2019-2020 seminar Ana Teixeira Pinto: Entropy and the Biopolitics of Modernity

Participating students in their first year: Mayar Alexane, Mia van den Bos, Sophie de Serière, Zane Zajankauscka; and in their second year: Matthew Wang, Anakin Xersonsky, Nine Postma, Hasan Ozgür Top, Sara Benaglia, Francisco Mojica

About Ana Texeira Pinto

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.


Seminar 1 (November) in Nieuwvliet


Before the development of thermodynamics, physics had no intellectual tools, which would enable it to specify temporal directionality. Newton’s gravity or Kepler’s planetary motions did not call for a temporal dimension to be factored. Thermodynamics however, deal with irreversible processes, i.e. the dissipation of heat. Warm objects will spontaneously cool when in contact with cold objects, in the absence of an external source of heat, but this process will never occur the other way around. A perfume bottle will fill a room with its scent but the scent that wafts through the room will never find its way back into the bottle. 

In the physical sciences entropy is the only movement that seems to imply a particular direction, something like an arrow of time. The second law of thermodynamics introduces an irreversible time-arrow into physics, just as evolution had done for biology.

 As result, in the nineteenth century, nature, “traditionally seen as cyclic or timeless, became increasingly temporal, or progressive,” represented either as an upward motion (progress) or as a downward spiral (decay). It was this linear representation of time that “became synonymous with history.” (1) Within history, as Susan Buck-Morss notes, time signifies social change and the uniqueness and irreversibility of political events. Nature is, in this sense, the opposite of history, for within nature, time signifies only cyclical repetition. Can nature have a history? From an evolutionary perspective, nature becomes history: a panorama of progress in which the passage of time is represented as incremental improvement. The notion of evolution seems to imply that past gains are preserved, even has they are supplemented by newer ones. No gain is ever lost, just sublated into ever-higher stages of evolutionary history. From this perspective progress is cumulative. The second law of thermodynamics however, implies the opposite: no matter how hard you strive every putative gain will be overwhelmed by the universe’s dissipative tendency and its inexorable entropic pull. Hard won, easy lost, ultimately doomed.

Victorian science in general, and thermodynamics in particular trafficked in what Isabelle Stengers and Ilya Prigogine termed “mythic and religious archetypes” encoding an image of nature as “flawed, wasteful and inefficient,” and displacing the question of energy as a resource to the site of phantasmatic antagonism, as the archetypal conflict between the forces of order and those of disorder. (2)

(1) Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order out of Caos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. New York; Bantam, 1984.; and: Ilya Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the new laws of nature, New York: Free Press, 1997.

(2) Idem.


Seminar 2 (January) in Epen 

Living on Borrowed Time

From the eighteenth century onwards, Western science began to tap a large, yet non-renewable, capital store of energy. (1) This shift from agricultural production dependent upon the flow of energy cycles (e.g. the Sun) to industrial production based on depletion of energy stock (burning of fossil fuels, like coal) was co-extensive with a newly found Promethean exuberance, on the one hand and, on the other, a novel awareness of, and anxiety about, the unidirectionality of history. If the industrial age was fond of thinking about nature as something that can be transformed of converted into commodities at will, to paraphrase Allen McDuffie, the stubborn residue of this conversion process ––in the form of soot, waste, excrement, gases, effluvia, smoke, ash, and all other by products of aggregate consumption–– were a reminder of the irreversible direction of resource consumption as well as of the waste the work process inevitably accrues. 

In the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash ––at that time, the biggest economic shock the industrialized world had endured–– radiochemist Frederik Soddy’s diagnosed the problem which had led to the crisis as the irreversible direction of resource consumption and the entropic residue (pollution) said consumption engenders. Echoing Richard Proctors 1871 “Britain’s Coal Cellars,” in which the author had argued that “we are consuming the stores of force laid up in past ages for our benefit,” Soddy ties the burning of fossil fuels to the persistent problem of debt and indebtment. Modernity, in Soddy’s view, is living from borrowed time, its future owing an unpayable debt to the past:

“Still one point seemed lacking to account for the phenomenal outburst of activity that followed in the Western world the invention of the steam engine, for it could not be ascribed simply to the substitution of inanimate energy for animal labour. The ancients used the wind in navigation and drew upon water-power in rudimentary ways. The profound change that then occurred seemed to be rather due to the fact that, for the first time in history, men began to tap a large capital store of energy and ceased to be entirely dependent on the revenue of sunshine…

Then came the odd thought about fuel considered as a capital store, out of the consumption of which our whole civilization, in so far as it is modern, has been built. You cannot burn it and still have it, and once burnt there is no way, thermodynamically, of extracting perennial interest from it. Such mysteries are among the inexorable laws of economics rather than of physics. With the doctrine of evolution, the real Adam turns out to have been an animal, and with the doctrine of energy the real capitalist proves to be a plant. The flamboyant era through which we have been passing is due not to our own merits, but to our having inherited accumulations of solar energy from the carboniferous era, so that life for once has been able to live beyond its income. Had it but known it, it might have been a merrier age!” (2)

These two texts, one from 1871, the other written in 1933, could be said to roughly bracket the time-period, which we will analyse in this seminar, but their insights are conspicuously absent from most of the literature of the times. This issue is partially tied to the fact that the ecological question was captured by Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population,” and his punitive approach toward the poor led Marx and fellow socialist authors to steer clear from it, ––even though Marx points out the issue of resource depletion is a function of over accumulation rather than over population–– an issue that still haunts the present-day left, bereft of a coherent ecological discourse. (3)

Lacking the vocabulary to conceptualize the social and environmental degradation as an ecological problem, and unable to decide whether the price was worth it, the Victorian age turned to allegory. Victorian scholars, as Allen McDuffie sustains, describe the polity as wasteful not so much in the sense that its entropy laden industrial order wastes energy but rather in the sense its operations seem to provide a glimpse into “more fundamental wasting agencies.”

