Beyond Burning our World. A Review of Energy Dreams: Of Actuality.

Works Reviewed. Marder, Michael. Energy Dreams: Of Actuality. New York: Columbia University Press. 2017

.Energy Dreams

One needs little convincing, these days, that our world is burning. While the concept of hell no longer plays a significant role in religious piety – at least in the North Atlantic world – the daily news tells a different story. From the images of North Korean missiles over Japan to tiki torch wielding protestors in the United States the state of our political realities, at least, seems to be threatened by the blaze of anger and revolt. Is it really the case, though, that the burning fires of hell have merely been transported from the realm of religion to the domain of politics? Michael Marder, in his book Energy Dreams: Of Actuality suggests that the problem is much deeper and comprehensive than a simple analysis of political space allows. His work begins in the sphere of political philosophy,  with a particular focus on the “existential energy boiling under or extinguished in the structures of state,” but quickly moves beyond to take up the task of coming up with a nonviolent and non-destructive way of thinking about and relating to energy. ‘It quickly became apparent that a fiery constitution of reality, rather being limited to a single sphere of human activity,  applied to our epoch as a whole.’ (ix)

The challenge that Marder offers to his readers – his stated hope that they  will experience a ‘visceral need.. for another energy, irreconcilable with the destructive-extractive procurement of potentiality – is reminiscent of Ivan Illich’s distinction between Promethean and Epimethean man. Prometheus, who introduces the element of fire thereby furnishing the pyrological blueprint for our understanding of power and human develpment, warned his brother Epimetheus to stay away from Pandora. Instead he married her. Illich tells the story of a metal casket that he once saw in New York. Inside was a mechanical hand which would come out of the casket and close the lid. This toy, said Illich, was the exact opposite of Pandora’s box. It represents the Promethean ethos of expectation, of self-mastery and the eclipse of hope. The final overcoming of all that is wild and unexpected. (Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society.)

The Greek name Epimetheus means hindsight. Like Illich, Marder draws on the valuable wisdom of hindsight and, particularly on the Greek origins of our metaphysical tradition and our conception of energy. He is attentive to the power of myth and dreaming in our thought and in our action. “Myths do not magically melt away immediately after they are spotted and named as what they are. As far as energy is concerned we cannot stop dreaming of it, and it cannot cease dreaming us.” The ambiguity of the phrase energy dreams provides the framework  for Marder’s engagement with energy – an engagement which invites the reader to  think alongside Marder, and to be energized by his consideration of the crisis of energy. This crisis of energy, which he finds to be  a theoretical framework underpinning  our own energy crises, is to be found in the equivocation in the very word energy between its form as a verb and a noun. Our habit, he argues, is to think of energy as a resource, as something to be extracted, to lay claim to, and as a substance to fight over. What this leads us to  ignore, however, is that energy is not merely an object to be appropriated. It alsso energizes us, and activates us. “The crisis of energy is that, though treated as a finite resource to be seized in a made race withh others  who also desire it, it seizes both ‘us’ and ‘them,’ taking, first and foremost, our fantasies and dreams hostage.”

The fact that we blithely assume energy as a resource to be extracted, and ignore its grammatical and philosophical ambiguities, is at the heart of our present inability to escape the violent and destructive forms of energy procurement. Marder articulates a role that deconstrutive philosophy played in abdicating from energy, noting that Jacques Derrieda identied it as a fundamental  principle akin to God, man, telos, and so forth. In the wake of deconstruction, then, energy became a word that was too metaphysical or economist. “Such stigmatization is inexcusable,” writes Marder. “The desistance from energy at the theoretical level silentlyy sanctions the most ecologically detrimental means of procuring it.” (5) What is needed is to recover the ambiguity of energy, which Marder finds in its very Aristotelian origins of energeia. 

Energeia, as a philosophical concept, is one that Aristotle purposely leaves with some ambiguity, but still manages to say a great deal about. Perhaps most saliently, for Marder’s purposes, Aristotle writes that energeia “means the presence of a thing, not in the sense which we mean by potentiality.” The Aristotelian definition of energeai, then sides with actuality, where our modern interpretations of energy seem to be almost the inverse – a potentiality waiting to be activated. Far from suggesting a boring, metaphysical presence, argues Marder, Aristotle’s definition allows for a broader consideration of energy which does not limit it to the form of dunamis, the dynamic extraction of energy through force. Marder introduces plants as a significant alternative example of energy engagement. They are an example of beings that do not need to devastate the interiority of another being in order to procure energy.

Plant life thus become a primary, and fitting metaphor, for the consideration of energy in a way that is non-destructive, and not oriented toward productivist modes of thinking or working. Energeia, which could also mean enworkment, finds itself split between substantive and subjective modes. From Aristotelian energeia Marder moves to consider theological promise of Gregory Palamas’ defence of hesychasm. Hesychasm, a spiritual practice of stillness, is defended by Palamas on the basis of a theological distinction between the essence and energies of God. Palamas is led to defend a notion of uncreated works, and the practice of hesychasm as a way to receive the “energies of the divine surface.” The notion is, to be sure, at odds an understanding of energy in terms of a fuel or exhaustible resource. Marder finds a kinship between the Hesychastic practice of bodily stillness and the traditions of ashtanga yoga. The bodily conception of energy that occurs with Palamas, however, he views as threatened by the allegorical method of Augustine, wherein he perceives the dream of a purely spiritual energy that desires to be shed from its physical body.  (47)

This dualism of body and mind, or spirit,is at the heart of much of Marder’s discussion as he moves through domains of theology, economics, politics, and physics. This dualism is reflected in the anti-theoretical attitude that Marder perceives as the root of the applied damage that energy extraction is doing to the world. “Scientists” for example, “are discouraged from dreaming, least of all about that which  deviates from the stipulations of ecnomic efficienty and profitability. The wings of their imagination are clipped, on the one hand, by the technocratic procedures that predetermine the outcomes of their research and, on the other , by their own disillusionment wth the distastrous consequences wrought by ‘applied sciences.’ (145) This failure to dream, however, is precisely what condemns us to the old nihilistic, death-ridden dreams of 19th century physics given their most terrifying expression in the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We are called, then, to move beyond our hellish fantasies, and not only in the realm of religion or politics. If energy is a subject that dreams, in and through us, and what it dreams about is actuality, then the way we think about energy matters. Thought and dreaming matter, because they are manifested in the world. Michael Marder offers his book as an invitation and encouragement to begin to dream and think about energy differently. In the midst of a world where we have come to expect the sacrificial burning of resources, the stifling politics of oppression or the blazing furnace of revolt, the incessant economic drive to consume and produce without end and without thought, it is a welcome invitation indeed.