The gothic reaction to industrial capitalism

Submitted by AWL on 11 November, 2014 - 5:41 Author: Luke Hardy

What have Karl Marx, Dracula, a modern robotic production line and St Pancras station got in common? According to Andrew Dixon they all have more then a touch of the gothic about them.

In this three part series, Dixon makes a convincing and fascinating case that the gothic sensibility has become a way of responding to and critiquing industrial capitalism and the urbanism, technology and pollution that comes with it.

Dixon points out that the modern, world-wide obsession with the irrational, deranged, morbid and spectral that makes up gothic started out as little more then an aristocratic fashion in mid-18th century Britain. Those fed up with "classical" architecture and literature were drawn to medieval ruins and the bloodthirsty tragedies of William Shakespeare. Lost texts of the middle ages were rediscovered or made up and passed off as ancient.

However these ruling class fads took on a very different dimension with the coming of industrial capitalism, the French revolution, and the scientific and a technological revolution. Dixon introduces us to the painter Joseph Wright, from Derby, who captured the new mills and foundries as every bit as horrific and forbidding in the landscape as the castles of Hamlet or Macbeth. Wright makes a scientist seem more like a dangerous sorcerer as he suffocates a bird in a elaborate but cruel experiment.

Dixon expands his definition of gothic far beyond the usual definition — horror stories and medieval style architecture — to become by the nineteenth century a whole sensibility and world view as contradictory as the age. There were reactionary utopians like Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin who wanted to use gothic architecture to return to what they saw as the certainties and social cohesion of the pre-capitalist middle ages. Dickens shows us the London of the mid-19th century as a nightmarish, smog-smothered, warren of slums, prisons, degredation, poverty and despair, beside a diseased and polluted river.

It was in the final instalment that Dixon's idiosyncratic vision came fully into its own. Dixon points out how much gothic imagery is suffused through Marx's critique of capitalism. The capitalist is "vampire like", spectres haunt Europe and commodities are congealed dead labour transmogrified into voodoo like fetishes. Dixon also talks about William Morris and his critique of modern production techniques and the factory system for dehumanising production. Like Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's monster, technology under capitalism can sometimes seem to be beyond our control and become a means of humanities own destruction. Dixon also saw a gothic critique of empire in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and in TS Elliot's response to the first world war; The Wasteland.

Dixon's history of Gothic was not definitive and left out many of influential artists and thinkers who inspired the gothic sensibility. The politics of gender and sexuality that are so evident in the gothic writings of Ann Radcliffe, Oscar Wilde and Christina Rossetti were not even touched upon by Dixon. 

Yet as a partial short history of modern capitalist society through the fever dreams and nightmares of the gothic it was a excellent piece of television.