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JVC Article Reflection: Tom Crook, ‘Putting matter in its right place’

2012 November 20
by Lucinda Matthews-Jones

JVC Article Reflection: Tom Crook, ‘Putting matter in its right place: Dirt, time and regeneration in mid-Victorian Britain’, Journal of Victorian Culture 13 (2) (2008), pp. 200–222. This article is presently free to download.

‘Nature’ was a key term of reference for the Victorians. It still is today of course, featuring in debates about environmental ruin as much as the naturalness or not of various practices (same-sex marriage, for instance). But what, precisely, did the Victorians understand by the term ‘nature’? In retrospect, this is an issue which might have been explored with a great deal more thoroughness in an article I published in the Journal of Victorian Culture back in 2008, entitled ‘Putting matter in its right place’. It was the discovery of an article by J.S Mill, entitled ‘Nature’, which made me realize just how open the term was to different meanings, albeit two in particular: crudely, nature as everything, including all history and human agency; and nature as that which is outside of, or beyond, conscious human agency. Here I offer some very brief—and indeed very speculative—reflections on the subject, taking as my point of departure Mill’s essay. It could be, I argue, that we need to confront what Mill outlined with such precision: simply that the Victorians were horribly confused and inconsistent …

Nature, artifice and the Victorians

What did the Victorians understand by the term ‘nature’? In an essay composed in the early 1850s entitled ‘Nature’—though published only posthumously, in 1874—J.S. Mill wrote:

It thus appears that we must recognize at least two principal meanings in the word Nature. In one sense, it means all the powers existing in either the outer or the inner world and everything which takes place by means of those powers. In another sense, it means, not everything which happens, but only what takes place without the agency, or without the voluntary and intentional agency, of man.[1]

What had prompted Mill to write the essay, however, was the confusion that surrounded this ‘ambiguous term’, which he went on to highlight at some length. ‘Nature’ was often ‘opposed to Art and natural to artificial’, he noted, whereby the former referred to the external world of matter, the latter to the products of human agency and artifice. Yet human actions could hardly defy ‘the laws of nature’, he explained. To act was to embody and manifest nature; it could hardly be otherwise. The same applied to so-called ‘artificial’ technologies such as the steam engine, which obeyed natural laws of mechanical action and physical force.[2]

Did it make any sense, then, to invoke ‘nature’ as some kind of extra-human standard or ideal?

Let us then consider whether we can attach any meaning to the supposed practical maxim of following Nature, in the second sense of the word, in which Nature stands for that which takes place without human intervention … But [this maxim] is not merely superfluous and unmeaning, but palpably absurd and self-contradictory. For while human action cannot help confirming to Nature in one meaning of the term [nature as everything which is, and all the powers and laws which govern its gestation], the very aim and object of action is to alter and improve Nature in the other meaning … If the artificial is not better than the natural, to what end are all the arts of life? To dig, to plough, to build, to wear clothes, are direct infringements of the injunction to follow nature.[3]

Quite whether Mill himself managed to articulate a clear and cogent understanding of nature must remain a moot point. But his searching and at times sardonic essay raises a key question: were not the Victorians simply confused when it came to understanding human agency and its relation to ‘nature’?

‘Nature’ functioned as a crucial referent in various domains of thought and practice, as Mill’s essay makes clear, from aesthetics and ethics to the physical sciences. It was also crucial within the domain of environmental reform, as we might expect. Historians have long sought to reconstruct Victorian efforts to reclaim ‘nature’ amidst an urbanizing, industrializing society.[4] Recent accounts have gone much further, however. Harriet Ritvo’s book The Dawn of Green (2009), for instance, has discerned the origins of ‘modern environmentalism’ in the decidedly fractious process of constructing Thirlmere reservoir in the Lake District during the late Victorian period (it was eventually finished in 1894).[5] Equally, historians now question the very separation of ‘nature’ and ‘society’, ‘the social’ and ‘the natural’. Instead they affirm the ‘hybrid’ qualities of collective life, and the multiple processes that mix and mobilize human and non-human agency in order to sustain ‘society’.[6] As Chris Otter urges in his book The Victorian Eye (2008), assembling human agency involves the ‘co-option’ of all kinds of non-human agents, including, in the case of Victorian eyes, the natural forces of gas and electricity.[7] What, then, of the fact that the Victorians routinely drew a distinction between the two—between society and nature—whilst also invoking ‘nature’ as an all-encompassing, universal phenomenon?

