Dreaming of Energy, Otherwise
We are enthralled with energy. From the political slogan seeking “energy independence” in the US to the calories burnt during an intense exercise routine at a local gym or consumed with a soft drink, from the wild fluctuations of prices for a barrel of oil to a much-needed shift toward “renewables,” energy is on everyone’s lips.
Or is it?
We are preoccupied, at best, with many types of this desired object: chemical, kinetic, potential, solar, nuclear… We sift through countless examples of energy structuring our existence, yet we are at a loss when it comes to pointing out what characterizes energy itself. Numerous unexamined assumptions are, to be sure, built into our relation to it, and one of these has already popped up here, namely the assertion that energy is a “desired object.” It is treated as a resource, an apple of discord at the heart of geopolitical conflicts and ecological concerns. But are we justified in reducing energy to its objective dimension? Is it not equally a subject, that is to say, an active or animating force flowing through and in us? Are we not transported to a place beyond straightforward oppositions between activity and passivity when we say in the grammatical passive voice we are energized, invested with the capacity to be capable?
Like a magic wand, energy is a kind of thing that makes all other things (indeed, everything and everyone) possible. With the caveat that, in its current form, this terrible wand burns, evaporates, brings to naught, or otherwise destroys whatever and whomever are already in existence in order to fuel the realization of our desires. The problem is, perhaps, that we conflate energy not only with its types but also with power lacking any inherent ends. As a result of this conflation, our theme is imbued with abstract negativity promising to gift us with everything we are dreaming of on the condition of devouring the world of actuality as a whole.
We ourselves are not safe from the lethal power emanating from energy in its contemporary permutation. Energy independence is never our independence from a predominantly negative energy. While we hanker after it, we forget that we, too, are it. If we hoard the precious commodity behind or in every commodity, we do so with the view to extending the super-capacity it grants us into the future, so as to continue being capable to accomplish whatever we wish. Unless, as it tends to happen, the actual ends for which the capacity to be capable is accumulated drop out of sight altogether. This abolition of the limit confirms that energy is more than a thing, more than any objective manifestations, types, and materials that may be hoarded. Let us call such an excess energy’s work.
I have chosen the term “work” advisedly. My choice conveys something of the meaning Aristotle originally invested in the Greek energeia, whence our English word derives. The literal sense of Aristotle’s coinage is “at-work” or “in-the-work,” en + ergon. Although the difference between them appears negligible, these equally valid translations exemplify the dual nature of energy as a process and a product, an indomitable force and a resource. At work, it remains under way, active and acting. In the work, it is objectified, placed at our disposal. An entire history of Western philosophical concepts may be ferreted out from the complementary renditions of the Aristotelian notion, including the early modern split between the object/substance and the subject, Hegel’s attempts to reconcile the two under the aegis of Spirit, and Nietzsche’s insistence that there is “no doer” behind the deed itself and behind what is done.
You might notice that, remarkably, the static and the dynamic aspects of energy coincide in Aristotle’s word. For all that, the Greek philosopher resorted to energeia to label what is “not-dunamis” (i.e., not-potentiality), or, positively put, actuality. Instead of a magic wand, which may grant any wish and with which we associate energy today, the original concept referred to the fullness and stability of what was present after all the potentialities had been actualized. For us, moderns, conversely, energy is vigorously mobile and restless, purely potential, subversive of actuality even in its objective form as a bunch of “resources.” We put the ancient idea on its head and make it so undetermined and open-ended that our energetic exertions are never ultimately satisfied, never totally actualized in their outcomes.
What is better then: the static energy of a body “at rest” (what, since the nineteenth century physicists have been calling potential energy) or the dynamic energy of flows only momentarily detained in identifiable objects? Restless and lacking a sense of closure, modern energy transforms actuality itself into a confluence of dynamic forces, ready at any moment to swallow finitude into a sort of black hole, to sweep away and virtualize everything in the world. To a significant extent, that is the mindset behind the current environmental crisis, provoked by a mad dash after the sources of energy that, once extracted and released from its “objective shell,” does not leave the world (in the first instance, the elemental realms of the earth, the air, and the sea) intact. Extractivism turns out to be not the root cause but the symptom of this implicit understanding of energy and actuality.
And yet, it is simply impracticable to revive the ancient notion of energeia. Aristotle’s world is irretrievably lost, even if his word mysteriously remains. Rather than pine for the past, I believe that we urgently need to work on the sense of energy’s work without letting go of its static and dynamic, objective and active, dimensions. To energize the world is not to dissolve its structures into amorphous flows or force fields. There is much to be said about the forgotten energy of actuality—energy as actuality—with which the ancients were so intimately familiar. Especially at a time when what is valued is the virtuality and possibility that, as Heidegger too admitted in Being and Time, stand “above actuality.” I do not suggest that we give up entirely on this level of experience but that we moderate it with moments of respite in the midst of life’s finitude, the moments filled with calm energy and quaintly considered to contribute to happiness. That we cease identifying stoppage with death. That we procure energy on the surface, rather than in the depth, of things. That, glancing at the energetic surfaces all around us, we recognize ourselves—our own energy, virtuality and actuality—in them.
The task of reconciling the two sides of energy is a difficult one. But it is also unavoidable. Our future beyond a set of abstract, infinitely variable, eventually empty, and lethal possibilities hangs in the balance in it.
Michael Marder’s latest book Energy Dreams: Of Actuality is forthcoming in March 2017.