The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2018

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JUL-AUG 2018 Issue

On the Current Symbolic Status of Oil

As Duncan Smith notes toward the end of “On the Current Symbolic Status of Oil,” the essay was written during the Iran Hostage Crisis, that’s to say 1979–1980. It’s always helpful to know when a text was composed but in this case the dating is crucial: Smith’s virtuosic ode to oil in all its cultural, psychological and political ramifications was written in the midst of an energy crisis when, as a result of the U.S. halting oil imports from Iran, there was a panic that led to the doubling of oil prices and long lines at gas stations around the country. At a moment when U.S.-Iran relations are again on the front page, it’s fascinating to return to “On the Current Symbolic Status of Oil,” but there are also plenty of other reasons, and ultimately more important ones, to unearth Smith’s essay, which, like almost all his writing, has languished unread for nearly four decades.

A key figure in the Downtown art, film and music scenes of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Smith, who died of AIDS in 1991, forged a unique style, a distinctive interpretative apparatus, that pushed techniques borrowed from psychoanalysis and post-structuralism into the realm of avant-garde writing. He was also—though not in this particular essay—a memoirist of heartbreaking effect. In his brief life (he was 36 when he died), Smith had a significant though as yet unacknowledged influence on the course of contemporary art, most notably via dialogues with his friends Jean-Michel Basquiat and Rammellezee, whose art is pervaded by radical wordplay very close to Smith’s); his own work, beyond his writings, includes collages, collaborative projects such as an unpublished photo-text book about the movie Sunset Boulevard created with artist Seth Tillett, and roles in legendary underground films such as Eric Mitchell’s Kidnapped and Underground USA. (For more about Smith, readers may consult the entry on him on my blog The Silo.)

The premise of “On the Current Symbolic Status of Oil” (which first appeared in an early version as a voice-over for a 1980 segment on a New York public-access cable TV channel, and was then published in Smith’s 1987 collection of essays The Age of Oil) is that oil so permeates American culture that its psychic presence can be detected in the language we use, the activities we pursue, the culture we consume. Smith’s method for uncovering the subterranean symbolism of oil is to engage in radical wordplay: anagrams (sometimes multilingual), homonyms, and analogies, as well as visual rhymes, that ultimately link nearly every aspect of American society. Smith’s anagram technique was inspired by Jacques Derrida and psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok whose interpretation of Freud’s “Wolf Man” case hinges on the presence of “cryptonyms” and “cryptophors,” words hidden inside other words. Each time Smith discovers a new cryptophor, forges a new link between technologies, another avenue opens up for further anagrams, more visual rhymes, additional interdependencies.

The series of cryptophors is endless; Smith’s method, his willingness to bend the rules of conventional argument to identify hidden messages, knows no boundaries. Smith must have realized that the “oil field” he discovered was so rich that it was impossible to bring “On the Current Symbolic Status of Oil” to any neat conclusion. In the end he breaks off with a quote from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” likening his own essay to the fragments of the collapsed house in Poe’s tale. The self-referentiality and sudden literary allusion are typically Smithian, as, indeed, is every sentence in this long-forgotten, strangely timely essay by a writer who mined the materiality of language in ways that still astound.

—Raphael Rubinstein


Oil, a highly treasured possession in industrialized countries, resonates vast and intricate meanings. This presentation will deal with oil and its attenuations in our daily lives. Bear in mind that these meanings are not in access to consciousness, but say that which is not being said: the same thing, here oil, is then shown in its (auto)difference.

What is different in our autos, our selves? What is now different to ourselves, our autos?

To begin this discussion of oil, the idea of the car needs to be explored. The car, so important to America’s image of itself, is its autos, the Greek word for self. The American self or ego bears its reflection within the image of its citizen and his/her car. The word ego here is crucial. Reverse the letters and you have goe or without the e, go. Goes and egos arc then anagrams, perfect redistributions of the letters in those words. In a car one goes, drives, and in light of the above, the American ego has a car that lets him/her go(e). Indeed I go sounds like ego.

