Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Cultures of Energy

The second annual symposium.

Rice University, Houston, Texas

Friday, April 19th – Opening panel will take place in TBA, Rice U, 4p-6p

Welcome by Caroline Levander, Vice-Provost for Interdisciplinary Initiatives, Rice U

Welcome by Vicki Colvin, Vice-Provost for Research, Rice U

Introduction by Dominic Boyer, Rice U

Keynote talk by Constance Penley, U California – Santa Barbara

Title: “The Environmental Media Initiative: Transforming Communication and Collaboration among the Sciences, Humanities, Industry and the Public”

Abstract: This talk explores a provocative and successful case of what environmental humanities has been able to achieve when it has actively and creatively engaged the sciences, industry, and the public. In 2000, UC Santa Barbara leveraged its exceptional strengths in media/communication studies and environmental science to create a unique interdisciplinary program to explore the power of media to translate science to solutions. The Environmental Media Initiative brings together environmental scientists with film and media scholars drawn from the humanities, arts, and social sciences to collaborate on research, teaching, and public programming.


Saturday, April 20th – All panels will take place in TBA, Fondren Library, Rice U

Panel A (9a-11a): Histories of fuel, labor and power

Chair: Kairn Klieman, U Houston

Jean-François Mouhot, Georgetown U

Title: Fossil fuels, slavery and climate change: past & present similarities and interconnections between slavery and fossil fuel use.

Abstract: This paper will expand on my recent article “Past connections and present similarities in slave ownership and fossil fuel usage” (Climatic Change, 2011) [ADD URL: ]and my book Des esclaves énergétiques: reflexions sur le changement climatique (Champ Vallon, 2011). The paper will look at the multiple connections between slavery and the Industrial Revolution and how in particular the arrival of steam-driven machines facilitated the abolition of this inhuman institution. It will then presents similarities between societies in the past that have used slave labor and those in the present that use fossil fuels and argue that slaves and fossil-fueled machines play(ed) similar economic and social roles: both slave societies and developed countries externalise(d) labour and both slaves and modern machines free(d) their owners from daily chores. It will also suggest that, in differing ways, suffering resulting (directly) from slavery and (indirectly) from the excessive burning of fossil fuels are now morally comparable. When we emit carbon dioxide at a rate that exceeds what the ecosystem can absorb, when we deplete non-renewable resources, we indirectly cause suffering to other human beings. Similarly, cheap oil facilitates imports of goods from countries with little social protection and hence help externalise oppression. The conclusion draws on the lessons which may be learned by Climate Change campaigners from the campaigns to abolish slavery: environmental apathy can be opposed effectively if we learn from what worked in the fight against slavery.

Thomas D. Finger, U Virginia

Title: Harvesting Power: Food Energy, Human Labor, and the Industrial Revolution

Abstract: This presentation will discuss the means through which a distinct group of merchants and politicians stabilized the food energy regimes upon which industrialization in Great Britain depended in the nineteenth century. Between 1820 and 1890, these merchants and politicians forged a food supply network designed to reduce working class volatility in Britain by importing cheap food from all over the globe. I will focus on one tentacle of this global food energy network: the Anglo-American grain trade.

The Anglo-American grain trade provides a historical case study focused on the relationship among energy, capital, and social power. The trade served as a fundamental link between the American and British economies in the nineteenth century by supplying the food energy necessary for industrial labor in Great Britain at the same time it supplied the capital necessary to build the financial and transportation infrastructure vital to the growth of American commercial agriculture. By 1880, this vital flow of food energy stabilized working-class volatility in Great Britain by dramatically increasing the availability of food and reducing its price. At the same time, the Anglo-American grain trade left American farmers awash in debt as they struggled to meet increasing demand for wheat by expanding their production amid the context of falling wheat prices. The comparative outcomes of the British working-class and American farmers as a result of their participation in the Anglo-American grain trade, then, can serve as a historical case study on how the stabilization of energy and capital flows structure power relations in human society.

Peter Shulman, Case Western Reserve

Title: Engineering Economy: Steam Power and the Politics of Coal in the United States Before Thermodynamics

Abstract: This paper is an examination of scientific and engineering attempts to improve ocean steam engines between 1840 and 1860, all organized around the concept of “economy,” as distinguished from “efficiency.” Economy could include anything and affected everything, unlike efficiency, which was seen in this period as either an impetus for action (more like “efficacy,” its older connotation) or as a straightforward property of machines (a result of the introduction of thermodynamics, its new connotation). Because of the expansiveness of this concept, Americans worked in a variety of ways to improve steam engines and the fuel networks that supported them, all to achieve their goals of naval defense and more importantly, international communications and trade. As a result, Americans began to develop what we would now recognize as a politics of energy, long before the term energy itself acquired its modern meaning and usage.

