Fieldwork in the Energy Humanities

May 25, 2021

Brent Ryan Bellamy

What might it mean to do fieldwork in the energy humanities classroom? This question has two origins: literature critic Jennifer Wenzel’s description of an energy literacy assignment and my design of an asynchronous online course. 

The first origin point was in 2015. Jeff Diamanti and I collaborated to publish a dossier on the energy humanities. Jennifer Wenzel contributed “Taking Stock of Energy Humanities.” The piece assesses the first years of energy humanities research. It offers a crystalizing question for practitioners across disciplines: “When more and more of us in the Energy Humanities are making these moves, they can start to feel like a kind of petro-porn. Ok, there you go again with the temporal and material mindfuck of oil. What else you got?” (31). The moves Wenzel alludes to situate the vast expanse of the fossil fuel regime at our fingertips, in some cases literally. Laptop keyboards and smartphones have become examples of the imbrication of petrocarbons and energized objects stacked on our improvised desks, coffee tables, and nightstands. Wenzel, in the face of this trepidation, also describes a formalization of this move in an oil inventory classroom assignment.

Wenzel describes the assignment's inception point as “a line from Antonio Gramsci that Edward W. Said references in the introduction to Orientalism” (and I add Wenzel to the genealogy of the assignment): “‘The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory’” (Said 25). Wenzel’s oil inventory assignment asks students to creatively track their energy use by attending to the traces of their fossil fuel encounters. 

This exercise brings me to the second origin point, in 2019. Hugh Hodges, the chair of the English Department where I teach as a contract instructor, approached me to redesign a course from the calendar as an online course. I chose Literature and Globalization and decided to build it the only way I could conceive of, as an energy humanities course. Asynchronous online teaching requires unique focus from professors, instructors, and students. It also demands new models for making that kind of focus possible. Wenzel’s oil inventory inspired a series of assignments in which students conduct fieldwork and then share their reflections about what they understood better now and what implication that understanding might have for how they think about globalization and, eventually, literature. 

Students start their fieldwork by making a ready-to-hand object strange. Many choose their toothbrush, kettle, or smartphone, but others have chosen their polyhedral gaming dice, fake plant, or piano. It is amazing to learn new things about familiar objects. Despite the fact that I know very well how insidious oil is, especially through plastics, I find myself newly surprised reading these assignments. The next piece of fieldwork has students select a new everyday object and trace its origins in a commodity chain. I ask them to consider where it was produced, what processes are involved, what components are required, who handles it along the way, and how energy intensive the process is. The third fieldwork assignment asks them to produce an oil inventory of their lives over the course of a day or a week (something, I should note, that required students to recognize the globalness of their lives even more clearly once quarantine orders were in place). 

Rainbow Sherbet Ice Cream Dice. Photo by author, 2021.

Instructors, professors, and TAs can never be certain how much of an impact an assignment might have on students. Still, my students have offered some telling feedback. One wrote that they find themselves thinking about the class while doing other things, grocery shopping or commuting for work. Others have expressed the kind of “mindfuck of oil” that Wenzel describes. Some students write about how they feel personally responsible for their fossil fuel use. We can all look at the same thing--for example, our energy dependency--and draw wildly different conclusions. 

Wenzel tracks two problems with the assignment that come up in my class as well. First, what comes after the oil inventory? For Wenzel, Said, and Gramsci, the inventory is meant as “preliminary, preparatory for something else” (Wenzel 33). Second, the “Oil Inventory was actually invented by the oil industry” (33). Something else is what counts most here, energy is not an inherently political category: how we use it matters most. The same is true for taking stock. What we do with the information is central to whether it might serve the forces of business as usual extractivism or, better, the struggle for a just energy transition. As Wenzel writes, “Our task in the energy humanities is to reclaim that thinking from the industry, a task made harder because capitalism understands the workings of the imagination and desire better than we would like” (33). 

I was struck by students who felt the results of their inventories in a personal way. If the implied spirit of the oil inventory is to have people reckon with their relationship to broader systems, I want my students to begin to sense the horizon of a collective oil inventory and the politics of differentiating the circumstances of fossil fuel combustion.

If the implied spirit of the oil inventory is to have people reckon with their relationship to broader systems, I want my students to begin to sense the horizon of a collective oil inventory and the politics of differentiating the circumstances of fossil fuel combustion.

Here's how I responded to them in our discussion forums: 

In your posts for module three you collectively outline in bold fluorescents the degree to which our way of life is based on consuming fossil fuels and fossil fuel production. It is something we share and have been remarkably well trained to accept or to flat out not notice. There is no moral component to this lesson! I hope you can sense with clarity the reality of the world. I encourage you to read one another's posts to see how each of you feels confined or shamed or wasteful. This is not a thing we choose for ourselves. Choice as politics can be meaningful and helpful, but I hope what this assignment demonstrates is that we are all caught in this web of consumption together, so that we can start to dream of new ways to be and of how to correct and adjust the old. Our individual choices and decisions can cease to matter in the grand scheme of things. It is misleading even to attribute carbon emission at the level of the country, instead 20 companies are responsible for one third of the overall emissions. We make choices within a limited range. We need better options! I’m sharing this to say, it’s ok to feel bad and make changes in your life if that is right for you. It is also ok to use fossil fuels when we have no other choice. It is ok to demand better from the world. I’m feeling hopeful and fired up. This is where my mind goes when I read your posts. One more thing: many of our emissions are collective. When we ride public transit or order a food delivery, we are participating in a system of energy use that cannot ever be limited to any one person. Part of the question underlying this exercise is this: as a society, what do we want to use energy for?

In the spirit of course, where students share their reflections and engage with one another, I'm sharing this reflection. I'm extending the assignment I gave my students to myself.  This is my fieldwork in the energy humanities. The task Wenzel sets out for us is ongoing. It is recursive. We need to steadily reassess. We need to ask ourselves, our students, our close ones, ‘What traces does energy leave in your lives?’ Importantly, ‘What traces do we want it to leave?’

Brent Ryan Bellamy co-edited Materialism and the Critique of Energy (MCM′ Publication, 2018) and An Ecotopian Lexicon (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). His book Remainders of the American Century: Post-Apocalyptic Novels in the Age of US Decline (Wesleyan University Press, 2021) is now available.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Maureen Glynn (The Learning Experience Design Lab, Ryerson University) for teaching me that online assignment design, Mitch Huguenin (Métis from the historic Métis community of Penetanguishene) for encouraging self-reflection as a crucial element of decolonial pedagogy, and Jennifer Wenzel (English and Comparative Literature & Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University) for sharing this assignment and providing feedback on this piece.

Works Cited

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Pantheon, 1978.

Wenzel, Jennifer. “Taking Stock of Energy Humanities.” Reviews in Cultural Theory, vol. 6, no. 3, 2016, pp. 30-34.

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