"Nature as System in Eighteenth-Century Philosophy”
Eighteenth-century philosophy was deeply concerned with the notion of a "system," and this concept was closely allied with that of another typical concern, namely with "genius." According to one scheme, scientific understanding was exemplified in systems, geniuses were the authors of systems, and systems required genius to formulate them. At the same time, the empiricist legacy was anti-system, and, especially in the life sciences and the social sciences, this created conflict. My paper will discuss the problems of genius, fidelity to nature, and systematicity in light of some eighteenth-century polemics over anthropology and its normative implications, with a focus on Buffon, Kant, Herder, and Georg Forster.
"'The Pleasing Wonders of Ignorance': Adam Smith's Divisions of Knowledge"
My paper focuses on the importance of genus within Adam Smith's epistemology, predominately in his posthumously published essays on philosophical progress, and in similarly marginalized work on the fine arts in Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. In general, I argue that Smith’s better-known theory of moral sentiment rests upon an analytic of division that promises to ensure a peaceable socius through increased disciplinary specialization. More specifically, I show how the attention Smith pays to the generative agency of "ignorance" in his interpretive system—what he simply refers to as epistemic "gaps"—is apposite to the way he describes the risks of mass agency as an ethical and social problem circumscribed by absence. Of specific relevance here is the case of Hinton v. Donaldson, in 1774. Here, a decision regarding the suspension of perpetual copyright provided a Scottish legal solution for an English aesthetic problem. The solution itself, supported by Smith and his mentor Lord Kames, who where both involved with the case, is summed up in court transcripts as: "the incorporeal substance of an idea." My argument is that the de-corporealization of writing in the eighteenth-century—its being rendered into abstract ideas that can be both categorized within disciplines and according to taste but also universally shared—covers a paradox at the heart of Smith's interpretive system: as intellectual work came to occupy a category apart from physical labor, so too the imagination was cordoned-off within a cul-de-sac of literary criticism. What's missing in Smith, that is, what must remain absent in the form of his epistemic gaps, is the history of how knowledge and corporeality, thinking and labor, as well as aesthetics and sociality, are repositioned as being simultaneously apart and together.
Dr. Catherine Packham
“Vital Systems, Vital Subjects: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and Vitalism”
When Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, it was welcomed not so much for new insights on commerce, trade, labour and wealth, but for its elaboration of a system which demonstrated the interconnectedness of such things. It also linked national prosperity to the lives, bodies, and even health, of its subjects: political economy thus involved both (in Catherine Gallagher’s terms) bioeconomics and somaeconomics at its very outset. This paper discusses the interest in ‘systems’ and ‘system making’ in the Scottish Enlightenment, and relations between the Scottish science of man from which Smith’s political economy stemmed, and contemporary natural philosophy. Specifically, it explores the role of vitalism in eighteenth-century human sciences, and addresses how a vitalist conception of life informs Smith’s economic system, with consequences for the way Smith theorises labour, the human subject, and the relationship between subject and economic system. It concludes by considering the relations among vitalism, organicism, political economy and literature at the turn of the nineteenth century, in a context in which the emergence of disciplinary divisions obscured the complex relations between different fields of thought, and which enabled political economy to be denounced, ironically, by Romantic critics, as a dead science.
“Generating the ‘Invisible Being’: Bodies and Books in the Poetry of William Blake and Anna Barbauld”
My paper reconsiders the relationship between political economy and Romantic poetry by examining representations of generation in select works by William Blake and Anna Barbauld. In the last decade, literary criticism has increasingly identified the discourse of political economy after Malthus as that against which Romantic poetry defines itself. According to literary critics such as Frances Ferguson, Maureen McLane, Clifford Siskin, and others, poets during the first decades of the nineteenth century counter the assertions of political economists by refusing those “proliferating bodies [which] provided the metaphorical and logical ground for the discourse of population” (McLane, Romanticism and the Human Sciences). In effect, poets replace those endlessly teeming bodies with narratives of development and self-organization drawn from biology, particularly vitalist accounts of fetal growth. According to these intertwined arguments, then, Romantic poets are understood to make several simultaneous and complete turns: from proliferation to organization, from political economy to biology, and from the mechanical to the vital. My paper re-evaluates these about-faces by examining images of noxious and healthy generation found in the work of William Blake and Anna Barbauld. In The [first] Book of Urizen and “To a Little Invisible Being, Expected Soon to Become Visible,” Blake and Barbauld consider how the tools of the poet—not only writing and print, but also grammar, figure, and the structure of the book—are complicit in the generation of new kinds bodies in the world. My paper thus explores how both writers refuse narratives of development or organization in favor of other kinds of temporalities (stalled, repetitive, spontaneous) and bodies (non-individuated, collective), temporalities and bodies that we normally associate with political economy rather than with Romantic poetry.
