The Intention Behind the Fire: Twin Peaks and Industrialization
“Electricity,” wrote American utopian novelist Edward Bellamy, “takes the place of all fires.”
Bellamy worked during a time of energy revolution in the United States, when the smothering stench and sky-blackening smog of coal was gradually being supplanted by a lithe, graceful, seemingly innocuous new energy called electricity. Writers throughout the country saw electricity as the panacea to the health and social ills engendered by older, dirtier forms of energy. “In end-of-the-century American utopian novels,” writes Daniel French, author of When They Hid the Fire: A History of Electricity and Invisible Energy in America, “electricity as the featured technology solved problems of food production, transportation, and coal-based capitalism.” It was the mysterious but beneficent energy of the future.
Both Bellamy’s statement and the title of French’s book identify electricity as the successor to a seemingly more finite and deleterious form of energy, but whether electricity “takes the place” of fire or simply “hides” it away, the question remains: where does that fire go? Electricity, after all, is not the wholly harmless godsend that the fin-de-siècle utopian writers imagined. Rather, it is energy captured from other sources — coal, fossil fuels, hydroelectric dams — and transmitted to areas far beyond the sites of generation. In this way, the “hidden fire” is, put simply, hidden production. As French’s book states, the transition from fire to electricity was also the transition from visible to invisible energy.
According to French, the fire was hidden when energy production was separated from consumption; when humans became alienated consumers of an energy that, once wrested from the pollutant fumes of its fiery birth, was alchemized into an inscrutable, omnipresent, almost magical force. It’s no surprise that Thomas Edison was regularly described as a “wizard” or “magician” by the contemporary US press. Compared to wood or coal, electricity was a power that seemed to be produced from nothing — and to many, this production proved that European settlers were a preternaturally gifted group of people, capable of pulling inexhaustible resources from the limitless “New World” lands.
“Clean and smoke-free,” writes French, “electricity fit well with deeply engrained visions of a bucolic and pastoral America” that served as an ideological basis of colonization for many settlers. The connection between electricity and colonization is an important one to draw, since “the appropriation of North America by European populations was as much an energy revolution as a cultural one. The early colonists saw the New World in contrast to where they had come from, as an unspoiled place of exploitable resources where sources of energy were exceptional and unlimited.” However, the illusion of infinite energy soon became strained, since “just two centuries after their arrival, regions of the same pristine land were transformed into a high-energy, smoke-filled, urban-industrial landscape much like the Old World many Europeans had left behind.”
For a long time, however, the everlasting gift of electricity accumulated an otherworldly aura, its conjuration as enigmatic as a witch’s spell. In 1881, before the US adopted electricity widely, Scientific American magazine published a piece that asserted, “Electricity in its ordinary everyday uses surpasses all the feats of the ancient magi or modern prestidigitators. Sending light, heat, power, signals, and speech to a distance over a wire, the phenomena of induction, the transfer of metals as in electro-metallurgy, and the numerous other uses to which electricity is applied in the arts, are all truly magical.” By 1927, Frank Bohn of the New York Times wrote that electricity “is changing much more than the mere means of production. It is transforming the inner as well as the outer conditions of human life. We see, we hear, we speak, we learn, by means of new and marvelous mechanical instruments. These instruments have already begun to work their change upon the individual mind and society. Yet we are only beginning.”
Bohn’s words, despite their awed reverence for the new energy, feel oddly portentous in their description of the mental and societal changes that this technology would impose upon both its producers and consumers. While posthumanist theorists may view the social implications of individual and collective dependency on technology — the “cyborgization” of human beings in the industrialized Global North — as a liberation from prior social constraints, it’s highly unlikely that coltan miners in the war-torn Congo or the maquiladora workers who assemble electronic appliances for Northern consumers would view the proliferation of these instruments as liberating in any way. In short, the ubiquity of electric or electronic devices throughout industrialized Western countries is ironic given the fact that the production and assembly of these devices is often a complete mystery to their users. Much like electricity, the reality of their production is obfuscated by one’s fascination with and dependency upon their consumption. The resources wars in central Africa and the victims of free trade policies in the Americas and beyond become a hidden fire in and of themselves.
“A tumor grows in your head,” said filmmaker and artist David Lynch while explaining his own fascination with electricity. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not, you know, whacking you.”
Electricity, and the interplay between its production and consumption, plays a complex role in Lynch’s work. In Twin Peaks, the energy collapses distance, but not just between producer and consumer — it truncates the space between human reality and the supernatural forces that exist alongside daily life. In Lost Highway, Fred’s transformation into Pete is accompanied by flashes of short-circuiting electricity. “It’s magical,” said Lynch when discussing images of fire in his work. “I feel the same way about electricity. And smoke. And flickering lights.”
