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University of Southampton | June 14th and 15th 2024 | Deadline for proposals: 5 May 2024 | Keynote Speakers: Prof. Jason Moore, Prof. Jennifer Wenzel , Prof. Jeroen Warner, Prof. Sheena Wilson, Prof. Stephen Morton, Dr. Dominic Davies, Dr Pieter Vermeulen  | Organizers: Dr Alireza Fakhrkonandeh (University of Southampton)  and Dr Jeff Diamanti (University of Amsterdam) 

University of Southampton | June 14th and 15th 2024 | Deadline for proposals: 5 May 2024

How might an infrastructural approach shed light on the ways in which literary and cultural forms mediate the lived realities, subjective phantasies, and affectively-charged investments in the industrial, technological and geopolitical dimensions of extraction? How does the emergence of new energy forms and energy regimes lead to the emergence of new literary forms, new cultural imaginaries, new modes of subjectivity, and new social relations? How can the discourses of energy and energy humanities shape new avenues of literary interpretation – particularly the representations of oil, gas, water, and other forms of energy in literary works from Africa, Asia and the Middle East?

Recent critical work on energy and culture has begun to discern the extent to which energy matters for literature, art, and other forms of cultural expression. On 11 September 1936, Lewis Mumford gave a speech entitled ‘Power and Culture’ at the special meeting of the World Power Conference, stating that ‘Every society is characterized by the means it uses to convert energy into life and to convert life into those higher forms of energy that we call culture’ (Mumford, 1938, p 167). Leslie White in 1943 posits energy as the material basis of cultural progress: ‘Other things being equal, the degree of cultural development varies directly as the amount of energy per capita per year harnessed and put to work’ (p 338). Of particular relevance to the disciplinary context and conceptual approach underpinning this conference is the recent emergence of the Energy Humanities, a field of study premised “on an appreciation of culture’s role in establishing, maintaining and transforming resource and work/ energy regimes” (Westall 2017, 269). The task the Energy Humanities sets itself—as Szeman explains—is to “first, grasp the full intricacies of our imbrication with energy systems (and with fossil fuels in particular), and second, to map out other ways of being, behaving, and belonging in relation to both old and new forms of energy”. As Szeman further indicates, ‘there is a deep link between the energy on which society depends and the character of its cultural, social, political, and spatial forms’. (cited in Boyer 2017, 3). 

Two looming issues have recently urged scholars and artists to deliberate on the role and nature of energy—particularly fossil fuels and, above all, oil—in relation to the life of contemporary humanity in almost all its dimensions, namely, “environmental catastrophe and capitalist crisis”. They have tackled these coterminous issues, not only by critiquing the means and modes of production, consumption and extraction of energy/oil, but by proposing and promoting alternative energy forms and models and manners of consumption and extraction.  More specifically pondering on the infrastructural and global effects of oil as the globally strategic resource, Szeman proposes that we should re-conceptualize our understanding of the history of capitalism predicated on what he calls “oil ontology”. As he provocatively asks: “What if we were to think about the history of capital not exclusively in geopolitical terms, but in terms of the forms of energy available to it at any given historical moment?” 

In the same vein, Szeman discerns a critically neglected yet “foundational gap” in the history of literature – namely, its relation to and engagement with the question of energy (particularly oil). Accordingly, he contends that this gap stems from “the apparent epistemic inability or unwillingness to name our energy ontologies”. Jennifer Wenzel calls energy “a great not-said” in the cultural productions of the twentieth-century and beyond. And Yaeger, by the same token, wonders whether “energy invisibilities may constitute different kinds of erasures”. Notably, Yaeger coins the term “energy unconscious” as a way of probing the presence and absence of energy within a given text or generic form. Yaeger also underscores the role of energy as a force field, both at local (personal and textual) and global (social-cultural) levels: “energy sources also enter texts as fields of force that have causalities outside (or in addition to) class conflicts and commodity wars”.

