On Barak – Powering Empire

23 August, 2021 - examPrep

On Barak’s Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization seeks to “decolonize our world” by demystifying “energy”. He does so by historically contextualizing our fossil fuel regime, tracing much of what we presently connote with oil back to coal in a global thermodynamic story centered on the Egyptian sphere of influence of the Ottoman empire through 6 thematic tentacles: water, animals, humans, environment, risk, and “fossil”. In order to do so he intensively interrelates four different material/energetic components: coal, water (and ice), muscle, and salt. Barak so fascinatingly weaves these energetic ingredients together that they begin to appear almost as a new tetret of fundamental elements. Contra the metonymy of coal and energy, Barak shows how essential (both animal and human) muscle power became to the use of coal-fueled steam power. Steam engines relied as much on the thermodynamic energetics of water and muscle power as it did on that of coal. Muscles (almost invariably covered by darker-complected skin) loaded coal on and off steamships and shoveled it into boiler furnaces. Those muscles required the hydration of fresh water and the electrolytic properties of salt ions to function and to do work (in all senses of the word). Moreover, those salts were essential to the tentacular spread of the coal-water-muscle-salt energy regime from Britain to Oceania and back, especially on the water scarce African and Arabian coasts of the Red Sea where geopolitically and logistically critical coaling stations were sited to service the Suez canal steamship traffic. Steam travel necessitated enormous amounts of fresh water to nourish not only human and animal muscles but also the insatiable hydraulics of steam engines. At the Red Sea coaling stations this fresh water could only be supplied through the desalination of salt water, a process likewise powered by both coal and muscles and which left, as a byproduct, enormous quantities of salt, much of which would be cycled into the animal and human bodies of those laboring in boiler rooms, coal stations, and ancillary industries to enable their neuro-muscular impulses to continue firing.

Barak’s, then, is not just a “history of coal’s innate energy or intrinsic agency,” but, through water, muscle, and salt, is “a history of the multiple, nonlinear juxtapositions and chains of agency that spawned new objects, addictions, and consumption practices.” These chains of agency and the logistical and power networks that make them possible are for Barak akin to tentacles. His is thus what he calls a tentacular history — “attuned to a multiplicity of creatures and things with which we are embroiled.” Barak initially outlines his tentacle metaphor in reference to a map of 1864 British coal exports by the famed progenitor of the data visualization, Charles Joseph Minard. But the tentacle metaphor is more than just a visual descriptor of a far reaching network, it is given semantic legs by the fact that, due to the distribution of neuronal cells and ganglion clusters in cephalopods, their cognitive function is not localized to one region of their body but instead evenly dispersed throughout. Their titular latin portmanteau illustrates this fact — they are animals whose feet are their heads. Such a tentacular way of thinking about the “multiplicity of creatures and things with which we are embroiled” promises to decenter historical narratives — and not simply in bifurcated ways such as reversing the center-periphery polarity or establishing a periphery-periphery dipole dynamic, but in a way commensurate with the messy multifariousness of socio-enviro-technical reality.

We have recently discussed at length whether human beings or bodies might be thought of as technologies or as machines in the context of the history of technology. It is clear that for methodological, but also obviously ethical reasons, we do not want to conceive of humans in this way. But what do historians do when confronted with the fact that the historical actors of interest to them construct other humans and bodies as machines and discipline and deploy those humans and bodies as technologies schematically integrated into technological regimes? Barak encounters this problem in his third chapter, “Humans”, which details the mid-19th century thermodynamic model of the human “motor” and the accompanying “‘science of labor’ meant to curtail fatigue and energy depletion in order to make the interface between man and machine ever smoother.” The thermodynamics of the human machine interface were highly racialized in the stokehold of the steamship engine compartment. Thermodynamic and caloric theories of skin pigmentation were expounded from contemporary beliefs about skin color and climate to prove the suitability of the black body to the stokehold. They were conceived of as less susceptible to the heat, as having “less diathermancy” and therefore more efficiently able to radiate heat. How do historians of technology avoid treating humans as technologies when humans were very much treated as technologies in their historical contexts?

Another interesting aspect of Barak’s tentacular coal infrastructure was the co-production of environment and technology through the Suez canal, the oceanographic properties of the Red Sea, lighthouses, and the construction of ships. For Barak, “ships’ shape and geography recreated one another,” as the initial narrowness of the canal incentivized screw propulsion mounted aft of the hull rather than the side-mounted paddle propulsion prone to collisions with the embankments of the canal. The canal was successively widened in response to the ships’ dimensions which would consequently widen to maximize the carrying capacity through the canal. A similar co-constructive dynamic is detailed in Ashley Carse’s Beyond the Big Ditch, an environmental history of the Panama Canal, where the co-construction of geography and ship architecture resulted in the Panamax shipping standard — the widest and longest possible hull able to navigate the Panama Canal. These kinds of negotiations between the landscape and the tentacles of coaling evolve, for Barak, into larger conversations about the nature of risk and the development of insurance through the creation of lighthouses. Where friction between coaling tentacles and oceanic topography became abrasive in ways uncompensate-able by insurance or other non-technological risk management and mitigation mechanisms, lighthouses were built.

I have tried here to give but a small smattering of the multifarious interconnects Barak presents between coal and everything and everyone its tentacles reached and suctioned in his attempt to demystify and therefore decolonize “energy”. Powering Empire is a fascinating study of labor, environment, geopolitics, religion, industrialization, urbanization, thermodynamic physics, and carbon energy that connects these all-encompassing topics so thoroughly that it never feels like a history of simplistically saying “everything is connected to everything”. These connects feel tangible, with an evidentiary basis in the historical record, such that the tentacles can always be traces back to the cephalus, coal, which orders their assemblage.









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