Constructing a Gulf Coast Transmedia Narrative Archive

Posted by on Aug 2, 2017
Constructing a Gulf Coast Transmedia Narrative Archive

**This piece is a shorter version of Marley Foster’s essay, which was among the 2017 winners of the Greene Prize for Environmental Writing.**

Americans love spectacle, love a show, love explosions and car chases and tear-jerking heart-wrenching moments all splayed out on screen or page. These things are all immediate, happening right now, needing our attention right now, often with relatively immediate solutions audiences can latch on to. With the after-effects of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this was only partly the case. Despite news coverage of the explosion and multiple deaths that occurred, the farther-reaching environmental effects were much less spectacular, taking place over a long period of time. That’s part of why so little has been written about it, in terms of popular, fictionalized narratives. But fiction is exactly what the oil spill needs, in order to garner social and cultural relevance, in order to stay in the public eye and have a chance for amelioration, to create changes in future industrial practice and cultural response to injustice(s). I propose as a solution to this lack of fiction about the oil spill, and about environmental injustices at large, what Marie-Laure Ryan defines as a Transmedia Narrative Project; in this case, the creation of a Transmedia Narrative Archive, all concerning the Gulf of Mexico and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and ensuing oil spill.

Taking Ryan’s definition of a Transmedia Narrative Project and repurposing and tweaking it slightly for the purposes of this paper, a Transmedia Narrative Project is one that engages multiple narrative objects concerned with the same narrative subject; not the same story told in three or more different ways, but the same story examined through different lenses, or different facets of a particular story, told through various mediums. The parts work together not to create a unified whole but to attempt to engage a larger picture than a single object narrative can provide. The more pieces of the story, of the Transmedia Project, a user consumes, the more is known about the “storyworld,” the object narratives are engaging with in various ways.

I begin assembling my own Transmedia Narrative Archive in this paper. Woven into my sub-arguments throughout, I have been and will be working with four key texts: Margaret Brown’s documentary film The Great Invisible, Peter Berg’s blockbuster film Deepwater Horizon, Tim Gautreaux’s short story Gone to Water, and Martha Serpas’ poem Corollary. Writing and thought about the disaster in a fictionalized, meant-for-popular-consumption form are few and far between; news articles and reports, as well as scientific publications, abound about the spill, but other forms of more sensational, non-specialized-knowledge works are few and far between. I also chose these because they represent different modes of constructing narratives and thinking about the spill. Each has its own forms and its own politics, speaking to the myriad political implications that directly and indirectly brought the spill to be and that still resonate as a result of it, and will continue to do so.

Ryan delineates that Transmedia Narrative Projects come together in two methods; East Coast and West Coast. The West Coast model takes an already-popular and successful narrative object and expands its storyworld beyond its original medium. So, the Harry Potter series becomes movies, become video games, become a theme park, become fan fiction, and so on. The East Coast method is a more top-down approach to creating a Transmedia Narrative Storyworld, with content deliberately distributed across multiple means of expression and delivery channels (Ryan, 40). The West Coast method grows in a random, uncontrolled manner while an East Coast one requires a coordinated and unified entertainment experience. With West Coast Projects, users can consume as many or as few parts of the story as they desire, in any order, and still have a satisfactory experience without having gone through all pieces of content composing the storyworld. An East Coast Project, on the other hand, requires that users consume each element of the narrative, in a specific order, to have a satisfactory and fulfilling experience and understanding of the holistic Transmedia narrative. As such, the East Coast method is rarer, because it requires more money and planning upfront, and can therefore runs the risk of larger financial and social failure if the project is not well-received.

For the purposes of this paper I propose to construct a Gulf Coast Transmedia Narrative Archive. The Gulf Coast version of this differs from East and West because it, regionally and conceptually, lies in the in-between. One big difference is that the Gulf Coast method isn’t about the money of production or consumption; rather, it does the work of archive making and culture shaping; the work of storytelling and regional history. Like its East Coast counterpart, it is devised deliberately, but like the West Coast model, from a starting point it grows organically. The Gulf Coast method has a very loose definition of fiction, because there is so little currently in existence to work with concerning the BP spill. In addition, Gulf Coast examines all forms of writing as distinct mediums of work. Lastly, the Gulf Coast model is an archive that can and should continuously and deliberately be augmented. It’s growing and changing as the world grows and changes, as the oil spill continues to unfold and its residual effects continue to impact coastal communities and beyond.

