Catastrophe and knowledge

William Berryman, Sugar Estate - Negros Cutting Cane, 1808
Thinking through the archives of ‘industrial time’ – from Jane Eyre to the IPCC report.


We have twenty-two years until the modern world finally eats itself alive - according to the IPCC report released earlier this fall

This world has roots in the nineteenth century: the Age of Coal. It was in this era, after all, that our extractive economies were first naturalised. It was then that a globally-scaled imperialism laboured to ensure that a certain notion of freedom – unthinkable without the despoliation of nature and the subjection of vast swathes of humanity – became universal.

It will be in 2040, the IPCC authors state, that this world’s “crisis” will definitively arrive: reefs gone, coastlines swamped, starvation, mass drought, and calamitous migration rendering “national borders” - in the words one commentator - “irrelevant". 

Industrial advancement 

This prospective vision of catastrophe imagines that disaster is always waiting in the future. In doing so, it obscures the fact that, in the words of Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte, “the hardships many non-Indigenous people dread most of the climate crisis are ones that Indigenous peoples have endured already due to different forms of colonialism". 

For the societies exploded, reorganised and even erased by fossil powered bourgeois modernity - the indigenous and colonised, the wretched of the earth - life unfolds already in disaster’s aftermath. It is already after the end of the world. For the rest of us, collapse is now.

As someone who thinks and writes about the nineteenth century and its most powerful empire, it struck me that - in the IPCC report - the pivot between “preindustrial” time and the period it understands as contemporary, “the industrial era,” is 1850. 

The shift into this suicidal modernity fell just one year before the Great Exhibition, or the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations". This event showcased for a rapt world the splendors of steam-driven industrial advancement. It took place in a building made of plate glass, then a novelty, and designed by a builder of greenhouses: it was the “Crystal Palace.” 

In his speech opening the event, Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, could look out on this moment with perfect confidence: “Nobody…who has paid any attention to the peculiar features of our present era, will doubt for a moment that we are living at a period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to accomplish that great end to which, indeed, all history points – the realisation of the unity of mankind.”

Methodological shift

Albert was right about his moment being one of transition. But the unity he believed would necessarily result from the benefits of steam-driven capitalism has, to put it mildly, not arrived. 

In its stead, we have seen enormous enrichment for some, coupled with permanent warfare, human immiseration, mass extinction, and disruptions to the biosphere resulting in what the IPCC report summarizes as “extreme weather, rising sea levels, and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes". 

In my scholarly work, I have wondered how my subfield of Victorian Studies might use its intimacy with the early, and then maturing period of bourgeois confidence typified in Albert’s breathless speech. Ours is the epoch of universalised extraction, when the world was put on course to be reorganised for profit, fenced off, and set to fire. 

My colleagues and I are students of the moment when the world’s undoing began. What will we do about it? 

In Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire, Philip Steer and I convened a group of scholars to imagine how our methods might shift in light of this shared catastrophe: our usual objects of analysis and tactics for understanding them, we found, must change under the pressure of a damaged and seemingly diminished present. 

How does the past change from the vantage of our diminished present? And more importantly, how might that past help us imagine a different future? 

Being otherwise

Our focus was literature. Aesthetic artifacts like the novel might seem tangential to existential concerns about the future shape of life on this planet: such serious matters are typically imagined to be the province of policy wonks, economists, and so-called hard sciences. 

But compared to these applied and indeed instrumental modes of thinking, art imagines otherwise. Aesthetic artifacts show thought at its most distilled. For that reason they help us see the contours of imaginative possibility at a given moment. 

Artworks in this way act as a kind of photonegative of their present: they distill an era’s values, presumptions, and dreams with a complexity and amplitude other modes of recording them cannot match, and rarely try to. But artworks are also maps for thinking at a slant, blueprints for ways of being that might run counter to, and even unwind from within, the established grooves of thought that economics, public policy, and even much science exclusively run within. 

In this case, my colleagues and I were interested in looking for aesthetic forms that might undercut the will-to-capture that has always defined western reason. By “western reason", I mean something like the instrumental rationality and impulse to mastery that drive the modernity project, a centuries-long effort to subdue the earth whose dark fate the IPCC report charts.

These are the relations between subject and object that the Bible named “dominion” and that Karl Marx, only inheriting that idiom, called “the subjection of nature’s forces to man”. 

Looking out from the podium at the supporters gathered to celebrate the power of steam, Prince Albert himself referred to man’s newly victorious “reason". This had been, he said, provided by God so that man could replace Him. Man was now poised, Albert announced, “to discover the laws by which the Almighty governs His creation, and, by making these laws his standard of action, to conquer nature to his use". 

“Glorious liberty”

The divine instrumentality Albert celebrated led some to luxury and many more to wage slavery, social abjection, and early death. But the human and nonhuman cost of an extractive imperialism is glaringly absent from Albert’s calculus.

The Victorian novel plots a different, more complicated set of tabulations. It was in October of 1847, just three years before the start of the IPCC’s “industrial time", when readers would have first overheard Rochester - the leading man of Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel - tell Jane Eyre of the monstrous femininity he encountered in Spanishtown, Jamaica circa 1793. 

Reminiscing of a Miss Mason, Rochester tells Jane of “a wind fresh from Europe", which — in the oppressive night, buzzing with mosquitoes and redolent, he says, of hurricanes — “blew over the ocean and rushed through the open casement: the storm broke, streamed, thundered, blazed, and the air grew pure". He goes on: “The sweet wind from Europe was still whispering in the refreshed leaves, and the Atlantic was thundering in glorious liberty.” 

