Nine Theses on Fire Politics

In his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx includes eleven statements expanding on the materialist philosophy of Ludwig  Feuerbach. Marx does not mention the material burning within the German name Feuerbach: the elemental materiality of fire (Feuer). More than 150 years later, Jacques Rancière’s Ten Theses on Politics proposed an aesthetic definition of politics as dissensus (not consensus), a distancing of the aesthetic from itself: a partition, distribution, or sharing of the sensible (partage du sensible). Between these materialist and aesthetic political philosophies, there are cinders, remnants of another politics: sharing fire (partage du feu). Theses are burning down, from Marx’s eleven theses, down to Rancière’s ten theses, down to the following nine theses on Feuerpolitik.

I. Politics is Pyropolitics.
A different political collective, a different distribution of who counts, of who is visible and audible, demands a new aesthetic partition, a new distribution of the sensible (partage du sensible). This cannot be separated from a distribution of fire. This is more than an issue of forest fire policy or fire management. Catching, distributing, or organizing fire is fundamental to the mode of coexistence called “politics.” It was around fire that humans became human, specifically fire for cooking, which provided the nutrients and energy for a nascent Homo sapiens. Ritual fires and sacrificial fires were likely not far off, but the fires of cooking appear uniquely constitutive. As Richard Wrangham puts it in the subtitle to Catching Fire, “cooking made us human.” More generally, fire is a metonym for energy. All modes of coexistence involve the distribution of energy. Roy Scranton’s definition of politics in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is apt:

Politics, whether for bees or for humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. This is where the ideas of the vote, the town hall meeting, and the public debate get their power: humans come together to resonate on one frequency or another. […] The key is energy: energy production and social energetics.

From the beginning of philosophical reflections on politics, energy production and social energetics were conceived out of fire. When Stoics first theorized about being a citizen of the world (cosmopolites), the cosmos of that polis is characterized by ekpyrosis, coming out of fire. The Stoic cosmos has its cyclical beginning/ending in a universal conflagration. Being a citizen of the world is ultimately a matter of ekpyrotic politics. This fire is largely forgotten in humanistic forms of cosmopolitanism.

II. Political philosophy imagines separating fire into heat and light.
Plato’s eminently influential Politeia (“Republic”) gives an account of the preconditions for politics and social change, using the so-called allegory of the cave, which imagines humans in a cave where all that can be seen are shadowy apparitions of things illuminated by fire. Plato distinguishes between the fire and the more intelligible light of the sun. In contrast to the sun, the flickering flames of fire are more of a source of heat (passions, sensations) than a source of light (truth, reason). Heat without light is blind ambition, and light without heat is cold reason. This marks a separation of the sensible (aesthetic) and intelligible (noetic), which corresponds to a separation between power and truth. If Plato is the exemplar of light politics, Hobbes can be thought of as the model of heat politics, composing sovereignty out of a war of all against all. In the past century, leftist light politics looks like the dialectics of left-Hegelians (e.g., Žižek), while leftist heat politics looks like the emancipatory power of desiring bodies (e.g., Deleuze and Guattari); on the right, heat politics is exemplified by Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction, and truth politics finds a model in the esoteric elitism of Strauss. These divisions (left/right and light/heat) all attempt to resolve the profound ambiguity flickering in the flames of the fire.

III. Biopolitics inflames a pyropolitical control society.
With the separation of light and heat comes a series of concomitant separations marking the boundaries of civilization. The political subject (human) is separated from bare life, which is a separation that comes along with separation of humans from animals and the establishment of a wall between living and nonliving. The original fire is forgotten, and the project to control light and heat takes over. In other words, controlling fire means separating light from heat, and it also means separating humans from animals, animals from other organisms, and life from nonliving matter. This control project is biopolitics, policing the human/nonhuman border and reducing the multiplicities of humankind to a mass—a population, a species of bare life. This scale of political control intensely inflamed the body politic, making possible the global control society currently girdling the planet.

IV. Pyropolitics implies cryopolitics.
In the struggle to control life, to preserve it, to prevent its spoilage, fires must be put out and temperatures must be reduced. Temperature control shows the cryopolitical dimensions of the biopolitics of fire. Seed banks, sperm banks, air conditioners, and freezers are not incidental to contemporary life. They are fundamental to the biopolitical control of fire, and they are symptomatic of one of the biggest factors driving global warming: refrigeration. Investigating the most prominent factors contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions, Paul Hawken’s project Drawdown lists refrigeration as the number one solution, higher than plant-based diets and solar energy, higher than wind farms and family planning, higher than everything. Worldwide cyropolitical efforts to cool off are inadvertently warming the planet.

