CENHS Cultures of Energy 5, April 21-23, 2016: Schedule and Abstracts

Posted by on Mar 23, 2016
CENHS Cultures of Energy 5, April 21-23, 2016: Schedule and Abstracts


CENHS is proud to present the 5th annual Cultures of Energy spring symposium to be hosted at Rice University April 21-23, 2016!

Please also take a moment to visit CENHS’s 2016 FotoFest art installation (“Another Storm is Coming”/“Dear Climate”)

Day One: April 21, 2016 (Location: Founder’s Room, Lovett Hall, #48 on the Campus Map)

4:00–4:15p Welcome and Opening Remarks
Yousif Shamoo, Vice Provost for Research (Rice University)

Introduction of the Keynote speaker by Dominic Boyer (Director, CENHS, Rice University)
Michael Oppenheimer, Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs (Princeton University)
“Paris Agreement: Did it breathe life into the UNFCCC or confirm its irrelevance?”

Q&A to follow

5:30–6:15p Reception

Day Two: April 22, 2016 (Location: Founder’s Room, Lovett Hall, #48 on the Campus Map)

8:30–9:00a Breakfast available for all attendees

9:00–11:30a Panel A: Visions of Energy
Moderator: Caroline Levander (Rice University)

Lynn Badia (University of Alberta)
“On the Possibility of a Future with Unlimited Energy”
While much of the current discourse about energy transition is (rightfully) focused on limitations — namely, the limitations of CO2 levels, of global temperatures, of fossil fuel extraction and combustion — it may be surprising to realize that the conditions of energy crisis have also produced a discourse about limitlessness. This paper investigates the reality that humankind may create “unlimited” energy sources — namely those that provide power in quantities that far exceeded the requirements of post-industrial societies. I have introduced the concept of “free energy” to capture this discourse and to identify free energy speculation as one of the narratives in which a solution to the energy crisis is often located. First, I will explore what is meant by “free” in relation to energy sources. In works of science fiction as well as recent headlines about new energy technologies, energy has been understood as “free” when it, alternatively, claims to be free of material limits, cost, labor, ecological impact, or known hazards. In other words, free energy solutions often allow us to imagine an energy supply that is lifted out of material or ecological conditions and constraints. In the second part of this paper, I will survey a few “free energy” technologies, while analyzing the discourses surrounding them. In each case, what has become free? and What are the conditions of each possible free energy future?

Dan Hackbarth (Colgate University)
“Towards the Fundamental Phenomena of Light: Raoul Hausmann’s Optophone (1922-1935) and László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1922-1930)”
During the early 1920s, the Berlin-based artists Raoul Hausmann and László Moholy-Nagy began to reorient their practices around their recent realization that the experiences of sound and vision have a common basis in wave-based phenomena. Over the decade to come, Hausmann and Moholy-Nagy would both design mechanical devices for light projection through which they sought to directly address the dynamic properties of energy at the root of sensory perception. In my paper I argue that Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1922-1930) and Hausmann’s Optophone (1922-1935) model significantly different notions of how energy should impact human consciousness. While Moholy-Nagy remaining largely anthropocentric in his Light Prop’s continuing reference to the human body’s spatial position, Hausmann sought to more radically defamiliarize sensory experience, turning audiences’ attention to the abstraction of the waveform’s periodic motion.

Andreas Malm (Lund University)
“This Is the Hell that I Have Heard Of: Some Dialectical Images in Fossil Fuel Fiction, From Conrad to Kanafani”
In Ghassan Kanafani’s novella Men in the Sun, a classic of Arabic literature, three Palestinian refugees try desperately to make their way into Kuwait to find work in the oil industry. Their travails in the border region are conditioned by two forces: the infrastructure of petroleum and unbearable heat, the infernality of which the author relentlessly hammers home. When the men agree to be locked up in an empty water tanker and smuggled across the border, the result is catastrophic; as the driver finds their corpses, he shouts out, in words that have become canonical in Palestinian culture: ‘Why didn’t you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn’t you say anything? Why?’ As the temperatures within the tanker of the fossil economy have risen, many have called for more compelling literary narratives of climate change. This paper will argue that some very powerful stories can be found in fiction about fossil energy written long before the discovery of global warming – if read in the light of what we now know. Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image, it will trace some of the infernal power relations of a warming world in the bad dreams of earlier eras. The focus will be on literature from two important episodes in the history of the fossil economy: the shift from sail to steam in global shipping, as seen through the eyes of Joseph Conrad, and the arrival and expansion of the oil industry in the Middle East, as depicted by Kanafani and some other Arab writers. Reading old fossil fuel fiction in this way can shed new light on our current predicament.

