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Energy and the Archive

Two Sources of our Knowledge Practices
Geoffrey C. Bowker
Traduction(s) :
L’énergie et l’archive [fr]
Energía y archivo [es]


This paper looks at ways to think about the relationship between the knowledge that we produce and its social origins without falling into a naïve determinism. The central arguments are that our modes of knowledge discovery and articulation are deeply social: both through the role of energy forms and bureaucratic practices.

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1We all know the standard story of the scientific method –that with the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century we (‘humanity’) lifted ourselves out of natural philosophy/theology and achieved a way of analyzing the world which was free from human bias: we let the world speak for itself through the laboratory (this is the drama of Shapin and Schaffer (1985)). Our knowledge seemed henceforth to be free of social influence– all we did was report on the facts.

2Over the years, the field of the anthropology of knowledge has consistently challenged this story. There are many kinds of possible challenge. At the micro level, it has been shown consistently in our field that the representation of scientific certainty is a social achievement –be this an ethnomethodological demonstration that the proof of Godel’s theorem is inherently a social achievement (Livingston, 1986; cf. Netz, 1999) or that experimental regress (Collins, 1981)– a topic becoming more pressing with the rise of data-driven science and its problems with reproducibility (Kitzes et al., 2017). At another level, one can show how funding mechanisms work so that certain lines of enquiry get privileged over others –the foundation of the National Science Foundation in the United States for example was about achieving the intersection between ‘blue sky’ and ‘useful’ knowledge. Today in the United States, with the specter of climate change databases disappearing from government websites, it is clear that science is about government (cf. Serres, 1990).

3However, I have been interested for many years in a third path –one which endeavors to establish a link between the ways in which we apprehend the world (our knowledge) and the ways in which we organize ourselves (our society). In a sense this harkens back to an old functionalist tradition (Douglas, 1986 –drawing on Durkheim) of seeing our forms of thought as being about our ways of being. But it draws more deeply on a quondam Marxist tradition that we think of and through the social world: distinguishing between knowledge ‘out there’ and us caught in time is just wrong.

4There are many ways into this kind of way of viewing the world. I often start with the reactionary Gerald Holton’s (1973) marvelous account of the thematic origins of scientific thought. He observes that, for example, discontinuity in mathematics (non-linear math), the physical world (quantum mechanics) and the social world (historians concentrating on discontinuous change in the form of theories of revolution) all peaked at roughly the same time in the early twentieth century. Jean-Pierre Dupuy (1982) would add that we also were becoming accustomed to discontinuous travel (the metro, where one descends into no-space then pops up into a new destination; or air travel). A more recent set might be the failure of the ‘tree of life’ as an explanatory mechanism for biological development (Lima, 2014) at roughly the same time that the tree of knowledge (first diagrammed by the encyclopedists of the late 18th century) and canonized by August Comte and at roughly the same time that hierarchical search mechanisms (which involved searching through branches to the optimal node) were being replaced in computer systems.

5Equally, there are several routes for grounding such analogical accounts –for example, Tort (1989) shows how a single great invention (genetic classification systems such as Darwin’s, which classify by point of origin) spread across a whole set of domains through chance encounters (someone’s friend going to a lecture in a different field and reporting on what they heard and so forth). However, this form of grounding –useful as it is– does not explain.

6One grounding I’ve always liked is that it’s down to bureaucracy –the ways in which we organize our facts about ourselves and about the world tend to be pretty much the same. The Wootton Desk –that great nineteenth century invention of a desk bristling with pigeon holes allowing for enhanced storage of useful information– was central both to office architecture and to the great natural history surveys of the west in the late nineteenth century. Computers can be seen as coming both out of office and factory organization. Charles Babbage proclaimed the invention of the principle of division of labor –which he lauded in his Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1963[1827]) central to the intellectual division of labor or his difference and analytic engines. Later developments were modeled on the reorganization of the great insurance offices of the mid nineteenth century (Campbell-Kelly, 1994). The information technologies that we use shape and constrain our ways of thinking about the world –it is unsurprising that Melvyl Dewey gave us both library catalogs (knowledge) and tools for tracking stock in businesses; or that ‘barcodes’ have traveled between supermarkets and the natural world (Waterton et al., 2013).

