It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

"The Social Construction of Energy"

We're looking forward with some anticipation to the arrival in a month or two of a never-before-published essay by Ivan Illich. "The Social Construction of Energy" is appearing in a publication out of Harvard called New Geographies. Any new publication of Illich is welcome, but this one is especially so as its topic is one for which we have maintained a long fascination, ever since early 1985, when we heard Illich discuss his thoughts on the matter during a wide-ranging series of evening talks in New York.

Before Newton's radically new explanation of gravity caught on, the common explanation for why everyday objects fell to the ground when dropped from a height did not rely on professional jargon and symbols. Newton's famous apple fell from the tree branch because it was heavy and because as a piece of matter, its proper place was on the ground. This common-sense understanding of "gravity," described by Aristotle, may not lend itself to mathematical analysis or help to predict solar eclipses or land rockets on distant targets, but it was just fine for people making do in the pre-modern world.

It was decades before Newton's math-based theory of gravitational force, along with the mathematical calculus that he (and separately, Liebniz) invented to explain that force, managed to catch hold with masses of scholars. But Newton's tying of force, mass and acceleration together in his three famous laws of motion did spark a revolution in physics. And eventually, university students and then younger pupils were taught Newton's laws as "the truth," and voila - a new set of "stuffs" had been socially constructed. One of these, called "energy," grabbed scientists and later, lay people, and is now widely accepted as yet another truth.

This energy, scientists came to understand and explain to others, was an abstract stuff, quite distinct from the physical forms in which its existence was evident. Energy flowed, it could be transformed (from an object in motion to electrical and then chemical form, for instance), it could be stored and manipulated and applied to performing work, it could be spent. As abstract and mutable as it was, though, energy was measurable with increasing accuracy. And its effects and transformation could be predicted with increasing accuracy, too, thanks to ever more-sophisticated mathematical techniques.

Like gravity, energy as we now understand it simply did not exist for the pre-modern, pre-Newtonian scholar. Fires created heat, oxen pulled heavy ploughs, and the sun scorched the earth. But these phenomena were not understood as examples of some universal, abstract stuff called energy being consumed or transformed or conserved.

Eventually, of course, a whole discourse, largely mathematical - think Classical Thermodynamics - grew up around this "energy" and by now, nobody thinks much about its origins - or, more significantly, that it even has an origin and history and that it is, in fact, a social construction. Nor do we often consider how our understanding of energy is so heavily influenced by modern economics, which are underpinned by the assumption that everything of value is scarce.

Or so we understand it, having thought about Illich's talk ever since. We have no doubt that his exploration of the topic runs much broader and deeper, touching on ideas such as the history of the body, gender, and his attempt, eventually abandoned, to write a "history of scarcity." Evidently, his argument so startled and captivated us that we failed to jot down any notes while listening. We do remember, though, that he mentioned having spoken recently about this social construction to a hall full of physicists at a German university. Some had questioned him but one physicist, Illich told us, had said, "Yes, Illich really 'gets' us, he really gets what physicists do!" (I believe Illich, with some relish, recalls this German lecture and the comments it elicited in one or another book, most likely Ivan Illich in Conversation (1982).

At the time we heard him speak, Illich was carrying (and selling) photocopied galleys of a book that tackled head-on the historicity of another stuff, namely water - H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness. Once magical and offering the gods a source of precious memories, water has been remade into a chemical solvent for removing dirt from bodies and the city. (This book is the most poetic of Illich's works and presents a brief but wonderfully imagined history of the city and urban space.) Much of his thinking in this area, Illich told us in 1985, was influenced by Gaston Bachelard (e.g. The Poetics of Space) and by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (The Social Construction of Reality).

It's not too far of a stretch to see that years before, even if he did not yet speak in terms of social construction, Illich had been analyzing the creation of still other "stuffs." Beware, he seemed to say, when active verbs give way to nouns - when learning becomes "getting an education," for instance, or when walking yields to "having transportation." By definition, education, just like its close cousin knowledge, is understood to be scarce, and that assumption and maintenance of scarcity goes a long way, in Illich's book, to explaining why the world is as we now see it. Illich also dissected the "energy crisis" of the early 1970s in an essay called "Energy & Equity." By the early 1980s, though, he was interested enough in the social construction topic to hold a seminar in Mexico City; one of its participants was Wolfgang Sachs.

Details about New Geographies #2 - titled "Landscapes of Energy" and addressing "the fact that energy takes up space, and that in turn such space deserves scholarly inquiry" - are available here and here. More about the issue, from the Harvard Gazette, an in-house publication:
In 1859, the first commercial oil well was drilled near Titusville, Pa. The modern oil industry that followed quickly changed landscapes around the world.
By the 20th century, a burgeoning world of derricks, tanks, pipelines, and refineries required more roads, railways, and ship lines for distribution. Cities changed with the arrival of big oil, becoming denser and busier. With the advent of cheap cars, highways widened, clover-leafed, and spread into far suburbs.

Despite all of this change, architectural historians have not often studied the effect of oil infrastructure on landscapes. Nor have they much studied the social implications of the spaces changed by the oil energy business, from abandoned oil fields to busted boomtowns — or even the destination of oil money.

A related essay, written in 1995 by Jean Robert, one of Illich's longtime collaborators, can be found at the site of a Dutch outfit called Wise, or World Information Service on Energy ("an information and networking center for citizens and environmental organizations concerned about nuclear energy, radioactive waste, radiation, and related issues.") Robert's essay is titled "Genesis and development of a scientific fact: the case of energy." One of his footnotes quotes Illich, "I am interested in the history of 'energy' because I discover in the emergence of this notion the means by which 'nature' has been interpreted as a domain governed by the assumption of scarcity, and human beings have been redefined as nature's ever needy children. Once the universe itself is placed under the regime of scarcity, homo is no more born under the stars but under the axioms of economics."

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.