PA disparage the line conceived as straight, connective, and antilife: “The scenarios depicted here [i.e., in the preceding chapters of PA] reject the premise of a linear, mechanistic narrative of endless growth based on extracted hydrocarbons and distributed waste in favor of loops and living paradigms centered on human energy and renewable sources” (PA, 214). Orff accords with Ingold in identifying the contradictory affordances of lines: they can loop and entangle to promote “living paradigms” or run straight into mechanization. Straight linearity suggests a simplified Cartesianism, in which systems are reduced to machines made of parts. It suggests quantification, standardization, and classification, all for growth and its unequal advantages. Because the “linear, mechanistic narrative” leads only to “endless growth,” it offers no way out of business as usual. Its deterministic plot arrives at fossil fuels forming deep in the earth, to their discovery and extraction for capitalist profit and consumer comfort, and to pollution, CO2 emissions, and planetary yet uneven endangerment.
Orff turns lines to other purposes. While some of her lines are formally straight, they aim at identifying trajectories “along which life is lived.”34 If the line is an indispensable visual form, how can its affordances be designed for disrupting the linear powers of oil and the deterministic narratives oil conjures? Orff responds by designing an atlas filled with lines, some looping, some entangling, some traveling straight verticals and horizontals. The line’s contradictory affordances to fix in place and put on the move, to gather together and divide, to draw out life and mechanize, cohere with the contradictions of industrialized oil. The “Ecological Atlas” participates in the intellectual history of disparaging the line while, like Ingold, expanding the line imaginatively, in Orff’s case for understanding the places oil has made and the reparative placemaking to be done in response.
Drawing Oil’s Oppositional Logics
Petrochemical production, consumption, and violence depend on oppositional logics. Orff’s lines deploy the oppositional affordances of the line to draw out these logics. The vertical gives onto the horizontal, the visible onto the invisible, the natural onto the human made, containment onto contamination. “All of this and so much more are caught up in that line that looks so simple but is anything but.”35 The visualizations in “Ecological Atlas” do not recapture the power of the line for what Ingold terms connectivity or what I term a “connect-the-dots aesthetic” that “privileges simplicity, transparency, and speed.”36 Doing so would assume that “the real cartography of petrocultures [can] be subsumed into an external view of either the structure or the system.”37 It would reinscribe objectivity and rationalist order. Visualizations, I contend, always contain some residues of this desire for “an external view,” but they can also tamp down this desire through design. In PA the lines aesthetically perform the oppositional logics of the industry while immersing the viewer in entanglements that, while composed of lines, are neither determinate nor deterministic.
Let us return to the “Oil” chapter, whose timelines I introduced in the previous section. The third visualization, “Depths of Addiction,” offers a chronology running from the “first oil lease obtained, Titusville, PA” to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and a corresponding statistic that, in 2008, the US extracted 1.2 billion barrels of oil (fig. 3).38 We follow the line from Titusville to the shores of the Gulf via the technologies that bring all that oil to the surface of land and water, everything from the corporation and the refinery to hydraulic fracturing and digital seismic detection systems. The dates run on the bottom x-axis, and a line graph visualizing the extent of global and US oil extraction runs largely parallel to that axis until it curves up steeply when oil extraction booms in the 1950s and peaks sometime in the 2020s before declining. This decline is speculative, as the dotted line pattern indicates. A bar chart also appears at the 1950 point on the timeline and points straight down. These bars track the increasing depths of offshore drilling, from about 4,200 feet below water in 1950 to an average of 7,778 feet in 2008.39
Combining illustrations and multiple forms of data visualization—timeline, line graph, bar chart—“Depths of Addiction” exemplifies Orff’s integrated aesthetic. It also exemplifies a key argument of “Ecological Atlas”: verticality cuts both ways in a petro-industrial regime, and these two directions—up and down—are inextricable. The visualization implicitly argues that the increase in depths of extraction, represented by the bars heading to the bottom of the image on the right, are responsible for the mounting line graph heading to the upper right. In effect, to understand the lines showing the uptick in oil extraction, we must account for the depths of oil extraction.
