In Season 3 of The Subverse, host Susan Mathews explores ‘fire’ as a central theme. From symbology to history to climate change — join us as we delve into some burning issues.
The Subverse - Season Three
Fire Changes Everything
In this episode, I narrate an eccentric story of fire, an intangible and odd element. I begin with lines from William Blake’s “The Tyger”, which invites us to partake of creation and the paradoxes of the divine, with an equal measure of wonder and terror evoked through fire. But fire is more than just combustion and volatility, a chemical reaction or an ecological stimulus. The history of fire and the history of life are twin flames.
Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan write in their wonderful book What is Life? that one answer to the titular question is that life is the transmutation of sunlight. It is the sun become the green fire of photosynthesizing beings, the natural seductiveness of flowers and the warmth of the tiger stalking the jungle in the dead of night.
The character of burning over deep time is one with twists and turns. It started with a spark of lightning but for fire to become a planetary force, it needed oxygen and fuel. Stephen Pyne, a prolific historian of fire and the first guest in this podcast season, outlines three fires. Plants set ablaze by lightning were the first, humans aiding and abetting fire the second and the third fire is where humans burn lithic landscapes. No longer bounded by season, sun or natural rhythms, this fire without limits made us geological agents. It is also a fire of empire and slavery, of loss and destruction. From a celestial and originary green fire we now see terrifying red plumes and a rising blue fire of the oceans. The world is out of pyric balance.
So how do we rewrite this story? In the second half of this episode, I introduce some exciting ideas that help us think through fire differently, starting with the myth of Prometheus. In this tale, the role of Pandora is often ignored, downplayed, or forgotten. Elissa Marder, in an article entitled Pandora’s Fireworks describes Pandora, created out of clay and water, as a kind of counterfire (anti puros), a technological counterpart to divine fire. Pandora establishes the defining limits of the human and reminds us of our connection with the rest of the biosphere.
From Pandora’s pyrotechnics, we move to the ‘pyrosexual’, a term I borrow from the work of Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff in their article titled Queer Fire: Ecology, Combustion and Pyrosexual Desire. Clark and Yusuff peel back the metaphors of fire and sex and suggest instead a deep, conjoint history of sexual desire and fiery consummation. By contextualizing the ‘pyrosexual’ within the wider economy of earth and cosmos, they seek ways to escape industrial capitalism’s current hyperconsumptive cycles of accumulation. They remind us that plants are sexual beings and challenge more ‘orthodox’ environmentalisms that curb desire and renouncing of pleasure. Fire being a boundary between biologic life and inhuman materialities, it offers a track that restructures the asexual-sexual binary with lateral forms of agency and modes of desire. What else, they ask, can we do with a planet of fire?
I end the piece with a tribute to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a poet and writer who inspired much of Season 2 on water and this one on fire. In a powerful piece published in Harper’s Bazaar this year, she writes that menopause is a powerful lens through which to look at this hot planetary crisis. Apart from the similarities, such as planetary hot flashes caused by toxic environments, menopause is also a liminal space of possibility. She asks whether underneath all this heat, we are meant to learn something about change.
- Stephen J. Pyne, The Pyrocene: How we Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next, University of California Press, 2022
- Lynn Margulis & Dorion Sagan, What is Life?, University of California Press, 1995, 1st edition
- Elissa Marder, “Pandora’s Fireworks; or, Questions Concerning Femininity, Technology, and the Limits of the Human”, Philosophy & Rhetoric, Vol. 47, No. 4, EXTRAHUMAN RHETORICAL RELATIONS: Addressing the Animal, the Object, the Dead, and the Divine (2014), pp. 386-399, Penn State University Press
- Nigel Clark & Kathryn Yusoff, “Queer Fire: Ecology, Combustion and Pyrosexual Desire”, Feminist Review 118, 2018
- Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Heat is not a Metaphor”, Harper’s Bazaar, August 2023,
Error: the brother of Prometheus is Epimetheus, not Epitheus, unfortunately our afterthought in this tale.