7Both these forms of grounding are fine-grained –they show how an ‘idea’ might travel freely through the scientific and business/social worlds through encounters in the first instance or through shared technology in the second. I now turn to two figures that have played a key role over the past two hundred years in our knowledge economy: energy and the archive.


8Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (2011) posits a direct relationship between the form of energy that we consume and the social (and, I would argue, religious) theories we produce. This is highly unsurprising in a sense –a society that seeks to pillage past sunlight stored over many millions of years within several generations while knowing the very limitations of that resource is making a series of strong statements:

  • That our generation are the ultimate or penultimate generation –so we need to maximize for resources in the present rather than distribute them in the future. This form of argumentation is highly pervasive –so much biodiversity rhetoric is about preserving maximal biodiversity for our usage now, rather than maximizing for life’s ability to generate new forms in the future. This apocalyptic vision preceded the second industrial revolution (late eighteenth century) in the form of millennialism –what is interesting is that the apocalypse jumped from Christianity to rational science with nary a leap of faith in sight. So, après nous le deluge… Spend, spend, spend.

  • That energy is a finite resource to be exploited rather than a sustainable resource to be nurtured. Late capitalism has precisely configured workers as such an exploitable resource –the language of energy has pervaded our social fabric.

  • That we are the advancing edge of the future. The very discourse of certainty and optimism in progress attended the development of the steam engine and the massive exploitation of coal as a resource. We could ‘accelerate’ human progress (Perdonnet, 1858) by exploiting the ship and the train run by steam. This generation, if was felt, was different from any previous generation because it could simultaneously speed things up and annihilate distance. The status quo ante only really worked when energy was an infinite resource.

9But what has this to do with knowledge practices? Let me evoke the resource of Coins, Bodies, Games and Gold by Leslie Kurke (1999). She deploys a poetic semiotics to find out how people were talking about money for several centuries in Greece after its instauration and before Aristotle’s philosophical treatise (about 300 years). She argues that such an overwhelming social fact as this invention could not have been ignored –and that it is through semiotic analysis that we can uncover how this discussion occurred without the abstract concept being used. Similarly with energy –much of our social discourse is about it, we just need to understand how to read that discourse.

10Ontologically, it seems to be always in our culture a question of which came first –and I wish it weren’t. It is not that energy discourse undergirds epiphenomenal philosophical and political discourse (though this argument can be a useful propaedeutic to the question of the source of our practices). Rather, the exploitation and the discourse occur together in a single unit –there is no universal arrow of causality that leads from one to the other. I think here of Sohn-Rethel’s (1975) argument on ‘Science as Alienated Consciousness’ –I have no difficulty following him and arguing that universal time and space are a meditation on the commodity form of early capitalism, providing one inverts in the same breath and argues that the commodity form is a meditation on the nature of space and time. I agree with Mitchell that we couldn’t have the great infrastructure projects of the twentieth century without carbon and oil, nor the economic theories of Marx and Keynes. We think through how we act socially and economically.

The performative archive

11One of the overwhelming social facts today is that we seem to be collecting more and more data all the time about all aspects of the social and natural worlds. Bureaucracy gone wild. So much has been written about the totalizing traces that we are leaving… even Latour’s oligopticon seems to have transmuted into a Tardean panopticon (Latour, 2002). All these traces, traveling so promiscuously to lodge themselves in multiple databases. We seem to constantly reemerge as brave new subjects from the warm sea of data which engulfs us in the form of a commercially sponsored amniotic fluid: a fluid that simultaneously describes and performs who we are.

