Podcast: "Petrocultures and the Energy Humanities" with Imre Szeman

Episode 2 guest: Imre SzemanIn the second episode of the "Capitalism, Climate, and Culture" podcast series from GMU Cultural Studies, Amy Zhang interviews Imre Szeman, University Research Chair and Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Waterloo.

His recent books include the co-edited collection Energy Humanities: An Anthology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), the co-edited collection Petrocultures: Oil, politics, culture. (McGill-Queen's Press, 2017), a collaborative project with the Petrocultures Research Group called After Oil (2016), and many other works on energy, environment, globalization, and culture. On Petrocultures, a collection of his essays, will be published this year.

Szeman and Zhang discuss how, at the heart of the environmental crisis lies one key issue: we moderns are creatures of energy. Access to energy has allowed us to do remarkable things. However, the energy we’ve shaped our lives around is dirty energy. To be modern is to live a contradiction. Energy use expands possibilities; those same possibilities are threatened by the environmental and social implications of the expanding use of energy. How can we make sense of this contradiction and its implications for the present—and future?


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Podcast Transcript

Imre Szeman: So the idea that what an academic who's interested in the environment does is write very good scholarship and then hope that it kind of trickles down to students who, somehow, some of them, down the road, will make some decisions and some changes. I think that's an inadequate response.

Adam Proctor: That was the voice of Imre Szeman who was recently interviewed by Amy Zhang and conjunction with the Cultural Studies Colloquium at George Mason University.

The Cultural Studies program at George Mason University is a center for interdisciplinary research doctoral training. This year's colloquium series examines capitalism and climate change. How did we get into this mess? And where do we go from here? This podcast series will explore these questions for a wider audience.

Amy Zhang: Hi, welcome. I'm Amy Zhang. I'm a PhD student in the Cultural Studies program at George Mason University as part of our Cultural Studies Colloquium. We've invited several speakers to join us for this colloquium speaker series today, I'm speaking with Imre Szeman  who is the University Research Chair of Communication Arts at University of Waterloo.

Thank you for joining us, Imre.

Imre Szeman: Thanks very much for inviting me.

Amy Zhang: Can you help us by defining "petrocultures", which is what your work has been on for a while.

Imre Szeman:  I would be happy to tell you what "petroculture" is all about. So "petrocultures" is simultaneously a critical analytic term; it's also a term that's meant to do a certain kind of political work work of doing — some environmental some changes in how we treat the environment; and there's a third part of petrol cultures, which is a bit harder to define, but that's an experimentation with new ways of doing academic research.

So let me talk about each of these not too too long. But I think it's important to keep them separate in to talk about each of these in turn. 

So "petroculture" is really began as a group of us at the University of Alberta that we're trying to make sense of exactly what was happening to the community that we lived in, Edmonton, as Canada became a oil superpower at the beginning of the century. The tar sands which are located — the Athabasca tar Sands located north of Edmonton is one of the largest sites of oil on the planet, some say it's the second largest reserves on the planet. And it only started become a site of extraction really in the last 20 years or so because of new technologies that allow that site to be fiscally feasible. Before that It wasn't able to — couldn't make money on it was too difficult to get the sands away from the oil.

So when you have a place where a lot of people are suddenly coming to try to make a lot of money, it really changes the character of the place that you live in and so I think our first impulse was just to try to make sense of what was happening in Canada, what was happening at Edmonton, when suddenly we became an oil-rich superpower, which Canada remains to this day. But as soon as we started to do this kind of research, really we immediately began asking a bigger questions.

And it's these bigger questions that have defined petrocultures and its really questions about: what is energy for? What do we do with energy in our society? Why don't we talk about energy more given how important it is to us? And it's through those kinds of questions that I think we define this idea of petrol what petrocultures are.

And when I'm when I tell you a petrol cultures are, it's not going to sound very interesting or it's going to sound, perhaps, to be an overstatement. But what petrol cultures are is the culture that we live in. It's everything that we do: our capacities, how we imagine ourselves, what we think we should do with our lives, how we do those things. All of those things are a petroculture. It's a way of saying that the culture of modernity could not be what it is without the energies that we have.

And the term petroculture is an attempt to draw attention to the fact that we have not been having a discussion about the role that energy plays in shaping contemporary society. It's something that on one level. We all understand and at another level we don't understand it.

