Ways of Seeing: Tracing Lived Energy in Archive, Film, and Fiction
Published on June 28, 2021
In this episode, Trish Kahle, Victoria Googasian, and Firat Oruc revisit a primary source they use in their own scholarly work in the historical archive, fiction and film through the lens of the lived experience of energy. By showcasing how different disciplines interact with texts and sources, they explore points of convergences and key interdisciplinary concepts in interpreting everyday energy.
Victoria Googasian, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.
Trish Kahle, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.
Firat Oruc, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.
[BIRDS CHIRPING] [DRUMMING]
CIRS INTRODUCTION [00:00:04]: Welcome to the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. This podcast series is part of the Energy Humanities Research Initiative. The project aims to generate new scholarly conversations on everyday lived experiences of energy.
TRISH KAHLE [00:00:24]: Welcome to another episode of Everyday Energy. I’m Trish Kahle, joined by my colleagues Victoria Googasian and Firat Oruc. This episode is the final in our inaugural cluster exploring major problems and new research in the study of lived experiences of energy. You can find all of the cluster episodes, along with related resources for teaching and a further reading on our website. In the earlier episodes, we’ve spoken with a wide array of scholars from different disciplines working on areas across the world from Venezuela, Indonesia, Mexico, Qatar and many places in between. In this episode, we’ll be looking at how different disciplines interact with texts and sources differently and looking for and interpreting lived experiences of energy and where their convergences or divergences that might be productive to explore. So to get us started, we’ve each brought a source or a text that we use in our own work to put into conversation with each other. Firat, do you want to start us off?
FIRAT ORUC [00:01:24]: Sure, thanks, Trish. The theme of our energy humanities initiatives has been intellectually very productive indeed since we started working on it. I have been more and more convinced that the question of representation remains a key venue of inquiry in lived experiences of energy. I’m thinking of an insightful point that Jennifer Wenzel made during our inaugural webinar in the fossil fuel cultural imaginary. She said “Oil is at once everywhere and nowhere indispensable, yet largely unapprehended, not so much invisible, as unseen.” Wenzel uses the term oil inventory to encompass the presence of oil in our lives, but as Wenzel via Matthew Huber reminds us, the oil inventory was actually a corporate invention, particularly after World War II, we witnessed the emergence of a visual narrative solution to the representation question. That’s the Petro film. I would argue that Petro films played a central role in producing the initial foundational oil inventory, providing an essential ideological and imaginary lens to its construction. Oil companies were the pioneers of industry sponsored documentary film making, producing numerous titles such as The Story of Petroleum, The Story of Gasoline, Gasoline for Everybody, Louisiana Story, etc. Interesting to note that this early Petro films, Robert Flaherty’s famous Louisiana story, for instance, often relied on humanistic sensibilities in order to show how oil brings positive changes to the lives of poor rural individuals. And oil companies were certainly invested in associating their image with their romantic vision of discovery and creation of new energy resources for the masses. Petro films lured their audience to a hydrocarbon utopia of modernity, where fossil energy performed its magic of erecting a whole new life world out of nothing. And the petrol film was quickly employed by companies operating outside the United States too. In the Gulf, the American the Arabian American oil company, or as more famously known, Aramco, led these efforts. In fact, the petrol films that Aramco and other oil companies produced constitute the largest archive in the history of the moving image in the Gulf. Now, I would like to have a close up on Aramco’s first documentary titled Desert Venture, which was released in 1948. The film opens with a prolog that reads and I quote. “This is the story of a venture by American capital in a strange and ancient land, a story of reawakening, of a slumbering civilization. It has to do with men who went among suspicious strangers and won their friendship. Men who challenged heat and sand and the multitude of obstacles. And who won a victory, which is serving the interest of the United States. Of the country, whose resources they are developing and of a world that moves on wheels. It is the story of oil in Saudi Arabia.” The prolog creates a space for viewers to speculate about where this place might be and to recall associations and preconceived notions they have about ancient lands, slumbering civilizations, friendships, and the multitude of obstacles. As such the film extends the limits of the American frontier and makes a previously unknown place feel not only accessible but conquerable. Thus Desert Venture is not only a spectacle of oil discovery and shipment celebrations, but also enacts a natives’-pioneers’ encounter. In addition, the film feels more like a protracted advertisement. By appealing to an entrepreneurial American spirit, it sells oil, the promise of adventure and wealth to women and men, blue collar workers and the managerial elite alike. The prolog, like advertisements, appeals to their desire for experiences and commodities that help them actualize their authentic and fulfilled selves. In order for the viewers to locate themselves within the unfamiliar terrain of this new frontier. The film simultaneously populates and primitivizes Arabia simultaneously made barren and imbued with economic potential. What constraints its development is the fact that it is defined by the harsh conditions of the desert. Yet when the camera finally focuses on another depopulated desert scene, the narrator cautions, and I quote, “None knew that this desert, barren of natural resources to the outward eye had been blessed by nature beyond the wildest dreams of those who raided and struggled for life across its sandy, windswept wastes,” end of quote. Shifting in tone and narrative direction, the narrator invokes the cultivation of his skeptical eye that is able to see beyond the outward appearance of things. In this instance, the caution against surface readings hints at the idea that something is hiding beneath the surface. The narrator tells us, quote, “Perhaps this country, so unproductive on the surface, might contain minerals below the surface, including oil.” It is at once an illusion to oil and the foreshadowing of the discovery that is about to be made. In some Desert