The Aesthetics of Displacement and the Critique of Global Extractive Reason: William Blake’s Book of Urizen (1794/1818)
Jacob Henry Leveton (Northwestern University),
109th Annual College Art Association Conference, "Prismatic Modernities: Media, Form, Displacement," February 12, 2021 
Session Chair: Tamar Kharatishvili (Northwestern University)
Session Respondent: S. Hollis Clayson (Northwestern University)

This paper is really about grappling with the excess of William Blake and what I believe to be most interesting in terms of thinking about his work both in view of global modernity, and when one turns the prism, per our panel's theme. So I’m really excited to be in conversation with Aisha, Swagato, Tamar, and Holly today as I try to think with Blake’s art in some new ways. I like to begin my talks with what disability studies scholar Alison Kafer calls accessibility notes, even across the asynchronous and shared space at this year’s CAA.  With respect to everyone’s individual "bodyminds," I invite you to use the space as you need or are best able. Large-print copies of my talk are available on my website at Last during the Q&A portion we will have together, as a neurodivergent scholar, I would ask that since my own thoughts can at times feel legible to me when they might seem nonlinear or wandering for others, to stop me and ask any clarificatory questions that might best help me to understand where you are coming from. Last I want to acknowledge that the land on which I research and write sits on the original homelands of the Council of the Three Fires, the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa as well as the Menominee, Miami, and Ho-Chunk nations. 

In 1794, the English romantic artist and poet William Blake produced his First Book of Urizen. The artwork comprised Blake’s artistic re-imagining, if you will, or critical re-visioning, if you like, of the creation story of the Hebrew Bible Book of Genesis. In it, Blake’s mythos moves to a level of aesthetic operations in which text and image would be mobilized to renovate viewers’ minds towards the ends of an emancipatory project at the indissociable nexus of localized intensities of industrialized labor in London and manifestations of what Saree Makdisi has called the English “universal empire of modernization” across the globe.  As such, I believe Blake’s work critically links his artistic labor undertaken where the working class was effectively made in south London during the Industrial Revolution with the global sphere, thereby providing a prismatic means to consider what the French political theorist Françoise Vergès calls “southification,” the territorialization and deterritorialization wrought by racial capital, toxic waste, and chemicals as “the refuse of global capitalism.”  Ultimately, while in its initial 1794 iteration Blake’s Book of Urizen instantiates a jeremiad against Enlightenment reason, Blake’s application of gold leaf extracted in all likelihood from Brazil to the culminating 1818 copy of the artwork provides a powerful means of thinking with Blake and against what I call global extractive reason.


Fig. 1. William Blake  The First Book of Urizen, Title Plate Copy A, 1794. Relief etching, color printed with hand coloring, 10.00  x 7.09 in. (25.40 x 18.00 cm.), Department of Prints and Drawings, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection


Fig. 2. William Blake, The First Book of Urizen, Plate 5, Copy A, 1794. Relief etching, color printed with hand coloring, 5.83 x 3.94 in. (14.80 x 10.00 cm.), Department of Prints and Drawings, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The title plate of Blake’s book sets out the work’s central dynamics and designs on the spectator with recourse to the domain of myth and Blake’s use of word dynamics (Fig. 1). It is the Book of Urizen, the character in Blake’s mythology who represents rationality as hegemonic force of self, state, and global governance at once transcendent and imminent, existing within everyone. He is, as the pun suggests, “your reason.” Here Urizen appears on the artwork’s title plate, the illuminated book’s threshold. His position is marked by death. The paradigmatic iconographical form of biblical law—Moses’s decalogue, engraved text of the ten commandments on stone—rises behind the figure. Urizen kneels, eyes closed, knees to chest, hands outstretched, a quill in each. He’s writing the interiority. His beard spills over onto a book opened to the viewer, marked by Blake’s experimental technique of color printing. Blotches of color appear. Blake’s image seems to demonstrate: the hegemony of instrumental reason has engendered only aesthetic chaos.

On plate five, Blake represents Urizen in the text below and shows the effects of excessive rationality’s dangers in the fiery visual field above (Fig. 2). The poet observes:

    Lo, a shadow of horror is risen

    In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific!

    Self-closd, all repelling: what Demon

    Hath form’d this abominable void

    This soul-shudd’ring vacuum?—Some say

    “It is Urizen”, But the unknown, abstracted

    Brooding secret, the dark power hid.

The text illuminates Urizen in the paradoxical Miltonic idiom of darkness, instead of light, marking an affective space defined by fear.

The vision of creation Urizen offers, in the doubled sense of your reason devoid of imagination and the artwork as The Book of Urizen itself, is one of rationalized self enclosure, dis-connection from others. Creativity is absent. Urizen is, as the text emphatically says, “unprolific!” Defined not by presence, Urizen is defined by absence, “this abominable void”—a “soul shudd’ring vacuum.” He is, appropriately gendered masculine according to the logics of domination, “dark power hid.”