“Depths of Addiction” affirms Michael Watts’s claim that “hard rock geology is a science of the vertical.” This verticality depends on an assemblage of “spatial technologies and spatial representations” that makes petroleum extraction “a cartographer’s dream-space: a landscape of lines, axes, hubs, spokes, nodes, points, blocks, and flows. As a space of flows and connectivity, these spatial oil networks are unevenly visible (subsurface, virtual) in their operations.”40 Watts places the line in the repertoire of reveries attached to oil extraction. In an unwitting echo of Ingold’s critique of the connective affordance of lines, Watts argues that connectivity makes industry processes and impacts “unevenly visible” rather than more visible. Accounting for this unevenness requires abandoning deterministic thinking about the trajectories of oil regimes such as peak oil scenarios and arguments that “petroleum undermines or promotes particular forms of democracy, it causes war and rebellion.”41 Watts suggests that oil’s critics, by spinning deterministic narratives, are beholden to linear, if pessimistic, thought. If, as Watts says, extraction depends on “a science of the vertical,” mediating verticality through cultural forms will be critical to understanding how the industry maintains its uneven visibility, that is, its ability to be both visible and not, or visible here and invisible there.
Orff’s lines establish relationships between the vertical and horizontal that veer away from the typical cause-and-effect patterns to which Watts refers. In PA vertical actions such as drilling do not only have the horizontal effects of spillage and leakage, a relation between vertical and horizontal overly familiar from extraction disasters such as Deepwater Horizon. The vertical-horizontal relations Orff draws fall outside such determinist plotting. The second chapter of the atlas, “Infrastructure,” charts other ways vertical activities become horizontal. The visualizations “From Seabed to Swamp” and “From Salt Dome to Pipe” have a landscape orientation and thus emphasize the horizontal (figs. 4 and 5). However, within these visualizations, forms are also oriented vertically, and flow lines guide readers between them. These two visualizations replicate and highlight the interactions between surface and subsurface that are the thematic focus of the chapter. Using a gray scale, “From Seabed to Swamp” includes a top image depicting the instruments of offshore drilling in the Gulf—tankers, barges, wells, drill rigs, and platforms—as well as the desired oil and natural gas deposits below the seabed. Burnt orange lines of different weights drill down and sweep parabolically out to the sides and connect horizontal underwater pipelines to the gray deposits. The bottom image in the visualization uses the same color scheme—gray and burnt orange—to show how pipelines and boats travel through the swamps of southern Louisiana. To move “petroleum drilled from deep below the earth” through navigation channels, the river’s depths must be dredged (PA, 133). To carry petroleum drilled from one subaqueous zone (the Gulf), another subaqueous zone (the bayou) must be engineered. These environmental manipulations tie together drilling and dredging, which operate on a vertical axis, with distribution, which flows on the horizontal.
“From Salt Dome to Pipe” uses the same color palette and also highlights the interdependence of these oppositional trajectories. The top image in the visualization is oriented horizontally to depict the placement of pipelines that carry petroleum to processing plants in the “Cancer Alley chemical corridor” (PA, 134). The thick burnt orange pipeline deviates from a straight horizontal as it climbs out of the water, over levees, and on to processing plants. The bottom image shows another stage in the lifecycle of petrochemical manufacture: storage. Salt domes several miles belowground are hollowed out using water to serve as containers for petroleum and by-products of manufacturing such as ethylene. Orff uses a teardrop shape to depict the boreholes into which these by-products go and a straight line to show the injection wells that transport the materials into the holes. In effect, if petrochemical products are not shipped through the horizontal pipelines, they have nowhere to go but down, into the salt domes that have been repurposed as industrial infrastructure.
The engineering of salt domes for chemical storage indicates the other interdependent oppositional logics that “Ecological Atlas” depicts: above- and belowground, visible and invisible, natural and artificial. The bottom image in “From Seabed to Swamp” contains pipelines dipping shallowly below the water that has been channelized through dredging (fig. 4). The Misrach photograph embedded in the visualization, Swamp and Pipeline, 1998 (PA, plate 3), emphasizes the pipeline’s “uneven visibility,” to return to Watts’s phrase. It rises above the water but is easily overlooked given its remote location and how it blends into the murky green and brown color palette of the bayou. The photograph embedded in “From Salt Dome to Pipe,” Pipeline and River Road, 2010 (PA, plate 23), addresses how pipelines traverse the visible and the invisible: “Moving through the landscape, a lone pipe emerges over levees and backswamps only to dive back down into the ground toward its unknowable destination. At moments, clusters of pipes soar above River Road in an industrial-scaled welcoming archway and then disappear into the fenced boundary of a nearby factory” (PA, 131). Through description and image, PA echoes Patricia Yaeger’s account of infrastructure as a “play of surface and depths (subways, water mains), of hypervisibility (bridges) and invisibility (the electrical grid).”42 Traveling on interdependent vertical and horizontal vectors, Orff’s lines present visibility and invisibility as a kindred oppositional logic that keeps Big Oil running.
