Each week there are over 2,000 cases of arson in the UK, and the numbers are rising steadily. Mike Presdee analyses the nature of and motivation for this crime of passion
On Monday 6 December 2004 in Indian Head, Washington, USA, unknown arsonists put a whole new up-market housing development to the torch, burning 26 houses in one spectacular conflagration. It was a five million pound bonfire that was deliberate and organised, and changed both the landscape and local society in one swift and totally destructive act. But more than anything else, it brought into the public gaze the phenomenon of fire, its transgressive nature, and the forgotten yet growing crime of arson.
The extent of arson is rarely discussed, being buried under the more public and political concerns of street crime and antisocial behaviour. But consider this: In any one week in England and Wales there are on average 2,100 deliberately set primary fires recorded, resulting in at least two deaths, 55 injuries and a cost of up to £40m.
The bulk of these fires involve the burning of cars, with approximately 200 burnt out every day, whilst 17 schools and four places of worship suffer an arson attack every week. In the last decade there have been 2.4 million recorded arson fires, 32,000 injuries and 1,200 deaths in this country (according to the Arson Control Forum, June 2003). Recorded offences continue to rise massively. In 1963 there were only 1,129 recorded offences. By 2002/3 that figure had exploded to 53,200 with 103,000 deliberate fires reported to the fire and rescue service.
As always, official statistics only include recorded and reported incidents. But the nature of fire and its place and meaning within the activities of everyday life makes it impossible to even attempt to estimate the actual numbers of deliberate fires, big and small, that happen in any one day. How many of us have at some point secretly burnt that which we should not? And of course at specific times of the year, such as the weeks leading up to Guy Fawkes night, we experience a festival of fire where fire and burning are celebrated throughout the country: we literally light up the land in a carnival of noise and destruction that excites all classes and all ages. Destruction through fire becomes at this time a central cultural activity for the great majority of the country.
Fire has, of course, been a central phenomenon in the development of both the natural and human worlds, and has been a part of the process of shaping our countryside, flora and fauna, while also shaping human societies and their ways of living.
Since early primitive societies, humankind has remained frightened yet fascinated by fire, with its power to destroy and create. Early humans quickly learned that it gave both light and warmth and that it might keep predators at bay. They discovered how to cook their food and, as they watched natural fire chase animals from forests, they began to use the power of fire to kill and destroy. They also noticed the abundance of new growth that happened after fires and began a crude and simple form of farming with fire. In other words, they began to play with the awesome power of fire, its destructive ability on the one hand and its creativeness on the other.
As societies developed, fire quickly found its way into the ceremonies and celebrations of social life. Fire marked both life and death, the beginning and end of seasons, and divided the powerful and the powerless. Whoever had the technology to create fire at random became the alchemists of ancient societies, holding as they did the capacity to change minerals into either weapons or tools. They had the power to destroy or create.
This duality of destructiveness and creativity lies within us, erupting from time to time, when the passage or survival of social life and social identity becomes a burning issue.
Fire festivals remain popular on a global level. In Europe, midsummer fires were described by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough as having "three great features bonfires, the procession with torches round fields and the custom of rolling a wheel." There was much throwing of fire and jumping through flames; as the meaning of fire became lost in folklore, the excitement, the fear and the fascination remained.
In America, the Burning Man festival attracts 30,000 people to a celebration of creativity and then destruction, as people of all ages descend on the Black Rock desert of Nevada to transgress through an orgasm of pyrofetishism. In Japan, the Nachi, Kurama and Oniyo fire festivals are amongst the largest, whilst the Dosojin fire festival involves much fighting with and throwing of fire. Similarly, the Samoan Fire Knife Dancing annual championships celebrates fighting with fire.
It is through these official carnivals that misrule, resentment and resistance are lived out. It is at such moments that the need for the carnivalesque becomes an essential element within the culture of everyday lived life, as we seek to find solace in transgression, freeing ourselves from the rules, regulations and regimentation of rational contemporary life. The carnivalesque promises a sort of freedom.
Bakhtin, in his discussion on the need for carnival, saw that "capitalism created the conditions for a special type of inescapable solitary consciousness" ; a solitariness caused, according to Weber, by "puritan ... ascetism turned against one thing: the spontaneous enjoyment of life and all it had to offer". This spontaneity is where identity is forged. Without it we feel straitjacketed and shoehorned into a constricted way of life, where consumption is central and where to 'have' is to exist and where to 'have nothing' is to be nothing.
The possession of 'things' becomes the only rational way of life as we all experience the stifling nature of rational production, on the one hand, and the individual loneliness of consumption on the other. There is no place for emotions within the rational productive process, while on the other hand the process of consumption depends on it.
We are left struggling to assert ourselves, demanding to be taken notice of, to prove we exist, as we strive to be considered free agents in a world of enforced rationalism.
Setting fire to a car, or indeed fighting a fire as a 'fire fighter', can make us feel human again, and is proof to us that we exist. If we are what we consume, then we come alive through the spectacle we create. As Bakhtin remarked, "the most intense and productive life of culture takes place on the boundaries."
In the past carnival provided us with a site for licensed misrule, a world upside down where transgression, excitement and resistance became normal. But as carnival has become controlled and sponsored by both governments and business corporations, so it has shattered, and its fragments and debris are now found in a wide variety of contemporary forms.
The fire of carnival now becomes part of the 'debris' of carnival, driven into the back alleys of cities, where fires erupt in a seemingly spontaneous fashion as cars, fences, rubbish bins and backyard doors disappear. Through such acts we become once more acquainted with our lost or hidden humanity, underlining our need for relationships rather than politics. The memories of a lost life can literally be burnt away, cleansing the feelings of humiliation created by the confusions of our continuing loss of identity.
This search for the sublime is what contemporary sociology has come to call 'edgework' and there can be no more exciting way of doing edgework for the lawabiding than lawbreaking. Transgressing takes us to the very edge of 'lawfulness'. It takes us to the edge of all that is approved of and defined as respectable. The more successful the gamble becomes, the more heightened the associated pleasure.
Arson, in this sense, can be seen as a response to the everincreasing rationality and everincreasing surveillance of everyday life. It still retains its historical potency to excite and disturb, to create and destroy. Its very nature means that it can never be wholly tamed, civilised, located or appropriated.