Panel B (1115a-1245p): Ecological imaginations, deep and dark

Chair: Jeff Kripal, Rice U

David Haberman, Indiana U

Title: The Energy of Cultures

Abstract: I will examine the place of religious cultures in our consideration of the ways in which we humans pursue energy sources, focusing particular attention on the extraction of fossil fuels while employing deep ecological conceptions of the self. How do we come to understand the energy embedded in culture that affects such issues as energy production? What kind of culture has led to the enormously destructive practices of the present day? What might a culture look like that would offer a way out of today’s increasingly alarming environmental crisis? And what does religion have to do with any of this?

Tim Morton, Rice U

Title: Dark Ecology

Abstract: In this talk I’m going to provide some kind of logical structure for thinking the Anthropocene, the radical intersection of human history and geological time that began (uncanny dating accuracy) in the late eighteenth century. This logical structure is called dark ecology, and it takes the form of thinking about loops. I shall be arguing that ecological awareness assumes a loop form for the deep reason that what is called history, when we include what is called geological time in that concept, is a concentric series of loops. This loopy nature of ecological awareness—its weirdness, as I shall define precisely—has a phenomenological format that is at first glance tragic, but on deeper analysis, is comical.

Lunch break 1245p-2p (lunch provided for all participants and attendees)

Panel C (2p-4p): Communities facing energic and environmental transformation

Chair: Elizabeth Long, Rice U

Richard Hirsh, Virginia Tech

Title: The Stormy Reception of Wind Turbines: Values, History, and the Poorly Articulated Reasons for Opposition to Wind-Energy Technology

Abstract: Despite widespread general support for the use of wind turbines as an environmentally friendly means to produce electricity, construction of the energy generators often encounters vehement opposition from people who live near them. Several objective, well-explained reasons for resistance exists, such as the noise and shadow flicker that occasionally afflict nearby residents. But some turbine opponents hold difficult-to-express, subjective views of the machines, such as those dealing with their appearance in a natural, undisturbed environment.
This presentation will draw upon approaches from several disciplines (geography, history, sociology, etc.) to explore poorly articulated reasons why some people object to wind-energy technology. It will suggest, among other things, that opponents dislike the turbines because of their highly noticeable appearance, especially in supposedly pristine environments, where they symbolize a conflict between rural and urban values. More originally, the presentation will argue that opposition to visually obvious wind turbines stems, at least in part, from the long and successful history of an electric power system that made its product largely invisible, both in its manufacture and its physical manifestation. The existence of tall, spinning silhouettes at the top of mountains or a few miles offshore uncomfortably reminds observers that electricity does not emanate inconsequentially from wall sockets. Rather, electricity must be created in ways that require painful choices pitting a high material standard of living (based on voracious energy consumption) against large-scale environmental damages. The previous achievement of the electric utility system in making its infrastructure relatively unnoticed, in other words, sometimes works in an ironic sense to make the use of wind turbines objectionable.
The focus on subjective considerations in this presentation has relevance to policy makers dealing with wind-turbines: to gain widespread support, planners need to understand the nontechnical characteristics of the electricity-generating hardware—namely, the various meanings of the technology in the minds of people who create different, often poorly expressed visions of nature and humankind’s place in it. They also need to deal with the historical legacy of a largely invisible infrastructure that has suddenly become visible with the greater popularity of the turbines.

Cymene Howe, Rice U

Title: Anthropocenic Ecoauthority in Transitions

Abstract: Based on the case of a wind-power megaproject to produce sustainable electricity in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, this presentation discusses how renewable energy implementation projects, and the (sometimes) negative reactions to them, are conditioned by exercises of energopower and discourses of ecological authority. In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where the study is ethnographically located, local residents, green capitalist developers and state agents each hold distinct imaginaries of how the powerful natural “resource” of the wind is to be utilized, or not. Local communities and resistance movements in the region believe they are being robbed of their energy sovereignty, while state and corporate interests emphasize the ameliorative effect on global climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
In this presentation, I suggest that the politics powering energy transition can be illuminated and better understood through an energopolitical focus that analyzes how energic forces fuel, shape and compel political power in particular directions. I also define anthropocenic “ecoauthority” as a series of scientific, managerial and ethical claims regarding ecological knowledge and future forecasting in an era of anthropogenic climate shifts. Given that climate change is one of the greatest biopolitical questions of our time, I propose that the energic dimensions of power be analyzed in parallel with the processes of biotic life—life in its localized and human dimensions as well as on the scale of the greater planetary bios.