The liberty Rochester breathes in via the Atlantic tradewinds is not unlike the freedom Jane herself feels, when “the mood of the revolted slave was still bracing [her] with its bitter vigour.” 

This liberty structures John Stuart Mill’s treatise of 1859, still taught in high school civics classes, and animates even contemporary political discourse as the unspoken value, differently inflected, for Republicans and Democrats alike: the concept of a seemingly unfettered personal autonomy, what Mill called an individual’s “sovereignty over himself, over his own mind and body,” drives all decision making. 

Conscripts of modernity

But if Jane finds release in what she calls “mutiny,” freedom for Rochester blows in on the same sticky Caribbean air that pushed black bodies from West Africa to the island at a rate of no fewer than 8,000 per year in the 1790s. 

There, in Jamaica, freshly kidnapped conscripts of modernity would harvest sugar cane until they died, impressed into an obscene industrial scheme defined by cane-pressing, whips, malnourishment, and human attrition. 

These scenes of subjection do not figure in the marriage plot readers continue to care about most. But the Enlightenment-era atmospherics of Jane Eyre suggest how a romanticised vocabulary for freedom, woven through the language of self-affirmation spoken by these white characters, comes at the cost of, for example, the shambling animal locked on the third floor of Thornfield Hall. 

This is Rochester’s first wife, who - as fans of the novel well know - will soon be sacrificed for the sake of the marriage plot. The fire that incinerates this colonial subject banishes the memory of the colony and leaves only a ruin while clearing the way for romance in the present: what remains are “shattered walls” and a “devastated interior”, Jane says; evidence of “calamity".

It is Bertha Mason, then, who comes to function as the residue of what the novel, almost accidentally, describes as the calamitous project of bourgeois freedom. As scholarship in my field has long known, she is the trace, ghost, or unbanishable reminder of the broken and immiserated humanity that the white marriage plot cannot assimilate. 

In this way, Bertha should be understood as a kind of burned effigy to the world-ending that has always shadowed such dreams of freedom and progress as have been voiced by history’s Prince Alberts or Edward Rochesters. But as the IPCC report now confirms, the agony that has walked alongside bourgeois freedom from the beginning is now felt not just by precarious human beings but the earth itself. 

The world’s agony

“The world’s agony raised to a concept”: this is the phrase Theodor Adorno used to define dialectical thought, in Negative Dialectics, of 1966. There, this most pessimistic member of the Frankfurt School meant to coordinate conceptual procedure with the material facts of a broken world. 

What form of thinking, Adorno asked, might be capable of unwinding from the inside a situation - theoretical and material at once - in which bourgeois modernity has set itself on fire? Out of the ruins of Enlightenment reason, what Adorno aimed to build was a broken or wounded knowledge: a form of thinking, aesthetic at its core, that might be adequate to the misery of the modernity project and what he called its “unspeakable suffering".

Adorno aimed to use the fallen language of modernity to build a world beyond and outside it. This experiment in immanent critique opens up new ways of thinking about nineteenth century novels like Jane EyreOur Mutual Friend, or Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which Philip and I discuss in the introduction to Ecological Form

That is because those documents of extractive Victorianism know more, and can do more, than even they seem to let on: they inhabit contradictions rather than resolve them, radicalise problems instead of purporting (falsely) to put them right. 

In light of this, it’s useful to recall that, as Susan Buck-Morss has shown, the very architecture of Hegel’s philosophy of freedom, source code and inspiration for Adorno’s, and a distant interlocutor, I think, of Jane Eyre’s, was generated in catastrophe.

Double vision

This Enlightenment logical system, Buck Morss shows, relies on a “double vision” by which “liberty” could be raised to a rallying cry even when half the world sat in chains. Specifically, she argues in “Hegel and Haiti,” Hegel’s system derived from tropes of bondage and liberty emerging from the world-historical uprising on Saint Domingue. 

There, in the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Overture renovated the world in order to strike out an Enlightenment project of freedom worthy of that term. (“You are like a slave-driver!” Jane says to John Reed, before she rushes him.)

As we take stock of our collapsed world at the broken end of the bourgeois century, and imagine the place of our intellectual work in and for it, I think some tasks will be, of course, practical: to slash carbon use, generate green infrastructure, and radically reorient our fossil-fueled, neo-imperial lifeways. 

These measures must be taken if we are to avert, if we can, the direst outcomes predicted in the IPCC’s report on the ultimate costs of Victorian freedom. 

Speculative knowledge 

Another, and I think, yet more urgent task is more basic. It will be to generate new models of thought, or build them from old ones. To call into being, I mean, concept-forms able to bear witness to, but also to displace or at least performatively to interrupt the instrumental reason and mental capture that structure our minds no less than Jane Eyre’s. 

What forms of reason might be adequate to our damaged world, strewn now with the wreckage of our mastery, “radiant” – in Adorno’s 1947 phrase – “with triumphant calamity”? 

To scan the Victorian archives for these broken, half-finished, and speculative knowledge forms would be to lay a hand to the relics of our shared catastrophe – but also to the tools we might use to build something new from its ruins. Time is short.

This Author 

Nathan  K Hensley is Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University. He is author of Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (2016) and editor, with Philip Steer, of Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire, released in December.