September 2020

 This special issue goes to press in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Confronted with a global health, social, and economic crisis unprecedented in our lifetime, we are made painfully aware of the tight interconnections of the Anthropocene and reminded of the need to always consider nature, medicine, data, and economics in conjunction with history, politics, affect, and ethics. While we never imagined that we would be living in such a scenario when we began working on this special issue, it has turned to be eerily apropos for our time.

The three guest editors—Natasha Zaretsky, Michael Ziser, and Julie Sze—have compiled this brilliant and forceful collection on energy. Their introduction, “Perpetual Motion: Energy and American Studies”, outlines the trajectories of the sciences and humanities that animate energy studies, its intersections with American studies, and the stakes of such inquiries. The eleven essays featured in the issue make bold interventions in our understanding of energy in dialogue with scholarship in such areas as settler colonialism, indigenous studies, labor and racial capitalism, nationalism and security state, petroculture, media studies, and gender studies.


Petrodocumentary and the Remaking of New Deal Culture
Molly Geidel

My article examines documentary photographs and films sponsored by oil corporations and automakers in the 1940s. These works of oil propaganda were made by serious documentary artists, many of whom learned their craft in the New Deal/Popular Front milieu of the 1930s. These artists subsequently drew on the social science and workerist sensibilities they learned in that milieu in order to promote oil-drilling and aviation by depicting the newly hegemonic concept of “the economy.” By displaying varied scenes of lush abundance and masculine hard work, scenes that suggested bustling economic activity dependent on the presumably unlimited flow of oil, these works of oil propaganda depicted a coherent, prosperous US national economy. By contrast, industry-sponsored photographs and films in the 1940s depicted Latin American economies as isolated, remote, and underdeveloped, in desperate need of petroleum-fueled modernization.

One of the artists who learned the art of documentary photography and film in the New Deal and then produced oil propaganda was Willard Van Dyke.  Part of the radical Nykino documentary collective, he worked on the New Deal films The River (1938), The City (1939), and Valley Town (1940).For the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, he made The Bridge (1944), a film that drew on the humanistic and planning sensibilities of these other films to depict South America as desperately cut off from the rest of the world; the film ultimately hits upon increased air travel as “the bridge” that will end Latin American isolation and underdevelopment. 

New Deal sensibilities were even more straightforwardly channeled into oil propaganda with Standard Oil New Jersey’s (SONJ) photography project. To run the project, SONJ recruited Roy Stryker, who had famously directed the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography section. Stryker brought along some of his photographers, including Gordon Parks, who desperately needed the work after racism led to his rejection from both military and magazine photography jobs.

SONJ both drew on and altered the sensibility of FSA photos, which captured Depression-era suffering, sometimes with bitter irony (Parks’ famous “American Gothic” photo of Ella Watson with her mop, or the multiple iconic photos of billboards promising comfort overhanging scenes of stark poverty and segregation being cases in point).  At SONJ,  Stryker instructed Parks and the other photographers to conjure an America distinct from the stoic-yet-needy nation they had framed in the 1930s. SONJ photographs instead depicted innumerable forms of abundance, from proud farmers with thriving crops and abundant fuel to billboards promising work for all above bustling city streets.

The final piece of petrodocumentary propaganda I consider is the celebrated 1948 film Louisiana Story, a film by towering documentary figures Robert and Frances Flaherty. Secretly sponsored by SONJ, the film lovingly follows a Cajun boy who discovers the presence of a new oil rig in the Bayou, signaling the beginning of Louisiana’s deepwater drilling era. The film depicts the boy shyly making friends with oil-workers and integrating the oil rig into his world, and celebrates the naturalness, benignity, and majestic beauty of both the swamp and the oil rig.  

Oil propaganda, of course, did not disappear after the 1940s: I remember being shown a film in grade school about Exxon’s heroic cleanup efforts after its 1989 Valdez oil spill. In what I suppose was an attempt at balance, my teacher told us the video had been produced by Exxon, but I imagine not all the teachers did the same.  More recently, the Oklahoma schools have introduced Petro Pete, a young protagonist of multiple picture books that dramatize the difficulty—and horror—of living without petroleum-based projects. But these products are for captive audiences of schoolchildren, as opposed to the cosmopolitan filmgoers and art patrons who willingly flocked to these 1940s petrocultural productions, learning in the process to embrace a petroleum-saturated world.