Venture universalizes the dream, fantasy and promise of oil, making it an unexpected possibility that is accessible to both the American worker and the Saudi Arabian pastoralist. The dream finds its grounding in a narrative of a renaissance, a rebirth spearheaded by the American oil company and the King of Arabia. The utopian impulse is worth considering. The discovery of oil is presented at once as an extraordinary, singular, unrepeatable, epochal event outside the taken for granted ordinary, everyday human realm. But oil also promises an everyday life in its most ideal form, a solution to what the film calls, “the problem of making life more livable.” Indeed, the second half of the documentary, aptly called The Story of People, is a long utopian visual text about the life in the oil colony, houses and offices completely equipped and air conditioned, free health care and education, irrigation and organic agriculture, but also companionship and recreation, cross-cultural tolerance and of course, the continuous development of the self and the community. I would like to conclude once again to go back to Jennifer Wenzel’s comments, in our inaugural webinar. She had mentioned that critical studies of energy in the, in the energy humanities must reclaim the oil inventory from the oil industry in order to disrupt the settled habits of mind that surround the energy regimes of the present. But then she also adds, “but this task is made harder by the fact that capitalism, petro-capitalism, understands the workings of desire and the imagination better than we would like.” And I thought this film encapsulated Wenzel’s point and call for the need for critical investigations of everyday energy.
KAHLE [00:12:36]: Thanks so much, I was really struck, too, by the connections, I thought, between that and the sources that I had brought for today, these both come from an archive, which I’ll get to in a minute. But I think it was similarly inspired by my discussion with Diana Montaño, where we really focused on the problem of technological diffusion and electrified and electrifying societies, the need to dig further into what really was meant by electrification at the social level. And so in her work focusing on Mexico City, she was able to use a really wide array of sources to reveal how the kind of technological diffusion and social transformation portrayed in industry narratives, very much like the one you just highlighted, was far more contingent, contested in two way on the ground. And so now I think in and of itself, right, that claim wouldn’t surprise most historians or energy humanist. But the way that it unfolded really did reveal a lot about the social organization of energy and then thinking about power in a much more expansive way. So after our discussion, I had gone back to some materials I’ve been working with from a US utility company called the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company, or PP&L. And so I think I’ll just start by saying first a little bit about PP&L and the world that it inhabited. So PP&L’s management often described its service area in the most diminutive, diminutive terms possible as central eastern Pennsylvania, but in fact, this was a really highly developed, heavily industrialized, energy rich landscape. The company’s service area encompassed large swaths of the Susquehanna River and the Delaware River, which it used to generate hydropower and also to provide a release of thermal energy and it had also, developed a really complex system for moving coal around. It used canals that had been developed in the area since the early 19th century. It had industrial zones throughout. And most importantly, it also sat atop the world’s largest reserves of anthracite coal, which is the most energy rich coal by weight in the world. And it also had large agricultural regions, particularly in the south of the service area. Most people would know that today as Amish country. It was also situated both close to two very large cities, New York and Philadelphia. It had easy canal, railroad and highway access to Pittsburgh, Detroit and most of the Midwest. And all of this meant that both the company, its employees and the area residents had a really rich fabric of experiences with the process of electrification. All the way from the extraction of fuel to the dumping of waste and every component in between, whether that was the banal drudgery of wage work, the technological sublime with the massive generating stations and dams. All the way to electrified leisure in the home and occasionally to fish kills in the rivers from thermal pollution dumping. And so for that reason, it really makes an ideal place to examine the meanings, development, contestation and contingencies of everyday energy practices and how they change over time. So in the spirit of thinking about energy systems simultaneously from above and from below, I selected two short sources from this archive for our discussion today. So the first is a PP&L created pamphlet about its new Martins Creek power station. Situated on the Delaware River that separates New Jersey and Pennsylvania. When the station was first built in the mid 1950s, it was a coal burning station, though eventually it would be converted to burn oil in 1971, after area residents complained about pollution. And that, of course, ran quickly into problems when the oil crisis hit in 1973. Now, according to PP&L’s own materials, it described the utility as a driver of economic growth, preeminent circulator of liquidity in the local economy, employing workers in so-called kilowatt factories, even as the region, the anthracite capital of the world, underwent a very early and painful de-industrialisation. The result of that historic convergence meant that PP&L judiciously mixed images of production and consumption, confounding the organizations of energetic space in the United States that had labeled some areas as energy producers and others as energy consumers. Further confounding those kinds of binaries that have really percolated through our energy history, literature and that have really structured our assumptions about energy production and consumption, was PP&L’s promotion of public engagement with the development programs, such as with the Martins Creek Project Committee. And so instead of a world of producers and consumers, what actually emerges in the PP&L service area is a complex network of energy relationships, of people transforming, applying and directing energy around them based on certain assumptions, aspirations and needs. And one’s role in that energy system could change depending on the practice of, one was performing or how one was communicating with another person in that system. So to sort of demonstrate how this might work on the ground, the other piece that I brought today is a letter from a service area resident in 1965. Now, here, a little context is necessary. Leading up to