And just to kind of tell you why we thought it's important to try to make sense of this: it really has to do with two different things. One is that unless we understand who we are, unless we understand the petrocultures we inhabit, it will become very difficult for us to make an energy transition, a transition away from fossil fuel based societies, to other forms of energy. The other thing is that unless we grapple with how we are a petroculture, it will become very hard for us to make any kind of real impact on climate change. So petroculture is kind of trying to stick our face in the tar sands in a way or stick our face in the oil all around us that shapes who we are so that we can begin to have a discussion about how it has made us who we are.

Amy Zhang: That's great. Thank you so much. Do you see a contradiction in the ways that modernity has been reliant on energy consumption, on the consumption of fossil fuels, and our hopes for development in the future? Are there any sorts of visions of development that don't involve energy extraction the way that we have been using energy now?

Imre Szeman: That's an excellent question. I would say that at the present we don't have any real visions about what the future might look like without oil extraction. There are ideas out there about what a society might look like in the future. Of course there are. A a lot of these societies are kind of versions of an "Elon Musk" society.

So instead of fossil fuel cars, we have electric cars. And the thing I guess we would want to draw attention to is that the thing there that's still not being asked is that question about the necessity of the car itself. So no matter what it seems like we desperately want the car. We desperately want what the car gives us, which is a certain kind of freedom and autonomy that we have become used to having as part of creatures of modernity.

So that's really what the petroculture element is less than kind of the actual fossil fuel. Fossil fuels create this kind of sense of our capacities, of who we are, and that's what we want to kind of unnerve. I think that there are not really visions that are truly, have truly paid a lot of attention to exactly what kind of society you will need globally where you cannot rely on this energy source either because this energy source is actually in in short supply — there's not an infinite supply of an organic matter, which is what fossil fuels are — or because of the damage that it does to climate — we can't continue to use it. So there has to be some kind of discussion and some kind of futurevVision where you have two things happening at once that are very very difficult.

On the one hand, you need a change in practices of energy use by those who use a lot of energy and yet you still need what I think we want as a kind of a development and expansion of modernity for lots of the parts of the world that don't yet have that modernity had don't have that opportunity how we're going to do that how we're going to both reduce and expand at the same time is what I see is one of the central contradictions.

So you have countries like China and India other developing countries that are continuing to use fossil fuels and even using it on an expanded level, even though they're very attuned to the impacts on climate. The tendency has been that we imagine a technological solution to all these things. And that's one of the things that I think those of us who do work in petrol cultures are most critical of and attuned to. That what takes the place right now of any discussion at all about energy in publics is the projections that things like Wired Magazine shows us, where we will have solar panels everything. And that seems to take care of the need to like kind of attend to the types of creatures. We become the types of culture. We've developed we can continue to have a petrol culture just powered by other things. That's the hope because the other — the other sets of things we'd have to do are extraordinarily difficult politically. And just as we have been with climate change and global warming the seems to be something that both North American society, but [also] Global Society, is really unwilling to have a serious discussion about it. I feel like we haven't even begun to have the kinds of discussions that we need to have.

Amy Zhang:  Right, yeah. Yeah, I can see that. If I'm hearing you right I can see how the response to a situation that seems so familiar, seems so at home for those in the global North, you can sort of only respond to it with this kind of magical thinking and yeah,  I understand that that is a huge problem.

So you mentioned before that petrocultures is, in one way, it's the culture that we live in it. Is this very immediate very familiar presence of modernity in the Global North and I wonder if there is a way in which oil and energy which are of course underneath all of the artifacts of our lived experience, our cultural practices,— if there's a way in which they're not conspicuous in everyday life?

Imre Szeman: I think they are not conspicuous. And I think this is what has been the most difficult thing to have a discussion about. I mean on the one hand you tell anybody at all that fossil fuels are important to us, they will of course immediately say that that's the case.

Amy Zhang: Yes.

Imre Szeman: If you tell them that all manner of plastics and all manner of other goods are also part of fossil fuels, they come from fossil fuels, of course, they will also tell you that as well. The more difficult thing is to tell them that the kind of ways that they imagine what it is to be a person are also part of fossil fuels that's so much more difficult to imagine.

