Monthly Archives: December 2016

Winter Round table: Critical Histories of Energy & Extraction

We round off the term on Thursday 8 December, 2-5 pm, with a round-table in association with the Birmingham Seminar for Environmental Humanities: all are welcome and our speakers are Dr. Marta Musso, Prof. Tait Keller & Dr. Frank Uekotter.



Dr. Marta Musso:

Taking Control: Sonatrach and the Algerian Decolonization Process

e role that hydrocarbons played in decolonisation processes has so far been overlooked by historians. However, the oil industry played a pivotal role in the history of decolonisation, both on an economic level, as basis for self-directed industrial development, and an ideological level, as “the weapon against the West” that Gamal Nasser theorised in 1952 in his pamphlet “Philosophy of the Revolution”.

This paper aims to analyse the specific case of Algeria. The Saharan hydrocarbon reserves were discovered in 1956, two years after the outbreak of the hostilities with France; for the French government, it was the occasion to cover its energy deficit and to become a producer country. For the Algerian nationalists, the struggle to gain control over the Sahara became the symbol of future wealth and economic independence. Foreign oil companies, on their part, immediately saw the war as an occasion to penetrate a new market and to seize promising resources.

After the independence, building a national oil industry that would directly manage the Saharan hydrocarbons became one of the main goals pursued by both Ahmed Ben Bella first and Houari Boumediénè later. This paper will reconstruct the establishment of the Algerian National Oil company Sonatrach and the entrepeneurs that founded, focusing on the relations between the people running the company and the Algerian establishment, on the one hand, and the relations with the foreign oil industry, namely French and American companies, on the other hand. In particular, the paper will focus on the problem of technological transfer and nationalization in the context of globalized enterprises such as oil companies in producer countries.

Prof. Tait Keller:

The Energy History of World War One

My paper focuses on how energy geopolitics linked the battle lines and home fronts with industry and agriculture in ways that fundamentally shaped the twentieth century. Few human endeavors have altered the natural world in the modern era as agriculture, industry, and warfare. In 1914, the three formed a violent triad geared for the production of destruction. While battlegrounds seemingly suffered devastation, the resulting damage to nature was normally short-lived. Paradoxically, major environmental change occurred behind the lines, away from the killing fields. Scholars have typically studied armies in the First World War as social entities, but I classify fighting forces as biological systems, which depended on a “military ecology” of energy extraction, production, and supply to function. To maintain the “biological welfare” of soldiers and power engines of war, belligerent countries commandeered energy resources throughout the biosphere. The duration and scale of the conflict altered military ecologies around the world and led to new “material flows” of foodstuffs and fossil fuels. Militarized material flows of energy transformed relationships from global geopolitics down to individual consumption patterns.

Dr. Frank Uekotter

‘The Men of Energy’

The presentation discusses the biographical dimension of large infrastructure projects. What are our historical experiences with the men leading these projects? How has the role of the “infrastructure czar” changed since the late nineteenth century? Can we identify distinct national styles of leadership? And what kind of leadership should we expect in the twenty-first century? The presentation provides some insights into a work-in-progress about a collective biography of what Tom Hughes called “system builders”.


Misconduct in Japan: who writes the rules of knowing?

Ahead of this week’s Modern & Contemporary research seminar on Wednesday afternoon, our speaker, Dr. Tamson Pietsch, writes on what counts as success in education…


What is the warrant for knowledge?  If the Floating University was an educational experiment, who wrote the rules of knowing that determined what counted as its success or failure? This is a questi…

Source: Misconduct in Japan: who writes the rules of knowing?

Week 11 Seminar: Tamson Pietsch (Sydney), ‘Great Gatsby Gap Year: The Floating University and the Politics of Knowing in America and the Interwar World’.

Our week 11 research seminar speaker is Dr. Tamson Pietsch who is hosted jointly with MBS. Tamson blogs on the original knowledge economy over at Cap & Gown



When the Floating University set sail from New York in September 1926 on its seven-month cruise around the world, its educational status was already uncertain, undermined by New York University’s last minute withdrawal of sponsorship. However, once underway, the voyage was to face another kind of difficulty. As a ‘pedagogical experiment’ that emphasised individual experience as the way to know the world, the Floating University grew out of contemporary discourses within both popular culture and the new discipline of psychology. But as a world cruise of 500 wealthy American young people, it was also rooted in interwar cultures of consumption and production that brought it into close contact with an increasingly global mass media hungry for scandal. And scandal was something that students of the Floating University readily provided.

This paper is interested in how the question of the success or failure of the Floating University was determined not in academic journals, student assessments or university classrooms, but instead in the newspapers, not only of the United States but of countries across the world. In doing so it presents research-in-progress that takes up the insights of a generation of historians of science who have shown that what counts as success in experimentation is constituted by social cultures and contexts and their measures of trust and respectability. This, indeed, was something the leaders of the Floating University were to discover, much to their cost.

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