One’s own Present, and the 18th Century Present
Impressions of the Workshop “Landscapes of the Long 18th Century: Mediating Places, Powers and Pasts in South Asia and Beyond,” which was organized by Dipti Khera and Hannah Baader on June 22-23, 2017 at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin.
Surely, it would go against the very grain of common sense, to argue that we are still living within an 18th century present of landscape thinking. How can it be possible that an older, 18th century present of landscape thinking, is akin to our very own present of environmental reckonings? These awkward, roundabout questions related to presentism repeatedly came to my mind as I prepared to attend the “Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices” workshop titled “Landscapes of the Long 18th Century: Mediating Places, Powers, and Pasts in South Asia and Beyond.”
That our very own present, or the present of millennials, is a time of massive environmental reckonings, is not particularly difficult to establish. One only has to reach for the environmentalist Bill McKibben’s 1989 End of Nature to learn about the enormity of a contemporary human predicament over its complicity in the transformation of the habitable world. In McKibben’s estimate, “we… ended nature as an independent force, that our appetites and habits and desires could now be read in every cubic meter of air, in every increment on the thermometer.” Putting it succinctly, today, that is, in our very own present, human beings have murdered the very “nature” that once instituted them.
And yet, one can as well also reach beyond McKibben’s relatively recent proclamations about the death of “nature,” into an earlier moment in time, and give an ear to equally dire decrees. One could, for instance, commence with the musings of the 18th century German romantic poet Friedrich Schiller. As early as 1795, Schiller had already been thinking about a lost nature. In his Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, a pensive Schiller admitted that “just as nature gradually begins to vanish from human life as experience…so do we see it [nature] rise in the poetical world as idea and as object.”  Evidently, to the solemnity of Bill McKibben’s prognostications in our very own present, about the irrevocability of environmental degradation brought about by “a burst of carbon-dioxide,” there corresponds, measure for measure, the plaintiveness of 18th century romantic elegiac musings about the vanishing of “nature from human life.”
I hoped, then, that over the course of the “Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices” workshop, I would learn more about the ways in which a contemporary heartache over the death of nature, may actually be an older one, commencing in an earlier time, in the 18th century. As an architectural historian who is committed to a field that broadly falls under the rubric ‘ecological humanities,’ I found the title of the workshop, “The Long 18th Century,” intriguing. Given my own interest in the structuring power of narratives related to the complicity of human beings in the destruction of an engirdling environment, I cannot but help to speculate about the ways in which the 18th century romantic epoch of inconsolable grief over the loss of nature, may have, in a manner of speaking, become so prodigiously lengthy that it simply did not end. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that when one rues natural habitat destruction in the present, in a time of catastrophic climate change, one may very well be doing so in a stilted 18th century manner.
And yet, as I was to learn at the workshop, if one insists too stridently on the trans-temporal or trans-spatial cogency of concepts such as “nature,” “the death of nature” and “landscape,” one does so at the risk of becoming estranged from the very communicability of these concepts in the limiting terms and criteria of regional causal structures. Indeed, it is one thing to recognize an 18th century romantic heartache over the loss of nature, as a wholesale, transcendental structuring principle which is passively reflected by aesthetic practices spread out over space and time. It is or can be quite another thing to explore the extent to which our present-day understanding of such terms and phrases as “the loss of nature,” “nature” and “landscape,” may be actively transvalued by delving into the political, social and economic imperatives that were immanent to specific, regional aesthetic practices, at particular moments in time. If, in the former instance, metropolitan romanticism, naturalism or ecological thinking, endure inertly in their own being, outside of the very particularities they are called upon to determine and mobilize in a variety of regional locations and epochs, in the latter instance, as was evident in the Berlin workshop, regional narratives related to place, power and history, can shape naturalism and ecologism, by drawing them into the fiber of their own being.
That in the 18th century, metropolitan environmental aesthetics may have been pulled into the perimeter of regional political and economic contradictions in South Asia, was not immediately apparent in the workshop. Rather, one had to initially acquaint oneself with an entire array of formal techniques and artisanal stratagems that have come to be associated with 18th century environmental aesthetics, such as the panorama, the prospect view, the miniature painting, and architectural and landscape views. To compound matters, one also had to stay mindful of the more Eurocentric conceptual stratagems one associates with 18th century environmental aesthetics, such as the sublime, the beautiful and the picturesque.