Paul Liffman, El Colegio de Michoacán and Rice U

Title: Economies, ecologies and sovereignties in the Wirikuta silver mining dispute, San Luis Potosí, Mexico

Abstract: The mass-mediated indigenous protest movement against planned Canadian silver mines in the desert area that the Huichol people of western Mexico call Wirikuta has become an emblem of ethnonationalist resistance to globalized extractive enterprises throughout a country that has now concessioned a quarter of its territory to them. Huichol ceremonial groups have long trekked to Wirikuta from their homes 400 kilometers away to undertake sacrificial exchanges and thereby propitiate the rains at a mountain peak they regard as the birthplace of the sun, but mining there is also centuries old. Consequently, Wirikuta is included but scarcely protected in state-level ecological and cultural reserves covering 140,000 hectares. For Huichols this layering of economy, ecology and ritual geography makes the landscape and its subsurface resources of water and silver a living ancestral body. They, their NGO allies and expert witnesses, who predict cultural disruption, pollution and aquifer depletion from mining and desiccation from global warming, attract large publics by framing sacrificial exchange in a sacred wilderness as an ecological service to the whole planet.
On the other hand, non-indigenous desert residents want mining for jobs and fear that plans to redefine the region as federal biosphere reserve would threaten their own land use practices. They are encouraged by local officials and the corporations, whose experts deem extraction “sustainable”, contest the notion that Wirikuta extends beyond the one mountain peak and are building a museum to commemorate mining in the region: a patrimony to compete with indigenous sovereignty claims. Meanwhile, the state weighs two regimes of sovereign value: a national economy, dependent on mining revenues, and its own legitimacy, dependent on recognizing historical debts to indigenous and other rural citizens.

Panel D (415p-545p): Modeling and battling climate change

Chair: Melinda Fagan, Rice U

Eric Winsberg, U South Florida

Title: Climate Model Pluralism and Entrenchment

Abstract: I will discuss some of the epistemological issues that confront model builders who work to forecast the future of the Earth’s climate. One of the features of current climate science is what is sometimes called “model pluralism”: climate forecasts are made using a plurality of divergent climate models. I explore the prospects of what I call climate model convergence–the idea that we will reach a state where we no longer face a divergence of model predictions.

John-Andrew McNeish. Norwegian University of Life Sciences & Chr. Michelsens Institute (CMI)

Title: Recover Power through Energy?

Abstract: Although the Rio+20 Summit concluded that the future of the economy must be green, it also underlined that the basis of energy production will remain brown for some time. For many this failure to decide on more rapid and radical change is unacceptable. Indeed, in a world facing the impacts of climate change and economic crisis this message of more of the same has awakened not only controversy, but action. As in earlier periods of capitalist development, different communities of people reject, and both democratically and militantly contest the terms of efforts to sustain a political system built on the exploitation of carbon resources. For an anthropological research community these actions are also significant for different reasons. These growing alternative voices are not only a reminder of the need to question current technocratic assumptions and renew acknowledgement of the role society and politics play in questioning environmental governance, but of the role that anthropology should have in revealing the basis and alternatives framed by critique. In a recent book I highlighted with other colleagues the role of “resource sovereignties” in bracketing peoples’ environmental practices, conceptions of value and identities together with wider political and legal claims to territory and development. Now shifting to work in the politics of wider energy governance in Latin America we see the multi-layered and historically informed value of competing resource sovereignties as important explanation of the social and political dynamics surrounding energy resources, the conflicts they generate, and their eventual choice and management. Moreover, we contend in present work that whilst it is still important to recognize the role of technology and institutions, acknowledgement of the operation and dynamics of sovereign claims is an important route to putting the power of decision making on energy futures back in the hands of people. This presentation is based on work in progress for the Norwegian Research Council funded project “Contested Powers: Towards a Political Anthropology of Energy in Latin America”.


Sunday, April 21st – All panels will take place in the Kyle Morrow Room, Fondren Library, Rice U

Panel E (9a-1030a): Energy, materiality and power

Chair: Cyrus Mody, Rice U

Stefan Beck, Humboldt U Berlin

Title: No Brownouts in Germany: Towards an analysis of energopractices after Fukushima.