The ego holds onto an object, and the common image for that object is one’s self-reflection. How many times have we seen commercials for car wax where the end result of scrubbing a car begets a sheeny surface, a mirror for the car’s proud owner? The sheeny, mirror-like car is then the owner’s pride, for his neighbor has a not -so-sheeny car. The not-so-sheeny car owner will then want his car to be as sheeny as his neighbor’s, thus making the dull car mirror-like as well, reflective of the second party‘s beaming face.

Egos become aggressive when counterparts threaten the units of this “I” or ego with its objects. Cars, often used in aggressive situations, form an indigenous part of America’s mythologies of strength, endurance, risk, mastery. The game “chicken” shows this aggression perfectly. Either party must liquidate the other, a fundamental condition of the ego when it witnesses a threatening counterpart. Car races affirm this facet of the ego, the car that goes faster than other competing egos: “I goe faster than that other ego.” Large car companies, such as General Motors and the Ford Motor Company, vie with each other for mastery over the car profit market, just as they compete in another specular battle against non-American car companies such as Toyota or Volkswagen. The car as ego will automatically take place in these struggles for specular mastery. Examples abound: showing off a new car by driving around the block, driving and passing another car on the highway, killing oneself or killing another ego/car goer, demonstrating that suicide or murder are conditions for both the ego and the car.

On another note the non-car driver compares himself to the car driver. Either too poor or proud to have a car, they resent the imposition of cars on their daily routines as car drivers resent the courtesies they must extend to the pedestrian. I goe in a car vis-a-vis I goe on foot.

Cars, as everyone knows, are powered by oil, a condition that powerful interests have aligned Western countries, America in particular, to for many decades. Oil is the law for a car’s operation, and the law, or as the French would say, la loi, is oil. The loi/law of oil is thus necessary for the American car to go anywhere. And where will the ego goe without oil, without a car? Heretofore the loi has always been cars driven by oil. This is witnessed by the failure of steam driven and electrically powered cars to have any success on the internal combustion machine market, the present-day oil powered cars made in Detroit. Without the loi of oil (conditioned by car companies and oil companies), there would be the likehood of no oil, no oil for egos to goe on. This is the supreme threat to America’s ego for without it nothing will goe, unless America’s interests liquidate the aggressive, oil-hoarding counterpart. Goe over there…

Within the car there is a radio, and within the word car there is the anagram RCA. Originally a company aligned to the technical innovation of transmitting sound over distances, RCA became equatable with the radio. And nearly every car has a radio or RCA (letterally) within it.

Cars and radios are thus in intimate connection, rhetorically a metonymic one. What is interesting is that cars are powered by oil just as radios, in association, are powered by oil. Both are in conjunction with oil, cars burn oil while radios play oil, that is, records, made of oil or vinyl, are played over the apparatus of a radio. The car that burns oil reproduces the radio that plays oil, here records, an oil-derived product. Even the word radio has two essential letters for car.

Again without oil our cars or RCA could not goe. The loss of oil to power our cars is as threatening as the loss of oil/vinyl/records for our RCA, our popular music, played over the car radio, the radio cryptically echoing the car it is contained in. We hear the radio with our cars, noting another similarity between car and ear. Ears hear the car radio. Also, ear is within hear. Since we have ended up identifying with our cars so much, we’ve also ended up identifying with the stars our ears hear, our popular musicians heard on music stations over the radio. Elvis Presley loved cars, which is inevitable since he was signed over to the record company RCA. America loves cars and loves to hear Elvis Presley. The lack of oil will then make loving cars and hearing rock stars an impossibility (since their voices are on an oil/vinyl record).

Ears have wax in them. Wax too is synonymous with oil, as demonstrated by the title for a hit record called Hot Wax, now transformable into Hot Oil. There is already oil in our ears, the wax, enforced by the idea that there is oil in our cars, in our radios. To be close to the music played over the radio seems to be a condition we have already met up with because the wax/oil makes the distantly playing record much more interior and proximate. Popular music resolves this distance by using words in songs that are exchangeable with its listeners. We then presume the sung material to be our very own, our “feelings.” Singing the record to oneself is an introjection, an interiorization of the distant singer. The singer is brought closer to ourselves, just as the unconscious idea is one of already possessing that record inside our ears, but as ear wax or ear oil.