Both naturally occurring and human-made infrastructure helps pipelines hide in plain sight and present another entwined opposition. Barbara L. Allen notes that the Gulf region is rich in “the four building blocks of petrochemicals—salt, water, oil, and natural gas—which gave both Texas and Louisiana a competitive advantage in this industry.”43 Orff pictures these “building blocks” as themselves unevenly visible precisely because they complicate distinctions between natural and human made. River water, for example, is a visible feature that has shaped the landscape and organisms’ lives for millennia. Its existence does not depend on human intervention, but its flow is heavily engineered and often gets recruited into human projects, as when river water aids cooling and manufacture. Ancient salt domes are invisible and inaccessible without technological assistance.44 They, too, endure without human intervention but are integral to extraction, manufacturing, and waste. Rivers and oceans get recruited for transporting raw petrochemicals and by-products as well as “drilling rigs, tankers, pipelines, and refineries” (PA, 131). Manipulated for industrial purposes, the ocean, rivers, and salt domes constitute the bioregion of this alluvial plane, but these “naturalcultural assemblages”45 are also part of a “semiprivatized, industrial super-corridor” (PA, 131).
Subsequent visualizations in “Infrastructure” draw out the magnitude of the petrochemical pipeline by reversing the priority of visible and invisible and natural and artificial. In “Export Corridors,” which continues employing the palette of black, gray, and burnt orange, the Mississippi River becomes overwhelmed by lines depicting the human-made infrastructure of pipelines, roadways, levees, and railroads (PA, 140–41). Instead of standing as its own feature, the Mississippi is enmeshed in infrastructure and comes into being where the lines end and where yellow dots indicating industrial sites concentrate. This contouring of the river via infrastructure recalls Denis Wood’s reveries about “deep mapping.” In this practice of narrative cartography readers “look up at the neighborhood from below, from underneath the trees’s deepest roots, up through that latticework—that mesh—to the [water] mains, but then you’d look through the mains to the house connections snaking up into the houses . . . , the house itself suspended in this web of flows, crystallizing out of them.” The lines in “Export Corridors” produce the kind of deep mapping Wood envisions: the river is “suspended” in the mesh of lines distributing and producing oil products. Both Orff’s visualization and Wood’s deep mapping recognize “the play of things and events that produce, that result in, that constitute” place.46
PA places oppositional logics at the center of this play. There is no vertical drilling or underground storage without access to horizontal deposits and pathways of distribution. Petroleum operations become invisible only because they are visible in strategic places. There is no human-made infrastructure without once-wild, now-engineered environments. Though Orff visualizes from below, attending to the materials and infrastructures—both natural and human-made—that constitute the oil assemblage, her work shares Amanda Boetzkes’s sensibility that “the ways the oil industry conceals its destructive impact cannot be exposed or remedied through tactics of demystification or objective reportage.”47 “Ecological Atlas” is not an unearthing in this sense. Instead, it draws lines across, below, and above the earth’s surfaces to determine how opposed interdependencies help produce Big Oil’s “self-reinforcing cycles” of extraction, growth, waste, displacement, and harm (PA, 161).
Though PA largely eschews the deterministic narratives Watts cautions against, it does dwell on impacts of the petro-industry that can suggest fatalism: displacement, disease, and death, especially for Black communities in Louisiana. The book depicts threats to humans, amphibians, fish, and other creatures through the tropes of proximity, dispersal, containment, and contamination. These tropes are less dependent on the visual vocabulary of the line, but I elaborate on them as extensions of Orff’s linear forms because they constitute a key oppositional logic that governs petrochemical incursions into bodies and communities.