Abstract: On March 14, 2011, three days after the earthquake and the following tsunami hit the nuclear power station in Fukushima, the German government issued a moratorium for nuclear power, switching off all 17 nuclear power plants (NPP) in the country for a thorough security analysis. On June 30, 2011, the German parliament and the federal chamber decided to permanently take the 7 oldest NPPs off the grid to be followed by all other 10 NPPs until the year 2022. This abrupt change in German energy policy, however, did not cause any disruption in energy provision. If there were any problems at all, they were (and are) caused by an ever increasing production of renewable power – solar, wind, and biogas – and the resulting overloads for the power grid. In March 2012, solar power production in Germany alone provided again a record high – corresponding 20 virtual NPPs. However, what could be welcomed as a surprising success-story causes political headaches, severe economic problems for big energy corporations, the paradox of rising energy prices for households, angry reactions of governments in neighboring countries, and a pervasive fear of infrastructural breakdown of old-fashioned grids and centralized power production. As a result, the government is currently desperately trying to slow down the transition to renewable energy production. The paper will look into some of the enlightening ironies and generalizable surprises of the German „Energiewende“ (energopolitical tide change). And it will offer some insights into the political, regulatory, infrastructural and praxeological problems as well as chances of transforming an industrial society into an energopolitical field experiment.

Imre Szeman, U Alberta

Title: Subjects of Oil? Energopolitics, Materialism and Agency

In his recent book Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell argues that “modern mass politics was made possible by the development of ways of living that used energy on a new scale… this assembling of political power was later weakened by the transition from a collective life powered with coal to a social and technical world increasingly built on oil” (12). In no uncertain terms, Mitchell reduces modern politics—both that exercised by spaces and sites of governance and power (like the state) and forms of opposition and resistance to such power—to the material and social characteristics of dominant forms of energy. The initial power of the modern strike or street action arises from the capacity of coal miners to easily bring capitalist production to a halt by refusing to go underground and by blocking train lines that transported the fuel to factories and cities. Though strikes and mass mobilizations continue to be employed as a mode of counter-politics, Mitchell argues that in an era in which coal is no longer dominant these forms of protest are belated and out-of-step with the political forms produced by our energy-dominant: oil and gas.
My aim is to work out the implications of the connection that Mitchell makes between energy and politics, and in particular, his claim that “carbon-energy and modern democratic politics were tied intricately together” (5). The democracy to which he refers both here and in the title of his book is “a mode of governing populations that employs popular consent as a means of limiting claims for greater equality and justice by dividing up the common world” (9)—democracy as a specific form of governmentality rather than in its more utopic guise of the ‘rule of all over all.’ The core of my paper will involve an elaboration (following the provocative suggestion by Dominic Boyer of the need for a theory of ‘energopolitics’) of the role played by oil (and energy more generally) in theories of governmentality and biopolitics. I will do so by working through the late wok of Michel Foucault, offering a new reading of biopolitics in which energy is figured as a necessary aspect of power.

I will also try to confront the ways in which oil and energy have been articulated (to the degree that is has been) in that set of theories known as “new materialisms.” Post-68 discourse concerning the subject was intended to open up new political horizons by mapping more fully the myriad forces which together produced the modern subject; in other words, the discourse of the subject was always already about something other than the subject. The need to get beyond the subject—and the normative, liberal and voluntaristic ideas and ideals of the politics that go along with it—are the result of the conceptual difficulty of thinking a politics outside of long-established ideas of sovereign power and agency, and of doing so in a manner that sidestep fatalisms and elegant theories of the subject as nothing other than the effect of innumerable structures, institutions, and practices. In addition to producing a theory of biopolitics that takes energy seriously, I will also consider what politics are available to oil subjects at a time when the political itself seems in danger of disappearing altogether.

Panel F (1030a-1230p): Environmental art and media

Chair: Joe Campana, Rice U

Jenny Lin, U Oregon

Title: Floating Social Sculpture: Contemporary Chinese Art amidst Global Change

Abstract: Mainland China has undergone unprecedented urban development while entering the global economy. Numerous artists have responded to China’s urbanization and globalization, and to its resultant environmental degradation. This presentation surveys such responses, including Liu Jianhua’s Export – Cargo Transit, which repackages as art garbage sent from developed nations to China, Xu Bing’s Tobacco Project, which addresses the historic U.S.-Sino tobacco trade and its impact on Shanghai’s environment, and Forest Project, which tackles deforestation through art and social exchange. My analyses reveal that contemporary Chinese “eco” art often utilizes the very mechanics of globalization and rural/urban divides it seeks to critique, charting contemporary Chinese art as it floats through a global world.

