January 2014


computer graphicI make this point in Onto-Cartographyhave 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.

Piston_Engine_img01I’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.

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dakota-prairie-tornado_127_990x742I owe a great debt of gratitude to Clayton Crockett for recommending Eric Schneider and Dorian Sagan’s Into the Cool:  Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life in response to my recent talk at GCAS, where I sketched the cartography of United States higher education and discussed, among other things, the central place of entropy in my thought.  Throughout their book, Schneider and Sagan explore the role non-equilibrium dynamics play in the production of organization in the universe.  Working on the hypothesis that “nature abhors a gradient”, they try to show how forms of organization ranging from tornadoes to life, cities, societies, and economies arise from the way in which organization arises from the way in which being is drawn toward the production of equilibriums that resolve energetic disequilibriums that exist in the world.  As they write, for example,

A barometric pressure gradient in the atmosphere, the difference between high- and low-pressure masses, leads to a tornado, a complex cycling system.  The tornado’s function, its purpose, is to eliminate the gradient.  (8)

In this example, we thus have a flow of energy constituted by a differential gradient (the differences in barometric pressure) that gives rise to a patterned organization (the tornado) that functions to resolve this disequilibrium or gradient.  These processes will, of course, be different depending on the sorts of organization we’re investigating.  Clearly the way in which life is a response to differential gradients– they suggest the differential here is the heat of the sun as it differs from the coolness of the surface of the planet –will be different than a tornado and far more complex, but the basic principle will be the same:  open systems responding to energy differentials that produce a patterned organization.  Readers familiar with the work of Simondon and Deleuze– and Crockett develops this nicely in a paper he gave on entropy, Brassier, and Deleuze sans the relation to Simondon –will recognize the parallels between Deleuze and Simondon’s accounts of individuation and the role played by intensive difference in processes of individuation (roughly individuation in this context refers to accounts of how entities are formed, not accounts of how they are cognitively identified or distinguished from one another).

For some reason, all of this– and I’m not going into nearly the detail the work of Schneider and Sagan deserves –has me thinking about the subject.  Here my thoughts are incredibly rudimentary and inchoate, so I beg forgiveness.  I hope that by beginning to outline them they might take on greater clarity and I might actually be able to develop something out of them.

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