European Association for Studies of Literature, Culture and the Environment

EASLCE Webinar Dr. Stephanie Le Menager December 13th

EASLCE Webinar

With Dr. Stephanie Le Menager, University of Oregon
December 13, 2014 (7 pm CET)
The Cultures of Energy



The "cultures of energy" describes a branch of the environmental humanities that draws upon energy politics, the experiential and political dimensions of climate change (thus, aesthetics and affect), and the geologic turn associated with Anthropocene thought. The questions of how it feels to live and to reproduce life within petroculture drive my own recent book, Living Oil (2014), where the affective, aesthetic dimensions of petroleum generate modern bodies, memories, and capacities for change or denial. The work of cultural theorist and geographer Kathryn Yusoff extends the problem of "living oil" into deep species histories and problems of material agency, while Imre Szeman's formative questions about the value of cultural production within global petroculture invite what have become central debates for the environmental humanities as an interdisciplinary field. I will begin the webinar with discussion of my chapter, "The Aesthetics of Petroleum," asking that conversation develop broadly, toward Szeman and Yusoff.

Webinar Focus:

This EASLCE Webinar will focus on the affective, aesthetic, and material dimensions of “petrocultures” that generate modern bodies, memories, narratives of living within oil, and desires for change or denial. Participants are invited to read a select set of essays with the following questions in mind.


- In 2011, the journal PMLA launched a special issue on “Literatures of Energy.” Patricia Yaeger, then editor-in-chief, writes of a new kind of literary transnationalism: “Instead of divvying up literary works into hundred-year intervals (or elastic variants like the long eighteenth or twentieth century) or categories harnessing the history of ideas (Romanticism, Enlightenment), what happens if we sort texts according to the energy sources that made them possible?” Consider this as a framing question to our readings. How does it converse with Raymond Williams’ call, in Marxism and Literature, to consider the material preconditions of “genre”?

- LeMenager contends that the aesthetics of oil culture act as a barrier to systemic change, and she recognizes infrastructure such as highways and shopping malls as media, after Marshall McLuhan. How would you identify the role of media and mediation in her argument as promoting/disrupting affective attachments to fossil fuels?

- Why does Kathryn Yusoff suggest that coal, oil, and natural gas be considered as laboring bodies, and how does this shift of emphasis affect our understanding of Anthropocene thought?

- Consider the (explicit or implicit) tension between Labor and Energy as dominant concepts in all three authors.

- Like Amitav Ghosh, whose terms “petrofiction” and “petroculture” inspired him, Imre Szeman laments the failure of current genres to capture the transnational, multi-lingual, and diverse material aspects of oil culture. Where Ghosh cites the inadequacies of the novel, Szeman laments the limitations of cultural criticism. Can there be such a thing as a “genre” that expresses the ecological and economic complexities of modern energy systems? Does critique fail in the face of such an apparently totalizing concept as “energy”?

- What are the specific contributions of an “energy humanities”?

Required Readings

Stephanie LeMenager. Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. Chapter 2: “The Aesthetics of Petroleum.” 66-101.
Kathryn Yusoff. “Geologic life: prehistory, climate, futures in the Anthropocene.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31 (2013): 779–795.
Imre Szeman. “System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster.” South Atlantic Quarterly 106.4 (Fall 2007): 805-823.
(Optional) Amitav Ghosh, “Petrofiction” (1992) in Incendiary Circumstances. New York: Mariner, 2005.
These texts will be available for the participants

Register to participate