This podcast is part of Re-Imagine Europe, co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union. Music commissioned to Kali Malone. Curated and produced by Roc Jiménez de Cisneros.
You just heard Lee 'Scratch' Perry, the producer, singer, poet, and all-around maverick who re-shaped Jamaican music in the 1960s and 70s. But this is not one of his recordings, it’s part of Negus, a film by Simone Betruzzi and Simone Trabucchi, the duo better known as Invernomuto. Negus is a sort of audiovisual and historical exorcism that binds together music, magic and politics.
The spiral timeline of the film starts with an actual historical event that took place in the Italian village of Vernasca in 1936, during Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia: to celebrate the return of a local wounded soldier, villagers spontaneously held a ritual in the main square, in which they burned a home-made effigy of Haile Selassie I, the last Negus of Ethiopia and the Messiah of the Rastafari movement. But that effigy is not the only thing that burns in Negus, and fire is one of the driving forces throughout the movie, which also includes fire as part of the shamanic counter-ritual orchestrated by Perry in the same village square about 80 years later, and fire consuming his legendary Black Ark studio in the late 1970s, in an attempt to get rid of what he called "unclean spirits". All of this fits perfectly here, because we’re going to talk about burning stuff, entropy, and combustion and its remains, about brewing, boiling, cooking and, naturally, about food.
Alan Moore argues that the use of fire for cooking was the crucial turning point in the development of consciousness in pre-historic times, in what he calls “the great palaeolithic bakeoff”. He himself describes this milestone as the moment “when some early hominid actually left a spud too close to the camp fire or, conceivably, when some unlucky early hominid was struck by lightning and, after a few moments of appalled horror, his tribes mates thought ‘actually, that smells rather good’.” Before the invention of cooking, he says, “we needed to use about 90% of a food’s calorific value just in chewing it. Which is not very efficient. And we had these huge jaws for the purpose of doing that.
When cookery happened and we found a way to make food softer, over the subsequent millennia, the shape of our jaws changed. We no longer needed these gigantic jaws, so they got smaller. This enabled our upper skull to expand massively, and we filled that with brains.” There you go. Fire as the enabling element for cooking, but also as a catalyst for evolution. Stephen Pyne puts it like this in his fantastic volume, Fire, A Brief History: “Humanity and fire have blended into an almost biological symbiosis. Nearly everywhere fire has assumed a human face and become humanity’s pyric double. Since the first tread of Homo Sapiens, fire ecology has meant human ecology.”
When modern physicists developed our recent understanding of entropy, the combustion of everyday fuels –such as wood turning into embers turning into ashes– was one of the recurring examples of the idea. Ashes are the ultimate illustration of irreversibility. You may be able to fix a broken glass, a bent umbrella or a fractured bone, but once something burns to a crisp, there is no turning back. That’s why the mighty Phoenix rising from its own ashes in Greek mythology is such a powerful image, such a compelling story, because it essentially means turning back the arrow of time and throwing entropy out the window.
It is that irreversibility that adds value to rituals involving fire. Flames are the element that imparts brutal entropy onto whatever is being enacted, celebrated, or symbolised:the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” in 1979, in which thousands of disco records were burnt in a Chicago baseball stadium as part of a radically racist and homophobic promotional event; the alleged human sacrifices in the wicker man burnings of Celtic paganism; fire sacrifice ceremonies across various Vedic religions; the Norwegian black metal church burnings in the 90s; the Catholic persecution of so-called witches, heretics, and other dissenters burnt at the stake throughout the middle ages; the recurring references to “blood and fire” in Rasta culture (which take us back to Jamaica)… the list goes on. In fact, fire worship is among the oldest recorded forms of religion, appearing to varying degrees as some sort of supra-natural, extremely powerful entity in pretty much all religions, most likely due to the importance of fire in human culture since the Lower Palaeolithic.
In places where fire was part of the landscape, as in Iceland, mythology is closely related to fire. Iceland is a land of ice, yes, but also very much a land of fire, lava and turbulent steam emissions that constantly remind its inhabitants that the world beneath this one is hotter than we sometimes like to think. The Völuspa, a collection of Icelandic myths compiled in the 13th century but probably written earlier, describes the end of times like this: “The sun fades away, the land sinks into the sea, the bright stars disappear from the sky, as smoke and fire destroy the world, and the flames reach the sky.” In an island with that much volcanic activity, it is understandable that creation myths would be forged in fire.