So the idea that you can move as an individual in the United States, for instance, anywhere you want. I mean there are of course, issues — there's limitations of class and race that are built into this as well. But there's this sense of kind of capacity to go. There's this capacity to do. There's even the feeling of free time. The way that we have tended to imagine link maturity with the ability to drive. The comfort of home and of family and their connections to suburbs. Which come at the same moment they develop at the very same moment as the rest of the great expansion the first suburbs being in 1947. The sensibility that we have about what it is to make it. I mean these I think are the more difficult things to connect up with energy, connect up with a surfeit of energy.

And the idea that this then has to be altered is hard, obviously, to address. It is to say almost mean what we're asking is that people begin to imagine a kind of a social revolution, a political transformation, unlike anything they've ever imagined. It isn't getting different people into the halls of Congress.

It's about trying to think about what those people, how they are constituted.

Amy Zhang: Uh-huh.

Imre Szeman: There's a phrase that I really liked by the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, who's given some thought to these issues. He says something to the effect that the mansion of modern freedoms is built on fossil fuels.

So even the kind of ideas that we have about what constitutes democracy, as flawed as they might be, they are linked to this energetic capacity that is still so new, I think, that we're unaware of it. It doesn't come really with the first discovery of fossil fuels in North America. It comes with the expansion of the economy of consumerism, of the use of all kinds of goods following World War Two.

We're living that expansion. That's something that is tangible to us. It's something that is one generation away. My mother was born in 1945. It's not ancient history. It's familiar to us. And is that familiarity that makes it so difficult to undo, in some ways.

Amy Zhang:  Right? Yeah, I understand that.

So, I wonder because I know that you have collaborated with artists and you have also written about the visual arts and film, I wonder if you see those creators of cultural objects as being one potential source of this counter narrative, or maybe just a directive for. society to be looking reflexively on this condition.

Imre Szeman: I would say that up until now the arts have been as guilty of not attending to this cultural imaginary as the rest of society.

Amy Zhang: Ok.

Imre Szeman: So in a book that I find to be very provocative and interesting, Amitav Ghosh, the writer and critic, his book is called The Great Derangement, he asks, why is it that even in the last couple of decades, the books, the novel's literary fiction, that is celebrated, that gets prizes like the Man Booker, none of them pay any attention to the environment, for the most part.

This is something missing in serious literary fiction. I think that can be said of a lot of the other arts as well. Now, that is something that is changing and I think that we have to turn to culture and the arts as a place where there is an ability to intervene in everyday culture, to cause people to reflect on the situations that they are inhabiting, to create other kinds of possibilities.

I think that is definitely where it has to occur. I think it's occurring in places that up until perhaps recently, that have still not been taken that seriously, in genres like science fiction or climate fiction. These are places that have the ability to tell us what happens if we don't make changes and to give us ideas what happens if we do.

Amy Zhang: Sure.

Imre Szeman: An interesting genre, but which is still a kind of a failed genre I think, is "solarpunk."

Amy Zhang: Oh really?

Imre Szeman: Which is a genre that tries to do something a little bit bizarre. It's trying to be not apocalyptic, it's trying to suggest that solar was taken on, that there was this transformation, and then is trying to write narratives about that. And not in kind of a again,  I always use this as a shorthand cuz I think people know what it means, it's not an Elon Musk way. But it was difficult, something happened, but they want to provide narratives of something on the other side. So I do think, you know, I'm kind of giving you two answers, I guess that are very opposite. I'm saying that on the one hand, I think it's not been the case that contemporary culture has attended to these issues.

Amy Zhang: Yes

Imre Szeman: On the other hand. I think that's where a lot of the kind of work has to be done. Now when I say that contemporary culture hasn't done this kind of work, I will inevitably generate all kinds of responses from people. They'll say everything like they'll say Melville's Moby Dick was actually about the pursuit of a certain kind of fuel.  There's Upton Sinclair's Oil. There's kind of things that will come out of the woodwork, in a sense. And it'll be treated as if it's evidence of kind of counter evidence to what I'm saying?

Amy Zhang: Okay, right.

Imre Szeman:  I think those are really kind of exceptions and it's also the case that those are not really attending to the hegemonic character of this particular fuel in shaping us .There are examples of fuel in these places, in these kind of documents. But they're doing, they're kind of more like,  they're like setting or they're like cause. Like, I'll just give you two other examples one is the TV show Dallas.  Rich oil-rich family in Texas, but it's just really a source of their wealth. It doesn't ever appear in the narrative and any kind of way.

