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Comparative Energetics: Energy Encounters and Beyond

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Organizer: Jordan Kinder

Co-Organizer: Reuben Martens

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Energy humanities takes energy sources and their infrastructures as primary objects and subjects of study. Emerging under urgent material and intellectual conditions overdetermined by planetary warming, the energy humanities tracks where and how energy and energy infrastructures appear or don’t appear across cultural artefacts. Such tracking tends to meditate on what role energy sources, like oil, coal, and nuclear energy, and infrastructures, like pipelines, highways, and airports, play in shaping social, cultural, economic, and environmental relations on the one hand, and what their appearance or absence in cultural production says about these relations on the other. This seminar takes cues from the tradition to identify “turns” in fields to propose that the humanities are well into taking an energetic turn.
As our dependence on oil is unsustainable, the ambition is to manage—rather than undergo—an energy change to a more environmentally-neutral resource. For such an “intentional transition”, the Petrocultures Research Group (2016) writes that we need to take into account “where we sit historically, where we find ourselves in terms of our infrastructural dependencies and our affective and erotic attachments to the fossil economy”. One way to do so is by making legible what Patricia Yaeger (2011) has called an “energy unconscious”—the kind of energy unconscious that has, for instance, fictional characters “unblinkingly filling up several cars” (Malm 2017, 127). Back in 1992, Amitav Ghosh introduced the notion of petrofiction, arguing that no American novel has effectively produced an oil encounter. Because fossil fuels are so rarely made visible or legible, they are not often treated as part of the climate emergency. The energy humanities situates itself in this impasse to develop strategies for “learning to read for energy” (Wenzel 2019, 13). As such, petrofiction as genre and the oil encounter as effect and experience are conceptual infrastructures upon which the study of petrocultures and, later, the energy humanities were built.
We find ourselves deep into this energetic turn. This seminar will take stock of existing approaches and interventions in the energy humanities with sights set on shaping future directions. What forms of cultural production and modes of representation are best suited to “encounter” energy and infrastructure, or make them visible and/or legible (see Wenzel 2019; Martens and Vermeulen 2021)? Is the “encounter” adequate? Or have we moved beyond it (see Hitchcock 2002)? In the midst of electrification made possible by the extraction and processing of critical minerals, what counts as energy or energy infrastructure? How has the tension between regional and planetary approaches played out within the field?
We invite abstract submissions that approach larger questions like these as we collectively think through the past, present, and future of the energy humanities.

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