Reflection by Zach Fruit
Nathan K. Hensley’s book Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty is one of those spongy works of scholarship that seems to absorb more than physically possible. The book processes conflicts between symptomatic and surface readers, negotiates questions of presentism and historicism, clarifies and advances the project of new formalism, and rearticulates the relationship between biopolitics and empire. Further, Hensley suggests that this broad survey from contemporary academic debate is not populated by newly conceived questions, but rather produced by a type of thought that is inextricably enmeshed in our historical proximity to the world’s first liberal empire. The subject of the book is the way that Victorian liberalism, an ostensibly progressive and idealist political theory, was confronted by a range of paradoxes and contradictions within the context of Empire. Violence, it became increasingly apparent, was not an element banished to the barbaric past or the uncivilized edges of liberal modernity. Rather, violence was the mechanism through which liberalism maintained and expanded the scope of Pax Victoriana. So, Hensley argues, nineteenth century thinkers had to turn “to the resources of literary form to negotiate what I treat as the central impasse of Victorian modernity: the curious intimacy between legality and harm” (5).
The book is filled with rich, illuminating writing, informed equally by rigorous archival research and sensitive close readings. At a larger conceptual level, however, Hensley has made an important modification to a critical assumption that has been operable since the publication of The Political Unconscious in 1981. As Hensley acknowledges in his introduction, “the dialectic of nineteenth-century enlightenment” in which “war and peace were not opposite terms so much as two names for the same thing” will “hardly be news” to a “twenty-first century criticism raised on postcolonial theory and ideology critique” (10). While our critical familiarity with an argument based around the intimacy between imperial state violence and enlightenment idealism does not disqualify it as a still important subject, it does compel us to reconsider the critical mode with which we approach nineteenth century texts. As we increasingly detail the ways in which a negative contradiction lies at the heart of discourses that claim to be about freedom, rationality, and individual agency, how can we reframe our questions so that we do not continue to “reveal” contradiction, rather than examine the ways in which this contradiction was sustained?
Hensley’s innovative contribution is a deft amalgam of surface-oriented close reading, sensitive to the present while grounded in history. He insists that the literary text not only participates in the cultural events that produce it, but also anticipates the literary criticism that piles up in the wake. In Jameson’s now famous formulation, the literary work invents an imaginary formal solution to a real, and unresolvable, social contradiction. Hensley focuses his attention on this relationship between the literary text and the social world. He advocates for Raymond Williams’ characterization of the literary text as an object that “mediates” rather than “reflects”. Mediation is a “formal protocol and technological patterning” that “account[s] for the imbrication of medium and message with superadded attention to genre” as well as referring to the “process of reconfiguration by which cultural products refract the historical moments that produced them” (17). If mediation is active and productive, reflection is a warped ideological mirror.
Hensley describes his method to persuasive effect in his introduction, using the remarkable photographs of Felice Beato. The example of photography helps to clearly lay out the activity of mediation as a conceptual and theoretical activity. The dynamism of mediation is central to Beato’s famous image of Secundra Bagh, in which Beato exhumed the corpses of peasants murdered en masse by British counter-insurgency forces. This startling, fastidiously composed photograph helps Hensley to describe the “active mediation operations” of Victorian objects. Hensley hopes to experiment with “genres of reading that would maintain solidarity not just with nineteenth century objects in all their textured specificity, but with those remaindered human bodies that have their own specificity, and that have been cast to the outside and the undersides–into the jumbled bone piles–of the Victorian era’s promise of inclusion” (32). This experiment involves developing arguments that do not stand “transcendentally apart” from their objects of analysis; conceiving of theory not as “something to be applied to or tested on historical objects”; refusing to frame readings as “evidence” (32). Hensley spends a lot of time with his readings, developing a line of thought only to retrace his steps and begin again, showing the way that the text produces certain readerly reactions, only to backtrack and frame the text itself as a historical reaction. This method is sensitive both to surface and context, to the present reader and the historical author. Hensley is suspicious of a variety of symptoms, while seeking to repair the divide produced by decades of critical accretion onto an analytical object. Criticism, Hensley says, also has a literary shape. Accordingly, he treats the Victorian era as “a workshop in which the conceptual and political categories of the present… are under dynamic construction” (35).
I intended to focus this reflection on Hensley’s tour de force reading of gradualism and catastrophism in The Mill on the Floss, but I will have to simply recommend it. I also would have liked to say more about Hensley’s remarkably odd juxtaposition of the controversies surrounding the rebellion at Morant Bay and the scandalized reactions to Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads. Both of these readings, however, gain a great deal of their force as exemplars of the activity of mediation that Hensley describes in his introduction. Hensley shows that these texts compose the incredible violence plaguing political modernity as an “interlocked set of binary terms” (242). The 228 separate armed conflicts that took place between 1837 and 1901 aren’t the exceptions to the professed peacefulness of liberal government. Instead, this violence “secretly structures political modernity in its most peaceful or even philanthropic dispensations” (241). In the same way, literary texts do not resolve the ideological contradiction between peace and violence. Rather, they participate in the dynamic of disclosure and repression that makes the liberal paradox a persistent possibility.