Energy and Self-Perception

By Barry Lord

January 27, 2016

Who do you think you are?

Who do you think others think you are?

Who do you think others are?

Such questions of perception and self-perception may be answered at every possible level, ranging from the intimate to the generic. Many of the answers are subjective and will change over time. But some responses may be more fundamental than others, meaning that they may have an informing significance for the complete range of possible answers. Those answers that arise from the energy source that makes them possible have to be among the most important of these fundamental formative perceptions and self-perceptions of who we think we are, individually and collectively. This is because each energy source is integral to the cultures that it makes possible, or in some cases necessary.

So a person may perceive herself as a single mother, a graduate student and a talented amateur musician. But each of these personae may nestle comfortably within an over-arching self-perception that provides the cultural context within which these various persons interact.  

Perceptions of who we are, including self-perceptions, are cultural constructs. They are coherent only in the context of the cultures they are part of. As I hope I showed in Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014), all of our cultures are dependent on the energy sources that make them possible. And each energy source brings with it certain cultural values that accompany that energy source – either as a value that is necessary to adopt in order to access and use that energy, or as a value that the energy source makes possible. Some of these profoundly affect our self-perception and our perception of others.

The most obvious example is the energy of slaves, the dominant energy source of the ancient world. In order to access and use that energy, entire societies had to perceive some people as having the right to buy, sell and control the lives of others, while slaves were perceived as having no rights over their own lives, nor even of their children’s lives. Ancient religion, philosophy and culture, implicitly in most cases, explicitly in some, accepted these values which most of us find so unacceptable today. First-year philosophy students often ask,

“Why didn’t Socrates (or Confucius or Buddha) have anything to say about slavery?”

The reason is that this culture of domination had to be accepted as long as the energy of slaves was the primary energy source on which the civilization relied. There are said to have been 10-20,000 slaves working in the mines of Athens at the time that Plato was writing – and the mines were needed for coinage, as David Graeber observed in his 2011 book Debt: the first 5,000 Years. None of the religious or philosophical leaders of any of the cultures that depended on slavery as a major source of energy questioned those values because without them entire civilizations could not be sustained.

Slavery began as a source of energy with the exploitation of captives seized by warring bands of hunter-gatherer groups. But like all energy sources it was initially secondary, so its culture of domination was at that time limited to those captives and their owners. The dominant energy sources of the hunter-gatherer period were the mastery of fire, the first natural energy source that we found we could control, and cooperation, our first social means of enhancing our energy efficiency. Control of fire extended our habitat and our range of foods, but it also made possible the culture of the hearth, where we were able to nurture our sense of community, as stories, songs and dances around the fire brought together groups that could eventually extend beyond kinship ties to constitute a band of individuals who shared in that communal culture. The mastery of fire made possible a culture of community around the hearth – a culture that was needed to provide the learning context in which children could develop into young adults capable of reproducing our species – a process for which we relied not on instinct but on learning, a unique attribute of homo sapiens.

This culture of community around the hearth was reinforced by the discovery of how cooperation could enhance the effectiveness of our use of energy. This social source of energy is usually related to hunting, given that as individuals men are poorly equipped to hunt (having neither the speed, strength, teeth nor claws needed), yet by cooperating we became the most effective hunters on the planet. However, it is important to observe that cooperation among women was even more important: replenishing itself with a new generation is a fundamental drive of all species, but homo sapiens had some particular challenges to doing so. The size of our infants’ skulls needed to contain our brains at birth is life-threatening to the mother (which is not true of any other species). Given Palaeolithic conditions maternal mortality would have been horrendously high. The only solution possible was cooperation among generations of women, initially within a family, then in a kinship group, in some cases eventually involving tribal or village specialists who might be known as shamans or simply as skilled midwives. Women had to work together, cooperating to save each others’ lives, and those of their babies.

