Organized Session

SHOT Joint Session

Vital Signs: Grids, Galvanisms, and the Sociopolitics of Electricity

Organizers

Samantha Wesner

Cornell University

Michael Degani

Johns Hopkins University

Chair

Michael Degani

Johns Hopkins University

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Session Abstract

Electricity, as John Durham Peters observes, "is repressed fire." It stands for growth, life, and power in its most expansive sense. And yet its gridding also connotes technocratic order and control. This panel takes up the dual nature of electrical power as both science and magic, enrolled in projects of authoritarian order and yet capable of channeling the simmering energies of social upheaval. Moving comparatively across Europe and the Global South, high modernism and postcolonial disappointments, it asks how the historical emergence of electrical infrastructure indexes reciprocity, discipline, displacement or freedom, and what lessons this might hold for collective life against a backdrop of growing climate change.
There is no better time and place than HSS/SHOT 2020 to focus scholarly attention on the history, politics, and social significations of electricity. Our panel, which we propose as an HSS/SHOT joint organized session, analyzes electricity as science and technology across a wide geographical and temporal range. Bringing together work on electricity and electrification in Palestine, South Asia, Europe and North America, the panel builds a comparative sociopolitics of electricity with particular emphasis on political power and the electrical grid, historical processes of electrification, electrical metaphorics of political energies and social forces, and dreams of electrical futures. A joint HSS/SHOT session will bring the early history of electrical science from Galvani to Tesla into conversation with anthropological and historical analyses of the sociopolitical functions of the grid, moving across North-South divides. We aim to bring to electricity the multiperspectival scholarly analysis it requires, uncovering new resonances and addressing the Janus-faced significations of electricity as both ordering technology and vital force.

Presenter 1

Men of the Future May Become as Gods: Tesla's Wireless Electricity and the Dream of Infinite Energy

Iwan Rhys Morus

Aberystwyth University

Abstract

In a long essay on 'The Problem of Increasing Human Energy' published in the Century Magazine at the beginning of 1900, Nikola Tesla set out his vision of future energy. It was a vision calculated to help sell the system of wireless electricity that he had been trying to develop for the previous several years. In the essay, in newspaper and magazine articles, and in public lectures, Tesla painted a picture of a future in which electricity could be transmitted wirelessly around the globe and harnessed to light cities, run industries, fuel flying machines and propel unmanned warships that could end all wars. That vision played a key role in creating Tesla's public image as the iconoclastic outside inventor and of how futures might be made - images that remain powerful today. In this paper I will look at the work that went into making Tesla's wireless world. The vision was never realized but it was sustained by hard technology, financial speculation and media circulation. It was still going into the 1920s and beyond. Dissecting Tesla's wireless future offers a way of getting at the enduring appeal of networked futures and why they remain so powerful today.

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Presenter 2

Beyond electric despotism: the myth of the grid in postcolonial India

Elizabeth Chatterjee

Queen Mary University of London

Abstract

At least since the lantern-smashing of ancien régime France and Marx's analysis of Oriental despotism, large infrastructural systems have been equated with the exercise and reinforcement of state power. Electricity grids have typically been seen as the archetype of this link between infrastructure and centralized state authority. Yet this link-an idea we might call electric despotism-is far from automatic. State control over electricity flows must be historically produced and maintained in the face of the grid's conceptual, practical, and more-than-human unruliness. Focusing on the history of electricity in India during the 1960s and 1970s, this paper argues that infrastructures often exceed the state's capacity for knowledge and management. The tentacular, networked character of 'the grid' in India enabled a politics of claim-making by urban middle classes and wealthy farmers, which undermined state authority at multiple points of contact. At these points of contact, cheap energy was successfully decommodified.

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Presenter 3

Electrical Palestine: Technocapitalism & the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Fredrik Meiton

University of New Hampshire

Abstract

In 1921, the British mandatory government in Palestine granted an exclusive, countrywide concession to electrify Palestine. The concessionaire, a Zionist engineer by the name of Pinhas Rutenberg, soon set to work realizing his grand scheme: a hydro-electrical power station at the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers.
The goal of this paper is to explore the building of Palestine's first and only hydro-electrical power plant, and the critical role it played in creating a national electric grid in mandatory Palestine. Naharayim, as the plant was called, was a hydro-electrical machine made up of organic and inorganic elements. Envisioning and building it involved a calculus of environmental, technological, economic, and political variables. And it relied on various and seemingly incongruous forms of expertise. At every step of the process, Rutenberg's undertaking had to contend with competing claims emanating from the Jewish and Arab communities, the British mandatory, and the non-human environment.
Drawing on records from the Palestine Government, Jewish and Arab press and political organizations, and the archives of the Israel Electric Corp., the paper looks at a key instance of negotiating nature, technology, and politics. By generating electricity and distributing it over an imagined Jewish national space, the imaginary acquired a material dimension. Thus emerged a national space capable of hosting a number of national objects, such as an economy, industry, agriculture, politics, and culture. The paper will show how the character of those national objects was shaped in critical ways by the negotiations involved in producing them, while also influencing Arab-Jewish relations in ways that reverberates through to the present.

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Presenter 4

Great Shock of Civic Electricity: Electrical Vitalism and Collective Sentiment in the French Revolution

Samantha Wesner

Cornell University

Abstract

The 1790 Fête de la Fédération, the first anniversary of the taking of the Bastille, consecrated a revolution still underway. The festival had to anchor the legitimacy of a new order while at the same time excising the threat posed by the unruly social forces that had led to the storming of the Bastille a year earlier. How to do both? As an official architect put it, through the festival, "the sentiment of each becomes the sentiment of all by a kind of electrification, against which even the most perverse men cannot defend themselves." This paper analyses the revolutionary vocabulary of "electrification", read alongside contemporary natural philosophy. It argues that, long before electricity took the form of a grid, harnessed to industry and state power, electricity mapped another kind of network: that of collective sentiment. Communicable from one person to another, instantaneous, irresistible, simultaneously natural and man-made, electricity appealed to moderate festival planners and Jacobins alike. The paper explores two sides of revolutionary "electrification": its availability as a mechanism of top-down control, and its promise as a natural, vital force for democratic regeneration. Bringing eighteenth-century electrical science to a reading of electrical language in the French Revolution, this paper revives the dead metaphor of political electricity, today decoupled from its vitalist origins.

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