The second book of Vitruvius’ treatise on architecture begins by considering the origin of human building. That origin is, it turns out, connected with the origin of human speech, the origin of politics, and the discovery of fire – which form a sort of originary matrix:
“Mankind originally brought forth like the beasts of the field, in woods, dens, and groves, passed their lives in a savage manner, eating the simple food which nature afforded. A tempest, on a certain occasion, having exceedingly agitated the trees in a particular spot, the friction between some of the branches caused them to take fire; this so alarmed those in the neighbourhood of the accident, that they betook themselves to flight. Returning to the spot after the tempest had subsided, and finding the warmth which had thus been created extremely comfortable, they added fuel to the fire excited, in order to preserve the heat, and then went forth to invite others, by signs and gestures, to come and witness the discovery. In the concourse that thus took place, they testified their different opinions and expressions by different inflexions of the voice. From daily association words succeeded to these indefinite modes of speech; and these becoming by degrees the signs of certain objects, they began to join them together, and conversation became general.
Thus the discovery of fire gave rise to the first assembly of mankind, to their first deliberations, and to their union in a state of society. For association with each other they were more fitted by nature than other animals, from their erect posture, which also gave them the advantage of continually viewing the stars and firmament, no less than from their being able to grasp and lift an object, and turn it about with their hands and fingers. In the assembly, therefore, which thus brought them first together, they were led to the consideration of sheltering themselves from the seasons, some by making arbours with the boughs of trees, some by excavating caves in the mountains, and others in imitation of the nests and habitations of swallows, by making dwellings of twigs interwoven and covered with mud or clay. From observation of and improvement on each others' expedients for sheltering themselves, they soon began to provide a better species of huts.”
As Erwin Panofsky pointed out in a famous and beautiful essay on a series of paintings by Piero Cosimo that were inspired by Vitruvius’ text, the story Vitruvius tells is related to other stories about Vulcan, the God of fire, and Aeolus, the God of the wind, that crop up in many classical texts. Vitruvius introduces no gods – Panofsky attributes this to his Lucretian naturalism. It is the wind that is in action here, not the god of the wind, and the fire that starts in the woods is not started by a god, but by the friction of the branches. The story of the discovery of fire, along Vitruvian lines, has had a long intellectual life, serving both as a model and a limit case of the logic of that vexed pair, discovery and invention. In turn, these terms seem to overlap the discourses of history and social science, in as much as these have to do with social collectives – aggregates – and individuals. The first sentence of Vitruvius’ second paragraph begins like this: “ergo cum propter ignis inventionem conventus initio apud homines et concilium et convictus esset natus…” The first impulse of we moderns is to lead these words back into the great dual categories under which modernity has proceded, nature and culture. However, it turns out that we cannot shoehorn these concepts into those categories without covertly applying the logic of the supplement so expertly defused by Derrida in On Grammatology – for what nature is borrows on what culture is to be, and vice versa: it is a conman’s checking account.
Which is not to say that it can’t be drawn on – on the contrary. After showing how the forest fire was seen as the predecessor and model for the first fires of man in the classical and Hellenistic epochs and from thence was lifted into the allegorical key to a series of three paintings about the origin of civilization by Piero di Cosimo, Panofsky writes, beautifully: “The ruling principle of this aboriginal state, namely, the unfamiliarity of man-kind with the use of fire, is conspicuously emphasized by what might be termed the " leitmotiv" of the whole series: the forest fire, which can be seen ravaging the woods and frightening away the animals in all three panels ;2 in two of them it even appears repeatedly. The persistent recurrence of this motif cannot be accounted for by mere pictorial fancy. It is, most evidently, an iconographical attribute rather than a whimsical " concetto,"fo r it is identical with the famous forest fire which had haunted the imaginations of Lucretius, Diodorus Siculus, Pliny, Vitruvius, and Boccaccio. It appeared regularly in all the illustrations of Vitruvius, and in the Renais-sance it was as characteristic of representations of the Stone Age as the tower of images of St. Barbara.”
I would like to argue that scorch marks from Vitruvius’ fire haunt that fabulous myth, Western man, and his sidekick, homo oeconomicus, long after Cosimo. The semantic architecture of Vitruvius’ story of the origin of architecture can be traced not only in the way the history of technology is told, but in the way the social sciences have explained themselves – not just explained themselves in the internal dialogues of the disciplines, but explained themselves in collaboration with the ongoing mission of capitalist civilizations, which automatically divided the primitive and the civilized according to a Vitruvian measure – that of technology. That fire is both a natural and an artificial product blurs its definitional import – but the language that springs up from those huddle about the fire seems to take from the fire the decisive force that will, in one form or another, become the dividing line that justifies a global exercise of power. Writing, or, after the printing press, the book, becomes the civilizing technology par excellence, thrusting those ‘without writing’ into not only a different category, but even a different time zone, as though this lack had cut them off from the zone of simultaneity which traverses and determines the way those who do write make sense of writing.