On Fuel

By Imre SzemanSeptember 12, 2017

On Fuel

Fuel by Karen Pinkus

ENERGY HAS EMERGED as a subject of renewed academic interest over the past decade. It’s easy to grasp why this might be the case: while global warming is still difficult to experience on a day-to-day basis (an example par excellence of what Timothy Morton refers to as the “nonlocality” of hyperobjects), dramatic climatic events are now occurring so frequently that it has become difficult to push environmental concerns to the back of our thoughts. And while the cause of global warming cannot entirely be reduced to our primary sources of energy — oil, coal, and natural gas — our still-expanding use of these fuels has contributed significantly to the spike in planetary levels of carbon dioxide. It’s heartening to read reports about new sources of energy that are rapidly becoming available, even in the United States (Trump administration be damned!). Despite these innovations, however, there has been a collective failure to understand just how indebted the shape and character of modern society is to energies made available by fossil fuels. Scholars working on energy today aren’t interested in simply condemning dirty energy and praising the clean stuff. That’s easy. Rather, they want to grapple with the role played by energy in shaping social, cultural, and political practices — virtually all of them — and with the causes and consequences of the conflict and violence that surrounds resource extraction everywhere it takes place. That’s harder, if only because, up until now, there’s so much that has been left unsaid and unexamined about our relationship to energy.

Karen Pinkus’s inventive and engaging Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary constitutes a notable addition to a field that has rapidly come to be known as the “energy humanities.” Fuel draws its own vibrant, critical energies from a key distinction Pinkus makes at the outset: this isn’t a book about energy, but (as the title suggests) fuel. It has become common practice (in English, at least) to use these terms more or less interchangeably. The distinction is important, however, and telling. Energy is the ability to do work. Fuels, by contrast, are the stuff of energy, and they take a wide range of forms — from solids to gases, and from real to the imagined. This book is a short dictionary of all manner of fuels, from petroleum to the fabled philosopher’s stone. Its intent isn’t to classify or categorize, thereby bringing order and coherence to the world of fuels as we confront global warming. Rather, Pinkus wants her speculative dictionary to deliberately confuse, and, so, to engage in critique. In a manner akin to the “certain Chinese encyclopedia” described by Jorge Luis Borges (to which Michel Foucault famously points in The Order of Things [1966]), Pinkus wants to upend “the tyranny of the practical” governing our relationship to fuel. She writes:

Perhaps the dictionary can help scramble our thinking about fuel — not in order to demonize energy per se, 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 substances (real and imaginary), by wrenching them out of narrative (violently in some cases), and placing them into the form of an idiosyncratic dictionary so they could eventually be placed by users into new narratives.

A dictionary attends to how we use language, informing us of the ancient or foreign origins of words, tracing their unfolding development up to the present, and giving us some sense of the unexpected hold that specific words might have on our practices and sensibilities. While Pinkus does offer up etymologies of some of the words she includes, the entries in Fuel are richer and more varied than those found in typical dictionaries. This is an idiosyncratic list of keywords of fuels that attends equally to the alchemical and scientific, to the literary and the historical. The entry on “Biomass,” for instance, provides us with an overview of the processes by which organic material is turned into ethanol, followed by accounts of the production of explosives by Cyrus Smith and his gang in Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874), ancient and medieval processes developed by Georgius Agricola and Nicolas Flamel, and a short overview of the relation between the science of fuels and the figure of analogy, before concluding with a discussion of the insistence of the Italian futurists that all fuels be stolen.

Similarly, “Coal” offers a brief account of the vexed life of the substance in England, before turning to wonderful accounts of Émile Zola’s Germinal (1885) and Upton Sinclair’s King Coal (1917) to generate insights into the temporality of coal as a fuel. In Zola, coal and flesh are revealed as combined substance; coal can’t be used without using it up, just as miners can’t work without using up their lives. “Anxiety about the finitude of coal seems nearly simultaneous with coal’s development into power,” Pinkus writes, and this makes it fascinating to ponder why this finitude appears to have disappeared with the emergence of oil. In her entry on what has come to be the defining fuel of modernity, Pinkus explains why oil might be more difficult to narrate than coal. Driving along postwar Italian highways with Italo Calvino as a companion, she learns that oil is a tricky substance — hard to distinguish as fuel as opposed to (stored) energy, which is why it has tended to all but disappear from everyday life for all but those exposed to the trauma and dangers generated by its extraction and transport (such as the Native American groups impacted by the Dakota Access Pipeline).

Fuel offers similar entries concerning a wide range of fuels: “Cobalt-60,” “Goat” (!), “Kerosene,” “Magnet,” “Patriotism,” “Tallow,” “Vis Viva,” “Wind” — just to name a few. In “Air,” which acts as an introduction and an overview of the book’s methodology, Pinkus invites us to dip in-and-out of the dictionary, reading it in whatever order we might want. But this, I think, is a little disingenuous. A book of keywords — something like Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment (2017), which I co-edited with Jennifer Wenzel and Patricia Yaeger — might allow a reader to check in and scan an entry with the hope of gaining some insight or direction on a topic. Fuel, however, is a dictionary that is better read from beginning to end. If “Air,” offers an outline of the book’s method, its final entry, “Zyklon B,” explores the future that might emerge out of a different relationship to fuel. In between, our path from A to Z is propelled along by a cast of recurring characters, writers, and texts to which Pinkus turns with frequency to help generate new narratives of fuel.

