Karen Pinkus

Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature


Karen Pinkus is a Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature.  She is also a minor graduate field member in Studio Art and a Faculty Fellow of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. In addition to scholarly work, she has participated in a number of visual art projects in areas of her interests.


For nearly two decades she has been working between Italian studies and environmental humanities with a focus on climate change. 

Her most recent works include:

On the Italian side, a 2020 book from the University of Minnesota Press Clocking Out: The Machinery of Life in 60s Italian Cinema explores issues around labor, automation and repetition in Italian art, literature, design and film of the 60s.  In part, this work thinks with cinema questions of what it means to work for wages, automation and sexual difference. The book was recently translated into Italian (by ROMS Ph.D. student Gianluca Pulsoni) as A fine turno. Lavoro, macchine e vita nel cinema degli anni ’60 in Italia.

In 2023 she published Subsurface [https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/subsurface]. Moving between critical theory, geology and narratives of the nineteenth century ("after" coal but "before" oil), this book asks how we think we know the subsurface of the Earth, how we represent it to ourselves, the kinds of laws that we develop to govern it, and so on. There is, of course, an enormous difference between oil (mysterious, liquid, pumped up by technological means) and coal (taken out by humans from "empty" caverns, more closely tied in our imaginations to dirt, labor and industrial history). The central aim of this book, then, is to think the subsurface beyond simple mastery (we can control it) or renunciation (we cannot do anything there); beyond the extremes of exploitation (what we do down there has no effect up here so all activities are fair game) and conservation (leave it alone). Pinkus asks if narratives of the nineteenth century, put in conversation with speculative modes, can open up toward a different relation to what lies "down there."

Pinkus's influential book Fuel, 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. Here is a link to a review of the book by Imre Szeman in the Los Angeles Review of Books. This book has been translated into Italian for OmbreCorte (by Riccardo Donatii and Caterina Ragghianti) as Carburanti. Dizionario per un pianeta in crisi


Romance Studies

  • One Italian Masterpiece: La dolce vita
  • Landscape and Technology
  • Labor and the Arts
  • Literature and Film “After” Climate Change

Comparative Literature

  • Art, Literature, and Environment
  • Humans and Climate Change



  • Clocking Out: The Machinery of Life in 60s Italian Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2020)
  • Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary. (University of Minnesota Press, 2016); Carburanti. Un dizionario per un pianeta in crisi, translated by Riccardo Donati and Caterina Ragghianti (Verona: Ombrecorte, 2021)
  • Alchemical Mercury: A Theory of Ambivalence (Stanford University Press, 2009)
  • The Montesi Scandal: The Death of Wilma Montesi and the Birth of the Paparazzi in Fellini’s Rome (University of Chicago Press, 2003)
  • Picturing Silence: Emblem, Language, Counter-Reformation Materiality (University of Michigan Press, 1996)
  • Bodily Regimes: Italian Advertising Under Fascism (University of Minnesota Press, 1995)


  • Translation and edition of Francesco Adinolfi, Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions and Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation (Duke University Press, 2008)
  • Renato Barilli, A Course in Aesthetics (University of Minnesota Press, 1993)
  • Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death, with Michael Hardt (University of Minnesota Press, 1991)

Selected Shorter Writings

  • (2022) “Materialità e ambivalenza: Arte Povera, Una geneologia alchemica,” in Pensiero in immagine. Forme, metodi, oggetti teorici per un Italian Visual Thought, collana Quaderni della ricerca (Università Iuav di Venezia-Mimesis), editors, Angela Mengoni and Francesco Zucconi.
  • (2021), “Four Theses for the Coming Deserts,” with Hans Baumann. In The Invention of the American Desert, eds. Lyle Massey and James Nisbet. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • (2020) “138, 462 Carbon Pyramids,” co-written with Hans Baumann. Strelka Magazine. 14.08, “The Revenge of the Real”
  • (2020) “Reflections on a Winter Scene,” Collateral Journal, invited contribution for Collisions Series (Belgium)
  • (2018) "They Would have Ended by Burning Their Own Globe." Commissioned afterward to Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire, edited by Nathan Hensley and Philip Steer. Fordham University Press
  • (2018) "Crystalline Basement," Images of Accumulation essay, co-written with artist Hans Baumann. E-flux journal
  • (2016) “Intermittent Grids,” South Atlantic Quarterly special issue on Autonomia and Anthropocene, edited by Bruce Braun and Sara Nelson
  • (2016) “Air,” (excerpt from Fuel) in Dominick Boyer and Imre Szeman, eds. The Energy Humanities Reader. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.
  • (2016) “Humans and Fuels, Bíos and Zōe,” chapter in A Cultural History of Climate Change, eds. Tom Ford and Tom Bristow. London: Routledge (environmental humanities series)
  • (2014), “Le missive precarie di Alighiero Boetti,” volume on precariousness edited by Monica Jansen and Silvia Contarini. Verona: OmbreCorte
  • (2014) “Search for a Language: Response to Ian Baucom,” invited respondent to essay by Ian Baucom, “Postcolonial Method and Anthropocene Time,” in Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Studies, eds. Debjani Ganguly, Ato Quayson, Neil ten Kortenaar
  • (2014), “Silent Running: Notes for The Remake,” special issue of Yearbook of Comparative Literature, edited by Paul North and Eyal Peretz on “Ideas of Nature.”
  • (2014) “Risk,” essay for Fueling Culture: Politics, History, Energy, Ed. Imre Szeman, et. al. forthcoming from Fordham University Press
  • (2013)“Thinking Diverse Futures from a Carbon Present,” Symploke vol. 21, nos. 1-2 (special issue on Critical Climate)
  • (2012) “Hybrid Futures from a Carbon Present,” Symploke vol. 21, no. 1 (special issue on Critical Climate–forthcoming)
  • (2012) “Ambiguity, Ambience, Ambivalence, and the Environment,” Common Knowledge 19:1 (December) (Symposium: Fuzzy Studies, Part 4), pp. 88-95.
  • (2012) “Nature (of Betrayal),” New Centennial Review 12.1 special issue on Betrayal, editors Richard Block and Michael du Plessis
  • (2012) “Selling Gasoline in Autarchic Italy,” in Figura umana. Normkonzepte der Menschendarstellung in der italienischen Kunst 1919-1939. Eckhard Leuschner, ed. Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag: 151-160
  • (2012) “Dematerialization from Arte Povera to Cybermoney through Italian Thought,” diacritics, vol. 39.3 (2009), 65-77
  • (2011)  “Antonioni, Cinematic Poet of Climate Change,” in Antonioni, Centenary Essays, edited by John David Rhodes and Laura Rascaroli.  London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011
  • (2011) “The Risks of Sustainability,” in Criticism, Crisis, and Contemporary Narrative. Textual Horizons in an Age of Global Risk, editor Paul Crosthwaite. London: Routledge, 2011, pp. 62-80
  • (2010) “Sustainability: a Dialogue with Images,” with Cameron Tonkinwise, World Picture Journal (December)
  • (2010) “Carbon Management: A Gift of Time?” Oxford Literary Review 32 (July), 51-70.
  • (2010) “At the End: Cinema After Climate Change” (Udine Permanent Film Studies Conference Proceedings)
  • (2010) “The Rome of Pasolini’s Petrolio,” with Paolo Matteucci, Annali d’talianistica (special double issue on Rome)
  • (2008) “Nothing From Nothing: Alchemy and the Economic Crisis,” World Picture Journal (November)
  • (2008) “On Cars, Climate and Literary Theory,” Technology and Culture (October)

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