Good Wife, Bad Witch: Incendiary Crossings and Theatres of Violence
In this episode, Susan Mathews is in conversation with Professor Pompa Banerjee. Prof. Banerjee teaches courses in early modern literature and culture at the University of Colorado, Denver. Her work focuses on the literary and cultural dimensions of Europe’s cross-cultural encounters in the global Renaissance, especially in the ways they shape identity in the age of discovery. She also studies the unexpected crossings between European witches and Indian widows, and has written extensively on these subjects as well as early modern literature and travel, on Shakespeare, and on modern Indian adaptations of Shakespeare.
In this episode, we spoke of fire’s symbolism and its role in ritualised violence, embodying and enforcing socio-political ideologies that dictate gender roles for women. We refer specifically to her book Burning Women: Widows, Witches and Early Modern European Travellers in India (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), where she pores through European travel narratives from 1500 to 1723, where representations of Sati were conventional, even de rigeur, in travelogues of India, and which coincided with successive waves of witch-hunts in Europe. Despite these synchronous occurrences, the ritualised burning in both cases and the burning as public spectacle, these early travel narratives make no correlation between widow burning and witch burning, what Prof. Banerjee terms as a ‘literary haunting’.
One reason for this erasure is that practices were coded very differently—the sati’s burning as a heroic sacrifice and the witch’s burning as legitimate retribution. While both women were considered insensible to pain, one was through ascension to literal divinity while the other was through the machinations of the devil.
In these theatrical burnings, female bodies become sites of storytelling and ideological reformation. In both practices, the woman is placed centre stage, as it is the witnesses who provide validation and who receive the story being told. The Sati’s deathless love for her husband, itself a tool of economic control, became instrumental in recasting the ideal European wife. We also speak of how the British in the later colonial period used the narratives of the barbaric practices of brown people to assert their moral right to rule.
We also discussed an article Prof. Banerjee wrote in 2021 (‘You May Wear Your Rue With a Difference’: Gertrude, Ghazala and the Sati in Haider in Hamlet, The State of Play, edited by Sonia Massai & Lucy Moore, The Arden Shakespeare), about the film Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet, set in Kashmir. In the movie, it is through fire that a deviant Muslim wife turns into a pious Hindu Sati, and through the imagery of Sati that a feared Muslim suicide bomber is transformed into a redeemed mother. The civilizing force of Shakespeare’s plays is subverted in the postcolonial adaptations and it’s recontextualization in the real violence of Kashmir.
Finally, we delved into the possible origins of this connection between female subjectivity and deviance. We spoke of the exclusive power women held and hold over the hearth and life-sustaining domestic functions and how these were reconstructed through male fantasies as dangers. Fire has been used in contradictory motifs of resurrection, purity, cleansing, punishment, deification and transcendence, a running theme of course being the disciplining of female desire and sexuality.
Women’s bodies become the sites of dispute every time society undergoes upheaval. And the only way to counter these narratives are understanding them and remembering how they’ve been used in the past.
More about the guest
You can find more about Prof. Banerjee’s work at the University of Colorado at Denver website: https://clas.ucdenver.edu/english/pompa-banerjee
Intersecting Heat: Visual Journeys into Caste, Gender and Labour in India
In this episode, Susan Mathews is in conversation with Bhumika Saraswati, an independent photographer, journalist and filmmaker. In 2022, she was awarded a UNFPA-Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitive Work and in 2023, she was awarded a Human Rights Press Award by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Journalism School of Arizona State University, United States of America for her short documentary film, Lives of Sex Workers and Their Children.
In this present episode, we look at how extreme heat is embroiled in caste and labour in India. We spoke about Bhumika’s present visual project which focuses on dalit women in agriculture in Uttar Pradesh, India and the impacts of heat, and an earlier short film she had done on workers in crematoriums during the covid-19 pandemic in New Delhi, India, an occupation which is surrounded by fire and heat hazards.
The presence of both the women in the fields and the workers at cremation sites is a consequence of various historical, social and economic conditions and even government practices that reinforce caste-based labour practices. Whether it is discussions of those who are ‘most vulnerable’ to heat in air-conditioned rooms, or people visiting a crematorium only interacting with the priest, these are people made invisible or seen through a mainstream gaze, in life and in media.