Amy Zhang: Yeah, that's it, yeah.

Imre Szeman: The same could be said about the movie Giant, where —  an old movie now perhaps — but again, it's kind of the source of wealth. It's what drives a family apart and messes them up, because somebody makes a killing on oil and it's going to create, its going to unnerve this family that was make, that were a cattle family. So I'm not that interested in it being thematic part. I wanted to do this other kind of work that we've been talking about.

Amy Zhang: Okay, that's interesting. Thank you.

I think cultural studies also shares the view that there is a potential for members of — the creators of culture to make some of these narratives that can be interventions and useful interventions.

Great. I am aware that you've done a lot of work also on globalization and that it's contested concept for you. I wonder if you can tie together what you see happening to globalization as we enter an energy scarce future.

Imre Szeman: Wow, that's a really interesting question. So globalization as as narrative, as political impulse, has to be really kept apart from globalization as an another kind of sets of practices.

I mean you can have globalization that is effectively a name for neoliberalism or modes of contemporary governmentality. And one can also speak about globalization as a practice that is being carried out when nations come together to try to think about how they share an environmental commons and how perhaps then they should make decisions on a common basis about about energy.

So those those I think have to be kept apart. I think that the things that I've written about globalization are always trying to raise awareness about the kind of the parlor trick of globalization: the way in which it's saying we're all one planet now. And so lots of kinds of things that were a problem when we had this older vocabulary of developed countries and developing countries.  It suddenly gets taken care of all at once.

Or, globalization as a mechanism by which capital uses different spaces of labor in order to maximize profit. That kind of the reality of globalization that lies underneath, the kind of the language —  the easy language of globalization — is something I've drawn awareness, kind of attention to.

 I think though, I mean, I've really tried to think about this in relationship to petrocultures and there does seem to me to be some utility in activating a different idea of globalization. Because, whatever else is the case, It does not seem to me to be fruitful or to likely have a positive outcome, if we have a situation where a hundred and eighty or so countries each make determinations about their own CO2 levels that they're comfortable with and each make their own determinations about how much energy they will use.  Simply because we all share a common planet and CO2 doesn't need a passport.

It was telling that at the Paris COP21 event, when all of the countries put together the CO2 levels that they were willing to limit themselves to, the total amount of CO2, you would need a planet six times the size, If you were to want to keep it under 1.5 degrees celsius. Some have said this is the first time that the group of nations sort of really saw this, they really understood this, and part of I think the push towards keeping the Paris Accord on the part of a lot of nations is that they recognize how there has to be a common —  there has to be a common decision about these things. However, flawed Paris Accord is, which is very flawed, It does seem to me that the necessity of having a global decision on environmental issues is an important one. It does have some kind of repercussions for how politics work, that are things that I will continue to try to figure out.

I mean, one of the things that I will be talking about in the future, working on in the future is questions around "energy commons," what that means or "energy justice." It's kind of a way of making clear who gets what, who has what, what kind of power some people have, and what kind of power other people don't and what are the environmental implications of what they have and what they don't have.

Amy Zhang: Okay, thank you. I know that you've spent a lot of your time both sort of working as a discipline builder for Energy Humanities. And I know that you also spend a lot of time working outside of academia with advocacy groups, artists. And I wonder if you can give us a sense of how you make decisions for how to spend your time and resources in academia in doing academic production or doing production outside?

Imre Szeman: Another great question. I guess I would have to first say I make my decisions very, very poorly and I tend to be much too overworked. But I think that what I ultimately keep in mind for myself, what's really really important that I keep the questions and the issues that motivate me front and center above and beyond everything else.

So I don't really worry about how I fit in disciplines or how I speak to different disciplines or whether I'm asking the right questions or not according to some disciplines. What I'm motivated by our questions and issues that I feel merit academic scholarship and academic attention and then I try to address them, however I can.

Some of the ways of addressing that necessitate speaking to communities outside of the academy. So certainly advocacy groups, NGOs, ENGOs, some elements of government, even some elements of Industry. They are all aspects of a broader Social that are connected to the specific questions around energy that I'm currently interested in.

And I worry that what is happening to some degree in the academy, especially in kind of this broader area of the energy and environmental humanities, is that there's a very compelling can critical analysis going on, but the political element is missing, insofar as if it's important to ask questions about the environment, it's also has to be the moment when those questions and those —  the result of those questions  — are activated because, it's not there's not a situation where we can wait. You know, everything actually should be happening with respect to the environment today or yesterday, not 10 years from now or 20 years from now.

