FTM(TF): Allegories of Electricity from Edison to Wifi
by Andrew M. Shanken
12 June 2017
Image: Theodor Kempf-Hartenkampf, “Electricity,” Allegorien, Neue Folge, 1897, Vienna. Courtesy Michael Pabst, Wiener Grafik um 1900.
College of Environmental Design Professor of Architecture Andrew Shanken recently published an article in the June issue of the interdisciplinary journal Women’s Studies on the history and significance of the gendered representation of electricity in allegory and visual and social culture. Titled “FTM(TF): Allegories of Electricity from Edison to Wifi,” Professor Shanken’s article takes readers through an in-depth historical recounting of the shifting “feminine” attributes electricity has encompassed, from its visual representation on Sather Gate at UC Berkeley to its symbolic representation as the Statue of Liberty in New York City.
Professor Shanken begins by comparing the nude figures carved onto Sather Gate by gender, noting the different disciplines represented by males and females and the structures and positioning of their bodies as dominant and submissive, respectively. He then focuses on electricity, represented by a female figure, but different from the other feminine forms:
“Erect, resolutely forward, arms held ready at her sides, she buzzes stiffly with bolts of energy that crackle from her fingers and head. She has the same hips and breasts as Art, Architecture, and Agriculture, but none of their easy charm,” Professor Shanken writes. “Who is this more complicated, formidable woman? Is she the ambiguous cultural delta between nineteenth- and twentieth-century paradigms of production, transcribed to the context of the university and preparation for work in these fields? Or is she the redoubtable daughter of Western pioneers come to carry the frontier myth into new territories of the mind and still unknown professional domains unfolding in California?”
Professor Shanken traces the history of electricity’s representation(s) through time, noting it as initially being very masculine. But as electricity was domesticated in the nineteenth century, it became feminine, “...simultaneously indispensable for capitalism and undependable, harnessed for production and part of the tumultuous economic cycles of the period…It made day of night, and thereby disengaged work from daylight hours, while doing the same for leisure. This invisible force diminished earthbound cycles of time and warped spatial relationships,” he explains.
The shifting roles of electricity—as slave, as power, as man, and so on—are explained in depth, aided by visual examples of its gendered representation in advertisements, culture and art. Professor Shanken concludes by suggesting another moment of transition as we try to understand the shift to the wireless world of computers, tablets, phones and gadgets that “place our bodies again in a radically new relationship to machines and one another—at the very moment, no less, that gender is once again undergoing radical change.”
Read the article in full here.