Sacred Fires and Living Flames

By Antonio CerellaSeptember 2, 2016

Sacred Fires and Living Flames

Pyropolitics by Michael Marder

ACCORDING TO Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, in the house of every Greek and Roman of antiquity was an altar on which a sacred fire burned. The master of the house was obliged to keep the fire alive day and night. The sacred flames, in fact, could only be extinguished when the entire family had perished. Only a few woods and special trees could be used to maintain the fire in its splendor and purity, and both Greeks and Romans periodically offered sacrifices to the spirits of fire to revive their ancestral power. The first sacrifice at Olympia was offered not to the king of gods, Zeus, but to the hearth-fire.

As Fustel de Coulange affirms, the belief in the power and sacredness of fire might be even older than this, traceable to a “distant and dim epoch when there were yet no Greeks, no Italians, no Hindus,” that it was “an ancient legacy, the first religion” and “known and practiced in the common cradle of their race.” We can still find a trace of this ancient conviction in the collection of Orphic Hymns: “Render us always prosperous, always happy, O fire; thou who art eternal, beautiful, ever young; thou who nourishes, thou who art rich, receive favorably these our offerings, and in return give us happiness and sweet health.” Fire, perhaps, represented the oldest instrument of mediation between visible and invisible realities, past and future, life and death. It was, we might also remember, in his theft of glowing flames that Prometheus gifted civilization to humanity.

Yet fire has remained “unthought” as a constitutive element in modern politics and philosophy. Perhaps due to their intrinsic accessibility, earth and water remained the ground of the philosophical speculation and of the political and intellectual equipment of modern man. One can think, for example, of Thomas Hobbes, who saw in the symbolic contest between the land-dwelling Behemoth and the sea-dwelling Leviathan the embodiment of the secret engine of political history; or of Martin Heidegger, who, in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” rediscovered and revaluated man’s chthonic dimension as strife between world and earth; or of the German jurist Carl Schmitt, who understood universal history as an encounter-clash between the solid element (the earth) and the liquid one (the sea). No traces of fire in these philosophical visions, not even ashes …

In Pyropolitics: When the World is Ablaze, Michael Marder breaks the silence that envelops the atavistic and igneous element by proposing an original and compelling reinterpretation of the centrality of fire in our political and philosophical life. He takes his reader on a journey through the history of fire’s functions — metaphorical, practical, linguistic — in order to reveal the most intimate and political nature of this element. If it is true that, as Schmitt observed, “the whole history of mankind is but a voyage through the four elements,” which element is left to us postmodern humans once we have consumed (metaphorically and materially) the earth and the seas, once we have crossed the sky in all directions? It is in response to this question, and the crisis it evokes, that Marder develops his analysis.

The purpose of his ambitious book is precisely to reread the crisis of global politics through the ashes left by the new world disorder. For what, if not fire, links the self-immolations at protest rallies and drone warfare, the books and heretics burnt on the pyres of the Inquisition and the implosions of the Twin Towers, the imagery of revolutionary sparks ready to ignite spirits and the car bombings in the Middle East? To Marder, fire is the fil rouge, both symbolic and concrete, that underlies the political metaphors and the exercise of old and new forms of sovereignty. This element represents the eruption of a new modality of power within the ancient territory of the political. As Marder puts it:

The loss of sovereignty’s single and indivisible pole does not mean that there is no more sovereignty but that the earth with its polarities and modes of orientation is no longer a suitable element for thinking and practising the extreme. The outwardness of the extremus is no longer situated on earth (which, in the age of globalization, has no outside) but, instead, in the far-flung elemental domain of fire.

But what practical and theoretical orientation can we derive from this peculiar “phenomenology of fire”? How can we theoretically frame a phenomenon that by its very essence is constantly moving and metamorphosing?

Marder’s theoretical proposal is compelling for at least two reasons. First, Pyropolitics has the undoubted merit of overcoming the worn categories established by modern political thinking. Based on self-enclosed political forms, these categories are, at the present juncture, deformed — the state-Leviathan, the rigid division between inside and outside, the geometric distinction between domestic and international politics. Scholars have long wondered whether such distinctions still make sense, or whether we should profoundly rethink — if not replace — them with new categories capable of adapting to the extreme fluidity of our time. In this sense, Pyropolitics offers a novel way to think about politics beyond binaries. At the same time, and with great analytical originality, Marder deviates from the simplistic descriptions of mondialisation as the age of “total mobilization,” what Ernst Jünger described in reference to his experience in World War I as “the growing conversion of life into energy, the increasingly fleeting content of all binding ties in deference to mobility.” Today, we know that, nolens volens, mobilization is neither total nor global and that it implies a very high degree of exclusion and inaction; just think of the so-called “migration crisis,” and of the “refugee camp” as the sole space for migrants’ “forced mobility.” Political globalization, however one wants to define this process, proceeds in fits and starts, and while it requires an (almost) absolute mobility of goods, it also implies the systematic exclusion of part of the world population from access to those goods. In this new Babel, everything moves in alternating and exclusionary rhythms, often in sudden, violent, and incendiary blasts.

Aware of this dynamic, Marder focuses on the “arrhythmias” of the contemporary political world. Pyropolitics is, in fact, a politics of the event, of the unpredictable, of contingency that is out of control but still in search of a form and a meaning. Through the ingenious pyropolitical lenses offered by this book, global politics becomes what one might call theoretical pointillism, the most appropriate graphic metaphor to describe the distinctive types of violence that characterize our age, from the recent attacks in Paris to the targeted killings carried out by the Obama administration.