Around the time that cars and radios were assuming their egological power over American citizens, UFO’s were being cited in great numbers. You could surmise this bit of common knowledge to be widespread around the beginning of the 1950s, the beginning of a wide scale introjection of records played on car radios. UFO’s, or flying saucers, were also often cited from people’s ears. Around the time that cars and radios were assuming their egological power over American citizens, UFO’s were being cited in great numbers. You could surmise this bit of common knowledge to be widespread around the beginning of the 1950s, the beginning of a wide scale introjection of records played on car radios. UFO’s, or flying saucers, were also often cited from people’s ears. I’ll venture a correspondence that might illuminate these mutual car/radio/UFO phenomena. A flying saucer is a disco, the Spanish word for saucer or disc. A UFO is often described as a disc-like object, resembling in many instances, a record. Since a record playing on the radio cannot be seen, a UFO can, though very rarely. To see a UFO, to be the lucky person, is also the desire, the delusion to see the disco, disc or record that we never see in a car when the radio plays that record/music we enjoy so much. And that playing record is a burning one, a condensation that accounts for the reported brilliance of UFO’s, the UFO’s that are brightly lit, lit as if on fire or burning. Granted the accounts of people who might have truly seen a saucer, it also bespeaks a delirious curiosity, at heart a desire to see as opposed to hear what those purely heard saucers look like. And their appearance is conditioned by the confusion of burning and playing, transforming the UFO disc into a bright, fiery object.

Furthermore when a radio plays a song, we have no visual equivalent as to how that sound reached the ear, the car’s radio or the radios in our homes. A flying saucer, seen by someone, is the visual transmission of a purely auditory stimulus. And with our reflexes reduced to staring (while driving) so much, the mysterious radio sound is perforce given its sheer visual support, a record that flies into our car. The quickness of the radio signal is also in relation to the UFO, that ultra-fast disc. Crazy as this idea might seem, it fits in with the craziness of the teenagers then who loved to listen to car radios as were those people called “crazy” if they saw a UFO, or fou, the French word for mad or crazy. People who hear pop music go crazy like the people who see UFO discs. A record, a piece of wax, a waxen disc, flies into my ear, a nonidentifiable object, a nonvisual object, the sound. Already crazy with a nonscopic sound in my ear, the record/wax sound makes me crazier and the record/wax/disco/UFO makes me the craziest, since I’m really seeing what I can only hear. Incidentally, a major record and stereo equipment entrepreneur goes by the name “Crazy Eddie.”

When cars goe or drive on tar, they drive over the asphalt on such roads. Without asphalt or tar, there would be no surface for a car to drive on, no tar or oil for a car to drive with and no tar or sound from the records heard over the car radio to listen to. A car travels along a road, a path, a trail. These are the “grooves” on a road, associative with the “grooves” on a record. Road equals record, since both are derived from oil, roads being made of asphalt and records composed of vinyl, derived as asphalt is, of oil products.

The stylus that plays the record is the car that drives along the road. A record’s turning motion allows the stylus to move. The turntable is powered by electricity, often a transformation of energy from oil. A stylus, besides being a writing instrument, is also related to a ship’s prow, the edge that cuts through water. Every car has a hood, a “prow” of sorts. Ships travel as do cars, one on water, the other on land. Both are called “she.” The car/ship has a stylus, podium, prow that cuts along a path, and thus its mark or trail is made. The wake of churned-up water is the ship’s path as the drippings of oil is the car’s path. The oil drippings of cars are the indicia of a car’s path (not to mention its tire marks). The record’s sound from an LP is the index of a stylus’ path. Sound travels on tar/oil/vinyl records as cars travel on tar/oil/asphalt. Thus a stylus traveling down a record groove is an allegory of a car traveling down a road.

In another vein, without oil there would be no art. In art, there’s the word tar, an anagram. Tar is derived from oil. Painters, of course, use oil to make their art. There are many kinds of oil, or many tars: vinyl, records, acrylic, etc. Artists need tar. Artist-musicians need tar/oil, the same kind of tar that’s involved in the manufacture of records. Painters and musicians employ different art forms or they use different tar forms. Some of them can become a star after becoming successful with their art made of tar, such tar allowing them to goe far. The anagrams arts/tars/star are crucial to the symbols that determine an identification in our culture.