the letter, a massive blackout had left most of the northeastern United States and Canada, over 30 million people, without power for as long as 13 hours. PP&L’s service area, however, was spared, but only just barely. And so the company had sent a letter to all of its customers highlighting the great quality of its service. And that went about as well as you would expect. But interestingly, they received both positive and negative replies. And this one was particularly interesting to me. So what I found so interesting about these letters is that they revealed how regular people saw their roles, rights and expectations in a highly electrified society. Some made assessments about what kinds of power outages were acceptable and which were not. Some revealed close relationships with the PP&L linemen who regularly fixed outages and others revealed how recent moves to all electric homes had changed the way people lived their day to day lives. So this particular letter is so interesting because it shows how electricity shaped practices related to labor discipline and also how workers saw blackouts as opportunities to contest it. Alfred Grear, from Sinking Spring, which ironically is actually a town located primarily around an oil, an oil distribution center, wrote that while he personally hadn’t been impacted by the big blackout, he had experienced small power failures regularly. In fact, he claimed that he had been late for work twice in a week because of these power outages, and he suggested deducting his lost wages from his next power bill. Now, this excuse can seem really ingrained and commonplace today. I’m late because my alarm didn’t go off, but it was also a strategy that had become more plausible when Grear wrote, because this was a moment when increasing numbers of people had electric alarm clocks, where small disruption, disruptions in service were still commonplace. And now is it plausible that his power went out twice in a week, perhaps? I find it equally plausible, however, that Grear was drawing on this everyday experience of these minor power outages, which everyone immediately recognized as both plausible and as a part of their part of their day to day existence to explain a much older phenomenon which was oversleeping for work. Now, these experiences were not unique to Grear, but what emerged throughout these kinds of letters that most people were indeed accustomed to prepared for and have even incorporated into their lives these small disruptions in power. Small enough to notice without being big enough to cause major disruptions. Another of these letters, for example, came from an older woman who could recall many specific power outages, but also who wrote warmly of her visits with the local PP&L power representative. And so for her, fixing the power in her small town became a form of sociality that she found to be very important to her. And that was a really different story than the narrative of progress that PP&L had often told about itself. And so with those two sort of more historical sources, we’ll go ahead and now shift over to Vicky.
VICTORIA GOOGASIAN [00:21:47]: Thanks Trish. And thanks to both of you for introducing me to these this really fascinating set of primary texts, I am going to talk about something a little bit different, a work of speculative fiction. But I think what will become clear, hopefully, hopefully will be able to make clear for our listeners in our discussion is that there are really a lot of interesting through lines between all three of these texts. So as you know, if you’ve listened to the other podcasts in our cluster, I had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth Barrios about how to read fiction for energy, as it were, and about what we can learn from fictional depictions of everyday energy production and use. And Elizabeth spent some time debunking for us the claim that there aren’t really as many novels about oil as we might expect. This is a kind of increasingly common claim in the energy humanities. But she contended that we just need to get better at looking for the ways in which energy plays a role in literary texts and other cultural texts. So I thought it would be a good experiment and preparing for this conversation to try and look for the traces of energy in the fiction that I’ve been reading and thinking about lately. So the primary text that I want to talk about today is a very brief excerpt from a very long work of fiction, which is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Now, if you’re not familiar with this, it’s a it’s a future history of sorts, a trilogy of novels about humans terraforming Mars, which Robinson wrote in in the 90s. It’s sort of, I think, as a as a kind of classic of hard science fiction. But I had personally never read it. So finally, reading this trilogy was one of the the projects to entertain myself during covid this past winter and spring. So obviously these novels aren’t depicting our society and its energy practices as they are in our sort of current lived experience. But they do contain assumptions about how energy impacts lived experience, and they also depict an imagined future relationship to energy. And because Robinson is something of a utopian thinker, I would say they also offer a kind of hopeful wish about that energy future that we can analyze and evaluate as we read them. And I should say one other thing about lived experience, the theme of our podcast as it’s depicted in these novels. So, Robinson, as you as you would know, if you’re familiar with his work, he’s not really doesn’t really have a reputation for his depiction of everyday lived experience. In fact, what he’s actually, I would say, known for is his ability to zoom out to sort of large scale societal planetary structures and systems. But the Mars trilogy also frequently falls into what I would describe as this mode of wistful utopian fantasy. So you’ll get these reveries of characters who are living what really seem like their ideal lives. Whole passages and chapters are devoted to characters, for example, driving across landscapes that they really like or just sort of living a quiet life, farming and terraforming a little corner of the planet, or maybe just going for a really long run and getting into this kind of ecstatic flow state or learning a new hobby like sailing or flying or just living in a nice waterfront town with the people that they love. So to a certain extent, these are novels that at times are really about the pleasures of a certain kind of post capitalist post work and also importantly, post fossil fuel for the most part, life for old. One question that I think we could try to answer using these novels or or one question that we could ask of these novels is what kind of relationship to energy do we need for human civilizations to survive and for individuals to thrive? But the fantasies of the good life that we get from these novels