Violent Inheritance: Sexuality, Land, and Energy in Making the North American West

12 Min Read

March 24, 2023

E Cram is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Communication Studies and Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa in the U.S. Their work engages the cultural politics of extractivism, focusing specifically on dimensions of disability, race, sexuality, work, and health.

One of the most common reactions from readers of my first book focuses on the surprising connections illuminated in the title: “sexuality,” “land,” and “energy.” Given the region of the American West and our commonsense interpretation of “sexualities,” some may expect a Brokeback Mountain-esque story about romantic love or queer sexual identities in oil and gas country.

In some ways, that answer isn’t far off. However, it also underscores just how much we are caught up in naturalizing what these terms might mean. By denaturalizing taken for granted meanings of sexuality as identity, or energy as fossil fuel, or land as an inert surface that grounds human action, one’s attention turns toward specific historical and geographic contexts where these meanings were forged to energize national myths. Consequentially, one might forget the stories of their connections. But as I argue in Violent Inheritance, the history of energy in North America is also a history of sexuality—conceptually, materially, and politically. Taking this premise seriously not only expands the import of energy humanities work to ongoing conversations about culture. It also joins existing work to reimagine cultures of energy by focusing specifically on the role of extractivism in shaping regimes of sexuality, race, and disability. Taking these linkages seriously is vital to the politics of energy today—within and beyond the American west—because they chart otherwise imperceptible processes in which human and non-human life is made to be useful through violence.

Violent Inheritance is rooted in my own experience of coming of age in Wyoming and Colorado, where I listened to countless stories that tethered family of origin to these troubled landscapes. Stories about my father’s family farm interweaved other depictions of the uranium and oil industries’ physical and mental toll on my paternal grandfather.

These stories of the debility of human and non-human life juxtaposed the otherwise vibrant reverence for oil embedded in dominant regional stories. For instance, during a visit to my parent’s home, I dug through boxes in the basement to find the poem “Wyoming Oil” buried in a box of my father’s materials. Written by Roy C. Smith of Casper, Wyoming, the poem captures the exuberance of a new industry making its way West, contrasted by what seems like a deep ambivalence about its impact on the land. Smith names a handful of towns and cities at the center of the oil gush age, all likely within the mid-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Another strange artifact in my parent’s living room lingered in my mind for years as an oddity of Wyoming energy cultures. Ensconced in amber hued glass, the bottle of “Wyoming Wine” exhibited western terroir and appropriate markers of taste associated with cultural value. A mixture of crude oil and molasses, this “Wind River Basin Cabernet Sauvignoil” is Vintage 150 million bc. Captured as such, this gift shop gag purchase squarely places oil in cultures and repertoires of value, simultaneously tethering regional identity, land surfaces, and vast undergrounds. Both Smith’s writing and the bottle of Wyoming Wine also underscore some of the ways we can today historicize what Stephanie LeMenager calls “living infrastructures,” in which the aspirations of fossil fuel energy regimes transform into communicative dimensions of culture, or how we know, think, and feel.

Photo courtesy of the author.

In the book, I explore how analytics of sexuality, race, and disability enliven our perception of these vast energy regimes as cultures that comprise a violent inheritance. Listening to those family stories through the lens of a young queer and trans white person in the west did not only teach me about the disabling machine we call fossil fuel energy extraction. As Smith’s poem highlights, the oil gush and adjacent industries also had everything to do with national myths of vitality. But ideas of national vitality were not exclusive to fossil fuels. Nor should we imagine our inherited energy systems outside of these broader cultures of extractivism.

Logics of energy—the transformation of matter for the production of capitalist value—abound in theories of sexuality across sexology, racial science, and eugenics. Cultural histories of energy may often recall the role of “frontier thinking” propagated by figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt, but they too often forget Roosevelt’s obsession with protecting the “biological vigor” of white settler nationalism at the level of guarding white settler sexuality from “race suicide.” Roosevelt, among other elite white men who also espoused early eugenic ideas in the United States, believed enclosing the vitality of “the west” for white settler elites could in some ways unlock energetic potential.

