The below is the text of short remarks I gave as part of the MLA 2019 roundtable, "Ecological Crisis in the Long Nineteenth Century." I'm incredibly grateful to Liz Miller for organizing this excellent group of scholars, and to my fellow presenters, Benjamin Morgan, Jesse Oak Taylor, Lynn Voskuil, Sukanya Banerjee, Daniel Williams, and Liz herself. Ranging from pedagogical techniques, urban abandonment, and empire to post-growth socialist practice, it was, for me, a fascinating discussion. My own talk relied heavily on images, which I intersperse here in line with the text. At MLA I had to cut some material for time, which I reintroduce here; the text is therefore not exactly as it was presented, though it's close. All of this is preparatory for my current book project, tentatively titled "After it Almost Unmade: Action in the Wake of Nature." I'd welcome the chance to talk about that, or this, with anyone who might be interested.
“Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe…. Europe now lives at such a mad, reckless pace that she has shaken off all guidance and all reason, and she is running headlong into the abyss” (312). That is Frantz Fanon, not me, and it comes from the conclusion of The Wretched of the Earth, of 1961.
Having scanned the physical and cognitive wreckage of the Algerian war, Fanon identifies a fully colonized world, a global plantation, where (he says) “they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them” (311). The sadism of this colonial world, or "earth," a will-to-dominate so well evidenced in the mental trauma and state terror Fanon knew from his clinical work, is also masochistic, or perhaps better, suicidal: it is an extractive, nonrenewable project of accumulation and immiseration that aims, inevitably, toward its own death.
Marx understood the suicidal nature of capitalist imperialism as early as the Communist Manifesto, in 1848; Freud needed until 1920, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, to process the fact that an organism might desire, and then pursue, its own destruction. For Fanon in 1961, imperial capitalism moves at a mad, reckless pace, and pushes itself toward what he calls “the abyss.”
Perched, as we are, at the far end of a nineteenth century bourgeois project built on extraction and mastery, and tending to suicide, Fanon’s call to have done with Europe rings out for us as provocation. I read it here against the cascading details of an 1808 watercolor by William Berryman because those details show the relation of human and nonhuman disaster in one epochal scene of ecological crisis in the long nineteenth century. As David Brion Davis observes in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, the British sugar islands, like the factory farms of today, ran on an “extreme model of speculative profits, absentee proprietorship, monoculture, [and] soil exhaustion,” as well, of course, as the mass death of its labor source, who died at such rates, perhaps 8% a year, that their populations, unlike in the United States, could not be sustained without a steady supply newly imported human bodies [Davis 52]. All this means that the early British plantations only radicalize logics of extractive profitmaking and human disposability that remain our own. It means too that ecological crisis is human crisis, and vice versa. Berryman was a white painter detailing Black life in Jamaica after 1807, when a nominal liberty had been secured for slaves in the British Empire. But here we see not liberty but subjection, of earth and man: a dab of black mineral wash is skin of ox or human; green is palm, cane, mountain; all is stilled into something that is itself a commodity: “landscape."
When I read Fanon’s comments about the European lifeworld pushing into abyss, I find my mind drifting to scenes of plantation extraction like this, at the front end of our long century, and find it hard not to then move toward our end of it: ice melts, plastic eddies, mass extinctions, and CO2 charts spiking skyward, electrocardiograms of a dying world. In the rest of my time here, just one and a half minutes, I want to raise only two corollaries to Fanon’s insight about the terminal crisis of the bourgeois world, and suggest two ways in which we live in the wake of the nineteenth century, in Christina Sharpe’s sense of the wake as a temporal disturbance tinged with loss, where “the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present” (9).
First is material and, in a way, obvious. As Philip Steer and I say in the introduction to Ecological Form, and I wish he was here to read this in stereo, “the carbon-saturated air we breathe today is, in both metaphorical and brutely chemical senses, the atmosphere of the British Empire” (3). I take it that the evidence for this claim about the material legacy of coal-fired combustion and imperial terraforming need not be rehearsed in a roomful of people here to talk about the environment.
The second inheritance is conceptual. The epistemological procedures or thought-forms that enable us to scientifically describe, historically analyze, and even philosophically critique that world-burning configuration are themselves a product of the material condition, imperial capitalism, that set the world to fire in the first place. As thinkers like Lukacs and Adorno, but also Sharpe and Fred Moten have observed, at the core of this bourgeois thought-system is the subject-object relation. From that fundamental antinomy of bourgeois thought arise all the corollary fictions, of nature set against culture; of individuals set against “environment”; of “Man” set against that subhuman figure Fanon calls the native. Enslavement is the radicalization of this bourgeois antinomy, since (in Brion Davis’s words): “slavery has always embodied a fundamental contradiction arising from the ultimately impossible attempt to define and treat men as objects” (82).
Subject and object, man and thing: this set of conceptual protocols and mental dispositions, this ultimately impossible ontology of the modern, is what kept Berryman's cane-cutters dangling in the space, in Sharpe’s words, “between cargo and being” (111).
In the above document of the planter class, published just days after the first spasms of revolt on St. Domingue, we see this ontology come to a condensed form of its inevitable crisis. We get choice bits of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (right), and, on the next page, a citation of THE UNIVERSAL RIGHT OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND UNIVERSAL RIGHT OF CITIZENSHIP (all caps). But that page also contains a report about the “insurgents” in Haiti, who (insisting on this UNIVERSAL RIGHT) are said to have “triumphed in villainy”; this paradoxical formula itself adjoins notices of dry goods for sale, land for auction, and, below all this, a note about a horse gone astray. Next to these, a few inches from the Paine quote, is an ad for a runaway slave. The tableau, not in any way uncommon for the moment, shows in miniature Susan Buck Morss’s observation, in "Hegel and Haiti," that our most enduring theories of liberty, our UNIVERSAL RIGHT[S] OF CITIZENSHIP, developed intimately alongside, were unknowable without, chattel slavery and its detailed protocols of desubjectification.
This internally conflicted system of bourgeois reason, this dialectical scenario, partitioned, and still does partition, human and nonhumans alike into functions of a scheme characterized by expropriation, capture, and calamatious mastery. This system cleaved the world into a grid of subjects and objects, some its and some shes, corn planters separated from old drivers separated from "house negroes digging corn holes," all part of a putatively productive engine aimed in fact —as we now know definitively— toward collapse.
Rather than ignore or wish away this ultimately impossible thought system, as so much white ecocriticism continues to do, our task I think is to show how human capacity might disrupt it from within, in acts of what Gayatri Spivak has called affirmative sabotage.
To see, I mean, how life might shake free from numbered protocols and preset codes of the white supremacist archive, and to find outside bourgeois freedom, or in its ruins, something like what Fred Moten calls “subjectless predication,” a liberty without freedom, or slanted from it. And with that turned knowledge, to build forms of livable being, music, from the broken wreck of our plantation modernity. “Here we are in the weather,” Sharpe writes. “Here there is disaster and possibility” (134).
Nathan K. Hensley
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