With stars on tars doing arts, the lack of oil threatens their activity too. No oil means no arts, not a single star because of the lack of tars. Again without art or tars or star(s), what will that do to star(ing), what will happen to our sight, since no arts/star(s) will be able to be looked at? What films will we see and what car windows will we look through? As well, no ear wax/oil/tars/arts/star(s) over the car’s radio also means an imminent crisis for our hearing. No records played or burned, no RCA and no car, means no sound heard as it means no oil for cars to drive on. Not being able to see and hear, taken in their sense as drives, is also a lack of the energy or oil to keep those drives goeing. The other drives, the oral and anal, also derive from this collapse of culturally shared images, pleasurewords, mythologies and lois. Thus an ego will then not goe without being driven by the four-wheeled drives of the apertures of our bodies, our bodies that have energy or oil along with the rims or sources from which to discharge that energy: the ears, the eyes, the mouth and the anus. Egos go(es) to drive with oil and aim at oil. Oil drives us from one state of oil to another state/taste of oil.

To taste oil introduces oil’s relation to the third gear of the oral drive, noting another phonic resemblance. America’s addiction to tar is as bad as its addiction to the tar in cigarettes. Even low-tar or ultra low-tar cigarettes resonate with the desire to move away from tar, too much tar, too much oil. Low-mileage cars are really low in tar as some cigarettes are. Low-tar cigarettes are a “rationing” of tar, like the inevitable “rationing” of oil when supplies get low. The oral drive, exemplified by smoking, is also present in the repetitive and pleasurable activity in listening to songs over the radio, on the jukebox, on one’s stereo. Both smoking and listening involve tar/ art and oil/vinyl records. Both are an inhalation, since with smoking one interiorizes tar and in the other, in listening, one can interiorize via the mouth the record’s voice. Resinging a popular song that is played on oil is inhaling a cigarette that has “tar” in it. Introjection is an oral affair, and the record assures us of oral stimulation by the silent, but still vocalized, activity under-goeing when we listen, when we hear the wax in our car that we cannot see. True, the ear wax is invisible, the partition between seeing the ear’s contents and the eye that is to accomplish that act is permanent, unless you were enterprising enough to have a photograph taken of it. Oil is not only in our cars, but in our ears, in our eyes (our stares), and in our mouths. A cigarette, believe it or not, is a small car, an i caret get, an I get(te) a car, or simplified, an I get car. Car’s rhyme with tar could mean I get tar for cigarette, “I smoke cigarettes” can translate into either “I smoke I get cars” or “ I smoke I get tars.” With smoking, the cigarette’s smoke is similar to the exhaust that comes from a car, the remains of burnt-up car oil are also the remains of burnt-up tar. But is the cigarette filter’s passage of smoke the only “exhaust” when we, as smokers, exhale the “exhaust” from our mouth? The exhaust of a car resembles either the cigarette smoke that then passes through the lungs, throat and mouth, as an exhalation, as exhaust. Smoking a cigarette is then an allegory of a car burning oil as both of them spew forth “exhaust.”

Another attenuation of the oral/oil drive. The LP for a vinyl record could bear an i between the letters 1 and p, producing lip. LPs are sung on our lips, our singing reproduces the singing on the record. Lip synch is LP synch, a truism to the argument that our culture is heavily involved in the introjection, the filling of an oral void, of records and oil.

Also, introjecting oil is implicated in the confusion as to whether oil is water or not. Oil is not water, but then water is a liquid, just as oil is.

The fourth gear in the “drive” is the anal drive.

Oil companies have a lot of gold from all the money they’ve made. Gold and oil are nearly synonymous, since their prices affect the status of the world market so radically. Oil is precious, but more precious in its refined state. Black, crude, “dirty,” the oil is originally shitty. Refined, made clean by oil refinery, sewage system plants, the oil loses its shittiness and becomes more valuable, like gold, and circulatable, rather than in its less valuable, “dirty,” crude state.