(1) Allen MacDuffie, Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination

(2) Frederik Soddy Wealth and Debt: The Solution of the Economic Paradox

(3) McDuffie op cit

(4) McDuffie op cit


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

Allen Macduffie, "Irreversible Transformations: Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Scottish Energy Science." Representations 96, nr. 1 (Fall 2006): 1-20.


Seminar 3 + 4 (March) online in Tunis

Seminar 3

The naturalistic rhetoric of social Darwinism, and attendant theories, are not just expressing a reactionary position, they constitutes what I would call an antipolitical stance, insofar as they denies the very valence of the political by forging an identity between social, natural and cosmic systems. By virtue of this in-built, conservative, tendency towards the naturalization of the status quo, the discourses of thermodynamics have an antipolitical sheen.  It is from this perspective that I feel it’s worth examining the movements that defined reactionary modernism, or the reactionary avant-garde, the apex of which is Futurism. Most importantly, the rhetoric field inflicted by thermodynamic theory makes for incongruous politics, as it defines both financial speculation and socialist pressures as dissipative, that is, entropy-laden tendencies. The structural inconsistency of these two positions ––both left and right or neither left nor right–– opens up an ambiguous space in which a critique of capitalism can be displaced and inflected in the direction of fascism. 

Seminar 4

Donna V. Jones’ The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity teases out the conceptual relations of Vitalism to irrationalism and racialism. Vitalism, to quote Jones, “names the temptation and tautology to seek in the nature of life itself an answer to basic ethical questions. Life ought to be for life and the good life is the lively life.” In other words, in Bergson’s hands the life-force acquires a semiotic valence: the élan vital is by definition that which is true, whereas that which is false is dead or deadening. Vitalism, as Jones argues, could be construed as the generic name under which one could group all attempts to forge and identity between “life” and ethics, i.e. between that which is good and true and that which is alive or lively. But what does it mean to equivocate the categories of ethics and biology? What are the moral values of the “life-force”? 

“Life is for more life—reproductive fitness: power, mating, and progeny. We have no other purpose. Now it is well known that racial dystopias have been created in the name of health, vigor, and vitality. Life itself was thought to hold the answer to the question of which lives are not worth living in the Lebensphilosophie favored by fascism.

Bergson’s notion of life as defined by memory and duration –and I am here paraphrasing Jones– entails a conceptualization of time as a “force,” which is intimately connected to “understandings of self and culture rooted in racial conceptions of deep ethnological time.”

Vitalism, as Donna V. Jones argues, was a rebellion against the scientism of the nineteenth century, and the vital was counterposed to the mechanical. But crucially, Vitalist thinkers did not disambiguate the many kinds of “mechanism” against which they rebelled. They did not identified “the mechanic” with the technological either, but rather with a modality of thought which they assimilated to instrumental reason. As a result, the Futurists could be, at once, Vitalist and technophillic.Technology, for Marinetti and for fascist discourse in general, was not a product of, nor a vehicle for instrumental reason. It had little to do with efficiency or utilitarian grounds. It was rather the fruit of the male ovary, which is the mind. As Jones’ puts it, “because technology could be understood as an extraorganic organ or prosthetic, it could be assimilated as the expression of the nondiscursable inner spirit of Faustian or Western man.”


Seminar 5 (May) online

The Chronopolitics of Entropy

On October 8, 1910, a sizeable crowd gathered to attend the opening of the trial, opposing Marinetti to the Milanese authorities, who accused his novel “Mafarka the Futurist” of offense against public morality. The offending chapter was “The Rape of the Negresses,” and it’s lurid account of the mass rape of African women by Mafarka’s infantry. Though Marinetti welcomed the publicity and attention the trial afforded him he was troubled by a potential conviction, being mistaken for a pornographer and having his artistic ambitions debased by the charge of obscenity. “The Rape of the Negresses” is not meant to provide salacious titillation to the reader but rather to initiate him into Marinetti’s discours futuriste.

The novel is, as Barbara Spackman sustains, a reproductive fantasy, unfolding against an Orientalist background, set in Africa. Mafarka is a self-made monarch whose life-project is to “bypass the vulva and impregnate the ovary that is the male spirit” in order to “procreate an immortal giant from one’s own flesh, without concourse and stinking complicity with a woman’s womb.” This fertilization of the male spirit will be fictionalized as a strange family drama, involving incest, sacrifice and surrogacy: pained by the death of his beloved brother Magamal, who contracted rabies, Mafarka will labour to replace his mortal kin with an immortal, mechanical son, the airplane-shaped Gazourmah. But Mafarka also unfolds against the backdrop of Italian colonial aspirations, and its belated scramble for Africa. Marinetti is not concerned with the etiology of violence, but his novel is worth revisiting because it can help us think the relation to violence not as a contingency but, as Frank Wilderson argues, as “a matrix that positions the subject,” either within close proximity to death, or, in the case of Mafarka, the farthest away from it, the closest possible to immortality.