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Jamie L. Jones, Rendered Obsolete: Energy Culture and the Afterlife of US Whaling

Tom Nurmi
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Jamie L. Jones, Rendered Obsolete: Energy Culture and the Afterlife of US Whaling, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2023, 262 p., ISBN 9781469674827, $29.95.

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1Early in her excellent book Rendered Obsolete: Energy Culture and the Afterlife of US Whaling, Jamie Jones reminds us that in the mid-nineteenth century the word “energy” did not refer to coal or petroleum, let alone whale oil or other illuminants. Even its scientific definition was still being worked out by scientists like Joule and Kelvin. Yet fifty years later, the term had come to signify not only a measurable property of activity, a material resource, and an economic sector of infrastructure technologies but also new configurations of modern sociality and, perhaps most striking, new disciplines of knowledge that forever altered human consciousness and behavior.

2Rendered Obsolete chronicles the “massive energy transitions of the nineteenth century in the United States” as it moved toward “an energy regime predicated primarily on the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels” (4). However, instead of focusing on the ascendancy of fossil fuels as many accounts have done, Jones follows the decline of the U.S. commercial whale-oil industry, which—after the 1859 discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania, the Civil War in the 1860s, and unusually cold Pacific winters in the 1870s—had mostly died out by the 1920s. Because, for Jones, whaling was more than a mode of energy extraction. Although whaling for meat would continue and intensify worldwide in the twentieth century, oil-whaling had “a long cultural afterlife” (5) in the American imagination, detectable as a “residual energy culture” (9).

3The book argues that “the language and imagery of whaling mediated the transition to fossil modernity, while at the same time the physical residue—the ships, tools, infrastructure—became the material for new experiences of tourism, museums, public space, books, and history in fossil modernity” (5). Jones’s innovative approach to energy history complicates the intuitive story of clear-cut energy transitions, a tidy fiction in which shifts in energy production/consumption are naturalized as progressive and with assured outcomes. Reexamining the narratives around energy changes, Rendered Obsolete highlights five sites of US culture—literature, tourism, popular traveling exhibitions, public commemorations, and literary history itself—to move readers beyond “energy impasses” (13), or the versions of the past that stymie critique and paralyze meaningful action under fossil modernity’s cloud of inevitability and comfort.

4Rendered Obsolete is an outstanding work of scholarship, pushing the field of energy humanities in fresh, interdisciplinary directions by bringing together literary analysis, material and print cultures, museum studies, archival work, and visual studies to demonstrate the ubiquity of fossil modernity in patterns of thought as much as in objects, energy habits, and logistics networks. Jones’s second chapter, for instance, takes up the cultural infrastructure of tourism in late nineteenth-century New England, reframing tourist literature (guidebooks, maps) and railway print cultures (tickets, brochures) as the means by which material “infrastructure became part of the spectacle” of travel, leisure, and national identity (69). But Jones is equally sensitive to the colonial implications of fossil fuels—“the pretext for ongoing settler colonialism in North American and US imperial incursions abroad” (6)—and incorporates Indigenous responses to fossil modernity and settler time within her narrative: recovering the role, for example, of Indigenous sailors in nineteenth-century whaling (43). Ultimately, Rendered Obsolete sharpens our ability to see the media infrastructures and affect assemblages that make petromodernity possible, recasting disciplinary boundaries to better perceive the historical architecture of our current energy predicaments.

5The book begins in the 1850s, with whales in unusual places. These leviathans are ghostly presences in Pennsylvania oilfields, dancing sketches in newspapers, and traveling Midwest spectacles far from the sea. Jones sees this decade—in which oilmen envisioned whale-sized riches and cartoon humpbacks celebrated the end of the whale-oil age—marking “the invention of ‘energy’ as a unified field of labor, production, and circulation bases” (2). Following the pathbreaking work of Christopher F. Jones and Cara New Daggett, Jones observes how energy, once a poetic term for spiritual forces that blurred boundaries between metaphor and reality, became “yoked to fuels and the concept of work through thermodynamic science” (11) in the late nineteenth century.

6To enhance our understanding of energy transitions, Jones proposes a method she terms “energy archaeology” (14), drawing on media and network archaeology research as well as Indigenous knowledge practices. This method recognizes whaling ships as media and Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) as “a theoretical text in energy and infrastructures studies” (15), one that depicts the violence of whale slaughter in familiar infrastructural terms. In Melville’s account, the whale’s body is envisioned according to its future utility: “country roads and city streets, tunnels, canals, horse carts, urban waterworks, subsurface water and gas pipes, building timbers” (36). Melville’s prose becomes a “critical archaeology of infrastructures” that positions the whale “within ascendant technologies and political powers as well as within structures of the past, the obsolescent, the forgotten, and the arcane” (39).

