Kiln Time

Nigel Clark, “Fiery Arts: Pyrotechnology and the Political Aesthetics of the Anthropocene,” GeoHumanities 1, no. 2 (2015), 266-84

A decent rule of thumb: in anthropogenic ecosystems, the angels are on the side of pluralism and diversity, as against monoculture and industrial uniformity. Instead of miles of genetically homogeneous wheat and corn, or thousands of near-identical pallid pigs crammed into a feedlot, a genuinely functional food- or resource-producing landscape needs something more layered: multiple pollinators, multiple varietals, mosaics of planting, an element of mess. That’s the most basic principle of agroecology, and something like an article of faith for the green movement. In fact, I’ve argued that that instinct for pluralism can make a good starting point for green politics as a whole. Clark’s lovely essay draws attention persuasively to another, minor realm in which that same pluralist instinct is wanted. If we need plural ecosystems, we need plural pyrotechnic systems too.

The paper (published here; deposited open-access here) is a hymn to the artisanal manipulators of “chambered fire”: to the pre-modern ceramicists, brick-makers, metallurgists, smiths, tile-makers, and glass-makers who developed the craft of transmuting matter with heat. Or perhaps really what it celebrates is the “pyrotechnic phylum” itself, the tradition of fire-working that started to flourish with the establishment of settled agricultural societies, but that’s in danger of losing its diversity as artisan fire-craft in small workshops and bazaars gets crowded out by large-scale thermo-industrial processes.

Clark has written a lot about fire. I love this essay, with its Derridean New Zealand biologists and its account of the role of volcanic fire in human evolution. The paper at hand also touches on broadcast burning as a longstanding land management technique, but its heart’s with the “artisanal pyrotechnology” that for thousands of years lay behind many of the textures of everyday life.

Clark writes about the transmutations that earthly materials—clays, ores—undergo when they’re subjected to chambered fire, and about how dramatic those transformations are. They’re doubly unpredictable: often the raw materials hardly resemble what emerges from the kiln or crucible, and even experienced artisans could expect a somewhat different outcome every time when they worked with home-made furnaces. Hence the central role of chance and play in working with fire. Very often, and perhaps in the deepest origins of the craft, the artisan’s goal was something decorative or luxurious rather than strictly functional; fire-work is a metamorphosis of one set of richly varied hues and textures into another.

Pyrotechnology is associated in Clark’s account with the esoterica of the guild, and with nomadism: itinerant smiths wandering from settlement to settlement. He emphasizes the distributed character of innovation in ceramics and metallurgy, the approximately parallel processes of invention that took place in many different regions of the world. Metalworking helped to create the very trade routes by which it spread. Paying attention to its distributed character, Clark argues, can help “to unsettle notions of a single, decisive thermo-industrial revolution” in eighteenth- to nineteenth-century Britain, by reminding us of that revolution’s “inheritance from the much broader Euroasian pyrotechnic lineage.” His great example is the European import of sophisticated Chinese porcelain, and how European craftsmen’s trial-and-error attempts to imitate it (hence, again, the centrality of decorative arts and aesthetic experimentation) contributed to the development of geological science—and perhaps, by more circuitous routes, to Western industrial technology too. That said, he’s just as much concerned to stress the novelty of modern precision-engineered heat engines, the fact that the deployment of fire is now partitioned in a new way.

Clark’s deepest emphasis is on the fact that pyrotechnology always formed new subjects as well as pots and swords. In the process of making material goods, chambered fire also made societies of fire-users with altered relations to the thingly world. Working with fire is a strategy with which to unlock the seductive metamorphic force that’s implicit in the world as such:

By enclosing and intensifying the force of fire … skilled pyrotechnic agents precipitated a momentous expansion in … metamorphic ‘fire power’: contriving, over the course of some 10,000 years, a spectrum of thermal operations that augmented and elaborated on the transformational possibilities inherent in the physical world.

Or again:

Pyrotechnic experimentalism … responds [both] to the allure, the wonder, the diversity of earthy matter and to the threatening forcefulness of the inhuman Earth. In this way, although most of us lack the experience or cultural memory of enduring major shifts in Earth systems, what human populations do indeed have—if we take in the longue durée of the pyrotechnic phylum—is a treasury of know-how about scaling down, framing, and containing the forces of a volatile planet

In what sense do “human populations” have that know-how that belonged among the guild mysteries of the fire-crafters, though? Or in what sense did they have it? That diversity of techniques is being allowed to go extinct, Clark thinks, without adequate attempts to conserve or even to mourn it. As traditional knowledges of how to work with chambered fire get lost, evolved strategies for transmuting matter disappear. It’s like the loss of biological species, as in his metaphor of the pyrotechnic phylum or lineage.

Perhaps that metaphor runs the risk of eliding just what’s most stimulating about Clark’s argument, though. For me, it’s precisely the fact that he calls attention to the extinction of evolved diversity in a non-organic field that’s most suggestive about the paper. Clark insists that it’s not just a set of human cultural practices that are being obliterated, but instead a diversity of ways in which to solicit physical substance to reveal its own intrinsic capacities for metamorphosis. Jane Bennett isn’t mentioned here, but the paper’s basic sensibility seems to owe something to her thinking about the liveliness of matter itself.

I suppose there’s an obvious comparison to be drawn between what Clark is saying and the much more widespread concern about the ongoing extinction of languages. To make the comparison work properly, though, you have to think of language as something that isn’t confined within the circuit of the human. A lost language, like a lost firing technique, might have been impinged upon by some specific local feature of the non-human world in a unique and irrecoverable fashion. Given Clark’s focus on the thingly, perhaps a closer parallel is with the extinction of slow-evolved methods of building construction. Again, though, it’s much more commonplace to express concern about the dying out of traditional building methods than to trouble oneself about the declining species diversity of chambered fire. So what other relatively neglected fields of action and transmutation deserve the same level of attention that Clark gives to pyrotechnology? Textiles, perhaps? The use of gemstones? Or pigments? The best example I can think of is water,  especially the manipulation of ice. I can imagine a mirror essay to this one (perhaps it already exists somewhere) on cryotechnology, on the past diversity of ice houses and ice pits as against the current hegemony of high-energy refrigeration techniques.

And the Anthropocene? Clark looks back to when chambered fire “came of age” in early sedentary agricultural societies, so his story works as one thread in the history of the Holocene. He stresses that “combustion is at the crux of [the] Anthropocene thesis,” from Glikson’s very early Anthropocene to Ruddiman’s (fire-enabled) deforestation theory to Crutzen’s initial association of the Anthropocene with Watt’s steam engine. The time of the birth of the Anthropocene, he thinks, is “not a good time to be losing, or to have lost, varieties of fire”—just as he’s observed elsewhere that “this might not be good time to risk radically supplementing the earth’s combustive budget.” Instead, it’s a time to appreciate the work done in and through kilns in the past thousands of years. Understanding the artistic play implicit within pyrotechnology promises, for Clark, to offer something vital to the “political aesthetics of the Anthropocene.”