Cultures of Energy 5 – A Synopsis

Posted by on May 6, 2016
Cultures of Energy 5 – A Synopsis

Maureen Haver and Blake Earle also contributed to this post.

CENHS was delighted to host the fifth annual Cultures of Energy symposium April 21st to 23rd, with speakers travelling from across United States and Canada, from the UK, and from Sweden. The disciplines and vocations represented this year were history, English, media studies, climate science, art history, anthropology, geography, political science, visual art, architecture, journalism, and poetry. Many of us veterans considered this the best symposium so far. Like Cultures of Energy 4, the program included a tour of the Houston Ship Channel petrochemical complex aboard the Port of Houston’s M/V Sam Houston. This year, participants also visited CENHS’s contribution to FotoFest 2016, installations by photographer Judy Natal and a collective of artists including Marina Zurkow, Una Chaudhuri, Fritz Ertl, and Oliver Kellhammer. Thanks again to Joe Meppelink for donating the solar-powered containers that housed the installation on Rice campus, to Rice Operations for constructing the walkways and wiring the containers, and to Joe Campana for organizing the project. Other non-panel features included posters from the students of ENST 202 and a podcast featuring symposium speakers. Thanks also to Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe for hosting dinner at their home on Friday evening. Last but not least, this year’s symposium, like last year’s, couldn’t have happened without Andrea Galindo’s hard work as planner and coordinator. Thanks Andrea!

The symposium began on Thursday with a keynote from Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton. Oppenheimer, a leading climate scientist who for years has served on the International Panel for Climate Change, studies climate change at the intersection policy and science. He offered an in-depth review of the recent Paris Agreement, its potential and its limitations, alongside the various climate models. Oppenheimer underscored the need for the humanities and social sciences to play a greater role in these conversations, because ultimately we’re not challenged with a lack scientific knowledge around what needs to be done but a lack of political will and social imagination.

Friday’s first panel, Visions of Energy, moderated by Rice’s Caroline Levander, was an ideal transition from Oppenheimer’s talk with panelists presenting on the ways in which energy is experienced and experimented with in the social, artistic, and literary imagination. Lynn Badia from the University of Alberta explored the concept of limitless or “free” energy as one of the narratives driving the energy crisis solutions and the implications of thinking about energy free from material or ecological constraints. Dan Hackbarth of Colgate University offered a presentation detailing the work of two Bauhaus artists active during the 1920s and 1930s who integrated technology and mechanical design into their art work to explore how the dynamic properties of light and sound understood as forms of energy affect human consciousness and sensory perception. Andreas Malm from Lund University followed with a stirring review of two past literary works of Ghassan Kanafani and Joseph Conrad to examine two critical moments in the history of the fossil fuel economy to argue that fossil-fuel fiction existed prior to our current preoccupation with global warming and should be read anew in order to glean new insights into our current climate predicament. Natasha Zaretsky of University of Southern Illinois provided a historical account of the role nuclear energy has played in the postwar U.S. energy imagination by demonstrating how nuclear energy has been imagined as a techno-utopian solution to energy that is cleaner than “dirty” fossil fuel energy; an object of public fear related to atomic weapons testing and nuclear fallout; and an object of fascination inspired by early beliefs that radiation had near “magical” properties. By understanding the historical contexts which shaped U.S. nuclear imaginaries, Zaretsky turned to the contemporary to explore the implications of the resurgent interest in nuclear power as an energy solution and a tool to fight climate change.

With the epochal shift in how humans interact with the earth known as the Anthropocene, human societies are forced to find new ways to live upon the planet. The papers on “Living in the Anthropocene I” explored the construction and reconstruction of this new relationship. First, Cara Daggett interrogated the meanings of energy and work through exploring the advent of thermodynamics and energy science in Great Britain during the 19th century. The discovery and widespread use of fossil fuels forced religious thinkers, particularly Scottish Presbyterians, to reconcile industrialization and religious beliefs. They largely did so through the laws of thermodynamics and the bifurcation of the holiness of work and the sinfulness of waste. The implications of this definition of work are still with us, as work is still narrowly defined along Eurocentric, racist, classist, and gendered lines. Daggett concluded by musing upon how post-work and post-carbon politics might merge to resurrect time and energy from narrowly conceived work. Next, Cymene Howe, an associate professor of anthropology at Rice, challenged participants to consider how humans might rethink their place in the world. Focusing on the construction of wind farms on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, Howe described how windmills in this region disrupted the breeding grounds and migratory routes of a number of bird species. In so doing, Howe suggested that this period in human history may serve as a kind of beta test for humanity to remake, hone, and reverse engineer how humans live in the world and take into consideration and think with other species. Finally, Tim Morton, a professor of English at Rice, provocatively suggested a reconsideration of Marx. Claiming that Marxist thinking cannot work without including the non-human world, Morton asserted that cross-species solidarity could be had through rethinking, and perhaps abandoning, the sharp distinction between the human and nonhuman worlds. Focusing on what unites, say, mammals as a group has the potential to disrupt, or at least question, Marxist thinking and its focus on ill-defined “human nature.”

