Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


Air makes free: The 1772 Somerset Case and the poetics of England’s “pure air”

25 March 2024, 2:00 pm–3:00 pm

Breathing In seminar series

Breathing In: Air and Atmospheres Seminar with Dr Rowan Boyson, King’s College London. This seminar series is run jointly by the IAS and WiSER at Wits, and takes place fortnightly on Zoom.

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Professor Megan Vaughan – Institute of Advanced Studies

This paper explores the key poetical and legal metaphor of slaves breathing the ‘free English air’, which was famously asserted in the Mansfield Judgment of 1772 in the case of Somersett vs. Steuart, and popularized by the English Evangelical poet William Cowper in his long poem The Task, 1785. Legal historians of slavery have often made brief reference to this ‘free air’ metaphor, and I will be summarizing this research. But the full cultural contexts and longer histories of these phrases have not previously been elaborated, and I argue here that by considering the ‘air’ aspect of them more seriously, we can understand more deeply the significance of environmental metaphors in the history of political thought, and indeed the environmental underpinnings and ecological consequences of relationships of human domination, signally slavery.

Breathing In: Air and Atmospheres Seminar

This seminar series, run jointly by the IAS and WiSER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand) takes place fortnightly on Zoom.  It builds on ongoing and emergent academic attention to air and atmospheres and draws out suggestions for future research and for ways of acting upon the contemporary air and atmospheric crisis, with a leading focus on global South contexts.

Recent work on infrastructures, atmospheres and the biospheric shifts associated with conditions of the Anthropocene have relied on rendering newly vivid those aspects of the social which have long been treated as background. Sensory ecologies - affective or experienced space which compose environments, in Matthew Gandy’s terms, are synesthetic: like sounds, they reverberate within human and more-than-human subjects. Affective atmospheres are shared bodily situations, drawing also on renewed and shifting elemental understandings of air and refracted light. How can we come conceptually closer to the toxicities of both air pollution and rising authoritarianisms, to material and metaphoric atmospheres – and other less-than-visible carriers of damage? And to a better sense of the entanglements and relationalities that such modes of thought can produce? The growing non-transparency of air, in Sumana Roy’s terms, produces paranoid reading: suspicious, anticipatory theories of negative affect. This occurs in the context of the ‘disappearance of air’ in favour of mask filters, air purifiers and the AQI (Air Quality Index) for those who can afford it. Yet there may also be a reparative range to these questions: making air explicative might offer analytic opportunities for sustenance and responsiveness to what is to come.

About the Speaker

Dr Rowan Boyson

Reader in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature at King's College London

More about Dr Rowan Boyson