James Edward Ford III
“An African Diasporic Critique of Violence: The Niobe Legend in the Writing of Walter Benjamin and Phillis Wheatley”
Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” has attained fame for its enigmatic character as much as for its profound insight into the phenomenon of violence in the liberal- democratic state. In my view, this enigmatic character stems from Benjamin’s attempt to deduce his own concepts from the matrix of liberal-democratic liberal theory—a far cry from the archive-based materialism that Benjamin has become most known for in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This lack of a specific material phenomenon of analysis is what hinders Benjamin from offering a more compelling and concrete theorization of his terms, especially mythical violence.
In my essay, I want to think more intricately about mythical violence in Benjamin’s essay by placing him in conversation with black studies and a very unlikely figure, eighteenth-century African American poetess Phillis Wheatley. One could consider a “critique of violence” coming from a number of black intellectuals. Indeed, a “critique of violence” could very well be a general heading in the study of black intellectuals. I turn to Wheatley because she is the only figure in this tradition to render the violence of slavery specifically through the Niobe myth from Ovid’s Metamorphosis (and a painting of this myth done by a contemporary of hers in the U.S.)—the same “legend” that Benjamin uses to think about mythical violence. Making this argument is no simple task, considering the claims to Wheatley’s conservatism amongst black studies scholars, considering how the growing field of Black Radicalism has yet to recover and reinterpret her work, and considering that her poetry has largely been read in terms of new historicism, making her an interesting figure of her time. Of course, all these approaches to mis/reading Wheatley have paid so little attention to the Niobe poem, one would think it does not exist.
And so, my close reading of Wheatley and Benjamin dislocates conventional readings of both authors, so that new aspects of their work can be highlighted. I see Wheatley’s poem as an anticipation of Benjamin’s conception of mythic violence in his famous essay. At the same time, Wheatley goes farther than Benjamin because she revises Niobe to be a figure of revolt, not one who accepts her fate. Thus, she anticipates and critiques Benjamin’s piece over a century before he composed it, thereby confirming another thesis in my work, that the black radical tradition is no mere subset of the Marxist tradition. Actually these are two distinct traditions with convergences and divergences that must be charted in their singularities. Reading Wheatley in this manner allows us to consider the relationship between contingency and necessity, between a state monopoly of violence and its devolution in liberal-democracies, and the possibility of testimony at the opening of an intellectual, artistic, and activist field. On the latter score, I am calling attention to the fact that Wheatley’s brilliance, her contribution to a discussion of slavery as one “system” in the eighteenth century, is her ability to articulate a critique of mythical violence drawing on visual art, Greek legend, classical literature, and the poetic conventions of her age, all with no predecessor, marking her work as one of the first expressions of a black studies methodology.
"The History of the Earth and the History of Life: The Biopolitics of Time in the Eighteenth Century"
This paper examines the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century georgic tradition in the context of the climatic instability of the Little Ice Age (c. 1350-1850), a period of shorter springs and truncated growing seasons, longer winters, and often abrupt shifts in weather patterns across northwestern Europe. In works such as James Thomson’s The Seasons, Nature exists within a radically different conceptual economy from the Wordsworthian and Thoreuavian traditions that still structure contemporary ecocriticism. In brief, writers in early modern Europe confronted the problems of trying to reconcile the contradictory views of “Nature” that the georgic promotes: on the one hand, Nature is the postlapsarian realm of scarcity and labor, but, on the other, the divinely ordered handiwork of a beneficent God that, by diligence, labor, and investment, can be “improved” indefinitely to yield both sustenance and unending profits. In turn, this literary and theological paradox reflects the displacement, in both time and space, of the observational and experiential authority foregrounded in and by early modern nature-writing.
