Some Extracts

RhythmEnergyEnergy & Rhythm Light, Heat & ChangeEnergy Systems as RhythmicLow Carbon OrchestraBeats of DecarbonisationDe-energisation

On Rhythm, Chapter 1

“Think of a rhythm. Any rhythm. Rhythms proliferate around us, in us. Maybe you thought of your heartbeat, or the rhythm of working and not working (a more complicated rhythm than it used to be), or the seasonal rhythms of spring, summer, autumn and winter (also, some would say, more complicated than they used to be). Or maybe the rhythm of music, of walking, of traffic lights, your washing machine, your tea drinking, Christmas celebrations, day and night, bird call, the tides. Start thinking rhythmically and it is easy to keep going and difficult to know when to stop. We expect rhythmic repetitions, anticipate them, rely on them to keep going and provide some order to what comes next, tomorrow, next year …  Repeating rhythms proliferate in their multiplicity as well as ubiquity, and all these rhythms, with their different beats and pulses, regularities and irregularities, forms, shapes and measures, do not exist in isolation. They co-exist with others, they interweave and interact, they interconnect – they are ‘inter’ in various ways – forming polyrhythmia of diverse rhythms that run through your body, your everyday, the places you inhabit, the world that you live in, and live on … For Lefebvre ([1992] 2004: 28) ‘the study of rhythms covers an immense area; from the most natural (physiological, biological) to the most sophisticated’ … He is not the only theorist who has engaged with seeing and analysing the world rhythmically, but he is alone in offering an account of rhythm that spans the vastness of the cosmos to the intimacy of the human body and a creative and open inspiration for analysing rhythms through diverse multidisciplinary ways of knowing. The work of other rhythm and time-engaged theorists will come and go in what follows, but as will become clear Lefebvre’s final book published posthumously, and based on ideas developed in earlier writing, including with Régulier (Lefebvre and Régulier [1985] 2004, [1986] 2004), will feature throughout as a touchstone and central orientation”

On Energy, Chapter 3

“Energy is not an entirely straightforward ‘thing’. As a word and signifier it is used in varied ways (Rupp 2013) and there are distinctions in meaning which are important to how I am going to bring energy and rhythm together and significant for the status of energy in rhythmanalysis. As made clear in Chapter 1, a key initial orientation is to let go of the association of energy only with what is switched on, fired up, supplied and paid for; in other words only with energy as a resource that is purposefully provided, managed and used through sociotechnical energy systems – what I refer to as ‘techno-energies’. Energy is evidently central to the point of these systems existing, but it is not only located within their pipes, wires, tanks, stock-piles and end-use technologies. Energy was flowing, functional and fundamental long before any such technologically-enabled flows and stores existed, in even their most basic forms, and is located far beyond their material form and scope. Even electricity, Annus and Ingold (2015: 548) note, ‘has been active throughout the eons of organic evolution .. on such an evolutionary time-scale, the period of electricity’s incarceration within the grid amounts to no more than the blink of an eye’. Remembering, again, that energy is more than resources, commodities, infrastructures and devices, I will argue, is very necessary in making progress in the face of the current climate crisis.

Just as rhythm, in its essential definition, is radically ubiquitous in space and time, so is energy.  Energy expenditures can be found in very many forms – a burst of sound, the movement of a wave, the tick of a clock, the motion of a muscle, a blast of wind, the growth of a tree, the flash of a text message – and in such instances it is at the foundation of much of what we can think of as rhythmic repetition. This is a physical and directly tangible understanding of rhythm, which as discussed in Chapter 2 is not the only way to approach or make use of it as a concept. But being material about rhythm is important to drawing out the practical implications of finding rhythms in energy systems, and relating the techno-energies that flow through energy systems to the infinitely more substantial flows of energy that are external to them”

On Energy and Rhythm, Chapter 3

“To capture where this thinking about the energy in rhythm through thermodynamics takes us, in terms of what it means for human life and social formations, three key arguments or assertions can now be made. First, as human beings and as human societies we are perpetually immersed and entangled in energetic flows, of multiple forms, just as we are perpetually making and caught up in interweaving rhythms of multiple forms. This logically follows from Lefebvre’s argument that energy expenditures are constitutive of rhythm, but has a deeper resonance once the implications of understanding energy through thermodynamics are laid out. If all (physical) rhythms by definition involve energetic expenditure, then all rhythms do ‘work’ of some form. They enact and have an energetic outcome in space and time, which may or may not be consequential in other respects. There are resonances here with Whitehead’s observation  that ‘energy is merely the name for the quantitative aspect of a structure of happenings’ (Whitehead 1985 [1926]: 128).

