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  • Romanticism and Dispossessed/ing History
  • Lenora Hanson (bio)

In 1986, the Black Audio Film Collective released Handsworth Songs, a film about the riots that broke out in deindustrializing Northern England in 1981 and 1985 through a conjunctural aesthetics. (Later uprisings would also occur in 1991, 2005, and 2011.) The film splices BBC newsreels of the riots with in-person interviews, overlays [End Page 113]

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Figs 1 & 2.

Black Audio Film Collective, Statue of James Watt and Joseph Priestley, Handsworth Songs, 1986,

scenes of factory labor with spoken poetry, and links together clips of Black, diasporic social life in England (Figures 1-2).

Like the BAFC's earlier work, the film makes heavy use of collage and montage. Two images within the first few minutes stand out, however. These are the statues of James Watt and Joseph Priestley, members of the Romantic-era Lunar Society, a group that has been described as "the Industrial Revolution writ small."3

Watt and Priestley's monuments, like all others, were erected retroactively in 1874 to consolidate the present rather than to memorialize the past. The BAFC's inclusion of these monuments of industry in Handsworth presents history neither as a narrative of progress nor decline, but instead as an accumulation of multiple temporalities held together in the present.4 In other words, it presents them as figures in a deeply Romantic sense. Erasmus Darwin, friend and fellow traveler in the Lunar Society, diagnosed "figure" as an instance of coincidence in contrast to a successive series. In Zoonomia (1794) he describes empirical knowledge as originating in the simultaneity of such figure. For instance, when we touch a solid object its figure is impressed upon our fingers, creating a coincidence of object body, sensing surface, and mediated impression that occurs "at the same time" and makes a [End Page 114] "FIGURE."5 Figures hold different bodies together at the same time in an arrangement irreducible to causality. In her astounding work on poetic address, Barbara Johnson understands figure in much the same way—as a relation in which forms of speech "coincide with, rather than exclude, one another."6

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Figs 3 & 4.

Black Audio Film Collective, Statue of James Watt and Joseph Priestley, Handsworth Songs, 1986,

The images of Priestley and Watt alongside images of riots and uprisings, of Black labor and social life, of deindustrialization and policing, dispossesses us of a sense history divided between past, present, and future, divisions that we often presume to be central to Romanticism (Figures 3-4). Instead, Handsworth casts the colonial abode of capitalism as a "FIGURE" in which bodies and scenes accumulate at the same time. In so doing, the BAFC shows us something about the figural and Romantic nature of dispossession as both historical event and of history in any straightforward or direct order.7 Dispossession, that process that runs counter to the developmental time of industrial capital, thus becomes a "FIGURE." In contrast to historicist accounts, we need this notion of figure in order to understand how processes of dispossession undo chronological time and hold the past and present together simultaneously. The BAFC's "poetics of the image" seize upon the Romantic alliance between figure and the dispossession of [End Page 115] successive temporality, offering a vital corrective to our tendencies to locate non-linear time and disorderly images within colonial peripheries rather than at the center of capitalist "developments."

One other scene that stretches between Romanticism and the early 1980s must be noted here. It takes a shape that seems "to blot / The thoughts of him who gazed on them, and soon / All that was seemed as if it had been not."8 This scene is one of uncanny conjuncture, uniting Romanticism, rhetorical reading, and the BAFC's imagist poetics. In "The Triumph of Life" Shelley does not show history to be false, but rather writes the "had been" as "not." The past is only "as if" it "had been." Shelley's "as if" subjects history to an imagination that holds images of past and present...


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pp. 113-116
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