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Romanticism, aesthetics and violence in natural history

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In recent years, natural history has increasingly being seen in romantic and exotic terms, as the exploration of protean and curious knowledge of nature. In doing so, we risk the danger of returning to a 19th century understanding of science as creative, visually brilliant, historically rich and intellectually stimulating epistemology. This paper seeks to get out of this Internalist bind by using violence as a conceptual tool. Violence has provided important clues to the history of science and this paper returns to violence in search for a new edge in writing the history of nature.

It uses two different case studies; first the practices of poisoning and medical botany in the West Indian plantations in the eighteenth century, and second, the study of snakes and venoms by British scientists in India in the nineteenth century at a same time when snakes were destroyed as part of colonial state policies. On the one hand, this paper shows how the social history of the plantations and of the transformation of Indian wilderness translated into intellectual and aesthetic practices. On the other, it highlights the enmeshing of epistemological and physical violence; a form of violence that took place simultaneous to and was engendered in the appropriation of nature and the making of natural historical knowledge.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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