Place matters the most in how these transmedia projects are thought about and constructed. When Stephanie LeMenager speaks about the Texas Gulf specifically, she identifies that “[v]isiting such places, and living in them, makes clear that oil is a form of capital that bulks out and inhabits place, changing the quality of air, water, noise, views, and light” (LeMenager, 13). Presumably, I argue, oil also “bulks out and inhabits” the narratives produced by and about a certain region, by and about the Gulf Coast and its communities, by and about the 2010 spill. A dialect of oil and environmentalism develops locally, in specific regions; but, it does so with strong ties to a national narrative of a twentieth century version of the U.S., the oil coasts operating with dual significance of both markets and commons (LeMenager, 15). This “dialect” is represented in oil narratives and narrative construction; although the narratives in my Transmedia Archive are about the 2010 spill and the Gulf of Mexico, they are emblematic of larger national and global environmental injustices, rooted in American political philosophies that exist today as holdovers from a bygone era.

What makes the Gulf Coast region different from other parts of the United States, and why we need a Gulf Coast methodological frame for creating a Transmedia Narrative Archive about the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are the implications belonging to the relationship the Gulf communities have with oil. This relationship is emblematized by the failing regional economies such as those witnessed by Margaret Brown in her documentary, The Great Invisible, where entire communities have been plunged into economic despair as a result of the spill, not to mention the social costs such as mental and physical ailments affecting those who survived the explosion, their families, and larger communities (thinking here specifically of Deepwater Horizon crew member Doug Brown and his wife, explaining the physical and mental tolls, bills, and other unexpected impacts of the spill). This is especially true in cases where oil is being produced and manufactured; spaces so entrenched in oil with oil so far entrenched in their regional cultural histories that they embrace Tough Oil and its affiliated practices in an effort to bolster their fiscal bottom-line. The irony is that inadequate regulations and low taxes on industry in these areas make the promised “re-industrialization of rural America” through Tough Oil practices bad for the very same rural

Americans it has promised to aide (LeMenager, 15). LeMenager couches these complications as engaging the term “commodity regionalism,” a form of environmental cultural studies growing out of interdisciplinary entanglements of cultural geography, arts practice, and architectural history, all combining for the basic purpose of thinking about oil through specific places and histories (12). The Gulf Coast Transmedia Narrative Archive should do just this; engage the intersectionality of the issue at hand in the region, and in so doing “opening a[n] explicit point of view onto global-scale forces and flows, such that we can see and sense them” (LeMenager, 12).

Ryan discusses Transmedia Narrative Projects completely in terms of fictional stories about fictional worlds and people. For the purpose of this paper, I’m interested in her point that she finds “transmedia to be a very appropriate mode of presentation for non-fictional projects because news stories naturally come to us through multiple media … This kind of project can be treated like an archive or database, which means that the user can pick and choose which media objects to consume” (Ryan, 39). This notion of a Transmedia Narrative Project taking the form of an archive is what I’m interested in and hope to expand upon.

In addition to all of the relational facts writing about oil would bring to light, the oil encounter is quite literally too big to be encapsulated in a single work of fiction. Not only is it too big, it’s too spread out. As Amitav Ghosh points out, folks living in the United States in general know very little about where their precious oil comes from; “neither they nor anyone else really knows anything at all about the human experiences that surround the production of oil” (Ghosh, 140). We know a bit more about consumption, at the very least in terms of what it costs us to fuel our cars and air condition our homes in the summertime, to run laptops and watch TV with the lights on at night. But although we spend a lot of time complaining about how expensive energy can be, we spend very little time thinking about where it comes from, who produces it, and why it costs what it does. We also neglect to consider costs other than the numbers following a dollar sign on an electric bill or gas pump receipt. The fact that we determine how oil exists in relation to our lives is on each of us as individual consumers. But, even if one were to begin questioning these assumptions, the powers that be (aka the fossil fuel industry) have created a structure that prevents us from getting clear, easily understandable answers for Americans as well as people living in oil-producing regions. As Ghosh puts it, “[a] great deal has been invested in ensuring the muteness of the Oil Encounter: on the American (or Western) side, through regimes of strict corporate secrecy; on the Arab side, by the physical and demographic separation of oil installations and their workers from the indigenous population” (Ghosh, 140). Separations abound: American consumption is physically and structurally distanced from international production; oil production work is outsourced, so to speak, so the folks working to produce oil in the Middle East are regionally, demographically, and conceptually separated from peoples indigenous to the areas. In other words, at every link in the production and consumption chains, there has been an effort to maintain a curtain between realities of oil and the notion of “home,” whether this be “home” as country, region, community, or street address.

