Energies in the Arts Review
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
473 pp., illus. 22 col., 22 b/w. Trade, $50
Future historians of ideas will have to explain how information rather than energy came to be the dominant scientific explanans of our age. Throughout much of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century it was the emerging concept of energy that underwrote most of the major advances in physics, cosmology, engineering, chemistry, neurobiology and psychology. The computational turn of the mid-twentieth century consigned energy-driven explanations, tainted by association with spiritualism and the élan vital, to the margins and replaced them with a seemingly more rational and logically-driven programme. Pioneers of electronic communications, systems theory, cybernetics, robotics and strong AI seized on the opportunity to reduce all human expression, thought, behaviour, and indeed physical reality itself, to streams of algorithmically processed bits, i.e. what they thought of as information.
Although it does not seem to be widely acknowledged, information is a rather unfortunate concept on which to base the entire edifice of the scientific project. The only accepted precise scientific definition was provided by Claude Shannon in 1948 and refers not to any objective, physical property of matter but to a subjective and contingent measure of what can be known about a sequence of data by an observer. Energy, on the other hand, could not be more real, nor more fundamental to all physical, chemical and biological processes. Everything that happens in the physical and psychic realms, including the fabrication and appreciation of art, is energetically driven.
It is this very profundity and ubiquity that future historians may conclude led us to shy away from energy as an explanatory principle. For if energy is driving everything, including that we are trying to explain and that within which we conceive our explanations, then it becomes somehow intellectually ungraspable — too close to see. Information expressed as ones and zeros, on the other hand, is conveniently susceptible to computational processing, and computers are the best tools we currently have for probing nature’s secrets.
One of the achievements of this collection of 16 essays is to make apparent the diversity of ways in which energy is manifest, and the depth and breadth of its role in reality, mind and culture. In his expansive introduction, Douglas Kahn alerts us to the plural nature of energy and how different forms of ‘energies’ gradually became subsumed into a single form during the concept’s historical gestation from a potent cosmic force into a discrete scientific variable. In this process something of energy’s concrete and qualitative nature was lost, resulting in a property that was more abstract and quantitative.
By framing the discussions of energies within the discourse of the arts, the book has the effect of liberating the notion of energy from its somewhat constrained scientific usage while at the same time avoiding some of the intellectually dubious uses to which it is put elsewhere. Through a diverse collection of essays by art historians, cultural theorists, musicians, and scholars of the humanities energy is revealed as a primary concern of many major and minor artists and philosophers, being manifest through works of painting, photography, installation, music and sound, film and video, and sculpture.
The contribution by Linda Dalrymple Henderson maps the preoccupation that many early modernist artists had with phenomena of vibration, resonance, and dynamism and this can be seen explicitly in their work, which is generously reproduced, as are many other works in the book. If you didn’t already know the connection between Marcel Duchamp and the lights on the tower at the British holiday resort of Blackpool, then she will illuminate you. Caroline Jones provides a lively exposition of the cultural implications of entropy — which in many ways is energy’s antithesis — including its unexpected erotic connotations. Other essays explore a vast multitude of topics, from the vibratory effects of sound on the ear to the role of the big toe in the development of humans.
The volume is highly recommended for those interested in the deep undercurrents that perturb the visible surface of human culture, and its publication at this time may reflect a wider drift towards the reinstatement of energy as a prime mover in all that we do.