Introduction: Our Lives with Electric Things

Our lives with electric things are positively charged with meaning. Our bodies are electric: our hearts and minds pulsing with electrical activity. The electric appliances, devices, and technologies around us have hope and anxiety, possibility and danger. Our attachments to them are both sacred and profane, personal and political.

For this Theorizing the Contemporary series we have assembled a catalog of 51 electric things, with images and texts that reflect on their relationships to us and ours to them. Some of the electrically powered goods and technologies gathered here have transformed our possibilities for reproducing, nurturing, and sustaining life. Over the past half-century some of them have come to define what it means to live a good life. Some of them mediate human sociality across time and space. Some mediate ecological and interspecies relationships. Some create new possibilities for controlling, managing, exploiting, and ending life. All of them, we might say, mediate human relationships with the electron.

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Composite image by Jamie Cross.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, in an epoch—the Electrocene, perhaps (Mellamphy and Mellamphy 2015)—defined simultaneously by the global abundance and unevenness of electricity supply, our electric things simultaneously shock us into action and insulate us from change. At the same historic moment that our demands for electrically powered lighting, heating, refrigeration, information, and communication systems push us up against planetary limits, our electric things seem to be more vital than ever. Today’s electric things are central figures in our stories of the future and our infrastructures of renewal.

Against this backdrop any anthropology of electricity seems to require electric things. Can we still imagine the possibility of lives without electric things? Can electric things help us to address the possibilities and limits of life with electricity? Can our lives with electricity ever be disentangled from electric things? What are the unique capacities and material politics of electric things in different global contexts? What circuits do they make or break?

These questions took shape over the course of 2016 at a workshop sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, “Electrifying Anthropology,” which was held at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom, and at a workshop on “Alien Energy” at the IT University, Copenhagen. Our open call invited contributors to select one electrical thing and to craft a short riff on their encounter with it.

Taken together, the pieces gathered here extend anthropology’s contribution to the new energy humanities. Writing in a range of genres, all of the contributors draw attention to those “zones of experience and expectation generated by our energy systems that are sometimes taken as equivalent to normal life” (Szeman and Boyer 2017, 3). As they attend to the politics, properties, aesthetics, and affordances of their object, each contributor reflects on the place of electricity in culture, economy, and society, whether that electricity is derived from conventional fuels like coal or nuclear, from renewable sources like wind or solar, or from a battery store, as well as whether that electricity is generated on or off the grid.

All of the contributors here take it as axiomatic that the points at which power “becomes capillary” (Foucault 2003, 26) are electrified. As they trace the ways that electric power animates bodies, matter, desires, and thought, they set out to generate novel ethnographic insights and cultural analyses as well as to provoke future encounters.

Each image and text is wired together differently. Like any electric thing each piece can be handled in multiple ways: as a work of theory, history, or imagination. Some contributors have chosen to write in the style of ethnographic nonfiction, while others have turned to free verse and prose poetry. Some of the electric things collected here are familiar or ubiquitous appliances (the mobile phone, the fan, the hairdryer, the air conditioning unit, the fridge, the kettle, the flashlight, the remote control). Some have the capacity to generate or store electricity (the solar panel, the powership, the wind turbine, the wave machine, the water mill, the battery). Some are an essential part of our systems for transmitting and using electricity (the socket, the inverter, the fuse box, aluminum). In each contribution, the authors have set out to rethink our lives with things (see Chin 2016), using electric artifacts and materials to push beyond the taken-for-granted vocabularies of material culture.

Reflecting on how and where our electricity is generated, Lea Schick, Rebecca Ford, and Nandita Badami put electric things in the context of attempts to improve the human condition by engineering social and environmental change. Nick Rahier, Gökçe Günel, and Pamela Gupta remind us that electric things do infrastructural work. Gabriele De Seta, Stefanie Graeter, and Jamie Cross consider the electric dream of a never-ending power supply.

The power in our electric things is about the relationship of energy to life and death. Roslyn Malcom, Ted Gordon, and Mona Sloane keep us focused on the sensory body, ours and those of other animals. Trisha Pippard, Saiba Varma, and Matthew Archer reflect on the electric technologies that keep us alive, while Matthäus Rest, Roxanna Moros╠Žanu, and Giovanni Frigo consider those that facilitate our intake of calories and the production of waste. Hannah Gould, Matthew Hockenberry, and Trang Ta turn to the afterlives of people and things.

As several contributors underscore, it is no longer possible to reflect on biopolitical modes of government without also reflecting on relationships to electricity. As Ray Lucas, Rebecca Wright, and Jess Auerbach remind us, the society of control is electric. Daniel Wuebben, Moyukh Chatterjee, and Antina von Schnitzler reflect on the ways that domestic electricity connections manage private lives. As Karthikeya Acharya, Arba Bekteshi, and Ulrika and Eric Trovalla show, the very fabric of living finds electricity penetrating our desires and aspirations. Michael Crawley, Stephan Dann, and Mike Anusas examine the impulse to track our health, reminding us that the quantified self is electric.

Several contributors to the series locate electrical power in the work of mediation. Michael Degani, Martin Webb, and Debra Spitulnik reflect on the electric things that mediate our relationship to air. Pauline Destree, Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov, and Tristan Partridge consider the electric lights that mediate experiences of the city, political narratives, and marriage.

Other contributors put electric things into circulation, reflecting on capitalist economies of mass production and consumption. James Maguire, Declan Murray, and Björn Wallsten ground our electric things in the metals that are crucial to electricity generation, distribution, and storage. Brit Winthereik, Jonathan Charley, and Haidy Geismer consider the stories we use electric things to tell, whether about speculative claims and investments in the future or about ourselves. Alessandro Angelini, Jonathan Devore and Elliot Oakley examine electric things through the equal and unequal logics of exchange.

We intend this collection as both a provocation and a call for further inquiry. Electric things are good to think with: they keep us plugged in.

References

Chin, Elizabeth. 2016. My Life with Things: The Consumer Diaries. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2003. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador. Originally published in 1997.

Mellamphy, Dan, and Nandita Biswas Mellamphy. 2015. “Welcome to the Electrocene: An Algorithmic Agartha.” Culture Machine 16.

Szeman, Imre, and Dominic Boyer. 2017. “Introduction: On the Energy Humanities.” In Energy Humanities: An Anthology, edited by Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer, 1–13. Baltimore, Md.: John Hopkins University Press.