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Dreams and nightmares

The word ‘energy’ comes from the ancient Greek noun ‘ergon’, meaning work, and in English ‘work’ can be a noun or a verb; hence the words energy and energise.


Sean Sheehan


No surprise, then, to find more than one meaning in the title of Michael Marder’s book, “Energy dreams”:  a book about energy dreaming or/and dreams pertaining to energy?

It was Aristotle who combined ergon with the prefix ­en- (‘within’) to give the word energia and he thought of it as a power releasing itself: an acorn becomes what it is by the work process of its own essence, oakness. Energy is often seen as something potential, a power or capacity to do things, a means to an end, but Aristotle is pointing to ends in themselves.

The acorn’s end, its purpose, is to become an oak tree and the purpose of human life, as he sees it, is the good life, the energy of restfulness. This, as an end in itself, stands in polar opposition to the sense of energy as something to be extracted, destructively unrested from one state into another, as with fossil fuels or nuclear power

But the idea that possibilities and sources of energy are unlimited is not a dream but an ecological hallucination.

It is a nightmare from which neoliberalism cannot awaken because it is encoded in its DNA: “On the spreadsheets of capitalism, we are accounted for as human resources, from which work can be extracted, burying Marx’s dream of human self-actualization through labor”.

Compliant with this is an approach to knowledge that is played out in tropes of surface/depth. The truth is not on the surface; reality has to be broken down in ways that Marder sees as modes of mental fracking.

Oil and gas must continue to be pumped out by penetrating the bedrock to release the energy that lies hidden within.

“Energy dreams” looks to plants for an alternative conception of energy. Plants (carnivorous ones are not mentioned) do not need to “devastate the interiority of another being to procure their energy’.

What they need is collected from the soil, water and the sun. This is an alternative dream of energy but its value has been denigrated: to vegetate is often used to indicate an inactive, dull or wasteful way of life.

It is time, argues Marder, to put this alternative dream to work and his book’s chapters look at aspects of theology, economics, psychology, politics and physics that relate to his project.

He perceptively bridges what has been deemed a gap between the early and late Marx, viewing alienation in the workplace in terms of energy counteracting itself.

Communism is to be seen in respect to both the process and product of work (tell that to China!). Aligning energy with potentiality is a one-way street with a dead-end.

Scientists’ dreams in the last century led to catastrophes; not surprisingly, there is a call for a change of direction in how we think about and imagine energy.

Energy dreams”, by Michael Marder, is published by Columbia University Press.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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