Latest Posts

Embodiment, or the Loving Intimacies of Carbon

Lewis Hine, A Lump of Coal 2Breathe in the warm swell of coal and feel the quiet textures of petroleum caress your body.

My essay in the collection Fueling Culture (Fordham UP 2017) examines the intimate rituals through which we embody prehistoric carbon in everyday practice, rituals that include the yoga studio, the boudoir, and the kitchen.

Image Credit: Lewis Hine, A Lump of Coal.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Ecology of Production

Currier and Ives, Attacking a Right WhaleMy article in Industrial Archaeology traces out the metabolism of an early American whale ship.  It shows how labor combined with nature’s various energies, including wind, food, whale blubber, and wood, to support a distinctive ecology of production in the preindustrial search for fuel.

By using sailor’s diaries, captain’s logs, and whaling fiction, this essay also details the unique culture of production that dominated this industry as capitalists marshaled (and sailors learned to live with) the prodigious and often scarce energies of the hunt.  “A Peculiarly Valuable Oil:  Energy and the Ecology of Production on an American Whale Ship”  appeared in a special double-issue of Industrial Archaeology.

Image Credit:  Currier and Ives, “Attacking a Right Whale.”  Library of Congress Prints and Images Division.

Energy Slaves

Katrina Van Televox , Mechanical Wonder Maid

“Energy Slaves: Carbon Technologies, Climate Change, and the Stratified History of the Fossil Economy.”  American Quarterly.  December 2016.

Climate activists use the term energy slave or servant to provide a bodily referent to the vast quantities of mechanical labor that industrial societies derive from combusting fossil fuels.  We speak of Americans depending upon 89 energy slaves over the course of the day.  The terminology is, however, a troubled one that carries some undesirable ideological and historical baggage.  It is also not sui generis but rather has deep historic roots in the nineteenth-century application of coal and steam to labor and in the emergence of a thermodynamic paradigm that redefined work by erasing important distinctions between mechanical bodies (i.e. mechanical slaves) and living ones.

My essay traces out the genealogy of this term.  It explains that the terminology of energy as servant, as used in environmental writing including my own, is tied up in a faulty technological imaginary that underplays the inequality of the fossil economy and that misrepresents the ecological role that fossil fuels play in our current climate crisis.

Carbon Nation (Reviews)

Arthur Rothstein, Stoking Furnace at Gopher Hole. 1939. Library of Congress.Recent Reviews:

Culture and Technology writes that Carbon Nation is “a field-shaping work of scholarship that will be useful to scholars and students in energy studies, the history of technology, literature, American studies, and many other disciplines.” See C and T (January 2016).

Journal of Interdisciplinary History says that Carbon Nation is “a remarkable contribution to the growing field of energy studies in history and elsewhere in the humanities.”  See JIH 46.3 (Winter 2016).

American Historical Review writes that Carbon Nation is a “path-breaking study [that]… sets forth an arresting new approach.”  See AHR 120.5 (December 2015).

Journal of American History claims that Carbon Nation is needed as we prepare for “America’s collective national sobering.”  See JAH (December 2015).

Image:  Stoking the Furnace, Arthur Rothstein.  Library of Congress Collections.


The After Oil School (2015)

Wind-Powered Mining ApparatusFossil fuels sit at the absent center of modern life — a mostly hidden  infrastructure that composes time and space, that fuels the ecology of modern life, and that forms the pleasures and pains of the present.

This summer the After Oil School convened thirty five international scholars and artists at the University of Albert to draft a series of white papers on the role that Humanities can play in climate activism.  The writings that came out of that collaboration can be found at:

The After Oil School website.

Image: Wind-powered Mining Apparatus (Undated)

Carbon Nation

Coal-Mine-300x222Fossil fuels don’t simply impact our ability to commute to and from work.

They condition our sensory lives, our erotic experiences, and our aesthetics; they structure what we assume to be normal and healthy; and they prop up a distinctly modern bargain with nature that allows populations and economies to grow wildly beyond the older and more clearly understood limits of the organic economy.

My recent book, Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture (UP Kansas 2014), charts the course by which a flood of prehistoric carbon calories impressed itself—in both conscious and unconscious ways—on the modern American economy and body, including on our ways of being, knowing, and sensing in the world.  By ranging across film studies, literary criticism, journalism, politics, art history, and ecology, it shows how on our way to becoming modern, Americans of different classes, races, sexes, and conditions learned to embrace, absorb, and navigate the cultural potentialities and myriad costs of fossil fuels.

We have yet to fully understand our embedded-ness in prehistoric carbon; and in this book I explore how those things that we take to be natural in the modern world are, in fact, historical — and that our history, our culture, and even our embodied memories arise in good part from this disquieting embrace of the coal mine, the stoke hole, and the oil derrick.

Image Credit: Detroit Publishing Company.  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.