In retrospect, given these interventions, one issue the article ‘Putting matter in its right place’ (2008) failed to confront with anything like enough rigour was just this: the confused status of ‘nature’—or ‘Nature’, as it was often presented—as a crucial referent of sanitary governance. All those involved in public health reform invoked ‘Nature’, including those dealing with the particular project of sewage disposal, as the article demonstrates. The very phrase ‘matter out of place’, popularized by Lord Palmerston in 1851—though now more associated with the anthropological work of Mary Douglas[8]—reflected the basic, providential assumption that ‘Nature’ had a correct place and purpose for everything worldly, human and non-human, organic and inorganic. Accordingly, dirt was only a relative, temporary phenomenon: something which was not in its ‘right’ or ‘natural’ place, but which might be, if properly governed.

However—and quite obviously—to govern was to regulate and contrive. In this case, putting matter in its ‘right’ place required resort to the human artifice of technological engineering: sewage farms, pumping stations and sewer systems, for instance, as well as public baths and wash-houses, and their various components such as bricks and pipes (Figs. 1 and 2). To what extent, then, was this ‘natural’? Another way of thinking about artifice of this kind was via recourse to another key Victorian referent, ‘civilization’, which ever since it had first emerged in the mid-eighteenth century had been opposed to all that was natural, uncultured and barbaric.[9] Public health was routinely talked of in this way: as a manifestation of civilization and progress, and of the powers of man over nature and the natural world. In this respect, though carried out in the name of ‘nature’, the building of sewers and such like also amounted to a critique of nature. ‘All praise of Civilisation, or Art, or Contrivance, is so much dispraise of Nature’, noted Mill: ‘an admission of imperfection, which it is man’s business, and merit, to be always endeavouring to correct or mitigate.’[10]

Figure One: The interior of Corporation Baths, Ashton-under-Lyne, 1870 from ‘Corporation Baths, Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire’, The Builder (2 July 1870), pp.526–7.

During the Victorian period over 250 public baths were erected in British towns and cities. Corporation Baths in Ashton-under-Lyne opened to the public in 1870 and was partly funded by the Cobdenite council leader and mill owner, Hugh Mason. It was distinguished by the inclusion of a set of Turkish Baths, and the absence of an attached wash-house, a common feature elsewhere.

Figure Two: The Abbey Mills Pumping Station, London (1865–68) from Abbey Mills Pumping Station, by Paul Dobraszczyk (taken from http://ragpickinghistory.co.uk/, designed by Paul Dobraszczyk)

Abbey Mills Pumping Station was built in the 1860s by Joseph Bazalgette as part of London’s sewage system. It was built in an ornate Byzantine style, the exuberance of which earned it the nickname ‘The Cathedral of Sewage’. The Station allowed sewage to be pumped into the Northern Outfall Sewer, which took it on to Beckton, East London, where it was treated, before being deposited into the Thames.

