Petrochemical [Religion in] America

Michael Pasquier

My children and I enjoy looking at picture books. They usually take us places we will never go and introduce us to people we will never meet. Petrochemical America is different. It’s a book of photographs and maps of our home in Louisiana. It’s also not a children’s book.

“Hey, I’ve been there! I’ve seen that!” My six-year-old daughter is pointing at a photograph of the ExxonMobil Refinery taken from the observation deck of Louisiana’s state capitol building.

“They have those round things by the zoo!” My four-year-old son is pointing at a photograph of a mobile home situated next to natural gas tanks in Norco, Louisiana.

“Look, Jesus!” My son is proud of himself. “And dead people.” My daughter adds. “And those things.” My children don’t know the word “refinery,” but they know it when they see it.

Petrochemical America is a book “about how oil and petrochemicals have transformed the physical form and social dynamics of the American landscape.” It focuses on “Cancer Alley,” the highly industrialized corridor of the Mississippi River that runs from Baton Rouge and New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s by a photographer—Richard Misrach—and a landscape architect—Kate Orff.

Petrochemical America isn’t required reading for scholars and students of religion in America. And it’s probably safe to say (though I could be wrong) that Misrach and Orff aren’t reading things like Darren Dochuk’s article “Blessed by Oil, Cursed with Crude: God and Black Gold in the American Southwest.” We like our disciplinary silos. We’re comfortable in them. We sometimes brag about our multidisciplinary methodologies, but we rarely stray from the safety of the humanities umbrella. 

**I'm not saying we should extend our methodologies beyond the humanities**

But what if we did? What happens when we do? We can take an example from two pages of Petrochemical America. They include two maps of Taft, Louisiana—one before and another after Union-Carbide bought and developed property near this River Road town. 

The caption reads: “This photo is of the former site of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church. The church was built just after the Civil War in 1877, and in 1963, it moved to Hahnville. The town fabric was replaced with the industrial footprint of Union-Carbide (later bought by Dow Chemical). While everyday neighborhoods like Taft have been largely obliterated, corporations often donate funds to preserve stately plantation homes. Literally and figuratively, they elevate one history and sublimate another.”

For those of us who study religion, we want more. We need more. We know there's more.

Orff concludes Petrochemical America with the observation that “the collective places that once defined regional identities have been leveled, leveed, denuded, and replanted.” She’s right. But there’s more. This is where the humanities can come in. This is where the poetics and politics of photographs and maps can join the stories and artifacts of flesh-and-blood people barely present in archives and rarely within reach of university campuses.

Or we can just rest with the book. It’s a damn good book.


esclark said…
Thought-provoking. I dig it!
rjc said…
Very nice, Mike. I want to see the book -- and more like it!
Unknown said…
Thanks Mike. What great photo captions! My favorite is "they elevate one history and sublimate another."

But what precisely is being sublimated? What were the religious interests of Union Carbide? (I'm actually surprised the cemetery crucifix remains in such great shape.)

More importantly: Do most U.S. petrochemical companies share an essentially identical religious identity? Or are there significant differences in the ways they approach development and the religious and cultural landscapes they reshape?

P.S. I'd love a higher-resolution image of the map page. What do the red areas highlight? (I downloaded and zoomed, but its still illegible.)

Mike Pasquier said…
Brian, great questions. I think about the question of corporate/government sublimation of these kinds of sites/communities a lot. As you can imagine, there's no magic bullet for an answer. The short answer is that we will always fail to understand the institutional perpectives of the Dow Chemicals and the Union-Carbides of the world as long as we continue to interpret them as monolithic entities with a single, hardened institutional perspective/response. PEOPLE work for Union-Carbide. PEOPLE work for the Corps of Engineers. Understand the cultures of those INSIDE such institutions, and recognize that they also live OUTSIDE, and we can begin to find some answers. So no, they don't share an essentially identical religious identity or perspective on the religion of others. But they do share some attributes.

In the next week or so, an essay of mine is going to be published in the design journal Places ( that speaks directly to your questions. And I've got other stuff in the pipeline :)
Mike Pasquier said…
Oh, and I left the resolution of the maps poor on purpose. Copyright and whatnot.
Unknown said…
Mike, Thanks for responding. I'm excited to read your essay.

Re: the individuality of people within each corporations: That's exactly what I was trying to gently suggest. Since we agree on that, I think it boils down to epistemological speculations. How many departments of Walmart Studies should we have? And particularly as scholars of religion, what would we learn by launching a Dow Studies area,or a Union Carbide area? This might be a divergence between RS and History, and my narrow-mindedness probably divulges that I've crossed over into the latter less successfully than you have.

Thanks again for your provocative post.

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