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Eat the Rich, Sherlock Holmes, and Energy Transitions

Monday 25 May 2020, 4.00PM to 6pm

The second virtual session of the Countervoices PG Forum Summer Series. The forum is a series of termly events that offer Masters and PhD students in and beyond the Centre for Modern Studies the opportunity to present a short piece of work to an interdisciplinary audience. 

The event will consist of invited presentations from Maximilian Curtis (Cambridge), Ming Panha ( Sheffield),  and Robert Suits (Chicago). It will be followed by a Q&A. 

“Eat the Rich”: The Decadence and Decay of Gothic Luxury 

In recent years, Eat the Rich has become a ubiquitous rallying cry on Twitter and in protests, in graffiti and chants, for violent retribution against the capitalists who have cannibalized the working class. This common slogan feeds back into a broader discourse in which luxury consumption—literalized as consumption—became more than just a potent metaphor for capitalist exploitation or aristocratic excess, but rather a real, material source of political body-anxieties: of marginalized and working-class people being consumed as a decadent treat, of going hungry as insatiable mouths feast.

From James Gillray’s political cartoons of the wealthy devouring coins, to French socialists’ portrayal of Sacré-Cœur as a vampire, luxury and violence are inextricable from radical political thought. One excess feeds another. But more than the now-obvious realization that capitalism’s decadence depends on exploitation, this paper puts forward the idea of “Gothic Luxury”, epitomized by Eat the Rich. Its exaggeration is doubly excessive. More carnal than the guillotine, more cultured than revolution, Eat the Rich sates the fantasy of a radical banquet for those starved by capitalism, inverting the gothically consumed into discerning consumers of the most luxurious meat. As such, this paper explores anti-capitalist critiques of luxury-as-violence, and its attendant body-anxieties, that radically invert the consumed/consumer dialectic in order to imagine a world freed from the horrors of bourgeois consumption.

Maximilian Curtis ( a PhD candidate in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge, Trinity Hall. His work explores politically deviant conceptions of luxury, with particular focus on how capitalism, gender, and race violently foreclose on the potential to luxuriate in alternative identities, social relations, and political futures. He also produces the Cambridge human rights podcast Declarations.

Declassified: How Interspecies Relations between Humans and Bull Terriers Challenge British Imperialism?

Though it is known that the first published case of Sherlock Holmes is A Study in Scarlet (1887), Holmes has worked as a detective before that, and “The Adventure of Gloria Scott” (1893) is considered by Holmes the origin of his detective career. The birth of his lucrative and well-reputed detection begins with his deductive experiment with Old Mr. Trevor, the nouveau riche father of his university friend, Victor Trevor. Holmes’ “deduction” is the beginning of the exposition of the true identity of Mr. Trevor, as he is later threatened to be blackmailed by Hudson, a mysterious sailor, whom Victor Trevor calls the Devil himself. Eventually, as Mr. Trevor dies of great fright, Holmes and Victor learn from his confessional writing that Mr. Trevor is actually an escaped convict on a ship to be transported to Australia. He joins a mutiny, flees from the ship, which is exploded by gunpowder afterwards, and changes his name to Trevor. He travels to Australia to join the gold rush, and becomes a colonial nouveau riche. Though indirectly, Holmes’ famous detective career begins with his revelation of the imperial connection between the metropole and the colonies.

Though “The Gloria Scott” villainises Hudson as the devil, it gives clues to Mr. Trevor’s true identity even before Holmes’ deduction with the use of the bull terrier, a working-class canine for blood sports, at the “exposition” of the story, where Holmes was bitten by Victor Trevor’s bull terrier on his way to the chapel. The similarities between The Trevors and the bull terrier they keep as a pet are made to unveil the true faces of the social climbers. The bull terrier’s history as an agent in rural working-class blood sports, opposed by the Victorian middle-class Humane movement, still resurfaces in its attack on Holmes. I argue that eventually the exposition, which is key to the plot of “The Gloria Scott”, fails to establish revelatory connection with Mr. Trevor’s background, and, with the human-canine relations at the “exposition” of the narrative, the historical and evolutionary background does not matter in the ethics of immediate contact between beings, human or not. The immediate contact zone between Holmes, along with Victor Trevor, and the canine even questions the history of the subject, and suggests ethical relations. The body of the dog, as in other cases in this thesis, rebels against symbolisation, and human-dog relations in the text can even become an exemplary model for ethical relations.

Ming Panha is a PhD candidate at University of Sheffield. He’s interested in animal studies and ecocriticism in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century fiction. His thesis deals with pet dogs and the historiography of the British Empire in Sherlock Holmes fictions by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Tramps and Trains: How Do We Experience Energy Transitions?

What does petroleum have to do with a tramp's life? This talk takes findings from two separate strands of research: quantifying energy transitions in U.S. history, and on the transformation of work in American agriculture. It explores several of the ways that the rise of the petroleum economy came to transform tramp culture in American history. I show that tramps -- America's first migrant agricultural workers -- were products of the steam age. The rise of the internal combustion engine spelled their end. From this case study, I argue we should begin to redefine what it means to undergo an "energy transition". In this framework, the most profound transitions are in people's changing relationships to energy through work, travel, and technology -- not in their use of a specific mix of fuels or engines.

Robert Suits is a PhD Candidate in environmental history at the University of Chicago. His dissertation, titled "Uprooting America: The Environmental Origins of Migrant Labor", explores how climate, ecology, and technology created a new form of itinerant labor in the American Midwest in the late nineteenth century, through studies of migrant lives in cities, in agriculture, and in transit between. His other ongoing article projects explore historical rainmaking, and energy transitions in U.S. history.


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