The signs are everywhere: We live in uncool times.
Fossil fuel combustion continues to drive most global economic activity. Human-powered climate changes are irrevocably warming the planet. Devastating forest fires—like those in 2016 that destroyed the oil-slick city of Fort McMurray—are the new normal. The world appears aflame. And it seems that the language we now use to describe culture has transformed accordingly. Hence, the proliferation of the shorthand 🔥.
Over the past decade, things that once might have been labeled as “cool”—chiefly of music, but also more broadly in relation to skills, talents, fashions, events &c—increasingly began to be designated “fire.” Not “on fire,” mind you. Not “fired up” nor any modified variation thereof. Just “fire.” Fire as an adjective was abruptly ubiquitous. And calling something fire suddenly bestowed a kind of hotness beyond any measure of cool.
This year, we achieved peak fire thanks to the 🔥 emoji’s saturation. Two years ago, Jessica Bennett of the New York Times had already proclaimed the emoji’s victory in the war for words. The OED’s selection in 2015 of 😂 as word of the year, as well as the Museum of Modern Art’s 2016 acquisition of the original emoji set (which interestingly contains a bomb but no figure for fire) entrenched these digital icons permanently into the public imagination as legitimate linguistic forms. Aptly, 2015’s “fire mixtape” became 2016’s “🔥 mixtape.” Clever tweets were 🔥. Drake’s Views was 🔥. Even academic papers, NPR podcasts and poutine were 🔥. Everything that was anything this year was 🔥.
Social media scholars Luke Stark and Kate Crawford believe that emoji perform a valuable, immaterial form of labour, and “serve to smooth out the rough edges of digital life.” “Emoji,” they write, “were intended to normalize and then capitalize on the collective strength of affect in human social relations online.” Emoji are not productive, but rather affective: 🔥 isn’t a thing in itself, but it encourages an impression of a thing. To call someone’s mixtape, album, podcast or party 🔥 is also to confer symbolic weight upon it, to assign to it a cultural currency. Like real fire, 🔥 needs an igniting spark, and that spark is most often human, classed, gendered and racialized affective work.
Stark and Crawford rightly point out that emoji’s “highly compressed lexicon” is predominantly designed to stimulate social media activity. Nonetheless, 🔥 suggests something deeper, more profound and abstract. Something hotter.
“Hot” as a synonym for “up-to-date” or “in demand” flourished in common North American parlance in the mid-1800s. Before long, its usage in that context thrived: hot topics came hot off the press; hotheads and hot feet were hot to trot; hot hands remained hot on the trail of the latest hot spots. But hot also came to denote something stolen, illicit or illegitimate. “Hot,” as defined by Eric Partridge’s 1949 Dictionary of the Underworld meant “too well known.” By the mid-1900s, hot’s usage as a descriptor cooled considerably.
Concurrently, the colloquialism “cool” arose out of predominantly Black lingo in the US to specify a new genre of stylish, sophisticated and sexy Jazz. By the time of the Cold War, cool had turned into a popular term for hipness and general approval. Cool indicated something intrinsically good, but it also conveyed an icy notion of quiet, slowness, calm, pause and reflection. Cool was furthermore associated with acceptability and safety—refuge from the heat. Cool was all right. And so, a generation warmed to cool. That is, until fire caught fire.
What’s chilling about fire’s eruption into popular vernacular use in the 21st century is how consumately it seems to capture the fever pitch of our hellish age. The Book of Revelation ends with a rain of fire that devours Satan’s armies. Death, Hades and the resurrected fallen souls are then tossed into a lake of burning sulfur to be tormented forever—the “second death” of a damned humankind.
Still, aside from fire’s overt apocalyptic connotation is its implication of speed as the operative mode proper to late capitalism. Fire burns quickly, and with passionate intensity. If hot means fast, and cool sounds slow, fire is positively hyper. And the transformation of fire into 🔥 swiftens the economy of an already abridged expression, reducing it further to instant and unambiguous iconography. Cool was neither hot nor cold. 🔥, on the other hand, is unmistakably 🔥.
🔥 in this sense is a super-linguistic incendiary of post-modern abbreviation that strongly gestures toward cultural accelerationism. Accelerationism, the nihilistic It-philosophy of both the radical right and left, espouses speeding up the alienating processes of capitalism. Accelerationism is the underlying logic behind Žižek’s last-minute endorsement of Trump, and arguably the most politically and theoretically progressive strategy to effectively counter the “contradictions and absurdities of capitalism.”
In The Futurist Manifesto, F.T. Marinetti advocates setting ablaze our libraries and “books of today,” replacing them with blunt and crass images. “Our hearts know no weariness,” he writes, “because they are fed with fire, hatred, and speed!” For Jean-François Lyotard, whose Libidinal Economy is considered a formative accelerationist text, fire constitutes the key to Freud’s death drive, and what Lyotard termes “libidinal irreversibility.” Put bluntly, it’s impossible to get un-fucked. And we are now legitimately, properly fucked.
As the dismay, astonishment and disbelief subsided from the news of both the Brexit result in Britain and Donald Trump’s US presidential election, shocked tweets turned to memes. Shortly, a number of posts emerged quoting Michael Caine’s sizzling line from The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Doubtless, 🔥 was the hottest buzzword in a year characterized by zero chill. We might not have started this fire, but it’s our charge now. If there was one sunny spot to the spread of 🔥 in 2016, it might be found in the familiar Buddhist proverb: Light a fire for someone else; it will also brighten your own path. Let us continue fighting fire with 🔥.
It’s the fieriest weapon we’ve got.