Bhumika navigates the restrictions placed on her as a single woman visiting places with high crime rates, to explore the intersections of caste, class and gender that dalit women in agriculture contend with. In the midst of life-threatening levels of heat, limited protective gear and restrictive clothing, they grow the food that sustains us all. Bhumika captures the sisterhood between these women and the ingenious ways they make their limited resources work. We also briefly touched on how the caste system has restricted access to water and how certain kinds of violence are tied to the lack of basic amenities provided to certain citizens.
In the context of her short film, we discussed how the crematorium is another place that reflects caste. The men who do the work of burning bodies were not given any safety gear, even during the height of the covid-19 pandemic.
Eager to see change affected within her lifetime, Bhumika tries to ensure that help reaches the people whose stories she tells. She warns that we all need to “buckle up” for the oncoming climate crisis. But in the meantime, Bhumika’s hope is that by the time the world wakes up, she has created a body of work that we can all look to.
More about the guest
Bhumika started working (writing, filming and publishing) when she was 16. She believes in the power of visual storytelling, specifically because the work becomes accessible to more people specially from marginalized backgrounds. From initially being fixer on other people’s stories, she has now come to have a body of work of her own, published in national and international publications – including The Associated Press, Washington Post, Independent, SCMP Film and The Caravan Magazine.
You can find her on Instagram @bhumikasaraswati
X (formerly Twitter) @Bhumikasara
And for the project on women, heat, communities see @heat.southasia
Unearthing fire: metallurgy, artefacts, and symbolism
In this episode, Susan Mathews is in conversation with Prof. Sharada Srinivasan.
She is a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. In 2021, she was elected as an International Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Archaeology. She received the Padmashri, India’s fourth highest civilian award, in 2019 and has made pioneering contributions to the study of archaeology and history of art from the perspective of engineering applications.
We spoke of fire and Prof. Srinivasan’s field of archaeometallurgy, the study of archaeological artefacts. Through the study of artefacts, we can better understand the history of technology and the progression of metals in civilization. This also helps inform the conservation of artefacts and get better insights into archaeology and art history. In her own work, she has made landmark contributions such as the analysis of bronzes in South India using lead isotopes to identify its metallurgical characterisations and studies on ancient mining and metallurgy in South India.
We looked at the fire element in several ways. First, we explored the trajectory of human evolution and its intrinsic links to the increasing ability to master fire. The progressive use of metals and metallurgy was pivotal, and we find that presently no device or pursuit lacks an element of combustion technology. From the hearth to kilns and fiery furnaces, unknown forms and embellishments were forged for the good and for the bad. We spoke about some of these contradictions in the application of heat to metal and some of the gender divides that followed this fiery progression.
Prof. Srinivasan brought up interesting illustrations of the ancient art of lost wax casting in India, the making of carnelian beads and the role of women in ceramics, such as Kota women from the Nilgiris. The conversation covered fire symbolism and cultural references in Vedic literature, Buddhist iconography, Tamil Sangam poetry and the Nataraja bronzes.
Prof. Srinivasan is also an accomplished exponent of the dance form Bharata Natyam and so we spoke about some of the fire symbolism in dance and in her more contemporary renditions and performances.
More about the guest
Prof. Sharada Srinivasan’s work spans studies on the production mechanisms of high carbon wootz steel and documentation of artisanal technologies such as Aranmula high tin bronze metal mirror making, bronze casting at Swamimalai and ancient and continuing traditions of high-tin bronze working in South India. She is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and World Academy of Art and Science. Her awards include the INAE Woman Engineer in Academia Award in 2021, Distinguished IITB Alumnus Award, Dr. Kalpana Chawla Young Women Scientist Award in 2011 and the Indian Institute of Metals, Certificate of Excellence in 2007. She has been a co-recipient of international awards from UKIERI, UK, (on pioneering iron and steel metallurgy), AHRC, UK, (on interfaces between archaeology and drama), SSHRC Canada, Royal Society, UK, and National Science Foundation, USA. She is first author of the book ‘India’s Legendary Wootz Steel’, contributing author to ‘Ecstasy of Classical Art’, the bronze catalogue of National Museum, Delhi, and co-editor of ‘Digital Hampi’ and ‘Performing on the Periphery’.
