posted on Nov. 2: Polanyi Prize winner accepts award today


[img_inline align=”right” src=”” caption=”Imre Szeman”]McMaster's newest Polanyi Prize winner is in Toronto today to accept an award that bolsters his commitment to continue research in a Canadian academic environment.

Imre Szeman, an assistant professor of English and cultural studies, is the recipient of the 2000 John Charles Polanyi Prize for Literature.

Each year the Polanyi Prizes, worth $15,000 each, can be awarded in the fields of literature, chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine and economics to scholars and researchers planning to continue postdoctoral studies at an Ontario university.

“I'm very happy to have won it,” said Szeman, 32, who is in his second year of teaching at the University.

“It's amazing that it exists and provides some encouragement to stay in the Canadian university system.”

Szeman, who completed his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Queen's University and his master's degree at the University of Western Ontario, received his PhD from Duke University in North Carolina.

He will use some of the prize money to fund research trips for his newest project, The Eye and the Market: Visual Culture and Globalization. It is an investigation of the historical development of the relationship between economic and visual-cultural imperialism, examining the underlying connections between visual culture and capitalism in the face of the problems and opportunities of globalization.

Szeman, who is affiliated with the Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition and an associate member of the Department of Sociology, describes his latest project as more abstract and conceptual than his previous research.

He wants to study and assess the role of visual culture and visual cultural technologies — defined as photography, film, television, video, video games, and the internet — in the development of capitalism in the 20th century. He will specifically examine the visual cultures that exist in Canada, Cuba and Hungary.

“We are bombarded by visual signs all the time,” said Szeman, who teaches courses on Literature and Film and Cultural Studies and Visual Culture.

“Many writers and intellectuals are worried about this. They are concerned these images have power over us and that they tell us how to live our lives, tell us what are acceptable ways to be. Because of this, globalization is often understood as a form of cultural imperialism that takes place through visual images.”

For example, he said, Canada has less control over the flood of visual images through the internet and television.
“We try to come up with policies to deflect these signs and debate them in the media. What interests me is that we would never do this same thing about literature. We have no policies about foreign literature coming in. We don't stop the New York Times at the border. There's something particularly worrisome about what visual images do. I'm interested in looking at why that is — or at least why we think that visual images have such power.”

Szeman, who has applied for a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council fellowship to expand his research, wants to examine visual technologies and the modes of social and economic organization corresponding to them, and look for connections.

“Visual images can be used to support capitalism but what we never think is that these visual technologies might have a deeply imbedded structural role in the development of capitalism.”

Szeman also wants to investigate how visual technologies fit into the dynamics of globalization.

“We have lots of confused and conflicting stories about what globalization is,” he said.

“Everybody believes it's an economic process, that capital now flows across borders without difficulty. Politically, it's thought of in terms of the decline of the nation-state and culturally we see it as a great birth of global culture that we either get to learn from or which will result in a 'McWorld', suggesting that it's all becoming Americanized and that culture will become about nothing but the purchase of cultural experiences. Our fears of the globe becoming a 'McWorld' are focused especially on the visual aspects of culture.”

Szeman and colleague Susie O'Brien have developed a Cultural Studies Web site, at