And yet, as it became gradually evident in the workshop and also over the course of reflections after the workshop, writing a regional, South Asian or even a beyond-European history of 18th century environmental aesthetics, is a far more exacting task than preparing an inventory of artisanal and conceptual stratagems. Many of the speakers at the workshop may have commenced with a structural assessment of the formal and conceptual peculiarities of specific visual or literary representations. They did, however, subsequently transition into a more systematic appraisal of those representations as symbolic or even very real resolutions of immediate political, social and economic contradictions, between the Mughals, their successor states, the British East India company, and also imperial constellations beyond South Asia. Rather than approaching environmental aesthetics as a way of containing or circumscribing territorially widespread pictorial and literary effects within the ambit of a unitary concept or causal principle, the Berlin workshop drew attention to 18th century environmental aesthetics as a loose quilt of quasi-causes oftentimes immanent to the divergent effects of diverse political and economic upheavals in South Asia.
Drawing on the workshop, one does concede to 18th century environmental aesthetics as a loose patchwork of quasi causes. However, this is not to say that one has entirely withdrawn from unitary conceptual framings. Rather, the task of the ecological humanities, as I see it at this stage, is one of approaching unitary framings in a dialectical sense, as resolutions of irreconcilable contradictions, if only temporarily, before new contradictions arise. To the extent that such terms and categories as “nature,” “ecology,” “architecture” and “landscape” are themselves frequently called upon to become more incorporative of a differentiated manifold of objects, practices and states of mood and mind, one is obliged to stay vigilant and constantly on the lookout for ever more exacting ways of conceiving incorporative syntheses.
My own interest in incorporative synthesis stems, to a certain extent, from my work on 19th century geological thinking in the Deccan region in central India. It helps to begin by noting that 19th century geology, in a post Huttonian sense, relied almost exclusively on a belief in the constancy of secondary causes or knowable natural causes, to explain the emergence and the enduring power of particular physical geographies. In that sense, one could as well say that 19th century metropolitan British colonial geologists arrived into the Deccan already prepared to render a deeply enigmatic landscape intelligible, in the limiting terms and criteria of natural and physical laws.
And yet, rather than explore 19th century geology as a metropolitan science that found its feet in regional explorations in the Deccan, one could as well also reverse the narrative and explore 19th century Deccan geology itself as a resolution of local, religious, economic and political contradictions within the region. Such a comprehension of 19th century geology not only as a metropolitan science, but also as a regional synthesis, becomes evident when one takes a more expansive view of the broader social, religious and political climate in the Deccan, particularly in a time of mineralogical extraction and colonial expropriation. Putting it differently, even as one takes stock of the ways in which the visual culture of Deccan geology may have conformed to the disciplinary imperatives of the metropolitan science of geology, one also can simultaneously arrive at that visual culture from the vantages of a dialectics of seeing that was immanent to particular religious and political contingencies within the Deccan.
That the Berlin workshop did indeed have an impact on my thinking, should be evident in the nature of questions it has precipitated. More significantly, I anticipated, further down the road, a continuation of this conversation, with a particular emphasis on themes such as intelligibility and sensibility within the area of environmental aesthetics. The distance between the intelligible and the sensible, which oftentimes is the distance between transcendental causes, and immanent absent or quasi causes, awaits historicizing, particularly in the area of environmental aesthetics.
 Bill McKibben, End of Nature, New York: Random House, 1989, p. xix.
 Friedrich Schiller, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry Part I, translated by William F. Wertz, Jr., accessed August 29, 2017, https://www.schillerinstitute.org/transl/Schiller_essays/naive_sentimental-1.html, paragraph 32.
 Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Times Books, 2010, p. 45.
Venugopal Maddipati holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and is Assistant Professor at the School of Design at Ambedkar University, Delhi. He is currently working on his monograph titled „Architecture as Weak Thought: Gandhi, Wardha and Presentism in Colonial and Post Colonial India“. This monograph, which comes out of Venugopal’s post-Ph.D. field-work and archival research, will explore the intersections, over the course of the twentieth century, between Gandhism, architecture and contemporaneity in the district of Wardha in Central India. In the academic year 2016/17, he was a Fellow of the research program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices at the Forum Transregionale Studien.
Citation: Venugopal Maddipati, One’s own Present, and the 18th Century Present., in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.01.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/8494.