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 2 (January) 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.