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Fuel

A Speculative Dictionary

2016
Author:

Karen Pinkus

Fuel

Undoing the dream of free, clean power from A to Z

Fuel is an idiosyncratic, speculative dictionary of fuels, real and imagined, historical and futuristic, hopeless and utopian. Drawing on literature, film, and scientific treatises—most produced long before “climate change” was in circulation—Fuel argues for a distinction between energy and fuel as it endeavors to undo the dream that we can simply switch to renewables and all will be golden.

From the first we realize Fuel is not a traditional academic essay, but a fantastic dictionary, full of tall tales, craziness, real history, fake history, anticipations of the future, segues from one fuel form or fantasy to another, and sheer nonsense tied to hard truths. In this sense it's like fuel—there at the beginning and still with us, kicking and screaming, to the bitter end.

Allan Stoekl, Pennsylvania State University

Fuel is an idiosyncratic, speculative dictionary of fuels, real and imagined, historical and futuristic, hopeless and utopian. Drawing on literature, film, and scientific treatises—most produced long before “climate change” was in circulation—Fuel argues for a distinction between energy (a system of power) and fuel (a substance, which can be thought of as “potentiality”) as it endeavors to undo the dream that we can simply switch to renewables and all will be golden.

From “Air” to “Zyklon B,” entries in this unusual “dictionary” include Algae, Clathrates, Dilithium, Fleece, Goats, Theology, Whale Oil, and many, many more. The tone of the entries ranges as widely as the topics: from historical anecdotes (the Ford Fiesta “boozemobile”) to eccentric readings of the classics of “energy lit” (Germinal and Oil!); from literary observations (a high octane Odyssey?) to excursions into literary theory. The dictionary draws from an eccentric canon, including works by Jules Verne, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, and the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, among others.

A message from this ambitious project is that energy can be understood as a heterogeneous set of self-mystifying systems or machines that block access to thought as they fascinate us. Fuels emerge as more primal elements that the audience can grasp at various points along the way to consumption/combustion. This dictionary can help scramble our thinking about fuel—not in order to demonize energy and not in order to create a new hierarchy in which certain renewables take over from fossil fuels but instead to open up potential ways of interacting with real and imaginary substances, by wrenching them out of narrative and placing them into an idiosyncratic dictionary to be applied by readers into new narratives.

Fuel

Karen Pinkus is professor of Italian and comparative literature at Cornell University and chair of the Faculty Advisory Board of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. She has widely written on climate change and the humanities, as well as on literary theory, visual arts, Italian culture, and cinema. Her books include Bodily Regimes: Italian Advertising under Fascism (Minnesota, 1995) and Alchemical Mercury: A Theory of Ambivalence.

Fuel

From the first we realize Fuel is not a traditional academic essay, but a fantastic dictionary, full of tall tales, craziness, real history, fake history, anticipations of the future, segues from one fuel form or fantasy to another, and sheer nonsense tied to hard truths. In this sense it's like fuel—there at the beginning and still with us, kicking and screaming, to the bitter end.

Allan Stoekl, Pennsylvania State University

With a nod to dictionary mania of Jules Verne, Fuel maps what starts as the common law right to a small bundle of wood but becomes an ever more dangerous dream of the power of pure fuel-less energy. Air, amber, bitumen . . . coal, cobalt, coke . . . Pinkus brilliantly punctures this gaseous utopian fantasy of an immaterial fuel and gestures toward a present less addicted to future fuels.

Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Columbia University

Fuel

Contents
Acknowledgments
Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary
Notes
Bibliography