Aug 3, 2017

Ep. #83 – Jennifer Lieberman

Dominic and Cymene go into the vault to talk steam tunnels, heat wells, bland college town food and Enrico Fermi’s ghost. Then (10:41) we are fortunate to be joined by Jennifer Lieberman from the University of North Florida who introduces her terrific new book, Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882-1952 (MIT Press, 2017). Jenni explains how electricity’s symbolization of both nature and human mastery of nature captured the cultural imagination of the early 20th century and she compares electricity’s deep cultural significance in its early decades with how concepts like “information” and “communication” infuse popular ontologies today. We move from there to electrovitalism, how electricity transformed the industrial era, and early electric fantasies and utopias, not least Tesla’s wireless electricity. We examine how the rise of systems thinking paralleled the institutionalization of electricity and the unique kinds of metonymy that electricity afforded. We delve into her case studies including what Mark Twain, Jack London and Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote about electricity and how racism, feminism and electricity intersected during the period. We close with a discussion of what writers today are doing with electricity at a time when new electric utopias promise an escape route from fossil-fueled climate change.