Understanding Fuel

What can critical theory, literature, and film help us understand about fuel?

Join us for a lecture by Professor Karen Pinkus (Department of Romance Studies, Cornell University) on the concept of “fuel” in western culture and philosophy, and the ways in which our understanding of energy has structured modernity.

Fuel: History of a Strange Concept

Monday September 26, 2016, 1 pm at 228 Battelle-Tompkins Hall


In this talk, professor Pinkus will discuss the concept of fuel in human culture and philosophy, from antiquity to the present day.
Part of her new book, Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), the talk examines different types of fuel, from everyday fossil and renewable fuels to fantastical fuels found in science fiction and speculative literature. This work was inspired by professor Pinkus’ concern about the environment, and her sense that that the humanities can bring a critical research component to solving the problems of climate change.
Pinkus uses tools from the humanities, such as critical theory, philosophy, and literary analysis, to separate fuel from energy, and to examine our relationship with fuel itself. Is fuel a form of pure potentiality, that is, power, but before it is used (up)?  She proposes that fuels are materials that have “very complex relationships with our own thought structures, fantasies, narratives, or ways of being in the world.”


Cultures of Energycultural-histroy-of-climate-changeFind out more:

Listen to a podcast about her work on Cultures of Energy, where she talks about Jules Verne as her greatest inspiration, her new research on geoengineering, and why the future belongs to small people.

Read an article she recently published in the new collection The Cultural History of Climate Change, titled “Fuels and humans, bíos and zoe”

Read and download the PDF here: pinkusculturalhistory



About our speaker

pinkusKaren Pinkus is Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at Cornell University.  She is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a member of the Climate Change Focus Group. She has published many articles on topics ranging from literary theory and the internal combustion engine to the temporality of carbon management. Professor Pinkus has published widely in Italian culture, literary theory, cinema, visual theory, and environmental theory.  Aside from Italian she also works with French, Latin, German, Spanish, and is learning Swedish.

She has several ongoing research projects:
1) a new book tentatively titled Autonomia/ Automata: Machines for Writing, Laboring and Thinking in 1960s Italy, that explores issues around labor, automation and repetition in Italian art, literature, design, and film of the 60s.  In part, this work is in dialogue with contemporary Italian thought, especially as regards the question of the Autonomia movement, the refusal to work, and the question of wages.

2) Her new book Fuel (November 2016) thinks about issues crucial to climate change by arguing for a separation of fuel (perhaps understood as potentiality, or dynamis, to use the Aristotelian term) from energy as a system of power (actuality, use).  Fuel follows a series of literary, filmic, and critical texts through the form of a dictionary (from “air” to “zyklon D”).  Fuel engages with literature, art and critical theory as they are central to analogy and in turn, to fuel itself.

For about the past ten years, most of her work has been directed toward thinking about the humanities in relation to climate change. Professor Pinkus is on the editorial boards of diacritics and World Picture Journal. For diacritics, she edited a special issue on climate change criticism (43.1), thirty years on from the influential issue on nuclear criticism.

You can find out more about Karen Pinkus on her website


Have a look at Karen Pinkus’ books:

pid_16330How can we account, in a rigorous way, for alchemy’s ubiquity? We think of alchemy as the transformation of a base material (usually lead) into gold, but “alchemy” is a word in wide circulation in everyday life, often called upon to fulfill a metaphoric duty as the magical transformation of materials. Almost every culture and time has had some form of alchemy. This book looks at alchemy, not at any one particular instance along the historical timeline, not as a practice or theory, not as a mode of redemption, but as a theoretical problem, linked to real gold and real production in the world. What emerges as the least common denominator or “intensive property” of alchemy is ambivalence, the impossible and paradoxical coexistence of two incompatible elements. Alchemical Mercury moves from antiquity, through the golden age of alchemy in the Dutch seventeenth century, to conceptual art, to alternative fuels, stopping to think with writers such as Dante, Goethe, Hoffmann, the Grimm Brothers, George Eliot, and Marx. Eclectic and wide-ranging, this is the first study to consider alchemy in relation to literary and visual theory in a comprehensive way.

51PW1EWHY7L._SX388_BO1,204,203,200_Early on a windy morning in April 1953, the body of a young woman washed up on a beach outside of Rome. Her name was Wilma Montesi, and, as the papers reported, she had left her home in the city center a day earlier, alone. The police called her death an accidental drowning. But the public was not convinced. In the cafés around the Via Veneto, people began to speak-of the son of a powerful politician, lavish parties, movie stars, orgies, drugs.

How this news item of everyday life exploded into one of the greatest scandals of a modern democracy is the story Karen Pinkus tells in The Montesi Scandal. Wilma’s death brought to the surface every simmering element of Italian culture: bitter aspiring actresses, corrupt politicians, nervous Jesuits in sunglasses, jaded princes. Italians of all types lined up to testify-in court or to journalists of varying legitimacy-about the death of the middle-class carpenter’s daughter, in the process creating a media frenzy and the modern culture of celebrity. Witnesses sold their stories to the tabloids, only to retract them. They posed for pictures, pretending to shun the spotlight. And they in turn became celebrities in their own right.

Pinkus takes us through the alleys and entryways of Rome in the 1950s, linking Wilma’s death to the beginnings of the dolce vita, now synonymous with modern Roman life. Pinkus follows the first paparazzi on their scooters as they shoot the protagonists and gives us an insider’s view of the stories and trials that came to surround this lonely figure that washed up on the shores of Ostia. Full of the magnificent paparazzi photos of the protagonists in the drama and film stills from the era’s landmark movies, The Montesi Scandal joins true crime with “high” culture in an original form, one true to both the period and the cinematic conception of life it created. More than a meditation of the intricate ties among movies, paparazzo photography, and Italian culture, The Montesi Scandal narrates Wilma’s story and its characters as the notes for an unrealized film, but one that, as the reader discovers, seems impossible to produce.


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