are clearly underwritten by the premise of energy abundance. I think that’s a big point that I want to make about them. And along with that, they also have a kind of unflagging techno optimism about the future of human ingenuity. So what constitutes the good life in these novels? At times it can seem kind of mundane, maybe for many of us in wealthy parts of the world, the good life might just be sitting in a waterfront cafe and drinking a glass of wine. That’s an activity that is frequently enjoyed by many of the novel’s central characters. But in the Mars trilogy, that experience is possible into the 22nd century only because humanity has achieved these basically superhuman abilities as a result of access to cheap and abundant energy. And its existence is a testament to humanity’s imagined ability to fly across vast distances of interplanetary space; to build a civilization using robots; to change the planet’s atmosphere and topography, to use gene therapy; to extend their life spans by centuries. So in order to imagine that the good life, as it’s defined in these novels, will be available to at least some people by the 22nd century. Robinson also has to imagine that humanity has access to effectively inexhaustible energy resources. And interestingly, I would say that that’s something that the Mars trilogy is pretty aware of, the energy resources that it’s imagined future requires. I don’t think anybody would argue that these texts are meaningfully about energy. But energy also isn’t invisible or fully unconscious in the novels. We learn, for example, that the original colonists build a or bring, bring and build a nuclear reactor when they arrive on Mars. We hear quite a bit about the benefits of building a space elevator to reduce the fuel costs, costs associated with interplanetary travel. And in the section that I pre-circulated before our conversation, we learn about the energy resources needed to colonize mercury in the asteroid belt late in the trilogy. But what I want to highlight is that the novels are also startlingly free of the kinds of catastrophic humiliations that Stephanie LeMenager was referring to, the Deepwater Horizon spill calls the humiliations of modernity. So these are catastrophes that force us to sort of face up to the energy costs of our way of life and our dependance on energy in ways that forcibly impinge on our consciousness of the ways that energy is is implicated in our everyday life. But in Robinson’s trilogy, that doesn’t really happen. Characters aren’t forced to face up to their dependance on energy, despite the novel’s narrations evident awareness of this dimension of human life. So as far as I remember, anyway, there aren’t any reactor meltdowns. There’s no, the grid never goes dark. Even when the planet is plunged into civil war. There isn’t a kind of consciousness of that dependance on energy. Instead, we just see how this ever increasing abundance of energy is depicted as the key to human freedom and happiness. And that abundance is readily achievable in the novels through technological advances and the colonization of evermore far flung outposts of the solar system. So perhaps this lack of energy humiliation, as it were, has to do with the fact that Robinson is imagining a mostly post fossil future because in his more recent work, we definitely see him depicting these kinds of energy crises in the context of our own fossil fuel dependence. But it is striking to me, especially after encountering the primary texts that Trish and Firat circulated that Robinson’s future history recycles the narrative, the narratives that were popularized by the fossil fuel industry, these narratives of abundant energy and human ingenuity, building a world in which everyone can thrive. This is related to Firat’s point about oil inventories and the sort of durability of that genre and the fact that these narratives can take place even in supposedly inhospitable landscapes, landscapes as inhospitable as Mars. And I would also note that the novels include several instances in which this fantasy of superhuman physical freedom or the proverbial good life are cut short, but this this kind of humiliation, as it were, doesn’t take place as a direct result of energy. It’s other forms of humiliation, really, bodily humiliation is the way I would describe this that lead to a kind of limitation on on this utopian good life. So, for example, the the aging and eventual death of the central characters is a major concern throughout the trilogy. And I’ll just talk briefly about the excerpt that I circulated, which begins with part 11 of the of the third novel in the trilogy. It has a kind of info dump section about what’s going on with human civilization at this moment in the future history. But it ends with a short chapter about the final day in the life of a character named Zo, who’s the great granddaughter of the first man on Mars. And Zo’s death is a retelling, I think, of the Icarus story. So she dies in a bird suit flying accident while trying to save a fellow flier. But she comes to this point because she’s just returned from several months of traveling around the solar system using newly fuel efficient shuttles that make fast frequent travel between planets possible. And when she gets back, she’s sort of reveling in her life on Mars, goes out flying with her friends, and then ends up drowning in the final sentence of the of the chapter. She’s been experiencing a kind of superhuman existence that I have been talking about that’s powered by cheap and abundant energy. But even that isn’t enough to survive in the end. So, as I’ve said, the novels are sort of full of these kinds of humiliations, as I’m calling them, characters whose work is destroyed by sandstorms who fall deathly ill when returning to Earth, Earth’s gravity, who dropped dead suddenly of unexplained causes. But these limitations on the capacities of human life aren’t in the novels explicitly linked to energy dependence. That constraint which we the readers have to face up to in our current petro modern reality doesn’t exist in the world of the Mars trilogy. Instead, these humiliations of modernity to borrow Lemenager’s phrase again here, they’re displaced. They’re displaced into these other forms of of bodily humiliation. And I would say that that’s because these texts can’t quite endorse their own vision of unlimited energy, leading to unlimited human freedom and fulfillment. And they have to keep kind of deflating that over and over again. So I suspect that the Mars trilogy is, despite their their techno optimistic utopia, still harbor a kind of skepticism of the heroic narrative of human advancement that’s tied to energy wealth. That just having enough energy could solve all of humanity’s problems and I maybe just conclude by saying that I think that this is a potential energy unconscious of a text that is otherwise, in certain ways, very conscious of energy.
