- On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture, and Energy by Imre Szeman
Cultural theorist Imre Szeman’s latest book, On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture, and Energy, is a collection of essays that speak to our contemporary relationship with oil. The essays appear chronologically in twelve chapters organized by the time of writing, from 2001 to 2018, and showcase some of Szeman’s key works as well as new analyses that contribute explicitly to the project at hand, which Szeman defines as “an attempt to develop a critical theory of energy” (9; emphasis in original). In the first chapter, “Who’s Afraid of National Allegory? Jameson, Literary Criticism, Globalization (2001),” Szeman reinterprets Fredric Jameson’s now-infamous concept of “national allegory” for third-world literary production by showing how the term invites a different way of conceptualizing the relationship between literature and politics. Although the essay’s value to a discussion of oil is not immediately clear, the subsequent two chapters question the definitions and functions of globalization, culture, and the humanities and begin to bring Szeman’s view of modernity into focus. Chapter Four then introduces one of Szeman’s primary imperatives throughout the book: to reframe our understanding of the past, present, and future with the ontological category of energy. The chapters that follow continue to deal directly with oil: Chapters Six and Seven examine the representation of oil in film; Chapter Ten investigates whether the lens of energy can be used to study world literature; and Chapters Eleven and Twelve consider pipelines as once invisible structures that are becoming more and more politically and culturally prominent. Chapters Five and Nine depart from the discourse of oil to discuss Richard Florida’s concept of the “creative class” and the current widespread drive toward entrepreneurship in the West, but even these essays relate obliquely to petrocultures as critiques of late capitalism. Although the concept of petrocultures ties the parts of this collection together only loosely, Szeman’s call for another lens through which to study literature, culture, and contemporary life is urgent and compelling.
A book of varied insights, On Petrocultures also establishes a central argument that is crucial to the present and future of cultural studies and the humanities more broadly, particularly as the reality of global warming becomes increasingly difficult to ignore. Szeman insists that methods of cultural analysis need to “recogniz[e] the role of cheap energy in freedom and democracy” (16)—that is to say, the humanities need to acknowledge that contemporary [End Page 139] political forms have emerged through and because of fossil fuels. “Oil (and indeed, energy more generally),” he writes, “has almost always been seen as an external input into our socio-cultural systems and histories—that is, as a material resource squeezed into a social form that pre-exists it, rather than the other way around. We do not see it as giving shape to the social life that it fuels” (175). To challenge this assumption, Szeman asks how we might think of the history of capital through the forms of energy available, instead of simply in geopolitical terms: for example, he superimposes “steam capitalism” (beginning in 1765) and “oil capitalism” (beginning in 1859) onto the periods of “Dutch mercantilism, British imperialism, [and] US transnationalism” (93–94). This reimagining of history in turn allows for the possibility of envisioning new versions of the future. To further illustrate the connection between energy and political life, he refers to Thomas Mitchell’s incisive argument in Carbon Democracy that mass politics emerged in the era of coal production partly because of the resource’s dependence on human labour and the workers who congregated underground, out of the sight of managers. On the other hand, “the rise of fossil-fuel networks . . . made mass action more difficult, and changed the conditions within which class struggle took place” (180). Szeman calls for imaginative models of a future without oil that involve a political and social revolution, because capitalism will not outlive oil but rather wholly depends on it to survive.
Szeman’s collection is excellent and provocative from beginning to...