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  • Conclusion: On Energopolitics
  • Imre Szeman

Why add energy to biopolitics? What conceptual openings does such a concatenation or expansion produce, both in how we think about energy and in the way we understand contemporary modes and models of power? And if there are conceptual openings produced in this encounter, is there anything that, in the process, is also confused or closed down?

Taken together, the articles in this special collection raise these questions and begin the difficult task of providing (at least provisional) answers to them. While they do so through the specific lens of the discipline of anthropology, the problem posed by energy cuts across the divisions of epistemology and social ontology into which the human sciences have been arranged. Energy has emerged as a problem, in part, because despite its now apparent importance and significance to almost everyone, it has not been typically factored into social theory—into broad understandings and conceptualizations of the operation and function of social systems and the subjects who inhabit them. One might have expected energy to play a key role, for example, in Karl Marx’s assessment of the operations of capitalism, which is dependent on energy like no socio-economic system before it.1 But like others living in the early days of capitalism’s petroculture (the first volume of Capital appearing less than a decade after the 1859 discovery of oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania), Marx seemed to imagine energy as an input into the system that did not require explicit theorization. The now influential “Fragment on Machines” in Grundrisse (1993) outlined a world in which technological development would eventually reach such an [End Page 453] advanced state that labor would no longer be part of production. Instead of wasting one’s life embroiled in factory labor, Marx imagined that over time “the human being comes to relate more as a watchman and regulator to the production process” (1993:705). Through the process of technological and scientific progress, we would approach a world in which labor time would be reduced to an absolute minimum, “which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific, etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them” (1993:706). This idea of a world without work remains one of the most appealing utopian political goals. But even if technology were to be so advanced as to operate all on its own, it would still require energy to function, and the energy sources on which we have come to depend are in increasingly short supply and generate enormous social and environmental problems as we use them up.2 It is not only our understanding of capitalism that is impeded when we do not factor energy into social theory, but our imaginings of the character of social and political emancipation; both require us to better understand that we are subjects who depend on energy as never before.

Michel Foucault’s theories of the social are the most rigorous and complete ones with which we are working at the present time. The influence of his ideas—especially his elaboration of major historical shifts in the character of power and his thoroughgoing description of the contemporary form that power has taken—has been felt across the disciplines. Foucault’s concept of biopolitics has been especially important, and has come to constitute a near-universally accepted description of the principle mode through which states today organize and manage the life activity of their populations.3 The concept of biopolitics emerges over the course of Foucault’s late lectures at the Collège de France, in particular the three sets of lectures collected as “Society Must Be Defended” (1975–1976) (1997), Security, Territory, Population (1977–1978) (2004b), and The Birth of Biopolitics (1978–1979) (2004a). And while it would be wrong to suggest that at any point a single definition of the concept emerges out of these works, the principle idea of biopolitics is stated bluntly at the beginning of Security: “the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of political strategy” (2004b:1). In describing the thrust of his intellectual practice, Foucault insists repeatedly...


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pp. 453-464
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