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  • Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture by Bob Johnson
  • Ross Barrett (bio)
Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture. By Bob Johnson. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014. Pp. 256. $34.95.

Faced with a litany of disasters spawned by the global quest for cheap energy, humanistic scholars have begun to examine the forces that rebuilt modern societies around fossil fuel profligacy. While some have focused on industrial developments and policy decisions, many others—including Miguel Tinker Salas, Andrew Apter, Imre Szeman, Stephanie LeMenager, Jennifer Wenzel, Patricia Yaeger, and Daniel Worden—have explored the more dispersed and subtle ways that fossil fuels infiltrated everyday life and the cultural imagination in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Bob Johnson’s Carbon Nation makes a vitally important contribution to this body of scholarship. Eschewing the single-resource focus of much work on energy culture, the book reconstructs the dramatic changes that coal, oil, and natural gas wrought on modern Americans’ embodied experience and explores the diverse cultural responses that these changes inspired. Weaving these threads together, Carbon Nation presents an impressively comprehensive material and cultural history of U.S. fossil fuel dependency that opens up exciting new lines of inquiry for humanistic scholarship on energy.

Addressing the United States as an illustrative “case” in the “story” of “the world historical transition to fossil fuels” (p. 5), Carbon Nation seeks to explain how Americans “became a people of prehistoric carbon” (p. xix) in the years between 1885 and 1970. Johnson considers two aspects of this transition. The book’s first part addresses the “ecology” and “ontology” of American carbon dependency, examining the unprecedented surges in productivity and population, radical redefinitions of energy and work, and new modes of pleasure and pain that fossil fuels instituted in the United States. Johnson is especially interested in the ways that energy transformations played out at the level of bodily existence, and he offers a brilliant analysis of the impact that fossil-fueled power and mobility had on the physiques, sensations, and corporeal rhythms of everyday Americans. He demonstrates that the new pleasures and potentialities enjoyed by middle-class consumers were matched by, and dependent on, novel forms of suffering inflicted on workers in carbon-burning factories, coal mines, and oil fields. In so doing, he expands and complicates existing scholarly accounts of the modern energized body, which have focused on the themes of corporeal liberation and aggrandizement.

The second part of Carbon Nation explores the cultural reception of fossil fuels, examining how Americans acknowledged, and persuaded themselves to forget, the costs of carbon dependency. Johnson identifies two broad cultural projects that worked together to sublimate the “traumas” [End Page 258] of energy modernization “below the register of the nation’s collective consciousness” (p. xxvii). Twentieth-century progressives increasingly focused their critiques of fossil fuels on the mineral frontier; at the same time, promoters celebrated electricity and oil as the material foundation for a middle-class “high-energy republic” (p. 118) defined by individualism, liberty, and competition. Over time these cultural dynamics combined to establish a dominant fantasy of energized modernity that pushed the costs of fuel dependencies out of sight.

Johnson’s compelling account of the cultural life of fossil-fueled modernity leaves certain issues unexamined. Carbon Nation pays relatively little attention, for example, to the ways that culture helped to make possible the energy transformations that the book tracks. This is a purposeful choice, rooted in disciplinary conviction: Johnson understands technological innovation as the primary engine of energy history, and the bodily experience of modern energy technologies as the central phenomenon that accommodated Americans to a fossil-fueled existence. This perspective yields incisive analyses of energy’s mechanical and corporeal revolutions, but it also assigns culture a secondary or superstructural role within the historical development of modern energy. Thus even as Carbon Nation insightfully analyzes cultural texts that responded to energy modernization as a fait accompli, the book largely downplays the work that that literature, theater, art, and other cultural forms did to smooth the way for that modernization (long before petroleum’s fuel potential was realized, for example, cultural representations of early American oil fields...


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pp. 258-259
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