Precarious Politics: Friends of Coal, the UMWA, and the Affective Terrain of Energy Identification
Sylvia Ryerson

72.4 Rocky Adkins

Figure 1. Rocky Adkins, then Democratic House majority leader for the Kentucky House of Representatives, speaking at a pro-coal rally in 2012 (Tom Hansell, “The Narrative of Renewal: ‘If We Can’t Mine Coal, What Are We Going To Do?’” Daily Yonder, October 10, 2018, Adkins is now senior adviser to the governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear. Photograph by Tom Hansell / After Coal, 2012.

“Precarious Politics” observes the rise of the Friends of Coal (FOC) campaign, launched by the West Virginia Coal Association in 2002, in response to a highly mobilized grassroots environmental justice movement in Central Appalachia. The essay explains how the FOC campaign secured consent by selectively appropriating and recontextualizing central functions of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) following the union’s decline, through a strategy of affective recruitment rooted in appeals to a producerist breadwinning subjectivity. Tracing the “micropolitical” process of this partisan reidentification illuminates the present conjuncture in Appalachia: a moment of accelerated extraction, corporate abandonment, and competing political agendas, from the nationwide rise of white nationalism to calls for a “just transition” from fossil fuel extraction to a renewable energy economy. I argue that only by understanding the power of this affective appeal and affectively (re)mapping a relation to land and loss that does not rely on reappropriating appeals to this exclusive subjectivity can we effectively counter pro-industry ideology and forge new and necessary alliances against the intertwined ontologies of fossil fuel extractivism and white supremacy.

Below are links to two documentary films I analyze, videos from pro-coal rallies I discuss, an excellent Appalachian youth produced short film on the 2019 Blackjewel railroad blockade in Harlan County, and links to some of the regional organizations contesting pro-coal narratives and offering powerful examples of how partial appropriations are being affectively enacted outside of producerist logics toward alternative futures. 


The Front Lines of Energy Policy: The Coal Mining Workplace and the Politics of Security in the American Century
Trish Kahle

“The Front Lines of Energy Policy” offers a history of energy security rooted in the coal mining workplace. I was interested in how the politics of national security and energy security became entangled from the bottom up—and putting workers back at the center of energy history. A few of the primary sources used in this article are available online:

A big portion of this essay was inspired by the work of labor cartoonist Ray Zell. His work appeared throughout the United Mine Workers Journal, and could be funny, sardonic, or deadly serious. Most importantly, they were tools of political education. But in preparing this essay, I was drawn to a series of cartoons from the early 1960s that dealt explicitly with national security politics, translating them into coalfield political culture. You can see more of Zell’s work—as well as a wider set of digitized images from the records of the United Mine Workers online courtesy of the Eberly Family Special Collections at Penn State University.

Although not included in the final version of this article, I was struck by an exchange between Jimmy Carter and Larry Vandeventer, a member of the Communication Workers of America, during another July 1979 Q&A session in Detroit, Michigan during the CWA’s annual convention.

Q. Mr. President, I'm Larry Vandeventer from Corpus Christi, Texas, Local 12137. I support your proposals to win our energy fight, and I would like to know when you think we will be able to buy the energy bonds that you spoke of.

THE PRESIDENT. By the way, we keep the thermostat set on 78 degrees in the Oval Office. Some of the news people send me word here that it's 80 degrees where they are and it's 86 degrees where I am. [Laughter]

First of all, the Congress will have to pass a law authorizing the establishment of this private corporation. It will be given special authority and a special status. I'm sure that all of you are familiar with the COMSAT arrangement, where the special Communications Satellite Corporation was set up and stock was sold in that corporation to get the original communications satellites in space. A similar arrangement will be followed in getting established the special corporation to produce energy from shale, coal, and other means in our country.

As soon as the Congress passes the law authorizing this special corporation, it will be set up. It will not be a Government agency. It will be an independent, private corporation. And at that time, hopefully sometime this year, you'll be able to buy energy bonds and own a part of our Nation's energy security future. I don't know the exact date, but if you'll help me, we'll cut out the delays that have held up Congress too long.

That's a good question.