Friday’s third panel included presentations from the artists Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse, a dual presentation by Timothy Morton and Dominic Boyer, and a paper from the media scholar Marissa Parham. Ellsworth and Kruse presented together on the 2010 Japanese movie Land of Hope. Ellsworth and Kruse were interested in the developing a “cultural energetics” to respond to the dangerous implications of energy use in the Anthropocene—how it commits us to rhythms out of pace with those of the earth system. They treated the film as a model of minimal and nomadic ways of being that would serve as possible answers to the more Promethean versions of the Anthropocene subject. Morton and Boyer described their theory of the “hyposubject” (see recent excerpt in Cultural Anthropology), the inverse of Morton’s theory of the hyperobject massively distributed in space and/or time relative to human beings. Inspired by Morton’s concept and Boyer’s reading of the anime series Attack on Titan, hyposubjectivity is a response to the notion that hyperobjects such as climate and radioactive waste make humans into passive observers of an object world that outscales us. The hybosubject is a subject that can still exist and act, but not in the masculinist way attributed to more hubristic and anthropocentric hypersubjects such as (for example) the figure of the astronaut. Parham explored blackness and black aesthetics in the Anthropocene, treating writers such as Toni Morrison and W. E. B. DuBois as philosophers and not “only” as novelists and critics.  Bringing Morrison together with Bruno Latour, Parham argued that African-American artists such as Wanuri Kahiu and Kendrick Lamar offer useful ways of thinking alternate futures in the Anthropocene. The disjointedness of time often discussed by commentators on the Anthropocene is also endemic to African and African American conceptions of time.

The final panel explored the myriad genres, both textual and performative, that have become suffused with oil, energy, and environmental concern. First, Graeme MacDonald, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, discussed the ways in which modern environmentalist protest has mobilized community theater and smaller-scale performance as an important aspect of its activism. In venues ranging from the British Museum to local pubs, activists have used performances that rely on simple production to deliver a clear message to critique not only the increasingly high environmental price of oil extraction but the ways in which companies such as BP have used the persuasive power of wealth to influence how, where, and for whom cultural institutions reach their publics. Petro-theater embraces diverse forms to show how cultures surrounding oil and energy are not determined or preordained, but can be changed through activism. Next, Fiona Polack, an associate professor of English at Memorial University, investigated the genre of government reports on offshore oil drilling disasters. Using reports generated by governmental entities in response to drilling platform accidents in waters adjacent to developed countries, like the 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster on the Grand Banks, Polack described how, while these reports create a narrative that reinforces the status quo, the thousands of pages of testimonials upon which these reports are largely based confuse that primary narrative. Although the out-of-sight nature of these drilling operations may remove them from popular consciousness these disasters, and consequently these reports, serve to remind the public of the problems of oil extraction, but also the quotidian elements of workers’ lives that are likewise disrupted. Bill Dawson, a former reporter for the Houston Chronicle and founder of Texas Climate News, then shared his own experience as a journalist covering environmental issues. The growth of environmental reporting was largely a response to the twin forces of the environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s and the growth of investigative journalism in response to the era of Vietnam and Watergate. Dawson concluded by discussing how the downtown in the newspaper industry is particularly problematic for the environmental beat as these kinds of problems can only be understood through the kind of sustained attention that dedicated journalists, an increasingly rare position, can provide. Finally, Matthew Henderson, a poet and author of The Lease, shared how his experience of working on drilling sites in southern Alberta influenced his writing. Describing how his work has been “contaminated” by oil, Henderson discussed how his work sought to depict his realities of working class life, with its rampant misogyny and homophobia, while offering a subtle critique of that world.

The symposium closed with a lunchtime keynote by Rice professor of architecture Albert Pope. In recent years, Pope has been engaged in an effort to design walkable neighborhoods for the Houston area using wooden building materials that are carbon neutral over their full life cycle. In a powerful visual presentation, he showed us plans for a project multi-decade project that would exemplify a new organizational logic geared to urban density and to reducing the (very substantial) carbon footprint of buildings. The presentation was also thoroughly theorized, with references to work on architecture and climate change by thinkers such as Peter Sloterdijk, Bruno Latour, and Steven Shaviro. Drawing on the design of a dense community in Hong Kong, Pope’s plan was both modern and ecological. Far from seeing ecological design as a matter of creating tiny houses on remote pieces of land, Pope envisions a Houston landscape that has become dense through re-centralization but also wild through the preservation of bayou ecosystems. His complex project seeks an architecture intimate with the earth’s carbon cycle through every stage of the project.

We invite you to watch Cultures of Energy 5 presentations on our YouTube channel and to check back in a year for an account of the next symposium.