While image and text place Blake’s viewer in what might initially appear as ahistorical cosmic space, and therefore outside the concerns of a materialist criticism, considering what Urizen makes available for thought and struggle suggests a broader constellation of radical investments advanced by the work.  Indeed, one can imagine the ways in which thinking with The Book of Urizen in its time of creation stood against conditions of modernity in the space where it was produced and transformations involved in the relations of production that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. When Blake etched Urizen in 1794, London looked much like the metropolis captured in Richard Horwood’s encyclopedic map of the city completed two years prior. Then, Blake was living in Lambeth, across the River Thames from the parliamentary seat of British power, as the map with the artist and poet's location highlighted shows (Fig. 3). Blake was poor, his work was neglected, and land on the south bank was cheap. In Lambeth and nearby Southwark, there was a dual emergence of industrial machinery and working-class populations of which Blake was part. From his vantage point on Hercules Street on this side of his city, Blake could see two critical architectures of industry. In one, Blake could turn to the west to see New Shot Mill (Fig. 4), the foremost manufacturer of ammunition in England beginning with the French Revolutionary Wars, and perhaps best remembered through the English romantic painter J.M.W. Turner’s later painting of the polluted atmospheres of the south of the city (Fig. 5). Also present nearby was Albion Mill

(Fig. 6), the first architectural site developed for British industry where multiple coal-driven steam engines could be mobilized for the milling of flour and that was contracted to supply the British navy with its full allotment during the time the site was in operation.


Fig. 3. Richard Horwood,  Map of London, 1792. Engraving, 692.16 x 632.00 in. (1,758.09 x 1,605.28 cm.), Crace Collection of Maps of London, British Library. Detail of Blake's location in Lambeth added


Fig. 4. “J.B.,” Shot Manufactory on the East Side of Waterloo Bridge, 1827. Engraving, London Metropolitan Archives, SC/LA/01/176, London, United Kingdom

Fig. 5. J.M.W. Turner, The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, c. 1830-5. Oil on Canvas, 35.63 x 47.64 in. (90.50 x 121.00 cm.), Tate Britain, London. Photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), (accessed January 14, 2021)


Fig. 6. Eastgate, “The Albion Mill, Blackfriars Bridge,” New London Magazine, July 1790. Etching with engraving, 4.37 x 7.13 in. (11.10 x 18.10 cm.), Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum, London. © Trustees of the British Museum, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0, (accessed January 14, 2021)

Significant for Blake’s Urizen was the technological operation and polluting intensities of the steam engine machines housed there. Critically, the form that the character Urizen took in Blake’s description aligns with the form of the innovation of the separate condenser the Scottish inventor James Watt added to the Boulton & Watt steam engines that were deployed at Albion Mill (Fig. 7). And indeed in terms of how the apparatus worked (Fig. 8), which was predicated upon the self-sealing vacuum the machine created, based on alternating void and vacuum space with the force of artificial condensation swapping with the heat and energy of coal fire. Blake’s


Fig. 7. “The Albion Mill Engine,” March 1784, Boulton and Watt Collection, Library of Birmingham, MS.3147/5/152a: PF.152

Fig. 8. Model of sun-and-planet-gear steam engine in motion, (accessed January 14, 2021)

Urizen is, as we know from plate five, a soul-shudd’ring vacuum.” Indeed, in the same stanza, Blake associated him with “Combustion, blast, vapour, and cloud” (Book of Urizen 3:17; E 70). Urizen is, in part, a steam engine, as a technological manifestation of Enlightenment rationality.

Importantly Blake returns to The Book of Urizen to create what has been called the greatest single copy of any of his illuminated books, Copy G now held in the US Library of Congress. Printed in 1818, twenty-four years after the initial iteration of the work, the pages of this later version are brilliantly enlivened with gold leaf, as a detail of the title plate shows in comparison with the book's first copy (Figs. 9-10). While the first copies of Urizen was created during the Jacobin terror in France and when the French Revolutionary wars raged, the second iteration came in the wake of the Battle of Waterloo, the demise of Napoleonic post-Revolutionary France, and the rise of the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance that brought with it increased flows of gold to England from the Brazilian colonies. In Romantic London, Lusophone and Anglophone worlds connected. As Brazilianist Leslie Bethell has shown, the Hanoverian fiscal-military state in Britain played a major role in the transfer of Prince Regent D. João and the Portuguese government from Lisbon to Rio di Janeiro during the Napoleonic occupation.  Costs of the alliance were shared, payable in part through the extraction and expropriation of Brazilian gold reserves, precisely what Blake’s illuminated book indexes. Much of the gold extracted from Brazil was mined in the mountains of the southeast of the country where vast alluvial deposits were discovered by Portuguese colonists in the 1690s, with Portuguese settlers giving the region the name Minas Gerais, or “general mines,” as a result. The story of Brazil in the eighteenth century is the story of gold rushes with profound implications. For a time, coastally-concentrated populations shifted from locations like Rio de Janeiro into the interior of Brazil. Across the century, as historian C.R. Boxer has shown, much of the gold eventually found its way to England. By mid century, England imported approximately half of all gold produced in Brazilian mines without the benefit of which the British never would have been able to instantiate the gold standard.