But if oil is shitty in its crude state and then valuable in its refined state, a hit record, or one of the hits, here was once shit, since shit and hits are anagrams of each other. From crude oil equals shit to refined oil or vinyl equals hits as in the phrase “Top 40 Hits” (Shit), oil will always bear the meaning of its excremental status. Records, as texts, are involved in the problematic of being “extrinsic excrement” or “intrinsic ideality” (Derrida). Oil pollutes too, as in oil slicks or massive refinery plant fires. The dead remnants of prehistoric forests left their rich deposits behind so as to fuel our possessions. Oil is the manure of ancient forests just as it is a manure when “crude” or “dirty” before it is cleaned and refined into the Top 40 Hits (Shit) vinyl LPs. The anal drive completes oil’s four-wheel drive that helps the American (to) drive.

Also the anality of oil is prefigured in the means to mine it. Drilling into the earth to yield the riches (Atlantic Richfield ) withheld by resistant layers of crust obeys sadistic, coprophagic ideas. (Coprophagia is “feeding off dung.”) For the earth to withhold its riches is much like the constipated retention of faeces that enemas or in similar fashion oil rigs relieve.

Oil is gold and gold is shit. Thus oil is shit, either because it resembles shit (dark, untouchable, nauseating, hidden from view) or because its extremely valued state allows us to compare it with what is the least valued as gold is with shit. Gifts, and the symbology derived from them, obey oblative, anal drive ideas. Oil companies and

oil rich countries give us oil, or they, in their withholding, retain the precious gift. This is sadism in its truest sense. Furthermore, concern over the profits oil companies make propels moral ideas as to a more proper distribution, another facet of the ablative character of the anal drive. The shit/oil/gold should be circulated in equivalent amounts, otherwise retention forces those lacking into accusations of hoarding, another anal motif.

America’s desire to ration its oil supplies demonstrates what attenuations the anal drive can goe to. Frugality and judicious use of oil are not without their sadistic connotations, a sodomy done to all, while elsewhere lurks the greater sadists, Arabia and the large oil companies.

The unseen character of oil, its abstractness, after all this gross materiality, and its transformation into fire, energy, combustion, etc. is another important idea. I’ve already tried to explain that with records/oil played/burned on an RCA/car, the unseen disc of vinyl returns in the form of a flying saucer. Oil’s invisibility returns in the form of a disco/disc/vinyl record that flies into the car/RCA burning or playing the music. This music is the beat that goes/egos on, drives egos on. Oil is usually the fuel that our eyes do not see. Oftentimes it is a simple mathematical quota in terms of the car’s registration that the fuel is low. It can also be the rapid calculation of gallons and fractions of gallons seen at the gas pump along with its calculation into a price at another adjacent window on the pump. Its abstract character is further testified by its facilitation of general movement from one place to another. Oil is simply energy, and that energy makes things happen, but energy is not the thing, the idea, it simply allows the thing or idea or event to take place. Like the crucial distinction in psychoanalysis between idea and instinct, oil is instinct, the drive to which the idea is “soldered.” (Although Freud distinguished the two.) Oil determines the drive’s energy as well as the object of the drive, the oil-related product. The record’s idea, its music, is made possible by its oil/vinyl as are the housewife’s errands made possible by car fuel. Oil drives the car just as ideas are aligned to drives, the economic factors that account for the ideas’ repetition, their persistence. There can be no idea without its concomitant energetic investment, no idea without the pressure that realizes it. Conversely there can be no energy without an idea attached to such a quantity-ridden abstraction, a notion prey to alinguistic, transcendental assertions. Oil neither escapes its idea, its conceptual, linguistic, presentational status nor does it escape its energetic quanta, its reducibility to simple distributions of affects. The word oil is just as important as its unseen combustions, its mysterious pervasiveness that organizes things while at the same time remains invisible to them.

There is the vulgarity of those who stress pure, nonverbal ascensions into absolute energy, vibration, impulse, quanta, etc. They are at once giving an idea to a sensation (a sign too), this distribution of pressures that is never independent of representation, language, speaking subjects, discourse.

The fad of jogging is a near mystical embrace of this idea of pure energy, but why would they be jogging but in a time-bound situation where the deprivation of oil or energy insists that they have vitality, a lot of energy or oil? Joggers presume their freedom from oil at the very moment when their livelihoods are threatened by its absence. The fastest jogger inversely affirms a slowing down of the I go in cars. One reminder: race and car. Eliminate the e in race and permute the rest of the letters into car. Joggers are in a race, a strange car race. Even the ger in jogger echoes car (c and g arc both velar stops). Mania, here in the jogger, is close to mourning, where the oil-ideal (usually an ego-ideal) is now about to become lost forever to the historical specificity of driving oil-powered automobiles.