The georgic anticipates and tries to deflect the incommensurate registers of time—embodied or experiential time, historical time, and what I have called climatological time—that emerge by 1800, in scientific thought. These different temporalities come into focus in three different challenges to Mosaic history that emerge at the end of the century. In 1788, James Hutton's “discovery” of geological time transformed conceptions of the earth’s history as well as the immutability of its climate; eight years later, planetary astronomy was revolutionized by Pierre Simon de Laplace’s nebular hypothesis of planetary formation; and, in the same year, Georges Cuvier published his argument for species extinction and therefore undermined the doctrine of speciation by divine fiat. In odd ways, these scientific recalibrations of time and the displacement of experience recall classical precedents (notably Lucretius’s De Rerum Naturum and book fifteen of Ovid’s Metamorphoses) that describe climatic variability and anticipate the ahuman time frames of what we now call paleoclimatology. In grappling with both the implications of pagan notions of time and emerging understandings of planetary and geological time, the eighteenth-century georgic thus confronts the incommensurability of subjective experience and clmatological knowledge—that is, the incommensurate registers of time defined by experience, anthropocentric history, and the dynamic and fragile nature of planetary climatology.
"Looking for (Economic) Growth in the Eighteenth Century"
On the matter of what we now call economic growth, the answer is not far to be found. For as the programmatic titles of both Smith’s and Turgot's most important works make clear, the care to increase the overall production and wealth of nations—to "grow" the economy, as we say—is central to the first mature elaborations of the new political economy.
But the focus of the present conference, on the relation between political economy and the emerging biological sciences in the late eighteenth century, prompts us to raise a question we might find puzzling, and this well beyond the period itself: If the specificity and importance of the processes of life were being discovered as the same time as those of economics, why did the figure of "economic growth," an obviously biological metaphor now so common as to be used unconsciously even by noneconomists, take so long to appear, let alone be become naturalized?
To be sure the metaphor could seem to be at least latent in the early discourses on political economy. The old analogy between the maturation of the human body, "the ages of man," and the body politic, as ancient as Western thought itself and revived in juridical treatises from the sixteenth century, is still frequently invoked in explanations of economic progress, even if it is being displaced by the much more compelling theory of socio-economic stages. Much closer to biology itself, the concern with population fertility is well before Malthus at the core of the economic question, whether it is seen as a problem or as a strength for the wealth of nations. But these are still at best analogies, or metonymies. Do they ever add up to the explicit thought of the economy itself having its own life, and growing, a conception in terms of economic growth?
These are the questions I would like to raise with our fellow participants, and that I will honestly try to find some answers to in the time I have. One of the most promising places to look into is the work a Quesnay, "who was himself a physician," as Adam Smith took care to remark in the passage where he largely approves of the former's notion "concerning the political body," and further elaborates by speculating on a similar principle "in the political economy." Quesnay, the founding father of physiocracy, and therefore also a recognized influence on Turgot, is famously the inventor of the Tableau économique, explicitly a biological analogue. But is there more there than an analogy?
“Concerning Hunger: Empire Aesthetics in the Present Moment”
This paper critically engages figural forms of hunger in nineteenth-century discourses that advance the thesis that the conquest of hunger is an integral aspect of modern political economy. In particular, I consider taxonomies of hunger in the works of Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, Theory of Moral Sentiments), Thomas Malthus (“An Essay on the Principle of Population”), and Charles Darwin (Descent of Man) to see how their ideas of social and biological deprivation influence the reach of global development theories such as that of food “entitlement” put forth by Amartya Sen in the present day. Moreover, to the extent that hunger operates as an affective and cultural trope, this paper also illuminates the biopolitics of its transformation within a transnational frame. How, I ask, does the notion of hunger theorized as an innate aspect of the human condition eventually shift so that hunger serves as the cipher for a worldwide systemic problem that should be eradicated? What notions of global social justice emerge in the early nineteenth century that make the story of hunger, at least rhetorically, coincide so perfectly with the values of modernity? Operating at the nexus of need and desire, I argue that the specter of hunger and the hungry invokes a slippery aesthetics derived from utopian ideas about charity, empathy, security, and vulnerability that coheres the story of the rise of the modern nation, but which is finally consolidated on a global scale in the decolonial moments after the Second World War. A closer look at Zainul Abedin’s famine portraits of Bangladesh, painted at the time of decolonization, shows how the politics of hunger invoked in terms of political strikes, starvation, and poverty art anchors it to colonial forms of civilizational and transcultural difference first theorized during the economic modernization of imperial Britain. Yet, as I show, Abedin’s famine art provokes us to revisit the relationship between the ethos of modernizing nations, global culture, and consumption.
“Darwin’s Uncodable Difference”
This paper shifts attention away from “natural selection,” or what Daniel Dennett called “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” to “variation,” a concept, I argue, that was, in its own way, more lethal to established taxonomies. Natural selection would have had little or nothing to select had Darwin not defined raw biological nature as a state in which “no two individuals are the same.”
