Pause for Thought: A Conversation in Images with Gisa Weszkalnys
by Ann Iwashita
The November 2015 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Geology, Potentiality, Speculation: On the Indeterminacy of First Oil,” by Gisa Weszkalnys. Upon reading the piece, what struck contributing editor Ann Iwashita were the qualities of pause and indeterminacy embodied in Weszkalnys’s writing. In the conversation that followed, presented here in lightly edited form, the two wondered together about how the gestures of oil speculation and indeterminacy might be expressed through photographs from Weszkalnys’s fieldwork.
Gisa Weszkalnys is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. Her current research deals with the speculative and material practices of oil exploration in the Gulf of Guinea. In the past, she has carried out extended research on the politics of urban planning, resulting in the monograph Berlin, Alexanderplatz: Transforming Place in a Unified Germany (Berghahn, 2010) and the edited volume Elusive Promises: Planning in the Contemporary World (Berghahn, 2013), co-edited with Simone Abram.
Ann Iwashita: Can you share more about what we are looking at here?
Gisa Weszkalnys: I am not sure who took this photograph. I first saw it on Osvaldo’s Facebook profile and asked him for permission to use it. To me, the photo’s faded, snapshot quality underlines its status as a kind of relic of that earlier phase of oil exploration off São Tomé and Príncipe (STP). At the time, people like Osvaldo were being enrolled in the incipient project of managing and developing a specialized knowledge about oil. In 2000, learning about the parameters of the industry and about what would be required to turn STP into a successful oil-producing state seemed an extraordinarily urgent project. Since then, things have been moving very fast—not necessarily in terms of commercial production, as my article shows, but certainly in terms of the explicit framing of petroleum as a resource on the part of state, corporate, and global governance institutions. For this framing, the kind of expert knowledge produced by expeditions such as that of the Ranform Viking in 2000 is vital. What I love about the photo is that it doesn’t show any of this: the research equipment necessary for the survey, even the vessel itself, are absent. We just see a very young, fresh-faced Osvaldo, keen to improve his scientific and technical skills, which he later deployed in his work in the National Oil Agency, in the private sector, and eventually as STP’s minister of natural resources. I wonder whether he was anticipating, then, where this seismic surveying trip would eventually take him!
AI: What strikes me about this photo is a quality of quiet that inhabits the frame, the building’s stillness amplified by the figure in the foreground. In your article you illustrate this quiet as dormancy, sustaining force, and the extension of time. How do you view this in relation to the activity that must occur in the making of resource?
GW: My article aims to capture a very particular articulation of stillness and activity. Oil exploration is often a long, drawn-out process, which expands and contracts for a number of different reasons. Occasionally, this can produce periods of apparent inactivity. There may seem to be this sense of stillness. Yet there are things going on, not all of which are visible to the casual observer. What is more, the activities that do occur may not lead to any visible or tangible outcomes: in this case, what is industry experts refer to as “first oil.” However, I would argue that neither concept—stillness or activity—captures this peculiar state of affairs fully. That is the reason I introduce the analytical notion of the gesture. I draw on Giorgio Agamben’s characterization of the gesture as where “nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported.”
STP’s National Oil Agency is absolutely pivotal in this regard. It is one of the country’s most visible material embodiments of absent oil. The agency was established in 2004 with support from a World Bank infrastructure and capacity-building program, which focused on setting up legal frameworks and establishing institutions that could manage future oil. The agency has been in charge of overseeing government policy in the oil sector and of managing its technical, legal, and regulatory aspects. As such, it aims to exemplify a notion of good governance central to the World Bank’s support for natural resource extraction as an engine of development—in the face of evidence that extraction, especially hydrocarbon extraction, can have negative social, economic, and political effects. Much of the supporting labor for first oil has thus been carried out, or at least managed by, the agency with no predetermined outcome. Yet the agency has been critical in sustaining a notion of future potentiality and first oil that is yet to come.