Imre Szeman


I’ve taught courses on a wide-range of subjects since starting my first full-time position at McMaster University in 1999.

At the undergraduate level, I’ve taught courses on Cultural Studies and Visual Culture; Cultural Studies: History, Theory, Practice; Globalization and Visual Culture; History and Theory of Criticism; Inquiry in the Social Sciences; Literature and Film; Modern Critical Theory; Reading Politics: Class and Ideology; and Reading the Tube: Television and Cultural Studies.

At the graduate level, courses include: The Frankfurt School; Globalization and Culture; Issues in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory; Karl Marx; Literary History: Collectivity; Marxist Literary and Cultural Theory; and Postcolonial Literary Theory.

I’ve also taught courses on Globalization and Mass Culture at the University of Sao Paulo; The Future of Culture: American Studies and Cultural Theory at Humboldt University in Berlin; Introduction to Cultural Studies at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) in Mexico City; and Culture as Resource: Culture and Democracy in the Global System at Central European University in Budapest.

Graduate Course for 2014-2015

Syllabus: 2015 Syllabus [155.04KB]

Some of the most significant contributions to study of literature and culture in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries have been made by theorists who, in one way or another, have seen their work as part of the political project of Marxism. Though Marx himself had surprisingly little to say about literature and the other arts and their place in dialectical materialism, his characterization of the relation of a particular society’s superstructure to its economic, material base (to take just one example) offered a beginning point for an account of cultural production and a mode of cultural interpretation that has consistently emphasized the fact that cultural objects and practices are (“in the last instance”) social and historical through and through. If one strand of a Marxist approach to culture resulted in the aesthetic dead-end of the official doctrines of socialist realism, another strand (most commonly identified as “Western Marxism”) has produced increasingly sophisticated theoretical accounts of the relationship of literature and the arts to the social and political that have had an incalculable impact on the formation and development of almost all other critico-theoretical discourses. Indeed, Marxist and Marxist-influence forms of literary and cultural theory have proved to be as relevant as ever in helping us to make sense of the forces and dynamics shaping cultural production and reception in the era of neoliberal globalization.

This class will be organized into three sections. The first will offer students an introduction to key terms and debates animating Marxist literary and cultural theory, through encounters with Marx’s writing, thinkers working in the interwar period (Brecht, Gramsci, Lukács) and with the work of members of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse). The central section of the course will trace the career of the thinker who has come to be most closely affiliated with Marxist literary and cultural theory: Fredric Jameson. In the brief time available to us, the course will give students a sense of the themes and issues on which Jameson has focused during distinct phases of his career. In the third and final part of the course, we will examine some recent examples of Marxist literary and cultural theory (with specific attention to Marxist feminisms) and will also consider a number of discourses that have posed explicit or implitic challenges to the project of Marxism, including Michel Foucault’s work on power, Jacques Rancière’s work on aesthetics, Alain Badiou’s re-configuration of ‘communism’, the claims of (so-called) new materialisms, and more.

Graduate Course for 2013-2014

We have come to expect that literature will name the governing ideologies of an era, whether by announcing them in its narrative and formal contradictions and antinomies, or in its attempt to puncture through ideology (however incompletely) via formal innovation, novel subject matter, and so on. And yet, in an era shaped to very high degree by a single substance – oil – there have been few fictions that have grappled in a serious way with the cultural, social and political realities of what we might term ‘petromodernity’—that is, with oil’s transformative capacity as an energy source. It is this unique capacity of oil that has underwritten the massive expansion and intensification of capitalism and technology, with repercussions for human populations and the environment with which we are only beginning to grapple.

This course will probe the range of questions and concerns that arise for literary and cultural criticism if we take oil seriously as a substance fundamental to the cultural and social forms that have taken shape since its discovery in the mid-nineteenth century. In his 1992 essay “Petrofiction,” novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh famously lamented the lack of fictions dealing with oil’s role in shaping U.S. society, specifically its relations with the Middle East. The class will explore not only novels and films that have attempted to deal with the fundamental character of oil for contemporary experience, but the multiple sites at which our petromodernity is being named, confronted, and theorized. In doing so, we will consider not only the significance of oil as a theme in contemporary culture, but what it might mean to figure oil (and energy more generally) as an essential dimension of literary-critical method.

If we now think about oil more than ever, it is because we have started to worry about the implications of its limits or impending lack, even while we continue to indulge in the fiction of energy surplus and act as if what is of necessity an unrepeatable historical event (the use of oil as our primary energy source) will define daily life on into the future, without major change or crisis. The fiction of surplus in which we subsist shapes not only the belief that there will always be plenty of energy to go around, but the complimentary idea that easy access to energy has had (at best) a secondary role to play in history in comparison to (say) human intellect and the adventure of progress. Which is to say: it is not just energy that constitutes a limit, but also the way we presently understand its social role and significance. The aim of this course is to try (in whatever small way) to help students push past these limits in the ‘how’, ‘why’ and even ‘if’ of their own critical practice.


January 8Introduction to course
Amitav Ghosh, “Petrofictions”; “Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources” (PMLA)

January 15Naming the Problem: Emergencies, Peaks, Slaves, Excess
James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency; John Urry, “Consuming the Planet to Excess” (2010); Recommended: Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves; Jeff Rubin, The End of Growth

January 22History
Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil; Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses”; Recommended: Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?”

January 29Philosophy 1: Energopolitics
Dominic Boyer, “Energopolitics and the Anthropology of Energy”; Allan Stoekl, Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability – first half; Jonathan Crary 24/7 (excerpts)

February 12Philosophy 2: Things and Materialities
Allan Stoekl, Bataille’s Peak – second half; Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Preface, Chs. 2, 7 and 8); Recommended: Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies (excerpts);

February 26Melancholia (and other modes of being in relation to oil)
Lauren Berlant, “Cruel Optimism”; Lauren Berlant, “Thinking about feeling historical”; Stephanie LeMenager, “Petro-Melancholia: The BP Blowout and the Arts of Grief”; Recommended: Jennifer Wenzel, “Consumption for the Common Good?”; Slavoj Zizek, “How Did Marx Invent the Symptom?”

March 5Capitalism and Slow Violence
Matthew Huber, Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital; Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (excerpts)

March 12Automobility
J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island; Automobilities (excerpts); John Urry, “Inhabiting the Car”; John Urry, Mobilities (excerpts)

March 19Due: Conference Abstracts

March 26 – Conference Presentations

April 2Post-Oil
Steven Amsterdam, Things We Didn’t See Coming; Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl; Peter Hitchcock, “Oil in an American Imaginary”; Graeme MacDonald, “The Resources of Culture”; Robert Eaglestone, “Contemporary Fiction in the Academy: Towards a Manifesto”; Recommended: Robert Charles Wilson, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America;

Past Graduate Courses (@ U of Alberta)