And yet, as Mill also pointed out, in the broader, all-inclusive sense of the term ‘nature’, such improvements of ‘nature’ (understood in the more restricted sense) could also be regarded as natural; or as it was often conceived, as part of a benign, progressive historical ‘plan’. It was thus possible to invoke the paradox that the artifice of human engineering was in fact a means of reconciling man to his natural—but also historical and civilizational—destiny. The utopian visions of Benjamin Ward Richardson (1875, 1879) explored in the article represent one instance of this; but there are others. In 1850, in the pages of the Edinburgh Review, the engineer William O’Brien had earlier defended sanitary reform, and in particular the construction of sewers and toilets, as part of a progressive, historical effort to render man ‘natural’:

All regulations for securing cleanliness and removing filth are apt to be considered as invasions of the privacy of the domestic hearth and the person … But in reality the object of sanitary reform is to free the citizen from the vile fetters with which the acts of others have actually bound him, and to leave him free to pursue the natural tendency towards civilisation and refinement, rather than to assume any arbitrary control over his actions.

‘Art here’, explained O’Brien, referring to the artifice of technology and sanitary engineering, ‘is employed to bring us back to Nature’.[11]

Examples might be multiplied. Another is Ebenezer Howard’s Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, published in 1898, which gave birth to the garden-city ideal and played a part in the emergence of the town planning movement of the early twentieth century. The general aim of Howard’s text is captured in the following paragraphs:

There are in reality not only, as is so constantly assumed, two alternatives—town life and country life—but a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination …[12]

Neither ‘town life’ nor ‘country life’ captured in toto the grand design of ‘nature’, he argued, despite the fact that he also associated ‘nature’ solely with the countryside:

But neither the Town magnet nor the Country magnet represent the full plan and purpose of nature. Human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together … this unholy, unnatural separation of society and nature endures. Town and country must be married and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, [and] a new civilisation. It is purpose of this work to show how a first step can be taken in this direction in the construction of a Town-country magnet.[13]

The two meanings of nature identified by Mill are readily apparent. On the one hand, Howard points to a ‘separation of society and nature’, with the latter understood as something beyond human agency (and as such, also a source of beauty). On the other hand, it is altogether ‘natural’ – part of ‘the full plan and purpose of nature’ – to overcome this ‘unnatural’ distinction via human effort, which also, in this case, doubles as a historical manifestation of ‘a new civilization’.

Another example is the development of the biological treatment of sewage during the late Victorian period, forerunner of the kinds of methods we use today. As Daniel Schneider’s Hybrid Nature (2011) details, opponents attacked the method as ‘artificial’, comparing it unfavourably with the ‘natural’ method of sewage farming which had been popular in the mid-century, when attempts had been made to apply sewage to agricultural fields (though of course it was hardly ‘natural’, to the extent it relied on human engineering). Defenders of biological forms of treatment, however, claimed quite the opposite: what, after all, was ‘artificial’ about relying on the natural, microbial agency of bacteria to process and purify sewage? It was entirely ‘natural’: a clear instance in fact of the organic, biological struggles that Charles Darwin had suggested were so essential to the evolution of nature.[14]

What, then, should we do with this confused discourse – how should we read it? One response, the obvious one perhaps, is to affirm this confusion as an inevitable component of a society brimming with all kinds of ideas regarding the human and the non-human, and their many and varied interrelations. We could, that is, simply regard it as a matter of intellectual discord. But this would be to overlook and repress precisely what infuriated Mill: namely, just how endemic this confusion was – and indeed it was certainly not restricted to the field of public health. Otherwise put, it is not just that different authors had different ideas about nature; but that the same authors and the same texts could mobilize the term in contradictory ways, even slipping from the more expansive to the more restricted sense in a matter of sentences (as in Ebenezer Howard’s Tomorrow).

