Thursday, November 21, 2013

May Oil Rain Down on You! is the business world’s Facebook. As social media goes, it’s pretty useful, but it has a few attributes that I find utterly creepy. One of the little “features” is the fact it automatically generates a notice to all the members in one’s “network” when you achieve a 5 or 10-year work anniversary. asks your contacts to  “Congratulate So-and-So on their Work Anniversary!!” I suppose some people like this, but I most assuredly do NOT. I have looked for a way to keep it from sending out notices to people in my network, but I have failed.

So, consequently, when I reached the five-year mark at my current job, I received a number of congratulatory emails and “likes,” including one from a poet friend I have known for many years, and through that time have been condemned by for being associated with the oil industry: “Congratulations! May oil rain down on you.”

It does not seem like much of a congratulatory message to me – seems more like the old Chinese curse, “May you have an interesting life.”

The mental image his “congratulations” invoked is that of big vats of boiling oil being poured down from the turrets of a medieval castle as I attempt to scale the walls. Attacking the fortified castle is, in my own mind, a gesture that is partly heroic, as I seek to connect with whatever is inside the castle, and partly a “conversation” with all the fantasies and narratives of adventure and romance that involve risk and a grand vision. 

If I’m storming a castle, I’m in the service of a grand vision of “the new.” Officially, my vision involves trying to determine how to use new technologies to improve petroleum exploration and production efforts. In reality, it’s a quest for the “new” – and it’s probably, at least on one level, a deliberately Pollyanna-esque quest.

My vision is my ostensible subject. In literary critical terms, we can say I’m manifesting an example of the Bakhtinian dialogical imagination.  Mikhail Bakhtin, if you may recall, was a Russian philosopher, literary critic, and linguist who wrote The Dialogic Imagination in which he points out all utterances and conversations have intertextuality embedded within them, and it’s impossible to extract them.  The intertextuality has to do with references, allusions, and concepts that come in from texts that are either in the general zeitgeist are in a specific context.

Bakhtin’s view of embedded intertextuality extending far beyond the text itself was evoked as well in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) in which literary critic Harold Bloom seeks to show how deep intertextuality in poetry not only invokes previous ideas and authors, but also seeks to subvert or re-envision them.

“May oil rain down on you” invokes voices: his, mine, and all the works of literature, philosophy and art that intrude with their fragments, phantasmic energies, ghosts, and the “trace” of ideas and intellectual histories. These are intellectual repositories I interact with even if I’m not completely aware of them.

I respect the fact that my poet friend actively protested the construction of a pipeline near the south New Jersey shore where he lives. He rode out Superstorm Sandy from his high-rise apartment on the beach that had, as I understand it, inadequate electricity, water, and worse for weeks and weeks.

“May oil rain down on you.”

The same oil he wishes on me will rain on him as well. There is no way to avoid it.

I see his note as a desperate, last feverish hope for a restoration of a world that is essentially dualistic, rather than the place it really is, where everything is interpenetrating and interdependent.

There’s no real differentiation in our roles; we’re just in different places on a continuum. No really goes without consuming petroleum products, and the “moral high road” is largely an illusion.

In fact, in Baudrillardian terms, there is no moral high road in terms of one’s choices. Further, a unique, differentiable “footprint” is a fiction created to inspire the creation of a “virtue yardstick” and the possibility that one might be saved by means of his or her actions.

The reality is the socially agreed upon construct, the “virtue yardstick” which one uses to measure one’s environmental footprint.

So, although no one really avoids consuming the world’s resources, people are social animals and they like to organize themselves into groups, and they like to rank them. There will always people willing to set themselves apart as the priest class (closely related to the madman class, where madness & divine visions are potentially interchangeable … the old “vates” or prophets of Plato’s days).

But even if you manage to place yourself in the priest class, it’s not as comforting as a dualistic vision of reality, which gives you neat, easy moral clarity and “either/or” decisions.

Yet another intrusive thought distracts me with images of large vats of boiling oil being poured down on the heads of hapless warriors. I wonder where the high road is in this scenario.

If you’re the one pouring the oil, are you guilty of murder? You can argue that you were simply defending the castle, but what did your castle represent?  You’re trying to keep your own ideas intact.

Or, perhaps you’re protecting your own intertextuality and trying to keep it free of outside invaders. You don’t want the ideas of the general zeitgeist to intrude your own, or at least you’d like to control them.

Well, all I can say is, “good luck with that.”

Controlling what influences your own message is about as easy to accomplish is controlling the automatically generated messages, the “Congratulate so and so on their work anniversary!” messages your social networking site sends out.