Scorched earth and alchemy

Fire is a chemical reaction. It is alchemy.

It is not organic or inorganic. Fire is not something that exists in the conceptual terms of biology. It is not a biological substance nor is it inert matter. It is a chemical, molecular process — of the combination of fuel, oxygen and heat — in which the results are completely different from the initial material.

View from the Harbour Bridge, October 17 2013.

As fires continue to burn on the outskirts of Sydney, and in the immediate wake of the repeal of the carbon tax by the incoming federal government, debate has turned around theories of causation and how, if at all, such fires should be described, explained and mitigated against.

Are these the result of “extreme weather events” or a “naturally-occurring” feature of the Australian continent?

Did the Australian Defense Force precipitate the largest (in terms of loss of houses, the deaths of wildlife, and the burning of around 40,000 hectares) of these recent fires during “explosives training”? 

Are fires breaking out due to lightning strikes, as the NSW Fire Service notes, and not simply caused by young pyromaniacs, as the city’s tabloid newspaper’s focus would imply?

Should the state insure against ‘acts of God‘ or should the state not intervene (as the current neoconservative-dominated government might insist) because — as any history of the Catholic Church would suggest — it is better to buy one’s way out of purgatory?

If all that changes slowly may be explained by life, all that changes quickly is explained by fire. Fire is the ultra-living element. — Gaston Bachelard, The Psychonalysis of Fire.

As it happens, I’ve been going through revisions for a piece that, among other things, discusses the history of science, largely because my initial remarks were a little misconstrued as (to put it briefly) Foucault/Canguilhem contra psychoanalysis. So just days before the outbreak of the recent fires, I sat down to write a brief history of the impact of Bachelard on Canguilhem, Foucault, Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze and, well, pretty much anyone I would consider as an interesting theorist. I am not sure why Bachelard has been erased from the canon.

Don’t get me wrong: I would not regard any of these theorists uncritically. The point is that I think Bachelard’s approach to the history of science remains both crucial and indisputable. I would not accept everything he wrote, but (as a slightly modified proposition), I think his methodological approach is unassailable.

This is how I defined/modified Bachelard’s position:

… unlike those who regarded the sciences as unconditioned by history or politics, Bachelard insisted that the emergence of new experimental procedures and techniques ushered in new objects, modes of inference and reference, and an accompanying temporal schematics of event and duration.

And then the fires broke out.

It seemed appropriate then, as an ash cloud hung over the city, to re-read Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire (originally published in 1938, translated into English in 1964). I would recommend it, and a pdf scan of the book can be found here. (I might also note that one of the four most important books that I ever read, in the sense that it marked a significant shift in how I understood science, politics and writing as an eighteen-year old, is Mary Tiles’ Bachelard: Science and Objectivity.)

As for the fires, for now, the debate — such as it is — has been cast in terms of a contest between science and faith. A particularly nasty, capitalist variant of the latter has colonised politics, in part I think because ‘faith’ offers the semblance of certainties that no scientist would or could accept. Scientists deal with degrees of certainty, which is as I think it should be, but this — in the symbolic domain of what is an increasingly familial, nationalist (ie., oikonomic) politics — is something of an Achilles’ Heel it would seem.

Where is the fire in this? Are we fated to resort to apocalyptic narratives drawn from Christianity? Is there not another kind of passion possible, another way of understanding duration, event and (social) change?

Still, while I would reserve a particular loathing for faith-based capitalism, I am not inclined to venerate science by contrast, not least since (granted a symbolic and not simply pragmatic dimension) a capitalised Science inclines toward technocratic fantasies and theories of technological determinism (whether of the pessimistic or optimistic variety).

But the point is this: fire is a chemical reaction that results in molecular transformation.

Capitalists can and will hedge against a world turned to ash and the air polluted by toxic gases.

But the fires could transform the symbolic dimensions of politics, the molecular bonds and chemistry of desire and attachment, and not simply become another vector for the scorched earth politics of neoconservatism. By resorting to quotes from Ronald Reagan and invocations of “the Australian Way of Life” when he came under attack for talking about climate politics in the midst of these fires, the Greens’ Adam Bandt merely strengthened the trajectory of the latter. Appalling, really.

Fire is a chemical reaction. For these fires to abate, another kind of fire has to become possible. Alchemy, a different kind of heat and combustion, some molecular transformation, please.


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