So the idea that what an academic who's interested in the environment does is write very good scholarship as my colleagues certainly do and I guess I hope that try to do and then hope that it kind of trickles down to students, who somehow, some of them, down the road, will make some decisions and some changes.

I think that's that's an inadequate response. And so, I think as long as I keep to the front and center the questions that are important to me, then I try to connect up, to whatever degree I can, with the communities that I feel I can benefit from learning how they're approaching these issues. But also who might benefit from the research we are doing. And also I want to know how collectively we might have a different kind of impact and generate different kinds knowledge, than we might if we stayed in our silos.

Amy Zhang: Yeah, that's great. Thank you. It doesn't sound like that's bad decisionmaking at all. It sounds like those are really good principles. And I think that makes a lot of sense and I think cultural studies students like myself would do well to remember some of that too, as we try to work both in academia and outside.

Imre Szeman: I think what has been important to cultural studies as the nonfield that it is, over its history, which is now half a century old — it's no longer something that one has to apologize for,  it's an important way of addressing academic knowledge  — is that from it's very origins what it tried to attend to and push the focus of academics towards, are issues that were right in front of them, but that weren't being asked.

So we needn't always turn back to the Birmingham school as a kind of progenitors of cultural studies. But I think what one does find there are scholars who attended to the problems right in front of them. A lot of what was done in British cultural studies were almost like the writing of white papers back in response to what was happening in government.

Amy Zhang: Uh-huh.

Imre Szeman: That I think is something we could take a really good lesson from. If we did the kind of work that the early Stuart Hall did or other members of the Birmingham school with respect to, for instance a culture in which policing was in crisis, the name of a book in early cultural studies, I think we would do a different kind of work. Certainly, policing is in crisis again, in many countries and there could be a really different kind of work in relationship to them then doing a Verso book or doing a book for a press.

I think that the kinds of insights about the complexity of culture and society and the ways that identity and race and gender and power and class get played out in these societies,— in connection now to things like the environment, social media, energy — these demand analyses and insights of kinds of scholars that want to have an impact. Cultural studies to me has always meant culture and power.

Amy Zhang: Yes

Imre Szeman: And power continues to be exercised by a culture in the strongest way possible. And so the issues should drive the analysis, but also the analysis should be pointed towards places where it can make an impact. And that does take place in the academy, but it can also happen elsewhere. There are other people to whom you should be speaking and speaking more often.

Amy Zhang: Right. Thank you so much.

Imre Szeman: Thanks very much for your questions. 

Adam Proctor: Thanks again for listening to this interview, which is a production of George Mason University's cultural studies Department. Be sure to tune in in the coming weeks for war similar episodes on our theme of climate, capitalism, and culture. Also be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts, so that you don't miss out on upcoming episodes.

Learn more

Learn more about the Cultural Studies Program at GMU.

Read about the Petrocultures Research Group's After Oil project

Visit Imre Szeman's website to learn more about his petrocultures research

References in this podcast

Szeman, Imre. On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture, and Energy. West Virginia University Press, 2019.

Wilson, Sheena, Adam Carlson, and Imre Szeman, eds. Petrocultures: Oil, politics, culture. McGill-Queen's Press, 2017.

Szeman, Imre and Dominic Boyer, eds. Energy humanities: An anthology. JHU Press, 2017.

Szeman, Imre and the Petrocultures Research Group. After oil., 2016. http://afteroil.ca/resources-2/after-oil-book/

Szeman, Imre. "How to know about oil: Energy epistemologies and political futures." Journal of Canadian Studies 47, no. 3 (2013): 145-168.

Cazdyn, Eric, and Imre Szeman. After globalization. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

Szeman, Imre. "Crude aesthetics: The politics of oil documentaries." Journal of American Studies 46, no. 2 (2012): 423-439.

Szeman, Imre. "System failure: oil, futurity, and the anticipation of disaster." South Atlantic Quarterly 106, no. 4 (2007): 805-823.


Interview : Amy Zhang

Music: Kevin MacLeod "Acid Trumpet," used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Production, audio engineering, and editing: Adam Proctor

Transcription: Richard Todd Stafford

Colloquium Organizer: Roger Lancaster