Reflection by Tanya Agathocleous
Nathan Hensley’s Forms of Empire is gratifying in its determination to put not only empire but the violence upon which it depends at the center of Victorian literature and the critical project of Victorian studies. Because Britain’s “unfinishable” wars of empire were “the general fact subtending the entirety of domestic life and therefore cultural production in the period,” Hensley argues eloquently, “every artifact of Victorian culture is an artifact of Empire.” For this reason, and because the ongoing persistence of war as the brute reality of everyday life under neoliberalism is one of the most tenacious and abhorrent connections between our present and their past, it behooves critics to pay attention to the ways Victorian literature itself took note of the paradoxical yet structural connection between “universal modernization” and “generalized killing.”
Part of Hensley’s important intervention is methodological and on this level, too, he posits a strong connection between our critical project and that of Victorian texts. Drawing from both sides of the reparative/paranoid, surface/depth debates, he argues for a “curatorial” approach to reading that entails what might be called a politics of “reparative care”: one that allows us to see the object we study as engaged in a similar critical project to our own. On the one hand, we must remain critical, paranoid readers of the endless wars of empire in order to care about their victims, not least because the obscene violence and dehumanization of those outside the liberal order continues apace. On the other, it is important to “preserve an affect of enchantment with historical texts” so that professors and students might continue to care about reading them under the new imperatives of the corporate university—and in order that we read them with care.
For Hensley, reading with care means seeing Victorian texts as mediating, not reflecting, the world around them. Rather than subverting ideology or transmitting it uncritically, the creative mediations of literary form “reconfigure” and “recode” it, performing complex acts of thinking about liberal violence that might serve as models for our own. In an exemplary reading of Felice Beato’s photograph of the aftermath of the massacre of 2000 Indians at Lucknow in 1857—which depicts the forecourt of a ruined building strewn with human remains that Beato dug up and arranged himself—Hensley notes that the photo strenuously refuses foreclosed meaning. Instead, it emphasizes the process of mediation itself by “depicting its own emergence as an actively reconfigured sign of an already historical event.” To avoid subjecting the text to a mastery that reveals its buried truth (the violent approach of suspicious reading), we might think of texts as subjects rather than objects, doing sophisticated analyses of their own:
The war photography of Felice Beato…helps show how not modern critics but historical objects themselves might perform…conceptual work. As they transfigure their moments into complex ensembles of conformity and resistance—works of literature—they register the fundamental contradiction of liberal imperialism while testing in advance the frameworks of interpretation we bring to bear on them.
Hensley’s understanding of literary works as having agency; being self-reflexive in form; and signifying in excess of any individual reading we might assign to them is similar to Barthes’ in “The Death of the Author,” though Barthes is more concerned with the way language, rather than form, shapes the text’s indeterminate meaning. Yet if Barthes’ work has been only partially successfully in demoting the author and critic in favor of the text as the main source of agency in the production of meaning, Hensley’s is too. The tautology in the quote above is a case in point; what exactly are the “historical objects” that are transfiguring themselves into “works of literature” that “register the fundamental contradiction of liberal imperialism”? Isn’t the work of literature the historical object that’s doing the transfiguration?
This ambiguity is accentuated by later sections of the book as well, where Victorian authors resume the agency that Hensley seeks to ascribe to literary objects. For example, a fascinating chapter that compares Swinburne’s poetry to debates about the Morant Bay atrocities makes Swinburne, rather than the literary object, the main subject and agent of meaning, as in this sentence comparing James Fitzjames Stephen’s outlook to Swinburne’s: “both men diagnose the sovereign violence that sits at the heart of any order that imagines itself to have left violence behind; Swinburne went further to model a fidelity to the damage accrued in this savage modernity, conceiving it as a loss whose human cost cannot be repaid.”
But if Hensley’s project of bestowing the literary object with agency in order to free it from the critic’s mastery is not always consistent, his assemblage of a dazzling variety of forms—telegrams, photographs, poems, marked-up manuscripts, letters and committee reports among others—and his brilliant, attentive readings of them make a strong case for the kind of dialectical thought he sees in literary objects and performs so compellingly himself. One of the most instructive aspects of his homage to the object is the kind of self-reflexivity about his own writing that he discerns in Victorian texts. For example, his Swinburne chapter abjures the “suturing move” of much contemporary criticism whose “bridge passages” link together various cultural, literary and historical moments without spelling out the relations between them. Instead, he adopts a distinctive “split-screen” approach that toggles between Swinburne’s poems and the debate about Morant Bay in a deliberately disjunctive manner, so that his work “might radicalize rather than avoid the operations of mediation that so much of historical literary criticism still leaves nameless.”
Hensley also uses Victorian thought to interrogate our methods more broadly. Writing of Henry James’ insistence on the “deep” qualities of art made by smart, as opposed to superficial, people, Hensley manages to demonstrate in the space of a couple of sentences not only that James’ surface/depth formulation “predates the Freudian moment so often taken as originary in genealogies of literary hermeneutics” but also that Victorians themselves thought past this binary. Contesting James’ elitist judgments through a strikingly original reading of Haggard, he calls the romance author’s supposedly superficial focus on action an “anti-deliberative aesthetic,” motivated by the idea that “cognitive states are accessible only by way of the bodily actions that express them.” In light of this reading, Hensley notes, “the post-Jamesian distinction between bad surface and good depth (or, as in recent so-called postcritical methods, the reverse) dissolves into incoherence.” In making “care” a critical term that might encompass both reparative and paranoid reading, Hensley himself dissolves this distinction, as well as the gendered binary (between feminine care and masculine mastery) that has become its baleful subtext. While Forms of Empire’s most obvious contribution to the field is its utterly convincing picture of the indelible relationship between empire and Victorian literature and between violence and liberalism, the book’s dedication to keeping the fraught histories and persistent blindspots of our methodologies in view is an important part of the way it intervenes in the liberal triumphalism that is, too often, our unacknowledged Victorian inheritance.