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ERCC Conference Inventing the Human
Conference 2023: 'Inventing the Human' - University of Melbourne & Online
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Conversation 3 - Remembering the Enlightenment (01)



9:30 am

29 November 2023

Arts West, Room 556

Session Programme

On 18 February 1788, Edmund Burke was to pronounce one of the most shocking speeches against the first Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings. Convinced that Hastings had committed despicable crimes in India, Burke stressed how his prosecution was necessary “for the sake of justice, humanity, and the honour of Government”. Before disclosing the appalling tortures allegedly perpetrated on Indian peasants in the region of Rangpur, Burke apologized to his audience – the House of Lords, as well as the crème de la crème of British society and foreign representatives in Britain. As he stressed, “it is indeed a most disgraceful scene to human nature that I am going to display to you”. Although Burke’s commitment to universal values such as justice and humanity has been the object of a vast number of studies, the multiple references to Latin authors, especially Cicero, to impeach Hastings have largely escaped scholars. Cicero, it should be stressed, had thoroughly explored humanism and human nature in some illuminating treatises. In this paper, in particular, I would like to show how, by a careful reuse and adaptation of Cicero, Burke successfully portrayed Hastings as a beast and inhuman monster. In this sense, I will suggest how Burke used the Classics as a powerful tool to reflect on and promote the human and humanity against oppression and cruelty.
After the brutality and waste of the Seven Years’ War, reformers in the Habsburg Monarchy set about creating a state rigorous, and compassionate enough, to endure and triumph in future wars. Inspired by the French and German Enlightenment, and the convenience of natural law theory in conveying the justness of state-building, the Monarchy's jurisprudence experts and military intellectuals sought to create selfless, virtuous, and content citizens ready to sacrifice for the only polity which secured the peaceful and natural order of man: the state.

As this paper shows, the Monarchy’s reformers used natural law to imagine people's heavenly-defined relationship with the state to transform servile subjects of local manors into active, contributing citizens. Through enlightened emancipatory laws, proclamations, military reforms, toleration edicts, and interventions in subject-landlord relations, serving the state was narrated as the way in which people achieved moral goodness and human perfection.

By examining the changes to concepts of soldiering and experiences of martial honour in the Monarchy after the Seven Years’ War, this paper argues soldiers understood fighting for the Habsburgs as their way of achieving moral goodness. Honour elicited the morally good actions of a soldier, which frontline combatants believed made them citizens. The sign, in the political culture of the Habsburg Monarchy, of their humanity.
In their essay ‘Queer Poetics: Deviant Swerves, in Three’, Ren Ellis Neyra takes Lucretius’s principle of the clinamen in De rerum natura – the idea that all matter is created through the deviating movements and collisions of atoms – for a meditation on ‘the swerve at the heart of the encounter’ in queer poetics (The Cambridge Companion to Queer Studies, ed. Siobhan Somerville). Queer desire moves like Lucretius says atoms move: in stochastic relation, proliferating possibility against the chance that it might never happen. Rather than an ontological basis for all passional attachments, this persistent image of the aleatory interactions of bodies is queered in the cultural afterlife of the atom, used both to define queer desire against the order of things and to free its momentum from normative constraints. The labouring-class poet Ann Yearsley (1753–1806) wrote several poems featuring atoms, including ‘Night. To Stella’, ‘A Fragment’ (both 1785), ‘A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade’ (1788), and ‘Soliloquy’ (1796). In my paper I argue that Yearsley uses the figure of the atom to represent the swerves of queer desire in poems which spotlight the erotics of materialism in specifically gendered and queer-coded terms.
Earlier readings of Yearsley’s atom poems have explored the poet’s sense of the movement of time and the development of knowledge, the conventional parameters of which are challenged through figural reorientations which take their impetus from atomic motion. Building on these claims, I examine Yearsley’s use of the clinamen to inform a poetics in which ideas, images, and bodies oscillate and converge in precarious relation which nonetheless tilts our impression of the world as we know it. Crucially, the collisions of Yearsley’s atom poems – always uncertain and on the cusp of possibility – constellate queer relations as the desiring bodies of women come into fleeting, bracing contact. Their encounters, facilitated by the atom’s free movement, trespass boundaries of class and education; and, taking up the provocation of the atom’s underpinning of all material life, they incorporate nonhuman collateral from the surrounding world of objects. As Amanda Jo Goldstein writes, the atom is both a scandalous philosophical proposition and a source of figural impropriety in literature, contouring the movements of physical and poetic bodies (Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life). Yearsley’s atom poems illuminate the queer potential of this deviant interanimation for reinventing the human, finding expressive energies in the swerves of desire.