Darwin’s entire career can indeed be seen as a sustained effort to understand how meaningless differences become meaningful. “Natural selection” was only his first way of addressing the problem of radical variation. Sexual selection was another. The principle by which females select from among surviving male competitors those who will reproduce their kind exposes the limits of natural selection.
To explain the dazzling array of natural differences he had observed on the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin developed the idea of variation so as to redefine each member of each species as a repository of lost or possible differences. To explain how those differences emerged as meaningful traits marking the difference, say, between a mule and a zebra, he decided to supplement “the struggle for survival” with the principle of sexual selection. By doing so, I will argue, he not only made aesthetic preference a force in the world, but he also transformed the contradictory relationship of fanciful and real into the softer and subtler difference between potential forms and their actualization.
"'Diverging Characters': Gravity, Natural Selection, and the Comedic in Darwin’s Origin of the Species"
The concluding paragraph of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species continues to mesmerize nearly 150 years since its appearance. There Darwin contemplates “an entangled bank,” clothed by plants and inhabited by birds, insects, and worms. No human being moves in the frame, but instead stands outside it, existing and reflecting on the nature of laws governing the locus. These laws, the subject of the previous 500 pages, are growth, inheritance, variability and most importantly a ratio of increase. It is the latter that has as its object what Darwin calls “the Divergence of Character” and the “Extinction of Less-Improved Forms.” The result of that divergence is “the most exalted object,” the production of higher animals. Interestingly, before taking leave of the reader, Darwin juxtaposes the law of natural selection to the “fixed” law of gravity. The stable nature of gravity begins to drift toward what appears like destiny, while the law of natural selection, which Darwin quickly and quietly translates as “life," glows with the aid of divine breadth. It is at this juncture that seemingly out of nowhere, the aesthetic emerges as forms that are both endless and beautiful, “evolve.”
Darwin’s introduction of the aesthetic is the point around which my paper pivots for spelling out the comedic potential of the law of natural selection. Turning to Hegel’s writings on comedy and Aristophanes in his Lectures on Aesthetics, I show the affinities between the goals of comedy and the goals of evolution in bringing “the absolutely rational into appearance” as well as in their strategies of attacking “ ‘vice ‘masquerading in the presence of virtue.” The comedic potential of natural selection in my view resides chiefly in how it achieves its aims through negation, particularly in how natural selection undoes the human. Buttressing my argument with passages from a number of Darwin’s letters, I show how Darwin transforms the human from a tragic hero thought merely in terms of the law of gravity into a comedic hero forced to recognize how inadequate her subjective views are. In what we might call either a “human all too human” or posthuman perspective on the form of human life, Darwin asks us to contemplate the comedic hero who accepts being knocked done a peg or two and yet remains secure, as Hegel puts it, in the “face of loss.” It is this beautiful, comedic form of life that enjoys the security of rising above her character as merely the subject of gravity.
David Colles Lloyd
“The Aesthetic Taboo: Aesthetics as a Regulative Discourse of Race and the Human”
The foundational texts of philosophical aesthetics—those of Kant, Schiller, and Hegel—all treat of the aesthetic as an anthropology, that as, as a discourse though which the universal category of the human is established and defined. But the question arises as to what happens to the anthropological dimension of the aesthetic (and therefore to it as a regulative discourse of the human) when what is termed the “anthropological” refers no longer to the general form of the human that is at once the ground and end of Philosophy, taken in its broad Kantian definition (the “humanities” or liberal arts and sciences) but to the objects and procedures of a distinct disciplinary formation that emerges in the 1860s as the study of “primitive culture” (E.B. Tylor) or “the primitive mind” (Franz Boas)—that is, as a science of specific forms of human life?
This paper will explore the understanding of the aesthetic as an anthropology and then sketch an approach to the question: how does the aesthetic philosophy of modernism relate to and [re]structure itself around the disciplinary objects and practices of Anthropology as a discipline: that is, around an idea of the indigenous as at once a prior and a coeval presence?
The second half of the paper will thus begin to explore the enormous extent to which Freud’s Totem and Taboo—a psychoanalytic extrapolation from the findings of primitive anthropology from Tylor through Fraser and Boas—and, more generally, their reading of primitive anthropology, saturates the aesthetic thought of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, informing in particular the concept of the auratic in art.
- Professor Michael Near: email@example.com