The character list is mixed and wide ranging, to say the least. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) is the text to which Pinkus turns for future figurations of fuel: “Megadonts,” genetically engineered mammoth-like beasts used in Bacigalupi’s novel as a key source of energy, is given its own entry, placed right before and alongside “Methane.” Agricola’s De re metallica (1556) and John Evelyn’s Sylva (1664) act as touchstones for understanding an enduring fascination with alchemical processes, which British physicist Ernest Rutherford (also a key character) tries to dissipate via the gaze of modern science in his The Newer Alchemy (1937). Another fascinating character, whose name pops up throughout the book, is Henry Ford. The presence of Ford in a dictionary of fuels might come as a bit of a surprise; after all, he doesn’t discover oil or imagine new ways to distribute electricity. One takeaway from Fuel is that the mass manufacture of the automobile generates a paradigm shift in the significance of fuel, one akin to the transition of the word “fuel” from hearth and home to the bundles of firewood used to keep the home warm. Pinkus relates multiple decisions by Ford regarding fuels for his autos (e.g., “Banana” tells us about his decision not to purchase a plantation in Honduras because there are adequate sources of alcohol — one of the many potential fuel sources imagined for cars — available in the United States). Just as often, we learn about letters written to Ford by others wanting to get in on the action — one inventor insisting on the benefits of nitroglycerine as a fuel, another assuring Ford that he has developed a perpetual motor that could “move a machine 24 feet in diameter with unlimited horsepower.”

The most important characters in Fuel are Jules Verne and the figures who appear in his novel The Mysterious Island. Pinkus notes this book “reads almost like a dictionary of forms of fuel/energy.” Many of the entries relate to the adventures of Smith and his fellow escapees on Lincoln Island, Captain Nemo’s secret hideaway. Others are written in dialogue with Smith’s experience of locating or creating the fuels to which he and his friends have grown accustomed in the late 19th century, and which they need in order to rebuild civilization. The Mysterious Island and many of Verne’s other works supply Pinkus with the methodological rationale for her own book. “While Fuel aspires to be more than a list of nouns,” Pinkus writes,

I must confess that the absurdity of omitting nothing, inspired by Verne, holds a kind of fascination. And while lists (in any order) may signal mastery, there are moments in Verne when they actually upend the sense of a stable and knowable universe.

I expect that some will find this speculative dictionary frustrating and wonder both why certain entries are included and others are given short shrift. For example, “Camphene” doesn’t tell us much (“Turpentine mixed with alcohol, it was used for lighting during the 19th century and taxed very heavily to help pay for the American Civil War. It has explosive qualities that make it less than desirable as a fuel”). “Mechanization,” which one would have imagined an important topic, is limited to a single sentence, while “Grail” links this famous cup to radium and to the philosopher’s stone in a few quick sentences. Those who aren’t already familiar with the argument that Allan Stoekl mounts in Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability (2007) are unlikely to get much out of the entry on “Soul”: little context is offered. But these are minor grumbles. To those who might find Fuel getting under their skin at times, I suggest they step back and remember just what this dictionary is all about. It has no desire to be an encyclopedia, which would demand a certain degree of comprehensiveness. It’s a list of fuels that aims to be speculative — which doesn’t mean invention, or gimmickry, but serious exploration of the depth and breadth of our encounter with fuel, and the very real difficulty of developing a different relationship to it.

Our dominant narrative of fuels is an impoverished one. It can be summarized fairly easily: we want to keep “the great acceleration” going, while easing our eco-worries through the fantasy that the whole profit-generating resource-consuming apparatus can run just as well on energy from solar panels and wind farms. By introducing us to narratives unexpected and strange in addition to the more familiar, and by linking the literary with the scientific, alchemy with analogy, this short book presses reset on the ways we think and talk about fuel. Pinkus stays clear of academic eco-theories. There’s no mention of posthumanism or object-oriented ontologies, and only the barest mention of the Anthropocene. And there’s hardly a word about sustainability or renewability, other than to pick those narratives out as ones that have to be set aside. Pinkus doesn’t imagine that the upshot of a critical encounter with fuel amounts to a prescriptive insistence that we think about using better kinds of fuel. “Once the writer/reader gets his talons latched onto a story, a process of petrification (a process allied with the formation of fossil fuels, but after unfathomable units of time) sets it,” Pinkus writes. It’s this narrative petrification she wants to challenge, by convincing us to free up our grip on the stories we commonly tell ourselves about fuel, real and fictional, good and bad. The stakes are too high for us not to do so.


Imre Szeman is co-founder of the Petrocultures Research Group.

LARB Contributor

Imre Szeman is co-editor of Energy Humanities: An Anthology (2017) and Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment (2017). On Petrocultures, a collection of his recent work, will be published in 2018.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!