Thus cooperation among women was essential to survival of our species, which was by no means assured. Men’s and women’s perception of who women are would have been strongly affected by this struggle to preserve not just their own lives but that of the next generation as well. That is the perception of women that is so unmistakable in the carved or molded figurines that are our first three-dimensional representations of Palaeolithic people. Sometimes called “Venuses”, they are indeed evocations of beauty, perhaps to be shared and shown around the communal hearth, but the beauty has to do with big haunches, breasts and bellies, physical proof that such women could sustain the life-threatening experience of childbirth. The figure molded from clay and bone dust found in Dolni Véstonice in what is now Moravia, which is our earliest known ceramic human effigy (31-27,000 BP), is typical – no facial features, but a very strong emphasis on the breasts, the buttocks and the hips. In all of these earliest representations of women they are perceived as the heroines of survival of our species that they were. Whether they were carved by men or women we cannot know, but that they were perceived in relation to the promise of their capability for child-bearing appears certain.

Prehistory, Czech Republic, Paleolithic, Aurignacian-Perigordian – Venus statuette made of clay and bone powder from Dolni Vestonice. Brno, Moravian Museum. © 2015. DeAgostini Picture Library/Scala, Florence

Domestication of plants and animals eventually transformed hunter-gatherers into farmers almost everywhere, especially as animal power brought its culture of domesticity to groups who had to become as sedentary as their livestock. Water power was another important energy source for the ancient world, both for watering crops and for making it possible for some people to live in cities. Class differentiation became important components of perceptions and self-perceptions, beginning with the perceptual gulf between farmers and city-dwellers who were reliant on the water sources for their ability to live in their urban setting.

By that time, however, the energy of slaves was assuming a dominance on which ancient cultures worldwide were dependent as late as the seventh century CE. Subsequently, as slavery became less energy-efficient in northern climes, during the Middle Ages advances in agriculture made greater productivity and larger populations possible in northern China as well as northern Europe, resulting in a culture of property in land that was rooted not just in farm fields but more specifically in access to forests, where firewood, the dominant energy source of the time, could be found but was usually controlled by a land-owning noble. Terrible punishments were reserved for peasants who were bold enough to chop down a tree or even lop off a branch in forests owned and controlled by the nobility or the crown.

Coal and the industrial revolution that came with it provided another well-documented example of our perceptions of ourselves and of each other being totally changed by the energy source that makes the cultures that depend on it possible. Prior to the coal-based industrial revolution the majority of the population was perceived in relation to the land and the mediaeval culture of property with its dependence on firewood: people might be serfs or peasants working the land in fealty to the land-owning nobility at the other end of the social scale. As Marx and Engels vividly observed, the culture of production that came to us with coal, coke and steam swept all of those relationships aside. In social class terms, people were now perceived as either capitalists, owners of the mines, mills and railways, or proletarians toiling in them. The culture of production depended not only on heightened class consciousness but on a strong work ethic and a disciplined work force: self-discipline is the most effective kind of discipline, and by the mid-19th century all of the industrialized countries had legislated universal public education for children – including the exemplary self-discipline of homework. Such a legal requirement had never previously been conceived as appropriate for children – yet by the mid-19th century it was ubiquitous, resulting in widespread social and cultural changes everywhere. Energy transition is an engine of cultural change.

Edouard Manet, The Railway, 1873, Painting. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

In 1873 Edouard Manet painted a picture of his favourite model (and mistress), Victorine Meurent, looking up at us from a book she is reading. She is seated at the back of a garden, beside the young daughter of Manet’s friend, dressed in her Sunday best, looking through the wrought iron fence at the steam rising from the rail yard that has taken over the valley immediately below. It’s entitled The Railway, and that is indeed what it’s about – but it is first and foremost a figure painting of two individuals who appear to be unrelated to the industrial background scene. It is of course the contrast that interests Manet, especially between the little girl’s dress and the rail yard, with a play between the volume of steam and the spread of her satin skirt. Victorine is in still greater contrast, turning her back on the industrial scene below, although we know she must be hearing it as she sits reading, cuddling the little girl’s puppy in her lap. In the foreground all is soft and intimate; in the background the harsh and noisy culture of production has taken over.

