A Report on the Cultures of Energy Spring Symposium

Posted by on May 11, 2013

The second Cultures of Energy spring symposium was a great success, with scholars traveling to Houston from the United States, Norway, and Germany. The panels were the highlight, with excellent papers coming from multiple fields. The methodological diversity of the papers was matched by their overlap at the level of theme and content. This seems to be strong evidence of the possibility for disciplinary synthesis that the new Center for Energy and Environment Research in the Human Sciences seeks to facilitate.  Objects of study with such global implications as energy have tributaries in every discipline, and there is enough mutual intelligibility among the humanities and social sciences to allow some strong conversation. This is what we saw all weekend in the papers and discussion from historians, philosophers, literary critics, anthropologists, and artists.

On Friday evening the symposium opened with Dominic Boyer’s announcement of the new Center (for more information, please see http://culturesofenergy.dreamhosters.com/?p=754) . He thanked Vice Provost Caroline Levander and others for their work , which ensured that the humanities and social sciences would have a role to play in Rice’s new Energy and Environment initiative. Following his comments, Dr. Levander introduced the keynote, Dr. Constance Penley of the Carsey-Wolfe center at the University of California Santa Barbara. Dr. Penley gave us an account of her work with the Environmental Media Center at UCSB, which connects media studies with the entertainment industry and carries out environmental awareness projects like BlueHorizon and GreenScreen (http://www.carseywolf.ucsb.edu/emi). Dr. Penley also gave the audience some candid advice about the dialectic of resistance and compromise that goes along with creating interdisciplinary programs that are able to keep the humanities in the financial loop.

For affiliations and abstracts to accompany the scholars and papers discussed below, please refer to (http://culturesofenergy.dreamhosters.com/?page_id=684).

On Saturday morning we opened with a panel on nineteenth-century energy history, with papers from Jean-Francois Mouhot, Thomas Finger, and Peter Shulman. These papers contributed to understanding the relationship between energy, empire, and slavery in nineteenth century Anglo-American economies. Efforts to make steam engines more efficient turn out to have influenced the very historical semantics of the word “economy” in unexpected ways, and food energy in the form of American grain shaped class relations during British industrialization. In the broader context of the Anthropocene, these papers clarify the historical form of energy economies after steam and before oil.

The next panel featured interventions into ecological thought from David Haberman and Timothy Morton. Haberman gave an exegesis of deep ecology, starting with a reading of Lynn White’s classic essay “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” and asserting the need for a green religion that identifies self with nature. Morton outlined his theory of Dark Ecology, an interpretation of the geohistorical conditions of the Anthropocene in terms of (geo)logical loops. Morton also connected dark ecology to his concepts of “hyperobject” and “agrilogistics.” These broad interpretations of the nature/culture relationship represent two ends of the spectrum of ecological thought—the deep version aligned with monistic and biocentric nature religion, the dark version with its plurality of discrete nonhuman objects that constitute social space.




























During the lunch break, the conversation on ecological epistemology continued, and we saw poster presentations from Gokce Gunel’s undergraduate course on the social studies of energy.

The third panel of the day came from the discipline of anthropology, focusing on the scale of power relations and perceptions of windpower and mining in Mexico and the U.S. Cymene Howe and Richard Hirsh presented on conflicts over windpower, and Paul Liffman discussed mining. From these papers, it was clear that apparently rational renewable energy projects involve unpredictable social conflict. Whether through issues of land use sovereignty or perception of landscape, the political stakes of green energy technology differ by region—as witness the variable power relations at work in populist resistance to windpower in the U.S. (as described by Hirsh) and in Oaxaca (as described by Howe). From all three talks it was clear that local epistemologies of resource infrastructure and land use can lead to very different conclusions from those predominant in the technocratic discourses of “ecoauthority” (to use Howe’s term). Ideas of sustainability and renewable energy can be marginal in one region, but hegemonic in another.

On Saturday’s final panel we heard papers from Eric Winsberg and Aynne Kokas, both on energy related digital media topics. Apart from this common approach, the papers were very different. Winsberg described the history of climate models and gave a detailed account of debates over the conceptual and statistical operations that found their (in)accuracy. He made the remarkable argument that climate models actually evolve in a way analgous to organisms. They do so because of the many blocks of code that are “kludged” into the model by previous designers. Models have no one designer, and their historical dynamic exhibits adaptive patterns that depend on the black boxes built into the model’s code in the past. Dr. Kokas, on the other hand, described how social media have been used to monitor air pollution in China. Working with computer scientists at Rice, she analyzed the appearance of keywords related to air pollution on the Chinese microblog site Sina Weibo. The results had implications for the relation of public environmental discourse to the grey market in online distribution channels, and the ability of sovereign states to control the flow of information.

Conversation continued at dinner, where, at my end of the table, I enjoyed the wit and eloquence of Winsberg, Kokas, Gokce Gunel, and the formidable artist Clare Pentecost.

Sunday opened with a panel on energy and power. Stefan Beck presented a study of energy politics in Germany after Fukushima, focusing on how the effort to take all German nuclear power plants off the grid, starting with 7 of the 17 total NPPs in 2011, surprisingly caused no brownouts or disruption. Instead, the large amount of solar, wind, and biogas sources coming into the grid have overloaded it, leading to a paradoxical effort by the German government to slow the transition to renewable energy production. Focusing instead on bottom-up efforts to gain power over energy, John Andrew-McNeish explained that gaining control over energy resources can be an important means of resistance to neoliberal “development.” This panel had the most in common with the panel of anthropologists from Saturday. Both stressed how power relations at different scales relate to energy in the global economy.

The final panel of the symposium was about art and aesthetics. Jenny Lin presented on the Chinese artist 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 his “Forest Project,” which tackles deforestation through art and social exchange. Clare Pentecost introduced us to her own work on U.S. agriculture, including her excellent composted American flag, her effort to create a soil currency, and her portraits of ecological thinkers—from Darwin to Donna Haraway—interlaced with soil organisms. Pentecosts eco-aesthetic investigation of the soil and Lin’s presentation were both concerned with how art produces the relation of economy and ecology. Joe Campana closed the panel with an excellent treatment of energy in relation to affect, specifically to the feeling of enervation. Campana read the boom and bust cycles of capitalist economic history and the idea that the planet might run out of energy in affective terms—how would it feel, and how might affect be recalibrated in a society no longer subject to the economics of growth and collapse.

At lunch on Sunday, Derek Woods and Marcel LaFlamme presented pedagogy projects that emerged from the Cultures of Energy seminar. Woods outlined a possible course to be run through the English department and the new Center in 2014-1015, drawing on the methods of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Houston art installations related to energy, and spatial theory in order to explore the petrochemical geography of Houston. LaFlamme discussed the pros and cons of online education, focusing in particular on new projects like Connexions currently under development at Rice.

The symposium ended with a plenary panel on the future of energy and the environmental humanities. On the panel, we discussed the relation between disciplines, methods, and objects of study, and how these might have to be conjugated differently in new Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences. We also focused on what different disciplines bring to the table, and the prevalence of philosophy in all of the symposium’s panels. Points were made about the axis of conflict and cooperation in interdisciplinary work. At times the push for cooperation and understanding among the disciplines can prevent them from working through very real epistemological conflicts. Finally, we spoke about the mission of the new Center and some of the pros and cons of reaching out to the natural sciences.

Thanks again to Dominic Boyer and Caroline Levander, among others, for making Cultures of Energy and the Center possible. We look forward to the next year’s developments, and to the seeing the products of the impressive works in progress presented at this year’s symposium. Thanks to all the participants for their hard work.