Friday, February 11, 2011

Coal and Coal Slurry--a poetic reflection/association

Coal is a simple and yet complex substance. What is our (the human) relationship with coal? Why do we desire it? And why might we make coal slurry out of it? For utilitarian purposes, we make coal slurry to 'clean' the coal so that it can be used and sold. But we are not going to approach it from this perspective--what does coal mean to 'us'--what does it tell us about ourselves? about our culture? about the ways we manipulate it--the way we can't take it in its raw-form, just as we refuse meat in its raw form. Why must we shape it to our liking? Why must we give it a new form, a new composition?

"Don't push me, son, or you'll find a lump of COAL in your stocking"

--coal is not glamorous, it is not shiny like gold or impenetrable like diamonds--it is not divine--it is dirty and messy. It connotes the smoky haze of an industrial revolution rather than the clean, environmentally friendly area we wish to live in. (George Carlin--"Environmentalists don't give a shit about the environment--they want a 'nice place to live'"). Coal obscures, it engulfs our culture, it is associated with the poor ,the working class, the "miner". Although, MTR has reduced the 'human' aspect of coal--its "kinship" (to draw on Baudelaire) to human beings. Mountain Top Removal uses massive machines called "drag lines" to dig up mountains. Perhaps we are fascinated by Mountain Top Removal because we cannot let go of the desire for the dirty industrial city--the smokescreen created by a working oppressed class.

So why would we 'clean' the coal? What does coal slurry represent?

In an excerpt from her book, Coal: A Human History, Barbara Freese contrasts coal with 'oil'--oil, the liquid form that can take any shape---oil--'black gold'--oil--the purity of the word is contained in its syllables. Oil--oily--smooth, slick, soft, sensual.

Coal is primarily composed of carbon. Coal begins as layers of plant matter accumulate at the bottom of a body of water. For the process to continue the plant matter must be protected from biodegradation and oxidization, usually by mud or acidic water.

Thus, in a way, it has a 'human'  origin--but it is the deformation of the human being into a black, sooty, poor soul. Coal relates to us on a chemical level. So why would we want to alter its chemical make-up?

Perhaps its because coal slurry is closer to the form of 'oil' than coal in its raw form. But slurry is not slick and 'oily' but is also sometimes called 'sludge'--it is more like the grey, dirty snow that gets under your car than the pure white falling from the sky. The slurry is the ugliness of coal gone--it is placed into a pit and forgotten.

Or perhaps it has to do with the idea that coal, like human beings, though born in sin and made from 'dust' (carbon) can be transformed into something as glorious as gold? Perhaps we have a need to make coal "better" by cleaning it. . .perhaps we have found our dark origin in coal and wish to wipe it off--if only we could wipe the otherness away from this precious resource! If only we could make it gleam white or clear! If only we could transform it into something more like us moderns--us humans that believe in Enlightenment and In(dust)rial progress! Oh, what a joy it would be to rid ourselves of our coal-black souls (and our black brethren) and to glitter in pure whiteness. . .

Perhaps this is our coal-narrative. I hope that my poetic rhapsodizing is taken ironically as I hardly believe in such utopian progress. Coal reminds us of our sinful origins, but also "challenges" us (in the sense Heidegger gives to it in "Question Concerning Technology") to make it better, give it a good scrub.

And indeed--what do we use coal for? "Energy," in particular "electricity"! And so we complete the transformation of Dark into Light, Sin into Salvation, Fate into Progress!

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