Speculatively—and briefly—an alternative way forward might be as follows. First, we might accept that the world was and remains mixed or ‘hybrid’. Schneider’s Hybrid Nature, his study of ‘industrialized ecosystems’ noted above, speaks of a joint process of ‘naturalization’ and ‘de-naturalization’ as part of an ongoing mixing of technology and nature. In a similar vein a recent collection of essays has suggested that the distinction between nature and artifice, technology and the environment, the human and the non-human, should be regarded as an ‘illusory boundary’ (2010).[15]

Secondly, following Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1991), we might regard attempts to repress this hybridity and to distinguish between the natural (non-human) and the social (human, artificial) as part of the equation, so to speak; which is to say, as something which enables and intensifies the ongoing production of hybrids.[16] Latour’s argument is partly a historical one. Like others, he suggests that it was only around 1650, with the birth of the Enlightenment, when humans began to see themselves as standing before or apart from ‘nature’.[17] But for Latour, this representational disaggregation, far from preventing the production of hybrids, was precisely what enabled it to happen all the more intensely. The modern world is a hybrid world, as Latour so brilliantly evokes in the opening pages of the book – and this is not in spite of, but because we routinely distinguish between society and nature.

It could be, then, that rather than trying to make (retrospective) sense of the confusion which surrounded ‘Nature’ during the Victorian period we should instead embrace it – and more precisely, look at how it functioned as part of the ongoing refinement of intrinsically mixed systems of the human and the non-human, the social and the natural.

Tom Crook, November 2012

Author details

Tom Crook is lecturer in Modern British History at Oxford Brookes University. Recent publications include (eds, with Glen O’Hara) Statistics and the Public Sphere: Numbers and the People in Modern Britain, c. 1800-2000 (New York: Routledge, 2011); (eds, with Rebecca Gill and Bertrand Taithe) Evil, Barbarism and Empire: Britain and Abroad, c.1830-2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011); and most recently (ed.), Sanitary Reform, Class and the Victorian City (London: Pickering and Chatto, forthcoming 2013).

He has also published single and co-authored articles in Social History (2007), Urban History (2008) and Past & Present (2011), and is currently completing a book on Victorian public health, entitled Space, Time and Systems: Public Health and Modern Governance in England, 1830-1914, which will be published in 2014.

His staff website can be found at http://www.history.brookes.ac.uk/staff/prof.asp?ID=594


[1] John Stuart Mill, ‘Nature’ [1874], in idem., Three Essays on Religion (New York: Prometheus Books, 1998), 8-9.

[2] Ibid., 4-8.

[3] Ibid., 19-20.

[4] Among many other accounts: John Sheail, Nature in Trust: The History of Nature Conservation in Britain (Glasgow: Blackie, 1976); John Ranlett, ‘“Checking Nature’s Desecration”: Late-Victorian Environmental Organization’, Victorian Studies 26, no. 2 (1983): 197–222; Hazel Conway, People’s Parks: The Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); and James H. Winter, Secure from Rash Assault: Sustaining the Victorian Environment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

[5] Harriet Ritvo, The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere and Modern Environmentalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). See also Scott Hess, William Wordsworth and the Ecology of Authorship: The Roots of Environmentalism in Nineteenth-Century Culture (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012).

[6] See in particular Chris Otter, The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800–1910 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008; Martin Reuss and Stephen H. Cutcliffe (eds), The Illusory Boundary: Environment and Technology in History (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010); Patrick Joyce, ‘What is the Social in Social History?’, Past and Present 206 (2010): 213-248; and Daniel Schneider, Hybrid Nature: Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011).

[7] Otter, The Victorian Eye, 15-19.

[8] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966).

[9] On the history of the idea of ‘civilization’ see, among other accounts, Bruce Mazlish, Civilization and its Contents (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[10] Mill, ‘Nature’, 21.

[11] [William O’Brien], ‘Sanitary Reform’, The Edinburgh Review 92 (1850): 220.

[12] Ebenezer Howard, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform [1898] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 7.

[13] Ibid., 9-10. Italics in original.

[14] Schneider, Hybrid Nature, chap. 1.

[15] Reuss and Cutcliffe (ed.), The Illusory Boundary.

[16] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern [1991, trans. Catherine Porter] (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[17] For instance, and most famously, Martin Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ [1955], and ‘The Age of the World Picture’ [1938], in idem., The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays [trans. William Lovitt] (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 3-35, 115-154.

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