“Solar Goop: Energy Futures and Feminist Self Care”

The thick clusters of roses are pale pink on the outer edges and darker as they get closer to the center, which is a bright deep red. Maybe ten feet high, the almond-shaped arch beckons deliciously, obscenely. It could be a surreal set in a Pedro Almodóvar film, or some tamed version of Allyson Mitchell’s 2004 installation, “Hungry Purse: The Vagina Dentata in Late Capitalism.”1 Then Gwyneth Paltrow steps in front of it. You wish she would get out of the way so you could continue to gaze at the beckoning carmine center, though her ivory-colored midriff-exposing outfit sets her off to good advantage against the floral backdrop. Her grin is exuberant.

Our task in this volume is to speculate on what solarity looks like “in terms of social systems, asking questions not about technology but about relationality and modes of being” (Szeman and Barney, this issue). I take this to be an invitation to imagine the different intimacies that solar could afford, intimacies that have the potential to be radically different from the relational structures afforded by petro modernity. If we let ourselves fantasize about it, we may hope for solar intimacy to be non-possessive, non-hierarchical, and non-individualized. Without the scarcity model of fossil fuel, maybe we could enter into some realm of being in which we can loosen our grip on things, on people, on the world that surrounds us. In that potential future, our subjectivities may be less bound by the systems
of oppression, categorization, and anxious identification that we now experience and inhabit.

This future has the potential to be very bright. In solarpunk imaginaries and plans for off-grid communes, it has been already been imagined and partially enacted, as Rhys Williams (2019) and Elvia Wilk (2018) so cogently describe. When I first began to think about writing this essay, I planned to examine these countercultural instances of the potential rejection of the fossil-fuel regime. I read solarpunk stories and pored over intentional community websites, looking for the ways in which they subverted our current paradigms of inequality and power, not only in their energy sources but also in their relational structures. These seemingly utopian visions couldn’t, however, keep my attention, in their liberal humanist assumptions that equality and non-hierarchical relationality could be obtained through earnestly willing it.

Instead, I was drawn to images that were not, at first glance, subversive or radical. Inscribed as they were in a popular culture version of self-care, they did not fit my idea of what a scholarly essay, no matter how informed by cultural studies it is, should examine. These came from what I quaintly imagine to be the other to my current academic life—Netflix watching, yoga practice, and French feminist texts that I haven’t read since my zealous days as a deconstructionist undergraduate. Anglo (white, cis-woman) liberal popular culture would not seem, at first glance, like the best place to find new paradigms for a solar future. Nor, perhaps, would the French theory that was so prevalent in English departments in the 1980s. Why then is this jumble of images, ideas, and concepts connected in my mind to solidarity and to possible visions of solarity?

Best to start from the premise that I’m going to get any answer to that question wrong. And to carry on anyway. Because I do think there’s something right in drawing upon what surrounds me, right now, right here, in the mainstream currents of my everyday life. In imagining the social and political possibilities that solar might offer, how else can I envision the future than to peer through the myopic lens of the present? The systems, structures, and objects that we have at our disposal now contain and conscript and expand our horizons. It’s the conundrum of all utopian thinking, as Fredric Jameson (2004: 46) reminds us: “Its function lies not in helping us to imagine a better future but rather in demonstrating our utter incapacity to imagine such a future—our imprisonment in a non-utopian present without historicity or futurity—so as to reveal the ideological closure of the system in which we are somehow trapped and confined.” Knowing this, I fear that every time I describe a possible opening of radical potential, my next sentence will reinscribe it within possessive individualism, body essentialism, or just plain sexism. I feel a little woozy already, just thinking about the sharp veering in and out of focus that I’m going to be enacting in this essay. Woozy from the woo-woo that we’ll wander through together.

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