You can find her on Instagram
Unequal Heat: Race, Bodies and Thermal Histories
In this episode, Susan Mathews is in conversation with Dr. Bharat Jayram Venkat, an associate professor at UCLA’s Institute for Society & Genetics with joint appointments in the Departments of History and Anthropology. His first book, At the Limits of Cure (Duke University Press, 2021), was the winner of the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences. His current work focuses on the experience of thermal inequality in contemporary India and the United States, the history of how heat has been studied and its effects over the long twentieth century. He is also director of the UCLA Heat Lab.
With accelerating climate change, one of the fallouts is extreme heat. In this conversation, Dr. Venkat defined thermal inequality, which is not just the differential impact of heat, but the unequal distribution of heat effects. These effects are filtered or mediated by our environments, by our lives and by the social and political infrastructures that determine how vulnerable we are to heat. The UCLA Heat Lab employs interdisciplinary methods to study the experience of thermal inequality.
We spoke in some detail about a journal article he wrote in 2022 on race and thermal sensation in late colonial India. We discussed ‘tropicality’, how central the problems posed by heat were and how various kinds of bodies were understood to be differentially affected by heat, producing both biological variation and pathology. Meteorology and racial ideology intersect in the late 19th and early 20th century and climate science is sutured to racial difference.
Heat is a persistent obstacle to the British empire, where sensitivity plays out as both fragility and is treated as something only white bodies can feel as opposed to brown and black bodies. In 1889, Henry Francis Blanford, an imperial meteorologist reporter, is quoted as saying that “the sun is hotter in India than in England”. For the empire, the Indian sun was more threatening than the Indian sepoy, as they depended on these armies to hold on to their empire. With this racial ideology also came a hierarchy of labour, which Dr. Venkat illustrates with contemporary examples of workers who face extreme heat in construction, agriculture and delivery jobs.
We conclude the conversation by speaking about a book he is writing entitled Swelter where he explores the history of heat in an unequal world, focusing on heat science and the kinds of heat thresholds we will face, along with how we might need to change our categorization of climate related illnesses which come about through extreme heat. When we factor heat into our observations, it will transform how we see climate change and its effects.
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 June 2022
More about the guest
Dr. Bharat Jayram Venkat’s research has been funded by the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation Fellowship, the UC President’s Faculty Research Fellowship in the Humanities, the Berggruen Foundation Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award.
Frankenstein and Fire: Reading from the Margins
In this episode, Susan Mathews is in conversation with Prof. Robert Romanyshyn—an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and an author of eight books including Victor Frankenstein, the Monster and the Shadows of Technology: The Frankenstein Prophecies (Frankenstein Prophecies). Romanyshyn’s special area of concern is the psychology of technology, especially in terms of the climate crisis and impact of digital media on our social structures.
Much of his life’s work has been devoted to understanding Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a gothic horror tale that, as he points out, has been prophetic in many ways. In his book Frankenstein Prophecies, he asks eight questions that uncover how Shelley’s classic work haunts our world. Combining Jungian theory, literary criticism, and mythology, he seeks answers to the query at the heart of this book: who is the monster?
In the first six questions, Romanyshyn explores themes of resurrecting the dead, melting polar ice, and whether Frankenstein is a prophecy of the dying of nature, the creation of new species, last human generations, and the loss of place in a digital wired space. In the book’s final two questions, he asks whether the story is a prophecy of radical ethics, and one of new beginnings. Uncovering some seeds of hope in Shelley’s work, he examines how the Monster’s tale reframes her story as a love story.
In keeping with the theme of fire in this podcast season, we spoke of the symbolism of fire—both ambiguous and double-edged. In Greek myth in particular, the symbolism of fire is bound up with the myth of Prometheus, one of many stories which explains how humankind came into possession of fire.