V. The Anthropocene is the Pyrocene.
Donna Haraway considers another way of naming the Anthropocene, using a name that indicates how the current geological epoch is characterized by the intrusion of so many earthly beings that Anthropos might like to sweep under the rug of the world. These are beings of the underworld, chthonic ones, the multifarious habitats and inhabitants that are caught with humans in a tangle of planetary proportions. The Anthropocene is the Chthulucene. (This has nothing to do with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. Note the different spelling.) Of course, it was humans who caused the geological shift designated as the Anthropocene, so the official name is apt. It wasn’t shrimp, pine trees, or pianos. It was the human (anthropos). However, the result of this apparently human activity involves a prolific intrusion of chthonic ones into social space, including weird human-nonhuman hybrids like plastic, Styrofoam, and the widening distribution of Lyme disease due to global warming. That’s why Chthulucene is an accurate name for this epoch, a truly telling name, however inappropriate it is compared to its official name. Considering that the proliferation of chthonic ones is accompanied by an exorbitant intensity of light (mass media, big data, telecommunications) and increasingly overwhelming heat (global warming), the chthonic ones are caught with Anthropos in a mass conflagration: the Pyrocene.

VI. There are cinders.
Cinders exist. There. Right there. There are cinders. We hear this from Derrida. Il y a là cendre. Deconstruction could come into memory not as a theory or even as a practice but as something already at work. Right there. Deconstruction happens in the memory of cinders, the sparks of fire recovered in ashes. Derrida recovers the cinders in and as which the political subject takes place. The modern subject had been determined as spirit, a spirit that from Descartes to Hegel was conceived as foundational, absolute. It is a metaphysical spirit. The spirit of ontotheology. Derrida finds the fire of spirit in Heidegger’s work, including his political failure and his deconstruction of metaphysics. Although Heidegger attempted to avoid speaking of metaphysical spirit, he took on this spirit, notably in the spirit of catastrophic administrative work, which will forever haunt his thinking—the ashes of the Holocaust. Waiting upon a poetic word that could clear a way for a new beginning, Heidegger retrieved another determination of spirit as flame, that which inflames. In politics and thought, Heidegger rekindled the flames of spirit. On one hand, the flames provide the light and heat that inspires new political beginnings. On the other hand, the flames are burning Anthropos to the ground and reducing life to ashes. The danger of flames is exactly its saving power. This ambiguity is contained in Derrida’s name for this spirit: spirit-in-flames. Spirit inflames the body politic, giving energy for new beginnings, yet that same spirit is in flames, burning bright with ambiguously creative and destructive fires of the Pyrocene.

VII. The coming community is spectral.
Remembering the ambiguously flickering fire as spirit-in-flames, deconstruction waits upon a political collective to come, a democracy in which every single other is welcomed without assimilation, welcomed as completely other. Every other is wholly other. Tout autre est tout autre. Every spirit is the spirit, not an absolute or self-certain spirit, not the spirit of pure light or heliotropic transcendence. That metaphysical spirit has self-immolated. What remains, in the ashes, is a spirit that is indistinguishable from a flickering apparition, a spectral spirit, a ghost. A being or an apparition? Alive or dead? A newcomer from the future or a haunting from the past? A politics of spirit-in-flames is a politics of cinders, a politics of ghosts smoldering in ashes. Politics in the Anthropocene can only work when humans learn to attend to ghosts. Nonhumans won’t show up in social space with their voter registration cards clearly and distinctly filled out. They will only show up as specters. Spectral democracy is politics for the Pyrocene. It’s the object-oriented democracy of Bruno Latour, except the objects are not simply actors or actants or actual occasions but are far stranger and ambiguous than any actant/patient dichotomy. Derrida’s spectral democracy to come resonates in the works of other deconstructive philosophers, if that is not too emphatic an appellation. Consider the “ecocommunism” of Timothy Morton and the “planetarity” of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. For Morton, “solidarity with nonhumans” is spectral coexistence. “Solidarity is the noise the symbiotic real makes in its floating, spectral newness…” Spivak contrasts the homogenizing hegemony of the globe with the planet, which is “in the species of alterity.” There are cinders. There. The strangeness, alterity, spectrality… the ghosts haunting the Pyrocene. There are cinders there.