Other movement manias, the discomania and the roller skating mania, are close to the problem of the disappearance of oil. Dancing in discos and roller skating obey the general idea of movement and lots of it. Disco music is the music that is in our ears whose ear wax is also the oil that constitutes the records played over sound systems. Hearing oil is also moving to it and being driven by it. Dancing and its euphonic embrace, this mania for the ego in perfect self-presentation, is only about to mourn the loss of what makes the dancers goe so energetically, the oil record or the car/ear oil/wax under question. When we dance our cars are driven by oil and when we drive our cars are driven by oil.

Oil as instinct will probably find its greatest threat in the future when no oil makes impossible libidinal contact with others. The freedom for a young man and woman in a car, flaunting parental admonitions against sex, to have that pleasure (and the car/RCA/radio music that serves to express that impulse) is threatened by no more oil. Goeing elsewhere for sex is becoming an archaism, at least when fuel, energy, oil is involved. Granted there will always be libido, drives and instincts, it’s just that oil has tyrannized ourselves, our autos to the point where its exclusion would result in the deprivation of key ideas governing so much human intercourse. No energy (oil) is no sex, a thought related to Ernest Jones’s observation that what the subject fears most is the loss of libido, aphanisis, an idea more threatening than the irreducibility of castration. Will no oil castrate the Western/ American subject so radically as to force libidinal contact into retreat? Will the lack of oil dismiss representation altogether? An impossibility, despite the intimate congruence between its manufacture and the significations surrounding it. No sex, no art, no stars, no records, along with the absence of their energetic foundations, shows the profound anxiety we’re goeing through. Its resolution appears to be intractably elusive, considering oil’s complex impregnation into our culture’s discourse, our intramental and socially exterior selves, our autos. How can our auto/ego let goe of oil?

Some further points.

Having used the phrase “our oil” throughout the text, it appears to be a cryptic device since it works on a variety of registers. America’s oil, the country’s oil, or “our oil” works on a phonic level with the l and r substitutive with each other. Some people have difficulty learning the interval r, since both l and r are liquids. Our oil can reverse into oul oir in light of the transposability of the liquids, thus proving the word our’s proximity to oil. On the semantic level, our oil makes the phonic connection even more binding since we do believe that oil is essential to our selves, our autos, our properties, our cars, our records, stars, arts, etc.

Iran anagrammatizes into rain. Rain is from the air, whereas oil is from the ground or oils are from the soil. But Iran is in a desert where there is little rain. Oil’s difference to water is also implicated in the question whether the Persian Gulf has water, drinkable or nondrinkable, or oil within the waters of the gulf. Is the Persian Gulf made up of oil? Since, empirically, it’s saltwater, our desire believes the Persian Gulf (as in the Gulf Oil Company) to be composed of oil, an immediate explanation for its oil-rich status. But Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbors are in an arid, desert-ridden land. They only have oil and saltwater, and none of them are drinkable. America, however, has water, fresh, drinkable water in great quantities but none of the great quantities of Persian Gulf oil, made into an even greater quantity because of the equation of the gulf’s waters with the wealth of the oil near its shores. The rain or water in Iran is its oil that does not come from the air but from the ground, even in our delusion from the oil-rich Persian Gulf itself, the sea, the saltwater. Saltwater already has a mineral in it just as it could possess oil: oilwater for saltwater shows a mixture of mineral with water.

I wrote this essay during the hostage crisis in Iran. Then, in 1980, nearly every American politician ran for office. “I ran” is a conceivable phrase to have been uttered by a presidential candidate in the ‘80s elections. “I ran against Iran” forms a neat cryptophor in the narration of a campaigning ego. And that ego will have to goe far on oil in a car to assert why Iran is something he (in specular opposition) is running against. “I go” becomes the same as “I ran” (aren’t some candidates joggers, an “ I ran”?), but with Iran being the aggressively counterposed party , the I go/ego/I ran of an American presidential candidate will have to outdistance Iranian policy, a difficulty since the politics of oil make that running, going and driving a tremendous problem.