In 1783, the Laki volcano in southern Iceland erupted, blasting lava, ash, dust, and gas during a period of eight months, disrupting weather patterns, agriculture, the economy and transport across the northern hemisphere. It directly killed a quarter of Iceland's population, caused a famine in Egypt, froze a section of the Mississippi river, and halted the economies of northern Europe to such an extent that many environmental historians consider it a major factor in the build-up to the French revolution of 1789. In other words, fire is an incredibly useful tool, but also a hazard, a dangerous element. Ready to be weaponised.
For centuries, fire and incendiary weapons were among the most effective, destructive and feared agents of warfare in battles and sieges. Fire was the easiest means of destroying territories, and it did not require great skill or manpower. It was used in countless raids by the Scots during the Wars of Independence, in which soldiers burned large portions of the northern English countryside, effectively transforming the whole region. England quickly adopted the Scots’ tactics during the Hundred Years' War in France, where fire became the main weapon in an effort to completely destroy the French landscape and therefore its economy. As the famous quote by Jean Juvenal des Ursins says,: “war without fire is like sausages without mustard”.
At the beginning of Stephen King’s 1974 Carrie, the protagonist is bullied in the girls’ showers after physical education class, and she closes the circle of hatred at the end of the story with the opposite of water: fire, burning down the prom and everyone in it. Shelley Stamp points out that “Carrie does not so much destroy the high school as subject it to ritual purgation through fire and water, using the water hoses and electrical equipment at hand.” So the final catastrophe in the novel is Carrie’s own rebellious take on her mother’s constant indoctrination about purification, teenager-style.
Fire is also one of the threads running through Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. In all three films, fire is almost synonymous with the raw, uncontrollable, evil power of the villains terrorising Gotham. But most of all, it is again a symbol for cleansing: purification through the immolation of a rotten and corrupt system – what the Rastafarians would call Babylon. In the first episode, while burning down Wayne Manor, Ra’s Al Ghul tells Batman that “when a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.” In the second movie, trying to account for the Joker’s irrational behaviour, Alfred tells Wayne that “some men just want to watch the world burn”, right before the Joker starts igniting the streets of Gotham. And in the third and final instalment, Bane quotes Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities with his simple, grim warning of what's to come: “The fire rises”.
Yes it does, Bane, but only around these parts. On Earth, or any other large object with enough gravitational pull, fire points upwards. When a flame burns, it heats the atmosphere around it, causing the air to expand and become less dense. The pull of gravity draws colder, denser air to the base of the flame, displacing the hot air, which, as Bane says, rises. But in outer space – say, inside a spaceship – with less oxygen and less gravity, hot air expands but doesn’t move upward. In space, flames expand spherically, and they are way harder to put out. In March 2009, NASA began testing what they called FLEX (short for Flame Extinguishment Experiment) on the International Space Station, in order to better understand how fire behaves in microgravity and to develop reliable fire suppression mechanisms for next-generation crew exploration vehicles, which is of course a top safety priority in such a delicate environment.
Andy Weir’s sci-fi novel Artemis is a witty, action-packed crime thriller set in a Moon colony engulfed in a complex conspiracy involving money, energy, the mafia, and high-speed communications. But ultimately Artemis is also, quite simply, a story about scarcity, about things that are not there. There is no air on the moon, there is way less gravity, and everyday essential goods are extremely hard to come by. So the plot revolves around the main character, Jazz Bashara, dealing with those missing things on the lunar colony, as well as the things that the inhabitants of Artemis must avoid at all costs, like fire. In one passage, Jazz has a meeting with one of the colony’s wealthy businessmen, who tries to downplay the danger that his beloved contraband cigars pose in that fragile environment. “I have a sealed room! My smoke doesn’t bother anyone! It’s injustice, I tell you!” to which Jazz responds: “Oh, you’re so full of shit. It’s fire. A fire in Artemis would be a nightmare. It’s not like we can go outside. Flammable materials are illegal unless there’s a really good reason for them. The last thing we want is a bunch of idiots wandering around with lighters.”
Outside of the realm of fiction, sadly, “a bunch of idiots wandering around with lighters” could easily work as the tagline for the brutal wildfires that destroyed about a million hectares of Amazon rainforest in the summer of 2019. The huge spike in the number of wildfires in the area was due to a combination of illegal but common slash-and-burn farming methods (the cutting and burning of plants to clear the land for cultivation) and the sudden rise of temperatures that come with the dry season. And it was considerably worsened by the complete disregard of the companies and governments involved in the exploitation of the rainforest.