12When people talk about a service or information economy, a post-industrial one, it’s as if the means of production had gone away and all that’s left is the market working in a frictionless space at ever increasing speeds to spread information in ever more lightweight forms –we accumulate capital and information.

13The performative Archive as it is being constituted renders invisible the material work of production, which occurs in invaginated folds hidden from our phallogocentric world of data bits (Derrida, 2006). We offshore and hide so much injustice, that we are able to build a social imaginary of a numinous existence operating in a perpetual motion data machine without energetic requirements. Much the same for me, though we do need to start with the observation that ‘me’ is a misplaced concretism. The skin may be the philosopher’s last line of defense (Bentley, 1941), but it is becoming ever more irrelevant as a boundary marker for selfhood. I am an obligate symbiont, living in a symbiotic world… where the first phrase connotes our internal flora and fauna and the latter our experiencing lives ever more fully through and with our technology (a move which is centuries old).

14When the total archive does deal with the material, it is often in the form of misplaced concretism. There are strong arguments that there is no such thing as a species, and yet projects like the Catalog of Life and the International Barcode of Life (Waterton et al., 2013) are rooted in their existence. And policies in the material world follow this ordering –the Seed Bank at Svalbard is relentlessly species-centric. We preserve biodiversity in terms of species, we do not preserve or promote the ability to speciate, which is its origin. Similarly, ‘terrorism’ as we know it is a Chinese menu of heterogeneous traces, and yet we act in the material world as if ‘it’ were a thing. The archive here is not just a form of recording the past –it is a way of predicting the future. When the circle gets too tight (preventing those with potential for certain conditions –be these social, mental or physical– from being born), the archive is indeed performing the future at the same time as it stores our data, information and knowledge. Despite all the talk of a Tardean post-theoretical understanding of society, our totalizing archive does indeed classify, and that classification has material consequences.

15It is of course possible to build archives justly and well. But that would entail our understanding just how much ours in an archival culture –a truth that tends to dissipate under misplaced evanescence. The period from the mid eighteenth to the mid twentieth centuries was an era of classification. Universalizing schemata were developed in many spheres of the social and natural world. They allowed us to catalog the world, to store information about it, and then to act on that information. We are moving away from the grand schemes, but we still operate within the same logic. There was a deep truth to Lacan’s dictum that language speaks us –by which he meant (if one can ever impute singular meanings to him) that our very sense of self is a product of the language we learn to speak, rather than the language we speak being a neutral medium for conveying our internal selves.

16By the same token, the Archive that we are building is performing us and our knowledge. The great potential here is to shake off the trappings of dust and decay that the word often conjures, in order to first recognize the social significance of this, and to develop new discourses that move beyond the neutral archive into embrace of its performativity. The Classifiers never really talked about what classification is (there were international conferences on statistics from the 1850s but none on classification per se). Let’s hope the Archivists of the new world will.


17One of the great quests of the anthropology of knowledge is to understand knowledge practices within their social contexts. Our field has developed in rich ways from the early Edinburgh School arguments that scientific knowledge tracked social and political interest –while this is clearly true in some instances (the science of intelligence; the way sociobiology has developed), it is a limiting vision. I have suggested that there are ways to ground a thoroughly socioeconomic understanding of knowledge; and equally that we need to develop new tools to understand this new grounding both in filigree (transmission mechanisms) and in its broadest strokes.

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Geoffrey C. Bowker, « Energy and the Archive »Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances [En ligne], 11-2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 29 mars 2020. URL :

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Geoffrey C. Bowker

Professor of Informatics, School of Information and Computer Science, UC Irvine, he works on the ways in which social, cultural and political values affect and are shaped by information technology He funded the Values in Design network. He is examining the values embedded within sociotechnical infrastructures such as databases, and science and engineering standards. He published: Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences (MIT Press, 1999, co-authored with Susan Leigh Star); Memory Practices in the Sciences (MIT Press, 2005).

Address: University of California, Irvine, CA 92697-3440 (USA).
E-mail: gbowker[at]

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