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Between Empires: Studying Culture in Canada

April 27th, 2012

Though cultural studies has had a relatively belated institutional development in Canada (by comparison to its academic brethren in the US and UK), there is a long and unique tradition of critical cultural analysis in the country. This talk will offer an outline of the development of cultural studies in Canada and assess its contribution to the study of contemporary culture.

Imre Szeman begins by offering an overview of some of the antecedents of contemporary cultural studies in Canada, focusing on the innovative contributions made to communications theory, political economy, and theories of nationalism by figures such as Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, George Grant, and Fernand Dumont. Though there is no unproblematic line of inheritance or influence (as elsewhere, Canadian scholars draw on an increasingly globalized pool of theoretical models, thinkers and concepts), these prescient social and cultural critics, often in remarkably idiosyncratic ways, set the stage for a whole ensemble of problems and questions that continue to occupy contemporary cultural theorists. The postcolonial remainders of Britain in Canada, questions about national and cultural sovereignty in the context of American hegemony, the tensions generated by uneven regional development and between urban centres and rural peripheries, issues pertaining to multiculturalism, national identity and the claims of indigeneity, and the cultural significance and contradictions of technological change in the Canadian context are just some of the issues which tasked this first generation of thinkers and which still echo loudly in contemporary conversations. Szeman will examine these resonances while at the same time devoting attention to the institutional structures, sites and histories that have played an important role in the study of Canadian culture (e.g., think tanks, programs of university study, journals, events and conferences, etc.).

Szeman closes with a consideration of the relationship between culture and power in Canada at the present moment by looking at the themes and issues addressed in the work of a new generation of Canadian scholars (such as Andrew Biro, Lily Cho, Zoë Druick, Erin Hurley, Kirsty Robertson, and others). One of the questions that she hopes to assess is the significance of shifts in research foci that have taken place during the period of globalization—a period that seems to have re-shaped or even eliminated (in often problematic ways) long-standing narratives of Canadian national-cultural belatedness and anxiety.

Imre Szeman is Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies and Professor of English, Film Studies, and Sociology at the University of Alberta. From 1999-2009, he taught at McMaster University in the Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition and the Department of English and Cultural Studies. He is the recipient of the John Polanyi Prize in Literature (2000), Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award (2003), Scotiabank-AUCC Award for Excellence in Internationalization (2004), Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship (2005-7), and President’s Award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision (2008), among other awards. He is the founder of the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies and a founding member of the US Cultural Studies Association. Szeman is co-editor of Reviews in Cultural Theory and a member of the editorial collective of the journal Mediations. He conducts research on and teaches in the areas of social and cultural theory, film and visual culture, globalization and nationalism, and Canadian studies. Szeman is the recipient of the John Polanyi Prize in Literature (2000), the Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award (2003), the Scotiabank-AUCC Award for Excellence in Internationalization (2004), an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship (2005-7), and the President’s Award for Excellence in Graduate Supervision at McMaster University (2008), among other awards. He is the founder of the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies and a founding member of the US Cultural Studies Association. Szeman is founding editor of Reviews in Cultural Theory and a member of the editorial collective of the journal Mediations. Current projects include a book on the cultural politics of oil, an edited collection on energy and culture, and research on the aesthetics and politics of contemporary documentary film.