CFP: Forgotten & Erased Energy Narratives: A Trans-Disciplinary Conference

Submission deadline: March 1, 2024

Conference date(s):
June 6, 2024 - June 8, 2024

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Conference Venue:

University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Topic areas


Forgotten & Erased Energy Narratives: A Trans-Disciplinary Conference

6 – 8 June 2024

University of Dundee & University of Edinburgh

Edinburgh, Scotland

Today, ‘energy’ is most often associated with the global North’s – and increasingly the global South’s – vital dependence on the combustion of fossil fuels needed for heating, transportation, and the production of food. All are threatened – as we know all too well by now – by anthropogenic climate change. Although there is no shortage of ‘green’ energy innovations, many cause more problems than they solve, as the example of wind farms in Oaxaca, which caused aridification while reinstating colonial relationships, shows (Dunlap 2018). One reason for this is the sheer volume of energy extraction. The other is the conceptual framework that underpins this activity: this is a source-conversion-end-use concept of energy that is embedded in the Greco-monotheistic-scientific tradition. This conception views the world as composed of individual phenomena, separates animate from inanimate existents, privileges solids (substance) over liquids, and privileges teleological developmental trajectories over complexity (Irigaray 2010; Stengers 2018).

          Despite the fact that an unbroken line of inquiry can be traced from Aristotle to Einstein, taking in, for instance, Aristotle’s notion energy as energeia (the ability to do work and set things in motion), entelecheia (the power of a completed action, or the state of ‘being-at-an-end’), and invariance amidst change, the passage from pondering the functioning of pulleys to the discovery of mass-energy equivalence in the 20th century wedded energy irrevocably to technology. Potentiality, which, alongside flux, is one of energy’s main ‘aggregate states’, so to speak, was here reduced to entelecheic end-use. This further gave rise to a ‘standing-reserve’ view of energy. On this view, the actual is ‘enframed’ within the usable: a forest is a wood-producing resource; a beach an ‘object on call for inspection by a group of tourists ordered there by the vacation industry’ (Heidegger 1977). Moreover, the ‘exigencies of planning and control’ entice humans to behave in accordance with what they perceive to be the ‘technological imperative’ (Glazenbrook 2001).

          If Heidegger’s notion of enframing seems dated, a quick glance at algorithmic platforms of companies such as Amazon, and the ‘gig economy’ more generally, shows gig labourers as a standing-reserve, on permanent call (Srnicek 2017). Likewise, synthetic biology, which designs biological entities, shows future entities to be a standing-reserve of function (Schyfter 2021). This ‘use orientation’ has been contested; however, it has not been contested by many. Bataille, and to a lesser degree Libbrecht after him, attempted a culturally informed theorisation of energy. Bataille’s argument that energy is not instrumental to satisfying society’s needs but that, on the contrary, the institution of society, with all its forms of production, is the expression of the excess of energy, was based on his extensive study of pre-colonisation Mesoamerican cultures (Bataille 1949). Although Bataille’s theory, based on abundance rather than scarcity, cannot be applied to the current exhaustion of all energies – natural, cultural, and mental – it shows two things. First, neither ruthless fossil fuel extraction nor a return to an imaginary pre-industrial frugality is possible. The former because it is the acknowledged problem, and the latter because evolution, seen as ontogenesis, creates ever-new possibilities and potentialities. Second, ‘energy cultures’ – the stewardship of energy – cannot be separated from culture.

