A Long Overdue Anthology of the Energy Humanities

Posted by on Apr 19, 2017
A Long Overdue Anthology of the Energy Humanities

Despite – or perhaps because of its ubiquity in human life, as such, the question of energy has been suspiciously absent from most of our critiques of modernity, political power, and aesthetics. The aim of Szeman and Boyer’s (2017) Energy Humanities: an Anthology––and perhaps the energy humanities in general–– is to reveal the invisibilities of energy and human in an attempt to “transform this modernity,” this unfortunate modernity on “the brink of ecological catastrophe.”[1]

While Energy Humanities is a step to transform our ‘energy unconscious,’ and indeed might give us what Kirksey et al. call “hope in a blasted landscape,”[2] we think this roughly 600 page collection, of almost 50 selections of some of the most influential and important literature on energy and climate change within the humanities and social sciences, should also be considered a standing point.

To stand instead of stepping is a radical decision in an ever-unfolding modern history of post-enlightenment progress. This anthology takes a stand, with a manifesto-like introduction, applauding the natural sciences for identifying the ecological crisis, but calling on the arts and human sciences to perform their own revolution – to reimagine modernity and take on the awkward, collective task of building “a political project unlike any we’ve encountered before.”[3] Szeman and Boyer call on Herbert Marcuse to explain that the revolution we need is one of the senses, “this qualitative, elementary, unconscious, or rather preconscious, constitution of the world of experience, it is this primary experience itself which must change radically if social change is to be radical, qualitative change.”[4] That’s not a quote to step away from, that’s a quote to stand on, and that’s what this anthology does and offers its reader to do, stand in place, open one’s eyes and see the pipelines, to close them and smell, smell the gasoline, feel the wind in one’s face, and ponder the strange taste in our mouths.

What does an anthology of Energy Humanities do and what should it do? Living up to the energy it professes, the anthology curated by Szeman and Boyer reads less like a static view of a contained sum of lesser parts, and more like an immersion into the contemporary energetic labor in and of the humanities. Offering distinct modes of critique and speculation, it draws attention to energy as a base of humanistic interest in the 20th and 21st century, a simple but powerful grouping that hopefully will aid and inspire direct engagement with energy as a fundamental category of future inquiry. Similar attempts of summoning such literature can be found around concepts like sustainable, environmental, ecological, and the Anthropocene. These concepts serve our discussion very well, and will surely keep on doing so. However, this collection is an articulation for why in comparison, energy has an enticing clarity and objectivity to it whilst being broad enough to encompass most texts dealing with for instance sustainability or the Anthropocene.

The anthology Energy Humanities is being published at a sad moment in light of the announced termination of National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts here in the United States, and it reads as a slap in the face to such decisions. It is a book powerfully packed with the most poisonous passages, reflecting on one of the most politically important topics of our time, and simultaneously presenting some of the most outstanding critical engagements with modern culture in the arts and related fields. Mythical sea creatures as the origin of wave energy in Laura Watts’s poem, the pataphysical polymers of Adam Dickson, and Neruda’s “petroliferous moon” are just some of the collection’s selected energo-monsters that keenly huddle around the collection’s academic writings, teasing them in their mission to make sense, where the mission should simply be to make one sense. Exploring this gap between making sense and making one sense is one of the admirable goals of the collection as it identifies that the “gap between knowledge and action is important in how we figure the next steps in environmental politics.”[5] One can imagine that one of the drives for including art, poetry and fiction in this collection is an attempt to poke at the knowledge-making institutions that, despite making a lot of sense for years and decades, have not managed to translate that sense into real sensing of the climate problem and sufficient action on climate change.

The collection proposes the thematic of energy as one that can bridge this gap, a theme that can function as an epistemological sharpener for thinking about climate change, both historically, contemporarily, and speculatively. The excerpt from historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s The Collapse of Civilization is emblematic of this aim, in its speculative future historical account of the insufficient human response to climate change. The piece is to be found in the first part of the anthology titled Energy and Modernity: Histories and Futures which opens with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History”. Each part can be seen as an attempt to demarcate specific subfields within the Energy Humanities, that in some cases follow traditional disciplinary lines but at other times disclose interdisciplinary realms of inquiry. Every part is fronted with a brief introduction that gives an overview of the selected pieces and sometimes explains an internal compartmentalization of the part that makes it easier for the reader to strategize a calculated reading. The remaining parts of the anthology are on Energy, Power and Politics; Energy in Philosophy: Ethics, Politics and Being; and finally The Aesthetics of Petrocultures.

While the collection serves scholars in offering an organization of a specific context that is still emerging, and will most likely keep growing in importance in the 21st century, this publication will most definitely prove useful as a way to introduce students to the questions of energy as a specific subfield of the arts, humanities and social sciences. In whatever way it will be useful as a collection of texts, it will ultimately prove its usefulness by inspiring more writing within the field.

This post is by CENHS predoctoral fellows Magnús Örn Sigurðsson and Eliot Storer.

[1] Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer (eds.), “Introduction”, Energy Humanities: An Anthology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017, pp. 1-13, here p. 9.

[2] Kirksey, S Eben, Nicholas Shapiro, and Maria Brodine. 2013. “Hope in Blasted Landscapes.” Social Science Information 52 (2): 228–56..

[3] Szeman and Boyer, “Introduction”, p. 7.

[4] Ibid, p. 8.

[5] Ibid, p. 5.