I make this point in Onto-Cartography, have made it elsewhere in talks and articles as well as on this blog, but it’s worth making it again and again: it’s remarkable that there is next to no discourse on energy and work in philosophy and the world of theory. Let me be clear, when I make this claim I’m well aware that there are piles of things written on things like petropolitics and labor. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about energy and work as fundamental ontological concepts, as central dimensions of being; and above all I’m talking about energy in quite literal terms. When I refer to energy I’m quite literally referring sunlight, heat, gravitational energy, chemical energy, calories, etc. When I talk about work I’m talking about the performance of an operation or a transformation in state or movement through the application of force and the flow of energy. For example, I’m referring to the way in which is piston is made to move in a car engine. In this regard, labor is a form of work because it produces a transformation in state or movement, but it is only a small subset of what constitutes work. Work is at work everywhere in the universe or in being.
I’m thus working on the premise that for everything that happens, for everything that exists– up to and including thought itself (thought– this thing we mistakenly refer to as “ideal” –burns about 1/5 of the calories we consume) –both energy and work are required. Whether we’re speaking of our own bodies, cities, ecosystems, social assemblages, scholarly debates, etc., there’s no instance of process in the world– “process” being another name for “object” in the ontology I propose –that doesn’t involve energy and work. Work– another name for “operation” in my machinic ontology –and energy are irreducible dimensions of everything about us whether we’re talking about the natural world or the world of culture. Initially it might be difficult to see the relevance of work and energy as relevant to discussions of literature, but even a novel requires work and energy to be produced, transmitted and received. Even literary artifacts have a thermodynamic dimension.
This is not a metaphor. At this very moment as I write this post I am both burning calories and fossil fuels. This blog post is– as Negerastani might put it –ultimately “solar”, in that all of that energy is ultimately captured from sunlight, is ultimately transformed sunlight, concentrated sunlight, like the orange concentrate you buy at the supermarket, that was first transformed into a solid by plants, and then other solids whether in the form of fossil fuels or in the form of animal bodies that ate these plants. All living and social being is solar in its origin. We can see why the Greeks were disturbed when Anaxagoras suggested that the sun is not a god but rather a warm stone, for the ground of all our being is, in a sense, the sun. Alternatively, even a superheated stone in this context might as well be a god. Everything is condensed sunlight… A terrifying thought given that even gods or suns die and that interstellar travel is likely unfeasible in any meaningful way.
How is it that philosophy and theory seem to so persistently forget work and energy as fundamental dimension of being? How is it that these two dimensions of being aren’t basic concepts involved in every discussion of every issue? It’s as if for us philosophers there are only two domains: the domain of thought or mind and the domain of objects or material things. Thought or thing. Thought and thing. Even in the beautiful discussions of the body– which isn’t really the body but a description of our [unreliable] conscious experience of the body –in thinkers like Merleau-Ponty, talk of energy seems absent. I mean, eating isn’t a minor thing in life. Neither is fatigue. Maybe I’m just acutely sensitive to such things as I so often suffer from fatigue. At any rate, thought and thing seem to exhaust our categories and that’s that.
All of this is, I suppose, a rather trite observation. “Yes, yes, Levi, everything requires work and energy.” The thing is that I wonder if the absence of a well developed discourse about energy and work doesn’t blind us to certain functions of power structuring human life and collectives that might lie at the heart of our emancipatory struggles. I’m haunted by a passage in Zizek where he discusses Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason. There he writes that,
…Sloterdijk puts forward the thesis that ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical, which renders impossible– or, more precisely, vain –the classical critical ideological procedure. The cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he nonetheless still insists upon the mask. The formula, as proposed by Sloterdijk, would then be: ‘they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it’. Cynical reason is no longer naive, but is a paradox of an enlightened false consciousness: one knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still does not renounce it. (25 – 26)
They know it’s bull but they’re still doing it. How to explain this? Zizek goes on to suggest that ideology is not at the level of knowledge and belief, but rather of doing and what he calls “ideological fantasy”. “Consciously I know that money is nothing but paper, but I still behave towards it as if it had some sort of mystical value. Consciously I think religion is bull, yet when in church I still speak in hushed voices, avoid certain words, kneel during certain parts of the service, etc. I believe that my belief resides in my head; yet the truth of my belief– Zizek argues –lies in my actions, in what I do. If I am to overcome ideology, then, it is not simply a matter of changing my internal beliefs and convictions, but of overcoming this doing which is reflective of my ideological fantasy. I must traverse my fantasy.
I have no doubt that there is truth to Zizek’s thesis, but it will be noted that it nonetheless remains at the level of the discursive, thought, the signifier. It is still the discursive that’s the problem– and clearly the discursive is a part of the problem –even if that discursivity is unconscious. As a consequence, a change in this discursivity or fantasy structure will, the hypothesis runs, produce a change in these social assemblages.
Well, this can’t hurt. However, if it is true that all operations require energy for work to be performed, what if the answer to why people persist in oppressive conditions is far simpler? What if people are trapped in “energy sinks”, or basins of energy flow that allow for very little in the way of alternative forms of life? Here a person could debunk and ideology at the level of knowledge, traverse the fantasy at the level of fantasy, and still continue a form of life because they are dependent on a particular energy sink, a geography of energy, because this is required for them to operate at all. If this is true, we would be before a different site of the political besides that of semiopolitics (the deconstruction of discursive formation that bind people to ways of life) which might be called “thermopolitics”. Thermopolitics– and it’s much broader than I’m suggesting in this vignette –is not of the discursive order because the energetic and work is not the order of beliefs and ideologies. It pertains to real requirements for life and intervention in the thermopolitical dimension would require the formation of energy sinks Energy sinks can be thought as akin to spider webs that trap flies… Sometimes I think the sole theme of my thought, if I manage to think at all, is spider webs. I want to know a bit about the webs that capture us in forms of life, how they’re put together and how they function; and I want to know about these webs not to say that we’re irrevocably trapped in a regime of attraction, but so that they can be dismantled and so that we don’t engage in forms of intervention that entangle us more deeply in these webs like struggling flies. The way in which energy is configured in a particular social assemblage– the fuels we use to drive our technology, the availability and source of our calories, the fuels we use to heat our homes, travel and think, the way our agriculture is organized, the ways in which it is transported and distributed, etc. –are such a web. Indeed, money itself is, in part, a set of symbolic units representing energy flows (the food and fuel it can purchase) and capital is a dynamics of energy flows on place removed.
In saying all of this, however, I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting that thermopolitics ought to replace semiopolitics. It’s merely a different site of political struggle, a different site of political subjugation, requiring a different set of political interventions. Thermopolitics is, of course, politically relevant today because not only is it a site of subjugation in and through our dependence on a particular energy sink, but also because work of all kinds irrevocably produces waste (the second law of thermodynamics) and we today globally suffer from waste which is driving global warming. In addition to this, energy politics also is one of the driving forces behind global conflicts as can be seen in the constant wars waged over geographies rich in fossil fuels. In addition to thermopolitics there would also be geopolitics. By geopolitics I don’t not mean global politics between different nation-states, but am referring quite literally to the politics of the earth, or how technologies, infrastructures, and features of physical geography such as rivers, climate, microbes, etc., contribute to the form social relations take. Finally there would be chronopolitics or the way in which time is structured– by, for example, the working day –making different forms of activity difficult for people precisely because they are without time. Each of these sites of the political, and I’m sure there are many others, would require their own styles of activism. But enough for now.