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Infernal Machinery: Thermopolitics of the Explosion

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>1/11/2018
<mark>Journal</mark>Culture Machine
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Combustion – especially the burning of fossil fuels – is central to the problematic of human geologic agency and to any meaningful political or cultural response to the current planetary predicament. But a consideration of the politics of combustion raises the issue of another kind of fire: the explosive combustion that is at the core of state or military arsenals and the crux of most forms of insurrectionary force. While fire has been part of our planet’s history for hundreds of millions of years, there is no natural equivalent to the high-speed combustive chain reaction that is the blast of gunpowder. This paper traces the ‘thermopolitics’ of firearms that began with the discovery of explosive powders in 9th century China, but which builds on a much longer history of experimentation with and application of chambered fire. While the fire of the artisan brought enchanting and beautiful objects into the world, escalating military use of gunpowder installed new powers of destructiveness into the very core of modern social life. Moving from a biopolitical to a thermopolitical perspective, it is argued that the shocking demands of functioning in proximity to the explosion turns the social organization and cultural sensibilities of modernity into a kind of infernal machinery. In our own era, the internal combustion engine has inherited something of the ‘infernal’ power of the militarized explosion, and ramped it up to the scale of global environmental change. This raises questions not only about to get the runaway forces of planetary fire under control, but about what other uses – more gratuitous and glorious – might yet be made of the explosive firepower we have brought into the world.