On December 23, 2015, Rice University’s Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe launched the inaugural Cultures of Energy podcast with science fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi as their first guest. Since then, the podcast has run 47 additional episodes featuring a diverse range of activists, historians, scientists, anthropologists, politicians, and artists as guests. Cymene and Dominic have brought the podcast overseas, recording episodes in Iceland and continental Europe, and have had the opportunity to interview some of the most influential contributors to the discourse on climate change and the energy humanities, including Anna Tsing, Amitav Ghosh, Annemarie Mol, Timothy Morton, and Toby Jones, among a rich collection of many others.
Our initial motivation for the Cultures of Energy podcast was to share some of the conversations we have been having at Rice and at CENHS in particular. We had all these wonderful scholars coming to campus and giving lectures, but we knew that the reach of their work could be much more. With that potential in mind we set out to explore the possibilities of, what was for us anyway, a new medium. The podcast was and is an experimental collaboration to engage wider audiences in a mode that is not the norm for academic work. The philosophy that we try to bring to the podcast is that of building communication and relationships between social scientists, humanists, artists and activists who are working on questions of energy and environment. From the vantage point of the ecologies of academic life and contemporary culture, we wanted to go off-screen, to engage with smart people and new ideas away from the electric glow of laptops and smart phones. This is old school spoken language that is of course digitally mediated, but that also has that singular quality of being live.
We thought we’d be lucky to have 10,000 downloads in the first year, but as we have just passed 35,000 downloads we really want to send many thanks to all our listeners!
As a way to look back on the year of podcasts, each of CENHS’s predoctoral fellows were asked to choose their favorite podcast and write a brief reflection on the episode they chose. In addition to this list, the fellows unanimously selected an additional podcast they felt represented the best the Cultures of Energy podcast has to offer. Check back next week to see which episode they chose.
Click the image from each featured episode for a link to the podcast.
Episode #4: John Hartigan
Cymene’s interview with John Hartigan was my favorite podcast of the year. John Hartigan is a cultural anthropologist at University of Texas at Austin and studies race, genomics, and multispecies ethnography. His most recent book is entitled Aesop’s Anthropology: A Multispecies Approach (Minnesota: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2015) and his current project, Care of the Species: Cultivating Biodiversity in Mexico and Spain (Minnesota: Univ. of Minnesota Press, forthcoming), develops an ethnographic perspective on a range of botanical settings. “Where is the culture?” is Hartigan’s driving theoretical question. As one of the central and most provocative players in a growing body of ethnographers attempting to expand cultural analysis beyond the human to analyze nonhuman forms of culture, Hartigan finds culture (almost) everywhere. For Hartigan, culture is simply that which molds ecologies and biologies (“mediums, not meanings”), and therefore looks to concepts like “care” and “domesticization” that happen in nonhuman registers. This Cultures of Energy podcast is dense with Hartigan’s enlightening theoretical insights (for example: how race was originally attributed to nonhumans before humans), and also includes a discussion on the accessibility of the scholarly form, Chakrabarty’s ‘species thinking’ concept, and the ongoing Flint water crisis.
Episode #19: Dipesh Chakrabarty
Choosing a favorite podcast is a fairly difficult task given the broad range of thinkers that have sat down with CENHS this past year. From Anna Tsing walking us through the capitalist ruins with a feminist gaze to Jan Zalasiewicz’s peeling back the curtain on the Anthropocene Working Group’s deliberations over where and whether to mark the Anthropocene, there is much to revisit and consider in our lovely, provocative collection. Ultimately, however, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s return to his seminal text, “The Climate of History” and his discussion of species thinking as a framework in which we link human history to the deep history of planetary life as a way to think with both our earthly co-inhabitants and humanity writ-large to imagine new forms of planetary politics won me over. Without dismissing its significance, Chakrabarty also demonstrates the insufficiencies and limitations of capitalist critique to mobilize against climate change which we all would do well to consider as polarization continues over concepts like the Capitalocene versus Anthropocene when we should perhaps start a different conversation altogether.