Iran’s oil anagrammatizes into the opposition no Israil. Either America gets Iran’s oil at the expense of Israil/lsrael or refuses Iran for the sake of Israel.

The Arab oil cartel is a cryptophor working against those cultures that have lots of cars but no oil. A cartel of oil rich countries makes Americans in particular angry over what will not let car(s) run on their needed fuel.

America’s president, (Jimmy) Carter, remixes into car tar, another cryptophor that would explain our current repetition of an oil-based economy. (His predecessor was car-related: Gerald Ford.) Carter/car tar cryptically advocates cars powered by tar, even though this man set up a Department of Energy. Its secretary, Mr. Schlesinger, is from the army; from the occupying forces to the question of “force” or energy in general, he is still in the same role. For force to be used against the cartel that will not let our cars goe needs someone intimate with force, energy, drives in general. If we were to “occupy” or to “besetzen” Iran, for example, it would be true to the Freudian idea of economy, the economic factor in his metapsychology. To occupy Iran is the very thing that determines occupation, Besetzung, mistranslated by James Strachey as “cathexis.” The cathexis of oil in our daily lives shows how much oil is on our minds. Our occupation with oil will lead us to occupy oil, to occupy the countries that have oil. The occupation of Iran is only the intramental equivalent of an occupation, a hyper-occupation (Überbesetzung), the same kind of energy that makes joggers and disco dancers goe so fast. James Schlesinger’s position in the Energy Department makes him the Defense Department’s chairman all over again, simply because he will advocate “occupation,” or oil, America’s energy that is now about to loose occupations, to loose peace, to loose a machinery of signs, all to countries that America has to occupy for its occupation to continue. A beaten Iran will be occupied and the beat will run on and the occupation will continue its simultaneously pleasurable and unpleasurable drive.

* * *

Rock music is on vinyl records. Rock music/records enforce their oil-based status even further by the key word rock. Oil, because it is a liquid, is not a hard, nearly unbreakable substance like other rocks, such as granite, basalt, etc. But oil is from the ground, it is a mineral, a rock, though liquid. Rock music or rock records are really oil music or oil records or even just oily oil. The same goes for disco music with disco now a disco/disc and equivalent to vinyl/oil. Music is also equivalent to the record/disco/disc that contains such sound. Disco music really means disco disco, or disc disc or record record, even in the case with rock music, oily oil. Rock and disco’s asserted difference in style is refuted by their mutual equatability with oil.

The roll in “rock and roll” sounds similar to oil. Translated, rock and roll says “oil and oil.” Sometimes the and in the phrase is abbreviated to just an ‘n. Cryptically the ‘n connotes negation, the no or not. Retranslated, “rock ‘n roll” equals “oil no oil,” a truism since the record’s materiality, its oil-relatedness, is not just its essence, its intrinsic ideality as opposed to its extrinsic excrement.

New York rests on a rock, the firm bedrock of Manhattan that will probably not be beset by earthquakes. New Rock is an understandable transformation for New

York, the york really royk, a closer approximation of rock. New ®ock is also new rock ‘n roll but as new rock ‘n roll in New York. York can become work noting a near rhyme for York and work. New work and new rock all goe on in New York. Rock musicians come to New York to do new work on new rock ‘n roll. With new it can become the anagram wen, similar to the verb to win. To win new work on new rock in New York is what the aspiring rock musician aims at, particularly a new record, a new oil/rock. New York manufactures the new rock, the new oil/record. The aim is then the record, a word within York, ryko(rd), record. To win new work on new rock in New York ends up being a new record that wins more new work.

A guitar immediately associates with oil. The tar in guitar separates itself from the other letters to produce a series of novel (but always already known) phrases. Gui tar becomes I gu tar or I ug tar or just gui tar. The gui resembles the French je, an echo of I, with the I already in gui. (This je-idea is still present in our memories of that language that constitutes sixty percent of our English language.) Je tar for gui tar is not far from the truth since a rock musician is really a tar musician. The guitar is a prized possession of a rock musician, a part of his body, his ego. Guitar/je tar/I tar make possible the identification with tar, and intense as it is, the I tar fits quite neatly into Istar, I artist on the tar/oil/vinyl record that wins or is won by a new rock/work record in New York, maybe on a “New Wave” idea.

