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Exchanging Fire: A Planetary History of the Explosion

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Publication date30/11/2023
Host publicationNew Earth Histories: Geo-Cosmologies and the Making of the Modern World
EditorsAlison Bashford, Emily Kern, Adam Bobbette
Place of PublicationChicago
PublisherUniversity of Chicago Press
ISBN (print)9780226828589, 9780226828602
<mark>Original language</mark>English


The invention of near-instantaneous combustion – the fiery explosion – is an event in both in planetary and human history. While the concoction of a volatile mix of carbon, sulfur and nitrates by alchemists in 9th century China paved the way for firearms and gunpowder empires, ultra-highspeed deflagration is also arguably the first entirely new form of combustion on Earth since fire emerged in the Silurian Period some 410 million years ago. What does it mean, I ask, that the explosion is at once instrumental in the global rise of Western powers and a planetary event that exceeds the practices, strategies and imaginaries that organize its deployment? In this chapter I explore two related paradoxes of explosive firepower. The first is that the relatively rapid technological transfer of the firearm from China to Europe is at once a source of profound trauma for the ‘modernizing’ European subject and a key component in the triumphalist narrative of Western global expansion. The second is that the application of explosives in extractive industries both plays an important role in advancing the understanding of the geological strata – and hence the deep history of the Earth, and is of pivotal importance in transforming Earth systems and rock fabrics to such an extent that the very legibility of the Earth and is compromised. Extending the idea of planetary social thought (Clark and Szerszynski 2021), the chapter brings these paradoxes together as a way to reimagine Western colonization as a pyrogeographical process: at once a variation played on firepower of the Earth and an instrument of a specific world-shaping structural violence.