The strange language of the BP oil spill aftermath
Are you like me — have you been waiting for someone to use the phrase “black swan” in reference to the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the gulf? Well, it’s happened, so let’s look at the literary consequences thus far of this thing. I bet the science fiction writers are kicking themselves for not thinking of a disaster like this. I don’t know what SF writers could do with the scenario, but presumably something more coherent than our collective slack-jawed response of the worldwide media. But let’s put aside the obvious need for a sweeping explanation of what this means for humanity, and instead look at some of the fun wordplay that has come out of the disaster.
There is of course the much commented-on string of failed hole-patching attempts: “top kill,” “containment dome,” “blowout preventer,” “junk shot,” and the latest, “sweeping arm system.” One wonders who’s naming these procedures; is it BP’s engineering department or public relations team, or is it some sort of in-house poetry department? (I do not believe BP has a poetry department, but it really would not be so far-fetched. This is a company which, were it a country, would have the 34th largest economy in the world — larger than Finland — and which in any case produces two magazines for public consumption.)
But of course the best work takes an outside perspective. How about Tom Junod struggling to figure out what to call the incident:
You could call it a blowout. That’s the proper term, the descriptive term, the industry term. But “blowout” only says what it is; it doesn’t say what it does, or is doing; it is silent as to extent and agnostic as to consequence. Calling this a blowout is like calling the Holocaust an anti-Semitic incident. It gets it right, but somehow misses the point.
You could call it a hemorrhage, as some people have proposed. But even a hemorrhage has a degree of finitude that the underwater smokestack we see in the BP feed doesn’t: it either ends or you die, and in any case it ends when you die. But death — the death of men, the death of ingrained ways of life, the death of untold innocent creatures, the death of species, the death of what’s left of American certainty along with the death of the American Sea — offers no endpoint for whatever it is that’s happening at the bottom of the Gulf. It will continue pumping out the bounty of a few billion years of geology unabated until it is abated, or until the bounty is exhausted. It is less like a hemorrhage than it is like The Terminator, in that it so steadfastly resists termination.
Or how about the fantastic fake BP Public Relations Twitter feed, which BP has reportedly tried to have shut down, and which has been producing caustic bon mots at the rate of several per day:
Our company psychiatrists say now is the time to move onto the last phase of experiencing a tragedy, acceptance mixed with forgetfulness.
Please text “Wildlife” to 20222 to donate hot dogs to the BP Corporate Memorial Day Picnic #bpcares #3dayweekend
The oil leak was caused by a natural gas explosion, or sea fart, which is now having silent but deadly consequences. #bpseafart
Eating at a very expensive restaurant and spilled salad dressing on my pants. Not sure how to tackle this.
OMG This isss ridciulsus. playing a drinking gamee where we drink a shot everytme we seeee an oily birdddd!!! LOL! so wasted!!11 #pbcares
Due to public outcry, our “Spill Or Be Spilled” flash game will be taken off our BP Kidz Klub website. “Smack the Greasy Manatee” stays.
On the other hand, some of BP’s official responses are not that far behind. Here and here are their “official” twitter feeds pertaining to the disaster. Meanwhile, a Google News search yesterday for the phrase “gulf oil spill” produced an ad for BP that read, “Learn More about how BP is Helping.” And of course there’s CEO Tony Hayward, who can’t seem to stop saying stupid shit and has more recently taken to lying. He’ll probably be remembered for this one: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
Little wonder that some are calling for the US government to temporarily take the company over.
In any case, we are at the very beginning of all this. BP has just hired Dick Cheney’s old campaign press secretary Anne Womack-Kolton to do damage control on their public image, which should be an interesting job as information comes out on all the ways in which the company cut corners to save money, not just on this particular well but over the years.