Aesthetic Economies of Growth: Value, Energy and Cultural Labour After Oil offers a cultural history of energy after the industrialization of fossil fuels. My argument is that the political economy of fossil fuels, and the climate change it generates, is anchored to energy’s aesthetic economy, the formal and material distribution of its social, environmental, and economic force across overlapping settings of work and life. This project understands energy as a social relation, rather than a technological input or raw material, and recognizes its material impact on the space and time—the setting—of the long 20th century. First I explore and develop the conceptual implications of energy deepening, or the cultural history of what in the philosophy of science and political economy is understood as a positive correlation between economic growth and increases in available energy. I make the case that energy deepening—which is tied to fossil fuel dependency, but describes the much larger impact of energy on structural unemployment, ecological devastation, and what I call a sense of setting—is as much a social and aesthetic process as it is an economic and ecological one, and thus cannot be isolated as a historical motor of growth without the interdisciplinary approach being advanced in the environmental and energy humanities. This means tracking energy deepening across three mediums: the modernist energy novel; deindustrialized architecture; and the physical and philosophical infrastructures of the postindustrial economy, or what I call energyscapes.
Part One describes the energy novel in two chapters as it develops in the work of German inventor Paul Scheerbart, and African American writers George Schuyler and Ralph Ellison. In Part Two, I discuss architectural and infrastructural projects designed to both capture and generate the social and physical energy needed to postindustrialize respective economies in Italy, and then the western world more broadly. In chapter three, this means putting the FIAT car company’s decision to retrofit their flagship factory in Turin into a factory of culture at the end of the 1970s in the context of the two energy crises of the decade and the growth paradigm that would respond to them. I argue that the aesthetic economy of Renzo Piano’s plan for the factory is emblematic of what was then an emergent value paradigm tying physical and intangible assets together in ledgers, law, and production. Finally, this dissertation offers a method for the critical analysis of those physical infrastructures most essential to the lubrication of postindustrial energy needs after 1973. Chapter four claims that the turn to landscape in architecture in the 1980s and 90s, and the posthuman turn in the humanities more recently, portends a larger economic drive to turn all energy into an economic form of elasticity, and all landscapes into the energyscapes necessary for postindustrial growth. Energyscapes calibrate the spatial requirements of energy deepening to social and economic life in order to maintain the viability of growth amidst the falling rate of profit.
This project’s aim is to specify what energy does for industrial and postindustrial societies, how the energy system built up on fossil fuels anchors social relations, and across what media its cultural, environmental, and aesthetic force is rendered into economic value. While ecological approaches to economics have provided a running commentary on the interplay between energy and capital since the 1960s, this dissertation claims that culture is what mediates the two. I periodize the aesthetic economy of energy in relation to the cultural media across which energy begins to calibrate the setting of economic growth: literature, architecture, and infrastructure. Energy deepening triangulates and coordinates the cultural logic of late capitalism, this dissertation argues, not just in the factors and relations of production, but across what in the conclusion I call the forces of social reproduction. If energy is a social relation, rather than a mere input into the economic system, its relationality is established in the daily reproduction of postindustrial class, gender, and race relations, while the price of energy access is increasingly severing entire populations from the postindustrial project.