On Joules and Utils


Joule was faced with the dichotomy: heat is either a substance or a kind of motion. From the experiments which were performed with the magneto-electric machine, he inferred that heat must be a kind of motion, since it could be created or destroyed through motion. Since heat is motion, the experiments were interpreted as conversion from mechanical motion into another kind of motion or vice versa. The conversion factor is called mechanical equivalent of heat. The interpretation of the paddle-wheel experiments is analogous. He defended that friction consisted in the conversion of mechanical power into heat. This statement was not published in accordance with the wish of the Committee to whom the paper was referred (Joule 1884, p. 328).


Energy is usually presented in the following way: ‘energy can neither be created nor destroyed but only transformed’. If energy cannot be destroyed, it must be a real existing thing. If its form changes, it must be something real as well. Thus, that statement can easily lead to the concept of energy as something material. The German physician Robert Mayer did not find, however, anything like a substance but rather a methodology for dealing with phenomena. Using observable or measurable elements, he established equivalences between different domains, such as those which concern heat, motion, position or electricity. Let us suppose that we use Mayer’s methodology for dealing with phenomena. In this case, we know in advance that an equivalence is established by us between certain quantities. Hence, we do not need the ‘indestructibility’ of an entity to express that the quantity does not change. As we also know that we establish equivalences between mechanical, thermal, electrical quantities, we do not need to suppose the ‘transformability’ of the same entity.

The above excerpt about energy sounds a lot like Marx's concept of value to me, especially since he analogizes it to weight in Capital, vol. I. After all, value also acts almost as a mere conserved quantity in the context of exchange—the main difference being that value can be “created” and “destroyed” because its also tied to an exclusive domain of activity, i.e. some “transformations” are either irrelevant to the particular world in question in which entities act—due to differentiated fitness landscapes or the presupposition of a given, particular input—or act to antagonize that particularistic world—e.g., waste, death (violence more generally according to Bataille). This also makes it easy to incorporate Bataille's insights on the connection between life and death through his scheme of continuity v. discontinuity (synthesizing Bataille's concept of excess with Marxian economics’ concept of surplus).

In addition, this may have connections to the concept of abstraction as understood in software engineering and programming language development since exchange-value does not just refer to exchanges in the sense of transformations, but exchanges as a consequence of a sort of particularized abstraction (represented by Marx's theory of commodity-money). If it were just a matter of exchanges in general, then treating the economy (understood in terms of value) separately from the ecosystem (understood in terms of energy) to any degree would be a mistake (I don't think it is though, despite obvious continuities between value and energy). That it isn’t a mistake to do so is especially so when one considers that information conservation is at odds with the thermodynamic tendencies of closed systems (more generally, at odds with highly efficient thermic systems), as well as when one considers how economies are in some ways cognitive systems (an insight we get from Hayek), as are the living actors or agents particular economies depend on. Here becomes visible a potential notion of teleology that is already mired with conflict from the start—a sort of conflict involving possibilities.

Needless to be said that conceptualizing energy in terms of motion rather than as substance also means one can't just treat all energy uses as equivalent in that they refer to the “same sort of thing,” as if there were no opportunity costs for specific “effects” of “motion” (thereby as if “energy harnessing” involves the containment and local conservation of some specific scarce “stuff,” and as if energy is indifferent to the type of “harnessing” it undergoes). This take also creates a distinction between matter and energy. This distinction doesn't necessarily contradict Einsteinian equivalencies, but just implies that this equivalency need not suggest identity (am reminded of Heidegger's critique of reducing identity to a mathematical discourse of equality). This distinction also allows us to think energy outside of the properties established by substance theories. Energy seems precisely to be about the relationship between a whole and its parts (e.g., the conserved quantity being the speculative whole that acts as the denominator to plural entities), and formal/structural possibility sets. This may present some issues for strict mechanism, and would also then possibly link the problematic notion of energy to the problem of non-locality in quantum physics.