Ana Teixeira Pinto's seminar for How To Do Things With Theory: Entropy and the Biopolitics of Modernity

Entropy and the Biopolitics of Modernity

Where does our modern world belong—to exhaustion or ascent? (Nietzsche, 1888)

In 1796, upon observing a vast array of elephant fossils, paleontologist George Cuvier noticed a puzzling fact: the fossilized mammoths of Europe and Siberia were different from living elephant species. None of the specimens in his collection corresponded to present-day African or Indian exemplars; they were all remains of fauna now extinct. At length, it dawned on him that another world might have preceded our own, a world whose existence had suddenly come to a halt, possibly “destroyed by some kind of catastrophe.”(1) From that moment onwards Cuvier became an advocate of catastrophism, the geological school, which claims that life has been subjected to sudden, yet periodic, violent natural events with fatal fallouts. 

In 1852, while studying the cycle of a steam engine’s operation, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) came to the conclusion that whereas work may be completely converted into heat, the reverse does not hold true: in the process of harvesting heat back onto the production cycle, some percentage is lost for industry. This was a seemingly trivial conclusion, concerning a practical––engineering––problem about the optimization of the production process. Thomson, however, regarded this “dissipation of energy” as confirmation of the universe’s impermanence, as foretold in the bible. As follows, he extrapolated his findings to a universal process entailing the dramatic conclusion that the universe would inexorably cool down until it came to become unfit for the habitation of man or any other living species. 

If anything defined the modern era, it was the belief that the future would be different from the past. Modernity entails a forward-looking and unidirectional temporality, predicated on the notion of “the future” as object of economical and emotional investment. That this investment was hard to reconcile with conjectures about extinction or with the second law of thermodynamics (the law of entropy) caused much anxiety at the time, but contemporary writers were unable to resolve these contradictions, perhaps because they expressed “the deeper hopes and anxieties of an industrial civilization in its birth pangs.”(2) 

In the present seminar we will examine the relation of concepts such as energy and entropy to the biopolitics, chronopolitics and antipolitics of modernity.

(1) From a 1796 paper by Georges Cuvier on living and fossil elephants, presented before the National Institute of Sciences and Arts in Paris.

(2) The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity, Anson Rabinbach. University of California Press, 1992, p.48

 

Preliminary reading list:

Bruce Clarke, Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the Era of Classical Thermodynamics, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Donna V. Jones, The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. 

Barri J. Gold, ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.  

Barbara Spackman, "Mafarka and Son: Marinetti's Homophobic Economics," Modernism / Modernity 1, nr. 3 (September 1994): 89-107.

Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity, Oakland: University of California Press, 1992.