Episode #28: Fredrik Albritton Jonsson
Fredrik Albritton Jonsson’s conversation with Dominic and Cymene gets the nod as my favorite Cultures of Energy podcast of 2016. While climate change and environmental degradation are largely understood to be contemporary issues that have only emerged in the past 50 years or so, Jonsson—a historian at the University of Chicago—traces environmentalism back to the period in which Europe was transitioning to industrial technologies and economies; a time often associated with the starting point of large-scale anthropogenic climate change. Jonsson’s most provocative contribution to the podcast is his analysis of a persistent tension visible in the work of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natural historians, economists, and politicians alike; that is, the simultaneous belief in cornucopianism—the idea that nature’s abundance is unlimited—and the recognition that natural resource supplies were exhaustible. Like so many of the fundamental assumptions we still hold today that have roots in the Enlightenment, this contradiction remains engrained in the way we perceive and relate to fossil fuels, and Jonsson’s attempts to diagnose the intellectual and material epistemologies that give rise to such a paradox is more important now than ever. After listening to Jonsson’s discussion of Enlightenment environmentalism, I was compelled to look into his scholarly work and was not disappointed by what I found. Jonsson brings the same intellectual curiosity, rigorous research methods, and stunning clarity to his writing that comes across in his Cultures of Energy conversation. I highly recommend his book Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2013), which is discussed at length in the podcast, along with his most recent work Green Victorians: The Simple Life in John Ruskin’s Lake District (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016).
Episode #39: Stacy Alaimo (introducing Felix)
From among a growing list of favorite podcasts, I chose episode #39 with Stacy Alaimo, Professor of English, Distinguished Teaching Professor, and Director of the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Minor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Highlights from this episode include an early shoutout to the blue ecological work of literary scholar Steve Mentz (St. John’s University); an analysis of “squirrel metonymy” with help from Stacy’s German Shepherd, Felix; and a discussion of her important, new book, Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (Minnesota: Univ. of Minnesota, 2016). In the podcast, Alaimo expands on her notion of transcorporeality, or, “the human as immersed within material agencies, flows, substances” (13:07). She then glosses the provocative imagery contained in Exposed, such as the “ethics of inhabiting,” “queer animals,” “naked protesting,” and artistic representations of “the Anthropocene at sea” (13:22). The heart of the episode involves a nuanced discussion of what materiality, new materialism, and material feminisms mean for present environmental discourse. For Alaimo, materiality signifies neither a return to old guard phenomenology nor a call for “direct experience” (45:13). She rather turns to scholarship that engages the material world in novel ways, citing critics like Kathryn Yusoff (Queen Mary University of London) and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (The George Washington University), who “theorize the enmenshment of the human with the geologic, with the lithic, so there isn’t that sense of the Anthropocene as something that you are distant from, or geology as something that the human is removed from” (50:30). Ultimately, Alaimo’s sense of “materiality” and “transcorporeality” help uncover the possibilities of “local” nodes in a much larger network of exposure, a network that “doesn’t let anything off the hook” (59:21). This wonderful conversation with Stacy Alaimo offers a great introduction to an important scholar’s work, while also providing the kinds of information that can inspire other activists, theorists, and writers.
Episode #43: Elizabeth Povinelli
Elizabeth Povinelli is “not in love with life in its singularity and exceptionalism.” She instead criticizes “our love affair with the concept of life and its difference from non-life.” This episode is the perfect companion to reading Povinelli’s new book Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2016). She discusses some of the fundamental arguments of the book and situates it in opposition to the literature on the Anthropocene. She introduces her Karrabing analytics and the figures of her geontologies, the Desert, the Animist and the Virus, which can however serve to explain or categorize much of the literature circulated around the concept of the Anthropocene. The dedramatization of life is central to the project, something that is clear in Povinelli’s use of “forms of existence” and how they change through entities “turning away” from and towards old and new things, instead of putting existence at the heart of a process of life and death. The interview was recorded before election day but the episode starts with a chat between Dominic and Cymene about the election, which was recorded shortly after Trump was elected president. The episode is therefore both situated in a pre- and post-Trump era.