          Libbrecht’s comparison of the Greek, Indian and Chinese concepts of energy, clarified the difference between the cause-and-effect logic (whether in the form of a theistic conception of the creation or the big bang) and culturally different views, such as the Chinese, where permeates everything (Libbrecht 2005). However, it did not do much more. The relation between zìrán, which doesn’t refer to nature as greenery but to ‘thus-ness’, and the key energy principle has remained underexplored (Yao and Zhao 2010). Similarly, Native Science, with its complex knowledge of ‘surfing the flux’ (Cajete 2004; Little Bear 2012) – where energy is a field-force or underlying stratum of existence – has been neglected. In the past two decades, the post-disciplinary configuration of Energy Humanities has produced new epistemologies by theorising ‘scapes’ that direct ‘ontologically flattened mobilities’ through shared flows of matter-energy (Urry 2010). Acknowledging that matter is not inert but vibrant (Bennett 2010), and that, as many quantum experiments have shown, individual things, with their own set of determinate properties, do not exist (Barad 2013), Energy Humanities has mobilised select new-materialist concepts to argue for the necessity of thinking in terms of intra-action to destabilise the inherited notion of causality (Barad 2010); of understanding both bodies and environments as trans-corporeal (Alaimo 2017; (Braidotti 2019); and social events as material-energetic (Latour 2018).

Building on this work, this transdisciplinary conference explores historical, scientific, philosophical and artistic accounts of forgotten, suppressed, minoritised or erased energy narratives and practices. We are particularly interested in theories and practices of energy that address one or more of the following relations:

1. Entanglement, the phenomenon that occurs when existents share micro or macro proximity in such a way that they can’t be described independently

2. Superposition, the co-existence of multiple, discontinuous spatialities and temporalities

3. Distributed Agency, the agency that forms and transforms within the action and includes human and nonhuman (organic or machinic) actants.

Broadly speaking, this tripartite focus aims to address the following questions:

·         How are manifest and subtle energies nested in practices of dwelling, building, making, marking, and transforming? How do they relate to the flux of climatic events, plant lives, animal and human migrations, and the nested energies of built structures? How do they create and sustain energy fields?

·         How do emergent energetic directionalities and/or networks structure human and nonhuman trajectories, behaviour, and affordances?

·         How do particular, explicit or tacit, cogitational or practical (knowing that /knowing how), knowledges chart potentialities?

·         How can the energies of forgotten, suppressed, minoritized or erased energy narratives and practices be engaged without simply being ‘captured’, ‘instrumentalised’ and industrialised by the – increasingly desperate – global North energy narrative?


Possible topics include but are not limited to:

·         Past and present philosophical, religious and scientific accounts of kinetic and potential energies (radiant, thermal, motion and sound, and chemical, stored mechanical and gravitational respectively)

·         Culturally minoritised holistic narratives that include physical and virtual energies (e.g. those of the Chumash, Haudenosaunee, Māori, Warlpiri, and Yoruba, among many other Indigenous cultures)

·         Medieval Christian monasteries and Buddhist sanghas’ mapping and management of physical, chemical, and spiritual energies, human and animal labour and tools

·         Vitalist accounts of cross-species energies (e.g. Bergson)

·         Energetics – the theory that ‘lost out’ to mechanics at the beginning of the 20th century (Helm; Ostwald)

·         Organic and machinic theories of self-organising complexity (e.g. Varela, Wolfram)

·         Artistic explorations of non-manifest energies (e.g. those of Beuys, the Gutai Group, Pogačnik, among others)

·         Past and present energetically sensitive architecture and design (e.g. Arata’s)

Please send 400 w proposals for papers, artistic presentations or posters (poster presentations) of 15 min in length, accompanied by a 150 w bio and a concise list of AV requirements to [email protected] by 23:59 GMT on 1 March 2024. Notifications of acceptance will be sent by 10 March 2024. Presenters will be encouraged to pre-circulate 3000 – 4000 w papers to their panel members by 1 June 2024 to enable in-depth discussions.

Conference registration will open in early April to allow for timely travel arrangements. We appreciate that presenters who live on the other side of the globe may not wish to fly to Scotland and will make remote arrangements for a limited number of presentations. However, this is an in-person conference and live participation is encouraged. The conference is part of the 2023 – 2027 AHRC-funded research project ENERGY: A Philosophy of Practice (AH/X009114/1).

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