Proximity, dispersal, containment, and contamination interweave across the book, beginning with Misrach’s photographs at the fence lines where toxic industry and human settlement meet. In Home and Grain Elevator, Destrehan, Louisiana, 1998 (fig. 6), a small, ranch-style home sits in front of massive agribusiness structures that, because of their size and similar color, render the house nearly invisible. Barbara L. Allen comments on such strange juxtapositions as a defining feature of the River Road along the Mississippi: “Antebellum plantation homes, agricultural buildings, Creole cottages, and vernacular houses” stand against “numerous gigantic petrochemical plants, belching multicolored, often malodorous clouds of mystery gas into the air.”48 In Misrach’s photo the cropped tower of the elevator first draws the eye, and the house melds with the mess of electrical lines, fences, and ducts composing the structure. “Cancer Alley” contains numerous similar photographs of juxtaposition and proximity (see PA, plates 20, 27, 30–34, 43) and of the effluvia of industrial production (see PA, plates 2, 23, 29) that present the region as a toxified landscape. These images evoke the twinned logic of containment and contamination as integral to toxicity. Materials such as metal and concrete afford solidity, largeness, and impermeability, suggesting the petrochemical industry’s control over the substances of its manufacture. However, in Misrach’s photos, these materials share space with elements suggesting nebulosity and leakiness: fog, cloud, water, gas.
Containment is an impossible dream while contamination is an inevitable outcome of petrochemical production. Manufacturing plastics, fertilizers, and other wonders of modernity generates waste products that are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. These include benzene, dioxin, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). Orff describes these compounds as key features of the River Road ecology. “By-products of industrial processes are released into the atmosphere, stored miles underground in geological formations [i.e., salt domes], dispersed into the Mississippi River, deposited in huge manmade ponds, placed legally and illegally into the region’s spongy bayous, and buried in landfill pits” (PA, 145). This list of “waste disposal typologies” captures not only the oppositional logics of verticality and horizontality, visibility and invisibility, and natural and human made that this essay has detailed but also the industry’s attempts to eliminate or contain its wastes. A visualization in the “Waste” chapter, “Deep in the Ground, Up in the Air,” homes in on “the preferred method of relocating toxic and useless by-products of industrial processing”: releasing them “deep below the visible surface of the Louisiana landscape” (PA, 149). Through vertical pipes going down as much as 6,000 feet, formaldehyde, hydrogen sulfide, and other contaminants create a new stratigraphy alongside geologic layers of sand, soil, limestone, surface water, and groundwater. The line in this visualization thickens to give shape to these hydrocarbon strata, which are differentiated by their mustard color from the geologic layers presented in grays of various textures. These wastes are rendered invisible until they surface in spectacular explosions or in cellular and genetic change.49
Designed for containment, underground releases of waste slip free of control. The subterranean strata are always in motion. “Deep in the Ground, Up in the Air” explains that the pockets of chemicals injected belowground have a chance of migrating thirty feet per year. Motility, mobility, and the proximity of toxins to one another combine with inadequate regulations to create a situation in which chemicals can seep and merge to form “a new toxic geology” (PA, 149). Without using the word Anthropocene, Orff’s phrase expresses one of the concept’s key attributes: human activities are leaving legible marks on the stratigraphic record. Rather than generalizing Anthropocenic impacts on a planetary scale, these visualizations present the local, embodied effects on human and more-than-human communities in the Gulf bioregion.
Having established how containment fails, “Ecological Atlas” explicitly introduces anatomy and disease to its narrative of the oil assemblage in “Waste.” The pipeline to America not only travels below and above land and water and not only travels out to sea and onto shore; it also travels into the blood, bones, and tissue of beings living in this “National Sacrifice Zone” (PA, 145).50 The yellow-orange-red palette of the line used in “Infrastructure” continues in “Waste,” where it medicalizes space by evoking scrapes and abrasions in the bullseye patterns of “Toxics Release Mapping” (PA, 150–51).51 These colors enter into medical representation in a subsequent visualization, “Metabolizing Waste,” where they illustrate fat, muscle, and organs in anatomical drawings that one might find in a scientific atlas (PA, 154–55). This visualization includes the most text of any in Petrochemical America and details the cancers, birth irregularities, immune disorders, and other injuries correlated to petrochemical exposure. Both the images, which resemble medical imaging, and the extensive text arrest the reader and suggest this is a critical moment for attention and information intake. The continuation of the color scheme from “Infrastructure” into “Waste” underscores that humans and other animals do not only live proximate to the structures and infrastructures of the “petroplex” (PA, 102); they are intimate with them. Given the failures of containment, plants, water, and human and more-than-human bodies are, in fact, constituted by petrochemicals in this environment.
