Launched in December 2015 by Rice University’s Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe, the Cultures of Energy podcast has since featured over 150 episodes with a diverse range of activists, historians, scientists, anthropologists, politicians, and artists as guests.
We look forward to expanding our audience even more in 2019 and continuing to think about new ways to use the podcast to create community. As always, we welcome and encourage suggestions from you, our listeners, as to how we can improve the podcast moving forward. This year we were excited to launch a Twitter Climate Humanities list—if you or someone you know studies the cultural dimensions of climate change and climate action, send us a DM to join!
As a way to look back on the year of podcasts, each of the CENHS predoctoral fellows were asked to choose (one of) their favorite podcasts and write a brief reflection.
So many memorable episodes punctuated this year’s Cultures of Energy podcast, ranging from Shakespearean Steve Mentz’s thought-provoking comments in January to artist Maria Whiteman’s conversation about her recent work in December. The podcast’s fearless leaders, Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe, can arguably boast their most diverse and remarkable season to date. While it was nearly impossible to choose one podcast that represented such panoply of ideas and guests, I kept returning to episode 115 featuring anthropologist Joshua Reno.
There were at least two reasons I continued to circle back to this episode. First, on a formal level, I admired how Reno models his own intellectual history, where—with the help of Dominic and Cymene’s insightful questions regarding their guest’s academic “deep cuts”—Reno agilely weaves together his undergraduate thesis on the “Columbine Effect” with his ongoing interest in waste and discard studies. The result is not only a peek into the progress of an academic career across each stage of development—from undergraduate student to tenured faculty member—but also an example of how such framing questions evolve alongside research interests. In a particularly enlightening moment, Reno explains how his interest in waste emerges from the same kinds of questions that inspired him to study the “Columbine Effect”:
With school shootings you had an eruption of violence somewhere, and suddenly … the history of American violence … pierces ordinary, regular American life … I thought there was a bizarre parallel when there would be a garbage strike, and suddenly garbage would erupt into ordinary normal streets that are otherwise cleaned of debris, or basements flood with effluent (25:05)
Waste and school shootings both involve a disruption of “ordinary, regular American life,” and both require a more robust theory of how these eruptive moments engender responses on the part of a modern public increasingly acclimatized to such social and environmental forms of violence.
Secondly, on the level of content, Reno does more than merely summarize his influential work with waste and recycling—work that is exhibited most profoundly in his 2015 monograph Waste Away: Living and Working with a North American Landfill (University of California Press, 2016) and the collection Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values and Social Relations (University of Chicago Press, 2012), which he co-edited with another towering figure in the world of waste studies, Catherine Alexander. Reno helps characterize the many ways in which waste requires a “biosemiotic approach,” inspired at least in part by Mary Douglas’s pioneering work on waste and matter (33:54). Such biosemiotics demand we acknowledge how “perspectives on waste are not simply held by people” (35:38). Landfills are nexuses for myriad forms of life. As Reno points out, many landfill sites will blare the noise of “seagulls in distress” in an effort to ward off scavenger birds, who so often flock to this locations (38:35). What is this, asks Reno, if not a kind of semiotic work across or between species?
At the end of the episode, after a fascinating discussion of landfills as an “example of a perpetual metabolic rift” (42:50), Reno alludes to his current work on military industrial waste, which he understands to be an unprecedented problem following a Cold War era in which so many machines and weapons were designed but never deployed (56:16). From Columbine to the Cold War, from the biosemiotics of landfills to the economies of recycling, Joshua Reno’s interview on this year’s Cultures of Energy podcast was as memorable as it was illuminating.
After narrowing my favorite podcasts of the year down to three finalists, I settled on Jeffrey J. Cohen’s interview with Dominic and Cymene because I think it represents the very best of what the Cultures of Energy podcast has to offer. Cohen, who is now Dean of Humanities at Arizona State University, joins the podcast to both discuss recently completed projects like Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) and talk through ongoing questions and ideas regarding the cultural and narrative responses to catastrophe he continues to wrestle with in his current projects. His discussion of medieval philosopher Albertus Magnus’s nonhuman “ethics of relationality,” which has since been obfuscated by temporal and historical erasure, nicely captures the continued importance of medieval and early modern scholarship in relation to the shortcomings and misapprehensions of modern environmental awareness. Equally as compelling, though, is Cohen’s account of his extended conversations with planetary scientist Linda T. Elkins-Tanton. These conversations collectively led to their co-authored Object Lessons publication Earth (Bloomsbury, 2017), a text that serves as the gold standard for what interdisciplinary collaboration between the natural and human sciences can offer when done the right way.
Though he would certainly shy away from such a title, Cohen has become something of a de facto spokesperson for the environmental humanities throughout the last decade. A leading voice of contemporary ecocriticism, he has been central to the conversations determining how scholarship attentive to our increasingly dire environmental problems should navigate through our present-day social, intellectual, and geopolitical climate. His commitment to diversity and collaboration in his own scholarly endeavors over the past few years provides us with a glimpse of what the future of humanities publishing could (and perhaps should) look like, while his attention to the uneven effects of global environmental degradation have kept the all-too-real political stakes of ecocriticism in full focus. Cohen’s contribution to the podcast only gives us a snapshot of the breadth of his wide-ranging work, but this conversation with Dominic and Cymene is requisite listening for those of us attempting to balance our commitment to literary and cultural history with the very real urgency invoked by our current moment.
