A Philosophy of Practice

Today, ‘energy’ is associated with our vital dependence on the combustion of fossil fuels, needed for heating, transportation, and food production. All are threatened by anthropogenic climate change. Although there is no shortage of ‘green’ energy innovations, many cause more problems than they solve, as the example of wind farms in Oaxaca, which caused aridification while reinstating colonial relationships, shows (Dunlap 2018). One reason for this is the sheer volume of energy extraction. The other is the conceptual framework that underpins this activity: this is a source-conversion-end-use concept of energy, embedded in the Greco-scientific tradition.

Despite the fact that an unbroken line of inquiry can be traced from Aristotle to Einstein, taking in, for instance, Aristotle’s energeia (the ability to set things in motion), and entelecheia (the power of a completed action), the passage from pondering the functioning of levers to the discovery of mass-energy equivalence in the 20th century, wedded energy irrevocably to technology. Potentiality – which, alongside flux, is one of energy’s main ‘aggregate states’ so to speak – was here reduced to end-use. This gave rise to a ‘standing-reserve’ view of energy where the actual is ‘enframed’ within the usable: a forest is a wood- producing resource, a river a hydropower supplier (Heidegger 1977). If Heidegger’s notion of enframing seems dated, a quick glance at the ‘gig economy’ shows gig labourers to be a standing-reserve on permanent call (Srnicek 2017). Likewise, synthetic biology shows living entities to be a standing-reserve of function (Schyfter 2021).

In recent years, Energy Humanities has argued for the relevance of energopolitics to the survival of the planet (Szeman & Boyer 2017). However, Energy Humanities has focused largely on the ethics of energy consumption, which, although useful, does not solve the problem of the crisis of the concept of energy.

This project seeks to fill this gap. The main hypothesis is that a new concept of energy requires a sustained focus on reticular (rather than linear) causality in the flux-potentiality continuum. The ‘standing-reserve’ approach negates flux. It subsumes potentiality under single-type conversion. A focus on flux, by contrast, acknowledges energy’s dynamic and reticular nature. It further treats potentiality as multiplicitous. This line of investigation will enable a non-dualistic analysis where content (the source of energy) is not separate from method (its technology of transformation).

The project is conceptually and organisationally divided into three subprojects. Each focuses on practices that thematise energy: art, cultural, and coming-to-know practices, in order to shed light on a different cluster of energy:


Interrogates physical, spatial, temporal, plant, and animal energies 


(or radiation)
explores cultural-virtual energies


(or kinetics) investigates energies arising from arrangements and contraptions

Using a cross-disciplinary methodology, consisting of philosophical analysis, case studies, artography (performative, visual, and narrative techniques), and 3D visualisation, the three subprojects will map the dynamics of energy transformations; offer a materialist analysis of energy; generate new insights into non-manifest energy channels, motive and transductive energy passages; and produce theoretical and actionable knowledge.