In The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire, published by Verso in 1993, Thomas Richards analyzes the proliferation of information systems in the British Empire, and the ways in which this link between state power and the measurement of fact were expressed in literature.
"Most Victorian epistemologies presupposed a superintending unity of knowledge," Richards writes. "A comprehensive knowledge of the world was for most of the century the explicit goal of all forms of learning." Later in the introduction, he continues: "this system-building impulse was the imperial archive's greatest inheritance from a philosophical tradition that posited a universal and essential form of knowledge, the tradition of Leibniz and Kant and von Humboldt, but it also took much the same ideas from a source nearer to hand, English Romanticism."
In the excerpt below, Richards considers three narratives of monstrosity — Lewis Carroll's Alice novels, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World — in the context of the evolution of the science of morphology.
Detail from Georg Dionysius Ehret's illustration of Linnaeus's sexual system of plant classification, 1736. via the Linnean Society of London.
This chapter is about the place of monstrosity in the nineteenth-century imperial imagination. Until Bram Stoker's Dracula, there are few monsters in Victorian fiction. In Victorian literature ghosts, those images of a nether world replete with human significance, are more common than monsters, and it is worth asking why. Victorian travellers like Richard Burton and Henry Stanley never saw monsters. In his Voyage of the Beagle (1831-36) Darwin travelled around the world without seeing one. Thomas Henry Huxley doubted whether monsters ever existed, even in the distant past. In Poe “monstrous” is always an adjective, never a noun, and monstrosity resides in the behavioral perversions of the self, as it does in Lombroso, where the monster is the criminal. In Victorian gothic it is the natural landscape that is monstrous. Even in the murky world of imperial gothic, as in Haggard's She (1887), there are no monsters of nature save for a woman who lives on eternally in a dead city. Why are there no monsters in Victorian literature?
In the science of form, the ancient distinction between forma and materia remained in force well into the twentieth century. Aristotle had held that there could be form without matter, though no matter without form. As late as the 1940s Joseph Needham was still criticizing morphologists for devoting themselves to the study of living form “without much consideration of the matter with which it is indissolubly connected.” The classic texts of morphology do focus almost exclusively on the stately progress from form to form. Whether they deal with continuous or discontinuous change, the morphologists all end up by positing a structural stability in which forms join at specific junctions to compose the pattern of a whole. In On Growth and Form, D'Arcy Thompson devotes almost no space to the particular forces that cause forms to change. Nor does the scientist in Dracula take any interest in the material composition of his monster of mutation; Dracula exists for Van Helsing not as a chemical substance but as a continuum of changing forms. Form in morphology is almost entirely a matter of aesthetics, and the assumption joining all morphological thought is that all forms must turn out in the end to be beautiful, however violently they may at first jar the conventions of perception (even vampires appear at beautiful ease in their final moment of destruction). Over time the science of form has supplied a variety of aestheticisms with a basic lexicon of beauty, the vocabulary of ideal design, even as it extended the domain of the aesthetic to include new shapes of life and death.
Lara Pawson, author of In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre, examines complacency and complicity in the xenophobic and racist underpinnings of the EU referendum's Leave campaign.
A few hours before polling stations closed last Thursday, I travelled to west London to watch an extraordinary film about Syria. Silvered Water: Syria Self-Portrait (2014) is composed almost entirely of footage shot on mobile phones and uploaded, anonymously, onto YouTube. Some of it is also the remarkable work of Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a Kurdish woman surviving and filming tenaciously in the city of Homs. The film moves back and forth between Syria and France, to Paris where its Syrian director, Ossama Mohammed, lives in exile. The violence feels relentless: we see a young man being tortured, a truncheon thrust up his arse; another sitting upright in a plastic chair, his face blown off in shreds; we see the carefully wrapped bodies of dead children; the grief of weeping women; we see a kitten chewing the insides of a dog; and a pair of dead horses, starch stiff on a Homs street. It goes on and on and on.
Early in the film, however, I was confused, briefly, by some of the footage. Was I watching a scene in a Syrian city or in Paris? The narrow streets looked so familiar – the almost quaint blocks of flats complete with tiny balconies, blinds and plants in pots. But as the film rolled out, the physical destruction of Syria expanding, so the distinction between here and there and there and here became clear. On screen, at least. In my head, it was a different matter. A series of thoughts were scrambling. Here we were watching a film about the indescribable suffering of so many Syrians on the very day that millions of British voters were marking a cross to keep foreigners out. How many of us have even the vaguest clue of what it is to live with war? How many of us desire to truly understand? Mixing in with my anger and shame was another frightening thought, one that has gone round and round my head for months now: that our meanness, our arrogant notions of British exceptionalism, our racism, parochialism and narcissism are leading us ever closer to violent conflict here.
Akwugo Emejulu, Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, examines the operation of white supremacy before and after the EU referendum and argues that the visibility of racism following the Brexit vote must not obscure the conditions for its possibility. Her co-authored book, The Politics of Survival: Minority Women, Activism and Austerity in France and Britain is forthcoming with Policy Press.
Despite vociferous claims to the contrary, Brexit really is about race—but not in ways we might expect. In this seemingly ‘post-race’ era, Brexit shows us how whiteness, as a power relation, operates in ways to cast itself as both a ‘victim’ and an ‘innocent’ simultaneously.
Adam Elliott-Cooper discusses how Britain's role as a major imperial power not only brought about mass migration, but has united an otherwise extremely heterogeneous Black population in struggle through their common experience of colonial violence. The 'diversity in unity' of such experience, and the memory od past struggles, are essential resources for the ongoing fight to tear down the structures of racial oppression which persist in Britain today.
Recently, we have seen anti-racist resistance organised against racist border controls in solidarity with refugees and migrants. Amongst other actions, Black Dissidents, Sisters Uncut, London Latinxs and other activists blocked the Eurostar departures in St Pancras Station on Friday 16th October.