Where this conjunction of rhythm and energy is perhaps most consequential and profound is in, and for, the human body. That bodies are both polyrhythmic and ‘poly-energetic’ is readily experienced through everyday bodily sustenance, activity and performance. Indeed, the rhythmic and energetic are so closely entwined that in combination they define what it means physiologically to be animate, to be alive. The dead body lacks the rhythm of breathing lungs or of a beating heart, and the minute electrical pulses in neurons. It lacks all obvious energetic expenditure and movement and is cold to the touch. To be alive is to expend energy in each rhythmic contraction of heart muscle, doing work to keep blood pulsing around the body, keeping circulations going. Rhythm and energy are at the centre (literally at the heart) of what it means to be a living human organism, forming the physiological substrate on which life in other terms is played out. Shift scale to the cosmological rhythms of day, year and season, and these are rhythms that we experience in our earthly existence most directly as energy flows, as flows of light and warmth shifting in space and time diurnally and seasonally, which, as will be discussed in Chapter 4, are enormously consequential in the forms of work that they then do”

On Light, Heat and Change, Chapter 4

“The co-evolutionary relationship between changing techno-energetic expenditures and dimensions of social change is not one-directional and not only historic, but of the past, present and future. Shifting light and heat rhythms, and shifting relations between their natural and techno-energetic forms, have not been deterministic in their effects, but always wrapped up with other dimensions of socio-rhythmic change, situated and context-dependent. As David Nye has been at pains to stress across his work on the social histories of energy, electricity, light and related infrastructures, there is not one narrative of cause-effect, or of the character of change to be revealed. The same is true for the engagement in this chapter with the histories of energy and rhythm. While some degree of cross-cultural generalisation might be appropriate, particularly given how ‘standardisation’ processes can operate internationally (Shove et al. 2014), recognising difference is always important. While then the contemporary narrative of relations between light and work might in some settings point to the recent emergence of so-called ‘dark factories’ (Morley 2017) entirely automated with robotic machinery that does not require illumination to function, in other settings the rhythms of labour, such as for subsistence agriculture, are still fundamentally tied to the cycling of natural light. Future trajectories of light (and heat) as rhythm-energetic will be similarly fractured and differentiated.

Finally, and to return to the rhythms of climate, we now know that the pasts, presents and futures of rhythm-energetic change are implicated in producing (and we hope responding to) the crises of a climatically changing world. Through human history, most of the means by which light and heat have been techno-energetically re-rhythmed have implicated the generation of carbon through combustion, either directly or indirectly. Disconnecting from the ‘constraints’ of natural cycles, has been enacted at a great carbon cost, which is now ‘acting back’ to destabilise the ways in which these very cycles (of heat in particular) are refracted through atmospheric and environmental processes. And having got to where we are in carbon-heavy, techno-energy-dependent societies, it is proving very hard to break away from the multi-layered and sedimented rhythm-energetic patterns, anticipations and expectations of light and heat (and other energetic rhythms) that are now in place. This is not only because of their inherent entanglements and complexities, but also because rhythm-energetic change has enrolled the beats of money and accumulation, the circulations of commodities and products and the intense metabolisms of modern cities (Huber 2015)”

On Energy Systems as Rhythmic, Chapter 5

“Energy systems have been approached analytically through many different lenses, but rarely with attention to rhythm. Thought of in material terms, the physically obvious elements of energy systems can appear pretty much inert. An overhead power cable, a gas pipe or oil storage tank, a lump of coal does not display much in the way of a rhythmic pulse, beat or measure. But in their energetic essence and in being part of a functioning system, they are thoroughly polyrhythmic, full of temporal structure and repetition, as well as having rhythmic consequences in their after-effects and wider interactions. These rhythmic qualities demand specific attention it will be argued, given that how they are configured and how they are sustained are consequential for the production of the current climate crisis, and for the transitions in rhythms that are an integral part of moving to a low carbon future.

In order to make the general case that energy systems are polyrhythmic, permeated with multiple, heterogeneous, interconnected and interacting rhythms, this chapter will focus on electricity, and the ‘big power’, carbon-heavy, grid-based systems that became standard infrastructural forms through the 20th Century; that is in industrial and more wealthy economies, and in urban settings more generally (Luque-Ayala and Silver 2016). This focus on electricity systems is in part because they are particularly involved and significant in rhythmic terms. They interconnect and aggregate the energetic work of an extraordinary diversity of social and technological rhythms, they are managed as rhythmic entities, demanding closely synchronised coordination, and are entwined in specific ways with the cycling of solar, hydrological and other environmental rhythms. They are also the focus because they are on the one hand (generally) enormously carbon-polluting, but, on the other, central to low carbon transition pathways. Most mainstream low carbon transition strategies are built around extending the reach of electricity into the powering of ever more technologies, as part of many more lives across the world, and doing this using low carbon energy resources. Analysing, in this chapter, the polyrhythmic qualities of ‘big power’, carbon-heavy, grid-based electricity systems, provides a foundation for then, in Chapter 6, examining the (partial) taking apart and reconfiguration of the rhythmic structures of current electricity systems into lower carbon forms”