Orff’s visualizations establish that proximity and the failed promise of containment are now as essential to the modern settlement pattern of the lower Mississippi as plantation slavery and industrialization have long been. This point hits home in the “Displacement” chapter. These visualizations scale up the representation of contamination from abstract human bodies to specific Black communities, especially the town of Morrisonville. In “Morrisonville Dream” the statistical bodies that are depicted using black icons in earlier data visualizations become real, with Black residents from the early twentieth century shown picnicking, chatting in groups, fixing a flat tire, and resting on the porch with family and neighbors (PA, 158–59). These historical photographs are incorporated into an AutoCAD rendering of houses that might have sat on the concrete pads that serve as evidence of former inhabitation, the “visible scars of a former town called Morrisonville that was bought out by Dow Chemical Corporation” (PA, 159).
Morrisonville was part of a wave of “regional displacement[s] over time” that occurred to make way for petrochemical factories and their poisons (PA, 161). However, it began in the 1870s as a freedmen’s town named Australia Point nestled in a crook of the Mississippi adjacent to the plantation that had formerly enslaved the town’s founders (PA, 74). The first relocation of Morrisonville in 1931 resulted from infrastructural racism: the Army Corps of Engineers ceased maintaining the levee that protected the Black community from flooding (PA, 162–63). In the 1950s Dow bought the plantation neighboring the relocated town as the site for a plant producing vinyl chloride. The plant’s continuing growth encroached on the town, and Morrisonville’s Black residents were uprooted again when it was found that vinyl chloride was contaminating their groundwater. Between 1989 and 1993, Dow bought out residents for $20,000–$50,000 per acre, and people either left the community or resettled in two Dow-created subdivisions, Morrisonville Acres and Morrison Estates, several miles to the north and south. In Misrach’s photographs, the remaining cemeteries, slab foundations, and abandoned buildings testify to the serial displacements of Black people caused by racist development practices (see PA, plates 12, 32, 34, 40). If the visualizations in earlier chapters emphasize relations between above and below, vertical and horizontal, natural and human made, and visible and invisible, the visualizations in “Displacement” emphasize racist relations of containment and contamination by depicting the forced migrations imposed on Black settlements.
Philosopher Michel Serres helps us understand the elimination and relocation of such towns as a perverse effort at containment. In Malfeasance: Appropriation through Pollution? (2008, trans. 2011), Serres calls up the image of a “factory [that] empties its effluents into a nearby river, diffuses them in the atmosphere, or transports them to a remote mangrove swamp.” He muses on the consequences of this contamination: “Who doesn’t understand that no one can drink the water, breathe the air, or get close to such an area? These spaces are better protected than by walls, locks, or bolts. Those who leave horrifying traces and marks do not appropriate places by haunting them but by excluding everybody else.”52 When air, water, and soil are polluted, they become available to “appropriation” by the powerful polluters. Even prior to buyouts, corporations such as Dow extend the footprint of their operations by making the environs unbearable for all but manufacturing. As that footprint expands and residents get pushed out or sickened from poisoning, a new dream of containment results. This is the dream that the region will harbor only petrochemical industry, which will then be free to operate without protests for environmental and racial justice from those injured and serially displaced.53
Ends of the Line
“What does it mean to draw and interpret a line?”54 The “Ecological Atlas” orients the line, an essential visualization form, toward complexity, contradiction, and “betweenness”55 rather than simplistic connectivity or deterministic teleology. Its lines do not connect dots; they encourage the slow interpretive work required in contexts rife with complexity, obscurity, and emotion. Orff activates the contradictory affordances of the line to visualize the oppositional logics that have fortified the petrochemical industry. These logics—verticality and horizontality, visibility and invisibility, the natural and human made, proximity and dispersal, containment and contamination—perpetuate the industry’s subterranean sovereignty and violence against ecologies, communities, even geologies. In PA drawing a line means deploying the form’s contradictory affordances to draw out the contradictory logics of the Age of Oil.
For all the powers of the line it deploys, PA also makes the case that lines, visualizations, and images more broadly can only accomplish so much. The last thirty pages of the book are dense with text as visualization largely gives way to exposition in the “Glossary of Terms and Solutions for a Post-Petrochemical Culture.” The concluding glossary considers how proximity, previously visualized for its contaminating potential, can be turned to environmental justice. Though the glossary’s title looks ahead to a “post-petrochemical” future, it acknowledges that we cannot just turn a switch and stop the flow of oil. If Americans cannot live with oil and cannot (yet) live without it, how can proximity become reparative rather than toxic?