Americans don’t want to write about oil because to do so accurately would demolish our national self-image. And Americans as well as people from other nations can’t write about oil because there are so many instances of remove. At least no one can write about it holistically or easily. But we have to write about it, we have to start seeking the tough answers to the tough questions that arise when we realize just how problematic living in oil is. Ghosh recognizes this, stating that “[a]s one of the few who have tried to write about the floating world of oil, I can bear witness to its slipperiness, to the ways in which it tends to trip fiction into incoherence” (Ghosh, 141). There is a desperate need for such testimony, which attunes to the moments of confusion that exist in the subject of oil as a global narrative.

Speaking specifically about reasons why the conventional novel in particular has historically been ill-suited for putting oil in writing, Ghosh first cites language itself as an issue: “[t]he territory of oil is bafflingly multilingual, for example, while the novel, with its conventions of naturalistic dialogue, is most at home within monolingual speech communities (within nation-states, in other words)” (Ghosh, 142). So, language acts as another layer of remove, another curtain, keeping the novel comfortable and in some ways idealistic in the realm of “home” while oil remains something other, something somewhere else. Another failure of the novel to encapsulate the Oil Encounter is its penchant for place as “the novel is never more comfortable than when it is luxuriating in a ‘sense of place,’ reveling in its unique power to evoke mood and atmosphere” (Ghosh, 142). This revelry in specific location(s) makes it hard to describe oil fully because it doesn’t lend the form of the novel to oil’s global interconnectedness and internationally relational history. As Ghosh puts it, “the experiences associated with oil are lived out within a space that is no place at all, a world that is intrinsically displaced, heterogeneous, and international” (Ghosh, 142). The world of oil as such “is a world that poses a radical challenge not merely to the practice of writing as we know it but to much of modern culture: to such notions as the idea of distinguishable and distant civilizations, or recognizable and separate ‘societies”’ (Ghosh, 142). Ghosh’s big point is that he believes we do not yet possess the form that can give the Oil Encounter a literary expression (Ghosh, 142). The Oil Encounter is too big and too divided, regionally, philosophically, and culturally, to be encapsulated in a novel, even in a series of novels.

Going back to Ryan, I posit that the creation of a Gulf Coast Transmedia Narrative Archive about the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a potential solution to Ghosh’s lack of a form capable of taking on the oil encounter. By engaging the vastness of time and distance inherent to our relationship with oil and its implications through the use of various and multiple media, various and multiple forms, we can come closer to understanding just how huge the repercussions of this disaster are, for both small scale individuals and communities and for the world at large. The more intersectional the archive, the more varied the discussion, the better we can see the structures responsible for the environmental injustices at hand. Only then can we start to think our way out of and beyond these structures, demanding and creating new political action and institutional behavior, by changing cultural valuation and perception.

The archive I have attempted here is a drop in the bucket of the global oil narrative. But, we have to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as any. This doesn’t mean the work ends here, though. As a political call to action, the next step into the kind of post-peak oil future that does justice to this planet and all the wrongs done to it up to this point is to keep expanding, adding on to, building, and growing the archive. We’re very much still a society living in oil, and many in political power are looking to keep it that way as long as possible.

We need fiction in order to tackle this, because fiction captures hearts, minds, and imaginations, and has more political and culture-shaping power than many choose to realize. But with fictionalized narratives come opportunities to collapse and expand time and space, to reflect and speak back to political structures, to create in writing and art and music the kinds of world we want and need to live in, the new kind of climate public the planet desperately needs us to be. We must act our way into thinking, but in order to do that we have to imagine ourselves into acting. Action, thought, and imagination all come together in acts of narrative creation, allowing us to create archives such as the ones called for here. In so doing, we’re participating in the oldest human tradition of all: storytelling in an effort to create, define, and make sacred the tales that brought us into being and define how we exist, hopefully in the future in harmony, synergy, and trans-corporeality with the rest of the world.

First and foremost and above all else, this is a project about home. The actual written language of it isn’t as important as the thinking and the doing of it all. There is no guilt here, no looking back except to learn from what came before. I was born in oil, and it lives in me. This is fact, and there’s nothing to do but lean into it, and carry this petroleum parentage forward with humility and grace into a new future.




Marley Foster is a senior at Rice University studying English and Visual Arts. She plans to continue working with this subject matter in the form of a thesis through the English Department.