Michael Marder’s latest project Energy Dreams: Of Actuality (Columbia, 2017), calls on us to ask a question that has—inexplicably—been missing from public and intellectual discourse: the question of energy. Making this initial claim of Marder’s so surprising is the fact that energy has been something of a buzzword of late, with global warming, peak oil anxieties, and increasingly frequent energy crises exposing us to our fraught relationship to energy. Yet critical exploration has been mostly limited to exposing the destructive pitfalls of popular energy sources like fossil fuels and nuclear power. What has been lacking in these conversations, though, has been a devoted interrogation of the fundamental attitudes and beliefs we have concerning energy more broadly; that is, how we approach energy as a concept divorced from any particular material entity like oil or coal. Once we arrive at this question, wherein we consider “energy as a question,” we can begin to grapple with how we dream of energy, or maybe, as Marder suggests, how energy dreams us.
Taking this critical gap surrounding one of the most pervasive concepts in contemporary life as a starting point, Marder attempts to map out what it is that we mean when we talk about ‘energy’, and how this modern usage of the term has infiltrated the very foundations of our discourses, institutions, and even ontologies. Looking back to the etymology of Aristotle’s energeia (en + ergon, translated as ‘en-workment’), Marder reveals a particular ambiguity at the roots of energy. From the perspective of Aristotle, the ‘work’ of energeia, “embraces the process and the product, activity and actuality,” thereby rejecting the temporal and ontological distinction between potentiality and actuality that largely defines how we now conceptualize energy. Marder is led to ask, “Is our world the Greek universe upside-down?” once it becomes clear that the “multiple, heterogeneous,” and above all, ambiguous energy of Aristotle is at odds with the modern attitudes toward the concept. The present-day use of the term not only delineates between motion and rest, absence and presence, becoming and being; but we have also vigorously privileged the always-receding fulfillment of the potential over the finite presence of the actual.
This modern ontological inversion through which we fetishize process at the expense of product—a structure that mediates our most basic attitudes towards energy—inevitably leads to what Marder calls, “not only the neglect but also the destruction of actuality.” In rejecting the superficial presence of things, we come to view the world not as an immanent entity, but as something beckoning to us to be put to work. The extractive methods employed to break through the surface of the earth and unleash flows of materialized potential in the form of fossil fuels exemplifies how conditioned we are to sacrifice the product in favor of the process. But so too do our fundamental epistemological methods and assumptions. “Thinking,” Marder provocatively suggests, “has assumed the shape of mental fracking.” An unsettling thought, but one which becomes increasingly appropriate as we recognize the intensive labor required to move beyond the surface-level and shallow interpretations of meaning to which we often condescend. After all, “[w]hy would the style of energy production and extraction be at variance with that of the production and extraction of knowledge?”
Throughout the book, Marder traces out how our deep-seated preference for potentiality has come to inform the underlying logics of Western (even ‘global’) society writ large. His chapter on economics, for example, discusses the way in which the energy of capitalism is defined by its resistance to the entropic connotations of stasis; it instead locates its vital energy in the perpetual expansion of production and circulation of capital. The endless pursuit of money engendered by the capitalist system is perhaps the best example of how the actuality of the world has been brushed aside to make way for a potentiality that itself can never be actualized. Whereas economy derives from the combination of oikos (dwelling) and nomos (law), capitalist economy, Marder points out, “is the law (of value, of supply and demand, or of the market) minus the dwelling, decontextualized and uprooted from local belonging.” The energy of modern economics, therefore, has been stripped of its grounding in the actualized and forced to operate exclusively in the potential.
Likewise, Marder maps out the way modern theology, psychology, and politics all assume a similar logic. In another chapter, Marder explains how science, which purports to be about the study of material reality at its core, has adopted an equally tenuous relationship with actuality. Marder focuses primarily on physics, the scientific discipline out of which the study of energy emerged, largely because of the material and discursive consequences resulting from the tendency in physics to depart from the actual. We see this in the twentieth-century when nuclear physicists infamously assumed the awful power “[t]o actualize the absolute deactualization of what is” in their development of nuclear weapons, but also in the way the law of conservation of energy “spurns finality, finitude—indeed, life itself” by assuring us that energy merely mutates into other forms and can therefore never be truly lost.
In response to such a deeply embedded set of attitudes and beliefs about energy, Marder calls on us to return to the ambiguous energy described by Aristotle; one in which actuality and potentiality are not held in strict opposition to one another, but rather exist on a continuum in which they are indistinguishable. The environmental crisis has been heavily compounded by the crisis of the question of energy described by Marder, resulting from the destructive-extractive mentality that has transformed the actuality of the world into an always-inviting potentiality. The urgency of the planetary crisis demands a radical reworking of how we approach energy at every level; from the way we construct policy to the way thought operates to the way we dream. Marder’s book rigorously engages with concepts and ideas from across the disciplines—ranging from quantum physics to Carl Schmitt’s political theory to plant biology—that gesture towards a more desirable relationship with energy in an effort to begin considering what such an ontological transformation might look like. “Nothing short of fundamental changes in the architecture or the infrastructure of energy will do,” and the only way this can happen is by reevaluating our energy cultures from the bottom up. Maybe there is a proper way to approach the question of energy, says Marder—but it will require us to dream.
Kevin MacDonnell is a CENHS predoctoral fellow, Diana Hobby editorial fellow, and PhD student in English at Rice University. His research explores the ways in which 17th and 18th century literature and philosophy contributed to the development of early theories of energy and the environment.