- When Energy is the Focus: Methodology, Politics, and Pedagogy
A Conversation with Brent Ryan Bellamy, Stephanie LeMenager, and Imre Szeman
“The world itself writes oil, you and I write it.”—Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil
I sat down with Stephanie LeMenager and Imre Szeman to talk about “Resource Aesthetics,” the topic of this special issue of Postmodern Culture, in Vancouver, B.C. during the 2015 Modern Language Association annual meeting. LeMenager and Szeman were both early proponents of critical work on oil and energy from within the humanities. Their work has helped to shape the ways scholars continue to think about the impasse between our rampant, energy-hungry economic system and the flourishing of human and more-than-human life on the Earth. I wanted to ask them how they each got started in this field and where they think a compelling place to start thinking about energy, culture, and politics would be now.
What strikes me about this conversation, retrospectively, is the way that placing energy at the heart of one’s analysis produces such unexpected, generative outcomes. Certainly, it raises methodological questions. Where does one locate energy’s impacts? Why take up one form of energy, oil, and not another, nuclear or coal? When does one (de)limit the importance of energy to one’s thinking? How best to report the impacts of energy on social life? What is to be done with the infrastructural remainders of our carbon saturated world?
Our conversation also deals in the practical outcomes that would result from taking energy into account. On the one hand, focusing on energy enables a different kind of politics to emerge. For instance, a politics that concerns infrastructure and planning seems possible in light of the costs of energy’s transport and logistical systems. Moreover, rather than asking “What kind of political world do we want?” we might start asking “How do we want to use energy?” On the other hand, centering energy in the curriculum deeply affects our pedagogy and its outcomes. Once baffled by the limits to imagining the world differently, students can now come prepared to address practical questions related to energy on a manageable scale. What strikes me about the following exchange is the way it hinges on sharing knowledge about pipelines, fossil freight trains, and energy grids as much as on devising new ways of engaging in research and conversation that start from the point of where we are now rather than where we would like to be.
You are both early voices in the field of thinking about energy and culture. Could you tell me a little bit about the origin of your interests in studying oil and energy? How did you come to this research work, and what drew you to the field?
I felt personally involved in what it means to live with petro-modernity because of a family connection to oil that had been a powerful imaginary throughout my young life, and then there was the fact that the neighborhood in California where I was living at the time of writing was being fracked. Also, on a more positive note, the peak oil literatures that were coming out in the early twenty-first century, even in the form of design plans from my former city of Ventura, California, were incredibly interesting to me and created design scenarios that seemed to foretell a different energy future and insist on a different political possibility. But as I began to pursue these interests—in my own neighborhood, in my own immediate history—I started to realize that for me the way to talk about global climate shift, the way to talk about the privatization of water and a lot of resource issues that are at the forefront of our minds, the way “in” was oil and more broadly fossil fuel culture, and the way that fossil fuels have been naturalized into an everyday. I realize I am close to Matt Huber’s work in this regard (see Huber Lifeblood), but it was an interest that developed individually for me as well—it just seems to me that the most...