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—— 7 —— Domestication of the Elements I see water, I see fire and air and earth and all their mixtures coming to corruption , having little endurance; and yet these things were created, so that, if what was said is true, they should be secure from corruption. —Dante, Paradiso, Canto VII Nature is a hard taskmaster. It is the hammer and the anvil, crushing individuality . Perfect freedom would be to die by earth, air, water and fire. —Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae Deep down, we never really thought we could [change nature]: it was too big and too old; its forces—the wind, the rain, the sun—were too strong, too elemental. —Bill McKibben, The End of Nature Outside-In The capture and creative use of fire is undoubtedly one of the most significant historical events, as well as ongoing actions, to impact and transform the natural and built worlds. No other species actively employs this element to its advantage in quite the same way as humans. In taming the flame and interiorizing it within our households and communities, we domesticated ourselves, birthing in the process agriculture, the mechanical arts, new energy sources, weapons of war, and eventually the whole ensemble of modern technology from computers to genetic engineering. Of fire, Stephen Pyne observes: Once tamed, it had to be fed, housed, cared for, and bred. It could no longer range for its own food, or be left to fend for itself in the elements. It had to be tended. Its reproduction, too, could be guided into select “breeds”—fire for cooking, fire for ceramics, fire for heating , lighting, hardening; fire for hunting, farming, herding, clearing the land.1 255 256 | Elemental Philosophy Anthropogenic fire, in turn, shunted nature’s flame to the margins, and this process perpetuated and reinforced itself. Burning reshaped the landscape and altered fuel sources so as to limit human contact with wildfire while further encouraging the spread of domesticated fire. Earlier, we reflected on some of the environmental expressions and philosophical implications of wild, feral, and vestal fire. We also showed how the elements undergo more generally a form of domestication in the theoretical works and surviving fragments of the first natural philosophers. “In the realm of the material imagination,” Bachelard notes, “every union is a marriage, and there is no marriage à trios.”2 The elements are thus occasionally united as pairs, as in the wedding of feminine earth with masculine sky. Their interactions are described regularly, too, through domestic and familial language when they are introduced into and socialized within the human sphere. In Plato’s Timaeus, earth, fire, air, and water are the offspring of cosmological generation and come to be housed and domesticated within an encompassing environmental matrix. In Aristotle’s treatment, the elements are likewise involved in a homecoming and self-domestication as they journey to their “natural places” within a broader cyclical economy and ecology. We now turn to examine the domestication of the elements more directly by focusing on water—fire’s ostensible antagonist—so as to further illustrate this idea. We then discuss briefly the notions of earth alienation and the eclipse of the atmosphere as related examples of domestication before concluding with the question whether there has been an historical closing or end of the classical elements. As with air, fire, and earth, water passes through the modern house and home, the human domus, where it is domesticated technologically in pipes and plumbing, bottles and baths, drains and dehumidifiers, showers and sinks, or refrigeration and radiators. In this sense, it is brought outside-in, its meanings—along with its volume and appearance—defined or demarcated in the process. Such filtering occurs practically but it can also take place epistemologically and linguistically, as when we fashion a nomenclature for the many phenomenal forms of the fluid—rain, sleet, snow, ice, hail, aquifer, ocean, lake, stream, and so forth—or attribute different names to types of drinking water. Thus, the poet Wislawa Szymborska writes, “There are not enough mouths to utter / all your fleeting names, O water. . . . Whenever wherever whatever has happened / is written on waters.”3 Water, however, like air, often is still thought to be independent for the most part of human transformation and highly resistant to technical modification because of its unpredictable movement, deceptive strength, wide availability, or distinct chemical structure. Contrary to this image, we consider some of the myriad ways in which water is mediated—especially through technology—so that our encounters and experiences with this transparent...


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