The chief challenge this energy consciousness poses for the arts and literature concerns the concomitant questions of representation, aesthetics and form. As Pendakis acutely observes: “Is there an aesthetics of oil or are its cultural manifestations too diverse or localized to be usefully generalized?” Indeed, energy, has come to be ascribed such a pivotal role in recent literary and cultural studies that some scholars have gone so far as to insist on the necessity of presenting a new periodization of literary periods and forms on the basis of energy regimes. More recently, Patricia Yaeger (2011), in her provocative PMLA editor’s column, has embarked on refiguring literary history by re-casting it around energy-based eras defined by wood, tallow, coal, whale oil, oil/gasoline and atomic power. Offering the term “fossil fuel fiction” as a critical category through which to approach the cultural and aesthetic dynamics of our warming present, ecological historian Andreas Malm argues that “global warming changes everything, including the reading of literature” (Malm 2017, 125). The energy humanities seek to ascertain how cultural imaginaries and metanarratives are fuelled and shaped by a society’s dominant energy source and infrastructure. As Fredrick Buell elaborates, “energy is more than a constraint; it (especially oil) remains an essential (and, to many, the essential) prop underneath humanity’s material and symbolic cultures”. Most recently, in a thought-provoking proposition, Szeman and Diamanti (2020) accentuate the necessity of “infrastructuralizing critique”. Infrastructural approaches can succinctly be defined as “a methodology [. . .] for reading, historicizing, and politicizing the ubiquitous but avisual force of fossil fuels across social, economic and physical environments” (Diamanti 2021, 28).  

Accordingly, encouraging critical and analytical methods, approaches and engagements that prioritize multiscalarity and infrastructural criticism as their methods of analysis and yet not confining our scope to these two, this conference invites the submission of abstracts and/or proposals for 20-minute talks that address any one or more of the ensuing points:  

  • How does literature navigate and critique the condition of the energy unconscious in which the effects are manifest and naturalized but the causes and remedies remain structurally occluded, repressed, or concealed? 
  • How does literature navigate and critique the capitalist modes of energy extraction and production in which certain human bodies and nonhuman natures are disappeared?
  • How do literary forms create, mediate, or even manipulate the experience, perception and imagination of the public in their adopting and adapting to new forms of energy not only as an integral part of their form of life but also their bodily schema, and their social identity and their system of values?
  • How has the subject’s individual and social ontology been conditioned by infrastructures, energy forms, and extractivist modes of modernity?
  • How might a dialectical approach to energy and genre (1) identify the emergence and development of new literary forms, and the development of new narrative and dramatic devices, styles, and languages; and (2) cognitively map the various affects associated with energy extraction (including bad love, crude realism, cruel optimism, petro-mania, petro-melancholia, hopeful futurity, freedom, progress, autonomy, hysteria, addiction, etc.)?
  • How in their engagement with the questions of energy and environment genre works like infrastructure by distributing narrative attention, visibility, resources, actions, affects, and expectations as well as the relations between them?
  • How genre acts as the infrastructure of infrastructure, an underlying connective logic that shapes how infrastructures are encountered and perceived. In turn, infrastructures materialize generic expectations about the world?
  • How literary form, which aestheticizes contingency and fortune, shapes the way characters relate to various formal and informal infrastructures like the roads, the highways, various fossil-fuelled transportation means (including trains and planes), underbridges and abandoned buildings?
  • In what ways have literary texts naturalized the infrastructure of modernity? And in what ways have they invited readers to interrogate the use of infrastructure by defamiliarising it? How might an infrastructural approach complicate our understanding of world ecology and the Capitalocene? And how might we begin to decolonize the infrastructural turn in the energy humanities?

The conference will be hybrid. Registration is free; and lunch will be provided to in-person participants. Please let us know if you have any allergies. Please submit abstracts and/or short proposals (300 words, with accompanying images—max. 3—as necessary) in conjunction with a short bio to by 05/05/2024 . While work is welcome in any language, we ask that the presentations and abstracts are in English. Please include a short bio for each contributor. Selected contributors will be notified by 15/05/2024.

 Keynote Speakers: Prof. Jason Moore, Prof. Jennifer Wenzel , Prof. Jeroen Warner, Prof. Sheena Wilson, Prof. Stephen Morton, Dr. Dominic Davies, Dr Pieter Vermeulen  | Organizers: Dr Alireza Fakhrkonandeh (University of Southampton)  and Dr Jeff Diamanti (University of Amsterdam)