Manet was clearly attracted by the contrast, both formal and substantial, between the background and foreground of his canvas – smoke and silk, production and leisure. Compositionally and thematically, with the little girl’s back to us, his focus is on his model’s upward glance. How shall we describe the look on her face? It is certainly one of questioning, perhaps challenging: could we describe it as a look of estrangement from the industrial scene and its noises behind her? Is it an early example of that sense of alienation from the productive process felt increasingly in the late 19th century by people like these two figures who are not directly part of the social class division between capitalist and worker created by the coal-fired culture of production?

Most evocatively expressed by Manet’s friend, the poet Charles Baudelaire, this sense of alienation from the prescribed social class consciousness of the industrial revolution has its roots in the latter half of the 19th century.  In 1879, a few years after The Railway was painted, Thomas Edison perfected the first commercially successful electric light bulb. This application of both hydro-electric and fossil fuel sources of energy began a massive inflection of the coal culture’s perception of who we are and can be: if we could change night into day, what couldn’t we change? Electrical appliances in factory, home and office changed the role of women decisively, while advances in communications and entertainment changed how and what we know about each other. Eventually air conditioning (changing the climate!) and in our own time digitization have extended this change into every aspect of our existence. Wherever it has reached – and still is reaching rural parts of India today – electrification brings with it a culture of transformation. The challenge to perception is to see yourself and others as potential agents of change.

Thus the 20th century became the first in which many millions of people believed that it was possible for them to change the world. Social and political “isms” proliferated. International modernism was the expression of this culture in the arts. Oskar Schlemmer’s painting of the famous Bauhaus stairway in Walter Gropius’ building at Dessau evokes this culture directly through the rising figures of the students whose images exemplify some of the radical new ways of teaching design that the Bauhaus invented – such as solid geometric analysis of structure, surfaces respecting the qualities of materials, eschewing all ornament, following function with form, and utilizing the primary hues, blue, yellow and red.

Schlemmer, Oskar (1888-1943): Bauhaus Stairway, 1932. New York, 10 x 12 (1) Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Oil on canvas, 63 7/8 x 45′ (162.3 x 114.3 cm). Gift of Philip Johnson. 597.1942 © 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

The challenge to become a change agent, not just in the arts but in all aspects of economic and social life, made this culture of transformation that originated with electrification a focus of anxiety and stress such as inter-generational conflict, world-wide.  In the visual arts it is first most eloquently expressed by Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, continuing through such widely different styles as expressionism and surrealism, eventually very powerfully stated by Francis Bacon in the 1950s, the decade when it came to be identified with another source of energy – nuclear.

Meanwhile, steadily growing in importance were the fossil fuels that came to dominate energy usage from the 1960s forward. The abundance that they brought with them made possible the culture of consumption that flashed furtively in the “Roaring ‘20s” but really took over in the last four decades of the century just ended. For the first time people perceived themselves and others as consumers. We are all too familiar with the results.

Oxford Tire Pile #1Westley, California, USA, 1999,

Ed Burtynsky’s 1999 photograph of a tire graveyard in California at once records the culture of consumption and questions it. Renewable energy, even tinier then than it is today, had appeared and had put on the agenda the culture of stewardship as an alternative.

Today Pope Benedict issues encyclicals and COP21 in Paris assembles the world of nations to examine climate change and try to find a way to work toward this new culture that will eventually supplant consumption as and when renewable energy is allowed to replace fossil fuels.

Burtynsky’s awesome image implies the question rather than pointing to a positive alternative; today it is our task to help each other to determine what it means to be a steward of the earth, of our own bodies, and eventually of each other.

So we end with questions as we began:

What does it mean to perceive ourselves as stewards of the earth, rather than consumers?

How does our stewardship of our bodies enhance this perception and self-perception?  (Consider the fitness industry as just one instance of this dimension).

What can it mean to become stewards of each other?

The so-called energy debate is really a conflict of cultures. It is one of the fastest-growing dialogues in the world today. You are invited to participate.

Barry Lord († 2017), author of Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014) was Co-President of Lord Cultural Resources. His blog is still available at

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