Extractive industries condition and are conditioned by narrative structures. The constantly fluctuating demand and supply of “natural” resources begs for a certain kind of narrative energy. Whether striking gold or building a pipeline, narratives condition, validate, backdate: the turns of legality that justify settlement and the removal of Native/lndigenous peoples for the sake of gold, oil fields or pipelines; the narratives about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) that deny environmental impact and degradation or that deploy eminent domain law to allow oil and gas companies to seize control of “private” lands for the sake of the “public.”
Resource extraction also parallels and structures the ways we read literature. Those of us who teach literature frequently use terms like mine or dig deep to talk about acts of close reading, terms that are meant to teach students how to coax something from the text that may not reside on its surface. Perhaps we use the term fractured as a metaphor for a structure, or a reader’s encounter with a postmodern text. These are also terms that define and describe the procedures of blasting, coaxing, and drawing out natural gas from deep rock.
Compared to surface mining — including mountaintop removal, strip and open-pit mining — fracking is fairly concealed while the surface remains intact. The activity and energy have gone deep underground. In 2015, Oklahoma experienced 907 magnitude 3+ earthquakes; in 2014, 585; and in 2013, 109. The U.S. Geological Survey announced in 2013 that such seismic events are not the result of “typical, random fluctuations in natural seismicity rates” but instead likely caused by the disposal of fracking wastewater. Once the oil and natural gas are pumped out of the rock, the wastewater is extracted and re-injected into the ground at a different site; the injections increase pressure at natural fault lines and cause earthquakes. The process is diffuse and subterranean — the effects perceptible in other, displaced forms, like earthquakes or flammable tap water.
Fracking renders scale and affect ecological and geological. Unlike oil fields with their pumping derricks, mountaintops blasted off and stripped bare, or coal trains rumbling down the tracks, the blasting of rock occurs underground. Fracking obfuscates at the surface. Given its subterranean processes, that first goes deep — 7000 feet below the earth’s surface — and then horizontally, land owners often don’t know their land is being mined for natural gas; nor are people always aware that their fields are being irrigated with fracking waste water, or that the water is being re-injected near their drinking source. Fracking traffics in subtext.
A narrative’s subtext is about desire, the unmentionable fantasy or obsession. The text gets most interesting when characters cannot necessarily declare their needs and desires — perhaps they want too much of the wrong thing. From a craft perspective, subtext makes a good story. Charles Baxter puts it this way: “A certain kind of story does not depend so much on what the characters say they want as what they actually want but can’t own up to. This inability to be direct creates a subterranean chasm within the story, where genuine desires hide beneath the superficial ones.” A character’s obsessions might turn manic, thereby creating what Baxter calls in The Art of Subtext a “congested subtext” — a “complex set of desires and fears that can’t be efficiently described, a pile-up of emotions that resists easy articulation.” Long after the story is over, the affective accumulation stays with the reader. Baxter’s metaphors could be associated with extraction, including fracking — the subterranean chasm that can become congested. As readers we blast these moments open and are left with the fragments.
While energy extraction has come to resemble subtext, I increasingly direct my students to the text’s surface layer, to linger in description and observation, to remain utterly superficial and “simply” describe the poem, or a key scene in the story. But more often than not, they cannot resist excavating, mining for a theme or two that allows them to manage an interpretation. They’re utterly committed to the humanist principles of literature, that what makes a poem valid and worth reading is the extent to which it directs the reader beyond the textures of language and surfaces of the page. That is, most students who take my literature courses are not interested in subtext or surface, but in what they often refer to as “theme” or “meaning” — how a poem might teach us to be better humans, or how a character is a symbol of Christ, or how a complex figure such as Dakota writer Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Bonnin) “symbolizes” the tragic end of her “noble culture.” Not only do many of my settler students resist my insistence (and the evidence) that Dakota people and cultures live and thrive in the present tense, but some students also resist the time it takes to linger on the writer’s vivid language, her subtle descriptions of space. I’ve wondered whether my directing them to the surface makes way for shallow forms of critique, a literary politics that detaches itself from historical context and political accumulation. I simply want them to see the surface, at least at first.
I’m trying to pry apart the deep paradox at play here: the culture that banks our energy futures on deep rock and subterranean extraction also gives us standardized testing in public schools that trains students to be excavators of “meaning.” At the very same time that humanities programs are asked to be more streamlined and branded, when we’re prompted to justify our existence numerically and many of our students assume that the study of literature must possess value (economic, quantifiable) to be worthy of their own time and energy, energy extraction becomes more elusive and imaginary. Meaning and theme offer a certain kind of extractive value, a portable and useful product that doesn’t touch subtext, what’s happening underneath the character’s surface actions. So too, the traumas of fracking occur so deep underground that we cannot imagine how, when, or where they occur—and it’s much easier not to try.
Pauline Matt, co-founder of Blackfeet Women Against Fracking, describes perfectly how fracking relies on subtext: the difference between what the “jolly” and complimentary man with papers at her door says and what he most desires, which is unrestricted access to her land, and to sacred sites in Blackfeet homelands, for subterranean drilling. But Matt and other Blackfeet people already know to read for that subtext: “I knew what he was up to right from the minute he walked through the door.”
In the last six years, theories of reading have emerged that prompt us to engage with literature horizontally, rather than vertically—I’m thinking here of Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best’s work on surface reading. Then there are microsociological approaches that call for a turn to “thin description,” or modes of reading that orient our attention to the text’s surfaces, such as those advocated for by Heather Love. Reading practices, in other words, are increasingly oriented to the surface, while energy extraction only digs deeper. What does it mean for us to debate the material depth of reading, the thick and thin of it all, in a moment of fracturing when charges of pressure are forced into the core of rocks, which are the material formations of deep time? Do we need to change the way we read when the earth quakes in Oklahoma and water catches fire?
I suggest that fracking makes way for a different kind of close reading. We might be persuaded both by its depth, and by its shallow imagination. The rock that releases fossil fuel cannot be reducible to its energy function. Rocks do not exist to be fractured, nor are they utterly destroyed by fracking. Rocks buy humans a little more time, but they also steal future time away. The rock is a form on my mind, but it exists before and outside of me too. Rocks are autonomous and noisy; I’m tuned into them now that I recognize how their congested subtexts shake the earth beneath my feet.