Daniela Gandorfer | How “Energy Injustices” Mean Differently

By Daniela Gandorfer

In Bertrand Russell’s 1925 work The ABC of Relativity, we find a chapter called “The Abolition of ‘Force’,” which argues that force, in the Newtonian sense, serves as a convenient shorthand and does not coincide fully with the physical realities. “Some forces,” namely “those exerted by a rope or string, by bodies colliding, or by any kind of obvious pushing or pulling,” he writes, “seem intelligible to our imagination,” while others don’t. This intelligibility, Russell emphasizes, is not simply a problem for the realm of physics, but also for that of the social and political. For “[i]f people were to learn to conceive the world in the new way, without the old notion of ‘force’, it would alter not only their physical imagination, but probably also their morals and politics.”

By beginning my post with this passage, I do not mean to compare Russell’s call for the “abolition of force” with historical abolitionist movements in the U.S., or even to abolition as used in the context of the Abolition Democracy seminars. In fact, I consider comparison and analogy (as I emphasize in my presentation) to be sense-making devices that risk falling into representational modes of thought, inattentive to the onto-epistemological entanglements of the concepts it puts into relations of oppositionality or similarity. Additionally, for brevity’s sake, I will also not engage further with questions as to whether force (or: Newtonian force, F=ma) is a useful notion or whether, as quantum physicist Frank Wilczek writes, “energy” would “from a logical standpoint” serve its purpose equally well.

Instead, what I wish to emphasize here is that concepts are not simply conceptual, but material. And, in thinking with arguments by contemporary abolitionists, that in order to re-imagine different worlds, different modes of thinking relationality are required.

In regard to the importance of investigating concepts as part of an (re-)imagining and inhabiting of a different world I am also thinking-with Angela Davis’ critique of a particular concept of U.S. democracy, Allegra McLeod’s extraordinary essay on “Envisioning Abolition Democracy” and the on-the-ground reconceptualization and prefiguration(s) of justice, Leah Aronowsky’s critical elaborations on the Gaia concept, Reinhold Martin’s concept of line in his most recent blog post, and Alyssa Battistoni’s reference to Latour’s recourse, yet again, to Carl Schmitt’s enemy/friend concepts. I understand their arguments also as a shared call for both critical investigation and re-conceptualization(s) as crucial parts of an abolition democracy project.

Returning to the fact that concepts are never only conceptual I want to add here that re-conceptualizations – whether considered as theory or as practice, whether in a seminar room or on the streets of NY – are not to be understood as exclusively epistemological, but rather as onto-epistemological concerns. This is the case because, as I argue elsewhere, modes of thinking – of sensing and sense-making – are practices of mattering and un-mattering, making possible specific modes of existence and preventing others from coming into being. Addressing the violence(s) inherent to dominant modes of sensing and sense-making, then, means attending to those modes and to how they exclude that which remains unthinkable – that is, rendered thoughtless, senseless, nonsensical; not only unrecognized and unrepresented, but unrecognize-able and unrepresent-able – from mattering. To be clear, this kind of inability to imagine different worlds, to sense how modes of existence can matter differently, to sense and make-sense of different kinds of relationality and sociality is neither an excuse nor is it excusable. It is an act of violence. As Patricia J. Williams writes:

[I]n so many confrontations between vigilant civil patrollers and blacks imagined to be “out of place,” between citizens and police; all these killings, particularly (but not exclusively) of African American citizens; and particularly by (but not exclusively) white police officers. Over and over again, there is something vexed about the seeing. Not an incapacity to see, but more of a perceptual problem. We’re all seeing the same thing. We see it once. Then we see it again. Then again and again and again. And we still can’t decide what we’re seeing or if we’ve even seen anything.

Returning to the rich conversations in the course of the Abolition Democracy seminars and the many voices from whom I have the privilege of learning, it seems of utmost importance, especially but not only at universities and other sites of academic knowledge production, to address and decolonize the proprietary mode of thought (taking place, object, energy, land) still left unquestioned by many legal, political, critical, as well as scientific theories. Those modes of thought have their long histories – histories of proclaimed progress and histories of colonialism, racism, imperialism, fascism; histories that inhabit legal and non-legal concepts, even, as Karen Barad argues, the concept and notion of ontology itself.

Questioning ontological and epistemological assumptions, understanding concepts as matterphorical, that is, as onto-epistemological expressions of (un)mattering(s), is crucial for imagining different worlds. If the possibilities for relationality are informed by, for example, an atomistic worldview, the Cartesian dualism, and Newtonian notions of force and causality, then how can world not determined by subject-object, subject-subject, and object-object relations (with all their attached notions of property, individualism, capital, defense, enemy, etc.) even be imagined? In a way this also speaks to Moten and Harney’s note of caution that abolition does not take an object: “not abolition as the elimination of anything, but abolition as the founding of a new society.” Overcoming the current limits – guarded not only by academic journals but by checkpoints, walls, face recognition technologies, police and military units, private security forces, energy policies – of what “social,” “democracy,” and “social democracy” can mean and imagining abolition democracy as “founding a new society” requires looking closely and critically into the injustices already inscribed into the dominant and enforced assumptions about what and how the world is – and not only, as Latour argues, the “Critical Zone.” As McLeod shows, contemporary abolitionists argue that “our present imaginative and institutional resources are constrained by the parameters of our highly unequal world.”

Nuclear colonialism, global warming, environmental racism, among other phenomena, have exposed, over and over again, that energy is neither one, nor ever neutral, ahistorical, apolitical. It matters (differently). Energy injustices render certain modes of existences possible while preventing others from being, often even from coming into being. We will hear from Bernard Harcourt and Noah Smith-Drelich about how this pertains to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and my co-panelists’ work shows in detail how global warming and the fossil-fuel industry are complicit in precisely these processes of (un)mattering.

What I, and the Logische Phantasie Lab, the research agency Patricia J. Williams, Zulaikha Ayub, and I co-direct, can offer in conversation with the works mentioned is attention to the question of how law has to be re-conceptualized in order to attend to energy injustices differently and to become response-able to injustices in their entanglements: Energies and inertias, gas exchanges and respiratory arrest, the force applied to George Floyd’s neck and the pressure of a thinning atmosphere, toxicities and radiation penetrating indigenous bodies over generations (to come) and spaceships discovering colonialism all over again. Law, too, is built on the aforementioned onto-epistemological assumptions about the world and finds its limits in those modes of sense-making. It is in our matterphorical investigations into energy injustices, including breathing injustices, that we aim to articulate a different right to breathe.


Fonda Shen