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Factories of Modernity: Labor, Aesthetics, and the Racial Politics of Historical Capitalism


Joseph Wright of Derby, “Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night” (Oil on Canvas, 1782)


My dissertation argues that factories acted as decisive stages for political thought and practice across Britain and the Atlantic world from 1688 to 1807. Moving between canonical texts and unpublished manuscripts, each of my chapters presents an image of the factory as a microcosm of modernity by turning to texts and spaces in which capitalism was originally articulated and practiced, both by influential thinkers—including John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke—and a range of lesser-known political actors, from factory owners and imperial officials to painters, abolitionists, and black refugees from Atlantic slavery. By reading these perspectives as forgotten archives of capitalist modernity, I show that factories were never restricted to the conventional industrial workplace of machines and assembly lines that came to dominate nineteenth-century Britain. Rather, the historical spaces I call “factories of modernity” encompass a remarkable and unfamiliar plurality of pre-industrial environments—workhouses, manufactories, plantations, colonies—where labor was performed, reproduced, and disciplined. In redefining the factory as a multiplicity of spaces in which influential ideas and ordinary experiences of labor, aesthetics, and race were co-constituted, I provide a new account of capitalist society that discloses and confronts the salient yet neglected ways “postindustrial” workplaces today—Google and Amazon among them—are organized through an aestheticized and racialized politics of factory production.



Edward Burtynsky, “Manufactured Landscapes,” Cankun Factory, Xiamen City, China (Digital Photo, 2005)