Furthermore the guitar is also an ug i tar or ugh, I tar. The ambivalent enterprise of playing a guitar and the identification with that playing flips into intense idealization and intense rejection. “Ugh” expresses hatred and the phrase thus goes, “Ugh, I hate to play a guitar” while its mirror inversion affirms, “I am a star (on the guitar).” The remix ug i tar resembles uglier, not without meaning since rock stars get uglier from their relative youth to their relative age, the transition being marked by the clichés of too much work, too much exposure, drugs, America’s mythologies of the fatalities of stardom. The ego/goe is already buried in guitar when we think of the transformation I gu tar. I go tar or ego tar stems from guitar, the object of a rock star’s ego. And that ego gets trapped in tar as it goes on records. A guitar on the record/tar is the ego tar(ist’s) tar baby uglifying or asserting a rock star’s ego.

* * *

Ending this discussion evokes the ending of the Poe story, The Fall of the House of Usher. The narrator describes the ancient house breaking apart:

…- my brain reeled as I saw the mighty
walls rushing asunder - there was a long
tumultuous shouting sound like the voice
of a thousand waters – and the deep and
dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and
silently over the fragments of the “House
of Usher.”

There is much that applies to our discussion of oil in this little quote.

To begin with, cars are like homes. They have walls, doors, windows. People can live in them or they can die in them as did Roderick and his twin sister. This is confirmed by the example of mobile homes or vans, where the car/house equation becomes clearer. With car an anagram for RCA we cannot forget that Roderick Usher was a musician, and in our current situation, a potential RCA artist. (He played the guitar.) Change the story’s title and you get, The Fall of the Car of Usher or with the car/RCA anagram, The Fall of the RCA of Usher. Nearly every house has a car in association with it. Also the radio is inside the car just as the RCA music plays inside the house. The strange name “Usher” evokes immediately those movie hall ushers that guide you to your seat to watch or stare at the film, to stare at the stars, at art, the tar of visual impressions. The word Usher can be transformed into Rush with the e omitted. Change the story’s title again and you have The Fall of the Rushing Car or The Fall of the Car that Rushes. And the word rush is in the quote, “the mighty walls rushing asunder.” Both the word go(e) as near-anagram for ego, and the verb, to drive, can be substituted for these verbs of movement (rushing, rushes): The Fall of the Car that Goes or The Fall of the Car that Drives.

What is also pertinent is the quote “and the deep and dank tarn,” knowing that “tarn” is similar to “tar,” a word central to our discussion of oil. A tarn is a lake in a mountain in its denotative, dictionary meaning. But why tarn and not a lake for the fragments of “House of Usher” to close over? Tarn conjures up an image of a black pool, a pool filled with, and let’s be playful, tar or oil.

The rushing car or house closes over the tarn/tar. From one state of oil falling or closing over into another state of oil. There seems to be no escape from the pervasiveness of oil. We are “deep” in oil, fallen into it and closed over it. We are ending in oil, but the ending is not yet done, since the story can be read again, or restared at, after it has closed over into the tarn. But we’re somewhat free of oil, since the narrator was standing by the “deep and dank tarn” watching the fragments, any fragment, even this fragment entitled not “House of Usher” but “On the Current Symbolic Status of Oil.” My fragment too closes over the tarn. We can only watch or stare at the art that will still need oil or tar to witness or “stand” by that closing over.


Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the New York-based author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). Excerpts from his recently completed book Libraries of Sand about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès have appeared in BombThe Fortnightly Review and 3:AM Magazine. In January 2023, Bloomsbury Academic will publish a collection of his writing titled Negative Work: The Turn to Provisionality in Contemporary Art. Since 2008 he has been Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art.

Duncan Smith

Duncan Smith (1954-1991) published little during his life, most notably a collection of essays (Age of Oil), a speculative book about Elvis Presley (Private Elvis) co-authored with Diego Cortez, and a monograph on artist Alain Jacquet, as well as articles in Bomb, Semiotext(e), and Flash Art. At his death Smith was working toward a Ph.D in Classics at Cornell and completing a second collection of essays, Days in the Clouds.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2018

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