Performances on the World Stage

We remember Professor Greg Dening (1931–2008) through an annual memorial lecture, the text of which is published in Melbourne Historical Journal, and through an annual Greg Dening Memorial Prize, generously supported by the SHAPS Fellows and Associates Group. This year’s lecture was delivered by Dr Jenny Bulstrode.

Performances on the World Stage: Interpreting Innovation in Iron ‘In the Light of what is Old’

For his ‘discovery’ of a process that could turn maritime scrap into valuable metal, the financier turned ironmaster Henry Cort was martyred in the final years of the eighteenth century; canonised in the nineteenth; and, in the ultimate apotheosis of capitalist cosmology, dubbed one of ten ‘macro-inventors’ in the early twenty-first: a demi-urge of progress. This deification is not a metaphor. It is a literal account of how Cort and the ‘heroes of invention’ came to be treated in a particular tradition of industrial and economic triumphalism. The construction of the myth has been well documented, but somehow the idea persists. To paraphrase Marshall Sahlins on despondency theory, here, efforts to move beyond the representation of the same convention-dominating groups seem to collapse under the shattering impact of global capitalism.

This lecture proposes Greg Dening’s seminal Performances (1996) as the apposite analytical framework for the apotheosis of Cort. Following Dening’s injunction to interpret ‘what is new in the light of what is old’, it argues Cort’s ‘discovery’ was the theft of crucial techniques derived from West African traditions and developed by Black metallurgists in Jamaica. The decisive moment of technological transfer: a death that became performances in an encounter between cultures.

You can watch Dr Bulstrode’s lecture on the YouTube player below.

Before joining UCL’s Department of Science and Technology Studies in 2020, Dr Jenny Bulstrode began a Junior Research Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, researching histories of globalisation and the displacement of Indigenous industries and sustainable practices. During her doctoral research, awarded 2020, she held both Caird and Sackler research fellowships, respectively considering cultural and technical histories of metal. Awards for her published work on living copperwhaling ironspringing glass and knapping flints include: a 2020 Maurice Daumas Prize; the 2018 American Academy of Arts and Sciences Sarton Prize and the 2014 British Society for the History of Science Singer Prize.

Previous Greg Dening Memorial Lectures

2020 Bronwen Douglas, ‘Encounters, Agency, and Race in Oceania

2019 Nat Cutter, Fallon Mody, and Henry Reese, ‘Listening Across Boundaries’

2018 Gillian Triggs, ‘Australia’s Protection of Human Rights: Is a Charter of Rights a Solution?’

2017 Joy Damousi, ‘Out of Common Humanity’

2015 Ron Adams, ‘Talking to the Dead’

2014 Ross Gibson, ‘”Who Knows the Weather?”: The Memory of Greg Dening’

2013 Shino Konishi, Maria Nugent and Tiffany Shellam, ‘Aboriginal Australians and Boundary Crossings’ (preceded by postgraduate presentations by Jayson Cooper, Lucy Eyre, Annika Lems, Damir Mitric, and Zoe Robertson)

2012 Alexandra Walsham, ‘Landscape, Ancient Monuments and Memory in Early Modern Britain’

2011 Shane Carmody, ‘On Finding Oneself in a Library’

2010 Katerina Teaiwa, ‘Challenges to Dance! Choreographing History in Oceania’

2009 Tom Griffiths, ‘History and the Creative Imagination’

Feature image: Poster for the 2021 Greg Dening Lecture, featuring image of Richard John Smith in the production, Obi, or Three-Fingered Jack, London: J Fairbairn, 1813. New York Public Library