KAHLE [00:34:35]: And that’s really so fascinating, I think it brings together some of the similar narrative tropes that have come through in some of these texts, and it might be a good place to sort of dive in to thinking about some of the points of convergence that we see between these texts that we’ve brought today and how our reading of them together in context of each other changes our reading of them. And so this idea of the good life is definitely something that is recurrent. And I think I mean, do you want to add a little bit more on that Vicky?
GOOGASIAN [00:35:12]: Yeah, I’m really happy, too, because I think one of the ways that that my reading of this text has changed thinking about it in light of this project is that, you know, I originally came to the Mars trilogy thinking of it as a sort of originary text, one of the first sort of detailed imagined accounts of what of what it would mean to colonize Mars, a genre that is obviously still very much in the public imaginary today. This is something that we now see in the in the news almost constantly, especially in the last few months. But there are other other fictional texts that have certainly kind of drawn on or followed in this tradition as well. But I think reading it in light of the primary texts that you both circulated, it’s also interesting that it is in a kind of tradition and it’s in in the tradition of this kind of energy. I don’t know what I want to call this a sort of energy hero, heroism narrative, maybe because these are all three texts that are explicitly connecting energy production and consumption to what we’ve been calling the good life or. I think that I think Firat used the phrase the hydro, the hydrocarbon utopia of modernity. So I think that’s a maybe a good way to describe it as well. And even though it’s a kind of different version of of the good life and all three texts in the Robinson novels, it’s it’s communal and egalitarian and co-op based in, in the PP&L pamphlet, it’s the kind of elevation of the middle class and the Aramco film that’s the westernization of the Arabian Peninsula. But these are all visions of the good life that are connected to this heroic narrative of people who go out and use this, the superhuman ability, the energy access has given them to transform entire landscapes, to build infrastructures, to create the conditions of possibility for that good life. So my understanding of this novel has of these novels has changed a little bit because I now see them as really fitting into that sort of preexisting energy heroism tradition.
ORUC [00:38:01]: For me, especially in light of the research initiative that we launched and the primary text interpretations that we just had, the question that I found myself that I should pay more attention to is how to you as a scholar, as a humanist, how to, sort of save yourself from the lure of this narratives of progress, good life, and then film in the petrol films, they are so much directed by the voiceover narrator, right. And I have to make this confession that up until the new lens of and I will quote this phrase that Vicky just used, “getting better at looking,” I think this is the meaning of attention to lived experiences. And so now what I am doing is to go back and look at all these films without the voiceover, without the mass, the direction of the master narrative. Right. And I would say the then the interpretive exercise begins to change. I did not I don’t think I conveyed it much in the interpretation that I shared with you. But there are moments in which all sorts of inequalities revealed themselves. Of course, the voiceover narrator doesn’t let you pay attention to it, but all of a sudden the voiceover narrator will say, oh, by the way, now the local the Arab workers are no longer going to live in this really dilapidated house housing. We are going to offer them new houses. And I thought this, among other examples, is the attention or this notion of getting better at looking could be quite useful in terms of how to, unthink beyond the directed narrative of good life and progress.
KAHLE [00:41:21]: And it’s so fascinating, too, because I think similarly to what you were just saying right in the PP&L pamphlet, you similarly get these moments where despite the effort of the company to arrange images and text in a way that amplifies this idea of particularly a male breadwinner, working class figure as the sort of protagonist of the story, you still get these moments where danger, pollution and things come through despite their best intentions. And so one of my favorite sections is the part where they demonstrate a worker going about his day. And so they show him arriving first at the factory gate and he has to show I.D. Right. And this is, again, supposed to convey both expertise and security, but it also gives, again, that sort of Cold War underpinning of is this a Soviet agent come to undermine our energy security. And then he moves into his locker room where he has separate places for his street clothes and his work clothes, which again, is sort of put forward as being this way of keeping distinct his consumer and producer identity. He then goes on and there is a doctor who is sort of it’s actually mentioned here that this is only a demonstration. But there’s, again, this sort of implication of the danger of electricity, which is this thing that he’s supposed to be at work producing and yet which nobody can touch in which it’s hard to sort of make it seem real to the people they’re selling it to. And then finally, he has this very clean shower room. He’s obviously portrayed, even though he works in the coal yard, he is portrayed very clean going into the shower and that there’s also a washing machine on site. So he doesn’t have to take his dirty work clothes home. And his wife is spared the work of having to launder his work clothes every day. And so even in this narrative that’s meant to portray this highly modernized, highly technologically sophisticated workplace, we still get a sense of just the daily forms of danger, of pollution, of dirtiness and of uncertainty that are really sort of percolating through the energy system of this field. And so I think simultaneously, the good life in some way when we’re thinking about it in the context particularly of modernity, always has this implied dark underbelly that is always just peeking through a little bit. And I think that comes back to that point you had raised about humiliation. And maybe that’s another place we can begin to explore some convergences between these documents.
