The Need-Fire (alt. Force-Fire, meaning ‘forced fire’) tradition depended on a structure of exception. In a superstition widely chronicled across Old Europe it was popularly believed that the efficacy of the need-fire (to cure ills, to establish normality where sickness — of animals, relations, etc — had taken hold) depended on the extinguishment of all other fires in the vicinity. Harsh penalties existed for villagers found keeping their fires burning during the kindling of the need-fire; the sovereignty of the need-fire was paramount to its symbolic efficacy. This may in part account for the very etymology of the folk term — the ‘need’ indicating that same co-incidence of ontological necessity with a fully contingent, human-created condition as the co-incidence found in the ‘willed emergency’ or ‘fictional siege’ of a State of Exception.

The kindling of the need-fire acted not only as a ‘hard reboot’ of the fire network, but as a purely virtual point in which a mythic/fictive ‘necessity’ of origin was held indistinguishable from a contingent historical practice of suspension/extinguishment. The re-kindling, ostensibly a performative practice, was not merely a banal re-enactment taking place within the historical field of the constituted order and meaning but constituted in itself a violent evacuation and exclusion of historical meaning. Within the normal space of history an ordinary fire may, at the contingent but meaningful whim of its keeper, kindle another. Here, however, the kindling of the need-fire represents neither an ordinary fire nor a meaningful act but the suspension or collapse of the semantic field within which such norms could exist. 

The need-fire is not kindled via transmission, or the passing-on of something already lit. Rather, its ignition must be intrinsic and summoned forth, created from friction. In local historical terms the need-fire thus appears ex nihilo, without precedent. This ban on the normal transmission or deferral of fire from one source to another is what made the need-fire exceptional, making of it an interruption in the ‘genealogy’ of local fires and their network of descendants, all of which were to be extinguished. If fires and the hearth were really to be given the centrality of meaning often accorded to them in folkloric accounts, then the tradition of the need-fire effects a sort of suspension of semiosis. The everyday experience of the warmth and gathering potential of the hearth must always have come from some elsewhere, some other fire outside of the immediate horizon of its homely glow. The virtually guaranteed meaning of the hearth as a symbol of gathering and co-belonging thus depends on a somewhat buried deferral of meaning to the flame that lit it, and to the flame that lit that flame, and so on. It is this submerged chain of transmission, source of the feeling of the heimlich, that is cut and then established, as if for the first time,  by the need-fire. By the lighting of a visible source of fire which was not the result of transmission, the familiarity-producing unconscious chain is broken and refashioned in conscious awareness. Ultimately the kindling of the need-fire is the result of organised labour, prior to all semanticisation and valorisation excepting a sense of necessity. As all ‘sacraments’ do in structural terms, such an ‘originary’ act never repeats but subtracts itself from the space of history. That is to say it instantiates a point within an ambiguous, indeterminate space characterised by the conflation of two logically incompatible modalities: a zone of exception, an evental horizon one either commits to and keeps faith with or else dismisses with fashionable disenchantment and repressive desublimation.

On this account, organised labour and its ability to produce fire (rather than merely transmit it) appears as a kind of primal mystery. Insofar as it is mystified by the norms and practices of the everyday which assume a certain or guaranteed supply chain of meaning, organised labour remains mysterious. It appears in clarity only when a clearing is effected; when something like an organised strike, with its purposeful withdrawal of the familiar and everyday, reveals a void full of dependencies, a network of needs or necessities. The gambit of neoliberalism was that society could be indefinitely fooled that it ran merely on reproduction and ‘frictionless’ transmission, and that organised labour would disappear as a category of analysis, along with need. In effect, it attempted to suspend the possibility of suspension, to live in the illusion of a normality not founded in sovereign exception. This is why, within the ideology that neoliberalism fosters, politics is identical to public relations; reality to simulated public perception; success to media hegemony; vox populi to poll; general will to manufactured consensus; citizen freedom with the downwards provision of privatised choice; worker health and satisfaction with the silence of (silenced, deunionised) workers. In all such conflations it was ironically the organised labour of a dedicated infrastructure of public managers, nudge theorists, bar-room lawyers, professional opinion-providers, and spin doctors which ranged itself against the organisation of labour from below in such a way as to conceal its possible emergence as well as its own structural and operational exceptionalism. The failure of neoliberal ideology lay in this very inconsistency, its inability to produce a real zone of exception or way of life in which crisis and the everyday could be properly integrated without illusions.

As I have very recently secured for myself a year-long period of study leave (in which to recover from emergency surgery and critical illness) let this summary and no doubt over-simplistic post about the Need-fire conception as a break with commodity signify my re-entrance into blogging — let it serve as a spark to fire up my own network of thinking/writing.

David J Smith
djs@theriomorphous.org.uk

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