Natasha Zaretsky (University of Southern Illinois)
“‘Too Cheap to Meter’: Nuclear Power in the US Postwar Energy Imaginary”
My paper explores the symbolic role of nuclear power in the U.S. postwar energy imaginary. It focuses on three aspects of nuclear power’s cultural import in the long decade of the 1960s, the peak era of power plant expansion in the United States. First, the techno-utopian conceit of nuclear power—to provide electricity that would be “too cheap to meter”—seemed to potentially resolve the dilemma at the heart of modern capitalism: namely, how to steadily seek out and appropriate cheap energy (alongside cheap labor, cheap food, and cheap raw materials). This capitalist appropriation of what sociologist Jason Moore calls “the four cheaps” sped up after World War II, and nuclear power appeared to offer an end-run around dirtier, more extractive energy forms. Second, in contrast to oil’s association with auto-mobility, nuclear power became aligned with the middle class domestic sphere and the consumer commodities contained within it. The Atomic Energy Commission itself promoted this alignment as it sought to demystify the technology. Third was nuclear power’s association with radiation, which was becoming an object of public fear in the context of mounting concern about fallout from atomic weapons testing. Nuclear promoters responded to this transformation in contradictory ways–at times evoking radiation’s “magical” properties, while at other times insisting that radiation was mundane and ordinary. I conclude by teasing out the implications of this history for assessing the contemporary turn to nuclear power as one necessary component in the fight against runaway climate change.

11:30a–1:00p Lunch for all attendees
Undergraduate research posters on display

1:00–2:45 Panel B: Living the Anthropocene I

Moderator: Randal Hall (Rice University)

Cara Dagett (Johns Hopkins University)
“Energy’s Power: Fuel, Work and Waste in the Politics of the Anthropocene”
The desire for work and speed arise not just out of a human drive for ‘more’, or as a symptom of capitalism, but also had to do with humans’ first entanglements with coal and engines, which somehow remained mysterious or withdrawn. It was only through experiments with steam engines that humans conceived of the concept of energy as we now know it, as a signifier for fuels and fuel technology, but also for change across the cosmos. While thermodynamics, the first science of energy, offered laws for understanding energy exchanges, energy maintained an element of mystery. It could never be satisfactorily defined, nor understood. The early scientists of energy responded to the paradox of energy by embracing an ethic of productivist work, alongside a desire to locate, measure and expunge waste (that which threatened the work activity). This energy-work connection, rooted in Victorian science but reinforced by Protestantism, continues to infect, or haunt, fossil fuel culture and politics. By historicizing the linear equation between energy and work, this paper argues that the human relationship to energy is reinforced by modern cultures of work. In turn, I propose a fruitful partnership between movements that seek to divest from fossil fuels or otherwise destabilize fossil fuel culture and post-work politics.

Claire Colebrook (Penn State University)
If we accept recent announcements of tipping points, game over and end times how do we think about the future? Do we need to shift from a temporality of reversibility to irreversibility, and if we do so how do we avoid the forms of catastrophic thinking that allow for emergency measures that erase all possibility of thinking?

Tim Morton (Rice University)
“Bugging Marx”
Marx’s lack of creatures is a bug, not a feature! Marxism is not intrinsically anthropocentric. Once we have admitted this counter-intuitive-sounding claim, we gain several advantages, to say the least. One great gain is that the enemies of Marxism are cut down to size. Once we have done that, it becomes necessary to discern carefully what “include” means. Does this mean that we only extend existing Marxism, like widening a lasso? Or is it rather the case, as I shall be arguing, that debugging Marx and letting in the actual bugs will involve a modification of some assumptions that seem basic to Marxism? This is particularly fraught when it comes to the Althusserian variant of Marxism, popular in the academy. Anthropocentrism is definitely hardwired into this variant. In this paper I am going to argue that Marxist theory only works at all if it includes nonhumans.

2:45–3:00p Coffee Break

3:00–5:15p Panel C: Living the Anthropocene II

Moderator: Dominic Boyer (Rice University)

Cymene Howe (Rice University)
“Forming the Betacene”
The Anthropocene has us thinking in chrono-mashups with divergent scales: geological time married with temporal immediacies, crises, and catastrophes. As a category that geologizes human existence, the Anthropocene confers response-ability and punctuates the most profound time scale in our lexicon: the geo-logic. While the Holocene may have been the age in which we learned our letters and our agriculture, the Anthropocene demands schooling in a more reflexive genealogy of circulation and reciprocity among humans and other beings. Therefore, and with a nod to software junkies everywhere, let us imagine the Betacene: A time of experimental plasticity to improvise new ways of being in, and with, the world. In the ultramodernity of the beta phase, the ‘user experience’ gets honed; bugs pop out and slippage happens. It is about finding out what goes wrong. Perhaps human accretions and the consequent transmogrification of earth’s bio-, litho-, aqua- and atmosphere is an opportunity to reverse-engineer ourselves toward a less imperfect humanity. Maybe the Anthropocene is in fact our Betacene: A chance to create a plan ‘B.’

Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse (smudge studio/New School)
“Living the Energetics of Anthropocene Temporalities”
Anthropocene events, materialities, and conditions are producing new temporalities. The resulting timescapes are shaping and being shaped by new social, economic, political, and cultural energetics (often with conflict).

Durations, speeds, rhythms, qualities, crossings and collisions of Anthropocenian temporalities are critically out of sync with the time-habitat that our species evolved within. We humans barely understand the “non-human scale” of the temporal conditions of contemporary life in the Anthropocene. But the time-sensitive dynamics of our geo-bio habitat on this planet and the temporal energetics of our intimate, daily lives are reconfiguring right now with great consequence.

Our current project as research-based artists is to turn toward and closely observe emergent Anthropocene timescapes, and create aesthetic responses to our enmeshments within them. We are designing life practices that allow us to performatively navigate the temporal gravity of events such as inclement and unseasonal “fifth season” weather phenomena, and the increasingly disturbing structures of feeling that time is speeding up, that some life forms and some possibilities for particular forms of action are “running out of time,” and that it is already “too late” for some life forms. We are especially drawn to working with temporal qualities of the massive spills of deep geologic and evolutionary time—past and future—into the present. For example, as when “benign” earth materials of the Jurassic and Carboniferous epochs spill out of geo-chronological order through oil wells and “infect” present time. And, as when human-made materials such as trans-uranic nuclear waste and plastics effectively reverse the flow of time and insert deep social, political, economic, and biological futures into the present by obligating (enslaving?) humans to be vigilant and to labor on their behalf for what amounts (to humans) to “forever.”

Our presentation consists of a video presented in conjunction with spoken words.

Marisa Parham (Amherst)
“Black Haunts in the Anthropocene”

By bringing Toni Morrison and Bruno Latour to Wanuri Kahiu’s video short Pumzi, Hiro Murai’s music video for Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me,” and Helen Epstein’s notion of the “Ghetto Miasma,” my presentation is a meditation on how “the anthropocene” forces conceptualizations of time as out of joint, and how the experience of disjointedness—and the fear it can also represent— is also historically endemic to African and African American cultural expressions of time.

In thinking about the anthropocene, Latour asks that we begin with the idea that humans have failed to take responsibility for that which we have created, rather than begin discursively with the idea that humans have failed to caretake the Earth— an empty claim disconnected from actual lifeworlds that blames technology for its negative effects. His point is simple: the technological cannot be understood as an agent because “the technological” is an extension of the human. Blame habits and actions, even as our habits and actions are themselves shaped by that which we have created. In fearing our monsters, the hybrid children we create, we also become fearful of our own future, as we build the wheels, set them in motion, and then call ‘fate.’

In “The Future of Time,” meanwhile, Toni Morrison is thinking about a similar set of issues from a different perspective, for she sees in this abdication a refusal to admit responsibility for the future, a refusal that mainly plays out as an obsession with understanding the future as an analog extension of a past still open to investigation and, by extension, revision, an obsession with making historical claims rather than setting new, future goals. “The course of time seems to be narrowing to a vanishing point beyond which humanity neither exists nor wants to. It is singular, this diminished, already withered desire for a future.” The consequence of such obsession is the diminishment of “time” itself, a constant fear of the future. Presaging Latour by almost twenty years, Morrison senses in this diminishment a similar abdication to the future has beyond human intervention and control, even as it is made by humans, pointing out that in the technologically developed world, “where advance, progress and change have been signatory features,” is “where confidence in an enduring future is at its slightest.”

It cannot be denied that the issues identified by Latour and Morrison have consequences for how we conceptualize the future of human life. But insofar as all the “we’s” in this human world have not experienced the past in the same way, perhaps the question of how we might remember to imagine new futures can be broadened by thinking it differently.

Dominic Boyer (Rice) and Tim Morton (Rice)

Day Three: April, 2016 (Location: Founder’s Room, Lovett Hall, #48 on the Campus Map)

8:30–9:00a Breakfast available for all attendees

9:00–11:00a Panel D: Writing Oil

Moderator: Gwen Bradford (Rice University)

Graeme McDonald (University of Warwick)
“Oil Plays: petro-theatre, performance activism and contemporary environmental protest”
“Petroleum resists depiction in five acts…
Bertolt Brecht, Werke, 21:303

Theatrical modes of representation and production are somewhat under-represented in the burgeoning field of petroculture. This is surprising, given the amount of modern theatre that – like other literary genres – can be re-read under the sign of petroleum and other energy forms. My presentation will seek to forge ‘energic’ connections between the textual aesthetics and innovative productions of ‘petro-plays’, and performance strategies harnessed by groups campaigning against the fossil fuel complex. I’ll begin in the Scottish/UK context and use it as a platform for a wider comparative analysis of examples from around the world. Various points of synergy will be considered: novel strategies for ‘live’ engagement with publics; the ‘dramatic’ use of spectacle and intervention in cultural and political spaces; the performative exposure of forms of abstraction and lobbying by oil-company PR; the strategic use of popular, experimental, and ‘Epic’ forms (such as song, hyperbole, meta-theatre, and comedy) for political effect; the harnessing of new forms of media, and other points of fusion between oil/text/production/action. Debates are now well underway in petrocultural criticism on the most effective role of art and aesthetics in reorienting energy sensibilities and contributing to environmental politics. What role – if any – for petro-theatre?