7A central insight in Rendered Obsolete is the petromodern cultural function of futurity, both as imagined progress and as retrospectively romanticized past. From utopian dreams to nostalgic revisionism, these narratives efface messy historical realities and forestall collective action. So, the second part of Jones’s book surveys “the transformation of whaling culture from industry to entertainment” (61). In Chapter Two, for example, Jones contrasts the early twentieth-century history of New Bedford—whaling docks and warehouses retrofitted for coal terminals and petroleum refineries—with Nantucket’s booming tourist industry, which was built for the weekend escapee around the affect of quaintness, “the aestheticization of economic exhaustion and postindustrial decline” (62).

8By the 1880s Nantucket had become “the capital of quaintness,” a word used by guidebooks and letters of the time (73). Building on the work of Sianne Ngai and Daniel Harris, Jones offers a theory of quaintness as the aesthetic experience produced by capitalism not in twentieth-century consumerism but in the energy infrastructure cultures of the nineteenth century. Quaintness designates how energy transitions renegotiated definitions of work and leisure, promising “a way of aestheticizing exhausted resources, industries and people” like antiquated sea captains or town criers and objects like old-fashioned wallpaper or oil lamps (74). For Jones, the touristic pleasure of Nantucket, with its planned absence of clock-time (just the quaint town crier!), depended on an unconscious “misreading” and thus erasure of the historical-material-economic conditions of exhaustion that produced the quaint place or object. This requires “repressing the knowledge of death […] and sublimating that knowledge into quaintness” (86).

9The cultural logic of quaintness is also refracted in other forms of popular, whale-related entertainment. Chapter Three explores the “inland instantiations of whaling culture” (93) through two traveling exhibits to Chicago: a decaying whale named “the Prince of Whales” that toured the US between 1880-1882 and a wooden New Bedford whaleship called the Progress that navigated the inland canal network on its way to the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. On the one hand, the very mobility of these exhibitions, via transportation networks of canals, roads, and railroads revitalized by oil, are measure of fossil modernity’s “progress.” On the other hand, the “oceanic infrastructures of whaling, whales, and ships stood as powerful, rotting metonyms for the organic energy regime in eclipse” (96).

10The allure of rotting whales or quaint whaling ships had much to do with various forms of (extractivist) nostalgia, and the preservation of whaling culture in places like New Bedford was carefully coded as “white American heritage” so that “energy and technological obsolescence” was “coopted into the specious declension narratives of white aggrievement and white supremacy” (119). Jones notes this phenomenon in cultural figures like the 1913 harpooner statue in front of the New Bedford Library, still standing, and the film Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), both of which expunge the multiracial, multinational composition of whaling in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jones concludes her fourth chapter by examining the similarly revisionist imaginaries of two aging ships: the last voyage of the whaling ship Wanderer in 1924 and the 1926 preservation, as a tourist destination, of the Charles W. Morgan by energy magnate Edward Howland Robinson Green, complete with the added smell of whale oil. A visit to Green’s museum “Whaling Enshrined” was “extractivist nostalgia for the full sensorium,” ironically paid for through the “Wall Street investment and petromodern speculation” (146) that had made US whaling obsolete.

11The final chapter of Rendered Obsolete turns back to Melville and his rise to the American literary canon during the so-called Melville Revival (1919-1929), when critics rediscovered his “Americanness” (150). Jones, however, sees the Melville Revival in a different light. The attraction to Melville’s antiquated whaling world of Moby-Dick—a means of arbitrating energy transitions in early twentieth-century America—is especially visible in Rockwell Kent’s illustrations for the 1930 edition of Moby-Dick. Providing “a visual language for the cultural process of obsolescence” (151) described in the novel, Kent’s Moby-Dick contains its own “energy critique” (158) through a “wood aesthetic” (159) that visually links Ahab and his coat, for instance, to the Pequod’s decks in the style of imitation woodblock prints. But Kent’s prints are, in fact, ink drawings, photographed and hand-engraved or electrotyped. Kent’s “skeuomorph nostalgia” (164) celebrates “unmechanized, physical labor” (167) rendered in wooden aesthetic, and Kent’s Moby-Dick is “perhaps the ultimate expression of fossil modernity: drawn toward and built on the bones of a bygone organic energy regime and constructed completely from the technological, financial, and political structures of fossil capitalism” (181).