Having detailed the oppositional logics that enable petrochemical interventions into place, PA proffers ways to resist the growth imperative and create ecologically and community-based paradigms for land use. If lines can fuel the oppositional logics of oil extraction, they can also loop around to “sketch the outlines of a more hopeful future” (PA, 17). The glossary pursues ways of sidelining oil by activating “Potential Change Agents” to disrupt petroleum extraction and consumption (PA, 214). The “Diagram of Potential Change Agents” remakes the flow diagram that opened “Ecological Atlas” (fig. 1) and charts the “ingenuity of local citizens who inhabit the landscapes that are left behind” (PA, 215). Renewable energy, closed-loop production, and smart growth replace industrial waste and suburban sprawl. Algae become a renewable fuel source; phytoremediation running on solar power removes hydrocarbon waste contamination. The main terms and curving lines from the visualization on page 114 recur a hundred pages on but in a muted gray that suggests oil, natural gas, and coal have given way to new relations to energy, consumption, and land use. The change agent terms appear in bold, brick-colored type, and the black perforated lines emanating from these terms break into the muted gray loops that describe the petrochemical present, putting a stop to the deterministic narratives of Big Oil.
Bookending the atlas with visualizations that echo each other, Orff highlights the narrative potential of the atlas. Readers are reminded that Petrochemical America’s visualizations have been accumulating to produce a story that runs from the Jurassic period through Indigenous inhabitation, settler colonialism, plantation slavery, Black settlement, and industrial poisoning and on to “new frameworks of engagement with the landscape” (PA, 117). The glossary affirms the actual and speculative nature of the atlas, that is, its use as a tool for picturing as well as for crafting a “post-petrochemical culture.”
My gratitude to Delia Byrnes and the anonymous readers for their generative feedback on earlier versions of this article. This research was supported by a visiting research fellowship at the Tanner Humanities Center of the University of Utah and a Humanities Research Award from the University of Texas at Austin. I also wish to thank SCAPE, LLC, and Richard Misrach/Fraenkel Gallery for permission to reproduce images from Petrochemical America.
Misrach and Orff, Petrochemical America, 115. Hereafter cited as PA.
Amitav Ghosh is a crucial origin point for this thesis; see Ghosh, “Petrofiction.” Allan Stoekl’s foreword to Oil Culture makes this point as do the book’s editors Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden; see Barret and Worden, Oil Culture, xi–xiv, xvii–xxxiv. Other sources on the elusiveness yet pervasiveness of oil include LeMenager, Living Oil, 124; Salvaggio, “Imagining Angels,” 394, 398; Wenzel, “How to Read,” 158.
This list appears in Allen, Uneasy Alchemy, 28.
Wenzel, “How to Read,” 157; emphasis in original.
See, e.g., Decolonial Atlas, decolonialatlas.wordpress.com (accessed July 9, 2020); Dow and Downing, Atlas of Climate Change; Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, “Gwich’in”; Mathur and da Cunha, Mississippi Floods; Mogel and Bhagat, Atlas of Radical Cartography; Wood, “Mapping Deeply”; Solnit, Infinite City.
On the infinitude of place, see Solnit, Infinite City, vii.
My use of visualization captures the myriad forms Orff details here, including cartography. Orff elaborates on the throughline in Misrach and Orff, “Richard Misrach and Kate Orff Discuss.”
In addition to the works I cite later in this essay, other texts crucial to this trend include Haraway, “Situated Knowledges”; Massey, “Power-Geometry”; Thompson, Experimental Geography; Wood, Rethinking the Power of Maps.
Caquard, “Cartography I,” 135; my emphasis.
Crampton, Mapping, 41; emphasis in the original.
On Misrach’s photographs in the context of US oil culture, see Byrnes, “‘I Get a Bad Taste.’”
On graphical forms see Drucker, Graphesis.
Ingold, Lines, 81; emphasis in the original.
Ingold, Lines, 81; emphasis in the original.
One barrel of oil equals forty-two US gallons.
These figures refer to subaqueous depths; drills operating on land can reach depths of more than forty thousand feet.
Salt domes do, however, become visible when they collapse, as they did at oil industry–owned sites on Jefferson Island, Louisiana, in 1980 and Bayou Corne, Louisiana, in 2012.
Wood, “Mapping Deeply,” 312; emphasis in the original.
On the medicalization of the environment, see Houser, Ecosickness.
Serres, Malfeasance, 43; emphasis in the original.
The courageous fights residents wage against petro-industry are proof that the wish for containment is impossible.