Following their appearance at Petrocultures 2018, Dominic and Cymene hosted a key organizer of that event: Graeme Macdonald, associate professor of English at the University of Warwick and energy humanities specialist. Throughout the conversation, Macdonald draws widely on various topics and sources in order to illustrate the importance of thinking about petro-narratives, and questions of petro-visibility, in nuanced and adventurous ways. Complicating the common understanding of petroculture as “a field which brings oil into visibility” (00:19:13), Macdonald discusses how for him, growing up on the west coast of Scotland in the seventies and eighties meant that oil was “palpable,” “never all that invisible” (00:19:07; 00:19:13). However, he contrasts this visibility with the relative invisibility of oil in the fiction of that era (00:19:47). With such valences of visibility and invisibility in mind, the discussion turns to the importance of approaching cultural texts with “energy eyes.” For example, to what extent, Macdonald wonders, might cultural myths of “monsters under the ground” (00:52:46), as illustrated by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, and Alasdair Gray, represent, and feed into, a deeply ingrained fear of extraction in Scottish culture (00:53:58)? Moreover, might a recognition of these narratives assist in explaining a recent Scottish moratorium on inland drilling? It is by asking such questions that Macdonald is able to hone in on the exigency of identifying underlying petro/carbon narratives and the insights this process can grant into matters of policy, infrastructure and societal self-conceptualization. The interview ends with Macdonald and our hosts reflecting on the difficulties of imaging and writing “non-carbon pleasures,” and asking whether, if distributed in narrative form, such imagined pleasures might be able to “molecuralize into something that becomes a larger movement” (00:100:22). As a whole, this podcast serves as an engaging reminder of the importance of bold, forward-looking literary criticism.
The interview with Cara Daggett is my favorite among all of the informative and intriguing podcasts this year. How did we come up with the concept of energy as fuel (coal or oil) that is commonly understood in political science today? This is the question that centers the discussion. Cara Daggett, Dominic, and Cymene take us on a wonderful journey of how people have conceived energy over time and how the conception of energy has evolved and changed our worldview. The journey begins with Aristotle’s conception of ενέργεια which means, roughly, being at work toward goodness, then moves to the modern conception of energy in the Victorian period where people see energy as thermodynamics that pair with work, labor, and productivity. Then this idea of energy and its relationship with labor moves us to see the world as a laboring body. Next, the journey takes a turn to entropy, decay, and waste and how Victorian energy imaginaries have been extended to include much discourse on renewable energy. And so much more! Finally, the journey ends with an idea about feminist energy systems.
The richness of this podcast can hardly be captured in a brief review. You’ll highly anticipate reading Cara Daggett’s book The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work (Duke University Press, forthcoming) after listening to this podcast, just as I did!
Of the many wonderful and thought-provoking podcasts of 2018, the one I’d like to spotlight is Dominic and Cymene’s discussion with Adriana Petryna wherein she traces her long-held interest in orientations toward and experiences of disaster from her prior work on Chernobyl up through her current work on wildfires in the United States. The themes of this podcast were especially prescient in that Professor Petryna’s visit to Rice coincided with the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, now referred to as the “Camp Fire.” One week after Professor Petryna’s visit to Rice I attended the American Anthropology Association meetings in San Jose where smoke from this devastating fire continued to linger, permeating the carpets and temporary room dividers of the event’s convention center as well as the breathing masks of its participants. As the unprecedented speed and scale of the fire’s destruction was detailed by various media outlets so too was its place in California’s history and future, as the growing trend of more and more severe wildfires was marked as a novel departure from prior trends at the same time that current trends, exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change, promised ever-more-threatening wildfires to come. Watching this unfold on TV and outside my Airbnb window, I was reminded by the following excerpt drawn from Petryna’s work by Cymene:
The suddenness of the shifts between the critical thresholds and the regime shifts can register as anomalous at first, as in that fire season was long, but then they stabilize into a new state of ecosystem organization, as in fire seasons are getting longer, and then they can be seen in the more specific scale of that mountain is burning.
Despite having spent a lot of time reading, thinking, and writing about the phenomenon of climate change and its effects, I had never experienced it at the specific scale of “that mountain is burning,” which carries with it a whole host of concerns and sensibilities often obscured by risk metrics like global warming by 2 degrees Celsius. Climate change, I found, becomes something different entirely when it demands at once banal and life-altering questions from you like do I need to buy a breathing mask? Which kind of breathing mask do I need to have? Where can I buy one? How expensive is it? What is the proper way to wear it? Of course, these questions pale in comparison to questions faced by people in the fire’s path as well wildfire fire fighters tasked with the improbable assignment of curbing the swelling tides of a fiery hurricane. Nonetheless, they offer us an important entry point for treating seriously what Professor Petryna calls the “diligent insanity” of emergency response in the era of climate change. Over the course of Professor Petryna’s deft and thoughtful treatment of emergency response in the wake of unprecedented disaster, she opens entire planes of sensibility for us to consider that are vital for understanding not only the form of contemporary emergency response, but the forms and textures of quotidian life in the Anthropocene itself.