Notoriously tight-lipped regarding his artistry, Lynch has never explicated the relationship between fire, electricity, and the thematic content of his work. Nevertheless, one gets the sense that Lynch values the symbol of electricity due to its seemingly mysterious qualities, a kind of “technological sublime” perspective that causes him to associate the energy with unknowable yet omnipresent spaces such as the Black and White Lodges. As Brydie Kosmina writes, “The Return indicates that human industrial and technological endeavors…have breached the borders of planetary meaning and drawn the Lodges into the human world, but it is also human industry that connects these realms.”
Unlike the utopian writers of electricity’s early expansion, Lynch’s electricity is not a solution to the ills that ail US capitalism — in fact, the energy sometimes seems to be in conspiracy against humanity. In part 11 of The Return, Deputy Hawk describes the symbols on his “living” map to Sheriff Frank Truman, taking the time to explain a “fire symbol” at the mouth of a mountain cave. He says that the symbol is “like modern-day electricity,” and that it is neither good nor bad — instead, it is defined by “the intention behind the fire.” The map also contains an image of blackened corn stalks, which Hawk says represent fertility in their untarnished form. In a blackened state, however, the corn becomes “diseased…unnatural. Death.” The combination of the fire symbol and the dead corn creates black fire: diseased or unnatural electricity. Modern industry become death. This association may cause one to think back to part 8 and the black fire in the greyscale plume of the Trinity test that brought Judy (AKA Jowday, AKA the Mother of Evils) into the human realm.
Writing on 1992’s Fire Walk With Me, Lindsey Hallam explains that in Lynch’s work, “electricity signals not only the connection between one world and the next, but the erosion of the boundary between them.” In The Return, “electrical sockets become literal portals between worlds, electricity a conduit shifting beings between different realms.” Bodies bend and distort when in close contact with these sockets: heads expand, bodies fade in and out of visibility, and identities shift in unexpected and disconcerting ways, manipulated by the pull of enigmatic forces.
With The Return’s introduction of the atomic bomb as the core of the series’ mythos, Lynch broadens the connection between industry and unknowable interdimensional forces — and the ability of these forces to violently disfigure human forms — even more. Importantly, the depiction of the explosion is accompanied by Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” a pairing that instantly connects the device’s creation to those whose bodies were atomized by its inhuman wrath. The violence of production is paired with the violence of consumption.
In part 10, the Log Lady calls Hawk with a message: “Electricity is humming. You hear it in the mountains and rivers. You see it dance among the seas and stars and glowing around the moon. But in these days, the glow is dying. What will be in the darkness that remains?” She clearly states that electricity, and by extension the history of US industrialization contained within the “fire symbol,” is dying, rotting, blackening around us. “The irradiation of the world,” writes Kosmina, “is tied to the currents that spirit, identity, and meaning flow through and, like radiation that causes the mutation of a cell into cancer, has warped the electrical conduits of the world, turning them black like dead corn” — and taking with it the world as humans knows it.
Lynch is careful to show that this corruption of the natural world only emerged after, and possibly as a result of, colonization, which forcibly introduced environmentally destructive modes of production into a land mass where systems of harmony and balance with nature had reigned for centuries from coast to coast. The humility of a life lived in respect of nature is nowhere to be found in the worldviews of European settlers, who value land solely in terms of its productive capabilities, not as a life of its own whose light will go it if it continues to be exhausted at an unsustainable rate. After all, the ideological basis for the production of energy in modern-day North America asserted that settlers had been gifted a limitless territory of inexhaustible resources. It therefore made sense to them that the seemingly immaterial force of electricity — which was actually generated by distant material forces rooted in colonial dispossession — would be delivered unto the enlightened invaders of the land.
Electricity was integral to the creation of later industrial innovations such as the steam turbine; it was useful for expanding steel and iron production; it made possible the production of commercial products such as aluminum; it helped reorganize workplaces according to efficient, cybernetic models; it powers devices which rely on the exploitation of resources from devastated neocolonies and labour from assembly plants throughout the Global South; it justifies the continued out-of-sight burning of ruinous substances like coal and fossil fuels; and, in the Twin Peaks mythos, it was a direct precedent to Project Manhattan, the nuclear bomb (the materials for which, like electricity, were ripped from Indigenous lands), and the postwar US militarism that unfortunately still dominates global affairs.
While studying the map in part 11, Hawk receives a call from the Log Lady. “Hawk,” she says, “there is fire where you are going.” She repeats herself: “There is fire where you are going.” Confused, Sheriff Truman looks at the black fire symbol. A flash of concern crosses his face.
Black fire, indeed.