GOOGASIAN [00:43:44]: Yeah, before we do that, I just sort of want to flag a maybe a kind of methodological takeaway from all of your comments which is just that seems like one justification for our interest in this project on the everyday life and lived experiences, that it’s a site for these kinds of suspicious readings of the sort of master narrative that we’re getting at various levels in these in these primary texts, because all three texts are kind of multilayered in that sense, that the Aramco film has the voiceover, but it also has this imagery that one can bring a little bit of suspicion to and read against the grain of the voiceover or the PP&L pamphlet gives us the master narrative. But then we also, Trish has also given us the letter from a dismayed, frustrated consumer that lets us read against the grain a little bit. And in the case of the Robinson novel, it really is sort of told in these two voices a kind of voice over future history mode and a more traditional novelistic mode that can be sort of read against each other. And in each case, it seems like the access to the everyday lived experience is what allows one to be kind of suspicious or skeptical of the utopian good life narrative that we’re being given about the value of energy abundance.
KAHLE [00:45:19]: I think there’s actually something that might be worth pausing on here before you dig further into the question about humiliation, and that’s the audience, right. So I think one of the really important things, both for the Aramco film as well as the PP&L pamphlet, right. Is that they’re directed at particular audiences. I’d be really interested to hear specifically how you would think about that for the novel. I’m not quite sure how the best way to think about that is. I was wondering maybe can you both say a little bit more about the intended audience for your source and how that sort of shapes how we should encounter and read it?
GOOGASIAN [00:45:53]: Yeah, I might have to put some thought into that in the case of these novels, because I also think it’s a it’s a sort of complicated question because it is a sort of it is sometimes in this sort of fictionalized future history mode. And I’m not really sure who the kind of fictional attended intended audiences for these info dump sections that are. You know, I guess it’s some kind of citizen of a future interplanetary civilization who is reading about the history of of their own civilization. But is that is the kind of imaginary audience of those future history sections. But as for the intended audience of of of the novel, I think. It’s probably you know, I talked about how the the the utopia that’s being imagined here is, I think, the sort of three qualifiers I gave. It was post capitalist, post work to a certain extent, and also post fossil fuel. So I think the the the sort of ideal audience of these novels is probably somebody who’s politically sympathetic to those kind of three posts is going to be the person who’s most interested in the details of how Robinson imagines those things working themselves out, which is why I think it is really kind of interesting and interesting and potentially unconscious kind of trend in the novels that that that good life is running up against various kinds of limitations, because these really are, I think, works of utopian fiction to a certain extent. I think they’re in many places trying to unironically imagine what it would look like for there to be a civilization in which people were really thriving, which there are a lot of possibilities for people to thrive two hundred years in the future. And yet there are these moments when when things happen to show that that there are limitations to even that kind of freewheeling fantasy mode.
ORUC [00:48:13]: Yes. Who are the petro films, films speaking to and I would say in relation to the grand monolithic narrative, the intended audience is multiple. So this, you know, is monolithic narrative that wants to speak to, cater to multiple audiences. Obviously, these films served as a kind of attractive recruitment presentations to bring in a white expatriate. Expertize from the from the US, they are sort of meant to serve as assurance to shareholders of these companies, and there are moments, as you would recall, in which some of these audiences are made part of the documentary and they hail to the audience and so on. But the other interesting question is the sort of Arab audience. Right. And that’s a bit tricky. I mean, clearly, they they have the Arab ruling elite in mind. And we know from the archives that the ruling elite loved these documentaries. They would have private screening for them and they would be happy to appear in these documentaries. Right. They but they also dubbed some of these documentaries and used portions of them for industrial education purposes. They used mobile vans to screen these documentaries across the Gulf. And they were basically sort of the first local productions that the age of television in the 50s made quite use of. Actually, in the Gulf the first television was also brought by Aramco. So they would make use of these documentaries to now, you know, to reach a mass audience.
