Today, it is the fifth of November and I feel like a mad scientist. Mad in two ways, actually. First, kinda mad because the government of the country that I’m staying at decided yesterday to try to hush the arrests of opposition politicians by trying to block social media access. I’ve been very happy with my stay here so far but this was a good reminder of the current social and political realities of the country. Internet connection and social media access returned to normal in about a day, though, as seems to be the case around here (some weeks ago, Dropbox and Google Drive were temporarily blocked but quickly returned to normality).
It may be worth adding that although this kind of censorship is frustrating, it is something that is of course being actively done around the world by governments in even the most ‘free’ and ‘democratic’ countries of all. Although the rumors surrounding the authorities’usage of social media at the current environmental justice protests at Standing Rock may be false, one need only think of Edward Snowden’s revelations to see how grim the situation actually is.
Hugo Weaving’s character V demonstrating in a not-so-peaceful manner on November fifth. YouTube.
Actually, yesterday while walking to spend the day in the nearby Starbucks coffeeshop I also happened to walk right into a protest on Yüksel street. I was curious to observe the situation but decided it wouldn’t be prudent nor in any way useful to stick around for too long so headed to the coffeeshop to concentrate on my work.
Anyway, the second reason for feeling like a mad scientist (geez, these transitions are far-fetched) is that in the name of conducting a scientific experiment, I decided to include in this post the latest paper that I wrote for my Culture and Environment course. The experiment is conducted to see whether boredom can actually kill. So, you’ve been warned. Read (or don’t) at your own responsibility. Note that I have also decided to insert among the text random pictures that have little or nothing to do with the actual text.
I’m submitting this short paper in our next meeting on Monday. As a self-confessed user of overlong sentences I found it rather challenging to present my thoughts on such an important paper in the very short space of three pages that was given us but I tried to condense my thoughts to fit that limitation. I have no clue as to whether the paper will even be accepted or not but we’ll see. Now, incidentally, publishing this here also follows the noble principles of open access publishing and so on that I outlined as goals of this research blog when I started it in January. So, without further ado, here’s the short paper:
Position Paper on Yaeger, Patricia: “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.” PMLA 126.2 (March 2011): 305–326.
Patricia Yaeger’s “Editor’s Column” essay in PMLA 126.2 investigates “the relation between energy resources and literature” (305). The essay is divided into seven parts: first, an introduction by Patricia Yaeger herself, then six short sections written by other scholars on a variety of energy (re)sources. In this position (or, more appropriately, response) paper I will first outline the main arguments that Yaeger presents, then introduce each of the other six contributors, and finish with some concluding remarks on the possible implications of the presented arguments and how I personally related to them and the essay as a whole.
An, ahem, interesting pic of my workstation at Starbucks. In the extremely unlikely case that you’re interested in my beverage of choice (or, the ‘fuel’ for my writing), this is a Venti Cappuccino (“Venti” is Italian for a huge fucking cup of coffee).
The main task and question that the essay sets for itself is: what if, instead of thinking about literary periods in terms of time we, as students and scholars of literature, think of them in terms of energy, i.e. in terms of the implications that the dominant energy sources of any given time that a literary work depicts have on the work? For example, if coal, or oil, or electricity, is the dominant energy source at the time that the literary work is placed in, how would that affect the literary interpretations of that work? What if it is actually energy that ‘powers’ the literatures of various ages, and energy that determines what kinds of literatures those various ages produce, and not arbitrary time–based hundred–year intervals known as centuries nor intellectual periods such as renaissance, modernity, etc.?
The above questions are fascinating but, as Imre Szeman notes: although this approach might incite an “aha!” (323) response in some readers, and even though this proposition is interesting as an intellectual thought experiment, we should actually stop and consider this question seriously and think what would actually happen if this was taken as a starting point in literary studies. I will return to this notion in my concluding remarks.
The main example that Yaeger uses in her introduction to the essay is the relationship to oil (as fuel for cars) that the main characters in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road have (as a sidenote, I should add that as a former Beat Generation scholar I found this especially interesting). Oil as a fossil fuel is obviously strongly implicated in the current environmental crisis, and Yaeger seems to suggest that it is the fact that it is/was “as naturally there, as American, as the apple pie and ice cream” (306), as something that does not require thinking about, that may have led to its, (and implicitly other energy sources’, too) neglect among literary scholars. Yaeger contrasts this relatively recent literary work with “older and stranger histories than our own” (310) that have included reflection on energy, and this is what the following six sections focus on.
Visiting a bookshop after finishing my work I noticed they also stock the Finnish National epic Kalevala. And no, it has nothing to do with architecture.
In the first section Laurie Shannon discusses Shakespeare and Dickens. She specifically focuses on tallow as energy, and how the role of the availability and price of it is reflected in their works. Her concluding claim is that people no longer understand where their energy comes from, and that this is in contrast to the ‘tallow ages’ of Shakespeare and Dickens. Vin Nardizzi continues on Shakespeare (as well as Robinson Crusoe). His main focus is on wood as energy, and he insists that although the energy–based approach that the whole essay espouses may seem “slight” (313) to some, it is in fact not. It may only seem so, as we today take essential energy sources for granted.
Possibly the most interesting part of the larger essay whole is Ken Hiltner’s “Coal in the Age of Milton”. He shows how air pollution resulting from coal smoke was already prevalent in the London of the 16th century (or, should we say London of coal?), noting the prevalence of issues such as respiratory illness and the resulting deaths. Quite humorously, he also discusses how, in Paradise Lost, even the Devil suffers from bad air quality. The ‘burning’ question that Nardizzi presents us with is how do we reduce our dependency on something that is obviously dangerous to us.
They also have Finnish bestseller Sofi Oksanen in their shelves. Methinks the name of her book is topical.
Saree Makdisi’s section discusses William Blake and human energy, specifically the British Empire’s reliance on a constant flow of human power to ‘fuel’ the empire, and how Blake, often placed among the six great romantic poets, considered the empire as brutal and exploitative (Makdisi 318). Then, Michael Ziser in his section returns to oil and “the connection between the oil age and its problematic surpluses” (323) and suggests that the eventual end of humanity’s reliance on it is something that we must start considering. Imre Szeman ends the essay with an important question: if literature’s ‘job’ is to “name the governing ideologies of an era” (324), how can it possibly do that if energy as a literary category is not considered?
Another fascinating pic of my laptop and workstation at my temporary home. I ended up buying this book by Yuval Noah Harari. I’m not usually a yuge fan of pop science books but I’d heard lots of good things about this one, as well as seen lots of hip-looking people reading it in airports and coffeeshops so decided to give it a try. So far (two chapters in) it’s actually pretty good.
In conclusion, the essay, if taken with appropriate seriousness, challenges both the producers as well as the academic interpreters of literary works to reconsider the foci of their efforts and include energy as an important category in their work, a category that has implications both to issues as wide as climate change, environmental justice, and human–animal relations. On a personal note, the essay opened up new vistas in my own teaching of literature and as such, the essay fits the activist paradigm central to ecocritical scholarship.
So that’s it. If you made it this far alive, congratulations. I’ll keep blogging away on how things develop here.
A pic of one page of Harari’s book where he examines humankind from a biological-historical viewpoint. I thought this was rather amusing.
*Yeah OK so it’s actually only part three but I’ll take any chance to refer to Naked Gun…
Featured image (not visible in mobile theme) credits: sipology.com & wikipedia.