At its root, vitality is a concept deeply interwoven with energy cultures, but it has a particular salience in the modern project of making the west and in the history of sexuality more generally. In the former, vitality captures nineteenth-century corporate campaigns to draw health seekers to “enlivening environments.” In their imaginations, western lands, air, and waters all provided the matter to use and transform and to protect against their fears of degeneracy. For example, my book’s introduction highlights how some health seekers found their way to the Boulder Colorado Sanitarium on the promise their treatments could enliven “hereditary constitution.” Those treatments were not isolated to Colorado, indeed, they originated with avowed eugenicist John Harvey Kellogg’s Battlecreek Sanitarium in Michigan. As eugenic ideologies crystallized into the twentieth century, Kellogg, Roosevelt, and many others (including conservationists arguing for the vitality of western lands) believed an energized nation state was one of racial and biological vigor.

What if one starts by rethinking energy as a scalar problem that connects emerging energy systems and regimes to the scale of the body?

The book also explores how this obsession with vitality—and the landforms, environments, and infrastructures that generated capacity for white nationalist settler colonialism—also implicated projects of state violence. Two large scale detention programs in the United States and Canada—the residential school system for Indigenous children and the later project of war time Japanese American and Japanese Canadian incarceration—also relied on arguments about the malleability of racialized heredity and the promise of state power in forcefully extracting bodily energy.

In the former case, Canadian state officials facilitated the kidnapping, torture, and neglect of First Nation, Metís, and Inuit children, under the belief they were “civilizing” “degenerate” children into productive, future agricultural workers. In all, this was a process of extracting labor to make usable subjects of the nation state—extracted labor and dispossessed childhood make state energy.

In the context of World War II Japanese American incarceration, we see incarcerated labor directed to improve arid and remote lands in order to be used by settler soldiers returning from war who didn’t have to pay for that land. In short, Japanese American labor cultivated the agricultural potential of public western lands, and the value of those lands were transferred from the state to private landowners. In all, remembering the west in this way highlights how the nexus of race, sexuality, and ability were central to the perception of the region as a place for energy resource extraction.

So, this is a book to read if you are interested in asking cultural questions about energy and extractivism and the webs of connections through which the Capitalocene was made. What if one starts by rethinking energy as a scalar problem that connects emerging energy systems and regimes to the scale of the body? What happens, for example, when one takes seriously the argument that the idea of “sexuality” as a personal attribute (or that people possess a discernable and knowable sexual identity) emerges simultaneously with the rise of new fossil fuel energy regimes? While the former calls attention to a new regime of sexuality typified by late 19th century sexology, the latter blends ideologies of progress, speed, and infrastructural imaginations with extraction of oil and coal quintessential of modernity. Both converge with a moment of modernizing infrastructure that shifted how individuals (largely white settlers) imagined, storied, and felt movement between “depleting” or “energizing” environments.

Because the book attunes readers to these older relationships as an inheritance—a still living past embedded in land and infrastructure—it encourages readers to consider how one’s relation to the past and thus potential futures might be negotiated through engaging contemporary contests over land use and memory. These disputes over sexuality or the fundamental grammars of life surface once again in seemingly unexpected places: in the desires to recuperate eugenic feminist leaders; in residential school memorials dedicated to healing and care for those stolen from their families; of the struggle over the proximity of a new a dairy CAFO near a former Japanese American incarceration site; and in the stories of automobilities of queer and trans young people trying to live in the petrocultures of Colorado and Wyoming.

As I argue in the book, inheritance is a way of moving and feeling through older energy regimes and their sedimentation in time and space. The broader question that remains, however: what do we do with that inheritance? In many ways, confronting inheritance affords the encounters necessary to contemplate: how do we shift culturally from relationships of domination and extraction to ones of care and renewal? Although particular to the land histories of the West, and to dynamics of vitality and exhaustion, these logics of energy underscore a broader cultural struggle over what regimes of value foster livable, regenerative, and anti-colonial futures.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Read More

June 14, 2021

Jeffrey Insko

Every day, up to 540,000 barrels of natural gas liquids and crude oil flow under the Great Lakes in the Enbridge Line 5 pipline connecting Western Canada to Eastern Canada. Jeffrey Insko--energy humanities scholar and Michigan resident--explains why a grassroots coalition of indigenous groups, politicians, environmentalists, and other concerned citizens wants the pipeline shut down, as well as what makes this pipline battle different.

July 14, 2023

Andrew M. Rose

In the third Forum on Fossil Capital essay, Andrew M. Rose puts Fossil Capital into conversation with Timothy Mitchell's Carbon Democracy, emphasizing the need for green social movements to reconsider their approach in appealing to democratic states and institutions–entities which are not simply captured by fossil fuel interests but fundamentally and at their very origin an outgrowth of the carbon economy.

all articles