KAHLE [00:51:27]: It’s so interesting as well, because I think it’s can sometimes be so easy to get caught up in what the thing says rather than it’s someone else, and they really pay attention to the fact of the thing that the thing exists in and of itself. But it can be very useful to pay attention to the fact of the thing itself alongside what the thing is telling us. And so I think just sort of maybe as our last point of convergence, because, you know, this is a really rich conversation, is to come back to this point about humiliations. And I as I’ve been thinking on this, I was really struck by the way that in some ways we’ve sort of separated out the energy humiliations and bodily humiliations. And it calls to mind Cara Daggett’s work, right? Thinking about sort of how energy as a category gets defined and how, you know, maybe that’s both worked with and against particular bodily forms of work and movement and, be it over time. But I think maybe we want to come back to the case point about humiliation and try and explore that a little bit more.
GOOGASIAN [00:52:28]: Yeah, I can just maybe just try to define, define the term for us here a little more clearly than I did in my initial comments. So I’ve been honestly thinking about this since last fall when I was teaching LeMenager’s Petro-Melancholia in my intro to Environmental Humanities class. And she uses that that phrase humiliations of modernity to really flag these moments when all of the experiences that we sort of take for granted as a part of our our our modern existence are revealed to be not these sort of amazing freedoms that we have, but actually forms of dependence on this kind of fragile and catastrophe prone energy system. And again, she’s thinking or sort of thinking on specifically the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. So I just think that that idea that that sort of feeling of humiliation, I was kind of wondering if that is a sort of affect that’s integral to the experience that the everyday experience of energy. How often do we manage to kind of repress that sense of humiliation? When does it when does it sort of come to the surface? And so the Robinson novels are particularly interesting for this because they’re quite successful, I think, in some ways at repressing the connection between that feeling of humiliation and this sort of basic dependence on energy and its instead sort of resurfacing in these other ways in these in these other moments of bodily humiliation. Or I think in the excerpt that I circulated, the text uses the phrase the ballast of the body, which I think is very evocative way of talking about the fact that in some ways our our our embodied material existence, no matter how much energy you throw at it, it’s not going to we’re not going to sort of transcend that. But ballast of of the body. And again, you know, I think anybody who’s interested in Robinson’s work might also want to take a look at his more recent fictions, where a lot of this stuff is linked much more explicitly to our energy dependence. His his novel, Ministry for the Future, another future history that just came out this past year, actually opens with this catastrophic heat wave where we see a western aid worker who sort of used to being able to escape the worst effects of heat and has to endure this traumatic experience of of surviving this heat wave after the after the sort of energy infrastructure collapses. And there’s there’s no real escape from that in that in that sense, I think humiliation is actually too light a word for it. But it seems to be a kind of similar kind of experience of realizing that the embodied freedoms you take for granted, the things that seem most basic to your material existence might be kind of dependent on access to certain kinds of energy resources.
ORUC [00:56:13]: I thought. The reading as I was reading Trish’s interpretation of PP&L’s documents. I thought there was an interesting sort of outcome or manifestation of the humiliations of the energy system and there rather than, you know, a kind of melancholy, yet it emerges as a form of resentment. Right. Enough interruptions. Enough outages. So a kind of frustration and in certain ways. Right. The public outcry and sort of in other words, the recognition that that energetic life is not as sort of utopian is not the full cure kind of situation. Right. And there was in other words, I felt a kind of militants almost sensibility, you know, almost like a sabotage logic that one could. A kind of sabotage logic that almost, you know, if we would go with our good concept of utopia a a a social a more social revolution, invoking resentments, but maybe is a separate point on the concept of humiliation. And that’s in relation to my conversation with Anto Mohsin on electrification in in Doha as well as Indonesia, Zanzibar and so on. There, the concept of humiliation appears in relation to state pride. So the state sees itself with the responsibility to electrify the entire nation, but for a number of reasons. Of course, this doesn’t happen and the state feels humiliated. And so I just wanted to bring this is another form of humiliation in to our conversation.
KAHLE [00:59:28]: It actually gets to something I wanted to bring up as well, because I’ve been thinking about this term humiliation and it really because it evokes really powerfully like senses of shame, losses of dignity. And so it has to me like a different balance than, for example, a similar concept in Ghosh’s work about recognition as re-cognition. Right. Of like suddenly recognizing one’s place within a system that seems a little bit less of value laden than humiliation does, or even not having the same character of resentment. Right. Where you sort of get this sort of back and forth anger. And so I’ve been really thinking about, you know, what we’ve been talking about these the tropes of the good life, the sort of dark underbelly, which are sort of two things that we really recognize is lived experience being a hinge between those two things. But there’s also an element of like at what, to what extent do ordinary people always buy into these narratives? And how does their particular location within an energy system shape to what extent one can feel humiliated by a particular act versus another? So, for example, the failure of an electric alarm clock. Right. Can cause the sort of humiliation and resentment of not having met up to the standards of being a good worker, potentially being sort of pushed out from particular benefits at work, being passed over for a better work assignment or any of these number of things. Right. But at the same time, the humiliation in that letter really does seem to revolve around work necessarily, rather than the energy in itself, where we see more of a resentment. But you can imagine that were they at a different position within that same energy system that those might actually be reversed? They might be totally different. And so lived experience might be a way for us to think about the way that humiliation is variegated across a particular set of energy relationships. But I just am I going to have to sit with that and really think because again, it’s about to have shame over a particular violation or transgression. Right? That means there has to be a certain acceptance of the narrative that one has violated the sort of and I think Diana’s work really emphasized that, particularly in the case of electrification. Right. That it wasn’t a determined outcome, that people didn’t always encounter it as this utopian thing that was going to make their lives better and that they made meaning of it by encountering it and by contesting what the state told them, what the electric company told them it was going to be. And so I think maybe that’s one of the ways lived experience can help us really just continue to disaggregate that idea of whether it’s humiliations, recognitions or resentments.