We zoomed in on the fire related metaphors in Frankenstein (exemplified in the subtitle ‘The Modern Prometheus’, alluding to the Greek fire myth), and how many of these speak to our present ecological crises. There’s fire as lightning that struck down a tree early in the book; the use of electricity and galvanism; the digging up of the dead in cemeteries and charnel houses as analogous to the mining of fossil fuels; solar light versus moonlight; and the Monster running away to the Arctic north, promising to burn in a pyre after Victor Frankenstein’s death.
We also discuss a different kind of fire, which is not just a burning down or a melting away or extraction of fossil fuels, but a counter-fire. Counter-fire as in the hope left in Pandora’s jar. In speaking of this fire, Romanyshyn also speaks of splendour of the simple, the extraordinary in the ordinary, the miracle in the mundane, fire as living spirit, and Natura Naturans, the Anima Mundi.
More about the guest
Robert Romanyshyn has published essays in psychology, philosophy, literary and education journals, written a play about Frankenstein’s Monster, done radio and TV discussions as well as online interviews, webinars, podcasts and made a DVD movie of his trip to Antarctica. In addition, he has given keynote addresses at conferences, lectured at universities and professional societies, and conducted workshops in the U.S., Europe, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand.
Tracing the Pyrocene: an ecological three-body problem
In Season 3 of The Subverse, we are journeying into ‘fire’. In this opening episode, we speak with Prof. Stephen J. Pyne, a fire historian, urban farmer, and emeritus professor at Arizona State University, U.S.A. Pyne has written over 40 books, most of which are centred around fire. In this conversation, we focus on his book The Pyrocene: How we Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next, published in 2021.
The discussion began with how fire is, for humans, our defining ecological trait. We are unique fire creatures on a unique fire planet, and as keepers of the flame, we need to somehow get the right mix of fire in the world to balance our interests and those of others. In his book, Pyne proposes a fire-centric perspective on how humans continue to shape the Earth. The book renames and redefines the so-called Anthropocene according to humanity’s primary ecological signature, which is our ability to manipulate fire. As he states in the book, “the sum of our fire practices is creating a fire age that is equivalent in stature to the ice ages of the Pleistocene.” In the narrative he lays out, the pyric prism he uses is what he terms as an ecological three-body problem.
The history that Pyne narrates chronicles three fires. First-fire is the fire of nature that appeared as soon as plants colonised continents, about 420 million years ago. Thanks to cooking, a dependence on fire became coded into hominin DNA. Second-fire was an act of domestication, perhaps the model for all pyrotechnologies, in which people had transformed wildfire into hearth and torch. Third-fire is qualitatively different. Pyne points out that third-fire burns lithic landscapes no longer bounded by ecological limits. With a source of combustibles, which are essentially unbounded, inadequate sinks for the effluent, from cooking food and landscapes, we are now cooking planets. The sum of Earth’s three fires is creating the fire-informed equivalent of an ice age, and instead of ice amassing more ice, fire is generating more fire.
This pyric transition also means that fire vanished as a serious object of inquiry. Fire with its flame, glow, heat, and crackle has been reduced to the most elemental chemical and physical expressions, each isolated and engineered, so that what had been ‘fire’ became ‘combustion,’ and combustion has become only its constituent parts. What we erased were traditional and indigenous knowledges of living with fire. Pyne writes, “Earth’s fire story was not just about the visible, the sudden, and the novel: the invisible, the incremental, and the traditional were equally part of the emerging order.” “The absence of fires where it should be was as critical, if less conspicuous, as its exaggerated presence.” So, dealing with a deficit of good fire rather than a surplus of bad fire, and foregrounding fire as a serious object of inquiry are crucial.
We wrapped up the episode speaking about aesthetics and fire. Pyne noted that how we understand the regeneration of nature will depend on how we regenerate our aesthetics. If we see the future world only through past perspectives, we must see it as a loss. We need an appreciation and creation of art suitable for our remade world and a robust aesthetics for our age.
More about the guest
Apart from being such a prolific scholar of fire, Stephen J. Pyne spent 15 seasons with the North Rim Longshots, a fire crew at Grand Canyon National Park, 12 as crew boss, with another three seasons writing fire plans for other national parks. He lives in Queen Creek, Arizona. His next book is a fire history of Mexico.