Below is the video of a Zoom talk I gave in January 2023 as part of the "Future of the Humanities" Project at Georgetown. The focus of the year's presentations was environmental crisis. I'm deeply grateful the co-director of the program, Kathryn Temple, for the chance to have shared some recent work; the talk comes from the book project I'm currently working on, detailed here. I link to an accessibility copy of the text here, but the talk as I delivered it deviates just a bit from the written-out version. I'd be eager to hear any feedback on the ideas I try to lay out here, which revolve, for me, around the requirement to develop aesthetic and conceptual modes adequate to the predicament of immanence, by which I mean just that any critical posture can only ever take shape from within the catastrophe, never from outside it. As I say toward the beginning:
Given that entanglement, it seems to me that the work confronting an environmental humanities worthy of that name should be, first, to inventory the bourgeois episteme whose logics and presuppositions we breathe and speak now: this would be to develop a historical account or critique, in the Kantian sense, of ecocidal reason; and second, to go further than diagnosis to inventory counterknowledges, or build repertoires of possibility from within the confines of our own thought.
And there is a lot here about Turner's paints. Here's the abstract:
In this talk, Nathan Hensley will show how J.M.W. Turner’s still-astonishing paintings of Victorian energy transition capture a society in the midst of realizing it was killing itself. With readings of famous canvases, unfinished works, and tiny sketchbooks, Hensley will revise the common understanding of Turner’s atmospheric approach to modernization by describing the material composition of the paintings themselves. For Turner, participation in modern ruin was also a matter of pigment chemistry, painterly gesture, and experiments with point of view whereby the shipwreck of the world is viewed not from the safety of shore but from inside the vortex (Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, 1842). This argument draws on chemical studies of Turner’s palettes and concludes with an account of Turner’s undisplayed sketchbooks, which refuse the maximalist vocabularies of his academic work in favor of the intimate, the gestural, and the unfinished: three aesthetic categories Hensley will offer as counterpoints to world-scaled terms like "the Anthropocene" and even "climate change."
I delivered the below paper at MLA 23, in San Francisco California, as part of the roundtable "Reworking Race and Empire: Race, Labor, Decolonization." I thank Sukanya Banerjee and the Forum organizers for the opportunity and my brilliant fellow panelists for (what I thought was) a fascinating discussion.
I suppose that any story of the British Empire told in the classroom or elsewhere will have to include the usual stuff, the myths and the memes: pith helmets and “exploration,” the management of India under the Raj, still potent enough, as a scene of white fantasy, that it featured as a theme park zone in the HBO series Westworld. (The slogan: “Come and experience the grandeur and love of a place lost in time.”[i])
But the story should also include dirtier stuff: not just the endless wars and state killing, either, but work: state-run narcotics cartels and the commodity chains enabling them; the digging of holes and carting of rock in extractive enterprises all through the empire’s multiracial sacrifice zones; and the regimes of coerced labor required to keep the sugar and indigo and tea plantations churning after the much-bragged-about abolition of the slave trade. As Lisa Lowe and others have described, these included Indian and Chinese indentureship, African “apprenticeship,” bondage of Tamil and Mauritian peasants, and the outright abduction of Pacific Islanders for the purposes of work in Australia, among other flavors of conscription.
In his lectures on race and race war from the mid- seventies, Foucault describes “race” as a way of marking relations of social domination on the body. The end goal of racialization was to produce the caesuras in the population necessary to maintain a given regime of power. “Racism,” as he says, “justifies the death-function in the economy of biopower” (258). Race in this justifying sense was deployed in different ways, and in different configurations, and with different ideological alibis, in different theaters of British rule. In Dominance Without Hegemony, Ranajit Guha describes power as a relationship of dominance and subordination.
But dominance, as you probably remember, is always achieved by some combination of what he calls coercion and persuasion, or hard power and the soft kind. Subordination, on the other hand, will be a relation of collaboration and resistance: working alongside the dominating power, however unwillingly, or working to subvert it (20-21). Each particular scene of inevitably racialized domination will be characterized by its own relation among these four elements or factors, the whole mixture conditioned by what Guha calls “the specificities of event and experience” (22).
In broadest terms, of course, “temperate” British colonies were zones of white settlement, and thus required reservation-style containment and the systematic extermination of indigenous populations. Coercion, then, with a capital C. Tropical resource colonies on the other hand became sites of extraction, and thus called out for steady flows of expendable nonwhite labor, and, depending on the scene, a sometimes subtler mix of persuasion and coercion. Each type of British rule then required its own regime of racialization and a strategy of dominance that regime supported, all of it always outfitted to local needs.
No race, then, but racialization: not “Victorian race” either, but deployments of race in specific scenes of exploitation across the Victorian world. But that is itself a generalizing statement, so in my last seconds I’ll just focus finally on one particular context, one site of domination among so many others.
Now, if you’re a painter, and you want to make something shine like air and shimmer with the luminous quality of the actual sky, you need a good blue. And if you are painting a decent-sized canvas like Keelman Heaving in Coals by Night, as Turner did in 1835, or a whole building, as Rossetti did with the Oxford Union Murals of 1857, you will need a lot of it. Ultramarine is expensive, though, since in the nineteenth century the lapis lazuli it comes from could be found only in one specific region of Afghanistan, where it was mined by hand and carted bodily down the hillsides for eventual travel along circuits of trade to western markets.
From the perspective of John Wood, whose 1872 account of the Badakshan mines is the best I’ve been able to locate so far, “The method of extracting the lapis is sufficiently simple.” The white visitor goes on, while the passive voice usefully erases the doers:
Under the spot to be quarried a fire is kindled, and its flame, fed by dry furze, is made to flicker over the surface. When the rock has become sufficiently soft, or to use the workmen’s expression, nurim, it is beaten with hammers, and flake after flake knocked off until the stone of which they are in search is discovered. Deep grooves are then picked out round the lapis-lazuli, into which crow-bars are inserted, and the stone and part of its matrix are detached. (171)
This intimate process of extraction puts body in contact with stone and a racialized regime of extraction and immiseration into contact --I’m suggesting—with cultural production at its most refined. Accidents are, Wood says, “frequent” (171). Later in his strangely upbeat account of this extractive deathworld, Wood uses a subordinate clause to show us something he himself barely notices, which is the highly specific system of human labor he erases using passive voice.
The search for the “richest colors” in the “darkest rock,” Wood says, “is only prosecuted during winter, probably because, labour in the mine being compulsory, the inhabitants are less injured by giving it in a season of comparative idleness than when the fields require their attention” (171). They mine in winter because they farm in summer. By what mechanisms of persuasion and coercion this “compulsory” labor is made to be so —and what calibrations of collaboration and resistance it triggered— Wood does not say. The only accounts we have of it are mediated ones. On canvas, in this case, or on the walls at Oxford, in impasto spangles of the world’s purest blue. Among other things this means that any instance of “Victorian culture” is a swirling turmoil of extraction and broken bodies transfigured into clouds, in Turner’s case, and a brilliant mineral blue, peeking out from the corner.
Guha, Ranajit. Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.
Wood, John. A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus. London: John Murray, 1872.