Anatomic Bombs: The Sexual Life of Nuclearism, 1945–57
Traci Brynne Voyles

The sexual life of nuclearism extends well beyond the scope of this article. Unknown numbers of women and girls served in roles as “nuclear mascots” throughout the Cold War, from Lee Merlin as “Miss Atomic Bomb” to young girls marching in local parades. In my 2015 book Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country, I explored pageants put on by boosters for uranium boomtowns, in which pageant winners were crowned and awarded with trophies of uranium ore.[1] Historian Elaine Tyler May has provided the broader history of gender, sex, and sexuality during this period of US history in Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.[2] Numerous studies have documented the extensive and diverse women-led activism against nuclearism throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.[3]

The cultural politics of nuclearism have fascinated academic and lay audiences for decades. Documentary film projects like Atomic Café provide evidence of the dark and quirky interpretations of nuclearism people made as they encountered their newly atomic world. In narrative films like Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, characters fret as much about masculinity and sexual relations as they do about nuclear annihilation. Moreover, in keeping with feminist interpretations of the phallocratic nature of militarism writ large, atomic culture preens with examples of the close symbolic affinity between bombs and penises – a theme demonstrated nowhere so clearly as in the climactic scene of Dr. Strangelove, when Major T. J. Kong mounts a nuclear warhead and rides it, whooping with joy, to his death.[4] Because gender and sexuality are primary ways in which humans understand and interpret the world around them, gender and sexuality figured prominently in meaning-making practices about new nuclear technologies and the life altering effects of the Cold War.

All of these components have been part of nuclearism’s sexual life and cultural politics. Less sexy impacts, however, shaped peoples’ lives in more intimate ways. Middle- and upper-class Americans encountered radiation from nuclear development primarily as a shift in their cultural and political landscapes – or, more vaguely, as a threat to the heteronormativity at the heart of American capitalist life. Less privileged people in the US experienced nuclearism as an immediate threat to their health. Workers at nuclear power plants and residents of rural areas downwind from test sites experienced the creeping effects of radiation exposure.[5] Native peoples saw their homelands invaded and sacred sites blasted apart for uranium ore encased in the ground below.[6] Ranchers and farmers watched their livestock die of terrifying diseases and deformities, as hauntingly documented by photographer Richard Misrach.[7] Enlisted soldiers were trucked into the desert to crouch in shallow trenches at blast sites to test bombs’ effects on their bodies. Incarcerated people and children with disabilities became research subjects in experiments on radiation’s short- and long-term impacts. Throughout the nuclear West – what historian Mike Davis calls the “dead West” – these embodied experiences, rather than sexy pin-up models, shaped human experiences of nuclearism.[8] It did so in deeply racist, ableist, colonial, and classist ways, and radiation’s “slow violence” in human life was likewise shaped by gender, sexuality, and reproduction.[9]

Each of these effects was countered and contested by activists across the country, many if not most of them women. Whereas the history of antinuclear activism tells this story as a predominantly white one, women of color and Indigenous women engaged in heroic organizing work to bring justice to the victims of the Cold War arms race, in the US and beyond.

All of these manifestations of Cold War atomic politics, from Miss Atomic Bomb to antinuclear activists, are part of nuclearism’s sexual life. This article addresses some of them, but not all. More research needs to be done, informed by the ways in which the contours of gender, sexual, racial, and colonial power shaped the course of nuclear technology – and its embodied consequences.


[1] Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 122.

[2] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988).

[3] Jerome Price, The Antinuclear Movement, Social Movements Past and Present (Boston, Mass: Twayne Publishers, 1982); Robert A. Divine, “Ban the Bomb: A History of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy; 1957-1985 . Milton Katz,” Isis 78, no. 1 (March 1987): 94–95,; Milton S. Katz, Ban the Bomb: A History of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, Pbk. ed (New York: Praeger, 1987); Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s, Women in Culture and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Thomas Raymond Wellock, Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978 (Madison, Wis: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998); Sarah Alisabeth Fox, Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014); Paul Rubinson, Rethinking the American Antinuclear Movement, 2018.

[4] Carol Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Signs 12, no. 4 (1987): 687–718; May, Homeward Bound; Cynthia H. Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, Updated ed. with a new preface, [Nachdr.] (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2004).

[5] Fox, Downwind; Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, 2015; Trisha T. Pritikin, The Hanford Plaintiffs: Voices from the Fight for Atomic Justice (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020).

[6] Doug Brugge, The Navajo People and Uranium Mining (Albuquerque, N.M: University of New Mexico Press, 2009); Voyles, Wastelanding.

[7] Richard Misrach and Reyner Banham, Desert Cantos, 1st ed (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987); Richard Misrach and Myriam Weisang Misrach, Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West, Creating the North American Landscape (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

[8] Valerie Kuletz, The Tainted Desert: Environmental Ruin in the American West (New York: Routledge, 1998).

[9] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, 1. Harvard Univ. Press paperback ed (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2013).