Against the rigidity and the anachronism of classical categories, as well as the simplification of globalization understood as a “liquid” and linear process, Marder proposes a sort of pointillism of the unexpected, the inflamed rhythm of insecurity unleashed on a global scale. For Pyropolitics is also this: the challenge to describe and follow contingency and the epochal changes brought about by globalization on their own ground and at their own pace, instead of going down in flames in an attempt to capture these dynamics conceptually. As Marder stresses, the politics of fire does not offer “a conjunction of phenomena to be analysed but a set of indicators pointing to what makes political phenomena visible in the first place.”

Marder’s theoretical fugue overcomes binary oppositions (internal/external, sacred/secular, private/public) by means of his peculiar “phenomenology by fire.” Fire is a unity that encompasses and transcends its own intrinsic duality of light and heat. Fire nourishes and gives life to its own dual combustion, brightening and warming by itself. And just like fire, our political imagination has always oscillated between the ideals: on the one hand, the pure light of reason and, on the other, the explosive energy of revolution.

Following this trajectory, Pyropolitics critically rethinks the Enlightenment as an attempt to make politics a utopia deprived of risks and lit by the cold light of reason. In this regime of extreme visibility, there are no shadows or places to hide, not even in the depths of human consciousness. The Cartesian cogito, from Marder’s perspective, is nothing but this point of absolute translucency of the subject, who is exposed to his own internal light (cogito ergo sum) — in this bright new world, everything becomes “possible under the sun” of ratio.

Here, Marder’s rereading of the Enlightenment encounters Foucault’s analysis of the relationship between security and protection. For, what is panopticism if not the realization of an ideal of total transparency that degenerates into an all-around form of surveillance? In the Siècle des Lumières, when “Lux in tenebris lucet,” all attempts at secrecy and occlusion are forestalled by the gaze of the Goddess of Reason. But how realistic is this vision? As Marder puts it,

the Enlightenment […] untethers the two powers of fire from one other, fetishizes light without heat in the form of dispassionate rationality, or the ideal of objectivity, and rejects heat without light as myth, as unenlightened obscurity and, ultimately, as evil. The darkness against which the light of reason was to assert itself, is more than sheer obscurity: it shelters the supplement of heat, unrelated either to vision or to its privation, since unlike darkness, heat is not the logical negation of light.

If light was the metaphor of an outside (lux) which becomes an inside (ratio) of a regime of exterior visibility, then heat is the symbol of an internal force (political power) that explodes on the outside through revolutions and counterrevolutions. This is the dark side of politics that, as Marder shows, the modern West tried to hide inside the jaws of the Leviathan, the monster-machine that attempts to depoliticize the state. Rebelling against the machine-state, French and Russian revolutionaries tried to inflame the body politic through a new alchemy made of Molotov bombs and incendiary spirits, tempering their bodies — in the words of Trotsky — “in the fire of events.”

In this way, then, Marder’s pyropolitics encounters biopolitics, that moment in which the spheres of politics and life overlap, thus becoming indistinguishable. Revolution, in fact, can be seen as “a political life-process unravelling as the fire-process, consuming individual existence and ideally reproducing itself under the aegis of inflamed, purely active spirit.” In other words, just as politics of light are hampered by the limits of reason and devolve into the tyranny of universal surveillance, the politics of heat tends to burn its own body in its flight toward the sun of utopia. (One hardly needs to mention the various revolutionary failures that ended up burnt by that sun.)

According to Marder, it is this tension between light and heat that has characterized Western politics over the course of the past two centuries. This book challenges us to find a theoretical and practical balance between those two powers — to find a political and philosophical equilibrium between the aseptic purity of light and the energizing heat of combustion. As Marder writes, “emitted in excess, light and heat are pernicious: the one blinds, the other burns. The more each of them tends to absoluteness (i.e. to an absolute separation from the other), the more destructive it waxes.”

There is one place — or rather, one event — in which these two powers do coincide: martyrdom. What kind of light emanates from the dying body of the martyr who disappears in the fire of her own auto-da-fé? And what message does the heat produced by her incinerated remains send us? What abysmal truth lies behind the sacrifice of a human being who turns herself into a form without a body, a breathless voice, an action from which the phenomenon escapes? To this figure and her phenomenology, Marder devotes some of the most intense, heartfelt, and powerful pages of the book. If geopolitics was the politics of boundaries, and global politics one of commerce and consumption, the biopolitics of sacrifice is, in its essence, the politics of humankind before its absolute, corporal nudity.

The whale, wrote Schmitt, led us into the liquid element. It was the great Leviathan that dragged us into the mare magnum of globalization. But where does the pyropolitical path lead us? Which world does the martyr open with her fiery body? In these dense pages, Marder touches upon the limits of political ontology. A profound and unsettling abyss opens up before us in the terrifying placidness of the Buddhist monk who sets himself on fire. The flames of the martyr illuminate a new political space no longer open on the outside but open, instead, on our deepest interiority. It is in the abyss of that silence that we may glimpse, for a moment, the shadow of another truth — a truth encapsulated in the enigmatic verses of the Book of Kings:

A great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.


Antonio Cerella is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK and convenor of the British International Studies Association (BISA) Working Group “Contemporary Research on International Political Theory” (CRIPT).

LARB Contributor

Antonio Cerella is lecturer in international relations at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK and convenor of the British International Studies Association (BISA) Working Group “Contemporary Research on International Political Theory” (CRIPT).


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