12Beyond its specific focus on US whaling, Rendered Obsolete highlights three critical directions in energy humanities today: petroaffects, often-concealed oceanic extractivist infrastructures, and the energopolitics of reproduction. Jones’s attention to whaling nostalgia, for instance, continues a rich vein of scholarship across disciplines (Ngai, Ahmed, Povinelli and many others) about the construction of affect in late capitalism, and her theory of quaintness has tremendous explanatory power. Especially as a relation to history—or, more precisely, becoming lost to history, becoming haunted by history—quaintness is the familiar, unnerving façade of petromodernity, “a fleeting and a fugitive aesthetic” (77). As with Kent’s nostalgic drawings for Moby-Dick, petroaffects like quaintness are alibis for “the loss of a worker’s authority over their time and tools” (168). Jones is best when limning these relations between cultural practices and the economics of work and leisure within fossil modernity. Such insights are accessible to wider publics seeking narratives of environmental crisis that fit within their lived experience when corporate interest has strived to make cultural and physical infrastructures of the oil age so invisible.

13This is especially the case with our eroded imagination of the ocean. “Fossil modernity happens at sea” (17), Jones declares, and thus ocean studies (or Blue Humanities) become an indispensable feature of future energy archaeologies that attend to tankers, shipping containers, and military convoys as much as offshore platforms or oil spills. Jones notices an intentional, administered forgetting of the oceanic in the contemporary public imagination that is mirrored in the literary one (see, for example, Jones’s section on Allan Sekula, 87-91). This may be because it is not “within the imaginative scope of extractive capitalism to understand its own limits, its own ends, or to deal with the hulking material structures it leaves behind in the abstract market turbulence of creative destruction” (193). More humanities work remains to be done on petrocapitalist ocean infrastructures—drawing, for example, from geography, political ecology, waste studies, and anthropology—but Jones’s inclusion of texts by nineteenth-century oil extraction businesses, geologists, and oil laborers (46-7) demonstrates how infrastructures of petrofuturity are constructed at both material and linguistic levels: how rendering happens in real time.

14The enmeshment of fossil fuel logics in contemporary thought is profound and hard to escape. Jones herself wrestles with the necessity of criticism to render or to objectify, even in the attempt to write against or beyond settler infrastructures. For example, she argues that the “whale’s body is a multivalent figure for settler colonialism” (40). Taken as body-for-oil-for-colonization and as metaphoric-land-to-be-territorialized (41), this makes sense. But such a figural reading minimizes the whale’s agency, its consciousness, and its capacity to resist (recall the ending of Moby-Dick). Jones is aware of this trap and addresses it directly (49), but it is worth lingering on the way that petrorationality colonizes thinking and reproduces itself in Western scholarship, so that well-meaning efforts to parallel whale slaughter with indigenous genocide flatten both colonial projects and render agency obsolete.

15I use the term reproduction here purposefully, as a way of concluding this review and supplementing Jones’s lovely title, where rendering means at once the breaking down of animal bodies and the making of an image, a copy, a reproduction. She notes “the complicity of reproduction technologies with animal violence” (10) and resource extraction, but in another context “rendering” denotes generating images or animation using coloring and shading from higher-level data to produce three-dimensional representations. Derived from the Latin reddere, “to give back”—to echo or translate—digital rendering has become fossil modernity’s suffusive representational and reproductive paradigm: the intensification and diffusion of Ishmael’s “rending imagination” (40) into our digital lives.

16Ishmael himself describes the enormous “influence” of reproducing extractive practices like whaling, such that “whaling may well be regarded as that Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb” (Melville 109). Jones touches on the ironies of this passage, identifying how modern energy extraction multiplies what is possible—creating and reproducing profound and unexpected planetary consequences—and how “extractive economies steal from future generations and interrupt the reproduction of life” (Jones 57). This is particularly true for women, Indigenous communities, and people of color, who become “as fungible as whales” (35) in the exchange-logic of settler imperialism, physically and discursively. The ways in which petromodernity intervenes in our material, social, and textual conceptions of reproduction remain an undertheorized territory for feminist, queer, and decolonial scholars of energy studies, and Jones’s book marks a number of routes for future study.

17Coterminous with Earth’s ongoing extinctions is our spiritual and imaginative exhaustion in the twenty-first century. A drawing down, a rendering obsolete, of our multiplicative capacities. “Such is the power of resource extraction to make one thing into another” (1), Jones tells us, to reduce the power of our storytelling in each transactive iteration. Yet Jones shows that energy humanities scholarship has the capacity to resist what is rendered inexorable through the petromodern reproduction machine. Perhaps by disclosing hidden histories and interdisciplinary linkages, we find incipience and infrastructures of hope: that which makes us kin.

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AHMED, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.

DAGGETT, Cara New. The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics & the Politics of Work. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

HARRIS, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

JONES, Christopher F. Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

MELVILLE, Herman. Moby-Dick: or, The Whale. Eds. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

NGAI, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

POVINELLI, Elizabeth. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

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Tom Nurmi, « Jamie L. Jones, Rendered Obsolete: Energy Culture and the Afterlife of US Whaling »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Tom Nurmi

Norwegian University of Science and Technology

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