Fig. 9. William Blake, The First Book of Urizen, Title Plate (detail), Copy G, 1818. Relief etching, color printed with hand coloring, with added gold leaf 5.87 x 4.06 in. (14.90 x 10.30 cm.), Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Fig. 10. William Blake, The First Book of Urizen, Title Plate (detail), Copy A, 1794. Relief etching, color printed with hand coloring, 10.00  x 7.09 in. (25.40 x 18.00 cm.), Department of Prints and Drawings, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The English mineralogist John Mawe’s Travel in the Interior of Brazil, first published in 1812 in London, describes labor conditions endemic to the extractive regime of gold mining in Jaraguá in Minas Gerais:

    Suppose a loose gravel-like stratum of rounded quartzose pebbles and adventitious matter, incumbent on granite, and covered by              earthy matter of variable thickness. Where water of sufficiently high level can be commanded, the ground is cut in steps, each twenty or       thirty feet wide, two or three broad, and about one deep. Near the bottom a trench is cut to the depth of two or three feet. On each          step stand six or eight negroes, who, as the water flows gently from above, keep the earth continually in motion with shovels, until the         whole is reduced to liquid mud and washed below. The particles of gold contained in this earth descend to the trench, where, by                 reason of their specific gravity, they quickly precipitate. Workmen are continually employed at the trench to remove the stones, and             clear away the surface.

For time's sake I’ll let Mawe’s words excerpted on the PowerPoint slide largely stand on their own. However, I think it particularly important draw out the dual forms of violence that appear. Black slave labor is used and Mawe's description shows that trenching was the mining technique deployed, scarring the landscape and resulting in the contamination of proximal watertables and soils with oxides and other heavy metal pollution. For Blake, as an artist for whom nature “was imagination itself” and who dreamed of an art best suited to “ameliorate the sorrows of slavery,” the scene of forced servitude and ecological destruction in Brazil surely would have been anathema (E 702; Milton 24[26]:61; E 121).

Consequently, when the previously viewed plate appears in the subsequent copy, its meanings are expanded by this global ecological context, subject to what Blake scholar Stephen Carr, drawing on the work of Jacques Derrida, calls the “logic of difference” defining the artist and poet’s illuminated printing. As Carr puts it, “Blake’s revisions have iconographic implications, or at the very least they stimulate hermeneutic relationships that require interpretation.”  The corresponding implication of this, for Carr, is that the “material characteristics of Blake’s art require an interpretive willingness to enter into the play of differences, to see the double inscription of illuminated printing as generating an open-ended proliferation of visual-verbal exchanges and to join in the strenuous imaginative activity of producing and reproducing each page.”    Yet while for Carr these differences are immediately formal in the sense they might reflect Blake’s uses of different colors of wash, taking the logic of difference seriously with a view oriented to ecological concerns necessitates an engagement with the sources for the materialities that combine as the basis for Blake’s media and forms that come to comprise the composite art.

Thus, while the initial iteration of the plate makes available a meaning that hinges upon divisions endemic to ideologies driven by Enlightenment reason and their ties to industrial technologies and environmental violences in London, the addition of gold extracted from Brazil to the later version of the plate opens new questions. Not just Derrida’s difference, but Gilles Deleuze’s difference and repetition: the repeated presence of Urizen but with the added artistic gloss that makes possible imagining how dominance and violence in London and circuits of exchange and extraction in Brazil prismatically combine, animating ruptures of southification across the hemispheres.

In conclusion, I realize that the start to such an interpretation might sit uncomfortably across different methodological strategies. While there is social history at play, speculative networks animate my approach. This is not a story according to which archives of labor organizing and revolt in Brazil directly inspired similar efforts in London that Blake’s work either inflects, or influences. While biography is at play insofar as this work reflects the streets Blake traversed and the texts that were available to make Brazilian gold extraction legible to him, I feel less invested in asserting Blake’s intention with respect to what The Book of Urizen means. In the end, I believe that a mode of art-historical criticism attuned to Anthropocene concerns—namely the extractivist impulse endemic to what Jason Moore terms capitalist world-ecology—might provide new and critical ways of thinking with images and, in turn, seeing ecology with a more promising and justly global view.




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