“The Poetics of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline: Competing Visibilities of an Infrastructural Assemblage, 1950-1975”

By Zachary Cuyler
Submitted to Session P5006 (Histories of Infrastructure and Techno-politics, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This essay examines the politics of visibility of the Aramco-affiliated Trans-Arabian Pipeline (Tapline) between 1950 and 1975, and follows Brian Larkin to analyze the “poetics” of infrastructures like Tapline as “metapragmatic objects, signs of themselves deployed in particular circulatory regimes to establish sets of effects.” Rejecting the notions common to consumer- and state-oriented studies of infrastructure that invisibility is a definitional characteristic of infrastructure itself, and that infrastructures are primarily made visible through state propaganda or accidental failure, this essay argues that Tapline was rendered differentially visible to distinct audiences including consumers, workers, citizens, and governments; by multiple actors including corporations, governments, and insurgents; and through distinct mediums including engineering design, print, film, and sabotage. How Tapline was rendered visible or invisible, and to whom, was central to the politics of that infrastructural assemblage.

To make this argument, this essay foregrounds forms of visibility typically overlooked in historical studies of infrastructure. First, after acknowledging that Tapline was largely invisible to consumers, this essay will compensate for infrastructure studies’ lack of attention to labor by showing how Tapline’s systems were directly visible and tangible to the workers whose labor made it function. Second, building on work by Brian Larkin and Rania Ghosn, it will highlight Tapline’s use of what I call the “corporate technological sublime,” which framed the pipeline and its construction in awe-inducing print and film spectacles to display the companies’ technical prowess and ability to effect modernizing change through private initiative. Third, it will examine the inverse: the “technological mundane,” used to educate rather than awe audiences by simplifying Tapline’s massive, complex operations to the point of intelligibility. Finally, it will examine the “insurgent counter-sublime”: a political and aesthetic tactic, used by saboteurs including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, that rendered Tapline’s facilities visible by destroying them and spurring the press to circulate spectacular images of their destruction. In such cases, infrastructure was not just made visible through its breakdown, but through intentional sabotage that framed that breakdown as an insurgent spectacle.

This essay is based primarily on official Tapline publications, including the company’s in-house magazine The Pipeline Periscope, articles published in its sister company’s Aramco World, and Tapline-commissioned films such as “The Story of Tapline (Qi??at Tablayn).” It will also make use of Lebanese newspapers such as al-Nahar and Le Jour that published Tapline advertisements and photos of attacks on Tapline facilities.