Fiona Polack (Memorial University)
“The Rhetoric of Catastrophe: Commissions of Public Inquiry into Offshore Oil”
Over the past 35 years, public inquiries into human and environmental disasters in the offshore oil industry have been held around the globe. Addressing incidents ranging from the capsizing of oil platforms in the North Atlantic to well blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico and the Timor Sea, the reports these investigations have generated now constitute a genre of their own. This paper considers some of the salient features of this often highly technical but also affect-saturated form. It focuses closely on how public inquiry reports interpolate regional and global publics, and address issues of risk and culpability. The presentation also speculates that the rhetoric of these important documents about oil-related disasters has implications for how we conceptualize (or fail to conceptualize) the much wider catastrophe of climate change.

Bill Dawson (Texas Climate News)
“A view from the environment beat: A veteran environmental journalist’s overview of its history and its expansion of the coverage of oil”
The rise and institutionalization of “environmental journalism” – reporting that examines environmental problems and issues – dates to the 1960s and 70s. At many newspapers and at major wire services (historically, by far, the generators of most serious public-affairs coverage in the U.S.), an “environment beat” was created. Typically, this assignment area was staffed by one reporter but at a few large news organizations, by more than one. This trend often meant more reporting on what economists call the externalities of the oil industry and related industries – petrochemicals and natural gas – particularly in industry-heavy locations like Houston.

Growing journalistic attention to those industries’ environmental impacts – their actual and potential harm to the natural world and to human health and wellbeing, mainly through pollution – offered a valuable additional perspective for the public. It supplemented traditionally economics-dominated reporting on subjects like the ups and downs of oil prices and companies’ new ventures and competitive maneuvers. Over time, this extra perspective has been incorporated increasingly, if sporadically, into coverage by journalists on newspapers’ business desks and at trade publications.

The prospects for the future flourishing of environmental coverage of oil and related industries are greatly clouded, however, by the monumental changes that have reshaped the news industry in recent years, especially drastic staff reductions and the shifting of remaining resources away from public-affairs coverage.

Matthew Henderson
“Navigating Class and Ethics in The Lease”
The oilfields of Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan – the setting and sometimes-subjects of the poems in my book The Lease – are unsurprisingly classed environments, with those who work within them occupying a kind of socioeconomic limbo between day-to-day working-class culture and the promise of upward mobility. The longer I worked on this project, the clearer it became that higher education and poetry itself were powerful enough as cultural signifiers that they could call into question any retroactive claim I had to a working-class background, despite my own time spent working in these environments; using the form of poetry to explore them left the work at risk of looking like appropriation. I also worried about being associated as an author with the presentations of misogyny, homophobia and ecologically destructive practices found in the poems, but at the same time, could not afford to distance myself from these things without risking my authority to write about them in the first place.

While I feared that it would be unethical to include depictions of rampant misogyny or environmentally destructive practices in the poems without explicitly condemning such practices and behaviours, I eventually realized that such condemnations were at odds with the project in that they positioned the speaker of the poems as apart from the characters in the book. Instead, I argue that the clear and honest depiction of such practices is both the most honest and ethically sound way to encounter the contradictions and complexities of the oilfield.

11:00a–12:30p Plenary Talkback: Futures of Energy Humanities

Moderator: Roy Scranton (CENHS Postdoctoral Fellow, Rice University)

Discussants: Jenny Carlson (CENHS Visiting Fellow), Blake Earle (CENHS Predoctoral Fellow), Maureen Haver (CENHS Predoctoral Fellow), Derek Woods (CENHS Predoctoral Fellow)

12:30–1:30p Lunch available for all attendees

Lunch lecture: Albert Pope (Rice University)
“The Indignity of Speaking for Objects: the 50 year plan to redevelop Houston’s Fifth Ward”
The lecture will ask if recent calls for “climate justice” are a legitimate extension of long standing human rights struggles, or if they are the imposition of yet another anthropocentric perspective into the climate crisis. The question will be taken up, not textually, but in the form of a fifty year plan for the redevelopment of the most blighted district in the city of Houston called the Fifth Ward. The intent of the plan is to cut per capita energy consumption by 75% by 2065, a reduction that is in keeping with limiting of surface temperature rise to under two degrees Celsius.