One of the many memorable podcasts for me this year was the conversation with anthropologist Laura Ogden. As Dominic and Cymene note, Ogden was exploring multispecies relations and thinking with multispecies ethnography many years before these became routine phrases in anthropology. But what led her to this kind of thinking in the first place is precisely what is still so crucial to remember in our now expanded conversations about our relations with nonhuman beings: the role of landscape, place, and space in co-producing such relations. Ogden explains how she came to her earlier research on the Everglades—published in her fantastic book, Swamplife (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) and elsewhere—by encountering understandings and experiences of the Everglade landscape, through primarily alligator hunters and “gladesmen,” which differed from the natural history and ecological understandings of the Everglades that she had grown up with. For her it was critical to understand the hidden histories of these landscapes we might view as wilderness. Through her research it became clear that the Everglades landscape for a hunter is a completely different space to live in, experience, and understand, and this was what attuned her to how entities like hunters, alligators, and mangroves together co-construct a landscape. This, the situated and historical production of landscapes, in turn is what drives her theorizing of multispecies relationality. This kind of approach to multispecies relations demonstrates explicitly the broader questions around place and history always at stake in such multispecies conversations, and reminds us to work against dehistoricizing and unsituated conceptions of more-than-human relations in the narratives that permeate our social worlds as well as in our own scholarship. Such a task is increasingly vital as we theorize what the Anthropocene means for our present and future. As Ogden notes toward the end of the podcast, it can be helpful to attune to affective registers like wonder and loss in the stories we tell about the past, present, and future, to ensure we pay attention to the politics and histories of our conceptions of our relations with the world and other beings.
My choice this year for my favorite podcast is perhaps a bit biased—I had the opportunity to take part in the Rice Seminar “After Biopolitics” with Maria Whiteman in 2015. Since then, I’ve followed her various artistic endeavors, which I encourage all of you to do as well. As Dominic and Cymene point out early in the recording, it is a challenge to discuss Whiteman’s visual and tactical artwork through the aural format of a podcast so supplement your listening experience with her website! While Whiteman discusses several of her installations, I was drawn to the common theme of touch. From her installations such as, “Anthropocene: Traces of Another Time in Landscape Photographs and Visual” (where Whiteman focused on a particular rock where bison had rubbed against it centuries ago as a point to emphasize changes in landscapes and environments) to her piece, “Mycelia” 2018-2022 (which shows fungi growing on the back of a human body), Whiteman’s visual representations of the Anthropocene push us to recognize how we come into close contact and proximity with things beyond ourselves—beyond the human, beyond our current moment in time and beyond our comfort. As Whiteman comments, she is drawn to reach out and grasp the things we might not; the things that would give us pause do not phase her. From these moments, she is able to beautifully capture these tactical encounters and recreate them through poignant and powerful images. Her narrations on this podcast provide an interesting and illuminating backstory to the well theorized and curated images on her website.
“We have these enormous walls called the Sonoran Desert, called the South Texas Backwoods that for a long time have been slowing people down through physical trauma and in some cases death.”
In this episode, Cymene and Dominic talk with Jason De León about contemporary U.S. border politics. By telling powerful stories about suffering and violence in the borderlands, De León’s longstanding work has nuanced common and simplified understandings of U.S. immigration experiences and policies. In this episode, De León stresses the importance in writing about the landscapes of the borderlands, specifically detailing how the desert has become a weaponized space used to indirectly kill people along the U.S. and Mexico Border. Providing a history of the U.S. Border Patrol strategy called “Prevention Through Deterrence,” De León reminds our audience that desert environments and ecologies are not passive geographies. Distance, plants, animals, and temperature are all taken into consideration in the design of a policy that “knowingly puts people in harm’s way and has killed literally thousands.” Out of sight and out of mind, the vastness of the desert is used to misplace the blame of migrant deaths on the dangers of wilderness rather than the neglect of the U.S. government.
An associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, Jason De León’s work has humanized the stories of immigrants who have suffered and sacrificed to cross the treacherous territory of the U.S.-Mexico border. De León expands on his previous work by working through Trump’s policies and the growing involvement of the Mexican government in Central American migration. Currently, Jason De León is working on his second book about Honduran smugglers and continues to collaborate with photographers, archeologists, and other artists to curate exhibits about immigration that deal with issues of violence and hypermasculinity. He remains committed to writing anthropology that is accessible to the public all the while remaining critical. Tune in to listen to his upcoming exhibits, collaborations, and learn more about his organization, the Undocumented Migration Project.
Listen to this podcast episode not only to stay current with the humanitarian crises at the U.S.-Mexico border, but to think more critically about the politics of landscape.