GOOGASIAN [01:02:15]: Yeah, I think that’s a great point, that in order to be in order to be humiliated in the sense that we’ve been talking about, you have to have actually bought into that the way that that energy narrative is trying to create a certain sense of self in you, because the humiliation is coming from that sense of self, whether that sense of self is about being a good worker or whether it’s about having certain kinds of physical freedoms, the ability to travel where you want or to have access to to electricity, whatever it might be, you have to really sort of taken that into your sense of self to experience that as a humiliation when that when that that when that energy system fails.
KAHLE [01:03:06]: And that really calls, I think, into some of the other themes that we’ve seen continue to recur throughout our conversation, right. Which are about ideas, about representation and about scales of the scale at which stories are told, at which energy is experienced and how we encounter systems, who is representing them and why and how do those representations unfold. And so maybe we can just sort of begin to wrap our conversation up by thinking about how the way we’ve been thinking about and with those categories has changed as we’ve gone through the process of this cluster.
ORUC [01:03:37]: I would say, and in light of the conversation that we had now, I think lived experiences of energy ultimately takes us to affects of energy. It seems that we will need to do some work on some kind of affective theory of energy. What is affective about energy, right? The sensory conditions of energy and I think in a way it also ties with the whole in certain ways affect related to sense of temporality. So we have all these questions probably that we need to tackle in our second round, but affects of energy seem to be quite relevant, is a conceptual framework to to understand and further inquiry into the lived experiences of energy. What do you think?
GOOGASIAN [01:05:00]: Yeah, I 100 percent agree. I think that that affects the affects of energy would be really interesting and very relevant to our theme. Maybe I’ll highlight my own personal interest in narrative just as an opportunity to reiterate some of the things that we’ve come to in this conversation. In particular, I think I’m struck by the competing narratives of energy that that take place in the kind of voice over heroic narrative of going out and taming an unforgiving landscape and building the conditions for the good life. We have that narrative on one side that’s coming from from particular sources. And then on the other on the other side, we have the kind of story of of resentment or frustration or humiliation. But that is the sort of grassroots or where everyday, everyday energy narrative. So the opportunity to kind of read those two narratives against one another and to also see how they are, how they’re kind of interacting with one another seems like another direction that that I’d like to explore.
KAHLE [01:06:20]: I’ve been really interested also, and I think they’re very closely linked, they might just be this might get back to our thinking about the sort of interdisciplinary approaches. I think this might be two disciplinary ways of looking at a similar problem, which is to think about very similar to the way that, you know, a state is something that one can never encounter a whole right. And empire is something that one can never encounter, whole. Similarly, we never encounter an energy system, whole. So how do we come to know what those are, to understand what they mean, to understand the kind of power and place we have within them? And so I think trying to understand how lived experience allows us to both understand that both at the level I think of personal individual community experience, but in ways that have explanatory power at a much larger level. I think trying to bridge those two kinds of skills through the encounter, through the everyday lived experience is an area where we have both a lot more work to do. But it’s also really exciting and thought-provoking. And I think reading these different texts together, I think both encourages us to look at new points in our own work about what counts, what matters, and thinking about how when you choose the different entry point, things start to look really different.
KAHLE [01:07:36]: This is the end of today’s episode, but it’s just the beginning of everyday energy. And we’d love to hear from you and stay connected. As we plan future episodes, events, and more. You can find a link to our website on the platform where you found this podcast or on our Energy Humanities page. at cirs.qatar.georgetown.edu. We’d especially like to hear from you if you are a scholar working in the energy humanities or energy history, or if you’re an artist or practitioner interested in everyday energy, particularly if you are working on and especially in the global south. Thanks for listening.
[DRUMMING AND BIRDS CHIRPING]
- Mars Trilogy Series – by Kim Stanley Robinson
- The Ministry for the Future: A Novel – by Kim Stanley Robinson
- The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work – by Cara New Dagget
- The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable – by Amitav Ghosh
- LeMenager, Stephanie. “Petro-melancholia: The BP blowout and the arts of grief.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 19, no. 2 (2011): 25-55.
- Everyday Energy: Approaches to Lived Experience –Dominic Boyer, Sara B. Pritchard, and Jennifer Wenzel
- The Story of Petroleum
- The Story of Gasoline
- Gasoline for Everybody
- Louisiana Story: The Reverse Angle – by Robert Flaherty
- Desert Ventures – Aramco 1948