Imre Szeman

On Empty: The Cultural Politics of Oil

As an increasing number of scholars are pointing out, the character of contemporary life depends fundamentally on oil—a cheap, accessible, easy to store and transport, and rich source of energy that has created the material conditions for manufacturing economies, global trade, human population growth, auto-mobility, and more. However, it is only in the past decade that full recognition of oil’s significance has become a prominent feature of everyday debate and discussion. Oil is today front page news across the globe as never before—from disputes over the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines to discussions about the price at the pump and its potential impact on the US presidential election; from analyses of oil’s role in shaping geopolitical tensions to anxieties about fuel supply and diminishing reserves; and, in Canada, from the specific impact of oil sands development on the environment to the role played by oil in reshaping power, politics and economics in the country.

In On Empty: The Cultural Politics of Oil, I iundertake a multifaceted analysis of the cultural and social claims and assumptions that shape and guide how we think and talk about oil—a map of the multiple, complex and often contradictory ways in which oil has come to be positioned in our social imaginaries. I do so through an investigation of the narratives and discourses surrounding oil in culture, politics, and social and cultural theory. The book that will emerge from this research will thus probe the cultural politics of oil at three distinct sites: (1) in the visual arts, documentary cinema, and contemporary fiction; (2) as they emerge in public discussions and debates in relation to three major oil ‘events’: the running aground of the Exxon Valdez, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the emergence of the oil sands as an environmental problem on an international level; and (3) in theoretical discussions about ecological limits sustainability and the shape of the commons. My intent is not to be exhaustive or comprehensive with respect to narratives and discourses of oil in culture, politics or theory (the respective focus of each of the three sites named above). Rather, by investigating each of these sites, what I wish to capture is the full range of the contemporary discourses that have emerged in relation to this puzzling substance whose impact on human life has been more significant than we have previously believed.