Exploding Machines

What is the history of the politics of pampering? If the universal agent of pampering is petroleum (214) as Sloterdijk asserts, then it follows that the material politics of energy might be a foundation for this history.”

Sloterdijk suggests exactly this: “…it can be argued that all narratives about the changes in the human condition are narratives about the changing exploitation of energy sources–or descriptions of metabolic regimes” (224).

From this perspective, the industrial revolution is not just about making things—and the labor or market relations of that making—but the source of energy at its foundation. Industry, Sloterdijk suggests, is primarily about the introduction of machine labor, powered with a new novel power source: the motor. The motor is the thing. It enables the production of the products of comfort consumed on the inside. From external combustion to internal combustion, the fuels (steam/coal/petroleum) to power the explosions that keep it revolving are the revolution. And these exploding machines also lead to new meanings and understandings of the world. “Since the advent of motors, even physical and philosophical principles such as force, energy, expression, action and freedom have taken on radically new meanings” (225).

Of course here I think of the role of explosions more generally in the extraction of earth resources. The first internal combustion engine, invented in 1859, was the same year of the first oil well in Titusville. And four years later the invention of TNT in 1863 introduced new explosive powers for extraction—blow up the world and burn the world to power the motors.

The industrial revolution made countries into destinations for the “immigration” of these “headless energy subjects” powered by continuously growing extraction of fossil fuel energy.

Sloterdijk suggest that this is not only a foundation for pampering but for a shift in thinking about the world itself–that things can be different. The surplus energy channeled by the motor came to mean freedom itself—freedom to move, freedom to change, freedom to squander, freedom to burn. In contrast to the scarcity of goods and resources of the pre-modern, the industrial modern is marked by abundance. “The ban on wastefulness [of the premodern period] has been replaced by the ban on frugality, expressed in the perpetual appeals to encourage domestic demand. Modern civilization is based less on ‘humanity’s exit from its self-inflicted unproductiveness’ than on the constant influx of an undeserved wealth of energy into the space of entrepreneurship and experience” (228).

Of course, this is a crux of the problem: Once this abundance is unleashed—once the cathedral of pampering has been built—then how does one deal with the results without imposing an austerity that the subjects of pampering will not abide? Isn’t this exactly the position of the climate deniers: the environmentalists (and their environmental regulations) want to take away my stuff and my freedom (to burn). Sloterdijk offers an interesting suggestion: as long as people continue expect that abundance of industry, “…technological research will have to devote itself first and foremost to finding sources for an alternative wastefulness” (231).

As for the formula freedom=burning and the gendered associations that go along with it, that might be more of a challenge as the burning of a diesel engine offers an entirely different set of sensations and associations to the sound of a Prius. (In fact, as the last clip shows, the Pries “can’t handle” a conversion to a Cummins engine.)


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