VIII: Planetarity implies plurality.
Ashes and flames might have proper names, but no single name can lay claim as the most appropriate political frame. The planet is in the species of alterity, harboring an inexhaustible taxonomy of names, and every other is wholly other. This is in stark contrast to politics predicated on the inclusion/enclosure of diverse identities, which homogenizes the plurality of coexistence. This is also in stark contrast to political fantasies based on a spectacular inspection of Gaia, perhaps with a speculum, perhaps face to face. The heterogeneity of planetary coexistence demands plurality, but a pluralism based on Facing Gaia is no pluralism at all. It’s ecofascism via Carl Schmitt. Such pluralism enlists multiplicities into a monolithic war in which the friends and enemies of Gaia face off. For these pluralists, Gaia is the face that should launch a thousand ships against greenhouse gas emitters and climate skeptics. A politics of cinders isn’t looking for war. Nor is it looking for a single name to encapsulate all others, where Gaia swallows up Earth, biosphere, terra, planet, and globe, not to mention humankind and every nuisance and nobody that doesn’t register on the planetary scale. There is no meta-scale, no scale against which all other scales can be measured. Microbes, ecosystems, continents, the atmosphere, the biosphere, the Milky Way, species, organisms, protons, photons, whatever. Planetarity means exactly that there is not one global scale. Universality isn’t to be found in the biggest whole. It is to be found in plurality itself, since the difference that pluralizes our coexistence is the difference that unites us.

IX: We are there.
Who is or are “we”? That’s us. Right There. There are cinders. Without hope. Without knowing, having, or seeing (sans savoir/avoir/voir). Specters, flames, ashes. There are strange neighbors inhabiting the ashes of uncanny places, of emptied, haunted places, “of divine places” (Jean-Luc Nancy). Remembering the fire of spirit-in-flames, one might imagine, we inhabit the redemptive memory that gathers the scattered light, what Kabbalah knows as the sefirot. We re-inhabit the places that bear marks of an inaccessible, unsayable secret, a past that’s never been present, which returns in a future that always remains to come. There is no heroic resurgence or triumphant return. Those common Axial Age tropes prevent the arrival of the coming community. We are not Phoenicians. The Phoenix, as Bachelard remarks, has the privilege “to be reborn of its own self, not of the ‘ashes’ of others.” Our recollection of fire takes places exactly in and as the ashes of others, in the species of alterity. We are ghost, flame, and ash, the ongoing arrival of the past. I’ll conclude with the remarks of Michael Marder, whose Pyropolitics is woven throughout these theses.

The phoenix is averse to a community of or in ashes; it carries the ridiculous principle of autonomy and self-sufficiency through to death, beyond death. But, precisely, this community devoid of hope for another life or another fire, one where my self is mixed with the “ashes” of others, is badly needed today. The sunny optimism of the phoenix is deadlier than the deepest, darkest nihilism, which allows us soberly to overview the panorama of the earth ravaged by the great fires of metaphysics. Ashes testify to what has singularly been and will not be repeated in exactly the same way ever again.


[NOTE: These theses on fire politics are based on notes for my presentation on a panel, “Politics and Pluralism in the Anthropocene,” held at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, 29 March 2018]


2 responses to “Nine Theses on Fire Politics

  • billrosethorn

    Provocative. A key feature of fires is that once they get started they are difficult for humans to put out/contain, so it has the character of an epidemic. Perhaps the current crisis gives us the rationality to play with fire but this brushes up against the perhaps-more-than-fire of nuclear or atomic war.

    Cool thing I learned a while ago (pun intended) is that when humans learned to tame the fire it attracted wolves to the outer perimeter of the warmth. They quickly learned to act as guardians in exchange for free and cooked food, now we have dogs. The dog-human relationship was a crucial evolutionary step that may as well gave birth to ‘the human’ as much as dogs, all thanks to the fire. This comes from De Grasse-Tyson’s Cosmos I think.

    • Sam Mickey

      Yes, the specter of nuclear war definitely looms on the horizon of pyropolitics. Epidemic indeed. I like your example about our canine companions. Donna Haraway makes a similar point in When Species Meet, and she relates it to a book by the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose, Dingo Makes Us Human.

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