On Conducting The Low Carbon Orchestra, Chapter 6

“In Chapter 5, the traditional managed ordering of power stations into baseload, daytime and peak load plant was characterised in musical terms – a continual drone, daily chorus and occasional extra loud blast of sound. To continue the analogy, in the fully low carbon orchestra this ordering becomes far more polyrhythmic and polyphonic, formed of multiple waves and blasts of sound as the possibility of renewable energy generation comes and goes, fading and rising across the sonic landscape of the electricity network, sometimes in patterns that follow a score (the tidal pulse, the solar silence in the dark), but also in abstract, self-forming swirls and shafts of complex sound (wind energy as free jazz). How (or indeed whether) the conductor can keep this orchestra under some degree of managed control in order to stop the performance collapsing is the subject of much disagreement. Some feel the need to hang onto the drone of some form of substantial baseload (gas generation as marginally lower carbon, nuclear as claimed low carbon), as a background ‘lift music’ over which more complex rhythms can then be managed. Others argue that the whole concept of baseload is defunct, that the drone has had its day, and a smart grid will be clever enough to keep track of the polyphony and sustain the isorhythmic performance of grid balancing in a harmonic condition. These more positive views of how smart grid management can work include, amongst the mass of proposed innovations, some working with the spatiality of implicated resource rhythms, as well as with how these can be anticipated as knowable repeating phenomena”

On the Shifting Beats of Decarbonisation, Chapter 6

“Conceptualising electricity systems as vast and complex polyrhythmic assemblages with infrastructures of energetic flow and conversion at their core, means that a substantial change in one rhythm, or set of related rhythms will often have consequences for the shape, repetition and constancy of others. Consequences that have the potential to disrupt established synchronicities, couplings and entrainments, break up existing hierarchies of rhythmic domination and subordination, and redirect the direction and intensities of thermodynamic entanglements.

There have been many examples of such consequential shifts in this chapter as we have moved from the rhythms of renewables, to new demand pulses of demand, to the smart orchestration of low carbon grids. Removing the rhythms of fossil fuel combustion from the electricity system breaks apart the sequenced and closely coordinated chains of carbon commodities, replacing them instead with rhythms tightly coupled in space and time to the thermodynamics of environmental and planetary processes. Introducing the rhythms of solar power into electricity-making, synchronises generation with the rhythms of some electricity demands, for example in day-time air conditioning, whilst decoupling resolutely from others. Transferring the rhythms of heating and mobility from direct combustion of hydrocarbons into the rhythms of demand on the electricity system, introduces new peaks, troughs, intensities and unpredictabilities into the already complex task of orchestrating the rhythms of generation capacity. When the rhythms of energetic storage at scale enter the mix, real-time sensitivities in relations between supply and demand begin to diminish. Rescaling and redistributing the rhythms of electricity generation across a much more diverse physical and social landscape, opens up the possibility of demand and supply co-ordinations becoming localised rather than aggregated, breaking away in effect from their enrolment into the mega-assemblage of the grid. In these and many other ways, all of the social, cultural, technological, environmental and cosmological rhythms that give the electricity system its polyrhythmic form, start to beat together differently when removing carbon becomes a primary aim”

On De-energisation, Chapter 7

“Despite all of what could be achieved by decarbonising the polyrhythmia of electricity and other energy systems, I argue in this final chapter that on its own this is not enough. That there is a need to engage with our immersion and entanglement in rhythms and energies in more fundamental terms, in order to address not only the carbon that is released, but also the techno-energetic expenditures and dependencies that continue to evolve and reproduce in high-energy contexts in the Global North. Decarbonisation in other words needs to be accompanied by (techno) de-energisation. Engaging with de-energisation in rhythmic terms means rearticulating some of the basic propositions of earlier chapters, in order to pose a series of questions:

  • Given that energy and rhythm have an intrinsic relation, they beat together, how can the rhythms of social reproduction be structured and enacted differently so that they are less techno-energetically intensive and dependent?
  • Conversely, as everyday life is shot through with rhythms and energies that are both social and natural in their making, how might (re)connections and (re)couplings to natural rhythm-energies be strengthened?
  • As our immersion in rhythms and energies matters also to bodily, ecological and environmental health, are there ways in which de-energisation can serve to sustain or improve eurhythmic formations and resist dysrhythmic elements and arrhythmic fractures?

In summary, can we live in ways that are less entangled with techno-energetic rhythms, more connected with rhythm-energies outside of these energy systems and more synchronized with times, temporalities and rhythms that have the capacity to counter patterns of fracture and harm in human and ecological life?”