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Geology, Potentiality, Speculation: On the Indeterminacy of First Oil

By Gisa Weszkalnys

Cite As:
Weszkalnys, Gisa. 2015. “Geology, Potentiality, Speculation: On the Indeterminacy of First Oil.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 4: 611–639.


This article uses what the petroleum industry calls first oil to examine the uneven process of resource making on the margins of global zones of extraction. It explores how the double obscurity of hydrocarbon prospects—both geologically obscured and their worth not yet revealed by the market—generates particular material constraints, pauses, and setbacks characteristic of petroleum production. The article draws on ethnographic and archival material from São Tomé and Príncipe (STP), where repeated attempts to explore offshore oil have yet to transform geological potential into an economic asset. It highlights the incongruous effects of certain epistemic practices and devices (contract, zone, and well) aimed at facilitating first oil by managing uncertainty. As a result, they work as gestures of an indeterminate matter whose existence continues to be doubted.


extraction; speculation; knowledge; materiality; value; São Tomé and Príncipe