Slash-and-burn techniques have been used for millennia in the Amazon Basin, and they can be seen as a kind of pharmakon, both poison and remedy. Easily destructive when external factors align, they are also directly responsible for the large number of “black soil” sites in the region, which are the result of the method that indigenous people of the area used to turn the barren Amazonic grasslands into fertile ground. These dark patches of terrain are known as “terra preta” (“black soil” in Portuguese) because of their characteristic black colour, which comes from charcoal, the main ingredient in a mixture that also includes bone fragments, broken pottery and animal excrements. Charcoal remains in the soil for thousands of years and helps retain minerals and nutrients, so this by-product of burning has been a crucial agent in the development of agriculture in Amazonia.
In his book Environment, Scarcity, and Violence, Thomas F. Homer-Dixon highlights the importance of tropical forest regions not just as a carbon dioxide sink, but also as “a vast repository of genetic information, the majority of it contained in insects and microbes not yet identified or catalogued.” A biodiversity that he says “is a priceless resource for the development of new crops, medicines, and a wide array of industrial products from paints to lubricants.” Homer-Dixon then points out the direct correlation between ecosystem simplification (that is, the reduction of biodiversity in croplands, planted forests, and other managed ecosystems) and extinction. He talks about small-scale extinction, but most of what he says applies to so called mass extinction events, of which experts have so far identified five in pre-historic times, plus a sixth one in the making, thanks to our titanic efforts.
In 2009, palaeontologist Peter Ward proposed his provocative Medea hypothesis to explain mass extinctions in terms of self-destruction: the idea that multicellular life on Earth is suicidal, or biocidal, by nature. Or as he puts it, that “life is less than benign to species other than itself”. According to this hypothesis, which uses the Greek myth of Medea (representing the Earth), who kills her own children (multicellular life) as a metaphor, mass extinctions are simply the Earth’s way of returning to its default microbial-dominated state. In a sense, Ward’s theory is Phoenyx-like, an anti-Gaia mechanism that pushes down its own entropy level – which, incidentally, includes the current, man-made ecological crisis.
Perhaps the best-known example of the big five irreversible extinction landmarks –although it that cannot be understood as a Medean event, since it had nothing to do with microbes or intelligent life on Earth –is directly tied to fire. In this case, fire falling from outer space. The Cretaceous–Palaeocene extinction event, about 66 million years ago, was one of the major turning points in the planet’s life, the one that wiped dinosaurs off the face of the Earth, along with three-quarters of all plant and animal species. The ultimate cause of the event is still subject to debate, but it is widely accepted that a 10-to-15-kilometer ball of fire, an asteroid, impacted Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, releasing more than a billion times the energy of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Short-term effects of this massive fireball hitting Earth included large land surfaces incinerated by the heat pulse of the incoming projectile and the explosion, and the settling of dust and water vapour and oxidation of atmospheric nitrogen with the subsequent ozone depletion. Once again, fire was one of the chief shaping elements of the planet.
It is hard for us to imagine Earth without fire. But that was in fact how it was for a very long time. Earth was a fire-proof planet, simply because some of the essential pre-requisites for ignition were not there. Peter Ward reminds us that “what we call an Earth-like planet is actually a very short interval of time”. For over 2 billion years, our atmosphere contained virtually no oxygen. Cyanobacteria started producing oxygen by photosynthesis around 2.7 billion years ago. And even then, oxygen only became relatively abundant around 500 million years ago. Plants on land surfaces suitable for combustion did not appear until 400 million years ago, so the first actual fires did not flicker on this planet before the early Devonian period, as the oldest fossil charcoal dates seem to confirm.
Andrew Scott’s claim that “Fire is an expression of life on Earth and an index of life’s history” might initially appear a bit grandiose and grossly anthropocentric, because life on the blue planet far precedes us. But it is actually easy to equate fire with several periods of acceleration, although this does not necessarily refer to “life” in general. Not an increase in biodiversity, but an acceleration within OUR species. It happened in the Pleistocene, and once again, quite recently, with the Industrial Revolution. A couple of centuries ago, humans changed surface biomass for fossil biomass in order to burn and power the new emerging industrial network, to pump up food production, push population to new extremes, and so on. It is hard to imagine all of this without pre-packaged, industrial fire. So Scott’s description of fire “as an index of life’s history” may not be as triumphant as it looks.
Swiss artist Dave Phillips, one of our guests in this episode, says: “we can’t exist without insects, they are crucial for our lives. Insects can very well exist without humans – most other species can, so this is something we should think about.” We talk to him about ecosystems in relation to his ritual protest musical practice. Also on this episode is Dutch writer and a philosopher Rick Dolphijn, whose work on new materialism gravitates to food and his notion of “the new alimentary continuum.” We talk to him about food, drink, and performance-enhancing substances. But we kick things off with a conversation about ashes, burning, sexual dissidence, time arrows, and temporalities in the Andes, with Ecuadorian lawyer and thinker Diego Falconí Travez.