In the language of the Green New Deal and the Paris Climate Agreement, “alternative energy” suggests a future premised on a simple upgrade: swap out fossil fuels for clean technology; update the means of production without altering its capitalist logic.1 How do we imagine a future made possible by neither a temporal (carbon offsets)—nor spatial (colonizing Mars)—fix? The cosmic, vaginal oracle of Alexandra Neuman’s video Alternative Energy (2020), channeling the wisdom of the Pythia and the irreverence of SmarterChild, emerges from the void with a provocation to consider the alterity of alternative energy. Out of the whistling machinic hum and rippling tides, the oracle speaks to the Levinasian conception of feminine alterity that discloses “all possibilities of the transcendent relationship with the Other.”2
Through the fluorescent (feminine) being—whose outstretched, typing hand metonymically suggests the searching subject and the viewer—we come to see this alterity as familiarity—“an en-ergy of separation.”3 Questions and answers are typed in real time across the screen in 8 bit font, evoking elliptical chatbots who, pre-Siri, were free from the imperative to facticity or service. The oracle does not exist for us, on demand; they come from a vaginal planet that sources its energy “from a giant hole in the tides.” After asking each question, the hand must spin a small egg within the oracle’s computer animated labial folds, as if rolling a die to determine the next move. The oracle’s cryptic answers, however, do not tell the hand how to proceed but submerge it deeper into the strange. The climactic question “How long will I exist inside this vessel?” sends the egg spiraling into the blue-green tides only to land upon the familiar orifice of the navel. Have we reached the surface of the vaginal planet or are we looking into a mirror? “Take a trip inside your belly,” guides the oracle, “to feel how death and birth are accessible on all sides.” Like every figure of alterity, death—the most unfamiliar—is paradoxically a portal to its (familiar) opposite, life.
The vagina is perhaps the figure of deathly familiarity par excellence. From ancient myth to Freudian psychoanalysis, conceptions of feminine otherness are well rehearsed. Two examples, the figures of the hostess and the womb, speak to these binaries—familiar and strange, self and other, home and universe—while refusing the notion that these things are “energetically separate.”4 The modern word hostess, contrary to what we might assume, is “not a feminine form of the Latin hostis, but a corrupted form of ‘hostility.’”5 Tracy McNulty notes that “[i]n the Judeo-Christian tradition, the hostess is the excess of the host, the one who is not made in the image of God.”6 As in the biblical stories of Jael and Judith, the hostess is duplicitous, conniving. In modern politics, the First Lady is the nation’s hostess, an extension of the president; if she wields too much influence over her husband, she is considered a hostile threat from within (Hillary Clinton).7
We find similar uneasiness in Freud’s conception of “the female genital organs” as both the “the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings” and the “unheimlich [uncanny] place.”8 Put another way, “[t]he unheimlich,” or the womb, “is what was once heimisch.”9 For Gayatri Spivak, the womb’s slippage into the uncanny relates to the “planet as signifier of the uncanny, by way of nationalist colonialism and postcoloniality.”10 The feminine, signified by the womb, is thus wrested from the specificity of the female body and mobilized toward new discursive ends—“to imagine ourselves as … planetary creatures rather than global entities.”11 Rather than rendering the planet or the womb more familiar, it is time for human beings to immerse themselves into the strange. In this constellation, the strange does not exist as a temporary impasse on the way to fully conquer and homogenize the world outside. No matter how many millions of miles Elon Musk travels from Earth, the familiar forms of capital will follow like manifest destiny.
To immerse oneself in the strange demands a different orientation from outside/inside, one in which our ego-shell does not protect us but holds us hostage to ourselves. In Alternative Energy, otherness isn’t a threat from within but rather a constant source of spiralic renewal, recollection, and reproduction. The vaginal oracle, far from the monstrous vagina dentata or sheathed enemy, drifts around us like a satellite. Detached from the human body yet distinctly feminine in form, the vaginal oracle encounters the subject/viewer as another figure chancing to pass through their orbit. Linear progress is foreign to the oracle; they know only the elliptical movement of play, the matrixial submersion into the w/hole—and w/hole-y Other—entity within. The oracle’s proposal to “take a trip inside your belly,” then, might be understood as much a call to internal self-discovery as a challenge to the subject’s superiority. In keeping with the oracle’s abstraction from the female form, the logic of the feminine—instead of valorizing the feminine subject—presents itself as a mobilizing life-force. Alternative energy, in this sense, is not another resource to be extracted and depleted but a connection to be renewed.
1 As Jasper Bernes argues, “The problem with the Green New Deal is that it promises to change everything while keeping everything the same. It promises to switch out the energetic basis of modern society as if one were changing the battery in a car.” See Bernes, “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal.” Commune, April 25, 2019, https://communemag.com/between-the-devil-and-the-green-new-deal/.
2 Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Interiority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 1969), 156.
4 Teresa Brennan, Exhausting Modernity: Grounds for a New Economy (London: Routledge, 2000), 11. For Brennan, “the idea of an energetic connection between the subject, others and the environment” is inimical to modern Western thought insofar as it “dims the subject’s preeminence.”
5 Tracy McNulty, The Hostess: Hospitality, Femininity, and the Expropriation of Identity (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007), xliii. McNulty provides an exhaustive account of the etymological, philosophical, and historical relation between host and hostess: “The Latin hostis means ‘enemy’ as well as ‘guest,’ and is also the linguistic root of ‘hostility,’ which developed when relations between individuals or clans were supplanted by a general distinction between those internal and external to the city-state. Hostility is thus contained within the notion of the guest as an implicit possibility” (53).
6 Ibid, 52.
7 Ibid, 53.
8 Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny.’” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological works of Sigmund Freud, trans. by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1919), 245.
10 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia UP, 2003), 73.