Claire Pentecost, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Title: Of Waste and Work

Abstract: For the symposium I will present my recent project soil-erg, which I developed for the dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel, Germany (2012). Soil-erg consists of sculptural objects from handmade soil, or compost, representing units of a new currency (the soil-erg) proposed as a replacement of the petro-dollar, coined in 1973 to describe the extraordinary significance of the circuit of value running between a single commodity–crude oil—and a single currency–the U.S. dollar. Like all currency, the soil-erg is abstract, but complicated by its material nature. Its undeniable use-value suggests that soil be produced and maintained in a specific context. It is heavy, and because of the loose structure required of good soil, fragile; thus it is not practical to circulate. If currency as we know it is the ultimate deterritorialization, the soil-erg is inherently territorialized.
The installation includes a series of 43 drawings, prototypes for unique paper bills. The drawings loosely conform to three categories: those depicting historical figures that have made critical contributions to an ecological understanding of agriculture; those depicting non-human creatures of the soil-food web; and others picturing writers, philosophers, anthropologists, artists, etc., who have broadened and complicated our understanding of ourselves as part of a wider ecological system.
Can soil be distinguished from real estate? If people can make soil from organic waste, but they have no land, what are the options for growing food in limited space? To address this question, I constructed vertical growing systems outside the Ottoneum museum and in several other sites around Kassel. For these I collaborated with designer and philanthropist Ben Friton of the foundation CanYa Love. These pillar forms are simple, inexpensive and easily adapted to dense urban spaces where people are land-poor.

In the context of the seminar I will include in my presentation connections between soil, agriculture and energy (there are many). I will also address some of the imaginative and semiotic frameworks that govern human-human, human-nonhuman relations in the age of anthropogenic ontologies.

Joe Campana, Rice U

Title: The Age of the Enervation? Energy, the Arts, and the Future of Affect

Abstract: Could it be said that cultures of energy and states of feeling resonate with one another? Many identify cultural eras with monikers redolent of affective energy. The Renaissance was imagined as both an age of exuberance, discovery, and wonder and an age of melancholic reflection upon the past. What of our own? It is it yet another brave new world of technological wonder or does it reflect, as Franco Berardi argues in After the Future, economically-induced anxiety and depression? And what might this have to do with how artists process the collision of fantasies of endless energy (and therefore also unlimited growth) with the painful anticipation of scarcity and depletion? This paper will offer an initial attempt to articulate the interdependent nature of thinking about energy and thinking about art. It will do so, first, by articulating a number of ways in which thinking about energy appears in the work of artists linked to Houston, which I consider not merely a local habit but a global nexus of energy extraction, refinement, production, and distribution. After this introduction, I will consider a series of what we might call strategically neutral responses to the anticipation of future enervation.
If Berardi is right to tie states of affect to the consequences of late capitalism, perhaps what is required, just now, is a mode of inquiry capable of exploring states of affect that are at once in and out of sync with the current moment. What might result from the anticipation of exhaustion and depletion due to uncertain energy futures and the ever-more visible forms of environmental damage and decline? Activism provides one indication of a range of affective responses to potential energy crises, responses oscillating between melancholy and rage. But are there responses that elude the boom-bust cycles of exuberance and depression some would tie to the very economic system behind current crises in energy? A series of works–choreographers Morgan Thorson’s Heaven, Marina Zurkow’s Mesocosm, poet Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and Edouard Leve’s Suicide explore varieties of “the neutral” theorized by Roland Barthes. While Barthes may not have imagined cultures of energy in his lecture course on The Neutral, his exploration of affect offers ways of understanding how a number of contemporary artists explore a neutrality produced by the anticipation of life in an age of depletion. Might there be, in responses in tune with the anticipation of diminished energy and environmental futures, forms of perception not yet part of conversations about either energy or affect?

Lunch break 1230p – 145p (lunch provided for all participants and attendees)

The lunch break will feature a presentation by Marcel LaFlamme and Derek Woods of the 2012/13 Cultures of Energy multimedia teaching project

Plenary Panel (145p-330p): On to the future of energy and environmental humanities…

Panelists: Jack Zammito (Chair, Rice U), Bill Arnold (Rice), Andrea Ballestero (Rice), Gwen Bradford (Rice), Gökçe Günel (Rice), Constance Penley (UCSB), Joe Pratt (U Houston) and Alexander Regier (Rice)

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